Denis Sefton Delmer (24 May 1904 – 4 September 1979) was a British journalist of Australian heritage and, during World War II, a propagandist for the British government. Fluent in German, he became friendly with Ernst Röhm who arranged for him to interview Adolf Hitler in 1931. During hostilities he led a black propaganda campaign against Hitler by radio from England, so successfully that he was named in the Nazis' Black Book for immediate arrest after their planned invasion of Britain.
Denis Sefton Delmer, known familiarly as "Tom", was born in Berlin, Germany, but was registered as a British citizen with the British Consulate. His parents were from Australia. His father, Frederick Sefton Delmer, born in Hobart, Tasmania, was Professor of English Literature at Berlin University and author of a standard textbook for German schools. On the outbreak of the First World War his father was interned in Ruhleben internment camp as an enemy alien. In 1917, the Delmer family was repatriated to England in a prisoner exchange between the British and German governments.
Delmer was educated at the Friedrichwerdersches Gymnasium, Berlin, St Paul's School, London, and Lincoln College, Oxford, where he obtained a second-class degree in modern languages. He was brought up to speak only German until the age of five, and as late as 1939 spoke English with a slight accent.
After leaving university, Delmer worked as a freelance journalist until he was recruited by the Daily Express to become head of its new Berlin Bureau. Whilst in Germany, he became friendly with Ernst Röhm, who arranged for him to become the first British journalist to interview Adolf Hitler, in April 1931.
In the 1932 German federal election, Delmer travelled with Hitler aboard his private aircraft. He was "embedded with Nazi party activists" at this time, "taking copious notes on everything from the style of the would-be Führer's oratory to the group think that lay behind the bond he was forming with the German people." He was also present in 1933 when Hitler inspected the aftermath of the Reichstag fire. During this period, Delmer was criticised for being a Nazi sympathiser, and for a time, the British government thought he was in the pay of the Nazis. At the same time, the Nazi leaders were convinced Delmer was a member of MI6; his denials of any involvement only served to strengthen their belief that he was not only a member, but an important one.
In 1933, Delmer was sent to France as head of the Daily Express Paris Bureau. In 1936, Delmer married Isabel Nichols. Delmer covered important events in Europe including the Spanish Civil War and the invasion of Poland by the Wehrmacht in 1939. He also reported on the German western offensive in 1940.
Delmer returned to Britain and worked for a time as an announcer for the German service of the BBC. After Hitler broadcast a speech from the Reichstag offering peace terms, Delmer responded immediately, stating that the British cast the terms in "your lying, stinking teeth". Delmer's instant, and unauthorised rejection produced a great impact on Germany, where Joseph Goebbels concluded it had to have come from the government. That gave an impact any authorisation would have prevented and produced consternation in Whitehall. The effect was desirable, but it was unclear whether such a spokesman would again happen to say what the government wanted.
In September 1940, Delmer was recruited by the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), to organise black propaganda broadcasts to Nazi Germany as part of a psychological warfare campaign. Leonard Ingrams gained clearance for Delmer to work for the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office. Based at Wavendon Towers (now in Milton Keynes), the operation joined a number of other "research units" operating propaganda broadcasts. The concept was that the radio station would undermine Hitler by pretending to be a fervent Hitler-Nazi supporter.
Delmer's first, most notable success was a shortwave station: Gustav Siegfried Eins (Gustave Siegfried One), G3 in the Research units. It was "run" by the character "Der Chef", an unrepentant Nazi, who disparaged both Winston Churchill ("that flatfooted son of a drunken Jew") and the "Parteikommune", the "Party Commune" supporters who betrayed the Nazi revolution. The station name, "Gustav Siegfried Eins" (phonetic alphabet for "GS1") left a question in listeners' minds – did it mean Geheimsender 1: (Secret Transmitter 1) or Generalstab 1 (General Staff 1)? The station was broadcast from nearby Gawcott.
GS1 went on the air on the evening of 23 May 1941. Der Chef, played by Peter Secklemann, a former Berlin journalist, was then the only member of the team to have arrived at the discreet house known as "The Rookery" in Aspley Guise, Bedfordshire. Another journalist, Johannes Reinholz, played an adjutant to Der Chef.
When Stafford Cripps discovered what Delmer was involved with (through the intervention of Richard Crossman)[clarification needed] Cripps wrote to Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary: "If this is the sort of thing that is needed to win the war, why, I'd rather lose it." Delmer was defended by Robert Bruce Lockhart, who pointed out the need to reach the sadist in the German nature. GS1 ran for 700 broadcasts before Delmer killed it off in late 1943 with gunfire heard over the radio intimating the authorities had caught up with Der Chef. The dramatic ending may have been deliberately based on the Gleiwitz incident, when the Nazis staged the capture of a German radio station by Polish forces, an operation which Hitler used to justify the invasion of Poland and the start of World War II. Owing to an error by a non-German-speaking transmitter engineer, the programme was accidentally repeated and Der Chef's dramatic on-air murder was broadcast twice.
Delmer created several stations and was successful through a careful use of intelligence using gossip intercepted in German mail to neutral countries to create credible stories. Delmer's credit within the intelligence agencies was such that the Admiralty sought him out to target German submarine crews with demoralising news bulletins. For this, Delmer had access to Aspidistra, a 500 kW radio transmitter obtained from RCA in the US (their largest off-the-shelf-model), which Section VIII bought for £165,000. Use of Aspidistra, which began in 1942, was split between PWE, the BBC, and the RAF. Delmer's creation was Deutscher Kurzwellensender Atlantik (or popularly Atlantiksender). This station used US jazz (banned within Germany as decadent) and up-to-date dance music from Germany (extracted via Sweden and RAF courier), as well as an in-house German dance band. Important details on naval procedures came from anti-Nazis identified in POW camps, whose mail was sifted to create personalised announcements. Agnes Bernelle "played" the seductive "Vicki" and announced news bulletins.
Christ the King (G.8) broadcast an attack on the conscience of religious Germans, telling of the horrors of the labour and concentration camps, through a German priest.
Soldatensender Calais ("Calais Armed Forces Radio Station") was another clandestine radio station directed at the German armed forces by Delmer. Based in Milton Bryan and transmitting from Crowborough, Soldatensender Calais broadcast a combination of popular music, "cover" support of the war, and "dirt" - items inserted to demoralise German forces. Delmer's propaganda stories included spreading rumours that foreign workers were sleeping with the wives of German soldiers serving overseas. The station, broadcast by Aspidistra, was popular on the German home front also. Delmer oversaw the production of a daily "grey" German-language newspaper titled Nachrichten für die Truppe ("News for the Troops"), which first appeared in May 1944, much of its text being based on the Soldatensender Calais broadcasts. Nachrichten für die Truppe was written by a team provided to Delmer by SHAEF and was disseminated over Germany, Belgium, and France each morning by the Special Leaflet Squadron of the US Eighth Air Force.
As the fighting progressed into Germany itself, black propaganda was used to create an impression of an anti-Nazi resistance movement. Delmer criticised this later as the "black boomerang", with Nazis claiming they had been allied to this fictitious movement. With the end of the war in Europe, Delmer advised his colleagues to say nothing of the work they had been in lest, as the Nazis did after the First World War, the Germans could claim they had not been beaten militarily but by underhanded means.
Later career and retirement
After the Second World War, Delmer returned to the Daily Express as chief foreign affairs reporter. Over the next fifteen years, he covered nearly every major foreign news story for the newspaper. However, he was sacked by Lord Beaverbrook in 1959 over an expenses issue, and retired to Lamarsh in Essex, near Little Sampford, where his former wife Isabel lived with her third husband.
Delmer wrote two volumes of autobiography, Trail Sinister (1961) and Black Boomerang (1962), and several other books, including Weimar Germany (1972) and The Counterfeit Spy (1971). David Hare based his play Licking Hitler on Black Boomerang, and his plot included the faked, on-air discovery and shooting of the broadcaster, in the same way as Delmer had finished the career of "Der Chef".
- Frederick Sefton Delmer (1913). English Literature from Beowulf to Bernard Shaw. Reprinted July 2001 by Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 978-0-543-90834-6.
- Sefton Delmer, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Sefton Delmer: Trail Sinister Secker & Warburg, London, 1961, p. 19.
- Adolf Hitler by Sefton Delmer at psywar.org, accessed 1 August 2017
- James Crossland: "Fake news is old news". History Today (November 2018), p. 19.
- Boadilla by Esmond Romilly, The Clapton Press, London, 2018 ISBN 978-1999654306
- This incident was described in Black Boomerang.
- Balfour, Michael. Propaganda in War 1939–1945: Organisation, Policies and Publics in Britain and Germany, Routledge & Kegan Paul pp. 195–196.
- Balfour, p. 195.
- Twigge, Stephen & Edward Hampshire, & Graham Macklin. British Intelligence, (National Archives, 2008), pp.72-73.
- The Rookery, Aspley Guise – Bedfordshire Record Office, accessed 26 July 2010 Archived 15 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine For Delmer at The Rookery, see also Willi Frischauer, The Man Who Came Back: The Story of Otto John (1958, ebook 2013). Unmaterial Books. ISBN 978-1-78301-282-4
- Sir Stafford Cripps and the German Admiral's Orgy Archived 17 January 2007 at the Wayback Machine by Lee Richards, PsyWar.Org, 2007.
- Delmer, Sefton (1962). Black Boomerang. London: Secker and Warburg. p. 73. ISBN 9780670170913.
- Rankin, Churchill's Wizards
- See Chapter Two of Tail of a Tale by Sefton DelmerThe hiring and firing by Beaverbrook.
- Hare, David (1984). The history plays. London: Faber and Faber. pp. 11–15, 124–125. ISBN 0-571-13132-8.
- The Sefton Delmer Archive: The online archive of all of Sefton Delmer's books, including his autobiography Black Boomerang.
- Gray and Black Radio Propaganda against Nazi Germany Extensively illustrated paper describing the Allied effort in World War II to undermine Germany through unidentified or misidentified radio broadcasts.
- Yours Faithfully, Adolf Hitler Correspondence between Delmer and Hitler in 1931.