ASPIDISTRA' OUR powerful 600 kilowatt medium-wave transmitter was not only the biggest and loudest radio in Europe at that time, it was also the nippiest. It had been specially designed for us by the Radio Corporation of America so as to be able to make lightning changes of frequency. As Goebbels had noted in his Diary,* it hopped all over the waveband.
First it broadcast on its own regular frequency, then it switched suddenly to that of the Dcutschlandsender, when the Deutschlandsender went off the air, or to that of Radio Frankfort or Radio Munich. Agile `Aspidistra', served with a priestlike devotion by Harold Robin and his team of radio engineers, could accomplish a frequency switch in under half a minute, something which it would take an ordinary transmitter hours to make, if not days. This faculty came in handy when we wanted to shake off the German jammers which were now devoting more and more of their strength to howling down the Soldatensender.
We made full and frequent use of it.
It was not, however, merely in order to play hide and seek with the German jammers that `Aspidistra' had been endowed with this capacity for switching frequencies. That had its origin in a far more sinister and ambitious design. Quite simply this was that we should `capture' a station in the Goebbels network for a few minutes and use it to put our misleading announcements and instructions to the German public in the name of the German authorities. Bruce Lockhart had given me his formal approval of this plan* as long ago as Christmas 1942, at the same time, in fact, that he had granted my request for the use of the MB studios for the Atlantiksender.
" I approve in principle," Bruce had said then in that husky voice which seemed to suck back every word the moment he had incautiously uttered it. "But please note that `in principle'. Get everything ready for this operation so that you can lay it on at a moment's notice when opportunity offers. But always remember this," and he had cocked his head to one side as he always did when he wanted to emphasise a point. "This is our Big Bertha. We can't go pooping it off on just any playful stunt you or Donald McLachlan may dream up! This has got to be a real war winner."
Almost two years had gone by since then without our using our Big Bertha and I was beginning to fear that if we did not do something soon the war would be over without her having fired a shot. The trouble was, what sort of a shot could she fire that was sufficiently devastating to be called a `winner', let alone a `war winner'?
The operation which Bruce Lockhart had approved `in principle' was straighforward enough. It was that we should attack what had always seemed to me the Achilles Heel of the German radio system. Unlike the B.B.C. the Goebbels radio had a separate frequency for every station in its network-a sop to the regional particularism of the Germans which one would not have expected from the henchmen of that fanatic for centralisation and Gleic/aschaltung, Adolf Hitler. This had the result that when the bombers of the R.A.F. and the U.S.A.F. flew into Germany and some of the German transmitters went off the air so as not to serve as beacons for the raiders, a number of German regional radios closed down with them and their frequencies were left vacant-a practice which we had already been exploiting in our war with the jammers.
Our plan therefore was for `Aspidistra' to lie in ambush on the frequency of a German station we expected to go off the air and take over the moment it did. Harold Robin had perlected an electronic device specially designed for the purpose. It enabled `Aspidistra' to take over the German target frequency within one two-hundredth of a second of the German station closing down. On it we then planned to broadcast the identical programme the Germans had been broadcasting when they closed down. For the German listeners therefore there would be no break in continuity. They would be completely unaware that the big bad British wolf had put on Grandma Goebbels's nightcap and spectacles and crept into bed in her place.
How did we mean to accomplish this? I had found that when Leipzig or Frankfort, or whichever it was, closed down there were always several other stations left on the air broadcasting the programme which the dear departed had been carrying. All we had to do therefore was to take over this programme from, let us say, Hamburg or Berlin on our antennae and relay it on to the frequency of our German target station through `Aspidistra'. In much the same way we occasionally relayed the radio speeches of Hitler and Goebbels onto the Calais proprogramme. We only needed to carry on with the relay for a fraction of a minute. Then having established the continuity we would interrupt the programme with one of those special announcements which the German authorities, now that other means of communication had broken down, were increasingly fond of making over the radio. The announcement finished, we would carry on with the Goebbels programme for a minute or so. Then, we, too, would fade out as `enemy Terror Raiders approached . . .'
Two problems remained. How could we anticipate which frequency would be off the air at a given time, and secondly what were we to tell the Germans that would do real damage to Hitler?
The first we solved without too much difficulty. Squadron Leader Edward Halliday, at that time the administrative boss of the MB compound and the R.L`.s and today President of the Royal Society of British Artists, was the hero who did so. With the aid of some personnel recruited from our bottomless source of staff, the German Wehrmacht, and a small team of British girl researchers to supervise them-the P.0.W.s loved that--he set up a twenty-four hour radio watch. Day alter day, night after night, Ted Halliday's team recorded which German stations closed down at what time. Ted then compared the behaviour of the German stations with the route followed by the allied bombers. Gradually he established a pattern. And when at last the time came for us to `poop off' Big Bertha, Ted, who for this purpose had been given the top secret flight plan of the bombers for the night, was able to predict with I oo per cent accuracy who was going to be off the air and when. But I feared there would be a mutiny by the team long before the great day came. For they had had to keep up this watch for the best part of two years before we went into action, and I can think of few jobs more uninteresting than listening continuously to the Goebbels radio.
The second problem, however, remained a bother to us. Maybe such imagination as I possessed had been exhausted. Maybe my brain had become fatigued. The only decisive operation I was able to dream up for our Big Bertha was that at a moment to be chosen by the Chiefs of Staff she should announce the deposition of Hitler and the capitualtion of the German armies. The announcement would be made in the name of the OKW, the Commander-in-Chief West, or some other high German authority. Perhaps even Himmler. That I believed would cause plenty of confusion in the German ranks, military and civilian, and would give the German units still facing our advance a valid excuse for quick surrender. I was confident that we could put it across, especially if the Chiefs of Staff approved the operation and we did not confine it to the voice of `Aspidistra', but borrowed two B.B.C. transmitters to reinforce ours on other German frequencies.
Neither Bruce Lockhart nor Dallas Brooks thought the operation stood much chance of being approved. But they were willing to let me have a try. So Donald McLachlan and IDonald had returned to MB for a brief visit-drew up one of those paper plans beloved of' Whitehall, stating objectives, proposed methods, and analysis of situation, all divided and subdivided into sections and subsections with numbers and letters and an army of semicolons. Donald, with his Admiralty training had become an expert at this kind of thing, and when Dallas Brooks had put his final touches to it our paper, far from turning out as an article for the leader page of the Daily Express, which directives penned by me had a way of doing, not only looked like a genuine staff paper but was one.
Not that this prevented it from being shot down in the end. Week after week I attended committee meetings in the underground caverns where the brains of Britain's war machine worked under the blinding glare of long strips of fluorescent lighting and in a fug which reminded me of my Paris concierge's lodge. Dallas Brooks and Bruce Lockhart took it in turns to present the bearded Delmer to the mighty-a little shamefacedly I sometimes felt-so that he might argue his case. And then, at the last and mightiest meeting of all, Big Bertha's `war winner' was firmly, finally, and irrevocably ruled out.
Two reasons were given for the hostile decision. The first was in my view pertinent and probably sound enough: "The disadvantage of the proposed operation is that it will cause almost as much confusion in the ranks of the allied forces as in those of the enemy. To warn our own forces against it in advance would prejudice the security and surprise of the operation and in all probability jeopardise its effectiveness with the enemy." I did not quarrel too much with that view. I had too often seen `black' operations deceive our own side. But the second objection, inspired, I suspected, by memories of German in-between-the-wars propaganda that President Wilson's fourteen points had tricked an undefeated Germany into surrender in I g 18, seemed to my insubordinate Fleet Street mind just silly.
" It would not be a good thing," it said, "for the Germans to be able to declare after the war that they had been defeated by a trick."
As Bruce and I drove back to Bush House from the War Cabinet offices where the meeting had been held, Bruce, in his kindness, tried to cheer me up. "Whitehall," he said, "is the real Heartbreak House. If you get twenty-five per cent of any scheme you put up accepted and ten per cent carried out you can consider yourself very fortunate indeed; normally schemes are just turned down."
The truth however was that I needed no comforting. For together with the rejection of Big Bertha's `war winner' I had been given carte blanche to go ahead with any minor operations for which I might like to use `Aspidistra's' capabilities as an intruder-the `playful stunts' which had hitherto been strictly taboo.
* The original plan for `Aspidistra' when it was ordered from America, was that its voice should be superimposed on an enemy broadcast and outshout it. I managed to get this one shot down on the grounds that it was not a `black' operation and would deceive no one. Dr. Goebbels's men at one time in iyqt superimposed a German voice on the B.B.C. Home Service. It cried "we want milk". The answer of the public was "Poor fellows. Let them come and get it".
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`Aspidistra', served with a priestlike devotion by Harold Robin and his team of radio engineers