Dressed as Nuns II

As in Poland and Scandinavia, fifth column activity in Holland was negligible. Stories of poisoned meat, water and cigarettes were unfounded, as were signalling scares involving lights and ‘large swastikas’ burnt in fields, and the fiction that an armed band tried to storm the central police station in The Hague. Instead German Brandenburg units dressed in makeshift Dutch uniforms did attempt to capture several key border crossings, but succeeded only at Gennep, where such a unit held the bridge until relieved by an armoured train. As elsewhere, the Dutch ‘Trojan Horse’ myth gained currency from a natural reluctance to attribute failure to the poor performance of their own troops in open combat, or face up to the fact that two days before the invasion, the German military attaché in The Hague had inspected Holland’s defences by the simple expedient of conducting a tour of local tulip fields.

The same phantom menace ran riot through Belgium and France. In Belgium the security service, which should have known better, warned that German parachutists had landed in several parts of the country, dressed as civilians and equipped with miniature wireless transmitters. In fact no parachute troops were dropped anywhere in Belgium or France. Nevertheless on the 14 May it was officially announced that enemy agents ‘dressed in light brown uniforms with buttons stamped with the swastika’ had repeatedly attacked the police. Another story ran that among Dutch refugees were SS men in ringletted wigs and false beards, posing as orthodox Jews from Amsterdam. An official order was even issued that all advertising for Pacha chicory was to be removed:

Complicity on someone’s part had permitted the Germans to put on the back of them indications useful to parachutists landing in the locality… He needed only to find the nearest Pacha chicory sign, which might be in a grocery shop or along a public highway, and on its back he would find cryptic indications giving him the location of the nearest German agent and how to find him … This was later confirmed by repeated radio warnings.

The story was no less false than in 1914, when precisely the same myth had attached to advertising for selected brands of food, usually Maggi soup. Indeed the humble chicory root was held in great odium in Belgium in May 1940. While the rapid fall of the fortress at Eban Emael was attributed to death rays and poison gas, the following year an American magazine claimed the fort had been blown up by German saboteurs, who in peacetime had grown chicory in nearby caves, and surreptitiously packed the caverns with explosives.

Several books published in 1940 and 1941 faithfully promulgated any number of tall stories, the most popular being Through the Dark Night by the prolific James Lansdale Hodson, who had been in Belgium and France as a war correspondent for the Sketch. Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Hodson (and others) considered the spread of true lies as a legitimate activity in wartime, and some of his copy was undoubtedly provided by the War Office and the Ministry of Information. On 13 May he recorded:

A Belgian lady of title I met today in Brussels told me, ‘The Germans have been dropping booby traps shaped as watches and writing-pencils and trinkets. When picked up they have exploded; and the Maire has now issued a warning proclamation’ … Near Brussels six Germans were captured dressed as nuns – a familiar story, but in this case well-authenticated.

As well as dropping men dressed as women, and adolescents with automatic pistols, it appeared that the shiftless Luftwaffe was not beneath employing women as aircrew:

I heard of a machine brought down in Flanders which had three girls in it as pilot, navigator and gunner, with a male sergeant. But my officer informant had the story second hand only, though he said the man who told him was reliable and saw them.

In Louvain, so Hodson learned

One man much suspected burnt the Belgian flag in the market place with loud protestations that he couldn’t have it falling into German hands. Was the smoke a signal? Nobody knew.

From the Royal Ulster Rifles, near the town of Bossuyt, he heard

Hereabouts news and rumours of Fifth Columnists at work were plentiful, including spies dressed as British officers visiting headquarters – tales mostly unverified. But at all events an arrow of the type used by the enemy to locate HQ was found in a ploughed field – a large arrow fashioned in the soil, with three gramophone records at the tail.

The First World War myth of sinister officer spies, resurrected in the popular film The Foreman Went to France, was also repeated by Hodson in relation to the withdrawal from the Dyle by the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment:

Men in British uniform acted suspiciously and may well have been spies. First a Guards colonel who asked them to break orders and take up a new position, second a brigade major who said the road was impassable when it was not, and third a brigadier who ordered a bridge in Tournai to be blown despite protests that it was still much needed.

And from the Black Watch:

A regiment the Black Watch relieved told them that a hundred Germans had crossed the bridge in threes, dressed in battle-dress, and singing ‘Tipperary’… Some of the Germans killed were wearing clothes of khaki material – possibly parachutists.

And from the Royal Scots:

A Scots soldier told how they captured some parachutists dressed as Belgians, but lost a comrade doing it – ‘for,’ he said, ‘the Germans held up their hands, but one raised in surrender held a grenade which, as we got near, he threw.’

Similarly propagandist accounts by Douglas Williams (The New Contemptibles, 1940) and Bernard Gray (War Reporter, 1941) also peddled stock myths of signals, snipers, sleepers and crop signs. However, few were truly contemporary and fail to stand up as reliable historical sources.

The canard that enemy personnel were abroad dressed as nuns is one of the most enduring and colourful legends of the Second World War, but was almost certainly a deliberate fiction. The story was perhaps intended to portray the enemy as both godless and perverse, without resorting to the crucifixion stories circulated during the First World War. The myth was born in Paris on 16 May, when the Dutch foreign minister, van Kleffens, staged a distraught press call at which he claimed that German parachutists had descended on Holland ‘by the thousand’ dressed ‘in the cassocks of priests and in the garb of nuns or nurses’. Later in 1940 his book The Rape of the Netherlands would slavishly repeat each and every fifth column myth ad nauseam.

The nun story took time to catch on, and appears in very few contemporary diaries, although an RAMC captain, J.H. Patterson, describes an amusing incident near Tournai on 19 May. After ordering his CSM to inspect a suspicious column of nuns, Patterson noted that particular attention was paid to hands, feet and chins, resulting in a verdict that the sisters were definitely female. The accounts later given by several BEF veterans of encounters with hairy-handed nuns in hobnailed boots are no less dubious than supposed first-hand sightings of the Angel of Mons, reported in 1915 several months after the fact. For instance, this story offered by Williams in The New Contemptibles:

At one place, a British officer stumbled upon several Germans undressing in a wood and putting on nuns’ clothing. A horse cart awaited them nearby in which, no doubt, they intended to penetrate the British lines. Needless to say, they did not continue their journey.

Even as late as 1961, historian Richard Collier was prepared to accept an almost identical report at face value:

Gunner William Brewer and four mates, retreating to Dunkirk, were drinking tea near a farmhouse when Bombardier ‘Geordie’ Allen came doubling white-faced. ‘Did you ever see a bloody nun shaving?’ Stealing across the pasture, all five men saw what they’d always taken to be the tallest of tales: two German paratroopers, white coifs discarded, crucifixes dangling, shaving behind a haystack. Seconds later, the ‘nuns’ fell dying, riddled with .303 fire, the blood a dark spreading stain on the black habits.

The nun myth was particularly popular in France, including the tale of a nun unmasked as a Nazi thug and killed on the spot by an angry mob. Indeed the poet Jean Cocteau is said to have observed that ‘along all the roads in France, only nuns fastening their puttees were to be seen’.

In Britain the nun myth seems not to have caught on until the end of May. On the 24th a Ministry of Information Home Intelligence summary noted ‘the usual crop of rumours about “hairy-handed nuns” and parachutists’, together with ‘a house full of blind refugees which were alleged to be in possession of machine-guns’. On the same date, beneath the headline ‘Sister of Mercy Caught Shaving’, the Eastern Daily Press reported:

Miss Elsie Seddon, one of six Salvation Army social workers who reached England yesterday … told how on one of the many occasions she had to leave her car for shelter in roadside woods from enemy bombers French soldiers pounced upon her. They apparently believed that she was either a parachutist or a spy. When she proved her identity they apologised and explained that only a day or so ago they had found a ‘sister of mercy’ hastily shaving in the same woods. ‘She’ was a German parachutist.

Suspicious nuns quickly became a popular talking point, a fact reflected in Mass Observation reporting. A diary entry on 30 May by Naomi Mitchison illustrates the point:

We discussed German agents in disguise. Archie said he had often noticed what big feet nuns had, and probably the half of them were men. The conversation, as Scottish Presbyterian conversations do, then became extremely ribald.

That in Britain the story was never more than a joke is clear from John Lehmann’s biography of Leonard and Virginia Woolf:

A rather absurd spy mania broke out, and a few days after the fall of Paris, Leonard, his poise recovered, produced a wonderful story of how, on a train journey to London, Virginia had insisted in a stage whisper that a perfectly innocent nun who got into their carriage was a Nazi paratrooper in disguise.

An odd variation on the masculine nun theme was noted by diarist Margery Allingham in The Oaken Heart:

The weekly comic papers had nothing on the new Jerry in the matter of invention. Startled soldiers told you extraordinary tales of trickery, among them stories of fierce long-haired women in Belgian farms who turned out to be stalwart Nazis carrying disguise to the point of farce.

The tale of the bogus nun captured the popular imagination like no other, and was singled out for special attention in a broadcast by Harold Nicolson, then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Information. On the subject of the chatterbug, he warned:

He will say that his brother in law – chatterbugs always have innumerable brothers in law – was in the train from Derby when a nun entered and started to read a religious book. The book dropped from her lap, and as she stooped to retrieve it she disclosed a manly wrist complete with a tattooed inset of Adolf Hitler.

Despite the fact that De Jong’s carefully researched account of the fifth column myth appeared in translation as early as 1956, the picturesque falsehood of nuns in hobnailed boots remained alive and well for decades to come, one American history offering as late as 1976:

In Heugot’s, a bistro just behind the Place du Palais Bourbon, a startling transformation took place when a nun who for months had made regular collections among the political clients patronising the bistro appeared as a man – and a German. As Cocteau pointed out, there were ‘nuns’ everywhere, since penetrating the disguise was a delicate matter.

Nuns aside, perhaps the most ridiculous fifth column rumour of all was exported from Luxembourg, which told of a false travelling circus which crossed the border from Germany, whose personnel comprised entirely military men. Across France various station masters were said to have been unmasked as spies, along with the usual stock reports of airborne saboteurs, suspicious lights, false orders, poisoned sweets and human shields. Arras was said to have been captured by parachutists, who jumped at night carrying flaming torches, while in Paris there were daily reports of paratroops descending on public parks. The idea that fifth columnists contrived to scare refugees onto the roads, and direct them so as to hamper troop movements, would also seem to be French in origin. Another French myth credited German motorised units with the fantastical ability to fuel their vehicles with water, to which a small but evidently miraculous pellet was added.

The fifth column myth in France was boosted on 21 May when the Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, declared that the bridges over the Meuse had been betrayed, when in fact their loss was due to military incompetence. Suspected fifth column agents were treated in the same brutal way as in Poland, with French units ordered to shoot all strangers unable to account for their presence in any given district. In a single incident at Abbeville no fewer than 22 were shot out of hand, while probably thousands more were killed in woodlands or on roadsides. The summary execution of downed aircrew was also commonplace. The published diary of a French horse transport captain, Daniel Barlone, reveals something of the credulity which underpinned this orgy of violence in France:

The Fifth Column really does exist; every night blue, green and red lights appear everywhere. A regiment cannot remain two hours in a tiny spot without being invariably bombed with enormous bombs … Dispenser Charbonnier, at our hospital, had five persons shot, one a beautiful young girl; by showing lights and curtains of different colours, they had guided German aircraft, signalling to them and thereby causing fires in the neighbouring chemical factory.

Six months after France had fallen, André Morize, who worked at the Ministry of Information before fleeing the country, did much to spread the fifth column myth abroad in America. In a much remarked article published in the Sunday Star, Morize described ‘entire regiments’ of German sleepers in Holland, and reported that spies had bribed French communists to sabotage war production. Some in the US military establishment took these claims seriously, with Major-General Robert Richardson warning the War Department that he had it ‘on good authority’ that ‘the typewriter industry is riddled with Fifth Columnists’. Indeed in February 1942 no fewer than 30 citizens of Japanese extraction were arrested for signalling during the celebrated phantom air raid on Los Angeles.

What motive underpinned these outlandish falsehoods? Clearly, many on the Allied side had a vested interest in ascribing the German victories to an underhand secret weapon, rather than poor leadership and military incompetence. Yet as we have seen, many in the British military and political establishment, including Churchill, Ramsay and Ironside, gave these myths full credit, Churchill even offering that there were 20,000 organised Nazis in Britain. Indeed the sinking of the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow in October 1939, and a series of mysterious explosions at the gunpowder factory at Waltham Abbey two months later, convinced many of the reality of a dangerous fifth column in Britain. According to R.V. Jones, both MI5 and the RAF continued to chase shadows long into the Battle of Britain:

Great zeal was expended by security officers in chasing reports of fireworks being let off while German aircraft were overhead. Our countryside was scanned by aircraft of the RAF looking for suspicious patterns laid out on the ground which might serve as landmarks to aid the navigation of German bombers. More than one farmer was surprised by a call from security officers to explain why he had mown his hay in such a manner as to leave a striking pattern which could be see from the air. One chapel, whose gardener had unconsciously laid out paths in the pattern of an enormous arrow as seen from the air, and which did indeed point roughly in the direction of an ammunition dump ten miles away, was raided as a suspected Fifth Column Headquarters.

A similar account was given by a 21 Squadron officer stationed at RAF Watton in Norfolk, Wing Commander P. Meston:

My best friend, Flight Lieutenant David Watson, one day asked me if I had noticed anything unusual about the countryside. I authorised a flight and we took off to investigate. After about 20 minutes David asked if I could see anything abnormal. I replied that I couldn’t. I still remember his reply ‘Look at the bloody lime heaps’ and then it came into focus. The heaps were in straight lines across the country, complete with arrows. We followed the lines but couldn’t make sense of them. We reported this to our squadron CO and eventually it reached the station commander, Group Captain Vincent, who chided the CO for listening to two young pilots who had let their imagination run riot. Nevertheless he took a look himself and informed higher authority. Next day the place was swarming with MI5 and we were told to shut up and not mention this to anyone. About a year later we learned, quite by accident, that the lime heaps were markers for the German airborne invasion of the UK, and that in addition there were prepared airfields with filled-in ditches and fold-down hedges.

As might be expected, actual prosecutions for fifth column activity were few and far between. A former Mosleyite named Saxon-Steer received seven years for pasting up a flyer for the New British Broadcasting Service in a telephone kiosk, while in December 1940 a landlady named Dorothy O’Grady was sentenced to death for cutting telephone wires on the Isle of Wight, although later it emerged that her confession was false. The only remotely serious case was that of Marie Ingram, a German-born woman married to an RAF sergeant, who conspired with a number of former BUF members in the Southsea area to wheedle military information from serving soldiers, and infiltrate the local Home Guard to obtain arms and ammunition. On her conviction in July 1940 Ingram was jailed for ten years, and an accomplice named Swift for fourteen.

Even if the Ingram case convinced some of the reality of the fifth column threat, belief in the myth went deeper still. Some historians have concluded that the fifth column menace was deliberately fabricated to support mass internment in Britain, and in this there is a great deal of truth. Between January and April 1940 several British papers, including the Sunday Dispatch and the Daily Mail, attempted to whip up a storm about the ‘enemy alien menace’, which comprised ‘fascists, communists, peace fanatics and alien refugees in league with Berlin and Moscow’, as well as the IRA. In February, the Evening Standard even claimed that the Gestapo was busy ‘employing Jews to spy in England’. However, such reports made little headway, and other papers were more cautious. The Times warned against the ‘hysterics’ of the last war, pointing out that most aliens had come to Britain as bona fide refugees from Nazi persecution, and had already passed through several vetting procedures. The Daily Express took a similar view, concluding that ‘all liberal-minded persons, all who value freedom and liberty in life, should stand against every recrudescence of the witch-hunt, no matter what form it should take’.

Even after the invasion of Norway and Denmark, it seems that the majority of the British public refused to take the fifth column seriously. Naomi Royde-Smith, whose book Outside Information (1941) takes the form of ‘a diary of rumours’ heard around Winchester, recorded the following:

After the withdrawal from Norway, Quisling rumours ran like wildfire. My early tea was brought up one Sunday morning with the announcement that the Town Clerk had been arrested as a spy. Sleepy though I was I refused to believe this news. It was entirely untrue. There is, however, a circumstantial tale of a local clergyman’s daughter who was able to denounce as a spy a British officer quartered on the vicarage. She heard him going late at night to the lavatory – but he never pulled the plug! This un-English behaviour excited her suspicion, she reported it, and her guest was discovered to be signalling with a flashlight from the window of the retreat.

During the last week in April, Mass Observation conducted an extensive enquiry into attitudes towards the fifth column. The result was revealing:

We found that the majority of people hardly realised what the phrase meant. We also found that the level of ordinary people’s feelings was much less intense than that expressed in some papers. Detailed interviewing in several areas in London and Western Scotland produced less than one person in a hundred who spontaneously suggested that the refugees ought to be interned en masse.

There can be little doubt that the fantastical reports concocted by Bland and Department EH were prepared with this end in mind, and passed on to the Ministry of Information as the basis for articles offered to British newspapers. The same disinformation was also circulated in America, notably in a series of four articles written by Colonel William Donovan published by the New York Times in August, clearly based on information supplied during his celebrated intelligence mission to Britain between 14 July and 4 August. By December 1941, and the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor, these same stock signalling and alien myths were being reported in America as fact. Whether this concerted campaign to convince the British public of the reality of the fifth column menace bore fruit is doubtful, for in July a Gallup Poll revealed that a mere 43 per cent of the general public wanted all aliens interned. And on at least one occasion, magistrates dismissed a case against a German-born woman who was prosecuted for allegedly flashing signals to enemy aircraft with a torch.

There was however another pressing reason to keep the population alarmed by fifth column fantasy. On 10 May, the day that Holland, Belgium and France were attacked, Churchill replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister, and the great invasion scare began in earnest. The diary of his private secretary, John Colville, records a revealing conversation with Churchill at Chequers on 12 July:

He emphasised that the great invasion scare (which we only ceased to deride six weeks ago) is serving a most useful purpose: it is well on the way to providing us with the finest offensive army we have ever possessed, and it is keeping every man and woman tuned to a high pitch of readiness. He does not wish the scare to abate therefore, and although personally he doubts whether invasion is a serious menace he intends to give that impression, and to talk about long and dangerous vigils, etc, when he broadcasts on Sunday.

A tried and trusted method which was employed time and again during the Second World War. In May 1941, when German airborne troops captured the island of Crete, word was spread that parachutists had descended disguised as Greeks and New Zealanders. And on 2 March 1942, in announcing that Japanese troops were attacking Java, the BBC reported that the enemy had approached an Allied post disguised as British soldiers. In reality, race alone would have sufficed to betray such a ruse. But reality seldom extinguishes myth.