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Artillery Row

Rumourmongering in times of crisis

Nigel Jones compares the power of rumours in Wartime Britain with the fake news afflictions of our Covid-stricken society

On 17 June 1940 the Cunard liner ‘Lancastria’, requisitioned by the government as a troopship, was sunk off the French port of St Nazaire. German aircraft dropped three or four bombs on her, and she went down in twenty minutes. The planes returned to machine-gun survivors struggling in the sea.

The Lancastria was so over-crammed with soldiers being evacuated from a collapsing France that no-one knows exactly how many died in the tragedy. Modern estimates vary wildly between 3,000 and 6,800. But one thing is certain: it was far and away the greatest single loss of life in Britain’s long maritime history.

The cases of the Lancastria and the Barham are testimony to the power of rumour in wartime and in moments of national crisis and uncertainty such as our current experience of Covid-19

The catastrophe was the culmination of a series of Allied defeats and disasters in that dark year. The British Expeditionary Force had been humiliatingly lifted from the beaches of Dunkirk, leaving their equipment behind. Paris had fallen only three days before, and the French government was preparing to surrender to their Nazi conquerors.

So grim was the litany of horrors that the new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, concluded that the public, punch drunk from such bad news, simply could not take this latest blow. So he decided to suppress the news. Using the D-Notice system under which the government could forbid newspapers and the BBC from publishing bad or unwelcome news, Churchill banned all reports of the loss – though some unconfirmed stories found their way into local newspapers. Churchill later claimed that he had intended to lift the censorship and release the news later, but under the press of further  ‘black and dark’ events in the days following the disaster he had simply forgotten to do so.

The loss of the Lancastria was not the only news of a maritime disaster to be suppressed during World War Two. In November 1941 the ageing battleship HMS Barham was torpedoed by a U-Boat in the eastern Mediterranean with the loss of 862 lives. Although the families of the dead were privately informed, it was only on the strict condition that they kept the news to themselves. The Admiralty refused to release the news to the public for fear of it’s effect on national morale.

In the absence of an official announcement, rumour ran riot, leading to a bizarre legal consequence. A well known Scottish Medium, Mrs Helen Duncan, held a seance a few days after the sinking during which she claimed to have been contacted by the spirit of a dead sailor from the Barham who told her of the disaster. So alarmed was the Admiralty by this that two Naval Officers attended another seance held by Mrs Duncan in January 1942.

The evidence they heard led both to the belated official public announcement of the sinking, and to the prosecution of the Medium under the 1735 Witchcraft Act. Mrs Duncan was jailed for nine months – the last person to be imprisoned under the Act, which was repealed in 1951. The authorities concluded that she had heard about the Barham from a bereaved family member rather than from a spirit on ‘ the other side’.

The cases of the Lancastria and the Barham are testimony to the power of rumour in wartime and in moments of national crisis and uncertainty such as our current experience of Covid-19. In such moments of doubt and despair it is the natural first instinct of governments and rulers – even such a dauntless character as Churchill – to suppress bad news. In such a vacuum, wild rumours flow in to fill the gap.

A notorious early example of such rumour mongering was the widely believed story early in World War One that Russian soldiers had been seen on trains travelling through Britain. People knew they were Russian, it was said, because they still had snow on their boots. Later in the war, a widely credited rumour held that the Germans had compiled a ‘black book’ of 47,000 leading members of the British Establishment – including the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith and his wife – who were open to blackmail because of their sexual propensities and perversions.

In World War Two, Government itself became a fertile source of rumour, deliberately manufacturing fake news designed to deceive the enemy and undermine morale. Fake radio stations under the direction of the journalist Sefton Delmer  targeted different sections of  German society: Christians, U-boat crews, front line soldiers – with black propaganda carefully mixing real bad news with false stories. The Germans hit back with radio broadcasts from renegades such as the British fascists William ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ Joyce, and John Amery, son of Cabinet member Leo Amery.

Naturally, rumour is running rife during the Covid emergency. For example, I myself have heard reports from a number of separate sources that a well known politician has fathered a child officially attributed to another leading politician. The advent of the Internet has of course lent wings to such rumour mills, and the fact that the US President is himself an ardent believer in fake news – both creating his own and dissing other people’s – makes rumours more widely believed  than ever before. And since governments lie to us as a matter of course, they cannot complain if we are increasingly sceptical of official sources and more inclined to credit rumours as truth.

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