From the very first day of the Second World War, September 3rd-4th 1939, and for the ensuing months of hostilities, the British RAF’s fleet of heavy Whitley bombers became the principal weapons in an experimental war of aerial propaganda.
A F Bannister – Postcard Sketch of Merlin Whitley IV Bomber 1940
Powered by two 1030 H.P. Rolls Royce Merlin Engines, the Mark IV Whitley had a crew of 5. Fully loaded it had a weight of 25,500 lbs, a range of 1250 miles and a top speed of 254 mph at 17000 feet
The dropping of propaganda leaflets by both balloon and aircraft – the latter on so called “nickel” raids – was considered the best way of getting the official views of the British government across to the civilian population of Germany. Until the German bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940, there was an understanding that no urban areas or civilian targets in either Germany or Britain should be attacked.
In August 1939, Canadian Sir Campbell Stuart mobilized a new secret department dealing with aerial propaganda, known cryptically as EH (Electra House), its former headquarters on London’s Victoria Embankment, but rapidly relocated to Woburn Abbey shortly before the declaration of War.
The first leaflets dropped over Bremen, Hamburg & the Ruhr by 10 Whitleys of 58 and 51 Squadron on the night of September 3rd-4th comprised a single sheet message from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain entitled Warning! A Message from Great Britain, setting out the reasons why the British & French Empires were at war with Germany & informing the German public that the British “desire peace and are prepared to conclude it with any peace loving Government in Germany” – in essence not one led by Adolf Hitler & the Nazi Party.
During the month of September some 20 million propaganda leaflets of five different types were dropped over Northern and Western Germany.
In the final days of September, a new leaflet was produced, based on the recently published American and French newspaper reports of the American investigative journalist, Hubert Renfro Knickerbocker [1898-1949].
American journalist H R Knickerbocker in 1931
[Courtesy of Wikipedia/ Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-11663 / CC-BY-SA 3.0]
Following a ten year posting to Berlin between 1923 and 1933, Knickerbocker was finally expelled when Adolf Hitler came to power. He would later cover the Spanish Civil War and wrote critically about developments in both Russia & Germany. His September 1939 articles alleged that the principal leaders of the Nazi elite in Germany had sequestered massive personal fortunes for themselves in secret investments and bank accounts overseas, at a time when punitive monetary controls prevented Germans from taking anything more than the smallest nominal amount out of the country.
This new leaflet, cryptically referenced “EH158”, its content derived directly from Knickerbocker’s allegations, was dropped over Northern Germany in late September and again over Berlin on October 1st-2nd. Some 3 million copies are said to have been distributed during this week. It was entitled: Das Sind Eure Führer! – These are Your leaders!
The text read as follows:
These Are Your Leaders!
Germans! You are going into this war with starvation rations. You have had to tighten your belts year by year. Listen to what the American papers say about your leaders who have caused you this suffering.
In the American Press on September 20th the widest publicity was given to detailed statements showing that:
Göring Göbbels Ribbentrop
Hess Himmler Ley Streicher
have placed through men of straw in safe custody abroad not less than
RM 142 494 000
in cash, securities and life insurance policies.
The well known Chicago Daily News says:
“No matter what may happen to Nazi Germany, as the result of the present war, Hitler’s right hand men – if they escape with their lives – will be able to live on the fat of the land. If they don’t their families will be able to do so.”
The New York Journal-American states:
“South American, Japanese, Luxemburg, Swiss, Dutch, Egyptian, Estonian, Latvian, and Finnish banks are depositories for the Nazi fortunes, and considerable sums are held in the United States by Nazi friends and German Shipping Companies.”
These Are Your Leaders!
The American Press publishes the following details:
Göring: the Führer’s appointed successor, has tucked away abroad not less than
RM 30 030 000
Göbbels: has smuggled out to Buenos Aires, Luxemburg and Osaka (Japan) the trifle of
RM 35 960 000
Ribbentrop: is the richest. He has managed to pile up in Holland and Switzerland
RM 38 960 000
Hess: Deputy Führer, has salted down in Sao Paolo and Basle
RM 16 430 000
Ley: has feathered his nest well out of his Kraft durch Freude racket with
RM 7 564 000
Himmler: the man whose job it is to see that no German takes more than 10 Marks abroad, has exported for himself
RM 10 550 000
Streicher: the “guardian of German honour” also has his little nest egg abroad
RM 3 000 000
The New York Journal-American remarks:
“It may bring some satisfaction to learn that so many Nazi Party chieftains have taken for granted that some day the time will come, when they would be unable to stay in Germany any longer.”
Front of “Knickerbocker” leaflet, EH158, Sept 1939
10 Squadron at Dishforth in the Summer of 1939
W/C Staton seated, front row, 4th from right. His navigator, P/O David Willis, second row, 6th from right. The Australian pilot of the lost aircraft, P/O John Allsop, is seated at right end of front row. His navigator, P/O Alan Salmon, stands at right end of back row.
[IWM – HU081395]
On the night of Sunday October 1st 1939, four Whitley bombers of No.10 Squadron from RAF Dishforth in North Yorkshire, led by the Biggles-esque former World War One flying ace, Wing Commander William Ernest Staton, [1898-1983] (variously nicknamed Bull, King Kong and Crack-’em), the squadron CO, took to the air on a fresh reconnaissance mission to Germany, this time with the purpose of dropping hundreds of thousands of these “Knickerbocker leaflets” over Berlin, the first time British aircraft had overflown the German capital since the outbreak of war. Staton and 10 Squadron had in fact already racked up several reconnaissance flights & “nickel” raids over Northern & Western Germany, including ones over Lubeck & Kiel during the first week of the war.
Indeed these early reconnaissance and “nickel” missions played an important part in building up a detailed knowledge & picture of important features along their navigational routes across Germany, identifying the whereabouts of factories, power stations, bridges, roads, railways, aerodromes and military installations.
Moreover they were immensely important in training air crews in both long-distance night navigation and endurance flying. Missions were carried out entirely at night and in all weathers and could last anything from six to twelve hours, with a maximum range on the round trip of nine hundred or a thousand miles. Furthermore, the dropping of leaflets (either through an underside gun-turret or through specially adapted flare-shutes in the floor of the Whitley) required particular flying skills to estimate local wind speeds, directions and general weather conditions over the target area. A flavour of one of these early “nickel” missions by Whitley bombers in March 1940 is given on this fascinating wartime Pathé News film
The 10 Squadron Operations Record Book shows that the four Whitley IV bombers, each with a crew of five, with Staton’s aircraft in the lead, took off at five minute intervals at 22.00 on the night of October 1st.
An artist’s impression of a Whitley “nickel” raid over Berlin in early 1940
Parachute flares and leaflets descend over Unter den Linden
[Front cover of War Weekly No.20 – 27th Feb 1940]
Weather conditions were particularly severe that night such that on arrival over the German capital at 22,500 feet, the oxygen supply on board Staton’s lead aircraft momentarily failed. The two wireless operators in the rear of the fuselage collapsed and part of the mechanism of the rear turret froze up, so that the air gunner was temporarily locked in. Staton’s navigator, a burly six foot Canadian, Pilot Officer David Willis, went back from the cockpit to assist the two collapsed crew members, dragging one back through a narrow tunnel and connecting him to the cockpit’s oxygen supply. He then threw out the remaining two thirds of the leaflets before himself collapsing in turn, having been 10 minutes without oxygen. Staton rapidly dived rapidly to 9000 feet, opening up his engines over the heart of Berlin. At this height the rear turret door finally became free of ice. The air gunner climbed through to assist Willis, who by this time had in fact already recovered. He then returned to the front cockpit to resume his duties, despite displaying some distress from the effects of oxygen starvation.
Willis was later recommended for the DFC, primarily for these brave & selfless actions over Berlin on the night of October 1st-2nd.
10 Squadron – RAF Dishforth – October 1939 – three crews of Berlin leaflet raid
Willis & Staton in centre of back row
[Courtesy of Ian Macmillan & Dick King]
Three of the aircraft returned safely to RAF Dishforth, Staton touching down at 7.00 am on the morning of Monday October 2nd with the two following aircraft landing at 5 minute intervals thereafter. The fourth aircraft, K9018, piloted by Australian F/Lt John Allsop, failed to return, its last known position being recorded some 180 miles off St.Abbs Head at just after 5am. It is assumed Allsop’s aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed into the North Sea.
Surprisingly Allsop’s missing status was already being reported in the Australian Press by the end of the same week.
Allsop, navigator P/O Alan Salmon and the three other crew members, Aircraftmen John Bell & Alfred Hill and Leading Aircraftman Fred Ellison have no known grave and are commemorated on Panels 1,2 & 3 of the Runnymede Memorial. On September 29th 1940, in the station church at RAF Dishforth, a special commemorative plaque to the missing crew, commissioned by W/C Staton from local Yorkshire woodcarver, Robert (“Mouseman”) Thompson, was dedicated in the presence of Squadron personnel and family members. It now takes pride of place at 10 Squadron HQ, RAF Brize Norton.
Robert “Mouseman” Thompson’s commemorative wooden plaque
[Courtesy of Ian Macmillan & Dick King]
The British Press were quick to note the success of the first ever leaflet raid over Berlin, an announcement being made by the Air Ministry on October 2nd and the first reports generally appearing across the country in local and regional newspapers on October 3rd. Particular attention was given to the likely impact upon German morale of the fact that British aircraft had been able to fly over the German capital with impunity, especially when the Nazi Leaders were in residence for a meeting of the Reichstag. It gave some foundation to the adage that the “bomber will always get through”. Other reports from southern Denmark noted locals reporting the noise of aircraft overhead at about 3am and in the morning discovering large numbers of the “Knickerbocker” leaflets scattered across farmland & fields. Interestingly a report in the British Press on October 14th via the Press Association in Copenhagen announced that leaflets from the raid were still being picked up in Southern Denmark, 50 miles north east of the Kiel Canal, some 12 days later.
The impact at home can be seen within days when the Crazy Gang’s new show The Little Dog Laughed, at the London Palladium, re-created its own mini “nickel” drop upon the theatre’s audience from the roof of the auditorium.
The tangible impact of nickel raids within Germany still remained uncertain. References by both Hitler and Göring to “wretched” British leaflets and the drastic measures taken to prevent them being read by the German public at very least suggested that the Nazi government regarded them as effective and influential weapons. The well-known London Underground supremo, Frank Pick, entered the debate, suggesting that the leaflet raids would in time begin to have a deleterious effect on German morale in a letter penned to the Daily Telegraph in late October 1939. In early November 1939, the King himself visited Dishforth and heard at first hand accounts of the Berlin raid. He climbed into one of 10 Squadron’s Whitleys and was especially interested by the special apparatus by which the leaflets were released, discovering that this had been fabricated in RAF workshops.
Leaflets dropped through the Whitley’s flare-chute were scattered by the aircraft’s slip-stream
[Illustration from Bomber Command, HMSO, 1941]
Pharus Plan – Central Berlin – c1940-41
In December 1939, Rex Whistler’s satirical map cartoon celebrating the success of the raid appeared in the centre pages of Illustrated Magazine. Rex Whistler [1905-1944] was already renowned as a highly accomplished book illustrator, poster & mural artist and stage & costume designer, perhaps best known for the murals that decorate the Tate Britain restaurant, completed in 1927, and described at one time as “the most amusing room in Europe”.
Entitled Flying Visit of Truth to Berlin, in the form of an RAF leaflet raid here fancifully depicted, but not forgetting a great many hard facts, the viewer is offered a grandstand aerial view over central Berlin, with the principal buildings and thoroughfares all named. In the upper left corner, the winged figure of Britannia, shield in one hand and triton in other, pointing threateningly at the assembled group of quivering Nazi leaders below, looks on as winged cherubs and putti, each clad in RAF helmets and goggles, distribute the “Knickerbocker” leaflets across the skies. Below Hitler, Göring and Goebbels quiver in trepidation around a Jolly Rodger flag additionally emblazoned with Nazi symbols. Whilst they shake their fists in the air, Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop cowers beneath a nearby table, amid the toppled champagne bottles & broken glasses of a troubled & disturbing evening for the criminal Nazi elite. Cartoon portraits of three of the leaders are also incorporated into the title cartouche upper right.
Flying Visit of Truth to Berlin in the form of an RAF leaflet raid…
Rex Whistler’s original centre-page cartoon published in Illustrated magazine, Dec 1939
A little known fact reveals that Wing Commander Staton approached Whistler soon after the appearance of the Illustrated‘s December cartoon, asking if he might acquire the original artwork. Whistler went further, creating a set of at least four copies of the original, specially revised & amended to include the Squadron’s name in the title and its insignia on Britannia’s shield. It is presumed that four were gifted to each of the three surviving pilots of the aircraft involved in the raid as well as one to the Squadron itself. One of these is known to have been signed by Staton himself and was sold at auction in 2010 for £5200. Thanks to the investigations of 10 Squadron historians, Ian Macmillan and Dick King a second example was recently “re-discovered” in 2013 hanging in an old 1940’s frame on the office wall at 10 Squadron HQ at RAF Brize Norton. The current whereabouts of the two other examples remain unknown.
Flying Visit of No 10 Squadron to Berlin in the form of an RAF leaflet raid…
Special revision by Whistler for 10 Squadron, one of four known examples, this at 10 Sq. HQ, RAF Brize Norton
[Courtesy of Ian Macmillan & Dick King]
Wing Commander William Ernest Staton [1898-1983]
Staton himself would enjoy a remarkable wartime career. He was decorated again (DSO & Bar) for his involvement in a bombing raid on Bremen in May 1940 (when his aircraft was severely damaged) and was later appointed Air Aide-de-Camp to the King. He would also become something of a film star, taking a starring role as Station commander in the British Ministry of Information propaganda film, Target for Tonight,  directed by Harry Watt, the story of “F for Freddie” and an authentic RAF bombing raid on Germany. Staton transferred to the Far East in July 1941 but was captured on Java by the Japanese in March 1942. He would spend the rest of the war as a POW and would suffer severe hardship and torture at the hands of his Japanese captors before liberation & his return to England in late 1945.
Rex Whistler [1905-1944]
As for Whistler, at the outbreak of war he had taken a commission with the Welsh Guards and was involved in the Normandy landings in June 1944. Part of the Guards Armoured Division, he was tragically killed by a German mortar bomb near Caen on 18th July 1944. He is interred in Banneville-la-Campagne War Cemetery. It is said that the Times newspaper received more correspondence relating to the death of Whistler than other casualty of World War Two.
- HMSO : Bomber Command 
- Rex Whistler [1905-1944]
- Laurence Whistler & Ronald Fuller: The Work of Rex Whistler (Catalogue Raisonné) [Batsford, 1960]
- William Ernest Staton [1898-1983]
- William Ernest Staton Medal collection [Dix Noonan Webb, Sept 2013]
- Ian Macmillan & Dick King: From Brooklands to Brize  The definitive history of 10 Squadron’s 100 year history, published in 2015, its Centennial year, and written by the 10 Sqn Association Historian Ian Macmillan, with help from Richard King. Available from the 10 Sq. Association website.
- 10 Squadron Association Website & Archives
- TNA: AIR/27/141/3: 10 Squadron ORB Oct 1939
- TNA: AIR 81/26: Air Ministry Casualty Branch (P4) – Enquiries into Missing Personnel 1939-45: Acting Flight Lieutenant J W Allsop, Pilot Officer A G Salmon, Aircraftman 1st Class J R Bell, Aircraftman 1st Class A F Hill and Leading Aircraftman F Ellison: missing presumed dead; Whitley K9018 (10 Squadron) in air operations over the North Sea, 2 October 1939
- CWGC: F/Lt J W Allsop; P/O A G Salmon; A/C1 J R Bell; A/C1 A F Hill; LAC F Ellison
- CWGC: Lt Rex Whistler
I am extremely grateful for the invaluable help & support that I have received from 10 Squadron historians, Ian Macmillan and Dick King, both in their supply of information that has been so useful in the compilation of this blog post and in their kind provision of several of the photographs which illustrate it.