During World War II, the Allies and the Axis powers made heavy use of radio for propaganda purposes. Most of this spin was aimed at their own populations, but some was tailor made for consumption by enemy soldiers and civilians. Both sides recruited native speakers to broadcast radio messages to the opposition in the hopes of spreading disinformation and sowing discontent. These mysterious radio personalities became minor celebrities during the war, and some were even arrested and branded as traitors when the fighting ended. Find out more about six World War II broadcasters who used the radio waves as a weapon.
Several American Nazi sympathizers worked as broadcasters for German state radio, but perhaps none was as famous as Mildred Gillars. Born in Maine, Gillars was a former Broadway showgirl who moved to Berlin in 1934. She remained in Germany after the war broke out, and eventually became one of the Third Reich’s most prominent radio personalities with “Home Sweet Home,” a propaganda show directed at American troops. Gillars broadcasted under the radio handle “Midge,” but American GIs soon gave her a more infamous nickname: “Axis Sally.”
Gillars’ Axis Sally spoke in a friendly, conversational tone, but her goal was to unsettle her listeners. One of her favorite tactics was to mention the soldiers’ wives and girlfriends and then muse about whether the women would remain faithful, “especially if you boys get all mutilated and do not return in one piece.” Prior to the Allied invasion of France, she also starred in a radio play, called “Vision of Invasion,” as an American mother whose son needlessly drowns during the attack. Like a lot of propaganda, Gillars’ radio shows rarely had their desired effect—many GI’s only listened because they found them funny—but she was still considered a traitor by the U.S. government. When the war ended, the voice of Axis Sally was arrested and eventually spent 12 years behind bars.
Beginning in 1939, millions of Britons regularly tuned in to a German propaganda broadcast hosted by a smug Nazi sympathizer nicknamed “Lord Haw Haw.” Several men were identified with the name, but it was most famously associated with William Joyce, an American-born fascist who had spent most of his life in the United Kingdom. Joyce was an outspoken acolyte of Adolf Hitler who had fled to Berlin at the beginning of the war. He soon joined the state broadcasting system, where he found an outlet for his particularly fiery brand of rhetoric.
Speaking in a clipped, cosmopolitan British accent, Joyce’s Lord Haw Haw dished out taunts and pro-Hitler rants intended to break the spirit of his beleaguered listeners. In between chastising Jews and the British government, he would gleefully report on the most recent casualties of the Blitz, often warning his audience to expect further punishment from the German Luftwaffe. Joyce’s influence waned in the later years of the war, and he was eventually captured near Flensburg, Germany in 1945 after occupying British troops recognized his famous voice. Found guilty of aiding the enemy, Britain’s most famous turncoat was executed by hanging in January 1946.
More than a dozen female Japanese broadcasters were dubbed “Tokyo Rose,” but the nickname was most famously linked to an American named Iva Toguri. A native of Los Angeles, Toguri was stranded in Japan after World War II broke out while she was visiting family members. She eventually took a job at Radio Tokyo, where she found herself ushered into a role as an on-air presenter. Using the handle “Orphan Ann,” the smoky-voiced Toguri soon became a legend of the Pacific Theater. By late 1943, thousands of GIs regularly tuned in to “The Zero Hour,” a radio show where she played pop music in between slanted battle reports and put-downs aimed at U.S. troops.
Toguri’s prominence saw her branded as one of the war’s most notorious propagandists, but evidence shows that she was not a Japanese sympathizer. Not only did she refuse to renounce her U.S. citizenship, she often willfully undermined her anti-American radio scripts by reading them in a playful, tongue-in-cheek fashion, even going so far as to warn her listeners to expect a “subtle attack” on their morale. Nevertheless, Toguri’s program became conflated with more vicious propaganda, and she was arrested and convicted of treason after the Japanese surrender. She was released from prison in 1956, but it would take more than 20 years before she finally received an official presidential pardon for her role in the war.
As the head maestro of Britain’s “black propaganda” radio programs, Sefton Delmer used cloak-and-dagger methods to turn the airwaves into a tool for psychological warfare. Beginning in 1941, Delmer operated a phony German radio station called Gustav Siegfried Eins, or GS1. Unlike most propaganda outfits, which merely beamed their messages into enemy territory, GS1 masqueraded as an actual Nazi radio station broadcasting to fellow Germans from within the Fatherland.
To act as the voice of GS1, Delmer masterminded the creation of a fake radio personality known as “Der Chef” (“The Chief”). Played by a German defector named Peter Seckelmann, the character posed as a high-ranking Nazi and loyal Hitler supporter who appeared disillusioned with the rest of the party leadership. Der Chef built his credibility by criticizing the British and the Russians, but he also railed against Nazi officials and generals, helping to create the appearance of a rift within the German high command. Among other tactics, the phantom malcontent accused Nazi leaders of having tainted the party with acts of sexual deviancy ranging from rape to pedophilia. To cement his role as a persecuted patriot, Der Chef was even “assassinated” on air during GS1’s final broadcast in late-1943. Delmer would go on to set up several more propaganda stations including Soldatensender Calais, which posed as a German station for troops in France, and Atlantiksender, which spread targeted disinformation to Nazi U-boats in the Atlantic.
In the dying days of the Nazi occupation of France, propagandist Philippe Henriot lit up the airwaves with a series of pro-German radio broadcasts aimed at pacifying the resistance. The French-born Henriot was a right wing firebrand who had eagerly aligned himself with the collaborationist Vichy government. In January 1944, he was appointed as the regime’s chief propagandist and spin doctor.
An eloquent speaker, Henriot played on the anxieties of the French people by arguing that the hardships they faced stemmed from their continued association with the Allies and native resistance groups, whom he labeled “terrorists.” He also used his radio programs as a platform to counter the arguments espoused by the Free French Forces, who were then broadcasting in exile from the BBC in London. Henriot’s twice-daily radio shows were appointment listening for the French public—many of whom called him the “French Goebbels”—but his influence was ultimately short-lived. In June 1944, he was assassinated in a targeted hit by French resistance fighters.
As early as 1939, Germany began hiring expatriate Americans to host radio programs aimed at deterring U.S. intervention in the war. These American-born fascists included Robert Henry Best, an ex-journalist who used the handle “Mr. Guess Who,” and Jane Anderson, better known as “The Georgia Peach.” Still, perhaps the most enthusiastic broadcaster was Fred W. Kaltenbach. A former Iowa high school teacher, Kaltenbach had been fired in 1936 after he tried to organize an American copy of the Hitler Youth. Following his dismissal, he moved to Berlin and became host of one of the first German radio programs produced for Americans. He soon earned the nickname “Lord Hee Haw” for his homespun style and similarity to the British propagandist “Lord Haw Haw.”
Kaltenbach’s show took the form of fictional letters to his American friends back home in which he championed a policy of isolationism and railed against the evils of Jews and the British Empire. After the United States entered the conflict, he began broadcasting pro-Nazi news stories along with attacks on Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he labeled a “warmonger.” Kaltenbach’s diatribes saw him charged with treason along with seven other American propagandists, but he never faced trial. Captured by the advancing Red Army, he disappeared shortly after the war ended and was later reported to have died in Soviet custody.