The little invasion phrasebook

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Author and historian Eugene Byrne takes a look at an example of British anti-German propaganda during the Second World War, Das Englandlied. “Wir fahren gegen Engelland, and investigates its story

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Before the Invasion
The sea is big, cold, stormy
When will the next English air-raid take place?
Why isn’t the Führer coming with us?
Our petrol dump is still burning!
Have you thrown my comrade into the Channel?
What do you charge for swimming lessons?
How many invasion trips do I need to win the Iron Cross 1st Class?

During the Invasion
The swell, the storm, the mist, the gale.
We are sea-sick. Where is the basin?
Is that a bomb, a torpedo, a shell, a mine?
Our ship is capsising, sinking, burning, exploding!
Our section, platoon, company, battalion, regiment, is drowning!
The sea here has such a smell of oil.
See how beautifully the Captain is burning.
Charles – Willie – Fred – John – Abraham is burnt to ashes – drowned, minced up by the ship’s propeller.

After the Invasion
We’ve had enough!
They are still in hospital.
Where did you get that lovely cold, lumbago, pleurisy, shell-shock?
That’s all that’s left of us.
We journeyed against England.
We want to go home!

(NB: An English pocket phrase-book will be handed free of charge to every German traveller to England on his arrival in an English prison-camp).

The story

There’s an abiding folk-memory that during the Second World War, ‘propaganda’ was something that only the Nazis did. Dr Goebbels served up lies to German people and the rest of the world, while the British told the unvarnished truth via its Ministry of Information and the BBC radio.

As a matter of policy, the BBC was truthful and tried to give off an air of objectivity. But elsewhere, Britain ran a psychological warfare effort that was as devious as it was creative.

The above is a (translated) version of one of the more straightforward British propaganda leaflets, given the same title of a famous German song of the time, Das Englandlied. “Wir fahren gegen Engelland,” translates literally as “we travel against Eng-land” though it’s better understood as something like, “We’re off to invade In-ger-land.”

Around a million copies were printed and dropped along the western seaboard of Europe in 1940. While the RAF was fighting off the threat of invasion in the skies, the propaganda boys and girls were doing their bit with this list of useful expressions for German troops on their planned invasion of England. The phrases were in German, French and Dutch (but not English) as it was intended for consumption by both German troops and civilians in German occupied countries.

Obviously this leaflet wasn’t intended to be mistaken for a genuine set of useful phrases, but as the war progressed, British “psyops” became more sophisticated. The top secret Political Warfare Executive, in particular, pulled some off some spectacularly dirty “black” operations.

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Among many others, these includes letters to the relatives of dead German soldiers purporting to come from their comrades and hinting that their valuables had been stolen by Nazi party officials. It also distributed manuals with detailed instructions on how to fake illnesses (and therefore evade work or military service). In the latter case, the same manuals were later re-printed by the West German counterculture movement in the 1960s to help German hippies claim welfare payments!