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The history of aerial leaflet propaganda is long and diverse. In 1806 Captain Thomas Cochrane (later Rear Admiral and Lord) of the British Royal Navy constructed kites to transport proclamations from his ships into France. Later that century, balloons came to be used to drop leaflets, for example, by the inhabitants of Milan when besieged in 1848 and then by the French during the Siege of Paris in 1870.

WWI Propaganda Leaflet

During the First World War, when air disseminated leaflets were used on a massive scale, the foundations were laid for today's psychological warfare techniques. The lessons learned were put into effect during the Second World War when tens of thousands of leaflet varieties were disseminated in their billions by aeroplane, rocket, shell, and balloon. Enemies and friends alike, in almost every theatre of war, were showered with leaflets in a wide variety of languages.

Prolific though little reported leaflet activity, continued through the Korean War initiated mainly by the United Nations but also by the Communists. After the vigorous leaflet warfare waged by the British during the Malayan Communist Insurgency (a subject ripe for research) it was the turn of the Americans as Viet Nam dissolved into conflict. Lesser wars such as Suez, Cyprus, and the Falklands have also had their small but significant share of leaflet warfare. But the Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, the problems in Somalia and Chechnya have brought 'PSYOP' back in to the spotlight as the extensive use of the leaflet weapon has been widely reported by the media. Even Bosnia has not escaped the attentions of the leafleteer.

There are a number of ways of classifying leaflets.

For example, there are strategic leaflets whose content is much to do with war aims and policies and whose currency can be long.

Then there are tactical leaflets which relate to a single battle or are aimed at relatively small groups of people, perhaps an enemy unit or the inhabitants of a town, and are valid for only a very short time.

Another important way of categorising leaflets is to divide them into:

'WHITE' leaflets which have a stated and openly acknowledged source. Most of the leaflets dropped by the RAF over the occupied countries in WWII were of this type. Some contained messages from Churchill or Roosevelt.

Nachrichten für die Truppe - D-Day issue

'GREY' leaflets do not have an acknowledged source although the originator is usually obvious. The famous Nachrichten für die Truppe series, dropped daily over German troops in Western Europe from just before D-day to the end of the War, is a good example.

'BLACK' leaflets have a stated source which, in fact, is false. For example the Allies invented non-existent anti-Nazi groups in Germany and produced information sheets purporting to come from them which were then distributed over Germany.

Aerial propaganda leaflets have been extensively used in Civil Disturbances all over the world. Such as in Samoa in 1930, the Phillipine insurrection, the Greek and Spanish Civil Wars, Malaya, Aden, the North West Frontier, Kurdistan, and Algeria.

US Propaganda Leaflet from the Gulf War, 1991

Operations 'Urgent Fury' and 'Just Cause' in Grenada 1983 and Panama in 1989 are two examples of where leaflets were used by the United States in countries experiencing communal strife. Other instances were Operation 'Provide Comfort' in Northern Iraq, 1991 where the Kurds were being protected from Iraqi aggression and in Bosnia, 1993 when US planes dropped leaflets warning the inhabitants of the dangers that might be incurred during the impending dropping of supplies by parachute. Fatalities had occurred in Somalia during a similar operation.

The commercial use of publicity leaflets dates back to the late nineteenth century when tracts advertising 'Lipton's tea' and election leaflets were dropped from balloons over Britain. Various other trade leaflets were disseminated in the post-WWII period until the British Government banned them under their anti-litter laws.

During WWI the Royal Flying Corps, later named the Royal Air Force, dropped leaflets over towns and cities in Britain urging the population to support 'Warship' and 'Tank Bank' weeks in which savings certificates and bonds were sold to raise money to support the war effort.

Similar events took place in WWII when the themes were 'Save Waste Paper', 'War Weapons', and 'Wings for Victory' weeks. All these activities gave the airmen much needed practice in dropping leaflets before they were called upon to drop them over occupied Europe.

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