Forty Years of Propaganda Lies – Peter Rushton opens the files

This article was first published in two parts during 2020, in H&D Issues 96 and 97. We post it online for the first time in December 2021, with very slight updates. The original print version is still obtainable from H&D. For more on this and other topics, please subscribe to Heritage and Destiny.

Recently opened secret files document how official British propagandists plotted against the controversial historian David Irving during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their anti-Irving campaign was discussed at the highest levels of Whitehall’s most secret departments, all the way up to Prime Minister Harold Wilson. We can now reveal that one of the main overseas contacts of Whitehall propagandists in this anti-Irving campaign was also behind a propaganda lie against Adolf Hitler – concocted in 1932 – that still gets recycled to this day.

In May 1968, twenty-three years after Adolf Hitler’s death, the world order imposed after national socialism’s defeat seemed under serious threat for the first time. With students rioting in Paris, the ‘Prague Spring’ challenging Soviet
rule, and the Vietcong daring to strike into Saigon, political establishments were threatened East and West, communist and capitalist.

Would the world be turned upside down?

Two senior Whitehall warriors – Peter Wright of MI5 and Hans Welser of the Foreign Office’s secret propaganda outfit IRD (Information Research Department) – discussed their latest concern. For several years Wright had been leading a top-level investigation into the secret world’s worst nightmare, the possibility that MI5’s own chief was a Soviet mole. But that wasn’t his main worry at this meeting. He wanted to quiz Welser about a young British historian, David Irving.

Peter Wright of MI5 was one of the senior officers of the British secret state who plotted against David Irving. Wright later became world-famous for his unauthorised memoir Spycatcher: he is seen (above right) with his lawyer Malcolm Turnbull (later Prime Minister of Australia).

30-year-old Irving had been threatening to resurrect an awkward, long buried story – the death of Poland’s wartime leader General Sikorski in what was officially termed an accidental plane crash on 4th July 1943. Welser volunteered to bring in “a very old friend” to help with MI5’s Irving problem – a Swiss-based novelist and journalist called Hans Habe.

The IRD propagandist Welser assured MI5: “I have no hesitation whatsoever about his discretion”.

So who was the “discreet” Hans Habe, this “very old friend” of British propagandists? Before returning to the Irving story, we have to turn the clock back another 36 years. It’s presidential election week in Germany, March 1932. There are four candidates:

84-year-old Gen. Paul von Hindenburg, a Prussian aristocrat who has been President since 1925, still widely respected as Army commander in the First World War;

Adolf Hitler, approaching his 43rd birthday, leader of the National Socialist Party that had grown rapidly at the 1930 parliamentary elections to become the second largest in the Reichstag;

Ernst Thälmann, almost 46 and leader of the Moscow-controlled Communist Party, with core support from about 10% of German voters though shunned by non-Communist leftists and liberals (who in this election are backing Hindenburg);

and Theodor Duesterberg, 56-year-old middle-class Prussian and leader of the Stahlhelm (‘steel helmet’), a nationalist paramilitary force linked to the national-conservative DNVP, once briefly allied to Hitler’s national-socialists but now rivals.

A Hitler presidential campaign poster from 1932: the slogan reads “We shall take the fate of the nation in our hands!”

When Hindenburg was first elected President seven years earlier, he had the support of most German conservatives (otherwise divided among various parties and factions) – but about 60% of those who supported the old General in 1925 now back Hitler and his NSDAP. Though his personal standing among older voters, and an unstable coalition of reactionaries, liberals and socialists desperate to stop Hitler, will be enough for the aged President to win re-election, he can’t go on for ever – and it’s obvious that post-Hindenburg Germany will see a showdown between Adolf Hitler and the Communists.

Only one thing can stop Hitler in the medium term: if he can be discredited among some of his own supporters, splitting the National Socialist Party. Significantly, Hitler and his propaganda chief Josef Goebbels had finally discredited their nationalist rival Duesterberg during the 1932 campaign by revealing that Duesterberg’s own grandfather had been born Jewish and had converted to Protestantism way back in 1818.

There’s little doubt that Duesterberg was himself sincerely anti-Jewish, and was unaware of this aspect of his own ancestry until it was revealed during the campaign. The effect was that most of Duesterberg’s remaining support
went over to Hitler.

So the key facts of German political life in the spring of 1932 were these: sections of the right as well as the left were desperate to discredit Adolf Hitler, and recent events had already proved that the best way to discredit an ‘antisemitic’ leader was to hint that he might be part-Jewish himself. In Duesterberg’s case this happened
to be true; but if the truth doesn’t fit, a lie can serve.

The grave of Hitler’s parents: lies and half-truths about his ancestry were concocted by hostile propagandists, beginning in 1932.

A week before polling day in the presidential election’s first round, one of Vienna’s main weekly papers carried the huge block headline: “Hitler’s Name is Schücklgruber” (sic), revealing for the first time that the NSDAP leader’s father had only adopted the surname Hitler (and become legitimate) when aged 39.

The author of this sensational story was a 21-year-old Hungarian Jew, János Békessy (sometimes spelled Bekessi), whose father had converted to Christianity and moved to Vienna to publish a daily tabloid newspaper, becoming infamous as a blackmailer. János Békessy later changed his name to Hans Habe, and 36 years after his Hitler
‘exposé’ he was the very man to whom British propagandists turned when MI5 asked for help in dealing with the troublesome historian David Irving.

Hitler’s opponents imported tens of thousands of copies of the paper carrying Békessy’s first story, and (as all first-rate propaganda stories do) it triggered a wave of imitators, many adding their own ‘spin’. By the eve of poll, a Bavarian Catholic paper had joined in, sarcastically hinting that “the talkative Adolf Hitler is so silent about his ancestors and about how far back his family name goes”. After two rounds of voting, Hindenburg defeated Hitler by 19.4m to 13.4m votes – but Hitler’s NSDAP became the largest party in the Reichstag at the July 1932 parliamentary election.

One of Hindenburg’s inner circle – the younger aristocratic general Kurt von Schleicher – was main instigator of a scheme to sideline Hitler by constructing a strange cross-factional alliance of conservative reactionaries, ‘moderate’ socialists, and ‘radical’ rivals within Hitler’s own party. The latter included Gregor Strasser, the party’s former national organiser and former publisher of the main party newspaper, and Ernst Röhm, head of the SA ‘stormtroopers’ who had carried the fight to the Communists on German streets.

Schleicher was defeated by a rival faction. Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, but still faced powerful opponents not only on the left but (more importantly) on the reactionary right and even potentially from radicals within his own party. Most important of all, Hitler’s central aim of re-uniting the Germanic peoples by incorporating Austria within the Reich was bitterly opposed by Catholic reactionaries in Vienna – many of whom were sincerely anti-Jewish as well as ‘anti-Nazi’.

Anti-Hitler propagandist János Békessy (above) was the original author of tales that are still propagated today by conspiracist cranks including David Icke.

It was in this context that János Békessy (not yet calling himself Hans Habe, and by now editor of the Austrian Evening News) published a whole series of increasingly lurid stories during July 1933, now openly stating that there was not only illegitimacy but Jewish blood in Hitler’s ancestry.

Békessy’s headlines included ‘Awesome Traces of the Hitler Jews in Vienna’ and ‘Hitler’s Jewishness Officially Confirmed!’

One of Békessy’s fables – the wholly baseless suggestion that the Führer’s grandmother was a Jewess from Polna named Klara Hitler – was picked up by Hitler’s first biographer Konrad Heiden in 1936, and occasionally gets repeated by later writers.

So, was there any grain of truth in this farrago? The canard about Adolf Hitler’s Jewish ancestry stems from the fact
that his father was born illegitimate as Alois Schicklgruber, only adopting the name Hitler as part of his legitimation in 1876 when he was already 39 years old, though this was thirteen years before Adolf Hitler’s birth. There’s nothing especially suspicious or unusual about illegitimacy in one’s family background, but it’s understandable that Hitler later found it embarrassing and for this reason alone would have discouraged research or publicity concerning his ancestry.

Another mildly embarrassing feature of his family history was that Adolf Hitler’s own mother was already several months pregnant when she and his father were married. This child later died in infancy, as did two other older siblings of Adolf Hitler, as well as his 5-year-old younger brother. But nothing here indicates secret Jewish ancestry; neither was there anything unusual in the 19th century about variant spellings of surnames.

Adolf Hitler’s parents grew up as near neighbours in a village called Spital, close to what is now the Austrian-Czech
border. (In those days Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) They were distant relatives – probably first cousins once removed – again not unusual in small towns and villages, then or now, though often sniggered about by more sophisticated folk.

Adolf Hitler’s father Alois, whose complicated family background provided ammunition for conspiracists and propagandist liars.

Though we will never know for certain, the legitimation process in 1876 was very likely for tax purposes, since Alois Schicklgruber’s foster-father was a reasonably wealthy farmer who knew that Alois would have to pay less tax on his inheritance once legally recognised as a blood relative. Perhaps the foster father (who spelled his name Hüttler) was also Alois’s true father; or perhaps as stated on the legal forms, it was Hüttler’s elder and deceased brother, a much poorer miller’s assistant who spelled his name Hiedler. On the official notary’s forms, Alois Schicklgruber ended up with his new surname spelled Hitler.

What we still don’t know for certain is the identity of Alois Schicklgruber’s biological father (i.e. Adolf Hitler’s paternal grandfather), though it seems very likely it was one of the Hiedler/Hüttler brothers. One fable often repeated is that Alois’s true father was a Jewish merchant from Graz in whose house Alois’s mother Marie Anna Schicklgruber had been employed as a maid, but there is not the slightest evidence that she ever left the rural Waldviertel region – certainly not to travel more than 150 miles to Graz, let alone work there!

The crank conspiracy theorist David Icke has publicised a particularly extreme fringe version of this story, in which the Graz merchant is named as a member of the Rothschild family. Throwing that name around helps sell books and attracts attention online, but doesn’t change the basic fact that (even if we ignore the extreme unlikelihood of Fraülein Schicklgruber ever having been in Graz) there were no Jewish households in Graz – let alone Rothschild households – at the relevant time. Jews were not allowed to settle in Graz or the wider Styria region until 1849.

While awaiting trial and execution at Nuremberg, the former governor general of Poland and ‘war criminal’ Hans Frank published a version of this story, naming the merchant as Frankenberger (though historians have since established that there was no Frankenberger family in Graz – even a gentile one – during the 1830s). We can only guess at Frank’s motives for concocting this tale, which was obviously based on the earlier propaganda line spun by János Békessy/Habe during 1932-33.

However it might be significant that by the time Hans Frank was writing his memoirs, the renamed Hans Habe was setting up a series of eighteen official newspapers across the US occupied zone of Germany in partnership with a German-Jewish journalist Hans Wallenberg, who like Habe had served with the US Army.

The blackmailer’s son had flourished in exile during the 1930s and the war years. The second and third of his eventual six wives were Hungarian light bulb heiress Erika Levy and American cereal heiress Eleanor Post Hutton. The US President’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt was godmother to Habe’s son by this third marriage. By 1944 Habe was an instructor at the US Psychological Warfare Division’s Camp Sharpe, based on the old Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg. A year later he was putting the lessons into practice across US-occupied Germany.

Within a few years the Second World War had morphed into the Cold War, with some of the same propagandists involved, but here the documentary record becomes patchy, with many official records still unavailable.

Hans Welser, Swiss-born British propagandist who first worked on secret rumour campaigns during the Second World War; by the 1960s and 1970s Welser was a senior officer of the secret British agency IRD.

What we do now know is that Hans Habe, who settled in Ascona close to the Swiss-Italian border in 1953, had become a trusted friend of Hans Welser, a young British propagandist.

Welser was originally from Geneva but became engaged to an Englishwoman in 1939, aged 23. Papers about his naturalisation as a British citizen are set to remain secret until 2077, but we know he was recruited to British intelligence by a senior wartime figure, Leslie Sheridan, with whom Welser had an unusual and lifelong association.

Sheridan was a prewar journalist turned barrister who became head of the press/propaganda section for Section D of MI6 as the Second World War approached. Section D eventually grew into the Special Operations Executive, with Sheridan and his wife Adelaide among its most senior officers.

When the Foreign Office created a secret propaganda unit to fight the Cold War against Stalin in 1948, this new ‘Information Research Department’ was staffed by wartime veterans of MI6, SOE and its spin-off PWE – including the Sheridans and Welser.

By 1961 Sheridan was assistant head of IRD, and the following year he literally swapped wives with his colleague
Welser: still in a senior role herself at IRD until retiring in 1970, Adelaide Sheridan was now Mrs Welser. These personal details are important, because the department’s link with Hans Habe was evidently personal rather than a matter of office routine: the Sheridans, the Welsers and Habe shared some of the innermost secrets of the Second World War.

Having previously served Austrian and German conservatives, then the Americans, in their propaganda war against Adolf Hitler, Hans Habe became a secret servant of IRD. His ancestral loyalties were never abandoned: in 1965 as ‘Holocaust’ history was becoming more widely promoted, Habe wrote a fictionalised account of the 1938 Evian Conference, which he had attended as a journalist. Under the title The Mission, this described the failed attempt at Evian to find countries willing to accept German Jewish emigrants.

By the late ’60s, Habe shared British propagandists’ concern that Soviet intelligence might try to exploit aspects of Second World War history that embarrassed the West. Newly released documents indicate that David Irving and his German associate Rolf Hochhuth were seen in this light.

Leslie Sheridan, a senior officer of wartime ‘dirty tricks’ agency SOE, was among the founders of postwar propaganda agency IRD.

We already knew fragments of this story from two documents (one from Wilson’s Downing Street, another from the Air Ministry) that were released in time for Irving to include an appendix to his Churchill’s War, Vol. II, plus updates on his website.

The difference now is that we have a substantial block of files from IRD itself, which has become the latest of Britain’s secret organisations to open at least some of its archive to researchers.

A main reason for the British secret state’s extreme interest in David Irving at the end of the 1960s was his investigation into the death of Gen. Władysław Sikorski, Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-Exile. Poland had been swiftly defeated in 1939 and its territory divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. Sikorski and other fugitive military and political figures formed a government in exile, first in Paris, then escaping again to a new base in London (at the Rubens Hotel near Buckingham Palace) in May 1940.

When the short-lived ‘Nazi-Soviet Pact’ collapsed in the summer of 1941, Sikorski and his fellow Polish exiles were left in a difficult position. Their British host Winston Churchill swiftly declared Stalin’s Soviet Union an ally. Though the invasion of Polish territory was officially the reason for Britain and France declaring war on Germany in 1939, they had always chosen to ignore the parallel Red Army invasion. To attack Poland from the West was a casus belli, to attack from the East was (like the Soviet attack on Finland) not a serious concern.

Sikorski (unlike some more resolutely anti-communist colleagues) accepted diplomatic reality: though continuing to resist Soviet plans for postwar seizure of previously Polish territory, he broadly accepted Churchill’s line that the priority was to defeat Germany. However this face-saving formula collapsed in mid-April 1943 when German authorities released clear proof that the Soviets were responsible for the butchery of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectual leaders, buried in the Katyn Forest and other locations during April-May 1940. (See my review of the film Katyn in H&D Issue 39)

The official British line was once again to ignore Stalin’s crimes, but this time Sikorski refused to go along with convenient lies and evasions. Polish-Soviet diplomatic relations were broken off at the end of April 1943, though both countries remained allies of the British Empire in its war against Germany.

Polish exile leader Gen. Władysław Sikorski (above right) with Winston Churchill and the PM’s wife Clementine.

It was against this exceptionally tense background that Sikorski travelled to the Middle East at the end of May 1943, visiting Polish forces based in the region. For obvious geographical reasons, many fugitive Poles had made their way to French or British-controlled territory in the Middle East after their defeat in 1939. These included not only soldiers and airmen, but a significant group of secret warriors including most famously the SOE agent ‘Christine Granville’ (Krystyna Skarbek). Bitter factional divisions among these Poles were evident both in the Middle East and in London, and Sikorski hoped to settle some of these problems.

During his return journey, Sikorski’s plane stopped in Gibraltar. Soon after taking off again on 4th July 1943, the plane crashed into the sea. Sikorski and (apparently) all on board – except for the pilot – were killed. The sixteen victims included Sikorski’s daughter, his chief of staff, and two Conservative MPs, Victor Cazalet and John Whiteley.

David Irving wasn’t the first to question whether Sikorski’s death was accident or murder – the accusation was (perhaps predictably) made within hours on a Berlin radio broadcast, and the German newspaper Völkischer Beobachter carried the headline “The Last Victim of Katyn! Sikorski murdered by London” – but he was the first to produce an entire book examining the mystery.

Accident: The Death of General Sikorski was published by William Kimber in 1967, and is available from Irving’s website

Irving had investigated the Sikorski case at the request of German playwright Rolf Hochhuth. Their friendship was unusual, since Irving had been associated with ‘right-wing’ politics since his student days, whereas Hochhuth was very much a man of the left. In 1962 Hochhuth had become famous for his first play Der Stellvertreter. Ein christliches Trauerspiel translated into English as The Representative – A Christian Tragedy.

The play implied that wartime Pope Pius XII had turned a blind eye to the ‘Holocaust’ of European Jewry, and focuses on the alleged effort by SS officer Kurt Gerstein to inform the world (via the Vatican) about the mass murder of Jews. (Gerstein was an SS specialist in disinfestation methods used to protect concentration camps against the threat of typhus, spread by lice. Zyklon-B was the standard method of destroying lice, though in ‘Holocaust’ mythology it is claimed to have been used to poison Jews in homicidal ‘gas chambers’. Inconsistencies in Gerstein’s story were explored in a doctoral dissertation by French revisionist Henri Roques.)

Hochhuth was certainly not a ‘Holocaust denier’ – if anything his first play was at the opposite extreme, seeking to tar the Vatican with a ‘Holocaust’ stain. For that matter Irving had not yet written about the ‘Holocaust’, or particularly about Jews, though Jewish extremists had discerned ‘anti-semitism’ in his work, leading young communist Gerry Gable (now editor of Searchlight) and a fellow criminal to con their way into Irving’s flat in November 1963, seeking to steal documents.

Despite their differences, Irving and Hochhuth became friends after first meeting in January 1965 at the offices of Irving’s German publisher. They shared a common interest (though from opposing political standpoints) in exposing hypocrisies that already suffused Western orthodoxy about the Second World War, an orthodoxy that was increasingly enshrined almost as a religion rather than normal, evidence-based history.

A young David Irving (above left) with Rolf Hochhuth

In 1967 Hochhuth completed a second, even more controversial play – Soldaten: Nekrolog auf Genf (translated into English as Soldiers – An Obituary for Geneva). His intention was to mark the centenary of the First Geneva Convention, which was the first of many attempts to establish international law regulating the conduct of modern warfare, and while Hochhuth’s earlier target had been the Pope, this time he had an even more sanctified icon in his sights – Winston Churchill.

The new play portrayed Churchill and his main scientific adviser Prof. Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell) in a negative light relating to the British strategic bombing of German towns and cities that had deliberately targeted civilians, most infamously in the February 1945 destruction of Dresden. No doubt because of Irving’s famous book on this subject, Hochhuth asked for his help in researching the second central topic of his new play – the suggestion that Churchill had ordered Sikorski’s murder so as to preserve the alliance with Stalin.

This was no small matter – aided by his earlier success, Hochhuth had managed to attract London’s National Theatre to stage the premiere of Soldiers. This promised to be a dramatic, political and diplomatic sensation.

With the help of secret files released at the start of 2020, which I examined just in time before the National Archives went into Covid-19 lockdown, we can trace the progress of Whitehall’s panic reaction to this Hochhuth-Irving enterprise.

Hochhuth had visited the Polish Institute at Princes Gate, near Kensington Palace, during the summer of 1966. The Institute was run by leading anti-communist Poles, including old colleagues of Sikorski such as the exile government’s defence minister Gen. Kukiel. It housed many of the exile government’s papers, including the report of a Polish commission of inquiry into the Gibraltar crash. Unlike the parallel British enquiry, this Polish investigation had refused to rule out sabotage and had pointed out lapses in security at the airfield.

At the end of December 1966 Gen. Kukiel contacted the formidable Miss Sophie Teichfeld, half-Polish head of the Foreign Office research department dealing with Polish affairs, to warn her (a) that Hochhuth had borrowed certain material from the Institute which he hadn’t returned, and (b) that someone from the National Theatre had now telephoned the Institute, confidentially checking on allegations that Hochhuth was making in his draft of the new play.

Gen. Kukiel was now panicking, and hoped that the British authorities would be able to intervene to halt the play’s production.

Gen. Marian Kukiel, Sikorski’s defence minister in the wartime exile government, was director of the Polish Institute in Kensington where David Irving and Rolf Hochhuth researched the Sikorski ‘accident’.

During January 1967 senior civil servants (including Robin Cecil, who had been assistant to MI6 chief Sir Stewart Menzies at the time of Sikorski’s death) discussed how to handle the case and agreed it would be counter-productive to approach the National Theatre directly. Its literary manager Kenneth Tynan was, Cecil warned, a notoriously “‘anti-establishment’ figure, who would be only too happy to twist the tail of the Foreign Office. Moreover, he would be almost certain to ensure that our approach, however discreetly it was made, attracted publicity.”

On matters of this kind the NT’s director Sir Laurence Olivier would probably be loyal to Tynan who at the time, in the words of his Oxford contemporary Paul Johnson, “probably had more influence than anyone else in world theatre”. If anyone were to be contacted, Cecil suggested it should be Sir Ashley Clarke, a retired diplomat who had handled several secret intelligence liaison roles during the war and was now a member of the National Theatre board, as well as chairman of the Royal Academy of Dancing.

Cecil wrote this minute on 4th January. Five days later Sir Ashley and his colleagues, notably board chairman Lord Chandos (the former Oliver Lyttelton who had been in Churchill’s cabinet at the time of the Sikorski crash) held a meeting where they effectively decided to go over the heads of Tynan and Olivier, cancelling the proposed production. Since they had only seen two-thirds of the script, Olivier persuaded the board to delay a final decision for a few months until Hochhuth had completed his text, but this did nothing to change the board’s mind.

They told the press: “A play which imputes the murder of Gen. Sikorski to Sir Winston Churchill at the instigation of Lord Cherwell is not a suitable play for the National Theatre. An imputation of this kind could not have the cachet of the National Theatre upon it.”

Interviewed by his old newspaper The Observer, Tynan was reluctant to give away Hochhuth’s conclusions, but said Soldiers had two subjects:
“The chief of these is the whole question of area-bombing – not just the Dresden raid – the deliberate bombing of civilians, which was begun by this country. And the other is connected with the death of Sikorski. So it’s a play about an individual death on the one hand and a large number of indiscriminate killings on the other. Both are thought by the author to have been engaged in for the greater good – the defeat of Hitler. The question he raises is whether the British were justified, and whether such actions would be justified in the world situation now.”

Hochhuth has consistently maintained that he “knew” the British murdered Sikorski, because a veteran MI6 officer had confessed to him, but he said that he had sealed this confession in a Swiss bank vault from which it would not be released for fifty years. We still don’t know the identity of Hochhuth’s informant. However, based on what I know from other Polish and British sources a likely culprit is Moses Shapiro, alias Edward Szarkiewicz, alias Edward Dunlop, a counter-intelligence officer who had carried out special missions (including murder) for the British naval intelligence chief in Istanbul, Vladimir Wolfson, and the head of British intelligence in the Middle East, Brig. Raymund Maunsell.

Vladimir Wolfson, British naval intelligence chief in Istanbul, for whom Polish-Jewish agent Moses Shapiro carried out assassination missions.

The full story of intrigue within the Polish exile government (which also included early versions of ‘Holocaust’ propaganda, and a plot to assassinate Rudolf Hess) will be explored at greater length as part of a forthcoming book. This article however is concerned not directly with events in 1943, but with the British propaganda response to Irving in (and after) 1967.

Banned by the National Theatre, Hochhuth tried to interest other London theatres, meanwhile arranging for the play to be premiered in Berlin in October 1967. Behind the scenes Lord Chandos and fellow survivors of Churchill’s wartime inner circle plotted to discredit the entire project. In classic fashion, they seem to have recruited a ‘deniable’ asset, someone who could be portrayed as entirely independent and acting on his own perhaps eccentric initiative.


The second half of this article was published in H&D Issue 97 and detailed the operation to rescue Churchill’s reputation in the late ’60s and early ’70s, including manipulation of libel actions by IRD’s secret servants. One of the main characters in the saga, German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, died just after Issue 96 went to press.

How London’s Propaganda Warriors Targeted David Irving

Carlos Thompson, an Argentine bit-part actor, acted as an undercover agent to undermine David Irving’s work on the Sikorski case. Thompson is seen above left with Lana Turner in one of his few Hollywood films, Flame and the Flesh (1954).

In response to David Irving’s revelations about the mysterious death of exiled Polish leader Gen. Sikorski, relatives and former colleagues of Winston Churchill worked with an undercover agent, seeking to discredit the British historian and his German collaborator, playwright Rolf Hochhuth, whose controversial play Soldiers had portrayed Churchill as having ordered Sikorski’s murder.

This pro-Churchill undercover agent was Carlos Thompson, a bit-part actor from Argentina married to the much better known actress Lilli Palmer. Born in Germany and of partly Jewish origin, Lilli Palmer had previously been married to the British film star Rex Harrison. She and Thompson were social acquaintances of many stage and screen luminaries, including Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quayle – who just happened to have been a military aide to Gen. Noel Mason-Macfarlane, British Governor of Gibraltar at the time of Sikorski’s fatal crash.

Thompson soon became – like Hans Habe – a secret contact of the Foreign Office IRD (Information Research Department) propaganda officer Hans Welser, though he was regarded by some more orthodox diplomats as (at best) eccentric and unreliable.

The first trace of Thompson in Foreign Office files is in the autumn of 1967. First he turned up in Belgrade, with a letter of introduction from Olivier and seeking British Embassy help to contact Milovan Djilas, the famous Yugoslav communist partisan leader who was now a dissident. Djilas had written some years earlier about a wartime conversation with Stalin, in which the latter had asked him to pass on a warning to Djilas’s colleague Tito (later Yugoslav dictator) that the British might kill him, as they had Sikorski.

A few weeks later Thompson turned up at the Foreign Office, with strings pulled for him at the highest level. Former Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd telephoned the head of the Diplomatic Service, asking him to meet Thompson the same day for discussions about the Hochhuth play. Senior British mandarins do not normally make time at short notice to meet bit-part Argentine actors, but they do if a former Foreign Secretary has asked them!

(It might be significant that Lloyd himself, at the time of the Sikorski crash, was a staff officer touring the Mediterranean on a high level mission, passing through Gibraltar on his way to Algiers. Lloyd is most infamous as Foreign Secretary for having negotiated the secret ‘Sèvres Protocol’ in 1956 with the French and Israelis, so as to provide a false pretext for the disastrous Suez intervention.)

Kenneth Tynan (above left with Sir Laurence Olivier) was then the most influential figure in world theatre, but his wish to stage Hochhuth’s controversial play about Sikorski was overruled by influential pro-Churchill establishment figures.

Thompson claimed that during the previous winter Olivier had consulted him about the play, which he had not been keen to produce “but was virtually blackmailed” into doing so by Tynan. Thompson had acted as interpreter during a meeting in the summer at Olivier’s house, involving Hochhuth, Olivier and Tynan. He claimed that he had become suspicious of Hochhuth around this time and had decided to launch a one-man covert mission to expose him.

At some stage Thompson had been recruited semi-officially by veterans of the Churchill era political-military-intelligence world. Though the exact course of events is far from clear, he pretended to be assisting Hochhuth and Irving, sometimes secretly recording their conversations, while actually collaborating with Churchill’s military intelligence chief Gen. Frederick Beaumont-Nesbitt and Joan Bright Astley, organiser of the Secret Intelligence Centre in Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms – on whom Ian Fleming based his ‘Miss Moneypenny’ character in the James Bond novels.

Soon after the play’s Berlin premiere, the Foreign Office liaised with MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, discussing the theory being pushed by Thompson that Hochhuth was “consciously or unconsciously an East European agent” and that “Soldiers is a vast conspiracy to damage the West”, involving any or all of Hochhuth, Irving, and the play’s translator David MacDonald (co-founder of the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre).

The head of the Foreign Office, Sir Paul Gore-Booth, who himself had a wartime intelligence liaison role in Washington at the time of the Sikorski crash, took the unusual step of intervening in his department’s correspondence with MI5 to harden the departmental line:
“Having now seen Messrs Hochhuth, Tynan and (especially) Irving on the television, I feel that there is something
nasty and a bit sinister behind this whole business.”

Irving’s book Accident was published to coincide with the Berlin production of Hochhuth’s play, but publisher William Kimber insisted on making unauthorised alterations to the text: Irving placed an announcement in The Times dissociating himself from these passages in the book.

Arguably an even greater problem for Irving in the long term was the nature of his collaboration with Hochhuth – not so much because of Hochhuth’s left-wing politics as because the roles of dramatist and historian are so different. Hochhuth allowed himself license to present definite conclusions for which there was insufficient evidence, whereas Irving confined himself to raising questions and presenting such evidence as he could acquire.

Official suspicions of a Soviet dirty tricks operation were no doubt hardened when Hochhuth managed to secure a production of the English-language version of Soldiers, first in Toronto, then on Broadway, then in Dublin, and eventually in December 1968 at London’s New Theatre (now the Noel Coward Theatre) on St Martin’s Lane. The producer was young half-Jewish impresario Michael White, who specialised in putting on ‘scandalous’ work, famously working with Tynan on the controversial erotic revue Oh! Calcutta! and later producing The Rocky Horror Show.

Richard Burton had wanted to play Churchill in Soldiers and be Tynan’s co-director. However his wife Elizabeth Taylor insisted Burton should have nothing to do with the production: her godfather Victor Cazalet, a Tory MP and homosexual socialite, had been one of Sikorski’s fellow passengers who died in the Gibraltar crash. In 1974 soon after the collapse of his marriage to Taylor, Burton did get to play Churchill in a television drama, and made outspoken attacks on the former PM in several articles and interviews.

Within days of the London production of Soldiers, and having discussed the Irving-Hochhuth problem with MI5, Hans Welser of IRD went to Switzerland to meet with his old friend Hans Habe, later reporting back that: “Hans thought that there was no doubt that Hochhuth was being used by somebody and incidentally was raring to go ahead and tear him to pieces. I did not pursue but if ever we want to have a go, here is an outlet in the person of a well-known German writer.”

The British state and the Churchill family did want to “have a go”.

Not content with having prevented the National Theatre from staging the play, Lord Chandos resumed his attack in a private letter to the head of the Diplomatic Service. Now Chandos was asking about one of the continuing mysteries of Sikorski’s plane crash – a suggestion that there had been highly secret bags of papers on board that the Foreign Office had been anxious to recover from the wreckage. A minute by Christopher Ewart-Biggs (later murdered by the IRA), Foreign Office adviser to the Chief of MI6, suggested that there had indeed been an SOE bag on board and that “steps were taken to recover it”, though official sources later retracted and denied this.

Ewart-Biggs added that someone whose name is censored from the archived document – but who was almost certainly either retiring MI6 Chief Sir Dick White or his successor Sir John Rennie – was “taking a (benevolent) interest in his activities against Hochhuth and Irving”.

A tightly-knit circle of veteran Churchill aides had also mobilised, organising a joint letter to The Times denouncing Hochhuth and Irving. These included John Peck, Churchill’s private secretary and later head of IRD; Sir Desmond Morton, the former MI6 officer who had leaked secrets to Churchill during his 1930s ‘wilderness years’ and later became his closest adviser on intelligence matters; and Sir Charles ‘Peter’ Portal, Chief of the Air Staff for most of the Second World War.

Winston Churchill with members of his wartime staff, many of whom held senior roles in late 1960s Britain and worked closely together to undermine David Irving’s investigations.

Sir Dick White – the only man ever to have been in charge of both MI5 and MI6 (at different times) and then Whitehall’s Intelligence Coordinator, at the very apex of the secret state – had already reported to the head of the Civil Service that there were “some fairly tricky angles” to the Hochhuth-Irving saga. On 9th January 1969 he held a meeting with MI5’s Peter Wright and Lord Rothschild (long since officially retired from the secret world, but who had been responsible for counter-sabotage work with MI5 during the war years). Senior MI6 officer Brian Stewart (father of future MP and Conservative leadership candidate Rory Stewart) was present as secretary of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Rothschild remembered that two frogmen with long experience of highly secret work – Bill Bailey and Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb – had been involved in the salvage operation, diving down to Sikorski’s wrecked plane. Gossip in theatrical circles about these frogmen’s role had already reached the Foreign Office, via Carlos Thompson. Meanwhile Prime Minister Harold Wilson was asked about the affair in the House of Commons.

Again this was almost certainly an ‘inspired’ or planted parliamentary question – a frequently used device when a secret department wants to get some story (true or false) into the public domain. Significantly the question was put by Woodrow Wyatt, a Labour backbencher who had close links to IRD.

In his secret report to the Prime Minister, Sir Dick White described Irving as “a young and prolific British historian, with known Fascist leanings. He has published other books on the war which are critical of British leadership and tend to show the Germans in a good light.” However he admitted that Irving “has clearly done a good deal of research among people involved in the Gibraltar arrangements and the Court of Enquiry and among United States and Polish émigré archives. It is clear from the book that Irving had access to a copy of the record of the Court of Enquiry.”

Sir Dick White

Sir Dick continued: “It should also be recorded that a KGB defector alleged two or three years ago that Sikorski was murdered by the NKVD [Soviet intelligence, later known as the KGB]. The defector has not, however, been willing to enlarge on this claim or to produce any supporting evidence. If his information were true it would mean that the Russians would be operating from a position of strength because they would know exactly what had happened at Gibraltar. (This defector report is extremely delicate and no mention or hint of it should be made publicly.) The close association between Hochhuth and the right-wing Irving could be explained by a temporary coincidence of interests between opposing political extremes. Alternatively, it has been suggested that their interests are purely commercial. We have no firm knowledge how the association began except that Irving has said publicly that he met Hochhuth in Hamburg the day Churchill died. The best guess is that it started in Germany, where both men are known to have spent a lot of time researching, especially in German archives.”

He assured the Prime Minister that a detailed search of British official records had shown no “evidence, however tenuous, that we might in some way have envisaged or planned Gen. Sikorski’s death”.

There was, however, one highly significant exception to this search. “SOE files, which are incomplete and unreliably ordered, have not been examined; but Gen. Gubbins, who was Head of SOE and very close to the Poles, has been consulted and said he is certain that there were no SOE proposals to assassinate him.”

In other words the very department most likely to have carried out an operation of this kind – the Special Operations Executive (SOE) – was the only department whose records had not been examined for Sir Dick’s enquiry!

Bickham Sweet-Escott

A very senior SOE officer, Bickham Sweet-Escott, had been implicated by Hochhuth, based partly on a handwritten
entry in the desk diary of Gen. Mason-Macfarlane, discovered by Irving. On the very day of Sikorski’s fatal crash, Mason-Macfarlane appeared to have noted an appointment with a “Sweet Escot” [sic]. Irving knew that just seven months earlier SOE had been responsible for the assassination in Algiers of Vichy France’s Prime Minister, Admiral Jean-François Darlan. On checking Sweet-Escott’s recently published memoir Baker Street Irregular, Irving discovered that he had travelled to Algiers in early July 1943, and it seemed likely he had flown via Gibraltar.

However, Sweet-Escott consistently denied this and denied ever having met Mason-Macfarlane, let alone having anything to do with Sikorski’s death. Irving knew his evidence would be insufficient to defend a libel action. Indeed Sweet-Escott went on to sue Hochhuth, his publisher, and leading German publications including Die Welt and Der Spiegel who had been unwise enough to repeat Hochhuth’s explicit charge of his involvement.

Nevertheless the apparent handwritten reference to Sweet-Escott in the Governor’s diary remains unexplained, and it is extraordinary that the one organisation whose records were not examined in Sir Dick White’s enquiry was SOE.

We now know that Sweet-Escott was part of the AD Directorate, a small group of officers near the top of SOE about which I have acquired extensive knowledge from public and private sources. Sweet-Escott was assigned the symbol AD/1, while AD/4 was Leslie Sheridan, the propaganda chief whose star recruits Hans Welser and Hans Habe were (a quarter-century later) at the centre of the campaign against Irving and Hochhuth.

Sir Dick White’s report to the Prime Minister concluded by repeating earlier recommendations that there should be absolutely no official response to the Hochhuth-Irving allegations. Instead, Whitehall should continue its approach of giving “a limited amount of strictly un-attributable help and encouragement to those whom we know to have been anxious to defend Mr Churchill, notably his grandson, Mr Winston Churchill; his wartime ‘secret circle’; and an Argentine author, Mr Carlos Thompson, who started off by collaborating with Hochhuth but who is about to publish a book disproving his allegations and charging him with being a Communist agent.”

Safely at arm’s length from the government and its secret agencies, various apparently independent individuals would continue defending Churchill and in some cases bringing legal actions against Hochhuth or Irving or their producers/publishers.

Pre-war anti-Hitler propagandist János Békessy became post-war anti-Irving propagandist Hans Habe

On 3rd February 1969 one of these ‘independent’ individuals launched an attack on Hochhuth in a Swiss newspaper – Hans Habe, who by now was collaborating closely with his fellow IRD contact Carlos Thompson. In this article he revealed that Thompson had completed a book, The Assassination of Winston Churchill, and had entrusted Habe with the manuscript.

When Hochhuth retaliated by suing Habe (successfully) in the Swiss courts, and Irving sued Thompson in the London courts, Welser and IRD were in close touch with both defendants. The latest documents show that Welser liaised with the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6 about these libel cases, though there are several names and paragraphs censored from the published files. Welser wrote to MI5’s Peter Wright in March 1970:
“As you know, Hans Habe lost when Hochhuth sued him for slander. I hope the same will not happen in the Irving/Thompson case. Some time ago you said that there was some evidence of KGB involvement in The Soldiers. I do not know what this is, but am naturally wondering whether, if this can be sorted out from the point of view of security, the information would be of any assistance to Carlos?”

A truly extraordinary letter for one secret official to write to another about a libel action! (Again there are sections redacted from the published version.)

A month later the Foreign Office Assistant Under-Secretary Norman Reddaway – who had co-founded IRD back in 1948-9 – wrote to IRD’s head Kenneth Crook in even more explicit terms, having met Carlos Thompson the previous evening. Given the vagaries of the libel courts, Thompson was (Reddaway said) “running great risks for the cause”:

“He did not press for help, though moral support would obviously be welcome to him. Since, off his own bat, he has been conducting a classic IRD exercise for the last two years, he should certainly count on at least this.
“I think IRD should keep in touch with him and generally help him in his labours. …He is taking on single handed some of the star (witting or unwitting) performers in the Communist propaganda team.
“Mr T is in much the same relationship with these ‘disinformers’ as was Mr Woodrow Wyatt in the late 1950s with leading Communists in the trade unions in this country. By discreetly helping Mr Wyatt at that time IRD made a major contribution towards breaking the Communist hold on a key Union. If IRD can similarly be available for help and facilities for Mr T it will be effort well spent.”

A senior Foreign Office official was here recommending that IRD – a secret arm of the British government – should “discreetly” help the defendant in a libel action to “take on” David Irving.

IRD and Foreign Office propaganda chief Norman Reddaway (seen here with his wife Jean) recommended that the British secret state should intervene against David Irving in a libel case.

Understandably, other senior officials were nervous of such involvement, suggesting that in any case Thompson had “plenty of money for this sort of thing”, and that it was important to avoid senior Foreign Office personnel appearing in court.

One of the libel actions involved the Czech pilot of Sikorski’s plane, RAF Flt Lt Eduard Prchal, who was sole survivor of the 1943 crash. Prchal was well known among fellow crew for refusing to wear his cumbersome ‘Mae West’ lifejacket, but on this one occasion – having inexplicably flown his plane straight into the sea very soon after take-off – he was fished out of the water wearing his ‘Mae West’. Among those who refused to accept the RAF’s official exoneration of Prchal was the chief of the Polish military mission in Gibraltar, Lt Ludwik Lubienski.

In a 2003 interview Lubienski’s daughter, actress Rula Lenska, said she suspected her father “was buried keeping a big secret in his heart.”

(In 2014 the 92-year-old Bill Walker, who as a young RAF Leading Aircraftsman in 1943 was billeted at the Gibraltar airfield, wrote up his memories of the crash. His theory was that badly loaded baggage aboard Sikorski’s plane had blocked the elevator controls – during the crash this obstruction had then been thrown clear, so had not been evident to investigators.)

Hans Welser at IRD continued his close involvement with Thompson’s case. At the end of April 1970 he approached IRD and Foreign Office colleagues for help in tracking down a bank account that Irving allegedly held in Washington. Given exchange control laws at the time, Welser wondered whether this account might even be illegal. However his colleague’s reply emphasised caution:

“I have consulted our friends on this [in this context ‘our friends’ means MI6] and explained the background but they are rather reluctant to approach the Bank of England on this …and they think it most unlikely that Irving’s US bank account is illegal, and that it is better not to make further enquiries about it which might prejudice other lines which they are already pursuing.”

Thompson was convinced that Irving was being financed by “German Nazis” who had helped him avoid bankruptcy over another court case where he had been the defendant, losing a libel action brought by a retired naval officer against his book The Destruction of Convoy PQ17.

Welser however wondered whether such funds were “not of Russian rather than Nazi origin”. At some earlier stage while he was playing a double game, Thompson had “forged introductory letters from David Irving to Günsche, the SS Warrant Officer who carried Hitler’s dead body out of the bunker and burnt it. Armed with these forged letters, Mr Thompson saw Günsche in the hope of finding out whether the Nazis were behind Irving.”

This ploy had failed, but Thompson still hoped it could be used against Irving. If Otto Günsche, who had been Hitler’s personal adjutant, tipped off Irving about the attempted forgery, this in itself might be used to discredit Irving in court by establishing a “nazi connection”.

Welser reiterated that Thompson “is doing much of our work for us and deserves our support”. A note on the same file from Reddaway asked: “What has come from the Security Service’s [MI5’s] effort to watch Irving? Or have they not exerted themselves?”

Murray Simons, the Foreign Office liaison with MI5 and MI6, replied: “The Security Service assure me that they have put in some extra work on Irving. The person responsible is at present off strength – but their representative who will attend the meeting on 18 May will be able to say exactly what has been discovered.”

In May 1970, with the libel case still pending (Irving eventually dropped the case, largely for financial reasons, in January 1972), Welser went so far as to suggest that IRD should push for publication of a German edition of Thompson’s anti-Irving book: “It has occurred to me that it would be useful to cause one to be published, if the means for doing so are available to our German colleagues.”

During 1971 the IRD files show disagreement between Welser and another senior officer John Tyrer, who argued: “Irving is, as we have always maintained, an old-fashioned pro-Nazi and not at all pro-Communist. It is surely apparent that Irving’s apparent liaison with Hochhuth over The Soldiers was opportunist, not ideological; Irving can resist no opportunity to denigrate the wartime allies and especially Churchill, from a pro-Nazi position (he is also, unfortunately, a very able historian). Disinformation does not, I think, come into it.”

Tyrer thought the better propaganda ploy would simply be to embarrass the Russians, by drawing attention to their having “published a book by a fascist author”. However Welser insisted that “on present information” he believed Irving to be “working in the Communist interest as well, consciously or not.”

Gordon Brook-Shepherd, Telegraph journalist and anti-Irving informant utilised by the secret state

In April 1973 Gordon Brook-Shepherd of the Telegraph – a long-term contact of IRD and MI6 – tipped off Welser about a forthcoming Irving biography of Hitler. This was the book that was eventually published as Hitler’s War, and which Irving’s publisher was offering to Fleet Street for serial rights. Again some parts of the document are censored, but it is clear that IRD consulted GCHQ over whether a D-Notice could be obtained to ban sections of Irving’s book.

The most recent IRD documents about Irving date from the end of 1973 and early 1974, when Norman Reddaway supplied a non-attributable background briefing about Irving to Heinz Koeppler, founder and warden of Wilton Park, an institution originally created in 1946 to “re-educate” German prisoners-of-war, and later dedicated to promoting “democratic” values and Anglo-German relations.

These latest papers very briefly touch on the aspect of Irving’s Hitler’s War book that was to prove most controversial and defines Irving’s public image to this day – his argument that Adolf Hitler had known nothing of any plan for the mass murder of Jews, let alone ordered it. No doubt there are further IRD papers (and other British government files) dating from the mid-1970s and later, pertaining to Irving and other ‘Holocaust’ revisionists, but they are not yet public.

(The only available official British documents dealing in any substance with revisionism are discussed in part of my series on race law, see H&D 95.)

IRD was closed down by Labour Foreign Secretary David Owen in 1977. Its style of propaganda, inherited from SOE and PWE during the Second World War, had become too risky and discreditable when Soviet counter-propagandists were able to leak details about IRD to an increasingly sceptical and radically anti-establishment Western media.

However, official propaganda continues in other, varied and subtle forms.

Irving’s main IRD enemy Hans Welser died in 1996. John Tyrer stayed on in other propaganda-related roles at the Foreign Office after IRD’s demise, not finally retiring until 1990; he died in 2009.

Hans Habe died in 1977, while Carlos Thompson committed suicide in 1990.

More than a decade after their top-level, anti-Irving meetings, the retired MI5 officers Victor Rothschild and Peter Wright reunited in a secret deal with journalist Chapman Pincher, setting in motion a chain of events in the early 1980s that led to Wright’s notorious banned memoirs Spycatcher. The dubious loyalties involved in Rothschild’s intelligence and security career remain one of the great mysteries of espionage history.

On 13th May 2020, days after the first part of this article in H&D 96 went to press, Rolf Hochhuth died at his home in Berlin aged 89. The international press carried many obituaries, but very few made much mention of the Sikorski affair, instead concentrating on his earlier play Der Stellvertreter (‘The Representative’) addressing the Vatican’s alleged knowledge of the supposed wartime murder of six million Jews in the ‘Holocaust’.

It is presumably for this service to ‘Holocaust history’ that the German government paid tribute to the “iconoclastic” playwright, saying he had “never ducked a confrontation” while “loving provocations and remaining true to himself”. Similarly the Central Council of German Jews called Hochhuth a “courageous taboobreaker” who had “touched off an overdue debate in Germany” about the Vatican’s role.

Meanwhile conservative Catholic journals took the opposite line, with headlines such as “Man Who Smeared Wartime Pope Dies”. Just before Covid-19 disrupted academic facilities worldwide, the Vatican Archives had begun collaborating with a select team of ‘independent’ scholars aiming to resolve controversy over Pope Pius XII’s wartime role.

All seem determined to ignore the conclusions of the late Prof. Robert Faurisson, who wrote in Pope Pius XII’s Revisionism: “For those who wish to do so, the only way to rehabilitate the memory of the ‘maligned Pope’ is to speak the language of verifiable truth, historical exactitude or, quite simply, the facts.” – see

David Irving celebrated his 82nd birthday just as Britain entered lockdown on 24th March 2020. In 2021 he published Volume I of his long-awaited biography True Himmler (recently reviewed by Steven Frost in Issue 105 of H&D) and will soon publish Volume III of Churchill’s War, in addition to working on his own memoirs. No doubt Whitehall’s propaganda warriors will be securing early copies.

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