OBITUARY: Professor Michael Balfour

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The Independent Online
Michael Balfour, formerly Professor of European History at the University of East Anglia, was a leading expert on the political warfare conducted by both Germany and Britain during the Second World War. His book Propaganda in War 1939-45 (1979) is an immensely impressive and stimulating work, based on personal experience in the Ministry of Information, the Political Warfare Executive, the Psychological Warfare Division of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, and the branch of the Control Commission which supervised the German media in the British Zone.

Balfour came of a writing family. His father, Graham Balfour, was the first biographer of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose mother, a Balfour of Pilrig, was his relative. Michael was educated at Rugby and then at Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Greats and afterwards History. He had a great affection for Balliol and always kept in close touch with the college. One of his friends there was Duncan Wilson. Later they were colleagues in the Political Warfare Executive and in the Control Commission in Germany. Sir Duncan Wilson was in turn ambassador to Belgrade and Moscow, and eventually Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Balfour married Wilson's sister Grizel.

After Balfour graduated, with a First Class degree, he taught at various Oxford colleges and worked at Chatham House as secretary to a study group on Nationalism.

He visited Germany for the first time in 1930 and thereafter took a deep interest in German affairs. He became a close friend of Graf Helmuth von Moltke, who was arrested by the Nazis in 1941 and executed in January 1945, and also of von Moltke's widow. She provided material for the book Helmuth von Moltke: a leader against Hitler (1972) which Balfour wrote in collaboration with Julian Frisby.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Balfour joined the Ministry of Information and later transferred to the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office. This was also the cover name for the secret Political Warfare Executive, housed in the stable block of Woburn Abbey, in Bedfordshire. PWE was responsible for the policy of all propaganda directed at enemy and enemy-occupied countries, including the foreign-language broadcasts of the BBC. Under strict conditions of secrecy it also operated "black broadcasting" - fake radio stations which purported to transmit from Germany or occupied countries. PWE conducted other disruptive activities through spurious leaflets and newspapers and by spreading rumours.

Richard Crossman, later a Labour Cabinet minister, was the Director of PWE's German Division and Sefton Delmer, known as Tom, masterminded the "black" operations. Balfour observed their activities at close quarters. Of Crossman he later wrote, "Most men have their weaknesses. With some it is drink, with others women, with others again gambling. Dick's weakness was ideas. He could never resist the lure of a novel idea irrespective of whether it fitted in with his general outlook or not."

"Tom Delmer's virtuoso performance in developing black broadcasting," Balfour declared, "was both inimitable and too successful to be interfered with." Delmer's secret black station Gustav Siegfried Eins purported to speak for a dissident section of the German Army. In 1942 it gave such a convincing picture of a big top-level split that the American military leaders believed, even before El Alamein, that Nazi Germany was about give up. David Bowes Lyon, younger brother of the Queen, who headed the PWE mission in the United States, was authorised to warn General George Marshall and other top Pentagon officials not to put so much trust in Gustav Siegfried Eins.

After the liberation of Paris, Balfour, like Crossman, was posted to the Psychological Warfare Division of the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force. From there he moved to the Control Commission in the British Zone of occupied Germany as the Director of the Branch which supervised the German information media. This experience gave his first- hand information for another book, published a decade later, Four-Power Control in Germany and Austria 1945-46 (1956).

In 1947 Balfour returned to England and became Chief Information Officer at the Board of Trade. "The basic principle," he wrote, "is that publicity is a function of policy, not something that can be treated separately and decided after everything else has been arranged."

In 1963 he was appointed CBE but after 17 years of being a civil servant he longed to return to academic life. Fortunately the University of East Anglia was looking for a professor of modern history. The Balfours moved to Norwich, which they greatly enjoyed. Professor Frank Thistlethwaite, the Vice-Chancellor who recruited Balfour, recalled, "He was a quiet man, but authoritative and an excellent colleague."

Balfour continued to produce books on modern history, nine in all. He retired to Burford, in Oxfordshire, where he took part in many local activities. He also spoke at seminars and international conferences about political warfare. In 1981 he attended one at the Palazzo at Bellagio. He decided to talk about some of the chief personalities involved in British wartime propaganda and wrote brilliant thumbnail sketches of nine of them.

"It was a mistake," he told me. "Most of those who came to the conference were extremely ignorant. One American read a paper about the black Luxembourg station Radio Annie. It was only in the course of discussion that I discovered he was completely unaware of the whole Delmer operation! None of them knew what I was talking about. Then, when it came to publishing the conference papers, they left mine out."

I was the beneficiary. Michael Balfour gave the unpublished paper to me. I treasure it, and the memory of its distinguished author.

Michael Leonard Graham Balfour, historian and public servant; born Oxford 22 November 1908; MoI 1939; PWE 1942; PWD SHAEF 1944; Director of Public Relations & Information Services, Control Commission, British Zone of Germany 1945-47; Chief Information Officer, Board of Trade 1947-64; CBE 1963; Professor of European History, University of East Anglia 1966-74; books include States and Mind 1953, Four-Power Control in Germany and Austria 1945-46 1956, The Kaiser and His Times 1964, West Germany 1968, Helmuth von Moltke: a Leader against Hitler 1972, Propaganda in War 1939- 45 1979; The Adversaries 1981, Britain and Joseph Chamberlain 1985, Withstanding Hitler in Germany 1933-45 1988; married 1934 Grizel Wilson (three daughters); died Witney 16 September 1995.