Wodehouse, the reviled 'traitor'
AFTER P. G. WODEHOUSE'S INFAMOUS WARTIME BROADCASTS FROM BERLIN, THE
BRITISH GOVERNMENT ENGINEERED A MEDIA CHMPAIGN AGAINST THE WRITER,
SAYS ROBERT McCRUM IN AN EXTRACT FROM HIS NEW BIOGRAPHY
In the highly charged atmosphere of wartime Britain, the idea that
such a popular and famous Englishman as P. G. Wodehouse should be
broadcasting on Nazi radio caused an immediate outcry. The press
assumption that Wodehouse had bought his freedom was first expressed
in the Daily Mirror headline, "The price is?". In the same edition,
William Connor devoted his Cassandra column to accusing Wodehouse of
"browsing and sluicing" with the Nazis in Berlin's biggest and best
hotel. Connor went on to contrast this with the "great acres of
London, Coventry, Liverpool and other cities flattened by his Hunnish
As the press campaign gathered momentum, official Britain began to
react to the news from Berlin. Anthony Eden accused Wodehouse of
having "lent his services to the Nazi war propaganda machine" and
Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham) compared Wodehouse to the infamous Nazi
propagandist Lord Haw-Haw. A Government-led campaign against Wodehouse
was about to become exceedingly ugly.
On July 4, Duff Cooper, in his role as Minister of Information,
entertained a number of well-known journalists to a lunch at the
Savoy. Among them was William Connor. The upshot was that Duff Cooper
asked Connor to write a "postscript" to a BBC evening news bulletin.
He undertook to hand the script, uncensored, to the BBC. When the
Director of Talks, appalled by what he had read, argued strongly
against broadcasting it, the minister simply ordered him to do as he
was told. And so, at nine o'clock on the evening of July 15, after a
regular news bulletin, Cassandra made the broadcast that launched the
penultimate phase of the Wodehouse affair.
"I have come to tell you tonight," Connor began, "of the story of a
rich man trying to make his last and greatest sale -that of his own
country." Warming to his theme, Connor cast Wodehouse as the craven
pawn of the devilish cripple, Josef Goebbels. He concluded with a
rhetorical flourish: "Fifty thousand of our countrymen are enslaved in
Germany. How many of them are in the Adlon Hotel tonight? Barbed wire
is their pillow. They endure -but they do not give in. They suffer
-but they do not sell out. Thejails of Germany are crammed with men
who have chosen without demur. But they have something that Wodehouse
can never regain. Something that 30 pieces of silver could never buy."
As the BBC had feared, the public reaction was swift and vehement.
Protests came in from all over the country.
Emboldened by the public reaction, the Chairman of the BBC Governors
threatened to write a letter to The Times setting out the governors'
position. In response, Duff Cooper drafted his own letter to The Times
in which he made it plain that his "was the sole responsibility for
the broadcast" but that "occasions may arise in time of war when plain
speaking is more desirable than good taste".
Wodehouse made only one attempt to set the record straight. In a
retrospective preamble to the script of his fourth broadcast, he said:
"The press and public of England seem to have jumped to the conclusion
that I have been in some way bribed or intimidated into making these
broadcasts. This is not the case." This belated and ineffectual
self-justification was as ill-conceived as every other aspect of his
conduct during these unhappy weeks, and completely failed to address
the substance of the case against him.
July 1941 was the worst month of Wodehouse's life, and the disgrace
would never leave him. But while he rarely betrayed his feelings about
the broadcasts, there is no doubt he was badly wounded. Wodehouse's
subsequent actions also provide a clue to his distress. Wodehouse
wanted to go home to explain himself and protest his innocence: on
three separate occasions he formally requested permission to leave.
First, he proposed travelling overland to Palestine and then back to
London, but the Ministry of Propaganda saw to it that the request was
Next, he tried and failed to get authorisation for a return to England
via Lisbon, a neutral port. Finally, he asked to go to Sweden, where
he was always popular, but in vain. The Nazis were determined to hang
on to him. Wodehouse's response was predictable: he buried himself in
Towards the end of the war, Wodehouse was in Paris, where he had to
live with the unresolved accusations of treason for which, as he knew
only too well, the sentence was the death penalty. The Nazi occupation
was disintegrating and there were often violent street battles between
warring factions, exacerbated by the settling of scores with the dying
Vichy regime. Whatever Wodehouse's sangfroid, the atmosphere in Paris
was vengeful, hysterical and frightening, exacerbated by the bitter
cold and severe food shortages.
When the Americans liberated Paris on August 25. Wodehouse knew what
he had to do.
In a mood of resigned fatalism, he asked an American colonel to inform
the British authorities of his whereabouts. On September 5, Major
Cussen of MI5 flew to Paris to question him about his wartime
Wodehouse managed to turn a potentially dangerous encounter into a
personal vindication. He was painfully frank and his account soon
convinced his interrogator of his fundamental innocence. But while
Cussen exonerated Wodehouse, his analysis was no whitewash. He
observed that Wodehouse was "very susceptible to any form of flattery"
and that "by lending his voice and personality to the German
broadcasting station, Wodehouse did an act which was likely to assist
Despite these negative comments, Cussen concluded that "a jury would
find difficulty in convicting him of an intention to assist the
For Wodehouse the Cussen report had two important deficiencies. First,
it contained no examination of German documents (now lost) or German
witnesses (now dead). Second, although the Director of Public
Prosecutions appended a note to the file saying that "there is not
sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution of this man", its
findings were never revealed to Wodehouse and could not be made public
until 1980, five years after Wodehouse's death. The cruellest feature
of Wodehouse's long old age was that he never knew, definitively, that
his case was closed.