Diplomats and Propagandists: Danish Journalists and the ‘London Moment’, 1940–1945

A jealous colleague once remarked that contemporary historians are like journalists, only with a slightly more generous deadline. If that is the case, then my research project has put me in a position which resembles that of the people I am studying, if only slightly. Isolated in Britain during the pandemic, I study the journalists of the Danish exile community in Britain during the Second World War. In the following, I present their story, offer some preliminary hypotheses and discuss the significance of this part Scandinavian, part transnational media history.

The London Moment was a difficult one for Danes. After almost no military resistance Denmark had surrendered to the German invasion force in April 1940. In contrast to Norway, who resisted the attackers, the Danish government decided to break a unique deal with the Third Reich. Denmark maintained the formal independence of its political life despite being under military occupation. This arrangement, together with Nazi ideology’s favouring of Scandinavians as a supposed ‘Aryan’ people, saved the country’s state institutions and spared its population the brunt of harassment and shortages that followed occupation in other countries. The deal was advantageous to the Germans, who could save manpower, exploit Danish industry and infrastructure, and use Denmark’s fate as propaganda, showcasing German benevolence to (some) populations which submitted themselves. This policy of negotiation or collaboration partly broke down in 1943 when increasing German demands resulted in uprisings and sabotage.[i] Yet, throughout the war, Denmark continued to be ruled by Danes and no Danish exile government came to exist, in London or elsewhere, only a movement of ‘Free Danes’ (more on those) paralleling other communities like the ‘Free French’. The legitimate government, supported largely by the population, was at home.

John Christmas Møller on bicycle in London, 1942. [Danish Royal Library/Wikimedia Commons].

In Denmark, all this is well-researched, although sometimes distorted in public discussions by conflicting ‘memory politics’.[ii] The experience of Danes in British exile, however, has only a small historiography. Many Danish merchant sailors joined the British marine and contributed to the restoration of Denmark’s standing with the Allied at the close of the war. [iii] Other than these there were about 6-7000 Danes in Britain when the war began, among them, in particular in London, a community of businessmen, academics and journalists. In 1942, a Danish conservative politician John Christmas Møller, escaped Denmark on British invitation and became the head of the Danish Council, a council of 38 people elected by the ‘Association of Free Danes in Great Britain’, loosely referring to themselves as the Free Danes. The Council, although sometimes internally divided on its exact policy towards the Danish government, pledged to stand ‘with Great Britain and Northern Ireland for the freedom of Denmark’ and thus aligned itself with the British war effort. However, Møller could not represent a formal alternative to the Danish government. Danes and British alike preferred a government which enjoyed a broad legitimacy in the Danish population.[iv] During his time in Britain, Møller became bitter towards the British, whom he felt had invited him on false and inflated promises, and tragically his son was killed as a volunteer British soldier in France in 1945.[v] Despite disappointments and tragedy, Møller is recognised as a moral rallying point of exiled Danes and popular ‘voice from London’ through the BBC.

There were about twenty-five active journalists in the Free Danish community in Britain. Some were residing correspondents from the big Danish newspapers. Others came to London during the war to act as liaison between the Free Danes and the resistance movement at home. A few, like Robert Jørgensen who was to lead the BBC European Service’s Danish Section, held British citizenship. They ranged from being in their early twenties to early forties and included conservatives, social democrats and communists. The group included two women, Estrid Bannister, who was also a British citizen, and Ragna Palmér, the first among the journalists to work for the BBC.[vi]

Journalists are interesting transnational agents for several reasons: In the absence of a government in exile, they possessed knowledge, skills and contacts useful for military and political, Danish and British interests. The journalist as a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ figure is thus ubiquitous in the story of the exile community and journalists were leading forces in the foundation of the Danish Council in 1940.[vii] When Møller was invited to England, journalists acted as middle-men and women, and journalists constituted a large share of his closest collaborators in Britain.[viii] I now present two preliminary hypotheses about their role:


First, Danish journalists acted not just as couriers but also in a diplomatic capacity, including political intelligence work, and public diplomacy. In the words of one of them, Terkel M. Terkelsen, the journalist community did ‘commando raids’ in Fleet Street, the newspaper hub of London, meaning that they fed British journalists with stories on Denmark and regularly contributed themselves, including to The Times, Sunday Times, New Statesman & Nation and smaller provincial papers.[ix] They were instrumental in fulfilling the main aim of the Danish Council – to ‘explain and defend’ Denmark’s situation to the British public.[x] Journalists gave public talks and published books in English which documented – and exaggerated – the hostility of Danes at home towards the Nazis.[xi] Many of them worked for the BBC. In the multinational environment at Bush House, the corporations’ headquarters, they mingled with other London exile communities, although indications are they primarily socialised with Norwegians, and, interestingly, the Czechoslovaks.[xii]


Undoubtedly, many of the stranded Danes felt they needed to take part in the war effort and a substantial group worked in covert British government-propaganda, such as the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), an amalgamation of several agencies under the auspices of the mutually suspicious ministries of the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Economic Warfare.[xiii] The aforementioned Terkelsen was one of thos working in the PWE, producing and broadcasting so-called ‘black propaganda’ to Denmark (propaganda with a hidden origin) at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, north of London. Amongst his colleagues were Sten Gudme, who was smuggled into Britain from Denmark to lead this work, Jens Gielstrup, Sven Tillge-Rasmussen and Harry Agerbak.[xiv] Terkelsen even supervised his countrymen in the BBC on behalf of the PWE.[xv] Journalists in London collaborated with the two other epicentres of Free Danish activity in neutral Sweden and in the USA. In particular after 1943, they collaborated closely with exiled colleagues in Stockholm, whose improvised news service Danish Press Service (DPT) smuggled news, such as reports on resistance operations censored by Danish media, or leaked political or military intelligence out of Denmark for the benefit of British and American propaganda.[xvi] In Washington, D.C., the Danish ambassador, Henrik Kauffman, had infuriated the Danish government by, among other things, independently signing off the military use of Greenland to the USA. Although celebrated after the war, Kauffman was a controversial figure. He competed with Møller in London over the leadership of the Free Danes, inciting diplomatic tensions between the USA and Great Britain in their competition to control the exile networks that they expected would influence post war Europe.[xvii] As agents in this diplomatic chess-game, journalists travelled regularly between the three capitals to collect information and establish new relations. For example, Terkelsen visited Washington, D.C. in 1943 to report back to PWE on American propaganda-efforts, and Gudme travelled to Stockholm in 1943 and again in 1944 to assist the DPT and report on Danish political negotiations to the London-Danes and to the British.[xviii]


A photo showing many of the journalists in the Danish exile community at the time. Terkel M. Terkelsen (back row, fifth from left) Gudme (back row, sixth from left), Sven Tillge-Rasmussen (back row, fourth from right). 1944. [Royal Library: National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library.]

The second hypothesis concerns the balancing between demands made by the host country on the exile community and the agency of that community. Exiled journalists can be said to have constituted a kind of ‘epistemic community’, yet they were not a uniform group and were not given equal conditions by the British.[xix] More importantly, their feeling of duty to Britain and their need of a steady income complicates a mapping of their diverging allegiances and priorities. Many seem to have navigated constantly between three different allegiances, one to their British hosts, one to ‘Denmark,’ complicated further by the Danish policy of negotiation, and one towards their professional identities as journalists. Many committed themselves to the Danish Council and its newspaper, Frit Danmark (Free Denmark), which was steered by an Information Committee, a key forum for the journalists. At the same time, a smaller group, as we have seen, was handpicked to work in the PWE. Such work transformed journalists into combatants putting their skills at the disposal of the state and discarding their professional adherence to ‘objective’ truth. ‘Journalists’, the head of the PWE Robert Bruce Lockhart wrote, ‘were undoubtedly the best exponents of propaganda […] they had the best understanding of the value of the spoken and written word and […] they alone had the requisite sense of urgency’.[xx]

There is a definite ‘before and after’ the early fall of 1943, when increased German demands for, among other things, persecution of Danish Jews led to the fall of the government. A change took place at the same time in the relation between the Danish ‘black propagandists’ and their British superiors. Jens Gielstrup, the youngest of the Danes in the PWE, had left for the Royal Air Force and was killed during his first action in August, tragically realising his words to Terkelsen earlier that ‘one must aim to die young’.[xxi] Shortly after, in September 1943, Tillge-Rasmussen and Gudme left the PWE. Tillge-Rasmussen went to work for the Danish Legation, a move orchestrated by Møller who wanted someone he trusted there to smooth relations to the Danish ambassador Count Reventlow.[xxii] Gudme devoted himself to the Danish Council and wrote later that he left the PWE because he ‘broke with the English on political grounds’, but remained loyal to the British government.[xxiii] A frustration with being subjugated to British military demands and hierarchies in matters the Danes felt they knew better themselves was clearly visible at this point. Arguably, Tillge-Rasmussen and Gudme left the PWE because it seemed like the obvious thing to do so after the part-collapse of the Danish policy of collaboration and surge in resistance. Yet another reason, we see, was that they had become frustrated by working in the concealed world of propaganda and had begun to feel exploited. Given a choice between using their skills in editing and communication in the service of war propaganda and using their knowledge and analytical skills to perform diplomacy and channel intelligence between Stockholm, London and Copenhagen, they chose the latter.


Danish journalists navigated between roles as journalists, intelligence agents, propagandists, and diplomats during their time in British exile. Depending on war developments and on their personal situations and views on the actions of the Danish government, they adjusted their allegiances and the way they interpreted their roles. Despite a certain fragmentation in the source material, a mapping of their professional trajectories and their internal correspondence offers insights into what they considered appropriate functions of journalists in times of crisis. On top of offering a generational portrait of journalists who put their training at the service of war, and their legacies in the post war societies, their story may contribute to the puzzle of the dynamics of the exile communities devoid of governments in the London Moment. Hopefully, my own exile in Britain will come to fruition when various British Archives open for service, supplementing Danish material and secondary literature and illuminating the Danish exiles from the angle of their hosts.

[i] Bo Lidegaard, Kampen om Danmark, 1933-1945, (København: Gyldendal, 2006); E.g Hans Kirchhoff, Samarbejde og modstand – en politisk historie, (Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag, 2001).

[ii] Anette Warring, Claus Bryld, Besættelsestiden som kollektiv erindring, (Roskilde Universitetsforlag, 2005).

[iii] A notable exeption, which treats Danish volunteers for the British army and navy is Jakob Sørensen, For Danmarks ære: Danskere i allieret krigstjeneste, 1939-1945, (København: Informations Forlag, 2011).

[iv] Sten Gudme, ‘De danske i England’, in Johannes Brøndsted, Knud Gedde, De fem lange aar: Danmark under besættelsen 1940-1945 bd. III, (København: Gyldendal, 1947), 1459.

[v] Wilhelm Christmas-Møller, Christmas – Christmas Møller og det Konservative Folkeparti, 1936-1948: ’Et stridens tegn’, (Gyldendal: 1993).

[vi] This overview of journalists is based on material from the papers of the Danish Council, together with books and memoirs by and about Danish journalists in Britain during the war, including fx. Terkel M. Terkelsen, Særmelding fra London – Propaganda I England under den anden verdenskrig, (København: Berlingske Forlag, 1971), 120; Jeremy Bennet, British Broadcasting and the Danish Resistance Movement 140-1945 – A Study of the Wartime Broadcasts of the BBC Danish Service, (Cambridge: CUP, 1966).

[vii] Emil Blytgen-Petersen, Frie Danske i London, (Odense: Nyt Nordisk Forlag, 1977), 60; Gudme, ‘De danske’, 1460.

[viii] Christmas-Møller, Christmas, 166; Sten de Hemmer Gudme, Levnedsbeskrivelse: Sten Gudme, Det Kongelige Ordenskapitel (KO), 1951, 1.

[ix] Terkelsen, Særmelding, 33-34. Gudme, Levnedsbeskrivelse, 1. Leif Gundel, ’What is Denmark’ cut from New Statesman & Nation 27 November 1943, Leif Gundel Personal personal papers, C1, DNA.

[x] Gudme, ‘De danske’, 1460.

[xi] Terkelsen, Særmelding, 34, 38. Books by journalists of the exile community include Gudme, Denmark: Hitler’s “Model Protectorate”, (London: Victor Collancz Ltd, 1942); T. M Terkelsen, Denmark, Fight follows Surrender, (London: The Danish Council, 1942); Paul Palmér, Denmark in Nazi Chains, (London: Lindsay Drummond, 1942), Eric Dancy (Ole Kiilerich), Danes stand to for Zero [sic], (London: The Danish Council, 1943).

[xii] The Danes founded the Danish-Czechoslovakian Association in London and Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovak exile foreign secretary spoke in the House of the Danish Council in 1943. Sten Gudme, Levnedsbeskrivelse, November 1951, Chapter of the Royal Orders of Chivalry 2; Blytgen-Petersen, 172.

[xiii] David Garnett, The Secret History of the PWE – The Political Warfare Executive, 1939-1945, (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002); Bennet, 19; Robert Bruce Lockhart, Comes the Reckoning, (London: Putnam, 1947), 153.

[xiv] Bennet, 218.

[xv] Ibid., 217. Gudme, Levnedsbeskrivelse, 1.

[xvi] See Gunnar Næsselund-Hansen et al., Danmarks Ansigt: Nyhedstjenesten i den Frie Verden under Besættelsen, (København: Nyt Nordisk Forlag, 1946), 45.

[xvii] See Lidegaard, Uden mandat, (Gyldendal, 2020); Lidegaard, Defiant Diplomacy: Henrik Kauffman, Denmark and the United States in World War II and the Cold War, 1939-1958. (Peter Lang, 2003).

[xviii] Terkel M. Terkelsen, ’Report on a Visit to the U.S.A’, 12 September 1943, P2, Terkel M. Terkelsen Papers, Danish National Archives (TT, DNA hereafter).

[xix] See fx Marie Cronqvist, Cristoph Hilgert, ’Entangled Media Histories: The Value of Transnational and Transmedial Approaches in Media Historiography’, Media History, vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 130-141.

[xx] Lockhart, 156.

[xxi] Martin Sundstrøm, Man skal dø ung, (Informations Forlag, 2012).

[xxii] John Christmas Møller’s diary, Friday 20 September, 1943, Erik Thostrup Jacobsen (ed.) Gør jer Pligt, gør jert Værk – John Christmas Møllers dagbøger, 1941-1945, (Selskabet for Udgvelse af Kilder til Dansk Historie, 1995), 229.

[xxiii] Gudme, Levnedsbeskrivelse, 2.

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