Deborah Swift on The Shadow Network

Ruby Dalwood

The USA Today bestselling novelist talks about her latest World War Two set novel.
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Deborah, congratulations on The Shadow Network. What inspired you to write it?

The idea of manipulating the public through ‘fake news’ has many resonances for today, and this is what led me to be interested in the subject for a novel. How the media is controlled, and how it can influence large swathes of the population is still of crucial interest, and it was particularly potent as an idea in the 1940’s when the world was at war. This time is now growing just beyond most people’s living memory but many remember how influential the ‘wireless’ was in those times. I read quite a few books on the subject of radio propaganda, as radio was the most dominant influencer of the time, with nearly half the population owning a radio set in England, and more than 80% in the USA.

How does The Shadow Network fit into the broader landscape of World War II historical fiction, and what sets it apart from other works in the genre?

The Shadow Network is marketed by my publisher as firmly in the ‘women’s fiction’ category of WW2 books. The main character is a woman, but there are also two other point of view characters both of whom are male, so I hope it will be read by both men and women. The book is more of a thriller than a romance and in a crowded market it is set apart by highlighting particular aspects of history – the Rushen Women’s Internment Camp doesn’t feature in any other novel as far as I’m aware, and nor does the IRA training camp in Germany. The IRA were sympathetic to the Nazis at this time as both were anti-English.

I think its main appeal is that not many readers know much about how radio was used as a propaganda tool in WW2. There are a couple of other novels that feature propaganda radio, but not many, and none that feature the underground bunker of the Radio Aspidistra transmitter. The powerful ex-RCA transmitter, eventually installed in Sussex, England, was named Aspidistra, referencing the popular Gracie Fields song ‘The Biggest Aspidistra in the World’, in which an Aspidistra houseplant grew until it ‘nearly reached the sky’. Sabotage of this mast plays a major part in the plot of The Shadow Network.

What role does espionage play in the narrative, and how did you approach writing about it authentically?

German agents were sent into Britain to sabotage British targets – mainly military, industrial, and transport facilities. Their aim was to create maximum disruption, and to lower the morale of British civilians. In reality, the German spies were less efficient than my fictional Brendan – the German spies had poor English-language skills and little knowledge of British customs. One German spy was arrested after trying to order a pint of cider at ten in the morning, as he didn’t know that landlords weren’t allowed to serve alcohol before lunchtime. Two other agents were stopped because they were cycling on the wrong side of the road.

The twelve spies we know of who landed in Britain as part of the so-called Operation Lena in September 1940 were nearly all captured. The German war machine was generally very efficient, so it remains a mystery why these men were not better trained. For this reason, I chose to link my saboteur to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the Coventry IRA bomb. It is a little-known fact that the IRA and the Nazi regime were in collaboration during the war.

In terms of authenticity, I researched this espionage aspect by reading about Operation Lena and Operation Sealion in various books and online sources. For the layman, here is a good series of links from The History Guild. Amongst the books I recommend The Spies Who Never Were: The True Story of the Nazi Spies Who Were Actually Allied Double Agents by Hervie Haufler, which gave me a lot of interesting information and also inspiration for the plot.

What was the Political Warfare Executive?

Known by the acronym the PWE, this was an organisation devoted to destroying German morale through propaganda. In wartime Britain there were three branches of propaganda, known then as ‘white’, ‘grey’, or ‘black,’ though we probably wouldn’t call them that today. White propaganda came from a known source and was completely above board. Grey propaganda, on the other hand, was the subtle promotion of a political opinion by broadcasters who pretended to be ‘objective’ or as neutral.

In The Shadow Network my characters work for a black propaganda radio station. With black propaganda the audience were oblivious to the fact they were being manipulated, and were not aware that they were being pushed in a certain direction. This was because black propaganda pretended to come from a source that was not the true source. in other words a fake radio outfit.

The two fake stations mentioned in my novel The Shadow Network are the British radio station Soldatensender Calais, supposedly a radio station for the Wehrmacht based in France, and Atlantiksender, a shortwave radio station for German submariners. In fact, both were coming from Bedfordshire in England, under the direction of Tom Sefton Delmer, a British journalist who had resided in Germany and spoke perfect German.

Delmer was one of the main movers in the PWE. He created several fake German stations and used gossip from prisoners of war, or from intercepted German mail, to create credible stories. He had a team of people collecting suitable material from newspapers and from bugging the captured officers’ camps. His own memoir Black Boomerang is out of print but can be ordered from the British Library.

What type of research did you conduct while writing the book? Specifically, in the section where Lilli is sent to the Isle of Man, what methods did you use for your research?

There is very little about the women’s camp but I found the book The Island of Extraordinary Captives by Simon Parkin really useful, and articles from The Isle of Man Museum and The Rushen Heritage Trust which is an organisation for the history and heritage of the South of the Isle of Man who produced a book on the Internment Camp. Trawling newspapers and articles about it on the internet also helped to give a bigger picture.

Are any of the characters in the book based on historical figures or perhaps people in your own life?

Tom Sefton Delmer who organises the radio broadcasts in the book is a real historical figure, (as I explained earlier) as is Harold Robin, the technical whizz behind setting up the Radio Aspidistra mast. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) had created two high-powered radio transmitters which could not be used in the US, because of a change in American law. The RCA were eager to sell them to Britain. So Harold Robin, a Foreign Office radio engineer, saw their potential, and travelled to America to examine them, and then worked to improve them. He adapted The Aspidistra transmitter so it was able to move frequency in a fraction of a second, at the flick of a switch. None of the characters are based on anyone I know personally, though I did borrow a friend’s name for a minor character.

Did your perspective and understanding of the war change whilst writing the book?

Whenever I write about WW2, it brings me to consider the wars that are happening right now, not here in the UK, but in Ukraine for example or Gaza. It became absolutely clear to me that the same techniques of black propaganda are being used today, and the only difference now is that we are more aware of them than in the early days of radio. The potential for audience manipulation was only just being explored in the 1940’s, and began to take firm hold during WW2.

It also occurred to me that many acts of terrorism or atrocity are rooted in someone else’s experience of the same – so violence breeds violence in a cycle that is difficult to break. So my Irish character Brendan in The Shadow Network is motivated not only by politics, but by his own experience of an atrocity committed against his family.

What’s next?

Operation TULIP, which is the last book this series, will be out in September. It features Neil and Lilli from The Shadow Network, but more importantly brings back Tom and Nancy from the first book The Silk Code. I’m excited to bring everyone together in the final book which is another story of spies and subterfuge set in Holland in the Hunger Winter.

Deborah Swift is a USA Today bestselling novelist and author of The Silk Code.

Interview by Ruby Dalwood.