Airborne leaflet propaganda is a form of
psychological warfare in which leaflets (flyers) are
scattered in the air. Military forces have used
aircraft to drop leaflets to attempt to alter the
behavior of combatants and non-combatants in
enemy-controlled territory, sometimes in conjunction
with air strikes. Humanitarian air missions, in
cooperation with leaflet propaganda, can turn the
populace against their leadership while preparing
them for the arrival of enemy combatants.
FUNCTIONS OF LEAFLET PROPAGANDA
There are six different functions of airborne
leaflet propaganda that have been used over the past
1. Threaten destruction - Warn enemy combatants and
non-combatants that their area will be targeted.
This has the dual purpose of reducing collateral
damage and encouraging enemy combatants and
non-combatants (who may be engaged in wartime
production) to abandon their duties, reducing the
target's military effectiveness.
2. Prompt the enemy to surrender - Explain to
prospective deserters how to surrender.
3. Offer rewards - Rewards could be offered to
encourage individuals to provide assistance, or to
4. Disseminate or counter disinformation - Reduce
enemy morale through propaganda, Neutralize enemy
propaganda, Advise radio listeners about
frequencies/times of propaganda broadcasts and
methods for circumventing radio jamming.
5. Facilitate communication - Create a friendly
atmosphere for the enemy by promoting ideologies
such as freedom, capitalism, and "noble intentions".
6. Provide humanitarian assistance - Inform people
where to find airdropped food, how to open and
consume it, and when it comes.
Airborne leaflets have been used for military
propaganda purposes at least since the 19th century.
One early example is from the Franco-Prussian War
when in October 1870 during the Siege of Paris, a
French balloon coming from the city dropped
government proclamations over Prussian troops that
stated the following (in German):
"Paris defies the enemy. The whole of France
rallies. Death to the invaders. Foolish people,
shall we always throttle one another for the
pleasure and proudness of Kings? Glory and conquest
are crimes; defeat brings hate and desire for
vengeance. Only one war is just and holy; that of
Leaflet propaganda has been delivered by airplanes
since the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12.
FIRST WORLD WAR
Aerial leaflets were first used on a large scale
during World War I by all parties. The British
dropped packets of leaflets over German trenches
containing postcards from prisoners of war detailing
their humane conditions, surrender notices and
general propaganda against the Kaiser and the German
generals. By the end of the war MI7b had distributed
almost 26 million leaflets.
The Germans began shooting the leaflet-dropping
pilots, prompting the British to develop an
alternative method of delivery. Mr. A. Fleming
invented the unmanned leaflet balloon in 1917, and
these were used extensively in the latter part of
the War, with over 48,000 units produced. The
hydrogen balloon would drift over no-man's land to
land in the enemy trenches.
At least one in seven of these leaflets were not
handed in by the soldiers to their superiors,
despite severe penalties for that offence. Even
General Hindenburg admitted that "Unsuspectingly,
many thousands consumed the poison" and POWs
admitted to being disillusioned by the propaganda
leaflets that depicted the use of German troops as
mere cannon fodder. In 1915, the British began
airdropping a regular leaflet newspaper Le Courrier
de l'Air for civilians in German-occupied France and
WORLD WAR II
Distribution of Airborne leaflet propaganda was used
by both Allied and Axis forces in the Second World
War, starting with a Royal Air Force leaflet drop
over the port of Kiel in the September of 1939.
The first proposal to construct a special bomb with
which to disperse airborne leaflets was put forward
by British air force officers during World War II.
The most successful 'leaflet bomb' model of the War
was the 'Monroe bomb', invented in 1943 by USAAF
Captain James Monroe of the 305th Bombadment Group.
It was developed from laminated paper containers
that had been used to transport M-17 incendiary
The British improved the use of hydrogen balloons to
carry leaflets over German lines. Some of the V-1
flying bombs launched by the Germans against
southern England carried leaflets - they were
contained in a cardboard tube at the tail of
missile. This would be ejected by a small gunpowder
charge while the V1 was in mid-air, en route to its
Airborne leaflets printed during WWII were "factual,
in the main truthful, and served (or so it was
claimed) to create a reputation for reliability both
in supplying information and refuting German
accounts which we said to be untruthful". Often the
leaflets did not reach their intended targets
because they were dropped from such high altitudes
and often drifted over lakes and rural areas.
Although leaflets were seen as being an effective
tactic in manipulating troops when morale was low,
"During the early months of the war, leaflets or
pamphlets were scattered over enemy territory by
aircraft and balloons but it was more than doubtful
whether these had any useful effect, their obvious
defects being that few can have reached their
targets and, being printed, they were sometimes out
of date by the time they were ready to distribute.
The front-line distribution of leaflets was quite
another matter and these were dropped by aircraft or
fired by shells, the messages they bore being less
careful about the general principles of consistency
and frankness and only truthful about matters on
which the enemy had contradictory information". It
was found that psychological warfare was not
effective when distributing surrender leaflets to an
enemy which currently had a high morale amongst its
troops. Despite the pitfalls to airborne leaflets
ineffectiveness on opposing sides with high morale,
enemies used this tactic "to cause the men to begin
talking to each other about their poor military
position, their desire to stay alive for their
families' sakes, and the reasonableness of honorable
surrender", which often led men to desert their
One example of German leaflets which appealed to
American troops was one that depicted a passionate
kiss between a man and woman. The leaflet read:
"FAREWELL Remember her last kiss ... ? Gee were you
happy then ... ! Together, you spent marvelous times
... , lounging on beaches ... , dancing, enjoying
parties galore.., listening to the tunes of your
favorite band ...". The leaflets back side reminds
the soldier that his loved one is longing for him
and that most of the men he had come with are now
dead. In comparison one Allied leaflet simply showed
a picture of a large open field with thousands of
James A.C. Brown, a Scottish psychiatrist, summed up
the WW2 experience with the observation that
"Propaganda is successful only when directed at
those who are willing to listen, absorb the
information, and if possible act on it, and this
happens only when the other side is in a condition
of lowered morale and is already losing the
Leaflets were also used by the USAAF on Japan during
the Pacific War. In mid-1945, once it appeared that
B-29 bombers of the USAAF were raiding Japan's
cities without meeting significant resistance,
General Curtis LeMay, commander of the XXI Bomber
Command, part of the Twentieth Air Force, ordered
the dropping of leaflets purporting to reduce the
needless killing of innocent people. One of the
leaflets dropped on targeted Japan's cities, with
the text on the back, read:
Read this carefully as it may save your life or the
life of a relative or a friend. In the next few
days, some or all of the cities named on the reverse
side will be destroyed by American bombs. These
cities contain military installations and workshops
or factories, which produce military goods. We are
determined to destroy all of the tools of the
military clique that they are using to prolong this
useless war. Unfortunately, bombs have no eyes. So,
in accordance with America's well-known humanitarian
policies, the American Air Force, which does not
wish to injure innocent people, now gives you
warning to evacuate the cities named and save your
America is not fighting the Japanese people but is
fighting the military clique, which has enslaved the
Japanese people. The peace, which America will
bring, will free the people from the oppression of
the Japanese military clique and mean the emergence
of a new and better Japan.
You can restore peace by demanding new and better
leaders who will end the War.
We cannot promise that only these cities will be
among those attacked, but some or all of them will
be, so heed this warning and evacuate these cities
It has been estimated that B-29s dropped 10 million
propaganda leaflets in May, 20 million in June and
30 million in July. The Japanese government
implemented harsh penalties against civilians who
kept copies of these leaflets.
AFTER WORLD WAR II
Even though leaflet propaganda has been an effective
"weapon", its use has been on a decline. This
decline is a result of the advance of satellite,
television, and radio technology. Six billion
leaflets were dropped in Western Europe and 40
million leaflets dropped by the United States Army
Air Forces over Japan in 1945 during World War II.
One billion were used during the Korean War while
only 31 million have been used in the war against
Iraq. Other conflicts where leaflet propaganda has
been used are Vietnam, Afghanistan (both during the
Soviet and more recent NATO invasions), and the Gulf
War. Coalition forces dropped pamphlets encouraging
Iraqi troops not to fight during the first Gulf War,
which contributed to eighty-seven thousand Iraqi
troops surrendering in 1991.
MEANS OF DELIVERY
Leaflet delivery can be as simple as having one or
more of the aircraft's crew throw bundles of
leaflets out of an open hatchway. A more
sophisticated method is the leaflet bomb. This is
not an explosive device, but rather a bomb–shaped
container that is dropped from the aircraft and
opened in mid-air, dispersing the leaflets it holds.
One such "bomb" may contain tens of thousands of
Leaflet bombs in the US inventory include the PDU-5B
dispenser unit, the LBU30 and the older M129E1/E2.
The M129 weighs 52 kilograms (115 lb) when empty and
approximately 100 kilograms (220 lb) when loaded. It
can contain 60,000 to 80,000 leaflets. At a
pre–determined time after release, the two halves of
the bomb's outer shell are blown apart by detonating
cord, dispersing the leaflet payload. Soviet/Russian
leaflet bombs include the AGITAB-250-85 and the
AGITAB-500-300 (used during the First Chechen War).
USE OF LEAFLET BOMBS BY REVOLUTIONARY GROUPS
Leaflet bombs have not only been used by states for
purposes of military warfare but have, since the
1940s, also been used by radical political and
ideological sub-state groups.
ANTI-COLONIAL GROUPS IN ASIA AND AFRICA
The use of leaflet bombs by non-state groups began
in 1945 when the Irgun group developed a bomb that
was "deposited in the street, ticked away until
detonation, then scattered news sheet over a wide
and smoky area". In September 1945 three of Irgun's
leaflet bombs exploded in Jerusalem and injured nine
In the late 1960s the African National Congress
(ANC) started to use a version of the leaflet bomb
in South Africa. This bomb was developed in
collaboration with the South African Communist Party
(SACP) and South Africans living in exile in London.
The first time this leaflet bomb, known to South
African activists as the 'bucket bomb' and to the
South African police forces as the 'ideological
bomb', was used was in 1967. This was one of the
most important propaganda weapons of the ANC who
devoted major resources to it and used it frequently
during the 1960s and 1970s, spreading tens of
thousands of leaflets. A 1970 article from the ANC's
journal Sechaba, looking back at the uses of
leaflets as propaganda in the 1960s, stated:
"It was in this new period that underground
propaganda, demonstrating the effectiveness of the
ANC machinery and projecting its voice, became of
incalculable value. Underground leaflets began to
appear in the townships, factories and city streets.
Passed on from hand to hand, these reminded the
people that the spirit of resistance must never die.
These were often complemented by slogans painted on
walls proclaiming: "Free Mandela," "Free Sisulu" and
"Long Live the ANC." as modest as these propaganda
efforts were ... they showed that the ANC could
survive the most severe measures of the regime."
The South African press and security forces also saw
it as a serious weapon of the ANC and there were
threats from the police to take action against the
South African press for publishing parts of ANC's
leaflets. The South African Minister of Police was
quoted in a South African newspaper thus: "the
explosions are an indication that subversive
elements are still active" inside South Africa and
warned the public that they "must not think the
dangers are a thing of the past. It is something
with which we will just have to live."
NEW LEFT IN LATIN AMERICA
The leaflet bomb has been relatively popular in
Latin America with several recorded uses by various
groups advocating political violence.
In the 1980s the FMLN in El Salvador used this
technology under the name of 'propaganda bomb'. It
was one of the "favorite tactics" of its urban
militia groups and preferable used in public places
like markets or public parks. The design of the bomb
was adapted to the local environment in that it
"consisted of a cardboard box with a small,
low-power explosive underneath a large number of
propaganda leaflets. The explosive was set off by a
homemade time igniter. The box was disguised to look
like any ordinary package or box that might be
carried by someone going or returning from a trip to
The use of leaflet bombs played a part in the FMLN's
recruitment process known to them as fogueo - which
meant to experience fire or fire-harden something -
which was the process by which the recruits "were
toughened and the weak and fainthearted were weeded
out". The fogueo process was
"a very carefully designed program of increasingly
risky operations in support of the guerilla
movement. As the candidates successfully completed
each operation, it gave them confidence to carry out
the next danger level of operation until they became
full-fledged guerilla combatants."
This process began with low-level
information-gathering and propaganda activities in
support of FMLN where the culminating activity
before being ready for "combat military activity"
could be the making and exploding of a leaflet bomb.
In Honduras the Popular Movement for Liberation (MPL)
and Morazanist Patriotic Front (FPM) have also used
propaganda bombs during the 1990s.
The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity URNG in
Guatemala also used leaflet bombs. In 1996 the group
occupied a radio station and set off a leaflet bomb.
In Ecuador several groups have used leaflet bombs.
The Revolutionary Armed Corps (CAR) was according to
the Ecuadorian police "an extreme leftist group"
which is only known for one attempted attack on
February 20, 2001 when a leaflet bomb containing 150
pamphlets was discovered and successfully defused by
The communist Group of Popular Combatants (GCP) has
on several occasions during 2001–2005 used leaflet
bombs. In 2001 it was blamed by authorities for a
pamphlet bomb and later the same year the group
claimed responsibility for detonating a pamphlet
bomb in downtown Quito that let out hundreds of
pamphlets protesting against Plan Colombia. In 2002
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Ecuador set off a
leaflet bomb in a McDonald's restaurant in Guayaquil
that injured three people and caused severe damage
to the property.
ADVANTAGES OF LEAFLETING
The printed words on the leaflets were more
authoritative before the advances in technology.
One leaflet has the potential to reach many
Leaflets can be hidden and easily destroyed in case
Due to illiteracy not all civilians are capable of
reading the leaflets.
In order to have accurate delivery, aircraft need to
fly at low altitudes and low speeds making them easy
targets for the enemy.
Leaflets can be destroyed or altered by the enemy.
Messages must cater to the cultural norm of society.
Weather conditions can alter the message being
delivered to civilians.
Information provided by Wikipedia