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An American leaflet bomb is loaded during the Korean War; the container holds 22,500 leaflets

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 civilians in enemy-controlled territory, sometimes in conjunction with air strikes. Humanitarian air missions, in cooperation with leaflet propaganda, can turn civilians against their leadership while preparing them for the arrival of enemy troops.

Functions of leaflet propaganda

"LeMay Bombing Leaflet" from 1945 warning Japanese civilians to evacuate cities

Korean War, 1953 Operation Moolah leaflet. It promises a $100,000 reward to the first North Korean pilot to deliver a Soviet MiG-15 to UN forces. Around 1.3 million were dropped

There are six different functions of airborne leaflet propaganda that have been used over the past century:

  1. Threaten destruction
    • Warn enemy troops and civilians that their area will be targeted. This has the dual purpose of reducing collateral damage and encouraging troops and civilians (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 encourage defection.
  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.


Before World War II

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 independence."[1]

Leaflet propaganda has been delivered by airplanes since the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12.[2]

World War II

After World War I, Americans were skeptical due to the national consensus that America was pressured into WWI by false, manipulative propaganda laced with lies from both the British and the Germans. However, as J.A.C. Brown articulated, “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 campaign”.[3] Therefore, the use of airborne leaflets was a way for WWII enemies to psychologically attack one another in a different way than in previous wars. Distribution of Airborne leaflet propaganda was used by both allied and Axis forces in the Second World War.[4]

"Fortress Europa has no roof" - British propaganda leaflet dropped over Germany in 1943

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”.[3] Also, these leaflets were distributed in many ways. “Secret agents actually within the enemy countries were called upon to help by distributing leaflets (often purporting to come from within Germany itself or from a neutral country), by writing slogans or attaching posters or slips of revolutionary nature to buildings, and by spreading those demoralizing rumors, to which people are much more susceptible when frustrated, perplexed, or kept in ignorance of what is actually going on”,[3] in addition to being released from planes, shells, and balloons. However, often the leaflets did not reach their intended targets because they were dropped over lakes, rural areas, etc. from such a high altitude.[4]

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”.[3] 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.[3] 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”,[3] which often led men to desert their troops.

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…”.[5] 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. This leaflet was the attempt of the Germans to pull at the heart strings of the American men in Europe. Reminding them of their loved ones, and that if they continue fighting, they may die and leave loved ones behind.[5]

Comparatively, Allied troops were able to persuade the Axis forces by using no words at all in one of their airborne leaflets. This leaflet simply shows a picture of a large open field with thousands of graves of German soldiers. This leaflet, dropped over Germany in 1942, was the Allied forces' direct way to show the soldiers the fate of their quest for an Iron Cross.[6]

A USAF C-47 releases psychological warfare leaflets over South Vietnam in 1969

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.[7] 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.[8]

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 leaflets.

USSR/Russian AgitAB-500-300 leaflet bombs

The first ideas to construct special bombs with which to disperse airborne leaflets were proposed by French and British air force officers during World War II. However, the program was not implemented until 1943 by the American military in the form of the 'Monroe bomb' named after its inventor, USA Air Force Captain James Monroe of the 305th Bomber Group. It was developed from laminated paper containers that had been used to transport M-17 incendiary bombs.[9]

Leaflet bombs in the US inventory include the PDU-5B dispenser unit, the LBU30[10] 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.[11]

Soviet/Russian leaflet bombs include the AGITAB-250-85 and the AGITAB-500-300 (used during the First Chechen War).

During World War 2, the British used hydrogen balloons to carry leaflets over German lines.[12] 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 target.[13]

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 people.[14]

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.[15] 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."[16]

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."[17]

New left groups 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.[18] 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 marketplace."[19]

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."[20]

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.[20]

In Honduras the Popular Movement for Liberation (MPL) and Morazanist Patriotic Front (FPM) have also used propaganda bombs during the 1990s.[21][22]

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.[23]

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 police.[24]

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.[25] 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.[citation needed]

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 civilians.
  • Leaflets can be hidden and easily destroyed in case of emergency.


  • 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.

See also

  • Operation Cornflakes: A more subtle propaganda operation in World War II involving inserting propaganda leaflets by air into the mail system of Nazi Germany.


  1. Quote from "Cassell's History of the Wars Between France and Germany (1870-1871)" at:
  2. “Aerial leaflet”, in Encyclopedia of ephemera, 10-11.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Brown, J. A. C. (1963) Techniques of Persuasion, Victoria, Australia: Penguin Books
  4. 4.0 4.1 Propaganda leaflets of World War 2: Psychological Warfare, Psywar with airdropped leaflets
  5. 5.0 5.1
  7. Szasz (2009), p. 535
  8. Dunnigan, James F. (2004). The perfect soldier : special operations, commandos, and the future of U.S. warfare. New York: Citadel. p. 261. ISBN 9780806524160. 
  9. Garnett 1947:189-190, Willey 2002:55
  10. "LBU 30 Leaflet Bomb Unit". Retrieved 18 October 2011. 
  11. "M129E1/E2 Psychological Operations Leaflet Bomb". Retrieved 18 October 2011. 
  12. Imperial War Museum (2013). "ROYAL AIR FORCE: 2ND TACTICAL AIR FORCE, 1943-1945 (CL 1963)". IWM Collections Search. Retrieved 11 March 2013. 
  13. Herbert A Friedman (December 19, 2003). "The German V1 Rocket Leaflet Campaign". Retrieved 30 October 2011. 
  14. Bell, J. Bowyer (1977). "Terror Out of Zion: The Fight for Israeli Independence 1929-1949: Irgun Zvai Leumi, Lehi and the Palestine Underground". The Academy Press Dublin.  1985:144
  15. Houston, Gregory (2004), "The Post-Rivonia ANC/SACP Underground", in The Road to Democracy in South Africa. Vol 1. (1960-1970) pp.635-637 South African Democracy Education Trust, Zebra Press
  16. Ngani, Jethro (1976). "Voice of Freedom". pp. 38–44.  1976:39
  17. Quoted in Ngami 1976:44
  18. Moroni Bracamonte, José Angel; Spencer, David (1995). "Strategy and Tactics of the Salvadoran FMLN Guerillas: Last Battle of the Cold War, Blueprint for Future Conflicts". Praeger Publishers. , 1995:68
  19. Bracamonte & Spencer, 1995:68-69
  20. 20.0 20.1 Bracamonte & Spencer, 1995:70
  21. Weinberg, Leonard B.; Pedahzur, Ami (2004). "Political Parties and Terrorist Groups". Taylor & Francis Group. , 2004:135-136; MIPT knowledge base,
  22. Weinberg, Leonard, Ami Pedahzur & Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler (2004) ”The Challenges of Conceptualizing Terrorism”, Terrorism and Political Violence, 16(4), 777-794.
  23. U.S. Department of State Guatemala Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996, Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997
  24. "Revolutionary Armed Corps (CAR)". MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base. Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT). Retrieved 2007-02-22. 
  25. United States Department of State - Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism Country Reports on Terrorism 2005 (2006), 165.


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  • Friedman, Herbert A. "Falling Leaves". Print: Krause Publications, 2003.
  • Friedman, Herbert A. (2006). "Psychological Warfare of the Malayan Emergency 1948-1960". Retrieved 2007-01-22. .
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