Throughout the morning of Sunday 3 September 1939, BBC announcers told radio listeners that an important statement was about to be made. Everyone should listen in. At 11.15am, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, broadcasting from 10 Downing Street, told millions of Britons that the ultimatum to Germany demanding that its troops withdraw from Poland had just expired. As a consequence, he added, in words that would become famous, ‘This country is at war with Germany.’
What is less well known is that for the next half an hour the BBC then broadcast an uninterrupted series of government announcements. People were to stay at home as much as possible, large sporting events would cease immediately, cinemas and theatres would close, and details were given as to how poison gas alerts would be made.
And if the BBC’s approach to the outbreak of hostilities seems off-puttingly monolithic, the Corporation also got many other things wrong in the first months of the Second World War.
In the 1920s and ’30s, the BBC had developed a tone that was as thoroughly middle-class as the accents of most of its presenters. Regional accents and improper grammar were frowned on. The first Director-General, John Reith, a Scottish Calvinist, seemed almost to be on a moral mission to improve the cultural life of the nation.
Working people liked BBC radio for its music and sport, but did not much listen to the talks and plays. For the middle-classes, whole families would gather around the radio of an evening to listen in. BBC radio became an essential part of their lives and a national institution.
The beginnings of the BBC
Radio technology had improved considerably during the First World War. There had been substantial developments in the use of thermionic valve transmitters and, more importantly, a huge number of servicemen had become proficient with wireless technology in the Army, Navy, or Air Force.
When peace came, a group of enthusiasts argued that this technology could be put to new uses to communicate music and information to audiences across a large area. In October 1922, an alliance of manufacturing companies including Marconi, Metropolitan-Vickers, and the General Electric Company came together with the General Post Office to form a new organisation to broadcast an experimental service. It transmitted from a station known as 2LO, based at Savoy Hill behind the Strand in London. It was called the British Broadcasting Company.
As transmission services improved, so listeners around the country began to tune in to the service. Many of them were ex-servicemen who built their own receivers from crystal kits. Meanwhile, the first large ‘wireless’ sets began to be mass produced for the domestic market. It was clear that the experiment was a success, and that there was a market for a national broadcast service.
Under the guidance of the first powerful and dominating general manager, John Reith, the government decided to reform the organisation without commercial interests. The British Broadcasting Corporation was launched on 1 January 1927 as a public broadcaster established under a Royal Charter and funded by a licence fee to be paid by everyone who had a wireless set.
Within three years, the BBC was broad- casting a National Programme from London and a Regional service from other cities around the country. A completely new medium of mass communication came into being, and Reith – as its first Director-General – declared its mission was to ‘educate, inform and’ (as a poor third) ‘entertain’.
In the 1930s, the BBC had been given the principal task of ‘sustaining public morale’ should war come. Detailed plans were made, including for the evacuation of thousands of members of staff to different parts of the country: many would be sent to Bristol, Manchester, and to a country house that had been requisitioned in the rural vale of Evesham.
Just before war was declared, the nascent Television Service that could only be picked up by a few thousand households in the Home Counties was closed down, as it was thought its transmitters could aid the approach of enemy bombers. And most crucially to every-one, the Regional radio service was combined with the National service, so there was just one radio channel to listen to, now renamed the Home Service.
But instead of a maelstrom of bombing and chaos following Chamberlain’s announcement, there began several months of Phoney War – referred to at the time as the ‘Bore War’. Poland was quickly overrun. The British and French Armies assembled along the German border, but did nothing. The RAF dropped leaflets on Germany.
As autumn turned to winter, the cinemas and theatres reopened. Millions of child evacuees returned home. And the BBC carried on broadcasting endless official announcements, broken up by hours of Sandy MacPherson playing organ music.
By the spring of 1940, a desire for interest and amusement led roughly a quarter of the population to begin listening to Lord Haw- Haw broadcasting from Hamburg every evening. His call sign ‘Germany calling’ became famous. At the same time, British troops in France tuned in to local commercial stations to enjoy the music. Mass Observation, the public opinion organisation, reported widespread dissatisfaction with the BBC.
Then, in 1940, a new channel was launched: it was called the Forces Programme. Initially intended for British troops abroad, its mixture of music, sport, and occasional news proved popular on the home front too. At last there was some choice.
Brave new world
By 1940, about 23 million Britons listened to the Nine O’Clock News on BBC radio. R.T. Clark, the BBC’s senior news editor, said the only way to strengthen public morale was to give people ‘the truth and nothing but the truth, even if the truth is horrible’. Most people thought then, and have believed since, that the BBC was entirely independent. The reality was that from the beginning of the war it came under government control through the Ministry of Information.
Officials had to approve every news broadcast and the script of every programme that covered topics related to the war. In the BBC Written Archives at Caversham, it is still possible to see the censor’s handwritten changes to typed news scripts. Often the BBC producer objected to the formality of these changes and rewrote the rewrites to make them more accessible. Then these rewrites had to be approved – as they usually were with the tick of a pencil.
This tension epitomised the relationship between the BBC and the government officials who acted as censors. BBC producers knew that if the people lost trust in the BBC then they would stop believing anything they were told. The censors only had interests of national security to consider.
Eventually a modus vivendi was arrived at. The producers wrote the news in a way that largely met with official approval. They usually went for consensus and avoided divisive issues by not reporting, for instance, looting after bombing raids, or the breakdown of services in certain local authorities after they had been Blitzed. And from 1942, the BBC ceased to report losses in the Battle of the Atlantic, as it was thought this would undermine morale.
On the other hand, government demands for endless public announcements were modified so that they were presented not by dreary officials but through wit or comedy. Information about food rationing was put across by two female comedians, Gert and Daisy (Elsie and Doris Waters). The Kitchen Front was a series about food that made housewives feel they were really doing their bit for the war effort. It proved immensely popular.
Another popular success was It’s That Man Again (ITMA). With its gentle mocking of officialdom, the sketch comedy show was listened to by up to 40% of the population, and its star, Tommy Handley, brought a Lancashire accent on to the airwaves. Meanwhile, the BBC news was largely trusted by the British people, and Churchill’s occasional radio speeches were listened to by 20 million and more.
The BBC could not escape the Blitz. Although many of its services now came from regional centres, the words ‘This is London’ were essential to keep up morale. But the epicentre of the operation, Broadcasting House in London’s West End, was an obvious target for the Luftwaffe. Several bombs destroyed buildings in its vicinity.
Then, just after 8pm on 15 October 1940, a 500lb bomb landed right on Broadcasting House. It penetrated two floors but did not explode. Its delayed-action fuse went off an hour later, just as Bruce Belfrage was reading the news in a basement studio. Viewers around the country heard a dull thud in the background. Belfrage hesitated briefly, blew the dust off his script, and continued. Seven people were killed in the explosion and 23 wounded. But the event became a symbol of British stoicism and sangfroid in the face of falling bombs.
Churchill at the BBC
Winston Churchill was no friend of the BBC in the 1930s, as it repeatedly kept him off the airwaves because his view of the need for rearmament was out of line with government policy. He called Reith, the tall, high-minded, and haughty Director-General, ‘Old Wuthering Heights’.
But, when he became Prime Minister in May 1940, Churchill began to make a series of stirring and inspirational speeches in the House of Commons, which, of course, were not then broadcast. When it was suggested he should repeat these speeches on the radio, he couldn’t initially see the point.
Although he was persuaded, his first radio speeches were compared poorly to his performance in the Commons. They lacked the vigour of his Parliamentary oratory and, with his slight speech impediment, some listeners thought he was drunk or had a cigar stuck in his mouth. No doubt, as an experienced public orator, he found it difficult at first simply to address a microphone with no audience present.
Nevertheless, during 1940, his seven radio speeches helped to rally the nation in what he described as its ‘finest hour.’ He depicted the struggle in epic terms as a battle between freedom and tyranny, civilisation and barbarism, good and evil. He made people feel proud that they were living through such momentous times. Many of his often-quoted phrases are as well known today as they were 80 years ago. Ed Murrow, the American broadcaster living in London at the time, said that Churchill ‘mobilised the English language and sent it into battle’.
On 18 June 1940, Charles de Gaulle made a broadcast from London telling the French people that, despite the collapse in France, ‘the flame of French resistance must not be extinguished’, and that he would lead the struggle of what became known as the Free French from London. Although few people heard the broadcast, this was the beginning of another vital aspect of the BBC’s wartime role. By 1944, the BBC had teams broadcasting in 46 languages. By then, millions of people in occupied Europe risked severe punishment to listen in to news reports and other programmes from London.
Particularly after the German reverses at El Alamein and Stalingrad at the end of 1942, many people realised that the BBC was producing accurate reports on the progress of the war by comparison to the news that was coming from Berlin. Bush House, near the Aldwych in London, where the European service was based, became a centre where exiles, intellectuals, artists, and reporters from every country in Europe gathered and prepared reports for their countrymen and -women.
However, broadcasting to occupied Europe brought its own challenges. The British government had a variety of agencies that wanted to get its communications to the people of Europe. The Foreign Office, the Ministry of Economic Warfare, the Special Operations Executive, and the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) all wanted to get their different messages across. And the European governments in exile, many of which were based in London, wanted to send their own news and information to their occupied peoples.
BBC broadcasters resisted what they saw as the broadcasting of propaganda, arguing that only if they were trusted for their honesty would Europeans take the risk of listening to stations broadcasting from London. When the PWE moved in to the top floors at Bush House, it looked as though they were taking control. But the BBC stood up for its principles of truth and honesty.
The BBC did not just broadcast to Europe. It had been broadcasting to the Dominions, to India, and elsewhere from 1932 with the Empire Service. This was extended during the war to become the World Service, broadcasting in Arabic to the Middle East, and in other languages to the Far East and North and South America.
All sorts of writers and experts were called in, the most famous probably being Eric Blair, better known by his pseudonym George Orwell. He wrote weekly reports on news and cultural issues for broadcast in India. For two years, Orwell worked for the BBC at Bush House, where he picked up many of the ideas and concepts that later went into the formulation of the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
From 1941 onwards, the BBC began recording coded messages within its European broadcasts. Sometimes it would be a few words, sometimes a quote from a poem or a piece of theatre, sometimes a piece of music, but each message would mean something to the people at whom it was directed. It might signify that an operation was to go ahead, or that someone or something had arrived in London or was being sent from the UK.
By the time of D-Day, the BBC was transmitting hundreds, sometimes thousands of messages every week to be picked up by Resistance groups. This culminated on the night of 5 June 1944 with the broadcast to France of a phrase adapted from a famous French poem, ‘The Song of Autumn’. This was code that D-Day was finally about to be launched.
One of the key challenges for the BBC during the war years was to break out of the studio and broadcast not just prepared scripts but also vivid reports recorded on location. The limitation was that sound equipment in 1939 was huge – so any outside broadcast from, say, a sporting venue, required a 3-ton truck to convey all the necessary kit.
During 1943, BBC engineers worked hard to reduce the size and weight of sound equipment needed. A small transmitter was designed that could be fitted in the back of a van. Using this technology, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas recorded a commentary in September from a Lancaster bomber over Berlin.
But the real breakthrough came with the development of a midget recording machine, weighing about 40lbs. Sound was recorded on to 10-inch plastic discs. These discs would then have to be transported back to a transmitter to be relayed to London. Here, all reports from the field were censored and then edited for broadcast.
A new War Reporting Unit was set up, and a group of war reporters was trained in using the new kit and shown how to become war correspondents. Living off rations in the field, they were effectively embedded with military units.
Eleven of these mobile units were ready for D-Day, and BBC correspondents went in with the first landing craft, jumped with paratroopers, flew in aircraft, and observed the beaches from naval vessels off shore. That evening, a new series called War Report began after the Nine O’Clock News. It featured dramatic recordings from front-line reporters, as well as all the sounds of war, from artillery barrages to enemy aircraft overhead. Some-times it included descriptions from fighting men themselves.
Every night for the rest of the war, between 10 and 15 million listeners tuned in to this half-hour programme, which followed the Allied armies through the slow breakout from Normandy, the highly dramatic liberation of Paris, and the advance across northern Europe finally to the Rhine and into the Reich. Some people found the reports too disturbing. Others were fascinated to hear what their sons, brothers or partners in the forces were living through. War Report and other spin-off programmes offered to immerse listeners in the genuine experience of war.
The BBC that marked VE Day in May 1945 was a very different BBC to the one that had broadcast the PM’s declaration of war five-and-a-half years earlier. It had doubled in size, with a staff of more than 11,000. It had conveyed news good and bad to the British people. Its programmes had, after a faltering start, managed to both capture and express the mood of the British people at war. Its correspondents reported from air- craft, tanks, and fighting vehicles, frequently from close to the combat zone. And its messages and news from every front had brought it to new audiences, not just across Europe but in India and the Far East, Australasia, and North America.
The BBC’s reputation for fairness and impartiality was second to none. No better tribute was paid than by Radiodiffusion Française, taking over broadcasts from what had been the French service, when it looked back on the war years and said: ‘The world was submerged in lies, but the BBC proclaimed the truth.’
Richard Dimbleby at Belsen
On 15 April 1945, soldiers of the British 11th Armoured Division advancing towards Hanover came on Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. To their dismay, they discovered about 13,000 unburied bodies and 60,000 inmates, many of whom were dying of starvation or disease.
One of the most famous War Reports came from Richard Dimbleby, who as one of the BBC’s first war correspondents arrived at Belsen a few days later. His 10-minute report is still difficult to listen to today, as he broke down several times while recording it:
I passed through the barrier and found myself in the world of a nightmare. Dead bodies, some of them in decay lay strewn about the road… I’ve seen many terrible sights in the last five years but nothing, nothing approaching the dreadful interior of this hut at Belsen… I had to look hard to see who was alive and who was dead. It was the same outside in the compounds. Men and women lying about the ground and the rest of the procession of ghosts wandering aimlessly about them… This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
The BBC initially refused to transmit the report, as the editors thought people would be distressed by it and that he must have exaggerated the horrors he described. It was only broadcast on 19 April 1945, after a furious Dimbleby threatened to resign.
Taylor Downing is a historian, award-winning television producer, and best-selling author. His latest book is 1942: Britain at the Brink. You can read his regular ‘War on Film’ articles in TV & Film.