The BBC at War – 1 

28 July 2017

[PART 1] – [PART 2] – [PART 3]


From My Story of the B.B.C by Freddy Grisewood, published by Odhams Press in 1959

Upon the outbreak of war the face of broadcasting changed as assuredly as did every other facet of British life.

The Regional and National programmes united as “the B.B.C. Home Service”; the day’s broadcasting began earlier; extra news bulletins were introduced, and were transmitted at frequent intervals from early morning until late at night instead of being read for the first time at 6 p.m.; programmes of an informative or severely practical nature replaced some of the old favourites; and, owing to the danger of the strong signals being picked up by German bombers, television closed down.

Throughout the war, television came into operation but once, and then not until the later stages, when the Luftwaffe had been virtually crippled. That one occasion was a visit of delegates from the Dominions and Colonies to discuss the post-war needs of Empire broadcasting, and is worth recalling in passing if only on account of an amusing incident that occurred. Jasmine Bligh and I were the commentators of an hour’s programme, towards the end of which we decided to interview two of the delegates who were watching in a viewing room along the passage.

Jasmine Bligh chose Mr. Howard B. Chase, head of the Canadian broadcasting system, while I chose Colonel Moses, the representative of Australia. During the course of my interview with the Colonel, I suddenly noticed that his face was a ghostly white, and broke off to remark: “This won’t do, you know. You’ll have to be made up!” Whereupon, without more ado, I called in the head of the make-up department, affectionately known as “Johnny”. As “Johnny”, with deft hands, proceeded to apply tinted powders to the Colonel’s face, she said by way of conversation: “Well, Colonel, I don’t suppose you imagined that anything like this would happen to you when you came here this evening!” Whereupon, with a quick repartee. Colonel Moses replied: “No, I doubt if such a thing has happened to me for at least forty years—and then it was on another part of my anatomy!” This was the hit of the evening: we could hear the roars of laughter from the other delegates coming along the passage. As a postscript, I should perhaps add that we were operating on a closed circuit, so that this little episode was strictly entre nous.

Broadcasting House itself took on an entirely different complexion under wartime conditions. Being an obvious target for fifth columnists and saboteurs, elaborate precautions were naturally taken for its defence. A squad of police guarded the building by day and night; and it came to resemble a fortress to which entry without a pass was impossible. Strange things were happening inside too. The concert hall, for instance, became a dormitory for those working on late or early morning shifts, a discreet curtain of blankets being suspended across the room to divide the sexes. I used to wonder what John Reith, with his strict views about propriety, would think if he were to see all those men and women strewn about the floor on their mattresses with so flimsy a dividing line between them. One day I jokingly spoke my thoughts to my friend the liftman.

“Oh, I don’t know, sir,” he replied in all seriousness. “I don’t suppose there’ll be much fun and games there — not while there’s a war on.” A remark that can lead only to the conclusion that in normal circumstances the place might have become a shambles.


Three men stand on rubble

The Proms producers explore the wreckage of the Queen’s Hall, next door to Broadcasting House, on 11 May 1941 after it was destroyed in the Blitz


In one respect it was a shambles. The traffic of people returning from or setting off for their various jobs seemed to continue non-stop throughout the night, and many of them were extremely clumsy in their mode of arrival and departure. Recumbent sleepers were constantly kicked or trodden upon by some careless new arrival as he groped about with blacked-out torch, seeking a vacant mattress. Many a night I dossed on the concert hall floor, but seldom was I able to sleep for long at a time. Having been rudely awakened by one of these nocturnal wanderers, I would then experience the greatest difficulty in dropping off again on account of the din around me. Never have I heard such a varied assortment of noises issuing from the human frame: snores, grunts, groans, moans, sobs, sighs, whistles, even snatches of song. To these noises from the sleeping were added intermittent whisperings from the wakeful as they inquired the time of their neighbours, which they had a habit of doing repeatedly.

An air of uncertainty hovered about the interior of Broadcasting House at night. By this I mean that, when opening a door, no matter what the room, one never quite knew what to expect. The most surprising spectacles might be found even in the studios. Once, for example, Lionel Gamlin, on entering a studio shortly before midnight to read a passage from Edward Lear, was astonished to discover a naked controller in the process of going to bed.



While everything possible was done to protect Broadcasting House, a comprehensive plan was also laid to enable broadcasting to continue from the West Region’s headquarters at Bristol in the event of Broadcasting House being destroyed or put out of action in an aerial bombardment. If, in turn, the Bristol headquarters were to be destroyed, the B.B.C., under this plan, would then go underground — literally — and continue to operate fifty feet beneath the city. This plan was one of the great secrets of the war, so closely guarded that only those on the staff directly concerned were aware of it. I was not one of the informed, but Frank Gillard, then Head of Programmes for the West Region, has written an illuminating account.


In 1942 the B.B.C. followed the experiences of a girl leaving home in London to work at a munitions factory in the Midlands. Jill Allgood and I accompanied her and helped to present the programme called “Miss Morgan Does Her Bit” in the feature “Something Going On in Britain Now” in the North American Service.


The search for a suitable site for this underground fortress did not prove easy, it seems. In the first place, a tunnel of the defunct Bristol-Avonmouth railway was chosen. To test its possibilities, Sir Adrian Boult conducted the full B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra of nearly a hundred instrumentalists in this subterranean passage. The result was by no means displeasing — but, alas, “before the B.B.C. could move in,” Gillard tells us, “Bristol had been heavily raided, and this tunnel had fortuitously become the improvised shelter and home of hundreds of blitzed citizens”. In the face of this serious set-back, all arrangements had to be scrapped and the search renewed. Eventually it was decided to make use of the shaft — a “much less promising tunnel which cut upwards through the gorge at a steep angle, rising one foot in every two” — of another disused railway, the Rocks Railway; and accordingly this was rented for twenty-one years at a peppercorn rental of a shilling a year.

“The lease was signed, and the detailed planning began. Time was pressing. Outline arrangements were made at a meeting held in the office of the Regional Director at Bristol. It was a committee of four … The discussion lasted through the night. In the small hours the Regional Director retired to his bed (which was in one corner of the office) and the other three finished their business to the tune of his gentle snoring.

“A few days later, the Civil Engineering Department produced a being known as the ‘Tunnel Rat’. He was an expert on tunnel construction … Under his direction, rock-drilling machines, concrete mixers, bricklayers, carpenters and plumbers went into action. The dripping roof of the tunnel was given a waterproof lining. Electric light was brought in. The framework of four large chambers took shape, one above the other, along the dark slope of the tunnel. Three smaller chambers were laid out near ground level.

“It took three months to complete this structural work. Then came the radio engineers to install the equipment. The topmost chamber, about half-way up the shaft, was to house radio transmitters — a local transmitter to give a programme service to the City of Bristol, and communication transmitters which would maintain contact with other B.B.C. centres even if all line communication failed.

“The chamber below the transmitter room became the studio — with upright piano (to save space), gramophone turntables, and enough general equipment to make it suitable for music or small-scale drama or feature programmes. On the next level, below the studio, came the recording room, fitted with recording and play-back equipment, and with enough recorded programmes stored away in its lockers to maintain a radio service for weeks.


Two people in a very empty room

BBC staff convert a hall into a studio by hanging acoustic material from the walls


“The fourth large chamber was the control room, measuring fifteen feet by twelve feet. Into this space B.B.C. engineers packed apparatus which it had never before been thought possible to assemble in an area twice the size. Something like eighty pairs of Post Office telephone lines terminated in this room, linking the fortress with the outside world and the B.B.C.’s network of transmitters scattered throughout the United Kingdom, and so routed that if a bomb severed some there would always be a good chance of others remaining intact and available.

“A special button was fixed to the wall of the control room. At a touch on that button the big Diesel motors, installed in one of the lower rooms, would generate an independent power supply when the mains failed.

“Another of the smaller rooms was fitted up as a canteen. Sufficient food to last three months was stored in the tunnel. Huge tanks contained emergency water supplies. Others held enough fuel to run the engines for many weeks on end. A special ventilation plant was put in, with intake and extractor fans and an ozoneator. The tunnel was made immune even from gas attack. It was indeed a fortress—a fortress which could hold out on its resources for months if necessary.

“Whenever the sirens sounded in Bristol, the essential programme staff on duty were rushed down to the tunnel studio. An armoured car was available for the journey if danger was imminent. Alert or no alert, the tunnel control room was manned by technical staff day and night from its inception until the end of the war.”

It was a superb piece of planning and organization, but, fortunately, it never had to be brought into full operation.

Bombs rained down on and around Broadcasting House, but Broadcasting House still stood. On one sad occasion several of our staff were killed in a terrific explosion that occurred in the upper storeys of the building while Bruce Belfrage was reading the nine o’clock news. Yet Bruce scarcely faltered. A whispered “It’s all right” from a colleague — clearly audible to the listeners — and he continued as though nothing had happened, a splendid example of coolness on duty, but only one of many.

From first to last, the voice of Britain continued to address the world from the capital.


[PART 1] – [PART 2] – [PART 3]


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