The BBC at War – 2 

3 August 2017

[PART 1] – [PART 2] – [PART 3]


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

Of the many changes necessitated by war none were more complex and involved than those on the engineering side. Exactly how much was involved perhaps the B.B.C.’s Chief Engineer, H. Bishop, is in the best position to tell us.

“Engineering developments during the war were naturally very numerous,” he says. “Before September, 1939, when war seemed inevitable, we made our plans with two main objects in view, first that it would be essential to maintain an adequate service of broadcasting for the home listener, however bad war conditions might become, and, secondly, that our transmitting stations must not provide any assistance to the enemy by guiding him to important bombing targets. We know also that the broadcasting of reliable news and information to all countries, especially enemy ones, would be of the greatest importance, and we did not know to what extent the enemy would attempt to interfere with our transmissions to make reception difficult, or even impossible, in this country or abroad…

“The most important precaution was to prevent our transmitters being used to give navigational aid to enemy aircraft. To avoid this, it was decided to group several transmitters on one wavelength, so that enemy aircraft could not tune to any one of them separately until the aircraft was almost within visual range. By that time the transmitter would be closed down under Fighter Command instructions. In order that this system might work satisfactorily, it was necessary for all the synchronized transmitters to carry the same programme.” Hence the amalgamation of the National and Regional programmes.

“To ensure continuity in the service, steps were taken to have more spare plant available than was customary in peacetime, and we prepared ourselves as far as we could for anything that might happen—including invasion, the most serious hazard of all . . .

“In the uneasy period following the outbreak of war, we felt that our most important job was to improve the service as far as possible, within the security limitations which, of course, we had to observe, because in those difficult days the value of a reliable broadcasting service to keep the public informed and entertained was considered by the Government to be of the greatest importance. We therefore took steps to improve the service by increasing the power of a number of transmitters, and in December, 1939, we introduced a second programme for the Forces. Then, early in 1940, we increased the number of transmitters relaying news and information in foreign languages.


A man leans over a desk with many gauges, knobs and levers

An engineer at the control desk of a high-power transmitter at a BBC short-wave station in 1939


“This was the position when aerial attacks started in the summer of 1940. Our high-power transmitters in the areas subject to attack were closed down for long periods during actual raids. In order to meet this situation, and to provide for the transmission of special bulletins and instructions by Regional Commissioners in the event of invasion, we decided to build a large number of low-power transmitters in all the important centres of population. The first ten of these were in operation by November, 1940, and others followed in the next year until sixty were in service. These small transmitters did not have to close down until the enemy aircraft were within a few miles of the towns which they served, so that, even if a high-power transmitter in the area were closed for a long period on Fighter Command’s instructions, the small transmitters were able to continue for a large part of the time that the air raid was in progress. In this way, the service under air-raid conditions, almost a nightly occurrence in many parts of the country, was maintained at a reasonably high level. The scheme, though it was brought into service at such short notice, was a great success.

“The occupation of Europe by the Germans made it all the more necessary for us to increase the strength of our broadcasts to the occupied countries. We introduced additional transmitters for this work and put in hand the construction of new stations in order that the voice of Britain might be heard more clearly, not only in occupied Europe but in all parts of the world. To serve the nearer countries, a new station was built near Hull, the biggest that had ever been built anywhere. It enabled the occupied countries under the heel of the Nazis to listen to the B.B.C. with comparatively simple apparatus which they built and used in peril of their lives. By the end of 1943 all these new stations were in operation, and this tremendous technical force was used for broadcasting in more than forty languages.”

As Bishop says, the effect of all this, and of various other measures, was considerable, and may well have “made a substantial contribution to our final victory”. Of that there can surely be no doubt. If the Home Service bolstered up morale among our own people, the European broadcasts simultaneously reduced that of the enemy and gave renewed hope and confidence to our subjugated friends and allies, and the courage to form their great Resistance movements.



In his first year as German Chancellor — 1933 — Hitler had declared: “Artillery preparations before an attack, as during the First World War, will be replaced in the future war by the psychological dislocation of the enemy through revolutionary propaganda. The enemy must be demoralized and driven to passivity. Our strategy is to destroy the enemy from within, to conquer him through himself. Mental confusion, contradictions of feeling, indecision, panic — these are our weapons.”

A principal medium for the development of this strategy was the German radio. Before the war started, the German radio was already striving by every conceivable underhand means to sow the seeds of discontent among the people of Europe. Its policy, as Charles Rolo put it, was “to crush the people mentally… to pit group against group, to turn the people against its leaders, to undermine the individual’s faith in his habitual standards of judgement, to arouse in each man’s heart disillusionment, uncertainty, and eventually panic. In short, to divide, confuse and terrify.”

With the outbreak of war, this campaign of lies and deceit was increased a hundredfold; and traitors from every country began to play their full, ignoble part. “This is Gairmany calling, Gairmany calling,” soon became a familiar feature to English listeners as the supercilious “Lord Haw-Haw”, mixing sarcasm with unconscious humour, told us of havoc on our doorsteps and of worse to come unless we hastily overthrew Churchill and made friends with Hitler — “You are on a doomed ship… Either England gives in before it is too late, or she will be beaten… The all-out attack against England is ready to be unleashed. Famine stalks side by side with Winston Churchill today. England will become a land of skeletons by the way-side.” — Lord Haw-Haw rambled on, and the Englishman, seated comfortably by his receiver, puffed his pipe and chuckled. A few spines, perhaps, were chilled, but not many: in the main. Lord Haw-Haw was regarded merely as good entertainment value.


“Your Cup of Tea” was a wartime programme that included messages and a request number from parents and wives to members of H.M. Forces. Miss Revel Burns, the Australian accompanist, awaits her cue for a song while I read a message during a broadcast in October, 1941.


But what of German propaganda on the Continent?

With guile and cunning the German radio set out to exploit each military victory by posing the German armies as liberators rather than conquerors. “After your heroic struggle, you have been liberated today,” the Belgians were told after their capitulation. “You have not suffered defeat. On the contrary, you have conquered — conquered the dark powers that brought you to the edge of the precipice.” The German radio had an even rosier picture for the Dutch — “We are now in Amsterdam. In front of the Royal Palace there is a veritable concert of bicycle bells, and the cyclists perform amazing acrobatics in the traffic… We go on to Haarlem, where the people greet us as old friends… We reach the Hague, but have no time to look at the many buildings because we are making for the sea. Here German and Dutch soldiers are on the shore… Only now do the Dutch soldiers feel free and safe. They know that over there in England lives the enemy of the world.”

The countries of Europe were wooed with lies, and for a time, alas, those lies by no means all fell upon deaf ears.

Then the B.B.C. intensified its own propaganda campaign, and the German radio met far more than its match.



The difference between the British and German tactics in the radio war can be summarized quite simply as the difference between truth and fiction. The Germans twisted and distorted the news, both good and bad, to suit their own ends; we were content to state facts. And we did so as faithfully in our darkest hour as in our later triumphs.

Honesty certainly paid. On pain of possible torture or death, or more likely both, the people of Europe became, in rapidly increasing numbers, regular listeners to the B.B.C.’s multiple news bulletins; and, by devious means, they passed the word to their neighbours.

A Norwegian, who later managed to escape to England, described in “Radio Newsreel’’ some of the reactions in his country. “At this very hour,” he told listeners in England, “the secret journalists are at their underground work. The day’s work has finished on the farms and in the factories and offices. Now the more important part of the day has come. In a cellar, somewhere in my snow-covered country, a girl is crouching in front of a muffled loudspeaker taking shorthand notes of the B.B.C. news. In his lodging a student is typing the stencils for tomorrow’s Radio Post. In a boathouse a young factory worker turns the handle of the duplicator. In a deserted office three young clerks are pinning the sheets together, folding the finished papers, and putting them into envelopes. Or they may be walking the streets and roads in the black-out, dropping envelopes into pillar-boxes, or delivering small bundles of papers at houses as they go along. Hundreds and hundreds of people are at work just now, producing and distributing the illegal papers in my country, and before midday tomorrow their duplicated papers, bringing the latest war news, will have covered the greater part of Norway.”


Here is the news… and here are the news-readers in 1944


The same kind of thing was happening all over Europe; in France, Holland, Belgium, everywhere. At all hours, the Nazis grumbled, suspicious-looking groups could be found sitting in cafes in order to spread insidiously lying rumours broadcast by the radio of London, according to which London is always right and Berlin is always wrong.

Indeed, it was happening even in Germany itself — much to the wrath of Goering, Goebbels and the rest of the gang, who pleaded again and again to the people to show reason. “Don’t always believe what you are told. Let us refuse to accept all enemy propaganda,” Goering implored — but to no avail. Even some Party Members, it had to be admitted, “are still seduced to listen to foreign broadcasts and spread them further”.

The Nazis raged and ranted, threatened, sent offenders to concentration camps by the hundred and thousand, put others to death — but the voice of Britain was not to be silenced. On the contrary, it gathered strength.



[PART 1] – [PART 2] – [PART 3]


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