Listening with the Forces 

3 September 2021


BBC Handbook 1941 cover

From the BBC Handbook for 1941

When the B.E.F. went overseas in September 1939 it was with the expectation of going into battle in a very short time. Kits had been cut down to the last ounce and the radio set, which had been so popular in the barrack-room at Tidworth or Aldershot or Colchester, found no place in a lorry or a tool van where equipment was fitted in with hardly an inch to spare.

By the end of the year things were very different. With the eternal ingenuity of the soldier when he is far from home the B.E.F. began to settle in and to make itself as comfortable as the bitter weather and active service conditions allowed. Almost simultaneously with the display in hotel and cafe windows of the notices ‘Eggs and Chip’, ‘Hot Bathes’, and that very irritating plural ‘Sandwichs’ radio sets began to appear. French sets were cheap and plentiful and the scanty profits of canteen funds were strained to the last franc to buy them. When the Nuffield Trust came forward with its magnificent grant for the provision of radio sets for the forces, listening was in full swing.

First in popularity came the news. In more distant regions of France, where home programmes came in only faintly, groups would stand in silence round the set, holding their breath to catch any faint sound which would tell them how the war was going. Newspapers in English were still scarce and, however crowded the day and however few the hours of leisure, men always gathered round the set at news time.

Soon it became obvious that we were in for a winter of siege warfare. As darkness fell earlier and as outdoor work became more difficult, listening tastes grew in their demands and the BBC decided to plan a new programme entirely for the forces, to be built up on the expressed tastes and preferences of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen. The Director-General and some of his staff visited the B.E.F. and had personal talks with the men. Then a rapid postal ‘sample’ of the B.E.F. was taken. Though tapping only a fraction of the force, it showed that tastes in widely different units were on the whole more or less alike on the main items. ‘Something to cheer us up… something to keep us in touch with home… let’s hear how the Wanderers are doing… and the Wolves… and the Spurs…’ Most of the demands were for bright, cheerful music and variety, stuff that you could beat time to and laugh at and sing with when the winter winds were whistling through the chinks in the barn, and the bleak landscape of Northeastern France was made still more bleak and cheerless by a thick covering of snow.


Two girls at a desk behind a microphone

Their Royal Highnesses Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose (13 October 1940)


The advice and help of Navy, Army, and R.A.F. authorities were sought at the outset, and facilities were readily given to enable the BBC to get into touch with the men. So much value was set upon the radio programmes for the troops in France that the War Office decided in March to appoint, as their BBC Liaison Officer, a major in the Royal Engineers, who had been a BBC public relations officer when war broke out.

Armed with an array of questions from all the BBC departments, this officer was soon exploring the roads and lanes of France, running the B.E.F. to earth. It wasn’t just a matter of spending a jolly afternoon surrounded by the whole of a battalion all ready to give their views on the programmes, but a sort of treasure hunt with a map reference for the first clue, then a drive over skiddy pavé and some miles of twists, crashes, and bumps over unsurfaced lanes, and finally a tentative halt at a small signboard with a number on it and a cryptic coloured device.


A man at a desk with a large microphone suspended above it

Mr. Winston Churchill first broadcast as Prime Minister on 14 July 1940


An adjutant appears, slightly surprised at seeing a sapper major coming to ask the troops what they thought of the broadcast programmes, says that he will be delighted to help but that it is rather difficult to point out where the men are because they are so scattered. ‘H.Q. Company is in the village here and one of the other companies is up that road, and B Company is over the hill in the brickworks. Perhaps you’d like to ask the R.S.M. about the radio.’ Hastily assuring the adjutant that, valuable as the regimental sergeant-major’s comments might be, there is a possibility that a strict sense of military discipline might prevent the worthy warrant officer from speaking his mind fully, the liaison officer eventually finds his way to the billets.


Courtesy of Jozef Sterkens.


At first the men are as surprised as the adjutant, but it only needs a few remarks about any well-known programme item or broadcaster to break the ice, and then out comes a flood of questions and suggestions. ‘Can’t we have the dance music earlier… later… we don’t get back from work until… we’re digging defence works until… we stand to at… it’s time for guard mounting then.. more dance music, sir… don’t listen to him, he’s swing mad… it’s organ music I like… nice bit of variety.’


Two men, one in Navy uniform, the other holding a microphone

The late Commander Bickford, D.S.O., with Stephen Potter of the BBC, on the bridge of H.M.S. Salmon


And so, out of all this rapid fire, the liaison officer builds up, piece by piece, a picture of how that unit lives and works and rests. Then he asks some questions. Do they like the announcers — musical comedies — dance music — talks — church services — sport — plays —thrillers Do they like crooners? There is a chorus of assent at this. ‘Yes, we do because they help us to learn the words of the songs.’ An interesting point this. In the last war, when the army marched whenever it had to move, the marching song was something essential. Anything with a good swing was taken up and sung on the road and in a few days the whole battalion knew the words. But the advent of swing has pushed the words into the background, and good songs are relatively few. But although an army moving by lorries, tanks, vans, and cars doesn’t need songs to march to, it still wants songs to sing, and that’s why the crooner is popular.

More bumpy muddy rides round the country to find the other companies. Often it takes several days to visit the whole of one unit and do the job completely. But not only battalions must be visited. Troops standing in draughty pill-boxes, units in rest camps in the back areas, R.A.S.C. companies carting food and stores all day and sometimes half the night, A.A. gunners at their gun sites in the middle of muddy fields, craftsmen of the Ordnance Corps in their workshops, sappers making roads and bridges — they all have their different working hours and their various tastes.


Two men in uniform and another holding a microphone, in front of camouflage nets

Men of the first Canadian contingent with Gerry Wilmot of the CBC Overseas Unit


Very often a big canteen was a good hunting ground. All that was needed was to get three or four men at a table in the corner and to begin going through the week’s programmes with the Radio Times, marking suggestions and alterations. Three or four men, coming in after the day’s work, ask the corporal at the bar, ‘Who’s that officer ?’ ‘Dunno — bloke from G.H.Q. I think.’ ‘What’s he doing?’ ‘Asking something about the radio, I think.’ And then someone drifts across to the table in time to catch a remark about Sandy Mac or Big-Hearted Arthur or Stinker, and he stays to listen and soon to join in; presently the group is not four but forty, and the questions come like hail.

‘It’s pretty grim in the early mornings, sir, before breakfast. Can’t we have some music then, while we dress?’ And very soon the Programme for the Forces, in response to that request, was on the air at 6.30 a.m., and the troops went in to breakfast whistling the tunes they had just heard.


A man in uniform reads a sheet of paper; a microphone is suspended above his desk

Air Marshall Sir Philip Joubert


Sometimes the words ‘I’m from the BBC’ would produce the instant reply, ‘Have you heard our dance band?’, and outside one of the huts somebody shouts, ‘Turn out the band, quick, the BBC man’s here’. If the band was really good, in a few days’ time the unit would see the BBC recording van with Bernard Stubbs and his team, and the whole company would crowd round for the long-awaited chance of shouting into a microphone. The playback would be received in awed silence, punctuated with slightly self-conscious giggles as the company crooner at last realized what his voice was really like, but feeling thrilled to know that in a week or so that record would be heard on the air.

Little by little the picture grew, and the programme planners, back in London, were receiving a steady flow of answers to their questions about leisure hours, the best times for star items, and just when the minority tastes could be satisfied without robbing the majority of its entertainment. That flow of questions and answers was stilled on the opening of the Flanders campaign. It was resumed only in the autumn when the army, miraculously home again, had settled in. Then the BBC was at pains to re-establish that personal touch with the units by means of which the programmes could be kept sensitive to their needs.


A dozen men in army uniform crowd around a radio speaker

‘For the Forces’


The listening problem alters every week as more and more sets reach the forces. The work of ‘listener research’ continues, as it did from the beginning, not only into the needs of the army but also into those of the navy and the R.A.F. Tastes vary with the work and living conditions of the men. First-hand information about them will continue to be necessary as long as the BBC maintains its aim of giving the troops the stuff that they really want.

All that work in France seems a long time ago now, but many things stick in the memory. The delighted faces of the Indians when they heard that there was to be a special half-hour for them on Sundays in their own tongue. And the German company of the Pioneer Corps who were playing Mozart on their own chamber orchestra, and the sapper company song that had to be so heavily censored before we could record it, and, last of all, the soldier who came up after a lecture and gave the liaison officer a scrap of paper. ‘Could you ask Sandy to play this tune, sir? It’s for my wife. I was to have gone on leave, but leave was stopped and… it’s a long time since we’ve seen each other.’ He got his tune.


5 men and one woman in unifoem sit across a desk from two men also in uniform

Major Longland talks it over


Richard Longland was BBC Liaison Officer with the British Army.


From the introduction to the BBC Handbook 1941:

Programme for the Forces

Early in the war, when home broadcasting was confined to a single service, the BBC started to plan a second service for the men in the forces, including especially the B.E.F., then in France. Conferences were held with representatives of the War Office, Admiralty, and Air Ministry — all of whom backed the idea with enthusiasm. Mr. F. W. Ogilvie, Director-General, went to France to find out by personal contact what the men of the B.E.F. liked to hear and, equally important, how and when and where they could listen. That method of personal contact has been followed up ever since; Major Longland’s article gives a picture of how it works.


Two men in uniform raise a glass of wine to the camera. A copy of Le Figaro is on the table in front of them

‘Parlez-vous Français’ – Rollo Gamble (‘Bill’) and John Glyn-Jones (‘Bob’)


In introducing the new Programme for the Forces on 19 February 1940, the BBC’s Chairman, Sir Allan Powell, explained that the BBC was out to give the men the kind of entertainment that they wanted, not what others might think it was good for them to hear. No one imagines that a man changes his individual tastes when he puts on uniform, but henceforward he listens, not at his own fireside, but in camp and canteen, in barracks and on board ship. This is bound to affect the kind of programme that is acceptable. News is always wanted. Programmes of serious appeal could be enjoyed as special opportunity served, but — apart from the news — light entertainment in one form or another was bound to top the poll on any count taken among the troops. So light music, dance music, cinema organ, and variety of every kind was what the Programme for the Forces mainly provided from the beginning for its listeners both in the Services and at home.


Men and women in various service uniforms drink tea

In a Y.M.C.A. canteen – an episode in ‘London after Dark’, broadcast to North America and relayed throughout Canada and U.S.A.


During the autumn of 1940 the BBC continued to devise special features for the entertainment of the troops in their billets up and down the country. News-letters for the troops from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India were regularly given. The announcement by the Secretary of State for War of a Treasury grant for the purchase of receiving sets was a welcome official recognition of the importance of radio as a means of information and recreation in a modern army. Sandy Macpherson plays his ‘request items’ for the men in their quarters and for their families and friends at home — this kind of personal link is what has made the Programme for the Forces most worth while.


About a dozen men in uniform and kullahs

Risaldar Major Muhammad Ashraf Khan with members of the Indian contingent after a visit to Broadcasting House


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