BBC at War – part 1: From Peace to War 

18 March 2022 tbs.pm/74896

Celebrating 100 years of our BBC

 

BBC at War cover

From ‘BBC at War’ by Antonia White, published in 1946

‘I have to tell you … that this country is it war with Germany.’ Into the peace of a September morning, through air still echoing with Sunday bells, broke the voice of the Premier announcing stress, strain and violent upheaval. The words sounded in thousands of homes in crowded cities, they drifted through open windows in village streets, they were picked up in ships at sea, on rubber plantations in Malaya and lonely huts on Hudson Bay. Throughout the British Isles, the people stood still to listen. They listened in country houses and cottages, in luxury hotels and cheap bed-sitting rooms, in newspaper offices and at street corners. For those few minutes the wireless set was the focus of the whole nation’s life.

It was a dramatic moment in the short and eventful history of broadcasting. But for the BBC the real drama had begun thirty-six hours earlier. On the night of Friday, 1st September 1939, you heard for the first time the now familiar words ‘This is the BBC Home Service.’ Flat, unexciting words, giving no hint of the convulsive changes that had gone on behind the scenes to produce them.

Ever since the days of Munich, the BBC had been preparing secret plans for mobilization in case of war. Two difficult problems had to be solved. One was that, at all costs, even if the country were dislocated by bombing or invasion, the broadcasting service must continue. The other was to reorganize the transmission system so that it could give no guidance to enemy aircraft. In certain circumstances a continuous strong wavelength can be as efficient a help in an aeroplane as a lighthouse beam to a ship. The first problem was dealt with by distributing BBC units all over the country. The second could be solved only by broadcasting one programme instead of the pre-war eight on a choice of two wavelengths. The extraordinary technical feats accomplished by the BBC engineering staff in reorganizing the transmission system so as to give enemy aircraft no possible help in reaching their objective cannot unfortunately here. Later in this chapter you will hear some of the difficulties – amusing in retrospect, but agonizing at the time – of transporting, billeting and feeding the BBC evacuees uprooted overnight and planted out in various parts of England.

Early in the evening of 1st September 1939, came the message from Whitehall that sent the BBC to its war stations. All over the country the broadcasting engineers opened their sealed orders and acted upon them. Within an hour and a half the change-over had been effected; at 8.15 p.m. the Home Service was on the air for the first time. At noon the television announcer had broadcast a summary of the programmes for the next week. Ten minutes later came the order to close down. For security reasons that new and highly promising child, the world’s first high-definition television service, had to be unceremoniously put to sleep ‘for the duration.’ The BBC was at war.

 

 

You probably remember those first days when you anxiously tuned in to every one of the almost hourly news bulletins … and how frustrated you felt because there seemed to be no news. You remember the endless flood of directions, counter-directions, exhortations and regulations that poured over the microphone dealing with everything from evacuation to blood-transfusion. Your wireless seemed to have changed from an agreeable companion to an official bully, and you were by no means mollified when the pill was sugared with programmes of gramophone records. Sandy Macpherson played the theatre organ for you till his feet were numb and his fingers nearly dropped off. You appreciated his efforts but you were by no means appeased. When the tension of the first three days relaxed you looked for something on which you could vent your accumulated irritation, and you found an excellent target in the BBC.

The warmest admirer of the BBC cannot pretend that the programmes it put out in the early days were anything like up to its pre-war standard. The fact is they were not meant to be. At that time, the BBC had organized itself for one thing and one thing only — to keep the essential news services going no matter what might happen, and to keep a communication channel open between the authorities and the public in case the normal ones were blocked by bombing or invasion. During those first months, like everyone else in this country, it expected total war at any moment. And like everyone else, when there came not total war but total inactivity, it looked for a time slightly foolish in its battle dress. It would have looked a great deal more foolish if it had been unprepared and the big raids had started in September 1939, instead of in September 1940. As it is, in spite of the worst blitzes of 1940-41 (in which London and Regional stations have not escaped without damage and casualties), unlike the German Radio, the BBC has never once been off the air.

 

The silhouette of a man holding a microphone, with a bombed out smoking building behind him

 

Cutting down to one programme was a military necessity. It could not hope to be received with any more public delight than the black-out, ration-books, evacuation and other irritating, but inevitable war-time measures. Listeners in peace-time had been like people with a choice of eight different newspapers, each with its own method of presentation, its own feature-writers and its own individual accent. Now, with only one ‘home service’ programme to cover a public of wide and conflicting tastes, listeners were in the position of people who are forced to buy only one newspaper whether they like it or not. Imagine that only one daily paper were allowed to be printed in the whole of Great Britain. It would be impossible to devise one which would seem equally satisfactory to the different types of people accustomed to take in The Times, the Daily Herald, the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Mirror.

In the first days of the war everyone had expected that exciting events and news would follow hot foot on each other. Therefore the BBC had arranged for the maximum provision of news and had only prepared emergency programmes of gramophone records. What happened was exactly the opposite. There was a total lack of events and news, and what the listening public clamoured for was entertainment. In three days, in spite of the extraordinary complications and difficulties of the change-over, the resources of ‘live’ radio were assembled again. On Wednesday, 6th September, the first ‘live’ revue of the war was broadcast from Variety’s new headquarters.

The arrival of Variety in its new quarters would have made a good companion picture to Frith’s ‘Derby Day.’ Artistes, producers, musicians and engineers arrived by lorry, train and car. The reception hall was heaped with luggage, violin-cases and crates bulging with musical scores. There were pet dogs, too bewildered in the crush to wag their tails, and pet birds whose shrillest notes were entirely inaudible in the babble of human voices. John Watt was understating things when, at the first Variety meeting with Harry Pepper, Charles Shadwell, and various producers, accompanists and script-writers, he said: ‘We shall be working under difficulties.’

Artistes had to settle into their billets; fortunately these had been well organized beforehand. Engineers had to set up the apparatus they had hastily stripped from the London studios, build it into local halls, fix control panels, listening rooms, connecting lines and a thousand other complex details. New numbers had to be rehearsed; band-parts copied; scripts written. ‘Yes … you can have jokes about Hitler now.’ ‘Transport’s a bit chaotic. If you want that script you’ll have to dash back to London and fetch it yourself.’ ‘Can’t trace that song. Ring up London, get someone to sing it over the ’phone and we’ll take down the words and music this end.’ To the accompaniment of typewriters, pianos, telephone bells and frantic conversations, the first war-time radio revue was written overnight in a blacked-out office and finished two hours before it went into rehearsal. Everyone lent a hand and cheerfully did bits of everyone else’s job as well as their own. Eminent music-hall stars helped with ‘noises off.’ Producers turned the handles of roneo machines. Composers copied out band-parts. As in every other department of the BBC on the outbreak of war, the frills were ripped off, the shirt sleeves rolled up and the red carpet put away.

Even before the blitzes came to treble the strain on everyone and to add danger to mere discomfort, every single BBC department found its smooth peace-time path suddenly choked with thorns and obstacles of every kind. The accommodation and catering officers were plunged at once into a sea of troubles, which was to grow stormier every week. You can draw up faultless plans on paper for evacuating several hundreds of people to different parts of England. It is quite another matter to carry them out. For instance you may reserve a large country house to serve as headquarters for a particular section in case of emergency. The emergency comes and eighty people are sent overnight to a mansion originally inhabited by eighteen. Telephone lines must be put in; black-out and defence arranged for; quite possibly the entire drainage and lighting system has to be reorganized to cope with the extra strain. Everything from beds to typewriter ribbons has to be rushed down at short notice. Last but not least the inhabitants have to be fed. Before the war the catering department ran six establishments: to-day it runs seventy-four. In the first week of the war they expected to have to provide, in one area, meals for sixty people. In a few days the sixty had swelled to four hundred. Tiny canteens with five tables suddenly found themselves called upon to cope with 700 people. Somehow the accommodation and catering staff developed superhuman capacities, which enabled them to deal with the most fantastic emergencies, from equipping hostels with everything from boilers to bedding in a few days, to arranging special meals for Indians whose religion forbade them to eat anything on which a human shadow had fallen. It was no uncommon experience for Miss Lawrence and Mr. Dormer of the catering department to spend their day rushing all over the country equipping and organizing canteens, and their evenings washing up and helping with the cooking until two or three in the morning (BBC canteens work all round the clock since most departments run day and night shifts); then to snatch a few hours of sleep, and begin a new office day at 7.0 a.m.

 

Two men, one with binoculars, stand on the roof of Broadcasting House

Members of staff take their turn at roof-spotting.

 

Billeting, of course, provided the inevitable comedies and tragedies now familiar to every evacuee and billetor. No one blames billetors for not welcoming their uninvited guests with open arms, but billetees have their legitimate troubles, too. It is hard if you are working on night shifts on such a nerve-racking job as ‘monitoring,’ for example, to be frowned on for staying in bed part of the day. It is hard to have no privacy except in an unwarmed bedroom, to have to bicycle two miles to get a bath and wash your clothes, or, like one member of the staff, to be thrown out of your billet for being rung up on urgent business at the immoral hour of ten at night. In one area, the work done is of extreme national importance but can only be spoken of vaguely. The billetors do not perhaps realize that the foreign staff whom they regard with such patriotic suspicion are doing a unique service to this country — a service which might involve the cruel persecution of their families in their own lands. No one suggests that every member of the BBC staff is an angel in the house, but neither is he or she necessarily a devil. To persuade resentful billetors that billetees are human is the delicate and unenviable task of the staff welfare officers.

On the programme side, the first emergency period was soon over. The inevitable contraction to one programme only for home had by no means meant contraction in working hours. New services in foreign languages and for the Empire were speedily created. And though there was now only one home programme, it ran for seventeen hours instead of for under fourteen as in peacetime. This means that transmitters now have to be manned at all hours of the day and night — a heavy demand both on the apparatus and the engineers. Many of the engineers were called up to serve with the forces, and a large staff of new people, both men and women, has had to be trained to handle the complex and delicate machinery used in broadcasting. Much of the purely operational work has been taken on by non-skilled workers, yet the technical quality of the programmes has not deteriorated.

By the end of 1939 the programme service had been built up to something like its pre-war quality. There was still only the Home Service to cater for the ranging tastes of millions of listeners, but, as time went on, the programmes began to reflect the rich and varied life of the Regions much more fully though not so fully as in peacetime. The output was not confined to London and the new wartime centres; Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the other Regions contributed more and more to the quota so that the voice of all Britain, including Welsh and Gaelic, was once again heard in the home programmes. Nevertheless, both among the audience and behind the scenes of the BBC itself, there was a growing demand for an alternative programme. One most important section of the community particularly needed it — the fighting forces both at home and abroad.

 

A woman works at a bank of dials and switches

In war-time, girls do some BBC engineering jobs.

 

It took a good deal of technical skill to arrange that alternative programme ‘for the forces,’ but in February 1940, it was launched. If you don’t happen to approve of the Forces Programme, remember that it was based on the expressed wishes of the soldiers, sailors and airmen for whom it was planned. Remember, too, the conditions in which it is usually heard. A man sitting quietly by his own fireside can concentrate on a Beethoven string quartet or a Shaw play. No soldier, however intelligent, can listen in the same concentrated way in a crowded canteen with people calling for drinks, playing darts and keeping up a cross-fire of talk. The wireless can do no more than produce a cheerful background noise like an orchestra in a restaurant. The lover and the hater of classical music would be equally enraged to hear a Bach fugue played during the rush-hour at a Lyons Corner House.

The Forces Programme was planned originally for the men spending that winter of bitter cold and forced inactivity in the front line. F. W. Ogilvie, the Director-General of the BBC, who had fought as a captain in the last war, visited the B.E.F. in France with some of his staff and had personal talks with the men. Over and over again the items asked for were — ‘Something to cheer us up … something to keep us in touch with home.’ Sometimes the words, I’m from the BBC,’ would produce the prompt reply, ‘Have you heard our dance band?’ The band would be given a hearing and, if it was really good, Bernard Stubbs would come along with the BBC recording van and the company would crowd round for the long-awaited chance of shouting into a microphone. Records made by the men themselves went into the programme along with those of the uproariously popular concerts given to the B.E.F. by Gracie Fields and Maurice Chevalier. But long before the Forces Programme came under discussion, the BBC had had its representatives in the front line. Immediately war was declared, a recording car and its crew of commentator, engineer and programme official, landed in France to accompany the B.E.F. and make records under all sorts of conditions. Many of these records you heard in the early days of the war were made with shells and bombs dropping uncomfortably near. Once when Gardner was standing at the microphone, a Heinkel dropped a 500-pounder so close that the whole apparatus was thrown into the air. The bitter cold of that winter made it hard to get good records. Sometimes frost patterns would form on the blank discs and ruin the surface. Often the only way to safeguard the discs was for the engineer to take them to bed with him.

It seems a long time since those days in France. In 1939 a BBC war correspondent, recording despatches in a camouflaged car eighty-five feet from the enemy’s front line, was certainly taking risks. A year later a home announcer sitting at his desk in Broadcasting House was taking even more.

With the evacuation from Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain (both described at first hand by radio reporters), the war-centre shifted to this country. In September 1940, London was in the front line of attack. In October, Broadcasting House received its first direct hit and six people in the building were killed. The BBC was no longer observing the war; it was right in the middle of it.

 

 

One night as Bruce Belfrage was reading the news, listeners heard the thud of a falling bomb. The building shook but the announcer’s voice, after a barely perceptible pause, went on without a tremor. Behind the scenes, there was darkness, the crash of falling masonry, choking smoke and dust; human beings were flung against walls or pinned under wreckage. Some were hurt; others severely shocked; some had been killed outright.

A bomb takes only a few seconds to do its destructive work. The damage and dislocation it causes in an organization like the BBC takes months to repair and overcome. That one night destroyed thousands of precious gramophone records, wrecked the news library and reduced the telephone switchboard to a tangle of splinters and broken wire.

At six in the morning, after the first hit, the news librarian was trying to salvage the remains of his precious files, accumulated for years, from a dusty heap of rubbish in Portland Place — and only with difficulty prevented a policeman from arresting him for looting. To lose the news library was bad enough; it was like losing one’s memory. To lose the switchboard was even worse; it was like being struck deaf and dumb. Every internal telephone was out of action and the small emergency switchboards which now had to be used carried eight exchange lines instead of seventy. Working in a tiny gallery in the basement, with the sweat pouring down their faces, the telephone girls carried on handling calls at the rate of eight a second. Nerves were strained to breaking point: it was impossible for anyone to work more than an hour at a stretch in such conditions.

Broadcasting House turned overnight into a fortress. The work had to go on and beds had to be provided for staff working late or who could not get home because of the raids. Wandering through the basements at night you saw corridors littered with mattresses on which tired men and women were trying to snatch a few hours’ sleep. Some slept in their offices, others in rows on the floor of the concert hall. In those days it was not an uncommon sight to see the Director-General dossing down between a commissionaire and a secretary. Night after night he shared the discomforts if his staff. Now he has a bunk in his own room … ‘to my shame’ as he says.

 

 

As a result of the first bomb, men and women lost their lives in the service of the BBC. In a second incident, a month or two later, though there were fewer fatal casualties, blast, fire and flood played such havoc that part of the building had to be temporarily evacuated. No one who was on the premises that night is likely to forget it. The staircase was a waterfall; the lobby a pool. As one of the Canadian unit who had walked through the blitz to come on duly described it: ‘The unusual building, designed like a ship, stood with its “upper deck” on fire and its “keel” in pools of turgid water like some vessel at Trafalgar … In the infirmary the number of wounded exceeded the accommodation – there were wounded from the neighbourhood as well as from the building itself. From an upper gallery I looked down into the pit where the newsmen’s desks usually are. The desks were almost floating. Tie walls had broken into fissures from which burst spurts of water.’

Down in the kitchens, tie catering staff found themselves first choked with smoke and soot, then flooded. Miss Lawrence with great difficulty persuaded them to leave the building and go to a public shelter. Electricity had gone and there was nothing to cook with with two picnic-size primus stoves. Yet by 6.00 a.m. the staff was serving five hundred breakfasts among the wreckage.

Once again the news library and the switchboard, which had both been repaired in the intervening months were wrecked. Programme staff arriving the next morning found their offices in ruins and spent feverish hours reselling dust-covered scripts that were to go un the air that night from a litter of plaster, slime and broken glass. New accommodation had been provided, but there were no telephone lines ready and the confusion was indescribable. Working in their own homes, queueing up at public call-boxes, somehow the people responsible for talks and features due to go our in the next few days made their contacts and kept up to their schedule. In spite of every kind of breakdown, the service itself went on unbroken.

 

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From that night onwards, the BBC service was carried on in circumstances that put the utmost strain on everyone concerned in it. In London and all over the country, the heavy raids continued month after month. At one time or another, every big town that was a Regional BBC centre had its smashing blitz. Rehearsals and transmissions went on in rocking buildings; staff were killed on duty or in their homes; vital machinery was wrecked; studios reduced to a heap of rubble. Over and over again, it seemed a physical impossibility that a particular programme should go out that night, yet somehow or other it did go out — and go out on time. Here is one tiny, but typical instance. One Sunday evening in Bristol there was such a bad raid going on that the religious postscript could not be broadcast from its ordinary studio. The orchestra could not cram itself into the small emergency studio, but Dr. Welch was determined that listeners should not go without their postscript of music. The microphone was placed under a table, and, with bombs crashing all round the building, Dr. Welch delivered his talk, Stuart Hibberd read quietly from the Bible and Paul Beard played the violin on his knees.

 

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