BBC at War – part 4: Across the Oceans 

8 April 2022

Celebrating 100 years of our BBC


BBC at War cover

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

Members of the same family, separated by immense tracts of sea and land, can easily lose touch with each other’s ways of life and habits of thought. The war united the whole British Commonwealth in the same cause. Yet, just as most Britons have never visited Canada or Australia or South Africa, so Britain itself is an unknown country to most of the inhabitants of the Dominions. The immense expansion of the BBC’s Empire Service since the war has put the nations of the Commonwealth in immediate contact not only with the mother country but with each other.

The BBC Empire Department is like a microcosm of the Empire itself. It includes Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Indians and West Indians. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation also has its own unit in the BBC. It uses BBC facilities and contributes both to its Home and Forces programmes and to its North American Service, but works directly under its own parent corporation. Robert McCall came all the way from Australia to direct the Pacific Service. Grenfell Williams, a bi-lingual South African, directs programmes to South Africa in English and Afrikaans. Indians share in arranging the programmes to India. British radio speaks to the Commonwealth with the authentic voices of its own peoples.

News bulletins and commentaries, talks and ‘features,’ all adapted to the special interests of different sections of this immense audience, go out in many languages besides English. They go out in French for French Canada, in Hindustani, Burmese, Bengali, Tamil, Thai, Malay, Cantonese, Kuoyu, Afrikaans, Cypriot Greek and Maltese. Nor does the BBC rely only on its own system of transmissions. It works in close co-operation with the broadcasting services of Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and All India, and the many smaller broadcasting organizations in colonial territories in Africa, the East and the West Indies. All of these pick up our short-wave transmissions and rebroadcast them on medium wave.

Speaking to the Royal Empire Society on 11th November 1941, the Director-General of the BBC said: ‘Empire Broadcasting is not to be thought of as a one-way traffic outwards from Britain. Empire broadcasting is Empire exchange; all parts of the Empire making the best broadcasting use of all available means and material.’

Recently Cypriot soldiers in the Near East wanted to send messages home to Cyprus. It was an Australian unit which recorded the messages, and the Egyptian service which broadcast them across. He quoted the comments of the radio correspondent of the Cape Argus on a series of current broadcasts. ‘What will the New Zealander want to know about South Africa when he gets his chance of popping off questions on Tuesday night? Last Tuesday an Australian asked questions about Canada. This “Empire Exchange” series is a brainwave of the BBC. It gives us all the opportunity of refreshing our minds with knowledge of the rest of the Empire. This war has awakened our interest in everything relating to our Commonwealth of Nations.’

Co-operation and interchange go on all the time between the Home Service, the Empire Service, and the broadcasting organization of the Commonwealth. For example, much material obtained from the Australian Broadcasting Commission, such as the admirable despatches of Chester Wilmott from Crete, has been used in our own home programmes. Records of the Australian forces in Tobruk, made by the ABC, are sent by radio-telephone to London, put out in the BBC Pacific transmission and rebroadcast on medium wave in Australia. The BBC also co-operates with the great American broadcasting systems. Representatives of the Columbia, National and Mutual networks use BBC facilities and sometimes take part in linked programmes such as ‘London after Dark’ which are heard in the U.S.A. as well as in the Empire. Fred Bate, Ed Murrow and John Steele have all done magnificent work and are three of the most popular figures at Broadcasting House. America in her turn gives the same facilities to the BBC’s representatives in the United States.

Every night the BBC’s North American Service operates for seven and a half hours. The transmissions can be heard both in Canada and the United States. This programme includes, besides news bulletins, talks, features, music and variety, special commentaries by American and Canadian as well as British commentators. It also gives vivid, authentic pictures of Britain’s life in war-time, bringing men and women from all walks of life to the microphone to talk about their jobs and their adventures. Many of these items are regularly picked up and rebroadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and on the great American networks.

‘Sound snapshots’ of the war on all fronts, war adventures of people of many nations make up the nightly ‘Radio News Reel,’ one of the most popular BBC features in all parts of the world. So the exchange between the nations goes on, stimulating mutual understanding and bringing new voices and new interests to a whole world of listeners. J. B. Priestley and Wickham Steed have a big following among listeners in North America. Gerry Wilmot of the CBC is one of the favourite comperes in the BBC’s home programme, while Quentin Reynolds and Raymond Gram Swing have a huge audience throughout Great Britain.


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Canadians, South Africans and Australians who have come over here to help us in this important work of keeping the Empire in constant touch with Britain had plenty of hardship and danger as a reward for their loyalty. Robert McCall, Director of the Pacific Service, broadcasting recently to his fellow Australians, talked of ‘grimy men in scorched and tattered uniforms, heroes by the hundred, heaving great hoses into flame-filled buildings, hacking their way through burning debris, poised above the white heat of collapsing masonry.’ He did not mention that one night, when an ‘incident’ caused a huge fire in certain BBC premises, he himself was one of those grimy heroes. J. B. McGeachy, a Canadian commentator in the North American news, was in Broadcasting House on a particularly bad night. As he was walking down a passage, blast caught him and hurled him backwards while (as he put it afterwards) his legs were still going forwards. He remained imperturbable, merely remarking, when he recovered his breath, ‘So that’s what blast’s like.’


A man sits at a desk whilst a woman takes dictation

Cecil Madden’s office is a star’s dressing-room.


On that same night, something happened which shows better than any comment the real comradeship between the BBC staff and the representatives of other broadcasting corporations now using its facilities. Fred Bate, the representative of the National Broadcasting Company of the United States, had been severely wounded on duty. His news bulletin for New York was due at midnight. Mildred Boutwood, his English-born assistant, managed to get through on the telephone to Rooney Pelletier, head of the CBC unit, to ask him if he could do the bulletin. Pelletier was in bed. The lights had failed in his flat, but he pulled on some clothes by candle-light and dashed out through streets on which shrapnel was falling like hail. It was impossible to get through to New York from the usual studio. And the news bulletin, presented in the commentated form required by NBC had yet to be written. The news-room, protesting violently, had already been evacuated to another building. No information could be got from news agencies for the telephone lines were down. Somehow or other, a bulletin was made out — mentioning nothing, of course, of the drama of destruction going on all round, beyond that ‘a somewhat severe raid was in progress’ — and tapped out with one finger on a typewriter while walls rocked and cracked and stretcher-cases filed along the dust-filled passage.

Then began the chase for a microphone. Laurence Gilliam of the BBC, Rooney Pelletier and Florence Peart of the NBC, set out to walk to the rallying point where a Scotland Yard car had been promised to take them to an emergency studio in another part of London. ‘We walked for several blocks on a continuous sheet of broken glass, wood splinters, iron railings and girders. The blackout didn’t matter because of the fires.’ They arrived safely at their first destination. ‘The car would come in fifteen minutes. The car didn’t. The car would come in twenty minutes. The car didn’t. I suggested a motor-cycle. There wasn’t one. And all the time the fateful time of the broadcast to New York was drawing nearer and nearer.’ By now, apart from the blitz, it was too late to get to the emergency studio on foot. Pelletier and Gilliam decided to go back to Broadcasting House and try and find bicycles. Just as they got outside into the pelting rain of shrapnel, Mildred Boutwood joined them. Nothing would dissuade her. The three of them got back to Broadcasting House but they did not get the bicycles. It looked as if New York would not have its news bulletin that night.

Then Gilliam had an idea. He knew that, even if the broadcasting ship were sinking, the radio engineer would play the traditional role of the wireless telegrapher. The ‘control room boys’ would be at their post. They tore down into the bowels of Broadcasting House. Water was pouring down the stairs in torrents. The ‘control boys’ were at their post, as they had known they would be, in front of their plugs and wires and knobs.

Gilliam explained to the engineer what was wanted. ‘We’ll fix it,’ he said. I give the next part of the story in Pelletier’s own words. ‘Then followed an amazing succession of orders that were gibberish to me: “That plug, Smith.” “Circuit So-and-So, Brown.” “You can cut it out there and make the circuit on …” A microphone was rigged up in the corner of the control room. Earphones were provided. And then, Mildred Boutwood suddenly remembered that our material had not been censored. We signalled frantically to Laurence Gilliam and asked him if by any chance he was a censor. His reply was: “By the grace of God, I am.” He read the script while we waited breathlessly for New York. It was a question of minutes now. One minute left. No word from New York. The stopwatches inexorably function. Thirty seconds less. And then — a cackle, a splutter, a faint sound of voices. We were through. “Is that New York? This is Mildred Boutwood speaking,” said Mildred, trying to keep the tension out of her voice. An unmistakable New York voice replied, “Hello, sugar. How are ya’?” For about the first time that night, we all laughed. She explained that Fred was injured and that I would speak the news. I did. With drama going on all round and half expecting the building to collapse on top of us, I spoke a newscast innocuous to the point of banality.’


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Apart from broadcasting to all parts of the Empire, the BBC provides special programmes to the British and other Imperial Forces serving overseas. No branch of its war work is done with more enthusiasm. These programmes not only provide entertainment to relieve the hardship and monotony of the soldier’s life, but they are a medium through which, as you will see later, men from Britain and all parts of the Empire can keep in active touch both with their homes and their comrades in the forces.

The Empire Entertainments Unit, organized in June 1940 by Cecil Madden, has an underground London theatre as its war-time base. From this it sends out fifty programmes a week overseas — gay and informal programmes produced in a highly informal atmosphere. The unit uses the actors’ dressing-rooms as offices, sleeps in the boxes and broadcasts from the stage. The royal box is a control room; the ante-room is fitted up with gramophone turn-tables; the theatre bar dispenses tea and biscuits. Through the stage door passes an endless stream of radio comedians, blonde crooners, dance bands with their instruments, and men and women in uniform. Any member of the British or Imperial Forces on leave is welcome to be ‘audience’ to the show which is being broadcast to his comrades overseas.


Men sleep in a row of bunks

Orchestra sleeping in the dress-circle of a theatre after a midnight broadcast to North America.


There is one occupational disease from which every soldier on active service in a foreign country suffers — home-sickness. The BBC makes a life-line between the people at home and the men overseas. It also arranges for soldiers, sailors and airmen, from all corners of the Empire, who are now stationed in Britain, to send messages to their friends and families. To and fro the messages go; from Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and South Africans back to their homes in the Dominions; from the forces serving ‘over here’ to their comrades ‘over there’; from British wives and mothers and sweethearts to their menfolk in Africa and India, in Malta or ‘Gib.’

Nearly every day women come to the microphone to send the little reassuring messages. They have of necessity to be brief and bald but that only makes them more moving. The fuller your heart, the more difficult it is to say anything original. Everything is done to put the senders at their ease (the messages for the forces in Africa are sent from a tea-table over which Freddy Grisewood presides), but the consciousness of the microphone and of other people listening is bound to be inhibiting. Usually the message isn’t much more than ‘Hullo, Charlie. Hope you’re all right. We’re all fine here. Grandfather and Auntie May send their love. Baby’s got a new tooth. Well, thumbs up, Charlie, and God bless you.’ Unromantic, unexciting words — but they put new heart into a man far away from home.

Sometimes the messages are sent ‘live’; sometimes they are written by the sender and read out by the compère or commère. Typical of the latter kind of programme is Joan Gilbert’s weekly ‘Calling Gibraltar.’ Before Joan goes to the microphone, much hard work has to be done behind the scenes, for every week hundreds of touching letters arrive asking that messages should be included.

‘Song Time in the Laager’ for South Africa, Rhodesia, and East Africa is an example of the second type of programme in which soldiers from the Dominions send messages to their families. The background of the programme consists of traditional South African songs sung in English. A soldier, Ned Williams, gets leave once a week to act as compère. Nearly all the messages in this programme are ‘live’; sometimes a whole batch of sailors on leave will broadcast, sometimes women who are on war work at South Africa House will call up their sons serving in their own country.

The third kind of programme is mainly ‘soldier to soldier.’ Typical of this is the big New Zealand magazine programme for the New Zealand troops serving in the Middle East. Marjorie Skill, a New Zealand girl, who works in business in London, and who has a great gift for broadcasting, is the unofficial commère of the show and the official compere is Alick Hayes. Marjorie makes it her job to comb the Service Clubs, and even the streets, for New Zealanders on leave. If they cannot come to the microphone in person, she takes down their messages and reads them herself.

Messages, much as they mean to sender and receiver, can hardly give more information than a reassuring telegram. It was the realization of this from the soldier’s side that inspired a quite new kind of programme for the forces — ‘Home Town.’ Alick Hayes, the producer, and Ronnie Shiner, the compère, have both been in the army themselves (Shiner was a Lance-Corporal in the ‘Mounties,’ and Hayes has recently been invalided out), and they decided to plan a programme — by soldiers and for soldiers — based on their own experience of what a man away from home most wants to hear. They decided to go to a different district in England each week, look up several soldiers’ families, talk to them, go over their houses and get the whole atmosphere of each man’s life. Then, every week, Shiner devotes two or three minutes to each soldier by name, giving him such a vivid picture of what’s going on at home that the man feels as if he had only just closed his own front door behind him. The other soldiers who come from the same district, whether it is Liverpool, the Weald of Kent or the East End of London, enjoy it almost as much as the ones mentioned by name, for Shiner conjures up the whole place for them and slips in the little bits of local news they love to hear.

Up to now ‘Home Town’ has only been run for British forces in Malta, but it has been such a success from the first broadcast a few months ago that it is likely to be extended. The programme for R.A.F. men now training in Canada, with its ‘Radio Girl Friend’ who visits their homes in Britain, is a development of the same idea.

Sometimes Ronnie Shiner arrives in the middle of washing-day or spring-cleaning, or ‘Mum’ has to receive him in the kitchen instead of in the best room because there’s something cooking on the stove that can’t be left. She may be a little embarrassed, but Shiner is delighted because he knows that it is just those little homely details a son or a husband likes to hear about. Washing-day is an unromantic affair when you’re living at home, but when you’re an exile in the middle of a scorching desert, the thought of the washing flapping on the line in a Surrey garden and your mother or your wife, in an overall you remember, walking down the path among the sunflowers you planted before the war, is more refreshing than an oasis.


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Every department of overseas broadcasting has its special and intricate problems. For one thing there are physical difficulties of time. By working all round the clock, the Empire Department can deal easily with the fact that it is evening in Australia when it is dawn in London, and evening in the East at midday here. But there are local time variations to be thought of such as the difference between east coast and west coast time in North America, not to mention the varying local ‘summer times’ and their relation to our own ‘double summer time.’ The Overseas Planning Department, working out its vast jig-saw puzzles of times and wavelengths, lives in the world of Dunne and Einstein. But time has to be considered humanly, as well as mathematically. The news, for example, must be timed so as to arrive when most people are at home to listen to it.


A boy, a man and a girl sit on a sofa; a woman stands next to them

Ronnie Shiner talks to the family, collecting a budget of intimate news to be broadcast to a soldier stationed in Malta in the ‘Home Town’ programme.


That means an accurate knowledge of the habits of every audience you are addressing. And the BBC must know not only its habits but its psychology and its special interests. That is why the addition of Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians and Indians to its war-time staff is so necessary and so valuable.

In planning for India and Burma, for instance, Professor Rushbrook-Williams must consider what will appeal to soldiers, civil servants and others who really form an extension of the ‘Home and Forces’ audience, and what will most interest English-speaking Indians and Burmese and those who speak Hindustani, Bengali, Tamil or Burmese. Z. A. Bokhari [sic – Bukhari] and his Indian colleagues arrange programmes both in English and in Indian languages. Special lectures on English literature are often given to fit in with university courses for Indian students. Examples of the music and poetry of both nations, news commentaries and political discussions have an interested audience all over India.


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Apart from the services to the Empire, there is a special service to Latin America which broadcasts for four hours and a quarter every night in Spanish and Brazilian [sic]. Every week there are dramatic feature programmes in Spanish. Extra ones are added to celebrate national days and anniversaries. George Camacho, the Latin-American programme organizer, has formed a small repertory company which includes both actors and amateurs. Many of the European and Latin-American members of the BBC have remarkable dramatic talent and some of the British staff who speak Spanish of the right kind well are often pressed into service.


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If there is one thing that has made the people of Great Britain realize the human ties which bind us to the other nations of the Commonwealth and to the United States, it is the warm, almost recklessly generous hospitality offered to evacuated British children. The broadcasting organizations of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the U.S.A. co-operate with the BBC in keeping parents in touch with their children overseas. Every week oneway messages from parents go out from London in all the BBC programmes. There are two-way message programmes to North America once a month and to Australia and South Africa once every eight weeks. In these, parents and children talk to each other over thousands of miles by ‘beam radio’ and hear each other’s voices as clearly as if they were merely talking by telephone.

The two-way ‘Children calling Home’ programmes need elaborate preparation at both ends of the microphone. But even the ‘one-way’ messages require an enormous amount of detailed organization on the part of Enid Maxwell in London and the Regional staff who arrange for parents in other parts of the British Isles to come to the microphone and record their messages. It means trouble for the parents, too, who may have to make long journeys so that a boy or girl overseas can hear their voice for two minutes. But neither parents nor members of the staff ever complain, except to wish that it were possible to send thousands more messages. Every child on the list to receive a message that week has first to be located — not always easy since foster-parents may have moved or have taken the child away on holiday — and then cabled so that the great event is not missed. Nor is it always easy to find the parents, for programmes have to be planned in advance; they may have moved, be on war work in another district or have been bombed out. But somehow, with many last-minute tensions and heartburnings, Enid Maxwell’s programme always goes out. Once an atmospheric storm made listening conditions in Melbourne so bad that not a word could be heard. Without a murmur, the parents turned up very early the next morning — it was a bitter winter day — and did the whole programme again.


Three girls at an NBC microphone

‘Children calling Home’


Recording the one-way messages is always rather an emotional occasion both for the parents and the programme staff. However hard you try to be detached, it isn’t always possible. The braver the parents are — and heaven knows they are brave — the more difficult it is for the producer to keep down that lump in the throat. Of course the children are safe and happy, of course it’s wonderful that they should have found such splendid homes with such kind people — but, all the same, the fact remains that they are very, very far away.

In the very first recording session, the producer who was deputizing for Enid Maxwell was secretly rather annoyed with one parent who had not answered the BBC’s invitation and who arrived very late. But there was just time to record her message, so the mother sat down at the microphone. She began gallantly enough — then suddenly she broke down and began to cry. ‘You must excuse me, Miss,’ she said, between sobs, ‘I’m a bit on edge. You see Baby and I were bombed out last night and we didn’t get any sleep.’ The producer, now feeling thoroughly ashamed of herself, said she would arrange a special recording session on another day when Mrs. X was feeling better. But Mrs. X would have none of it.


A group of people sit listening to headphones


‘I’ll be all right in a jiffy. You’ll see. Just give me a sip of water — and my handbag.’ She swallowed some water, dried her eyes, powdered her nose, and began all over again in a voice of determined cheerfulness. But when the record was played back to her, the sensitive microphone had caught a slight tremor inaudible to human ears. ‘I can’t let Heather hear that‘ said Mrs. X decidedly. ‘She’d think I was upset. Could I do it just once more?’ She did — and this time her voice had a convincing ring of gaiety which the most brilliant actress could not have bettered.

Funny things happen as well as sad ones. Mothers often have to bring their babies with them as there is no one to look after them at home. Then the BBC becomes a crèche with harassed commissionaires, secretaries and programme staff attempting to keep crying babies quiet while the red light is on and the mother is recording her message. And once when Enid Maxwell said sympathetically to a father who had just broadcast to his four children, ‘How empty the house must feel without them,’ the father answered, ‘Don’t worry, Miss. I’ve got four more of the little blighters at home.’

How about the children who receive the messages? We know that they are pleased and excited. We know that the ones who have become careless about writing home begin sending letters again, for home has once more become real. But we also know that, just as the most affectionate child will glower at a parent who turns up to the school sports wearing the wrong clothes, so the evacuees are alarmingly critical. They are anxious their fathers and mothers should make a good impression on their new friends and foster-parents. The highest praise a parent can receive is a letter saying: ‘Thank heavens you didn’t let me down and thought of something original to say.’

Roy Rich who introduces the two-way programmes has to combine tact, resourcefulness and a faculty for improvisation to an almost unnatural degree. At any minute he may find himself deputizing for a tongue-tied parent and talking to an unknown child thousands of miles away. He has tactfully to round off a conversation which may be threatening to encroach on another parent’s precious time. In fact he may be called on to do anything from holding a baby to leading an unrehearsed Christmas carol.


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So the Empire Service goes on, carrying news of international importance or the tiny details of someone’s family life. The news that a country has been invaded; the news that a hundred German planes have been brought down; the news that a child in Glasgow has just learnt to walk — the great transmitters gather them all up and toss them to the farthest corners of the world. Broadcasting has made exchange and contact between all parts of the Empire a living thing.


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This is the story of the BBC at war. It is a human institution and therefore a fallible one. But the BBC now broadcasts about half a million words a day — as much as five full-length novels. It broadcasts them in forty languages and to nearly every nation in the world. These facts alone prove its efficiency and work.



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SO long as the war lasts, British broadcasting will continue to bring to the homes of this island people, through the hard days, things of strength and beauty and fun. It will continue to bind together, as only broadcasting can, the members of the British Commonwealth in free and welcome partnership. It will continue to sap the spirit of the enemy, and to quicken the sense of liberty in the oppressed peoples, carrying the voice of truth and sanity and courage across the frontiers.

And when victory is ours, the high task of radio will be to help in building civilization upon more enduring foundations, and to a better and a livelier pattern. Once again, through broadcasting, ‘Nation shall speak peace unto nation.’


A bank of knobs, dials and gauges



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