Broadcasting in Britain: War-time Broadcasting 

16 December 2022


Cover of Broadcasting in Britain

From ‘Broadcasting in Britain’, published in 1972 by HMSO

In 1939, Britain’s nine million licence-holders were served by a well-engineered broadcasting system, but profound changes were necessary if an effective service was to be maintained in time of war; the system’s vulnerability was symbolized by the siting of its all-important control room on the top storey of Broadcasting House.

Broadcasting received high priority in the allocation of war-time resources. Suitably fortified, it could afford the authorities an unrivalled means of informing, exhorting and instructing the public at home, and of ensuring that Britain’s voice was heard abroad. Entertainment, too, had its part to play in upholding national morale, and broadcasting had the advantage over other media of being available to more of the people for more of the time.

However, as late as 1937 it had been feared that if war came broadcasting would have to close down, because the BBC’s network of transmitters, as then operated, would constitute a network of navigational beacons for enemy aircraft.

A solution to this problem was devised and made ready by the time of the Munich crisis in 1938, and was put into effect, in a period of less than two hours, on September 1, 1939. A number of high-power transmitters, all carrying the same programme, were grouped on to a common frequency. As a result, an aircraft picking up that frequency received no guidance unless the signal came predominantly from a single transmitter. Maps at the headquarters of the RAF’s Fighter Command showed the area around each transmitter within which an aircraft would receive a useful bearing (error less than 10°), and whenever enemy aircraft were plotted as entering that area, which was typically 50 miles (80 kilometres) in diameter, the BBC was ordered to close down the transmitter. Its listeners continued to receive a weak but intelligible signal from the other transmitters in the group. At first, only a single programme (the ‘Home Service’) was broadcast, from two groups of transmitters, but by February 1940 two more groups had been added, respectively radiating a multilingual service to Europe, and a deliberately lowbrow ‘Forces’ programme.

To improve the service that could be maintained during air raids, a network of 60 low-power (100-250 watt) transmitters was set up on a common frequency. Because of its limited range (5-10 miles) a transmitter in this group did not need to be closed down until there was actually an air-raid ‘alert’ in its area.

The BBC’s long-wave transmitter, at Droitwich, was kept off the air until November 1941, when other transmitters were added to form a common-frequency group, transmitting to Europe. Later, a new long-and medium-wave station was built at Ottringham, near Hull, which fed a total of 800 kW to its aerials, and could reach Berlin in daylight.

For more distant areas, short-wave facilities were greatly increased. Three completely new stations were built, and the BBC’s total complement of short-wave transmitters was increased from 8 to 36.

There was no way of preventing the Alexandra Palace television transmitter from affording guidance to aircraft, and the service was closed throughout the war. However, in 1941 the transmitter and aerial were used for an important military assignment. This involved a very advanced German system which was designed to guide bombers accurately to a target in England by a radio beam transmitted from France, but which had the misfortune to operate in the same frequency band as the Alexandra Palace transmitter. It was arranged for one of the system’s signals to trigger a powerful response from Alexandra Palace; as a result, the system’s ‘range’ facility was completely confused, and the aircraft did not receive the instructions to release their bombs.

Studio centres

To meet war-time conditions, a complete upheaval of studio facilities was necessary. Apart from evacuating whole departments from London to regional centres, the BBC prepared a separate network of emergency studios and control centres, and an emergency headquarters at Evesham, Worcestershire. The network of land-lines provided by the Post Office was greatly expanded, to serve the 60 low-power transmitters, to enable programmes to be routed through London for censorship, and to provide alternative routes for emergency use; telephone circuits in use for communication and programme distribution eventually totalled over 30,000 miles.

It was decided to abandon the elaborate pre-war system whereby all studios were dependent upon battery-powered microphone amplifiers in a central control room, and to make each studio self-contained. This was accomplished by installing, in all of the BBC’s 150 studios, simple equipment built around a microphone amplifier of extremely high performance, which had been designed just before the war for outside broadcasting. Despite the enforced simplicity of war-time studios, standards were maintained. Radio drama, it was found, could survive without the impressive ‘dramatic control panel’ from which the producer had directed actors, ‘effects’ operators and musicians in separate studios, unable to see any of them. Rooms pressed into service as studios were often provided with unexpectedly satisfactory acoustics merely by hanging up lengths of ‘Cabot’s quilting’ – cotton sheeting stuffed with dried eel-grass.


Continuity studio

The Light Programme ‘continuity’ suite in Broadcasting House, London, 1949: In the BBC’s ‘continuity’ system, introduced during the war, an announcer and a technical operator link all the items broadcast by a particular network into a smooth-running sequence



The war created a growing need for recording facilities. The risk of air-raids after dark made it prudent to pre-record programmes during daylight, whilst the expansion of overseas broadcasting increased the demand for repeating programmes on different services. Pre-recording also eased the problems of censorship. Finally, effective reporting of the war demanded extensive facilities for mobile recording.

The BBC’s meagre pre-war facilities were quite inadequate for the task, and new equipment was hurriedly sought.

Six channels of Philips-Miller equipment were in commission before the invasion of the Low Countries cut off further supplies of the machines, and of the special film, which was made in Belgium; continued use of the system was possible only when arrangements were made to have the film produced in America. Though the Marconi-Stille system was obsolescent, one further channel (ie two machines) was bought; erasure and re-use of the steel tapes made it possible to operate the system despite the difficulty of obtaining new tapes from Sweden.

In disc recording, there were fewer obstacles to expansion. One particular type of American equipment was available, and some 40 channels were imported. They had facilities for recording at 33⅓ rpm on 17½-inch (438 mm) discs, giving a playing time of a quarter of an hour, but required considerable modification to bring them up to an acceptable standard of performance.

The demand for mobile recording equipment was met mainly by producing over 50 machines of a type designed by the BBC just before the war. This equipment was technically satisfactory and extremely rugged, but its bulk made it ‘transportable’ rather than ‘portable’; moreover, the reporter had to be accompanied by a recording engineer. Accordingly, in 1943/4, the BBC developed, in association with the MSS company, a midget recorder weighing only 35 lbs (16 kg), based on a clockwork portable gramophone. It was truly portable, and simple enough to be operated by the reporter. Such historic despatches are those recorded by Stanley Maxted at Arnhem were made possible by this equipment, of which some seventy units were produced.

The war-time civilian receiver

The priority given to the BBC’s war-time needs could not be extended to those of its listeners, and by 1943 the annual production of receivers for sale to the public had dwindled to 50,000. This was obviously insufficient to offset the decay of old receivers, which the shortage of spare parts and of skilled service engineers was accelerating, and an unbranded ‘War-time Civilian Receiver’ was produced, in mains and battery versions. If first appeared in July 1944, and over a quarter of a million were sold. The receiver was of stark appearance, and was universally known as the ‘Utility Set’.


Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Friday 19 July 2024