The BBC at War

The way the BBC worked during the Second World War by using the reporting on El Alamein

Term Paper 2009 31 Pages

History Europe - Germany - National Socialism, World War II






4.1. How the Correspondents Reached the Battle Zone
4.2. The Reports on El Alamein




1 Introduction

The Second World War was the first total war: because of the Blitz, the massive bombardment of British cities by the German air force, British were as much involved in the battle zone as the troops were, and so, of course, was the BBC. It was also the first ideological war, a conflict of words in which radio played a more important role than did the medium of print. And besides these challenges the BBC had broadcasting duties which would be normal in any war: to provide an extensive and credible news service and to raise and maintain national morale with a varied programme of entertainment.[1]

At midnight on 4 November 1942 the British people finally heard good news about the course of the war with Germany. The BBC was able to announce that the British Army had achieved a decisive victory over the Italian and German Panzerarmee west of the railway half of El Alamein in Egypt [2]. The tattered remnants of Rommel’s once proud Africa Korps were in full retreat.

The British news environment during the pre-war and early-war period is fairly easy to sum up: the newspaper was king. Print press was the main outlet for news, while the BBC was primarily for entertainment, talk shows, documentaries and ‘outside broadcasts’ of live commentary on events such as sports matches, state funerals and parades; BBC news consisted mostly of bulletins read by announcers. Yet the BBC had one very large asset: its audience. In September 1939, there were more than nine million wireless licenses in the United Kingdom, approximately 73 for every 100 households. BBC transmitters broadcast 75,636 hours of programming for the home isles in 1939, while the Overseas Service delivered 43,198 hours. The king delivered speeches over the BBC six times in 1939, including on 3 September to address the outbreak of war[3]. Subsequently, BBC administrators perceived the conflict as a significant opportunity to expand its mandate and format. In terms of news delivery, they aimed to stop treating their distinctive medium like a print publication, redistributing bulletins from press services such as Reuters, and adapt war reporting to radio technology; the microphone could bring the conflict to the public in a manner totally original and enhanced from what newspapers or magazines delivered. Various internal memos discuss the war as a singular opportunity for the corporation to produce ‘sound pictures of battle’ and ‘exploit the qualities of immediacy and reality which make broadcasting unique as a medium for bringing the war to life.’ Yet they also express awareness that the opportunity was being squandered.[4]

In the following term paper, I will examine the way the BBC worked during the Second World War by using the reporting on El Alamein as a representative example. First of all it will be examined how the BBC developed and worked during the time between 1939 and 1945, including the different types of offered programmes but also the way the staff worked under the adverse circumstances of war. Then the battle of El Alamein will be explained, although it will not be possible to go too much into detail. After these explanatory chapters the practical analysis of War Reports of the battle of El Alamein follows. It was not easy to collect these examples because there is only a limited number of old recordings available on the internet. Even though I contacted the BBC archive, they could not help me. So I had to rely on the sources provided on the internet. My original plan was to compare the Germans reports with the BBC ones. However, there were no German audio clips available even though I got in contact with many archives.

2 The BBC at War

In Britain there was in the 1920s a remarkable growth in broadcasting technology, organization and reception. In 1922, the Postmaster-General permitted the formation of a British Broadcasting Company, organized by the six major wireless manufacturers, to give regular programmes of entertainment from various stations. Initially there were only five stations, at London, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Cardiff, but gradually a nationwide network was built up. In Britain, the Lloyd George government granted a monopoly to the BBC whereas in other countries, such as the United States, the broadcasters were involved in a rough competition. In the 1930s there was significant evidence that the widening availability of radio was changing the traditional patterns of British domestic life.[5]

In Germany too, radio was a reasonably well-established mass medium even before the Machtergreifung of the Nazis. Before 1933 broadcasting in Germany was highly decentralized and politically neutral and was only controlled by the Lander. The German Reichsrundfunkgesellschaft, which is an equivalent to the BBC, was controlled by the Reichspost and by the governments of the federal states. But together with the deletion of the democracy in Germany in the early 1930s went also the loss of the general autonomy of the German radio programme. In November 1932, the Papen government decided to install a Broadcasting Commissioner nominated by the Ministry of the Interior, to undermine the programming autonomy of the regions. After January 1933, broadcasting was immediately put under the rule of Goebbels and his Propaganda Ministry.[6]

In Britain there was a similar development even if the outcome was not as drastic as in Germany. The BBC was determined to preserve some autonomy, but this was conditional upon the maintenance of good relations with government[7]. During the war the relationship of the BBC with the British government became even tenser than before. The relationship had already been shaken during the General Strike in 1926 when the government had tried to increase its influence on the BBC, f.e. by trying to determine who was supposed to be interviewed for the programmes. During the time of the war governments usually tried to get the better of the media because it was extremely important to give the audience the right information at the right time. That is also what the British government tried, namely to use the media as a means of propaganda.[8] However, the BBC resisted to be exploited. It was concerned with telling people “how it is”, and at times the reports were gruesome and difficult to bear.[9] Nevertheless its sources of information were limited and because national security sometimes demanded the suppression of certain facts, the BBC was not able to tell the entire truth. However, it also told the bad news. The British Army faced several serious losses on the battle fields until El Alamein in 1942. But the most important thing is that people at home trusted the BBC because, from their point of view, the BBC was telling the truth. This factor of trust is very important regarding the belief of the British that they were fighting a just war against a cruel system.[10]

Thanks to the war radio was at last able to establish itself as a rapid news medium. It was to be the only medium that was able to survive in wartime. Most of the theatres, cinemas and sport stadiums were closed down mainly due to the fact that people felt safer while staying at home, especially during the time when Britain faced massive German bombardment. So people relied on the two means of information and entertainment which they could enjoy at home, i.e. newspapers and radio. Newspapers were handicapped by the shortage of newsprint. However, the main point was that people were hungry for the latest news which is something that newspapers could not provide. So it was radio that was able to meet the needs of the population. Another very important fact is that radio brought the sounds of war etc. into the living rooms of the British so that they were able to imagine this cruelty.[11] The BBC’s 9 a.m. bulletin reached huge and hungry audiences calculated at between 43 and 50 per cent of the population, and the pressure of events combined with important advances in technology to create a revolution in the way the news was presented[12]. Therefore, the BBC increased its niveau concerning their bulletins and it also sought newsreaders that represented a wider range of the population. News reading became more efficient and professional and from 1940 onwards the BBC had its own correspondents. As radio was the main means to provide the latest news it stands to reason that there had to be an improvement in the technology and techniques of sound recording.] It was mainly the BBC correspondents’ reports from the battle fields which had a dramatic effect. Although the Germans had originally invented this technology, the British used it to a much larger extend. Reporters such as Richard Dimbleby were put through the same battle training as the soldiers and were then equipped with portable, heavy disc recorders.[13]

However, media was not only a means of providing its audience with information but also a means of entertainment. There was “interruptible” light music made for dull radio - particularly at the start of the war, when there was no British battlefront and not much to report. Listeners and the press complained of “too many organ recitals” and “too many public announcements”.[14] So the BBC also started many programmes for entertainment. This was necessary to cheer up the people that might have a low morale after the first unsuccessful years of the war. Radio started its own kind of light entertainment, namely by establishing comedy shows. In 1938, the BBC started a comedy series called Band Waggon. It was originally conceived as a music show but it contained several comic interludes. The main characters were Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch who were the occupants of an imaginary flat on top of Broadcasting House. Arthur Askey told Band Waggon listeners: “I think it's a stroke of genius, putting Band Waggon on the air. It'll make old Nasty realize what the British public will put up with.”[15] But it turned out that Band Waggon and a host of similar shows were more than what people would put up with - they were just what the audience wanted. Under siege, the nation needed light relief. The result was a golden era for BBC variety. When the show ended in 1939 people were longing for something similar. It's That Man Again (later abbreviated to ITMA) was hence an even bigger hit than Band Waggon. The title was derived from a headline that was frequently used by the Daily Express to announce the latest activities of Adolf Hitler.[16] It starred Tommy Handley as the Minister of Aggravation and Mysteries, in a parody of the Ministry of Information, and it was packed with corny lines like: “I go all goosey when I can't follow my proper- gander...”.[17] The series was so suited for the medium radio because it used the speed, surprise and unstable reality that are the inherent properties of a blind medium. It used special phrases and buzzwords that were familiar to people at that time: the queues, rationing (one character even had the name Sir Short Supply), the black market etc. At its peak ITMA had an audience of 15 million per week[18].

However, music was still a stronger means of entertainment than the comedy shows. Music, may it be popular or classical, live or recorded, filled many hours of radio broadcasting. Government and the BBC agreed in some attempts to raise morale and productivity by these programmes. In 1940 a half-hour programme of band music was established, named Music While You Work. It was launched by loudspeakers in many factories all across the country in order to keep mass production at a steady rate by broadcasting a steady sequence of popular music, all of the same tempo. [19]

In 1941, the BBC established the programme Sincerely Yours for the singer Vera Lynn which was mainly aimed at the soldiers and men in the armed forces. The military authorities pointed out that it was necessary to have an attractive young female in order to increase the soldiers’ morale. This is an instrument that the Germans used as well. However, the authorities considered Very Lynn to be rather unsexy and her sentimental songs to be contra productive. Nevertheless, Very Lynn became the female icon of the soldiers, ‘the forces’ sweetheart’[20]. But Basil Nicholls, the controller of programmes, hated what he saw as the ‘insincere and over-sentimental performances of women singers' like Vera Lynn. Similarly, the BBC Governors' minutes ‘deplored' her show, Sincerely Yours. But troops loved it, and they loved her. Sincerely Yours, presented in the form of a letter to the boys on the fighting front, attracted 2,000 requests a week, and Vera's voice plucked at the heartstrings in songs such as We'll Meet Again and White Cliffs of Dover[21]

However, it was not just about light entertainment. There were series such as Postscript or highbrow discussions called The Brains Trust. Another important factor of wartime entertainment was the growing American influence on British culture. Popular music, for example, had to make increasing use of gramophones. However, due to the shortage of raw materials there were hardly any British records made, and so most of the releases during 1939 and 1945 were American. In the course of the war more and more US-American soldiers were stationed on the Isles and so the American Forces Network was established. It simply re-broadcast the most popular music and comedy shows of the US domestic programmes. By 1944 American shows were also broadcast on the BBC and so the British listeners were captivated by their stars, such as Jack Benny, Frank Sinatra or the Andrews Sisters[22].

However, it still remains unclear how it was possible for the BBC to work during the war, especially when the country was being bombed. Hitler said that in war, words are actions. It is not surprising, then, that his bombers targeted Broadcasting House in London, or that the BBC had contingency plans for just such an event. These involved evacuating whole departments out of London. It all made programme making and scheduling more difficult, and was often unsettling for the individuals concerned. In London the Criterion Theatre became the base for the BBC's Empire Entertainments Unit. Here the staff worked, ate and slept, while broadcasts went out from the theatre stage. Similarly staff that remained at Broadcasting House often ate, slept and worked within the walls of the BBC. The Radio Theatre became a dormitory, in which a curtain separated the sleeping quarters of the men and women. The London Blitz started on September 7th 1940, and weeks later the Broadcasting House took its first hit. A delayed action crashed through a window on the 7th floor, and came to rest two floors down in the music library. Moments later, as firemen rushed to the scene, it exploded, killing seven people. On May 10th 1941, the worst night of the Blitz, bombs destroyed all the buildings on the eastern side of the Broadcasting House island site, killing a member of staff[23].

In many ways the World War II made the BBC. The fact that for decades after the war people in the Iron Curtain countries risked their lives to listen to the BBC is testimony to the reputation for integrity that it built up in the face of the Nazi threat[24].


[1] Cf. Crisell, Andrew. “The Home Service and the Forces Programme“. In: An Introductory History of British Broadcasting. London: Routledge, 1997, pp. 53-54.

[2] Cf. Calder, Angus. The People’s War. London: Jonathan Cape, 1986, p. 304.

[3] Cf. Doherty, M.R. Nazi Wireless Propaganda. Lord Haw-Haw and British Public Opinion in the Second World War. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000, pp. 1-2.

[4] Cf. Marquis, Alice Goldfarb. “Written on the Wind: The Impact of Radio during the 1930s.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 19, 1984, p. 410.

[5] Cf. Doherty, pp. 1-2.

[6] Cf. ibid, p. 2.

[7] Cf. Donnelly, Mark. Britain in the Second World War. London, New York: Routledge, 1999, p. 75.

[8] Cf. Crisell, Andrew. “The sounds of war“. In: An Introductory History of British Broadcasting. London: Routledge, 1997, p. 55.

[9] Cf. “The BBC at War. 1939 - 1945. Reporting the War“ 17 May 2009 [<http. ://www.bbc.co.uk/heritage/story/ww2/reporting.shtml >].

[10] Cf. Crisell, pp. 59-60.

[11] Cf. ibid., pp. 61-62.

[12] Ibid., p. 55.

[13] Cf. ibid., pp. 55-56.

[14] Cf. “BBC at War. 1939 - 1945. Homefront Programming“. 17 May 2009 <http. ://www. bbc.co. uk/heritage/story/ww2/homefront.shtml>.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Crisell, p. 57.

[17] “BBC at War. 1939 - 1945. Homefront Programming“ <http.://www.bbc.co.uk/heritage/story/ww2/homefront.shtml>.

[18] Cf. Crisell, p. 57.

[19] Ibid., p. 58.

[20] Ibid.


[22] Cf. Crisell, pp. 58-59.

[23] Cf. “BBC at War. 1939 - 1945. Life at the BBC“. 17 May 2009 [<http. ://www. bbc.co. uk/heritage/story/ww2/lifebbc. shtml>].

[24] “BBC at War. 1939 - 1945. Censorship and Propaganda“. 17 May 2009 [<http. ://www. bbc.co. uk/heritage/story/ww2/censor_prop. shtml>].


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Dresden Technical University – Institut für Kulturstudien Großbritanniens
Second World Alamein




Title: The BBC at War