Book Review: Aunties War

Not so much a history of the BBC during the Second World War, as a curated collection of articles gleaned from the BBC archives.

Reviewed by: David Harris

Buy your copy of Aunties War here

Not so much a history of the BBC during the Second World War, as a curated collection of articles gleaned from the BBC archives.


Edward Stourton (b.1957) is a BBC radio broadcaster and writer who presents the religious programme, Sunday on Radio 4. The potential subject matter of this book is vast, with Stourton presenting his history in roughly chronological order.

A more general theme running through the book is the independence of the BBC and the desire to tell the truth about what happened during the war. The BBC was hardly going to be neutral at a time of total war, but it aspired to be more than the ‘official voice of government propaganda’.

The first casualty of the war was BBC Television, which closed down in September 1939. It was a very limited service, only available in the London area and was deemed too expensive to maintain.

There was a rationalisation of radio broadcasting too; national and local broadcasting was combined into the Home Service and all programmes were transmitted on 391m (767kHz) or 449m (668kHz).

It was feared that German bombers would use BBC radio transmitters as radio navigation beacons. Radio broadcasts could be switched between frequencies if bombers were detected.

Stourton looks at William Joyce (1906- 1946) better known as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, who became the voice of German propaganda broadcasts aimed at the UK. In Germany, people were prohibited from listening to foreign broadcasts. In the UK, many tuned into Lord Haw-Haw who was seen as a rather amusing figure. He was seen to provide some ‘light relief’ from the war effort.

Joyce was hanged in 1946 for treason.

Stourton also investigates the tensions between the BBC and the newly-formed Ministry of Information. There were issues about reporting British losses, especially as German radio stations would always report successful actions; this was picked up by the media in the USA before the news was available in the UK.

Particular frustration within the BBC surrounded the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, which was presented as a ‘triumph’, rather than a defeat. No war reporters had been permitted to take part in the evacuation.

The author devotes a lot of the book to the role of the BBC European Service, in particular its broadcasts to France and its support of General Charles de Gaulle (1890 to 1970).

There is also some discussion of the conflicts between novelist J B Priestley (1894 to 1984) and the government over the future of Britain after WWII.

I felt that Stourton’s main interest was in the role of the war correspondent. He talks at length about the American broadcaster Ed Murrow (1908 to 1965) who did so much to inform Americans of the war in Europe and was credited with helping to shape opinion that led the US to enter the Second World War.

This is of some interest, but it does rather take the book away from its core subject of the BBC.

Furthermore, Stourton examines the pioneering war correspondent Richard Dimbleby (1913 -1965) who flew as a reporter on a number of RAF bombing raids over Germany and was present at many key events during the Second World War.

The author devotes some space to ‘white’ propaganda (news officially broadcast by the BBC) and ‘black’ propaganda, which is news broadcast by covert stations operated by the British government, masquerading as German stations. This fascinating area of broadcasting was well reported in V for Victory by David Boyle (RadioUser, October 2016: 15).

There is a section on writer George Orwell (1903 -1950) who broadcast on the Indian service of the BBC from 1941 to 1943. The complete texts of these broadcasts, which are fine examples of Orwell’s literary output, were first made available in book form in 1985. Unfortunately, radio ownership in India was very low and it was felt that his main audience were, in fact, Japanese radio monitors.

What I felt was missing from this book was a more pronounced central focus. The BBC and the Second World War is a huge topic but Stourton has, at times, skirted around the subject by ‘dipping’ in and out of certain selected topics such as war correspondents and European broadcasts. I would like to have learned more, for instance, about the BBC and the Home Front.

Elsewhere in the book, we are told that some programmes such as Brains Trust and ITMA were popular. However, readers do not learn what it was like to have lived through the Second World War, with the BBC as your main source of news about the war effort.

Stourton is a very fluent writer who has written several books about Roman Catholicism and other topics.  He had full access to the BBC archives in writing this book and I feel that the work could have been better presented, by means of adopting an approach guided by clear-cut overall themes.

However, this is certainly a good read for anyone with an interest in the BBC and the Second World War.
 

Buy your copy of Aunties War here