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Radio Voices in War


In this month’s book review section, David Harris appraises two books – very different in scope and ambition


In this month’s book review section, David Harris appraises two books – very different in scope and ambition – which both focus on broadcasting during the Second World War and on the role of the BBC in the conflict.


Aunties War:  The BBC during the Second World War by Edward Stourton. Doubleday. 2017. 422 pp. Hbk. £20. ISBN 9780857523327


Wartime Broadcasting by Mike Brown. Shire Publications, Oxford. 2018. 64pp. Pbk. £7.99. ISBN 9781784422646


Auntie’s War

The first title under review this month is 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.

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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.


Wartime Broadcasting

Wartime Broadcasting is a slim volume; one of the latest additions to the comprehensive Shire Publications catalogue. The publishers are best known for their books on such subjects as side cars, fire engines and harvesting machinery. These books are often found in museum and garden centre gift shops.

The author, Mike Brown, is a former history teacher who now specialises in writing books about the Home Front during the Second World War.

He does an admirable job in condensing the wartime history of the BBC into seven short, well-illustrated, chapters. Readers learn about the merger of national and regional services in 1939 into the Home Service (now BBC Radio 4).

In 1940, a second channel, Forces Programme, was introduced, which later became The Light Programme (now BBC Radio 2). This was basically a light entertainment station, which attracted a big listenership from among civilian workers as well as members of the armed forces.

The book also briefly covers the BBC External Service. This started in 1932 with the Empire Service, broadcasting in English on short wave.

During the Second World War, the BBC broadcast in many languages to the whole world. This included transmissions of seven hours duration per day to North America.

As in the first title under review here, the propaganda broadcasts in English from Germany (see previous section) are also covered in this book. In particular, the author offers a discussion of the role of Lord Haw-Haw These broadcasts came from Berlin and later from the captured facilities of Radio Luxembourg.

In addition to vital news broadcasts and light entertainment, many BBC radio programmes were aimed at giving out information on topics such as cookery and gardening to help people make the best of their meagre rations and grow more of their own food. There were also health programmes and educational broadcasts for schools.

This book is a fascinating read and would be a useful resource for any young person studying the history of Britain during the Second World War.

Helpfully, this publication has a bibliography and a list of museums with radio-related exhibits. David Harris


This article was featured in the August 2018 issue of Radio User

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