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A German Monitor for the BBC Monitoring Service

by Elizabeth Lister

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Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
Elizabeth Lister
People in story: 
Karl Lehmann, Sir Ernst Gombrich, Anatole Goldberg
Location of story: 
Caversham Park, Reading
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
07 December 2005

This story was submitted to the website by Eleanor Fell. on behalf of Karl Lehmann, who has given his permission to add his story to the website and understands the terms and conditions.

I was born in German 1921 and my father was Jewish, I came to England in 1936 and I went to Leighton Park School in Reading, and subsequently to Queen's College Oxford from 1939 - 1942, where I studied German and French. I knew about the BBC Monitoring Service and I was keen to work there. However the only advertisement for a job that I saw was for a Dutch Monitor, and I applied although I knew only a little Dutch! The BBC however had the good sense to test me in German and I was put on the reserve list for German monitors, although there was no immediate vacancy.

By the Christmas of 1942 I was sent a telegram offering me a temporary job as a replacement for a sick monitor. This I accepted and ended up 39 years later as Editor of News and Publications.

The first place I worked was at Evesham, where I was in a dormitory on the BBC site. I worked as a German monitor listening to the German home service and reporting on what the German people were being told. This included listening to Hitler's speeches, which were listened to by a relay of monitors. We would each listen to 3 minutes of his speech and then go away to translate it into English for the Government and the BBC News desks. This system of relay monitoring meant that a finished translation of a 2 hours speech was available within half and hour of it being broadcast.

To convey the effect of Hitler's speech presented special difficulties. Hitler's German was often turgid and pedestrian and when read on a printed page was quite unimpressive. Hitler produced his effects entirely by the way he spoke. The challenge was to try and convey some of the passion in the written copy without distorting the meaning of the actual words.

In April 1943 the BBC Monitoring Service moved to Caversham Park in Reading, where I was billeted in Binfield Heath. It was a very sociable place to work, in fact staff would often come in on their off days and eat in the canteen, which greatly eased the effects of rationing. There was a library in the building and the park, so a pleasant place to spend a day off. In fact the building was almost like a club and the service was like one big family - even though there were nearly 500 of us here in total, from monitors to engineers and editors. We were all totally united in the one aim of winning the war.

It was during this time that I met my first wife, who was a senior Italian monitor.

In 1944 I was promoted to become a monitoring supervisor. In retrospect this was easily the best job I ever had, for it meant that I was a direct colleague of people such as Sir Ernst Gombrich, the renowned art historian and Anatole Goldberg, the ace BBC commentator, who had been largely instrumental in inventing the profession of monitoring.

All in all my time at the BBC Monitoring Service during the 2nd World War was a very rewarding one.

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