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An Interview with Frank Gillardicon for Recommended story

by WW2 People's War Team

Frank Gillard, BBC War Correspondent, in May 1944, shortly before the D-Day landings

Contributed by 
WW2 People's War Team
People in story: 
Frank Gillard
Location of story: 
North Africa, Normandy
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 February 2005

This extract is taken from an interview with Frank Gillard, BBC War Correspondent, interviewed by the BBC in 1983 about his experiences during WW2.

Once the war was announced, I happened to be in Bristol on BBC work, and suddenly there descended on this regional centre, which consisted of two terraced houses in those days, no more, the entire Variety department of the BBC, the entire Music department of the BBC, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Schools department, the Religious broadcasting department, the Education department, they all came down evacuated out of London. Room had to be found for them all, studios had to be found for them all - the confusion was absolutely unbelievable.

Every church hall, every building that could be seized was taken over and turned into a studio. Outside broadcast equipment was piled into makeshift studios, microphones were placed in church halls, and that's where all the big variety shows came from. It was really very remarkable. At the same time there was the symphony orchestra. Where on earth was the symphony orchestra going to play? Well, they tried all sorts of halls and they weren't very good and, finally, somebody said, 'Well, there is a disused railway tunnel on the line to Avonmouth, and may be that could be turned into a studio.' Adrian Boult took the orchestra down there, and they tried it out; acoustically it was quite good. The builders were sent to go and convert this into some sort of a makeshift studio: before the builders ever got there half the population of Bristol had moved into this tunnel as a great air raid shelter.

On the front line

As a war correspondent I operated on the front line. I spent my first month overseas in Cairo GHQ. After that I went up to join the 8th Army, just outside Tripoli actually. And I determined that I would stay there, because I felt that I was only safe in reporting what I could see with my own eyes. It was good if that was reinforced by reports from HQ and so on, but I really wanted to be certain that I was telling, people about something that I knew about from first hand experience. And that was my policy right through the war from then on. I was not a base reporter, I was a front line reporter. I trained with the troops and knew what it was like to have a shell exploding right beside us, and men dropping dead at my feet. This didn't happen often but if you are a war correspondent, you naturally go to the area where action is taking place. Therefore, you are bound to be exposed continuously to these dangers. You accept that.

The climate among the staff was a very, very worried climate. And I remember sitting in on discussions about 'what do we do if the Germans come here? What do we do then?' And there were some members of the staff, of course, who said 'we fight em'.

Filing reports

In terms of our reporting, we were fully censored. Take the western desert... take North Africa. The method of conveying radio material back to London from, say, Tripoli which, remember, was 1,500 miles from Cairo - was that I had a recording truck with me; the difficulties of recording on disk in the western desert in a sandstorm, well you can imagine. But that is how we operated, and having cut the disk I delivered this to the army public relations people. It was their job to get it back by some means or other to Cairo where the censorship base was. In Cairo it had to go through four censors. It had to go through the army censor, the naval censor, the air force censor, and the Egyptian government censor, who was a civilian. If any one of those censors didn't like something he just took out his pocket knife and scoured out on the disk that part of it. And, of course, he scoured out everything that led into it and a good deal that followed from it. But the disk, finally mutilated as it was, was then transmitted by beam radio to the BBC in London, re-recorded in London and used on the air.

General Alexander, who was a good friend of mine called me to dinner one day. His 4th Army was hundreds of miles away, but I got to him, and we had a very congenial dinner in the mess, and I thought 'how nice, you know... social occasion.... nice break in the war and all that'. Then after dinner he said, 'I want to talk to you, you had better come into my office'. He said, 'We're very worried about you, we're very concerned about you... we think you are beating the gun in some way'. And I said, 'Sir, I don't understand this,' and he said 'You have got a secret transmitter, that's what you've got... You've got a secret transmitter and you are getting stuff over'. He said, 'How is it that I learn what's happening on my army fronts from you on the BBC before I get it from my own channels?'

'The reason for that is that your own channels are not very efficient!' I said.

Actually what I was doing was quite simple. I discovered that there was a forward censorship unit right up with the armies. I did my day's exploration with the army, so I came back at 4 o'clock in the afternoon to that little unit, because I knew that at 4 o'clock they got their directions from the Head of Intelligence in the army as to what was going to be passed that day. I simply said to these people at 4 o'clock in the afternoon... 'What are you passing? They said, 'You can have this... you can have that, you can have the other thing...' I wrote it down as they said it and I handed it to them for transmission. So information was that immediate you see, and it got to London in a matter of an hour or so, not in the voice but by cable, and of course the BBC was getting well ahead of everybody else. The other correspondents never discovered the trick.


On one occasion I was actually arrested. That was in North Africa, and this was right at the end of the North African campaign. We were in Tunis, we were in a state of great euphoria. We had won the war in North Africa, and so on... and in the middle of the night somebody comes barging into my room in the crummy little hotel where we were lodged in Tunis, and it turned out to be an Officer - I didn't know him - and he said, 'Is your name Gillard?'

I said, 'Yes'... he went on, 'Are you a war correspondent?' I said, 'Yes'. And he said, 'You are under arrest,' and I said, 'What for,' and he said, 'I don't know but you are under arrest. May I have your word of honour that you won't attempt to leave this room until I come back in the morning?' And I said, 'Very well.'

And so off he went and I didn't sleep for the rest of the night, wondering what the hell I was under arrest for. Next morning he came, and he said, 'I've got a first-class air passage for you back to Algiers where General Eisenhower is going to put you on a charge.' So I went back to Algiers, and I was placed on this charge - and the charge was that in my reporting I had given excessive favour to the 8th Army at the expense of the 1st Army. The 1st Army, you know, had been advancing from Algiers, and the 8th Army advancing from Cairo and, finally, they met... and that was the charge.

I said, 'Well, this is absolutely ridiculous. I am accredited to the 8th Army, I simply report what the 8th Army has done, information has gone back to London, and it's been used on its merits. I have no choice in what was put on the air and what wasn't. And if in there has been more of me and the 8th Army than there is of the 1st Army and the 1st Army's correspondents, you must get onto the BBC's editors in London about that. It's not my fault.' They wouldn't have this in Algiers and argued the toss for a long time and, finally, they said, 'Well, you're reprimanded. That's it - we thought of sending you back, but we'll reprimand you and you can go'. I thought it wasn't worth arguing any more, and they gave me a first class air transit back again to Tunis, which was fortunate for me!

General Montgomery

I knew nothing about Monty and didn't know him at all. But, as an enterprising BBC reporter I made it my business to get introduced to him, and to say to him that I hoped that he would from time to time receive me, and record interviews and statements and his orders of battle and that sort of thing, and that I hoped we could have a good working relationship. He said he would think about it, and so on, and I found that there was in fact no difficulty at all. And our relationship improved.

Monty established a good relationship with me as he believed that through broadcasting he could speak to every man in his army and to their loved ones, and this was very important as morale is essential to the soldier in battle. Monty said to me, 'If I can assure the people at home that I am not the man to waste lives, that I think we've got a fair chance of winning, and that I'm going to run this battle as effectively and economically as I can, if I can say that to them, that will do good for morale at home, and it will also be reflected in the mail that the soldiers get out here.'

Now, up to this time, the military authorities had regarded the BBC as just another newspaper. So you were only allowed one man out reporting with you, and it was a great concession that you got a truck and a recording engineer. With this you had to cover the whole range of the BBC's output - home, external, all those vernacular services - all had to be done by one person, which was almost an impossibility. But once we got Monty on our side you see, we were able to lead Monty on. And whereas in the western desert there I was with one recording engineer, and that we were the BBC, when we landed in Normandy there were 32 of us, and we were with the airborne troops, we were with the infantry landing on the beaches, we were with the airforce during the bombardments, we were with the Navy and, what's more, we took ashore with us our recording equipment, and within a few days we had our own transmitters which we took around with us from that time onwards right across Europe. We also had a censorship unit attached to us staffed by BBC people now serving in the army who thoroughly understood our needs and this was all really due to the relationship which one could develop with Monty who was really very keen to use broadcasting as an arm of warfare.

Read more about the BBC's wartime history on the BBC HeritageAbout links site.

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Message 1 - An Interview with Frank Gillard

Posted on: 31 May 2005 by Audrey Lewis - WW2 Site Helper

Thank you team for letting me read this story. I found it so interesting.
Audrey Lewis

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