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Last updated: 08 February, 2007 - Published 10:55 GMT
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Winston Churchill gives V for victory sign
The famous V for victory salute began life at the BBC
World War II brought a change of name for the Empire Service - it became the Overseas Service in November 1939 - and a big expansion in overseas output.

Programme staff for non-domestic output rose from 103 in 1939 to 1,472 in 1941, putting a big strain on Broadcasting House.

The German air force solved the problem. In December 1940, a landmine exploded outside Broadcasting House, causing a fire that blazed for seven hours.

Immediately, emergency procedures were put in place and the European services were moved to a disused skating rink a few miles away in Maida Vale.

However, it was not the best place to be in an air raid - it had a glass roof - so a safer HQ was sought.

Some of the overseas services moved to Worcestershire and Wood Norton Hall, which the BBC bought in 1939 as a relocation centre.

But the European services were transferred to Bush House, an imposing building near Fleet Street, then the heart of the British newspaper industry.

Birth of the Bush

Bush House was the brainchild of an American, Irving T Bush, and was completed in 1925. It was then the most expensive building in the world, costing £2 million.

The BBC’s European Services transferred there in 1941, for a rent of less than £30 a week. Over the years, the BBC took over more of the building until the whole of the External Services was sited there in November 1957.

During the war, Bush House could not be mentioned by name for security reasons, a ruling that even applied within Parliament. One MP called it "the Black Hole of Tooting Bec" – even though Tooting Bec is several miles away across the River Thames, in south London.

The language explosion

By the end of 1940, the BBC was broadcasting in 34 languages. Each day 78 news bulletins were broadcast, amounting to 250,000 words.

The new services included Icelandic, Albanian, Hindi, Burmese and the dialect of Luxembourg.

News bulletins in Danish and Norwegian began on the days the two countries were invaded; the service in Dutch began a month after Holland was occupied.

Because Belgium’s population was divided into two language areas - French and Flemish - each language was featured on alternate nights.

Some of the new services made use of refugees, though the BBC set tough requirements. They had to speak English well and be able to translate quickly and accurately.

At first it was felt that German Jews would not be acceptable for the German Service because the German audience would know they were Jewish.

The BBC also did not want to give the impression that it was running a service for refugees with their own agenda. The aim was to leave German listeners the clear understanding they were listening to what was described as “the sincere expression of an English point of view.”

Still, even if they were not heard at the microphone, many of the writers were German Jews. The expansion of languages continued as the war progressed.

By the time Germany was defeated in 1945, the BBC was broadcasting in 45 languages and was the biggest international broadcasting organisation in the world.

V for victory

The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous two-fingered V for Victory sign began life at the BBC.

A Belgian programme organiser called Victor de Lavelaye saw the letter V as a unifying symbol for both the French and Flemish speakers in his German-occupied homeland. V stood for Victoire (victory) in French and Vrijheid (freedom) in Flemish.

In a BBC broadcast on January 14th 1941, he encouraged his compatriots to show their defiance to the Germans by painting Vs wherever they could.

The campaign spread to other BBC European services that broadcast to occupied areas and got its own “sound” as well. The letter V in Morse code is three dots and a dash – da-da-da DAHH – the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

These were played on the timpani to provide the station identification for all the services to Europe. When Winston Churchill joined the campaign, he called the V sign “the symbol of the unconquerable will of the people of the occupied territories.”

Helping the resistance

As resistance fighters in Europe tried to strike back against their occupiers, the BBC’s European Services would broadcast secret messages to them.

These would be apparently meaningless phrases, whose significance was known only to specific resistance groups and their British handlers in the SOE (Special Operations Executive).

Hearing the words would tell the resistance fighters if an operation was to go ahead, or cancelled; or if people or documents had arrived safely.

The messages – messages personnels - were famously bizarre: “Le lapin a bu un apéritif” (The rabbit drank an aperitif), or “Mademoiselle caresse le nez de son chien” (Mademoiselle strokes her dog’s nose).

One coded message caused particular confusion back in Britain: “Courvoisier, nous vous rendons visite” (Courvoisier, we’re coming to visit you).

The confused head of the Courvoisier brandy firm, who lived in the UK, contacted the BBC to ask what the message had to do with him; and a Mrs Courvoisier asked if this meant her sons were coming home from France.

But for security reasons, the BBC staff who broadcast the messages were never told what the messages meant.

Vive le Générale

In later years, the French President Charles de Gaulle proved a thorn in the British government’s side, but it was the BBC that helped to bring him to the forefront of French politics.

Historically his most famous broadcast – though in fact few Frenchmen actually heard him – came just after the French surrender in June 1940.

De Gaulle had only just been appointed Minister of War in the French government, but when he realised it was about to make peace, he had escaped to London.

On arriving, he asked to make an appeal to Frenchmen to continue the fight, saying: “The flames of French resistance must not be extinguished – will not be extinguished.” The general made several broadcasts on the BBC.

A member of the French Service recalled later: “I do not remember ever hearing him fluff. He was courteous and always found time to thank the recording engineer after he had finished.”

Churchill on air

Winston Churchill’s rallying calls over the airwaves were not confined to English speakers. In October 1940 he spoke directly to the people of France in their own language.

He was helped by a member of the French Service, Michel Saint-Denis, a former theatre director.

Together they spent most of the day of the broadcast preparing the speech and – according to another member of the team "emptying as they worked a bottle of brandy."

Churchill told Saint-Denis that he did not want his French to be too correct. "I want to be understood as I am," he said.

Calling Germany

The BBC’s policy of honesty in its reporting and openly admitting defeats was in marked contrast to the propaganda of Germany’s radio stations.

But as the war began to turn in favour of the Allies, this paid off. More and more Germans tuned to the BBC to hear accurate news, in spite of harsh penalties and jamming of the frequencies.

One of the Service’s programmes would feature the names of German prisoners of war; and from 1943, a quarter of an hour each night was spent relaying messages recorded by PoWs to their families.

On one occasion a family in Germany arranged a Requiem Mass for a soldier believed to have been killed.

When they heard over the BBC that he was alive, their first thought was to cancel it – until they realised this would let the authorities know they had been listening to illegal broadcasts.

The family went ahead with the service – but when they got to the church, nobody was there – because others had heard the broadcast too.

Onwards and upwards

Many famous names were connected with the wartime German Service, including its head, Hugh Carleton Greene.

The brother of the novelist Graham Greene, Hugh Greene went on to become one of the most successful of the BBC’s director generals.

The novelist Thomas Mann, author of The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice made monthly talks from his home in the United States, beginning with the words “Deutsche Hörer” (German listeners) - words later used as the title of a published collection of his broadcasts.

Marius Goring, who was in charge of programme production, became a leading actor; and one of the service’s announcers, Herbert Lom, went on to become a film star.

His best-known role was as the long-suffering boss of Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films.

Across the Atlantic radio

While broadcasting in Britain was the monopoly of the BBC, the United States had developed in a radically different direction – with free enterprise providing a wide range of broadcasters that made the BBC sound staid.

Pre-war, the Corporation did not specifically target broadcasts at the USA, but once hostilities began and before the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor, it renewed its efforts to attract American listeners.

It hoped to counteract rival transmissions from Germany and Italy, which were also hoping to win over public opinion in the still-neutral US.

In 1940 the BBC set up a North American service, hiring several Canadians to organise and present it.

Among the items it broadcast was a nightly half-hour programme called Radio Newsreel, featuring political commentaries, eye-witness accounts and short talks.

Also featured were live broadcasts of air raids, bringing the American audience closer to what Britain was experiencing; and talks by the author and playwright JB Priestley, whose distinctive Yorkshire tones made him hugely popular.

The new North American service soon became a hit in the US, with Time Magazine describing it as "a vast improvement over the stodgy stuff the BBC used to shortwave to North America."

As time went on, few Americans needed to listen on short wave because the service was re-broadcast by many domestic networks.

On D-Day, 6 June 1944, 725 out of 914 radio stations in the US carried BBC war reports. By early 1945, it was estimated that more than 15 million people in the US listened to at least one BBC programme a week.

The transmitters

At the start of World War II, the BBC had only one short wave transmitting station for the Empire Service, at Daventry.

But the expansion of overseas services meant many new sites had to be built. They included Rampisham in Dorset, Start Point in Devon and Clevedon in Somerset, all in the south of England; in the north-west was Skelton in Cumbria; and there was Wooferton in Shropshire, near the border with Wales.

Over on the east coast a long wave transmitter was built at Spurn Head to send signals into Germany.

This had four 200-kilowatt transmitters, and at the time was believed to be the most powerful broadcasting station in the world. Spurn Head closed in 1953.

Hearing from the front line

BBC war correspondents sent their reports from the front line on discs recorded at 78 rpm.

This was how news was sent back of the Allies’ first big success, El Alamein, in 1942. The correspondent Godfrey Talbot covered the North Africa campaign with a 30 hundredweight truck, known as Belinda, which had been converted into a recording studio.

An Army liaison officer was with him to censor his scripts, and once approved, the recorded disc would be taken by an Army despatch rider or plane to Cairo, for transmission to London.

Belinda later was taken to Italy as the campaign moved closer to German soil and was there for the liberation of Rome on 5 June 1944.

The Mighty Midget

To those of us used to iPods and Minidiscs, the BBC’s wartime “Midget” disc recorders were far from midgets - they weighed up to 40lbs (18kg).

But they were the most portable equipment available to record a reporter’s voice.

They were also called Riverside Portables, because they looked like the gramophones that during the 1930s people took on picnics by the river.

The BBC’s research department adapted them to make them easier to operate, with one knob turning on the power, releasing the brake on the motor and lowering the recording head on to the disc.

The lid stored 15 to 18 double-sided discs. When the reporter spoke into a microphone, his words would be converted into electrical impulses, which would be recorded in grooves on the disc by a sapphire cutter.

Monty helps the BBC

As D-Day approached for the Allied invasion of France, the BBC, too, was prepared. War correspondents were specially trained in military skills, went on assault courses, and had to learn how to live rough.

They were also taught how to use their broadcasting equipment in case their engineers were killed or wounded.

The British government and the Armed Forces fully supported the BBC’s efforts, but the US-led command of the invasion force opposed giving its reporters special treatment.

However the Corporation, with the support of Field Marshal Montgomery, the winner at El Alamein, convinced it that the BBC was a special case because its broadcasts were heard throughout the English speaking world, and just as importantly, were heard in the countries being invaded.

Listening in

The BBC not only broadcasts to the world – it listens to it too.

Its Monitoring Service, based at Caversham, near Reading in Berkshire, began in the 1930s as a way of countering the propaganda of German and Italian broadcasters.

It was stepped up when World War II began at the request of the British government’s Ministry of Information.

Among its wartime successes was when a fluent German speaker Martin Esslin (later head of BBC Radio Drama) intercepted official German communications to friendly newspapers and radio stations in occupied countries.

They were broadcast at dictation speed on a frequency not usually used for broadcasting.

As a result, Britain knew what they said before they were published. Even when the Germans began to send them in code, Monitoring Service engineers managed to crack them.

One of the most useful intercepts was a weekly commentary by the Nazis’ propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels.

The BBC German Service was able to study his comments and provide responses even before they were published. Goebbels had no idea what was happening and thought there must be a spy in his Propaganda Ministry.

The Monitoring Service was also first in Britain with the news of the D-Day landings. They heard about them on German radio before the official Allied announcement.

The Indian Service

The BBC started broadcasting in Hindistani in May 1940. Bengali was introduced in 1941 and the following year Marathi, Gujerati, Tamil and Sinhala were added.

In the early days, German broadcasts to the subcontinent were popular with the Indian audience.

They featured classical music that aimed to show Germans as cultured people – compared with the more lowbrow BBC output.

But as the war went on, BBC programmes in English went upmarket and became the forerunner of the Third Programme that was later broadcast in Britain.

Broadcasting to India during the war was not easy.

The reason is perhaps best explained by a 1943 cartoon in which a BBC announcer is shown, saying "…And so we call upon the occupied countries to rise against their oppressors – with the exception of India, of course."

The BBC had to reflect the views of the pro-independence Congress Party, even though many of its leaders were anti-British.

By stressing the cultural links between the countries, and broadcasting voices sympathetic to independence, the Corporation was able to forge links with India that lasted long after independence had been won.

The Ministry of Truth at the BBC

Among the many famous names who worked with the BBC during the war was the author of Animal Farm and 1984 George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair.

He was born in India, where his father was a civil servant, and after Eton, Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police.

For a time he worked in the Indian Section of the Eastern Service as a talks producer and commentator. But his time with the BBC was not a happy one. His resignation letter was clearly filled with frustration:

"I am tendering my resignation because, for some time past, I have been conscious that I was wasting my own time and the public money on doing work that produced no result," said Orwell.

"I believe that in the present political situation, the broadcasting of British propaganda to India is an almost hopeless task.

"Whether these broadcasts should be continued at all is for others to judge, but I myself prefer not to spend my time on them when I could be occupying myself with journalism, which does produce some measurable effect.

"I feel that by going back to my normal work of writing and journalism I could be more useful than I am at present."

Orwell’s time was not completely wasted, though. His difficulty in being able to broadcast exactly what he wanted helped to form his vision of the Ministry of Truth in the book 1984.

And his description of the Ministry’s canteen is said to be based on the one at Bush House.

The Arabic Service

Just as the British Foreign Office was nervous about BBC Arabic broadcasts before the war, it renewed its criticism once hostilities began, with complaints that the service lacked - as one report put it - "virility and incisiveness".

But the BBC defended itself, suggesting British diplomats were trying to shoot the messenger.

One senior manager wrote that "harassed diplomats" were looking "more and more to the BBC to turn 'planned withdrawals' (i.e. 'defeats') into victories."

He suggested "It would be a great mistake for the BBC to imitate the unrestrained abuse of Berlin."

Later, as the news from the war turned positive, the Corporation could note that while those "truthful news bulletins were voted dull…Victory has changed all that. We are no longer accused of dullness."

Wartime programmes featured Arab music, poetry and readings from the Koran. There were also literary competitions.

The new direction

The defeat of Nazi Germany saw a big cut in broadcasting hours to Europe, though no BBC language service was actually scrapped.

Partly the cuts came because exiled politicians had returned to their homelands – as did many broadcasters.

The team that produced the French Service’s most popular programme, Les Français Parlent aux Français, went back to France after the Liberation, though in fact the French Service survived the worst of the cuts and broadcasts to Germany actually increased.

The new pattern for overseas broadcasting was set out by the British government in July 1946, which foreshadowed the Cold War.

In a set of policy proposals (called a White Paper), it said: "There are clear indications, at present, that other powers intend to use the broadcasting medium to put their point of view before the European audience and we cannot afford to let the British viewpoint go by default."

The 1948 Olympic Games

The 1948 Olympic Games, London, were the first to include Iranian athletes. The BBC Persian Service broadcast the daily events live, including the opening ceremony which was presided over by King George VI.

General Jahanbani, an army officer who was head of the Iranian Olympic team, introduced the daily coverage of the games and commented on the results every day for the Persian Service.

Relationship with the government

The 1946 broadcasting White Paper, drawn up by the Labour government under Clement Attlee, set out the relationship between government and the BBC which still exists today. It read:

"The Government intend that the Corporation should remain independent in the preparation of programmes for overseas audiences, although it should obtain from the government departments concerned such information about conditions in those countries and the policy of His Majesty’s government towards them as will permit it to plan its programmes in the national interest."

The wording does not set out a clear dividing line about what the BBC can and cannot say.

But it has stood the test of time with remarkably little friction.

The biggest problem has been the amount of government money spent on broadcasting overseas. When cash is tight, some services have had to be abandoned to concentrate on other areas: sometimes just before circumstances change and that abandoned country is in the political spotlight again.

The head of the BBC’s External services after the war (and later BBC director general), Sir Ian Jacob, warned the government about short term decision-making in a letter in 1949:

Broadcasting is not something which can be turned on and off like a tap. The audience and a reputation for truth and quality is built up slowly and laboriously. Once sacrificed, they are very hard to restore.

Broadcasting to Russia

During the war, the BBC did not make broadcasts in Russian, because it was feared they would upset the authorities.

But afterwards, relationships with Stalin’s regime began to decline, and as Churchill memorably put it an "Iron Curtain" descended across the Continent.

In February 1946, the British Foreign Office formally asked the BBC to begin a Russian Service and a month later it went on air.

Its brief was to give "a dispassionate presentation of the facts, both of world events (which would include a great deal that is concealed from the Soviet public) and of British and world opinion about the Soviet Government and its policy, giving the true proportion both of favourable and unfavourable opinion."

At first Russian listeners were able to listen freely to the transmissions, but as the Cold War developed, the Kremlin began cracking down.

In April 1949, after Czechoslovakia became Communist and the Berlin blockade, the Russian Service was jammed.

The jamming was later extended to other countries in the Soviet bloc. Also affected were broadcasts to Turkey, Israel and Finland.

The BBC responded by extending its transmissions by an hour a day and – in line with other Western organisations - using what was called ‘the barrage’: switching on as many transmitters as possible to broadcast on different frequencies.

That way it was harder for the authorities to jam all transmissions. Soviet jamming continued on and off until 1987.


While BBC reporters were covering World War II using portable discs, the Germans had already developed the first modern tape recorder, the Magnetophon.

This used a plastic-based tape, which was much lighter, cheaper and offered a longer recording time than the old Blattnerphones of the BBC, with their tape made of steel.

Editing, when mistakes are cut out and other sounds or voices added, was much easier with plastic, which could be cut with a razor blade and stuck together with sticky tape.

By contrast, Blattnerphones had been fitted with a small spot welder to join two ends of the tape.

Once the war ended, Allied engineers took captured Magnetophons back to their countries for development, with the electrical firm EMI building the British Tape Recorder 1 or BTR/1.

This was not entirely suitable for broadcasters, because the tape heads faced away from the operator, making it harder to edit the tape.

But the problem was corrected in the company’s next model, the BTR/2, described by one BBC engineer as the “Rolls-Royce of tape recorders.” With adaptations, some of these machines were still being used around the BBC in the 1970s.

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