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War Across the Airwaves
By Lesley Chamberlain
May 1, 2003

May 1945. In a former stately home in the English countryside a thick-set man in his thirties, with a high forehead and an intense gaze, listens through earphones to German radio. The station is playing the Adagio from Bruckner's 7th Symphony, written to mourn the death of Wagner. As he waits for the next news broadcast, Ernst Gombrich writes down the possibilities on scraps of paper.

Confirmation of his best hunch is not long coming. Hitler is dead. At the BBC's listening station, off-duty monitors start to dance as the official lamentations of the new president of the Reich, Admiral Donitz, are relayed over the canteen loudspeakers. "Der Fuhrer ist gefallen! ... The Fuhrer has fallen in the struggle against Bolshevism."

In 1939, broadcasting was young and the idea of monitoring even newer. The BBC had begun monitoring some Arab broadcasts after the 1935-36 Italian-Abyssinian war but it was not until the Munich crisis and the Nazis' march into Czechoslovakia that the British government really awoke to the need to listen to foreign radio stations and monitoring's potential as a tool of war. The Foreign Office, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting House wasted time wondering whose work it should be and who should pay for it. Finally, in spring 1939, the BBC put an advertisement in The Times: native speakers of European languages needed - for a job unspecified but well-paid at £300 a year, plus board and lodging. Recent graduates were contacted and given tests.

George Weidenfeld, a multi-lingual Jewish refugee newly arrived from Vienna, wanted to put in a convincing application so he paid 2/6d to have it done in a special typing bureau for foreign salesmen in the Regent's Park Hotel. Another applicant was Ewald Osers, a German-educated Czech Jew who had left Prague with a premonition he should continue his studies in England. Osers dazzled his interviewer with his perfect German shorthand. The talents and education of Hitler's Jewish exiles were about to build themselves a monument in British history.

The first 25 or so successful applicants, plus engineers and secretaries, left London in a red double-decker bus on August 26, 1939. They could have been in an Ealing comedy. No one told them where they were going, but after about three hours travelling vaguely north-west they arrived in Evesham, a sleepy provincial town in Worcestershire. The local carnival was in full swing. The billetors - families obliged under wartime regulations to provide accommodation - were out having fun. No beds were ready. But the monitors tuned in their receivers that day.

The development of the BBC's first listening service was ad hoc. Everything was left to brains and personalities and cooperation in fighting the good fight. For Osers, the British bosses were charmingly informal but "perfectly organised without Prussian drill". Class distinctions abounded, but they were more intellectual than social, the newcomers observed. Later, Osers remembered kindness and being treated as an equal. In his autobiography, Remembering My Good Friends, Weidenfeld noticed "subtle hierarchies, patterns of Byzantine absolutism and class distinction", but he added that Lord Reith's pre-war BBC "instilled a sense of belonging to an elite without necessarily conforming to the canons of the elite in established English society... the technicians did not have to look up to the programme-makers and vice versa".

Today, the BBC sound archive has a few recordings of what the monitors listened to but many more of them talking about their work. From these interviews we can know exactly how the ethos of the age left its trace in beautiful Polish, Hungarian, Russian and German voices getting their "o"s just right.

In 1939 the BBC had secretly bought Wood Norton, the last English home of the Duc d'Orleans, pretender to the French throne. It was a late Victorian monument to tasteless extravagance, with fleurs-de-lys on every light switch and crowns on the stairposts. Yet the fabulous view across to the Malvern Hills might have been purpose-built to console the many poets among the new arrivals, and the reception was good. You can see the clearing now where the masts stood, pointing east over the tops of a thousand Evesham plum trees. The engineers set up their first hut on steep, wooded Tunnel Hill, and monitors back down in the house picked up broadcasts that were simultaneously recorded on wax cylinders. Several latterday members of the great and the good - the future publisher and philanthropist Lord Weidenfeld, art historian Sir Ernst Gombrich OM, Martin Esslin OBE, head of BBC Drama, pioneer interpreter of modern theatre, Ewald Osers, translator of 140 books, the English poet Geoffrey Grigson - set to, working day and night.

The service invented itself as it went along. Active German and Italian radio stations were tracked and important programme times noted. The BBC Written Archives in Caversham still have the round-the-clock handwritten logs with wavelengths and notes on reception. The monitors consulted the rota, tuned in, got engrossed in listening for new developments or clues to the state of the enemy psyche, and buried their fears about loved ones left behind. After the war, Osers learnt that his mother had died in Auschwitz.

The year 1940, as one country after another fell to Hitler and Britain was left without a single active ally, was an emotional nadir. Overnight an independent station would become a German station, broadcasting in a cocky new tone of victory in French or Dutch, or Danish, or Norwegian. The Russian monitors agonised over the Hitler-Stalin pact, so when the Germans invaded in June 1941 there was perverse jubilation. They were White Russians, anti-Bolshevik, but it was Russia they cared for. For Vova (Vladimir) Rubinstein, one of the great moments was monitoring Stalin's voice that summer. Even Russians had never heard it before.

Gombrich, who died in November 2001, told one of his biographers: "It was long work, depressing. But it was a nice atmosphere. It was like being on a ship. It was a completely international crowd." In every way the Anglo-foreign community at Wood Norton was exceptional: happy, co-operative, gifted and committed. "We were all working for a common end. There was great excitement, the whole place buzzed," recalls Betty Knott, an English supervisor now in her eighties. "The point of the Monitoring Service was that we were trying desperately to do the right thing to win the war. We wanted the war to end. Everyone understood our contribution. We had a teleprinter to Downing Street."

The turnover was enormous. Of the 1.25m words monitored every day at the height of war-time activity, digests of 100,000 words were put out daily to government departments. Grigson still found time to record the working day in a series of cartoons. When Hitler's Christmas message in 1941 called on the German people "to renounce all the warm winter wear that can be spared", one of the duty editors drew a male figure in a bra and knickerbockers with a tea-cosy on his head.

Gombrich had an exacting personality. If there were any fools around - like the one who confused a passage from Faust with a weather forecast - he wouldn't deal with them. But everyone deferred to his brilliance.

Weidenfeld cut a uniquely ambitious figure and quickly got transferred to London when his qualities as a mimic and a broadcaster were discovered. He did an outstandingly good Hitler: when an air-raid scare prevented the drama department, also evacuated to Wood Norton, from receiving from London an historic Hitler recording for use in a live broadcast, they used Weidenfeld instead. Such was his talent that by 1941 Weidenfeld was back in London acting out the part of a German industrialist speaking bad Italian. The programme was designed to make the Italians dislike their German allies.

Wood Norton, which ran on live brains, must have been the least bureaucratic set-up in BBC history, although there were still monitors who hurled typewriters in rage as the inevitable red tape took hold. Don't forget to return your pass and your bicycle, an impassioned Oliver Whitley was ordered, on being sacked for insubordination. (Later forgiven, he went on to become head of the World Service.) When challenged as to what they had heard in their own language, proud monitors broke cylinders accidentally on purpose or left them to melt. Others were not happy with their billets and the local suspicion of their foreignness, but the life of the mind compensated. Weidenfeld and Osers whiled away the night translating Petrach into German.

The job was to be alert to every shift in the condition of the German and Italian psyches. A polyglot Hungarian listener had to call the Admiralty if Italian radio played a certain tune. (How did it go? Small snag, old boy, no one knows... still, keep an ear open.) The monitors obeyed absurd orders because nothing could be ruled out in the intelligence war. They listened to farming news, weather reports, and to "black" enemy stations purporting to be independent British voices. A British contingent were daily followers of Lord Haw-Haw, the turncoat William Joyce.

The Russian crowd at Wood Norton were the most elaborate partygoers. They loved to sing and on the day Mussolini resigned they prematurely celebrated the end of the war with vodka and rations by the Avon, carousing till dawn.

In that year, 1943, when the course of the war had turned in the Allies' favour, the BBC decided to move the monitoring operation to Caversham, near Reading. A move had been mooted since 1941 - on the grounds of increasing overcrowding, distance from London and the need for better facilities - but the bosses, Richard Marriot, Oliver Whitley and John Shankland, were not convinced by the bureaucrats' arguments. Emotionally attached to the job and proud of their creation, Marriot, Whitley and Shankland and their star team of refugees were thrown into turmoil. It was not the BBC's finest hour when Reith's successor as Director-General, Frederick Ogilvie, locked the monitors out of a staff meeting. Marriot, Whitley and Shankland, all still young men, resigned and joined the forces. Marriot and Whitley survived the war but Shankland was dead two months later.

What really impresses about the Wood Norton story is how long ago it seems to have happened in ideological history. The age was still naive. It was possible to believe straightforwardly in causes and meanings. Gombrich remembered that after he had heard pilots on German radio triumphantly describing how they had dropped their bombs on London he was astonished to find the city still standing. At the same time he did not find it unacceptable that the BBC's information output should be, as Osers puts it today, "not quite truthful". For Gombrich, in time of war, "secrets have to be kept". By his account, Whitley "being a sensible person, never asked [certain] questions".

When the Monitoring Service moved to Caversham - this month celebrating 60 years of listening to the world - the enclosed emotional-intellectual world of early wartime was lost, though not the privileged involvement with history for a small number of displaced souls. Vova Rubinstein listened unhappily to Hungary's cries for help over the airwaves when the Soviet Union invaded in 1956 and Ewald Osers listened to the Czechs in August 1968.

But really Wood Norton could not have a successor. For when the war ended Britain underwent that profound intellectual shift which instantly moved the single-minded Platonic serenity of a Wood Norton into the distant past. Class barriers began to fall away and there opened up a sense of the inescapable plurality of moral values, the untranslatable nature of different languages and cultures, and their irreducibility to one great human tradition. The self-belief of that educated elite which created and ran the service at Wood Norton, an elite which believed it could steer the world away from its own extinction, gradually withered. Post-Imperial Britain lost confidence, post-war Europe looked aghast on where German cultural supremacy had led, even if it was the force which also nurtured the genius of Hitler's British exiles. Intellectual elitism as a moral force had to die. The new age would be technocratic and anonymous.

Wood Norton should have been preserved as a museum. The hall itself was sold off when John Birt was Director-General and turned into a hotel and conference centre. The outlying buildings are now the home of BBC Training. As I was wandering around the disused huts and searching under the bluebells for old cables and air-raid shelters, I wondered why the BBC had not made this a place of pilgrimage and called it The BBC in Wartime. The general public would have been able to examine photographs and old receiving equipment, and listen in on headphones to those precious extracts from the Sound Archives. Visitors could have been told the story of the direct hit on Broadcasting House in November 1941, which killed four London-based monitors, and other anecdotes from the evacuated domestic service.

Today, the dislocated, rather ramshackle site at Wood Norton, with its rich history and beautiful rural location, seems to stand as a symbol of the BBC at odds with itself. And that is understandable - since the BBC has never resolved the question of what comes next after elitism.

Lesley Chamberlain is compiling an Archive Hour programme on wartime monitoring for Radio 4. Her novel Girl in a Garden will be published in July

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