Sunday 8 April 2018

Ici Londres: the BBC in Wartime

Frank Bauer, the last person alive who broadcast on the BBC to occupied Europe in the 1940s, died last week at the age of 99.  You can find the details  here.

In my "year abroad" when trying to improve my schoolboy French in 2005/6 I was surprised and rather flattered to discover that these BBC broadcasts, not necessarily Bauer's but in general,  were still remembered with  affection and gratitude by those who had lived under the Occupation.

Whilst in France I attended a small Protestant church (Temple) and as is my wont, joined the choir.  This wasn't as much help to my French as I'd expected, as  they specialised in Bach chorales and tended to sing them in German, but at least our instructions and criticisms were in French.  Two members, Guy and Annie, somewhat older than I,  kindly gave me a lift home after our weekly practices  They had been brought up,  I think, in Normandy in the 40s, and told me how, in spite of the danger,  they had hidden in their cellars with their parents and listened to the BBC,which they trusted as the only source of reliable news.

I have been reminded of this by reading Edward Stourton's book "Auntie's War, the BBC during the Second World War" published last year.  (Please buy from Foyles, second on the list, rather than Amazon -see earlier post).

The book is a mine of fascinating information: Charles Gardner's live descriptions of the Battle of Britain (much criticised at the time);  de Gaulle's famous broadcast to the French (which apparently not many heard); Churchill's less well-know one (C'est moi, Churchill, qui vous parle); J B Priestley's quixotic inclusion of "a better Margate" as one of our war aims; endless discussion on what should be the limits of censorship.

Apparently aerial bombing was expected to be even more devastating than it turned out, but a committee minuted practical suggestions to maintain morale:

"Lady Grigg  said that the most comforting thing . . . at least where women were concerned . . .was a cup of tea . . . Professor Hilton  . . .  referred to the value of sugar for steadying the nerves." 

Perhaps there's something in the  Keep Calm and Cary On spirit  after all.

The value of the broadcasts to  occupied Europe  became evident as the liberation progressed.

Following the advancing Allied armies Frank Gillard "encountered so much praise for the BBC that it must have felt,  from time to time  like a royal progress."  He reported:

 "There's always a tremendous personal welcome for us, as representatives of the BBC, when we go into newly liberated towns.  People crowd in upon us to express their thanks, and they invariably say: "We listen to the BBC, and we trusted the BBC,because it always told the truth.' "

Britain's prestige in Europe was never higher than at the end of the war.  If you want your bosom to swell with pride  read this book.  Then she a tear as the current clowns in charge do their best to destroy what's left of our good name.

Of course , this prestige could be part of the problem.

Jo Grimond, great leader of we Liberals in the 50sand 60s, who fought in the war as a subaltern, writes in his Memoirs:

" . . .we came out of the war being told we had saved the world by a unique act of courage against fearful odds.  We naturally became convinced that the world must see that we were natural leaders of the West entitled by our deeds of valour and skill to rest on oars  as far as work was concerned and owed a debt, indeed a living, by our neighbours."  (page 99)

It is this assumption of British exceptionalism which fuels the fantasies of the Brexiteers.  Will we never learn?

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