Learn more about the BBC's role in Word War II from Edward Stourton at the Wimpole History Festival
The writer and broadcaster will be discussing his latest book, Auntie’s War: The BBC During the Second World War, at the Wimpole History Festival on Friday, June 21.
Beautiful clipped accents, immaculately dressed announcers and those wonderful vintage microphones, there’s something nostalgically magical about the British Broadcasting Corporation in the first couple of decades after it was founded in 1922.
Edward Stourton, something of a BBC veteran – he presents the BBC Radio 4 programme Sunday and is a frequent contributor to the Today programme – brings a new perspective to this uniquely British institution in his new book, Auntie’s War: The BBC During the Second World War, a colourful portrayal of radio’s essential role in wartime Britain.
Today we have the internet, during the Second World War we had the wireless. At the Wimpole History Festival later this month, in conversation with Sian Kevill – former editor of the BBC’s Newsnight – Stourton will reveal how from Chamberlain to Churchill and from the Blitz to the D-Day landings, ‘Auntie’ was a crucial lifeline of communication, shaping how we saw these defining moments of world history.
He said: “It’s a fascinating story because it was the first radio war and people sort of made it up as they went along. Nobody knew what the rules could be and nobody knew how powerful it could be.
"It threw up all sorts of unexpected problems. I like the fact that in June 1941, Churchill banned people from ringing church bells on the grounds that they could use British church bells as the symbol of a German invasion.
“The BBC had to go through its entire record collection and remove any records which included church bells because it might cause a panic.
"One night, they did play some by mistake and it did cause a panic.”
Edward notes that the BBC was even used to send covert messages to, among others, the French Resistance.
“It was so successful, that when D-Day came, the BBC complained that they had so many covert messages to be put in the programmes, there was no room for the news!” he laughed.
“So it was both the discovery of all the dangers and pitfalls of a world of wireless during wartime, but also of these fantastic opportunities – and there were a lot of very clever people working on it.
“It’s a joy to read the excitement of the memos and so forth about what they were doing. The other interesting thing is that I think it is the period during which modern broadcasting culture was formed.
"The idea that you should be able to rely on the BBC to tell the truth, which seems a bit obvious to us now, but Churchill did not believe that at all.
“He was much keener on manipulating the way information came to the public, and one of the interesting things I did was go through the news bulletins during Dunkirk and you can see they were deliberately keeping back what was actually happening all the time.
“But in the course of the war, the BBC was able to demonstrate that if you told the truth, people trusted you – and that is an enormously important psychological factor, both in terms of morale at home, but also in terms of building relationships with the occupied peoples of Europe.
“So when the BBC correspondents advance through Europe after D-Day with the liberating armies, they find that they’re welcomed absolutely everywhere by people who pat them on the back and say, ‘Thank you for keeping us in touch with what was really going on’.”
Edward added: “They become part of a sort of communications revolution in the course of the war, and I think that’s a culmination of the understanding of what a powerful medium it was, but also the value of truth telling.
"It’s what created the broadcasting culture we now have.”
Edward Stourton will be in conversation with Sian Kevill at the Wimpole History Festival at the Wimpole Estate on Friday, June 21, from 2-3pm.
Tickets £10 from wimpolehistoryfestival.com.
More by this authorAdrian Peel