Still procrastinating from reading more Camus, my next review retains it’s Second World War theme as I noticed a new release of War Broadcast Correspondence from the BBC during the final year of the conflict from Operation Overlord ( D-Day ) through to VE Day in 1945. As a stubborn defender of the BBC in the current climate and with this historical period always proving intensely fascinating, I tucked in with my curiosity piqued.
It is in short, well worth a read. It covers all the key period’s of the fighting in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany during this period, with each segment of the transcripts contextualized by an authorial overview at its head, from the beach landings through the liberation of Cherbourg, the winter battle in the Ardennes, the march through Germany and liberation of concentration camps. With such a broad span to cover, the book succeeds through these dispatches in providing an intimate narrative of how the war appeared to be progressing from a first person viewpoint. There are frequent references to guns being fired immediately overhead, tanks rolling by mere metres away and explosive devices landing remarkably close: italicized references to the sounds heard on the transcript provide a sense of the atmosphere these reports must have contained.
The transcripts are essentially word for word what was spoken down the line, and highlight the degree to which these reporters were embedded at the front line. They received professional army training before heading out and were welcomed pretty warmly by the soldiers themselves, for whom the value of hearing the latest reports from across the battle fields was paramount. Furthermore of course, there was also its well known value as an aid for Resistance movements, not least de Gaulle’s Free France network, and the provision of essential communication between covert groups and alliances.
Although there is always a slight panegyric tone with books like these, it also seems hard to disagree with the notion that during this war in particular, the stock of BBC broadcasting was universally high at this point. BBC transmitters, masts and receivers that had to be transported and set up on the Normandy beaches, then taken in-land with the Allied advances, were utilized by an international cross-section of reporters, including many American, Canadian and Australian reporters. As someone who’d enjoyed the film Good Night and Good Luck – a biopic of Edward Murrow an American anchor during McCarthyism – it was additionally interesting to discover entries here from the same reporter during the war.
It’s influence extended to vast swathes of the populations of France, Belgium, Netherlands and even Germany too, eager to try and stay updated with the war’s progress. There is even a testament from a German citizen who valued for the BBC for being relied upon for truth – which evidently could not be said for the inevitable propaganda propagated by the Nazi’s, and when the BBC reported an Allied victory it was accepted by many Germans, whose personal experience of the war was no longer tallying with the messages espoused by their own communications.
Perhaps of particular interest from my own perspective, is it’s revelation of contemporary attitudes to elements of the conflict, that those of us who have grown up well after the event and read about from a safe vantage point, perhaps don’t always appreciate. When they reach Germany for example there are frequent examples of many of the locals looking to welcome the Allied troops with a celebrated air of relief, at times cheering them on, or if they’re a soldier immediately surrendering and asking where the prisoner of war line started. It was, no doubt at the end of the war, but it was also fascinating to see how the Allies responded with a cool indifference to this approach, avoiding any sense of overt intimacy with an enemy, an approach that unsettled the locals. The cool response becomes more obviously understandable when the unmasking and liberation of the concentration camps occurs, and you realise you are reading the words of those who are coming across this scenes for the first time and attempting to articulate a response that convey the fury felt well before any of the testimonies of the likes of Primo Levi or Robert Antelme later shocked the world.
The book provides an accessible history and chronology of the conflict, viewed through the multi-vocal perspectives of numerous war correspondents from around the globe, interspersed with many contributions from vital actors in this combustible theatre: pilots, commanders, soldiers and local inhabitants all contributing too. It is a fascinating document of war journalism at it’s best and provides a useful perspective in it’s eye-witness serialization of a subject matter that is frequently read about from voices several generations removed from the events portrayed.