The BBC German Service was set up in 1938 at the time of the Munich crisis when another world war became increasingly likely.

BBC broadcast information about Britain’s military setbacks to win hearts and minds in Germany during World War II

The BBC transmitted news about Britain’s military setbacks during World War II to Germany as part of a sophisticated operation to win hearts and minds and combat Nazi propaganda, new research shows.

The commitment to make the broadcaster’s German language service a trusted source of objective and independent information meant even defeats were truthfully reported, official archives have revealed. For instance, on 27 November 1942 the service reported on the bombing of Toulon by the Germans and the scuttling of the French fleet by Allied forces to avoid capture by the Nazis. The invasion of Norway was covered with similar attention to detail. On 6 April 1940, days before the invasion the BBC German Service accordingly told listeners that the German navy had sunk 52 Norwegian ships causing the death of 392 people.

The BBC German Service was set up in 1938 at the time of the Munich crisis when another world war became increasingly likely. In spite of Nazi attempts to jam programmes and harshly punish listeners in Germany for tuning in to so-called enemy broadcasts, it soon became the most significant source of information for people living under Nazi rule.

Dr Vike Martina Plock from the Department of English at the University of Exeter has been examining official records in the BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham, which outline how the London-based service was run. At first, German-language broadcasting was limited, but the number of programmes transmitted to Germany grew dramatically during World War II to include news bulletins, features, political satire, songs and music as well as specialist programmes for the navy, for women, for the army or for workers.

One show pitted Hitler against Hitler, playing recordings of his speeches highlighting how he regularly contradicted himself. In another feature a housewife with a broad Berlin – or lower-class accent –told listeners some home truths about everyday life in Germany. By using this character, BBC producers could subtly criticise Nazi leaders in a manner that was relevant to ordinary families in Germany. Later in the war, German PoWs could send greetings to their family and tell them they were safe.

Although the broadcaster used a number of famous German intellectuals such as Alfred Kerr, the father of the children’s book author Judith Kerr, who were living in exile in Britain as feature writers and translators, the German news presenters were almost exclusively British. It was feared that the objectivity and neutrality of the programmes would be compromised if individuals who were known Nazi objectors or political refugees were given access to the BBC microphones and spoke directly to listeners in Germany.

There is no way of knowing for sure how many people in Nazi Germany listened to the BBC German Service during the war, but German prisoners of war confirmed the popularity of programmes. The BBC also monitored reports in German newspapers and radio broadcasts that directly responded to BBC news bulletins and publicized reports about people who were prosecuted and punished for listening to enemy broadcasts.

Dr Plock, whose research is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, said: “It is fascinating to see how the BBC provided the German public with accurate information during the war and thereby began to re-educate individuals who had been living, willingly or unwillingly, with twelve years of Nazi propaganda.

“To be effective in exposing Nazi propaganda as lies and teach German listeners to become responsible citizen of a peaceful, unified Europe, the BBC German Service had to first gain their trust. Offering impartial news was therefore very important, even if it meant broadcasting information about Britain’s military setbacks. Listeners who heard these news bulletins were inclined to believe in Britain’s superior military strength. If the Allies could openly admit defeats in the manner, it was believed, they must be extremely confident, convinced of their eventual victory over Nazi Germany.

“The service very effectively used humour and satire to undermine Nazi propaganda. The programmes were very sophisticated and archival research shows that a great deal of thought was put into their development and delivery.”

The BBC systematically set up other foreign-language services during World War II and by 1943 the broadcaster transmitted programmes in fifty-four languages. Germany also broadcast English-language programmes to the UK to undermine morale, including those presented by the notorious Lord Haw Haw.

After the war ended, the first head of the BBC German Service, Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, brother of the novelist Graham Greene, was sent to Germany to set up public service broadcasting in the British zone. While the BBC German Service discontinued its programmes in 1999, the BBC’s commitment to truthful and objective news broadcasting remains one of the most significant legacies of the British occupation, fundamentally influencing post-war public service broadcasting in Germany.


Date: 27 April 2017