As It Happens

'High-stakes stuff': How the BBC aided the resistance during WW II using music

David Hendy heads a new BBC archival project which chronicles how the broadcaster's World Service sent coded messages to resistance fighters abroad during the Second World War.

Britain's national broadcaster used music during news bulletins to send coded messages to fighters abroad

David Hendy heads a new BBC archival project which chronicles how the broadcaster's World Service sent coded messages to resistance fighters abroad during the Second World War. (Arts and Humanities Research Council)

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A new archive project has revealed how the BBC actively aided the resistance during the Second World War — partly by sending coded messages in music.

It's part of the 100 Voices project — a collection of interviews the BBC did with staff about important periods in its nearly 100-year history.

David Hendy is leading the project. He is a professor of media and cultural history at University of Sussex, and he spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation.

As a historian, what's it like to hear these stories of BBC journalists and other workers talking about experiences they had during the war?

It is extraordinary to hear them talking about these events so many years ago. I mean, as a historian of the BBC, I'm used to seeing the program archive. I'm used to looking at the written documents. And the BBC is an extraordinary institution, really. I mean, it's this great creative institution.

But it's also a bit like the civil service — it kind of stores everything in minutes. So we know a lot about its history. But what these oral history interviews give us, really, is the human dimension.

1940: Members of the French Resistance in France, listening to radio messages from London. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Now, what were these pieces of music? How were they given to the newscasters in order to actually send messages?

It was kind of quite a bizarre arrangement. So the BBC was broadcasting in lots of languages, to various parts of occupied Europe. One of them was the Polish language service, and they would broadcast the news in Polish. But, of course, there were lots of exiled governments based in London now, while their countries were occupied. 

Every day, someone from the exiled Polish government would turn up at the BBC, they'd use a code name — Peter Peterkin was the code name — and they would hand over a recording, a piece of music. And the understanding — the arrangement — was the news bulletin would run short  and a piece of music would be played, this piece of music.

From 1979, an interview with Alec Sutherland, a broadcast supervisor with BBC World Service during the Second World War. He describes the network's system for sending coded messages via musical selections during Polish news bulletins. 0:37

This was a system that could go horribly wrong. And that's one of the things that Alec Sutherland [the BBC staffer who oversaw the program] has kind of revealed to us in this oral history interview — which is that, well, good old broadcasting professionalism kicks in. The studio engineers look at this record and they see a scratch, or they don't like it, or they think it's not the appropriate mood for the occasion — and they play a different recording.

And so if the wrong piece of music gets played, quite possibly the wrong bridge gets blown up. So this is kind of high-stakes stuff.

And of course, the poor old studio engineers had no idea — because, of course, they weren't privy to this information. And, you know, Alec Sutherland's job was therefore to sit in in the studio and to shout at them and say, "I don't care if you think there's a scratch on it or it's not very good. That is the track that has to be played."

Some of the messages being sent out were less covert, weren't they? I mean, sending out the message about on the eve of D-Day, and sending out various messages with music, and using Beethoven's 5th — things like that. These were a bit more obvious, right? Did the people know that?

Yeah, I mean, some were more obvious. The Beethoven, that was part of the "V for Victory" campaign, which was really kind of, you know, very open.

There were other messages that it's not at all clear what they were — it was obvious to anyone eavesdropping that they were sort of coded messages, because the phrases would be a bit bizarre and they'd be dropped into programs. But it was really important, of course, that no one really knew exactly what those messages were — except for those for whom they were intended.

And a lot of these messages were literally just given to the BBC by government departments and the security services, and only a very, very small number of people in the BBC would have any idea what they related to.

BBC journalists pride themselves on being impartial. So how did people feel about being part of the war propaganda?

Well, it's not a straightforward kind of relationship. I mean, technically, officially, the government has sort of taken over the BBC. Departments like the Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office are entitled to, and do try to direct overall propaganda policy — because they want propaganda to be co-ordinated.

Now the BBC  — there is an acceptance of this,  in principle, partly because the BBC, in one sense, is not neutral. It knows which side it's fighting on here. It's in the fight against fascism, and so it shares that mission with the government.

On the other hand, it really knows that its independence — its reputation for independence — is really vital, even if it's about propaganda.

Why would hundreds of thousands of people in occupied Europe listen to the BBC — risk their lives to listen to the BBC? They'd only do that if it was reliable, if it was truthful. So it was really important — even in propaganda terms — that the BBC could build up a sense of trust.

So there was a kind of constant negotiation, really, and constant kind of arguments and irritation, with the BBC pushing hard to be able to kind of release as much news as possible.

It was really important that it reported the military defeats, not just the military victories, for instance. So there was a kind of niggling friction that was ongoing.

Produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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