The battle of the airwaves: Today British forces broadcasting spans the globe. Ken Shaw recalls its humble beginnings 50 years ago

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A shabby room hung with army blankets in what was once a pirate's harem in Algiers was the unlikely setting for the debut of what was to become the Forces Broadcasting Service.

It was 1943, the year that saw the 8th Army's rout of Rommel. But our fighting men in North Africa could derive little pleasure in their new leisure hours from mediocre reception of the BBC on a poor wireless that had been kicked all the way from El Alamein. There was alternative listening, AES, the American Expeditionary Stations strewn along the Mediterranean. Lashings of 'jive', however, wasn't everybody's cup of tea, and what the British soldier missed most was the comedy programme ITMA, Saturday night Music Hall, and, above all, request programmes presented by voices that smacked of home.

So it was that Gale Pedrick, radio critic and author of the radio hit The Fingers of Private Spiegel, the theatrical manager Emlyn Griffiths and Philip Slessor, a former BBC announcer familiar with commercial radio, were sent by Army Welfare to establish a radio service. Arriving by air, they brought with them not much more than two boxes of gramophone records and an assortment of string.

'Broadcasting House, Algiers' came into existence with a miscellany of gadgets brought together by a mixture of stealth, badgering and borrowing. Some of the equipment had been captured in the desert and had to be thoroughly de-sanded before it agreed to work. Heath Robinson would have been proud. 'B1' as the parent station was called, with its only studio labelled '3A' in recognition of its more famous London counterpart, took to the air in December 1943. Taking part in the official opening programme were the actor Leslie Henson and the comedian Tommy Trinder. Christopher Stone, who can be regarded as the BBC's first DJ, put in a later appearance. Fifteen minutes before he was due on air, he arrived at the station with a long list of titles he wished to introduce. Fortunately, the record library was able to find at least 10 of them - all 78s, of course.

The boys who kept B1 on the air had to be jacks of all trades. Scriptwriting, editing news bulletins, exacting sessions at the controls as well as the microphone made them all-round broadcasters, but collecting rations, a turn in the cookhouse, nursing a temperamental generator and driving a three-tonner were other backdoor duties. The methods may have been unorthodox, but the station was never off the air until the time came for it to be packed up and shipped to Italy.

Our American colleagues, most of whose AES officers and NCOs came from a background of commercial radio, had the edge over FBS. We had only a handful with any knowledge of a microphone. Men under 30 were ineligible for recruitment as were those of a high medical category. Army Broadcasting garnered personnel from those who had been wounded or shell-shocked - Guardsmen, Pioneers, Engineers and a few technicians from the Royal Corps of Signals. But this, in turn, brought the reward of a much-appreciated variety of accents. Ears might be regaled with a lilting Welsh accent, a Scottish brogue, a West Country burr or the distinctive tones of Tyneside.

As the months progressed, Gale Pedrick was able to acquire a leavening of professional people that included the Shakespearean actor William Devlin; Leslie Perowne, whose gramophone programmes were a feature of the pre-war BBC; Raymond Maikes, also BBC; and Dick Richards, of Fleet Street fame. For most of the remaining 130 or so officers and other ranks, it was the industry and enthusiasm of novices who had merely a crammer's course in broadcasting.

B4, under the command of Leo Bennett, was the most prestigious of the FBS mobile stations in Italy: it became the personal pride and property of the 8th Army. Its first Broadcasting House was under canvas in the courtyard of the mountain-top monastery behind Cassino. Embraced by the Franciscan monks, they held a huge fiesta the day the bells rang on the liberation of Rome. Much vino was sunk. When news of the Normandy landings arrived a few days later, it is said the monks emptied their cellars.

Meanwhile, in Rome, B3 was sending out ITMA to the enjoyment of its captors just a few days after the city was in Allied hands. As with the Franciscans at Cassino, the Vatican expressed sympathetic understanding. In no time at all B3 was on the friendliest of terms with the 'Cardinal Engineer'. He it was who obligingly offered the use of the Vatican gramophone library and invited senior personnel to a papal audience.

As B4 moved northwards, sometimes less than a dozen miles from the front line, 'Axis Sally', a female Lord Haw-Haw, vented venom on the station. In one particular recitative during which Tommy was told not to believe the lies put out by the BBC, she turned her attention to B4 saying: 'We know where you are in Cesena and we'll prove it.' The following day in an air raid the site was machine-

gunned, fortunately abortively. But the B4 boys had their own back. Musically, Axis Sally's programmes were certainly entertaining, so the engineers resorted to recording them, editing-out the speech and rebroadcasting the music, adding the spice of variety to B4 programming.

Request programmes for the fit as well as special hospital broadcasts were always firm favourites. Bing Crosby was probably the most asked-

for singer, followed by the Ink Spots, the Andrews Sisters and Vera Lynn. The top dance orchestras were those of Joe Loss and Geraldo.

After the war came Forces' Educational broadcasts. FBS played its part in familiarising its listeners with Italian opera. Barbara McFadyean's Nights at the Opera, relayed from the BBC, had already commanded a large audience. Regular relays were made from the San Carlo Opera House in Naples, the Teatro Reale in Rome and La Scala in Milan. One special feather in FBS's colourful cap is Down Your Way. The brainchild of Leslie Perowne, it began life at the Graz station. It was only natural that on his demob and return to the BBC the idea became theirs, and Down Your Way enjoyed a life of many decades.

In shining contrast to the first shabby setting in Algiers, the defeat of Germany allowed FBS to acquire a radio engineer's masterpiece. Before the war Hitler had built the magnificent station near Emden to flood Britain with propaganda. In defeat, the German staff hadn't the heart to blow it up.

Spacious, elegant, beautifully furnished, it became Broadcasting House, Hamburg. No crystal ball could ever have told those struggling Algiers pioneers that their endeavours would reach such a pinnacle. Or that from such frugal beginnings Forces' listeners would have their own stations in the Middle East and as far afield as India and South-east Asia. FBS is still alive and well. Its latest terrain is in Northern Ireland.

The author was seconded to Forces Broadcasting early in 1944 and became Chief Broadcasting Officer in 1946. 'Battledress Broadcasters' is at the National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, London SW3, until 24 November.

(Photograph omitted)