World War II on the Air: Edward R. Murrow and the Broadcasts That Riveted a Nationby Mark Bernstein, Dan Rather, Alex Lubertozzi
As CBS Radio's overseas news director during World War II, Edward R. Murrow supervised a team of reporters that covered the war from capitals and battlefields across Europe, Africa, and Asia. This text focuses on the reporting of the "Murrow Boys" from the Nazi Anschluss in 1938 through the Allied invasion of Germany. Narrated by Dan Rather, the audio CD/i>… See more details below
As CBS Radio's overseas news director during World War II, Edward R. Murrow supervised a team of reporters that covered the war from capitals and battlefields across Europe, Africa, and Asia. This text focuses on the reporting of the "Murrow Boys" from the Nazi Anschluss in 1938 through the Allied invasion of Germany. Narrated by Dan Rather, the audio CD contains 51 wartime broadcasts. Annotation ©2003 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR
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London After Dark Late on Saturday night, August 24, 1940, Edward Roscoe Murrow stood at St. Martin-in-the-Fields at the northeast corner of London's Trafalgar Square. Murrow was the chief European correspondent for the Columbia Broadcasting System. Tonight, he was broadcasting from a city at war. Air-raid sirens sounded. As Murrow spoke, Londoners, singly and in clumps, moved silently past him in the dark down the stairs of St. Martin's to the makeshift bomb shelter in its crypt.
Murrow described the scene: "Casually, a man stopped in front of me to light a cigarette. More searchlights come into action. They reach straight up into the sky and sometimes hit a cloud and seem to splash on the bottom of it." London is a low, sprawling city rich in history and tradition; St. Martin's, where Murrow stood, is the traditional parish church of the British monarch. On the night of the broadcast, London was the stage on which the world's most important history was being played out. With the surrender of France two months before, England stood alone, the last nation resisting Nazi domination of the Old World. Adolf Hitler boasted that he would "ring England's neck like a chicken," a boast many thought could be made good. Hitler's instrument of conquest was the Luftwaffe, whose Messerschmitts and Henkels came nightly by the hundreds into England's late summer skies.
As Murrow delivered his broadcast, the Luftwaffe's planes began arriving over London, the sound of their engines clear to Murrow on the ground and to his listeners in America. To the sound of aircraft overhead, Murrow added a second. He lowered his microphone to pavement level, so listeners could hear the unhurried steps of Londoners passing by. With London in blackout, faces and bodies obscured, Murrow reached for a telling phrase to describe the sound of footsteps-"walking along the street, like ghosts shod with steel shoes." His next sentence underscored the city's calm: "A taxi draws up in front and stops, just waiting for the red light to change as the sirens holler."
This was characteristic Murrow reporting. He was not taking the facts to his listeners as much as he was bringing his listeners to the scene, painting a picture that those in living rooms thousands of miles distant could see in their imaginations. This style was Murrow's own. He did not transfer it from experience with newspaper reporting; Murrow had never worked as a reporter, nor been trained as one. It was not standard to radio-live, on-the-scene news reporting was so recent, no real standards existed. Indeed, it could hardly be said to be the child of experience, as Murrow, at thirty-two, was not greatly experienced at anything. The Second World War brought many, in uniform and government, to broad attention. Murrow became, arguably, the war's most important civilian. He was tall, slender, and earnest, but what millions in America knew best of him was his voice, a resonant baritone that-as on this night-was taking a war far from the nation's thoughts and making it something palpable, nearby, and real.
Murrow's talk from St. Martin's was one segment of a larger production; that night, he was orchestrating "London After Dark," with broadcasts from reporters scattered throughout the city. From Murrow near Trafalgar Square, the broadcast carried to the posh Savoy Hotel, where François Latry, the hotel's famed chef, bid a heavily accented greeting to "his friends in America" and assured them that "the war has not affected my cooking." Whatever privations wartime brought others, the Savoy's diners that evening were choosing from caviar and seven other hors d'oeuvres, as well as eight meat dishes, including fresh game.
Next, the broadcast swung to an antiaircraft battery, where the correspondent reported that the cannon was being "brought around to the direction in which the enemy is expected. I can now hear...the distant drone of the airplanes." From there, the report shifted to an Air Raid Precautions station set up in a London apartment complex. The station, CBS's correspondent Larry LeSueur reported, received warnings of approaching aircraft from spotters on the coast, then used colors to indicate status. Yellow meant: "Be on your guard." Red meant: "Start up first-aid cars and ambulances." LeSueur heard and passed along the words: "Stretcher party, one ambulance, one car to 114 High Street. Sector 220. Messenger, don't forget your helmet."
The correspondents' voices traveled to an underground bunker at Broadcasting House, the large and unattractive headquarters of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The sound was then relayed by shortwave to Long Island, New York, from there to the host CBS studio in New York City, and on to the 115 affiliated CBS stations and their listeners. Often, sunspots or atmospheric static played havoc with the signal, reducing it to a metallic echo; this night's report came through clear.
Those reports included one from Eric Sevareid, hired by Murrow the previous year. At 11:45 P.M., Sevareid was at the huge Hammersmith Palais dance hall, London's largest. "Few spots are busier on a Saturday night," he said, "air-raid warning or not." The orchestra leader had just "told the crowd he was willing to play on past the midnight wartime closing hour." Of those snatching a bit of gaiety in wartime, Sevareid said, "I don't expect more than half a dozen people have left." The broadcast conveyed the city's size and variety, moving to correspondent Vincent Sheean, who spoke of the silent streets at Piccadilly Circus and on to London's cavernous Euston Station for some words with British railway workers.
The program ended at Whitehall Court, a remnant of Whitehall Castle and perhaps England's most famous spot. Here, Henry VIII had secretly married Anne Boleyn; here, their daughter Elizabeth had plotted England's rise. Now, speaking for CBS, British critic and novelist J.B. Priestley spoke of war's dreadful cost. Looking out the window, Priestley said, he could see the Cenotaph, England's tribute to its one million war dead of 1914 to 1918, "many of them friends of mine, boys that I played with as a boy, men that might have been leaders now." Priestley then tied history and war to the urgent present. England was under attack; Europe was under barbarism. The current struggle, Priestley said, made Whitehall "the very center of the hopes of free men everywhere. It's the heart of this great rock that's defying the dark tide of invasion that has destroyed freedom all over western Europe."
The broadcast closed. The correspondents, with the adrenaline rush of performance, remained awake. Murrow and Vincent Sheean walked through the city to London Bridge. Bombs had set oil dumps along the Thames ablaze. The pair watched from the bridge as flames spread along the river.
• • •
Murrow and his correspondents had not known at what moment the German bombers would strike. Their arrival lent a chilling immediacy to the CBS broadcast. From the standpoint of the war, however, that night's attack had a greater significance. In August 1940, England feared invasion. If the German Messerschmitts could drive Britain's Spitfires and Hurricanes from the skies, the British fleet would, for lack of air cover, be forced from the English Channel. With the fleet withdrawn, invasion could proceed. The night of the broadcast, the Luftwaffe focused its attacks on Britain's military airfields. The airfields were military targets; thus far, the Luftwaffe had avoided residential London. On August 24, however-and possibly the night before-bombs fell on London's populous East End. The Germans insisted this had been by mistake. Nonetheless, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered retaliation. Eighty RAF bombers were sent to Berlin the following night.
Our Man in Berlin In August 1940, bombs fell on the just and the unjust alike. The bombs from Churchill's "retaliatory" raid on Berlin landed near William L. Shirer, CBS's chief correspondent in Berlin, whom Murrow had signed on in 1938. Churchill's retaliatory bombers reached Berlin just as Shirer was leaving the censor's office, ready to walk the two hundred yards to the broadcast facility for his regular one A.M. broadcast. As he stepped outside, the antiaircraft guns protecting the radio station began firing. Shirer heard a sound "like hail falling on a tin roof....It was shrapnel from the antiaircraft guns." Two days before, he had reported on the potato crop and the urgings of a tennis journal that the game be played in German: hochball rather than "lob." Now, somebody was dropping bombs on him. Berliners had been assured by Göring that British bombers could never penetrate the city's defenses. The five million shocked citizens of Berlin, rushing madly to their shelters, were now learning differently. Shirer dashed to the studio and reached the door, where an SS guard told him he was "crazy," then asked to see his pass. In the studio, the engineer directed Shirer to speak near the microphone, presumably, Shirer thought, so that his American listeners would not hear the sound of Berlin under attack.
This was a minor manipulation. In this instance, it failed. In New York, CBS announcer Elmer Davis called listeners' attention to the sounds of bombing. Manipulation was a constant in war coverage. Those who reported on the conflict were always subject to governments that hoped to manage the flow of information to their own advantage. Governments lied, or were simply wrong. Of the raids of August 24, the official German claim was that sixty-four British planes had been shot down; the total later established was twenty-two. Governments censored. The night following the attack, Shirer intended to report: "Almost everyone I ran into today could produce a handful of shrapnel picked up in the streets or in the gardens after the raid." The German censor crossed that sentence out.
Censorship was an obstacle; war was a hazard. On most evenings, Murrow broadcast from Broadcast House, entering a building latticed with sandbags and descending three flights of stairs to an underground studio. Four times, CBS was bombed out of its tiny London office. Once, just after Murrow, LeSueur, and Sevareid had exited Broadcast House for the street, Murrow darted into a doorway. LeSueur and Sevareid followed suit. At that moment, the shredded casing of an antiaircraft shell crashed where they had been standing.
Faced with the hazards of war and the fogging of governments, Murrow, Shirer, Sevareid, and others reported through a still-new medium on the largest event of the twentieth century. They made thousands of broadcasts.
Collectively, they became known as the Murrow Boys, though, indeed, not all were male. Individually, they comprised an eclectic group-including several Rhodes Scholars, the great-granddaughter of a U.S. vice president, and a Soviet spy. Through Murrow's inspiration and example, they made broadcast history, creating the forms and fashions of broadcast journalism and giving their employer, the Columbia Broadcasting System, paramount standing in the field. From 1939 to 1941, they reported the Nazi war machine's devastation and occupation of most of Europe, Hitler's shockingly quick defeat of France, the German air force's Blitz of London, and England's steadfast resolve to resist the overwhelming force against it. In so doing, they brought that war, its events, issues, and inevitable consequences, to Americans at home to consider, engage, and choose their own course.
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