Page last updated at 00:29 GMT, Saturday, 6 June 2009 01:29 UK

D-Day: A breakthrough for war reporting

By Vincent Dowd
BBC World Service

'Midget' recording device (copyright: Chris Owen)
The 'midget' recording device was revolutionary for the time

Saturday marks the 65th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of occupied Europe on June 6 1944.

Unlike earlier in the war, it was the first time that BBC radio was able to broadcast news back to the UK from the beaches and battlefields of Europe.

Hidden away in a BBC storeroom in central London is a remarkable bit of broadcasting history. It looks rather like a 1950s Dansette record player, redesigned by the British army.

In fact it's a so-called 'midget' recording device made by the BBC for use by correspondents in the field during and after the D-Day invasions.

The BBC's Charles Commander, who guards this priceless bit of broadcasting heritage, pulls it out from under a pile of boxes. "What the BBC considered 'portable' in 1944 is remarkable. But compared to what came before, it did give the reporter freedom to move.

The idea was they could take it through the sand-dunes and round the back roads in Normandy. And it worked: we still have the recordings to prove it."

Unsure of role

That the BBC even sent the likes of Richard Dimbleby, Frank Gillard, Guy Byam and Chester Wilmot to report on the D-Day landings was remarkable by the standards of the day.

Until the late 1930s, the BBC had had no reporters in the modern sense. The Corporation was deeply unsure of its journalistic role.

Dr Sian Nicholas, an historian at Aberystwyth University, has studied the effect of World War Two on the BBC.

"It's staggering that in 1939 the BBC had no plans for war reporting. It was two years before it took steps in that direction, but it took D-Day to make the BBC a newsgathering organisation."

In December 1942, the BBC's own Foreign News Committee was unusually critical of what had been achieved.

It said: "We all share feelings of disappointment, indeed of shame, that British radio should, after three years of war, still be failing to exploit its unique possibilities as a medium for reporting military operations."

But Dr Nicholas says the BBC was also looking over its shoulder at US plans to cover D-Day.

"The BBC thought if it wasn't there the British people would learn what was happening from American reporters. And that would mean they would learn only what American troops were doing and not British troops. That seems to be what swung the decision to go," he said.

Memorable radio

With the exception of Richard Dimbleby and a couple of others, the BBC had no reporters to call on. People needed to transfer from other departments or come from beyond the BBC.

The BBC's CD Adamson in 1944
For a year before D-day, BBC reporters trained for their roles

Howard Marshall, for instance, was famous as a cricket commentator, but still successfully described the Normandy landings for listeners at home. Chester Wilmot came from Australian radio and Guy Byam (killed in 1945) had been invalided out of the services.

Sian Nicholas says there was simply no tradition of war-reporting for the new correspondents to draw on. Some material, like Richard Dimbleby's recordings flying across the English Channel, are reportage in a familiar modern sense.

Others, like Guy Byam's account of his parachute jump into occupied France, are slightly literary by today's standards. But each jumps out at the listener as a superb bit of radio even now.

Revolutionary programme

The BBC sent three specially-designed transmission trucks to France, capable of transmitting back to receiving stations on the south coast of England and, in some circumstances, directly to London.

But for a couple of months after D-Day the BBC worked from what was surely one of the most extraordinary radio studios ever.

Creully chateau
Creully Chateau became the BBC's base in Normandy

The BBC requisitioned parts of the ancient Creully Chateau near Bayeux, convenient for the neighbouring chateau where General Bernard Montgomery was based.

Creully's 14th century stone tower became home to Frank Gillard and others as they filed for 'War Report', the new nightly programme of radio reportage and analysis. Today Creully houses a little museum recalling the BBC presence there.

Though it lasted less than a year, 'War Report' was a revolutionary programme. Today we take for granted that radio and TV should provide programmes of reportage from the field.

To the timid BBC of the early war years it would have seemed unthinkable. World War Two had changed the BBC.

And even if some of that energy was dissipated after the war, those changes did much to define what we now think of as good reporting for radio and television.

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