It’s no secret that propaganda plays a significant role in war—from the Punch cartoons you might have studied at school to the infamous Churchill speeches repeated in countless Second World War movies. But what about the technology that was used to deliver this propaganda?
Read on to explore some of the broadcasting technologies that were used during the war to keep the public informed and entertained, and share news from the front line.
Radio at home
The Volksempfänger radio, pictured above, marked the end of the crystal radio era, which reigned until the 1930s, and the dawn of the valve set, which enabled greater fidelity and amplification.
The radios were produced cheaply in pre-war Germany—but not just for entertainment. These sets were created by the Nazis to ensure as many people as possible could listen to Hitler’s speeches. They were a way to recruit and radicalise the German population.
Cheap radios were also important for the war effort in Britain, although for different reasons. Thanks to records such as rationing stamps and unusual wartime recipes, many of us are aware of food shortages across the UK during the Second World War. However, the stress of war meant that supplies were short for everything—including the parts used to make radio receivers.
The ‘wartime civilian receiver’ (also known as the ‘utility set’) provided a solution to these shortages. It was made by the Joint Wartime Enterprise, a consortium of 44 electronics and radio manufacturers. While individual companies remained independent and could put their stamp on the receivers, a standard design was used, meaning spare parts could come from any manufacturer. It’s believed that over 175,000 of these sets were sold in the year the group was active (1944–45).
Television at home
While radio broadcasts continued throughout the Second World War, the BBC’s television service was shut down on 1 September 1939—partly because it was said that the signal transmitted from Alexandra Palace might be an aid to enemy aircraft. Because of this, as well as the demand on metals and technical expertise during the war, not much was done to develop home television in the period.
The last programme to be shown was the Walt Disney cartoon Mickey’s Gala Premier on 1 September 1939. Television was then switched off until 7 June 1946.
While it was not being used for television services, the Alexandra Palace mast was used to jam Luftwaffe navigation signals during the Blitz.
At the end of the war only one company, Pye, had a new television ready to release to a wider audience. The company secretly started creating their post-war television set—the B16T—in 1943, and began selling it in 1946 when the television service resumed.
Along with many other industries, television lost workers to the war effort. At the outbreak of the war, a group of EMI engineers who had been responsible for developing the BBC’s television service moved to developing a radar system that would later be used by Bomber Command. These men, including Alan Blumlein, were killed in an aircraft crash during a secret trial of the H2S airborne radar system.
Radio from the front lines
Of course, broadcasting technology wasn’t just about the Home Front; some kit was designed to deliver messages straight from the front lines. The ‘midget’ portable disc recorder was designed to allow one person to making recordings at the front line, enabling the BBC to let the British public know what their soldiers were up to.
Broadcast war reporters didn't exist beforehand, so a whole new profession now began to emerge. Famously, a cricket commentator, Howard Marshall, was selected for the frontline because of his existing skills: he was able to talk fast enough to keep up with the action.
The BBC Research and Development department had created the midget disc recorder as early as 1939, with two versions in operation: one made of metal, and one made of wood (to be more lightweight). A disc would be placed in the centre of the recorder; the reporter would speak into the small microphone attached. Each disc recorded under three minutes of material.
In Research and Development documentation for the recorder, the engineers acknowledged that ‘most of the War Correspondents are non-technical people, and hence the operation of the machine has to be made as simple and as foolproof as possible.’
Part of this ‘foolproofing’ included a series of warning lights. One told the commentator if they were speaking at the correct level, while another warned when the tape was running out. The recorder also featured an automatically controlled amplifier.
Radio for soldiers on the front line
Radio wasn’t just useful for sending messages home—it could also enable communication between those fighting on the front.
The radio pictured below is a British Government Miniature Communications Receiver, Mark 1 (MCR1). These radios were known as ‘biscuit tin’ receivers as as they were small enough to be hidden inside biscuit tins. In the Second World War, they were parachuted onto the front to support resistance fighters in Europe whose civilian radios had been confiscated by the German army.
The ‘biscuit tin’ receiver was developed in 1943. By 1945, 30,000 of them had been made. The radios could be used to listen to some public broadcasts from BBC London where obscure ‘personal messages’ would be transmitted; while they made little sense to the average listener, these notes were used as coded communication to resistance fighters in Europe.
After the war, these radios became a collector’s item due to their rarity, so we’re lucky to have one in our collection.
Filming the front lines
While the televisions remained mostly off, there was still a need to film and record scenes from the front line for display in cinemas or historic record.
Our collection includes a camera operated by Paul Wyand, chief cameraman for Movietone News. British Movietone News was formed in 1929 and today holds a massive online archive of film from the last century. Wyand filmed some significant moments on the 35mm sound-on-film camera, including the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and the signing of Germany’s surrender at Luneburg Heath in 1945.
During the Second World War, the equipment that kept the civilian population informed and entertained was just as important as any other technology. As the above examples show, each radio, television, recorder and camera from this period has its own story to tell.