Posts Tagged ‘second world war’

bbc, alexandra palace, london, television, transmitter mast

The first public television programmed transmissions in the world were sent from the BBC studios at Alexandra Palace in north London. A picture of the transmitter mast would appear at the start of the day’s programmes which were introduced with the words ‘This is direct television from the studios at Alexandra Palace’. Well into the 1950s, the news was introduced by stirring music, Girls in Grey by Charles Williams, and the words ‘BBC News & Newsreel’ revolving around the top of the mast.

On 1 September 1939, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, Mickey’s Gala Premier, was the last television programme to be broadcast by the BBC before the service was suspended due to the imminent outbreak of the Second World War. There were fears that the single VHF transmitter at Alexandra Palace would serve as a direction-finder for enemy aircraft approaching London. Also, there were only about 20,000 viewing families in London and the Home Counties of the regular ‘high-definition’ service with 405 lines that had been first launched on 2 November 1936, and it was a luxury the nation could not afford.

When I was born on 13 January 1946, it was only eight months since the end of the Second World War in Europe. The previous November, David Lean’s film Brief Encounter starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard was released, and on the last day of 1945, Britain received its first shipment of bananas since the outbreak of war. Four days after I was born, the first meeting of the United Nations Security Council was held in London; a month later the American dance craze, the Jitterbug, swept Britain; and in early March, Winston Churchill delivered his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech warning of the Soviet Union’s intention to block itself and its satellite states from open contact with the west.

Even if my parents had not otherwise been occupied, they wouldn’t have been thinking about what was on the TV that night as television broadcasts were not resumed until 7 June 1946. One of the first programmes that was then shown, it is hard to believe, was the same Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1939. There again, my parents didn’t get a television until the late 1950s. But I can remember watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953 on a tiny rented set with a 9″ screen in a crowded upstairs room at my aunt and uncle’s house in Earlsfield, south-west London.

radio rentals radio, bakelite, bush television, coronation, bbc

Left: a typical Radio Rentals set from the 1950s with a Bakelite cabinet. Right: a 1950 Bush black and white television set, model TV22, with a 9″ screen and again with a Bakelite body. There was only one channel, the BBC. This was the set from which millions of people watched the coronation in 1953. It was sold at a price between £36-2-6d (£36.12 in decimal currency) and £42 guineas or £44-2-0d (£44.10), about two month’s pay for the average worker.

So if they hadn’t been busy dealing with me or my older brother, they might have sat down to listen to the ‘wireless’. The BBC had been broadcasting on radio, though only in the London area, since November 1922, so by 1946 there must have been a good choice of programmes to listen to. So what was on, and how can I find out?

Luckily, the BBC has just launched a test version of an online searchable archive of the listings that appeared in the Radio Times from 1923 to 2009, which you read about here.

It’s called the BBC Genome Project. 4,469 back copies of the Radio Times have been scanned using optical character recognition software (OCR). The archive is still in its early stages as inevitably many scanning errors have crept into the data, and members of the public are being asked to let the BBC know of these errors, as well as changes to the advertised schedules that would obviously not have appeared in the Radio Times. Nonetheless it is an amazing resource for serious research, to check obscure facts for a quiz, or like me to find out what was on, on a notable date in the past.

Incidentally a genome is the genetic material of an organism, which is encoded in DNA, or in some cases in RNA, and the Human Genome Project is the huge international scientific research project with the goal of mapping all of the genes of the human genome. The BBC says it chose the name because the corporation likened each of its programmes to ‘tiny pieces of BBC DNA’ that will form a ‘data spine’ once reassembled in the archive. I think the BBC use of the word genome is misplaced. Anyway back to the 13 January 1946.

Here is the link to the archive. At the bottom of the page under ‘Browse the issue archive’, you are asked to either ‘Choose a year’ or ‘Choose a decade’. The latter option didn’t work for me so having selected the year 1946, I then selected issue 1163 dated 11 January, the London edition. The contents of this issue then appear, and I see that on 13 January, there are two stations, the BBC Home Service Basic and the Light Programme.

radio times, alexandra palace, transmitter mast, princess elizabeth, queen elizabeth, aircraft carrier eagle

Left: this cover of the Radio Times from 23 October 1936 shows the new transmitter at Alexandra Palace. Right: this black and white cover from 17 March 1946, with the sub-title ‘The Journal of the BBC’, still shows the effects of post-war austerity. The top photograph is of HRH The Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, who was due to attend the launch of the new aircraft carrier, Eagle, in Belfast.

The Home Service provided news, serious drama, discussion, classical music etc, and the Light Programme arose from the wartime success of the BBC Forces and General Forces Programmes and provided light entertainment such as popular drama, comedy, bandshows etc. The Third Programme, predominately classical music, wasn’t broadcast until September 1946. In September 1967, the Home Service became the current Radio 4, the Third Programme became Radio 3, the Light Programme was re-branded as Radio 2, and a new radio channel, Radio1, was added.



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The first posters appeared in France in the early 1890s during the age called the Belle Époque (the Beautiful Era) which lasted until 1914 with the start of the First World War. In 1891, Toulouse-Lautrec’s first poster, Moulin Rouge, elevated the status of the poster to fine art. Britain held its first poster exhibition in 1894 following the craze for Art Nouveau art in Paris that same year. In each country, the poster came to celebrate different cultural institutions. In France, the cult of the café; in Britain, literary journals and the circus; and in Italy, the opera and fashion. The First World War saw the poster used for propaganda, for recruiting soldiers, for raising money and for boosting production. In the machine age of the 1920s, and the emergence of Art Deco, the themes of posters were style, power and speed.

The 30s and 40s were the golden age of the travel poster. Today, overseas travel posters like those below are evocative reminders of the past, even if most people then didn’t have the money to experience the spirit of adventure and luxury that was often portrayed.








Domestic travel posters, particularly by train, portrayed affordable travel to the countryside or seaside, to historic towns or city outskirts. 










Posters were everywhere during the Second World War. They served a very different purpose, encouraging determination, thrift, courage, stoicism, and the like. 









The posters that we now see on billboards are dominated by product advertising, though film and musical posters are still very common. Vintage posters however are now appreciated as works of illustration and art in their own right, and sell for huge sums at auctions. What better way to brighten up a room or house, without having to spend too much, by sticking up a print of a poster on an empty wall. But what was in the mind of whoever put up the posters in the picture below?


This picture was in a recent newspaper article about the Royal Mint’s launch of an online shop for buying gold and silver coins. This is the gold vault of the Bank of England. To the far right of the room, you can see a P&O Cruises poster (it’s from the 1950s and is by the artist John Gilroy), and it is the same as the one shown 1st from the left in the top row of posters. You should also be able to make out the Wings for Victory poster at the end of the bullion room on the left, which is shown 3rd from the left above.


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Bob’s your uncle

‘Bob’s your uncle’ is a typically English phrase not heard that often these days. It’s something that you say after you have explained how to do something, to emphasize that it will be simple and successful eg. ‘You put the plug in here, press that switch, and Bob’s your uncle’ or ‘Just put on the stain remover, leave it for an hour and Bob’s your uncle, the stain’s gone’.

There are a number of theories as to where it comes from, but no one is sure of its origin. Here are the most plausible three.

lord salisbury, prime minister, bob's your uncle, queen victoria, king edward VII

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, Conservative politician, was Prime Minister three times during the reigns of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII

‘Bob’s your uncle’ is often said to derive from the supposed nepotism of the 20th Prime Minister of Great Britain, Lord Salisbury – family name Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil – who appointed a favourite nephew, Arthur Balfour, to several political posts in the 1880s. Balfour went on to become Prime Minister after his uncle, but his early political appointments were considered inappropriate as he had shown no prior interest in public work. Incidentally, by 1900, Salisbury’s cabinet was nicknamed ‘Hotel Cecil’ reflecting his aloofness and its aristocratic composition, a number of whom were relatives. Hence having an Uncle Bob was a passport to a good job. Since the very word nepotism derives from the Italian word for nephew, the association here seems more than apt.

Unfortunately, the phrase isn’t recorded until at least the 1920s, and if public indignation at Lord Salisbury’s actions had been great enough to provoke creation of the saying, why didn’t it appear the newspapers, or in a satirical magazine of the time such as Punch?

Another possible, but less exciting, theory has it that it derives from an old slang phrase ‘all is bob’ meaning that ‘all is well’, everything is safe. This goes back to the 17th century and it is listed in a dictionary of the time. From the 18th century on, ‘bob’ was also a common name for somebody you didn’t know. Though these may have contributed to the genesis of the phrase, there seems little reason to connect them to ‘Bob’s your uncle’ other than that they both contain the word ‘bob’.

The third possible source is the music hall. There is record in a newspaper of a musical revue at the King’s Theatre in Dundee, Scotland, called Bob’s Your Uncle in June 1924.  And the expression was in the lyrics of a song  Follow Your Uncle Bob published in 1931, which was sung and recorded by Florrie Forde, a celebrated music hall artiste.

Though we can’t be sure, given the difficulty with the first two, this classically English expression may well be Scottish, and derive not from 10 Downing Street but from Dundee.

Tail-end Charlie

rear gun turret, tail end charlie, raf, bomber aircraft, second world war

The rear gun turret of a RAF bomber of the Second World War. The turret was made of Perspex and metal, and could rotate through 180 degrees. Once in the turret at the beginning of a mission, the gunner stayed there until the aircraft returned to base.

Likewise ‘Tail-end Charlie’ is not heard much these days. It referred to the gunner that was in a gun turret at the rear of RAF bomber aircraft in the Second World War. He had the unenviable role of being holed up in the ‘tail’ of the bomber for up to ten lonely hours fighting intense cold, scanning the sky’s for enemy aircraft attacking from the rear. The rear-turret gunners were in the most vulnerable position on the plane. The life expectancy of a Second World War rear gunner varied but was never high, mostly about just five sorties (missions).


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Like the London Underground, the Paris Métro has its share of interesting or unusual station names: Campo-Formio, Dupleix, Europe, Glacière, Invalides, Le Kremlin-Bicêtre, Malesherbes, Oberkampf, Poissonnière, Pyramides, Rome, Stalingrad. The names of historic figures or battles are far more common than they are in London. Are the French more international in outlook and do they have a greater sense of history than we have in Britain? Authors, intellectuals, revolutionaries, military men, and even scientists, are prominent. There is a station for Robespierre but no station for Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc).

pont de passy, seine, bir-hakeim, battle, free french

In 1948, the Pont de Passy over the Seine was re-named Pont de Bir-Hakeim to commemorate the Battle of Bir-Hakeim, fought by Free French forces in Libya in 1942. Bir-Hakeim métro station is off-camera to the right

In you have ever been to Paris, you will likely have been to the Eiffel Tower. And if you have gone there or left there by metro, you will have used the elevated station close to the left bank of the Seine that is nearest to the tower: Bir-Hakeim. In fact the sign on the station walls says ‘Bir-Hakeim – Tour Eiffel’. It’s an unusual name. Is it the name of an Arab leader? To me it has the feel of Egypt or somewhere else in the Middle East about it. Well it is the name of an abandoned oasis in the Libyan desert in north Africa, the former site of a Turkish fort located at the crossroad of Bedouin paths. But to France it is the place where its pride was restored after its humiliating defeat by Nazi Germany in June 1940 in the Second World.

bir-hakeim, paris métro, battle, free french, france

This plaque at Bir-Hakeim métro station translates ‘At Bir Hakeim from May 27 to 11 June 1942, the First Free French Brigade repulsed furious assaults from two divisions of the enemy and affirmed to the world that France has never ceased fighting’

For fifteen days in 1942, a Free French force of 3,700 soldiers under General Marie Pierre Koenig and vastly outnumbered by 45,000 attacking German and Italian forces led by General Erwin Rommel, defended the site from 26 May to 11 June. This allowed the retreating British Eighth Army to escape the annihilation that Rommel had planned, and to gain time to reorganize and subsequently halt the Axis advance at the First Battle of El Alamein in July. The full story of the battle can be read here. Koenig’s report after the battle said that 1,200 men were killed, wounded or were missing. (more…)

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david attenborough, naturalist, overpopulation

Sir David Attenborough, Naturalist (b1926)
‘The human population can no longer be allowed to grow in the same old uncontrolled way. If we do not take charge of our population size, then nature will do it for us.’

Governments seem unable or unwilling to face up to the alarming consequences of an ever-increasing world population – projected by the United Nations to increase from 7.2 billion today to 9.6 million by 2050 (source) – and ever-increasing consumption. Climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels; water and food shortages; the destruction of forests, species extinction and loss of biodiversity; competition for dwindling mineral resources, as well as the inevitability of increasing human conflict. Is this because voters in developed  (democratic) countries usually vote their governments in or out on the basis of whether they are able to deliver economic growth. Growth that has to be achieved at almost any price, and which at present relies on the exploitation of unsustainable resources?

So what chance is there that the governments of developing countries, with 5.9 billion people who like us will want cars and will want to fly to distant places, what chance is there that their governments will be able to act differently? For us as individuals, is it a case of out of sight out of mind? Are we expecting that technology will come to the rescue, that something will turn up?

This brings to mind the oft-quoted lines:

Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak, and the couplings strain.
For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear:
And signals flash through the night in vain.
Death is in charge of the clattering train!

winston churchill, gathering storm, second world war, house of commons, nazi

The Gathering Storm, the first of six volumes by Winston Churchill on The Second World War in which he recalls warning the House of Commons in 1935, to little avail, of the growing threat from Nazi Germany

This short poem was quoted by Winston Churchill in the first volume, The Gathering Storm, published in 1948, of his six-volume history, The Second World War. On page 110, he recalls a debate in the House of Commons on 19 March 1935 on the air estimates (ie. money to pay for the production of aircraft) when as a back bencher he challenged the government’s assurances that the budget was adequate to meet the growing threat from Nazi Germany, who had reached parity with Britain in the number of aircraft. He wrote ‘Although the House listened to me with close attention, I felt a sensation of despair. To be so entirely convinced and vindicated in a matter of life and death to one’s country, and not to be able to make Parliament and the nation heed the warning … was an experience most painful’.

Reflecting on the debate, he said ‘there lay in my memory at this time some lines from an unknown author about a railway accident, I had learnt from a volume of Punch cartoons which I used to pore over when I was eight or nine years old at school at Brighton’. He then quotes the lines above, and ends ‘However, I did not repeat them’. In this clip from the 2002 TV film, The Gathering Storm, which stars Albert Finney as Churchill, and Vanessa Redgrave as Clemmie, his wife, Churchill angrily quotes the lines following his warnings being ignored by the government.

The poem was in fact taken from a much longer poem titled Death and His Brother Sleep which appeared in Volume 99 of Punch magazine published on 4 October 1890 and which was attributed to ‘Queen Mab’. The poem was written by Edwin James Milliken (1839 -1897) who, as well as being a poet, was an editor of Punch, a journalist and satirical humorist. The shorter poem is made up of the first two lines and last four lines of Death and His Brother Sleep, but how Churchill came to use only these lines is not known, though they do have a dramatic effect.


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This now rather archaic British phrase refers to a person who has died or to something that has broken. There are many ideas as to its origin but it first came into common use in the mid-20th century. The two main contenders refer either to the beer brewed in the Midlands town of Burton upon Trent, which was and still is famous for its breweries, or to the suits made by Montague Burton, who supplied the majority of the de-mobilization suits that British servicemen were given on leaving service after WWII.

BurtonAle2According to the brewing origin, it is said that there were pre-WWII adverts for Burton Ale where one of the characters was missing. One advert showed a football team lined up for a photo with one player missing, and the caption ‘he’s gone for a Burton’, that is he’d gone to the pub. However during WWII, the phrase was in widespread use in the RAF in referring to pilots who had crashed, especially those who crashed into the sea, that is ‘in the drink’. Having ‘gone for a burton’ was a gentle way of saying that an airman had been killed in action.

MontagueBurtonAlternatively, the phrase is said to be a euphemistic reference to an errant serviceman. ‘Where’s Private Coggins? He’s gone for a burton sir’. Private Coggins hasn’t of course gone to have a suit fitted at Burton the tailor, he’s more likely gone absent without leave.

This latter explanation however seems the less likely of the two, as it doesn’t quite match the meaning of the phrase which was used to mean dead, not merely absent, so the brewing origin seems the most likely.

Whilst the phrase is fading from general use, it hasn’t as yet quite ‘gone for a burton’.

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Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax

Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax

Admiral the Hon. Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, KCB, DSO, JP, DL was the splendidly named British half of the Anglo-French delegation sent to Moscow in August 1939 to discuss with Stalin a possible anti-Nazi alliance. This was before the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany in September 1939.

Many historians have argued that Drax was a blimpish member of the naval hierarchy, when sending a general would be more appropriate, and that the delegation was deliberately lowly. The delegation was also sent by sea in an elderly passenger ship The City of Exeter, which took five days to get to Leningrad, arriving on 10 August. It was also said that the British Embassy in Moscow was appalled at the low status of the delegation, which ought to have been headed by Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, himself, as had been previously requested by the Soviet Ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky. However before he left, Drax had been told by Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, and Halifax, to try and spin the negotiations out until October when winter conditions would make a Nazi invasion of Poland difficult. Maisky also found out from intelligence reports that the delegation would not be able to make any decisions on the spot. Negotiations dragged on for ten days despite an invasion of Poland by Germany becoming more and more likely.


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