With the war swinging the allies’ way, the British media was given a rush of victories to cover. There were, however, a few reverses, and the fighting was sometimes much more intense and protracted than initially thought likely.
The media had to manage public expectations and interpret the allied advance.
It was also a moment to highlight the contribution of British forces which were rapidly becoming the junior partner in the coalition next to the USSR and US.
The media was also interacting with armed services that had become much more media-wise. The army, navy and air force all had their own film and photographic units which produced some excellent material, and was syndicated for use in the press.
Secrecy was crucial to the Anglo-American landings in Normandy on 6 June, 1944, but there was an equally great need to ensure that there was good media coverage.
The first, key images came via the Army Film and Photographic Unit, which consisted of army trained photographers and men from the film and photo-journalism trades, and some men trained from scratch.
One of its first, and iconic, images of D-Day shows British troops on Queen Sector, Sword Beach on D-Day. ‘The entire imprint of what it was all about is registered in that one photograph’, wrote Ian Grant, a cine man, who was with the photographer, Sergeant Jimmy Mapham, ‘it became the first to be wired to the world and clearly hammered home the message – this is D-Day.’i
The newsreels were also given images from cameras specially mounted on the bulwarks of landing craft. British Movietone News D-Day special announced: 'They tell their own story, I think. The story of how four years after Dunkirk; four years after Hitler thought it was all over bar the shouting, Britain came back.'ii
The newspapers weighed in with much stirring prose. The Daily Mirror stated:
On a memorable occasion, and at a time when there seemed little left to us except hope and that sublime obstinacy which is the British character expressed in terms of adversity, the Prime Minister, with inspiring pessimism, promised us blood, tears and sweat. It is blood, tears and sweat that we face again today, but in a very different mood. Then the skies were grey. Now they are ablaze with the light of triumphs achieved, and victory to come. On behalf of those who have gone forth in courage and cheerful fortitude to fight this epic battle we, at home, offer our prayers and pledge ourselves to support them in mind, in spirit, in material, to the utmost of our capacity.
The curtain rises on the closing scene of the greatest human conflict the world has ever known… As our hearts swell with pride and awe; as we contemplate the perils and glories of the battle; as we offer up our humble supplication; we can, with reason, select a sacred invocation for the battle cry, and say, with Montgomery: ‘Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered.’iii
In marked contrast to this concentration on D-Day is the relative lack of knowledge of subsequent events. This is partly due to the nature of the contemporary coverage. Reportage of the period from D-Day to the surrender of Germany was mostly uninspiring, and reads that way today. Undoubtedly, the taking of major cities and the smashing of German armies were given full coverage and the papers were splashed with dramatic headlines. But the overwhelming sensation is of grind, a slow, inexorable grind to victory.
Operation Market Garden in September 1944 provides the great exception, as it has all the credentials of a great British moment. Journalists and other commentators rose to the drama of the occasion with consummate skill as it became an epic of the happy few, a gallant band of Britishers facing an enemy superior in size and equipment but not in skill, determination or humour. Richard McMillan, a reporter with the Daily Mail, witnessed the return of those who managed to reach British lines after eight days of incessant fighting defending a tiny, but ultimately untenable, enclave:
‘Struggling through a hurricane barrage of fire from 88mm guns, tank cannon, and machine-guns, the last survivors of the noble band of British Airborne troops who held the Arnhem bridgehead for nine days were ferried over to our lines during Monday night.
I saw the tragic but heroic cavalcade of bloody, mudstained, exhausted, hungry, and bearded men flood up from the river bank after going through 230 hours of hell.
Many were stretcher cases. Many were wrapped in blankets. Some hobbled with sticks. All were so completely exhausted that they could hardly keep their eyes open. They were beaten in body, but not in spirit. 'Let us get back again; give us a few tanks and we will finish the job,' they said.’iv
While Alan Wood, the Daily Express journalist who had landed with the assault troops, wrote: 'This is the end. The most tragic and glorious battle of the war is over, and the survivors of this British airborne force can sleep soundly for the first time in eight days and nights.'v
Stanley Maxted’s recordings for the BBC were (and remain) simply awesome pieces of radio journalism capturing the agony and endurance of men in battle.
Thus Arnhem was not a defeat; it was a grave celebration, another Dunkirk, as the airborne forces evacuated themselves from the wrong side of the Rhine with fortitude, endurance and skill.
The Daily Mail’s editorial rolled out the rich tapestry of British history as the men were compared with the thin red line of the Crimea, the charge of the light brigade (apt in more ways than one), Rorke’s Drift, Lucknow, Ladysmith and Sir Richard Grenville. The vital and potent element in this imagery was the connection with desperate causes, forlorn hopes and gallant last stands. Denying that the operation was ill conceived and thus avoiding some of the more controversial points of comparison with these historical events, high rhetoric was deployed to cover-up yet another British military disaster magnificent and strangely noble as it was.vi
Strategic Air Offensive
The nobility of the presentation of Arnhem was in stark contrast to the glee with which the British media had covered the destruction of German cities since 1941.
The British media had played an enigmatic game over Bomber Command’s strategy. On the one hand, it supported the official idea that German citizens were accidental victims of a campaign designed to destroy German industry, but on the other, they revelled in the idea of an apocalyptic judgement on the German people. The media campaign, like the air offensive itself, reached its apogee (or nadir, if you prefer) in the last year of the war.
Harris’s campaign against Berlin, which raged from the autumn of 1943 through to the spring of 1944, was the culmination of his strategy. The battle received regular press attention as the capital of the Nazi empire was brought under regular and heavy attack. During the course of this campaign the media came close to open acceptance of bombing as a form of revenge and punishment.
The Daily Mirror noted that ‘in about thirty minutes a load nearly six times as big as the heaviest tonnage ever dropped on London in a night was unleashed’.vii British Movietone also picked up on this statistic, and referred to the ‘heavy saturation bombing of Berlin’, and in March 1944 it trumpeted a new record of tonnage dropped in one night. viii Berlin was ‘the most bombed city in the world’, according to the Daily Sketch.ix
A follow-up article referred to ‘the elimination of the capital of Nazism’, and a few weeks later still it succinctly stated that Berlin had suffered ‘an obliteration attack. Just that.’x The raids on Mannheim and Ludwigshafen in February 1944 were covered by British Paramount News under the title, ‘How the RAF “Obliterate”’, and the edition referred to the easily visible water communications which made both cities perfect targets for the RAF, a ‘bomber's dream’, in fact.xi
In February 1945 Bomber Command took part in the attack on Dresden. The raid has become synonymous with Harris and all that is thought most reprehensible about British bombing. However, Dresden was not a cause celebre at the time. Rather, it was just another raid that gained notoriety after the event thanks to Churchill’s sudden attack of conscience and discomfort at some reports in the US press.
An Associated Press release from SHAEF on 17 February had stated that the: ‘Allied air chiefs [had embarked on] deliberate terror bombing of German population centres as a ruthless expedient to hasten doom.’ The attacks on Dresden, Chemnitz and Berlin had been launched ‘for the avowed purpose of heaping more confusion on Nazi road and rail traffic and to sap German morale’. It was suppressed by the MoI in Britain, but had managed to gain wide distribution in America, and it was from there that echoes reached Churchill.
In Britain the media coverage provided the public with a familiar diet, and contained no perceptible hint of disquiet. The Daily Express told its readers that, according to sources in neutral Sweden, the attack on Dresden had ‘brought confusion to southern Germany comparable only with that in the north after the last big raid on Berlin... Now the Dresden artery is severed, temporarily at least. Railway stations and yards have been demolished, bridges and viaducts blown up, and factories laid in ruins.’xii
The Daily Sketch noted that: ‘Dresden, capital of Saxony and key control centre in Germany’s defence against Koniev’s land forces, less than seventy miles away, was the principal target of two great blows by the RAF on Tuesday night, and by American airmen yesterday.’xiii Readers of the Daily Telegraph were met by the headline: ‘Non-Stop Air Blows Aid Both Fronts/ 650,000 RAF Fire Bombs on Dresden/ Biggest Day in the West Since Falaise/ Air Fleets Sweep Reich by Day and Night’.xiv
The report mentioned German claims that a terror attack had taken place, but this was part of a well-oiled German routine, and it was countered with the fact that ‘Dresden is desperately needed as a concentration area for troops and to administrative services evacuated from elsewhere in the Reich.’xv The newsreels were equally unrepentant. British Paramount News told its viewers that the RAF and American air force had ‘shattered’ Dresden, and added: ‘Dresden lies on both banks of the River Elbe. A city of great beauty in peacetime is now a mass of ruins, one more sacrifice made by the German people to their insane desire for world domination.’xvi On 5 March, the Daily Mail reported that: ‘Dresden was completely wiped out by the massive Allied air blows on February 14 and 16, said the German Overseas News Agency last night... “Today we can only speak of what once was Dresden in the past tense”’.xvii But there was hardly any remorse in the report.
As the allied armies advanced, and captured German cities, the newsreels took the chance to look at the devastation caused by bombing. The commentaries contained a reflective element, but it was not one designed to cause angst in Britain. According to British Paramount the ruins of Cologne were presented as a monument to the righteous anger of the allies:
‘It lies today a gaunt, fantastic ruin - this once proud city of Cologne. It lies today a symbol of the all-but divine anger of free men, slow to wrath, terrible in vengeance. It is a cemetery - one of the many in Germany today - beneath whose rubble are entombed the crimes, boastings and blood-stained achievements of the Third Reich.’xviii
The significance of Dresden, and the haunting, accusing, sight of Germany’s devastated cities, is a post-war imposition on British memory.
Public opinion on bombing itself remained remarkably consistent and provides hints that the British people had a shrewd idea of the implications of the policy pursued in their name but shied away from them, taking comfort in the ambiguities of the reportage. Tom Harrisson of Mass-Observation noted at the height of the blitz that people of bombed cities displayed little obvious desire for revenge, but the elapse of time kindled an appetite for retribution.xix In May 1941, the News Chronicle published a Gallup survey of attitudes towards bombing which supported Harrisson’s understanding. Gallup asked people across the country ‘Would you approve if the RAF adopted a policy of bombing the civilian population of Germany?’xx The results proved ‘the people of Britain are in favour of reprisal bombing of Germany’, but it was not as clear-cut as that conclusion seemed to suggest. It was found that people living in areas away from the main German attacks, in the rural north-west for example, were far more likely to support the idea of reprisals than Londoners. ‘It would seem that sentiment in favour of reprisals is almost in inverse ratio to the amount of bombing experienced’, the survey concluded.xxi
A survey conducted in December 1940 had found a much more even spread across the country, with forty-six per cent saying they approved of reprisals, while forty-eight per cent disapproved and eight per cent did not know. The ensuing period had the effect of raising by seven per cent for the whole country those in favour of reprisal bombing.xxii
In revealing that most people did not like the idea of reprisals - most people who had been bombed that is - it made no statement about whether people believed all bombing was wrong or ineffective. Indeed, according to some sources the public had not rejected the idea of reprisals at all. Two months earlier Home Intelligence had reported to Churchill that ‘people will want a lot of convincing that really heavy raids on civilian centres in Germany are not our most efficacious weapon’.xxiii
In 1944 the New Statesman published Mass-Observation’s survey of opinions on British bombing. It found that in London six out of ten people gave unqualified verbal approval to the raids. Two said they were necessary, but expressed major qualms about their effects on the civilian population of Germany. Only one in ten felt they were too awful to be approved in any way, ‘though few go so far as wanting them stopped’.xxiv It was found that very few expressed gloating or vengeful sentiments. Only one in six felt that bombing would end the war, but considerably more believed that it would shorten it ‘and this is the most usual reason for approval of our raids’.xxv
The survey was obviously carried out in the knowledge that British bombing was aimed at civilians, for it was noted that ‘an interesting reflection of the depth of guilt felt about bombing people is afforded by the extent to which men and women still manage to believe that we are only bombing military targets’.xxvi
To imply that people were not interested in retribution is wrong, however, for the survey also found that most people wanted Germany dismembered and comprehensive war crimes trials. Whatever ambiguities surround the public knowledge of, and debate about, British bombing the overwhelming conclusion is that most people wanted it to continue and believed that it was proving effective in some way.
Concentration camps and final solution
British press rather reticent on this issue and became fixated on Bergen-Belsen camp. EXPLAIN
The British media therefore covered the war in Europe effectively enough given the controls put upon them, and produced some memorable journalism and visual images.
There was some ambiguity over the presentation of certain aspects, notably bombing, but it was very much in tune with the feelings of the wider population.
If overt criticism is missing from much of the war journalism in the last year of the war, it is not because the press had become subservient, but because the allies were genuinely doing things much better. The media, particular the left and centre newspapers, during the middle years of the war had seen much comment on the conduct of the war and little sign of the political truce which was formally observed between the main political parties.
With the end of the war in Europe, the gloves came off for a fight over the way the new Britain should be governed.
i Quoted in Jane Carmichael ‘Army Photographers in North-West Europe’ Imperial War Museum Review No 7 no date pp 15-22
iii Daily Mirror 7 June 1944
iv Daily Mail 28 September 1944
v Ibid. His column was syndicated to the Daily Mail
vii Daily Mirror, 17 February 1944
viii British Movietone News, 29 November 1943, 14 March 1944