Summary …

When it came to winning the war against Hitler’s sophisticated propaganda machine, the BBC hit upon an ingenious idea: tell the unvarnished truth.

An academic trawl of the corporation’s archives has revealed that while the Nazi regime used puppet broadcasters such as William Joyce – nicknamed Lord Haw-Haw – to spin messages of German invincibility, the BBC was choosing to broadcast detailed news of Britain’s military setbacks.

Notable examples include the 27 November 1942 report of the German bombing of Toulon and the scuttling of the French fleet to avoid its capture, and the 6 April 1940 report – days before the invasion of Norway – of the sinking of 52 Norwegian ships by the German navy, resulting in the death of 392 people.

“It is fascinating to see how the BBC provided the German public with accurate information during the war and thereby began to re-educate individuals who had been living, willingly or unwillingly, with 12 years of Nazi propaganda,” she said.

“To be effective in exposing Nazi propaganda as lies and teach German listeners to become responsible citizens of a peaceful, unified Europe, the BBC German Service had to first gain their trust. Offering impartial news was therefore very important, even if it meant broadcasting information about Britain’s military setbacks. Listeners who heard these news bulletins were inclined to believe in Britain’s superior military strength. If the Allies could openly admit defeats, it was believed, they must be extremely confident, convinced of their eventual victory over Nazi Germany.”

An internal BBC report on bulletins and programmes in Germany broadcast between 5 and 10 May 1941 observed: “Our certainty of victory is based on moral and material considerations. Our conviction of fighting for a just cause might perhaps be emphasised more frequently, not only in terms of social and economic reform, but also from a purely moral point of view. Conviction of victory based on superior industrial power may not for the moment convince the German listener, but accounts of work in factories and on farmers bring home to the Germans our growing production. There is too little said of the British attitude towards bombing: because we are certain of victory, we can stand plenty of bombing.”

One memo records: “Exaggeration, excitement, threats and extravagance in all forms were avoided. It was a trap into which the Russians were inclined to fall. There was evidence that Germans listened in large numbers to British news, but not to Russian. Several prosecutions had occurred in one day in one place in Germany recently and two of those convicted had been listening in public to the BBC.”.

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