Why do We Neglect Radio Sources When Studying #WW2?

World War Two. England. 1938. The family at home, tuning in to hear the news on the radio news. They have gas masks at the ready.

Richard Toye
History Department, University of Exeter

Follow on Twitter @RichardToye

It’s often struck me that historians of World War II don’t make nearly as much use as they might of radio sources.

By contrast, they draw on newspapers to a much greater extent. Of course, the print media was important, but in order to capture people’s lived experience of the conflict the significance of radio has to be appreciated.

There are of course strong practical reasons why radio gets neglected. Not much of the enormous output of the different national broadcasters was recorded. There are exceptions, such as Charles Gardner’s famous (or notorious) description of a Battle of Britain dog-fight delivered in the style of a commentary on a sporting event. But there is a huge amount of programming that is lost for good – a least in audio form.

Many people are unaware, however, of the extent to which written transcripts of programmes are available to consult. The BBC monitoring service’s Daily Digest of Foreign Broadcasts are a source of paramount importance. Much neglected by historians, they are a voluminous record of what was said by international war leaders and also of political commentary (especially by Axis broadcasters). But of course, one wants to know not only what was said but how people reacted to it.

The availability of sources (other than newspapers) to trace the reception of radio varies from country to country. In Britain they include the Ministry of Information’s Home Intelligence Reports and the records of the Mass-Observation organization, as well as the BBC’s Listener Research reports. The views of the German population can be traced through Sicherheitsdienst (SD) intelligence reports (published in Boberach, 1984). Opinion in occupied France can to some extent be gauged through Prefects’ reports, all of which are available in the Ministry of Interior files in the French National Archives. The history of the dissemination of war rhetoric can be traced through the records of publishers and of the propaganda arms of national governments.

Swiss Short-Wave Service Archives

Complementing these various records, there is now a new source available online. This is the archive of the Swiss Short-Wave Service (SWS). The database contains – with typical Swiss efficiency – the transcripts of all the programmes broadcast during the war. The front page of the website provides some examples of the kind of material that is to be found:

6 SEP 1939:

«Hallo Switzerland Calling. Ladies and Gentlemen. Twenty-five years have passed since the outbreak of the last world war and now a new one has begun. Two of Switzerland’s big neighbors are again engaged in destruction, France and Germany.»

18 MAY 1940:

«The tendentious news, which have been spread by the British Press and the British Broadcasting today give an opportunity to the High Commandment to contradict the declaration expressed on the English side and to make the following declarations: 1) that the announcement that a great quantity of war material is accumulated in western Cantons of Switzerland is absolutely incorrect. 2) The High Commandment has neither ordered nor advised to evacuate.»

3 JUN 1940:

«Our authorities have shown confidence in the newspapers and in the journalists to assure this discipline and order. They are allowed to be their own censors. The responsibility of deciding what can be printed that will not be detrimental to the country as a whole, nor compromise its superior interests, rests with the newspaper men. This is to say, we have no preliminary censorship, exercised previous to printing. This is why we do not have, as the belligerents do, those large vacant white spots in the columns of our newspapers.»

30 OCT 1940:

«The very provisional arrangements made with France at the time of the Armistice and in view of a rapid settlement with Britain, cannot be prolonged indefinitely. The Axis is profiting by the growing estrangement between the Vichy-Government and Great-Britain, France is profiting by Germany’s failure to beat England as quickly as she expected, and both are profiting by the fear of internal complications on the threshold of winter. In order to have her hands free in Western Europe, Germany seems ready to treat France leniently and Marshal Pétain thus hopes to help his country. The whole business is clothed in the garb of European-Reconstruction.»

12 DEC 1941:

«Japan’s surprise attack last Sunday followed the modern methods inaugurated by her partners of the Three Powers Pact. Austria, Bohemia, Albania, Poland were the first victims of these methods, which in due course, were employed almost all over Europe, and which now have reached the Pacific. In the midst of diplomatic negotiations and whilst diplomats politely confer, bombs begin to fall and war with all its horrors is begun. Emperors of several thousand years lineage follow in the footsteps of modern dictators. Every sin of which Bolshevism is accused, becomes a national virtue.»

8 JUN 1944:

«The first week of June has produced events of capital importance, events which rank together with Germany’s attack on Western Europe in 1940, with her onslaught on Russia in 1941, with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour in the same year, and with the Allied landing in North Africa in 1942; whether the repercussions of last week’s events will be of the same magnitude as those mentioned, remains to be seen.»


Let’s hope that the availability of this brilliant new resource pushes scholars to pay greater attention to radio – which, arguably, was the seminal medium of World War II.