During and immediately following World War II, the 'Monitoring Service' of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) relentlessly listened to radio broadcasts from all over the world in order to be able to break headline news and, if appropriate, pass strategic military information on to Allied command centers (who were simultaneously doing their own monitoring). This article tells of some of the more significant messages intercepted and how the facility was a highly guarded secret in order to prevent sabotage and infiltration. At the height of activity, 32 languages were being transcribed into English daily, consisting of more than 300,000 words. Voice, teletype, and Morse code were processed.
Listening to the World
By Christopher Cross
BBC's achievements in the development of its famous monitor service -equivalent to our own FBIS.
The main listening room in which BBC monitors listen to transmissions from all over the world, in over thirty different languages. The numbered blocks, shown in the photograph, are to indicate that a recorder is in use from that listening position.
When Keren fell, it was the BBC's Monitoring Service that picked up the news in Arabic from a Cairo transmission and flashed it to Prime Minister Churchill ten minutes before the operational telegram from the War Office arrived.
When Mussolini resigned it was BBC's Monitoring that picked up the news in Italian at 22:51 and flashed it to the news department of the BBC at 22:53.
When Holland was invaded, Hilversum was putting out intermittently the announcements "Parachutists over Parachutists coming down ... " BBC's Monitoring Service got these messages through to the Air Ministry before the parachutists had even touched the earth.
Von Krosigk's broadcast announcing the liquidation of the German Eighth Army was flashed out within six minutes and reached Washington five minutes before the Associated Press carried the news as urgent.
These are but a few of the achievements of the Monitoring Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation which, at the time of the German surrender, had developed into the largest and most efficient listening post in the world.
The location of this service was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the war. It was in the Oratory School for Boys at Caversham, Berkshire, that John Jarvis, a blind man with amazing hearing and memory supervised this activity.
Hellschreiber and Morse Special Listening Section monitors at work. World-wide transmissions were monitored at all times.
From a few perspiring young men struggling rather on their own initiative to keep a record of what the enemy was saying, the Monitoring Service grew in five years to a highly organized professional news and intelligence service comprising over six hundred employees and listening to every audible broadcast worth mentioning throughout the world. Before the German surrender it was listening to about one and a quarter million words a day in thirty-two languages. Some three hundred thousand words were daily transcribed into English, of which approximately one hundred thousand were published in a Daily Digest of World Broadcasts, and twenty-five to thirty thousand a day flashed as an urgent service on teleprinter to 19 War, Government, and BBC departments. In addition, the daily Monitoring Report, giving the main slants of world radio propaganda and news and a short daily report for the War Cabinet offices, were issued. Specialists produced a daily digest in German, French, and Italian.
The world monitor requires explanation. Before the war there was, by international agreement, a technical station at Brussels which 'checked on' all wavelengths and warned broadcasting stations when they wandered too far off their allotted frequency. This machine was the monitor, Latin for advisor.
Listening in to other nations' broadcasts did actually start in Britain by the BBC as long ago as the Italo-Abyssinian campaign. But the application of the word monitor, derived from the Brussels machine, did not occur until the time of Munich. The Monitoring Service of the BBC did not begin until the late summer of 1939.
Goebbels' instructions to his network of newspapers and broadcasting units were tapped by this BBC Hellschreiber machine.
The Hellschreiber, a German invention, does for radio what the tape machine does by landlines. An elaborate Hellschreiber organization was used by Goebbels for service and instructions to his network of newspapers and broadcasting units all over Germany and occupied Europe. There was only one way to intercept these messages-by obtaining a Hellschreiber. The BBC got one, and then more machines. Thus, they were able to monitor fully both Goebbels instructions and news. At first this was kept secret since it was not known whether the Goebbels organization knew or suspected that Britain was eavesdropping systematically on all his private conversations; or whether, though he knew it, he could do nothing about it since his own Hellschreiber setup was too valuable and elaborate to be scrapped.
The Morse Listening Room. where ordinary telegraph service signals in Morse code are intercepted and copied on the typewriters. High-speed signals are recorded and slowed down later for transcription.
All voice broadcasts are not only heard by the individual monitors (the listeners) but simultaneously recorded on equipment very similar to that of a Dictaphone, to insure that what the monitor hears can' be checked. The moment a monitor has finished his listening and has made such notes as he requires for his own guidance, he goes into the Information Bureau to confess. This means that he reports every item monitored to a supervisor who knows where this information should be flashed first. This supervisor indicates the appropriate treatment of what the monitor has heard.
The military leader who said that the BBC Monitoring Service had the value for the Allied Forces of 40 divisions was not exaggerating.
Posted October 19, 2015