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
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
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
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 eavesdrop-ping 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
super-visor indicates the appropriate treat-ment 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 divi-sions was not
Posted October 19, 2015