This Is London: The Wartime Story of the BBC Polish Section
small, This Is London: The Wartime Story of the BBC Polish Section, Zbigniew Grabowski, Antoni Pospieszalski, Czesław Halski, Ewa Fengler, Marek Żuławski, photo: bbcpolska.com, center, zbigniew_grabowski_antoni_pospieszalski_czeslaw_halski_ewa_fengler_marek_zulawski_archive.jpg
Designed as a haven for Polish intellectuals, the BBC’s Polish Section rose to prominence as Poland fell in September 1939, and quickly became an icon of international co-operation. Running for 66 years, the section provided access to the outside world for Poles trapped in a nation initially occupied by the Nazi Germans and then ensnared by the Soviets, enabling cultural unity and informed discussion. In the first of two articles, Juliette Bretan examines the role of the Polish Section during its most pivotal hour: World War II.
This is Poland calling
Before 1939, Poland boasted a strong radio presence, with regular broadcasts from state-owned Polskie Radio (Polish Radio) from 1926. Though it had been operating for a mere 14 years by the start of the war, Polskie Radio had already established one national and nine regional channels, and was broadcasting in six foreign languages (German, Czech, Hungarian, French, English and Italian) to Europe and the Americas. The station also had plans to expand its own premises with the upcoming construction of a new studio by Unii Lubelskiej Square in Warsaw, which was going to become one of Europe’s tallest buildings.
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Broadcasts by Polskie Radio were considered so efficient by international listeners that the Foreign Office’s Embassy in Warsaw, contacted weeks before the outbreak of war, deemed it impractical to begin Polish-language broadcasts from London. It was deemed unnecessary to begin BBC involvement, when the Poles already had a competent and successful radio station of their own. There was also a concern about the potential political ramifications, with fears of accusations from the Germans of disseminating propaganda.
But all was to change when war became imminent – a week before its outbreak, plans were put in place to start broadcasting a Polish Section, led by the efforts of Polish-English journalists and the BBC. A correspondent for the Polish liberal newspaper in London, the Polish Courier, Konrad Syrop, recalled that he was invited for a voice test on 3rd September – though this would be postponed due to the British declaration of war and the preoccupation of radio with Chamberlain’s speech.
This is London
The first Polish programme was aired on 7th September 1939 with an opening speech by the Polish Ambassador in London, Count Edward Raczyński, followed by the news read by Zbigniew Grabowski. Raczyński began with the words ‘Tu mówi Londyn’ (editor’s translation: ‘This is London’), a phrase which would begin each subsequent broadcast from the service until it was closed in 2005.
It was a monumental moment – Polskie Radio had maintained broadcasts following the Nazi German invasion, though damage to power stations and transmitters by the Luftwaffe interrupted regular programming, with the station on Zielna Street in Warsaw incidentally shut down on the same day that the BBC’s Polish Section began broadcasting. Some transmissions were heard after 7th September from Fort Mokotów in Warsaw, including speeches by the charismatic mayor Stefan Starzyński, but these were erratic.
Years later, Raczyński would praise the BBC’s Polish Section, saying:
During the war and then for many years afterwards [it] was the only link between Poles in the country and the free world.
The section did work alongside the broadcasting outlet for the Polish government-in-exile in France, whose programmes were re-broadcast in London on BBC wavelengths beginning in January 1942. The Polish Minister of Information, Stanislaw Stroński, had masterminded a name-change for this institution from ‘Polskie Radio’ to ‘Radio Polskie’ to ensure its detachment from its pre-war ‘Sanacja’-led direction. It was Radio Polskie which facilitated the popularity of the BBC’s Polish Section, allowing them to recruit its announcer, the famed anchor Józef Opieński, whose warm, baritone voice had been a pre-war favourite. Bolesław Leitgeber was appointed liaison officer between Radio Polskie and the BBC, though their main collaboration came following March 1940, when Krzysztof Eydziatowicz, the director of Radio Polskie, had visited London. The Polish Service subsequently allowed eight 10-minute programmes to be broadcast on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 8:30pm on their wavelengths, which would be announced as bulletins from Radio Polskie.
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But, affectionately known as ‘London Radio’ by its listeners, the BBC’s Polish Section quickly became the favourite – and most trusted – source of information on Polish and international developments, despite only initially being allowed three 15-minute broadcasts a day. Researchers have estimated that, by the middle of the war, the section’s reach had trickled not only to the Polish community in London, but also to the Polish army in Europe, Polish slave workers in Germany, Polish refugees in Africa, and even allegedly to Auschwitz, thanks to Witold Pilecki, as well as to Jews confined in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The ability to hear messages from outside occupied Poland was seen as an emblem of resistance, with a Nazi German policy that ownership of – or listening to – a radio was punishable by death, particularly in the case of tuning in to non-German stations. Though this decree remained until the end of the war, many Poles refused to turn in their radio sets, instead hiding the equipment and surreptitiously listening to BBC broadcasts in order to access information and feel connected to the world beyond German areas. A system of couriers was also established to travel between Poland and London – through neutral Sweden – to give first-hand accounts of the Polish situation, often to the BBC.
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A cacophony of voices
But there were major obstacles to navigate in terms of broadcasting content, most often due to spats between the interests of different factions involved in the Polish story, including between the Foreign Office and the Polish government-in-exile, as well as the BBC and other international players. For Poles, the United Kingdom was on a pedestal: by mid-1940, it was considered Poland’s central ally and the last hope to stop the Nazi invasion. As historian Dr Agnieszka Morriss has discussed, even the act of transmitting news on Poland from London had a vast impact, with the ensuing ‘delusion that Poland was the centre of world attention [and] Poles were convinced that the British government knew about German and Soviet crimes against Polish citizens and would act to protect them.’ The result was complete unfamiliarity with Polish diplomatic weakness, and instead a belief that the country was prized as a vital ally.
Ordinary Polish listeners had been under the impression that the Polish Section had high levels of input from Poles themselves – particularly following the relocation of Polish government-in-exile to London – and so contained accurate reports on Polish strength. Hearing speeches by Polish officials on the section reinforced the conviction that Polish authorities were actively involved in producing content, with numbers of listeners raised ever-further between June 1940 and January 1942 when Radio Polskie’s transmissions to Poland were interrupted. Though the Polish authorities in London repeatedly requested access to any coverage of Polish affairs, the demands were denied as a result of partiality fears – most notably by section head Michael Winch, whose evident displeasure at attempts by the Polish government to influence the nature of the Polish Section even went as far as to consider their efforts an intervention.
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The Polish Underground eventually complained to the BBC in 1941 to denounce the section’s content as ‘doing more harm than good’, by using ‘unsatisfactory language, ignorance of the Polish mentality, a sickeningly sweet tone in the bulletins, and fooling listeners with undue optimism instead of telling the truth’ – even despite the Underground’s own needs taken into account at the highest level of management of the section throughout the war. Problems were only to continue.
Despite internal quarrels, issues faced by the Polish Section mainly arose over troublesome diplomatic developments – especially with regards to the east. After 1941, it has been reported that the BBC wanted to remain as impartial as possible, a move which involved refusing to allow anti-Soviet propaganda, which was regularly condemned by the Polish Ministry of Information, who criticised the BBC for what they deemed stringent levels of censorship. But even before 1941, caution had to be taken – the Polish Section did not, for example, report on Soviet government manoeuvres or crimes against Polish citizens in depth, nor provided extensive coverage of the discovery of the Polish officers’ graves in Katyń.
The eastern border remained a sore point. Following the Soviet Union’s entry into the allied coalition in 1941, the Polish Section had to convince listeners that the goals of their new ally were also to seek an independent Poland – effectively attempting to ignore the previous two years of Soviet oppression Poles east of the Curzon Line had faced. They were required to echo British governmental policy – a policy determined not to rock the boat and damage allied relations, which involved looking for compromise over the Curzon Line; a taut boundary Poles did not want to reconsider. Stalin had revoked citizenship for all Poles east of the Curzon Line, and Polish officials were subsequently banned from addressing those areas, with the Polish Section refusing to explore the issue at hand. Nonetheless, all of these topics were still touched upon in transmissions, resulting in the section gaining a reputation for an informed – if brief – perspective.
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In any case, the section’s efforts were mostly prized: their ‘agony column’, which was broadcast from the very beginning of transmissions by the service, helped Poles to discover family members who had been lost in the chaos of escaping from occupied Poland. It was established as a consequence of the thousands of letters received by the BBC by Polish refugees looking for relatives, and contained a list of names – the programme itself had to be extended from a brief broadcast at the end of the first morning programme on the section, to twice a day, and then to fifteen minutes by 1940. Over this period, 9000 letters were received and 400 ‘agony column’ transmissions were made, covering over 34,000 names – many of whom were able to reconnect with family as a result of co-operation with the Red Cross and the Polish translation service added to the BBC’s Overseas Intelligence Department. However, the war’s progression from mid-1940, which hindered communication abilities across Europe, resulted in this element of the service being shut down that year.
The diplomatic situation also rapidly improved when, in February 1942, Winch’s disruptive tenure came to an end – his replacement, Gregory MacDonald, began a more friendly relationship between the station and Poles, who recognised MacDonald’s pre-war dedication to the Polish cause through his work as a consultant for the Polish Embassy.
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The Polish Section also broadcast developing news concerning the Holocaust, particularly following the arrival of a report from Leon Feiner, activist in the Jewish Labour Bund who was in hiding in Warsaw, which the Polish government-in-exile had acquired in May 1942. The Bund report was the first authoritative documentation of the systematic crimes committed against Jews in cities across occupied Poland, and was quickly spread to Allied governments, prompting mass media interest. On 9th June 1942, General Władysław Sikorski spoke on the Polish Section about crimes committed against both Poles and Jews. Though he did not actively use the Bund report in his speech, or give figures of likely number of deaths, he did report that:
The Jewish population in Poland is doomed to die out in accordance with [the] slogan 'all Jews shall have their throats cut no matter what the outcome of this war may be'. Real massacres of tens of thousands of Jews in Lublin, Vilnius, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Rzeszów and Miechow have been carried out this year. People are being starved to death in the ghettos. Mass executions are held: even those suffering from Typhus are shot.
Broadcasts covering the events of the Holocaust then featured in news transmissions regularly until the end of the war. In April 1943, the liquidation of the ghettos were addressed:
Here is more news from Poland about the barbaric German persecutions designed to exterminate the Jews. On the 13th, 14th and 15th of March the Germans took action to liquidate the Kraków ghetto. This action was similar to that which took place during the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto last year. The inhabitants were sent to concentration camps – so called 'camps of death' – where they were murdered. To the already well-known German camps of death another one must be added, that of Ozorków, near Łódź. According to information received the Germans deport Jews from Łódź and then murder them there.
The following month, in April 1943, the section touched upon the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, using intelligence from occupied Poland:
A broadcast from a secret Polish wireless station has revealed a German wave of terror against the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. After three years of deportation and execution only about 35,000 Jews are left there. These are mostly young men reserved by the Germans for Forced Labour. The secret radio declares that they are resisting the German attacks, that there is fierce shooting in the ghetto, and even that the Germans have employed light tanks.
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It was through furtive radio efforts from occupied Poland that the Polish Section was able to disseminate information to and from the country, enabling the reach of transmissions to extend. Data provided by the underground revealed that there were 350-500 monitoring posts across occupied Poland by 1943, which were manned by former Polskie Radio employees or technicians. Though these activities were gravely dangerous, increasing numbers of Poles volunteered to support radio monitoring, even as efforts were stepped up by the Germans to prevent access to foreign broadcasting, including their use of van detectors to locate signals – which resulted in posts having to be moved repeatedly. In addition, the Germans broadcast some reports in Polish on Polish Section wavelengths.
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But the underground’s links to the Polish Section were already concrete – in autumn 1941, the decision was made to establish a musical code system in songs played at the end of some Polish Section transmissions to pass information to Poland, which included details of RAF supply drops. Yet, as Morriss writes about these broadcasts, sometimes information was problematic:
As Macdonald recollects, there were embarrassing episodes related to these songs. After reporting on the death of Cardinal Arthur Hinsley, the Archbishop of Westminster and old friend of Poland, the Polish Service played the tune ‘Hurray, Hurray , Maciek is Dead’ (Hurra, Hurra, Umarł Maciek Umarł). Another example concerns the choice of ‘With the Smoke of Fires’ (Z Dymem Pożarów), evoking the failure of the Warsaw revolt against Russians in 1831 to inform the Polish Home Army about air drops during the Warsaw rising in 1944.
It has been estimated that radio broadcasts from the Polish Section were dispersed to the population in Poland within six hours, helped by the efforts of those who organised ‘strips’ to be produced. These were typed messages on carbon paper, which contained no spaces or margins, and were then rolled to be hidden and circulated in matchboxes or gloves. Some were inscribed with the letters S.R.A, standing for ‘Słyszałem Radio Angielskie’ (‘I heard English Radio’) with the instruction ‘read it and pass it on’, though the Germans again attempted to sabotage their circulation by producing fake documents with the same initials on them.
But Polish efforts – and a source of information for the Polish Section – were also supplemented by the London-Polish operation over at the radio station Świt, which had been disguised as a Polish station transmitting from Poland, but actually operated from Bletchley. Świt began operations in 1943 and was a valuable source of specific information on occurrences in Polish cities. Efforts were furthered with the underground’s active promotion of radio construction, with their distribution of booklets across the country with instructions on how to construct wireless sets, and running courses. Parts could be acquired on the black market, and pocket-sized appliances were also created, allowing for clandestine listening.
The Warsaw Uprising
According to Macdonald’s records reported by Morriss, a Polish uprising against the Germans had been expected – though when action broke out, radio transmissions from the Polish Section were chaotic, and remained so for the first few weeks of fighting.
A cable declaring that the uprising had begun had arrived to Polish telegraphists at Barnes Lodge in London on 1st August 1944 but, having no authorisation from the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa, or AK), it was ignored. The following day, General Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, the commander of AK, released a statement confirming the beginning of the uprising, and the Polish government-in-exile began to circulate the information. That afternoon, the Polish Section gave a bulletin on developments, though most information was from Radio Polskie or from Churchill’s speech given earlier in the day, in which he had referred to the Russian forces as liberators.
Indeed, this was a sad trend marking both the Polish Section and the BBC Home Service’s coverage of the early days of fighting. On 3rd August, the Polish Section gave the impression that the AK were working with an increasing advance by the Russians, and were in contact with the Soviet command. The next day, Bór-Komorowski cabled London to inform them this was not the case.
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Days later, a report that the Russian effort had quietened down was censored. Radio Polskie broadcast a statement from Bór-Komorowski that Warsaw had not received any help from the Russians, but the Polish Section was silent. By mid-August, the RAF were dropping supplies over Warsaw, and Bór-Komorowski thanked the pilots in a broadcast on the Polish Section. Yet the rising was not covered in detail and other military efforts took priority, with conflicting and confusing reports on the Russian effort on the right-bank of the Wisła river complicating proceedings. Around this time, however, the BBC began to broadcast reports from the insurgents’ radio station, Błyskawica, with 77 broadcasts from the station going out in English over the uprising period.
Coverage of a lack of Russian support for the uprising only appeared in early September with the Polish Section’s press review, which included articles from various national and regional papers criticising the Soviet action. Yet the section did continue to suggest the Russians were still moving towards Warsaw.
On 4th September, the section broadcast a talk by the Bund's Emanuel Scherer, addressed to the Jews of Warsaw:
You, who have gone through the hell of anti-Jewish tortures by the German occupation – and you who have gone through the Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto – and you working till now in hiding – and all you who fight with arms in your hands at the side of your co-citizens on the barricades of Warsaw – our homage and respect. You defend, in a terribly unequal battle, the honour of the Jewish race and its working class, fighting in the first ranks of the armed, rising in the Warsaw ghetto, being its promoter and its soul... And now for the third time in this war, you are fighting in the streets of Warsaw, under the same unconquered standards of the freedom of our land, nation, and all mankind. Not many of your comrades are able to take part in today's battle. Tens and hundreds of thousands of Jews, who would undoubtedly have fought had they lived till now, rest in the mass graves at Tremblinki, Majdanka, Belzcz, Sobibora, Oswiecimia, [sic] and so many other places of torture and death. But however few of you comrades are in the ranks of the Home Army – you ARE FIGHTING FOR YOURSELVES AND FOR THOSE WHO HAVE GONE.
On 6th September, the section also broadcast messages of support from King George VI and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, though recent intelligence on crimes committed by the Soviets against AK forces were not reported.
On 13th September, when Stalin agreed for the allied planes to fly over Warsaw, the Polish Section issued messages of gratitude from Poland and the Polish government to international air assistance, which were repeated days later. Nothing, however, was said about insufficient supplies or the rapidly deteriorating situation in the city. In the last two weeks of the uprising, the focus was on the Russian and allied assistance.
News of the collapse of the uprising came on 3rd October at 5:45pm, with the Allied efforts prized for doing all that they could to assist the insurgents. Nonetheless, the press review a day later included a piece criticising Allied support.
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The Polish Section broadcast the Yalta declaration in February 1945, though Macdonald refused to allow it to be recommended to Poles, instead offering the dossier from an impartial perspective. However, Morriss records that their press review only reported on newspapers which saw the declaration in a positive light. The Polish government-in-exile issued a statement in protest against the declaration, but this was only reported on in brief. Yet, the same month, the Polish Section reported on crimes committed against Poles by the Soviets for the first time, in a broadcast based on reports from the Daily Telegraph.
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In February, the Polish Section also broadcast an agency eye-witness account from the Auschwitz concentration camp:
Moscow correspondents report that several thousand people have been rescued from the German extermination camp at Oświęcim, in territory captured by the Russians in Upper Silesia. One correspondent says: 'All the survivors were ghost-like apparitions, almost ageless and sexless.' Hundreds of thousands of victims from Poland, France, Yugoslavia – and other European Countries were massacred at Oświęcim; — On arrival they were forced to work 18 hours a day; they were subjected to hunger and exposure and torture — until too weak to work anymore, then they were shot, hanged, electrocuted or poisoned and cremated.
Describing the camp, in terms which confirm all previous accounts, the correspondents say: 'It occupied 30 square km, the whole ground saturated with blood and literally blanketed with human ashes. There are offices for sorting the victims, according to age and strength and capacity to work before execution. There are offices for old men, women, children and invalids condemned to immediate execution. In another department semi-invalids were forced to sort the clothes of those already murdered. The main department was the furnace for cremating the bodies of the victims.
After the war ended, Polish dissatisfaction with the Yalta declaration was ever-clearer, resulting in Churchill issuing a statement in the House of Commons – and transmitted on the Polish Section – to confirm Poles in the UK would not be forced to return. The Polish Section did suggest the new government in Poland would be welcoming, but after the Iron Curtain became evident in 1946, the service took the role of disseminating anti-communist propaganda.
Looking back, though the Polish Section was involved in its fair share of issues throughout its period of wartime operation, its role in communicating with Poles in and outside the country throughout the war – in particular its encouragement during the Warsaw Uprising and assistance with supporting refugees – mean it is rightly seen as having played a significant role for the Polish war effort. It would go on to support the Polish community for decades to come, but its peacetime adventures will have to wait until another article.
Written by Juliette Bretan, Aug 2018
Sources: 'The BBC Polish Service During the Second World War' by Agnieszka Morriss (2015)