June 6, 2017

1941. Edward R. Murrow: Britain Prepares for the Worst

Britain Braces for Spring Offensive


This broadcast by Edward R. Murrow aired on March 9, 1941. The transcript featured here was printed in a 1941 collection of Murrow's radio broadcasts, "This Is London," pp. 231-237. The audio differs significantly in sequence from the script below, but it is the same report.

SPRING, 1941
[As the final proofs of this book were being sent to the printer, the Columbia Broadcasting System asked Mr. Murrow to devote one of his Sunday-afternoon broadcasts to giving a general impression of England just before the German spring offensive of 1941 was expected to begin. His talk was transcribed in New York and the complete text follows.]

March 9, 1941

This is London.

Soon it will be spring in England. Already there are flowers in the parks, although the parks aren't quite as well kept as they were this time last year. But there's good fighting weather ahead. In four days' time the moon will be full again, and there's a feeling in the air that big things will happen soon.

The winter that is ending has been hard, but Londoners have many reasons for satisfaction. There have been no serious epidemics. The casualties from air bombardments have been less than expected. And London meets this spring with as much courage, though less complacency, than at this time last year.

Many ancient buildings have been destroyed. Acts of individual heroism have been commonplace. More damage has been done by fire than by high explosives. The things cast down by the Germans out of the night skies have made hundreds of thousands of people homeless. I've seen them standing cruel cold of a winter morning with tears frozen on their faces looking at the little pile of rubble that was their homes and saying over and over again in a toneless, unbelieving way: "What have we done to deserve this?"

But the winter has brought some improved conditions in the underground shelters. It has brought, too, reduced rations; repeated warnings of the imminence of invasion; shorter restrictions upon the freedom of the individual and organizations.

When spring last came to England the country was drifting and almost dozing through a war that seemed fairly remote. Not much had been done to give manpower and machinery to the demands of modern war. The story of the spring, summer, and fall is well known to all of you. For the British it was a record of one disaster after another—until those warm, cloudless days of August and September when the young men of the Royal Air Force beat back the greatest air fleet ever assembled by any nation. Those were the days and nights and even weeks when time seemed to stand still.

At the beginning they fought over the English Channel, then over the coast of Kent, and when the German bombers smashed the advance fighter bases along the coast the battle moved inland. Night after night the obscene glare of hundreds of fires reddened the bellies of the big, awkward barrage balloons over London, transforming them into queer animals with grace and beauty. Finally the threat was beaten off. Both sides settled down to delivering heavy blows in the dark.

Britain received more than she gave. All through the winter it went on. Finally there came bits of good news from the Western Desert. But even Tobruk and Benghazi seemed far away. Victories over the Italians are taken for granted here. Even the children know that the real enemy is Germany.

It hasn't been victories in the Middle East or promises of American aid that have sustained the people of this island during the war. They know that next winter, when it comes, it will probably be worse, that their sufferings and privations will increase. Their greatest strength has been and is something that is talked about a great deal in Germany but never mentioned here—the concept of a master race.

The average Englishman thinks it's just plain silly for the Germans to talk about a master race. He's quietly sure in his own mind that there is only one master race. That's a characteristic that caused him to adopt an attitude of rather bored tolerance toward all foreigners and made him thoroughly disliked by many of them. But it's the thing that has closed his mind to the possibilities that Britain may be defeated.

The habit of victory is strong here. Other habits are strong, too. The old way of doing things is considered best. That's why it has taken more than a year and a half to mobilize Britain's potential strength, and the job is not yet finished.

The other day, watching a farmer trying to fill in a twenty-foot-deep bomb crater in the middle of his field, I wonder what would happen before he harvested the next crop from that bomb-torn soil. I suppose that many more bombs will fall. There will be much talk about equality of sacrifice which doesn't exist. Many proud ships will perish in the Western Approaches. There will be further restrictions on clothes and food. Probably a few profiteers will make their profits.

No one knows whether the invasion will come, but there are those who fear it will not. I believe that a public opinion poll on the question "Would you like the Germans to attempt an invasion?" would be answered overwhelmingly in the affirmative. Most people, believing that it must be attempted eventually, would be willing to have it come soon. They think that in no other way can the Germans win this war, and they will not change their mind until they hear their children say: "We are hungry."

So long as Winston Churchill is Prime Minister, the House of Commons will be given an opportunity to defend its traditions and to determine the character of the government that is to rule this country. The Prime Minister will continue to be criticized in private for being too much interested in strategy and too little concerned with the great social and economic problems that clamor for solution.

British propaganda aimed at occupied countries will continue to fight without its heavy artillery until some sort of statement on war aims or, if you prefer, peace aims has been published.

And in the future, as in the past, one of the strangest sensations for me will be that produced by radio. Sometime someone will write the story of the technical and military uses to which this new weapon has been put; but no one, I think, will ever describe adequately just what it feels like to sit in London with German bombs ripping in the air, shaking the buildings, and causing the lights to flicker while you listen to the German radio broadcasting Wagner or Bavarian folk music. A twist of the dial gives you Tokyo talking about dangerous thoughts; an American Senator discussing hemisphere defense; the clipped; precise accent of a British announcer describing the proper method of photographing elephants; Moscow boasting of the prospects of the wheat harvest in the Ukraine; each nation speaking almost any language save its own, until finally you switch off the receiving set in order that the sounds from the four corners of the earth will not interfere with the sound of the German bombs that come close enough to cause you to dive under the desk.

The bombs this spring will be bigger and there'll be more of them, probably dropped from a greater height than ever before. Berlin and London will continue to claim that their bombs hit the military targets while the enemy's strike mainly churches, schools, hospitals, and private dwellings.

The opening engagement of the spring campaign is now being fought in the Atlantic. The Admiralty has taken over control of the shipyards in an effort to speed up production and repairs. Merchant sinkings will probably reach alarming proportions, but there will always been men to take ships out. The outcome of the Battle in the Atlantic will be decisive. The island lives by its ships, and the ships will be carrying supplies from America.

There was no dancing in the streets here when the "lend-lease" bill was passed, for the British know from their own experience that the gap between legislation and realization can be very wide. They remember being told that their frontier was on the Rhine, and they know now that their government did very little to keep it there.

The course of Anglo-American relations will be smooth on the surface, but many people over here will express regret because they believe America is making the same mistakes that Britain made. For you must understand that the idea of America being of more help as a nonbelligerent than as a fighting ally has been discarded, even by those who advanced it originally. Maybe we should do some frank, forthright talk across the Atlantic instead of rhetoric, but I doubt it.

One thing that is not to be doubted is that the decisions taken in Washington between now and the time the crops are harvested will determine the pattern of events for a long time to come. British statesmen are fond of repeating that Britain stands alone as the defender of democracy, but General Headquarters is now on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Many Britishers realize that. Not all of them are happy about it, for the policies of Washington have not always been the policies of the Tory party, which still rules this country.

Presumably, the decisions of Washington will be taken in the full light of publicity and debate, and no mere radio reporter has the right to use the weight of monopolized opportunity in an effort to influence those decisions. We can only deliver to you an occasional wheelbarrow load of stuff, tell you where it comes from, and what sort of air raid shelter or bastion you build with it is a matter for free men to decide, but since part of reporting must necessarily be personal, I'd like to end this with my own impression of Britain on the verge of spring and big events.

There's still a sense of humor in the country; the old feeling of superiority over all other peoples remains. So does class distinction. There is great courage and a blind belief that Britain will survive. The British aren't all heroes; they know the feeling of fear; I've shared it with them. They try to avoid thinking deeply about political and social problems. They'll stand any amount of government inefficiency and muddle. They're slow to anger, and they die with great dignity. They will cheer Winston Churchill when he walks through block after block of smashed houses and offices as though he'd brought them a great victory. During a blinding raid when the streets are filled with smoke and the sound of the roaring guns, they'll say to you: "Do you think we're really brave, or just lacking in imagination?"

Well, they've come through the winter, and they've been warned that the testing days are ahead. Of the past months, they may well say: "We've lived a life, not an apology." And of the future, I think most of them would say: "We shall live hard, but we shall live."