one mic against the reich: CBS Radio newsman Edward R. Murrow brought the ugly truth about Nazi aggression to America's living rooms direct from burning London.
On that first day of the Blitz, bombs fell on London for 12 straight hours. When it was over, the East End was in flames and 3,000 citizens were dead or injured. Murrow returned to the city and took it all in, then made his way to the BBC Broadcasting House. From Studio B4 in the building' basement, he conveyed the scene to CBS listeners across the Atlantic. "There are no words to describe the thing that is happening," he began. He went on to paint vivid, indelible word pictures of the carnage. "A row of automobiles with stretchers racked on the roofs like skis, standing outside of bombed buildings. A man pinned under wreckage where a broken gas main sears his arms and face. The courage of the people, the flash and roar of the guns rolling down streets, the stench of air-raid shelters in the poor districts." By the time his on-the-spot report from war-ravaged London ended, Murrow had become a broadcasting legend.
Back in the spring of 1937, a few months before the tramping of Nazi jackboots echoed across Europe, Murrow and his wife, Janet, had settled into an expensive apartment in London, four blocks from the British Broadcasting Corporation headquarters in the tony West End. Just 29 years old at the time, Murrow was fresh from a two-year stint as "director of talks" for CBS in New York City. In that role, he had been responsible for bringing in experts and public figures to discuss issues in the news. But then network executives decided to replace longtime London bureau chief Cesar Saerchinger, a pretentious music critic, with a more experienced newsman. The execs wanted to expand their coverage beyond Saerchinger's fawning puff pieces on the British royal family, fancy-dress horse races, and society promenades. Murrow, a tenacious reporter with an instinctive grasp of political realities, seemed to fit the bill. No one, not even he himself, knew just how well. War was in the air; soon Murrow would put it on the air.
In Vienna, a Prelude to War
It HAD BEEN A LONG journey for Murrow from the lumber town of Blanchard, Washington, to London's West End. The youngest of three boys born to Quaker parents, he excelled academically and athletically, leading his Edison High School basketball team to the county championship. He spent his summers working as a lumberjack to earn enough to put himself through Washington State College in Pullman. There, too, he excelled, becoming student body president, starring in campus theater productions, joining the Kappa Sigma fraternity, and honing his speaking skills as two-time president of the National Student Federation of America. After college, he parlayed his experience into a full-time job with the federation in New York City, spearheading the organization's University of the Air, a popular talk show that featured such celebrated guests as Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and various American and European political leaders. In 1935, CBS hired Murrow.
Despite all his broadcasting experience in New York City, when Murrow arrived in London he had no intention of putting himself on the air. Instead, he assembled a world-class group of reporters to cover the rapidly worsening political climate in Europe. His first hire may have been his best. In August 1937, he had dinner at Berlin's luxurious Adlon Hotel with William L. Shirer. Slight and bespectacled, Shirer looked for all the world like a pipe-smoking English professor from a small Midwestern university, but the Chicago native was in fact a savvy, experienced journalist who had spent more than a decade covering hard news from Paris to Afghanistan. Among the luminaries Shirer had interviewed while working for William Randolph Heart's Universal Service were Mahatma Gandhi, Charles Lindbergh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Isadora Duncan, and the menacing new chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. Shirer spoke fluent German, a skill that would soon pay dividends.
Universal had let Shirer go in a belt-tightening move a few months earlier, and he was preparing to return to the United States to look for work when Murrow got in touch with him out of the blue. The two men bonded over their dinner, and Murrow retained Shirer to continue reporting from Berlin. When network executives complained that Shirer sounded more like a bookkeeper than a broadcaster, Murrow held firm. He needed Shirer for his insights and expertise, not his vocal chords. CBS came around, and the most influential journalistic pairing of the era began.
As both Murrow and Shirer knew--and as the rest of the world would soon find out--Germany was ground zero for a looming European catastrophe. In March 1938, while in Vienna to arrange a broadcast of the city's famed boys' choir, Shirer got a firsthand view of Germany's takeover of Austria, Hitler's home country. He watched Nazi airplanes drop propaganda pamphlets from the sky while mobs of swastika-wearing thugs stomped through the streets below, chanting, "Ein Reich! Ein Volk! Ein Fuhrer!"-- one country, one people, one leader. Shirer knew immediately what leader they meant.
Turned away by bayonet-wielding Nazis when he arrived at Vienna's state-run radio station, where he had hoped to broadcast a live report, Shirer contacted Murrow, who ordered him to fly to London and broadcast his scoop from there. Meanwhile, Murrow flew to Vienna to organize coverage of Hitler's triumphant arrival in the city as he marshaled a team of correspondents to report reactions in Paris, Rome, Berlin, and other European capitals.
Once in Vienna, Murrow searched for someone to go on the air with the news. Failing to find anyone on such short notice, he took to the airwaves himself. It was the first live broadcast of his career. Contrasting the festive mood of Viennese Nazis with the depressed reaction of the city's Jewish residents, Murrow sounded a cautionary tone. "It was called a bloodless conquest, and in some ways it was," he reported. "But I'd like to be able to forget the haunted looks on the faces of those long lines of people outside the banks and travel offices. People trying to get away. I'd like to forget the tired, futile look of the Austrian army officers, and the thud of hobnail boots and the crash of light tanks in the early hours of the morning in the Ringstrasse. I'd like to forget the sound of the smashing glass as the Jewish shop streets were raided, the hoots and jeers at those forced to scrub the sidewalk." One night, he personally witnessed a young Jewish man in a bar cut his own throat with a straight razor.
Murrow's Boys--and Girl
RETURNING TO London, Murrow coordinated local coverage. He noted that Londoners seemed to be preparing for the worst. "Trucks loaded with sandbags and gas masks were to be seen," he said. "The surface calm of London remains, but I think I notice a change in people's faces. There seems to be a tight, strained look about the eyes."
British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to the capital city on September 30, 1938, after meeting with Hitler in Munich and notoriously waved a scrap of paper above his head, claiming it was a written guarantee from Hitler assuring "peace in our time." Others were not so sure. British opposition leader Winston Churchill bluntly told Chamberlain, "You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war."
That's what Murrow thought, too. He convinced CBS to let him hire more European correspondents--the beginning of the crack news team that would become known as Murrow's Boys. These included Thomas Grandin, a Yale-educated academic whom Murrow dispatched to Paris along with a 26-year-old assistant from North Dakota named Eric Sevareid. Also hired were Mary Marvin Breckinridge, an old college friend of Murrow's who became the team's only woman; Cecil Brown, a journalist and former merchant mariner; Larry LeSueur of United Press; Winston Burdett of the Brooklyn Eagle; Charles Collingwood, a recent graduate of Cornell; and Howard K. Smith, a champion hurdler from Tulane. While Shirer continued reporting from Berlin, the others fanned out across the Continent to keep a weather eye on the storm clouds gathering above their heads.
Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, launching the second European war in two decades. For the first several months after the invasion, the conflict seemed to be at a standstill, and the Allied nations dubbed it the Phony War. But on May 10, 1940, the Nazis launched simultaneous invasions of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Murrow's Boys were in place to cover and report this blitzkrieg, or "lightning war," as the Germans called it. Sevareid, returning to Paris, saw German artillery flashes in the near-distance. It was, he told CBS Radio listeners, "truly a lightning war, a war of sudden sounds and flashing machines. It comes and is gone before you can move, and the men you rarely see."
American families gathered around their radio consoles to listen to the ominous reports coming out of Europe from Murrow's team. As the German army rolled relentlessly westward toward Paris, Breckinridge reported on the steady stream of civilian refugees attempting to flee. She told listeners about "baby carriages full of quilts, and bicycles with boxes tied over them with bits of string.... One little girl carried a black cat, and several families brought their dogs with them. One woman, who arrived alone and looked less tired than the rest, was questioned by the others: 'What happened to my town? Was my home bombed?'" The woman couldn't say.
Sevareid drove down a deserted Champs-Elysees, normally Paris's busiest street, and saw a lone cafe customer sitting at a table finishing his wine while a waiter, with true Parisian savoir faire, hovered patiently in the background. Meanwhile, streams of refugees poured out of Paris in cars and trucks, on bicycles, in wagons--anything that would roll. Others trudged by on foot, said Sevareid, "like a stream of lava flowing past, the unstoppable river which came from the unimaginable eruption somewhere to the north." Sevareid barely made it out of Paris ahead of the Nazis.
IN London, Murrow observed the calm if somber mood of the British citizens. "I saw more grave, solemn faces today than I have ever seen in London before," he told American listeners. "Fashionable tea rooms were almost deserted; the shops in Bond Street were doing very little business; people read their newspapers as they walked slowly down the streets. I saw one woman standing in line for a bus begin to cry, very quietly. She didn't bother to wipe the tears away." After Shirer reported from Paris that the French had surrendered to Hitler in the same railroad carriage in which the Germans had surrendered to the French in World War I, Murrow called newly installed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to get a reaction. Churchill refused to believe the news; his government had received no prior warning from the French government. But it was true. Afterwards, Hitler had the infamous railway car dragged to Berlin and put on display.
The Blitz and British Resolve
England braced FOR an imminent German invasion that never came. Instead, for six weeks in the late summer of 1940, young British Royal Air Force pilots--21 years old on average--slugged it out with German warplanes in the skies over England. Despite staggering losses, the RAF held its own, mainly through the sheer pluck and bravery of fighter pilots who flew as many as six sorties a day in their Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires. Churchill rallied the nation and much of the free world with his own eloquent radio broadcasts. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," he said of the RAF fighters. As for England, he said, "We will never surrender."
With the start of the Blitz on September 7, Hitler shifted his focus from British pilots to British civilians, and Murrow was on hand to report it to his fellow Americans. For the next 56 days, as Nazi bombers mercilessly pounded London in the Blitz, Murrow tirelessly patrolled the rubble-strewn streets, painting what he called "pictures in the air" for American listeners. He began each broadcast with a dramatic, half-second pause between his opening words: "This ... is London." It became his catchphrase.
Like the blue-collar American he was, Murrow sensed instinctively that his listeners would identify with their British counterparts, the average men and women on the street, who were undergoing an extraordinary trial by fire. Chain-smoking Camel cigarettes--three packs a day--and drinking endless cups of coffee, avoiding underground bomb shelters in favor of exposed rooftops where he could view the action more closely, Murrow sped down blacked-out London streets in his Sunbeam-Talbot convertible along with his daredevil sidekick LeSueur in search of telling vignettes for the people back home.
"One becomes accustomed to rattling windows and the distant sound of bombs, and then there comes a silence that can be felt," Murrow reported. "You know the sound will return--you wait, and then it starts again. The waiting is bad. It gives you a chance to imagine things." In front of a smashed grocery store, he said, "I heard a dripping inside. It was the only sound in all London. Two cans of peaches had been drilled clean through by flying glass, and the juice was dripping onto the floor." Going to buy a hat, Murrow observed that "my favorite shop had gone, blown to bits. The windows of my shoe store were blown out. I decided to have a haircut; the windows of the barbershop were gone, but the Italian barber was still doing business." Another storekeeper assured a doubtful Murrow that he would be open all winter. "Of course we'll be here," the man said. "We've been in business here for 150 years." Murrow saw hand-lettered signs on other shops that read "Shattered But Not Shuttered" and "Knocked But Not Locked." The dauntless English spirit remained high.
Murrow did anything he could to bring the war directly into America's living rooms. He broadcast from ground level, holding his microphone down to the street to catch the sound of bombs hitting the pavement and the unhurried footsteps of London residents walking--not running--to underground shelters. "There was no bravado, no loud voices, only a quiet acceptance of the situation," he recounted admiringly. "To me those people were incredibly brave and calm."
His on-the-scene broadcasts were the first to transmit ambient, live-action sounds of war across the airwaves. One night, on the roof of Broadcasting House, Murrow remained on the air during a Nazi bombing run. "The searchlights now are feeling almost directly overhead," he said. "Now you'll hear two bursts a little nearer in a moment. There they are! That hard, stony sound, that faint-red, angry snap of anti-aircraft blasts against the steel-blue sky, the sound of guns going off in the distance very faintly, like someone kicking a tub." Those homespun details made the war seem real to American listeners in a way that dozens of high-flown political speeches could not.
Sometimes the bombs fell dangerously close to Murrow. Once, one flew through the seventh-floor window of Broadcasting House and crashed into the music library. It didn't explode, but it was a delay-action bomb, and an hour later it went off. Murrow, in the basement at the time, was unharmed, but four men and three women were killed or wounded. Murrow continued his broadcast. Another night, as he and Janet were returning home, he wanted to stop in at the Devonshire Arms for a nightcap. Janet persuaded him to keep walking. A moment later, "a tearing, whooshing shriek" seemed to come down on top of them, throwing them against a wall. A bomb had made a direct hit on the pub behind them, killing 30 people inside.
Airwaves that Made a Difference
Gradually, the German bombing of London subsided. By then, Murrow's broadcasts were legendary. He paired his "This ... is London" opening with a closing that intentionally echoed a catchphrase used by plucky Londoners saying farewell to one another during the Blitz: "Good night, and good luck." For the rest of his career, Murrow would conclude each broadcast with those words.
Murrow's reporting on the Blitz was the high point in a distinguished career that would extend into the early 1960s. No less an expert than Churchill credited Murrow with personally rallying American public opinion behind the British war effort. In November 1941, Murrow returned to New York, where 1,100 well-wishers feted him at the Waldorf Astoria. Poet Archibald MacLeish put Murrow's service into context: "You laid the dead of London at our doors, and we knew that the dead were our dead. You have destroyed the superstition that what is done beyond three thousand miles of water is not really done at all. There were some people in this country who did not want the people of America to hear the things you had to say." At the end of the evening, Murrow received a standing ovation.
Fittingly, Murrow was back in London for V-E Day-- the official declaration of Allied victory in Europe, on May 8, 1945. With his quick eye for detail, he noted that many people on the street were strangely quiet. "They appear not to be part of the celebration," he said. "Their minds must be filled with the memories of friends who died in the streets where they now walk." He made a pilgrimage back to his old apartment at 84 Hallam Street, where he remembered, "Your best friend was killed on the next corner. You pass a water tank and recall, almost with a start, that there used to be a pub, hit with a two-thousand-pounder one night, thirty people killed." He concluded simply: "Six years is a long time. I have observed today that people have very little to say. There are no words."
But Murrow had found the words, and the American public back home had heard them. Perhaps his most cherished honor was one he received from BBC engineers in London, who gave him the microphone he had used during the war. It was inscribed, "This microphone, taken from studio B4 of the Broadcasting House, London, is presented to Edward R. Murrow, who used it with such distinction for some many broadcasts to CBS New York during the war years 1939 to 1945." In his hands during the height of the Blitz, that microphone had proved every bit as effective a weapon against Nazi aggression as any rifle, pistol, bayonet, hand grenade or bomb. Like Churchill's England, it never surrendered.
Roy Morris Jr. is the author of eight books on American history and literature. His ninth book, Gertrude Stein Has Arrived: The Homecoming of a Literary Legend, will be published this fall.
RELATED ARTICLE: Beyond the Blitz.
Reporting the London Blitz was the highlight of Edward R. Murrow's WWII career, but he also ventured occasionally into the battle zones of North Africa and Europe, covering the American campaign in Tunisia and flying on 25 bombing sorties over Europe. On June 6, 1944--D-Day for the Allied invasion of Normandy, France--Murrow read to America's radio listeners the order that General Dwight Eisenhower had issued to his soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force the evening before the massive assault. "We will accept nothing less than full victory," he read. "Good luck. And let us beseech the blessing of almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."
Undoubtedly, the most horrifying sight that Murrow, or anyone, saw was the Buchenwald concentration camp outside Weimar, Germany, liberated on April 11, 1945, by the 6th Armored Division of Lieutenant General George S. Patton's US Third Army. More than two years earlier, Murrow had been one of the first newsmen to broadcast rumors of the Nazis' infamous Final Solution, but nothing could have prepared him for what he saw at the death camp. "If you are at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what the Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio," he warned on April 15, 1945, "for I propose to tell you of Buchenwald." It had taken him three days to process the experience.
"There surged around me an evil-smelling horde," Murrow told listeners. "Men and boys reached to touch me, and they were in rags and the remnants of uniform. Death had already marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes. As I walked down to the end of the barracks, there was applause from the men too weak to get out of bed. It sounded like the hand-clapping of babies. As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others--they must have been over 60--were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it but will not describe it."
Inside a small garage, Murrow saw "two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised, though there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. Some had been shot through the head, but they bled very little. All except two were naked. I tried to count them as best as I could and arrived at the conclusion that all that was mortal of more than 500 men and boys lay there in two neat piles."
He concluded his broadcast simply but memorably: "I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words. If I've offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I'm not in the least bit sorry."
Roy Morris Jr.
Caption: Opposite: Looking like a film noir character, CBS Radio newsman Edward R. Murrow taps out a script for This Is London, his daily war report from the British capital. He's wearing an army uniform for war correspondents in this 1943 publicity shot. Above: A 1941 storefront placard in Dayton, Ohio, plugs Murrow's program. His descriptive, on-the-scene reporting and dramatic delivery made him a news icon.
Caption: Opposite: Shepherded by air wardens, Londoners find safety in the Underground, their city's subway, during a raid. Murrow witnessed the Blitz, Germany's air war against England, from its outset, and his coverage made him a legend. Above: Murrow headed a network of journalists in Europe. Here he stands with other CBS staff in London in 1942 (from left): Murrow, Frank Greco, John Daly, and Robert Trout.
Caption: By vividly reporting the Blitz, and the British people's defiance of the Nazis, Murrow (catching a cab in London) connected Americans to the war across the Atlantic. Soon Yanks and Brits would fight side by side.
Caption: Murrow witnessed the Holocaust at the Buchenwald camp, whose ovens were still full of bones when he arrived.
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|Author:||Morris, Roy, Jr.|
|Publication:||America in WWII|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2019|
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