The voice of Edward R. Murrow brought ‘the Blitz’ home to Americans.
At the height of the Battle of Britain, as bombs rained down on London and other British cities, isolationist fervor remained strong in the United States. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was months away. War was still something distant to Americans, but not as distant as it had once been. The radio and newspapers had quite a bit to do with that. Reports of what was happening in the British capital streamed across the Atlantic.
No voice was more recognized, and no eyewitness accounts of the devastation and violence of “the Blitz” were more riveting than those of Edward R. Murrow. “This–is London,” he invariably began his reports, which were often broadcast from the roof of the BBC building in the midst of a Luftwaffe attack. Murrow rarely visited bomb shelters, and then it was only to gather news and information. “Once you start going into shelters,” he said, “you lose your nerve.” His vivid descriptions of what seemed at times a Dantesque vision of hell did as much as anything, save Pearl Harbor, to galvanize American public opinion in favor of the beleaguered British.
Murrow’s contributions to bringing the war into American living rooms extended beyond his radio program. As chief of CBS News in Europe since 1937, he had hired the likes of such journalism giants as Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, William L. Shirer and Howard K. Smith to report on the Nazis’ rise to power. By the time the Battle of Britain began he was acquainted with the Nazis. He had made some of the first broadcasts from Europe for CBS during 1938 and reported that same year from Vienna on the Anschluss (union) of Germany and Austria.
“It was called a bloodless conquest and in some ways it was,” he related. “But I’d like to be able to forget the haunted look on the faces of those long lines of people outside the banks and the 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 hobnailed 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 smashing glass as the Jewish shops were raided; the hoots and jeers at those forced to scrub the sidewalk….”
It was, however, his crisp, resonant description of Britain’s fight for survival during his radio broadcasts that made Murrow a household personality to most Americans. From his rooftop perch one night he reported, as a German bomber passed close by, “Off on my left, I can just see the faint-red angry snap of anti-aircraft bursts. Four searchlights are swinging over in this general direction. The plane’s still very high. The searchlights now are feeling almost directly overhead. Now you’ll hear two bursts a little nearer in a moment. There they are. That hard, stony sound.”
On October 10, 1940, Murrow reported, “This is London, 10 minutes before 5 in the morning. Tonight’s raid has been widespread. London again is the main target…. For three hours after the night attack got going, I shivered in a sandbag cow’s nest atop a tall building near the Thames…. Then he [the observer] picked up his telephone and shouted above the half gale that was blowing up there: ‘Stick of incendiaries–between 190 and 220–about three miles away.’ Five minutes later a German bomber came boring down the river. We could see his exhaust trail like a pale ribbon stretched across the sky. Half a mile downstream there were two eruptions and then a third, all close together….”
Aside from the fact that his radio broadcasts were often accompanied by the live thunder of anti-aircraft guns and the crash of exploding bombs, his gravelly, monotone delivery brought Murrow enhanced credibility among his listeners. He captured the essence of the struggle for survival very simply on December 25, 1940: “This is not a merry Christmas in London. I heard that phrase only twice in the last three days.”
As the tide of World War II changed, Murrow continued to describe the drama of the war from the most informed of positions, right where it was unfolding. He flew more than 40 combat missions aboard Allied bombers, telling his audience that over Berlin “men die in the sky while others are roasted in their cellars.”
Murrow was a passenger aboard a Douglas C-47 transport aircraft that dropped paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division into Holland during Operation Market-Garden in September 1944. In April 1945, he visited the recently liberated Buchenwald concentration camp. “I pray you believe what I have said about Buchenwald,” he stated. “I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words.”
After the war, Murrow became vice president and director of public affairs for CBS. He took his radio program Hear It Now to television in 1951 as See It Now. In 1954, his sense of honesty and fair play compelled him to use his show as the platform for a stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts aimed at exposing Communists in the United States.
Edward R. Murrow left CBS in 1961 to become director of the U.S. Information Agency. He died of cancer in 1965 at the age of 57.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II