On a late summer night in September 1940, millions of Americans sat near their radios mesmerized by the penetrating voice that brought a distant war into their living rooms. “Off to my left, far away in the distance, I can see just that faint, red, angry snap of anti-aircraft bursts against the steel-blue sky….More searchlights spring up over on my right… swinging over in this general direction now. You’ll hear two explosions—there they are!…The plane is still very high and it’s quite clear that he’s not coming in for his bombing run….”
The voice belonged to CBS chief of the European staff Edward R. Murrow. As he did on most evenings during the “Blitz,” he stood with his microphone on the roof of the BBC’s Broadcasting House describing the Luftwaffe’s terror bombing of London. Other American broadcasters reported on the Battle of Britain, but none captured the drama of what was happening in the skies over the capital city better than Murrow. BBC war correspondent Godfrey Talbot described Murrow’s voice: “…abrasive, if you like. There was no honey and wine and cigars about Ed’s voice. It punched through. It was the voice of doom, not the end, but the voice of dire tidings.”
The tidings were indeed dire in this war of aerial bombardment. At first, the Luftwaffe attacked Royal Air Force (RAF) bases and other military targets, but in late summer, frustrated by their failure to force Britain to surrender, the Germans changed their strategy to the terror bombing that had proven so effective at Warsaw and Rotterdam. The bombers first came after London’s citizens on the night of September 7, 1940, killing 1,000 and injuring 2,000 more. In London since May, Murrow was there to report that “the fires…had turned the moon blood red.”
The bombers returned the next night and the next and continued into the fall and beyond. Watching Londoners endure the ceaseless bombing, the CBS reporter gained a profound admiration for the British people, and that came through in his reports. Murrow knew that their fight was America’s fight, and he was determined to bring the war home to his fellow citizens, a great many of whom hoped that their own country could remain safe in its “splendid isolation” from world affairs. As Talbot later remarked, his American colleague was “concerned, very concerned, that his own country wasn’t aware of the facts of life.” Murrow was also thinking that “if Hitler and company were not stopped here, the next stop was Manhattan,” Talbot said.
Murrow, born in Greensboro, N.C., in 1908, had little idea that he would become one of the most famous broadcasters of the 20th century. His wish to embark on a career in journalism grew out of his experience as a lumberman in the Northwest. Desirous to avoid a life of hard labor, he enrolled in Washington State College at Pullman and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in speech in 1930.
Murrow then served as president of the National Student Federation and assistant director of the International Institute of Education, jobs that gave him an opportunity to spend some time in Europe. He returned to the United States in September 1935 to take a job with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS).
A year later, the young broadcaster witnessed the power of radio during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first reelection campaign. Murrow also was impressed by the work of CBS correspondent H.V. Kaltenborn, who covered the Spanish Civil War using a mobile transmitter that sent the sounds of battle through the ether to the American radio audience.
In February 1937, Murrow readily accepted the offer of CBS president William S. Paley to become the network’s European “director of talks.” The 29-year-old Murrow arrived in London in April 1937. Future broadcasting legend Eric Sevareid described his new colleague as “a tall, thin man with a boyish grin, extraordinary dark eyes that were alight and intense one moment and somber and lost the next.”
Murrow took over an operation that broadcast through BBC facilities in Studio B-4, in the cellar of a battleship-like building called Broadcasting House. Murrow and his wife Janet rented a walkup apartment a few blocks away.
Restless in London as events elsewhere spun out of control, Murrow journeyed to the Continent whenever possible to cover the news as it happened. In March 1938, the young American reporter was in Vienna as Adolf Hitler’s troops marched into Austria. During the Munich Crisis in September 1938, CBS listeners often heard Kaltenborn break into radio programs and dramatically announce, “Calling Edward Murrow, come in Ed Murrow,” which was soon followed by that voice—resonant, intense, precise— reporting on the dramatic events. During the 18 days of the crisis, Murrow’s voice became as recognizable to the American public as Jack Benny’s or Edgar Bergen’s. His reporting also had a profound impact on shaping opinions at home. That autumn, in Scribner’s magazine, Robert Landry wrote, “[Murrow] has more influence upon American reaction to foreign news than a shipful of newspapermen.” Biographer A.M. Sperber noted that for the first time the print media took notice of network reporters. Murrow had become, in Sperber’s estimation, “a power in his own right; a newsman who could address a nationwide audience directly…beating the newspapers by hours…a rising national figure with direct access to the vast American public.”
Perhaps even more than the direst news releases, his August 31, 1939, reading of evacuation instructions sent to London parents on the eve of war conveyed the true crisis confronting the world. “If you have a child of school age, and wish to have him evacuated,” Murrow matter-of-factly stated, “send him to school tomorrow, Friday, with hand luggage containing the child’s gas mask, a face cloth, a toothbrush, a packet of food for the day.”
The next day Hitler invaded Poland. After the British declaration of war, the authorities cracked down on newsmen. As aware of the power of propaganda as their Nazi opponents, Neville Chamberlain’s government forbade ad-lib news reports and on-the-spot reporting. Travel was restricted, and reporters were required to broadcast from BBC studios, reading from scripts passed by censors. Murrow’s plans were in shambles.
Throughout the winter of what came to be called the “Phony War” by a public and a press frustrated by the relative calm along the front in France and clamoring for action of some sort, American broadcasters pleaded for a freer hand. Even after the German spring offensive began, however, London authorities refused to budge. On May 21, as the Allied armies reeled from the Wehrmacht blitzkrieg through France, British reporter Roger Eckersley, the liaison between the American press corps and the British government, wrote memos to the bureaucrats assuring them that unfettered news reports offered “a sure way of enlisting American sympathy and support.”
When the Royal Navy shelled the French fleet at Oran to keep the ships from falling into German hands in July, Dr. Josef Goebbels, a master of the radio medium, rushed neutral reporters to the scene. A British Information Ministry official bemoaned, “I only wish our officials were as quick to provide broadcasting opportunities.”
The desperate post-Dunkirk atmosphere and the fall of France, however, had finally begun to loosen the lid on radio broadcasts to the United States. By the time the Battle of Britain began in September, Murrow and his colleagues had received Scotland Yard passes and encouragement from the Ministry of Home Security that allowed them to cover the story as they saw fit. As Eckersley had hoped, the newsmen wasted no time in doing just that. When the first German planes appeared overhead they rushed to Shakespeare Hill with their binoculars to cover what one witness described as “the whole goddamn air battle.”
But air battles high in the sky were remote. Murrow wanted to get close to the people who fought the war. Rather than spend his time gazing at distant black specks flitting across the sky, he proposed stories about a night in a coastal observation post, a mission on a torpedo boat or an RAF plane, and a night at the Bow Street police station to prove British justice functioned even in wartime.
On August 24, 1940, when German bombers sent 1,000 planes to attack Britain, rather than try to describe the indescribable, Murrow simply let the unfolding drama speak for itself. “This is Trafalgar Square,” Murrow began. “The noise that you hear at this moment is the sound of the air-raid siren….People are walking along very quietly. We’re just at the entrance of an air-raid shelter.” Across the Atlantic, his American audience could hear not only sirens and anti-aircraft fire but also buses and cars moving through the streets. Then Murrow put his microphone to the ground, catching the sound of unhurried footsteps heading into the underground shelter, “like ghosts shod with steel shoes.” American audiences had never heard anything like the verbal panorama Murrow painted. They were both shocked and enthralled.
Murrow’s great appeal during those times was that, like famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle, he remained focused on common people and war’s effect on them. When the bombs began falling on London’s working-class neighborhoods, Murrow described the “cheap, flimsy houses jammed one against the other” and “the little people who live in those little houses, who have no uniforms and get no decorations for bravery.” He also described the war’s unsung heroes: “Those black-faced men with bloodshot eyes… fighting fires….The girls who cradled the steering wheel of a heavy ambulance in their arms, the policeman who stands guard over that unexploded bomb.”
Seeking a common human theme for his American audiences, Murrow reported: “There were two women who gossiped across the narrow strip of tired brown grass that separated their houses. They didn’t have to open their kitchen windows in order to converse. The glass had been blown out.” An hour after the all clear, he described girls strolling in the street and women sitting on lawn chairs enjoying the Sunday papers. He reported: “There was no bravado, no loud voices, only a quiet acceptance of the situation. To me these people were incredibly brave and calm. They are the unknown heroes of this war.”
The people’s determination impressed Murrow. He described some cockneys, clutching blankets, lined up at a public shelter for more than an hour. “They don’t like the situation…but most of them feel that even this underground existence is preferable to what they’d get under German domination.” Murrow believed the courage and determination displayed by the citizens of London ensured the futility of German terror bombing. “We are told today that the Germans believe Londoners, after a while, will rise up and demand a new government, one that will make peace with Germany,” he said. “It’s more probable that they’ll rise up and murder a few German pilots who came down by parachute.”
The change in German tactics as reported by Murrow had a profound effect on Americans grappling with the thought of whether or not they too should go to war. English journalist Thomas Barman believed Murrow’s broadcasts helped Britain’s cause in the United States, “certainly the sale of destroyers, lend-lease business,” he declared. “I think Ed Murrow and others contributed heavily to making that possible.”
In interviews for his biography of Murrow, historian R. Franklin Smith was surprised to discover that most Britons saw Murrow as more of an ambassador for the United States than its official one, Joseph P. Kennedy, was. As Sevareid commented, “There is no doubt of his immense aid to the president in awakening the American people to the issue before them.”
Murrow, of course, had little idea of the impact he was having at the time. When his colleague Sevareid returned to the United States in November 1940, he was startled: “The whole damn country was listening to us every day!” Sevareid observed. “Ed was having a monumental international effect! He simply gripped people!” Rather than write their own stories on events in Britain, many American reporters had taken to simply running transcripts of Murrow’s broadcasts under their own flashy headlines.
In January 1941, CBS Berlin correspondent William L. Shirer returned to the United States. In a letter to Murrow, he wrote: “You are doing more than you probably realize to wake it up….You are now the [number] 1 man on the air. No one here touches you, or has your following.”
By the time Murrow returned to the United States in the late fall of 1941 (to pick up the symbolic typewriter awarded to him in 1940 by the Overseas Press Club for best foreign radio news reporting), he found a nation sympathetic to Britain, hostile to Hitler, but willing only to give “all aid short of war.” He also discovered that he was the talk of the town.
On December 2, he was feted by CBS at a banquet held at New York’s WaldorfAstoria hotel. At the gala, Archibald MacLeish, poet and librarian of Congress, eloquently praised Murrow’s broadcasts:
You spoke, you said, in London….But it was not in London really that you spoke. It was in the back kitchens and the front living rooms and the moving automobiles and the hot dog stands and the observation cars of another country that your voice was truly speaking. You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames that burned it. You laid the dead of London at our doors and we knew the dead were our dead…were mankind’s dead…without rhetoric, without dramatics, without more emotion than needed be…you have destroyed…the superstition that what is done beyond 3,000 miles of water is not really done at all.
Unable to attend in person, President Roosevelt sent a telegram. “You of the Columbia Broadcasting System who gather tonight to honor Ed Murrow,” the president said, “repay but a tiny fraction of the debt owed him by millions of Americans.”
After Pearl Harbor, Murrow returned to London and spent the remainder of the war reporting on-the-spot news from Europe, including a memorable broadcast of controlled rage after visiting the concentration camp at Buchenwald. Although his programs continued to captivate, his greatest moments remained those haunting reports he sent back from London as America’s “Poet of the Blitz.” After the war, when Murrow left England for home, he said, “I have been privileged to see an entire people give the reply to tyranny that their history demanded of them.”
The English people, particularly the little guys, never forgot Murrow. In March 1965, as Murrow lay dying of cancer, he received a letter from R.H. Hodkinson of Manchester:
We were a bit short on friends in those days, Ed. We weren’t a very good risk by any means. In the first half of this game, we were being hammered—our supporters had gone—nations stood around like a crowd round an execution—waiting for the “chop.” You didn’t, though, did you? You steamed up and down that touch line yelling your head off. Now the tumult has died—the crowds have gone—the dead are buried—the arena is empty.
I’m just an ordinary, working bloke— nothing special, but I remember you— and the friendly voice in the air that reached us in the days that seemed as just “yesterday.”
Originally published in the March 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.