CBC Radio Goes to War

The war clouds were beginning to gather in Europe, as Hitler’s tanks rolled over democratic Czechoslovakia. German nationalism had been reborn under a new philosophy, Nazism, and its charismatic creator, Adolf Hitler:

 Part of Hitler’s address (15 seconds) 


By the end of the year, Canada was at war with Germany, but he first major news challenge for the CBC in the first half of 1939 was the Royal Visit… the first visit ever to Canada by a reigning Monarch. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrived by ship in Quebec City and, forty-three days after a coast to coast tour of Canada, sailed for home from Halifax. City-by-city, local broadcasters gave live coverage of the Royal couple’s visit to their community, and some stations had their staffers travelling on the train with the press to provide continuing coverage.

Part of King George’s farewell address from Halifax (27 seconds)

After Germany had invaded Poland on September 1st, Britain declared war on Germany on September 3rd, and Canada followed suit on September 10th, but there was little major war news during the rest of 1939, as the two major armies in Europe faced each other across the French Maginot and German Siegfried Lines, in a period that came to be known as The Phoney War.

After Poland fell, there was a lull in the war for several months. Then in what was to be known as the Blitzkreig (Lightning War), Germany invaded and conquered Norway and Denmark, and then Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and finally France. Britain and her Commonwealth allies, among them Canada, Australia and New Zealand, stood alone against the juggernaut of Nazi Germany and her allies. Speaking to the country on radio, Prime Minister Mackenzie King issued both an appeal and a warning:

 Part of Prime Minister Mackenzie King address (50 seconds)

The fury of the Nazi Luftwaffe (air force) was unleashed on Britain’s civilian population in the summer of 1940. Canada’s privately owned radio stations still carried syndicated news from south of the border (mostly Associated Press). Eyewitness descriptions of the London bombing came from one of the first war correspondents on north American radio, American Edward R. Murrow.

But the CBC, under the guidance of Ernie Bushnell, was also broadcasting by this time using actual sounds of the bombing from four mobile recorders it had shipped to Britain. In fact, Canadians pioneered in the development of mobile battlefield recording units. CBC made their realistic battle sounds available to British and U.S. broadcasters. CBC correspondent R.T. Bowman, who had arrived in England with engineer Art Holmes in December 1939, invited servicemen in the British Columbia House canteen in London to participate in the “Messages Home” segment of “With The Troops In England”. This segment consisted of live messages from servicemen to their families in Canada, an innovation that was to become a tradition for the duration of the war. By the end of the year, there were four CBC vans in Europe.

In the summer, the Royal Air Force (which included many ace Canadian pilots) and the British people won the Battle of Britain. It was the Allies’ first victory of the war after a series of defeats. Canadians heard the leader of the Commonwealth, Winston Churchill, savour the victory in a speech to their own Parliament in Ottawa:

 Part of Winston Churchill’s famous – “some chicken, some neck” address (28 seconds)

Art Holmes and R.T.Bowman were also to make a unique contribution to the British war effort. The CBC recording van they was using had more sophisticated equipment than anything the British had, and they were asked to record the sounds of German aircraft to help aircraft spotters and anti-aircraft personnel recognize the sounds of enemy planes. This they did while enduring the worst of the air raids on London in the winter of 1940-41.

Newscasts were becoming much more frequent. The war was nearly always the lead story. On New Year’s Day, 1941, the CBC formally opened its national news service, with chief newsreader Charles Jennings Later, Canadians would hang on the words of CBC newscaster Lorne Greene who, because of the rich timbre of his resonant voice, was often referred to as “The Voice of Doom”. Greene was later to become a famous actor as “Pa Cartwright” in the 1960s TV series “Bonanza”.

To feed radio’s galloping appetite for news and more news, Canadian Press, in 1941, formed a custom service for radio, “Press News” (later Broadcast News). They seconded Sam Ross from the Canadian Press Vancouver office and under Ross’s tutelage, writers of the frequent bulletins and news summaries were weaned away from the newspaper and wire service style of writing. They learned to “write for the ear.”

To help fund the war, CBC Radio produced a series of musical shows with appeals to Canadians to buy War Savings Stamps and Victory Bonds. Stars of the calibre of Bob Hope, Gracie Fields, Ronald Coleman and Irving Berlin lent their time and their talents to this worthy cause, and in the process brightened the hearts of many war-weary families whose men – and women – were serving away from home. Lorne Green hosted Command Performance, a tribute to all those who had won the Victoria Cross, the highest awards for bravery under fire. An on-air appeal on the CBC by American journalist Dorothy Thompson, described by Time magazine as one of the most influential women in America, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt, prompted no less than 60,000 requests for transcripts of her speech.

Radio was everywhere and the war was everything to its listeners. Radios played in shops and taverns as well as in living rooms and dining rooms of virtually every house and apartment in the country. Canadians listened through the Battle of the Atlantic, the desert campaign of North Africa, the Russian front, and the Pacific as Japan entered the war, making it in the truest sense, a World War.

On August 14th, Canadian forces were in the forefront of a commando raid on the French port of Dieppe. H. Rooney Pelletier was the first CBC radio correspondent to report from London to Canada on this epic event: the following day, R.T. ‘Bob’ Bowman, who had gone on the raid and returned unharmed, sent a more detailed report on the valiant efforts of the Canadian attackers against vastly superior numbers. He was over there for eight hours, and brought back graphic first-hand reports on what he had seen on the beaches.

As the year ended, correspondent Eddie Baudry became the only CBC reporter to lose his life during the war, when he was killed en route to cover the Roosevelt/Churchill conference in Casablanca in early 1943.

In 1943, the CBC sent the first reports from Sicily after the Allies had occupied the island, and later in the year the CBC received a highly prestigious accolade, the U.S. Ohio Award, for its news coverage. CBC correspondents Matthew Halton, Peter Stursberg and Marcel Ouimet, as well as Art Holmes and his new partner Paul Johnson, were with the Canadians as they fought their way northward through Italy; their broadcast recordings were flown to Algiers and thence to London for forwarding via undersea cable to Canada.

Back home, Andrew Allan was appointed National Drama Supervisor in 1943, and the Golden Age of CBC radio drama began. Two nationally networked weekly drama series, Stage, and CBC Wednesday Night, drew extremely high national audiences, brightened the war years for thousands of listeners, and made household names of many Canadian performers. Between 1944 and 1961 it was estimated that the CBC produced over 5000 radio dramas.

A parliamentary committee stated that radio was a vital morale booster in wartime, and the CBC’s programming included many programs that paid tribute to the role of Canadians in the struggle, both in the Armed Forces and in the munitions plants at home. Such shows included Comrades in Arms, Voices of Victory, Soldier’s Wife, Fighting Navy, Talks about Tanks, Guns and Ammunition and Carry On Canada. The CBC also bought and scheduled several of the popular US radio series of the day, including Lux Radio Theatre, the Carnation Contented Hour, Amos ‘n Andy, Ma Perkins and those of star performers like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Jack Benny.

The CBC also made sure that NHL hockey broadcasts were available to help uplift the spirits of the Canadian forces overseas. In the early 1940s the Saturday night hockey broadcasts called by Foster Hewitt were recorded in their entirety on oversized phonograph records and then later condensed at the CBC studios into a half-hour broadcast. In narrative form, events leading up to the game were pieced together with actual excerpts of the recorded broadcast. This recording, which contained the very best of the previous night’s broadcast, was then transmitted by wireless to London early the next day, when transmission was at its best. The B.B.C would then cut its own set of records from the transmission. On the Sunday afternoon, the hockey broadcast was aired during the BBC Forces Program to the servicemen and the British public as well.

While the CBC was doing everything it could to provide uplifting programming for listeners at home, several of its key performers went over to Britain, and later to the continent, to entertain not only Canadian armed forces personnel but also those of Britain and its Commonwealth, the United States and the thousands of servicemen who had escaped from many European countries in the face of the advancing German army. Comedians Wayne and Shuster, pianist/singer Denny Vaughan and Happy Gang member and composer/conductor Robert Farnon were among those who formed The Army Show, which rehearsed at home and toured Canada in 1943 and then embarked for England in the summer of 1944. (One of the Army Show stage managers was former Canadian Communications Foundation President Ross McCreath). Later, Captain Robert Farnon conducted the Canadian Band of the AEF, which, along with the American and British Bands of the AEF, played for dances and concerts across Britain for servicemen from scores of different countries.

On January 1st, after careful preparation, the CBC launched a second radio network, the Dominion Network, to accommodate a demand for more commercial and popular programming, both Canadian and American. The original CBC radio network was renamed the Trans-Canada Network.

On D-Day, June 6th, nine CBC correspondents went ashore with the troops, including Matthew Halton and Marcel Ouimet. They stayed from day one until the end of the war, and were on the spot to cover major events from the capture of Caen to the liberation of the Netherlands. All returned unscathed, and with a thousand stories to tell.

After three years of planning, the CBC International short-wave radio service was launched on February 25th, initially to keep members of Canada’s Armed Forces in touch with news and entertainment from home.

World War II finally ended in 1945, with the Germans surrendering in May and the Japanese in August, the latter following shortly after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

CBC Radio was finally able to get back onto a peacetime footing, but there were still broadcasting wars to be fought down the road, with competition to be faced from an increasingly strong private broadcasting system, and the prospect of the arrival of television before too many more years had passed.

Written by Pip Wedge – February, 2009

Sources include:

University of Calgary/Red Deer College Applied History Research Group
        CBC Digital Archives www.cbc.ca/archives

Knowlton Nash – The Microphone Wars (McClelland and Stewart 1994)