A History of British Forces Broadcasting

Operation TigerCapture
Speaker Alan Grace (far right) with UK troops in Germany 1980

The Probus Club of Basingstoke enjoyed a presentation by Alan Grace about the life of a programme maker living with our armed forces whose broadcasts allowed them to maintain morale by keeping contact with families in UK and also provided them with much needed entertainment.

Cliff Michelmore & Jean MetcalfeCapture
Cliff Michelmore and Jean Metcalfe

Many people of mature age will remember Two Way Family Favourites on Sunday mornings. Then known as the wireless it was broadcast on the BBC Light Programme. It was claimed that this was the only radio programme that had the smell of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. The German end was run by BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) with, for some time, Jean Metcalfe there and Cliff Michelmore in London.

Bill CrozierCapture
Bill Crozier the longest serving host of Two Way Family Favourites

In World War 2 both American and Russian military had radio services for their troops and after the Americans joined the war effort the British War Office was persuaded by Col David Niven and supported by Glenn Miller that our troops would benefit from a similar operation. The first military broadcast services saw life begin in Algeria in 1943 and run by the Army Welfare Service. The only drawback was that there was no money, no equipment and no staff.  And it was firmly established that editorial control was to be independent of the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces themselves. By some miracle they were on air in seven weeks.  It was set in a former harem but the fully glazed floor and wall tiles had to be draped in army blankets to deaden the appalling acoustics. The first requested record was the famous German wartime song, Lily Marlene.

In the following years over 100 radio stations were set up from Aden to Zeltweg.  Some of the earlier stations were mobile housed in ten ton trucks with transmitters, generators, record library and studio. They followed troops through the Italian campaign and then into mainland Europe. Fixed sites were based in a range of extreme locations from the magnificent Musikhalle in Hamburg that had escaped bombing, down to an old cow shed in Cyprus, tents in the Canal Zone and shipping containers at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.

Play RehearsalCapture
Rehearsing a radio play rewritten to avoid breach of copyright

Some of the people involved became household names. Cliff Michelmore, Frank Muir who was a photographer but volunteered to be a writer, Peter Sellers, Raymond Baxter who went on to front many BBC TV programmes including Tomorrow’s World, Brian Moore who went on to become a top sports presenter with ITV, and Roger Moore who was told that as he could not act he should go back to being a male model for knitting patterns. He later sent a postcard to the producer who had dismissed his talent which said that although he could not act he had still had a good life and signed it 007.

In 1957 Alan Grace started working with what then was BFN in Cologne as an announcer and sports producer, while a national serviceman in the RAF. Over the next four decades he experienced life throughout the world’s trouble spots where British forces were involved. Such places of conflict had radio and then television services provided for service personnel and their dependents worldwide. Places of interest included Palestine, Cyprus during EOKA, Kenya in Mau Mau times, Aden with terrorist troubles, Cyprus, again, during the Turkish invasion, Hong Kong, The Balkans, The Falklands, Gulf Wars 1 and 2 and Afghanistan.