One of the best-known films about WWII is The Longest Day from 1962. It focuses on the Normandy Landings in June 1944.
In a number of scenes, members of the cast, whether they are portraying resistance fighters or German officers, are listening to a BBC announcer read a list of nonsensical statements.
Some of these are genuine nonsense, while others are meant to instruct the Resistance on how to carry out their sabotage plans prior to the D-Day invasion. Such coded messages were common in WWII.
In one scene of the film, the mayor of Colleville and his elderly mother are sitting down to eat. He has the radio quietly playing in the background as he gets ready to eat his soup. The audience can hear the voice of the BBC beginning the nightly broadcast, as they did virtually every night until the liberation of France:
“London calling with Frenchmen speaking to their countrymen… London calling with messages for our friends…” This is followed by a series of seemingly meaningless statements, repeated twice:
“Molasses tomorrow will bring forth cognac.”
“Jean a une longue moustache” translated as “John has a long mustache.”
At that, the incredulous mayor springs into action, almost too excited to remember to put away the radio. He then gets together with another man and blows up a series of telephone poles, helping to throw the Germans into disarray before the invasion.
In two other scenes, we see the effect of another message, perhaps the most famous message of them all: “The long sobs of the violins… fill my heart with a monotonous languor.”
We see a German general, who, having received information gleaned from informers and interrogations, believes the message signifies something very important – luckily he is ignored.
We then see a group of resistance fighters who are holed up in a cellar, caring for downed Allied pilots. On hearing the message, they suddenly retrieve hidden weapons and go to their assigned positions to blow up a bridge.
All over Normandy, the French listening to their radios heard this message and many others. The lines from the Verlaine poem, “The long sobs…” meant that the invasion was underway. Other messages meant other things since life in other parts of France did not stop because of the invasion in its far north.
Some of the messages were as nonsensical as they sounded. They had no meaning attached to them and were only meant to confuse the Germans.
The BBC began to broadcast to Nazi-occupied Europe almost immediately after the fall of France. Prior to the war, the BBC broadcast to its many foreign possessions and its English speaking relatives.
At that time, it was called the “Empire Service,” but in November 1939, it became the “Overseas Service.”
In 1939, when the war began, the BBC had 103 employees working on its non-domestic programming. By 1941, this rose to 1,472 and kept growing almost to the end of the war.
Radio was still a relatively new technology at the start of WWII. Of course, radio served a purpose in the First World War, but this mostly involved communications between military units and was limited at best.
By 1939, the BBC and its counterparts in Germany, the United States, Japan, and the USSR were all capable of broadcasting messages across the entire globe.Of course, during the 1920s and 30s, politicians began to take advantage of radio to reach a far wider audience than ever dreamed of before.
Hitler and his Propaganda Minister were quick to realize the value radio could have in swaying the masses and, soon after coming to power, launched a campaign to give cheap radios to every German family. In the Soviet Union, Stalin did the same.
Of course, both of these regimes gave out radios with pre-set channels on the dial: only government-approved channels were indicated.
In Germany and the occupied areas, listening to Allied broadcasts during the war was a crime. Depending on various factors, penalties could range from a fine and confiscation of the radio to hard-labor and perhaps a one-way ticket to a concentration camp.
By 1940, most people in occupied countries, as well as a growing number in Germany (and Italy), knew that the Axis radio stations mostly lied – or, at the very least, exaggerated.
As the war went on and the Axis position deteriorated, a greater number of wounded soldiers came home with real knowledge, leading to more and more people in Germany tuning into the BBC.
The BBC’s headquarters for both domestic and foreign broadcasts was the aptly named “Broadcasting House” in London. In December 1940, an air raid caused an explosion which set the building ablaze.
The foreign broadcast division was sent outside the city to an unused skating rink. However, it was realized that the building might not be the safest place to be during a German raid since it had a glass ceiling.
Eventually, the BBC Overseas Service settled in the massive “Bush House” in London, one of the most expensive buildings in the city at the time.
Of course, the Overseas Service had broadcasting centers, power/relay stations, and antennae throughout Britain and the world. The Far East, Africa, and the Middle East were all places in which the British and Imperial forces were in action. They also had stations in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
By the end of 1940, the BBC was reaching out in 34 languages. Every day, 78 news bulletins and a total of 250,000 words went out across the globe.
The Overseas Service employed native speaking refugees. These people also had to be bi-lingual in English and able to translate quickly, meaning these were not easy jobs to get.
Most of the German refugees were Jewish. At first, the BBC refused to put German Jews on the air. It was thought that Germans listening to the broadcasts would know the announcers were Jewish and would not listen.
Later, a number of German Jews did speak on the radio, and many were employed as writers for the German programs.
The BBC was also keen to promote the idea that the service was promoting the British point of view, not those of refugees – many of whom had very different political outlooks to that of the British government.
Returning to The Longest Day for a moment, the main titles of the film involve the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. These notes came to symbolize the Allied effort, stemming from the observations of a Belgian refugee and program organizer, Victor de Lavelaye.
Victor is the one who realized that Churchill’s famous “V for Victory” sign could translate in many ways. In French, the word is “Victoire,” in Dutch/Flemish, it’s “Vrijheid.”
The letter “V” in Morse Code is “dot dot dot dash.” The opening of Beethoven’s Fifth? “Dun Dun Dun Dunnnn.” Virtually all overseas broadcasts began with these ominous notes.
How did members of the Resistance know which phrases meant what? They were relayed by courier on a one-time pad through the British Special Operations Executive – the super secret organization helping to coordinate resistance, sabotage, and assassination efforts in Europe.
The messages were of the utmost seriousness, but in at least one case, resulted in some slightly humorous results.
“Courvoisier, nous vous rendons visite” translates as “Courvoisier, we’re coming to visit you.” The head of the famous brandy-making company, Courvoisier, who lived in London, reported to BBC and asked what the message had to do with him. A Madame Courvoisier also called the BBC and asked if this meant her POW sons were returning to France.