I’ll be spending June 6 the way most Americans did 70 years ago: listening to the radio.
The occasion is a talk being presented for residents at St. Martin’s-in-the-Pines (I’m not one, but I know some), many of whom remember well the fateful day that Allied warfighters landed on beaches in northwest France to finish wresting control of Europe from Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler. There’ll be no slides or pictures, visual aids or special effects. They will be hearing the story of D-Day as it was originally told: through radio broadcasts of the event as it happened.
By accessing a marvelous Internet resource called archive.org, we are able to listen to practically the entire broadcast day of June 6, 1944. Radio in the 1940s was not generally considered a medium worth preserving, but somehow the unabridged output of the NBC and CBS radio networks on D-Day was captured on transcription disks for our amazement all these years later.
Radio then was not the background noise it has become today. Nine out of 10 homes in urban areas had radio sets; the number was estimated at seven out of 10 in rural areas. The living room radio enjoyed the same focus the plasma TV screen gets today, with families often gathered around the set to listen together to favorite shows like Amos ‘n’ Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly or Lux Radio Theatre, to name a few of the top-rated broadcasts. Here in Birmingham, the NBC stations were WSGN and WBRC, with WAPI affiliated with the CBS network.
By 1944, the Third Reich was running on fumes, and it was understood that at some point the Allies would invade Europe to destroy Hitler’s dreams of world conquest. Unbeknownst to the general public, invasion planning had begun in 1943, and men and materiel had been slowly amassed in southern England in preparation for the greatest amphibious military attack in history.
The news on June 5, 1944, was full of reports from Rome, where America’s Fifth Army had chased the Nazis out of the Eternal City. Some editorial pages were still huffing about an Associated Press snafu the previous Saturday, when its London bureau had inadvertently transmitted a “flash” announcement that the long-awaited European invasion had begun. On radio that night, I Love A Mystery and Vox Pop were a listener’s best bets for entertainment.
Just before midnight, history took over the airwaves.
Tuesday morning, June 6, Allied paratroopers had begun dropping into France behind enemy lines around 4:30 a.m. local time, and the first soldiers hit the beaches at Normandy around 6:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m. on Monday night in Birmingham, Central War Time.) The first news organization to break the story was, astonishingly, German. The TransOcean agency, based in Berlin, announced that the invasion had begun, leaving American news agencies that picked up the bulletin in a quandary: would they get burned again, as with the AP incident, or should they trust the enemy’s reportage?
NBC jumped first, going live with a bulletin at 11:41, with Mutual News interrupting the Harry James Orchestra at 11:45 and the more cautious CBS waiting till 11:48 to break the news. Then, the networks went back to regular programming.
Unlike today, when TV news uses a variety of resources to cover a breaking story, radio news gatherers in 1944 were limited by available technology and War Department access. Live coverage from foreign datelines necessitated short-wave radio links, a famously undependable means of conveying information, and any reports on American military maneuvers had to be cleared by the Pentagon.
The network radio news bureaus had known this day was coming, so they were comparatively well prepared for an unprecedented shift to nonstop coverage of a breaking news story. As independent confirmations of the TransOcean report arrived, the networks turned from speculation to factual reporting, with NBC even transmitting the Morse code letter “V” (for “Victory”) down the line to alert affiliates that this was the real thing.
Reports from Edward R. Murrow, H.V. Kaltenborn, Robert Trout and Richard Harkness, all famous names of that age, filled the early morning hours as radio stations across the country stayed on past their usual sign-off time. At 2:32 a.m. came the first Allied confirmation of the attack, and at 2:45 a.m., night owls got to hear General Dwight Eisenhower’s soon-to-be-viral prerecorded announcement to the people of occupied Europe. Utilizing a new technique called “pool” reporting, in which one correspondent files a report for all media to use, radio brought its early morning listeners astonishingly descriptive eyewitness accounts of the first parachute drop and the view of the battle from a warship off the beach.
As dawn broke and the nation awakened to find its hopes of victory in the balance, radio brought more memorable moments to listeners throughout the longest day: Winston Churchill’s address to Parliament, a rare tolling of the Liberty Bell, more eyewitness accounts from the bloody beaches. Also throughout June 6, dozens of prayers broadcast by men of many faiths. There wasn’t much separation of church and state on D-Day.
The evening ended with President Roosevelt addressing the nation, then the country’s most popular radio star, Bob Hope, pre-empting his own show to broadcast words of, well, hope, from an air base in southern California.
D-Day was a signal achievement in the annals of mass communications, and it is remarkable to hear the event so completely 70 years on. There is dross among the gold, to be sure; lots of dead air waiting for short-wave connections to hook up, plenty of repetition and maybe a little too much incidental organ music. But this is what life during wartime sounded like in 1944, and if you’re curious about the kind of world your people lived in on one of the most decisive days in history, all you have to do is listen.