A full nine months before the US entered World War II in December 1941, the country terminated its neutrality with the Lend-Lease Act in March of that same year. With it, the US agreed to provide supplies to the Allied countries to help them in the war effort. It was a crucial part of the eventual Allied victory.
Several years earlier, in April 1937, Edward R. Murrow left New York for London to take the role of European director for CBS. Here he lived in flat 5 of 84-94 Hallam Street in the area known as Fiztrovia. Running parallel to Great Portland Street, Hallam is a residential street with handsome stone and deep-red brick apartment buildings, many with black iron-railed balconies. Murrow’s flat is a few minutes’ walk north of BBC Broadcasting House, from where he did many of his broadcasts to America.
Radio from Europe to America at the time consisted mainly of light entertainment, which is what Murrow was expected to deliver. But he was not content with just reporting sporting events and festivals.
Not long in London he contacted Winston Churchill, a Member of Parliament, for an interview. Churchill was frustrated that British politicians were not taking the Nazi threat seriously and was happy to speak with Murrow in the hope that this man from across the pond might allow him to reach an American audience with this message. Murrow also saw the threat and set about hiring experienced European news correspondents.
When in March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, Murrow’s team was able to report a series of half hour news “roundups”, with correspondents reporting from different countries, including Murrow who was in Vienna at the time. It was the first time news was reported via radio from multiple locations in nearly real-time and where reporters analysed events as they happened. The roundups set the template for radio news.
Before coming to London, Murrow had very little broadcasting experience. The roundups of events in Austria helped prepare him for what came next.
Germany began bombing England in 1940 and Murrow thrust the Blitz right into the living rooms of Americans with his broadcasts, often live from a London rooftop in the middle of the action. Like this from 21 September 1940:
“You may be able to hear the sound of guns off in the distance very faintly, like someone kicking a tub. Now they’re silent. Four searchlights reach up, disappear in the light of a three-quarter moon. I should say at the moment there are probably three aircraft in the general vicinity of London, as one can tell by the movement of the lights and the flash of the antiaircraft guns. But at the moment in the central area, everything is quiet. More searchlights spring up over on my right. I think probably in a minute we shall have the sound of guns in the immediate vicinity. The lights are swinging over in this general direction now. You’ll hear two explosions. There they are! That was the explosion overhead, not the guns themselves. I should think in a few minutes there may be a bit of shrapnel around here.”
Over the next several years Murrow described the devastation in London for his American listeners. Through words, he painted the scenes of London’s bomb damage, the effects of the war on the city’s shopkeepers and the issues debated in Parliament.
During a dinner at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria to honour Murrow, poet and Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish said: “You laid the dead of London at our doors and we knew that the dead were our dead.”
When the Lend-Lease Act was passed by the US Congress, Winston Churchill, now prime minister, gave credit for its passing to Murrow’s London broadcasts.
Weymouth House, 84-94 Hallam Street, Fitzrovia, London W1W 5HF
Tube: Regent’s Park or Great Portland Street