Radio under the Swastika


In last week’s From the Archives, we heard how German troops marched into Prague on March 15 1939. The next day, Edvard Benes, who had resigned as Czechoslovakia’s president in the wake of the Munich Agreement, and was in exile in London, told Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that from now on, he would be leading the resistance against the German occupation. Five months later, war broke out and at the end of 1939 the BBC began its broadcasts in Czech.

“Vola Londyn” – London calling – became the familiar call sign of the Czech broadcasts. They were out in the streets reporting as Czech and Slovak troops in exile got ready for fight in France alongside their British comrades:

“We have been saying farewell to the first transport our Czech and Slovak volunteers, leaving Great Britain for France. The soldiers gathered at the Czechoslovak Embassy in Grosvenor Place and, singing Czech and Slovak songs, they are now marching to nearby Belgrave Square.”

Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich, who had been famous in the Prague of the 1920s and 30s for their satirical cabaret, were now in exile in the United States. Their broadcasts from Washington, bitter satires on Nazi Germany, also became part of life in their occupied homeland. But it took courage to listen, as tuning in to foreign stations was punishable by death.

With the occupation, the Nazis had stopped Radio Prague’s broadcasts in English, although some international programming in Czech did continue. Official domestic broadcasts were filled with Nazi propaganda. At the height of the Blitzkrieg, the Germans sent a team of Czech journalists to Belgium, to report on the successes of the Wehrmacht as German troops swept towards the channel ports.

“Cities like Ghent and the beautiful old town of Bruges remain untouched, but in the villages, where the enemy offered resistance, we saw the ruins of houses, destroyed by artillery or aerial bombardment. The streets were lined by the wrecks of tanks, cars and other military material. They seemed to me like road signs, marking the retreat of the English and the Belgians towards the coast.”

Despite the heavy-handed Nazi propaganda, in the first three years of the occupation there was still an illusion of normality in the radio. But as we shall be hearing next week, things were soon to take a dramatic turn for the worse.