Reportage - London calling

More than 70 years after the start of World War II, Kate Chappell looks at how Radio Londres played a pivotal role in defeating France’s Nazi occupiers

More than 60 years on, Kate Chappell looks at how Radio Londres played a pivotal role in defeating France’s Nazi occupiers in World War IIIci Londres. Les Fran�ais parlent aux Fran�ais...”For many Frenchmen, these words were a lifeline through much of World War II. Whatever was happening politically in their homeland, whomever was in control, these words gave them a link to the France they knew and the hope that they would once again be allowed to live their own lives. The irony, of course, was that these words were being spoken across the Channel in another country altogether.Radio Londres, the French-language radio station set up as G�n�ral de Gaulle’s mouthpiece while he led the Free French from London, began transmitting with the famous “This is London. The French talk to the French.” Operated by a group of Frenchmen who had fled their homeland after the Nazi Occupation and based in a tiny studio in the BBC’s Bush House, the station played a hugely important part in the war effort – both as a tool for contacting the Resistance and as a morale boost for those French longing for France to be France again.Last month, Radio Londres and its inventive gang of DJs’ were honoured in Paris for their work. Ninety-year-old Franck Bauer, who was 21 when he was recruited to the station, took part in the ceremony, which saw a plaque unveiled and the announcement that the Radio Londres studio was to be faithfully recreated in Paris’ Maison de Radio France, the national radio museum.“Our role was very important, very important indeed,” M. Bauer said at the ceremony. “We were listened to by millions of people every night. So I presume we were doing a pretty good job.”Listening to Radio Londres was prohibited by the Nazis who used the controversial French radio stations Radio Paris, run by the Nazis themselves, and Radio Vichy, run by the P�tainistes, to spread their own propaganda. “We had a slogan: Radio Paris ment, Radio Paris est allemand. (Radio Paris is lying, Radio Paris is German.)’,” explained M. Bauer. “Of course they fought us and insulted us. We didn’t give a monkey’s though. They were of no importance.” The Nazi authorities in France were right to be worried. Radio Londres transmitted De Gaulle’s stirring speeches urging the French to rise up against the occupiers and rallying protests throughout the country. His most famous, L’Appel du 18 Juin,’ was broadcast on 18 June, 1940, shortly after France fell into German Occupation. “Whatever happens, the flame of the French Resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished,” he said. “Tomorrow, as today, I will speak on the radio from London.” As the war progressed, Radio Londres became an underground fixture in thousands of French homes. The announcers would often include popular French songs, poems and comedy in their broadcasts and speak of the old France’ with affection. But for most, it was the hundreds of seemingly nonsensical coded messages read out on air that gave them greatest hope of freedom. Broadcasts would start with: “Before we begin, please listen to some personal messages.” Then the announcers reeled off phrases that seemed entirely without context: “There is a fire at the insurance agency,” “Grandma is eating our sweets” or “Uncle John is in the gardens.” The messages were aimed at different pockets of Resistance, of course, but the communication was reassuring even to those who would never know what the messages meant. Even music was used as a code. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was played to signal Victory’ – the first four notes spelling out the letter V’ in Morse code.As D-Day approached, Radio Londres became a vital messaging tool, with up to 200 coded messages – some real, some fake – being transmitted every day. On 5 June, 1944, Radio Londres broadcast the first verse of Paul Verlaines poem Chanson d’automne to let the Resistance know that the invasion would begin within 24 hours. The lines “Blessent mon c�ur d’une langeur monotone” ([The violins of autumn] wound my heart with a monotonous languor) were the official call to action. As the Battle of Normandy ended and France was freed from Occupation, Radio Londres transmitted its last broadcast. Franck Bauer and the rest of the station team returned to France, proud of helping the war effort from behind the microphone. “We knew we were in the right,” M. Bauer said.For more information on the new Radio Londres exhibit at La Maison de Radio France, tel: (Fr) 1 56 40 15 16 or visit www.radiofrance.fr for more.