Overview & General Experience
Godfrey Talbot became famous overnight from his ‘eye-witness’ accounts of the (2nd) Battle of El Alamein. In the last interview that he gave before his death in September 2000 just short of his 92nd birthday, he talked to the Second World War Experience Centre about his wartime experiences. To complement this interview, his family is now handing over to the Centre his manuscript diaries, together with some of the many letters he received from ordinary men and women in Britain, transcripts of some of his better known broadcasts (the full list of recordings being with the BBC Archives) and a series of wartime photographs.
Godfrey’s son David joined the Centre’s team as a volunteer and very prolific interviewer and has already “captured” significant documentation by this means as well as making, in his father’s memory, a very generous contribution to the Centre’s funds.
No war in History has ever been so extensively, and so exclusively (there being no television) reported on radio as that from 1939 to 1945. Previous conflicts, of course, had had their newspaper correspondents, famously W.H. Russell on ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and a young Winston Churchill during the Boer War; but radio did not arrive until the 1920’s, so the Second World War gave British war reporting both its baptism and its subsequent evolution, as techniques of recording and reproduction improved.
The dispatches of Godfrey Talbot belong, technically, to the early phase of war reporting: there were formidable problems to overcome. Most were recorded from “Belinda”, a thirty-hundredweight converted army truck, which Godfrey memorably described as “large and fat and friendly-looking; a bit slow, always over-burdened, long suffering but great-hearted”. The recordings were made on acetate disc: tape-recording had not yet been invented, and the problems of recording onto disc in a sandy desert almost insurmountable.
There was a huge audience at home for the reports that Godfrey sent back about the only major permanent British land victories in the middle years of the war. He had to report, as best he could in confused situations, both accurately and speedily what was happening. Often the broadcasts were impromptu, as the following two extracts show:
Godfrey Talbot watches British Tanks move into Battle -1/2.11.42
(opening noise of tanks, recurs during broadcast at intervals)
This is Godfrey Talbot recording in the desert. The sound you can hear now is the sound of British tanks moving into battle. It’s the night of Sunday/Monday November 1st/2nd and it’s the early hours of the morning, and now on this desert, with the sand clouds whirling up behind each vehicle, British tanks in large numbers are moving into battle.
Shells by the thousand are being pumped into the enemy, and now here we are at the side of one of these desert tracks watching the armed might of the 8th Army go forward to engage the enemy. The moon, just half a moon, is shining down here, and overhead there is not only the moon, but the flares that have been dropped which are shining down on the desert and illuminating this battlefield. Tank after tank is going past, just as I speak now.
One can’t see very clearly, because of the fog, it is indeed a fog, but a fog of sand, very soft here, and each tank as it goes past throws up a great cloud.
(noise of tanks, shells, guns etc. . .)
Godfrey Talbot describes Christmas in the Desert with the 8th Army – 19.12.42
(soldiers singing ‘The First Noel’ rather untunefully)
Well, that carol came from some of the men of the 8th Army sung from the borders of Tripolitania. We’re here, we’ve just pulled off the coast road that goes along towards Sirte and ultimately to Tripoli, and over by our recording truck have come one or two men, led by a corporal. I can see him there, in his greatcoat and tin hat, playing a clarinet, as you’ve just heard, and they’ve been having a bit of a sing-song, and we’ve recorded this bit of it.
As a matter of fact, they’ve been singing all kinds of songs – we had a bit of difficulty in getting them to sing a carol at all, and I don’t want you to get the impression that the 8th Army is just having a nice picnic, going gaily singing carols up the coast road.
They’re not at all. They’re far too busy fighting this war, and a grim enough business it is, and all this sand and dreary desert, very little time for singing at all.
We are at this moment a good way behind our forward troops, who certainly won’t be singing tonight, and Christmas, although it will be celebrated and remembered in the desert, to be quite honest, won’t be an affair of plum puddings and crackers and parties, for the men of the 8th Army.
Broadcasts like these had to be sent all the way back to Cairo, often being roughly handled or transported on the way. Then they had to be looked at by four separate censors, Army, Navy, RAF and Egyptian Government, all of whom could make crude cuts that might damage the rest of the disc. Next, Egyptian State Broadcasting sent them by commercial beam radio to London, where reception might, or might not, be reasonably good. The whole dispatch was then re-recorded and available for broadcasting.
Godfrey’s diaries record his pleasure when, for the first time, one of his recordings led both the six o’clock and the nine o’clock news. His voice became known, literally in every corner of the British Isles, and indeed far beyond – as he was later to discover when he was surrounded by tens of thousands of jubilant Italians in the Piazza Venezia in Rome in June 1944.
In addition to the impromptu descriptions that formed a large part of his output, there were many more measured, more considered pieces, not all of which were about the war. Perhaps the best of all was his description of the dramatic eruption of Vesuvius in March 1944, where he first tells his employers:
Hello BBC. This is Godfrey Talbot talking from Italy at 11.00 hours GMT on Friday, March 24. This is radio dispatch number three. Its title is VESUVIUS CLOSE-UP. It will last about seven minutes.
The language in the report is so rich, so varied, that it is almost impossible to select extracts from it that do full justice to the scale of what he was recording: here is just some of it:
The story of Vesuvius has been eclipsing Italian war news. The volcano is in full and frightful eruption, the biggest for many years and still going on. The sight of a lifetime is this burning mountain, pregnant with incalculable consequence. It’s hard to believe the thing, even when you see it. If it were peacetime, this eruption would be the leading story of every newspaper, and people would be flying from all over the world to see Vesuvius.
Great rivers of lava have in the last few days poured down the mountain. In some places the red-hot streams have been 200 yards wide. They look like coke or cinders; they crackle and glow, and their trails of fire, as well as the erupting cone on top, can be seen bright and fierce for many miles. The molten lava, completely engulfing houses and vineyards on its way, carries great boulders with it.
And over all is a great pall of smoke and dust and ash and sulphurous vapour, starting at the mountain top four thousand feet above the bay of Naples and spreading far and wide. No burnings of war, no block-buster bombs, have ever set up such darkening clouds as these, thousands of feet high.
You have heard how hillside villages have been evacuated before destruction and how one of them, San Sebastiano, has been engulfed. But you can’t conceive the awful inevitability of this tide of lava until you’ve stood there and seen it coming in a hot red-and-black wall 40 feet high, and have seen stone houses sag and crumple silently under that tide – substantial houses full of life and people a few hours before collapsing like tissue paper and disappearing for ever before your eyes.
I’ve just been into San Sebastiano and stood in a house in the centre of the village, before which one stream has unaccountably halted and cooled. . . The house has all the marks of hasty evacuation: drawers pulled out and contents strewn wide; windows open and curtains torn and blowing; and a half drunk glass of wine still on the table…
Beneath the still-spouting and rumbling Vesuvius, we entered the famous ruined city of Pompeii and walked among the ancient pillars with handkerchieves held to our faces as the grit poured down. Somebody reminded us that it was in just such an attitide, with handkerchieves to faces, that many of the inhabitants drew their last breaths when this city was overwhelmed and buried by this same volcano nineteen hundred years ago.
And from walking through that place as the outpourings of Vesuvius beset it once again, we came into Naples – and saw that one of the cinemas was showing an Italian version of the old film, ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’… That’s all now from Godfrey Talbot.
Early Career and the Diaries
The value of these old recordings is, of course, immense, but what of the diaries that are being progressively transcribed and handed over to the Centre? Four little leather-bound books into which Godfrey wrote every day, often in very difficult conditions, and not intended for publication, such as might be those of a politician or general. They were, however, the most basic of raw material, on which broadcasts could be based, or, should he be asked subsequently to write his memoirs, highly useful aids to recall.
As schoolchildren are now taught, diaries are vital primary material giving inner thoughts at the time, not garnished subsequently by what the writer might wish to add, or embellished by hindsight. These ones were not written with the public in mind, and therefore can be seen as more honest, more truthful than any material intended for a wider audience. This is their attraction – but the downside is that the handwriting can only probably be decyphered and transcribed by one who knew it well, a member of the Talbot family.
So, what sort of background did Godfrey Talbot have? What was his family, and how did he suddenly emerge as that vital link between the 8th Army and their own families at home?
He was born in the village of Walton, near Wakefield, descended on both sides from strict Methodist stock. His mother’s father ‘Walker the Talker’ had indeed been a leading Methodist New Connection Minister, and his own father a Methodist lay preacher. So, the ability to talk could perhaps be said to have been inherited. So too was the work ethic, though this did not manifest itself at Leeds Grammar School, which he left at sixteen after, to use his own word, an ‘anonymous’ career there.
His true education, he once said, came at the Yorkshire Post, where in two years he worked himself up from office boy to junior reporter. Of his colleagues he later wrote:
They wore hats and waistcoats and watch-chains; they wrote out their reports by hand with fountain pen or 3B pencil. I was sharply rebuked and told to hush when I brought my new portable typewriter into the room and started clattering on it. No such sound had been heard in the room before, and it disturbed the snoring after-lunch nap which one of the old gentlemen ritually took, chin on chest and moustache blowing, in the armchair at the head of the table.
A steady but unremarkable rise in his chosen profession now followed, though it was a feather in his cap to be first Assistant Editor, then Editor, of the weekly Manchester City News in his early twenties. However the paper was a loss-maker and had to be closed by the Manchester Guardian management which was in control. Godfrey then moved sideways, first to be a reporter on the Daily Dispatch, still in Manchester, and in 1937 in that same city he joined the BBC, North Region, as a Press Officer. When the war came two years later his employers summoned him to London.
By now in his early 30’s, there was nothing to indicate that his career was soon to be transformed. One of several news sub-editors at Broadcasting House, he also began to do some radio reports himself. Even so, the sudden decision to send him to Egypt, to replace Richard Dimbleby – already becoming well-known – was surprising.
The little leather-bound diaries begin with the journey out. Since the Mediterranean was in 1942 dominated by Germany and Italy, he had to go by ship to West Africa, and then fascinatingly, by flying-boat in a series of hops across what was then known as the ‘Dark Continent’ and by stages up the Nile: it took 42 days in all, and Godfrey was amazed by some of what he saw.
Although an experienced reporter, he had hardly travelled, and certainly not worked, outside his home country before, and he writes with the reactions of a typical white Englishman of that era in what we would now categorise as most politically incorrect views to meeting with peoples of different cultures and darker coloured skins. There are frequent references to the ‘natives’ and their noisy habits, or to ‘Gypos’ and even ‘Wogs’ – such references were, of course, as common then as are certain swear-words used by people of all races today.
Egypt and the Desert
Arriving in Cairo, Godfrey was plainly somewhat in awe of the already sophisticated Richard Dimbleby, though the latter was not yet out of his twenties. He later wrote of him that “He had a houseboat on the river and hobnobbed with Generals. . . he was more a Rajah than a reporter”. Moreover the decision to replace Dimbleby with Talbot was not popular with BBC employees in Cairo: Godfrey’s diary for Monday, August 3 reads:
Went to BBC office. Odd atmosphere. All wondering in secret what I’ll do and how I stand. Saw a fat Bumble (Richard Dimbleby’s nickname) at lunch…
A week later, on August 10, things had not improved:
I’ve now been in Cairo one week. Still feel rather depressed about things. Veiled hostile reception and all the office and the city a web of intrigue. Why can’t people be more straightforward?
At last in late August, with Dimbleby having departed in a welter of farewell parties, the red tape was finally cut through, and Godfrey, plus engineer and two drivers, was allowed by the Authorities to see something of the war from the depths of the Egyptian desert, not far from the front lines.
Almost immediately he met General Montgomery and the Air Officer Commanding, a New Zealander, nicknamed ‘Mary’ (i.e Maori, though he wasn’t one) Coningham. The diary entry on Sunday, August 30 gives two vivid, contrasting descriptions:
Evening. Called on Monty, 8th Army Commander, he in shorts and jersey. Doesn’t smoke or drink. Keen and lean. Was relieving nature before seeing me for minute at his truck door. He was homespun but not unpleasant. Difficult to prolong the interview, though he talked of the good of broadcasting and going off and recording the men.
Then to AOC Air Vice Marshal ‘Mary’ Coningham, in a lovely trailer, carpeted, even his tent was, and electric lit, and clean and polished. Phones, desk, cupboards, divan. He talked cordially a lot about plans to go forward. Then his phones started ringing and cryptic remarks came. Coningham’s grin and cheery manner changed to serious talk of ‘plans’ and ‘shows’ and numbers of squadrons and moving this and that. Turning to us, he said, ‘Looks as though the ball is about to begin’. It was fascinating to see the thing beginning, and to be with the big boy giving orders.
The following day, the diary confirms that the Battle of Alam el Halfa, Rommel’s last attempt to break through, had indeed started. The fighting, however, was well to the south of where Godfrey and “Belinda” had been allowed to go, so much so that the next day, Tuesday September 1, when the struggle was reaching a peak, the diary records that they had “a quiet night”. Godfrey’s autobiographies have little to say on this particular battle.
This is the first evidence in the diaries of the real problem of war reporting in the 1940’s, as indeed in most 20th century wars. Correspondents could only go where the Authorities allowed them to, unless they were particularly evasive, and Godfrey, in his massive truck full of equipment, was never this! Had he tried to be so, of course, he would immediately have jeopardised the growing trust that was to be established between himself and ‘Monty’.
In later October and early November of 1942, this problem is even more graphically illustrated in a series of diary entries at the time of the decisive second Battle of El Alamein. In his 1944 account Speaking from the Desert (op. cit.) Godfrey devotes a long chapter to this, and indeed why not, for it was at this time that he established his reputation with a series of recordings of sounds of battle and interviews with those concerned with it; but he also says in the Preface to the book: “Anybody looking for a military history of the Desert War had better shut this book up at once”.
This is no more than honest, and the diaries confirm that, even in his truck near the front line, he was never really in a position to know how the battle was going. (Compare this perhaps with his 1944 account of the struggle to gain Monte Cassino in Italy where he had more of a ‘grandstand view’).
At Alamein Godfrey was frustrated for lack of news, for all his ‘front-line’ status. His only information on how the battle was actually going came from a series of ‘briefings’, so much so that a cynic might observe that he could tell his listeners no more of the battle than his predecessor, Dimbleby, had done, sitting securely in Cairo. This, however, misses the point completely. What Godfrey conveyed in those far-off days was the atmosphere, the noise, almost the ‘feel’ and the smell of the nearby battle. Exposure to the sound of guns and bombing were an essential part then for all his broadcasts, however thin the factual information coming his way.
Godfrey Talbot Audio Clip:
Regarding the 2nd Battle of El Alamein
Transcript of Audio Clip
I knew it was going to happen that night mind you, but it was dramatic all the same. Absolutely dramatic, absolutely quiet, when the signal was passed and somehow, at any rate, it was passed straightaway, simultaneously, right along the Alamein front, until a voice, or whatever it was, some signal, was given, “Fire”, or whatever the word was, and then whether you were a soldier, civilian, whatever you were, suddenly all hell, absolutely cracked and nowhere in any war has there been such a barrage at dawn. Something like 900 field guns along miles and miles of front simultaneously burst into flames. The most dramatic, theatrical thing you had ever seen.
And yet successive diary entries reveal a man ‘grasping at straws’ to make the bricks of an authoritative war report. These are some examples:
Friday October 23:
General Montgomery holds a press conference, eve-of-battle at 8th Army HQ. Made memorable speech – No surrender – We’re going to kick him out of North Africa – No failure – We shall win – It starts at 10 tonight – it’ll be a ‘terrific battle’ – Army and Air Force are one – We’ve waited for this day.
All most exciting and memorable.
Monty’s message to 8th Army is terrific – says they are starting one of the most decisive battles in history and turning-point of the war. ‘It will swing OUR way’. No surrender – fight and kill…
The offensive started tonight just before 10, with terrific barrage that lasted fairly well all night…
Saturday October 24
Today’s Cairo communiqué gives very briefly the news that we have attacked. Awful business with censors over-cutting the stories of this offensive. 8th Army says one thing and GHQ in Cairo another. A general says ‘OK, you may use this’, but other censor people say no. So out it goes!
Really one thinks that a war can best be covered by sitting in Cairo rather than dashing and working here in discomfort in the desert.
Sunday October 25
Bloody battle still going on. It’s no easy thing. We’re still showing terrific strength in the air. We don’t know yet how it’s going.
Tuesday October 27
In morning went forward to 10 Corps, who reported tank fighting with mixed results. German defences are good and hard to crack. . . back to camp. News generally seems a bit better. Recorded long Battlescene dispatch and sent up, with an unscripted interview in ambulance, to PR 8th Army by Dispatch Rider tomorrow early.
Thursday October 29
Censors tell me that all “meat” and concrete reporting in dispatches is still being cut to hell. Some people optimistic over this battle; some more pessimistic. It’s still a hard frontal struggle, with two sides locked together and slamming hard, and fairly heavy casualties. But we can’t say much.
Monday November 2
Learned at 30 Corps this morning that last night’s big attack had been a success. Infantry made a bridgehead through enemy lines for the tanks to move through. News then is good. We’re crushing them, or hitting them hard, it seems. Shall I go back to Cairo? Shall I dash off and get winter things and return?…
Tuesday November 3
News again good. We did another successful attack last night. We’ve enlarged the bulge in their positions. We’re attacking again tonight.
Wednesday November 4
Went to Alex and then by train (very comfortable Pullman) to Cairo… Tonight in Cairo, back again, was plunged into terrific work at this end: for the Good News is out. The enemy is on the run. All elation and clattering typewriters. The beginning of victory?
Friday November 6
News still good. We’re chasing the Boche right out of Egypt. Wish I were at the front now.
Quite obviously, had Godfrey been fully in the picture, he would not have dreamed of leaving the battle just on the eve of the massive victory for the mundane reason “to get winter clothing”.
Not until November 16 did he manage to get back to “Belinda”, where he had left a fellow reporter in charge, as the 8th Army advanced rapidly into Libya, but, ever cautious, Montgomery was never quick enough to trap the bulk of Rommel’s forces.
Letters from England
Meanwhile, another facet of Godfrey’s career, and fame, as a war correspondent had begun to develop, the letters and airgrams from home, usually from complete strangers. Perhaps they convey, far better than any secondary comments, just how much his broadcasts were beginning to mean to people anxiously listening at home for the progress of the battle, and, even more, for news of the well-being of their loved ones. Here are two examples:
To Godfrey Talbot, BBC Announcer, MEF
It is the last day of the old year. Please accept my wishes for a blessed and victorious New Year. It has been a pleasure to hear your cheery voice so full of Christian hope and faith. It is so very different that in the Great War 1914-18 we just had to buy Echos to see if our loved ones were safe. Now as our dear boys go forward to victory, we can hear your voice right from the desert, yes the battle front, for you are in the front line with no easy task.
May I add that I sit right up to the loud speaker with my ear almost in the set (as I am a little deaf). You are so real and feel so near that I forget all and am just in the desert with you all waiting for your message. I thank you for the precious link you bring from our dear ones. God grant you health and strength to carry on. God keep you safe and may you soon have a happy reunion with your loved ones.
Please convey to all connected with BBC my grateful thanks for all they do for us.
Yours very sincerely,
A Soldier’s Mother – 8th Army
Croydon 15th IV 1943
Dear Godfrey Talbot,
I listened to you a short while ago when you asked wives and relatives to write to their men as they did enjoy having letters. Well, if it makes them happy, you may like to know how happy you make people feel, and how they listen to your lovely broadcasts. You would probably be very surprised.
You cannot imagine how many people say to me, ‘Have you heard Godfrey Talbot?’ or ‘Do you listen to Godfrey Talbot?’ And the many lovely things they say about you. I have a friend who’s [sic] boy is with the 8th Army, and who is now in hospital. She said I feel very happy and do not worry about him because of Godfrey Talbot’s broadcasts. So you see, we all think of you too – no doubt thousands of mothers, wives and sweethearts feel like we do.
I am not putting my address. I do not want you to write. But I do want you to know what we think of you, and every night and morning I pray that God will keep you safe, and now Goodnight and God Bless.
DBW ‘A Red Cross Nurse’.
Many more similar letters exist. They lose a little of their emotion and potency, when one is not actually handling the flimsy originals, still so well preserved; and yet what could be better evidence of the really vital job, not just in reporting, but also in boosting morale at home that Godfrey was able to do?
The manuscript diaries, being handed over to the Centre, continue after Alamein right up to the end of the war in 1945. Mostly with the 8th Army. They form the background to the report on Vesuvius, quoted earlier, the highly regarded dispatches (printed in the Listener at the time) on the assault on German positions on Monte Cassino, and “There never was such a Roman holiday”, in which thousands of Italians mobbed Godfrey’s recording truck in Rome.
Decyphering such diaries, jotted down in very difficult conditions, is a major task, and, as yet, has barely reached the end of 1942. Research, for instance, is necessary to determine that the word that looks like ‘Mary’ in describing Air Vice Marshal Coningham, really was Mary, and why he was so called. The writing is so difficult, moreover, as stated previously, that probably only a close member of the family, familiar with it, can attempt to transcribe it.
As this task progresses, with the advance of the 8th Army across North Africa and up the Italian peninsula, it will remain interesting to see how this compares with, and relates to, the broadcasts, the autobiographies and the taped interview from the summer of 2000, just before Godfrey’s death. These diaries are the most basic of primary sources and provide the hidden ‘nuts and bolts’ that underpinned his recorded and written work. They show, first and foremost, a hard-working and honest ‘wordsmith’ taking the first steps in his meticulous preparation for ‘speaking from the desert’ and for the 8th Army, to everyone at home.
Glories, grand occasions and generals.
It is always much easier to report a wartime triumph than a disaster. Once the El Alamein victory had taken place in October/November 1942, Godfrey Talbot found favour, not only with his employer, the BBC, but also with the British Government and the listening public, in a way that his predecessor, Richard Dimbleby had not yet been able to do.
Although Godfrey, like Dimbleby, had only spent a relatively small proportion of his time up with the front line of the Eighth Army, his broadcasts at the time of Alamein had successfully created an image that he was “our man” at the front.Such a sound picture was sustained in part by some masterpieces of “set-piece” reporting: the ceremonial hand-over of Tripoli by the Italian vice-Governor of Libya; the elaborate arrangements to receive Churchill there (which Godfrey nearly missed since he was on one of his frequent visits back to Cairo); and then, in Italy, the scene when Monte Cassino finally fell (though it was Frank Gillard who had reported most of the previous fighting there, and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, who saw even more action than either of them, on the Anzio beachhead); then the rapturous reception in Rome.
The other notable feature of Godfrey’s broadcasts, and even more of his diaries, since most of the material was confidential, was the number of personal interviews he obtained with both Montgomery and Alexander, both of whom he greatly admired. Such a view is refreshing at a time when the reputations of these two generals have taken a battering from post-war historians, in one case for egotism and in the other for reluctance to offend our American allies by sacking incompetent subordinate commanders.
The irony both of Godfrey’s broadcasting locations and of his obvious closeness to the allied commanders is that they in many ways mirror those of the then much criticised Dimbleby, whom he was sent to replace. Dimbleby had been in the Middle East for over two years and in London his new boss, A. P. Ryan, “seconded from Whitehall as the Government’s man in the Corporation” had never met him, and “debated how to tell (him) that the BBC no longer required his services in the Middle East”.1 The reasons for this recall were complex, but the two principal ones were that he had been spending too much time in Cairo, and that he was acting as General Auchinlech’s “mouthpiece”, putting out optimistic reports of the situation in Egypt at a time when Churchill had decided that a change in command was necessary. Although Rommel had been decisively stopped at what historians now refer to as the first battle at Alamein, this fell short of the victory and advance that the Prime Minister constantly demanded. The optimism of Dimbleby’s reports was therefore “causing acute embarrassment at the BBC”.2
So too no doubt did the manner of his departure. As his son Jonathan wrote: “He was feted throughout Cairo by friends and officials, Government ministers, ambassadors, and Army commanders. Talbot was astonished by the affection and respect in which Dimbleby was held. ‘I was a journalist succeeding a personality.”3
The “personality” was a victim of circumstances, but his dilemma remained for Godfrey Talbot. In an interview for the 1995 BBC TV programme “What Did You Do in the War, Auntie?” Frank Gillard put it as follows: “Every war reporter has to make a decision as to whether he is going to report on things he has seen with his own eyes, or whether he will report on information which he has gleaned from Army headquarters. There’s an argument in favour of both”.4
Just as the battle at Alamein was finally being won – an essential victory for the subsequent reputations of both Montgomery and Churchill – Godfrey was back in Cairo, where he remained until the middle of the month. By then the advancing Eighth Army – however slow subsequent historians have suggested Montgomery was – was already west of Tobruk, and air transport was necessary to catch up with it. Action was then uncomfortably close; the diary entry for Tuesday, November 17 testifies:
At 11.30, when passing an American Field Force convoy of clearly marked ambulances, and other trucks, 3 Heinkels came over bombing and machine-gunning. We all stopped and the great line of vehicles was left stationary on the road, as we ran off and took what cover we could (actually there was none, for it was a flat, stony plain). The planes bombed road further ahead and set some trucks on fire. They circled and came over us. We flattened as they lined up on the road and dived. I looked up and saw bombs falling – crash and crash. I as flat as could be, thinking number up. Spatter and whistle of splinters and stones. Then blast. I looked up as last went. My Conducting Officer, Capt H S Clark, was hit – was rolling over with blood staining his shirt and sweater at back, shoulder, arm and front. Still conscious. Went to him and shouted to the ambulance men. Then I cut Clark’s jersey and shirt open with jack-knife – getting all bloody. He had a biggish hole in back-shoulder where a piece had gone in. Americans patched him up and gave him a shot of morphine, and I knelt by side, gave cigarette and talked. He was very brave, gritted teeth and bore pain…
On November 21 Godfrey and his recording truck reached Benghazi, where he found much to report, shortly after it fell, including the misplaced optimism of a naval officer that “they’d soon have the port going”. Two days later, the front was many miles away at El Agheila, but Godfrey decided to move back in the opposite direction, to Cairo once more, because his recording engineer was ill – “Arnell’s sores and bad arm are worse”. When they reached Mortuba airfield they were fortunate enough to get an air-lift back to Heliopolis (Cairo).
From 29 November to 14 December Godfrey managed to remain in Cairo relishing his “nice, clean bed” rather than sleeping in his recording truck in the desert or in makeshift accommodation in much-damaged Benghazi. On Sunday, 13 December the diary entry reads: “Went to Heliopolis races this afternoon. Won”. However, he had just been told, understandably (!) that “London want me back in the desert”.
So, on 14 December there was a flight direct to Agedabia airfield, sufficiently far now from Cairo for there to be two stops en-route. The German and Italian forces had, meanwhile, left their defensive position at El Agheila, and so, six days later, on 20 December, the BBC recording truck, reporter, new engineer (known as “Chig”), two drivers and conducting officer set out towards Tripoli. It is perhaps worth mentioning, for military historians, that originally Montgomery had hoped this might be an objective for the allied forces that had landed in North Africa, much nearer to Tripoli than was Egypt, but their progress was slow.
On Saturday, January 23rd the truck and her crew finally reached Tripoli, which not only provides fine material for many dispatches, but also has much recorded about it in the diaries, some of which is given below verbatim:
Brilliant sun. Tall palms. White houses and offices and factories and shops. Brilliant in sun. Sea and harbour very glittering calm, blue as blue.
Harbour battered – moles and quays smashed more by enemy’s own demolitions than by our own bombings. Several big steamers holed and smashed and listing and semi-submerged in harbour. And he’s sunk two ships blocking harbour entrance (but Army and Navy and RAF are here working straight off on it).
The local people wave like mad and clap and salute.The whites are mostly at first uncertain of the conquerers.
Town itself not knocked about too much. Scarred. Lovely sea front. (We stay at Grand Hotel, still possessing some staff, though only cold water, and that’s only at certain times. An occasional electric light).
We found infantry (Jocks) and tanks in main town square in the brilliant morning. The harbour water nearby stirring, and the square bordered by palms and buildings from which people looked, and crowds stood around. It is the Piazza Castello, and the old castle and town walls (battlemented) are on one side of the square. Roman statues – and on one great pillar, Romulus and Remus, being suckled by the wolf.
The Union Jack is run up on high flagstaff, and the troops cheer (and watching Italians on nearby roof, who’ve been watching, go inside as a gesture at this).
I stand on a car roof recording the historic scene – for it is history, just 3 calendar months since we started, with our attack, the battle of Egypt at Alamein on October 23 last year. Crowds of troops and civilians round me as I talk into the mike, there above the scene, all listening.
Then we whistled up to the Castel Benito gate a few miles up, just on town boundary, where Monty had just arrived, in his usual battledress and beret. Generals and staff officers round him, red bands. The scene was a cross-roads. Monty had sent for the head boy in Tripoli to “receive the keys of the city”, as it were.
He comes: Commandatore San Marco, vice-Governor of Libya, and two other tightly-uniformed Italians. They get out of car a few yards from where Monty stands, hands in pockets, in middle of road near his car. Someone goes over and brings them back marching, line abreast, and stiffly saluting, over to him. A sad moment for the Wops. Monty talks to them through an interpreter, one of our own officers. He tells ’em we’ve no quarrel with civilians and wish Tripoli’s normal life to go on. We must however keep law and order, and for that the soldiers have gone in. He tells them of temporary curfew and no firearms and the usual things, and sends ’em away.
Throughout this time I was standing high on a pill-box casement a few yards away “shouting the odds”, as a colleague put it, describing the basic scene, microphone in hand, whilst Chig records disc after disc for me…
Further descriptions of Tripoli life follow on successive days, but one is not surprised to read, once more, an entry on 26 January “Decided to return to Cairo tomorrow”, which is achieved by two flights over a two day period. There he met Frank Gillard whom the BBC had also sent out and found him “enmeshed in office matters” – “heaven knows, I don’t want to do that”, he noted on 30 January, but then the following day there is an understandable diary entry “London seems anxious to have somebody up in the desert again”, and so, faced with this or office work, Godfrey decided that it must be him again, and not Gillard, the relatively new arrival. He was only just in time, because the same day that he got back to Tripoli, the Prime Minister flew in.
In the recordings made of this event, and indeed in the diary entry for Thursday, 4 February, one can perhaps already find harbingers of Godfrey Talbot’s post-war career as a royal reporter – for, after all, to the British troops and people in those days, Winston Churchill was somebody very special, a fact that later generations may underestimate, if they simply concentrate on the strategic mistakes they charge him with making, in the conduct of the war. Despite the full descriptions, it has to be said that the scene lacks the drama of the initial arrival of the troops and the BBC truck in Tripoli the previous month. Yet this was, of course, what Churchill relished above all in the war, his sense of not only being in charge, but actually being with his men.
The front line was by now once more far away, but it is not until 22 February that the BBC party is noted in the diaries as leaving Tripoli for the front, reaching it, in Tunisia, with only days to spare before the vital March battles of Medinine and Mareth. During this period there is much contact with General Montgomery.
This is also the time when one unexpected insight into BBC reporting is revealed in the diaries (and nowhere else), that of rivalry, perhaps even jealousy amongst the news gatherers. It has already been noted in the diary entries that Godfrey disliked administration, being content to let Frank Gillard get on with co-ordinating matters back in Cairo, but the 3 March diary entry notes “news that there’s to be a new chief in Cairo (!), that Howard Marshall is chief correspondent (even over me) – I shall do something about this… London want to keep me at the front all the time, saying I’m best for that job. Hell!”
More of this the following day: “Wrote a long letter to Cairo, saying I must have charge, I won’t work under Marshall, and Gillard must come out here“. This change of mind about ‘administration’ in Cairo seems partly related to the strain of life near the front, but also to a dislike of Marshall, whose style of reporting had been referred to, disapprovingly, the previous December as “rather purple”. No doubt because of his successful ‘track record’, Godfrey got his way. Marshall did not go to Cairo and Gillard was sent out, arriving on 23 March to replace Godfrey in the field.
Godfrey arrived back in Cairo on 25 March, and remained there until called home to London in early October 1943. So he was not present to witness the outcome of the Battle of Mareth and the subsequent capturing of the whole of Tunisia. Nor was he on active duty for the campaign in Sicily, nor the early part of the Italian campaign. This cannot be gleaned from reading his two post-war autobiographies. Indeed one wonders why the BBC required a correspondent of his experience to stay in Cairo so long in the summer months of 1943, since all the planning for the next Mediterranean campaigns was being done in Algiers, which was also by now where all the BBC front line dispatches were being sent, not to Cairo, where life was so relaxed that Godfrey began to write his wartime autobiography, as well as enjoy the pleasure of watching cricket and swimming at Gezira. He had however, ahead of him, two quite exceptional experiences – in Italy – and from them fashioned broadcasting achievements inextricably associated with his name.
- Richard Dimbleby, a biography by Jonathan Dimbleby, (Hodder & Stoughton, 1975) p115.
- op. cit page 155
- op. cit page 159
- BBC Publications, 1995, page 155