The D-Day media reality – families shocked by 1944 BBC and press coverage

Tuesday 4 June 2019

Many British people were shocked by media reports of the D-Day landings as they happened 75 years ago, according to original research material unearthed by academics at the Institute of English Studies (IES).

They scoured thousands of government documents and photographs to learn how the Ministry of Information (MoI) assessed the British public’s reaction to the allied invasion. And here is what they learned in the ‘Home Intelligence Reports’ and ‘Wartime Social Surveys’.

While many were satisfied with media coverage, criticisms (“mostly of the BBC”) were made: some reports were “too harrowing or gruesome, particularly to the relatives of men engaged”; too much dramatisation by BBC and press – “their running commentaries are what we expect from a football match where no lives are at stake”); BBC reporters getting wounded men to speak into the microphone – like “less reputable newspapers in disturbing grief-stricken families”); “the Germans announced the invasion before we did is a matter of some regret”.

But many people praised the King. His broadcast was “greatly appreciated by the majority, on whom its sincerity has made a deep impression”. However, the data reveals that a minority, men in particular, felt the broadcast “lacked a special message to the boys going over”. There was distrust about the attitude of the French civilian population to the allies (“however, some people think that the peasants will help us, even if the upper classes do not”).

Established by the British government at the outbreak of the Second World War, the MoI’s base was Senate House, now home to the IES at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Responsible for issuing ‘national propaganda’ at home and abroad, the MoI controlled news and information.

This research feeds into the IES project, ‘A Communication History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-1946’. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research, it has already resulted in a host of public lectures and workshops, a London Rare Book School course, and various articles in scholarly journals. The main outcomes, however, are still in production.

Among the documents about to go online are the ‘Home Intelligence Reports’ and the ‘Wartime Social Surveys’. The former were daily (later weekly) accounts of public opinion that were used to assess the fluctuating state of morale of the British public. Meanwhile, the Wartime Social Surveys were more quantitative reports on subjects, which included wartime food, public health campaigns, clothing, attitudes to women’s war work, newspaper reading habits, and cinema audiences.

‘We hope to launch the full version of MoI Digital in September this year to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the founding of the ministry,’ explains Professor Simon Eliot, who is leading the project. ‘In the meantime, the website contains information about the project, and has a Twitter feed that currently features the Home Intelligence Reports on the public’s reaction to D-Day.’

‘With the cooperation of The National Archives and the Imperial War Museum, we will bring to all users of the web thousands of pages of government documents and scores of contemporary photographs,’ said Professor Eliot. ‘These will illustrate our research, but also provide a very rich source of primary evidence which others will be able to use for their own research on the Second World War.’

For further information, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8859 / Maureen.mctaggart@sas.ac.uk.