1947: Gladys the mobile studio

Archive photograph from the Imperial War Museum.

The Radio Station B4 consisted of three vehicles which made up the Control Room, Studio and Record Library.

Born out of a need to boost the morale of troops during the Second World War, BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) found itself needing to innovate its technology so it could move with and entertain the troops after the Second World War.  

Following the defeat of Hitler in 1945, the post-war era saw Allied troops enforcing peace and governing a broken country that six years before had sought to conquer the world. Germany was divided into four zones which were to be maintained by the winning Allied powers – Britain, France, America and the Soviet Union.  

Field Marshal Montgomery's 21st Army Group – renamed the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) in August 1945 – was responsible for the British Zone located in north-west Germany and, using rubber boats and adapted amphibious armour to cross the river Rhine, set foot in Germany near the town of Wesel. 

British service personnel and civil servants took over the responsibility of essential roles such as housing, policing and transport. And the Armed Forces were starting to change in other ways.  

At the end of the Second World War, every soldier was issued with Demobilisation Papers after they were taken out of active service. These papers would show what training the person received, which would prove useful when looking for work back in the UK.  

However, while millions of British servicemen and women who had been conscripted into military service were demobilised between June 1945 and December 1946, many decided to stay in the Armed Forces. 

This meant a big drop in the numbers of those serving but there was still a need to entertain them as the troops were needed elsewhere in places such as Palestine and Malaysia, plus they were preparing for the possibility of a Cold War with the Soviet Union. 

Throughout the Second World War, BFBS radio broadcasts played a vital part in boosting the morale of those serving and their loved ones at home.  

Before the invasion of northwest Europe was about to take place, John MacMillan from 2nd Battalion the South Wales Borderers was instructed to form Number One Film Broadcasting Unit.  

In an archive clip of MacMillan speaking in Battledress Broadcasters, a documentary to mark 50 years of BFBS, the forces broadcaster spoke of how important BFBS became to the Armed Forces, saying:

Archive photograph from the Imperial War Museum. Military personnel doing a radio broadcasting.

Lieutenant Leslie Perowne reading the News in the Studio of B4. In the background is Sergeant Clifford Davis who is controlling the output. He later became the Television Critic for the Daily Mirror.

The messages from home shows, popular music and comedy sketches, to name just a small amount of what BFBS was offering its listeners, helped reunite armed forces personnel with the reassuringly familiar and enforce the idea that everyone listening was involved in the nation's war effort and therefore had a part to play in the Allied victory. 

It provided the means of shared experience for fighting men and women, for civilians and war workers to the soldier on active service. And the radio was more than a source of contact with loved ones at home. Through its broadcasting of popular songs, BFBS provided a vital antidote to the pain of separation.  

From the first station in Algiers, BFBS had grown to include the Force Broadcasting Services in Gaza (1944), India (1944), Beirut (1944) Kenya (1944), Basra (1945), Florence and Austria (1945), then introducing the British Forces Network in Hamburg (1945).  

Alan Grace spent 36 years as a broadcaster with BFBS and is now an archivist and author. Mr Grace, who has written several books about the history of British Forces Broadcasting Service, describes   how important it was to keep broadcasting as the Armed Forces moved forward. 

This connection to home was considered so important that the D-Day planners decided that the BBC's Allied Expeditionary Forces Programme, which aired music and comedy shows, had to be saved when it was discovered the troops could no longer hear it because they had moved location. Mr Grace said:

In 1947, a small group of vehicles made their way to an equipment dump in Mestre, Northern Italy. These vehicles were soon to become the vital link home for troops across Europe.  They were converted into frontline stations, each consisting of three British trucks, which housed studios, a gramophone library, office and a transmitter.  

These mobile stations, built into standard three-tonners, spearheaded the future of Forces Broadcasting, sometimes only three miles from the fighting line, sharing the same hardships and dangers, but still managing to provide a service. 

They were to be looked on as part of a fighting unit – a feeling   essential for men who would daily open their microphones in competition with frontline guns. 

Previously named B4, the mobile broadcasting studio was renamed ‘Gladys’ by soldiers as it was a dependable and affectionate name.  A delay in the resupply of steel needles in 1947 led to a Royal Engineer discovering that cactus thorns could be used to play one side of the 78 rpm records in Benghazi.  

The Army Broadcasting Service set up in a former Gestapo Headquarters in Northern Italy, in 1947, where local workers refused to enter the basement because it had been used as a torture chamber. By the 1950s, the radio stations that would make up BFBS later down the line had more than 30 local radio stations supporting British troops on location across the world.