Three words were all he needed.
“This is London,” was how began his radio reports from the streets and rooftops of the bomb-ravaged city in the early 1940s. The stories that followed his trademark introduction shaped an industry and riveted a nation.
When CBS sent the inexperienced 29-year-old to Britain in 1937, it didn’t expect him to do any on-air reporting. They didn’t think he’d become a household name, nor did his bosses believe he’d turn into the patron saint of broadcast journalism.
His live reports dropped listeners into a war zone and his precise descriptions of life in a city under siege painted moving pictures long before television took hold. Murrow’s narration was eloquent and simple. It was calm and alarming in the same breath. Listening to recordings of his reports today is still a frightening ride, despite knowing how the story ends.
To understand Murrow’s surroundings, we first have to recognize the situation on the ground in 1940. Nazi Germany had steamrolled across Europe, collecting Austria, Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium along its path. When France fell in June, Britain was all that was left.
While Brits were anticipating an invasion, polls in the U.S. showed little appetite for intervening in Europe’s war. In June 1940, U.S. support for helping England hovered around 35 percent, according to a 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study. Nazi Germany’s all-out assault on Britain in the fall changed the tone of the conversation.
The Blitz, the prolonged, strategic bombing of London and other British cities and ports, was designed to break the Brits’ will. Adolf Hitler believed the island would fall if his lightning war—the short, overwhelming campaigns waged elsewhere in Europe—could dismantle British infrastructure and inflict mass civilian casualties. On September 7, 1940, waves of Nazi aircraft bombed London for 12 hours. It was the first of 57 consecutive nights of attacks on the British capital.
Murrow was there to deliver the story to American homes. In a September 8 studio broadcast, he recounted the day’s events, as only he could.
“Before eight, the sirens sounded again.” he reported. “The fires up the river had turned the moon blood red; the smoke had drifted down until it formed a canopy over the Thames. The guns were working all around us, the bursts looking like fireflies in a Southern summer night.”
Weeks later, after convincing British officials to let him broadcast live from the city’s rooftops, Murrow—who lived in one of the most heavily bombed areas of London—reported on the attacks as they happened around him. On September 22, with audible blasts in the background, he dispatched the news.
“I’m standing again tonight on a rooftop looking out over London, feeling rather large and lonesome. In the course of the last fifteen or twenty minutes there’s been considerable action up there, but at the moment there’s an ominous silence hanging over London. But at the same time, a silence that has a great deal of dignity.”
He often reported on the tenacity and resilience of the British people. They oozed out of the ground “tired, red-eyed and sleepy” on September 25, but they weren’t defeated.
“Today I walked down a long street. The gutters were full of glass; the big red busses couldn’t pull into the curb. There was the harsh, grating sound of glass being shoveled into trucks. In one window—or what used to be a window—was a sign. It read: SHATTERED—BUT NOT SHUTTERED.”
Acclaimed CBS journalist Eric Sevareid, one of “Murrow’s Boys” who also reported from London, later wrote that most Brits may never understand what Murrow did for them in those dark days.
“Murrow was not trying to sell the British cause to America,” Sevareid wrote. “He was trying to explain the universal human cause of men who were showing a noble face to the world. … He made the British and their behavior human and thus compelling to his countrymen at home.”
By December, about 60 percent of Americans were willing risk war to assist Britain. A number of historians and experts argue Murrow, his “Boys” and their stories helped shift public opinion.
When Murrow returned to the U.S. for a short break in late 1941, he was unaware of his own influence. American poet Archibald MacLeish, speaking for millions who listened to Murrow daily, told him he’d brought the war to America’s kitchens and living rooms. He made the war real and urgent.
“You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames that burnt it. You laid the dead of London at our doors and we knew the dead were our dead—were all men’s dead—were all mankind’s dead.”
Murrow wasn’t the only reporter on the ground during the Blitz—there were hundreds—and he wasn’t the only pioneer, but he stood out among them.
Chad Stewart is the senior editor of ON★PATROL.