Last week, I left the BBC after 35 years. The farewell was a wonderful evening - just as any hack's departure should be: crowded, boisterous, affectionate, mischievous and just a little dissolute. Pippa Gwilliam's great photos will give you a flavour of the event.
Steve Titherington, that's him above on the right, likened me to "the last Emperor of Rome" - I don't know whether that's because I've allowed the Vandals in, or lived a life of legendary debauch ... or perhaps that I am the last in a venerated (well, some of them) line of Editors of World Service News.
Steve, I am told, made a determined attempt to get the original bust of a Roman head found when Bush House was being built to join us at the farewell - apparently, the Deputy Head of Antiquities at the BBC said "eheu!", or something of that ilk. So you don't believe there was a Roman bust uncovered where Bush House now stands? Well, here it is ...
A few friends and comrades (some of them even younger than our friend above) joined in by video - great to hear from India, which has loomed so large in my life and career, as well as from correspondents and sparring partners who claimed they were on assignment somewhere or other:
And I've posted below the video - complete with kind words, wildly inaccurate anecdotes, and a visit to 'The Dungeon' at Westminster ...
It seemed to go down well ...
The gift was brilliantly chosen - a first edition of James Greenwood's 1874 The Wilds of London, an account of the seamier side of my adopted home city, a city which I still walk, explore and relish.
If you want to know what I said at the farewell - and remarkably, some people do - here's the scripted part ... do keep scrolling down, more photos below and at the end the hallmark of any World Service News farewell - Yes, Nigel's poem.
There’s a custom of these farewell speeches by grizzled veterans that they launch into anecdotes of times so remote that everyone is immediately convinced they should have been pensioned off decades ago.
I vowed to myself that I would not fall into that trap. But then, I thought, well what’s wrong with a bit of nostalgia.
I joined the BBC as a trainee talks writer on a three month contract in the autumn of 1980. Apart from a highly educative six weeks working on a lawn mowing gang of the Pudsey parks department – you have no idea how educative - the BBC is the only employer I have had.
Within this one organization, I have done a huge variety of tasks – reported from Stonehenge on the summer solstice; messed up the financial news on Radio 4; made a TV detective drama which got more eyeballs than Sherlock; made it to the Maldives for work – twice; introduced Bollywood’s Shilpa Shetty to reality TV … though I’m not sure which side of the ledger that stands.
The BBC has shaped and defined my life, it has shown me the world, it has given me skills, it has introduced me to my wife, it has moulded the interests that I will pursue in the years ahead. So the first thing is to say to the BBC, and that is to you collectively: thank you.
When I joined, Margaret Thatcher was new in Downing Street; the Soviets hadn’t invaded Afghanistan; the BBC had a Maltese service; and a trolley – sorry, the trolley - visited the Bush Newsroom twice a day … I’ve been working off the sausage rolls ever since.
I learnt my journalism in the Bush House Newsroom in the 1980s. When I first ventured there, subs bashed out brief filler stories on manual typewriters, duty editors corrected with lashings of pencil lead. It sounds as if it was from another century. It was another century. Curling plumes of cigarette smoke, compulsory bar breaks, and some habits and attitudes which are perhaps best left unexcavated.
Many of the more experienced journalists had worked on daily and regional papers, quite a few had spent time in Rhodesia or East Africa or Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur – there was a healthy suspicion of young ones with degrees who had never chased a story. There was also a warm, generous and inclusive sense of purpose and professional pride, great journalists and colleagues to whom I will always be grateful.
And of course those high octane moments from the early part of your career stay with you: being the sub on the LatAm desk on the night it became clear that Argentina was invading the Falklands; the drama and rumour as Poland’s Solidarity trade union was outlawed; above all, the massacre at the Sabra and Chatila camps – and hearing a BBC correspondent come up on the line from Beirut, I can’t remember who, and saying that he was with six or so other hardbitten foreign correspondents, and they had all listened to the last World Service bulletin, and had without bidding burst into applause. A telling of the story in which I had no role whatsoever – but I can recall the swell of pride. I feel it still.
I was lucky – I got my dream BBC job when barely 30. I spent four years as a lobby correspondent at Westminster – the regicide, what other word can be used, of Margaret Thatcher was the most intoxicating story; watching from the Commons press gallery as Geoffrey Howe made his resignation speech quite the most electrifying moment. I got to interview Margaret Thatcher once – of all the political figures I interviewed, she was the only one that made me feel small. Twenty-five years later I did the half hour obit programme on her for the World Service – I know what you’re thinking, I couldn’t possibly comment.
I also had the biggest run in I’ve ever had with a public figure – Geldof apart. I profiled Denis Skinner for ‘People and Politics’. He didn’t listen but my thank you note made the mistake of mentioning the other Parliamentary voices I had talked to about him – including a right-of-centre northern Labour backbencher. Denis rang - and berated me for fully twenty minutes. ‘Mr Whitehead, it was the leader’s office that told you to talk to him, wasn’t it. Come on now – they’ll have said to you talk to him, he’ll shaft Skinner. What’s your politics Mr Whitehead – come on, what’s your politics. I know you BBC types, you’ll tell me you haven’t got any politics. I know what that means: you’re SD bloody P’. … which certainly wasn’t my self image.
And then after the 1992 election – when John Smith’s accession to the Labour leadership convinced me, wrongly, that nothing was changing – I headed to India. My first trip there was making a doc about Calcutta’s Communists. It started badly. My luggage went to Saudi Arabia; the car didn’t show at Calcutta airport; the journey in, this was the blazing humid heat of mid-June, convinced me that no sense could be made of this chaotic, malodorous city; the hotel room wasn’t booked – so they put me in the only spare room in the old wing, the size of a ballroom, faded fifties decor, with a 20 watt lamp, just as well as it helped to conceal the substantial micro-fauna in the bathroom.
A couple of hours later, our then Calcutta stringer turned up to take credit for all the arrangements, bringing in tow, an aspiring young Bengali actress – his niece, he said - intended as my Calcutta chaperone, for whose benefit I immediately invented a pining wife and bawling baby back in London.
On that trip, I called in at Delhi and filed from a studio in the bureau there that entirely met the Duke of Edinburgh Indian gold standard for wiring. A producer in the bureau showed me the ropes – in gratitude, I gave her a dog-eared novel and indeed signed it. When a few months later I headed out as correspondent, she declared she had no recollection of the guy who couldn’t make the studio work: ‘There’s two or three of those London types passing through every week’, she moaned, ‘they all look the same.’
I went out to India single, I came back married (yes, to that producer) and with two kids. Anu is the best thing that ever happened to me, by far. I had the immense privilege of her as a guide to her country and its culture. A country which I have found intellectually captivating. Let me put it more plainly, a country which I love. India has been kind to me.
My relationship with Kashmir, whose history I have explored obsessively, is much more complex. Infused by conflict and suffering which I witnessed at close hand. Also by memory of a book bomb attack on the BBC office in Srinagar. It was intended to kill the BBC reporter at that time, Yusuf Jameel; he was badly injured; his colleague a photographer and camera operator Mushtaq Ali with whom I’d worked was killed. The bomb was delivered by a woman wearing a burqa. Culpability has never been absolutely clear – I’ll continue to keep my own counsel.
For the past five years, I’ve been head of news at the World Service. One of the perks of the job used to be having a PA. I came across the other day the stand-out email of my BBC years. From an agency worker who was coming to be my stand-in PA for a couple of weeks. I’d be told that she was also an actress and might need time off for auditions. On her first day, she didn’t show. At all. I sent her an email – where are you? ‘So sorry’ she replied that evening. ‘The audition lasted much longer than expected. My mobile and all my stuff was at the other end of Pinewood. Couldn’t even send a message. I was being tried out for a part as Penelope Cruz’s body double.’
That certainly stimulated my interest in meeting my new PA the following morning. No, she didn’t get the part. But yes, to my undiscerning eye I could see the potential. You just don’t know what they are looking for, do you.
I knew when I got the editor’s job it would be tough – with big public spending cuts in prospect, along with the move from Bush House. Leaving Bush was a wrench, but also the best thing that ever happened to the World Service. If we weren’t in here, part of this splendid if maddening building, that would be the tragedy.
And the cuts? Fairly bloody, and there were aspects of the whole business which left me feeling bruised. I am very grateful to the editors that I’ve worked with – fine editors … we kept together when we could so easily have fallen apart. We have emerged out of that process with our purpose and our audience intact. With a fine record of innovation and awards; making a good start to a digital transition. We are the BBC’s biggest radio network in terms of listeners – by far. Just 5% of those listeners are here in the UK, but that still gives us a reach here on a par with Radio 3. This coming year we have more new investment than we have savings – we’re growing again.
So it’s a good time to go. This departure from the BBC has not been forced on me. It’s something I’ve been thinking and talking about for a year or two. I feel sad that I am the last in the line of editors of World Service News, in the Gormenghast which is the BBC it’s like an ancient Earldom that’s falling extinct - but the future of our programmes and our network is as secure as anything in this organisation can be.
And of course there is the personal connection. Throughout my BBC career I have been lucky with my bosses; fortunate in my friendships. I’ve seen Kiev with Olexiy, Calcutta with both Bishaka and Nazes, Cape Town with Shen, Lahore with Mazhar, Lucknow just recently with Ram Dutt – those allegiances will outlast a job.
I’ve worked with some really talented colleagues. There is no greater pleasure than getting someone in a role or position where they just vroom – on air, and off. I’ve been lucky – that’s happened quite a lot in recent years.
Above all I’ve been blessed by your friendship. Thank you.
And a 'bonus' for getting this far - here's me c1988 in the old correspondents' unit at Bush House:
... or something like that.
It's just about exactly 25 years since I achieved the post I most coveted in my early career in journalism - Political Correspondent. And for the World Service, which still had its own foothold in the Lobby, its own desk in Parliament (in an overflow office known as The Dungeon, where in the evenings the smell of fried fish wafted up from the watchroom below), and its own access to the movers and shakers.
This was still Thatcher's reign. Heseltine had by then stormed out of her cabinet - Lawson and Howe were still to follow. The political capital gained by her 'victories' in the South Atlantic and over Scargill's miners, and in three successive elections, was being frittered away amid a raft of party squabbles, particularly over Europe, and poor policy decisions, of which the Poll Tax was the worst.
There was an incendiary air to politics - and on occasions a whiff of grapeshot on the streets. It was a truly stirring time to be a pol corr.
I had come across Mrs T at a Commonwealth conference in Harare - and she seemed much more charming and relaxed than I had expected. (I could say the same for Robert Mugabe). But there was little charm in her despatch box performances. And on the one occasion I got to interview her, no charm at all. Here's what happened.
Downing Street's press office, under the irascible but immensely likeable Bernard Ingham, was perpetually running feuds. After an environmental summit conference in London, No. 10 - for reasons I never uncovered - was determined to deny both BBC TV News and ITN's 'News at Ten' the big PM sit down interview which was standard fare at the close of such events. So the broadcast interviews went to Channel 4 ... and the World Service. And a callow and inexperienced World Service pol corr, who in his anxiety had perhaps over rehearsed his questions, got a rare chance to interrogate Margaret Thatcher.
She sensed my nervousness - and pounced. I still haven't summoned up the courage to listen back. I remember, as the interview was spiralling out of control, staring intently at Mrs Thatcher's face and in my panic-induced reverie seeing it transform into the Gerald Scarfe caricature with the Concorde nose. When, in response to my killer question, she disdainfully replied: "I don't think you've been listening to what we've been saying", I could feel the blood freeze in my veins. It was a chastening experience.
Mrs T was of course the commanding British political figure of the second half of the last century - and in terms of eminence, ranks alongside Churchill, Lloyd George, Disraeli, Gladstone and Blair as the epoch-defining Prime Ministers of modern times.
This evening, I got home just as the World Service was broadcasting my half-hour obituary programme for Mrs Thatcher - first assembled a decade or so ago, and freshened up a year or two back. It brought back a host of memories. 'Love her or loathe her, no one was indifferent to Margaret Thatcher.'
For many of us who spent time at Westminster - politicians and Lobby alike - it feels as if part of our past has slipped anchor.
'Witness' is a daily history programme on the BBC World Service. And in today's edition, I am talking to an old BBC colleague, Rena Stewart, about her wartime work as a German translator, initially at Bletchley and then at an interrogation camp at Bad Nenndorf near Hanover. While at the camp, she and a colleague were given the task of delivering an authoritative translation of a document ... that turned out to be Adolf Hitler's will.
Listen to the programme, it's just nine minutes, by clicking on this link:
The photo above was taken at Bad Nenndorf in 1946 - Rena is in the front row, second left. Below is a photo of Rena wearing her army intelligence corps badge, also from 1946. The photo below at the perimeter wire fence was probably taken in September 1945 - shortly after Rena and her colleagues arrived at Bad Nenndorf. Rena is third from left. To her left is her friend Margery Forbes, who was her co-translator of Hitler's will. Rena tells me that Margery died in the 1960s, but that three others in the photo are still going strong in their nineties - one in Belfast, one in Holland and one in Vancouver. Rena celebrates her own 90th birthday next month (Feb 2013) - many thanks to her for permission to post these wonderful photos.
LATER: I have included below - with Rena's permission - a transcript of my interview with Rena, which has much more detail about her wartime work at Bletchley and post-war work at Bad Nenndorf:
RENA STEWART – talking to Andrew Whitehead at BH, 2 November 2012
AW: So you were a student, where and doing what?
RS: I had just graduated from St Andrew’s University in Modern Languages, French and German, and I volunteered for the ATS (auxiliary territorial service) in other words, the women’s army corp. And I volunteered along with a friend of mine from university and we were never asked if we wanted to go to Bletchley beforehand we were just called up in the usual way, sent to a training camp in Guildford and then told we would be going to Bletchley, which of course didn’t mean anything to us at that time, no one knew what happened at Bletchley. We were then sent on a course in Hampstead, staying in army conditions in these great big multimillion houses in Fitzjohn Avenue. We were then, after we had signed the Official Secrets Act, let into the ‘enigma’ secret but only in very basic terms, we weren’t told much detail about it and the course included things like the German army ranks and chain of command and so on, so we knew a little bit about that.
AW: So when did you first know you’d been selected for secret work
RS: Really when we went on the Hampstead course we knew were going to somewhere special but we weren’t told anything more about it until we got there and had signed the Official Secrets Act.
AW: And what was the secret work?
RS: Well in Bletchley I was typing in German the decrypts which came in which were in a form that was not very easy to read and of course there were some corrupt groups in the morse that had come through and so you had to know German and we were typing in German. It was called the German book room, because they were then made into a kind of book form so that people could read them more easily. They were useful for people who didn’t know the ‘enigma’ secret because there was no immediate evidence of where the information has come from. And also it was easier for the intelligence corps people to work on long-term projects. Mostly decrypts had been looked through by intelligence corps people so they could see immediately if there was something urgent that needed to be dealt with.
AW: For those that don’t know what enigma is, what is enigma, what is it all about?
RS: Well it was a machine for encoding secret messages. Basically it looked like a typewriter in fact in had a qwerty keyboard and you pressed one key and what came out was a different letter. I don’t know the technical term for it or anything but the wheels inside this thing operated and they were changed every day and the German’s thought it was basically an unbreakable code but Bletchley managed to break it with the help of machines that were devised by Alan Turing and others.
AW: And when did you get to Bletchley? When would this have been?
RS: We arrived there in January ’44.
AW: And by the enigma had been broken, code breaking had been a success?
RS: Yes. Of course it is not quite as simple as that, because the Germans then, I think they must have had some kind of inkling that things weren’t quite as secure as they thought. And they made the machines more complicated and there was in fact a period I believe in 1942 when the codes weren’t broken, they had to kind of start again from scratch. And of course towards the end of the war - there was a programme on television about it, which wasn’t the same as enigma at all. I never did discover what the meaning of it was.
AW: And what was Bletchley like? What was the building like? What were the surroundings like?
RS Well the park itself where we worked, the main building there, we called it the mansion and it was an Edwardian style which had been built by a financier who wanted to include every possible style of architecture into it. It was a perfect mess. But where we worked, we were in huts and it was quite a big estate and had huts all over the place and in fact I never set foot into the mansion in all the time I was there. We were in a military camp adjoining the park and we just walked down there to our hut and back again and never went anywhere near the mansion.
AW: What was the mood like among those working there? There must have been quite a lot of youngsters such as yourself.
RS: Well yes. It wasn’t all army people by any means in fact most of the women were in the naval service. And there were a lot of civilians and in the park the mood was quite free and easy actually. Of course we had crises when everybody was working around the clock and it was stressful and so on. But on the whole Bletchley Park never took account of ranks, it was just ignored. In fact we, my friends and I, never got any further than sergeant and there was WAAF air force officers, who were junior to us and that happened all over the place in Bletchley. You’d have a corporal giving orders to a major and things like that.
AW: Was it exciting?
RS: Very exciting, yes. The actual work was quite hard. It varied of course, some of the messages were quite dull, we would get ones with lots of figures in them, returns of ammunition and things like that - of great interest to the intelligence people but not of great interest to read. But I think the most interesting thing I ever got to type was an events code going directly to Hitler from Field Marshal von Kesselring - and all the military areas, that was absolutely fascinating.
AW: Can you remember how you felt when you realised this was a really important secret message?
RS: Yes I was very excited! And just wished all the messages were as interesting as that.
AW: Can you remember what it said?
RS: I don’t, no. It was very detailed, each region being given a tour d’horizon.
AW Did you sense at the time how important Bletchley was to Britain winning the war?
RS: Oh yes, that was drilled into us and you know that if we spilt the beans in any way we were in endangering people’s lives and also the outcome of the war. For instance we were told that if anybody tried to guess what we were doing we weren’t to say ‘no it’s not that’ because by process of elimination you could get to the secret. And we could only go to our own offices; we couldn’t go to people in other offices.
AW: So what did your parents think you were doing?
RS: I don’t think they wondered very much to be quite honest because people didn’t. You told them you were doing secret work and that was it, they didn’t expect you to say anymore.
AW: What did you tell your friends, your friends from university, what you were doing?
RS: I didn’t tell them anything. If they tried to ask or wondered what you were doing, you changed the subject.
AW: Did you go to dances in nearby towns and things like that?
RS: No but we had quite a lot of social activity within the park itself. We had very good amateur dramatics society for instance which put on the most terrific revues and we did have dances. We also did Scottish dancing, played tennis - there were courts in the park. In fact the story is when Churchill came he saw the tennis courts, which were in disrepair, and he thought it would be a good idea for people doing such a good job to have time to play tennis and he ordered for them to be put right and made available for playing.
AW: Did you see any of the VIP visitors who came to Bletchley?
RS No, no we were very much confined to our own offices. And we just went home after we had finished our shift.
AW: But the German Book room, which is where you said you working, does sound as if it was absolutely in the heart of the decoding operation?
RS: Well I wouldn’t say that, because as I say the decrypting was examined beforehand to see if there was anything very urgent and I felt most of it had happened by the time it came to us.
AW: What did the decrypts look like when you got to see them?
RS: They were strips of paper stuck onto other strips of paper which had come straight from the morse.
AW: So they weren’t broken up into words?
RS: They were by the time we go them. Because the I-corps people had done that so they could be read before we got them.
AW: Are you proud of your time at Bletchley?
RS: I’m proud of having kept the secret shall we say. I don’t think I’m all that proud of the job I did.
AW: When you say you are proud of having kept the secret, how do you mean?
RS: Well I think you know it was quite a feat to be able to keep quiet about it and not be tempted to waft your self-importance and say what you were doing.
AW: When did you first mention to others that you had worked at Bletchley?
RS: Well I think that must have been the 1970s when Colonel Winterbottom’s book was first published.
AW: So you kept it secret for 30 years?
RS: Oh yes and in fact we were horrified when they started writing books about it, we couldn’t get over it.
AW Because the culture of ‘this must remain secret’ was so strong?
RS: Absolutely. We had nightmares about it and my particular nightmare was I was sitting in a railway carriage and suddenly started telling everybody about the ‘enigma’ code being broken.
AW: It is remarkable isn’t it?
RS: Well it certainly is in terms of how people see things now days. They must have thought we were very incurious about things because you didn’t ask what other people were doing you just accepted that it wasn’t known.
AW: And did you ever see the ‘enigma’ machine yourself?
RS: Not while I was working at Bletchley no.
AW: But you’ve seen it since?
RS: Yes, one time I had a cottage quite near Bletchley and I started going there from the very beginning of it being a museum when it was only open every second weekend or something like that. And so we saw the enigma machines then.
AW: So how did you make that jump of working at Bletchley to working in Germany?
RS: Well we were in the army and we had to wait to be demobbed and our demob was determined by our age and length of service. And of course none of us were very old and had been in the services very long. So they were left with a whole lot of ATS girls who knew German. So what did they do with them? Sent them to an intelligence outfit in Germany.
AW: So where did you end up?
RS: In a place called Bad Nenndorf near Hanover. It’s a spa town and that was the interrogation camp, the place where the prisoners were was the place where the baths had been when it was a spa and the whole camp was surrounded by 8ft fences with barbed wire. When we first went out there we were very, well we didn’t know what to expect. And neither did the authorities, they didn’t know if there was going to be any kind of uprising. And when we first got there, we were only allowed to go out in pairs and with a man with us. And it wasn’t until they realised there wasn’t going to be any kind of rebellion or anything we were able to move about more freely.
AW: And who were the prisoners?
RS: The people were mainly Abwehr people, you know the German intelligence service people. And we were quite amused in a way to discover that though the German reputation is of efficiency they really spent more time in fighting with the other intelligence outfits than they did on winning the war I suppose.
AW: And what would happen when the prisoners were being questioned?
RS: Now the people who were doing the questioning were all men and they were all, I think without exception, German Jewish refugees, because their native language was German. And they would carry out interrogations and prisoners were asked to submit written statements and we got the written statements. Officially we weren’t supposed to go into the camp where the prisoners were at all but I was there a couple of times. Well there was one time when the man who was interrogating in our section, one of the people who he was questioning was a Belgian who had definitely spied for the Nazis. He claimed to have been a double agent and spied for the British as well and I think the interrogator believed him and put in a request to the authorities that he should be released. And he got back the reply that no, he was going to be convicted of being a Nazi spy. And he asked me to come with him that day to break the news because he thought he might break into tears and that my presence might in some way inhibit that. But it didn’t.
AW: He burst into tears?
AW: Was that basically a death sentence?
RS: Well I think so, I never heard what actually happened to him in the end.
AW: Did you have any sympathy for the prisoners?
RS: Um, yes - yes we did, not to - we didn’t really it, it didn’t really occur to us whether we did or not.
.. . [Rena asked for a section of the transcript to be deleted as she believes she misremembered details about the treatment of detainees at Bad Nenndorf] …
AW: And your main job was to translate the written statements?
RS: That’s right, yes
AW: But there was an occasion when you got another document to look and translate.
RS: Yes the major who was in charge of the unit come and looked very solemn and presented this document. There was two of us translating in this unit and he told us to drop everything we were doing and to work together and take as long as we liked as it had to be absolutely perfect. He handed over the document; he didn’t say what it was. But it was pretty soon apparent to us it was Hitler’s will, and I think there has been a news item about it having been discovered and it has come to light. So we set out, did as he said, took a long time over it -discussed each word more or less and we came to the word ‘kleinbuergerlich’ and we were very puzzled as to how to translate it. We didn’t think it was lower middle class, it didn’t have the right ring to it, it had a pejorative feel which we didn’t think the German had, maybe we were wrong. So we decided to translate it as petit bourgeois and we were a bit uneasy about translating a German phrase via French, so we put ‘kleinbuergerlich’ in brackets. A few years later Trevor Roper produced his book, ‘The Last Days of Hitler’ and of course I bought a copy and of course knew who Trevor Roper was - I think a colonel in Bad Oeynhausen, our headquarters. I started reading the book and when I came to the bit about Hitler’s will, I thought that sounds familiar I know where this came from and sure enough said ‘petit bourgeois / kleinbuergerlich’.
AW: So yours was the definitive version?
AW: What did the document look like?
RS: This is something and - I can’t remember, my feeling is it was hand written but I remember reading somewhere that Eva Braun had typed it. And why should anyone do a handwritten copy of a typed document. I don’t know, I may be misremembering.
AW: And was it signed by Hitler?
RS: I don’t think it was, it was a copy. They wouldn’t have given us the original. I can’t remember to be honest.
AW: How did you realise that this document was Hitler’s will?
RS: Just by the contents of it. And I can’t remember the details how we knew but we were pretty sure it couldn’t have been anything else.
AW: Did it start off – ‘I Adolf Hitler give my last will and testament’ or something like that?
RS: I don’t think so no, because then I think we would have known right away obviously if it said that. It was as we went though the document that we realised. And I think it the original may have had ‘I Adolf Hitler’ but it wasn’t on the document we had.
AW: What did you feel when you realised this was Hitler’s will?
RS: Amazed, you know, we couldn’t believe it at first and then we realised there was no other explanation.
AW: Did you feel excited or?
RS Oh yes
RS: Both! Actually, certainly all the more on us to get the translation absolutely right.
AW: And were there any phrases or sentences that linger in memory?
RS: Only the kleinbuergerlich one.
AW: So how long did it take you to translate it?
RS: Several hours.
AW: It was quite a long document?
RS: It was quite long and of course we were discussing every word and checking in dictionaries and so on.
AW: Why do you think the job came to you, because you were so clearly an accomplished linguist but you weren’t the most senior people that they would have turned to for translations?
RS: No and I never did understand that to be quite honest and then it was one of those things when you didn’t ask. The whole thing that was drummed into you at Bletchley was if you need to know something you will be told and if you don’t need to know, don’t ask.
AW: And did you ever discover how the will had been discovered and what use was made of the translation?
RS: No, apart from being used in Trevor Roper’s book.
AW: And you’re talking to me now about translating Hitler’s will, but how long did you keep it a secret after the war?
RS: I can’t remember, I think I told people once I found it in Trevor Roper’s book. Because it was in the public domain.
AW: But that was in the 60s or 70s? Or even later?
RS: Oh no, it was earlier, it was the 50’s I think.
AW: OK, so you kept it secret for a decade or so.
AW: But it’s quite a remarkable thing to have translated Hitler’s will.
RS: It is.
AW: And do you regard it as a particularly special moment?
RS: I do yes, one of the more interesting bits.
AW: I’m still intrigued about how you have responded when you realised you had got this document? I mean how did you and your friend make sure you both understood each other, did your blood run cold did you think ‘wow, this is exciting’, did you talk directly and think, ‘gosh this must be Hitler’s will’?
AW: What can you remember?
RS: Just that we were amazed at it, we could hardly believe it and double checked the contents of the document and sure it can’t be anything else.
AW: But can you remember which of you first realised it was Hitler’s?
RS: No I don’t.
AW: Or what sort of dialogue you had when you were translating it?
RS: Not really no. It was all very technical about the translation.
AW: And you were translating yourself in long hand or were you typing it?
RS: We were typing it.
AW: And how long did you spend it Germany?
RS: We went there in September 45 and we were there until December 46.
AW: Did you enjoy your time there?
RS: In a way yes. It was to begin with pretty awful, the place was in ruins and you’d go down to Hanover and see buildings with these black crosses on which meant there were still dead bodies there. And there was one that said ‘and here lurks death’ and of course things got better and better and eventually the whole atmosphere was much more relaxed. Yes it was quite a nice time.
AW: Did you get to know any Germans?
RS: No, not really not. We had a run in with the local vet. We found a dog in the basement of the house were staying in, and the poor little dog it had obviously been taken, it was very soft and it’s bones deformed and we took it to the local vet to ask for it to be out to sleep and he was charging us in cigarettes, which was the currency at the time. And he pretended not to understand our German and gave us pills to give to the poor little beast. In the end we just had to get one of the soldiers to shoot it because he was not going to give up charging cigarettes for the drugs.
AW: He was on a racket?
RS: He was.
AW: And were there many people over there on rackets?
RS: Gosh yes, that business of using cigarettes as currency was actually affecting the British balance of payments and I forget how they resolved it exactly, but we got vouchers though how they managed to stop the cigarette traffic I don’t know. I never did discover who smoked these cigarettes!
AW: So anything you wanted, any services you wanted from the local population, it was cigarettes?
RS: Cigarettes yes.
AW: What was the official currency, there must have been an official currency?
RS Well there was a kind of, there wasn’t ordinary marks, something that was used by service personnel. Well I think we did have marks as well because actually there is a reference to the diary there.
AW: So you spent a little over a year in Germany, came back to London, started looking for a job, hugely well qualified because of all the things you had been doing -
RS: But I couldn’t tell anybody. But I didn’t come back to London I came back to Scotland.
AW: And could you find a job?
RS: Eventually. It took 4 months I think, applying for everything in sight, suitable and unsuitable. And eventually the chap I mentioned the one who was the interrogator in our unit who had a friend who worked in Bush House -
AW: In the BBC?
RS: - in the BBC , German service, and his friend wrote to me and said he thought I would enjoy working at Bush House and he advised me to write to the BBC and take any job that was offered, because that would give me access to internal advertisements. And that was exactly what I did and I started in Bush house as a clerk and eventually went on to become monthly paid staff and then eventually to the newsroom.
AW: Where you became a senior duty editor.
AW: But when you were applying for jobs after the war, what could you said about what you had done during the war.
RS: I could say that I was attached to the intelligence corps, full stop.
AW: Nothing about Bletchley?
AW: Nothing about working in Germans camps?
AW Nothing about the level of responsibility you had taken?
RS: No, nothing.
AW: Nothing about being entrusted with translating Hitler’s will?
AW It’s a bit unfair isn’t it?
RS: I suppose it is yes. However I managed to get on.
AW: Did you feel bad at the time when you perhaps saw people who were much less well qualified getting jobs ahead of you, because you couldn’t tell people what you had been doing?
RS: Yes I did and also you know all the civilians at Bletchley just walked out after the war and we were kept in for another 18 months.
AW: Because you were in uniform. Have you still got the uniform?
RS Oh no. I think we handed it in at the end of the war.
AW: Tell me of the journey there, this is the journey out to Germany.
RS: … We were taken to Ostend and that was not too bad, just the early start and having a lot of luggage to cart about. But that was very routine but in Ostend we had a couple of days there and we had a lovely time because everything in Belgium seemed to be much more luxurious than we were accustomed to in Britain and we had won the war. But the actual journey to Germany we left at 6 o’clock in the morning and we got on a very decrepit looking train which kept stopping and starting and we drove through Belgium first of all and we got to Holland they seemed to be much worse off than the Belgians had been and there were children standing at the side of the railway line waiting for us to throw out biscuits and sweets. We had already been advised to take things like that with us because there wasn’t going to be much food available on this journey. And we then got to the Rhine and the train went over a temporary bridge, all the other bridges in the area had been destroyed and it was, well I couldn’t say how long to get over but it was very slow. The bridge was shaking all the time and we looked down from the train windows straight into the Rhine and when we got to the German countryside it was part of the sector which had been fought over and there was hardly a building standing - and people living in the road. And as far as we were concerned of course we had breakfast before 6, a meal about half past two, and we didn’t see anything else until breakfast the following morning. And the train had no lights on it so when it got dark, we just had to go to sleep. So the whole journey took 24 hours and I think it could be done nowadays in 3 or 4 hours.
AW: Was this your first ever time outside the UK?
RS: Yes, because being from Scotland we had a long way to go before we even got to the continent.
ENDS - AW 2.1
What's the collective noun for radio presenters? OK, let's not go there.
This photo was taken a short while ago - in the closing minutes of the last ever edition of the World Today on the BBC World Service. In the studio, a galaxy of presenting talent: left-to-right, Max Pearson, Julian Keane, Linda Duffin, Fergus Nicoll, Lawrence Pollard and Tim Jenkins.
On Monday, a new programme - Newsday (featuring Messrs Pollard and Keane and others) - is born.
A lot's been happening at the World Service - above all the move from Bush House. There's another big moment in the coming week: the last broadcasts of the World Today. On July 23rd, it's replaced by a new programme, Newsday.
When the World Today went 'global' in January 1999, I was one of the presenters of the South Asia strand. This publicity photo dates from that time - my colleagues are (l to r) Lyse Doucet (now of Newshour and World News), George Arney and Ritula Shah (now the World Tonight, Radio 4).
I spent three years presenting the World Today, and then had a spell as its editor. A good programme!
The BBC World Service is today celebrating its eightieth birthday. Marquees in the Bush House car park - a day of special programmes - even the morning editorial meeting broadcast live to an unsuspecting global audience.
The exact birthday isn't until later in the year, but within a month the World Service starts to decant to the fantastic new broadcast centre at New Broadcasting House on Portland Place. By the time the Olympics start, all World Service broadcasters and journalists (I'm one of them) will have left Bush House. So this is both early birthday and a public farewell to Bush House.
As well as listening avidly to today's programmes, my attention was drawn by my onetime boss Bill Rogers (he of the Trading as WDR blog, a sort of Guido Fawkes for the BBC - happily he describes today's programmes as 'much funkier that you would expect from an 80 year old's birthday party') to a wonderfully detailed account of the BBC career of perhaps the most famous World Service alumnus, George Orwell.
Orwell described his time at the BBC as 'two wasted years' - though the article by Peter Davison on the Orwell Society site makes clear they were professionally hugely productive. Orwell was also working with some emerging big figures in writing and culture, including Mulk Raj Anand, Balraj Sahni and Una Marson.
And if you have ever wondered where the real Room 101 was, here's the answer.
No, it's not England's score in the last one dayer. It's not even the Sri Lankan total. It's the medium wave frequency on which the World Service was broadcast - until this weekend.
You can still get the World Service in the UK on DAB digital audio and via the internet - if you go to the world page on the BBC News website, there's a listen live button for the World Service on the right towards the top. But 648, which has served the south-east of England, and parts of the continent, so well for decades is dead - a victim of public spending cuts.
I have a very nifty old portable radio in my bathroom wonderfully aligned so that if I press the FM button I get Radio 4, and press the MW button, it's the World Service - with no further fiddling required. Today the MW button produced just static mush. I tried in the car where 648 is pre set - the steady hum of nothing in particular.
So I've bought myself another digital radio - they're not exactly cheap: one in the kitchen, a portsable for my jacket pocket, and I guess I'll have to get one of those plug-ins that should work in the car. So sorry to see you go, 648.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
Welcome - read - comment - throw stones - pick up threads - and tell me how to do this better!