Godfrey Talbot: The Voice of the Desert and the 8th Army.
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"I looked up and saw bombs falling - crash and crash"
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 23 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.
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