Orchestrated Hell

In 1943, CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow took his radio audience along on a RAF bombing mission to Berlin.

Londoners inspect the damage following a night raid. After 57 consecutive nights of German attacks, 375,000 Londoners were left homeless. (NASM (SI NEG. #85-18328))
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Controversy over the strategy began during the war itself, even before Murrow took his ride on D for Dog. Rising in Parliament in March 1943, Member Richard Stokes asked whether the government was “aware that a growing volume of opinion in this country considers indiscriminate bombing of civilian centers both morally wrong and strategic lunacy?” In fact, those who openly opposed strategic bombing were few, but included persons of standing: A.V. Hill, one of the developers of radar; historian A.J.P. Taylor; military theorist Basil Liddell Hart; and the Bishop of Chichester.

Responding to Stokes’ parliamentary question, deputy prime minister Clement Atlee had said, “There is no indiscriminate bombing. As has been repeatedly stated in the House, the bombing is of those targets which are more effective from the military point of view.” Atlee’s statement, most historians agree, was not only dissembling, it was foolish. First, it set up the government for future criticism on its own terms. Second, despite Stokes’ reference to “a growing volume of opinion” against the bombing, popular opposition was slight. The British public had lived through the Blitz and Coventry. Max Hastings, though critical of the bombing strategy, wrote, “It is most unlikely they would have opposed area bombing if they had been allowed to vote on it.” He tells of one Royal Air Force officer who made morale-building visits to aircraft factories: When he told one audience that the flames of German cities burning could be seen 50 miles away, they “burst into cheers.”

Murrow, meanwhile, had drawn a lesson of his own. What most governed Murrow’s outlook, fellow newsman Eric Sevareid later noted, was that he “was a great moralist. He expected individuals, and his government, to live up to high moral standards.” The typical Murrow broadcast contained a moral, often one that used the specific to illuminate the general.

In his broadcast, Murrow reported that as the bomber was returning to England, Dave, its navigator, announced when the craft left the airspace of German-occupied Europe for that of the English Channel. When Murrow heard that announcement, he said, his mind went back to a 1938 flight he had made to London from Prague. Seated ahead of him were two refugees, an older couple. When the pilot announced the airplane had left German territory, “the old man reached out and grasped his wife’s hand.” Murrow’s comment: “The terrible symphony of light and flame” that D for Dog and 500 other bombers had performed upon Berlin was “a massive blow of retribution for all those who have fled from the sound of shots and blows on the stricken continent.”

The judgment that bombing was retribution is one military historians sharply reject. “Harris was not much interested in retribution and neither am I,” Robin Neillands says. “His aim was to shatter Germany from the Rhine to the Oder and weaken that nation’s eagerness to fight.” Richard Overy notes, “Most of the prevailing propaganda was very keen to argue that this was not in any sense retribution or revenge. Rather, it was based on solid assessment of the enemy’s social and economic weakness, which is going to be attacked and undermined, leading to that enemy’s surrender.” Overy added that Murrow’s view may reflect “the more popular sense that the Germans had done pretty nasty things and that they deserved everything they got.”

Known today by the memorable phrase “orchestrated hell,” Murrow’s broadcast helped him win the coveted Peabody Award for radio journalism. Still, superiors at CBS had been aghast at the prospect of putting him in a bomber over Berlin. Murrow was their treasure—the world’s first newsman as star—and the thought of his being shot down appalled them. Following the D for Dog broadcast, CBS news director Paul White sent Murrow a note. While he appreciated Murrow’s motives in wanting to go, White said, “I hope you are cured. Please, please, please don’t do it again.”

Visiting London, network president William Paley confronted his chief European correspondent: “I tried to convince him that that he was a damn fool to go out on so many night bombing missions over Germany.” Going once, Paley acknowledged, enabled Murrow to talk authentically on the subject, but “what do you have to gain to do it the second, third, fourth, or fifth time?” He would always say, ‘Oh, I agree with you.’ ” Then, a few nights later, Murrow would head out on another mission.

Sevareid thought Murrow was afraid to admit he was afraid. During the Blitz, Murrow had refused to set foot in bomb shelters, telling a fellow correspondent, “Once you start going into shelters, you lose your nerve.” Possibly, by 1943 Murrow simply felt dishonest—living the life of a much-toasted broadcaster in London while men younger than he were dying in a war he had worked to bring the Americans into.

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