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Celebrating 75 Years Of BFBS Broadcasting Around The Globe

From cactus thorns to harems, here are 75 incredible facts about the award-winning broadcaster BFBS

Broadcasting from war zones around the world for three quarters of a century is no mean feat. From playing records with cactus thorns to setting up shop in a former harem, here are 75 fascinating facts about the award-winning broadcaster to help celebrate our birthday.

1. The first Broadcasting Unit was established by an Army welfare directorate in 1942, under the direction of Major Eric Maschwitz with the function of liaising with the BBC and making better use of forces programmes.

2. The first British Forces Experimental Station (BFES) went live on air in Algiers, in a former Harem for the first time on 1st January 1944.

3. Army blankets were used in the heavily tiled rooms to make the sound suitable for broadcast.

4. An abandoned German transmitter, discovered in Tunisia was the first broadcast equipment to be used.

5. The opening announcement was made by Philip Slessor and the signature tune used for the opening was the most popular melody with the 8th Army called 'Lili Marlene'.

The British Forces Network in Hamburg, 1940's
The British Forces Network in Hamburg, 1940's

6. 'Lili Marlene' was also used by the German propaganda station, 'Axis Sally' and was subsequently banned for broadcast by Forces Radio Stations until the end of the war.

7. Disc Cutters were used long before tape for broadcasting.

8. The first Forces Station in Algiers was named ‘B1’ and operated from ‘studio 3A’, named after the famous studio at on the third floor of BBC Broadcasting house in London.

9. The Forces Broadcasters moved into Italy with the expeditionary forces with their mobile stations ‘B3’ and ‘B4'.

10. Staff were accommodated within a local monastery in Campobassa and the early morning announcer was woken up by the duty monk on his way to prayers.

An early control panel from Studio A in Cologne, 1954
An early control panel from Studio A in Cologne, 1954

11. ABS (Army Broadcasting Service) Mobile Station B4 was once the target of the infamous 'Axis Sally', the German propaganda broadcaster. She proclaimed their location at Cesena was known to the German forces and the next day the station was machine gunned in an air attack.

12. On D-Day plus 1, the Allied Expeditionary Forces programme was launched and the AFEP programmes were relayed by the BLAs mobile broadcasting units.

13. In December 1944, 4 Mobile Broadcasting Units landed in Belgium as part of the British Liberation Army BLA and they operated close to the front line until the end of the war.

14. Once peace was declared, Eric Maschwitz and John Macmillan headed towards Hamburg to requisition the Musikhalle for Forces Broadcasting.  They pinned a handwritten note on the door: “Requisitioned for Army Broadcasting” which was signed by B.L. Montgomery.

15. October 7th, 1945, the first edition of 'Family Favourites' linking Germany and the UK went on air and the first request was for 'Lili Marlene'.

LAC Geraint Evans who went on to become a renowned opera singer
LAC Geraint Evans who went on to become a renowned opera singer

16. At the request of Army Welfare, a BFN Theatre Orchestra was formed made up of some of the finest musicians in Northern Germany.

17. LAC Geraint Evans arrived at the Musikhalle as a driver. He was asked to give an audition and was immediately signed up for the BFN Chorus and later become one of the world’s great opera stars.

18. FBS Benghazi was opened in 1946 by Maxwell Boyd, who went on to become a famous photographer on Motor Sport and his staff of ten included three former German PoWs.

19. BFBS was the first radio station in Europe to use VHS (ahead of the BBC) in 1955.

20. One of the roles of FBS Benghazi’ was to broadcast in German back to Germany, to try to counter East Germany’s propaganda.

Jackie Charlton and Alan Ball,1966 World Cup Winners visit Herford
Jackie Charlton and Alan Ball,1966 World Cup Winners visit Herford

21. BFBS were targeted by terrorists and came under fire from Bazookas and machine guns in Aden, three years after its opening in 1962.

22. This heralded the beginning of the Armed Forces using the broadcaster to disseminate vital information across the airwaves.

23. BFBS subsequently trained other broadcasters how to use the new equipment.

24. John Peel, Dave Lee Travis and Tommy Vance were among the presenters when BFBS Head Office opened in Westminster in 1965.

25. Jackie Charlton and Alan Ball, Two of England’s 1966 World Cup Winners team Jackie Charlton and Alan Ball visited the Herford studio.

Engineers installing broadcasting equipment for the FBS
Engineers installing broadcasting equipment for the FBS

26. In 1947 a Royal Engineer discovered that Cactus thorns could be used to play one side of the 78 rpm records in Benghazi when there was a delay in the resupply of steels needles.

27. The Army Broadcasting Service set up in a former Gestapo Headquarters in Northern Italy, 1947 where local workers refused to enter the basement because it had been used as a torture chamber.

28. The Services Sound and Vision Corporation (SSVC) was set up in 1982 and was merged from the Services Kinema Corporation (SKC), the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS).

29. BFBS has won countless Sony, Radio Academy and New York Radio awards throughout its proud history.

30. The British Defence Film Library (BDFL) was located at the Chalfont Headquarters between 1996-2016 and managed over 1,500 film programmes, representing more than 50 years of training material.

Sir Roger Moore: A Saint, A Spy And A CSE Legend Picture Credit Allan Warren
Roger Moore was cast on 'The Adventures of Robin Hood'

31. Elton John was interviewed by BFBS reporter Richard Astbury in 1976.

32. Geri Halliwell performed for British troops in Oman in 2001.

33. Roger Moore performed as one of the foresters in the BFN’s most popular children’s shows, ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’.

34. The first showings of 16mm programmes were in canvas tent ‘cinemas’ on Salisbury Plain in 1939.

35. A vehicle containing an IRA bomb was parked outside of the BFBS Headquarters in Dean Stanley Street, Westminster in 1971 (it was defused safely).

Geri Halliwell performs for troops in Oman, 2001
Geri Halliwell performs for troops in Oman, 2001

36. In the Gaza Strip the Middle East Broadcasting station used a clock that had been salvaged from a Hawker Hurricane aircraft.

37. A series of terrorist attacks in Palestine in 1948 resulted in the deaths of a number of British servicemen and included Forces Broadcasting Service’s Chief Engineer Flight Sergeant Dixie Dean.

38. The first radio station to operate on the island of Cyprus was created by Forces Broadcasting Service Cyprus in 1948 and was operated out of a former cowshed.

39. When the Turks invaded the island, BFBS moved to 24-hour broadcasting.

40. An exhibition called Battledress Broadcasters at the National Army Museum was held to celebrate 50 years of the existence of BFBS and was attended by Princess Margaret (1993).

SSVC Retail Closes in Germany
SSVC Retail Closes in Germany

41. The Combined Services Entertainment (CSE) is the live events arm of SSVC and has been responsible for providing thousands of events to entertain and inform British Armed Forces around the world.

42. CSE deliver 500 show days a year.

43. In 1963 the British Broadcasting Service replaced BFN and FBS.

44. BFBS has a mailing list of over 12,000 people.

45. As well as providing entertainment, SSVC (BFBS) also ran a chain of retail shops throughout the UK and Northern Germany in the 70’s selling everything from toasters to televisions.

David Beckham in Afghanistan, 2010
David Beckham meets troops in Afghanistan, 2010

46. DVDs are still sent to troops in remote regions.

47. Forces TV is funded by BFBS, SSVC, advertisements and some sponsorship.

48. BFBS employ around 230 staff including journalists and technicians.

49. A 3-minute news bulletin is broadcast on the hour every hour and everyday on BFBS Radio including Christmas Day.

50. Forces News is broadcast online and on Forces TV every weekday at 12:30pm and 5:30pm UK time.

Kevin Costner's Message to the British Armed Forces
Kevin Costner with reporter Natasha Reneaux

51. In 2014 SSVC launched a new channel called Forces TV.

52. BFBS channels are received on more than 55 Royal Navy ships.

53. Forces TV reached over 1.2 million viewers (Aug 19).

54. In 2010 BFBS added a Nepali language TV channel (later replaced by the state TV broadcaster of Nepal).

55. Susie Ferguson, Rory Higgins and Annie Haresign were BFBS’s first embedded war correspondents in The Gulf in 2003.

Bill Mitchell, Uncle Bill of Big Wood fame, 1970
Bill Mitchell, Uncle Bill of Big Wood fame, 1970

56. The first record to be played by the Inmarsat satellite terminal was ‘The Boys are back in Town’ in March 2003.

57.  Viewers watched Forces TV for an average of 3 hrs 40 mins last week (Aug 19).

58. BFBS presenters were used to deliver tannoy announcements for Operation Herrick in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan such as: “There will be a controlled explosion in 5 minutes, I say again, there will be a controlled explosion in 5 minutes”.

59. BFBS was featured in the BBC drama ‘The Last Post’ in 2017.

60. BFBS supplies Armed Forces with the MiPlayer that has thousands of hours of TV, training materials, electronic newspapers and magazines.

Broadcasting equipment in remote locations

61. The Forces TV YouTube channel was started in February 2010.

62. Since it started, it has gained nearly 81 million views across all videos.

63. The 'Big Wood Tales' were narrated for BFBS and the’ Kinder Club’ by Uncle Bill-William Charles Boyden-Mitchell during the 60’s and 70’s.

64. Although primarily aimed at children the show attracted many adult listeners and formed the basis for drinking games amongst soldiers and officers alike during the episodes (one such competition allegedly involved seeing who could consume the most of a 75cl bottle of duty-free Scotch).

65. Kevin Costner recorded a message to troops on the set of his film ‘Criminal’ for BFBS IN 2014.

Cassidy Little in green screen studio
Cassidy Little, Coronation Street, Strictly and BFBS celebrity in the green studio

66. The Forces News bulletin is also available on Alexa Flash Briefing.

67. The website has over 700,000 monthly visitors.

68. BFBS has had many famous faces working for them over the years, one of the more recent ones is former Marine Medic, Cassidy Little who has appeared in Coronation Street and was crowned the first champion of 'The People’s Strictly' for Comic Relief.

69. BFBS radio broadcasts 24 hours a day online, on FM and on DAB/DAB+ as well as SSDAB and via the app.

70. BFBS radio broadcasts in over 20 countries.

Elton John interview,1976
Elton John interview,1976

71. BFBS streams 24 radio channels and are available on the BFBS App, online & smart speaker.

72. There are 12 BFBS radio stations in the UK broadcasting live and local programmes via FM transmitters.

73. The BFBS Gurkha radio is broadcast 24 hours a day in the Nepali language.

74. There are 7 overseas BFBS radio stations at British Military Bases.

75. Except for Antarctica, the website is viewed from every continent in the world every month.

Extreme Broadcasting - Bringing The Forces To The Fringe
BFBS tell the stories of British Forces on operations around the world