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Richard Dimbleby was born in Richmond-upon-Thames on 25th May 1913. After attending Mill Hill School he began his career with the family newspaper, the Richmond and Twickenham Times in 1931. He later worked for the Bournemouth Echo and Advertisers Weekly.
In 1936 Dimbleby joined the British Broadcasting Corporation as a news reporter. In 1939 he accompanied the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to France.
After Dunkirk Dimbleby reported from the frontline in Egypt and Greece. He also flew 20 missions with RAF Bomber Command. In 1945 he was the first reporter to enter Belsen Concentration Camp.
After the war Dimbleby became the main commentator on state occasions. This included the funerals of George VI and Winston Churchill. He was also managing director of the family newspaper business (1954-65) and presenter of BBC's Panorama (1955-63).
Richard Dimbleby died of cancer in London on 22nd December 1965.
I picked my way over corpse after corpse in the gloom, until I heard one voice raised above the gentle undulating moaning. I found a girl, she was a living skeleton, impossible to gauge her age for she had practically no hair left, and her face was only a yellow parchment sheet with two holes in it for eyes. She was stretching out her stick of an arm and gasping something, it was "English, English, medicine, medicine", and she was trying to cry but she hadn't enough strength. And beyond her down the passage and in the hut there were the convulsive movements of dying people too weak to raise themselves from the floor.
In the shade of some trees lay a great collection of bodies. I walked about them trying to count, there were perhaps 150 of them flung down on each other, all naked, all so thin that their yellow skin glistened like stretched rubber on their bones. Some of the poor starved creatures whose bodies were there looked so utterly unreal and inhuman that I could have imagined that they had never lived at all. They were like polished skeletons, the skeletons that medical students like to play practical jokes with.
At one end of the pile a cluster of men and women were gathered round a fire; they were using rags and old shoes taken from the bodies to keep it alight, and they were heating soup over it. And close by was the enclosure where 500 children between the ages of five and twelve had been kept. They were not so hungry as the rest, for the women had sacrificed themselves to keep them alive. Babies were born at Belsen, some of them shrunken, wizened little things that could not live, because their mothers could not feed them.
One woman, distraught to the point of madness, flung herself at a British soldier who was on guard at the camp on the night that it was reached by the 11th Armoured Division; she begged him to give her some milk for the tiny baby she held in her arms. She laid the mite on the ground and threw herself at the sentry's feet and kissed his boots. And when, in his distress, he asked her to get up, she put the baby in his arms and ran off crying that she would find milk for it because there was no milk in her breast. And when the soldier opened the bundle of rags to look at the child, he found that it had been dead for days.
There was no privacy of any kind. Women stood naked at the side of the track, washing in cupfuls of water taken from British Army trucks. Others squatted while they searched themselves for lice, and examined each other's hair. Sufferers from dysentery leaned against the huts, straining helplessly, and all around and about them was this awful drifting tide of exhausted people, neither caring nor watching. Just a few held out their withered hands to us as we passed by, and blessed the doctor, whom they knew had become the camp commander in place of the brutal Kramer.
75 years on: Richard Dimbleby’s BBC report on the liberation of Belsen concentration camp
75 years ago the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby was the first broadcaster to report from the liberation of Belsen concentration camp by the British Second Army on April 15th, 1945. His 10 minute radio report is an extraordinary historic act of journalism as witnessing. It was actually broadcast a few days after the event, apparently because his bosses back in London did not initially believe that the horrors he described were real.
It feels somewhat fatuous to analyse this vital historical record for its journalistic merit but it’s worth paying respect to the craft, intelligence and compassion that Dimbleby deployed at what must have been a shattering personal moment.
From Imperial War Museum archive
The writing is terse with short sentences mixed with longer paragraphs. It is grounded self-consciously on carefully verified facts. He knew he was reporting the unbelievable and had to strain to convince the listener. The horrific details and the grotesque scale of the Holocaust are relatively familiar now, but back in 1945 the public knew little of what had happened.
It is also remarkable that alongside this exemplary objectivity he manages to convey the emotion of the scene and even his own response (‘I wish with all my heart…’). He deliberately makes an overt moral, political appeal for attention to this war crime.
Please listen to the report by clicking on the image below. [If you are outside the UK and can’t access that official BBC archive link, there is also a version on YouTube] There is a transcription below that shows that while this was above all a work of broadcast journalism, it is also one of the greatest pieces of writing I have read. This was not a feature created at leisure to reflect upon an event. This was a piece of reportage from a correspondent exhausted by five years of combat journalism suddenly confronted with a scene beyond imagination. That he found any words to describe it is impressive. That he did so in a way that brings you to that place, that shows you its significance as well as its appalling reality is quite astounding. In just over ten minutes he revealed the banal horror of the Holocaust. 75 years on it remains an exemplar of the value of journalism and one of the finest demonstrations of how the first draft is critical to our proper understanding of human history. It is completely of its time, yet by addressing in detail the facts of these dark deeds it speaks to us still about our capacity for cruelty – and compassion. The world will always need expert witnesses, the core ethical task for journalism.
I have just returned from the Belsen concentration camp where I drove slowly about the place in a Jeep with the chief doctor of the Second Army.
I had waited a day before going to the camp so that I could be absolutely sure of the facts now available.
I find it hard to describe adequately the horrible things that I’ve seen and heard but here unadorned are the facts.
There are 40,000 men, women and children in the camp, German and half a dozen other nationalities and thousands of them Jews.
Of this total of forty thousand, four thousand two hundred and fifty are acutely ill or dying of virulent disease.
Typhus, typhoid, diphtheria, dysentery, pneumonia and childbirth fever are rife
25,600, three quarters of them women, are either ill from lack of food or are actually dying of starvation.
In the last few months alone thirty thousand prisoners have been killed off or allowed to die.
Those are the simple horrible facts of Belsen.
But horrible as they are they can convey little or nothing in themselves.
I wish with all my heart that everyone fighting in this war – and above all those whose duty it is to direct the war from Britain and America – could have come with me through the barbed-wire fence that leads to the inner compound of the camp.
Outside it had been the lucky prisoners – the men and women who had only just arrived at Belsen before we captured it.
But beyond the barrier was a whirling cloud of dust, the dust of thousands of slowly moving people, laden in itself with the deadly typhus germ.
And with the dust was a smell, sickly and thick, the smell of death and decay of corruption and filth.
I passed through the barrier and found myself in the world of a nightmare.
Dead bodies, some of them in decay lay strewn about the road.
And along the rutted tracks on each side of the road were brown wooden huts. There were faces at the windows. The bony emaciated faces of starving women too weak to come outside – propping themselves against the glass to see the daylight before they died.
And they were dying, every hour and every minute.
I saw a man wandering dazedly along the road then stagger and fall. Someone else looked down at him, took him by the heels and dragged him to the side of the road to join the other bodies lying unburied there. No one else took the slightest notice, they didn’t even trouble to turn their heads
Behind the huts two youths and two girls who’d found a morsel of food were sitting together on the grass in picnic fashion sharing it. They were not six feet from a pile of decomposing bodies
Inside the huts it was even worse.
I’ve seen many terrible sights in the last five years but nothing, nothing approaching the dreadful interior of this hut at Belsen
The dead and the dying lay close together
I picked my way over corpse after corpse in the gloom until I heard one voice that rose above the gentle undulating moaning.
I found a girl, she was a living skeleton impossible to gauge her age for she had practically no hair left on her head and her face was only a yellow parchment sheet with two holes in it for eyes. She was stretching out her stick of an arm and gasping something. It was ‘English, English. Medicine, medicine’ And she was trying to cry but had not enough strength.
And beyond her down the passage and in the hut there were the convulsive movements of dying people too weak to raise themselves from the floor. They were crawling with lice and smeared with filth. They had no food for days. For the Germans sent it down into the camp en bloc and only those strong enough to come out of the huts could get it. The rest of them lay there in the shadows growing weaker and weaker
There was no one to take the bodies away when they died. And I had to look hard to see who was alive and who was dead
It was the same outside in the compounds. Men and women lying about the ground and the rest of the procession of ghosts wandering aimlessly about them.
In the shade of some trees lay a great collection of bodies. I walked round them trying to count. There were perhaps a hundred and fifty flung down on each other – all naked, all so thin that their yellow skins glistened like stretched rubber on their bones.
Some of the poor starved creatures whose bodies were there looked so utterly unreal and inhuman that I could have imagined that they had never lived at all. They were like polished skeletons, the skeletons that medical students like to play practical jokes with.
At one end of the pile a cluster of men and women were gathered around a fire. They were using rags and old shoes taken from the bodies to keep it alight and they were heating soup on it.
And close by was the enclosure where 500 children between the ages of five and twelve had been kept. They were not so hungry as the rest for the women had sacrificed themselves to keep them alive.
Babies were born at Belsen, some of them shrunken wizened little things that could not live because their mothers could not feed them.
One woman distraught to the point of madness flung herself at a British soldier who was on guard in the camp on the night that it was reached by the 11th Armoured Division. She begged him to give her some milk for the tiny baby she held in her arms. She laid the mite on the ground, threw herself at the sentry’s feet and kissed his boots. And when in his distress he asked her to get up, she put the baby in his arms and ran off crying that she would find milk for it because there was no milk in her breast. And when the soldier opened the bundle of rags to look at the child he found it had been dead for days.
I have never seen British soldiers so moved to cold fury as the men who opened the Belsen camp this week and those of the police and the RAMC who are now on duty there, trying to save the prisoners who are not too far gone in starvation.
The SS guards who shot several of the prisoners after we’d arrived in the camp when they thought no one was looking are now gathering up all the bodies and carting them away for burial. German prisoners are being sent up for the same sort of work.
Kramer, the SS major who was Commandant of the camp and who had been second-in-command of one of the mass murder camps in Poland lies today in a British prison cage
As we went deeper into the camp and further from the main gate we saw more and more of the horrors of the place and I realised that what is so ghastly is not so much the individual acts of barbarism that take place in SS camps but the gradual breakdown of civilisation that happens when human beings are herded like animals behind barbed wire. Here in Belsen we were seeing people, many of them lawyers and doctors and chemists, musicians, authors, who’d long since ceased to care about the conventions and the customs of normal life.
There had been no privacy there of any kind. Women stood naked at the side of the track washing in cupfuls of water taken from British Army water trucks. Others squatted while they searched themselves for lice and examined each other’s hair. Sufferers from dysentery leaned against the huts straining helplessly.
And all around and about them was this awful drifting tide of exhausted people neither caring nor waiting – just a few held out their withered hands to us as we passed by and blessed the doctor whom they knew had become the camp commander in the place of the brutal Kramer.
We were on our way down to the crematorium where the Germans had burned alive thousands of men and women in a single fire. The furnace was in a hut about the size of a single garage – and the hut was surrounded by a small stockade.
A little Pole whose prison number was tattooed on the inside of his forearm, as it was on all the others, told me how they burned the people. They brought them into the stockade, walked them in and then an SS guard hit them on the back of the neck with a club and stunned them and then they were fed straight into the fire, three at a time, two men, one woman. The opening was not big enough for three men and that I verified by measuring it. They burned 10,000 people in this fire in reprisal for the murder of two SS guards.
And back in the hut by the main gate of the camp I questioned the sergeant who’d been in charge of one of the SS squads. He was a fair-haired gangling creature with tiny crooked ears rather like gerbils and big hands. His SS uniform was undone and dirty he was writing out his confession while a young North Country anti-tank gunner of the 11th Armored Division kept watch on him with a tommy gun that never moved. I asked him how many people he had killed. He looked vacant for a moment and then he replied ‘oh I don’t remember’.
I have set down these facts of length because in common with all of us who’ve been to the camp I feel that you should be told without reserve exactly what has been happening there.
Every fact I’ve so far given you has been verified but there is one more awful than all the others that I’ve kept to the end.
Far away in a corner of Belsen camp there is a pit the size of a tennis court. It’s 15 feet deep and at one end it’s piled to the very top with naked bodies that have been tumbled in one on top of the other. Like this must have been the Plague pits in England 300 years ago, only nowadays we can help by digging them quicker with bulldozers, and already there’s a bulldozer at work in Belsen.
Our army doctors on examining some of these bodies found in their sides a long slit apparently made by someone with surgical knowledge. They made enquiries and they established beyond doubt that in the frenzy of their starvation some of the people of Belsen had taken the wasted bodies of their fellow prisoners and had removed from them the only remaining flesh, the liver and the kidneys to eat.
May I add to this story only the assurance that everything that an army can do to save these men and women and children is being done and that those officers and men who’ve seen these things have gone back to the Second Army moved to an anger such as I have never seen in them before.
Richard Dimbleby describes Belsen
Richard Dimbleby describes the scenes of almost unimaginable horror that greeted him as he toured Belsen concentration camp shortly after its liberation by the British in April 1945. Bergen-Belsen began as a prisoner of war camp and was used for Jewish inmates from 1943 onwards. It is estimated that 70,000 people died there.
Richard Dimbleby was the first broadcaster to enter the camp and, overcome, broke down several times while making his report. The BBC initially refused to play the report, as they could not believe the scenes he had described, and it was only broadcast after Dimbleby threatened to resign.
Originally broadcast 19 April 1945.
“Oh, the lovely fickleness of an April day!”
April is a month noted for two things particularly: April Fool’s Day (“The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year” – Mark Twain) and April showers. Who can forget the song from Bambi ‘Drip drip drop little April showers’?
[You’ll probably regret reading that. It’ll be an ear worm you’ll have in your head all day!]
Chaucer may not have had doe-eyed fawns in mind when he wrote: ‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote …’ in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales but he summed up neatly the gentle little showers that are supposed to fall in April. It was probably those that Robert Browning had in mind when, in Home Thoughts from Abroad, he wished he was in England ‘now that April’s there’.
April in schools often brings the start of the summer term with the delicious thought of the ‘long summer hols’ to come. Fortunately for the sanity of teachers, April 1st is fleetingly brief and doesn’t always fall on a school day but most people can probably recall an April Fool’s trick perpetrated successfully on schoolchums. Sadly, it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t get recorded in the annals.
One particularly famous hoax, however, albeit not in a school, was the spaghetti tree Panorama report on April 1st 1957. Ignoring the ‘rule’ that tricks played after 12 midday don’t count, the television programme broadcast a spoof report from the Swiss canton of Ticino about harvesting spaghetti. Of course, at the time, this was not a dish many had tried at home. It wouldn’t work today!
“The last two weeks of March are an anxious time for the spaghetti farmer. There’s always the chance of a late frost which, while not entirely ruining the crop, generally impairs the flavour and makes it difficult to obtain top prices.”
The report was given greater authenticity with a discussion about the horrors inflicted on the crop by the spaghetti weevil – a dastardly little blighter which had wreaked havoc on crops in the past. Richard Dimbleby, who fronted the report, lent gravitas to the spoof which probably caused more viewers to be fooled than might otherwise have been, such was his authority. He concluded his report by declaring that ‘there’s nothing like real homegrown spaghetti.’ Following the programme, the BBC received many phone calls asking from where it might be possible to obtain their own spaghetti trees. The BBC gave up trying to explain and settled instead for telling them to take a sprig from an existing tree and plant it in a can of tomato paste.
And the connection to the School’s history? Well, it’s nothing if not contrived! Let us jump back in time a little to a young girl born just before the turn of the century. Marie Victoria Adams was born in 1897 and was always known in her family as Queenie. The family home at this time was 24 Selbourne Rd, then in Handsworth but now classed as Birmingham.
24 Selbourne Rd, courtesy of Google Earth Street View
After her father, a brass nail manufacturer in Birmingham, died, Queenie became a pupil at RMIG. We know she left the School in 1913 and, on average, pupils stayed for about 5-6 years so she probably arrived in about 1907. Unlike the school leaving age in National schools (which was 12-14), RMIG has always had a minimum leaving age of 15, which often became 16 and, at Head Governess’ request, might be 17. Queenie would have been 16 in 1913.
We don’t know exactly what she did after leaving school. The only certain occupation recorded for her is in 1939 when she is given as a shorthand typist. Both shorthand and typing lessons were undertaken at the School at this time but we can’t directly link Queenie to them. Obviously she must have learned shorthand somewhere and it might have been at school.
However, there is also the tantalising reference in her family history – and here’s the connection to the April Fool stunt – “she told me that she had been a nanny in the Dimbleby household when they lived in Teddington.” (The words of a family historian who knew her.) The opportunity when Any Questions was recorded at the School to ask Jonathan Dimbleby if he could confirm this was too great to resist. He could not recall Queenie but her family historian was unsure whether it was before or after Queenie’s marriage: i.e. before 1926 or after. The mention of Teddington, where Richard Dimbleby grew up, perhaps makes it a possibility that it was the older Dimbleby generation rather than the younger. Between 1913 and 1926 we have no specific trace of Queenie so perhaps she was indeed working as a nanny. Fast forward to 1932, and we can link Queenie to Teddington as she gave the address c/o Mrs Spencer Phillips, Denbigh House, Hampton Wick, in her OMGA membership. The fact that it is a ‘c/o’ address might suggest that Mrs Phillips was her employer but that is not known for certain. This house was completely rebuilt in 1936 by Mrs Phillips so the image of it may not be the same as the one Queenie knew. Today it is known as Denbigh Lodge.
So often in these pen portraits of past pupils, we know little of the personalities. We are fortunate in having a first-hand account by someone who actually knew her. Queenie, she recalled, had auburn hair, naturally wavy and thick.
“Grandma told me of the time the three girls, May, Queenie and Gran, went to the theatre and someone cut off Queenie’s plait which was hanging over the seat. Presumably they had a good price for it…”
Queenie also had a quick ear for music and played the piano – possibly something else she had learned at school although being able to play ‘by ear’ is a talent rather than a learned quality.
“Marie (Queenie to me) was my grandma’s cousin, younger by about 5 years. All the cousins seemed to have a close relationship. Queenie’s older sister May was Grandma’s best friend and eventually lived in the same road, as did Queenie’s mother and brother Ormsby (who emigrated to Canada) and Dorothy, known as Dolly, to whom Queenie was very close. They lived at 18 Windermere Rd Handsworth and Grandma lived at 25, with May eventually at 33!”
Views of Windermere Rd, from Google Earth street view.
18 Windermere was sold last in 2011 for £132,000.
Queenie married on 23 December 1926 at West Bromwich Registry Office. Sadly the marriage did not last and it may well be that her husband, who was a widower, really just wanted a live-in housekeeper and someone to look after his children. We will never know the truth as it was something Queenie never discussed. By 1932 Queenie was [back] in Teddington and her name is recorded in OMGA membership as Adams and not under her married name. It was almost as if she wished to draw a veil over it.
In 1939 she was living at 25 Windermere Rd. During the war, despite the danger from air raids, “she wouldn’t go in the shelter, maintaining that if you looked at all the bombed houses the stairs were still there so that was her little shelter – under the stairs.”
In the 1950s, she went to live in Antrobus Rd and had a bedsit there.
Antrobus Rd, courtesy of Google Earth Street View
“The last time I heard from her was in 1974, 5 years before she died. She was in a home [for the elderly] in Somerset Rd Handsworth, her sight was failing, she was doing a lot of baby knitting and had frequent visitors of nieces and nephews.”
Somerset Rd courtesy of Google Earth Street View
Despite her advancing years, we still capture something of her personality in her comments: she complained about ‘dear England going to ruin with … all the nitwits in Parliament’ and she ‘just liked to think of happy times 50 years ago’.
Marie Victoria White died in Dudley Rd Hospital on 6 th April 1979 aged 82. Causes of death included cardiac failure, bronchitis, emphysema and coronary atheroma – in short, a tired body simply shutting down. Our family historian correspondent said of her
“She was a lovely lady and I remember her with great affection and wish I had known more about her but when you are young you just don’t ask those sort of questions which could be so relevant today.”
We don’t know what her view of the spaghetti tree hoax was but “she had a good sense of humour”.
I bet she roared with laughter!
(Quotation in title from William Hamilton Gibson was an American illustrator, author and naturalist.)
The now familiar name was the brainchild of the programme's first editor, Dennis Bardens, who came up with it as he looked out at the panoramic view from his office, which in his own words was "very capacious".
But the very first programme at 8.15pm on Wednesday 11 November 1953 was almost Panorama's last.
Scheduled to be a fortnightly magazine show that reported on the arts, celebrity and news, the programme's debut was beset by problems with one recorded scoop being played out backwards.
Cecil McGivern, the BBC's then controller of television programmes, pulled it off air. A month later it was back on the box, revamped with a new presenter, Max Robertson and it has been a fixture on the BBC ever since.
Within the first six months Panorama had made an impact, positioning itself as the place for serious debate when it devoted a whole programme to the 1954 H-bomb tests.
A year later it was relaunched as a weekly programme, bringing in Richard Dimbleby as the main presenter. Arguably the BBC's first "personality", Dimbleby was a known figure to audiences who had watched him anchor the BBC's outside broadcast of the Coronation.
With Dimbleby at the helm, Panorama developed a more serious tone and focused on tackling topics of significance. To the title was added the famous phrase "television's window on the world" and the image of the globe still seen today.
Beating the competition, Panorama proved its worth when it defied orders and sent a camera team into Hungary during the 1956 uprising. Neither BBC News nor ITN had managed it.
This rebellious streak was seen again in the same year in Panorama's coverage of the Suez crisis. At the time, the BBC was working under a 14-day rule which meant that nothing due for debate in Parliament in the next fortnight could be discussed on television.
Dimbleby and the team got around this by broadcasting the reaction to the crisis from around the world, omitting Britain. The programme came under attack from politicians in favour of the invasion, but a BBC investigation found in favour of Panorama and the 14-day rule was suspended for a trial period by Parliament. It was never applied again.
Despite its serious tone, the programme still managed to pull off one of television's most memorable hoaxes.
On April Fool's Day, 1957, Panorama broadcast an apparently serious account of spaghetti harvesting from trees in Switzerland. The BBC switchboard lit up as hundreds of fooled viewers called in.
Panorama has also been the scene of a number of television firsts.
It was the first programme, in 1957, to feature the birth of a baby on television. The use of the f-word live was another notable debut in 1956 - the culprit? Controversial Irish playwright Brendan Behan.
And an interview in 1961 with the Duke of Edinburgh was the first time a member of the Royal family took part in such an interview.
Alongside making TV history, reporting historic moments has been the mainstay of the programme. As the world was watching the Cuban missile crisis unfold, twelve million people tuned into a Panorama special. On the night of the programme the editor received a call from a viewer saying "there's only one thing I want Richard Dimbleby to do. I want him to tell me if it's safe for my daughter to go to school tomorrow".
By the time of his death in 1965 Richard Dimbleby was truly treasured by the audience, with over 11 million people tuning into the BBC to watch his funeral service.
Richard Dimbeley was succeeded by Robin Day who joined the programme as a reporter in 1959 helping to establish Panorama as the place for major political interviews.
In 1974 the Dimblebys' status as a broadcasting dynasty was confirmed when David Dimbleby followed in his father's footsteps and took the helm on the programme's 21st birthday.
He soon made his mark as an ever unflappable anchor with a classic example in 1976 when a film failed to roll.
He moved onto the next film only to have that one fail on him too. "We sit in silence," he said. "Hmmm. Hope you stick with BBC1."
With an investigative programme like Panorama, controversy comes with the territory, but few were to land the programme in as much hot water as a 1984 film alleging far-right infiltration of the Conservative Party.
Maggie's Militant Tendencies investigated connections between people on the candidates' list and far-right groups, ending with a demand from a local Conservative party official that MPs named in the film should be expelled from the Party.
The Conservative Parliamentary Party complained, but the BBC backed the programme.
However, some of those named in the broadcast issued writs.
The case came to trial and before Panorama's defence had been aired, the BBC summoned the production team and told them they had to settle.
Two-and-a-half years after broadcast, each MP was awarded £20,000, their expenses were paid in full amounting to £240,000 and the BBC agreed to apologise unreservedly.
An undoubted low yes, but there have been many highs, law changes and a clutch of awards in recognition of our journalism.
The Norway Channel was an international scoop and told the story of a Norwegian couple who had formed a secret channel between the Israelis and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.
It picked up the Royal Television Society's top prize.
Perhaps the programme's biggest coup was securing a searingly honest interview with Diana, Princess of Wales.
Martin Bashir's interview with the late Princess in 1995 was watched by a record 22.8m people, but right up until broadcast the programme was shrouded in secrecy.
The programme was recorded on 5 November, when under cover of darkness, the team drove to the Princess's home for the recording.
They then regrouped a week later at a secret location to view the tape.
Little editing was needed, but the cutting room was flanked by security guards so nothing would leak out.
On the day news broke of the interview, a note from Buckingham Palace arrived at the BBC. In it Queen Elizabeth II's private secretary expressed surprise that the interview had been conducted.
The secretary went on to say, "We have always valued our relationship with the BBC, though we have never been foolish enough to take it for granted. In order to ensure that this relationship remains in a healthy state in the future, might it not be worthwhile for you and I, and perhaps, one or two others from each side, to meet to discuss the question of whether or not fresh ground rules need to be agreed, to both of our benefits for the future?"
From a Princess' confessions of a troubled marriage, to bloodshed and war crimes in Srebrenica, Panorama has seen it all.
War Crime: Five Days in Hell investigated accusations of the systematic killing of Muslims in Bosnia at the hands of two men, General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.
The victims' harrowing firsthand testimonies not only informed an audience about the unseen horrors being perpetrated, but the raw footage was requested to be used as evidence at the United Nations War Crimes tribunal in the Hague.
At the turn of the millennium it was an investigation into the Omagh bombing that proved Panorama could still set the agenda.
Who Bombed Omagh? named the four perpetrators of the bomb attack which killed 29 people and unborn twins on 15 August 1998.
It won an award but was also to attract unwelcome attention. In 2001 a car bomb planted by the Real IRA exploded outside BBC Television Centre.
The security services suggested the attack was revenge for the Panorama programme.
In 2004, the multi-award winning The New Killing Fields saw reporter Hilary Andersson expose the Darfur crisis in Sudan which earlier that year the United States had branded a genocide.
That same year an investigation that raised suspicions about the evidence used to convict Barry George of BBC TV presenter Jill Dando's murder was first broadcast by Panorama.
A follow up programme in 2007 took the unusual step of speaking to two members of the trial jury who expressed their own concerns about the evidence that convicted George. In 2008 he was released on appeal.
Today Panorama sits in a prime-time slot and continues to bring current affairs journalism to an audience of millions.
Charles de Jaeger, the BBC cameraman for Panorama programme, was the one who gave the original idea for the spaghetti hoax. Born in Vienna in 1911, De Jaeger earlier worked in Austria as a freelance photographer. He moved to Britain during the 1930s. Initially, he worked for the film unit of General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces. In 1943, he joined the BBC.
De Jaeger was known to be a practical joker. The spaghetti hoax idea actually grew out of a remark of one of his Viennese school teachers. The teacher is believed to have told his class teasingly that spaghetti grows on trees.
After several attempts, de Jaeger sold the idea to his bosses in 1957 during his stint with Panorama programme. The rest is history.
It doesn't matter how many times David Dimbleby has the dream. It is always every bit as disconcerting and strangely comforting as the last time.
He is talking to his father - often as they sit, side by side, in the back of a car. 'Isn't it odd?' David is saying. 'Everybody thinks that you're dead when I know you're alive. How are we going to show them you are really alive?'
All the time David is utterly convinced that, somehow, this truth will be revealed. And every time he wakes it's the same.
'The feeling of the relationship is so strong that I'll wake up thinking he is still alive. That feeling stays with me and I have to remind myself that actually he's dead,' he says.
Richard Dimbleby with sons David, Jonathan and Nicholas in the Fifties
'That's what immortality is, of course. You live on in the memory of someone. He's just a presence.'
It is 42 years since Richard Dimbleby died of cancer. And it has taken until now for his eldest son David to talk about his father's life and the manner of his death.
But now, with Father's Day next Sunday and the family relaunching a fund established in Richard's memory, David has spoken for the first time about the man known to thousands as 'the voice of the nation', but known to him as 'Papa'.
In a remarkable interview he recalls the sheer energy that characterised his father and his own refusal to believe that cancer could ever kill him.
He tells of the stigma that surrounded the disease and how his father's decision to speak up in his final months led to the Richard Dimbleby Cancer Fund.
This is now being relaunched as Dimbleby Cancer Care - a body that both funds research and provides vital holistic care for cancer patients - with David as its chairman.
Speaking up: David today, talking for the first time about the stigma surrounding his father's illness
He explains: 'It has taken a long time to do this and to talk about this. My father died in December 1965 and his influence, his memory is such a warm and private thing.
'I was 27 and I remember it all clearly. But now I'm in my late middle-age I feel established enough, if you like, to change the name of the fund and to talk about it.
'There was a private family funeral and, in January 1966, the BBC organised a memorial service at Westminster Abbey. The Abbey was packed.
'We didn't understand (until then) how wide his popularity went or how shocking his death would be.
'We had known that he had cancer for five years. But his illness was only announced in October and he was dead in December. He was 52.
'Suddenly he wasn't there. It was as if he had been murdered. To us he was just a broadcaster. We had no idea quite what he had meant to so many people.'
For generations brought up in a world of podcasts and digital broadcast it is difficult to conjure the scale of Richard Dimbleby's professional influence. To them it is David, 69, and younger brother, Jonathan, 63, whose names are synonymous with broadcasting.
But, at the time of his death, it was Richard who dominated post-war radio and television, commentating at the funerals of King George VI and Winston Churchill, and the Queen's coronation. He literally talked the nation into a new era.
He was the man who presented Panorama, Down Your Way and Twenty Questions.
He was the heroic figure who, as a war correspondent, squeezed his considerable bulk into a Lancaster bomber and flew on RAF raids.
He was the first journalist to witness and describe the horrors of Belsen.
David says: 'He never spoke about those things afterwards. He was never boastful or pompous. He worked tremendously hard but, at home, he wore it very lightly.
'He had this terrific energy for life. He was always planning expeditions, organising holidays for his mother, or his mother-in-law, even if he had to enjoy much of the things he arranged vicariously because he was away at work.'
Richard's own background was steeped in journalistic endeavour. The Dimblebys owned the Richmond And Twickenham Times and his father, Fred, was editor-in-chief of that as well as holding a number of Fleet Street positions. Both his father and mother, Gwen, were Liberal, Non-Conformist and teetotal.
They sent their son to Mill Hill School, London, where he was cheerful if reserved.
When he left he joined the family paper as a trainee. It was a path that brought an added boon when he met Dilys Thomas, an 18-year-old fellow trainee and his future bride.
Screen idol: 'The voice of the nation' Richard Dimbleby broadcasting in the Sixties
When he was posted to the Southampton Echo they wrote longing love letters to each other. After they married, home was a large house on Barnes Common.
But both loved to spend time in the country and it was Danley Farm, in Sussex, which would be home to the expanding Dimbleby family for 15 years.
There was David, the eldest by six years, then Jonathan, Nicholas, now 62, and a sculptor, and finally Sally, now 61.
It was there that David enjoyed a childhood that 'rollicked between horses and boats and opportunities'.
He recalls: 'In private, my father was incredibly informal, full of life and warmth. I couldn't put my arms round him when I hugged him. He had an enormous ribcage. Even when I was in my 20s I couldn't reach around his back.
'He was always enthusiastic about life, family life in particular. He was a very attractive force in our lives.'
David's mother, Dilys - now 95 and a much-loved matriarch of the Dimbleby clan who is known to her grandchildren as Mimi - said of Richard: 'As far as the children are concerned, he's gentle, understanding and generous with time and hugs.'
Richard bowled through their lives, a man who David says 'liked to cut a bit of a dash' with his Rolls-Royce and chauffeur.
'He sort of thrived on all that,' he says. 'It was very swish in those days. Nowadays, I suppose, it might be seen as a bit ridiculous.'
David with his second wife, Belinda
A smile breaks across David's face as he recalls the moment he realised his father was famous - and it still prompts an involuntary cringe.
'I was sent to prep school in Battle, Sussex. We used to have a day out at the weekend. He would pick me up and go to Hastings, to the ice-cream parlour. I must have been nine.
'We were in the car park when this charabanc arrived from London with a lot of women out for the day. They started dancing around when they saw him. They were so over-excited.
'One of them had taken her knickers off and was waving them around.
'I remember thinking, "Is this what broadcasting is about?" My father was a bit embarrassed and a little pleased. He had a particular way of giving a wry smile.
'He never, ever lost a feeling of astonishment at being recognised. I remember thinking that wild horses wouldn't drag me into broadcasting.'
Indeed, with David's Charterhouse schooling and Oxford degree, Richard hoped his son might do rather better than broadcasting.
David said: 'I don't think he thought television in the Fifties was a proper job. He wanted me to be a lawyer or a diplomat. But in the end I needed some cash and with freelance journalism you effectively get cash in hand. My first job was as a news reporter in Bristol and paid £3.'
Richard and his wife, Dilys, with Jonathan, Sally and Nicholas in the Fifties
It might not have been his father's great wish but, according to David, 'he was never very good at the business of discouragement'.
As far as he was concerned, he was not so much following in his father's footsteps as taking a necessary step of his own.
'All my broadcasting has been different from my father's,' he notes. 'It's a fine distinction perhaps, but there.'
As for his father, the only advice he ever gave his son was not to swivel in his chair on screen.
It should have been a thrilling time for David, then 22, as he embarked on his career. But the family was about to absorb some grim news.
He remembers the telephone call as clearly as if it were yesterday. He was working at Anglia Television in late August 1960 when his mother told him his father had cancer.
It came as no real surprise. David knew his father had had a biopsy and he knew that his father had ignored the swelling that was a symptom of his cancer for a long time.
'I knew straight away. We all knew. The treatment then wasn't as good as it is now, but he had testicular cancer which spread because he left it.
'He had his operation and radiotherapy - five days a week for several weeks at St Thomas's in London - and he went back to work and told nobody because, I think, apart from the intimacy of revealing things about his own body, he thought that it would get in the way. People would think, "That's an interesting programme . and he's got cancer."
'He didn't want to be pitied. He told one person at the BBC and kept it a secret otherwise.
'There was an absolute refusal to countenance the possibility that he would die from this. It was partly for his sake.
'I never talked to him about the possibility that he might die. I behaved throughout his illness, and even in the last months of his life, in the same fashion.
'I think I wouldn't allow myself to show any emotion and I wouldn't allow him to think I was worried, to the point that I would chaff him. I'd talk as rudely as I would before he was in hospital.
'Once I was driving to St Thomas's and the traffic was terrible and the first thing I did was to tell him, "You've got to get out of here soon. It's a nightmare to get to, the traffic's terrible." That sort of thing.'
There is a certain irony in the fact that the man who is now chairman of a charity that offers the sort of psychological touchstones for living with cancer that were absent from Richard's care so resolutely adopted a strategy of denial as his own coping mechanism.
'Now I don't know if it was a mistake, but at the time it was a deep instinct to behave as if everything was going to be all right,' says David.
Over the next five years there were great stretches of time when it must have been difficult to believe that Richard was so ill.
He carried on working even during spells of treatment - having his radiation after days
in the studio, retiring to the pub with the junior doctors and nurses afterwards.
His treatment was never an aggressive attempt to cure and, until his final stages, he claimed his cancer caused him less pain than a bout of rheumatism.
In May 1962 another batch of radiotherapy was required. The following year a dull ache and an X-ray revealed there were tumours in his belly. More radiotherapy followed.
Then, from March 1963 until January 1965, there was a blissful period of normality.
That January, Richard was preparing for what would be his last great broadcast: Winston Churchill's funeral.
It was the most complicated live broadcast the BBC had attempted and called for four hours of unscripted commentary. Richard never faltered.
Afterwards, he complained of a dull ache in his back - an X-ray revealed that two new growths had caused his 11th and 12th dorsal vertebrae to collapse.
Soon after, David was offered a television contract with CBS, which would mean going to America. His father's doctor, a close family friend, Ian Churchill-Davidson, advised him to postpone that trip.
David says: 'The point came when it clearly wasn't the case that it would all be fine, but I didn't change the way I behaved towards him and he didn't change the way he was towards me. I suppose I didn't want him to foreclose emotionally.
'I think it's important to make sure that there is support and therapy on offer, but also to recognise there are people who don't want it. It's a help to some, to others it's a source of extreme embarrassment.'
In October 1965, Richard was admitted to St Thomas's for the last time.
Until then his recovery from treatment had taken place at the family's holiday cottage in Dittisham, Devon, a place he and Dilys bought shortly before his diagnosis and where they had fondly imagined growing old together.
For David, as the adult among the children, there was a particular role to fulfil.
Today, David is careful to point out that he can speak only for himself as he recalls how he navigated that time.
He cannot say what conversations his mother and father might have had. Nor will he begin to imagine or detail the upset of his brothers and sister, saying only that it was a raw time for them all.
'It was clear that he wasn't going to be back for the next series of Panorama,' says David. 'We talked about this quite a lot - my mother, my father and me.
'People were going to ask where he was. If we were going to say he was ill, then it was obvious he wasn't having his leg chopped off. We decided we'd simply say he had cancer. We put a statement together and I made the call to The Press Association.'
The nature of Richard's cancer was not specified in the statement. In later years it would wrongly slip into the record that Richard had died from lung cancer.
'I don't know where that came from,' David says. Perhaps some journalist deemed it a more 'acceptable' truth.
At the time the ignorance about cancer, never mind one so intimate, was such that, David says: 'It was almost viewed as shaming, like getting syphilis in the 17th Century. It was like the plague.
'But still we hadn't quite realised, though we'd been very private about it, how rare it was for a public figure to say they had cancer.'
In a culture inured to celebrities habitually sharing the details of bedroom and medicine cabinet, it is a struggle to comprehend just how extraordinary this decision was. The response was immediate.
'Letters came by the sackful,' says David. 'There were too many for him to read. But my mother would bring some in for him and he would say, "Oh, how kind, how lovely."
'I remember one day there was the clink of spurs in the hospital corridors and a guardsman or equerry arrived with a present from the Queen: six half-bottles of champagne. He was very taken with that, though he was past the point where he could drink them.
'When things like that happen you don't say, "Oh, by the way, let's talk about what's going to happen when you're dead."
'I heard afterwards that he did talk to his night nurse about it. Perhaps it's just not a conversation for a son to have with his father.'
Speaking now from his perspective of being a father four times over - he has three grown-up children by his first wife Josceline and a son, Fred, now ten, with his second wife Belinda - David admits he can place himself more in his father's role back then.
'How odd it must be to look at your son and know that he'll go on but you won't be there.
'I was 27 then and 52 seemed a long way off. But every day I've lived since reaching that age I've sort of felt that it was borrowed time.'
Richard Dimbleby died on December 22 and in the weeks following his death the letters of condolence poured into the BBC and the family's home.
People wanted to send flowers. The family asked them to send a donation instead, never dreaming that within a matter of months the donations would have reached close to £1million.
David admitted the family did not really know what to do with the money.
They considered donating it to an already established charity. But none quite seemed to fit. So they decided to set up a fund for St Thomas's, the London hospital where Richard had been treated.
'The trustees were any of us who were over 21. My mother chaired it. The first thing we did was to take a room in the basement and put armchairs in it so people having radiotherapy could sit there and have a cup of tea. When Papa was there, radiotherapy patients had to sit in a corridor and wait.
'Tiny things like that became a great thing for him and for us. He used never to be able to get comfortable in the hospital beds and would say, "If I could, I'd give everybody in St Thomas's a comfortable pillow." That became a bit of a slogan for us.'
For four decades the family never actively fundraised. The money that accumulated came in the form of legacies, unbidden donations and wise investments.
As the 40th anniversary of Richard's death approached, they had £5 million invested in research and a professorship at King's College, London, and another £5 million to spend on care.
'We had decided to wind it up and spend that over a few years in a sort of last hurrah,' says David. 'But then we thought, "We can do better than this."
'This has always been a memorial fund for him. It still is, but we've taken on a director and we've changed the name to Dimbleby Cancer Care because we want to make it a broader appeal.
'I worried about changing the name. I felt it might be seen as trading on my father's reputation as opposed to honouring his memory.
'We had some research done and it revealed that a quarter of all patients said they received only medical treatment, and nine out of ten patients said they weren't offered any psychological support in talking about death.
'So we set up two committees - one looking into research, run by Jonathan, and one looking into practical care, run by Nicholas. We have two aims: funding research and providing advice and care - from the practical stuff to psychological support.
'We have a wonderful area in St Thomas's now. From that basement with chairs it's now a room that looks out across Westminster, the Thames and Big Ben. So you're not tucked away. It's magnificent, affirmative, optimistic.
'It's a bit of a risk embarking on this now. But I feel my father would have said, "Why give up? If you've got the energy to do it and the family wants to do it, which they do, then why not?"
'I think it's only because time has passed that I feel freed up to do this. It's taken a long time.'
It has been said of David Dimbleby that 'he doesn't feel, he only thinks'. This is nonsense. He simply does not make a habit of offering up what he feels for public consumption.
The fact that, after so many years, he has now chosen to speak about the enormity of his father's life and death is testament to how deeply he feels and how fervently he hopes to make a success of the charity.
It is a cause that he would never have sought out, but one that, he hopes, will prove the most lasting and profound of the Dimbleby dynasty's legacies.
Jonathan Dimbleby: The inside story of the barbaric battle that really lost Hitler the war
Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 was the biggest, bloodiest and most barbarous military enterprise in the history of warfare. The purpose of Operation Barbarossa, as the Führer codenamed it, was also the most decisive campaign of the Second World War. Had he achieved its objective – the annihilation of the Soviet Union – he would have been the master of Europe’s destiny. As it was, by the time his armies had reached the gates of Moscow less than six months later, any prospect he might once have had of realising his delusional vision of a Thousand Year Reich had already vanished.
Nazi Germany’s armed forces, the Wehrmacht, would go on to launch further major offensives, which secured dramatic victories. But these were ephemeral triumphs. By the end of 1941 at the very latest, the Nazis had already lost any realistic chance of winning the war, thanks to the failure of Operation Barbarossa.
For three and a half more years, the soil of Eastern Europe would be saturated in the blood of tens of millions of people, but they were victims of a hideous endgame the outcome of which had already been ordained.
My father, Richard Dimbleby, was a brave BBC war correspondent who served in the Middle East in the months that led up to the First Battle of El Alamein in 1942. He kept diaries and wrote a book about his experiences. I wanted to know more.
My first book about the Second World War, Destiny in the Desert, was the result. This took me directly to my next, The Battle of the Atlantic, in which I highlighted the fraught relationship between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. What I discovered in researching both these books made me profoundly uncomfortable.
Like many of my generation, I was brought up to assume that it was the British, supported by the Americans, who beat Hitler. The Soviet Union was barely mentioned. But, by now, it was glaringly obvious to me that this narrative entailed a grave distortion of the evidence that still colours our outlook today. That is why I wrote my new book, Barbarossa: How Hitler Lost the War. I am not sure what my father would think of my views but, as he favoured truth-telling, I like to think he would understand.
Disconcerting though it may be for those who – for understandable reasons – believe that Hitler was defeated by those valiant men who landed on the Normandy beaches in June 1944, the evidence is otherwise. Operation Overlord assuredly accelerated Stalin’s victory over Hitler but the Wehrmacht had already been fatally wounded by the Red Army long before the Allied landings. The historic debt owed to those who fought their way across France to Berlin is not that they defeated the Nazis but that they saved Western Europe from Stalin’s tyranny.
The start of Operation Barbarossa
In the early summer of 1941, the Nazis seemed invincible. Although the Luftwaffe had been defeated in the Battle of Britain, and Operation Sealion (Hitler’s plan for a cross-channel invasion) had been put on indefinite hold, the Wehrmacht had overrun almost all Western Europe. But Hitler was far from satisfied. As he had made clear in Mein Kampf, his demonic vision for the Third Reich was, among other things, to destroy the Soviet Union.
Stalin, on the other hand, was desperate to avoid war with Germany – so much so that he angrily dismissed an avalanche of unambiguous intelligence warnings that Hitler’s forces were mustering on the western side of the border. Even on the eve of the invasion the Red Army was not on full alert, let alone prepared for the speed and scale of the attack that Hitler unleashed in the pre-dawn light of the midsummer morning that marked the start of Operation Barbarossa.
The Axis armies that poured across the border into the Soviet Union numbered some 3.3 million men, equipped with a formidable array of tanks, artillery, trucks, horses and warplanes. On paper they faced an immensely powerful force: more than four million men – 170 divisions – with a much larger supply of armaments. But Stalin’s troops were ill-prepared for warfare, inadequately trained, poorly led and hobbled by outmoded and badly maintained armaments. The German high command had little doubt that the Red Army was so cumbersome and incompetent that it would crumble within weeks – a view that was shared by the rest of the world and, notably, by Washington and London.
Within a fortnight of the invasion, the panzers (armoured divisions of the Wehrmacht) were heading eastwards at such a rate that the army’s chief of staff, General Franz Halder, confidently proclaimed victory: ‘The Russian campaign was won,’ he noted in his diary.
But doubts soon began to surface. Instead of surrendering, Stalin’s troops stood their ground and fought, despite being mown down in their thousands. Whether from patriotism, the prospect of facing a firing squad for cowardice, or to avoid being taken prisoner by an enemy who regarded them as a subhuman species, their resistance was fanatical. But gallantry alone did not suffice. By mid-July, the Germans had advanced nearly 400 miles into the Soviet Union and were a little over 200 miles from Moscow.
Hitler's first mistake
At this point, though, Hitler made his first mistake: he dithered. Unable to decide whether to continue the drive on Moscow or to concentrate on seizing the southern heartlands of the Soviet Union to secure the rich mineral reserves and the industrial areas around Kiev, he did neither. For almost a month, to the deepening dismay of his front-line generals, he was unable to make up his mind. These precious weeks gave the Soviet high command breathing space to bind the wounds of its shattered armies, to repair broken vehicles and reconstruct defensive lines.
Eventually Hitler settled on Moscow, and the advance recovered its momentum. By early October, the astute and usually cautious General Gotthard Heinrici, commanding a German infantry corps, was confident. Writing home to his wife, he noted that ‘by and large it must be said that the opponent is already beaten and that he will now lose the remaining core of his army, which is supposed to defend Moscow’. Heinrici’s overall commander, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, whose Army Group Centre was spearheading the attack on Moscow, similarly allowed himself a moment of uncharacteristic hubris. On 19 October, he announced ‘the collapse of the Russian Front’.
If there was any basis for such triumphalism, it lay in the long columns of starving Soviet prisoners of war, who had been seized on the battlefield or encircled in their hundreds of thousands during the rapid German advance. Those exhausted and wounded soldiers in ragged clothes stumbled westwards for hundreds of miles. Abused, beaten and denied medicines, they had barely enough food or water to survive the day.
Thousands died before they reached the makeshift prison camps into which they were herded like animals to huddle behind barbed wire. Lacking shelter or sanitation or any other of the most basic means of survival, some prisoners resorted to cannibalism. The majority starved to death.
A most barbaric battle
The inhumanity on the Eastern Front was in part down to the fact that Slavs were regarded by the Nazis as a subhuman species. Fuelled by the adrenalin of battle, the savagery of the fighting was unconstrained. One young German officer, Robert Rupp, described the horror of what happened in one typical village in the bleak Soviet steppe. The peasants living there were suspected of harbouring Russian partisans who had killed five German soldiers in the nearby countryside, and Rupp’s unit was ordered to surround the village.
‘Then I heard sounds of gunshot and children screaming. I realised that we were about to commit a massacre,’ Rupp recalled. The villagers huddled in their cottages as the soldiers hurled grenades on to the thatched roofs, which caught light almost immediately. Soon all 50 houses were ablaze. ‘We heard the terrible roaring of cattle, the shrieks of women and children – and then the cries faded away… We drove off away from the village and behind us the sky was glowing dark red.’
Atrocity begat atrocity. In the Russian case, though, the barbarism was ignited by a deep anger that the invaders had stolen their land, torched their homes and barns, bombed their villages, killing untold numbers of innocent people. The depravity shocked even the participants.
A Soviet rifleman, Boris Baromykin, recalled, ‘Once, towards the end of October, the enemy pushed us out of the village we were holding and began shooting us down. But we regrouped – then took the village back. We seized five of the German soldiers and literally ripped them apart with our bare hands, our teeth, anything – one man was even using a table leg to smash a skull in. We killed those men in a frenzy of hatred.’
After the weather turned
By the end of October, as the Wehrmacht’s foot soldiers began to close on Moscow, the weather turned. General Heinrici, until recently optimistic, was gloomy. ‘All day long it was snowing, which turned all roads into a black, bottomless swamp… I could see a long line of sunken, gridlocked and broken lorries, hopelessly stuck.
'Almost as many dead horses lay in the mud next to the vehicles,’ he noted. The annual rains had started and, with them, the roads became almost impassable.
Heavy vehicles slid into shell craters concealed by pools of water. Tyres spun as they dug themselves deeper into the mud until they were irretrievably bogged down. Not only were greater quantities of increasingly scarce fuel burned in often fruitless efforts to extract the trapped machines, but the wear and tear rapidly made them unfit for service. The advance slowed to a crawl.
In the weeks that followed, temperatures plummeted towards -30C. While the Soviet armies were used to these conditions, the invaders, who had never experienced such weather before and were still wearing their summer uniforms, began to freeze. Frostbite became endemic. Toes, feet and, in some cases, legs were severed by army surgeons as the alternative to gangrene. Many froze to death.
In a letter to his wife, Heinrici wrote: ‘No one can really imagine what every single man here has to endure in this weather, this terrain, the state of the country and the challenges the war forces on him…
'Only someone who has experienced this himself can understand what it means to be on watch all night long without warm clothes… with wet feet, in the forest without shelter, freezing, without hot drink, possibly with a hungry stomach.’
For some time, Heinrici, like other front-line commanders, had implored his superiors to issue suitable winter clothing, only to be sharply rebuked and told ‘categorically’ that ammunition and food were greater priorities. ‘In my view,’ he noted drily, ‘“categorical” decisions are mostly wrong.’
Failure of German high command
After the war, the Wehrmacht’s top generals blamed weather for what ensued on the Eastern Front. This does not stand scrutiny. The weather conditions did not so much cause as magnify the multiple errors of judgment. The Soviet armies faced the same conditions but were better prepared.
While Hitler raged, insisting that the Russian capital should be in Nazi hands before Christmas, by late October Field Marshal Fedor von Bock’s men were, by his own account, close to exhaustion.
The German high command had not only underestimated the resilience of the Red Army but the Russian people too. As their letters and memoirs – some of which have only recently been recovered from the secret depths of the Soviet archives – reveal, Soviet soldiers and civilians alike were dogged and stubborn, ready to face death to save the ‘Motherland’.
Moscow had been swathed in camouflage to conceal its iconic buildings, including the Kremlin and the Bolshoi Theatre, from the Luftwaffe’s nightly raids. Thousands of factories were dismantled and carted further east, and a ‘Moscow Defence Zone’ was created, sheathing the city with tank traps, ditches and barbed wire.
Every citizen, with the exception of those who were disabled or infirm, was commanded to join the effort. Within days, a ramshackle army of 600,000 labourers, both men and women, had been established, armed with spades, axes, crowbars and whatever tools they possessed.
As he toured the perimeter of the city, General Georgy Zhukov, a ruthless commander to whom Stalin turned at moments of grave crisis, was awed by the resolve displayed by the labourers and especially the women: ‘I saw thousands and thousands of Moscow women, who were unused to heavy labour and who had left their city apartments lightly clad, work on those impassable roads, in that mud, digging anti-tank ditches and trenches, setting up anti-tank obstacles and barricades.’
The day of the Great Panic
By the middle of October, artillery could be heard clearly in the distance, and enemy aircraft droned in the sky. Rumour piled upon rumour: the Germans had reached the outskirts of the city their spies were disguised as Soviet soldiers paratroopers had landed in Red Square Stalin had already left the Kremlin the city was about to fall.
On 16 October – the day of the ‘Great Panic’ – order gave way to anarchy. As party functionaries and bureaucrats fled Moscow in their official cars, thousands started to leave on foot with their possessions in carts or crowded the railway stations: anything to escape the city. People fought in the queues outside bread shops. One journalist, whose job was to parrot the Party line, noted privately, ‘The hysteria reached down to the masses… Can a city really hold out when it’s in such a mood?’
That Moscow did hold out owed a great deal to the swift and ruthless action ordered by Stalin three days later. On 19 October, Moscow was placed under a night curfew. People were forbidden to leave the city without permission, and the Kremlin warned, ‘Violators of order will be quickly brought to answer before the court of military tribunal, and provocateurs, spies and other enemy agents attempting to undermine order will be shot on the spot.’
It worked. Almost overnight order was restored while the city waited in trepidation for the arrival of the enemy.
They never made it. The stubborn resistance of the Soviet armies slowed the Wehrmacht’s final assault to a crawl. A rapidly worsening shortage of combat-ready troops and a critical shortfall in the supply of replacement armour, trucks, spare parts, fuel, food and winter clothing combined to expose a catastrophic failure of forethought and logistical organisation that was irreparable.
Responsibility for this military disaster lay directly with the founder of the Third Reich and the supine deference of Hitler’s closest advisors, who either shared his delusions or dared not challenge them.
It is possible that a few German soldiers caught a glimpse of the Moscow skyline in the far distance but they never got closer than 15 miles from the city. By early December, after five months, three weeks and five days, Operation Barbarossa reached its fateful terminus. Retreat was inevitable.
‘The occurrences of the day have again been heartbreaking and humiliating,’ Bock wrote on 7 December as his men began the long trudge back to a defensive line that was hastily drawn up almost 100 miles from Moscow. After a campaign in which 1.5 million German soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner, the Wehrmacht would never again be able to muster the strength to pose a significant threat to the Soviet Union.
Though Hitler’s armies recovered enough to secure notable victories in 1942, these were ephemeral successes followed by devastating defeats, notably at Stalingrad in January 1943. The Red Army suffered far heavier losses than the Wehrmacht but the Soviet Union’s reserves of manpower were vastly superior in number and growing rapidly in quality and experience. Despite pouring all their reserves into the production of weaponry, the German armed forces were unable to match the Soviet Union’s output either in scale or firepower. Month by month, year by year, the Soviets grew stronger as the Axis powers grew weaker.
The war was to drag on for another three and half years but it was on the killing grounds of the Eastern Front between June and December 1941 that the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed. Operation Barbarossa was Hitler’s first and last chance to destroy the Soviet Union. He failed, and in the process lost any prospect of winning the Second World War.
Richard Dimbleby - History
We're constantly being told that we live in a world where the media is both globalised and fragmented. And this makes it hard to imagine something which happened forty years ago taking place in Britain now.
During the evening of 22 of December 1965, both the BBC and ITV interrupted their scheduled programmes to announce the death of Richard Dimbleby.
And the tributes were as extraordinary as the interruptions, saluting him as the greatest broadcaster of his generation, who was unique and irreplaceable, and who somehow spoke on behalf of everyone in the country, but in a language more measured and eloquent than their own.
"The voice of the nation" - what would any figure in the media give today to earn that encomium? What, indeed, would any figure in politics give today to merit an accolade which has been bestowed on no British Prime Minister since Winston Churchill?
Like Churchill's, the more Dimbleby's career recedes into the distance, the more remarkable it becomes. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Sky News and CNN had never even been thought of, and the BBC's only rival was what was contemptuously called "commercial" television, which meant that Dimbleby dominated the airwaves in a manner inconceivable in our own time.
There seemed scarcely a day, let alone a week, when he was not on radio or television he was a bulky, reassuring presence, with a warm and mellifluous voice to match and no state occasion or historic event was complete without his assured, unflappable, evocative commentary.
Later, he was the first reporter to go inside the Belsen concentration camp and he was the first war correspondent from the west to enter the ruined city of Berlin. And when peace returned, he presented Down Your Way and was a regular member of the panel of Twenty Questions: two long-running radio programmes which were comfortingly ordinary and un-demandingly middlebrow.
By the time the war was over, Dimbleby had established a reputation as a rising star and a consummate professional, and he made the transition from wireless to television with seemingly effortless ease. He could always be relied upon to cope with technical hitches that occurred far more frequently in his day than in ours.
He prepared meticulously for his programmes, and he was never at a loss for words, however long were the gaps he sometimes had to fill, when monarchs arrived late or presidents failed to show up. And in 1955, he was the obvious choice to anchor Panorama, the BBC's new flagship programme devoted to current affairs, and also to front the corporation's first all-night coverage of a British general election.
There he had seen what happened when civilization was overwhelmed by barbarism, and when freedom was snuffed out by tyranny. But Britain, he concluded, was different, for it combined order with liberty, and tradition with progress.
And for Dimbleby, the outward and visible signs of this state of national grace were the ceremonials surrounding the monarchy - the institution which, as he saw it, guaranteed decency and democracy, embodied history and identity, and in so doing ensured that something like Belsen would never happen here.
This may seem in retrospect a rather rose-tinted view of things but Dimbleby had good reason to believe what he did, and many of his wartime contemporaries, who had witnessed their own share of brutality and horror, believed it too.
And it was the conviction that his own views were shared by his generation that gave Dimbleby's great commentaries on great occasions their force and confidence and power and resonance. This, he seemed to be saying, was how good nations and good people behaved at their best.
By the time he described the lying-in-state of King George VI in Westminster Hall in February 1952, he was the undisputed master of the art and the craft of the radio commentary: "Never safer," he said, "better guarded, lay a sleeping king than this, with a golden candle-light to warm his resting place, and the muffled footsteps of his devoted subjects to keep him company."
More than half a century on, with those ardent hopes of a "New Elizabethan Age" long since vanished, the tone seems in some ways both too confident and too condescending. But at the time, Dimbleby's coronation commentary was regarded as a triumph, and it did much to establish television as a trusted feature of British national life in the 1950s - at least in the case of the BBC, though "commercial" television was not seen as being so reliable or so respectable.
By then, Richard Dimbleby was himself a national institution - or what we today would call a national treasure. But he was diagnosed with cancer in 1960, and by the time he delivered his last great commentary, on Winston Churchill's state funeral in January 1965, he must have known that he was himself a dying man.
Yet he spoke with scarcely a break for five hours, and on this occasion, his commentary was suffused with a tender sense of departing greatness and vanishing glories, which left many viewers profoundly moved - myself, I should say, among them.
The letters of praise and thanks cascaded in from around the world, and one of them summed up all the others in four brief words which eerily anticipated the tribute Huw Weldon would pay Dimbleby later in that very year: "You spoke for England."
This was true but even on a day of national mourning, it was not quite the whole truth. Although he took pride in working for the British Broadcasting Corporation, Dimbleby was never as well received in Scotland or in Wales, or among the Catholic communities in Northern Ireland, as he was in England.
Even here, the metropolitan intelligentsia and the hard left trade unionists despised him for being as they saw it, the mouthpiece of the establishment, and they mocked his awed and hushed and courtly tones by calling him "Gold Microphone in Waiting".
And by the early 1960s, Dimbleby was increasingly uncomfortable with the modernizing agenda of Harold Wilson's Labour Party, and with many of the changes that were taking place within the BBC, which was increasingly distancing itself from government, and where a new generation of young Turks regarded him as a dinosaur from another age.
The young Turks were not wholly right, but nor were they wholly wrong: for by the time of his death, Dimbleby was neither every man, nor modern man.
Like the queen herself, Dimbleby believed that his job was one of public service. As he saw it, the purpose of broadcasting was to help nation speak peace unto nation and, in the case of Britain, to support the established order, and those individuals who were charged with the task of maintaining it.
|Preceded by Peter Sissons||Regular Host of Question Time 1994–2018||Succeeded by Fiona Bruce|
|Preceded by Alastair Burnet as host until 1974||Host of BBC Election Night Coverage 1979–2017||Succeeded by Huw Edwards as host from 2017|
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