John Snagge, the BBC's voice of World War II
Around 9:10 a.m. on June 6, 1944, someone handed John Snagge a piece of paper and told him to be prepared to read it over the BBC airwaves at 9:32.
“During the 20 minutes I was waiting to send out the most sensational message of my 20 years of broadcasting I was reading and re-reading, ‘Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.’
“They were only 26 words, but I realised that every word was dynamite.”
Snagge was the BBC’s World War II-era anchor before that term was coined, the trusted voice reading the news of the day to millions of listeners around Britain and across the globe. Those 26 words he read on D-Day, officially confirming prior reports of the Allied assault on Normandy, likely stand as his best-known work in more than 40 years of broadcasting.
Born May 8, 1904 in Chelsea, John Derrick Mordaunt Snagge was the son of a judge and earned a law degree from Oxford but immediately found a home behind the microphone.
He joined the BBC in 1924 as assistant station director in Stoke-on-Trent and later made a name for himself as lead commentator for the annual Boat Race between the Oxford and Cambridge crews. A former Oxford rower himself, Snagge first called the race in 1931 and would do so annually through 1980.
But it was during the war that Snagge became a household name in Britain. Before 1940, BBC newsreaders were anonymous, simply reciting the top stories of the day during their segments. But Snagge noted the Germans had used fake broadcasts during their invasion of Poland and wanted to ensure the BBC protected itself from similar propaganda efforts, so announcers began introducing themselves at the top of each segment.
That innovation would last only as long as it was absolutely necessary. On May 4, 1945, when it was clear the German threat was just about extinguished, Stuart Hibberd used his name before reading the 6 p.m. news. When it came time for Snagge to give the 9 p.m. update, though, he reverted to the traditional, anonymous lead-in “Here is the news.”
In addition to reading Communique No. 1 on D-Day, Snagge also was behind the microphone the evening of June 6 to introduce the first installment of a new program that would run almost continuously through the end of the fighting in Europe. War Report followed the 9 p.m. news and focused on live and recorded reports from the field, rather than announcers reciting bulletins from the studio.
The show regularly attracted 10 to 15 million listeners and was the home for much of the BBC’s most memorable wartime reporting from the likes of Richard Dimbleby and Chester Wilmot.
Eleven months and one day after the Normandy landings, Snagge took to the airwaves once the Ministry of Information cleared for broadcast the news of the German surrender — without actually saying as much. At 7:45 p.m. on May 7, 1945, Snagge read this statement:
This is the BBC Home Service. We are interrupting programmes to make the following announcement. It is understood that in accordance with arrangements between the three great powers an official announcement will be broadcast by the Prime Minister at three o’clock tomorrow, Tuesday afternoon the 8th of May.
In view of this fact, tomorrow, Tuesday, will be treated as Victory in Europe day and will be regarded as a holiday. The day following, Wednesday the 9th of May, will also be a holiday. His Majesty the King will broadcast to the people of the British Empire and Commonwealth tomorrow, Tuesday, at 9 p.m. British Double Summer Time.
Snagge worked full-time for the BBC through his retirement in 1965 but continued to appear on the air occasionally after that, most notably to call the Boat Race.
That was the type of environment he loved best — working live and without a net. He once told The Guardian:
“I was born with a microphone in my mouth. You cannot broadcast live, however experienced you are, without a butterfly in your stomach. You think, ‘So far, I’ve got away with it … is this going to be my Waterloo?’ I’m always nervous.”
John Snagge died of throat cancer in 1996. He was 91 years old.