Martha Kearney on the BBC War Correspondent Audrey Russell

Martha Kearney, Presenter of Today on BBC Radio 4 looks at the achievements of a pioneering war correspondent.
Martha Kearney
Presenter, Today, BBC Radio 4@Marthakearney

She went from fighting fires during the Blitz to becoming the BBC's first woman war correspondent. Audrey Russell was clearly an exceptional woman. Female journalists of my generation may share stories of difficulties in getting promotion or equal pay, but these challenges are dwarfed by the achievements of female pioneers like Audrey Russell who paved the way at the BBC.

I wish I could have met Audrey Russell as she sounds so engaging. Her first break on the radio came during the Blitz in 1941 when she was working at the Chiltern Fire Station in Central London, now a fashionable restaurant favoured by media mavens. In an interview in 1972, Audrey Russell described her unconventional start:

Audrey Russell interviewed by Sue McGregor. PM, BBC Radio 4, Thursday 16 November 1972, 17:05.

In 1942, Audrey was recruited by the BBC's Overseas Services and joined Radio Newsreel, described by the Radio Times as "close ups from the war fronts of the world."

Her early dramatic experience drove an ability to communicate, and interestingly, many of the early reporters were actors. In 1977, Audrey was interviewed for the BBC Oral History Collection in which she gave a revelatory account.

Her first studio was in the basement of the Peter Robinson department store on Oxford Street:

It was like a fortress, all the windows were bricked up. It was said that 50 feet of concrete was laid over the top of the bargain basement… It must’ve been the safest place in London. But it was really a department store and when I eventually got an office I could still see through the door towards a sign which said 'coats and mantles' with an arrow.

Interview with Audrey Russell, 1977. From the BBC Oral History Collection.

She also recalled that the first thing the BBC lost were spoons so there was a communal one hanging by a string at the tea urn. Audrey never quite knew which job she would be doing as sometimes people’s houses were bombed and staff couldn’t get to work. As she says, "hectic is a mild word" to describe her working life.

Some vivid interviews that Audrey conducted with victims of the Blitz have survived, like this account from Mr. Crickman who was in a market when a V2 struck:

V-2 Experiences, Interviews by Audrey Russell, BBC General Overseas Service, November 1944, transmission time unknown.

The recorded interview also gives you a real sense of what it meant to be bombed out.

V-2 Experiences, Interviews by Audrey Russell, BBC General Overseas Service, November 1944, transmission time unknown.

Audrey's BBC Oral History Collection interview gives fascinating glimpses into the BBC during the war.

The actress Celia Johnson shadowed Audrey for a couple of days but decided journalism wasn't for her. A man she describes as a brilliant Jewish Austrian political correspondent had a censor sitting next to him because he didn't have full MI5 security clearance. That was Lord George Weidenfeld, the famous publisher. And women were welcomed:

There was no prejudice against women at the time. I was a pair of hands and I think they were glad I was there in spite of the blunders I made. I just learnt on the job. I just took on assignments rather as if I was a taxi on the rank.

Interview with Audrey Russell, 1977. From the BBC Oral History Collection.

That expression is still used at the BBC for general reporters who can be sent on any story "from the cab rank". There were some harrowing assignments:

Terrible things like the bomb on the Catford School where all those children were blown to heaven. I didn’t like them at all. I did a lot of unexploded bomb stories, they were very unpleasant. The famous one Herman began to tick when I was in the crater… I beat a hasty retreat on that one I can assure you.

Interview with Audrey Russell, 1977. From the BBC Oral History Collection.

She spent three months covering the shelling of Dover with the Ack Ack Battery on the cliffs. To get the material back to HQ, she often used the BBC's secret 'H' transmitters as she described:

I have marvellous memories of the end of the day or generally at night driving out of Dover and finding a rather wet damp field and hoping that some ominous sort of shadows were not bulls but cows and walking towards a slit of light just coming from under the door of the hut and then we would broadcast the stuff back to London.

Interview with Audrey Russell, 1977. From the BBC Oral History Collection.

This is an extract from one of her dispatches with an immediacy and personal dimension that is a precursor of From Our Own Correspondent:

German long-range shelling of Kent coast, Dover, BBC General Overseas Service, Tuesday 26 September 1944, transmission time unknown.

By recording on the scene, she was able to give a strong sense of place and mood as here at a service of thanksgiving in Folkestone:

Folkestone: End of German long-range shelling, BBC General Overseas Service. Wednesday 30 September 1944, transmission time unknown.

Later during the D-Day landings she was taken to see the first convoy of wounded soldiers coming back, yet carried on reporting despite being afflicted with whooping cough. As she explained in her oral history interview, "We were so short staffed, I just said to the doctor, don’t be daft I can’t have whooping cough on D-Day."

That determination paid off and she became a fully accredited war correspondent. Her first assignment was to cover a detachment of the ATS (the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the army) who were the first British women to become combatants in a war overseas.

As her oral history interview vividly portrays, the women lived in Nissan huts near Liege during the terrible winter of 1944, melting snow in order to wash their hair.

Audrey’s recording equipment was a small gramophone but it was too cold to cut the acetate discs so she had to wear ten of them under the blouse of her battle dress to keep them warm, which led to a lot of teasing. She didn’t know that all the men had rejected this terrible piece of kit.

Her reports also focused on the highly technical work by the ATS:

.. when the guns went into action at night and of course how the ATS were doing their job, they were on predictors and view finders and all sorts of things, technical things which I'm afraid I don't remember very clearly, about the work of an Ack Ack Battery and life what it was like and you know the way the Belgians were coming to sell eggs to us and give us little presents of sabots and things like that because they were so thrilled that you know part of their part of the world was in British hands.

Interview with Audrey Russell, 1977. From the BBC Oral History Collection.

After moving on to a billet in Eindhoven, Audrey reported on the preparations for the crossing of the Rhine in conditions of appalling mud.

As the only woman, she was rather spoiled and the BBC engineers made her a hairdryer out of German pop up toasters.

Her reporting reflected the human stories of the war, the 'background material' as she called it:

There was one day I discovered, two women, one of them was I think English and had been attached to the Red Cross and she'd made friends with a Dutch woman and they were really indomitable, they took over a half deserted well it was completely deserted but half ruined factory.

And they did this for the old and the ill and the blind because for the first time in my life I realised that refugees flying from the enemy or the battle or whatever are likely to desert their elderly relatives and I was with them when we found some poor old blind man who'd been without food and water in a cellar for days just left there, he hardly knew what was going on you know.

And so they shipped them all to this factory and they had soft food for them - a huge great tub which they put everything in, like a sort of perpetual soup you know. And this was really a wonderful story you know.

Interview with Audrey Russell, 1977. From the BBC Oral History Collection.

Audrey had discovered what many modern women war reporters will say: their sensitive coverage can bring these individual stories to life.

In her oral history interview, she spoke candidly about what happened when she was instructed to go to Antwerp. She went even though the famous war correspondent Frank Gillard was against it:

He thought it was a bit tough and it was. We walked right into the worst week of flying bomb attacks in Antwerp of the war, when there were 7 or 8 flying bombs in the air at once, you could see them you never heard the silence because there was always another one to come droning on. That was very tough really but it was interesting you know.

Interview with Audrey Russell, 1977. From the BBC Oral History Collection.

While she was in Antwerp, they had "one rather terrible incident in which we seemed to get involved in trying to help. There was a direct hit on a house full of young marines and the casualties were appalling and we helped with the truck in various ways." The commanding officer wrote to the BBC in praise of Audrey's efforts.

Someone back at base must have looked into her pay and a series of letters arrived advising her that her salary had been raised:

I was still being paid less than the men, in fact most of my career I have been paid less than the men, but on this occasion I know they were shamed into doing something.

Interview with Audrey Russell, 1977.From the BBC Oral History Collection.

That was not a cause for resentment during the war as she felt the men had a much tougher time but it rankled later on:

I was very angry when on one occasion I discovered on a royal tour that one commentator, a very great friend of mine was being paid £25 a week more than me and we were both doing exactly the same job, exactly the same weary miles and in fact I think my output was larger than his. I resented that and I complained and well, I was very severely ticked off, but that didn’t bother me.

Interview with Audrey Russell, 1977. From the BBC Oral History Collection.

I wonder if she would have been surprised to learn that seventy years on those battles are still going on. In her 1972 interview with Sue McGregor she described the attitude of the men at the BBC:

Audrey Russell interviewed by Sue McGregor. PM, BBC Radio 4, Thursday 16 November 1972, 17:05.

In her oral history interview, Audrey spoke of how, after the war, she soon became frustrated doing stories about flower arranging and children's crèches. Eventually, though, as a freelancer she became the first female commentator on live events including the Coronation and she went all over the world on Royal tours.

Here she is commentating on Winston Churchill's funeral.

Sir Winston Churchill, The Service in St. Paul’s Cathedral, BBC Home Service, Saturday 30 January, 1965, 11:00.

Audrey Russell's oral history interview is riveting. At its conclusion, she looked back on her life at the BBC with affection:

I've always considered that I was very very fortunate to have a career in the BBC. I mean that absolutely sincerely because the BBC is really rather extraordinary as a place when you come to think of it, it has a charisma that hasn't faded at all in spite of all the competitors on sound and television.

It's unique, even the initials have a sort of magic and I suppose if you call charisma a sense of grace it's that and it can rub off a bit on any individual who is even associated in the remotest way with the BBC, people you know - ooh you work in the BBC and really all that's very gratifying.

Interview with Audrey Russell, 1977. From the BBC Oral History Collection.

Reading those words really moved me and, in a cynical age, made me remember that it is a privilege to work for the BBC and to follow in the footsteps of extraordinary women like Audrey Russell.

Written by Martha Kearney, Presenter, Today, BBC Radio 4.

Further Reading

  • Dr. Kristin Skoog, 2018. "A Sensory Experience: BBC Correspondent Audrey Russell reporting (and remembering) the Second World War“, in War Remains: Mediations of Suffering and Death in the Era of the World Wars, edited by Marie Cronqvist & Lina Sturfelt. Nordic Academic Press, Lund.