Shortwave Campaigns During World War II

On the morning of 7 December 1941, the day the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war, The New York Times published one of its regular shortwave reports from W.T. Arms. A Japanese radio station based in Shanghai, he told the paper’s readers, ended its daily English-language broadcast with the words ‘V stands for victory, a German victory over the enemies of Europe’. The shortwave broadcast was aimed at listeners in North America.

Tokyo Rose and Lord Haw-Haw have become part of the folklore of radio during the Second World War, but there are many other stories that have been largely forgotten. And, as in so many aspects of the conflict, the Allies were often caught napping on the radio wars because they had not been paying attention to the growing potential of the medium.

“Tokyo Rose” broadcasting from studios of Radio Tokyo.
[Radio Heritage Foundation collection, source and copyright unknown]

The Italians were the first to use shortwave radio to cultivate support in areas they saw as future conquests, most notably using radio programming to soften opinion in the Middle East ahead of the planned invasion of Abyssinia. The Italians had a powerful medium wave transmitting station at Bari, on the Adriatic Coast, which had been built to broadcast to their colony of Libya. In 1934 they added broadcasts of Arabic music and news, and these were relayed by the shortwave station near Rome. This meant Italian broadcasts were reaching large areas of the Middle East, including areas of British influence (Egypt, Palestine and the Red Sea region) and where French interests lay (Tunisia, Syria and Morocco). Initially, the broadcasts were not anti-British but were more concerned to promote Italy and the Fascist system. By 1935 there were more than 10,000 wireless licence holders in Palestine alone and the Italians sold subsidised radio sets in the region, particularly to café owners who saw a chance to provide entertainment to their customers. One British report, noting the combination in the broadcasts of propaganda and entertainment, commented that the Arabic speaking customers in these cafés ‘sipped their coffee and swallowed Italian propaganda with every mouthful’.

E.I.A.R Statzione Di Bari studio building 1934
© Eric Shackle Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

Italy began shortwave broadcasts to Latin America as early as 1933, with the Germans and Japanese following in 1935 (and the Germans also purchased local South American commercial stations, usually ones operating on shortwave to reach audiences in rural areas with no local medium-wave reception).

Deutschlandsender Zeesen
The short-wave station and aerial masts at Zeesen, near Berlin.
[Image from Google/]

After 1938, the Axis broadcasters divided up the region: the Italian stations concentrated on attacking France in broadcasts intended for listeners in North Africa, while broadcasts from the German station at Zeesen, thirty kilometres south of Berlin, addressed mainly the Arabic speakers of the eastern Mediterranean. To these listeners, the Nazi programmes peddled a line about the imperialist intentions of Britain and France and told the audience the Allies wanted to rob and enslave Arabs. The Americans were linked with ‘Zionists’ in the broadcasts and, after the Free French took up the struggle on the Allies side, General Charles De Gaulle was portrayed as an agent working to get control of North Africa for the communists in Moscow. The end game was to incite armed rebellion against the Allies. By 1938, the British government was concerned by the relentless hate being sent out from the station at Bari and the British Broadcasting Corporation was instructed to begin Arabic broadcasts; up to that point, the BBC’s shortwave arm was known as the Empire Service, broadcast only in English and whose first priority was to serve people in the “white” dominions as well as Colonial Office staff and British businessmen around the world.

(It was not until Hindi programming began in 1940 that London considered reaching beyond what could be called the ‘British diaspora’. Indeed, when the BBC’s shortwave service added languages other than English, the priorities were set according to the foreign policy needs of Britain itself, hence with Arabic being added, followed by German, Spanish and Portuguese – and the service’s named changed from Empire Service to General Overseas Service.)

As Germany conquered areas of the Balkans, it was able to also gain control of radio stations there. In addition to the Berlin transmitters, the Germans used radio stations at Bucharest, Sofia and Tirana (the last captured by Italy) to reach listeners in Turkey, ensuring good reception in that target area.

Tokyo Wins ‘War Of Radio Waves’
Syonan Shimbun, 19 December 1942
© NewspaperSG, National Library Board of Singapore

Just as the Nazis acquired radio stations as their armies brought more territory under Berlin’s control, so Japanese conquests in Asia meant a vastly expanded broadcasting network available to Tokyo. By 1943 Japan controlled about forty broadcasting stations and was able to have programmes going out on shortwave around the clock on more than fifty frequencies. Radio Saigon was designated to carry anti-British broadcasts to India, backed up by similar programs emanating from transmitters in Singapore and Bangkok. Japanese forces captured intact a powerful medium wave station at Penang, Malaya. For local audiences, the Japanese also had at their disposal powerful medium wave stations in places such as Hong Kong, Manila, Rangoon and Batavia. In fact, the Japanese were able to reach so many more listeners than the Allies by using a combination of shortwave and medium wave, while the Allies broadcasting from Australia, the United States, India and Chungking had only shortwave, with all its unreliability of reception.

Tokyo was able to play on Asian resentment at the misdeeds of the expelled colonial powers. Radio Tokyo, in its Chinese broadcasts, devoted a week to the Opium Wars; listeners in India were reminded of the 1919 Amritsar Massacre, and were also told that Indian troops were placed in the front line in Malaya battle to take the brunt of the fighting.

Japanese stations from early 1942 sent out broadcasts in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Pashto. The programmes portrayed Japan as champion of Muslims, and that it would help ‘liberate’ the Middle East, and the Muslims of India, as it had already done for 120 million Muslims living in the Philippines, Burma and the Dutch East Indies.

Shortwave during the Second World War was the main medium by which the warring nations could speak to the populations of their enemies, those of their allies and those of the neutral countries. While the Free French were bouncing shortwave signals off the ionosphere the Vichy interests were doing the same using powerful transmitters in Algeria and Morocco.

Competition was fierce between the two French sides, and they had on call a sophisticated shortwave network that had been built up in the colonies. There were two transmitters in Djibouti, station FO8AA in Tahiti, Radio Saigon, as well as stations based at Guadeloupe in the French West Indies, Madagascar and New Caledonia. Under the pro-Vichy authorities in Indochina, anti-Allied broadcasts emanated from the transmitters of Radio Saigon until the Japanese took control.

1936 QSL Card from FO8AA French Polynesia
G4UZN Collection,

Then, once Japan took control of Radio Saigon, more languages were added, broadcasts from Saigon going out daily in French, English, Mandarin, Cantonese, the Indochina languages and various Indian dialects. Bulletins in the Malay and Dutch languages ceased once Japanese forces had conquered Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. While the station was run by the French staff, the Japanese ran two daily English language broadcasts beamed to India and a tri-weekly session for Australia. One announcer in Saigon was a 36-year-old Englishwoman who had married a Frenchman. She was described in 1943 by London’s Sunday Dispatch as ‘Lady Haw-Haw’.

Meanwhile, in Africa, the Gold Coast broadcasting service was also to play its part in the struggle of the French-speaking airwaves. The British colony (now Ghana) was surrounded on three sides by French West Africa, initially under Vichy control and therefore hostile to the British cause. The British radio station run from Accra began a nightly half-hour transmission in French and some languages spoken in those territories (Ewe in French Togoland, for example). London, which had previously been parsimonious when it came to paying for radio stations in colonies, even bought a higher powered transmitter to be shipped to Accra.

General de Gaulle arrives in Brazzaville, 1940
(From Kinshasa Then and Now,

In November 1940 Free French authorities inaugurated a new and powerful shortwave radio station in Brazzaville, French Congo (later known as French Equatorial Africa, now Republic of Congo). It was another voice in the battle of the airwaves. And by 1943 a 50,000-watt transmitter was operating in the Belgian Congo. It was used by the BBC to relay broadcasts to the United States, the signals from transmitters located in Britain to North America being diminished by severe fading due to magnetic interference over the polar path.

Then there was the American problem. Of all the main belligerents, the United States was alone in not having a government-run shortwave service when the war began. It was not until fifty-six days after Pearl Harbor that the Voice of America went to air (on February 1, 1942). Even then, it broadcast to Europe using BBC transmitters. The transmissions were in German, French, Italian and English. A year later, VOA had twenty-three of its own transmitters in operation and was programming in twenty-seven languages. This rose to more than forty languages in 1944.

It was estimated in 1939 that, of the eleven million radio sets owned in Germany, about five million had shortwave bands. Moreover, the compact nature of Europe meant that, for those other six million wireless receivers, Allied broadcasters could reach them with powerful long and medium wave transmitters.

Reaching Japan, however, was altogether another matter. The sheer distance across the Pacific meant that only shortwave signals could span the gap. The Americans were also hampered by the fact that there were so few shortwave receivers in Japan because of Tokyo’s policy that only medium-wave receivers could be sold, therefore placing a severe limitation on the potential audience for Allied Japanese-language broadcasts. But in the Dutch East Indies, where shortwave had been widely used by Dutch settlers and officials to hear broadcasts from Holland, the Japanese either confiscated the sets or sealed them to just the Japanese wavelength.

In the United States, shortwave broadcasting had been in the hands of private broadcasting companies; and the two networks, National Broadcasting Corporation and Columbia Broadcasting System, operated shortwave services aimed only at South American audiences, but these were programmed as entertainment, financed by advertising revenues. Even then, NBC and CBS concentrated on the audiences in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, the main population centres, and largely ignored the regional areas and the entire west coast of South America.

This 10kW transmitter, installed in 1937 by CBS at its shortwave station W2XE in Wayne, N.J., was used to broadcast to South America.

The upside was that South America had a very substantial radio audience; there were more than one million wireless sets owned in Argentina, 500,000 in Brazil, 300,000 in Mexico and 160,000 in Chile, with smaller numbers in other nations. Given the huge German propaganda and intelligence effort in Latin America, reaching radio listeners with the Allied message was vital. It had been reported in 1938 that Germany’s radio stations were already beaming hours of programmes into the South American region using the Spanish and Portuguese languages. A New York Times report cited an hour-long broadcast to Bolivia on 26 November 1938 which included ‘a very attractive musical program’ after which there was a talk on how Bolivia could benefit from doing business with Germany as opposed to being exploited by American capitalists. The United States initially had no weapon with which to combat this radio warfare. In fact, it was the concern about Nazi broadcasts to Latin America that first began talk and consideration of a federally operated overseas broadcaster.

Feedback indicated that, apart from news, South American listeners tuned in to NBC and CBS broadcasts to hear popular artists such as Rudy Vallée and follow news about American movies and Broadway gossip. In 1939 large numbers of listeners tuned in to hear the heavyweight boxing when Joe Louis met Chilean Arturo Godoy, South American heavyweight champion. Sponsored by Standard Oil of New Jersey, the NBC signal was re-broadcast over 130 local stations in Latin America.

NBC, using its powerful transmitters at Bound Brook, New Jersey, also began broadcasts to Europe in German for an hour starting at 8.00 pm Berlin time. The news bulletins contained items that were otherwise denied German listeners. According to Time magazine, in January 1939 these broadcasts included the news that Bridget Hitler, the Irish estranged wife of Adolf’s brother, had been arrested in London for not paying her rent – she moved to the United States later that year and eventually changed her name – and that Washington viewed with alarm the dismissal by Hitler of Hjalmar Schacht as president of the Reichsbank.

It was not before time that America’s voice was heard loudly.

In the months after Pearl Harbor, the privately-owned shortwave transmitters were leased by the government although NBC and CBS still produced programs in Spanish and Portuguese in their studios for transmission southwards. By 1942, Time was reporting on La Cadena de las Americas (the Network of the Americas) describing how shortwave station WCBX was transmitting in Portuguese to Brazil while, from an adjoining studio, a Spanish-speaking announcer was reading the news to go out over stations WCRC and WCDA. The network had been launched the precious week at a swanky dinner in New York attended by Edward G. Robinson, Rita Hayworth, Ronald Colman and other movie stars, along with the presidents of Peru, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Vice President Henry A. Wallace addressed the room – and those listening on their radios through Latin America – in Spanish. The CBS broadcasts were relayed over seventy-six domestic radio stations in South America, each station contracted to relay for at least one hour a day. NBC had more than one hundred local stations, including thirty-one in Mexico, relaying its broadcasts. By this time, too, other private companies had begun shortwave broadcasts, mainly to Europe: General Electric operated stations WGEO and WGEA, the World Wide Broadcasting Foundation in Boston had two shortwave stations, WRUL and WRUW. Also in Boston, Westinghouse had WBOS while shortwave broadcasts also emanated from Cincinnati through the Crosley station WLWO.

But the Allies were still out-shouted on the airwaves: there were by mid-1942 only fourteen shortwave transmitters (all privately owned and operated at that stage) in the United States and fifty in Britain; by contrast, Germany had begun the war with sixty-eight shortwave transmitters and by now, with the Italians and those of the occupied countries, had at its disposal more than a hundred.

1941: KGEI’s reinforced concrete transmitter building near Belmont. Built to withstand bomb or earthquake.
(Source: via

The U.S. government took over shortwave station KGEI in San Francisco (which had been opened in 1939 by General Electric Corporation as a means of promoting GE products internationally). Under government control, KGEI carried broadcasts to Asia in English, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog, Dutch, Thai and Malay. The owners of San Francisco medium wave news station KSFO heeded the government appeal for help and, within three months, had a powerful shortwave station KWID up and running. KWID had a range of antennas allowing broadcasts to be directed to Alaska, the Far East, Australia and Latin America. In 1943 another transmitter was added and so was born KWIX. (Both stations were leased by the government until the end of the Korean war in 1953 and then dismantled.)

In Boston, station WRUL was taken over by the government in November 1942 and became Radio Boston to its shortwave listeners. Among the many services it was able to provide, it allowed young English evacuees to send messages to their families still in London; even before it became a government-run station, WRUL had broadcast messages on shortwave from the governments-in-exile of Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway and Yugoslavia to their occupied home countries. Indeed, on 23 January 1942 it even broadcast in Luxembourgish featuring the son of Prime Minister Pierre Dupong. The station broadcast in Tagalog to the Philippines. By 1943, the two transmitters were carrying programming compiled by the Office of War Information in New York, in Albanian, German, Arabic, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish and Serbo-Croat.

Shown here as it appeared at the time of America’s entry into the War is the control room of Boston shortwave station WRUL. The image appeared in the December 15, 1941, issue of Life Magazine.
(Image from

WRUL’s two transmitters were located at Scituate, Massachusetts, one with a radiating power of 50,000 watts, the other with 20,000 watts (the second transmitter operating under the call-sign WRUW). An example of the range of its signals is evidenced by the decision in mid-1942 to erect a new antenna array that would beam WRUL broadcasts to Madagascar. It was reported by The Wall Street Journal that the additional daily program in French would impress upon the inhabitants of that island that if they persisted in supporting Vichy they would suffer the consequences of Vichy’s handing over French territory to Japan, Italy and Germany. Once Free French authorities took control of colonies, there was increasing broadcasting co-operation: Radio Brazzaville announced the times of French broadcasts from WRUL, for example.

But what about the people listening?

The Nazis forbade listening to foreign broadcasts. The British and Americans had no such fear of enemy propaganda, but hardly encouraged people to tune in to those broadcasts. The Irish had not even those qualms: The Irish Times published hour-by-hour listings of news bulletins in English including those from Axis stations as well as Allied: at 12.15 am Bremen radio was giving the German version of the news in English. At 8.45 am Melbourne could be heard. At 11.00 am you had a choice between signals from Moscow, Rome or Paris. At 2.30 pm Vatican Radio brought the latest church news on shortwave, at 2. 50 pm the Japanese Radio Hsinking was audible, and then at 3.30 pm the French radio station in Saigon. At 9.45 pm there was English language news from Paris and Stockholm, and at 10.10 pm from Budapest.

According to Time magazine in July 1944 the ‘weirdest listening post in all the world’ was to have the radio turned on in Chungking (now Chongqing). There was a twenty-four hour a day bombardment of propaganda that could be heard in the wartime Chinese capital. Much of the content was in English, clearly aimed at Americans working with Chinese forces and supplying them from Burma. Every afternoon at 4.00 pm there was a female presenter – in the then Time-style she was a ‘brassy-voiced Japcaster’ – who called herself Little Orphan Annie, interspersing American music with news bulletins highlighting bad news from the United States (such as floods, crimes and strikes). What struck George Grim, sent to Chungking by the State Department to help run local radio station XGOY, was the number of announcers who had almost faultless American accents. It certainly was a station format that would never work today: sessions other than spoken word programs consisted of classical music, including xylophone recitals.

QSL card issued by MTCY Hsinking to a British listener in April 1940.
© Radio Heritage Foundation collection

A powerful radio station operated by the Japanese was Radio Hsinking in Manchukuo. Located in the capital of their puppet state in North China, the station had opened in 1934. The 100kw transmitter, operated by the Japanese-owned Manchurian Telephone and Telegraph Company, was used to beam programming to Hawaii, North America, the Philippines, China, the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. Its daily broadcasts went out in Japanese, English, Mandarin and Russian.

One of the voices was that of an 80-year-old American woman, who had arrived in Japan as a missionary in 1895 (along with her husband who had died in 1942. She was the voice behind the English language broadcast called ‘The Women’s Hour’. The American authorities said the woman was ‘an extreme pacifist’. Her programmes were aimed at American women, and OWI included a passage from one broadcast: “Can you tell me why the women of America should send their sons, their husbands, their brothers, to die miserably in the African desert or in the swamps of the South Pacific islands, or in the shark-infested waters around those islands?”, she said. OWI had also noted another broadcaster using the name ‘Miss Francis Hopkins’ who reassured her listeners about the ‘peace-loving’ nature of the Japanese.

– Robin Bromby, Sydney

This article is an extract from Fighting on Empty: How Hitler and Hirohito Lost the Economic War, by Robin Bromby, available as an ebook or paperback through Amazon

Text of this article © Robin Bromby. Additional images © Radio Heritage Foundation or orginal owners.

Robin writes:
By way of background, I have had a lifelong interest in radio (joining the NZ Radio DX League in 1957 as a schoolboy) and then worked for NZBC radio (in head office, at 1ZD Tauranga and 4ZB Dunedin). I have been a journalist since 1962 working for The Dominion, The Age (Melbourne), The Herald (Melbourne), South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), the National Times (Sydney) and finally with The Australian for 28 years. I have had several books published – by Simon & Shuster, Doubleday, Grantham House (Wellington) and Lothian Books (Melbourne). I am now in semi-retirement and self-publishing through Amazon (see

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