BBC coverage of 40th and 50th anniversaries of the D Day landings

By Dan Cranefield, Senior Engineering Manager, BBC Tel OBs.

Dan Cranefield recalls his involvement with the BBC coverage of the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the D Day landings from Arromanches and Bayeux in France.

These Royal Events, which were Grade 1 listed because the Queen was present, were covered by BBC Tel OB Units from London in conjunction with STF (French TV). The main BBC OB took place in the afternoon at Arromanches, which was one of the beaches where British troops landed on 6th June 1944 and where one of the temporary Mulberry Harbours was later built and where the D-Day Museum is today. On the same anniversary days a memorial service took place at the British War Cemetery at Bayeux in the morning, one of many war cemeteries in this part of France.

As you would expect comprehensive advanced planning was needed for these events, not only in conjunction with the British Military organisations but with the French Authorities as well as French TV.  Communications were comprehensive and vital for the success of the coverage and these consisted of different firms for cable communication (French PTT) and for the line-of-site Radio Links (TDF) required. Also needed were communications locally for BBC sites and frequencies had to be agreed with the French. (By 1994 video circuits via satellites made it easier.)

From a production point of view both anniversary events consisted of ceremonies during the afternoon) with march-pasts on the beach and in the square at Arromanches and a morning Memorial Service at the Bayeux Cemetery for all the British troops who died over that period. These cemeteries are run by the War Graves Commission. There were also inserts for BBC Breakfast.

40th Anniversary in June 1984

From a technical point of view this event was the more complex of the two to plan than the later one because of the communications and of working to French “principles”. There was a Senior BBC Engineering Manager (EM) in overall charge of the BBC operation and each of the three OB sites (there was also a single camera on a ship off-shore, HMS Fife), had an EM to organise and run that site. I ran the site at Bayeux but the main production site was at Arromanches. For the initial planning meeting with the production team we all flew out in a small chartered plane from Leavesden Aerodrome near Watford to Caen then by car to the venues. Once all was agreed a subsequent meeting a couple of weeks later with the Sound Supervisor and Rigger Supervisor had to be by car and ferry.

We were allocated the services of a technical manager from French TV who was very helpful. He organised the scaffolding needed at Bayeux for our many cables across a busy highway, the Bayeux Ring Road, and for liaison between important people who spoke little English. I remember the Mayor, who had considerably more influence than a Mayor of an English town, who drove around in an ex-USA Army jeep with a spade tied on the side!

The Arromanches OB unit was LO6, a Type 5 control room (scanner) with five cameras and was the main transmission unit. The Bayeux unit was LO5, a similar vehicle with four cameras whose output was fed to Arromanches as was the camera output from the ship. The BBC1 off-air signal was picked up from Rowridge, Isle of Wight for monitoring purposes.

The Bayeux unit LO5, together with the complex French TV and communications vehicles were in the grounds of a Primary School in Bayeux which, unfortunately, was nearly half a mile from the cemetery and involved cable lengths of up to 2500 ft. for cameras, sound and commentary. The French had built a high scaffold tower for the radio links to and from all the sites and to the mid-point on a hill for onward transmission to Paris. This tower was a bit frightening to look at having a height of 35m (120ft) with three platform levels at the top containing radio link dishes and a base area of only about 3.5 m x 3.5m (12ft x 12ft) all held up by wires.

1984-Bayeux-main-site
Bayeux main site.

All the BBC cables from the Bayeux scanner in the school to the cemetery had to cross the major Bayeux Ring Road on a diagonal because of the infrastructure there. All the cables had to be at a height of a least 5m (17ft) in the middle of the road for traffic to pass.  Again, the only solution available was a tower at each side of the road, stayed by wires with a catenary across. It all looked very rickety to me but it was not my decision; I would imagine that getting our usual scaffolders across from London would have been far too expensive. Scaffolding in France, we were told, is mostly of fixed sizes mainly for renovating buildings.

1984-Bayeux-Scaffolding-for-cables
Scaffolding for cables at Bayeux.

There were just four cameras in use for the memorial service by the Cross of Sacrifice (3 x LDK5 and one LDK 514) with some recorded single-camera work beforehand.

50th Anniversary in June 1994

Although the ceremonies were very similar to ten years previously, the technical arrangements were very different.

The transmissions were similar but there was an extra Songs of Praise programme on the Event rehearsal day, a Sunday.

The main production site was still in Arromanches but with the BBC Central Control Room (CMCCR) in use this time because of the complexity and number of sources. All vision and sound feeds went into the CMCCR for transmission. The OB unit there (LO3) had nine cameras including two radio cameras and there was another on a ship, HMS Fearless. There were other sites that the BBC operated, the cemetery at Bayeux, which was my responsibility, also minor ones at Pegasus Bridge, Ranville, Hermanville, Omaha beach and the parachute dropping zone, which were all fed to the CMCCR together with a few other international feeds from the French TV and International Communications Centre which was at Bayeux as before.

1994-Arromanches-museum-centre-and-beach-area
Arromanches museum and beach area.

I was only involved in the Bayeux site which was simpler this time as all the vehicles (unit LO1) were allowed to park adjacent to the cemetery on temporary trackway panels so all cable runs were much shorter and less scaffolding was needed (a 24ft high Comms. tower and some camera rostra). However, the public address system required by the Military for the ceremonies was more comprehensive than previously so we hired in a British Company to do this. As it was a Grade 1 programme, two generators were required, one as spare, and a French TV unit was also present. BBC had eight cabled cameras and a ninth on radio across the main road outside to see the Queen and French President arrive. The cemetery, being British territory, the French President needed permission to enter.

1994-Bayeux-Cemetary
Bayeux Cemetary.

As far as I know all transmissions went as planned.

© 2020 Dan Cranefield