Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[51] A Little bit of History – and Geography


[51] A Little bit of History – and Geography

This was going to be more of what I remember about very early listening to the wireless – Sunday lunchtime – but not yet.

The trend for my blogs seems to be quite short topics, which need long introductions. For this one I need a bit of history first. No, I need a lot of History – and Geography. It is strange having to explain things that I grew up with that played a major part in World politics until I was 45. But to those under thirty, it is History. If you are over forty, you can probably skip the next bit – past all the maps. If you are a bit younger, don’t worry, there won’t be a test!



From 1922 until 1991 there was a country called the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It was a union of several states – Russia and countries now surrounding it – Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) and some more obscure countries like Kyrgyrstan and Uzbekistan – but in practice it was Russia with a lot of ‘satellite’ states.

The USSR had a much more powerful role in World politics than Russia now. It ranked with the USA as the two major powers who dominated the World then.

The Iron Curtain and the Cold War

In the fifties we were still in an immediate post-war situation, as I noted in [46] Age shall not weary them. (Almost all of this post was written before I even thought of doing one about the War. Then it seemed slightly logical to move that one forward.)

After ‘the War’, the victorious Allies were the UK, USA, France and the USSR. They occupied the territory of the defeated country of Germany and split it into four parts. But, because the communist countries and capitalist countries were opposed to each other on the basis of ideologies, the USSR did not last long as a friend to the other three countries.

By 1950, three of the sections of Germany had merged to form the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), usually called West Germany; but the USSR section became a separate communist country, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), usually called East Germany.

Politics then polarized countries into the capitalist world and the communist world. They were separated by the ‘Iron Curtain,’ a closely guarded border, which included the border between West and East Germany.

NATO and the Warsaw Pact

The capitalists, led by the USA and the UK formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) for their defence in what was now known as the ‘Cold War.’ NATO was a military union. It included West Germany and many troops from NATO countries (particularly the UK and USA) were stationed in West Germany.

On the ‘other’ side of the Iron Curtain were the communist countries, joined by a similar union of self-defence, called the Warsaw Pact. These countries were the USSR, East Germany, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Albania, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia). Yugoslavia (now Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia) was part of the communist bloc of countries even though it was not a Warsaw Pact country.

Just as NATO forces lined themselves up along the western side of the Iron Curtain, Warsaw Pact troops occupied land to the East of this border line.

I never thought I would have to explain communism, which dominated much of the World for over fifty years – but is has now disappeared from all of these countries. (Most of them have now switched their allegiance and joined the European Union.) Since the fifties and sixties, in addition to the Warsaw Pact, there have been the communist countries of North Korea, Laos, Vietnam, China, and Cuba such. (This is not the time to go into the politics of communism or the conflicts of the Far East.) If you know anything about life in North Korea now, just imagine that Russia, the rest of the USSR and all the other Warsaw Pact countries used to be much like modern Korea.


NATO (Blue) and Warsaw Pact (Red)


(Sorry, we have a bit more background to get in still!)

Berlin complicated things. The city of Berlin, which had been the German city capital before the War, lies geographically well inside what was East Germany, but Berlin also split into four parts after the War. Soon it went the same way as Germany becoming East Berlin and West Berlin. West Berlin was politically part of West Germany but geographically it formed an ‘island’ surrounded by East Germany. East Berlin was the capital of East Germany but West Germany had a new capital city at Bonn, far to the West.


West Germany and East Germany, showing West Berlin.

As early as 1948, the USSR, controlling East Germany had tried to block access to West Berlin by blocking road, rail and canal access. The Berlin Air Lift by the Air Forces of Britain, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa supported Berlin for a year and the blockade was withdrawn. (In the fifties, South Africa was British!)

But Berlin remained a major point of tension and politics. It contained several British and American airports.

In 1961, East Germany built a massive wall to protect its border with West Berlin (much like the wall now used for Israeli settlements) making the border virtually impenetrable.


The Berlin Wall


OK, I hope that’s nearly enough introduction. You need to know that in the fifties and sixties, thousands of British troops were stationed in West Berlin, in West Germany and in places along the border with the Iron Curtain. And you need to remember my earlier blogs about how little we were able to communicate. ([11] Newspapers and [13] Secrecy)

(There were also American troops, notably one called Elvis Presley who served in West Germany from 1958-60. When he returned he starred in a film, G.I Blues, about soldiers in Berlin. You may not have heard of him but he was a very popular and famous singer and actor.)

For a family in Britain with a family member posted in Germany, using the telephone was not an option. They could write letters but that was not straightforward. They used the British Forces Post Office (BFPO) a very primitive postcode just for our Armed Forces. If you wrote to ‘BFPO xyz’ it would reach the right place – eventually. (You didn’t necessarily know where the location was. You just had to know that was the address for the person you knew.)

Two-way Family Favourites

Through the fifties (and well beyond) there was a very popular radio programme aimed at bringing together families of soldiers serving in West Germany. Two-way Family Favourites (replacing Forces Favourites, which ran during the War) ran for an hour and a half every Sunday lunchtime. It ran on the BBC Light Programme (the precursor of radio Two.)

It was a request programme designed to link families at home in the UK with British Forces serving in West Germany, broadcast simultaneously in Britain and abroad via the British Forces Broadcasting Service. One presenter was based in London, the other in a BFPO station usually in West Germany, but sometimes other locations such as Singapore, Hong Kong or Australia.

[If I do some more Geography and History in later blogs you may learn about Singapore and Hong Kong]

In those days, you sent in a letter or, preferably, a postcard with your request. (No email or Social Media and telephoning would have been impractical.) The format was simple – an introduction, giving names and details and a short message and then some music. Generally each piece of music had two or three separate dedications. Messages alternated between the two presenters in different countries.

In the fifties and early sixties Family Favourites was one of the few BBC radio programmes devoted exclusively to records, so it was very popular, with an audience far beyond the audience at which it was aimed. It was, of course, just about the only radio or television option at a time when most families were together. But it offered real popular records that were what people wanted to hear. I wouldn’t say I listened avidly but we did have it on every Sunday. It was where I heard many of the tunes listed in my three music blogs – from Glenn Miller to Nellie the Elephant (and the Laughing Policeman!) It was just about my only opportunity to hear any music.

It had a memorable signature tune With A Song in My Heart and was presented by a variety of well-known radio personalities including Cliff Michelmore, Jean Metcalfe, Bill Crozier in Cologne, Michael Aspel, Judith Chalmers and Sarah Kennedy. The final UK presenter was Jean Challis.


Cliff Michelmore was well-known later as a television commentator and presenter – for the serious evening programme, Tonight; the Apollo Moon landings; UK General Elections and the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales.

Michael Aspel, who presented Family Favourites in the late sixties, was also a regular news reader and presented several other television programmes including Come Dancing (Only loosely related to its successor, Strictly Come Dancing,) Crackerjack (as featured in [29] ‘Was it Bill or Was it Ben?’), Ask Aspel, This is Your Life and the Miss World beauty contests.

By the late sixties Family Favourites survived the restructuring of BBC radio, moving to Radio 2. It continued to the mid-eighties. The Berlin Wall came down about 1990 and about the same time the USSR split up and most communist countries abandoned Communism.

With that lengthy introduction, I could only squeeze in the one radio programme. More will come in later blogs …

[Apologies for some confusion with cross-references. I am gradually renaming old posts. If you don’t recognize the names, the numbers are unchanged – and links should always work.]

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

9 thoughts on “[51] A Little bit of History – and Geography

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