The BBC Empire Service began broadcasting on shortwave on December 19, 1932 and was aimed principally at English speakers across the British Empire. In his first Christmas Message, King George V stated that the service was intended for “men and women, so cut off by the snow, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them.” First hopes for the Empire Service were low. The Director General, Sir John Reith (later Lord Reith) said in the opening programme: “Don’t expect too much in the early days; for some time we shall transmit comparatively simple programmes, to give the best chance of intelligible reception and provide evidence as to the type of material most suitable for the service in each zone. The programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good.” This address was read out five times as it was broadcast live to different parts of the world.
On January 3, 1938, the first foreign-language service was launched in Arabic. Programmes in German started on March 29, 1938, and by the end of 1942 broadcasts were being made in all major European languages. As a result, the Empire Service was renamed the BBC Overseas Service in November 1939, and a dedicated BBC European Service was added in 1941. These were financed not from the domestic licence fee but from government grant-in-aid (from the Foreign Office budget), and known administratively as the External Services of the BBC.
The External Services broadcast propaganda during the Second World War. Its French service Radio Londres also sent coded messages to the French Resistance. George Orwell broadcast many news bulletins on the Eastern Service during World War II.
By the end of the 1940s the number of broadcast languages had expanded and reception had improved, following the opening of a relay in modern-day Malaysia and of the Limassol relay, Cyprus, in 1957. On May 1, 1965 the service took its current name of BBC World Service and expanded its reach with the opening of the Ascension Island relay in 1966, serving African audiences with a stronger signal and better reception, and the later relay on the Island of Masirah.