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On January 14, 1944, Globe and Mail war correspondent Ralph Allen sat down at his typewriter and began a column that, back in Europe, would not have made it past the censors. Allen had covered the Canadian campaigns in Sicily and the Italian mainland. Less than six months later, he would go ashore with the Canadian army at Juno Beach on D-Day. Back in Canada to see his family and to check in with his publisher, George McCullagh, Allen took the opportunity to launch a sneak attack on the censors who handled the copy of Canada's small colony of war correspondents.
Material written by reporters who were attached to Canada's fighting forces was vetted by military censors on the battlefield and at the Allies' chief headquarters in London. Reporters like Allen found the military censors to be arbitrary, illogical, and more concerned with the reputation of Allied generals than with the truth. In his January 15 column, Allen described the ways the army spoon-fed war correspondents with press releases and communiqués that were parroted back as news copy. The stories, in turn, were censored on the spot by army and navy officers before going out on the wires under the bylines of people who were being paid to cover the war.
But the reporters at army headquarters got something that resembled a complete picture of the military situation, even if it was doled out by army officers and filtered by military censors. The closer a reporter got to the fighting, the more confused the picture became. Modern warfare had created giant battlefields that were far too big for one person or even a team of journalists to begin to understand. Someone covering the Battle of Waterloo from the British side could, if able to make things out through the clouds of smoke, watch the day's action from the high ground at the north end of the field, understand the importance of each of the major moves of the armies on the battlefield, and send a report that night with a fairly accurate description of the fighting. Almost fifty years later, a reporter at Gettysburg would have needed three days to see the battle. The field was larger and there was no vantage point that would have provided a view of all the fighting, but a hard-working correspondent could probably piece together the entire story by using personal observations and by talking to some foot soldiers and officers. By the time of World War One, the battles lasted too long, the field was too large, the reach of weapons was too great, and the fighting too intense for any eyewitness to understand what was happening unless they were taken in hand by military officers who had the benefit of the reports that moved up the chain of command. This didn't happen.
In the previous century, the military had grasped the power of the press. Journalists had embarrassed the British government during the Crimean War, but for the little colonial conflicts in the latter half of the nineteenth century, scribes were still an essential part of any ambitious general's retinue. (Reporters like Winston Churchill made fortunes sending war correspondence back from British imperial outposts and its British reporters watched most of the big battles of the American Civil War.) Coverage of the Boer War, however, provided Britain's enemies, including Kaiser Wilhelm's government, with a steady stream of propaganda. By the outbreak of World War One, the British high command treated war correspondents as spies: any caught near the front without permission could be shot, and only the most trusted senior Fleet Street correspondents got close. The rest, even the famous correspondents such as Philip Gibbs, settled for covering sideshows like the Balkans and Salonika. No Canadian reporters were allowed near the trenches during the first two years of World War One. The handful of Canadian journalists who went to France in 1917 missed Canada's victory at Vimy Ridge.
Reporters covering World War Two had a different set of obstacles. After the revelations of Britain's ruthless propaganda and censorship campaign in the Great War, readers and listeners back home demanded better coverage of the war this time. The military, however, had developed subtler ways to manipulate coverage. Even if, somehow, reporters got a true picture of the fighting in World War Two, they were still burdened with the difficulties of filing their stories. Those journalists who covered the Canadian advances in Sicily and on the Italian mainland had no choice but to rely on the army in order to get their stories out of the fighting theatre and back to Canada. Often, that meant typing up the story in a quiet place away from the front, giving it to an army dispatch rider who carried the copy on a motorcycle, a horse, or, as sometimes happened in Italy, a donkey to divisional headquarters and its censors, then hoping that the copy made the plane to London, where it was censored again and either telegraphed or put on a news wire. Photographs had to be developed in London so the British censors could look them over, and either flown back to Canada or sent over a very primitive fax machine. Some correspondents tried using carrier pigeons from the Normandy beaches, carrying coded messages that told editors and readers back home that the D-Day assault was successful. This romantic and somewhat medieval tactic didn't work: pigeons carrying weird messages like "Beer is Best, Drink Guinness" were showing up in coops along the southern English coast weeks later.
Radio reporters at the front line had their own technological challenges. A CBC reporting unit went overseas in December 1939 with the First Canadian Division. To get around some of the recording problems, the CBC commandeered an army truck for a mobile studio. Some CBC reporters went into the fighting in Western Europe using a hand-cranked, five-kilogram machine that could cut a recording disc holding about three minutes of sound. The machine was undependable. Often, the reporter risked his life, had the disc shipped back from the front and flown to England, only to learn that the CBC technicians in London had found the disc to be blank. Tape recorders were new, rare, and didn't deliver the recording quality of the old disc systems. Despite being handicapped by technology, CBC reporters covered the 1940 Blitz (the building that housed its offices took a direct hit) and went on to distinguish themselves in Europe. Their reports were a combination of journalism and show: CBC star Matthew Halton practised his lines and got as close as he could to the fighting to record the noise of it, but, if the battle did not provide enough colourful sound, special effects of fighting were added in the studio.
Allen explained most of these problems to his readers. He could accept all of them, except the censorship. "To tell the truth," he wrote, "I am no more capable of writing a fair or reasonable sentence about censors than composing a brochure in praise of Brussels sprouts." Allen larded his column with anecdotes of unreasonable and unfathomable decisions made by the military censors. In the first story he had filed from the Mediterranean theatre, Allen described sitting in North Africa under a date palm. The words "date palm" were cut. "From that moment on, I attempted to govern my actions by the conviction that all censors are maniacs, a hypothesis that has stood the test of time faithfully and well," he wrote.
One time the censor passed the names of three towns which our troops had captured on the same road. The towns don't matter anymore, but let's say the sentence read: "The Canadians today took Capello and Broccoli and the intermediate village of Ravioli." The only cut here was the word "intermediate." My contention was that, although the information that the Town of Ravioli lay between the Towns of Capello and Broccoli might well have been of use to the enemy, the enemy very likely had the information already, in view of the fact that he had lived in the vicinity for generations and probably had a map.
He recounted how Major Bert Wemp, the correspondent of the Toronto Telegram, and Wallace Reyburn of the Montreal Standard had fought with the censors about the illustrious history of the 48th Highlanders. Wemp had mentioned in a story that the 48th Highlanders "had fought at Vimy Ridge in the last war." The censor removed the words "Vimy Ridge."
Then Reyburn had joined the fight, writing a paragraph for his own paper about Wemp's censorship troubles. He tried to tell his readers about the strategic cut to Wemp's piece, but he failed to take the censors into account. They hacked up Reyburn's account of Wemp's troubles. Allen admitted there was little he could do about the military censors, "aside from sitting here and gnawing on a steel filing cabinet for the sheer pleasure of it."
Allen believed correspondents should be allowed to report on the courage of Canadians, even those who had been recently killed. He made a somewhat unconvincing argument that the military should let war reporters file stories naming Canadian soldiers, even if their families had not been officially notified. Perhaps, he argued, Canadian mothers would be shocked to learn from newspapers of their sons' deaths, but at least the articles would give those deaths far more meaning, maybe even dignity, than if the news of them was conveyed by messenger boys carrying the official regrets of the Department of National Defence. A front-page story of heroism, Allen said, was worth much more to a family than a government form letter. He wrote of a group of fifteen Canadian soldiers who attacked a company of German infantry. Six of the Canadians died quickly in the fighting. A seventh soldier, who was dying from his wounds, held off the Germans with a Bren gun until his comrades escaped. The names of the eight survivors could be published but, Allen argued, the mother of the soldier with the Bren gun would probably never know of her son's bravery because military censorship would not allow his name to be used in Allen's dispatch. If he did receive a decoration, the war correspondents were forbidden from writing about it until the official announcement was made, usually weeks or months later, in the Canada Gazette, the government's official "newspaper."
But there was another side to this coin. It might have been folly for the war effort and cruel to mothers to let Canadian war reporters loose. Quite simply, even discounting the effects of censorship, Canadian war reporters and their editors were fairly good at covering simple stories but terrible with the big picture. Day after day, week after week, the papers carried sensational headlines that were flat-out wrong: Rudolf Hess had committed suicide (he hadn't, at least not for another fifty years); the battleship Prince of Wales was unsinkable (the Japanese air force proved otherwise during the Singapore campaign); the Canadians had taken Caen on the first day of the Normandy invasion (the city would be flattened by bombers weeks later before the Canadians could get inside); SS chief Heinrich Himmler and Luftwaffe leader Hermann Goering had been attacked in August 1944, and possibly killed by the same people who had tried to blow up Hitler the month before (they would both survive the war and kill themselves in jail); Parisians had slaughtered the German garrison when the Resistance and the Americans liberated their city (it fell fairly bloodlessly). Newspaper competition was intense in the 1940s and editors were willing to rush the wildest rumours into print while, at the same time, allowing censors to cut facts out of stories that dealt with reality. There were no real consequences for these mistakes, and, in the end, they seemed to do very little harm, although Canadians who cared about current events must have spent a lot of time after the war relearning them.
At the same time that domestic newspapers were garbling coverage of the war in Europe, front-line coverage that arrived in Canada from other countries was twisted, shaped, and censored. Canadians didn't know of the big U.S. naval defeats in the Central Pacific because they weren't reported by the U.S. newspapers and wire services. Even the amount of damage at Pearl Harbor had been downplayed, and disasters like the Battle of Savo Island (off Guadalcanal, August 8-9, 1942), which cost four U.S. heavy cruisers and more than 1,000 American sailors, were barely mentioned at all. The battles on the Russian front might as well have been taking place on Mars, for all Canadian newspapers knew: almost all coverage of them was filtered through Stalin's propaganda machine to remove the details of Soviet defeats and the Red Army's appalling losses.
The British, who had led the way in media manipulation in World War One, not only operated sophisticated propaganda and censorship departments, they also employed seedy Fleet Street journalists at a "Morale Office" to invent believable rumours, including the story that circulated in Italy saying Mussolini had stashed away a fortune in Switzerland and was preparing to flee the country as soon as the Allies landed on the Italian mainland. That piece of fiction helped knock Italy out of the war.
The Canadian military made sure that its own record of events was accurate. Its field historical officers were given access to military reports and front-line officers that was far beyond the reach of war correspondents. Colonel Charles P. Stacey was allowed to see the papers of army commanders A.G.L. McNaughton and H.D.G. Crerar during the war and in the years afterwards, and Stacey's work would later lay the foundations for all subsequent official and popular histories of the Canadian army in World War Two.