What Sport!

Paul Laity

  • Telegram from Guernica: The Extraordinary Life of George Steer, War Correspondent by Nicholas Rankin
    Faber, 256 pp, £14.99, April 2003, ISBN 0 571 20563 1

On the evening of 26 April 1937, George Lowther Steer, a correspondent for the Times, was having dinner with other reporters at the Torrontegui Hotel in Bilbao. Sometime after nine, a distraught Basque official rushed into the dining-room: ‘Guernica is destroyed,’ he told them. The town was still burning when the journalists got there. Flames were licking at windows, the cobblestones were hot coals, buildings slithered to the ground. It had been market day, and hundreds of people had travelled in from the outskirts. Witnesses told Steer that, for three hours, wave after wave of Junkers and Heinkel bombers had flown over Guernica, dropping high explosives and incendiary devices; people running into the open had been chased by the planes and gunned down.

Steer’s vivid, precise report of what had happened was run in the Times and New York Times on 28 April and shaped the world’s reaction. His identification of the air-raid as the work of the Condor Legion (Nazi Germany’s military outfit in Spain) confirmed suspicions that, despite official denials, those powers who wanted to intervene in the Civil War were doing so. Of even greater significance was his emphasis on the targeting of civilians: ‘In the form of its execution and the scale of destruction it wrought, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was not a military objective . . . The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralisation of the civil population.’ This was what provoked international outrage: it had been an exercise in terror-bombing, an act of wanton brutality, a tactic of shock and awe. Rules were perceived to have been broken, a line crossed. The devastating potential of air power had been demonstrated. Guernica was the first town ever to have been completely destroyed by aerial bombardment: war in Europe had suddenly changed its character.

Nicholas Rankin’s admirable biography rightly presents Steer as one of the most influential foreign correspondents of the 1930s. He was also one of the first writers to document the physical impact and psychological effects of bombing – the threat of death from the air. Steer pleasingly conforms to the stereotype of the war-zone journalist – he was reckless, a hard drinker, a heavy smoker, and clearly as much fascinated by war as appalled by it. Like most memorable correspondents, he was also strongly partisan; on occasions, he came close to ‘going native’, in the manner of John Reed with the Red Guards in Petrograd. His journalism always threatened to tip over into a more direct, military involvement – until he finally became, and died, a soldier.

A South African born into a liberal, newspaper-owning family in the Eastern Cape, Steer was educated at Winchester and Christ Church, Oxford. He joined the staff of the Yorkshire Post, and then, at the age of 25, was taken on by the Times as a special correspondent in Addis Ababa: editors were eager to fill their pages with accounts of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia – a promising little war. We know next to nothing about Steer’s political views at this time, but unlike so many of his contemporaries, he seems to have been resistant to the Marxism bug; if anything, he was an advocate of liberal nationalism, alert, thanks to his family background, to the cruelties of imperialism (he later wrote that the struggle of the Ethiopian people against Fascist Italy woke him from his ‘undogmatic slumbers’). Public sympathies in Britain were conspicuously in favour of gallant Abyssinia, not least because of the frequent appeals to the League of Nations made by the elegant, modernising leader of the Ethiopians, Ras Tafari Makonnen, a.k.a. Haile Selassie.

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[*] Picasso’s War: The Destruction of Guernica and Picasso’s Masterpiece (Scribner, 304 pp., £15.99, January, 0 743 21989 9).