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

Short, combative and mischievous, Steer arrived in Addis in July, equipped with a typewriter, a shotgun and tropical kit. The temptation to graft him onto Scoop is strong: the war had yet to start and he was one of dozens of journalists holed up in the Hotel Imperial, kicking their heels. Waugh, pipped to the Times job by Steer, had been engaged by the Daily Mail; he acquired a baboon which masturbated. Practical jokers nailed Steer into his hotel room and a carpenter had to be found to rescue him. He beat up an Armenian spy who tried to steal his copy, and was himself beaten up for climbing the walls of the Italian Legation, which led to a brief period of imprisonment in a telephone hut. Waugh seems to have resented Steer, whom he dismissed as ‘the colonial’, and wrote a letter home describing him as a ‘South African dwarf’ who was ‘never without a black eye’. But then Waugh was a hopelessly unsuccessful reporter. (He did send one significant cable to the Mail, informing the editor that the Italian minister in Addis was withdrawing his staff – a sign that the invasion was imminent. To keep the story from competitive colleagues, however, he sent it in Latin, and a puzzled subeditor in London was still trying to work out what it meant when the fighting began.) Steer, on the other hand, was rapidly identified by Haile Selassie as a friendly correspondent and granted a long, exclusive interview, along with access to official bulletins before they were issued. The Emperor was a skilful propagandist: there seems little doubt that Steer was, to some extent, used.

Very few of the journalists in Addis Ababa felt any goodwill towards the Italians (Waugh was an exception). Italy had an air force, tanks, flame-throwers and endless supplies of soldiers; the Ethiopians, subject to an international arms embargo, had camels and little else: they were, Steer said, still living in the ‘spear age’. (His spirited book about the invasion, Caesar in Abyssinia, was written as a testament to ‘the strength and spirit of the Ethiopian armies against a European great power’.) The war which finally began in October 1935 was the last instalment of the Scramble for Africa, but one of the first to involve 20th-century weapons: Steer was at hand to recognise the conflict as, in Rankin’s words, a ‘laboratory of air power’. In total, the Italians dropped two thousand tons of incendiary and explosive shrapnel bombs on Ethiopian towns and bases, and used nearly three hundred tons of chemical warfare agents. Planes sprayed Yperite – mustard gas – as if they were dusting crops. The gas caused blindness and blisters; its victims looked as if they had been skinned, clumsily.

Steer travelled up and down the country, sending cables to the Times which detailed the effects of explosions, the bombing of Red Cross hospitals and, significantly, the use of Yperite. The Italian regime vehemently denied using poison gas and, initially at least, the appeasement-minded British Government willingly accepted their denials. As he accumulated evidence of Italian ruthlessness, Steer became increasingly enamoured of Haile Selassie, who, Rankin writes, went to war like a European gentleman, with his ‘four-course meals, his wine cellar, his sola topis and walking sticks, his Arab horses and his motor cars’. Even more impressively, the Emperor manned his own Swiss-manufactured Oerlikon machine-gun. By the spring of 1936, however, the Ethiopian Army had been bombed, gassed and machine-gunned into oblivion, and its commander-in-chief finally decided to leave the country; he decreed that the gates to his palaces should be left open.

Steer was among the thousands who welcomed Haile Selassie at Waterloo Station on 3 June 1936. A nervy British Government was unsure what to do with the caped crusader. Eden, the Foreign Secretary, paid him a private visit, but Edward VIII refused to invite him to Buckingham Palace, and when the former Emperor lunched at the House of Commons, Baldwin hid behind a table to avoid meeting him. As the Conquering Lion of Judah began several miserable years of exile in Worthing, Steer, along with other sympathisers, notably Sylvia Pankhurst, started a campaign to keep Abyssinia in the public eye; he acted henceforth as an unofficial spymaster for its deposed ruler. Accused among other things of having taken a lorry load of gas masks to Ethiopian troops in the north, he had been ordered to quit the country by the new Italian authorities. ‘I came young and went away older,’ he later wrote of his time in Abyssinia. ‘I promised myself that I could never forget and never forgive.’

The day before the Italians entered Addis Ababa, as the city was being smashed and looted, Steer got married there. His wife was Margarita de Herrero, a reporter for Le Journal in Paris. The ceremony, interrupted by the sound of gunfire, took place at the British Legation, the residence of the Minister, Sir Sidney Barton. The newly-weds – the groom wearing a cap belonging to Haile Selassie’s pilot, the bride a trilby and strings of pearls – drank champagne then drove around the grounds in a pick-up truck, blowing on a hunting-horn. Margarita was born in Pau, in the South-West of France; her father was Spanish. She knew the Basque Country well, and it may have been her influence that prompted Steer’s next move. He arrived at the Franco-Spanish border in August 1936, in time to report the first action of the Basque campaign in the Civil War. Margarita died in childbirth the following year; Steer buried her in Biarritz, then, grieving and more devil-may-care than ever, continued to report the war, losing himself in the Basque fight for freedom.

All the correspondents in Spain took sides, though Steer was unusual: his allegiance was not to a variety of socialism but to the Basque Country, recently granted autonomy by the Republican Government, and to its ruling nationalist party – liberal, middle-class, Catholic. In his review of the book Steer wrote about the Civil War, Orwell said sniffily that the author saw things ‘entirely from the Basque standpoint’. ‘Gernika,’ Rousseau had observed, ‘is the happiest town in the world. It is governed by an assembly of peasants, which meets under an oak tree and always makes just decisions.’ Steer’s view was not very different, and the Luftwaffe’s bombing of the historical centre of Basque liberties had a special significance for him. As in Abyssinia, he developed close ties with government officials. In Rankin’s opinion, he craved ‘another Ethiopia, with freedom of movement, access to the top and a cause to believe in’.

Yet, however partisan, Steer never became a propagandist, artfully doctoring his dispatches in pursuit of a political goal – he was no Cockburn, or Koestler, or Philby. And, as Orwell conceded, there was ‘one very important and much disputed event’ on which he could speak ‘with undoubted authority’ – the bombing of Guernica. ‘Much disputed’ because, by the time Orwell’s review was published, Steer’s articles in the Times had provoked a remarkable series of claims and counterclaims. Taken back by the international anger the bombing provoked, the Nationalists at first denied that it had occurred at all, then issued a statement to the effect that Basque Communists had set their own town on fire as a propaganda coup. Fervent right-wingers in various countries seized on this theory, rehearsed it in articles and books – throwing much vitriol at Steer in the process – and proved extremely reluctant to let it go. (At the end of the Civil War, the Nationalist Government regularly attributed what happened at Guernica to ‘Red hordes’, and as late as the 1970s a contributor to William Buckley’s National Review was still making the accusation.)

Pointing the finger at Red militiamen also neatly avoided the question of German involvement. Steer had plenty of first-hand evidence of the Condor Legion’s presence in Spain: he had himself been shot at by German planes on the day of the Guernica attack, and had found amid the rubble of the town shells stamped ‘Rheindorf Factory, 1936’. (The planner of Guernica’s devastation, Wolfram von Richthofen, was to stand next to Franco on the victory podium in Madrid in May 1939. A cousin of the Red Baron, he watched the three-hour bombing campaign from his sports car, parked near the summit of Monte Oiz.) The regime in Berlin still denied that German soldiers in Spain were anything other than ‘technicians’, and was furious at the commotion the Times articles had caused. Steer was put on a Gestapo Special Wanted List. Hitler ordered copies of the Times to be confiscated and destroyed, and a personal interview with the paper was cancelled. The correspondent due to conduct it sent word back to London that ‘the German papers have been very savage about the Times, in fact worse than at any period I remember. The latest discovery is that if you spell it backwards it spells SEMIT, which leads them to deduce that we are a Jewish-Marxist organisation.’ Geoffrey Dawson, the editor, and a keen appeaser, was dismayed that his paper had been responsible for an increase in international tension. He stood behind Steer rather reluctantly. ‘I do my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper anything that might hurt their susceptibilities.’

As in Abyssinia, Steer watched while the milk-and-water British Government avoided overt condemnation. Thanks to his dispatches, however, the public understood that the assault was an intimation of the coming conflict in Europe. A question in the Commons described Guernica as ‘a deliberate effort to use air power as an instrument of massacre and terrorism’. For Philip Noel-Baker, MP and peace activist, the precedent was ‘extremely dangerous to us and to the world . . . such methods will come to be regarded as accepted practice, which all too probably would be the starting point for the next war.’ Anxious citizens saw Guernica as the dress rehearsal for an air-raid on London. Steer – whose book The Tree of Gernika is subtitled ‘A Field Study of Modern War’ – had instantly identified 26 April 1937 as a key moment of transition. At the beginning of the 20th century, 90 per cent of casualties in war were soldiers; at the beginning of the 21st, 90 per cent of casualties are civilians.

It’s impossible to know whether Steer’s initial report had a direct impact on Picasso. In a new book, Russell Martin expresses his conviction that the painter ‘read it carefully’ and ‘with immediate outrage’ (the report was reprinted in full in L’Humanité).* What is undeniable is that Steer’s interpretation survived to accompany Picasso’s masterpiece; when Guernica was shown at MOMA in New York in 1943, the press release bore all the signs of his influence: ‘This destruction of a defenceless town was an experiment by the German Luftwaffe in the psychological effect on the surrounding population of obliteration by air power of a hallowed centre of a people’s culture and religion.’ The gigantic canvas was first displayed in the Spanish pavilion at the World’s Fair in Paris in June 1937. It was first thought to be an insufficiently strong statement about the horrors of the continuing conflict, and had a lukewarm reception. Only after prewar and wartime tours of Britain, Scandinavia and the United States did the painting begin to acquire its extraordinary reputation. (One day during the Nazi occupation of Paris – so the story goes – a German Army officer saw a sketch of Guernica on the wall of Picasso’s studio. ‘Did you do that?’ he asked. ‘No,’ the artist replied, ‘you did.’) By 1945, it was recognised as the definitive image of the brutality of modern war, a status which it retains today. A large reproduction hangs in the anteroom of the UN Security Council chamber; when, in January, this area was being prepared for official statements to the world’s media about the impending war in Iraq, the painting – not an ‘appropriate backdrop’ – was, at American insistence, discreetly covered by a blue curtain.

Steer’s final assignment was for the Daily Telegraph, reporting the Winter War fought by Finland against the Soviet Union – like Spain, this was a cause that attracted thousands of international volunteers (the British contingent helpfully arrived on the day the armistice was signed). Steer again sent back details of bombing raids, most carried out by Soviet forces, and again witnessed the effects of explosives designed to ‘put terror into the civilian population’. When he arrived at Vyborg and saw ‘a black shell of desolation’, he was reminded of Guernica. Despite their superior military capability, the Soviet Army suffered huge losses against the white-uniformed Finnish ski troops and the teams who threw home-made grenades (newly baptised Molotov cocktails) at Soviet tanks. ‘Finland shows what free men can do,’ Churchill said. Steer decided it was time to give up reporting wars and to join one.

Captain Steer was given a special task: to accompany his friend Haile Selassie to the Sudan, an initial step in the campaign, dubbed Mission 101, to encourage an Abyssinian rising against the Italian annexation. His second wife knew well what he was getting into: Esmé Barton was the daughter of the former British Minister in Addis Ababa and a supporter of the Ethiopian cause. (She had once thrown a glass of champagne in Waugh’s face in revenge for his mocking account of her family in Black Mischief.) Haile Selassie was a guest at their wedding; he became the godfather of their son. Landing in Alexandria, Steer met the Oriental Secretary at the Embassy in Cairo. ‘In those early days of 1940,’ he wrote later on, ‘we eyed each other rather foxily, wondering which was to be the new Lawrence.’ It was the beginning of the extraordinary story of Haile Selassie’s return from exile, which, on 5 May 1941, featured an elated and vindicated Steer driving at the front of the column that brought the victorious Emperor back to the Ethiopian capital.

In the Sudan, Steer was put in charge of a propaganda unit that dropped pamphlets and tiny flags, and produced a fortnightly news-sheet inciting the Ethiopian people to fight for their liberation. A loudspeaker unit broadcast messages in Amharic and Arabic, and later played Italian records across no man’s land to make the Blackshirts homesick (sixty deserted on the first night). Steer worked under the command of the legendary Orde Wingate, guerrilla warfare genius and religious fanatic, who ate large quantities of raw onions, received visitors in the nude (while cleaning his body with a rubber brush) and wore a miniature alarm clock strapped to his wrist. Wingate criticised the propaganda unit, though it isn’t clear why, since it proved a great success – Steer was an imaginative pioneer of psychological operations. (‘Psyops’ are still with us: coalition planes dropped millions of leaflets on Baghdad.) Now in khaki, he had finally made the jump from partisanship to propaganda, and, following the liberation of Ethiopia, was much in demand. He was eventually put on the payroll of SOE and supervised a field propaganda unit in Burma, which produced more leaflets and broadcast sentimental Japanese music across the jungle valleys. He died in a jeep crash in Fagu in India on Christmas Day, 1944. He was driving, and was almost certainly drunk.

Rankin recounts Steer’s exploits pacily and well. Because very few personal papers have survived, he leans heavily on Steer’s six published volumes, the most important of which are Caesar in Abyssinia, The Tree of Gernika and Sealed and Delivered, his account of the reconquest of Ethiopia. As a consequence, we have the chance to familiarise ourselves with Steer’s vigorous, graphic prose and are spared the particulars of his distant relations, or a picturesque sketch of his Oxford college. What counts with Steer is the action – what he saw and did – and it is perhaps fitting that most of his private thoughts remain elusive.

For all his precocious understanding of the horrors of modern war, Steer cannot quite escape the beguiling clichés of the impassioned adventurer, relishing the thrill of battle. In June 1937, he was still in Bilbao as Nationalist troops were fast approaching. At the Puente de Duesto, he joined a company of Basque soldiers digging up cobblestones to make trenches and barricades. Before long, German planes were swooping down directly towards them. ‘In line, they dived upon us, driving devilish fast,’ he recalled,

but somehow, after the day’s bombardment, it seemed a feeble rattle that they made . . . Standing up on the hard wide road, we loosed off two hundred rifles and machine-guns at them. Ah, what a memory. The mountain ridge spouting smoke like the spines of a pachyderm, fire raging across the river, everywhere the crack of artillery, the shrapnel mixed in a savage disorder with the plunging fighting planes . . . The air sang with ill-directed bullets. And what sport!

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