A forgotten hero of South African journalism

Andrew Donaldson writes on the extraordinary career of George Steer


IT was George Steer’s birthday on Monday. A forgotten hero of South African journalism, he reported on three wars in the last ten years of his brief life before dying in a fourth when he crashed his overloaded jeep in wartime Bengal on Christmas Day 1944. He was just 35 years old.

His crowning achievement as a foreign correspondent was to break the real story of Guernica. He revealed to the world that the aircraft that had firebombed the historic Basque town on 26 April April 1937, a busy market-day afternoon, and then machine-gunned civilians as they fled into nearby fields were German, flown by pilots of the Nazis’ Condor Legion. 

With that, Adolf Hitler’s dirty secret was out: the Nazis were deeply involved in the Spanish Civil War. They had not only thrown their weight behind Franco’s nationalist forces, but were were doing so to field-test their own war machine in a dress rehearsal for blitzkrieg.

Steer’s sensational front-page report, published simultaneously in The Times of London and the New York Times, sent shockwaves around the world. One American diplomat said the news had been received with “utmost horror” in the US where it was viewed as “a practice for the bombing of London and Paris”. More importantly, it laid bare the folly of the policies of appeasement of Nazism and Italian fascism practiced by successive British governments in the 1930s. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Steer’s biographer, Nicholas Rankin, would later write that the bombing of Guernica “brought the brutality of colonial warfare home to white people. Since the First World War, when a few European civilians had been bombed, the tactic had mostly been used in faraway places to punish tribal dissidents. This warfare abolished geography. Death could drop from the air, at any time, to destroy a town without warning and to burn women and children at home in their beds. In this kind of war, civilians were the front line. Guernica, like Hiroshima, like 9/11, marked a terrible new order of things.”

That “order” is still with us: this week, for example, the Financial Times revealed that US intelligence agencies were caught off guard in July by reports that China had tested a hypersonic glide vehicle capable of firing a nuclear missile as it approached a target travelling at least five times the speed of sound — a capability no other country has previously demonstrated. 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. George Lowther Steer was born in East London in 1909 and raised in a liberal “newspaper” household; his father, Bernard Steer, was the managing editor and future chairman of the Daily Dispatch. When he was 11, the boy was packed off to complete his education in England. A gifted scholar, he’d won both public schools and university scholarships. Though ensconced in its bosom, he did not care much for the English establishment being, at heart, an African and “a natural ally of the underdog”, as Rankin put it. At Winchester College, this “South African Englishman”, as he called himself, reportedly “showed a colonial disregard for the conventions of this country”. In 1931, he helped set up the African Society at Oxford.

After securing a double first in classics at Christ Church, Steer returned to South Africa for a journalistic apprenticeship at the Cape Argus, working briefly as a crime and baseball reporter. He returned to England in 1933, where he worked in the London office of the Yorkshire Post

In January 1935, he reported on the rigged referendum in which the people of the Saar borderlands voted overwhelmingly to join Nazi Germany. The bitter European winter left him longing for the African sun, and he persuaded The Times to give him a position as a special correspondent in Addis Ababa, convinced that the Italians were about to invade Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was then called). He left London for Addis Ababa in June 1935. The Italian offensive began on October 3 that year. 

Steer’s coverage of the seven-month Second Italo-Ethiopian War established his reputation as a war correspondent. In addition to his reports, he detailed the atrocities committed by Mussolini’s armies in his first book, Caesar in Abyssinia (1936). It was the first of three volumes he was to write on fascist Italy and what has been described as the last great episode of armed colonial conquest in Africa. 

Unsurprisingly, Steer was expelled from Ethiopia shortly after the Italians entered Addis Ababa on 5 May 1936. In addition to the Italians, Steer had also earned the resentment of Evelyn Waugh, who felt it was he, and not Steer, who should be filing for The Times

Waugh had, after all, famously visited the country in 1930 to cover the coronation of Haile Selassie for the newspaper and would go on to satirise the Ethiopian monarch as the cannibalistic Emperor Seth of Azania for his comic novel, Black Mischief (1932).

It didn’t help that, when Waugh arrived in Addis Ababa in August 1935 as a correspondent for the pro-fascist Daily Mail, Steer failed to recognise him at their first meeting. Their ideological differences now widened. Unlike many of his colleagues, Waugh was fiercely pro-Italian, or as he put it, “slappers with the wops”. In language not unfamiliar to present day Twitter users, he wrote to his friend, Lady Diana Cooper: “I have got to hate the ethiopians more each day goodness they are lousy & I hope the organmen gas them to buggery.” (The historian Paul Preston later commented, “Waugh was as deficient in typing skills as in the milk of human kindness.”)

Waugh didn’t take his reporting duties very seriously. Unlike Steer, he never made it to the frontline. To break the tedium of loitering at his hotel, Waugh once purchased a “very low-spirited baboon” which masturbated all day. In the evenings he took the animal to the local nightclub where it molested the whores. Drunk most of the time, he claimed that the heaviest fighting he saw was among journalists at the hotel bar. Steer, in particular, was a “very gay South African dwarf” who was “never without a black eye. Some say it is the altitude more than the bottle.” 

His loathing of Steer’s anti-fascist stance was evident in the savage review he gave Caesar in Abyssinia. “It is not enough that he thinks the war unjust,” Waugh wrote. “He will not allow the Italians the credit of working their destructive machinery with any skill.” Later, in his novel Scoop (1938), Waugh characterised Steer as an overly diligent journalist working for the Twopence, a fictitious newspaper, and gave him what he assumed was the Afrikaans-sounding surnname of Pappenhacker.

It’s not known what Steer made of Waugh’s spiteful ravings. In May 1936, shortly before his expulsion from Addis Ababa, he married Margarita Trinidad de Herrero y Hassett, a correspondent for the Paris-based Le Journal. The couple had barely settled into their London flat, however, before Steer travelled to Spain, again as a special correspondent for The Times. Steer would not see his wife again; she died in childbirth in January 1937 as Steer was returning home. He returned to Spain, grief-stricken, after her funeral.

The Spanish civil war began in July 1936 when General Francisco Franco led a right-wing military insurrection against the Republic’s newly elected left-wing government. On one side were the Nationalists, as Franco’s rebels were known. They comprised the Roman Catholic establishment, high-ranking military leaders, landowners and upper class businessmen. On the other were the Republican loyalists, a fractious grouping of working and middle class elements. Political and ideological differences between the sides were vehement and extreme, to say the least.

Once war was joined, a bewildering array of some 35 000 idealistic men and women raced to Spain to join  the International Brigades and defend the Republican cause. Ill-equipped and untrained, they included trade unionists, liberals, communists, artists, anarchists, socialists, writers, teachers, students, doctors and nurses. Very soon, they’d be pitted against Franco’s crack colonial troops, the Ejército de África, or Army of Africa. They stood no chance.

Hot on the volunteers’ heels, however, came a small army of foreign correspondents. With their arrival, the war became one of the very first of the 20th century’s conflicts in which mass propaganda would play a very significant role. 

Tales of enemy atrocities related by press officers provided sensational copy but were often difficult to verify, especially in the early days of the war. These wild, hastily reported accounts of barbarism by “Reds” and “atheists”, in which nuns were raped, priests beheaded and churches razed, damaged the Republic’s foreign relations at a time when it needed to buy arms to defend itself against Franco. The alleged excesses by Republicans recounted in newspapers, whether true or not, reinforced what the historian Antony Beevor called “that distaste for revolution … which ran strongly in British conservative and diplomatic circles”.

It was not until the bombing of Guernica, in April 1937, that world opinion would begin to shift in favour of the Republicans. But by then they were already losing the war.

George Steer was sympathetic to the Basque cause. When the war broke out, the Republic offered greater autonomy to Spain’s various regions in return for military support. The two richest industrial areas in the north-west and north-east, Basque Country and Catalonia, agreed to the deal. Citizens in both regions spoke their own language, had their own distinctive cultural traditions and had long yearned for greater independence. Franco’s nationalists, claiming to speak for a unified Spain, were violently opposed to any form of devolution and vowed to destroy the “Red separatists”.

Steer was in the Basque capital of Bilbao on April 26, dining at a hotel, when a distraught official broke the news that Guernica was burning. Together with a handful of other reporters, he raced to the nearby town, which was still ablaze at 11pm. Unlike the other correspondents, who then returned to Bilbao to file their stories, Steer remained in the town as soldiers frantically dug up bodies from the smouldering ruins. Sifting through the rubble he picked up the silver tubes of German incendiary devices. Back in Bilbao he interviewed many of the refugees who’d reached the capital. He then returned to Guernica to view the damage in daylight. 

Back in Bilbao, he sat down to write his report in which he correctly identified the three German types of aircraft that took part in the raid — Heinkel and Junkers bombers accompanied by Heinkel fighters. About 3 000 incendiary devices, he said, had been dropped on the town, as well as bombs weighing as much as a thousand pounds apiece. “The fighters,” he wrote, “plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in. the fields.”

The attack, he continued, was an “unparalleled” atrocity: “Guernica was not a military objective. A factory producing war material lay outside the town and was untouched. So were two barracks some distance from the town. The town lay far behind the lines. The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralisation of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race. Every fact bears out this appreciation…”

Steer’s report was published on Wednesday, April 28. The next day, it was reprinted in the French Communist daily, L’Humanité, where it was read by the artist Pablo Picasso. Deeply affected by the account, he abandoned his initial plans for a commissioned mural for the 1937 Paris Exhibition and began work on an enormous canvas that would be his greatest painting and arguably one of the 20th century’s most powerful works of art, “a single flash of chaos and terror”, as Rankin put it. 

Picasso completed the work in just three weeks. During that time, Steer endured an extraordinary campaign of vilification. The Nationalists had immediately denied that Guernica had been attacked. The Francoist foreign press bureau claimed that the Basques had dynamited the town themselves. Greatly angered, the Germans had meanwhile expelled The Times’s Berlin correspondent. Extraordinarily, Nazi propagandists had noticed that “Times” spelt backwards is “Semit”, proof that the newspaper for which Steer wrote was a Jewish-Marxist operation. 

Meanwhile, English journalists who supported Franco launched an extensive campaign to attack Steer’s professionalism. 

After the Nationalists occupied the town, they would conduct carefully chaperoned tours of the ruins for foreign journalists, propaganda exercises in which it was once again claimed that the Basque had bombed themselves. Shamefully, and to Steer’s dismay, The Times published an account of one such tour written by another reporter, James Holborn. Enraged, Steer would issue a rebuttal of Holborn’s report. 

His relationship with the newspaper deteriorated sharply. The anti-fascist tone of Steer’s work had embarrassed The Times, which then dispensed with his services. The newspaper’s stance on the civil war was anti-Republican, and its editor, Geoffrey Dawson, privately sympathised with Franco.

Steer would never write for The Times again. After the fall of Bilbao, he returned to South Africa, where he finished what many regard as one of the best accounts of the conflict, The Tree of Gernika: A Field Study of Modern War (1938). There is no mention of the newspaper in the book, which uses the Basque spelling of Guernica. He then immediately began work on Judgment on German Africa (1939), a study on the Nazis’ colonial ambitions on the continent. 

After the outbreak of the Second World War, the Daily Telegraph sent Steer to Finland to report on the short-lived Winter War, when Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union in November 1939. Here he once again reported on the aerial bombing of towns. Unlike Guernica, however, western countries like France and Britain — and even Germany — were now only too eager to offer arms and equipment as well as volunteers to assist the Finns.

Steer joined the British army in June 1940, and saw action in Ethiopia. He was later sent to Burman where, ironically, he commanded a field propaganda unit which had attempted to undermine the morale of Japanese troops in the jungle with loudspeakers broadcasting sentimental music and speeches. He was on his way to a Christmas party when he was fatally injured in an accident. After the war, Steer’s name was found in the Gestapo’s Special Wanted List of 2 820 people who were to be detained should the Germans invade and occupy Britain. 

He has been honoured in Basque Country. In 2006, the town of Guernica unveiled a bronze bust of Steer in the town square and named a street after him. Four years later, another street was named after him in the capital, Bilbao.

Finally, there is an intriguing anecdote about Pablo Picasso. During the war, it is said that the artist was approached by a German officer in occupied Paris, who asked him, “Did you do Guernica?” He replied, “No, you did.”


Further reading:

Telegram from Guernica: The Extraordinary Life of George Steer, War Correspondent by Nicholas Rankin (Faber and Faber, 2003)

The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936–1939 by Antony Beevor (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2006)

The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War by Giles Tremlett (Bloomsbury, 2020)

The Tree of Gernika: A Field Study of Modern War by G L Steer (Faber and Faber, 1938; reprinted in 2009 with an introduction by Nicholas Rankin)

We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War by Paul Preston (Constable & Robinson, 2008)