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Flight of the Condor over the Forth

May 12, 2019

The Republican message: today Spain, tomorrow the world

It was the moment the Spanish Civil War came to Scotland – eight months after it had ended in Spain.

October 16, 1939 saw the first Nazi air raid over Britain to bomb ships in the Firth of Forth. Many of the Luftwaffe aircrew had previously served in the Condor Legion supporting Franco’s fascist army.

One of them was Hans Sigmund Storp who deliberately ditched his Junkers 88 dive bomber off Gullane to save his crew after being hit by Spitfires. A fishing boat picked him and his crew up – saving their lives. Storp was so grateful he gave the skipper John Dickson his Luftwaffe gold ring.

This remarkable Gaumont newsreel (2 min) interviews both of them -Dickson on the quayside and Storp in hospital at Edinburgh Castle.

Three years earlier volunteers from around the world travelled to Spain to join the International Brigades fighting Franco – under the mantra Today Spain, Tomorrow the world.

The four young men who left from Prestonpans and suffered the attentions of the Condor Legion in Spain would have had no idea that prophecy would be fulfilled so soon on their very doorstep.

Their story is brilliantly told in a play 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War which has just toured Scotland and all the better for the production’s meticulous historical research. The experiences of two other Scottish volunteers is recalled in the excellent Connectando exhibition which ran at Edinburgh University library and this podcast.

The Condor Legion used Spain as a training ground for the World War which followed. Its most notorious attack was the carpet bombing and machine gunning of Basque civilians in Guernica.

The raid over the Forth was different. Contrary to myth, the Forth Bridge was not the target. Hitler had given specific orders to attack Royal Navy ships in the Forth and to avoid any civilian casualties – at this stage of hostilities there was still the prospect of a negotiated settlement.

There was a common bond between the aviators on both sides – all nervous young rookies with brand new aircraft. Spitfire crews from 602 (Drem) and 603 (Turnhouse) auxiliary squadrons visited and took gifts to their Luftwaffe counterparts in hospital.

Newsreels also echoed a sense of chivalry, giving equal respect at the funerals of German airmen and British sailors.

This was a far cry from the last deadly encounter of the First World War – also off Scotland – in June 1919 – well after the Armistice. Nine German sailors were shot dead and 16 wounded by the Royal Navy in the act of surrender after the scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa Flow. Strangely, the Imperial War Museum refers to this as a “brawl” – if so it was hardly equal with only one side having rifles.

Those sailors are buried on the Isle of Hoy. It seems strange now that the War to End All Wars scarcely managed it for two decades – during which countless thousands on both sides continued to suffer and die from bodies and minds broken in the trenches. Many babies born in 1919 were soldiers in 1939. Including my dad.

Although not reported at the time, the Forth raid was partially successful. Two ships, HMS Edinburgh and HMS Southampton suffered damage and 16 crew members on HMS Mohawk were killed. My Twitter chum John Duncan recorded a poignant interview with Jock Kerr one of the Mohawk survivors:

After his time as a prisoner of war, Hans Storp returned to Germany where he made a career as a musician. The starboard wing fuel tank of his Junkers lay buried in the sands of Gullane beach for more than 50 years before being recovered by two aviation historians. A keen walker on that beach in his sprightly later years was Gullane resident, Lieutenant General Sir Chandos Blair. In 1942 he became the first British prisoner of war to escape from Germany. He made it home via Madrid.

Efforts to help refugees in the Spanish Civil War were spearheaded by the cross-party National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief chaired by Katharine (Kitty) Murray, Duchess of Atholl. She was Scotland’s first female MP (despite her earlier opposition to women’s suffrage) and the first female junior minister in a UK Conservative government. Murray witnessed the devastation caused by the Condor Legion in a visit to Spain in 1937 and was deselected by her local party because of her association with figures from the left.

First hand experience of war also shaped Conservative prime ministers. Harold Macmillan, who made Britain’s first attempt to join the EU (then the EEC), carried the severe wounds received on the Western Front with him for the rest of his life.

As a young officer, Ted Heath, who eventually secured Britain’s accession, witnessed the slaughter on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. The 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings will be marked next month.

October sees the 80th anniversary of the raid on the Forth – the same month, under the current Brexit pantomime timetable, when Britain leaves the EU.

Published by Lochlann

Further reading

Standard sources on Spanish Civil War can be found at the end of previous posts on Belchite and Guernica

Annie Brown’s fine piece in the Record on the 70th anniversary of the raid.

Remarkable recent interest in the Brigaders is reflected in a great site by Kevin Buyers, poignantly listing each Brigader with photograph, the extensive digital collection at the Marx Memorial Library. And Nick Lloyd has not only produced a terrific web resource – he also conducts walking tours of Barcelona based on Civil War history.

Call the Midwife Christmas Special (2)

December 20, 2019

Part one of this quiz was about nurses.  This is part two aimed more at film and TV buffs.

CtM was really well filmed – something new for the Hebrides?

Nope. Two of the greatest cinematographers cut the their teeth there with documentaries  in the middle of World War Two. First in the frame was Jack Cardiff with the Western Isles (14 mins) It was shot in the using new-fangled Technicolor and has Gaelic voices speaking and singing. Watch the film here or via the British Council.

Who was the other?

Kay Mander who made Highland Doctor (1943, b and w, 21 mins) which tells the story of the Highlands and Islands Medical Service.  She did everything, including a very brief cameo role as a cycling district nurse. The main character, the island GP wearing checks loud enough to be visible from space, is played by Alex  Mackenzie making his professional acting debut at the age of 56. Watch here or at the Moving Image Archive

Click on the picture to view the film

What’s this got to do with Joseph Goebbels?

The British government thought the Western Isles would be a gift to the  Nazi propaganda minister and tried to stop it going out. Kay Mander got her first break in films in 1935 at an international conference in Berlin organised by Goebbels.

Kay Mander

What happened next?

Jack got his break into feature films with Powell and Pressburger, gloriously filming The Red Shoes (1948). No such luck for Kay largely because she was a woman in an industry totally dominated by men. She made more documentaries but her later feature work was in continuity, a huge waste of her talents, as chronicled by the BFI here.

What else happened on TV in 1964?

The BBC’s first prime-time television drama Dr Finlay’s Casebook was also set in in rural Scotland. In its heyday it attracted record audience figures on a Sunday night and with Christmas specials, as CtM is doing now. Both have high production values, a talented cast and scripts, and a blend gritty social realism blended with a measured dollop of sentimentality.  In other words, great television drama. Dr Finlay’s Casebook continued to run for decades both on radio and later as an ITV series.

Lead actors in Dr Finlay – Barbara Mullen, Andrew Cruickshank and Bill Simpson. The formidable district nurse midwife, Mistress Niven, was played by Effie Morrison

Who wrote it?

It was based on stories written by AJ Cronin, a doctor who took ill then headed to a Highland cottage with his wife and two young sons to try his hand as a writer.

Didn’t he inspire the creation of the National Health Service?

Pretty much so,  Cronin was the JK Rowling of his era. His novel The Citadel  attracted instant Hollywood interest with a King Vidor film. It was based on his time working in Tredegar in South Wales, home of Nye Bevan, the Labour minister who established the NHS. Alas, there is no evidence that Cronin and Bevan actually met….

And finally…..

Enjoy your Christmas and New Year or as they say in the Hebrides ….

Nollaig Chridheil agus Bliadhna Mhath Ùr

Call the Midwife Christmas special

December 20, 2019
NHS History - North Uist nurses 1926

Tens of millions around the world will tune in to the Call the Midwife special on Christmas Day. It’s set in the Outer Hebrides in late 1964.

Here’s part one of a wee quiz to tease out the history. Part two is aimed more at film and TV buffs.

Weather report

Click on image to view the film

The CtM cast noticed lots of Hebridean rain when filming back in April. Not that it ever rains in Poplar  …. this wee promotional film (5 min) shows comedian Roy Hudd and a Queen’s Nurse valiantly cycling through a deluge in the East End in 1974.

What about real-life nurses in the Hebrides at that time?

The vast majority were Queen’s Nurses, known as the “bees knees” – highly qualified in midwifery, public health and district nursing.  On many islands, the nurse was the only resident health worker looking after people 24/7 quite literally from the cradle to the grave. They were so vital to the communities they served that often they didn’t ask for, nor get holiday breaks.

A pretty bleak existence then?

Not at all – the most joyous picture of a nurse I know is that of Catriona MacAskill photographed on North Uist in 1961. She is one of more than 20 Queen’s Nurses interviewed for Catherine Morrison’s excellent book, Hebridean Heroines.

Queen’s Nurse Catriona MacAskill

What was it like before the NHS was created in 1948?

The state-funded Highlands and Islands Medical Service had already been up and running since 1913. One of its first actions was to send a nurse to St Kilda. It paid for essential items like houses, telephones, motorcycles and cars.

Did it work?

Brilliantly. A report in 1936 concluded: “The combination of doctor and nurse is extraordinarily impressive. Many of the doctors say that practice in their areas would be impossible without the services of the nurses, and everywhere we are told that co-operation between doctor and nurse leaves nothing to be desired.”

How did Queen’s nurses come about?

It started as an idea from William Rathbone in Liverpool and was developed with Florence Nightingale for Queen Victoria’s Silver Jubilee. The Queen’s Nursing Institute (QNI) was established in London and branches in Edinburgh and Dublin.

Three remarkable women – Christian Guthrie Wright, Louisa Stevenson and Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s rebellious fourth daughter formed the driving force in Scotland for the QNIS …..along with Sherlock Holmes.

Joe Bell, the Edinburgh surgeon and inspiration for Conan Doyle’s celebrated detective, valued nurses as much, if not more, than doctors and worked with Nightingale to establish hospital training for nurses. He insisted three years’ hospital experience before starting their Queen’s Nurses.

Why do we not know more about these women?

Same reason Jennifer Worth wrote the original Call the Midwife books – because midwives were hardly recognised at all in literature or media.

Then there was the self-deprecatory culture of district nursing, deferring to doctors and just working quietly rather than showing off. Medicine was largely for men and Queen’s Nurses were invariably single women married to the job.  This only began to change in the 1940s.

Do we still have Queen’s Nurses now?

Yes indeedy. They’re back – first in England and now in Scotland acting as leaders and catalysts for change in their communities – in the Highlands and Islands, helping the elderly and youngsters, refugee mothers and roughnecks on the rigs.

Where else was the idea taken up?

The Appalachian mountains in Kentucky where the Frontier Nursing Service (now Frontier Nursing University) was modelled on the Queen’s Nurses in the Hebrides by pioneer Mary Breckinridge. If you don’t have moist eyes after reading here about her visit in 1924, your heart’s made of stone. She also introduced the term nurse midwife and correctly renamed HIMS as the Highlands and Islands Medical and Nursing Service.

What were “black houses” shown in the Christmas special?

The traditional island house –  taighean dubh in Gaelic  – originally for people and animals. Mary Breckinridge remarked they were the warmest houses she’d experienced in all her time in the UK.


Multiple declarations of interest: I had the privilege of helping edit Hebridean Heroines, research and write a history of the QNIS, and also a web history of the NHS in Scotland.

Shameless plug: my pal Lynne runs the BlackHouse shop which sells Harris Tweed handbags, manbags, and everything Hebridean .

Surviving Father’s Day

May 28, 2019

WEST in the old Templeton factory

Fathers Day looms – June 16 so time for reflection on contributions dads make. OK, so maybe they don’t get things right that often. But sometimes they do.

Germany celebrates earlier – May 30 with Vatertag. This set me thinking. Beer is a good starting point because it brings good cheer, if we follow the rule of contentment before capacity.

A refreshingly different story this month was the decision by Petra Wetzel, who set up the West Brewery on Glasgow Green, to transfer ownership over time to its staff.

For historians it’s a must visit – located in the old Templeton carpet factory (itself modelled on the Doge’s Palace in Venice), and the bar and restaurant next door. Plus all its beers are brewed in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot purity law from 1516.

West started off in 2005 as a result of lacklustre local lager served to Petra’s engineer dad, Herbert, over on a visit from Bavaria to see his daughter then completing her studies at Glasgow University. This gave the idea of setting up a German style brewery in the city and he provided the backing. West went through troubled times initially but is now a roaring success.

This prompted me to reflect on my KGB days in Aberdeen. Wellbeing can also be triggered naturally by the endorphins which gives us the buzz from exercise. These were discovered by a team headed by Hans Kosterlitz and John Hughes at Marischal College.

They would pile into the KGB (Kirkgate Bar) for at the end of the week a sociable pint (Hans favoured a glass of Glenmorangie) alongside thirsty journalists.

Hans had come to Aberdeen to study under the Nobel-winning physiologist  JJR Macleod and won many scientific awards apart from the Nobel. However, his son Michael made suitable redress – securing the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2016.

Hans Kosterlitz, courtesy of The Royal Society

A final nostalgic rekindling this week came from a CD came across in a charity shop.  A sign of ageing is that you start to like your dad’s favourite bands which you couldn’t stand as a teenager.  Bert Kaempfert comes into that category.

He was the harbringer of “Easy Listening” (come to think of it who enjoys hard listening?) I wasn’t a fan because I mistakenly believed from his celebrated safari songs that he was a white South African in the Apartheid years when the best black musicians like Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba were forced into exile.

Bert was in fact German. Not only was he a brilliant horn player, composer (Strangers in the Night for one), arranger and band leader, he also gave the first recording break in Hamburg to a group of Scouse rookies. They became the Beatles.

So after your cycle or run to get the endorphins pulsing, time to pour yourself a West lager and listen to Bert’s That Happy Feeling.

Happy Father’s Day!



Fags, footie and Fergie

July 1, 2018

Everyone comes to the history of the NHS from their own perspective.

Thus, if you’re over 40 you’re likely to be clueless about Dr Finlay’s Casebook although it was the first peak time BBC original TV drama in the 1960s.

And millennials with their perfect orthodontically sculpted gnashers can’t believe their grannies would routinely get all their teeth pulled out and replaced with dentures as a dowry to save on dentists’ bills. That’s why half of Scotland’s population was edentulous in 1974 – nae teeth at all.

Board creators Ken and Andrew

Art is a  good way of articulating people’s own stories, as in these boards created at the NHS event in Glasgow last week.

And then there’s subject matter, Football doesn’t look promising but there is a surprisingly rich vein to tempt those currently glued to the World Cup finals.

In 1982 Scotland was the first non-smoking country in the World Cup finals. This was largely the brainchild of David Player, director of the Scottish Health Education Group and a tireless public health campaigner, In this brief audio clip (3 min) recorded in 2007.

David talks about Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool manager Alex Ferguson of St Mirren and Aberdeen before disappearing into obscurity, the deal to sign up the Scotland team (at a cost of £70,000) and the unorthodox sanction Danny McGrain had for any players stepping out of line.

Smoking has probably killed a million Scots directly since 1948 and contributed the deaths of many more. The dangers were known in the early 1950s but it took five decades before legislation to denormalise smoking.

Top players routinely promoted cigarettes such as the Co-op’s Rocky Mountain brand, as in this film from 1960. where goalie Jocky Robertson lights up after making a save:

The Scottish Football Association made the national team do worse things like play a “friendly” in 1977 against Chile in the national stadium where thousands were tortured and murdered after General Pinochet’s coup.

Surprisingly, Pinochet turned up as an NHS patient at the Western General in Edinburgh in 1996. His doctor was a personal friend of an Edinburgh consultant and was worried about a lung complaint on a visit to Britain. Pinochet was registered under his other names Augusto Ugarte, given some routine tests and sent to Boots in Shandwick Place for a non-prescription medication.

Three years earlier the Western also treated England’s greatest football hero, Bobby Moore. The captain of the 1966 World Cup winners was by definition never a favourite of many Scottish fans. His bowel cancer was initially misdiagnosed but he was offered the chance to take part in a new chemotherapy trial at the Western.

Overall several weekends, he flew up and stayed in an open NHS ward. He was recognised by score of nurses, doctors, cleaners and taxi drivers and he cheerfully signed autographs.  Throughout that time not a single person cliped on him by tipping off the media.

It’s a good example of the best values of decency, respect and kindness we associate with the NHS. A memorial research trust was set up after his death. To mark her gratitude his widow Stephanie made it first donation of £250,000 … the Western.

Making a drama out of a crisis

June 25, 2018

When all else fails after 90 years it’s time to throw the kids into battle.

Which is why Gullane Primary youngsters were the stars of a new musical premiered this month at the National Museum of Scotland. Next week Hitherfield Primary takes up the baton at the Science Museum in London.

The Mould that Changed the World is a production from Charades Theatre Company which specialises in putting on shows for and by schools. And not many can count on two chief medical officers in the audience: Catherine Calderwood in Scotland and Sally Davies in England.

It was written and produced by Robin Hiley with support from James Ross and Meghan Perry.

The two shows are one-offs but there a free resource will be available for any school to put on its own production next year.

And you can book tickets here for the grown-up version on the Edinburgh Fringe for adults and families running at Surgeons’ Hall.

It tells the story of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928. It opens with a recent meeting of the UN General Assembly debating the legacy of drug resistance which has rendered many frontline drugs useless.

And yes, we’ve already got into military metaphors. The show then switches to France in 1915 when medics were very concerned at loss of life by wound infections.

The most feared of these was gas gangrene – nothing to do with poison gas but a horrible death caused by bacteria all too common in the Flanders soil which created blisters of foul –smelling gas.

Standard application of antiseptics did little for deeper wounds and often harmed treatment of gas gangrene. Surgeons on both sides could do little.

Among the most successful was Frances Ivens, head of the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Royaumont and her colleague Agnes Savill, who achieved a 75 per cent success using the débridement technique to rid the wound of dead tissue.

Despite the disgusting destructive effects of bacteria, under a microscope they do have a certain beauty. Staphylococcus Aureus translates as “golden bunch of grapes” and was first identified by Alexander Ogston in Aberdeen. Put Methicillin Resistant in front of it and you have MRSA.

Annie Cavanagh, Wellcome Images

Fleming was targetting staphylococcus when he discovered penicillin. He served in the First World War in the Royal Army Medical Corps. On the German side there was medical student Gerhard Domagk equally appalled by the loss of life from septic wounds.

It was Domagk who produced the first antibiotic to be widely used. Prontosil, derived from a chemical dye, was the first of the sulfa drugs became available from 1935. It was ideal for treating women who contracted sepsis after giving birth, saving thousands of lives.

In Scotland it brought a significant reduction in maternal mortality prior to 1939. This decline accelerated between 1940 and 1945. Maternal mortality was almost halved in the war years  – thanks to a drug from Germany.

Domagk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1939 but Hitler stopped him from collecting it. The Gestapo arrived at his home and kept him prisoner for a week.

The potential value he had , along with Philipp Klee, his clinical colleague at the Wuppertal -Elberfeld hospital, in combating gas gangrene gave them some protection – until the SS took Klee’s Jewish wife Flora to Theresienstadt  concentration camp. By sheer chance and the camp’s early liberation, she survived. As Domagk remarked in his diary: “The National Socialist system started with lies and suffocated in cruelty and blood”

It was the war which propelled intense UK and US efforts to turn Fleming’s discovery into a practical drug.  This was developed by Florey and Chain in Oxford and paved the way for mass production.

The Mould that Changed the World chronicles subsequent events.  As early as 1945 Fleming spoke of the dangers of drug resistance – as you can hear in this short clip

At the end he also mentions the prospects of a new drug for the tubercle (TB) against which penicillin was no use. Streptomycin arrived soon after.

Desperate patients fuelled black markets – streptomycin was illicitly traded outside the Brompton Hospital in London’s Fulham Road and the lethal racket in counterfeit penicillin in Vienna provided the backdrop for the classic 1949 film The Third Man.

Ignorant physicians in private practice could prescribe one drug – and then another when that failed due to the bug becoming resistant.  The patient could then spread drug resistant bugs caught by others. But the doctor could say everything had been tried…. before the patient died.

That changed with Medical Research Council’s streptomycin trial – probably not the first randomised controlled trial but certainly the most influential in shaping what we now know as evidence-based medicine.

Crofton (left) and colleagues

John Crofton learned a lot from his involvement of that trial at the Brompton. By the time he had moved to Edinburgh two new drugs had become available But no-one knew how to use them to best effect and overcome drug resistance. The radical step was to give new patients all three drugs at the outset.

Much to their own initial astonishment they found they were curing virtually every patient. They reported that with meticulous bacteriology to monitor each patient’s progress a 100% cure for tuberculosis was a reasonable objective. Between 1954 and 1957 TB notifications in Edinburgh were more than halved – a feat unmatched anywhere before or since.

This became the gold standard treatment in affluent countries. Despite major efforts, however, TB remains a huge problem around the world. Lack of resource and access to treatment, the impact of HIV and the relentless advance of multi-drug resistance means cure across the world remains just a vain hope.

How much of this is inevitable? Patients demanding – and clinicians dispensing – antibiotics as though they were sweeties don’t help . Nor does not completing the full course for treatment.  Some countries like the Netherlands have controlled it much better.

Overuse of military metaphors can oversimplify – medicine and disease are far more complex. Patronising government campaigns like Public Understanding of Science in the 1990s provided just the acronym you need for anti-microbial work.

Which is why musical theatre in schools may help.

As Gullane Primary showed, it is brilliant fun for children and hugely enjoyable for the audience.

The show is actively supported by Antibiotic Action and  the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. It is the second brilliantly inventive original drama to come out of East Lothian this year following Wonderfools 549 telling the story of four International Brigade volunteers from Prestonpans.

Will it work? Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War premiered at Stratford East in 1963 but went on through school productions to transform a whole generation’s understanding of the Great War.

You can make a drama out of a crisis. Time now to spread the word – not the germs.

The night the world ended

April 26, 2017


Few reporters make the ranks of poets.  My namesake Hugh Christopher Holme was one of them.  As a Reuters correspondent he brought the horror of the bombing of Gernika (Guernica) to the world’s attention.

His dispatches triggered an enormous international response, immortalised in Picasso’s painting, and also forewarned of the real truths of Nazi war-making.

But Holme was also a gifted poet whose undergraduate works were considered worthy enough to be published alongside those of MacNeice, Spender, and Auden. His poetry relating to the Spanish Civil War has largely remained hidden, although a small selection was published privately for his friends after his death in 1991.


GERNIKA, APRIL 26, 1937,

The world ended tonight.

There in that unreal desolation

Of molten tunnel, flame-arched passageway,

House-hung setpieces dripping cement and bricks,

A handful of dim creatures

Are scratching for fragments of their slaughtered world.

Humbly they lived, where now this mock-sunset

Affronts and dulls the moon.

They worked and slept, none too busy, not over-anxious

To air their civic pride at large.

That blood-red and sinister glow

Which feverishly quickens the outer night

In a far more spectacular pall

Than they would have chosen to cover up their day.

Aeroplanes, bombs, German invaders

Are easy embodiments of hatred

For daily sufferers, easy too the description

”Death rained’, ‘Wings darkened the sky”.

But what later uprush of indignation can outburn

The shining grape-clusters of aluminium

Which unthinking as the boyish hands that hurled

Have caused this dumb life after death,

This timorous, unbelieving survival

Of a few not now nor again ever fittest?

A few pots, a sewing machine, some bedding piled

Within heat-glare, spark-throw of the unhalted flames

May still be of use to the undead, after-living,

But what will tell the visitor from another life,

Stepping delicately among fallen tramwires,

Counting seconds till the next crash of fire-soaked masonry

How time itself was shattered by those frequencies,

Intolerable air displacements beyond sound,

Quarrying the public square at random?

He will see, and talk with some, seeing and hearing

Will dawn into the full sense of what has been done.

And then he will go, and then hotly

Pour it down the runnels to his outer world,

Where maybe an inkling will make headway.

And then?


Spokesmen will get up among the well-fed and comfortable

And tell those dead and the unliving survivors

What fires they lit to consume their own homes.

What mines they laid to blow themselves up.

What lies they told of an air-fleet which destroyed their world.

Poem published by permission of Mrs Anthea Holme.

Chris was a modest chap so there aren’t that many good photos of him. This one from the LSE library shows him on train – in British Army uniform and I think working in Germany in 1947.Christopher_Holme_,_1947_(4598278853)

His poem was first published in the Herald 20 years ago, with a piece from me on the 60th anniversary of the bombing available online here:

There has been a lot of good writing about Gernika in the intervening years but here’s the orginal piece as text………

Three British war correspondents were sitting down to dinner at a Bilbao hotel in April 1937: Christopher Holme, of Reuters, George Steer of the London Times and Noel Monks of the Daily Express. They were joined by Mathieu Corman, a Belgian working for the French newspaper Ce Soir. It had been an exhausting day. Out on the road that afternoon they had been strafed by German aircraft, a fact which would be significant later on. Around ten, a distraught Basque Government official told them a town some 15 miles away had been bombed and was still burning.

They could have stayed on for more drinks and tried to catch up on the story the next day. Instead they followed two classic reporting maxims: they made their excuses and left, then went to see what was happening for themselves. The next four hours were to change their lives and the course of history. The town was Guernica.

Holme, by virtue of the fact he worked for an international news agency, was the first to bring the story to the world’s attention. It made the evening newspapers on April 27 and The Herald used his copy the next day under the headline ”Basque Town Now Heap of Ruins”.

All four reporters were clear on the basic facts. German aircraft from the Condor Legion fighting with Franco’s Nationalists had systematically annihilated the ancient Basque town in the raid lasting three hours. They came in waves, first dropping heavy bombs and hand grenades, then incendiaries to set the whole area ablaze. Fighters machine-gunned the fleeing civilian population and 1000 people or more were killed.

There was no obvious military target, apart from a small factory and a bridge, both of which were untouched. The town was a historic symbol of Basque independence: the home of their parliament and the ancient oak tree where Spanish monarchs used to swear to observe local customs. Air-raid shelters had been dug after the bombing of another town, Durango, at the start of the northern offensive by the Nationalist army commanded by General Emilio Mola. Unlike Durango, however, the devastation at Guernica was complete and the use of incendiary bombs seemed calculated to inflict maximum terror and civilian casualties. It was full of refugees, farmers, and peasants who had come in for market day.

The dispatches from Holme, Monks, Corman, and Steer triggered a huge emotional response throughout the world, achieving for Guernica a notoriety far greater than earlier massacres committed by both sides. The Spanish war was already awash with propaganda. Franco was seen by many newspapers as the saviour of the church and country from the terrors of communism and anarchism. Against him the Republic had La Pasionaria and the better writers like Malraux, Hemingway, and Orwell. But they were no match for the straightforward news reporting provided by Holme, Steer, and Monks. Holme’s introduction to journalism was fortuitous. He endured Rugby School, Oxford University and a couple of uninspiring posts before walking into Reuters and asking for a job. A skilled linguist, he was immediately sent to Berlin for the trial after the burning of the Reichstag and later covered the Italian invasion of Abyssinia.

None of the British reporters nor the organisations they represented could be described as pro-Republican which made the veracity of their reports difficult to counter. Quite simply, neither Mola, Franco, nor Hitler had envisaged the international backlash or else they thought it would be diverted by the despatches of the journalists following Mola’s army which arrived in Guernica three days later.

The Nationalist press office in Salamanca did its best. It was staffed largely by military types, including Captain Gonzalo Aguilera, a Spanish grandee whose mother was a Scots woman named Munro.

The Nationalists hectored and bullied correspondents. Even reporting the presence of Italian or German troops in Spain was strictly forbidden: Monks, who like Holme had previously worked from the Nationalist side, had once been hauled before Franco for breaking this taboo and was threatened with a firing squad before being expelled.

The first line of defence, that bad weather prevented any aircraft flying that day, was almost immediately exposed as false. Then Aguilera blamed Asturian miners for dynamiting the houses. Even pressmen brought in with Mola’s army confirmed that aircraft had inflicted at least part of the damage. This did not prevent a backlash against the initial four correspondents but, commendably, their bosses stood by their men in the field.

Reuters then scored an own goal in another story on April 29 rebutting Franco’s denial of the raid. Holme filed the types of aircraft involved: Junkers 52 and Heinkel 111 bombers and Heinkel 51 fighters, but a sub-editor in London confused the aircraft types for numbers involved. The mistake was corrected within an hour, but nonetheless proved a gift to the German Press. The Frankfurter Generalanzeiger called Holme an idiot and the Nazi Volkischer Beobachter called for his dismissal claiming he was in the direct pay of the Bolshevists.

Reuters’ archives show a more sinister threat. Holme had reported seeing an unexploded bomb with German markings at Guernica which attracted the attention of the Nationalist radio commentator General Queipa de Llano. Another Reuters correspondent in Spain reported to London that Holme, Monks, and Steer would run a real risk of being shot if the rebels ever got hold of them. De Llano had been mentioning Holme by name. Holme himself remained unruffled. ”I am not surprised that German official quarters should be upset by the reaction to the destruction of Guernica by German aircraft,” he said in a letter to his managing director.

The atrocity triggered heated exchanges between the German and British Governments. In Parliament, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden was evasive in his answers to opposition calls for an international inquiry. In private, he was fully aware of the reality: Ralph Stevenson, the British consul in Bilbao, visited the scene 24 hours after the bombing. His report to Eden confirmed correspondents’ accounts as did the testimony of Father Onaindia, a Basque priest. A senior official at the Foreign Office minuted dryly: ”Guernica has taught us what to expect from the Germans and it has also shown how inefficient is the propaganda department of the Franco Government.”

The controversy over Guernica continued to rage well after the war. In his memoirs published in 1955, Noel Monks, himself a Catholic, noted: ”Rome put the official seal on Franco’s denial and to this day only ‘bad’ Catholics believe that the Germans destroyed Guernica.”

The reasons for the attack are difficult to fathom. For many it appeared to be a dress rehearsal for the Second World War. Colonel von Richtofen, leader of the Condor Legion, and a cousin of the First World War ace, revealed in his diary that he had conferred with Mola’s chief of staff before the raid took place. Whether Franco knew in advance is not clear.

In the two years before the advent of the Second World War, visiting Luftwaffe aircrew in London boasted of the attack and the lessons they had learned from it.

The scale of the devastation appears to have shocked both the German aviators and Franco, which may explain their desire to cover up. In 1945 Goering is said to have claimed it was a ”testing ground” for Luftwaffe blitzkrieg tactics but Guernica seems to have had little impact in deterring the RAF and US Air force from saturation bombing of predominantly civilian targets.

The Herald’s leader on April 30 probably correctly identified it as a terror attack intended to force Bilbao to give in without a fight, as it did soon after: ”There is the psychological weapon. What, it can be argued, is more likely to terrorise Bilbao into surrender than a not-too-distant demonstration of frightfulness?”

Guernica certainly fuelled calls for re-arming and also galvanised neutral or previously supportive opinion against the Nationalists. After Guernica, Time, Life, and Newsweek all took the side of the Republic.

Of the four reporters in the Bilbao hotel, Christopher Holme was the only one not to write a book about his experiences, although he did provide some information in a letter to Herbert Southworth, author of the standard work on the bombing and how it was reported.

A modest and self-effacing man, it is perhaps just as well his poems were not published at the time, given Franco’s antipathy towards journalists. He was even less forgiving to poets, like Spain’s greatest, Federico Garcia Lorca, who was shot, almost casually, by Nationalist partisans in 1936.

Reporting carried its risks then as it does now. The German photojournalist Gerta Taro, a colleague of the Hungarian Robert Capa, became the first of her profession to be killed in the war four months after Guernica.

Holme used his wages from Spain to buy a luxury Lagonda car. He was posted to the Reuters Vienna bureau where he met his wife, Anthea. The car came in handy when the Nazis marched in to Austria at the time of the Anschluss. Neither Holme nor his Jewish assistant Alfred Geiringer would have been safe to stay. They zig-zagged up in to Germany avoiding the direct route into Switzerland in an escape which could have been taken from the plot of The Lady Vanishes. Geiringer hid in the boot when he thought he might have been recognised.

Holme went on to become the first assistant director of the Third Programme, and a translator and producer of radio plays. Geiringer provided the expertise that revived Reuters financial information services which were to underpin its news gathering and secure the agency’s later immense profitability.

Last year, the German government, after a decade of campaigning by the Green activist, the late Petra Kelly, agreed to pay compensation to Guernica for the devastation caused by Hitler’s bombers.

Christopher Holme would probably have viewed it as belated poetic justice.



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