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ยป George Lowther STEER
 
 

George Lowther STEER

Service number 152641

Born: November 22nd 1909
Died: December 25th 1944

George was born at Mrs Wheeler's Nursing Home, Alexandra Road, Cambridge, East London, Cape Colony, South Africa. He was the only child of Bernard Augustine Steer (1880-1952), a newspaper manager and his wife, Emma Cecilia Armitage Nutt (1884-1960), a charitable activist, daughter of Whaley Bouchier Nutt and Helen Hamilton Black

Described as slight, ginger-haired and precociously bright, he was educated at St Andrew's preparatory school, Grahamstown, South Africa. He was sent to England to St Peter's, Seaford from where he won a scholarship to Winchester College. He was there from 1923 until 1928. He edited The Wykehamist and was known to be independent-minded and witty.

He Matriculated in 1929 and was awarded a classics scholarship. He graduated in 1932 with a double first. [Classical Mods 1930; Lit. Hum. 1932.]

He went home to South Africa in the summers of both 1930 and 1931.

He began his journalistic career in South Africa with an apprenticeship on the South African Cape Argus. He returned to London and was employed by the Yorkshire Post.

In July 1935, he covered the Italian invasion of Ethiopia as a special correspondent for The Times. He became friendly with Emperor Haile Selassie.

The Emperor fled on May 1st 1936. Whilst Addis Ababa collapsed into anarchy, George helped to rescue foreigners and on May 4th he married the Spanish journalist Margarita de Herrero y Hassett in the grounds of the British legation where 1520 refugees of twenty-seven nationalities were sheltering. The beautiful daughter of a Spanish father and English mother, Margarita was in her late thirties, some ten years older than George.

The next day he was expelled, accused of anti-Italian activities and espionage because he had reported the Italians' use of mustard gas and their bombing of Red Cross ambulances.

In December 1936, Hodder and Stoughton published his first book, “Caesar in Abyssinia”. In his introduction he thanked The Times for showing him 'a path from which I shall not deviate' His five subsequent books all dealt with the menace of international fascism.

Margarita Steer and her unborn child died in the London Clinic on January 29th 1937. George had taken up the cause of the Basques in Spain. On Margaret’s death, they provided a minesweeper to take him to France where she was buried in Biarritz. 'To Margarita, Snatched Away' is his dedication in “The Tree of Gernika: a Field Study of Modern War” which was published in 1938. It is a firsthand account of the gallant struggle of the Basque Autonomous Republic in the Spanish Civil War, from the burning of Irun to the fall of Bilbao.

He reported on the destruction of Guernica on April 26th 1937. His telegram to London described the Nazi bombing and the machine-gunning of the people. The anti-Fascist tone of his reporting led to him leaving The Times; the newspaper's editorial stance on the war was neutral. He wished to write his book on Guernica.

He joined the Daily Telegraph and returned to South Africa .In his book “Judgment on German Africa” [1939], he documented Germany's attempts to subvert its former African colonies. In the same year, having toured French and Italian defences in Tunisia and Libya, he wrote “A Date in the Desert”.

On July 14th 1939, George married Barbara Esmé Barton (1908-1988), the younger daughter of Sir Sidney Barton, former British minister at Addis Ababa. Haile Selassie attended the wedding and stood godfather to their son at St Paul's Cathedral in June 1940. They went out to South Africa, returning to England on August 21st. They gave their address on the manifest at the Orchard Hotel, Portman Street, W1. Later in the year, a second visit was made to South Africa and they returned on December 16th. They were living at 15, Neville Street, S.W.7. They had a son and a daughter.

The Daily Telegraph sent him to Finland to cover the Winter War. There, he saw the effects of the aerial bombing of several Finnish towns by the Soviets and attempts made to intimidate the population, just as he’d seen at Guernica
When Italy entered the war, Sir Sydney Barton and George lobbied for Haile Selassie to be involved in the war effort. On June 24th, the newly commissioned Acting Captain George Steer accompanied Haile Selassie in a Short Sunderland flying boat to Egypt and the Sudan.

The story of how a multiracial army of Africans, Indians, Europeans and Ethiopian guerrillas drove the Italians out of East Africa is told in George's book “Sealed and Delivered” [1942] and in the official history “The Abyssinian Campaigns” which he wrote, anonymously, the same year. When the Emperor re-entered his capital in triumph on May 5th 1941, Captain Steer of the Intelligence Corps was at the head of the column in a loudspeaker-van.

George Steer specialised in psychological warfare, using music, broadcast speech and the written word to persuade enemy soldiers to surrender. He developed this in Eritrea against Italians, in the western desert against Germans, in Madagascar against the Vichy French and, finally, in Burma against the die-hard Japanese.

From his arrival in India in January 1943, he was at the forefront of tactical offensive propaganda for the Special Operations Executive. He founded the multilingual Indian field broadcasting units who used front-line loudspeakers to broadcast in Japanese and distributed surrender leaflets by plane and mortar.

After lunch on Christmas day 1944, he was driving a jeep with seven passengers, to his men's sports day when it overturned at Fagu, West Bengal. George and three others were killed.

He was buried at Rungamuttee tea estate on Boxing Day 1944.

He is commemorated on the Rangoon memorial Face 19.

He had not seen his wife Esmé and son and daughter for two years. The typescript of his last book vanished. He left £443 5s. 11d

'One of the adventurers of this generation' The Times, 2 Jan 1945,

'An adventurer who was never out for himself, only for a cause'. T. Cadett, New Statesman and Nation, 3 Feb 1945.

'There was nothing he could not have done when he got back,' mourned Philip Noel-Baker in a letter to Sir Sidney Barton.

George STEER

In 2006 Guernica honoured him by unveiling a bronze bust and naming a street in his memory

In 2010, Bilbao opened the George Steer Street. His son and granddaughter attended.

Sources: DNB; Nick Rankin, “Telegram from Guernica: the extraordinary life of George STEER” (2003)

A historian must be filled with the most passionate and most critical attachment to the truth, so must the journalist, with the great power he wields, see that the truth prevails.
(STEER, Tree of Gernika,)

Image: Street sign in Bilbao, Spain

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