Gregory Clark, who says “if you know how we war correspondents work, it may relieve your mind with regard to our shortcomings.”

By Gregory Clark, December 11, 1943.

By Airmail Courier to The Star Weekly from the Isle of Capri.

The greatest advantage of being a war correspondent is that in the midst of battle, when all the world holds its breath, you can send a cable home every day that lets your family know you are whole and safe. True these cables are disguised as news dispatches. But any war correspondent’s family can tell you that the coldest dispatch is a love letter in thin disguise.

This, however, is frankly a love letter because I am writing it in the fabulous Isle of Capri. I came across to Naples for a visit of two or three days to a city I know well, having visited it at the time of the Pope’s coronation in 1939, and in 1940, when I made a cautious retreat from poor bedevilled France and its Maginot line, I came out via Italy and had another meal at the famous restaurant in Naples called Zia Theresa. Now I wanted to see what imperial dreams had done to Naples.

And just across the bay I saw Capri. So I am here in surely the loveliest three square miles on earth (saving only perhaps Go Home Bay on Georgian Bay, Ont.) where not one bomb, not one shell, not one pistol shot has disturbed the incredible peace and beauty of this place. This place from the dreamy terraces of which the dreamy inhabitants have watched the war go by, the ships sunk, the swift, flaming sea battles, and last, the terrible pounding of Naples, across the bay.

But here I have a chance to write about war correspondenting with some reflection. No doubt a number of things about our war news has puzzled and confused you these past three months. And if you know how we work, it may relieve your mind with regard to the shortcomings.

If I were a German general I don’t know which of two things I would most like to know; the number and equipment of the enemy or their immediate plans. Both those secrets can be given away by war correspondents. In the most innocent fashion war correspondents can not merely ruin our own plans, but they can place a good many thousand lives in jeopardy, So a thing called “security” comes into play. What we write is rushed at all speed, by dispatch rider, by jeep, by airplane, to the nearest cable head or wireless station.

There sit a body of field censors, specially trained officers, working for nothing but security. They don’t care about you. They don’t care about us They care only about those tens and hundreds of thousands of lives. And for the plans of our generals. We see the battles. We know both the things the German generals would give their lives, almost, to know: our strength and equipment and also our plans. But we have to write our dispatches, to the best of our ability, revealing nothing of these things.

The censors, back there at the first cable or wireless head, make perfectly sure that the best of our ability is better than best. Some of my dispatches from, say, the battle for Potenza, took six days to get to The Star. Part of that was due to the dispatch riders’ bikes breaking down, the indomitable jeeps bogging in the ruined roads, and partly because the censors simply held the dispatches on the shelf for a couple of days until it was no longer news to the enemy. We correspondents are content. We hope you are.

The life of a war correspondent in this war is both better and worse than that of a soldier. It is better in that he can pretty well come and go as he likes. But it is worse in that a soldier is in the line for a few days or even hours at a time and then is relieved by fresh troops. The poor war correspondent has to see all he can of all battles and all actions, with the result that the great majority of them are in close contact with operations to a far greater extent than the majority of soldiers.

The army does not want a lot of footloose newspapermen wandering about the battle area. So there is set up in all armies what is called the public relations section, which is a small military department of the war office. Officers representing this department are attached to all lesser formations such as army, corps and division. And they take complete control of the correspondents.

We typewriter commandos are virtually sworn in. We have to sign documents placing ourselves under control of the army. We wear regulation officers’ uniform with shoulder badges “Canadian War Correspondent” on our tunics instead of rank badges. We are permitted a little more baggage than officers to allow for our typewriters, paper and other stationery supplies, but we have to be prepared to live, move and have our being as soldiers in the fullest sense of the word.

The major in charge of our detachment has a staff of junior officers, lieutenants and captains, called conducting officers whose duty is to shepherd us wherever we go. One conducting officer to two correspondents is the rule, and with a driver, the four of us move in a jeep wherever we wish. Our detachment is a compact little squad with a lorry and one lighter vehicle to transport our baggage and kits as we travel along in jeeps with the divisional headquarters and work out from there each day in our jeeps.

Whenever the officer commanding us can organize it, he finds a house in a town or village and sometimes we have such a house to come home to at night for a week or ten days on end. It is usually an abandoned house and in a war-stricken area without light, power or water. We set up our safari camp beds on the floor of the bare and often scruffy rooms, saving one good room for a workroom. The cooks of our section do wonders at preparing meals for us from army rations to which we are entitled, eked out by other food bought with our mess fees which we pay out of our own pockets. Early in the morning, we leave by jeep, with our conducting officers, for divisional headquarters where we are “briefed” by the divisional intelligence officer who tells us what the situation is up front, what has happened overnight and what is likely to happen today. We then choose where we wish to go, forward; and two by two with our conductor, we head for the particular sector in which we are interested.

We have our cans of rations, our tea pail, and are prepared to spend the day. We report in at brigade headquarters en route; then call at battalion headquarters to get permission to go ahead of that point. And if we wish to get right into the middle of the picture, we report to company headquarters which normally is far enough ahead for anybody.

But when action is lively, and the division is moving fast, there is no house to come home to at night to write. We camp in the open with the army. We leave in the morning not knowing where divisional headquarters will be the next time we see it. At such times, we often stay with the regiments for days on end, camping with them in open fields, in ruined houses or villages and not infrequently in slit trenches right with the platoons. We never go back to divisional headquarters where our section with its lorry, and cooks and little domestic outfit awaits us; but we do our writing behind walls or in candle-lit cellars, and send the stories back by our jeep driver to our senior officer at division, who forwards them on by whatever means available to cable head.

During the battle for Potenza I had the most memorable experience of my Italian journey when I stayed for eight days right with one outfit in a furious chase of over 60 miles in the closest contact with the retreating Germans. I carried my typewriter slung on my back and wrote whenever a rest presented itself.

All units, all branches look on us as part of the army setup and allow us into all order groups, briefings and roundups. At present there are 12 Canadian war correspondents with the division, not counting the official war photographers who are also part of our little family. Canadian Press, the news agency which gathers the news for all Canadian newspapers collectively, and C.B.C. which serves in the same capacity for the national network, have the largest representation among us; the rest of us being correspondents for independent newspapers.

As for the element of risk in our lives, modern war, with its planes, bombs, paratroops, risky manoeuvres, long-range cannon, furious traffic, offers risks to all mankind, soldier and civilian, man, woman and child, without any element of proportion. Fifty miles from the front, I had a bomb drop on the other side of a house, kill all the Italians in the house and leave me just a little dusty and dazed; whereas 12 hours later I was crawling around in the dark within sound of the coughs of Germans with no risk whatever either to the Germans or me.

One afternoon Bill Stewart of Canadian Press and I spent several hours in a spooky dead village watching through slits and cracks in walls and around the corners of window sills while a famous regiment passed through. German mortar shells crashed about and shellfire sizzled overhead, but we were safe as in church in heavy walled houses and deep narrow streets of stone. There was no sense of risk anywhere, any more than there would be in crossing the street, for in that whole village all that afternoon though 200 soldiers went about their affairs there, not a soul was injured.

Yet on the way home at dark back to our village six miles away where our sweating typewriters champed at their bits, we had to cross a diversion around a blasted bridge. The Germans were shelling this diversion, knowing full well that in the dark our traffic would be bunched up there.

When our turn came to cross the rocky, muddy new road around the bridge, we, like the rest, timed our journey very nicely. We waited until one of the big shells fired from 10 miles away, whistled in and burst around the bridge. Then we started our race across in our jeep. We had plenty of time before the next shell was to follow. But we failed to count on the fact that the Germans had two of those big guns, one of which had not yet started to fire; and which did fire its first just as we were passing the massive abutment of the wrecked stone bridge.

The shell hit the far side of the abutment, a few feet from us, showering us with debris and mud and scaring the stuffing out of us. Those are the chances everybody takes in this war, whether in uniform or out of it, regardless of time, place or anything else. You don’t even have to leave Canada to encounter a share, however small, of this worldwide risk.

Editor’s Note: Greg mentions Go Home Bay as one of the loveliest places on earth. This is where his family had a cottage.