IT WAS a good rousing action. The unit involved was Toronto’s 48th Highlanders. That made the story a natural for the Toronto Evening Telegram’s Bert Wemp. It was back in the days when war was the world’s biggest story. The Canadians were halfway up Italy.
Wemp was not even chagrined when the censor clipped out the words “48th Highlanders” wherever they occurred in the story, substituting “an eastern Canadian regiment.” He had decided to air mail the story home, figuring the name of the unit might be released by the time the story reached Toronto. He would have time to cable a correction.
He was right. When the ban was suddenly lifted and the 48th were released for publication three days later, the Toronto correspondent cabled his paper, advising them of the change. Air mail service usually took about a week, so he had plenty of time.
“In my mailer No. 74,” the cable read, “the eastern Canadian regiment referred to is the 48th Highlanders of Canada.”
Unhappily, his cable passed through the hands of a censor who failed to notice that the regiment had been released, and the blue pencil went to work again. A puzzled cable editor in Toronto, therefore, received this masterpiece of double talk at his end of the line:
“In my mailer No. 74 the eastern Canadian regiment referred to is an eastern Canadian regiment.”
It took quite an exchange of cables and some rather acrimonious debating between Wemp and the censors before the matter was straightened out.
Equally exasperating was the Algiers censor’s reaction to a story Ralph Allen, of the Toronto Globe and Mail, wrote the day after the First Division had landed in Sicily. The communique that day named three towns captured in the early stages of the invasion, crediting one to the British, one to the Canadians and one to the Americans. Allen followed the communique religiously as he wrote:
“British troops of the Eighth Army captured Avola today, while Americans were taking Gela and Canadian troops were capturing the intermediate town of Modica.”
But when the copy came out of censorship he noticed the word “intermediate” had been deleted.
Never one to pass up a challenge, Allen sought out the Field Prass Censor, with a gleam in his eye. Why, he demanded, had the word been cut? He maintained it was essential to his story, in that it gave the reader a mental picture without the necessity of looking up maps.
“But my dear fellow,” the censor replied, “when you use the word ‘intermediate’ you are indicating that Modica is between Avola and Gela.” “Well, isn’t it?” persisted the correspondent.
“Yes, it is. But if you publish it you will be giving information to the enemy,” was the astounding reply.
Allen’s face turned an apoplectic crimson and he rolled his eyes heavenward in despair.
“My God!” he screamed. “Do you mean to tell me the Germans haven’t even got a map of Sicily?”
Allen’s choler got results that time,
The eternal battle between the war correspondents and the censors had some hilarious skirmishes. Here's a report on them—uncensored
because the senior censor overheard his blast and passed the disputed phra.se, but that was just because he happened to be on the scene at the crucial moment.
Gathering dust in bulky file covers are many a nationally famous war reporter’s carefully plotted “think pieces,” many a brilliant turn of phrase and well-coined epigram. They are the words and phrases that overran the rigid bounds of military security at the time they were written, and though subsequent events have removed any danger that might result from publication now, most of them will never be read, because the events they deal with are no longer news.
The “held file” existed wherever armies assembled to fight the enemy and war correspondents to write about it. There is a tremendously big one at the War Office in London, accumulated over six years of warfare. Allied Force Headquarters in Italy had another, going back to the November day in 1942 when the Allies invaded North Africa; and SHAEF in Europe managed to accumulate a pretty sizeable one in less than a year of operation, for General Eisenhower’s Headquarters catered to more war correspondents than any other front. In the Pacific and southeastern Asia were newer models of this literary graveyard. The shadow of the held file hovered over every war correspondent’s shoulder whenever he sat down to write about a battle or analyze the trend of war for readers back home.
Every line of copy, whether written in the front line of battle or back at base headquarters, whether it dealt with a military operation or how Pte. Joe Doakes spent his last leave, had to pass through the hands of the Field Press Censor before it continued by cable or wireless to its final destination. If the story infringed any of a score or more inflexible restrictions, it went into the held file, stamped with indelible ink, “NOT FOR PUBLICATION.” Usually the bulk of the story got by, with a few blue pencil marks here and there; and a carbon copy of the censored piece was held in the file for future reference.
With men’s lives at stake, sometimes on the mere interpretation of a sentence, censorship in the field had to be hairsplittingly keen; with timeliness the guiding factor in judging the worth of news stories, speed was essential. So it was not surprising that censors sometimes made mistakes, or that most of them inclined to the view: “When in doubt, cut it out.”
War correspondents are fond of saying that all you needed to be a Field Press Censor was a captain’s rank, a blue pencil and no sense of humor, but then war correspondents are prejudiced. The Army stipulated that its press censors must be first, trained intelligence officers; second, specially trained in censorship; and third, men with newspaper backgrounds where possible.
Field press censorship sections were
headed usually by a lieutenant-colonel, with two teams of censors under him, each commanded by a major. The teams were sometimes as small as three officers or as large as a dozen, depending on the number of war correspondents accredited to the theatre. The guiding principle was to have an adequate staff available for both day and night shifts, probably overlapping their duty hours at peak times of the day. Immediately after the morning communique was issued, for instance, all available censors were usually required to handle the mass of bulletins, new leads and detailed news stories which issued from the smoking typewriters of agency men, each trying to maintain his particular agency’s reputation for being first with the news.
Inferno, Forbidden City
The censors had a few hard and fast rules to assist them in their task of maintaining “security” in news stories. No town or place name, for instance, could be mentioned in any story unless it had been named in the official communique. An exception was made to this rule only in the case of front-line correspondents who had actually been in the town or locality concerned.
It was undoubtedly this regulation that resulted in an overzealous censor eliminating a graphic bit of description from a story written by the Sifton Newspapers correspondent, J. A. M. Cook, in Italy, in 1944. With the Volturno River recently crossed by our troops, and the town of Bifurno creeping into the news, the censor was understandably wary when he read that “Canadians drove through a blazing inferno today . . .” He may even have checked the communique to assure himself. But whatever happened, Cook’s “blazing inferno” was neatly excised from the text and now reposes in the AFHQ held file. It lives, however, in the war correspondents’ mythology of World War II, right up alongside the story of the bombs the German Air Force was once reported to have dropped at Random, England.
Bert Wemp’s experience with the 48th Highlanders was the result of a regulation that gave correspondents the willies and provided blue-pencilconscious censors a field day. As in the case of geographical locations, the names of regiments might not normally be released until they were mentioned in the communiques. In the Armies on the Western Front these releases were often forthcoming within 48 hours of the start of a major operation; but during the Sicilian and Italian campaigns it was usually 10 days to two weeks before names were passed for publication.
During the period of censorship black-out, public relations officers at the transmission centre had to decide for the correspondents whether a story should be passed with the name of the unit deleted, and some vague phrase like “an eastern Canadian regiment” substituted, or whether the whole story should go into the held file until the release came through. Because the transmission centre was normally many miles behind the front, the officer detailed to do the checking usually had to make the decision without consulting his war correspondents. That’s what led to Bert Wemp’s Battle of the Blue Pencils.
Some months later, however, he achieved sweet revenge by beating the censors to a frazzle, quite innocently. In the winter of 1943-44, an infantry brigade from the 5th Canadian Armored Division went into action on the Arielli River, under a cloak of secrecy so thick that correspondents were not
allowed to mention the fact that the I Division was even in the theatre. One of the regiments in the brigade w'as the | Toronto Irish, who were involved in a | spirited and highly successful engagement.
Mindful of the security issues involved, Wemp wrote his story with utmost care. He made no reference to the division or brigade or to the city from which the regiment had come, but in the course of his story he mentioned, quite casually, the fact that the green Balmorals of the troops moving through a newly captured town were an inspiring sight. The Toronto Irish Regiment is the only unit in the whole of Canada to wear green Balmorals and the Telegram was able to splash the story all over Page One, revealing that the Toronto Irish were in action in Italy.
Since, however, by that time the Germans had taken several prisoners from the regiment, and since the men wore vivid shoulder flashes bearing the name of the regiment in bold letters, Wemp’s story gave away absolutely no information that was not already in the enemy’s possession.
“Jam” Cook, whose earlier brush with the censors has already been described, still breaks out into a cold sweat when he thinks of another episode that might have ended with highly unpleasant consequences. The circumstances were so fantastic as to sound like something out of an Oppenheim novel, but the situation was serious for a while.
Cook, it appears, had for many years made it a practice to place one bet on a certain Dominion Day horse race in western Canada, and when June, 1943, found him in England, with no hope of being home in time for the big event, he decided to cable a small wager rather than break his long-established tradition. Accordingly he wired his managing editor something like this:
“Put $10 on Gluepot for me July 1.”
Everything went beautifully. The bet was placed and Cook advised. Then on June 28 Cook suddenly found himself en route to a United Kingdom port to embark with the Canadians for the invasion of Sicily.
But several weeks later, in Africa, there were unexpected repercussions. The First Canadian Division invaded Sicily on the tenth of July, and an alert London censor dug up Cook’s cable, which seemed to ring a bell in his mind. Yes, there it was—first, 10 and July were all mentioned in the message. Undoubtedly it was a code intended to tip off the managing editor.
He Convinced Them
It took a lot of explaining before the Sifton correspondent was able to convince AFHQ Intelligence that (a) he had placed bets on the Dominion Day race for years and (b) he hadn’t the faintest idea of either the date of the Sicilian invasion or the formations that were going to be concerned in it until the thing had happened.
Security is not the only consideration influencing the Field Press Censor when he lowers his blue pencil or consigns a piece of copy to the held file. It wasn’t in Italy, anyway.
Dick Sanburn, of the Southam Newspapers, bumped into one of the more unusual censorship quirks when he wrote a delightful and seemingly harmless little story which he picked up while talking to a Motor Torpedo Boat commander in Bari.
The story concerned an operation in which the officer had taken part, with his little ship. He had been on patrol all night and was returning to base when he observed the silhouette of another small craft out near the
j horizon, following a course parallel to ' hin own. Suspecting that it might be an enemy E-boat, but being too short of ammunition after his night’s work to engage it, the officer kept his guns trained on the unknown craft until dawn. With the coming of first light he saw, to his relief, that it was another MTB, also returning from patrol.
With his Aldis lamp the first skipper signalled to the other craft: “You are very lucky. I had my guns trained on you all night.”
Like a flash came the reply: “You’re ! luckier. I fired three torpedoes at j you!”
To Sanburn’s complete consternaj tion, the field press censors killed the j whole story. Enquiries were launched j at once, and finally the officer who had | censored the piece was located.
“No, the story doesn’t violate I security,” he admitted, “but think of j the comfort it would give the enemy if j they knew our torpedo boat skippers were such damn poor shots!”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.