George Steer

George Steer

George Steer, the son of a newspaper editor, was born in South Africa in 1909. He was educated at Winchester and at Christ College, Oxford, where he obtained a double first in classics.

Steer became a war correspondent and covered several wars for The Times and the Daily Telegraph. In 1935 he covered the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. The poorly armed Ethiopians were no match for Italy's modern tanks and aeroplanes. During the war Steer reported on how the Italians were using mustard gas on the home forces.

In 1937 Steer was sent to cover the Spanish Civil War where he reported on the bombing of Guernica. Another witness to the event was Leah Manning, who described him as a "tower of strength and encouragement to me." Steer was then sent to Finland where he witnessed the Red Army invasion.

Steer published eight books including Caesar in Abyssinia and A Tree in Guernika. In one article he wrote "A journalist is not a simple purveyor of news, whether sensational or controversial, or well-written, or merely funny. He is a historian of every day's events ... and as a historian must be filled with the most passionate attachment and most critical attachment to the truth, so must the journalist, with the great power that he wields, see that the truth prevails."

In 1940 Steer took over the running of the Ethiopian Forward Propaganda Unit. Later, in the Second World War he was appointed as head of the Indian Field Propaganda Unit. George Steer was killed in a car crash in Bengal on 25th December, 1944.

Primary Sources

(1) George Steer, The Times (27th April, 1937)

Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders. The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers and Heinkel fighters, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000lb. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminum incendiary projectiles. The fighters, meanwhile, 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 whole of Guernica was soon in flames except the historic Casa de Juntas with its rich archives of the Basque race, where the ancient Basque Parliament used to sit. The famous oak of Guernica, the dried old stump of 600 years and the young new shoots of this century, was also untouched. Here the kings of Spain used to take the oath to respect the democratic rights (fueros) of Vizcaya and in return received a promise of allegiance as suzerains with the democratic title of Señor, not Rey Vizcaya. The noble parish church of Santa Maria was also undamaged except for the beautiful chapter house, which was struck by an incendiary bomb.

At 2 a.m. today when I visited the town the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end. The reflection of the flames could be seen in the clouds of smoke above the mountains from 10 miles away. Throughout the night houses were falling until the streets became long heaps of red impenetrable debris. Many of the civilian survivors took the long trek from Guernica to Bilbao in antique solid-wheeled Basque farm carts drawn by oxen. Carts piled high with such household possessions as could be saved from the conflagration clogged the roads all night. Other survivors were evacuated in Government lorries, but many were forced to remain round the burning town lying on mattresses or looking for lost relatives and children, while units of the fire brigades and the Basque motorized police under the personal direction of the Minister of the Interior, Señor Monzon, and his wife continued rescue work till dawn.

In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history. 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 demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race. Every fact bears out this appreciation, beginning with the day when the deed was done.

Monday was the customary market day in Guernica for the country round. At 4.30 p.m. when the market was full and peasants were still coming in, the church bell rang the alarm for approaching aeroplanes, and the population sought refuge in cellars and in the dugouts prepared following the bombing of the civilian population of Durango on March 31, which opened General Mola’s offensive in the north. The people are said to have shown a good spirit. A Catholic priest took charge and perfect order was maintained.

Five minutes later a single German bomber appeared, circled over the town at a low altitude, and then dropped six heavy bombs, apparently aiming for the station. The bombs with a shower of grenades fell on a former institute and on houses and streets surrounding it. The aeroplane then went away. In another five minutes came a second bomber, which threw the same number of bombs into the middle of the town. About a quarter of an hour later three Junkers arrived to continue the work of demolition, and thenceforward the bombing grew in intensity and was continuous, ceasing only with the approach of dusk at 7.45. The whole town of 7,000 inhabitants, plus 3,000 refugees, was slowly and systematically pounded to pieces. Over a radius of five miles round a detail of the raiders’ technique was to bomb separate caserios, or farmhouses. In the night these burned like little candles in the hills. All the villages around were bombed with the same intensity as the town itself, and at Mugica, a little group of houses at the head of the Guernica inlet, the population was machine-gunned for 15 minutes.

(2) Leah Manning wrote about meeting George Steer during the Spanish Civil War in her autobiography, A Life For Education (1970)

I had arrived in Bilbao on April 24 and on the next day had gone to Mass with the Foreign Secretary and his family, spending the rest of the day in his office. The morning of the 26th I spent quietly at the office of Asistencia Social, discussing in outline the plans for evacuation.

In the afternoon I made my way down to La Prensa where a group of journalists had invited me for a drink, among them Philip Jordan and George Steer, who during the next few weeks were to prove towers of strength and encouragement to me. A day begun so quietly was to end in indescribable horror and dismay.

"A raid's coming up," said Jordan. "Do you want to go down to the shelter?" I shook my head, so we went outside. Phil's ear had caught the sound of bombers in the air, although there had been no warning. Across the hills to the east the air was alive with Heinkels as wave after wave drove in from the sea. They were followed by Junkers. Horror-striken, the Basques amongst us shouted, "Guernica! they're bombing Guernica!" It seemed incredible that such a monstrous thing could happen to this quiet little market town, renowned from time immemorial as the home of Basque liberation where, before the famous oak tree, rulers of Spain had traditionally sworn to observe Basque local rights. Helpless to do anything we watched from the hills. Until nearly eight in the evening, incendiary bombs and high explosives rained down every twenty minutes. The town was open and defenceless; it was crowded with market day visitors and as people fled from the destruction they were dive-bombed and machine-gunned from the air. The roads out of the town were jammed with dead and injured: 1,654 killed; 889 injured.