Authors: Preston Paul
Cox always felt that his mentor in Madrid had been William Forrest, at the time working for the
‘a small open-faced Glaswegian, with a quiet, wry manner’. Cox admired Forrest’s ability to give colour to a story by the deft inclusion of a picturesque detail. He gave, as an example, the despatch that Willie began with the words: ‘I took a two-penny tramride to the front this afternoon.’ ‘Tom’ Delmer also admired Forrest, describing him as a ‘shrewd little Scotsman, who had won everyone’s respect for the cool-headedness with which, come airraids, come bombs, come murders, come Franco’s Moors, he could be counted on to get on the telephone every evening to dictate a graphic report on the ordeal of Madrid and its one and a half million citizens’. Forrest had previously been a sub-editor but had managed to persuade the editor of his newspaper that, as a member of the Communist Party, he would get access to places where other reporters would be excluded. This was the case, yet his reporting was notable for its objectivity. In any case, he would leave the Communist Party in 1939 in protest against the Soviet invasions of Poland and Finland.
Despite the presence of some of the world’s best newspapermen in Spain, many of whom later wrote memoirs, the most graphic record of the experience of correspondents during the siege of Madrid would come from the pen of a Spaniard, the Socialist Arturo Barea. In early September 1936, a few days after Largo Caballero had formed his government, Barea had been offered a job at the press office through a Communist named Velilla who worked at the ministry. Barea was a quietly modest man, deeply thoughtful and entirely committed to the cause of the Spanish Republic. At the press office, he had to work with Rubio Hidalgo, whom he quickly came to see as a self-regarding opportunist. Barea worked at night in the Telefónica censoring press dispatches. Censorship may have been relaxed somewhat under Rubio, but Barea still found it to be too strict and aimed largely at the elimination of the slightest suggestion of anything other than a Republican victory. Although Franco’s columns were coming inexorably nearer, newspaper reports were allowed only to talk of them being halted. Barea rightly regarded it as ‘clumsy and futile’.
Indeed, the censorship was relatively easily circumvented by British, American and French journalists making creative use of slang. H. Edward Knoblaugh later
boasted that ‘By telling London that “the big shots were getting ready to take a run-out powder”, I was able to scoop the other correspondents on the fact that the government was preparing to flee to Valencia.’ One supercilious French journalist of the
tried so many tricks that, utterly exasperated, the normally mild-mannered Barea threatened to have him arrested.
Later on in the war, Herbert Matthews would evade the censorship by the even simpler device of having the Paris bureau of the
New York Times
telephone him at a time when the Spanish censor was having dinner. When Franco’s forces split Republican Spain in two in mid-April 1938, the government tried to delay the news getting out. The censorship cut out sections of Vincent Sheean’s report so, when he read it over the telephone to the Paris office of the
New York Herald Tribune,
he said ‘censored’ each time he reached a part that had been pencilled out. The story that appeared ‘bristled with that ominous word in italics, and consequently looked fully as disastrous for the Republic as the events had actually been’.
As the Francoist columns neared Madrid, its streets strewn with rubble and thronged with starving refugees, work in the Telefónica became more nightmarish. Bombing raids and artillery pounding were constant. When Barea appeared for work on the evening of 6 November, the crackle of rifle fire could be heard nearby. When he went to Rubio Hidalgo’s office, papers were burning in the fireplace. With an urbanity bordering on satisfaction, Rubio told him that the government was leaving for Valencia. Declaring that the fall of the capital was inevitable, a white-faced Rubio gave Barea two months’ wages and ordered him to close down the censorship apparatus, burn the remaining papers and save his own skin. Barea ignored Rubio’s instructions and saved some important photographs of children killed in rebel bombing raids. He then worked as normal that night, preventing an American journalist from cabling that Madrid had already fallen.
Certainly, virtually all of the foreign correspondents were entirely convinced that Madrid was about to fall. At a dinner at the beginning of November, nineteen of them had set up a sweepstake on the date that the rebels would enter the city. Eighteen of them chose dates within the following five weeks and only Jan Yindrich, just to be different, placed his bet on ‘never’.
Rubio Hidalgo was only too happy to leave,
offering William Forrest a seat in his escape car and telling him: ‘if you come with me you will be the only British correspondent to get out of Madrid with the story. Have no fear of missing anything. The others will be caught here by the Fascists and will have no means of transportation or communications. But in any case, there will be no telephone calls to London and Paris after the government leaves tonight.’ In fact, Forrest needed to get to Valencia because he wanted to return to England to campaign on behalf of the Republic. He was planning to resign from the
so he accepted Rubio’s offer. He was soon replaced in Madrid by Sefton Delmer. On arrival in Valencia, according to Delmer, ‘Rubio, who had a talent for such things, quickly found himself a delightful old eighteenth-century
And there, amid tapestries and brocades, he set himself up in a new and imposing Press and Public Relations Office.’
In fact, the tapestries were faded and the palace dilapidated. When, much later, in early December, Barea was summoned to Valencia, he found the palace to be as shabby as it was sumptuous, a veritable warren of small rooms overflowing with typewriters, rubber stamps and stacks of paper.
Rubio also offered Geoffrey Cox a place in one of the cars leaving for Valencia, after ostentatiously showing him the flat automatic pistol that he carried in his elegant suit. Standing on the pavement outside the Hotel Gran Vía, the young New Zealander pondered his dilemma: ‘I could validly argue that my work could now be better done from Valencia, that even if I witnessed the fall of the city Franco’s censors would never allow me to send out the story, that I might find myself for several weeks in a Franco gaol. But I opted to stay. I did so less from a journalistic desire to cover the big story than from the feeling that history was about to be made, and I had the chance to witness it.’ It was to be a momentous decision, since he found himself one of only three British journalists in the capital to cover Franco’s attack. Out of his experiences would come some of the most important journalism on the siege of Madrid and one of the most enduring books on the Spanish Civil War. Later that afternoon, with the immensely knowledgeable Henry Buckley, an old hand who had been in Madrid since 1930, Cox walked down the Toledo road towards the rebel advance. They were surprised by the ferocity of the resistance that they witnessed and
returned to the centre to sleep in the British Embassy, beginning to think the impossible, that maybe Madrid could hold out.
On 7 November, with no censorship in Madrid, some correspondents, trying to get a scoop, had transmitted ‘news’ of the fall of the capital. In the case of those who were accompanying the rebel troops, the articles were especially imaginative. The most inventive was that of Hubert Renfro Knickerbocker, the chief foreign correspondent of the Hearst newspaper chain. ‘Red’ Knickerbocker, as he was known because of his flaming hair, was famous all over Europe. It was said that when he entered the lobby of a great hotel in Vienna, the manager greeted him with the words ‘Mr Knickerbocker, welcome. Are things really so bad?’ Now, he presented the apocryphal news of the ‘fall of Madrid’ with some verisimilitude, describing the triumphal march of the rebels into the city, roared on by cheering crowds and followed by a joyfully yapping little dog.
Somewhat more restrained was the equally famous English veteran, Harold Cardozo, who was accompanying the Francoist columns for the
His assistant, Frances Davis, recalled the great man writing a report on the fall of Madrid with blanks for the details to be filled in at a later date.
Cardozo himself later confessed:
There flashed through the world the news that the Gran Vía and the great Telephone skyscraper were in the hands of Varela’s troops who controlled the whole southern sector as far as the War Ministry. I must confess that I was confident of rapid victory and thought that the Nationalist advance had gone much farther than it really had. Later, when the disillusionment had somewhat faded, my colleague Paul Bewsher drew for our amusement a map of Madrid showing the points to which various over-sanguine correspondents had made the Nationalist troops advance. We were all to blame, though the lack of really reliable information and the feverish anxiety of the hour were valid excuses.
Certainly, the news desks in Britain and America were taking it for granted that Madrid would fall. On the evening of 7 November, Henry
Buckley telephoned a London Sunday newspaper and reported that the centre of Madrid was quiet and that Franco’s troops were attacking the suburbs on the far side of the river Manzanares. The news editor at the other end of the line refused to believe him, because he had received so many other reports that the rebels were now inside Madrid. Buckley then received a call from a colleague in Paris who warned him that the Francoists were likely to shoot any journalists found in Madrid. A goodly number of correspondents had already left but, inspired by the sight of ordinary citizens going out to fight, Buckley and Cox had decided to stay on. As a result, Cox was able to secure the scoop of announcing to the world the arrival in Madrid of what he called ‘the International Column of Anti-Fascists’.
In the press office, Barea was outraged by ‘reports breathing a malicious glee at the idea that Franco was, as they put it, inside the town’. He was appalled that the world was missing what he called ‘the blaze of determination and fight’ of the people of Madrid. His outrage was directed at Rubio Hidalgo: ‘I had never been as completely convinced of the need for a war censorship as when I read those petty and deeply untrue reports and realized that the damage abroad had been done. It was a defeat inflicted by the man who had deserted.’ Realizing that there had to be some censorship machinery, Barea ignored Rubio’s orders and, believing that some control over the foreign press was required as long as Madrid held out, simply kept the service going.
On the morning of 11 November, Barea was visited by the
correspondent, Mikhail Koltsov, who was initially incandescent with rage that, after the flight of Rubio Hidalgo and before Barea had managed to set up alternative arrangements, some damaging despatches had got out. Koltov’s intervention belied his status as merely the
correspondent and reflected both his own energetic initiative and his semi-official position within the office of war commissars (the Comisariado General de Guerra). Once Koltsov had calmed down and heard Barea’s story, he spirited him to the Ministry of War, where he secured permission from the newly appointed Junta de Defensa for the press office to carry on in Madrid under the auspices of the General War Commissariat. Barea himself was pleased to find himself under the authority of the Comisario General de Guerra, Julio Álvarez del Vayo,
who in fact was already his boss in his capacity as Foreign Minister. Barea admired Álvarez del Vayo because he had been the first of the ministers to return to Madrid and get involved in the defence of the besieged city. Barea hoped vainly that, in the capital’s besieged situation, the foreign press censorship would remain free of interference from the Foreign Ministry’s bureaucracy, which remained in the Valencia rearguard. This hope was fostered by the written order that he received from the War Commissariat on 12 November:
Having regard to the transfer to Valencia of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to the indispensable need for the Press Department of the aforesaid Ministry to continue functioning in Madrid, the General War Commissariat has decided that the aforementioned office of the Press Department shall henceforward be dependent on the General War Commissariat, and furthermore that Arturo Barea Ogazón shall be in charge of the same, with the obligation to render a daily report of its activities to the General War Commissariat.
Barea’s optimism was short-lived. On the same evening, Rubio Hidalgo telephoned from Valencia to announce that he would return to Madrid to resolve the clash of authority. Barea informed the War Commissariat and was assured of their support. When Rubio Hidalgo arrived from Valencia, Barea received his old boss in his own office at his own desk. When he told him of the orders from the War Commissariat, Rubio went white, blinked but agreed to go to the ministry. There, he weathered the storm of ‘crude, outspoken reprimands’. He then played his cards:
he was the Press Chief of the Foreign Ministry: the War Commissariat must be opposed to any wild and disorganized action, since it recognized the authority of the Government in which the Chief of the War Commissariat was a Minister. Rubio’s legal position was unassailable. It was agreed that the Foreign Press and Censorship Office at Madrid would continue to depend on him in his capacity as Press Chief. It would be
under the Madrid War Commissariat for current instructions, and through the Commissariat under the Junta de Defensa. The Foreign Ministry’s Press Department would continue to cover the expenses of the Madrid office, the censored dispatches would continue to be sent to Rubio. He was suave and conciliatory. Back at the Foreign Ministry, he discussed the details of the service with me; the general rules for the censorship continued to be the same, while military security instructions would reach me from the Madrid authorities.