From the Archive: The saying goes: “truth is the first casualty of war.” But it’s also true that war-time truth-tellers often end up as “collateral damage.” A new book, Inappropriate Conduct, tells the story of a World War II correspondent whose career was crushed by the intrigue he uncovered, as Don North reported in 2010.
By Don North (Article originally published on Sept. 28, 2010)
War changes and often harms not only its combatants but its eyewitnesses, including the war correspondents with their unique job of getting as close as possible to a conflict, reporting what they see, and somehow surviving to tell about it.
They risk injury and death while also struggling against those who would censor their truth. It is often a frustrating profession and one that can destroy its best and bravest, which brings us to the tragic story of Paul Morton, a World War II correspondent for the Toronto Star.
By 1944, Morton had covered the war in Italy for a year, mostly by interviewing soldiers and Italian civilians caught between Allied forces and the German Army.
On June 4 of that year, he finally landed a big story: he was in Rome the day it fell to the Allies, but by the time his stories reached Toronto, they were relegated to the back pages because the Allies had landed at Normandy on June 6.
With the invasion of Normandy trumping his story of Rome falling and with the end of the war in Europe now in sight Morton was despondent that he had seen no serious combat. He would be a war correspondent who hadn’t really witnessed the war.
So, in July, when the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) asked him to take on a dangerous assignment, parachuting behind Nazi lines and covering the Partisan war in Northern Italy, he jumped at the chance.
Morton’s self respect demanded that he share the risk of war, rather than continue living in the relative comfort of Rome. Plus, the Partisan fighting was a virtually uncovered theatre of the war, creating the possibility of a major journalistic scoop.
But the offer also put the journalist in the curious position of collaborating with a secret spy agency, the SOE, which was born in July 1940 on orders from Winston Churchill who was determined to undermine Hitler’s Third Reich from within by training and abetting guerrilla groups. In Italy, the SOE helped train and supply the Italian Partisans in order to sabotage the German occupation army.
A Shadow War
Given the remoteness of this shadow war and its clandestine nature there had been little information in the international press about the Italian Partisans’ fight. So, Churchill, a former war correspondent himself, decided it was time to change that by publicizing Partisan exploits in the summer of 1944.
At the time, the Partisans were aiding the Allied war effort by tying down at least six German divisions. The British Eighth Army headquarters also felt that news stories about the aggressiveness of the northern Italian Partisans might inspire their less supportive southern countrymen to more vigorously help Allied efforts against the Germans.
Morton, who spoke fluent Italian, endured two weeks of intensive military training and qualified for a parachute jump. But the risks were obvious. Besides the possibility of capture or death at the hands of the Germans, there were doubts about the reliability of the SOE officers who were regarded with suspicion by regular Allied forces.
The SOE did not play by “Marquis of Queensbury rules,” and one friend of Morton’s had been warned, “Don’t cry if you are let down by the SOE. These people have a very bad reputation for doing that if it suits them.”
From the beginning of training, Morton felt British senior officers of SOE were not in favor of Churchill’s orders. In his memoir written 20 years after the war, Morton noted:
“In a number of subtle and devious ways, they let me know they were against my mission. And why not? Why should they want a civilian newspaper reporter of all things, peering into the clandestine war? Then why pick a Canadian for such a mission?
“I believe it was to confound Mr. Churchill. However, the British are a fun-loving people. I think they appreciated the absurdity of our position. They felt I was an intruder and a bounder. But I think they knew I knew what they thought, which was to half forgive me. In any case we got along.”
Only two journalists are known to have been embedded into the secret world of the SOE or its American counterpart, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. Joe Morton of The Associated Press, no relation to Paul, accompanied an OSS mission in Slovenia to rescue downed American aircrews. He was captured and executed in a German concentration camp.
Germans saw little difference between Allied spies and any reporters traveling with them and with some reason. The struggle against Germany and Japan in World War II seemed as close to a worldwide crusade against evil as any conflict ever fought, and that view strained the journalistic ideals of objectivity and balance.
In The First Casualty, a seminal work on war reporting, Philip Knightly wrote:
“It remains hard to reach any conclusion other than that the [Second World] war could have been better reported. The main bar to this was the correspondent’s excusable identification with the cause and his less excusable incorporation into the military machine.”
Further guaranteeing that war correspondents didn’t undermine the war effort by disclosing inconvenient truth, strict censorship was in effect in the war zones. And, by traveling with an intelligence unit, Paul Morton was especially expected to be part of the Allied propaganda team.
Following his training, Morton was given a weapon and thoroughly incorporated into the military machine. He would not only report about the Partisans war but to stay alive he might have to fight as well, pursued by German army units that vastly outnumbered the little guerrilla bands.
The night before his drop behind Nazi lines, Morton met a few of his British commando instructors in the Rome officers’ mess for a farewell drink. The conversation turned to how to defend yourself with a .45 Beretta sidearm.
Goaded by his commando friends and well into his cups on Rye whiskey, Morton demonstrated his aim by firing a couple of rounds at bottles on the bar. He was immediately thrown out of the mess.
A few hours later, Morton took off on his mission to be parachuted into Italy. He knew he faced a 50 percent chance of ending either dead or in a German concentration camp.
Morton was accompanied by Captain Geoffrey Long, a South African artist specializing in combat drawings, and Captain Michael Lees, an SOE escort officer.
As the Halifax bomber carrying them approached the drop zone 200 miles inside enemy lines, they looked for their target, which was to be marked by a signal fire set by Partisans awaiting their arrival.
However, instead of one signal fire, they spotted two in the darkness below. They made their choice, picking one with a flashing light. The three men dropped through the floor hatch at an altitude of 1,000 feet.
On the ground, they were met by a band of Partisans, but they were not the Partisans that the SOE had expected. Instead of the British-backed, pro-Monarchist Partisans, the welcoming group consisted of rival Communist Partisans. They had set the second signal fire as a ruse to trick the British plane into dropping weapons to them.
Morton later wrote, “The group, into whose hands we’d fallen called themselves Garibaldini. Their salute was the clenched fist of Communism.
“Just how intensely they followed the Red Star of Russia was one of the mysteries I was sent to uncover. The Garabaldini were mildly apologetic. They frankly admitted trying to steal British arms: bodies they had not expected.”
On the Run
Within hours, Morton, Long and Lees were on the run with their Partisan Communist hosts as the German Army closed in to investigate the parachute drop.
Hiding in haystacks and aided by friendly Italian families, they eluded the Germans for several weeks but often found themselves in close quarter firefights. One such encounter was related in Morton’s memoir:
“The first German bullets to scythe into the hillside on which we lay started skirting our hidden positions at about seven o’clock in the morning. The undergrowth hid us effectively. Except for the random fusillades of the enemy, we were not uncomfortable as we lay in the shade of the rising Italian sun.and waited for death.
“Young Captain Mike Lees, always a responsible British officer, looked shocked. Then a wide grin blanketed Captain Mike’s handsome face. He tightened his gun belt, shot a nervous glance at Geoff Long and me, then shouted ‘Avanti! Let’s pay the bastards back.’ And with that, the whole crowd of us took off down the valley side.
“Running where? We were off to attack the German patrol. It was more like a rumble than a skirmish. Had I been a German in that patrol I would have been scared silly.”
Morton and his comrades finally found their way to the Monarchist Partisan unit they had originally expected to land among. This force was an amazing cast of characters including escaped British prisoners of war who had joined the Partisans. There also were Allied air crews shot down over Italy who were being cared for by the Partisans.
After almost two months of adventure and close encounters with German forces, Morton and the artist Long, accompanied by an escaped British soldier and an American Army B-17 gunner, escaped to France.
Evading the Sentries
Morton described walking past German sentries as they made their way toward the French border:
“We reached the bridge across the Raja River. A German sentry stood at the eastern approaches, observing us with what seemed careful attention. Our plan was a simple one: ordered to halt, we were going for our guns. If this were a movie, we’d want to call it ‘High Evening’ with us the villainous four who’d come to take the sheriff.
“Walking towards the sentry was easy. Passing him was rather less so. Walking away from him was downright nerve wracking. It is always uncomfortable to turn one’s back to a man with a gun. I had the uncomfortable feeling he knew we were not simple townspeople, homeward bound from a day’s work.”
Morton and his friends bought a sturdy rowboat from a fisherman friendly to the Partisans in the Mediterranean port of Ventimiglia and rowed west to France. Morton found his way to the Allied headquarters in Nice and finally returned to Rome.
However, in Rome, he was surprised to encounter a cool reception from the British and Canadian headquarters which had dispatched him. Through clenched teeth, they let him write and send a series of nine articles through censors to his Toronto Star editors.
Morton soon found himself on what he called a “parade” before the Commander of Canadian Army Public Relations, Col. Bill Gilchrist, and Joseph Clark, the Director of Public Relations for the Canadian Army. They chided Morton for his alleged “inappropriate conduct,” the gunplay in the officers’ mess before he left for his dangerous assignment with the Partisans.
Fired Without Cause
Morton’s accreditation as a Canadian war correspondent was revoked. Within days he was ordered by The Toronto Star editor Harry C. Hindmarsh to return to Canada, where he was summarily fired without a reason given. His ten-year career with The Star, then the most influential newspaper in Canada, was over.
Morton’s first dispatch to The Star was published on Oct. 27, 1944, after he had been fired. It was a glowing report on the contribution and bravery of the Italian Partisans, the type of story he had been sent in to write.
But The Star editors claimed the other eight articles were garbled in transmission and were too heavily censored to print. These articles some of which dealt with Morton’s time with the Communist Partisans were “spiked,” that is, thrown away.
Meanwhile, Morton’s reputation was savaged. It was widely rumored in Toronto that he had been fired for fabricating his dispatches from behind Nazi lines. With this suspicion hanging over his head, Morton could never find another job as a journalist.
To this day, Morton’s harsh treatment remains a mystery. After all, it was well known that the Canadian Army took a lenient view toward hard-drinking war correspondents, particularly at the front, and that any disciplining was rare. Indeed, lifting the accreditation of drunken reporters would have left few to cover the war.
No records of any charges against Morton nor of the disciplinary proceedings have ever surfaced in the British or Canadian archives. It is possible that many details about the Morton case were expunged from the national archives in Ottawa and London.
Hating Prima Donnas
The reasons for editor Hindmarsh’s actions also remain unclear. In the annals of Canadian newspaper history, he remains a bleak and ambiguous individual who was known for firing staff without much cause.
Having famously driven Ernest Hemmingway to quit as a reporter in 1924, Hindmarsh was described by one of his former reporters as someone who “warmed his hands over the fires of other people’s lives.”
“Hindmarsh hated prima donnas,” A.J. Cranston, a Star reporter wrote in his book, Ink on my fingers. “He was ambitious, cruel and jealous of the success of others. He ruled by fear. He was a sadist who took delight in breaking or humbling men’s spirits.”
However, I found in the Canadian archives in Ottawa correspondence between The Star and the Canadian Army showing that Hindmarsh followed and negotiated every detail of Morton’s assignment in Italy. So, Hindmarsh should have known the reality behind Morton’s first-hand reporting.
As for Morton, the experience of having risked his life for the story of his career and then being called a liar sent him into a tailspin of depression, emotionally and spiritually. Unable to find work in his profession, Morton moved to the north woods of Ontario to work as a logger. He also became an alcoholic.
Then, in 1964, two decades after his parachute drop into Italy, he received a letter from the former Italian Partisans who asked him to write a memoir of his time with them. He sobered up for a few years and wrote his memoir.
Morton demanded that the British Ministry of War in London confirm that he had been assigned to a mission behind enemy lines and that he had successfully completed his war reportage. In a letter from the British Under-Secretary-of-War James Ramsden, the British confirmed Morton’s mission.
Morton also wanted The Star to apologize and restore his dignity, honor and reputation as a journalist. But The Star never apologized and today claims to have no records or correspondence regarding Paul Morton.
Denied an apology from The Star or any real credit for his proudest moment as a journalist, Morton a true Canadian war hero and a brave war correspondent died a broken man in 1992.
Only a few months ago, some clues to the mystery of Morton’s cruel mistreatment have emerged. A collection of declassified papers — war-time directives and dusty memos of the Allied forces — were sent to me by an Italian historian.
One set of those records, File 10000/136/338 Directive Psychological War Bureau (PWB), read: “ALLIED PROPAGANDA SHOULD NOW PLAY DOWN PARTISAN SERVICES,” adding:
“Publicity given the Patriots has grown to a point where it is out of proportion to the war effort in Italy. There is evidence certain elements are making political capital out of the activities of the Patriots. It is incorrect to speak of the Patriots as liberating any particular area; if they are in control of any place it is because the Germans have withdrawn and are not taking action.
“We should remember it is the Allies who are liberating Italy with the help of the Patriots. The Patriots are unable to liberate of their own accord. Play down very gradually the activities of Patriots to liberated Italy and to the rest of the world.”
This directive is dated Oct. 13, 1944, two days before Paul Morton arrived back in Rome with his reports of the Partisans’ war.
Other directives that I obtained indicate that the Allies were convinced the Partisans were overwhelmingly Communist and needed to be neutralized as the Germans retreated. British General Harold Alexander’s headquarters was recommending plans to disarm the Partisans by holding mock victory parades and handing out certificates from Allied generals before seizing the Partisans’ weapons.
This subterfuge was a risky operation and the planners may have regarded Morton as a security risk who might expose the secret plans. His stories also threatened to elevate the status of the Communist-led Partisans who had proved to be a strong and effective fighting force.
So, Morton may have run afoul of a shift in ideological positions. With the defeat of the Nazis within sight and the expectation that the Soviet Union and its Communist allies would become the new enemy, the decision from the high command appears to have been to deny the Communist-led Partisans much wartime credit.
(Ironically, it would turn out that the Italian Partisans were not allied with the Soviet Union, although Italy’s Communist Party still became one of the top early targets of Western intelligence in the Cold War.)
In the end, Morton was treated as an expendable asset, expected to carry out a dangerous mission (both for his newspaper and the Allies), but then ruined when his reporting proved inconvenient to the Allied brass and his editor.
Paul Morton’s friend Douglas How of the Readers Digest suggested that Morton may have stepped over that mysterious line which should separate a journalist from his subject, leaving him in a no man’s land, not entirely an observer and not fully a participant. How said:
“The final irony may well be that his story could only be told well and sold well in a form which some people seem long to have wrongly thought they were: as fiction.”
Or as Morton wrote about his experiences, “I went in behind enemy lines and emerged as a kind of agent. I went in as a reporter and came out a kind of soldier. I sometimes wish I had never gone in at all.”
Don North is a veteran war correspondent who has covered conflicts from Vietnam and Central America to Kosovo and Iraq. This article was drawn from North’s new book, Inappropriate Conduct: Mystery of a Disgraced War Correspondent, which is available at Amazon.com.