Robert Fisk: Fragments of history rescued from oblivion

There are statements on the Bismarck, although contemporary reports got the story wrong

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The Independent Online

"As I watch, an RAF pilot tries to take off. He roars down the crazy runway. His wings lift him pathetically, then he dives into the water. There is a sickening explosion and the plane bursts into flames ... must have known ... have one chance in..." That is all. The tiny, broken rectangle of brown paper – about 70 years old now, almost too fragile to survive in my hand – has snapped off from the newspaper clipping to which it belonged, the words "He" and "he would" missing, presumed lost. In a vast pile of articles from the Second World War in the Mediterranean, I can find no "parent" story. Probably it was an aircraft-carrier take-off, almost certainly in the war against the Italian navy, 1943, if it belongs among the other fading reports in the envelope.

But alas, the "archive" is that of the old Evening Standard and the Daily Express, the entire Second World War clippings library of the two newspapers, hauled off from the Black Lubyanka of Fleet Street by Sunday Express gossip columnist Robert Fisk (for it was I) in 1968. Beaverbrook Newspapers had decided to microfiche only those clippings they felt valuable and then destroy the entire library, dozens of wooden drawers, containing thousands of brown envelopes, each carefully marked, "Churchill, Winston -- Speeches 1936-1937" and "German War – Navy – Mediterranean" and "German War – Navy Channel" and "German War – Fascists – 1939" and British commando raids on the Lofoten Islands and the escape of the Scharnhorst and the Gneisneau in the Channel Dash.

The Beaverbrook microfiche copies crumbled to bits, so I now have the only surviving Evening Standard and Daily Express Second World War library, moved through a mixture of homes and garages in their big wooden drawers over more than 40 years. And here they all are, even to Action, the house magazine of the British Union, Oswald Mosley's gang, dated 9 May 1940 – just before Winston Churchill closed the whole thing down – with its headline condemning the British raids on Norway after Germany's invasion of Scandinavia. "British lives are too precious to be thrown away in foreign quarrels! We will ever defend Britain and her Empire, but the proper place for such defence is behind the frontiers of Empire."

Aha, the old story ... Super-Patriotism – and racism. "From every poster hoarding, every banking house window, jewish (sic) chain store windows ... we are exhorted to 'Defend Liberty'," a reader complains. The whole of the back page is devoted to "Mosley's Great Meeting" in Bethnal Green. It's a weird English counterpoint to Nazism, your very own home-grown variety of National Socialism. Given away free. And there in the files are clippings of arrested fascist sympathisers, my favourite being the suspension of PC Jeeves from the Brighton police by Chief Constable Hutchinson because "it is suggested that PC Jeeves' political activities as a Fascist sympathiser have been prejudicial to the maintenance of police discipline". Yes, I rather imagine. And there is Mosley himself, of course, on the arrest list, and Captain A H M Ramsay, severely wounded in 1916, invalided out of the army in 1919 (a bit like the experience of Corporal Hitler), and A Raven Thomson, the editor of Action, and S Francis-Hawkins who objected to the ban on political uniforms – which ended the wearing of black shirts.

And Churchill runs to dozens of envelopes, many of them containing articles from the Daily Mail – the Beaverbrook library also included Manchester Guardian clippings – on the nationalist struggle in India, Soviet power, Churchill's own near-death experience when he was run down by a car in New York City. De Valera's 1932 Irish election victory represented "Irish hatred of England" – which leads Churchill to reflect on "the strange contrariness of the Irish character". By leaving the empire, "Mr de Valera has signed the death warrant of Irish greatness...".

There are press statements from the Admiralty – the Mediterranean war gobbles up acres of newsprint and so does the sinking of the Bismarck, although contemporary reports got the story wrong. "Why Bismarck was sunk by Torpedo," a Daily Telegraph headline reads. "More Vulnerable Under Water." But Admiral Lütjens, the Bismarck's captain, is now believed to have sunk his ship himself to prevent its capture. But who cannot feel the thrill of the war correspondent? Datelined "Somewhere on the East Coast", Scott Newhall's 1943 Telegraph report on the Royal Navy's "little ships" carries that special intro that grabs the reader.

"On our first trip across the North Sea to the German coast we ran into the enemy just after dawn. Daylight, of course, is poison to the British motor torpedo-boats that go out prowling every night for the enemy convoys... It was just as our forces turned for home that we collided. Our boats were pitching into a freshening gale, skidding around on the dirty grey chop, when the four German vessels rolled into sight to the north..." You can feel the satisfaction of the reporter – the use of the word "skidding" is perfect. And how can you not be taken aback by the Sunday Pictorial lead on 15 February 1942? "There was grave news from Singapore last night. The vital sentence of the British official communiqué stated: 'Our troops are disputing every attempt of the (Japanese) enemy to advance further towards the heart of Singapore City.'" A subhead reads: "7,000 British Killed."