JOURNALISM’S UNSUNG HERO
Wallace Carroll, although largely unknown today, was one of the most intelligent and respected journalists of the 20th century. Beginning with his first piece covering the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 through to the withdrawal of the United States from the Vietnam War in 1973, he was witness to most of the historic events of his time.
A diplomatic reporter in Europe during the 1930s, Carroll covered the Spanish Civil War, and was appointed head of United Press’s office in London in 1939, charged with covering the upcoming conflict with Germany. After reporting on the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz, he made his way into the Soviet Union following the Nazi invasion in 1941, returning through Asia to land in Pearl Harbor just days after the Japanese attack. This made him one of the first correspondents to report on the devastation.
After his return from the Soviet Union, Carroll was recruited to head up European Operations for the U.S. Office of War information, tasked with “winning the hearts and minds” of those captured under the Nazi boot. His appointment made him the Allied counterpart of Josef Goebbels. Following the war he returned to journalism, becoming news editor for the Washington Bureau of The New York Times and then, shunning the national spotlight, editor and publisher of the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel. While there he covered the demise of the tobacco industry, the de-segregation of schools, the Vietnam War and the nascent environmental movement.
Universally revered in the newsroom, Carroll’s story is particularly relevant today, as the world faces the war in Ukraine and continued attacks on the truth. What the West failed to understand, Carroll wrote more than eighty years ago, was the power of Hitler’s propaganda, which the Allies never overcame. It had been enabled by more than ten years of lies and fear-mongering. Long-term exposure to such propaganda could cause a similar result elsewhere, warned Carroll, “the Hitler legend would bear watching.”
In the early afternoon of Saturday, September 7, 1940, Hermann Goering, commander in chief of the German Luftwaffe, climbed the cliffs of Cap Gris-Nez in northern France to watch more than 800 German bombers and fighters set off for the English coast. Flying in perfect formation, they formed a block 20 miles wide, their silver wings glistening in the blue skies of a warm day. British spotters on the coast marked their arrival, assuming they would disperse to attack the airfields and sector stations they usually targeted.
That same day journalist Wallace Carroll, eager to take advantage of the beautiful weather, was sunning himself on the upper tower of the United Press (UP) offices on Bouverie Street, off Fleet Street in London. Despite his initial hurry to set up a telephone line to the desk below to call in any action, the tower had sat empty for almost a year. Occasionally one of his reporters would venture up to get a glance at the city or, as Carroll did that day, to sun himself in the late summer air.
But for several days now Carroll had posted himself on a small chair near the tower’s edge. He had a distinct feeling that something might be afoot. His numerous sources in British intelligence had told him that landing barges in the estuaries of the Netherlands and France were on the move to the coast, and he knew—after visiting the Royal Air Force (RAF), seeing German pilots in action, and haunting the halls of RAF command—that both countries’ pilots were at a breaking point.
About 3:30 in the afternoon, as he returned from grabbing a sandwich from his offices below, he spotted in the distance, clear as day, a squadron of German bombers—Junkers, the Ju-87—coming down the Thames River in perfect formation at about 4,000 feet, flying over the barrage balloons that were hung with netting to sabotage aircraft and defend London from the south side of the Thames. The planes flew east to west, past the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, and drew up just abreast of the UP tower on Bouverie Street. They passed the Tower Bridge and, according to Carroll’s account, suddenly peeled off one by one and dived, aiming at the big oil tanks of the East End docks. They released their bombs one by one, followed by tremendous explosions.
Carroll, sensing this was more than a stray raid, grabbed the telephone line and began dictating blow by blow to one of his staff, Ferdi Kuhn, in the office below. Carroll had experienced high-altitude bombing in Spain but this was different. Adolf Hitler had dispatched his Stuka bombers, which as they peeled off and headed toward their targets, sounded very close, whistling as they came down. Carroll, ducking with each explosion, stayed up on the tower as another squadron came through, and then another, undeterred by anti-aircraft fire. For four hours he watched the conflagration, as bombs exploded around him and planes flew so close as to nick the gray stones of the tower. His only protection was a battered tin helmet he had pilfered from a member of the Old Guard who lived in his apartment building.
By the end of the day, German planes had dropped more than 300 tons of bombs on London. Even though civilian populations were not the target, the poorest of London slum areas—the East End—felt the fallout the most, from direct hits of errant bombs or fires that broke out and spread throughout the vicinity. Eric Sevareid, reporting for CBS Radio that evening, told how “flames swept through dockyards, oil tanks, factories, flats, sending towering pillars of black, oily smoke into the sky.” The fires guided German bombers who continued to blast the city throughout the night. The attack killed more than 400 people that afternoon and evening, injured hundreds, and drove thousands from their homes. One bomb, in what was described as a million-to-one chance, made a direct hit on a ventilation shaft in a crowded East London district where a thousand people had sheltered. Fourteen were killed and 40 injured, including children.
Fortunately for Carroll, the British censors had decided to take that Saturday off, or they had been told to let the American reports go through, so Carroll's dictated stories went on the wire directly to New York. Newspapers across the United States published them the next morning. Carroll had been among the first to file an eyewitness report of the attack, and because of him Americans received newspaper accounts even before the British. One of the reporters on the receiving end in the United States was 20-year-old Walter Cronkite, who was working for UP in Kansas City, Missouri. He later recalled Carroll’s bravery. “Being a war correspondent was dangerous business,” wrote Cronkite. “When German bombers were swooping right past Parliament at only four thousand feet in altitude, Carroll was on duty.”