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BOB'S BLOG: 10 Things I Learned from David Halton’s Dispatches from the Front

By Bob Wood
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January 26, 2015 - 0 comments

David Halton begins his book Dispatches from the Front with a story from 1987 of a journalism student heading into the CBC Archives to research an individual she and most of her classmates had never heard of. That would be Halton’s father, Matthew. Matthew Halton is considered to be one of the best war correspondents of World War II.

In his preface, David Halton describes his father as “a more or less forgotten name for all but survivors of the war-time generation.”

I’ll admit to knowing very little of the Toronto Star/CBC journalist. Last fall I heard a tape of some his dispatches. The reports were riveting and the reason I put Dispatches on my must read list.

Halton, the son, has written an extremely well researched, objective story of his famous father. It helped fill in some holes in this baby boomer’s understanding of Depression and Second War history. I enjoyed it and hope you will too.

Here are a few facts I gleaned from the book.

1. Matthew Halton interviewed and/or hobnobbed with many of the most famous people of the time. They included Albert Einstein, Haile Selaise, Gary Cooper, Paul Robeson, Lord Beaverbrook, Grey Owl (Archie Belaney) and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) to name just a few.

2. In a two-month period in the fall of 1933 Halton wrote 30 reports from Germany. Now known as the German Reports, they “chronicled almost every defining aspect of Nazi Germany.” They told truths that most other media were ignoring. Halton held back most of these reports until he was out of the country in order to avoid the harassment from authorities that other journalists were experiencing.

3. For example, on Oct. 16 he wrote: “Germany is literally becoming a laboratory and breeding ground for war, unless I am deaf, dumb and blind.”

4. Later in October, Halton observed: “The terror goes on unremittingly in the form of a deliberate and implacable intention to wipe the Jews out of the economic and social life of Germany.”

5. Matthew Halton wasn’t always right in his analysis. For example, Halton covered the Spanish Civil War. He was sympathetic to the Republican cause. Perhaps too sympathetic. The war correspondent gave undeserved credit to Barcelona authorities for giving fair trails. In fact, writes the younger Halton: “Organized religion was banned in Barcelona and hundreds of priests were summarily executed in Catalonia and dozens of churches burned down.”

6. Beginning in 1936, Matthew Halton was critical of then-Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) Neville Chamberlain, later to be Prime Minister. By December of 1939, Halton called for new leadership “who has not only cool determination but also some high strategic vision.” In his view, that new visionary leader was Winston Churchill. Halton’s viewpoint was a controversial one. Churchill had many critics including Mackenzie King. In a diary entry, our Prime Minister described Churchill as “one of the most dangerous men I have ever known.”

7. Interestingly, we learn that Halton never interviewed Churchill, as the British politician “saved his insights for newspaper articles, which paid him well.”

8. He did, however, interview Mackenzie King after our Prime Minister met with Adolf Hitler. All Halton was able to pick up from King was that the meeting was “most interesting and most valuable.” Halton later wrote of the 75-minute meeting: “They say in Berlin that Adolph Hitler never gives more than 15-minute interviews unless he meets ‘a sympathetic soul.’” In fact, Mackenzie King recorded in his diary at the time that the German leader was “really one who truly loves his fellow-men.”

9. While seldom there, Matthew Halton was proud of the fact that he hailed from Pincher Creek, Alta. Talking in a London nightclub with the Prince of Wales less than three years before he became king, Halton was impressed with the prince’s “informality and desire to shed the stuffier traditions of the monarchy” as well as Edward’s love of the Alberta foothills. The Prince owned EP Ranch near Pekisko Creek, only 150 kilometres from Pincher Creek.

10. Unlike some war correspondents, Matthew Halton actually reported from the front lines. In the desert war in Alamein, with the Canadian forces landing in Sicily, D-Day and many other theatres of war, Matthew Halton was in the thick of it.

Read the following words from one of his last broadcasts from the ruined town of Ortona, where 2,400 Canadians were killed or wounded.

“Call them out ... Dunkirk, Tobruk, Alamein, the delaying action in Burma, the last stand at Sollum… Call them out, and then add Moro River … The attacking Canadians beat two of the finest German divisions that ever marched.”

Read the book and/or listen to CBC Archives reports like THIS ONE from Matthew Halton recorded immediately following D-Day.

Dispatches from the Front Matthew Halton, Canada’s Voice at War by David Halton is published by McClelland & Stewart.

Bob Wood is a housing and poverty advocate and former two-term Burlington City Councillor who has built a bed-and-breakfast with his wife on Lake Erie. He is on Twitter at @timberwood24.

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