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The horror, humour and humanity in the Listener’s WWII reporting

The April 19, 1940, “Lest we forget” cover to mark Anzac Day. Illustration/Russell Clark

Nineteen thirty-nine, when the Listener was launched under editor Oliver Duff, is more memorable as the year World War II broke out.

Editorial: National Emergency, September 8, 1939

The hour has struck and we are at war.

– Oliver Duff

In Europe: The Western Front, October 13, 1939

Poland no longer exists.

How the War Has Affected You, October 13, 1939

Postage has been increased by 1d. Correspondence with enemy countries and countries occupied by the enemy is forbidden. Income tax has been increased by 15%.

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Editorial: Appeal to Men, December 29, 1939

The government asks men to rally to the defence of their country and their way of living. It is an appeal to reason first and to emotion second; and by emotion we do not mean hatred or greed or flamboyant nationalism. We mean pity, fear of brutish things, devotion to our families and to our inherited liberties. We must defend our liberties or lose them. If we do less than that, there will be a victor, and it will not be ourselves.

– Oliver Duff

Message From the Minister: Farmers and the War, September 29, 1939

In time of war, the farm is a munition factory. The slogan of New Zealand farming must be: “Production, and still more production.” The motherland needs every ounce of production we can give her. She shall have it.

Editorial: Music in War, December 15, 1939

For just on a hundred years, music has been about as important nationally as paint on an outhouse. But those within reach of the exhibition studio this week will hear, or have heard, our first national orchestra. We are not at war with the people who created that music. We are not at war with the people it has created – the millions of kindly, earnest, honest Germans who are as much the victims of Hitlerism as we are ourselves.

– Oliver Duff

Editorial: The Propaganda Front, September 22, 1939

Whatever posterity says about the present war, it will be remembered as the first war conducted by radio. Radio has nowhere been used yet with the irresponsibility that most people anticipated. This is a tribute to the BBC, whose “one stern and eternal” principle is that its news bulletins should be true.

– Oliver Duff

Editorial: Work for Women, October 20, 1939

There is definite work to be done which no one but women can do. But at this stage it does not mean farming and working in factories. It does not mean driving trams or drilling or getting into uniforms. It means simply being mothers and sisters with busy hands and thoughtful but not worrying minds.

– Oliver Duff

Women and the Home: War Shadow, September 29, 1939

Because we are so engrossed with our fears and our apprehensions, we are apt to forget that our children, too, walk in the war-shadow. The other day I met a small girl, crying. She was on her way to school, she said, but the radio had said mother must come with tickets, and she had suddenly remembered that her mother hadn’t been listening in, hadn’t understood, and now perhaps there would be no ticket and she would never be called for … Poor small creature. It was all a Daventry instruction, and it was a voice 14,000 miles across the sea, intended for little Londoners. It was a voice grave and kind, but – for I myself heard it – it was a voice that broke, suddenly, on the last word. For me, all that had been said was nothing besides that welling of emotion that could not, suddenly and at the end, be controlled. And it had sent a tiny girl in far-away New Zealand stumbling up the road to school with the same sob caught in her throat.

– Anne Slade

War Comes to the Man in the Street, September 15, 1939

The alien, the refugee, what did he think about it all? He told us in his queer English that Germany was still his country. That he remembered Germany’s hills and forests, her Rhenish wines and Bavarian beers, as well as any exiled New Zealander would remember New Zealand’s lakes and tumbling rivers – the wheat growing golden in Canterbury fields, or the grass growing green for lazy cows. But he said slowly and deliberately, like a man making up his mind to commit suicide, that he thoroughly approved of the war, and that his toast to England’s victory was no empty gesture of expedience.

A Journalist’s View

This war is going to mean terrible misery of mind for everyone. But we cannot turn back. We have no quarrel with the German people themselves; our quarrel with them is they have allowed themselves to be driven into this conflict by their leaders.

The Fireman Was Heated

He summed up the situation for us in four words, two of which are unprintable. “It’s a – –,” he said.

Taciturn Barber

“It’s a bad business, isn’t it? Everybody is taking it calmly, don’t they … aren’t they … isn’t it …?” he said. We understood.

Printer and Storeman

“I think there’s a lot of justification for Germany in her action against Poland,” he said. “After all, the country is divided in two by the Polish Corridor, and if the people of Danzig want to be under German rule, why shouldn’t they be?” “Them’s my sentiments,” he concluded. “Oh, by the way, don’t print my name.”

Ten Words From a Typiste

“You don’t think I am thrilled about it, do you?”

Shortwaves

The cable firms have instructed newspapermen here to stop using the American “tonite” for “to-night” in cables to London. The reason: Tonite is a high explosive – and censors squeaked.

Flying Officer Edgar Kain, DFC (1918-40). Photo/Alamy

Death of a Hero, June 21, 1940

New Zealand’s first air ace of this war, Flying Officer Edgar Kain, DFC, mentioned in despatches, has been killed in an accident while on active service in France. Since he fought his first air battle on his 21st birthday, November 8, his career has been meteoric. Messages expressing deep regret and sympathy have been sent from all quarters to Mr and Mrs RG Kain, the young aviator’s parents. Mrs Kain left some weeks ago for England to visit her son, who was to have been married this month.

The Laundry Girls, December 20, 1940

Emergency does not cater for electric washers. Everything is washed by hand, rinsed and blued. Here are good housewives in the making. The land girls mean business, too.

Contrasts of War, April 5, 1940

A Member of Parliament sitting beside me whispers a story. It illustrates vividly the keenness of the Maoris. “The other morning, at about 2 o’clock, some of the officers were roused by unusual noises from the men’s quarters,” he told me. “They got up to investigate and found the men drilling each other, smartening up those who hadn’t long been in camp so that they wouldn’t let the Battalion down during the inspection. Company by company the splendid lines go by. It is impossible to believe that some of those men have been training for only about nine days. But that is true. Now the Battalion has reformed and a surprise is in store. Suddenly, every man starts singing – a battalion marching song specially written for the Maoris and suitable for those melodious voices. The swinging rhythm, the vigorous words, the emotional effects of nearly a thousand voices singing without musical accompaniment is something to remember. No sooner has the stirring melody died away than the Minister, through the microphone, expresses his own and the Government’s pleasure in a brief but earnest speech.

Soon the air is silent except for the song of larks whose haven is the green farms about Milsom. But the day is not over. Breaking through the restless throng of onlookers come Maori warriors singing a melody plaintive but inspiring which rises above the surge of chatter and comment. Their uniforms have gone and in place of them they wear the traditional costume of their forefathers – bodies bare except for the rustling reed skirt, wooden spears in their hands. Crowds press about them, many for the first time watching a Maori haka performed by experts. It was an exciting exhibition of the war dance, quivering bodies moving in a rhythm, the facial grimaces, the leaping gestures, all accompanied by songs and chants. As the last war cries died away and the brown bodies remained rigid in fearsome attitudes, a plane swept overhead. The contrast of those two expressions of war was like a shock.

– OA Gillespie

The June 14, 1940, cover relating to the propaganda battle on the air. Illustration/Russell Clark

Editorial: Let Us Pay, October 25, 1940

We must give more. As the costs pile up, we must cut down our indulgences and pile up our gifts. A shilling a week from every wage-earner would provide a Spitfire in a day.

– Oliver Duff

Editorial: Prisoners of War, August 9, 1941

It is a sobering thought that the Dominion’s “best sellers” for 1941 will perhaps be an 18p pamphlet issued last week by Whitcombe & Tombs. It is Prisoners of War: The Geneva Convention of 1929. For it is almost certain already that there are now more New Zealanders in enemy hands than were taken during the whole course of the war of 1914-18.

– Oliver Duff

He Has Warned Us, by Marie Bullock, June 27, 1941

“One post-war question may be whether wives are to be financially dependent or independent by having statutory incomes deducted from their husbands’ income,” said Mr Morrison in a speech. “I warn you that it is coming. What women did in the last war is child’s play compared with what they are doing now. Women are going to be a handful to manage at the end of this war. They will demand changes.”

– Herbert Morrison

Mrs Catherine Stewart, MP, felt strongly on the subject of financial independence for wives. “There is nothing so degrading, or so likely to engender a feeling of inferiority,” she said, “as to be financially dependent upon another person. Even if your husband is the best and kindest man in the world, he has a habit of asking, “What did you do with the money?”

It is a positive disgrace that though in New Zealand women were granted the right of standing for Parliament as early as 1919, there have since been only two women Members of Parliament, myself and Mrs McCombs.

Full Circle, December 19, 1941

The enemy reached Pearl Harbour because America slept too long. He sank the Repulse and the Prince of Wales because Britain slept too long. He overran Europe because democracy slept too long. He now threatens the whole world because wisdom slept too long.

– Oliver Duff

New Zealanders Who Looked for Trouble, George Silk, June 12, 1942

The photographer was AG (George) Silk, a young New Zealander. His worst experience was in Palestine, where he had an abscessed wisdom tooth extracted without anaesthetic (because there wasn’t any on hand). Two sergeants held him down while two surgeons worked on his jaw. On the Perth, and later on the wharves at Alexandria, he found fine photographic material in the grim, war-weary Australians and New Zealanders. One shot of a bearded Australian with one arm in a sling and clutching a salvaged tommy gun in the other was reproduced on the cover of the Listener and was used in newspapers and on posters throughout Australia. Back in Egypt, he joined up with the New Zealanders and went through the battle of Sidi Rezegh with them. It was during this affray that he was captured by a German party. There wasn’t very much to it, he reports. Some Germans pointed guns at him and asked him to put his hands up, and very sensibly he complied. The same night he made a quick getaway in a truck. He was shot at with two-rounder tank guns, and one scored a “near miss” on the truck, but he made it with a few seconds to spare.

Simple Story, January 21, 1944

New Zealand is famous for its false teeth; even the Wehrmacht has heard of them. This happened to a New Zealander who was captured in Greece. After skirmishing around, he was taken in by some Greeks living in a small village and lived as one of them. He was dark, so he added sideboards to his hair and picked up a smattering of the language. But one thing he overlooked; the Greeks from young to old have magnificent teeth, and he had the usual false ones. One day, while waiting in a cafe, he happened to click his false teeth. In a second, a Nazi soldier sprang up from nowhere, grabbed him and said, “Kom mit me.”

She Has Written 5000 Letters in Two Years, August 4, 1944

For just over two years now Mrs H Gush, formerly of Pungarehu, Taranaki, and now of New Plymouth, has been listening to broadcasts by prisoners-of-war from Germany, Italy and Japan and so far she has written more than 5000 letters to prisoners’ relatives. Mrs Gush started her present task because during the last war she lost two brothers, one of whom was missing, and the relatives had no news of him. She hopes that through her work some mother or wife may be saved the agony of uncertainty that follows the brief intimation, “Missing …”

Māori in training, c1943. Photo/Getty Images

Short Story: Homecoming, Helen Wilmot, September 21, 1945

Your husband … will be arriving very shortly from overseas. You will be advised later confirming his arrival and future movements.

– Defence

“I’m going to be sensible. I’m going to be sensible,” she said to herself. “I’m going to be quite calm and collected and not go weeping or shrieking or anything silly like that.” And so she took a good grip on herself. Then suddenly she saw him bag in hand, looking quite lost and bewildered as they called out his name. With a little cry, she ran towards him. All her own feelings were forgotten, he looked so miserable and uncertain, his face a little pale just as it always had been in moments of stress. He suddenly saw her from out of the sea of faces, dropped everything and grabbed her. He almost looked on the verge of tears, so she swallowed her emotions and took charge of the situation, arranging transport and so on. Then they just sat in the back of the car and just looked at each other. “He’s just the same,” she thought exultantly, “a little older, of course, but his voice is just the same, and his hair grows in the same way, and, oh goodness, it seems the most natural thing in the world just to be sitting beside him again holding hands, as if we were in our teens again.” Suddenly, she remembered their daughter, who had been left with relations. “We’ll go and see her now,” she said, “she’s all excited about her Daddy.” “Oh, hell,” said her husband, “I’m a bit scared of the youngster, what will she think of me?” But the young lady quickly put him at his ease and was soon showing him her favourite book, though he jumped every time she said, “Daddy.”

Editorial: Peace at a Price, August 24, 1945

It is a sobering thought that peace came to both sides with fear and trembling.

The victors had found a weapon that they were almost afraid to use themselves. It is not necessary to be in one camp or the other to see that the price of peace is something that it has never been before. Our whole civilisation will disappear unless we get Hiroshima into our minds and hearts, and war out of them. Meanwhile, we should go on thanking God that we are still here.

– Oliver Duff