In September 1941, the British press captivated its readers with a story of naval heroism which the public, battered by German bombing and strict rationing, clamored for: a story of survival through thick and thin.
My research is to look at how the British media covered WWII. When I came across this story, I was struck by how the Navy kept it silent for almost two years.
On September 15, 1941, the Daily Mail reported that in December 1939, the Royal Navy submarine HMS Triumph was on the surface in the Skagerrak Strait between Denmark and Germany when it struck a mine. The newspaper account described how the deadly craft slashed through the air with a colossal explosion that “temporarily blinded the men on the bridge.” Its rival newspaper, the Daily Mirror, explained that the mine blew up an 18-foot-long section of Triumph’s bow and opened “a 12-foot slit in its hull amidships.”
The Triumph was in German patrolled waters and was so badly damaged that it could not dive. She was leaking profusely and her pumps were working full blast. Intrepid, the Triumph’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander John Wentworth McCoy, slowly drove him back to his home in the Firth of Forth in Scotland. The 300 mile trip was made at speeds as low as 2.5 knots, exposing Triumph to German bombardment. As she neared the Scottish coast, a Dornier bomber found her and prepared to attack. Before he could deliver a fatal blow, British fighters pushed him back.
Triumph staggered towards the harbor with nothing but a crumpled bulkhead between his crew and death. The Daily Mirror noted that a damaged torpedo in its shattered bow had been cocked throughout the trip and could have exploded. Triumph’s steering gear, he noted, “seemed to hold together by a miracle.” The Daily Telegraph reported that “only good materials and excellent workmanship” kept it from “literally falling apart”.
In the gloom of the funny 1940 war, workers at the Vickers yard in Barrow-in-Furness – where Triumph was launched in 1938 – could have been proud to read this. But they couldn’t – neither could anyone else. Triumph struck the mine on Boxing Day 1939, but not a word was released about its journey or the bravery of its crew until 21 months later. It was a vivid example of the power of the various ministries of the armed forces to silence the press.
Although wartime British governments recognized that legal censorship of the press was incompatible with the democratic values that Britain struggled to defend, the responsible ministries of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have exercised rigid control over access to information about the British armed forces. If they didn’t want to publish it, they didn’t. The navy, fiercely proud of its “superior service” status, was notoriously conservative.
In his 1947 memoir, Blue Pencil Admiral, the wartime government’s chief press censor, Rear Admiral George Thompson, recalled that long after the Army and Royal Air Force had come to appreciate the value of publicity: the real interest or importance was allowed to go out… until so long after all interest in the event was gone.
A proud submariner himself, Thompson cites the example of HMS Triumph as the one that infuriated him. Thompson believed his voyage was a “magnificent story of the heroism and courage of the British sailor.” By delaying the release of details for so long, the Navy has ensured that the trip “has lost its tense, human and immediate interest.” Thompson lamented that “it was a beautiful story, and it was a shame it could not have been published at the time.”
He was right. It is not clear from the public records what led to the emergence of the news, but the Triumph story eventually appeared on the Daily Express front page on September 15, 1941. Under the headline “Submarine lost 18ft – Got Home, ”Lord Beaverbrook, the newspaper’s market leader described his“ incredible feat ”. This was accompanied by a photograph of Triumph when it was launched with the now missing part of the bow indicated by a wavy line. Other newspapers have followed the story, but none have given it such front-page treatment.
If the Navy’s approach to advertising was too cautious, the Air Ministry was much more dynamic, allowing RAF press officers to shape stories of heroism during the Battle of Britain. Their promotion of heroes such as Douglas Bader, the ace of amputee wrestling, won sympathetic and high-profile coverage in popular and elite newspapers.
Later they would promote Wing Commander Guy Gibson and his colleagues Dambusters with the same enthusiasm. The RAF Press Directorate helped to limit and delay criticism of civilian casualties caused by the bombing of areas of German cities.
Among the main wartime coalition members, Winston Churchill and Home Secretary Herbert Morrison of Labor hated newspaper criticism and went to great lengths to threaten editors who dared to challenge ministers in the interest of their readers.
The Daily Mirror, and its sister title the Sunday Pictorial, have drawn particular venom. In 1940, Churchill called these mass-circulation socialist tabloids “vicious and malicious” and accused them of publishing “subversive articles”. Morrison urged MI5 to investigate these reporters with, as he described them, “sick spirits.”
But such political pressure should not distract our attention from the enormous power that military ministries and the information ministry wielded. By rationing access to information – and promoting only stories they saw as useful – they got more than threats from politicians.