A 90 minute documentary feature based on the biography of South African war correspondent, George Lowther Steer titled: “Telegram from Guernica”, written by Nicholas Rankin.

“All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”
[Edmund Burke, one of the foremost political thinkers of 18th century England].

‘Death from the air’ – “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow!”
[Emperor Haile Sellasie addressing the League of Nations, 30th June 1936]

“Steer” is a proposal to develop a 90 minute documentary feature based on the little-known journals & writings of South African journalist George Lowther Steer in the 1930s & 1940s.
The principal reference material for the content of this series will be the biography of George Steer written by Nicholas Rankin titled: “Telegram from Guernica”.

Key factors making the life and times of George Steer an important and dramatically engaging feature documentary – with both local South African, African and European appeal – are the following:

1] George Steer was born in East London, South Africa in 1922 – the son of the Editor of the now famous Daily Dispatch Newspaper [later brought to international prominence by anti-Apartheid Editor Donald Woods & BC Activist Steve Biko]. Educated at Oxford, Steer served his journalistic apprenticeship on the Cape Argus before carving out an international career on both The Times of London and The New York Times;

2] Steer’s first major assignment was in Ethiopia, Africa where he was stationed for The Times of London in 1935 to report on the pending Italian invasion. Witnessing the disproportionate devastation wreaked by the invading Italians & the Italian air-force in particular with their new form of “death from the air” warfare, George Steer was the first journalist to bring to the attention of the world the use of “poison gas” by the Italians against the Ethiopian civilian population;

3] Two years later, in 1937 George Steer was stationed in Bilbao Spain & assigned by The Times of London to cover the looming Spanish Civil War.

Just as dramatically fortuitous as his eye-witness accounts of “gas bombing” by the Italian airforce in Ethiopia – was George Steer’s eye-witness account of the bombing of Guernica in Spain in 1937 which directly inspired artist Pablo Picasso to paint his giant iconic masterpiece titled “Guernica”.

Picasso’s masterpiece – directly inspired by Steer’s report in the New York Times – depicted the tortured agony of the townsfolk of the city of Guernica as they experienced the death and destruction unleashed by this unprecedented air attack on a civilian population.

In the process, George Steer’s report – which appeared on both sides of the Atlantic in the Times of London and The New York Times – revealed to the world that Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe was directly responsible for the air attack which they had used to test their devastating new “incendiary bombs”.


“All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”
[Edmund Burke, one of the foremost political thinkers of 18th century England].

This premise was further developed by Friedrich Niemoller after WWII.

Friedrich Gustav Niemoller was a Protestant pastor and social activist imprisoned by the Nazi regime in 1939.

Addressing representatives of the Confessing Church in Frankfurt on 6th January, 1946, Niemoller offered the following explanation as to how a system as evil as that perpetrated by Nazi Germany could have gone so far before action was taken:

“When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn’t a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”

‘Death from the air’ – “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow!”
[Emperor Haile Sellasie addressing the League of Nations, 30th June 1936]

When the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1935 they utilized their airforce to devastating effect against the Ethiopian civilian population.

In 1935, “war from the air” by use of a highly developed airforce was a relatively new concept & had a profound terrifying & disturbing psychological effect on the civilian population on whom it was inflicted. The Italians then intensified this terror by systematically spraying “chemical death” as a strategy against the Ethiopian civilian population.

Despite eye-witness reports by journalists including George Steer & direct appeals by Emperor Haile Sellasie & the International Red Cross, the International League of Nations deflected, responded with denialism and did nothing. [This lack of action speaks to the Premise & is a consistent reference point going forward as the Western powers later once again do nothing to stop the rise of fascism which ultimately results in WWII. ]

On the 30th June 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie – addressing the League of Nations in Geneva – threw down the gauntlet to these – the most powerful nations of the “civilized” world.

He warned the fifty-two nations assembled that international morality was at stake.

If they ignored the brutality inflicted on distant small states by the powerful with their new warfare of “death from the air”, they would eventually be forced to face the consequences in their own back-yard.

As he walked from the podium, the Emperor uttered a chilling prophecy:

‘It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.’

Hence the prophetic introduction of the controlling idea as a theme which resonates & re-occurs going forward to become common currency with the fire-bombing of Guernica, the systematic carpet-bombings of Europe and the United Kingdom in WWII, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagisaki & ultimately the 9/11 bombing of the Twin Towers in New York.

Born in East London in 1922, the son of the Editor of the Daily Dispatch newspaper, George Steer was educated at Oxford and served his journalistic apprenticeship on the Cape Argus.

In 1935 he was employed by The Times of London & sent to Adis Abiba to cover the impending invasion of Ethiopia by Italy.

Witnessing the disproportionate devastation wreaked by the invading Italians with their new form of “death from the air” war machine & being one of the first eye-witnesses to report on the use of “poison gas” by the Italians against the Ethiopian civilian population, Steer became a close ally and friend of Emperor Haile Sellasie.

Steer covered the invasion on the ground from the Ethiopian point of view for The Times of London & finally accompanied the Emperor when he was forced with the utmost reluctance to flee a devastated Ethiopia and go into exile in Europe.

Steer was also present when Emperor Haile Selassie – now in exile – addressed the League of Nations in Geneva and recorded this remarkable and highly prophetic moment in history:

“DEATH FROM THE AIR” – ‘It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.’
– as reported by George Steer:

On the 30th June 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie – addressing the League of Nations in Geneva – threw down the gauntlet to the most powerful nations of the “civilized” world.

Since October 1935, Italian warplanes – unopposed & wreaking untold death & destruction on the civilian population – had spearheaded the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

In 1935, this was a new and devastating form of warfare “from the air” – not anticipated and having terrifying psychological effects on a civilian population. But it did not end there – as, within a few months the Italians added “poison gas” to their arsenal.

Despite graphic reports and desperate pleas from the Emperor, the International Red Cross and other members of the Ethiopian Royal Family – in denial – the League of Nations had done nothing.

His country devastated, the Emperor – now in exile – had come to ask for justice and help in the face of this genocide inflicted on the Ethiopian people by the Italian Imperialists with their systematic use of “chemical gas” – dropped on civilian populations by Italian warplanes.

Bitter at the inaction by the League of Nations, the Emperor painted a picture of the horror describing this new form of “death from the air”:

“A mechanism spraying yperite liquid was installed in the aircraft, and it was arranged that a fine rain bringing death should descend over vast tracts of the country.

At one time, as many as eighteen Italian aeroplanes were going to and fro bringing down an unceasing rain of yperite.

This death-dealing rain descended uninterruptedly upon our soldiers, upon women, children, cattle, streams, stagnant waters as well as pastures. Those who drank the water upon which this poisonous rain had settled or ate the food which the poison had touched died in dreadful agony.”

In closing, the Emperor warned the fifty-two nations assembled that international morality was at stake.

If they ignored the brutality inflicted on distant small states by the powerful with their new warfare of “death from the air”, they would eventually be forced to face the consequences in their own back-yard.

As he walked from the podium, the Emperor uttered a chilling prophecy:

‘It is us today. It will be you tomorrow.’

This was a key prophetic moment witnessed and reported on by South African journalist, George Steer.

What followed in the decades to come indeed bore grim testimony to the Emperor’s prophecy.

As the fascist war machine went on the rampage “death from the air” became the new currency in contemporary warfare with the systematic carpet bombing of civilian populations in Europe, London & Germany with World War II, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima & Nagasaki right up until the 9/11 bombing of the twin towers in New York in 2001.

In what was to come, across Europe, civilian populations would bear the brunt of this new form of “death from the air” warfare – bringing death, destruction and brutal suffering – indeed – to their “own back-yards”.

This new type of air-warfare abolished geography & marked a terrible new order of things.

Death could drop from the air, at any time, to destroy a town without warning and to burn women and children at home in their beds.

In this new kind of warfare, civilians were to become the “front line”.

For Steer, the spectre would raise its ugly head once more less than a year later in the apocalypse that was to befall the Spanish town of Guernica.

But for now, it was on the continent of his birth that George Lowther Steer’s adventures as a war correspondent had began and were playing out.

It was in Ethiopia too, in 1935 that George Steer met and fell passionately in love with the cosmopolitan and darkly attractive Marguerite de Herrero, stationed in Ethiopia for Le Journal in Paris.

Marguerite was thirty-six, ten years older than Steer.

It was a passionate love affair set against the tumultuous & dramatic backdrop of the Italian invasion and fall of Addis Ababa.

Their wedding took place on 4th May 1935 in the grounds of the British Legation to the accompaniment of the rifle shots of marauding bandits.

Their honeymoon was spent behind the barbed wire defenses of the British Legation Park & in paying visits to the refugee camp.

But the personal happiness George and Marguerite found in the midst of the mayhem unfolding in Ethiopia was short-lived.

Two years later, having just arrived in Bilboa on assignment to cover the looming Spanish Civil War, George Steer received bad news.

His heavily pregnant wife Marguerite was dangerously ill, and he had to get back to London immediately.

It was a journey of darkness, cold and dread.
When Steer finally arrived back in London on 30th January 1937, his beloved Marguerite had died in childbirth.

Steer was grief-stricken and never quite recovered from the loss of his wife and child.

His only salvation was to throw himself more vigorously into his work than ever before.

Soon after Marguerite’s death Steer returned to Spain to cover the impending Spanish Civil War.

Once again the League of Nations had declared a neutral stance on the Spanish conflict placing the Spanish government at a disadvantage as Mussolini blatantly continued his military support for general Franco’s rebel fascist army.

More sinister at the time – Adolf Hitler in the shadows – was building his formidable war machine. In public, Hitler had signed the agreement of the League not to get involved in the conflict.

But, on the night of Monday 26th April, George Steer – having heard the drone of aircraft in the distance – drove out from the city of Bilbao where he was stationed covering the civil war to witness the atrocity.

Nicholas Rankin in his biography on George Steer, titled: “Telegram from Guernica” describes what happened:

“Beyond the Basque hills the night sky glowed fleshy pink.

As he drew closer, the clouds seemed obscenely alive, wobbly red bellies of billowing smoke.

Then Gernika came into view: a meccano framework with flames at every hole. It was Monday night, 26 April 1937, and the town had been fire-bombed.

Dusty survivors told him about the three-and-a-half-hour air raid: how aeroplanes with a black cross on the tail had dropped blast bombs on market-day afternoon, slaughtering people and animals; how fighter planes had dived to machine-gun others fleeing into the fields or along the roads; then how more planes had tumbled out thousands of shiny incendiary bombs, as long as forearms, that fizzled and spurted fire, making a conflagration of the historic town.

In the hot rubble of Gernika’s collapsed streets there was now a gagging smell of charred meat. Hundreds were dead.

The next day, Steer drove out again to see the destroyed town by daylight before sending a long cable with his copy.

George Steer’s story appeared on Wednesday, 28 April 1937 on the foreign news page of The Times of London and the front page of the New York Times, the most important newspapers on either side of the Atlantic.

George Steer identified the aeroplanes as German. He revealed to the world the dirty secret that Nazi Germany was deeply embroiled in the Spanish Civil War, secretly supporting General Franco’s ‘insurgents’ and using the conflict to test their newly-developed “incendiary bombs”.

Steer’s front-page report read as follows:

‘Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders.

The bombardment of this open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000 lbs. downwards and, it is calculated, more than 3,000 two-pounder aluminium incendiary projectiles.

The fighters, meanwhile, plunged low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilian population who had taken refuge in the fields.

The whole town of Guernica was soon in flames except the historic Casa de Juntas with its rich archives of the Basque race, where the ancient Basque Parliament used to sit.

The famous oak of Guernica, the dried old stump of 600 years and the young new shoots of this century, was also untouched.

At 2 a.m. to-day when I visited the town the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end. The reflection of the flames could be seen in the clouds of smoke above the mountains from 10 miles away.

Throughout the night houses were falling until the streets became long heaps of red impenetrable debris…

In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought… the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history.

Guernica was not a military objective… The object of the bombardment was seemingly the demoralization of the civil population and the destruction of the cradle of the Basque race.’”

Meanwhile, in Paris, Pablo Picasso – in exile – was already appalled by the Civil War in his homeland.

The fifty-five-year-old artist supported the Spanish Republic and loathed Franco and his fascist followers, who had murdered so many when they took over his birthplace, Malaga, two months before.

This new massacre from the air was a horror that rivalled anything in Goya’s “Disasters of War”.

The fascist planes had attacked the town on market day, when it was full of campesinos with their animals, and local women and housewives come to sell and buy food.

When Picasso picked up his copy of The New York Times & read Steer’s account of the massacre on the front page he was galvanised into action.

‘Painting is not just done to decorate apartments,’ Picasso later said.

‘It is an instrument of war… against brutality and darkness.’

Since January Picasso had had a commission to fulfil for the Spanish Republic, and now – inspired by George Steer’s first hand account – the subject found him.

Picasso imagined the town’s agony, its weeping women and wounded animals.

As the left-wing May Day parades through Paris chanted ‘Guernica! Guernica!’, the Spaniard began charcoal-sketching in his high-windowed studio on the top floor of 7 rue des Grands Agustins.

On 4 June the enormous painting – 12 feet high, 25 feet long – Pablo Picasso’s iconic masterpiece “Guernica” – went to the Spanish Pavilion of the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques Appliques á la Vie Moderne, the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, which was visited by over 30 million people that summer.

Throughout the Western World, George Steer’s story caused a global outcry.

Herbert R. Southworth, who wrote the classic fortieth-anniversary study of the 1937 events, called Steer’s dispatch ‘the basic document in establishing world public opinion about the destruction of Guernica’.

On another front, the bombing of Guernica brought the brutality of colonial warfare home to white people.

Since the First World War, when a few European civilians had been bombed, the tactic had mostly been used in faraway places to punish tribal dissidents.

This type of warfare abolished geography.

Death could drop from the air, at any time, to destroy a town without warning and to burn women and children at home in their beds.

In this kind of war, civilians were the front line.

Guernica, like Hiroshima, like 9/11, marked a terrible new order of things.

The Germans were furious at George Steer’s story.

The Nazis were now revealed to be field-testing blitzkrieg in Spain, on behalf of Franco’s Nationalist insurgents, fighting against the democratically elected Spanish Republic.

Germany denied everything, and loudly denounced The Times.

Adolf Hitler cancelled an interview he was due to give the newspaper on 4 May.

Nine days later, Steer’s follow-up story, ‘Bombing of Guernica: German Airman’s Statement’ – based on an interview Steer conducted with one of the German aircrew that had crash-landed during the bombing – caused the German Secret Police to confiscate all copies of The Times.

There-after, the name ‘Steer, G. L.’ was on the Gestapo Special Wanted List of 2,820 people to be arrested when the Nazis invaded England in 1940.

All in all, Steer’s early witnessing of the use of bombing and chemical weapons against the civilian populations of both Ethiopia and Guernica gave him a unique perspective on twentieth-century history, and made him one of the first to understand the psychological effects of air power.

His second book, The Tree of Gernika, explored what he called ‘the mystique of the air’ – the way in which aerial bombing, so often incompetent in practice, would magnify in the imagination, becoming the presiding terror of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

In the face of Franco’s advancing forces, Steer continued to report first-hand on the ground from Spain until the collapse at the end of 1937.

Sick of Europe and ill with hepatitis he returned to South Africa to heal his grief and recover in the sunshine of the Eastern Cape.

From his home in East London over the next two years Steer travelled Africa, reporting on the build-up of fascist forces as the world edged closer to WWII.

But, “who was George Steer?” asks biographer Nicholas Rankin.

His six published books (two other manuscripts were lost) and his dispatches and articles allow us to piece together a quite extraordinary life.

In the run-up to the Second World War, the greatest and most transforming conflict in human history, George Steer was the only journalist to report from three precursor places – Ethiopia, the Basque country with the bombing of Guernica and Finland – where small nations fought for their lives against great powers, and lost.

He is among the select band of intrepid reporters and war correspondents (mostly outsiders from the Dominions and Colonies) who invigorated ‘the first draft of history’ in the 1930s and 1940s.

George Steer’s roots and formative years were as a young boy growing up in East London, South Africa.

George Steer had grown up with newspapers.

His father Bernard Steer was the Managing Editor and future Chairman of the East London Daily Dispatch, the best paper in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. (The Dispatch later became famous under the editorship of Donald Woods, when he became friends with the Black Consciousness activist Steve Biko.)

George’s mother, Emma was a dominant influence in his boyhood.

Emma’s mother – George’s grandmother- was a founder member of the Industrial & Commercial Workers Union – founded in Cape Town in 1919.

Raised in a Christian, liberal household amongst black, white and brown people in the Eastern Cape, he was a natural ally of the underdog.

English education sharpened his mind, but sun-burnt Africa was his home and his first love.

Before his untimely death at age 39 in a freak motor accident on Christmas day 1944, in the final five years of his life – from 1939 to 1945 – the remarkably energetic, creative & tenacious George Steer married his second wife, Esme Barton – with whom he had two children; reported on the Russian invasion of Finland & ensuing war; initiated a new kind of psychological warfare – rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in British Psychological Operations [PSYOPS] Intelligence Corps; and with the Italian surrender, accompanied Emperor Haile Selassie on his triumphant return to Ethiopia – all of which is chronicled in the eight books that George Steer wrote during his life-time.
The proposed 90 minute documentary feature, “STEER” is based on the life and times of George Lowther Steer as told in the biography penned by author Nicholas Rankin titled: “Telegram from Geurnica”.