AN ADDRESS BY EDWIN S. JOHNSON.
Chairman: The Third Vice-President, Mr. E. F. Thompson.
Thursday, January 9, 1941
Before introducing the speaker, the Chairman made reference to the passing of Mr. John Mackay, a Life Member of the Empire Club.
MR. E. F. THOMPSON :Gentlemen of the Empire Club and our Unseen Radio Audience: Due, unfortunately, to a cold, our President, the Honourable G. Howard Ferguson is confined to his house and therefore I have the extreme pleasure of introducing to you our guest-speaker of the day. He comes to us in the capacity of a military correspondent of the Canadian Press at Ottawa. From that title you will gather that he is a newspaperman. He is actually a great deal more than that. Admittedly he has had some twenty-years experience, having had his apprenticeship with the Winnipeg Free Press for a period of four years. He then graduated to the Canadian Press and with them has filled many important posts on both sides of the Atlantic. In the year 1937 he was made Superintendent of the Canadian Press in London, England. In 1938, shortly in advance of the present war he made a very thorough tour of Europe, visiting France. Italy, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland. He thereby acquired a background which has been of extreme use to him in recent months. During the last war our speaker today was a member of the Royal Flying Corps. At the commencement of the present conflict he was in France very shortly after the war started and he was the first Canadian correspondent at Military Headquarters. He was appointed War Correspondent of the First Division and the Second Division and he filled the same position with the newly formed Canadian Corps, under General McNaughton. Having had so much experience on the actual field of action he is very well equipped to talk to us on the subject of "Embattled Britain", and it is with great pleasure that I give you Mr. Edwin Johnson.(Applause.)
MR. EDWIN S. JOHNSON: Gentlemen: I thank you sincerely for the privilege and honour of being invited to address your great Empire Club-a Club which stands for those fine ideals that have played such a vital role in making stronger and more unified this great freedom-loving Empire we all hold so dear.
Somehow I feel almost uncomfortably smug, I might say secure rather, over here, when I reflect on the existence that was mine, and millions of others in England, such
a short while ago. Then, as now, death and stark terror rode constantly in the skies, with devastation and suffering on every hand. It all seems so remote now-a horrible nightmare-after enjoying this spell of rest amid the peaceful atmosphere of my native land.
Before I left the British Isles, enemy air-raiders had exacted a heavy toll of life and property in their barbarous campaign of indiscriminate bombing. That wanton destruction is still going on. It is being pursued with all the savagery of an enemy we have learned from past experiences can always be relied upon to act according to the basest instincts of mankind.
But the British people who are writing such a glorious chapter of courage, tenacity and calm determination know that even greater ordeals lie ahead. They have resigned themselves to a war of long duration, soberly aware that they are engaged in a grim fight to a finish. They realize their lot for some time to come will be one of blood, toil, tears and sweat, the ordeal that Prime Minister Churchill mentioned not so long ago. But withal, their fighting spirit is stronger to-clay than ever before. Their morale is sound. They are confident of victory, no matter how great the suffering or what sacrifices the future may demand of them.
I tell you this without fear of challenge for I have just returned from the sordid scene of the Empire's battlefield, the very front line of civilization. With so many others I also have been bombed out of my home and office. Providentially, I escaped death or injury at least a score of times. Just before I was due to leave for Canada one of Jerry's oversized bombs--it was a twelve-hundred pounder--crashed through the roof of the residential building where I had an apartment on the eighth floor. The bomb plowed right through my bedroom and exploded on the floor immediately below. Fortunately I was on the second floor at the time and escaped without a scratch. Six residents who had not troubled to seek shelter were killed and about forty families rendered homeless.
All told, fourteen high explosives and twenty-six incendiary bombs had struck this residential building before I left, which may give you some idea of the concentrated violence of these air attacks.
And so it is throughout the metropolitan area of London and other raid-torn areas. Before my departure I made an extensive tour of London. Hardly a street had escaped pounding. On every hand dwellings, historic buildings and business establishments lay in ruins or bore ugly scars of bomb-splinters, while thoroughfares were pock-marked with gaping craters which had temporarily disrupted utility services and necessitated roundabout traffic detours.
Most of this tragic vandalism has been caused by the night raiders. Except for an occasional lull these destroyers are sure to come over at the approach of dusk. With them comes the terror of the night-wailing sirens, flames from incendiaries, the lurid glow of flares and a rain of shell splinters. I can tell you the scene almost defies description. One must live through the ordeal of this hell to appreciate its horrors. And while I sincerely trust you will be spared the experience, it is well for all of us constantly to remember the hardships and sufferings these brave people are enduring with such exemplary fortitude.
If Hitler hopes to shatter the morale of the civilian populace by these ruthless tactics, I can tell you he is doomed to failure. A trip into the ravaged areas of East London would convince him of that. Here amid the grim devastation, in what was once a teeming settlement, the spirit of the people has been truly magnificent. Thousands have lost all their worldly possessions and many are mourning loved ones. Yet they remain undaunted, realizing if this terror that threatens them should triumph they would be condemned to a life of enslavement and oppression. The Government has done everything in its power to persuade these people to seek refuge in the country or in some other safer region. Some have gone but the majority have elected to stay, especially women whose husbands are employed in the metropolitan area.
They have adopted the attitude: "If we must be killed, let us all go together." But it hasn't always worked out that way. When a man sets off for work he often returns to a rubble heap that was once his home. His family may have been wiped out or he, himself, may have fallen victim to one of the raider's bombs. In such circumstances it is inevitable that many should have come to adopt a fatalistic attitude. Which reminds me of a rather amusing story about a little London evacuee.
On her first night in the country the youngster was asked if she didn't say her prayers before going to sleep. "Oh yes," she replied.
"Well, kneel down and I will listen as your mother does," the lady of the house said.
The little girl repeated as usual: "Now I lay me down to sleep," and so on, and then improvised a postscript of her own-"And please God protect Daddy and Mummy from those German bombs, and do, clear God, take good care of yourself because if anything happens to you we are sunk."
I have told you something of the sordid side of this war of frightfulness which has overwhelmed our people. Of course you have already been made aware of some of its terrifying implications through reports in your daily newspapers. And here may I digress for a moment to pay humble tribute to my former colleagues in the London office of the Canadian Press and those other fine fellows on Fleet Street.
Shortly before I took leave of London a large calibre bomb whined down over our office leaving a yawning crater forty feet wide, and thirty feet deep, on our very door step. By some strange quirk the building housing our office escaped with superficial damage while other establishments two to three hundred yards clown the street were either demolished or rendered untenable. Since then, however, our staff has been obliged to move into new quarters as a result of damage caused by fire bombs.
Like the soldier in the front line these highly trained Canadian Press newspapermen never give thought to their personal safety. Gathering the facts and getting their despatches off to Canada quickly are their primary concerns. But I can assure you that much of what you read today from London and other parts of Britain has been brought to you at the risk of the writer's life and limb.
More than likely these men are carrying on their duties at this very moment to the accompaniment of the air-raid warning. Probably German planes are cruising overhead and bombs are whistling about them. I only hope they are not falling too close.
Much indeed has happened in this topsy-turvy world since seventeen months ago when I had the pleasure of accompanying Mr. Rupert Davies, who is President of the Canadian Press, on an extensive tour of continental Europe.
On that eventful trip there was one particular experience which left a lasting impression on my mind. It was at an informal function given in our honour in Berlin about three weeks before the outbreak of war, by a group of Foreign Office officials and chiefs of the Nazi National News Service.
Our hosts were quite courteous and friendly. A talkative, blubbery rascal who sat on my left waxed eloquent on the enormous good Britain and Germany could exert if only they would work together and between them take complete control of world affairs. He also dwelt at some length on the great influence that we as newspapermen could wield in putting across that idea.
Champagne and the very best wines had been flowing quite freely-and Mr. Blubber poured down the stuff as if he were trying to float a battleship. Then all of a sudden the alcohol took effect. His tone and manner changed so suddenly I could hardly believe my ears.
"Why has Britain always sought to knead Germany into the dirt and been so unfriendly toward us?" he almost spat at me. "Why have we been refused the return of our colonies that were stolen from us? Why are we being deprived of raw materials we need so urgently, and why are we being cut off from the world's markets?
"It is because Britain has always sought to gobble up everything for herself and resorted to every device in an effort to keep us, a nation of more than seventy million people, out of our rightful place in the sun," he answered himself.
"But those days are over, I can tell you," he blustered. "We shall show Britain that we are stronger than she thinks we are and before we get through with her the British Empire will be shattered and she will be on her knees crying for mercy. But we won't give her any mercy. Only one all-powerful nation must be allowed to survive and that nation will be Germany."
He gritted his teeth and his eyes bulged almost out of his head as he unburdened himself of this storm of hate. It seems to me that since then I have heard very much the same bombast, truculence and threats from this man Hitler and his lieutenants.
That incident merely confirmed a belief I had held for a long time--that the majority of Germans have an inbred hatred of the British people and everything British. Some time before that I was on a visit to the Leipzig Industrial Fair. I met a young Nazi newspaperman there who gave me another insight into things German. Only twenty-two years of age, he had become a blind, unreasoning worshipper of Hitler.
"Why doesn't Germany settle down to a peaceful way of life and try to compose her differences around the council table?" I asked him.
"Neither I nor any other true Nazi ever question the actions of our Fuehrer," he shot back. "If he says we must go to war we obey unquestioningly and I for one would willingly give my life if I thought it would help to build up a greater Germany of the future."
Probably fine patriotism, but it sounded strange coming from a youth of twenty-two. Still, what he said, merely reflected that fanatical belief which has mesmerized Germany's growing generation and caused it to subordinate everything to the interests of the state and the exaltation of Hitler, their new-found god.
Thus I would warn you that it would be folly to build up false hopes on the possibilities of an early internal break-up of the Nazi regime. There is certainly not much hope of it until Germany has sustained a series of major setbacks.
Whatever Hitler's plans may be for the future he must survey the present disordered scene with anything but optimism. Conditions in the occupied countries and with in the borders of Germany and Italy are far from what axis propaganda machinery would lead us to believe. Italy, reeling under British and Greek pounding is screaming for help. Her effectiveness as an ally may soon be at an end.
Already the spectre of starvation has reared its head in some of the German occupied countries. Food stocks have been looted and plundered by the invaders and although the Nazis have sometimes paid high prices for what they have seized, the conquered people have awakened to the sad realization that the currency they have received is only worthless paper.
In face of these conditions there has been a growing clamour for Britain to relax her naval blockade to permit delivery of essential food supplies to relieve the plight of these sorely pressed, hungry people. Britain has made certain concessions, but for her to lift the blockade unconditionally, it is submitted, would be tantamount to surrendering her most powerful weapon.
In the opinion of most British leaders the tighter the blockade is drawn the sooner will people now under the Nazi and Fascist yoke rise in revolt and help Britain bring the war to a successful conclusion and with it their own liberation.
Meanwhile, Germany is frantically seeking to institute a reckless counter-blockade of Great Britain. For months she has been waging an unrestricted submarine campaign against Britain's sea-borne traffic. Surface raiders have been at large from time to time, and long-range bombers are now being employed against our convoys hundreds of miles off the west coast of Ireland.
The damage to her ocean commerce has been considerable. We must steel ourselves for even more violent assaults against our maritime lifeline. The gravity of the threat brooks no delay. Britain must be assured of uninterrupted delivery of the equipment, supplies and trained personnel she needs to meet the full power of Nazi hate which we know will be unleashed before long.
North America must be converted into the greatest arsenal in the world.
We must see to it that the productive capacity of industry is mobilized and geared to the highest pitch of efficiency.
We must make the best use of our skilled labour to permit full-out concentration on any and every urgent undertaking.
To meet the large scale productivity of the regimented Axis coalition, workers in the United Kingdom have voluntarily surrendered for the duration, rights and privileges it has taken them generations to establish. Today there is no thought of enforcing the forty-hour week, nor is there any talk of strikes and lockouts. These people realize that only through unity and by fighting the enemy with his own weapons-more and better weapons-can victory be assured.
We in Canada must also accept this fact. To make such sacrifices would indeed be no more than what has already been done by our men in the fighting services who are offering their lives for their country.
But our leaders must also make it clear once peace has been won that a new and better order of life will be established--a new order far superior to the totalitarian vision of a super-state, recently outlined by Hitler.
At the moment it may be difficult for most of us to visualize an early end of the present conflict. But we do know it must ultimately be brought to a conclusion and furthermore we are confident victory will be ours. It is then we must be on our guard against the appeasers who, in the past, have urged us to be generous and tolerant once victory has been won.
I have heard it said that the monster we now are fighting does not represent the German people as such but rather the fanatical element comprising the Nazi movement. I confess that I count myself among those who simply cannot see any essential difference between the Germans of the last war and the present generation of so-called Nazis. Any increased barbarity which may be discernible in the Germans of today may be ascribed to the advance of science, engineering or what ironically might be described as "improved methods."
For the life of me I cannot see why we who claim to be people of practical common sense should forget that it was the Germans of the last war who succeeded in erasing a good many French and Belgian cities, who shelled open towns, who first used poison gas--as you will recall, against our own Canadian boys at Ypres--that it was Germans who sank hospital and passenger ships without warning and otherwise gloried in a war of frightfulness. Nor ought we to forget that German planes and Zeppelins in the last war also bombed London and other British cities. I have no compunction in suggesting that had aerial science been far enough advanced Germany would certainly have wrought just as great havoc then as she is attempting to do now.
We must be sure that once victory is achieved, we win the peace and see to it that wars are forever abolished from the face of the earth.
Now, I would like to take you to another scene that was closely linked with my experiences, that is with our military life.
The long dreary months while Britain was reforming her army after the debacle in France and Flanders have proved a real testing period, I can assure you, for our own Canadian Troops.
During those critical weeks following the epic Dunkerque withdrawal, the First Canadian Division formed the Empire's very spear-head of defence. The men were then and are today the most proficient and generally the best equipped troops in the United Kingdom. But constant waiting for something to happen, and disappointment when they marched to the brink of action only to be recalled, was bound to generate a certain measure of boredom. However, effective steps have been taken to counteract this problem.
The men are constantly being given change of scenery, always of course consistent with military considerations. Plans already are in operation for educational, cultural and social diversion during the winter months. More stress has been laid on unit and divisional entertainment and leave is being granted more frequently.
Despite the fact that London has become the principal focal point of the enemy's campaign of hate our Canadian laddies are finding it a magnet of attraction. Not for its amusements and diversions, but for its front-line atmosphere. I have met many of them actually cruising around the city in search of the air-raid hot spots. Few have relished the idea of returning to what they call "the quiet of the camp."
But camp life for the modern Canadian soldier is not what it was for our men who went overseas a generation ago. Most of you will remember the hardships that the first contingent of that day was called upon to endure--first on bleak, inhospitable Salisbury Plain, and later in the mud and desolation of the battlefields of France and Flanders.
In contrast, our boys today are housed in comfortable billets. Their food is good, clothing warm and the majority of them are stationed in areas where they can enjoy the amenities of town life and the hospitality of private homes.
The way the British people have treated our men has been magnificent. And the boys in turn have not failed to show their appreciation. They have conducted them selves like true soldiers and gentlemen and won the lasting respect of the populace.
Since their arrival the Canadians also have made their presence known in more than a front-line sense. During the severe sleet storm of last winter, Ontario Signallers played a vital role in restoring the country's disrupted communications. They strung miles of emergency lines and had services functioning again in record time. British supervisors working with them claimed it was the most thorough and speediest workmanship of its kind they had ever seen.
Again when the threat of invasion appeared imminent last summer, Canadian leaders found they would need a more flexible communications system to ensure the quick movements of troops, equipment and supplies, should a major emergency arise. Plans for through roads and bypasses were drafted but local authorities, without the necessary man-power or machinery, found themselves unable to tackle the undertaking in the tune prescribed.
General McNaughton, whose energy and dynamic leadership have brought him to the very forefront of the Empire's military scene, stepped in. He called his engineers together and told them what was wanted. Seven weeks later a Canadian road construction unit, composed mainly of Ontario boys, had completed a stretch of concrete highway which the local authorities had declared themselves unable to do within eighteen months. More work of this nature is being carried out by our Canadians who revel in the work, feeling as they do, that they are contributing something of lasting value to the Motherland.
The Canadians are also playing an important part in strengthening Britain's defences. By pooling their ideas and scientific resources, the Canadians have added many devices and weapons to the nation's store of surprises to be hurled against the enemy should he ever attempt his threatened invasion, or when we in turn take the initiative. And while the possibilities of a successful invasion are far more remote now than six months ago, there has been no relaxation of our watch and ward.
Many of our leaders are firmly convinced that Hitler is sure to strike-and we know that he hasn't been idle these past months. They argue that he must seek a victory over our land forces or acknowledge defeat. Proponents of this theory admit such a plan would involve tremendous risks but they stress the fact that Hitler has never been concerned about the loss of human life and that he would not hesitate to launch it if he thought there was the slightest chance of success. Our leaders, however, are fully cognizant of these dangers. Defensively Britain is ready to meet this threatened blow with the largest army in her history, marshalled at positions of readiness within her frontiers.
But Britain does not plan to remain on the defensive indefinitely. Shortly before I took leave of the Canadian forces in England, General McNaughton called me into his office and gave me this heartening message
"We have never lost sight of our determination to carry the war abroad. Every day that passes we are reducing the advantages the enemy has enjoyed and ultimately we shall be in the lead. The equipment situation has improved, enabling us to make excellent headway with training. Rest assured we will strike hard and effectively when the time is ripe."
That offensive, however, cannot be launched with any assurance of positive success without our fullest aid ant also that of the United States.
Britain, fighting grimly with her back to the wall is supremely grateful for the help already forthcoming from North America.
Everyone in the United Kingdom knows that Britain's lifeline across the north Atlantic must be kept open at all costs for the transport of promised war materials to her shores. Similarly, everyone believes that Britain must obtain superiority in the air before she can hope to bring Germany to time.
"Planes, ships and trained personnel" has become the popular slogan. Hence all eyes in the United Kingdom are turned toward this hemisphere. For the average man on the street in Britain the Empire Air Training Scheme represents the key to ultimate victory.
But there is also a prevailing belief in England that the United States eventually will be full-out in the war on our side. The majority of the British people feel that
Americans have just as big a stake as they have in the outcome of the war. They believe that if Americans are serious in their faith and love of democracy they should be ready to fight in its defence. But of course they know that Americans must decide that issue themselves.
Many of you may recall Hitler's recent outburst when he said that it pained him grievously to think that destiny should have chosen him to deliver the knockout blow to the British Empire.
We may feel superbly confident that neither Hitler nor anyone else will ever deliver that blow. But we must above everything else be certain that our confidence is not founded on the quicksands of wishful thinking or the equally fatal policy of procrastination and muddling through.
As our gracious Sovereign said not so long ago: "If is not in power of wealth alone nor in dominion over other peoples that the true greatness of our Empire exists. The end is freedom, justice and peace in equal measure for all." If we desire to live this civilized way of life we must be willing to fight for it with everything we possess. (Applause.)
MR. E. F. THOMPSON: Gentlemen, on your behalf, I am going to ask another newspaperman, Mr. Main Johnson, to express our thanks to the speaker.
MR. MAIN JOHNSON: Mr. Chairman, Gentlemen: I am always very proud of newspaper colleagues who have the ability and the courage to address public meetings. Most of us shelter in the less exposed regions of an office or whatever post we may occupy in the newspaper business, but there are some of the profession who do fulfill this public service of telling audiences like this what they have seen and heard. Mr. Johnson has not lived that sheltered life, as you may well judge from his address, either in France or particularly, and more recently, in London; nor was he in any sheltered position. What newspapermen like about their own colleagues is that if they are good newspapermen, they are at least realistic and objective in their approach, and I know you will agree with me that Mr. Johnson has been realistic and objective in what he has told us today.
On your behalf, it gives me great pleasure to thank Mr. Johnson and to express the hope that he will continue to tell the public the facts, particularly, I may say, the information that he has given us about the Canadians in England. There isn't a person in this hall who hasn't either a relative or close friend in England at this time, ant to hear first-hand stories of what they are doing and of their condition and their fine morale is encouraging to us.
Thank you, Mr. Johnson, on behalf of the Empire Club. (Applause.)
MR. E. F. THOMPSON: Thank you Mr. Main Johnson, and also Mr. Edwin Johnson. The meeting is adjourned.