Steer, George Lowther
He was the only son of Bernard Augustine Steer and his wife Emma Armitage Streer, of East London and of Cape Province, South Africa. He won a scholarship to Winchester after a time at St Peter’s School in Seaford. He won the English Essay Prize and edited The Wykehamist. He then went up to Oxford with a scholarship to Christ Church and obtained Firsts in both “Mods” and “Greats”.
On leaving Oxford he took up journalism and went back to his native South Africa to join the staff of the Cape Argus. In 1933 he returned to England, and spent some time in the London office of the Yorkshire Post. On the eve of the Italian-Abyssinian war in the summer of 1935 he was appointed special correspondent for The Times and gained an exclusive interview with the Emperor, Haile Selassie. Soon after the interview, at Selassie’s request, Steer was sent to investigate what the Italians were planning. When the Italians invaded, the poorly-armed Abyssinians were no match for Italian tanks and aeroplanes, and Steer was one of the first to reveal that the Italians were using mustard gas on their opponents.
He then reported on the Spanish Civil War, taking up the Republican cause. Steer sometimes found it hard to be objective and frequently seemed to side with victims. During the fall of Bilbao he was the last journalist in the city, the Italians and Germans were attacking the city and Steer found himself with a group of militiamen near the Puente del Diestro, digging up cobble-stones with which to build defences. They were attacked by six German Heinkel 51 biplanes, and Steer seems to have picked up a gun and fired back at them.
Steer was one of those who first reported on the bombing of Guernica. On Monday April 26th 1937 bombs were indiscriminately dropped on this historic Basque town. On the day of the attack Steer was driving in the vicinity and had to dive into a crater to escape an air attack. He returned the following day to investigate the atrocity, and found bomb casings labelled in German. His telegram alleging German involvement, appeared in The Times and the New York Times on April 28th 1937, and had reverberations around the world. Steer’s account in “l’Humanité” galvanized Pablo Picasso into painting Guernica, and also earned Steer a place on the Gestapo’s “Special Wanted List”.
In 1938 and 1939 he travelled extensively in Tunisia and Cyrenaica, having been hired by the Daily Telegraph to write on colonial problems.
In 1939 he married Esme Kenyon Barton, daughter of the former British Minister in Addis Ababa. The wedding was attended by Haile Selassie, who later became godfather to their son, George Augustine Barton Steer (K, 1953-1958) who was born in May 1940. The couple also had a daughter.
When war broke out Steer remained a war correspondent, going to Finland, Denmark and Sweden. Then deciding that he needed to take a more active part, he obtained a commission in the Intellegence Corps. In truth he had been head-hunted because of his relationship with Haile Selassie. He was commissioned into the Army Officers’ Emergency Reserve (Egypt) on 21st June 1940, and although he received no formal military training, he was now part of what would come to be known as the Special Operations Executive.
By the end of September 1940 he had been appointed an Acting Captain in the Intelligence Corps and the following month he proposed that special units be set up to accompany front line troops and to undermine the morale of enemy units in the combat zone. These were to be called Forward Propaganda Units and included many enemy deserters.
Steer, with Haile Selassie, set out with his column of SOE, called Gideon Force in January 1941. He had with him a printing press used to produce propaganda pamphlets, and also loudspeakers, used to broadcast news and sentimental songs to the Italians at night. “The British commanders demurred at first at this new-fangled idea, on the grounds that it would draw fire. Apparently it had the reverse effect. It used to stop the war…. the Italians, fascinated, stopped shooting to listen”. (Alan Moorhead: “African Trilogy”). Its main achievement was to distract and confuse the enemy.
Addis Ababa was captured on 6th April 1941 and Haile Selassie, accompanied by Steer, entered the capital on 5th May.
On 24th September Steer was posted to GHQ Middle East Force in Cairo and was involved in the retreat from Benghazi in January 1942. He may also have escaped from Tobruk in June 1942. He later served as Intellegence Officer helping to plan the British occupation of Madagascar in 1942.
He spent Christmas 1942 with his parents, wife and family in South Africa before being sent in January 1943 to the Burmese front.
His new role was to raise, train and organise the Indian Field Broadcasting Units and he was soon in command of a battalion comprising seventeen nationalities engaged in propaganda. Through loudspeakers playing sentimental music, sounds, speeches and anything which would evoke nostalgia in the enemy, Steer’s team set about breaking the will of the invading Japanese.
He was killed in a jeep accident on Christmas Day 1944, aged thirty-five, when visiting his troops at their training camp at Fagu in the Himalayan foothills of north-western Bengal. He turned his jeep over and was killed in the crash.
Steer is commemorated on face 19 of the Rangoon Memorial, and was buried in the cemetery on the Rungamattee Tea Estate. His grave was marked with a concrete slab and granite cross inscribed:
“In memory of Lt-Col George Lowther Steer, who died at Fagu on December 25, 1944”.
At Winchester, his fellow IFBU officers put up a memorial in his old chamber in College: it reads “scriptor et miles”.
- Surname: Steer
- Forenames or initials: George Lowther
- House: College
- Years in School: 1923-1928
- Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
- Regiment: Intellegence Corps
- Date of Birth: 11th November 1909
- Date of Death: 25th December 1944
- How Died: Killed in an Accident
- Location in War Cloister: Inner E2
- Decoration: NA
- Burial Site: Cemetery on the Rangamattee Tea Estate. Commemorated on Face 19 of the Rangoon Memorial