My history hero: Philip Pembroke Stephens (1903–37)

Chosen by John Simpson, journalist

This article was first published in the June 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Philip Pembroke Stephens was a fearless foreign correspondent of the 1930s. He was born in 1894 and educated at Gresham’s School in Norfolk as well as the University of Cambridge. Stephens dabbled in a couple of different professions before deciding on journalism. He was Daily Express correspondent in Vienna, Paris and Berlin, where he stood out for his objective reporting. The Nazi authorities arrested Stephens twice before expelling him from Germany in June 1934. In subsequent years Stephens covered the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China. He was killed by a Japanese machine gun in Shanghai on 18 November 1937.

How did you first hear about Philip Pembroke Stephens?

Stephens was a genuine hero of 20th-century reporting, yet his name is largely unknown. He has no entry in either the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography or Wikipedia. I first came across him when I was researching my new book, Unreliable Sources: How the Twentieth Century was Reported.

Reading through the newspaper archives of the early 1930s, I was depressed to find how little coverage the British press gave to the reality of Nazi control over daily life in Germany, once Hitler became chancellor in January 1933. Only the Express, of all newspapers, took up the subject and started a campaign in support of the German Jews.

The Express’s proprietor, Max Beaverbrook, was actually privately rather anti-Semitic, and had a certain limited amount of sympathy for fascism and Nazism – though nothing like as much as his opposite number at the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere, who was an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler. But Beaverbrook had a good eye for arresting, colourful journalism, and that is what Stephens, the Express correspondent in Berlin, supplied.

What was Pembroke Stephens’s finest hour?

The Express sent him to Berlin at the end of 1933 to replace Sefton Delmer, who was accused by the British government of getting too close to the Nazi leadership. In fact, Delmer was not a Nazi sympathiser, but in order to get good stories he made himself highly agreeable to Hitler’s close associates. Stephens took a completely different approach to Nazi rule: he examined its effects on ordinary people, and especially on ordinary Jews.

He understood perfectly well that this would get him thrown out in short order; but he clearly believed that it was his duty to do so. And so he toured Nazi Germany, uncovering the cruelty and viciousness of everyday life for Jews. The Express gave greater and greater prominence to Stephens’s copy, until he led the front page. Soon Stephens was arrested, threatened, and thrown out of the country. For a time, he was based in London, writing articles critical of Nazism, but enthusiasm for this at the Express eventually waned.

What made him a hero?

Stephens refused to do his reporting from the safety of his office. He always preferred to go and see what was happening for himself. It earned him Beaverbrook’s highest praise, and a much-increased salary; and in the end it cost him his life.

Stephens ended up in China, reporting on the atrocities committed there by the invading Japanese. On the last day of the Chinese army’s stand in Shanghai in 1937, he was hit in the head by a Japanese bullet and killed instantly. His friend, a rowdy Daily Mail correspondent called O’Dowd Gallagher, wrote the story of Stephens’s death. But he sent it, not to his own paper, but to Stephens’s. “I couldn’t scoop him on his own obituary,” Gallagher said later.

Philip Pembroke Stephens was a correspondent’s correspondent, and I feel that it’s about time he was much better known.

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John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. He has worked at the BBC since 1966, reporting from war zones across the globe and interviewing dozens of world leaders. Simpson has also written several books. His latest, Unreliable Sources: How the Twentieth Century was Reported is published by Macmillan.