Peter Stursberg, who died in Vancouver on Sunday, his 101st birthday, was the last living Canadian war correspondent from the Second World War, and probably the last correspondent anywhere in the world who covered that war. Stationed in North Africa, Italy and northwestern Europe, he was one of only a handful of Canadian radio journalists to deliver reports on the conflict from the front lines.
The equipment needed to broadcast from the field was cumbersome. It could weigh several hundred pounds and required technicians to operate. Reports with interviews and actuality would be recorded on a disc in the field and then shipped to a safe radio station to be sent out over the air. The Canadian reports were heard not just back home, but in Britain and the United States as well.
“We were the only North American network using recording equipment, so we were making the most of our opportunity,” Mr. Stursberg said in a speech to a Canadian Club during a home leave during the war. “We were bringing sounds of artillery, low-flying planes, rifle, mortar and machine gun fire right into the living rooms of people here [in Canada] and in Britain. [The recorded actuality sounds] are so real that they are now used frequently by Hollywood.”
Recording and reporting the war could be as dangerous as fighting. On a beach in Sicily, he stood with Canadian troops as they came under fire. Since the rounds were raining straight down on them, the men made a smaller target standing up, with only steel helmets to protect them. The shelling lasted an hour. At one stage, a piece of metal tore into the shoulder of the officer standing beside Mr. Stursberg.
The only time Mr. Stursberg was injured in his years of war reporting was in Britain during a war exercise.
“It was ironic that I should be wounded during a demonstration of a river crossing in England and come through the real war with its real battles without so much as a scratch,” wrote Mr. Stursberg about an incident when he was hit by a dud mortar during a military exercise in Britain. It almost killed him. The Canadian general standing beside him was alarmed at the incident, not so much that a CBC reporter had been knocked to the ground, but that the projectile had just missed the Duke of Gloucester, a member of the Royal Family, who was standing a few yards away.
After Rome fell to the Allied armies, Mr. Stursberg arranged for a special broadcast to Canada by the Pope. It was said to be the only time Pius XII made a radio broadcast to a specific country.
The CBC man and his engineer drove their radio truck right into Vatican City, set up their microphone in the Pope’s private study, and ran the wires through the windows.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment for Mr. Stursberg came just after the end of the war, when he was one of the few reporters to visit the place where Hitler died. “I went down into Hitler’s bunker and it was very close to the Chancellery, which was in Berlin, of course. And I have Hitler’s spoon and fork. There were a lot of spoons and forks, which I thought were kitchenware because they were practically black. And when I got back, I cleaned them, and they turned out to be silver, with AH on one side,” recalled Mr. Stursberg, many years later.
If his adult life was filled with adventure, so was his childhood.
Arthur Lewis Peter Stursberg was born on Aug. 31, 1913, in Chefoo, China, where his father, Walter Arthur Stursberg, was working with the Chinese Postal Service. When he was seven years old, his father and mother, Mary Ellen (née Shaw), took Peter on a world cruise. They returned to China and spent the next four years there. When he was 11, he went to boarding school in Britain.
Several years later, his parents moved back to Canada and Peter graduated from West Hill High School in Montreal. He then returned to Britain to take his British matriculation at the Bedford School. He entered McGill University in 1930 and studied science while working for the McGill Daily. He rowed for McGill in the 1932 Canadian Olympic trials, but the team failed to qualify. Also for McGill, he rowed at Henley, the annual race on the Thames River in London, that same year.
When his family’s fortunes were hurt by the Depression and his parents moved to a farm on Vancouver Island, he left university and followed them to the West Coast. For the next couple of years, he worked in logging camps, farms and many odd jobs. He landed his first newspaper work with the Victoria Daily Times in 1934, as agricultural editor.
By 1938, he was curious about the turmoil in Europe and he travelled to France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and the Soviet Union. In Russia, he was held by the police on a visa charge. In Moscow, he watched a youth parade in Red Square march past the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
He filed freelance pieces during his European tour, and these were what later landed him the much-sought-after job of war correspondent. After settling with the Soviet secret police, he took a Russian boat via the Baltic Sea back to Britain. There he landed a job with the London Daily Herald. One of his jobs was to write three “leaders,” or editorials, on the importance of the 1939 royal visit to Canada.
The war broke out when he returned to Canada and he was hired almost immediately by the CBC in Vancouver.
“These war correspondents really started CBC News. The CBC was publicly shamed in the newspapers for the way it announced the start of the war. There was a broadcast from NBC going out over the network and they interrupted Jimmy Durante singing Inka Dinka Doo to make a 20-second announcement. The newspapers shamed them,” said David Halton, whose father, Matthew, was also a CBC war correspondent. Mr. Halton has written a book about his father and other Canadian war correspondents, called Dispatches From the Front, which will be published in November.
Mr. Stursberg’s first war-related assignment was covering the building of the Alaska Highway from the United States across British Columbia and the Yukon. The road was built to connect Alaska to the continental United States to facilitate the transportation of weapons and manpower to protect the territory from Japan. It was known as the Alcan Highway (named for Alaska-Canada, not the aluminum company).
Peter Stursberg recalled in one of his early books, Journey into Victory, that the four-man CBC crew was unprepared for sub-zero weather and didn’t bring sleeping bags. An American officer supplied them. In Mr. Stursberg’s book, he noted the racism in the U.S. Army work crews. The hard work of building the road was done mostly by black soldiers, though all the officers were white.
A short while later, Mr. Stursberg was named one of six reporters (three from the English network, three from the French) to go overseas to cover the war in North Africa and, later, Italy and northwestern Europe. The others in the English-language crew were Matthew Halton and Andrew Cowan. The French-language team was Marcel Ouimet, Benoît Lafleur and Paul Barrette. Peter Stursberg outlived them all.
After the war, he was the CBC’s correspondent at the United Nations and then the Ottawa editor of the Toronto Star. He was an entrepreneurial journalist. He and a friend founded Canadian American News Service, which provided syndicated radio and print reports from Ottawa. Later, he was one of the founders of CJOH (now owned by CTV), as well as being an investor and on-air personality at the Ottawa television station, which was one of the first private TV broadcasters in Canada. That investment left him financially set for life.
“I think one of his most impressive accomplishments was his work with oral history in Canada,” said his son, Richard Stursberg, who served a controversial stint as head of English services at CBC from 2004 to 2010. “His first book was on Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. He would interview all the people involved with Diefenbaker – cabinet ministers, generals and so on – and then work that into a narrative. He did the same thing with [Lester B.] Pearson.”
Peter Stursberg wrote 14 books in all and was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1996. In retirement, he taught Canadian studies at Simon Fraser University and was an adjunct professor there from 1982 to 1988.
Mr. Stursberg was predeceased by his wife, Jessamy Anderson (née Robertson) in 2008, and leaves his son; his daughter, Judy Lawrie; four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
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