September 1, 2016

1943. The Great Orel Sweepstakes

Reporters Compete for Scoops on the Eastern Front
Moscow-based foreign correspondents in 1943. Bill Downs is seated in front, second from the left.
From Newsweek, August 2, 1943, p. 82, 85:

The Orel Sweepstakes
In the event you've had trouble following the day-to-day stories on the current Russian offensive, read this account by Bill Downs, Newsweek and CBS correspondent in Moscow, about the trouble the correspondents have been having:

Correspondents covering the Battle of the Orel Bulge from the Metropole Hotel and the Foreign Office press department look more like form players than war reporters as they try to make head or tail of the Red Army's moves on Orel.

Already there had developed the "Great Orel Sweepstakes" of July 19, running this way:

Reuters: Harold King, leading, placed the Soviet forces 10 miles east of Orel. (Earlier, King had "advance forces of the Red Army only 5 miles north of the Orel-Bryansk railroad," but he promptly forgot about it.)

NBC and Exchange Telegraph: Robert Madigoff, running second in the Orel Derby, put the Soviet forces 12 miles from Orel.

Associated Press: William McGaffin pounding away for third. His Red Army troops were 15 miles from the town.

CBS and Newsweek: Bill Downs, lost in the back stretch after placing the Red Army "less than 20 miles from Orel."

Henry Shapiro of the United Press was practically left at the post, and David Nichol of The Chicago Daily News never had a chance.

The Orel sweepstakes is typical of the difficulties under which American and British reporters must compete for headlines and at the same time keep within reason in trying to interpret the progress of military movements in Russia. There is not one who had not been screaming at the press department for trips to the front or, second best, for conferences with reliable political and military authorities for guidance in covering this and other stories.

Lacking either, here is the way the foreign press corps has been covering the battle of Orel:

When the communiqué broke on July 16, about twenty villages were named. Then came a frantic searching over maps, the correspondent having the best map writing the story. Detailed maps of the Soviet Union are virtually impossible to obtain; thus old-timers who have been collecting them for the longest are the best off. After the search of the maps there was a search of the latest railroad timetables to check place names. Meanwhile copy was pouring out in takes with messengers rushing the hilly six blocks to the telegraph office where, it was hoped, transmissions were not jammed "by the weather."

Daily thereafter, the reporters have risen early to collect their Red Stars, Izvestias, and Pravdas and immediately begin a word-by-word search for clues to the battle. By combining facts from official communiqués and reports from the front east of Orel you may locate the big tank battle of the previous day or tell where the Germans are throwing their greatest reserves. From these facts you get a somewhat clearer picture of what is going on.

However, winning the Orel sweepstakes is going to depend on some revealing communiqué to tell who was right. Based on total Red Army advances, the Soviet forces should be in Orel now (July 20) if the movement were straight eastward. Meanwhile no one knows where the Soviet forces are located in the Orel bulge—except the Red Army and the Germans.