Doon Campbell, one-handed war correspondent
Archibald Doon Campbell of Reuters was one of the youngest correspondents in the field during World War II, but he never really gave that much thought — just as he had never spent much time dwelling on his most noticeable physical characteristic.
Campbell was born March 11, 1920 without the lower portion of his left arm. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he spent most of his childhood in Linlithgow, a small town west of Edinburgh. He wrote in his memoir, Magic Mistress, that it wasn’t until he went to school that he realized he was “somewhat unusual in that I only had one hand.”
“Nothing had changed,” he wrote. “Since birth I had always had a half-empty left sleeve, but that had never mattered or had never seemed to matter. … No one ever talked it it (at home) or seemed to think it was something that needed to be talked about. It was of no consequence, almost an irrelevance.”
The cruelty of schoolchildren soon brought it to the forefront, and he later struggled to find a job as “time and again prospective employers took a quick look, saw a hand missing and fumbled for a formula to get off the hook.”
He finally found a home in journalism after wandering into the offices of the Linlithgowshire Gazette, where he became a reporter’s assistant before beginning to write stories himself.
Campbell joined Reuters in London in the spring of 1943 and was promoted to war correspondent that fall. He was initially assigned to Italy to replace Stewart Sale, who had been killed along with two other correspondents on Sept. 28.
The 23-year-old arrived in Algiers in late November, then moved on to Italy, where he eventually joined the press covering Gen. Sir. Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army. There were plenty of old hands in that group, including the likes of Alan Moorehead, Alex Clifford and Christopher Buckley, and Campbell found them mostly content to cover the front from headquarters.
“My youth, artificial arm, total inexperience and keenness to see action caused a degree of bemused cynicism among my companions,” he later wrote. “That suited me; I had the front largely to myself.”
While some close calls in the field eventually led Campbell to see the wisdom in balancing trips to the front line with attending briefings and rehashing communiques at the press camp, he never quite shook that urge to be in the midst of the action.
After the Allied landings at Anzio in January 1944, Reuters sent Campbell across the peninsula to cover the ongoing stalemate at Cassino. Not long after his arrival, Allied commanders made the controversial decision to bomb the centuries-old monastery, and Campbell watched the barrage from an observation post about two miles away.
The sight was “terrifying, spectacular, dramatic,” and he later became the first correspondent to interview the Italian survivors who had been caught in the bombing. That sensational story was picked up by numerous outlets and impressed the bosses back in London.
In March, he took Gen. Mark Clark up on an offer to observe the situation from above and flew around Cassino and Mount Vesuvius, which was erupting at the time, in a Piper Cub — another unique angle that won him praise.
Reuters recalled him to the UK in April, with the cross-channel attack looming. He paid a brief visit home, which was noted in the Linlithgowshire Gazette near the end of the month:
“He was looking hale and fit, and had much of interest to tell of his experiences in Italy where, as would be gathered from his despatches, he did not sit about H.Q. waiting for ‘hand-outs,’ but went up to the front line himself and did first-hand and first-class reporting.”
Campbell continued that trend from the beaches of Normandy.
He learned in late May that he had been assigned to accompany Lord Lovat’s Commandos on D-Day, and had to restrain himself from celebrating openly.
“I heard with incredulity, ecstatic delight,” he wrote. “Magic! I was going with a crack British force on the very first day. … Could any war correspondent ask for more?”
Campbell landed on Sword Beach at 9:06 a.m. on June 6. He found shelter inland as quickly as he could and scratched out his first rudimentary dispatch from the continent on a piece of notebook paper. Now all he had to do was get it sent.
I wriggled and crawled back to the beach, lying flat every few yards as if to reduce the target area, then forward again when I imagined the Germans were reloading. A naval officer operating a shuttle to ferry more men and supplies took that grubby bit of paper addressed to Reuters with the dateline: “A ditch 200 yards inside Normandy.”
He eventually made his way to Ouistreham and spent the night in yet another ditch, “shivering and sneezing.” The following morning, he visited a nearby house, where an elderly Frenchwoman made him an omelette and coffee. Campbell then tracked down Lord Lovat, who told him the operation had been “100 percent successful.”
As Allied forces moved across the continent, Campbell would make Brussels his home base for several months. In late March 1945, he participated in Operation Varsity, crashing into Germany aboard a glider with the U.S. 17th Airborne Division.
He reported from the Belsen concentration camp days after it was liberated by British forces, describing among other horrors one prisoner so starving and delusional that he was chewing on rotting wood and another eating coal dust.
A few weeks later, Germany surrendered, and Campbell returned home to Scotland — but only for a few weeks. Reuters soon dispatched him to India and then on to Burma, where fighting was still ongoing. He moved on to China that summer and shortly after the war with Japan ended landed an exclusive interview with Mao Tse-tung in Chungking.
His wartime work finally over, Campbell arrived back in the UK in March 1946. He was just 26 years old, and even after all he had seen the previous three years, his career in journalism was only beginning.
Campbell would end up spending 30 years at Reuters, the last 10 as editor and general manager of the service, before leaving for United Newspapers in 1973.
Awarded an OBE in 1984, he remained involved with press-related charities in his later years.
Campbell died May 26, 2003, at age 83.