- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Major Dennis Francis Winsloe Scanlan
- Location of story:
- Europe and North Africa
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 December 2005
Major Dennis Francis Winsloe Scanlan with General Charles de Gaulle, photographer and date unknown
I submit this account in the hope it might be of interest to your site.
My account concerns my great uncle, Major Dennis Scanlan, who was a TIME LIFE war correspondent during the Second World War. Unfortunately my great uncle died when I was only twelve and therefore I never spoke to him about his rather eventful life. Luckily, however, before he passed on he presented his younger brother (my grandfather) with an intriguing box which contained approximately 300 photographs, a handful of negatives, an assortment of letters (including several hand-written from Charles de Gaulle), his official war-correspondent passes, and ten pink Naval Message slips from the morning of 6 June 1944———D-day!
When my grandfather died in 1976 I inherited the box, and being a bit of a history buff I have always wondered about its contents, but I never found time to properly research it, that is, until recently.
My first tentative investigations began during the late 1980s. At the time I was doing a BA Hons degree in Photography, Film and Television, and having ready access to good darkroom facilities I decided one day to deviate from my course work and make some prints of some of the square negatives that were in my great uncle’s box. Two or three of the photographs were of a photographer clad in desert attire, headscarf and such like, and some were of Free French forces making cavalry charges across, what looks like, an African landscape. Fascinating though the images were/are, I knew nothing about their provenance and therefore filed them away before resuming my course work.
Some years later (1995) I was working in London when I saw an advertisement for an exhibition of the work of the English photographer, George Rodger, and to my great surprise I realised that the man in the negatives was actually him. More than that they were the very same photographs, and I had the negatives! I quickly telephoned the photo-agency Magnum (which George Rodger had established after WW2 with the photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa), and was even more elated to find out that George was still alive. Regrettably, however, a mix up occurred and before I could make contact with him, he died. Apparently he passed on only weeks after my call. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to make contact with his widow, Jinx, whom I now know and she was intrigued to hear the story.
Since then I have been slowly piecing together my great uncle’s life. I therefore submit the basic elements of his life in the hope that somebody may be able to help me put some flesh on some old bones, as it were.
My great uncle was born on 3 September 1898. In September 1915, at the tender age of 17, he joined the East Yorkshire Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) as a Second Lieutenant. At the end of November 1917 he was promoted to Lieutenant and was sent to join Siege Battery 227 RGA, which was stationed near Ypres with the Second British Army. He was lucky enough to survive the war and in April 1919 enrolled at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he read Physics. Always interested in engineering, my great uncle worked for the BBC in the twenties as a sound expert, before going off to Hollywood where he worked with Hitchcock and Buster Keaton among others. He was also in charge of the sound production on the prophetic science-fiction classic, Things to Come (1936), which accurately predicted the coming conflict and featured a helicopter several years before the machine was actually invented. The film starred Ralph Richardson and Raymond Massey and I have various pictures from the film set in my possession.
Then in November 1936 he was hired as a soundman for The March of Time newsreel films and went to cover the Spanish Civil War, where he met characters such as Kim Philby, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Capa. There are various apocryphal stories in the family about him taking people out of the country in the boot of his car, thereby risking his own life, although few details are actually known. I also have a mysterious photograph of him sitting at a desk on the deck of a US Navy carrier somewhere off the Spanish coast. The photograph shows him clearly making a list of Spanish Republican refugees coming on board the vessel, which is extremely curious in that my great uncle is dressed in civilian attire and yet standing behind him are two US naval officers in uniform. Furthermore, I have been recently informed that the US government never officially assisted, received, or involved themselves, with any refugees from the Spanish Civil War, but I don’t know how true this actually is.
Then sometime around 1940, my great uncle moved sideways within TIME and took up a position as a war correspondent for TIME LIFE, a position he held until the end of November 1945. For the duration of the war he was based in the TIME LIFE offices at 2-4 Dean Street, Soho, out of which ran the TIME, LIFE, and FORTUNE magazines, as well as THE MARCH OF TIME newsreel films. Being something of a linguist, my great uncle mainly covered the Free French forces and we know that he was in North Africa during the war as we have photos of him in Algiers in 1943. He also knew Charles de Gaulle and his wife well and we have several hand-written letters from them both. Indeed, the list of people he worked with in the Dean Street offices is quite remarkable: the correspondent Mary Welsh (the last wife of Ernest Hemingway), as well as the photographers Robert Capa, Frank Scherschel, Ralph Morse, David Scherman, and George Rodger———which might help to explain why my relative may have had negatives of George Rodger in the desert in 1941. And, as far as I understand, other correspondents and photographers employed by other news agencies such as Ernest Hemingway, Lee Miller and Burt Hardy would often pop in for coffee at the Soho-based TIME LIFE offices.
Having recently spoken to his granddaughters about my research, they confirmed that he never spoke about his wartime experiences, so sadly we only have a few apocryphal family stories to go on. And although I wrote to the TIME archives back in 1988, they simply told me that they only had a couple of snippets of information about my great uncle. However, last year I had a breakthrough. I discovered a separate archive in the US which holds 610 reports of my great uncle dating from January 1942 to November 1945, although the whereabouts of the material prior to January 1942 still remains a mystery.
Among other things, my great uncle covered the North-African campaigns, De Gaulle’s arrival in Algeria, D-day, and the Liberation of Paris. In fact I have a few photos of the D-day campaign and ten Naval messages from the morning of the 6 June 1944 which, rather intriguingly, appear to have been written by him but we don’t know why. On 19 June 1944 TIME magazine reported that ‘British-born Dennis Scanlan was on a British destroyer’, however, we now know that this was probably disinformation, as he was in fact on the troop carrier SS Empire Lance, a ship which carried the British 50th Northumbrian Division to Gold Beach. These were battle-hardened troops, veterans of the North-African campaigns and they were also accompanied by Marines, sappers and engineers. The ship also carried Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs), which ferried the troops to the King Sector of Gold Beach from its moorings six miles offshore.
Recently I’ve found a wonderful eye-witness account, written by my great-uncle, describing everyone’s last minute preparations on board the ship as H hour approached. His account, written from the relative safety of the deck of SS Empire Lance, also describes the first US landings on Omaha beach, as chandelier flares illuminated the early-morning sky, and how heavy bombers, ships, and corvettes peppered the beaches, before the troops touched down. Thirty minutes later it was the British turn to land on neighbouring Gold Beach.
Although my great uncle was not a professional photographer, he did carry a 35mm Leica with him at all times, and we do have some original images. We also know that some of his photos made it into the TIME LIFE photo pool, only to be typically ruled out for publication by the censor, who frequently left his tell-tale, blue pencil scribble ‘OUT’ on the rear of many of the pictures.
One of the greatest surprises I had during my researches into his life was the discovery of a photograph taken of all the TIME LIFE correspondents and photographers just before D-day on the roof of their Soho offices. In the picture my great uncle is standing next to the English photographer George Rodger, and on the other side of the shot is the world-famous war photographer Robert Capa, whose images of course influenced Spielberg’s masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan. The picture also depicts at least three gentlemen who, I’ve quite recently ascertained, are still going strong. One is Robert Capa’s picture editor, John G. Morris, now aged 87 and lives in Paris. A second is the photographer Ralph Morse, who lives in the US. And a third is the TIME LIFE correspondent Wilmott Ragsdale, now a sprightly 95 year old who also resides in the US. And this summer I was overjoyed when Wilmott made a brave solo trip to London via Mozambique and Paris, and we met up for a day and discussed his wartime experiences over lunch and a walk in Richmond Park. His conversation proved insightful and one anecdote particularly stood out———a recollection of how he had spent a night with Robert Capa in a barn in Normandy, not long after the traumatic D-day landings.
To date I have amassed about 30,000 words on my great uncle’s rather amazing life, but I know I have merely scratched the surface. Therefore if there is anyone out there who can help me answer one of the many mysteries still surrounding his career, or the activities of the Dean Street offices during WW2, I would be extremely grateful.
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