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Carpenter, Iris (1906—)

Carpenter, Iris (1906—)

British journalist and war correspondent who was one of the few women to report the Allied invasion of Europe from D-Day in June 1944 to the surrender of Germany in May 1945. Born in England in 1906; daughter of a cinema entrepreneur; married Charles Scruby (a developer); married Russell F. Akers, Jr. (an American colonel), in 1946; children: (first marriage) one son, one daughter.

Retired from journalism (early 1930s) to raise a family; start of World War II motivated her to return to the profession to cover the Battle of Britain; facing strong discrimination by British military authorities and determined to be a combat reporter, was hired by the Boston Globe and was accredited with the 1st American Army; her reports from the front lines and hospitals in France and Germany described in graphic prose some of the bloodiest fighting on the Western front, including the Battle of the Bulge as well as the liberation of Nazi concentration camps; remained in the U.S., working for Voice of America.

Iris Carpenter was one of the most intrepid and respected women war correspondents of World War II. With her powerful stories appearing in the Boston Globe, many of her loyal readers were unaware that Carpenter was not an American, but a British-born journalist. Born into a wealthy family (her father was a cinema magnate), she used her father's connections to land a job in 1924 as a film critic for a British publication called The Picture Show. Her talent pushed her up the professional ladder, and she signed on with London's Daily Express. Following her marriage to Charles Scruby, a wealthy developer, Carpenter quit journalism in 1933 to devote her energy to raising a young son and daughter.

The start of World War II in September 1939 ended Iris Carpenter's life of secure domesticity. From the outset, the conflict came uncomfortably close to her private life when five German planes were shot down in the woods behind her home. Determined not to sit out the war, she reported on the conflict in several roles, including as a broadcaster for the BBC as well as a print reporter for both the Daily Express and the Daily Herald. Ignoring the dangers around her, Carpenter turned in colorful and perceptive articles documenting the heroism and destruction of the Battle of Britain. By 1942, the United States had joined the war effort, and it was clear that one day Hitler's Fortress Europe would be invaded by an Allied armada. A tested veteran war correspondent, Carpenter believed that she had earned a right to be part of the first wave of troops liberating the Nazi-occupied European Continent.

Her application to be accredited with the British Expeditionary Force for its coming invasion of Europe was vetoed. Carpenter's book, No Woman's World, notes the hostile attitudes of the British high command toward female reporters at the front: "The only chance a newspaper girl had in talking to troops was by touring camps with the Red Cross doughnut girls." Refusing to be excluded from one of the greatest stories of the war, she decided to find a job with an American newspaper and report on American participation in the upcoming invasion. Her meeting with Carlyle Holt of the Boston Globe was a persuasive one, and she was hired as that newspaper's accredited correspondent with the U.S. 1st Army. On D-Day plus four, Iris Carpenter became one of the first women to land on the Allies' precarious Normandy airstrip. Though she and a handful of other women had now appeared on the scene, the British War Office continued to place obstacles in their way, reflecting the openly hostile attitudes of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, whose position was a flat: "We will not tolerate them."

Taking advantage of the American military's greater receptivity to female reporters, Carpenter followed the troops beyond the immediate area of France's rapidly expanding Normandy beachhead. On her first return to London to file some stories, she discovered that she had broken a rule by advancing with the troops and was subject to a court-martial and subsequent disaccreditation if found guilty. Fortunately she had saved her typed orders (in triplicate), satisfying her accusers that she had not consciously broken the rules, which were now recast to redefine the beachhead as being four miles inland from Omaha Beach to the city of Cherbourg. Despite Carpenter's escape from punishment, institutional hostility toward women journalists remained strong. The Public Relations Division (PRD) of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) had full jurisdiction over female reporters, dictating that they could only write about subjects the PRD approved, which included such topics as the Women's Army Corps (WACS), wounded soldiers and hospital life. Women reporters, regarded as little more than a nuisance, were severely restricted in their access to the front lines, being ordered to go no farther than the areas designated for nurses and Red Cross staff. Whereas male correspondents were usually assigned to camps that had jeeps and drivers as well as teletype and radio transmitters, women reporters enjoyed few of these professional advantages. The hospitals to which they were assigned, often situated in areas more exposed to enemy shelling, rarely had jeeps, making it difficult for reporters to get their stories to the local press camp.

As the Germans retreated, Carpenter followed the Allied forces through the shattered French city of Caen and across the River Orne, reporting not only the exploits of American troops but the involvement of the local population against their Nazi oppressors. She was perceptive in her observations of both the evil and altruistic traits that the end of foreign occupation brought out in the French—some displayed malevolence, others heroism. In her constant search for good stories, she ignored the dangers of the war. Only in her memoirs could she look back on the dangers of her exhilarating, perilous job, noting that "No combat soldier, however experienced or well trained, did a better job of inching out in retreat with the fanny well down than this correspondent." Despite the courage and competence of female war correspondents like Carpenter during the first weeks of the invasion, SHAEF continued its policy of discrimination and none of them were present for the exhilarating first hours of the liberation of Paris. Arriving in Paris after having been "quarantined" along with other women reporters by a PR officer, Carpenter more than made up for her frustration by reporting on the final stages of mopping-up operations by French resistance forces of holdout German troops, which she called "head-hunting."

Soon after leaving liberated Paris, Carpenter suffered a shattered eardrum during a bombing raid on St. Lô, which became infected. A painful and dangerous case of mastoiditis was suspected, but she refused to submit to an operation, fearing that by the time she had fully recovered the war would be over. She ameliorated her condition by remaining with a field hospital as it moved toward the front; in this manner, she maintained medical treatment and stayed close enough to the action to continue reporting.

Carpenter's stories of wounded soldiers and of the skillful, compassionate medical and nursing staff were among the best published during the final phase of the war in Europe. The horror of war was never far from her reportage: "Time was taken out to bury the men, but carcasses of cattle were everywhere. I don't know why the sight of a flock of sheep bowled stiffly on their sides, or a cow with the soft, flabby folds of her neck stretched taut to the sky, or a horse with his four legs jutting from a bloated belly, should seem more sadly to heighten the horridness of war than anything it does to men. I know only that it did. Maybe it's because animals are so unresponsible for it all."

In her reporting on the carnage of the battle of the Hürtgen Forest, Carpenter again pointed up the animal life sacrificed to the war. Wounded American soldiers sought shelter in a barn while the war raged around them: "Every time another crash shook the trembling structure, the surviving animals burrowed into the hay among the wounded, squealed and whinnied and bleated. A youngster with a dangling bloody mess of coat-sleeve where his left arm should have been had the other one firmly around a frightened pig. 'Silly, isn't it?' he cracked. 'Me, with pork my favorite meat!'" Once in Germany, Carpenter began to write not only of American and Allied soldiers but of the German civilian population as well, who, she said, "were Germans, but that made them no less pitiable" as they wandered the roads with a handful of salvaged possessions. Determined to see as much as she could, Carpenter moved from place to place by cub plane in what were often dangerous forays, not only because of enemy fire but hostile weather; on one trip, she spent three hours in a wild storm, finally finding a safe airfield with only a few minutes of fuel left in the tank.

The war ended for Iris Carpenter with scenes both horrific and exhilarating. She reported on the concentration camps at Buchenwald, Dachau and Nordhausen, telling of monstrous deeds her readers could not always easily accept as part of the human experience in the 20th century. More optimistic were her reports from Torgau on the Elbe river, where American and Soviet troops met and celebrated a hardwon victory, hopefully foreshadowing a new era of peace and cooperation. The war ended for Carpenter in Weimar, the city of both Goethe and Schiller as well as Buchenwald. After composing her last dispatches, she came to the United States in early June 1945 and consciously began the transition to a world at peace. Wrote Carpenter after seeing the New York skyline: "I was afraid that the sensation of combat would deprive me of the quality of being excited about anything else … but I am excited."

The Allied victory in Europe brought other changes to Carpenter's life. She divorced her husband and married an American officer, Colonel Russell F. ("Red") Akers, Jr. Her son came to the United States while her daughter remained in school in England. Iris and "Red" settled down in the Washington, D.C., area, he remaining in the military and she finding a job with the Voice of America. Her war memoirs, No Woman's World, were published in 1946, receiving positive reviews. Carpenter remained in the United States, living out a long retirement in her beloved state of Virginia.

sources:

Beasley, Maurine H. "Women and Journalism in World War II: Discrimination and Progress," in American Journalism. Vol. 12, no. 3. Summer 1995, pp. 321–333.

Carpenter, Iris. No Woman's World. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1946.

Edwards, Julia. Women of the World: The Great Foreign Correspondents. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

Wagner, Lilya. Women War Correspondents of World War II. NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.

collections:

MSS. Collection #147, Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries, Athens, Ohio.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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