Northern exposure

An Irishman’s Diary: Derry’s Soviet scoop

‘Five months before, the US had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Then came the front page story in a local paper in Derry that the Soviets were making such advances in nuclear technology that  they were developing much more sophisticated systems than the US.’  Above,  Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

‘Five months before, the US had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Then came the front page story in a local paper in Derry that the Soviets were making such advances in nuclear technology that they were developing much more sophisticated systems than the US.’ Above, Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Tue, Feb 25, 2014, 01:00

It was the first Wikileaks-style revelation of its kind, creating a worldwide media sensation; it all happened in a Derry newspaper in January, 1946. Five months before, the US had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Then came the front page story in a local paper in Derry, the Londonderry Sentinel , that the Soviets were making such advances in nuclear technology that not only were they overtaking the Americans but they were developing much more sophisticated systems than the US, having produced an atomic bomb that was no bigger than a grapefruit.

Sidney Buchanan was the long-standing editor of the Sentinel and the source of the scoop of his journalistic career was right on his doorstep, one of his regular contributors. The effect of his front page story was startling.

At the paper’s offices, then on Pump Street, in Derry city centre, not far from St Columb’s Church of Ireland cathedral, the calls started flooding in from newspapers and news agencies around the world. Newspapers as far away as Australia majored on it. Everyone wanted to know: was the story true? Had the Soviets stolen a march on US atomic weapons? Even the then US president, Harry S Truman, was forced to enter the fray, almost immediately, and he denied its veracity, a sure sign to the man with whom the story had originated that it was in fact perfectly true.

The man responsible for this sensational scoop (no-one ever found out how and where he sourced his incredibly accurate information) was a doctor from west Africa who had been practising in Derry since 1938, Dr Raphael Ernest Grail Armattoe.

During the second World War, Dr Armattoe worked at the civil defence first- aid post in Brooke Park in Derry, then after the war, he opened his own practice in the city. At the time, an African GP or hospital doctor anywhere in Ireland was a rarity, but Dr Armattoe was warmly commended by his many patients, who found him marvellously sympathetic and efficient. Born into a prominent family in west Africa, he had originally gone to Germany to study medicine, but as that country turned Nazi, he moved to France, and then on to Edinburgh, where he qualified. Then he came to Derry, with his wife, Leonie Schwartz, a tall, willowy woman from Switzerland.

In Derry, Dr Armattoe also proved very popular as a speaker on a variety of topics to various societies and organisations. He had an intense intellectual curiosity about an amazing amount of subjects.

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