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.

One of his many interests were the ancient herbal cures of Co Donegal while another and much wider involvement was decolonisation in Africa. He even found time to write plenty of poetry; some foreshadowed his early death.

The publicity resulting from the newspaper story ensured many more speaking engagements, this time on science in the Soviet Union. He talked about this topic in the Mansion House in Dublin (where he was very friendly with Erwin Schrödinger, the Austrian physicist at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies), and as far away as Sweden and the US. Such was Dr Armattoe’s reputation that in 1949, members of the Dáil, the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont and three Westminster MPs from the North, wanted to nominate him on two counts for a Nobel prize, for his scientific research and his dedication to peaceful understanding between nations and races. However, they omitted to forward documentary evidence to back their assertions, so Dr Armattoe didn’ t even make the shortlist.

Soon afterwards, he became much more interested in the fate of his homeland and left Derry, moving the family home back to west Africa. In 1953, he addressed a United Nations committee in New York on the question of the reunification of the Togoland mandates in west Africa, one British, the other French. Dr Armattoe had been born in Togoland just before the first World War when it was still a German colony. He didn’ t want the Togoland mandates amalgamated with the Gold Coast, which became Ghana, but that was precisely what happened. On his way back home to West Africa, he stopped off in Dublin to visit his eldest daughter, Irusia, who was in boarding school, and went on to Germany to meet old friends there. He died in hospital in Hamburg on December 21st, 1953, aged just 40. His wife remained convinced he had been poisoned, but by whom was never discovered, although his political enemies in west Africa were suspected.

To this day, however, Dr Armattoe is well remembered in Derry and in 2011, a blue plaque was unveiled by the Ulster History Circle at what was once his home and practice on Northland Road. It was dedicated to the physician, anthropologist and writer from west Africa. His was an extraordinary life story and his revelation about Soviet nuclear advances, made in the Londonderry Sentinel , remains one of the best Irish newspaper “scoops” of all time.

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