First Director of Naval Information wanted to “teach not preach”

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Navy News / December 21, 2020

Captain (Capt) Bill Strange, the first Director of Naval Information in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR), was a natural communicator.

He began his working life as a teacher and then, as the world entered the golden age of radio in the late 1920s, he began writing scripts and plays for broadcast. He was intricately involved with the medium of commercial broadcast radio as it grew into the fabric of daily life, providing news and entertainment to a world struggling with economic depression and war.

Also working at times in sales, advertising and public relations, it was this extensive knowledge and expertise that led Capt Strange to his appointment as the RCNVR’s first Director of Naval Information during the Second World War.

Born in British Honduras (now Belize) in 1902, Capt Strange was sent to boarding school in the United Kingdom. When the First World War broke out, he joined the Royal Navy as a cadet but was eventually discharged due to a vision problem. He moved to Trinidad where his parents lived, and then emigrated to Canada in 1929.

When the Second World War began, Capt Strange used his skills to develop radio programs to help the Allied cause. In 1941, he went to England as a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) war correspondent to “look at the Blitz”, sending scripts back for a series called Carry On Canada.

After 50 episodes of this and other productions, his application to join the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve was accepted in 1942 and he became an information officer, going on to serve as Director Naval Information from 1945 until his retirement in 1959.

In 1946 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his distinguished service.

When the war ended, Capt Strange created the RCNVR’s first peacetime public information organization. He produced dozens of radio broadcasts, articles and books, in addition to film documentaries. In 1948 he started The Crowsnest, the Navy’s flagship newspaper.

Capt Strange and his organization were tasked with everything that promoted the interests of the RCNVR. Their responsibilities were wide-ranging and included keeping print media, radio and television informed of the Navy’s activities, recruiting and advertising, establishing school relations programs, organizing exhibits, and encouraging anything else that would lead to a better understanding of the RCNVR.

For many years the Directorate of Naval Information operated without terms of reference with Capt Strange insisting that everything that promoted the interests of the RCNVR should be a concern of his organization.

When he was finally persuaded to produce a draft of terms, he said: “While I have been requested to produce it, we could certainly carry on very well without it from the operating point of view. However, I do think that public relations suffers within the service through not having the extent and nature of the responsibilities spelled out for all to see.”

When he turned his hand to internal communications, he started The Crowsnest, a newspaper that he wanted to “teach and not preach”, keeping sailors at sea and ashore informed about what was happening within their service.

Since at no time was the information directorate more than one-tenth of one per cent of the RCNVR’s total strength, it was not uncommon to see Capt Strange cutting stencils for news releases or stuffing and sealing envelopes with the rest of the staff.

One of his many accomplishments was the production of Fighting Navy, a radio series of 105 plays based on the Battle of the Atlantic.

When Capt Strange retired, he was featured in his own newspaper. The Crowsnest writer said Capt Strange had “an outstanding capacity for hard work and a loyalty to the RCNVR so intense he felt personally affronted if someone let the Navy down.”

He went on to work for the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation and the CBC, producing radio broadcasts and documentaries, as well as authoring several books.

He passed away in 1983.