Joan Ellis and the AP’s Accidental D-Day Invasion Flash

From a post o by Marc Lancaster headlined “D-Day:Joan Ellis and the AP’s Accidental Invasion Report”:

The flash hit the Associated Press wire at 4:39 p.m. Eastern War Time on Saturday, June 3, 1944:


U.S. broadcast news operations had been poised for just such an alert for weeks, and immediately sprang into action. Seconds after the flash hit the wire, CBS broke into the Belmont Stakes broadcast to announce the news. NBC and the Blue Network also broke into programming. Radio stations in parts of Latin America that had also received the bulletin did the same.

Less than two minutes after the initial burst, though, the same teletypes clattered with the message “BUST THAT FLASH”, the first in a series of desperate follow-ups. At 4:44 p.m., a message to KILL the flash. At 4:48, “KILL THE FLASH AND BULLETIN FROM LONDON ANNOUNCING ALLIED LANDINGS IN FRANCE”. A minute later: “A KILL IS MANDATORY. MAKE CERTAIN THE STORY IS NOT PUBLISHED”. And a minute after that, an advisory saying the flash was the result of a “TRANSMISSION ERROR”.

The AP would continue its efforts to jam the bullet back into the gun, but it was too late. One of the most notorious journalistic blunders in history was already in the wind.

At 5:38 p.m. EWT, the AP provided a full explanation:

A mistake by an inexperienced London telegraph operator caused the Associated Press to move on its wires today an erroneous flash announcing that General Eisenhower’s headquarters had announced Allied landings in France. …

The Associated Press London bureau advised that the erroneous message had been sent by a new girl teletype operator in a wholly unauthorized test of a teletype punching keyboard. It moved without the authority of the censors and without knowledge of the A.P. editorial staff, which had no such copy on hand.

Experienced operators saw the flash on the printer in the London office and immediately notified New York and the London editors, who sent a bulletin ‘kill.’ …

The young A.P. operator, Joan Ellis, a British subject, who erred, said she had been practicing on a disconnected machine and thought she had torn up the perforated tape, which transmits the electrical impulses of a teletype machine.

However, she then started to transmit the first take of the Russian communique, and said she inadvertently ran through the transmitter the strip of take containing the erroneous flash.

With that bit of recrimination — helped by the actual invasion coming two and a half days later — Joan Ellis immediately became a key footnote in the history of the war’s most anticipated day.

On the job for about four months, the 22-year-old former WAAF teleprinter operator suddenly found herself the center of an international uproar. Though British newspapers initially refrained from printing her name, she was on the front page across the United States beginning the evening of the 3rd and her home country soon followed….

The International News Service had better luck on Monday, scoring an interview with Ellis “on the worn, brownstone steps of her little, middle-class home.”

A mortified Ellis explained once again what had gone wrong, saying she thought if she got practice typing up the invasion news ahead of time, she wouldn’t be so nervous when the actual news arrived: “I knew they would want me to be quick with the message then.”

The brown haired girl’s eyes filled with tears and she said:

“The last thing I would have wanted to do was to upset the American people. I like Americans and I liked working with them. It is hard to believe I was the cause of such a terrible false alarm. I’ve been in a terrible muddle ever since and so has my family….

The AP’s chief rival, the United Press, reported on the miscue but didn’t treat the error as a tabloid rival might….

UP’s story noted that the flash already had been compared to Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” and multiple outlets compared it to a premature UP report that claimed an armistice had been reached in November 1918, days before the Great War actually ended….

By the following morning, though, Joan Ellis was forgiven — if not yet forgotten.

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