Lieutenant-commander (ret.) Thomas Woodrooffe has a place in the story of Captain Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters because his weekly war report on the BBC on December 3, 1942 was the first time the public heard details of the Oran harbour attack of November 8, 1942 for which Captain Peters received the Victoria Cross and the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross.
At the time the attack was happening in Oran harbour in the French colony of Algeria, Woodrooffe was on a ship in the Gulf of Arzew about 20 miles to the east, where he could see and hear the intense shelling and explosions in Oran Bay. Two days later, after the City of Oran surrendered to advancing American troops, Woodrooffe visited the devastated harbour and interviewed witnesses and participants in the battle from both sides. In line with security standards of the time, he did not mention Peters` name in the broadcast, but other journalists later connected the dots and concluded that the courageous leader of the U.S.-British attack on the harbour as part of the Allied invasion of North Africa was indeed Captain Peters. A couple of weeks later Admiral Andrew Cunningham, naval head for Operation Torch and second-in-command overall to General Dwight Eisenhower, announced that “silence is the best policy“ regarding the Oran harbour attack because the harbour conflict was a sore point in relations with French forces who had rejoined the war against the Nazis after the Allies conquered Algeria and Morocco. The Woodrooffe broadcast inadvertently foiled any plans Cunningham may have had to extensively hush up the harbour attack with no announcements of honours won in the conflict.
Woodrooffe is famous in history for two things: first, while commentating on the 1938 FA cup football/soccer game that was scoreless well into an overtime period, he said he would “eat my hat” if there was a goal. After a goal was scored, he arranged to have a cake baked in the shape of a hat, and ate it to fulfill his on-air pledge.
He is also famous for one of the classics in the history of inebriated broadcasting. In 1937 the BBC arranged for him to provide commentary for the review of the fleet planned for May 20, 1937 in celebration of the Coronation of King George the Sixth. The power of the British navy was to be demonstrated and celebrated in the evening at Spithead between the south coast of England and the Isle of Wight. For centuries Britain had depended on its strong navy to keep the British Isles and the British Empire safe from foreign attack. As a retired navy man, Woodrooffe was an obvious choice to do the commentary. During the afternoon before the evening review several of Woodrooff`s navy buddies thought it would be a good joke to ply him with drinks to get him as drunk as possible for his broadcast. His report came out live on BBC radio.
The link below goes to the audio from the fleet review. The first part of the report is quite slow-moving, as Woodrooffe slurringly chats about the sparkling lights of the massive illuminated fleet and the greatness of the Royal Navy. In retrospect, one of the jokes from the night was Woodrooffe`s proud announcement that “the fleet is lit up”, when it could likewise be said that Woodrooffe was lit up with liquor. A dramatic change in the tone of the commentary happens at about three minutes and twenty seconds into the broadcast when the battleship HMS Nelson Woodrooffe is broadcasting from turns in such a way that a surprised Woodroofe blacks out temporarily and can no longer see the lights from the fleet. “The fleet has disappeared! The fleet has disappeared”` Woodrooffe shouts in panic. He rambles on about the magical disappearance of Britain`s greatest asset, the hundreds of warships of His Majesty`s navy. He exclaims “There is nothing between us and the heavens! Nothing at all!” just before a BBC technician mercifully cut off his microphone. Somehow he kept his job after the drunken report. Five years later he soberly reported the heroics of an unnamed naval commander in Oran Bay.