Clare Hollingworth 1911-2017 ‘the undisputed doyenne of war correspondents’
I’m not frightened of shot and shell quite frankly. Just happens I am not! You have an anti-flak jacket and I used to take mine and put it underneath my behind, double, because the shots would be from the ground most likely.
Institute member Clare Hollingworth achieved legendary status in her journalistic career. She lived to her 106th year – quite a remarkable achievement in a profession where minds and bodies tend to burn out early. She relished being in the line of fire. War was her mojo.
Her first scoop was arguably the biggest of the 20th century. The beginning of the Second World War no less for which she did not get a by-line.
A later scoop could be described as the second biggest of that century. Kim Philby’s defection to the Soviet Union on a ship from Beirut, which her editor sat on for three months because he was afraid of a libel writ.
Clare was born near Leicester on 11th October 1911, the year of King George V’s coronation. She won a scholarship to the University of London School of Slavonic and East European Studies. By the late 1930s she was in Warsaw working with Czech refugees and helping people escape the Nazi onslaught by arranging British visas.
Her early forays into journalism for the New Statesman were quickly followed by being taken on as a foreign correspondent by the Daily Telegraph in August 1939. At the end of the month, she borrowed the British Consul-General’s chauffeured car and toured the German–Polish border. A gust of wind blew up hessian screens and she was astonished to see the valley filled with massed ranks of German troops, tanks and armoured cars facing Poland.
This was her first story for the Telegraph and it made the front page the following morning: ‘1,000 tanks massed on Polish border. Ten divisions reported ready for swift stroke.’
When she called the British Embassy to tell them that Germany was invading, they didn’t believe her. She stuck the telephone receiver out of the window so a diplomat could hear the sound of war outside.
Clare was part of a pioneering generation of women war correspondents who included Martha Gellhorn, Sigrid Schultz, Helen Kirkpatrick, and Lee Miller who during the Second World War demonstrated that women were equal to men in this most dangerous and demanding of reporting specialisms.
She wrote four books which variously described and analysed her hugely impressive life of adventure and journalism: The Three Weeks’ War in Poland (1940), There’s a German Just Behind Me (1945), The Arabs and the West (1952), Mao and the Men Against Him (1984), and Front Line (memoirs) (1990). Her great nephew, Patrick Garrett, wrote her biography Of Fortunes and War: Clare Hollingworth, First of the Female War Correspondents (2015).
Guardian’s first woman defence correspondent
She was the Guardian’s first woman defence correspondent and the paper recalled that: ‘the hallmark of Hollingworth’s journalism was her supreme professionalism and her ability to present facts objectively rather than promote a cause or write about personalities, least of all her own.’
In work frontline danger was her home: ‘I don’t feel frightened under machine-gun fire. The excitement of the job overcomes it.’
In 1940 she had consistently evaded censorship while covering the chaos in Romania following King Carol’s abdication. Her quick-thinking strategy of taking off all her clothes, ringing a friend at the British Legation, and declaring ‘You can’t possibly arrest me, I’m naked,’ when the notoriously vicious security police arrived, most likely saved her life.
She ignored and evaded restrictions on frontline women correspondents during Montgomery’s North African campaign, often travelling behind enemy lines, and would insist: ‘I would never use my femininity to get a story that a man could not get.’
Awards and gongs
She qualified as a pilot and became expert in aerial warfare. She was among the most active of 20th century war correspondents winning awards for her coverage of conflicts that included Palestine, Algeria, Vietnam, India, Aden, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and many other places.
She was made an OBE for services to journalism in 1982.
The current generation often paid her homage by visiting her at her home in Hong Kong and writing feature articles on her remarkable career.
She told Robert Fisk that she always knew the Nazis would lose the Second World War because they did not care about people.
It is poetic justice that the person the New York Times described as ‘the undisputed doyenne of war correspondents’ would live such a long, successful and celebrated life.
Right to the end her visas were up to date, her overnight bag packed, and her shoes by her bedside in readiness to be sent into action for her next assignment.