Re:spect: Clare Hollingworth and the outbreak of World War II

Like D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge, the 2019 anniversary of the outbreak of World War II has a lovely round number: yesterday, on 1 September 1939, it was precisely 80 years ago. Though this is hardly a date worth celebrating, it’s worth taking some time to think about. This was a time when information couldn’t be shared with everyone else on the planet at the click of a button. Tensions had been high for months, and though the threat of war was imminent, when and where it would start was still the subject of speculation. But in an almost fantastical instance of right-place-right-time, a young female journalist and a serendipitous gust of wind alerted the world to the German invasion of Poland as it happened, leading Britain to throw diplomacy out of the window and declare war on Germany, kicking off the world’s first total war.

Clare Hollingworth’s childhood was marked by the shadows of German planes flying over the farm where she lived to bomb nearby Loughborough. The next day, she would take her pony there to see the damage they had done. She also loved visiting former battlefields with her father. They roamed around Agincourt, Naseby and Bosworth, sites of historical English battles from respectively the Hundred Years’ War, the First English Civil War and the War of the Roses, in an attempt every war history enthusiast will recognise to pay their respects to those who died, and to see where it happened, enabling them to put dry historical facts into perspective.

But all historical facts were news once, and in her efforts to document those taking place in her lifetime, Hollingworth became one of the world’s foremost war correspondents. On 28 August 1939, she had been a reporter for no more than a week when she was sent to Poland to report on the worsening political tensions in Europe. She borrowed the British consul-general’s chauffeured car for a fact-finding mission into Germany, and was on her way back, driving along the German-Polish border, when she noticed large camouflage screens by the side of the road, shielding the valley below from view. A gust of wind blew them away from their scaffolding, and Hollingworth saw row upon row of German tanks, troops and armoured cars, lined up and facing Poland. She reported her findings to the consul-general, who did not believe her until she showed him several goods she had bought in Germany. She telephoned the Daily Telepgraph with her report, which was on the newspaper’s homepage the next day. It was the scoop of the century.

On September 1st, Hollingworth witnessed the German tanks rolling into Poland. But when she called up the British embassy in Warsaw, the secretary there did not believe her, as Britain and Germany had not yet finished their negotiations. Hollingworth hung the telephone receiver out of the window, making him listen to the sounds of the invasion. She went on to Bucharest, working behind enemy lines, and to Turkey and Greece before joining the British troops in North Africa, forsaking the safety of Cairo to illegally join the troops at the front. Here she incurred the wrath of Field Marshal Montgomery, who famously couldn’t stomach the idea of a woman reporting from the front and ordered her back to Cairo. Once there, she immediately joined the US military operations in Algiers, becoming affiliated with the Chicago Daily News. She was welcomed by General Eisenhower, who liked experienced women correspondents so long as they didn’t insist on special treatment. He needn’t have worried; “I would never use my femininity to get a story that a man could not get,” Hollingworth once stated. She spent the latter part of the war in Palestine, Iraq and Persia, where she interviewed the young Shah.

Hollingworth was present at many of the twentieth century’s defining conflicts, such as the Algerian crisis, the Vietnam War and the student protests in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. “I would look through the papers,” she said, “And say, ‘Where’s the most dangerous place to go?’, because it always makes a good story.” In 2017, she died at the age of 105 in Hong Kong.

Though she was by no means the first female war correspondent, Clare Hollingworth was as tough and brave as they come. She deserves to be remembered as much as the infamous date she has come to be associated with.

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