Clare Hollingworth, reporter who broke news about start of World War II, dies at 105

Journalist Clare Hollingworth in a press car, in undated photo  "Of Fortunes & War: Clare Hollingworth, First of the Female War Correspondents."

In early 1939, peace activist Clare Hollingworth arrived on the Polish-German border to aid Jews and other refugees fleeing from the Sudetenland, newly annexed by Nazi Germany. On a brief return to her native England, 27-year-old Hollingworth – who once professed to “enjoy being in a war” – was hired as a part-time correspondent in Katowice, Poland, for the London Daily Telegraph.

After three days on the job that August, the cub reporter landed one of the biggest journalistic scoops of the 20th century: Hitler’s imminent invasion of Poland, marking the outbreak of World War II.

Hollingworth, who died Jan. 10 at 105, had driven into Germany to get a better sense of the imminent danger. Without divulging the reason, she asked to borrow a diplomatic vehicle from her ex-lover, the British consul in Katowice, knowing the Union Jack on its hood would get her across the heavily restricted border.

On the return leg, she was passed by dozens of German military dispatch riders on motorcycles.

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“I was driving back along a valley and there was a Hessian screen up so you couldn’t look down into the valley,” she told the Telegraph more than 70 years later. “Suddenly, there was a great gust of wind which blew the sacking from its moorings, and I looked into the valley and saw scores, if not hundreds, of tanks.

“So when I got back I said, ‘Thank you for lending me your car.’ And he said, ‘Where did you go, old girl?’ So I said, ‘I went into Germany.’ He said, ‘Stop being funny.’ And I said, ‘What’s more, I got a very good story: The tanks are already lined up for invasion of Poland.’ He went upstairs and sent a top secret message to the Foreign Office.”

Hollingworth called the Telegraph correspondent in Warsaw, and he filed a front-page story published on Aug. 29, 1939, under the headline “1,000 tanks massed on Polish border. Ten divisions reported ready for swift stroke.” Three days later, she awoke to the sounds of German planes and Panzer tanks invading Poland. After notifying her editors, she called the British Embassy in Warsaw and declared, “It’s begun.”

So also began a five-decade career in which Hollingworth covered hostilities from Algeria to Vietnam, from Greece to Yemen. “No battlefield was complete” without her, the British author and war correspondent Tom Pocock once remarked.

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Hollingworth, who also helped unmask British intelligence agent Kim Philby as a Soviet spy, died in Hong Kong, where she had lived since the 1980s. Patrick Garrett, her great-nephew and biographer, confirmed the death but did not provide an immediate cause.

Often dressed in a tailored safari suit and sometimes packing a pearl-handled revolver, Hollingworth marched with troops, witnessed firefights, traveled to rebel hideouts and rode along during aerial bombing runs. In Kashmir, motoring across a bridge that had come under shelling by Pakistani troops, she gushed to a colleague,”Now, this is what makes life worth living!”

She thrived on the adrenaline and on proving she could keep pace with the men who made up the vast majority of war correspondents.

During the North African desert campaign in World War II, British commander Bernard Montgomery (“something of a women-hater,” she later wrote) expelled Hollingworth from his press contingent, saying that women did not belong on the front lines. She then embedded with American troops under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s command in Algiers.

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“It was essential to be able to go without washing, sleep in the open desert and live on bully-beef and biscuits for days on end,” she recalled in “Front Lines” (1990), one of her five books. “Many male correspondents got themselves sent back to Cairo because they could not take it.”

To prepare herself, Hollingworth slept on her apartment floor. Although just a hair over 5 feet tall, she learned to parachute and pilot a plane. She could identify shell and bullet types from their in-flight acoustics.

During the blitzkrieg in Poland, she drove around the country for weeks to report on the aggression, staying just ahead of advancing Nazi troops. “When it grew too dark to drive, I stopped, ate some biscuits, took a pull of whisky, and curled up for the night with my electric torch and revolver on the seat beside me,” she told Garrett for his 2015 account of her life, “Of Fortunes and War.”

In the early 1960s, she reported for the British paper the Guardian on the Algerian guerrilla struggle against French rule. In his history of the Guardian, journalist Geoffrey Taylor described Hollingworth “literally marching toward the sound of gunfire and regularly walking alone through the casbah.”

When right-wing French paramilitaries stormed a hotel in Algiers and kidnapped a British reporter in 1962, Hollingworth rallied a group of foreign correspondents to fight back.

Pocock recalled in his book “East and West of Suez”: “Clare turned like Joan of Arc to the rest of us standing with our hands up – ‘Come on!’ she said, ‘We’re going too! They won’t shoot all the world’s press!’ So we all marched out and started climbing into the jeeps.” The fighters released the journalist.

Hollingworth considered other female war reporters, such as Martha Gellhorn, the glamorous wife of Ernest Hemingway, and Clare Boothe Luce, who married the publisher of Life and Time magazines, pampered elitists.

Insecurity may have helped fuel the impression. Garrett noted that Hollingworth spent decades as a low-paid freelancer before securing a staff position with the Guardian, and later the Daily Telegraph, when she was in her 50s. She also struggled at the typewriter. One editor said her first drafts read more like communiques than narratives. She relied on her second husband, British journalist Geoffrey Hoare, to polish her stories.

But her curiosity, stamina and vast array of sources – including generals, diplomats, government ministers, socialites and rebels – helped her produce a steady stream of stories for British and U.S. publications including the Economist, Time and the Chicago Daily News.

Among her friends and contacts were Donald Maclean and Philby, members of Britain’s notorious Cambridge Five spy ring that provided intelligence to Moscow. In January 1963, Philby – who worked in British intelligence and also had a cover as a journalist – failed to show up at a Beirut dinner party that he and Hollingworth were scheduled to attend.

Amid deepening suspicions about Philby’s loyalties, Hollingworth tracked down port records and discovered that, on the night of the dinner, Philby had boarded a ship for Odessa in the course of defecting to the Soviet Union.

The scoop seemed so sensational that, fearing a libel suit and under pressure from the British government to conceal what would be one of the most sensational scandals of the Cold War, the Guardian’s editor sat on the article. Only when that editor was absent did Hollingworth persuade his deputy to run her story. Three months later, the government confirmed Philby’s defection.

Hollingworth’s last major posting came in 1973, when she was named the Telegraph’s China correspondent, covering the death of Mao Zedong and the power struggle that followed.

Late in life, she reflected on a career spent on the razor’s edge, noting that she was 900 feet from the King David Hotel in Jerusalem when Jewish terrorists bombed the building in 1946. Ninety-one people died in the blast.

“I enjoy action,” she told the Telegraph in 2011. “I’m not brave, I just enjoy it. I don’t know why. God made me like this. I’m not frightened.”

Hollingworth was born in Knighton, England, on Oct. 10, 1911. Her father, who ran a shoe factory, was a history buff and sparked her interest in warfare by taking her to visit the battlefields of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt.

From an early age, she flouted conservative English norms by quitting a finishing school and breaking off an engagement to a family friend. She became a secretary for a group affiliated with the League of Nations, the short-lived predecessor to the United Nations.

With World War II looming, she took a job with a British refugee support group that sent her to Poland. Hollingworth was chosen for the assignment, which required an overland train trip through Berlin, thanks to a German visa left over from a ski vacation in the Alps.

Her personal life contained its own share of drama. She married two of her sundry lovers – author Vandeleur Robinson, from whom she was divorced, and Hoare, who died in 1965. In a bid to end what she had learned to be Hoare’s womanizing, she confronted his girlfriend with a German Mauser pistol, according to Garrett’s book. She later converted to Catholicism.

Mostly, Hollingworth’s life was defined by an unquenchable wanderlust. In her 60s, while on assignment covering the relatively staid doings of the British Defense Ministry, she was known to show up at the office with a bed roll and ask her editors, “Any foreign trips going? Any wars?”