How Clare Hollingworth defied the stereotypes about women and war

The legendary war correspondent, who reported the start of World War Two, has died at the age of 105.

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Who would have thought that the Germans would hide their Panzer divisions behind an enormous hessian curtain? Yet they did, and on 29 August, 1939 a gust of wind detached it from its moorings, revealing hundreds of tanks to the Daily Telegraph’s stringer, Clare Hollingworth, on the Poland/Germany border. 

Of course there had been rumours, which is why the 27-year-old reporter, who had been a foreign correspondent for all of three weeks, decided to borrow the British consul’s car and go for a little recce. She told the border guards she was going shopping, and since the bonnet sported a diplomatic flag, they waved her through. Hollingworth bought wine and aspirin before taking a detour along the edge of the valley where the wind did its work and she got the scoop of the 20th century.

The next day’s Daily Telegraph headline read: “1,000 Tanks Massed on Polish Frontier — 10 Divisions Reported Ready for Swift Stroke.” When the invasion came, three days later, signalling the start of World War Two, she called the Secretary at the British Embassy in Warsaw, who told her that she must be mistaken as negotiations were continuing. “I put the telephone out of the window so he could hear the tanks rolling in,” she recollected on Desert Island Discs in 1999. Hollingworth, who went on to become one of the most celebrated correspondents of her era, died on Tuesday at the age of 105.

These days satellite imagery would have revealed the massed tanks weeks in advance. The reporter who got the scoop would have been sitting at a computer in London or Warsaw. A few dissident Germans would have tweeted about tanks, triggering a cacophony of assertion and denial. Those who still believe in going to have a look are far more likely to be female than in Hollingworth's day. They are also likely to be freelance. Editors these days are more interested in the human cost of war than manoeuvres and strategy — being a war correspondent has become a poorly paid and caring profession, so feminisation was predictable.

Although she had previously worked for the Refugee Trust in Poland and Czechoslovakia, organising British visas for refugees from the Nazis, Hollingworth defied the stereotype that women are fundamentally anti-war.

“I enjoy action,” she told Sue Lawley. “I enjoy being in a plane that’s bombing something. Or being on the ground in the desert when they’re advancing. I’m terribly interested in war, in strategy and tactics.”

She was also fearless, a characteristic she shared with a more recent war correspondent, Marie Colvin, who was killed by a Syrian government mortar in Homs in 2012. Colvin didn’t share Hollingworth’s fascination with weaponry but she did believe in seeing for herself and understood that you need to be a particular kind of woman to report war.

“Those of us who do are probably more driven than most, simply because it is harder to succeed,” Colvin wrote. “Maybe we feel the need to test ourselves more, to see how much we can take and survive. Bravery is personal.”  

Clare Hollingworth had many other scoops. She was the first reporter to interview the Shah of Iran in 1941 and the last after the Islamic revolution in 1979. In 1963, she established that when her friend and fellow correspondent in Beirut, Kim Philby, failed to turn up for dinner one evening, he had in fact stowed away on a ship travelling to Odessa. When she reported to her then employers, the Guardian, that Philby must be the “third man”, a Soviet spy, they spiked her story for fear of MI6.

Today it's easier to make it as a woman than it was in Hollingworth’s day. But for all journalists, male or female, it is a struggle to persuade editors to spend money sending you to dangerous places, when you can filter information gleaned from Whatsapp feeds, YouTube and contacts calling in on social media.

“I like the smell of the breezes,” said Hollingworth, “But you can’t smell the breezes on a computer.”

Lindsey Hilsum is International Editor for Channel 4 News. She is writing a biography of the war correspondent Marie Colvin.

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