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Clare Hollingworth, war reporting and witnessing history

By Ciarán McCabe

Being an eye-witness to historic events is a rare thing for most people. But war correspondents frequently find themselves eye-witnesses to events of international significance, to the ‘first draft of history’. This is owing to the nature of the job. War correspondents – ever since William Howard Russell in the 1850s – have tended to travel from one sphere of conflict to another and have been, inevitably, well placed to witness battles, retreats, genocide and famines.



Among the most prolific, well-travelled and influential correspondents of the past century was Clare Hollingworth, who died in January 2017 aged 105 years. Her career was one of numerous exclusives of international significance, including perhaps the ‘scoop of the century’ when she reported on German mobilisation towards the Polish border in late-August 1939. Posted in Katowice as the Daily Telegraph’s war correspondent, Hollingworth borrowed a diplomatic vehicle to cross over into Germany to buy essentials, such as aspirin and wine, in the knowledge that a war was imminent. Driving back through the border, a hessian partition which had been erected along the roadside was blown open by a gust of wind, revealing (in the journalist’s own words) “scores, if not hundreds of tanks” in the valley below. Four days into her first posting as a war correspondent, Hollingworth had just landed the ‘scoop of the century’: the outbreak of World War II. Her published article of 29 August 1939 was headed: ‘1,000 tanks massed on Polish frontier. Ten Divisions reported ready for swift stroke’. (Thirty years later, she secured another world exclusive, in reporting for the Daily Telegraph on the commencement of secret negotiations to end the Vietnam War, an initiative latter scuppered through the cloak-and-dagger intervention of Richard Nixon).


(Image: Clare Hollingworth’s ‘scoop of the century’ (Daily Telegraph, 29 Aug. 1939))

Later in the war, Hollingworth reported from the North African front, regularly from behind enemy lines. Throughout her career her reporting was bolstered by her skill at developing contacts and networks of confidantes: she was well connected to the left-wing Front de Libération Nationale in Algeria, and in 1941 secured the first interview with the Shah of Iran, who, after his fall in 1979, would only speak to her. Hollingworth’s contacts also aided her in identifying and ‘outing’ the Soviet spy, ‘Kim’ Philby, a prominent war and foreign correspondent who defected to the USSR. (Incidentally, Hollingworth’s death came just four weeks after that of Philip Knightley, who was a member of the Sunday Times ‘Insight’ team that investigated Philby’s defection and who also wrote The First Casualty, the multi-edition survey work of the history of war reporting from the Crimean War to the recent Iraq War).


Among the wars Hollingworth reported on first-hand were World War II (1939-45), the French-Algerian War (1954-62), the India-Pakistan War (1965) and Vietnam (1960s), as well as from Maoist China. When the King David Hotel in British Mandate Jerusalem was attacked in 1946 by Irgun, the Zionist terrorist organisation, killing just less than 100 people, mostly British Mandate officials, Hollingworth was on the scene within minutes, having shortly beforehand parked her car around the corner; in 1989 she witnessed the Tiananmen Square massacre from a hotel balcony.


Among the interesting aspects of Hollingworth’s career is her sex. The fact is that the archetypal war reporter is a man – a fact demonstrated in war reporter John Burrowes’s dedication to his 1984 memoirs: ‘To reporters everywhere – and the women who have to suffer them’. Yet, despite the predominance of men among this profession notable women are to be found among the ranks of war correspondents, notable not for their relative novelty (for being women in a heavily gendered profession) but for their innovative reporting of conflict: Irish native Kathleen ‘Kit’ Blake Coleman, Virginia Cowles, Martha Gellhorn, and, right through to Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria in 2012. In his illuminating The War Correspondent (2nd ed., 2016), Greg McLaughlin considers various commentators’ views on the significance of rising numbers of women correspondents in recent decades: some see this phenomenon as encouraging ‘a less gung-ho, more human-oriented sensibility’ to reporting, while for others, women reporters are more likely to cover unfashionable stories (the example of the East Timor crisis in 1999 is cited by McLaughlin), in contrast to their male counterparts, who are more likely to be career-driven and to throw themselves into headline-grabbing conflict reporting.


In noting the role of women as correspondents in conflict zones, it is interesting that just last month, the magazine Military Review (an official publication of the US armed forces) published a poignant photograph taken by US Army camerawoman Specialist Hilda Clayton, of the moment she was killed by an accidental mortar explosion during a training exercise in Laghman province, Afghanistan on 2 July 2013. In explaining the publication of the photograph, the magazine was eager to assert that women photographers (in this case, soldier correspondents) were as much a part of the conflict zone as their male colleagues: ‘Not only did Clayton help document activities aimed at shaping and strengthening the partnership but she also shared in the risk by participating in the effort … Clayton’s death symbolizes how female soldiers are increasingly exposed to hazardous situations in training and in combat on par with their male counterparts.’



Useful articles and obituaries can be found online at:




Greg McLaughlin, The War Correspondent (2nd ed., London, 2016).



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