Clare Hollingsworth: A newbie reporter gets the scoop of the century

May 13, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

During the last week in August 1939, Clare Hollingsworth had been a fulltime newspaper reporter for less than a week. She had been hired by the London Daily Telegraph to cover Poland, and she was based in the western Polish town of Katowice.

She asked the British consul there if she could borrow his chauffeured limo, and in it she drove west toward Germany. The Germans, spotting the British flags on the car, let her pass through the border, and she went to the nearest town and bought some food, wine, and newspapers. On the way back, the Germans had hung camouflage screens along the side of the road, but a gust of wind blew them aside, and Hollingsworth was astonished at what she saw.

“. . . I looked into the valley and saw scores, if not hundreds of tanks lined up, ready to go into Poland,” she later recalled.

The next morning the Daily Telegraph carried a front-page story headlined, “1,000 Tanks Massed on Polish Border: Ten Divisions Reported Ready for Swift Stroke.” The byline for the story was simply, “From Our Own Correspondent.”

It was the first real indication that Hitler was indeed planning on invading Poland. Four days later it happened. Those German tanks that Hollingsworth saw came screaming across the border, and what became World War II had begun. Hollingsworth called the British embassy in Warsaw and told them what was going on. They didn’t believe her. She held the phone out of her hotel window so they could hear the sounds of the rumbling tanks, the explosions, and the gunfire.

It was the first word that the British Foreign Office had that the real war had begun.

(If you have been watching the current PBS series “The World on Fire,” some of this might sound familiar to you. The character in the series, radio reporter Nancy Campbell, is based in part of Clare Hollingsworth.)

Hollingsworth stayed in Poland, reporting on what she saw until the nation succumbed to the German invasion. She then went to Bucharest and later Greece to continue her war correspondence. She then made her way to North Africa to report on British forces under General Bernard Montgomery. Montgomery ordered her to return to Cairo, but she defied him — as she had done previously with attempts to censor her reporting — and went to Algiers to cover forces under General Dwight Eisenhower for the Chicago Daily News.

Subsequent travels took her to Palestine and Persia, where she became the first journalist to interview the Shah of Iran,

Born in 1911, Hollingsworth grew up near Leicester, England, and she showed an early bent toward writing. When she became an adult, she won a spot at Zagreb University to study Croatian. During that time, she sent articles to the New Statesman, and when the Munich Agreement was signed in 1938, she went to Warsaw and helped thousands of refugees from the Sudentenland obtain British visas. At that point, she was hired by the Daily Telegraph to report on events in Poland.

She continued her reporting career after the war, covering wars in Palestine, Algeria, China, and Vietnam. In 1963 she was in Beruit, Lebanon as a correspondent for The Guardian when she found out that a top British intelligence officer, Kim Philby, was last seen on a ship headed to Russia. She wrote the story, but the editors of her paper held it for three months, fearing legal action against the paper. Finally, Philby’s defection was confirmed by the government, and Hollingsworth had another big scoop.

Hollingsworth took up residence in Hong Kong in 1981 and gradually reduced her reporting activities. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1982. She died in 2017 at the age of 105.

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