Now Aged 105, This Independent Woman Was The First Journalist To Report The Start Of WW2

German Invasion of Poland, 1939
German Invasion of Poland, 1939

A birthday party is such fun – more so when reaching the 80th, 90th and finally the impressive 100th birthday celebrations. More impressive still, though, was the birthday of Clare Hollingworth, who, on 10th October, surpassed all these milestones, and celebrated her 105th birthday.

The birthday party was held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong, where Clare is an honorary goodwill ambassador.

Born in 1911, and growing up in the restrictive atmosphere of WWI England, when middle-class girls were expected to become “lady housewives,” Clare soon showed her feisty nature.

Following a rebellious childhood, she enjoyed a number of romantic interludes at an early age, and then began taking every opportunity to travel – no matter how risky the trip.

Led by political idealism and her overwhelming desire to travel, she decided to help refugees fleeing from Sudentenland (Czechoslovakia) when it was occupied by the Germans in 1938. She made herself available to the British Commission for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BCRC), which sent her to Poland.

The British Consul General in Katowice, overwhelmed with applicants, welcomed Clare’s assistance. Since she was a very determined person, with a remarkable ability to wrangle with officials, (which, later stood her in very good stead as a foreign correspondent), she soon had the situation under control. Clare interviewed over 50 refugees per day, checking the verification of their documents and organizing food and housing for them.

She was instrumental in obtaining the necessary visas, and securing their passages on various foreign ships. From March to July of 1938, she managed to ‘rescue’ over 3000 refugees, including Jews, Communists, political dissenters, military men and trade unionists. The end result of this was that some influential persons in Britain began complaining about the importing of such numbers of ‘undesirables’ into Great Britain.

Back in Britain, Clare, ever busy, accepted a position on the Daily Telegraph as a cub reporter, and was sent to Poland, to report on the steadily worsening situation in Europe. Since she was essentially a ‘go-getter’, determined to do a good reporting job, Clare persuaded John Thwaites (British Consul-General in Katowice) to allow her the use of his chauffeur-driven car for a fact-finding mission in which she crossed the border into Germany, ostensibly for some shopping.

While driving along the German-Polish border, Clare took note of the massive build-up of German troops, tanks and armoured cars facing Poland. She realised the significance of this situation and so she, a female reporter, (unusual for the time), at the age of 27, and only three days into her job – realised the journalistic scoop of a lifetime.

The Daily Telegraph’s Headlines the following morning read ‘1000 tanks massed on Polish Border,’ and ‘ten divisions ready for swift strike.’ It was Clare that was the first to break the news that WWII had actually begun!

It is reported that on the morning of 1st September 1939, she woke to hear the noise of the army on the move and immediately called in the news to her editor.

She also phoned the British Embassy in Warsaw to report the start of the German Invasion of Poland, but was forced to hold the telephone out of the window so that the disbelieving man could himself hear the noise of the army moving.

Clare realized that she had found her niche – she would continue to report on war situations and would go from strength to strength in her 50-year career as a war correspondent.

This dark-haired, just over five foot tall Englishwoman, in a military-styled “war correspondents’ uniform,” went on to report from many war fronts. Not an easy task, more so for a female, she literally slogged through Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Northern Africa.

Often both hungry and scared, she frequently was not even sure where the action was. She dodged the censors, and sometimes even armies, and avoided those officials who would not allow women anywhere near the front lines.

Clare reported from El Alamein and the Algerian Civil war, she reported on conflicts in Palestine and in Israel was lucky to escape when she was at the Hotel David in Jerusalem when it was bombed.

Active during the Cold War spy saga, due to her contacts, she got involved in the ‘Cambridge Five’ spy scan­dal, in which high-rank­ing Britons defected to the Soviet Union war and broke the story regarding the defection of the British spy Philby.

She reported on the Vietnam War, and on the rise of modern China as well as on the handover of Hong Kong. Besides the ‘scoop’ of the century, she also managed exclusive inter­views with the head of the Red Army as well as with the Shah of Iran in Tehran.

Convinced that future news, instead of coming out of Europe, would be from China, she moved east and became – most unusually – a Western cor­respondent in Beijing. When nearly 70 in 1981, she moved to Hong Kong which she made her home, reported.

Once Europe’s most legendary war correspondent, this tiny lady, Clare Hollingworth, the author of five books, one being her memoirs, is now 105 years of age.

She has become very frail and is suffering poor health, but feisty as always, she can still walk with assistance, and when possible, still dines monthly at “her” table at the press club.

Clare – a remarkable lady and a formidable war correspondent – we salute you!

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE