First, Hollingworth had unmasked the sinister, secret massing of Nazi German tanks along the fortified German frontier of Hindenburg (today Zabrze), stretching to Gleiwitz (today Gliwice), all touching Poland’s vulnerable southern borders. She conveyed this uncovering by telephone to Hugh Carleton Green, her boss, and Chief Correspondent in Warsaw, of the strongly anti- Nazi German Telegraph, London. Two days later on 1st September 1939, she had to convince her friend Robert Hankey, the Second Secretary of the British Embassy in Warsaw that WW2 really had broken out. For his part Hankey felt that she was talking ‘rubbish’ as the ‘two governments were still negotiating.’ Whilst on the line to Hankey, Hollingworth put the telephone hand-piece outside her hotel window allowing him to hear for himself the barrage of a Nazi military, and Luftwaffe air-force, furiously bombing and shelling Katowice. It was the unmistakable sound of warfare – the outbreak of WW2.
Prior to the outbreak of war, in the spring and summer of 1939, Clare Hollingworth, at considerable risk to her own life, had first from Poland’s northern port of Gdynia, and then south at Katowice, helped over 3,000 Czech, Polish and Jewish refugees. Cleverly navigating Polish bureaucracy, she controversially provided the refugees with visas and thus escape from certain imprisonment, torture or even death at the hands of the Nazi Germans. Now she was driving about carefree on ‘German’ territory in a borrowed British consular car (with Union Jack !), and divulging war tactics to the allies. For Hollingworth it was but just the start of a long and celebrated 70-year career as an extraordinary, accomplished, global war reporter.
Aged 27, and barely a week into her role as a cub war reporter, this petite, tough, sometimes bumptious, though not unattractive young lady, had wittingly or unwittingly parked her car alongside a road on ‘German’ soil. Below she could see in the ravine, for the first time, ‘scores, if not hundreds of tanks.’ These were the arrayed forces of von Rundstedt’s Army Group South, supported by Reichenau’s 10th Army, their military hardware and gun turrets directed at Poland, poised and ready to attack. Clare knew this was serious.
Returning rapidly to her hotel in Katowice, she told John Thwaites, His Majesty’s Consul General of her find. Thwaites was unconvinced, until Hollingworth opened her car boot, producing German wares, food and products, all unobtainable in Poland. She had indeed been into Germany. Her story about the tanks, and imminent outbreak of WW2 was true! Thwaites rushed to his office, locked the door and sent a coded cable to London. Meanwhile, Hollingworth having called her boss Hugh Carleton Green in Warsaw, who in turn relayed her scoop to London. On the 29 August 1939 The Daily Telegraph’s front page report was headlined, ‘1,000 tanks massed on Polish frontier’, and ‘Ten divisions reported ready for swift stroke’, bylined simply ‘From our own correspondent’.
By 1st September 1939, two days later, it was a different more terrifying story. With its barefaced lies, inciting war against Poland the party paper Volkischer Beobachter did its cynical bit. After the Nazi SS set-up at Gliwice, the German war machine set off in a northerly direction, pounding first the beautiful medieval Jagiellonian University city of Krakow, and then Katowice. All of this was witnessed and reported on by the young Clare Hollingworth, now a seasoned war reporter – all after just ten days! Paradoxicaally it was left to the Telegraph offices in London to warn the Polish government of the Nazi German aggression: “Excuse me Sirs, but your country Poland is being invaded at Gliwice by Nazi Germany…’
Hollingworth and Thwaites were looking to escape Katowice and attempt the tricky, and dangerous road back to Warsaw, now also being pounded by the Nazi German blitzkrieg. In Warsaw they were to join up with her newspaper bosses, and the British diplomatic corp. With a small group they made it to Sandomierz. Hollingworth had hoped to overnight here, and by day capture sight of this town’s beautiful late renaissance architecture, and its ‘delightful old burgher houses’, fearing the town would not survive the Nazi German bombs and shelling. But no, the inflated group in a rickety car continued, and stayed at a ‘doss-house’. Next day it was on to Lublin which they reached by 4 September. Here a Polish diplomat lent the travellers a flat, which they immediately converted into a British consulate, hoisting the Union Jack on the balcony.
Hollingworth still doggedly tried to make it to the now seriously strafed Warsaw, which the Poles had abandoned as their capital. The official Polish government seat was set up in Krzemieniec (today Kremnets in Western Ukraine). A one storey wooden building, the Hotel Bono, became the British Embassy in Poland. Her attempts at reaching Warsaw were becoming increasingly futile. Nothing but the abject and sordid picture of bloody war met her, the roads from Krzemieniec to Luck, from Sandomierz to Lublin littered with the dead, wounded, desperate and insane.
Back at Krzemieniec Hollingworth found the undefended town had been blown to near smithereens, against the Law of War, or Geneva Convention(s). A strong protest was made by the American Ambassador Anthony J. Drexel Biddle.
From Krzemieniec the group of one journalist, Clare Hollingworth, (the rest had decamped to Bucharest, Rumania), and a few diplomats which by now included Frank Savery (later as Frank Savery CMG OBE, Chairman of Ognisko Polskie, The Polish Hearth club), British Consul in Warsaw, plotted their escape, and divided into two groups. One group , headed by Ambassador Kennard would remain with the skeleton Polish government, the other group lead by Clare, would head for Rumania. At 4am Clare Hollingworth and her party readied themselves by car, in the direction of Bucharest. They arrived at Tarnopol and then finally to Rumainia and the town of Cernauti, (now Cherniuisti in the Ukraine). The British journalists, with Hollingworth, could not get enough of reporting the war, and had a ‘cavalcade’ of taxis to transport them to and fro across the Polish-Rumanian borders to report further on the horrors of the early days of WW2. For her part Hollingworth, accompanied by the helpfully Russian speaking Sonia Tamara of the Chicago Tribune, went to Kuty in Southern Poland to witness the ‘last stand of the Polish government.’ The Polish Foreign Ministry was in a cow shed, while the last President of Pilsudski’s Republic, President Moscicki was last seen disappearing in a car over the bridge. The real stab in the back for the Poles came on 17 September 1939, with Stalin’s invasion of Poland, under the treacherous , unexpected, ‘secret’ Ribbentrop- Molotov Pact. It was time to leave. But Clare Hollingworth’s work here was not quite yet done. Her fiery baptism in war reporting had lasted four weeks. It was a hectic time and she never slept in one place for more than forty eight hours. But her ‘loyalty’ to the Poles remained steadfast.
Having rested in Bucharest awhile, she then resumed her humanitarian work, by helping 35,000 Polish refugees trapped in both Rumania and Hungary. The situation was grim. Hollingworth offered her services and experience to the main charities, but found it difficult to work with them. There was much bickering and waste. Hollingworth soon took matters into her own hands, and had lorries loaded with ‘food, blankets, soap and underwear’ to help the bewildered, stranded, and lost Polish refugees.
If anyone thought that the cataclysmic experience of her first direct experience and short induction into the horrors of war, and the outbreak of World War Two, would have put off Clare Hollingworth from any further war reporting, they could not have been more wrong ! Clare Hollingworth was to go on for seventy years, roving the earth as a remarkable global war reporter. From El Alamein to Vietnam, the Algerian civil war, Korea, India, Pakistan, to China’s Cultural Revolution, to name but a few war torn hot spots, she covered them with a courage and hidden compassion, rarely, if ever seen in a human being.
Clare Hollingworth was born on 11 October 1911, in the suburb of Knighton in Leicestershire to relatively well to do parents. Her father was a shoe manufacturer and shoe salesman, who travelled the length and breadth of the country selling his wares. His knowledge of Britain was phenomenally extensive, and he had a passion for the military, warfare and battlefields. He would often take his young daughter Clare on battlefield trips: Bosworth in England, or Crecy, Poitiers, or Agincourt in France. Clare loved it, and maintained it was from this education she developed a lifelong passion for warfare.
Her education was modest, she attended a domestic science course, (cooking) and generally was not at all academically minded. But she had an exceptionally keen and bright mind. Her early days took her to working as an administrator at a local YMCA. She went onto work with the British League of Nations, and it appears her politics – if any – were gently left leaning, veering towards patriotic right wing.
Clare Hollingsworth, war correspondent, passed away on 10th January 2017, at the impressive centenarian age of a hundred and five years, in her own home, not far from her beloved Correspondents Club in Hong Kong. We will certainly never see the likes of this unique person ever again.
A really excellent biography, "Of Fortunes and War", by Patrick Garrett, grand nephew of Clare Hollingworth, is available from Thistle Publishing.( pp 500, publ. 2015, ISBN 978-1-910670-84-2).