by Nicholas Pendergast
Journalism lost one of its iconic heroes on Tuesday. At 105-years-young, Clare Hollingsworth passed away in her Hong Kong home, almost 78 years after she broke the scoop of the last century.
Ms. Hollingsworth was driving down a lonely stretch of road from Poland to Germany on August 28th of 1939, when she incidentally spotted an unprecedented buildup of German war machines on the boarder of the neighboring nations. The Germans had set up a massive tarp to conceal their presence in the valley between Glewitz, Germany and Katowice, Poland, but a gust of wind lifted the cloth covering the German war machine, enough for Clare to spot hundreds of tanks and guns as she drove by. Clare immediately turned around, realizing imminent threat, and returned to the Polish side of the border.
Later that day, she telephoned her editor over at Britain’s The Daily Telegraph, and on August 29th her paper published an article warning of German’s advance onto Poland. Three days later, on September 1st, Adolf Hitler ordered the Nazi war machine to invade his eastern neighbors. These events precipitated World War II, one of the costliest wars in history.
Ms. Hollingsworth continued to cover the second world war from the eastern front, risking her life to cover stories all over Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Balkans. She was frequently under fire, both verbally and literally, and at times captured for accusations of being a spy. At times, even her native British government speculated that she may have been a covert foe working against them.
Clare Hollingsworth survived World War II, and went on to cover four decades of stories for The Telegraph, Guardian, Wall Street Journal, and International Herald Tribune. This girl was a bad ass. In 1965, at the age of 54, she secured permission from Indria Gandhi to cover escalations of hostilities in the mountainous frontier between Pakistan and India. She was the first reporter to interview the shah of Iran in 1941, as well as possibly the last before Ayatollah Khomeini disposed him in 1979.
There are many stories of this woman’s bravery and free spirit. She has often said that there were times where she was never so happy as when she was on the front, traveling the world as a journalist with only a tooth brush, typewriter, and revolver. Long before embedded journalism became a common place thing, Clare was backpacking in deserts and sleeping in trenches.
“I must admit that I enjoy being in a war,” Clare The Telegraph in an interview back in 2011.
Age did not seem to slow this freebird of the world’s greatest generation. In 1989, at 80-years-young, Clare hoisted herself up a telephone pole to get a view of China’s military crackdown on dissidents in Tiananmen Square.
Clare lived in Hong Kong for much of the latter half of her life, and would have gladly continued traveling the world as a journalist until her death if she had not begun to lose vision. A life of comfort was not something she looked highly upon. Well into her 90s, Clare would go to sleep on the floor of her Hong Kong apartment, just to keep that flair of rugged life about her.
“I don’t mind not washing for a week or more,” she once penned, “but I do hate getting fleas in my hair.”
She was born to middle-class parents in Knighton, south of Leicestershire, England, in 1911 just years before the first world war. Her father owned a footwear factory and a farm in Shepshed, where Clare Hollingsworth grew up and formed early aspirations to become a writer. At the time, journalism was viewed with some disdain as a trade full of liars, and Clare’s mother had a negative opinion of Clare’s ambitions. Despite an early engagement to a local man known to her family, Clare broke things off, and went to join the League of Nations Union in Worcestershire. Clare achieved a scholarship to study at London’s School of Slavonic Studies, and later moved to Croatia to study at the Zagrab University. She began writing articles in Warsaw for the New Statesman in 1938, after the German hostile takeover of Sudetenland, and helped thousands of refugees escaping Hitler’s forces to obtain British visas.
She was a journalist for The Telegraph less than a week before her fated journey into Germany on August 28th, 1939. When the Germans rolled in on September 1st, she was awakened to the sound of bombs from German planes flying overhead, and immediately dialed the British embassy to warn of invasion.
“The war has begun!” She shouted over cannon fire and tanks just outside her window.
“Are you sure about that, old girl?” Her friend at the embassy asked.
Clare held the phone out her window, confirming to the embassy that there were German tanks in Poland.
From that point onward, Clare pursued the extreme side of life with a passion and dignity.
“We are sad to announce that after an illustrious career spanning a century of news, celebrated war correspondent Clare Hollingworth died this evening in Hong Kong,” her family announced after Clare was found unresponsive in her home and confirmed dead at 7:40 PM at Ruttonjee Hospital.
Despite finding her earliest work in social justice and showing a disdain for makeup, her great-nephew Patrick Garrett revealed that Clare never identified as a feminist.
She was certainly a unique woman and a product of a bygone age. Journalists everywhere are surely tipping their hats today for the lady who forged ahead in a male dominated world, armed with her toothbrush, typewriter, and revolver.