The lady who broke the World War story



12, Oct 2016

Clare Hollingworth, the war correspondent who announced the start of World War II, turned 105 on Monday. Though Clare remains most famous for these first scoops on the War, she did phenomenal work throughout her career. Clare also saved thousands of refugees from falling prey to the War. She still keeps her passport by her bedside in case she is approached to cover a story. May her tribe flourish!

What made us remember Clare again?

Her 105th birthday was celebrated on Monday, October 10, 2016.

  • The world’s oldest living journalist, most well-known for being the first to do a story announcing World War II had several facets of her personality honored. Her passion, tenacity and courage inspired future journalists.
  • Though there were a few women correspondents in that time, Clare made her own unique mark. This time her near and dear ones also learnt of the lives Clare had secretly saved – a story that had to be dug out by her great nephew.

Why can she be called the female Oskar Schindler?

The year was 1938. Clare Hollingworth, twenty-seven then, had booked a holiday to Kitzbuhel, Austria. This equipped her with a Nazi-approved visa.

  • In September that year, Hitler had taken control of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland and this caused terrified refugees to flee abroad. Organizations were formed to deal with the refugee crisis; among them was The British Committee for Refugees (BCRC). As it happened, they needed a courageous volunteer to travel to Gdynia and meet refugees fleeing from Prague.
  • Clare took up the task and just before she reached Gdynia, the Germans marched into Czechoslovakia.
  • She found 451 helpless refugees in Gdynia and for most of them every moment counted as they were known anti-Nazis.Clare handled their safe passage to willing countries with superb skill and efficiency.
  • On her return to Poland, she handled refugees who had made it from a hostile environment to a hostile destination. The BCRC welcomed her participation and she soon became its official representative for Poland.She took more than 1000 refugees under her wing at any one time till they had begun a safe journey to countries where they could start life afresh.

Clare’s great nephew Patrick Garrett in his biography of her notes that she had a natural knack for “cajoling reluctant government officials, juggling incomplete information, and managing chaotic logistics.” For the nature of her humanitarian work she also earned the name The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Her service however came to an abrupt end in July 1939. Garrett, though not sure of the reason thinks it could be due to complaints from British intelligence agencies. Clare, to ensure safety of the thousands of refugees under her care had regularly bypassed the long and rigorous vetting process. This might have met with disapproval after a certain point.

Note: Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist, spy, and member of the Nazi Party who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories, which were located in occupied Poland and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. He is the subject of the 1982 novel Schindler's Ark, and the subsequent 1993 film Schindler's List, which reflected his life as an opportunist initially motivated by profit who came to show extraordinary initiative, tenacity and dedication to save the lives of his Jewish employees.

When did she get her first big scoops?

She was three days into her first job as a journalist – war correspondent for Telegraph. She was assigned to the Polish-German border in Katowice.

  • Expecting war at any time, she borrowed a car from her host – a diplomat friend from the Foreign Office – and set off alone into Nazi Germany to stock up necessities.
  • On her return she witnessed “scores if not hundreds of tanks” in the valley below the border.The scene gave her the first massive scoop – the eruption of World War II. People reading Telegraph the next day faced the headline, “1,000 tanks massed on Polish border. Ten divisions reported ready for swift stroke”. She further wrote, “The German military machine is now ready for instant action.”
  • Three days later she telephoned the British embassy in Warsaw and told of her second scoop – she had awakened to the sound of German advance that morning.The embassy refused to believe her and said negotiations were on. In response, she just held out the receiver in the direction of the tank engines so they could hear the Germans first-hand.

Where did her other spectacular scoops come from?

  • Biographer and historian Tom Pocock recalled an incident when rebel Algerians burst into the hotel where Clare and other journalists were staying. Having failed to spot an Italian journalist, the rebels pushed John Wallis, the Daily Telegraph’s reporter into their jeep. Clare intervened and told the other journalists, “Come on! We’re going too! They won’t shoot all the world’s press!” She was right about that.The rebels on seeing all journalists climb into their jeeps freed everyone.
  • In Vietnam, during war, she would deliberately leave behind her personal items in remote villages so she could return back minus her military handlers and obtain a truer account from the rural people.
  • In India, Pocock and Clare found themselves in an army jeep which had to cross over a bridge shelled by Pakistani troops every 20 seconds. Pocock said while he kept his fingers crossed Clare’s eyes shone as she exclaimed, Now this is what makes life worth living”.

Who thanked Clare on her birthday?

  • Margo Drotar was four when she and her mother were arrested in Poland in 1939. A Communist family from Hungary, they were caught by the Polish authorities as they fled from Hitler.
  • After five days of starvation, they were smuggled into an apartment and interviewed by Clare who helped timely arrangement of their visas. Thanks to her assistance, the family landed on London’s shores just two days before the war broke out.
  • Much later Clare’s great nephew found a hand-written certificate among her possessions which seemed to indicate an untold story. Her memory had begun to fail and he consulted the National Archive in Kew. That was how he realized his great aunt’s role in saving the lives of thousands.He also guessed her reason for not making this public was her guilt over the people she could not save despite her efforts. He also saw complaints from M15 authorities about "undesirables" - including Germans, communists and Jews - that were showing up with British visas signed by "Hollingworth".
  • He included this story in his biography of Clare. It was only on reading this book in August this year, did Margo, now 81 realize how involved Clare had been in her family’s rescue.

In her tearful video message, Margo said, “Happy Birthday darling Clare. Live for a hundred years again. I will think of you to the end of my life. Thank you very much for what you gave me, and for all those other people. Thank you.”

How can we say her passion for an exciting story remains intact?

She still keeps her passport by her bedside and shoes near her bed in case she is approached to cover a story. This in itself speaks volumes.

  • Her great nephew feels that the urge to remain at the centre of things and get the story first gives Clare a sense of purpose and may be one of the reasons she gets up in the morning each day.
  • When asked recently to name a place she would go if she was offered a choice, she said she would look up for the most dangerous place as that is where she’d find her kind of a stellar story.

Clare worked in China from 1973 – she was Telegraph’s first Beijing-based correspondent. After three years she moved on to Hong Kong in the 80s and continued to work there. Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph said she continued writing till 1992 and that he had to draw on her wisdom and knowledge. He added, “She is a legend in journalism and was a trailblazer for women reporters.”

At 105, she lives in Hong Kong, and “Clare’s table” at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club is still reserved for her every single day, in case she turns up for lunch or dinner.

"When I'm on a story, I'm on a story - to hell with husband, family, anyone else. I won't rest until I get to the bottom of it." – Clare Hollingworth.

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