Doyenne of reporters still proud of World War scoop at 97

1st September 2009, Comments 0 comments

Bespectacled and frail, she says if she had her way, she would still be covering the world's news hotspots.

Hong Kong -- Seventy years after the outbreak of World War II, the veteran British war correspondent who brought news of that moment to the public remains intensely proud of her achievements.

Now 97, Clare Hollingworth broke the story in 1939 of Germany's invasion of Poland.

Bespectacled and frail, she says if she had her way, she would still be covering the world's news hotspots.

"If there is a war, and if the world wants, I would like to cover it," she told AFP.

Hollingworth is almost blind. Her hearing and memory are failing her, especially after a stroke early this year. She can stand only with a stick and when seated keeps a firm hold on the hand of a domestic care-giver.

Yet hard as it is to imagine, seven decades ago this woman drove on her own into German territory to see for herself the launch of Hitler's Nazi war machine.

It was late August 1939 and Hollingworth's first week working as a journalist in Poland, despatched there by The Daily Telegraph to cover the worsening security situation in Europe.

The 27-year-old lodged with the British consul-general in Katowice, a city near the German border that was closed to all but diplomatic vehicles.

With characteristic boldness, she decided she would borrow the consul's car to venture into Germany.

Driving along a road, the wind suddenly blew off screens of Hessian and revealed to her large numbers of German troops, hundreds of tanks, armoured cars and field guns, all facing Poland and ready for action.

Back in Katowice she relayed the scene to the consul-general, who listened in disbelief, not even sure it was possible to get into Germany.

But he grew convinced when Hollingworth opened the car door to show off purchases she had made across the border that were unavailable in Poland -- bottles of wine, electric torches, and films.

The consul promptly locked himself in his office and enciphered the top secret message to the Foreign Office via the British Embassy in Warsaw.

Hollingworth recorded in her autobiography "Captain if Captured" how she also sent her own message to Warsaw, dictating her story to a colleague there, who relayed it to The Daily Telegraph within minutes.

On September 1, it was Hollingworth who, at the crack of dawn called the British Embassy to tell the officials there that the war had begun, after she was woken up by the roar of Nazi aircraft and tanks in Katowice.

Hollingworth said she had to hold the telephone out of her bedroom window to convince the Embassy her story was true -- Britain at that time still believed there was a chance they could stop the war by negotiating with Hitler.

Hollingworth has since recounted the story that ensued, hundreds, if not thousands of times, to colleagues, friends, journalists and in her books.

But she has now forgotten a large part of her extraordinary experience, except patchy images of herself braving the danger and chaos at the frontline when Nazi planes dropped bombs over Poland.

"I wish I could remember more. It meant a lot to me," she said.

The stint was to be the beginning of Hollingworth's distinguished life-long career as a war correspondent, in which the highlights read like a history of 20th century conflict.

It was she who revealed the move towards peace talks between Hanoi and Washington at the end of the Vietnam War and she who discovered the defection of British spy Kim Philby to the Soviet Union.

In 1946 Hollingworth and her late husband Geoffrey Hoare narrowly escaped death when terrorists blew up the King David hotel in Jerusalem, where they were staying, killing 91 people.

Born in 1911, the idea for her future career was implanted early in life during World War I. She dates her interest from a trip in a trap, drawn by her pony Polly, to inspect the effects of German bombing close to her home in Loughborough, central England.

Despite her advanced years, Hollingworth retains a toughness developed from a lifetime as witness to war's horrors in such places as Vietnam, Algeria, the Middle East, India and Pakistan.

Until recently, Hollingworth daily phoned her former colleagues on the London newsdesk to "check the news" from her Hong Kong home, and would from time to time sleep on the floor "just to see if I can still do it."

Despite her frailty, the doyenne of war correspondents insists on paying daily visits to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club, where she is highly respected by staff and members alike.

There, she sits at her favourite corner table and puts on headphones to listen to BBC World news programmes. Her helpers say she has no time for non-news related television or radio programmes.

Her great nephew Patrick Garrett, who is writing a book on Hollingworth's life, said she remained as proud of her profession as in her younger days.

"She would still say I am a correspondent, I am a journalist -- not a retired, elderly woman," he said.


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