The Woman Who Broke the Story of World War II

After the greatest darkness...There is light..png

In researching my upcoming release, The Light Over London, I was continually amazed at the many—often unsung—ways women contributed to the war effort in Britain during World War II. The Lightseekers is an ongoing series of articles that highlights some of their work and the ways they brought light to Britain in one of its darkest times.

The biggest scoop of World War II belongs to an extraordinary journalist at the dawn of her career. 

A woman with such a colorful life and career that it almost would be hard to believe if it wasn’t true, Clare Hollingworth’s early life is relatively unextraordinary. She was born in Leicester and raised on a farm. After attending domestic science college and spending some time working, she won a scholarship to London University and then went to Zagreb University to study Croatian. 

Hollingworth began working as an activist for a charity in Europe that would be credited with saving the lives of thousands of refugees from pre-war Nazi Germany. According to her obituary in the New York Times, her work secured visas for between 2,000 and 3,000 people before it came to an end in July of 1939.

After she returned to London, she talked her way into an assignment working as a stringer for the Daily Telegraph. On August 28, 1939, just three days after she was sent to Poland, she borrowed a British diplomat’s car and drove to the border with Germany. According to the New York Times, “Alone on the road from Gleiwitz…she watched as the wind lifted a piece of the tarpaulin that had been erected on the German side to screen the valley below from view,” and saw hundreds of German tanks. It was the invasion of Poland that would mark the start of World War II.

Hollingworth raced back to Poland to call her editor. Her story ran on the front cover of the Daily Telegraph with no byline under the headline: “1,000 tanks massed on Polish border. Ten divisions ready for swift strike”. It would prove to be one of the biggest scoops in the history of journalism. 

Prime Minister Nevill Chamberlin warned Germany that it had until September 1, 1939, to withdraw from Poland or face war. At dawn on the day of the deadline, Hollingworth found the story coming to her. She woke up to German bombers and artillery fire near her hotel in Katowice. When she called a friend at the British embassy in Warsaw to warn him, he didn’t believe her so she held her phone receiver out the window so he could hear it all unfolding. Britain and Germany were at war.

Hollingworth would go on to cover the war from multiple fronts in Europe and North Africa. She would report on major breaking stories and conflicts like the Vietnam War, the Cambridge spy ring, various conflicts in the Middle East, and multiple wars. 

“Often under fire, occasionally arrested and possessed of such a keen nose for covert information that from time to time she was accused of being a spy—both by local governments and by the British—Ms. Hollingworth was friend, or foe, to seemingly everyone in a position of power in the world at midcentury,” the New York Times obituary recalls.

Hollingworth slept on the floor of her Hong Kong flat well into her 90s in order to keep from going soft. She carried a revolver, wore a safari jacket most of her life, and hated housework thanks to her years in domestic science college. 

Her first husband divorced her after 15 years, citing desertion because she was always out reporting. “When I’m on a story, I’m on a story—to hell with husband, family, anyone else,” she said in an interview with the Guardian in 2004.

Hollingworth was not universally liked but, in reading her interviews, one gets the sense that hardly mattered. She was respected, a doyenne of conflict journalism in the twentieth century. 

Clare Hollingworth died in her Hong Kong flat in January of 2017 at the age of 105.

Read every story of the The Lightseekers in the series archive. You can also learn more about their stories by following the hashtag #TheLightseekers on InstagramFacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.