Hong Kong: As German tanks encircled the Polish town of Katowice, rookie British newspaper reporter Clare Hollingworth picked up the phone and dialled the British embassy. An official there didn’t believe what she told him, so she dangled the phone out the window so he could hear the ominous rumbling for himself.
“Listen!” she implored. “Can’t you hear it?”
Hollingworth was 27, and just a week into her job with the Daily Telegraph of London. She had the scoop of a lifetime: World War Two had just begun.
She hung up and called the Telegraph‘s Warsaw correspondent, who dictated to London her story about the Nazi invasion of southern Poland in late August 1939.
As the Nazis moved in, Hollingworth scrambled to get out of Poland, sometimes sleeping in cars, and eventually made her way to Romania. Hollingworth, who died at the age of was 105, would go on to write many more chapters in a decades-long career as a foreign correspondent.
She had scored another big exclusive days before the invasion, when she had borrowed a British consulate official’s car to drive into German-occupied territory, which was off-limits to all but diplomatic vehicles.
Hollingworth saw tanks, armoured cars and artillery massing.
Burlap screens beside the road, “constructed to hide the military vehicles, blew in the wind, thus I saw the battle deployment,” she recounted in her autobiography.
“I guessed that the German command was preparing to strike to the north of Katowice and its fortified lines and this, in fact, was exactly how they launched their invasion in the south.”
Returning to Poland, she filed her story, but her name was not on the byline – a common practice for newspapers in those days.
A determined journalist who defied gender barriers and narrowly escaped death several times on the job, Hollingworth spent much of her life on the front lines of major conflicts, including in the Middle East, North Africa and Vietnam, for British newspapers. She spent the last three decades in Hong Kong after being one of the few Western journalists stationed in China in the 1970s.
She won major British journalism awards including a ‘What The Papers Say’ lifetime achievement award and was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. Former British Prime Minister Ted Heath and former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten were fans of Hollingworth, while various British generals wrote about her fondly.
Hollingworth was born October 10, 1911, to a middle-class family in the village of Knighton in Leicestershire, England. Her father ran a boot factory founded by her grandfather. She took brief courses in Croatian at Zagreb University, international relations in Switzerland and Slavonic studies in London. She worked as a secretary and then at a British newspaper’s refugee charity in Poland while writing occasional articles about the looming war in Europe. Friends influenced her decision to focus on journalism rather than politics.
The Daily Telegraph’s editor gave her a job as a stringer and sent her to Poland, partly because of her work with refugees in that country, according to her great-nephew Patrick Garrett.
During her five months with the charity, Hollingworth played an important role in helping an estimated 3,000 refugees trying to escape the Nazis flee to Britain by arranging visas for them, a little known fact that Garrett unearthed in research for his 2016 biography of his great-aunt, “Of Fortunes and War.”
Though she carved out a career in what was then a male-dominated field, Garrett said she looked back on her achievements matter-of-factly.
“She would never regard herself as a feminist,” said Garrett. Hollingworth hated when women were given special treatment because it made women a “hassle,” which made it harder for other female journalists trying to cover wars, Garrett said.
“She thought that everyone should be treated the same. She hated it when women wasted time on makeup or getting their hair done,” Garrett said.
After the Polish invasion, Hollingworth covered the Romanian revolution and hostilities in North Africa. When Allied forces captured Tripoli in 1943, British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery ordered her back to Cairo because he didn’t want women around. So she instead got herself accredited with US forces in Algeria.
Later she reported on the fall of the Balkan states to communism and on Cold War espionage, including the case of Kim Philby, a British journalist and Soviet double agent. Hollingworth wrote for many publications in her career, including the Economist, the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Express.
Hollingworth was close to danger for decades. In 1946, she was standing 300 yards from the King David Hotel in Jerusalem when it was destroyed by a bomb planted by militant Zionists that killed nearly 100 people.
While covering the Algerian war for independence in 1962, Hollingworth defied members of a French far-right group who rounded up foreign journalists and threatened some of them with execution.
“I was extremely annoyed at this treatment and I told their commander in French, ‘Go away at once, monsieur, or I will have to hit you over the head with my shoe, which is all I have.'”
The commander pushed her aside, grabbed another British journalist and dragged him out the front door of their hotel. Hollingworth led the other reporters outside in pursuit of their colleague, who was thrown to the ground. The gunmen released the safety catches on their guns and the reporters dived for cover, but they drove off without shooting.
Covering the Vietnam War, Hollingworth flew aboard US military aircraft on supply runs and bombing missions.
Hollingworth became the Telegraph’s first resident China correspondent when the paper sent her to Beijing – then known as Peking – in 1973, a year after President Richard Nixon’s landmark visit that eventually led to formal ties between Washington and Beijing.
She moved to Hong Kong in 1981. She had intended to stay temporarily as she wrote a book about Mao Zedong, but decided to stay to watch the negotiations over Britain’s return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 and never left.
Hollingworth wrote articles for the International Herald Tribune and Asian Wall Street Journal well into her old age. She was known for visiting the Foreign Correspondent’s Club every day, where her domestic helpers read newspapers to her because of her failing eyesight and where friends and admirers helped her celebrate her 105th birthday with cake.