Women on the frontline – the female war correspondents of the Second World War

Mary Welch, Dixie Tighe, Kathleen Harriman, Helen Kirkpatrick, Lee Miller, Tania Long. 1943

During the Second World War a number of women reporters covered, and even broke, some of the most important stories of the conflict. These women not only showed extraordinary courage in the face of fire, but also had to face many challenges just to be able to report from the frontline. At that time, journalism was a male dominated profession, and there was a feeling of arrogance and entitlement from many of the male correspondents, such as Ernest Hemingway, as well as a great deal of prejudice from the military who most definitely did not want women on the battlefield.

The women who chose to report from an active war zone had to overcome the ban on females on the frontline which was in place at the beginning of the war. In fact, the British army refused to give accreditation to women journalists until towards the end of the war, arguing that women, as the weaker sex, should not be put into dangerous situations. There was also a worry that women might cause ‘sexual unrest’ amongst the soldiers, or cause men on active duty to behave in a chivalrous way by looking after the women rather than concentrating on fighting the enemy. Bizarrely, one of the main arguments was that women could not report from the front because they couldn’t use the same latrines as the men!

Ruth Cowan, Sonia Tomara, Rosette Hargrove, Betty Knox, Iris Carpenter, Erika Mann. 1944

When America entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the authorities there proved to be much more open to women correspondents and allowed women closer to the action than the British did, although they were still reluctant to have them on the frontline. Some British women took advantage of this and got themselves accredited to an American newspaper to enable them to go to active war zones. Once there, they would find any loopholes they could, or find officers sympathetic to their point of view to help them; they were willing to do almost anything to get closer to the frontline.

The response to female war correspondents was mixed. Male journalists often felt the women had an advantage because they could use their ‘feminine wiles’ to flirt with officers and men to get a story which might be unavailable to themselves. The soldiers on the ground, however, enjoyed having the women there, often keen to have a journalist with them who would be able to tell their story if they were killed in action. They also liked having the women around because they were starved of female company – many did not see wives or girlfriends for long years on end during the conflict. For their part, the attitude of the women correspondents towards the fighting men was mixed, some had affairs with soldiers whilst others had a more ‘motherly relationship’ with the troops they met.

A number of women, reporting from all theatres of the war, became household names. Amongst them were…

Clare Hollingworth

Englishwoman, Clare Hollingworth, had only been a journalist for a week when she was sent to Poland in 1939 to monitor the border and report any troop activity. Within days, she got two exclusive scoops. First of all, at the end of August, she crossed illegally into Germany where she saw nine panzer divisions hidden away awaiting the order to attack. On her return to Poland, Hollingworth heard planes and tanks on 1st September and was therefore the first to report both the likely and the actual start of the invasion of Poland at the beginning of World War Two. (You can find out more about Clare Hollingworth in my article here).

Lee Miller

Lee Miller was a very different person. She began her career as a model for Vogue in the 1920’s before becoming a photographer herself, and she was in London at the start of the Blitz in 1940. Feeling that the fashion world was too superficial at such a time in history she went out into the streets and began to take photographs documenting the terrible devastation caused by the bombings. Miller was fascinated by the juxtaposition of horror and beauty that she saw in the changing shape of the city, and felt that this was what she wanted to do with her life. As time went by she began to write the stories to accompany her photographs, and by 1942 was an accredited war correspondent for Vogue which printed her war stories alongside their fashion sections. Miller photographed women at war – from nurses and charity workers to WRENS – as well as reporting from the front line. She was caught up in the fighting in St Malo, France, during its liberation in August 1944, where she described the ‘sordid destruction’ of the once beautiful town, and wrote of the awfulness of being in contact with dead bodies. Miller went on to cover the re-taking of the continent, from the Liberation of Paris to the push through Germany and the horror of the concentration camps. The articles she wrote and the accompanying photographs were both powerful and haunting.

Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway with General Yu Hanmou, Chongqing, China, 1941

Another famous correspondent was Martha Gellhorn, who was married to Ernest Hemingway. Women were forbidden to go to France with the troops for the D Day landings, but Gellhorn desperately wanted to be there, so she stowed away in a hospital ship and landed on Omaha Beach where she helped medical teams to rescue wounded soldiers. She was later stripped of her correspondent’s badge over this incident.

Sigrid Schultz

Not all of the women who reported from dangerous situations were on the physical frontline. Sigrid Schultz was born in Chicago, with German and Norwegian parents. She was Bureau Chief for the Chicago Tribune in Berlin before the war and saw it as her duty to keep the world informed about how Hitler and his Nazis were changing Germany. Schultz had to tread a very fine line between telling the truth and her own personal safety; she even suffered death threats for her reporting in the American press. Schultz’s courage was truly remarkable as she knew how dangerous it would be for her if the Germans found out that her mother was a Jew.

Female reporters often appeared more subjective in their reporting than the men, trying to give a deeper feeling for time and place in their descriptions of the conflict. They offered a different perspective to the usual military accounts, often writing their reports from the point of view of the soldiers rather than the officers who were the usual sources of information, trying to focus on the individual rather than divisions or brigades. The women were sometimes criticised for this, but felt that their more emotional response was an integral part of the story which would enable readers back home to share more fully in what it was like to be on the frontline with troops, what it was that their men-folk were experiencing so far from home.

But, no matter their style of writing, all correspondents had to report in a way that helped to keep up British morale and so were unable to report some stories and experiences, sometimes the censorship was official but often it was self-censorship as they tried to get the difficult balance between accurate reporting yet hiding some of the more unpleasant aspects of life and death on the frontline. It was not until after the war, when they could write a memoir without any censorship, that many of these women were finally able to talk more openly about what they had seen and experienced.

Ruth Cowan

As has been seen, it was not easy for women to get a job as a war correspondent as they had to overcome many difficulties and prejudices, yet some still felt drawn to this line of work. What drove them was a desire to be treated as equals, to show that they were capable of coping with the same difficult conditions as the men, be that in the deserts of North Africa and jungles of the Far East or the freezing temperatures of the winter war in Finland. They also had a desire to be involved in major world events. Many of the women spoke of having a real sense of purpose, of living in the moment which was not available to them in civilian life. This feeling of being part of something important which gave meaning to their own lives made it difficult for the women who reported the war to adapt back to civilian life at the end of the conflict – just as it was for the soldiers themselves. There was a cost in all of this for the correspondents; many suffered what is now known as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which not a diagnosed condition in the 1940’s).   Later in life, Lee Miller said that she never got over what she had seen and photographed in Dachau.

The Second World War was an historic period which marked a turning point for women reporting from warzones. For some, reporting from the front was all there was for them, a feeling of home and belonging which meant that some, like Clare Hollingworth, continued to report from war zones after the end of the Second World War. As war now rages in Europe once more, we daily see on our TV screens a new generation of women reporting from the front line, who stand on the shoulders of those who went before. Experienced correspondents such as Lyse Doucet, Orla Guerin, Yalda Hakim, and Sarah Rainsford are reporting from Ukraine alongside new young women, at least one of whom has paid the ultimate price for bringing the news to us.

Ukrainian journalist Oleksandra Kuvshynova (left) and Irish camera operator Pierre Zakrzewski (right) were killed in Horenka, Ukraine, while working with Fox News. (Photo: Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News)

Ukrainian journalist Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshinova, died on 14th March 2022 while serving as a consultant for Fox News during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She was killed alongside Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski when their vehicle was struck by incoming fire. Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott paid tribute to the young woman, saying “Sasha was just 24 years old and was serving as a consultant for us in Ukraine. She was helping our crews navigate Kyiv and the surrounding area while gathering information and speaking to sources. She was incredibly talented and spent weeks working directly with our entire team there, operating around the clock to make sure the world knew what was happening in her country. Several of our correspondents and producers spent long days with her reporting the news and got to know her personally, describing her as hard-working, funny, kind and brave. Her dream was to connect people around the world and tell their stories and she fulfilled that through her journalism.”

Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshinova, like so many other women before her, showed true courage in reporting major conflicts to the world.

Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshinova

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