I’ve always been fascinated by the Second World War. It was ‘recent history’ for me as a child, and the Sunday afternoon movie on TV was often about the conflict which ended just 12 years before I was born. My love of history led to me studying the war at A level, and I again found myself delving into the political, military and personal aspects of conflict which are always so intricately entwined.
More recently, I came across the story of the renowned correspondent, Clare Hollingworth, which led me to reading the book ‘The Women Who Wrote the War’ by Nancy Caldwell Sorel. I was fascinated by the stories of these brave women, and thought that writing a novel from the perspective of a female correspondent would be a really interesting angle. (You can find my previous article on women war correspondents here.)
In No Job for a Woman, the first novel in my new series, Jenny McLeod is a fictional character whose experiences are not too dissimilar to those of the small number of very determined women who went to the frontline to report the Second World War. It wasn’t easy for them. They had to overcome the arrogance and feeling of entitlement shown by their male counterparts like Ernest Hemingway, while battling a great deal of prejudice from the military who didn’t want women on the battle field. The British, in particular, didn’t want women there at all and wouldn’t give accreditation to female journalists until towards the end of the war. I have taken a little artistic license here as my correspondent, Jenny, becomes involved with the Desert Rats at a much earlier date.
Being a reporter becomes her identity for Jenny, it is all she knows how to do, all she feels comfortable doing. After the end of the war, she still feels the need to let the world know what is happening in conflict zones which is why she continues reporting in 1945 and beyond, from the independence struggles of Israel and India, to the Korean War.
But the books in this series are not just a list of battles, they are a family saga spanning decades. And Jenny finds that she must fight harder than a man just to be treated as an equal. With personal as well as military battles to be fought there was really only one choice of title for my new series – The Wars of Jenny McLeod.
Book one, No Job for a Woman, is now available on Amazon.
Today I would like to pay tribute to one of the women who has inspired my writing and who died today, aged 105.
Clare Hollingworth was one of the most respected war correspondents of the 20th century. Born in Knighton in Leicestershire on 10th October 1911, Clare’s father worked in the shoe trade. Clare had a fairly ordinary life as a youngster, and by 1939 she had married and was living in Poland with her husband. She was horrified by what she saw of the Nazi treatment of many groups of people and decided to help, rescuing around 3,000 refugees from Sudetenland (part of Czechoslovakia which had been annexed by Hitler). For some reason the British government was not happy with what she was doing and MI6 persuaded her employer to ‘let her go’. Clare returned to England and decided that she wanted to be a journalist, partly due to stories told to her by her friend Trilby Ewer. Trilby wrote for the Daily Telegraph and arranged an interview there for Clare. She was hired on the spot as a ‘stringer’ (a freelance journalist) working with Hugh Carleton Greene, who was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Berlin.
With her nose for a story Clare headed for Katowice where she borrowed a car from the British consul-general and drove towards the Polish border. The road was full of motorcycle despatch riders who seemed to be incredibly busy, and as she drove Clare passed a long hessian screen which had been put up to stop people looking down into the valley below. With the luck which seemed to follow Clare at times a random gust of wind caught the screen and pulled it back, revealing hundreds of German tanks and other vehicles lined up and ready to invade Poland. 29th August 1939 was only Clare’s third day as a journalist, but she already had her first headline in a national newspaper when the Telegraph printed her story as the Page One lead.
On 1st September Clare was woken by anti-aircraft guns as German planes crossed the border into Poland. She immediately telephoned Greene who notified the Polish foreign minister – who didn’t believe him. Clare then phoned officials in the British embassy in Warsaw, who also didn’t believe that war had broken out as Germany and Poland were still negotiating. To prove her point Clare held the phone out of the window so that the embassy official could hear the guns himself!
Clare Hollingworth went on to report throughout the Second World War and other conflicts of the last century including Palestine, China, Algeria and Vietnam. She also broke the story that the British intelligence officer Kim Philby was spying for the Russians. Clare Hollingworth was awarded the OBE in 1982 and as the 1980’s progressed she decided to semi-retire, but retirement never stopped her from following up a story. In 1989, approaching her 80’s, Clare was in Tiananmen Square where she wrote about the Chinese government crack-down on protesters – watching the unfolding story from a lamppost which she had climbed to get a better view!
Clare Hollingworth was a trail blazer for female war correspondents, a woman of drive and ambition whose life is the inspiration for the main character featured in my new series of books. Today is a day to remember a remarkable woman who lived life to the full and will be long remembered.