From a single gust of wind, Clare Hollingworth reaped the journalistic scoop of the century.
Hollingworth, the undisputed doyenne of war correspondents, who died on Tuesday in Hong Kong at 105, was less than a week into her first job as a reporter for British newspaper the Daily Telegraph on that windy day in 1939.
Driving alone on the road from Gleiwitz, then in Germany, to Katowice, Poland — a distance of less than 32km — 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.
Through the opening, Hollingworth saw “large numbers of troops, literally hundreds of tanks, armored cars and field guns” concealed in the valley, she later wrote.
She knew then that Germany was poised for a major military incursion. Hastening back across the border to the Polish side, she telephoned her editor with the news, a world exclusive.
The date was Aug. 28, 1939, and her article, published the next day, would become, as British newspaper the Guardian wrote in 2015, “probably the greatest scoop of modern times.”
On Sept. 1, 1939, Hitler’s forces invaded Poland, marking the start of World War II.
For the next four decades, Hollingworth covered World War II from Eastern Europe, the Balkans and North Africa; the Greek and Algerian civil wars; hostilities between Arabs and Jews in the waning days of the British mandate in Palestine; and the Vietnam War, among other conflicts.
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, Hollingworth was friend, or foe, to seemingly everyone in a position of power in the world at mid-century.
She obtained the first interview with Mohammed Reza Pahlavi after he became the shah of Iran in 1941 and what was very likely among the last, after he was deposed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.
In 1965, wanting to cover hostilities between India and Pakistan, but discovering that reporters were barred from the front, she simply secured permission from an old acquaintance, then-Indian minister of information and broadcasting Indira Gandhi.
Hollingworth was also one of the first Western journalists to report regularly from China, opening the Telegraph’s Beijing bureau in 1973.
Her other major scoops included a 1963 article for the Guardian in which she cautiously identified British intelligence agent Kim Philby as the long-sought “third man” in the ring of Soviet spies then known to include Englishmen Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess.
Another was a 1968 article for the Telegraph in which she reported the US’ incipient plans for peace talks with Vietnam. The talks opened in Paris later that year and were concluded in 1973.
Hollingworth was never so happy as when she was roaming the world equipped with little more than a toothbrush, a typewriter and, if need be, a revolver, she often said.
Embedded long before the term was applied to journalists, she slept in trucks and in trenches, at times buried up to her neck in sand for warmth on cold desert nights. She once held off an armed Algerian policeman by threatening to hit him over the head with a shoe.
Had her eyesight not begun to fail about 20 years ago, it was a life that she would gladly have continued to the end of her days, Hollingworth had said.