Tom Pocock

Clare Hollingworth, 1911 - 2017: the bravest of us all

Clare Hollingworth, 1911 - 2017: the bravest of us all
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Clare Hollingworth, the veteran British war correspondent who broke the news that World War Two had started, has died at the age of 105. In 1991, Tom Pocock recalled the nerve of his colleague in The Spectator:

It's odd to think that Clare Hollingworth turned 80 last week. She is for ever briskly middle-aged in the incarnation. I first met her in Algiers one day in February 1962, where she strode the blood-streaked streets like a county lady determined that the vicarage fete shall succeed despite the arrival of Hell's Angels.

We were reporting the end of French rule and the three-cornered war between the French government, the Algerian liberation movement (the FLN) and the French settlers' secret army (the OAS), then escalating from terrorism to street massacre and open warfare.

Clare, the correspondent of the Manchester Guardian and an old Algeria hand, had noticed that the newly arrived reporter from the Evening Standard was looking pale. Amongst correspondents in Algiers that always meant a recent shock of fright or horror. In my own case, it had been my presence as one of two Europeans in a crowded square and an Algerian gunman sidling up to the other one and shooting him through the head.

I'm going for a walk,' she announced. 'Care to come?' Walking beside this sensible, upper-middle-class Englishwoman, who talked about Algeria as calmly as anyone could, was reassuring until our destination became apparent. We were heading for the square where I had seen the shooting an hour earlier, It was empty now, and we walked beneath its palms to the deserted arcades of the Rue Bab-Azoun, which skirted the foot of the Casbah.

I did not like to interrupt Clare but the place had the frozen stillness of no man's land; there had been killings all over the city that day and I finally suggested we turn back. She agreed reluctantly, as if I had said that I had forgotten to switch off the oven and we had better get back before the lunch was spoiled.

As we turned, she stopped and nodded towards a narrow alley, half choked with rubbish and rusting barbed-wire, running up into the Casbah. 'Let's go up there,' she said. I told her she must be mad. We'd be killed. She shrugged and said, 'They might throw a brick at you because you're a man. They'd only throw slops at me.'

So we turned to the relative security of the vast concrete Aletti Hotel, where the correspondents stayed. I turned to suggest a drink but she had disappeared. That evening when we met, I asked where she had gone. She replied that she had been back to that alley and into the Casbah.

Years later she explained that she had gone there almost every day to meet leaders of the FLN. That, she said, had enabled her to treat the Algerian cause seriously to the extent that she was regularly threatened by the OAS.

I recall another incident in Algiers. The scene: the lobby of the Aletti Hotel in early March 1962. The three-cornered warfare in Algiers continued its daily and nightly display of assassinations, bombings, executions, burnings and massacres, with the OAS trying to provoke more intense conflict and so sabotage the peace negotiations between the French government and the Algerian nationalists with increasingly original atrocities: one day they would shoot Algerian pharmacists in their shops; the next, cleaning-ladies scrubbing doorsteps.

The international press corps at the Aletti were threatened for daring to criticise their cruelties and all the Italian correspondents had been ordered to leave the country within 24 hours or be killed. All had gone, except one. This was the correspondent of 11 Giorno, Prince Nicola Carracciolo, as he refused, he said, to be ordered about by gangsters. So, when the deadline for his expulsion ran out, we hid him in our rooms at the Aletti. It was a big hotel, his exact whereabouts were secret and, as the staircase was for security reasons barricaded and the only access to the upper floors was by lift, it was believed that, even if the OAS raided the hotel, it would take them so long to search the rooms that there would be time to call the government's own thugs, the barbouzes to our rescue.

After dinner that night, as the usual plastiquage rattled the hotel's windows, several dozen correspondents gathered in the lobby to discuss tactics should the OAS arrive. The two most able correspondents were, by common consent, John Wallis of the Daily Telegraph and Clare. John was a jolly, pink-faced Englishman with a mastery of the Marseillaise patois used by the OAS and an ability to swear at them with their own oaths; just as Clare had her contacts in the Casbah, John would visit the bars used by the OAS gunmen in dark glasses and bloussons noir.

It was late so we decided that, rather than talk in the bar, as was the custom, we would go to our rooms. At that moment I looked towards the glass doors, saw a glare of headlights outside and the concierge duck below the desk. The doors burst open and in ran men in police uniform with tommy-guns shouting, 'Haut les mains!' They were followed by a tall, languid man in a pale blue suit, smoking a cigarette, who announced that they were not the police but the OAS in disguise.

At this moment there was a stampede for the lift by the 'heavy mob' of young British male reporters who specialised in graphic report of their own adventures. They fought each other to get inside and, as the lift slowly ascended, looked down through the gilded lattice, round-eyed with fear, at the scene below. There the rest of us stood with our hands above our heads and gun-muzzles at our stomachs. John Wallis asked what the OAS they wanted; they wanted the Italian. In that case, replied John, they might as well go home because we did not know where he was. Demands and rebuffs continued until Clare stepped forward and in loud, English-accented French declared, 'Monsieur, if you do not leave at once I will have to hit you over the head with my shoe.'

The OAS man pushed her aside, grabbed John by the shoulder and said, 'If we cannot have the Italian, we will take you,' and he was marched out with a gun in his back. We all, I think, thought we had seen the last of him, except, perhaps, as a corpse left in the street outside the hotel. As the gunmen backed towards the door, covering us with their guns, we stood there helplessly, hands up. It was then that Clare in ringing tones called out, 'Let's all go too. They can't shoot us all!'

At her command, we lowered our arms and marched after John and his captors, through the doors and out on to the marble steps. Two jeeps stood waiting in the glare of their headlights and John was being hauled on to the first. 'Get on to the jeeps!' Clare commanded. 'They won't shoot the world's press.' As we began to clamber aboard, the OAS leader pushed John Wallis back on to the road, they revved their engines and were off.

'They're going to shoot!' somebody shouted, lie down!' Some did; I flattened myself against a pillar. They did not shoot but roared away into the night while we escorted the prisoner back into the hotel. Whether or not John Wallis owed his life to Clare Hollingworth we will never know; certainly he did not owe it to the rest of us.