Virginia was in Rome when she learned that the battle for Europe had begun.


“The relentless approach of the invader” Clare Hollingworth1

Chamberlain’s announcement was still a week into the future when Clare flew off to Poland to start her new career. But, as her plane touched down in Berlin, she already sensed she was in enemy territory. The lines of Messerschmitts and Stukas that were parked along the runways of Tempelhof airport looked to her like a swarm of malign “black insects,” and no less sinister were the uniformed officials who ordered her to wait in a wire-mesh pen while checks were made on her and the two other journalists who’d been on board her flight. “After our bags, books and papers had been taken, we sat like three fowls on a perch, wondering whose necks would be wrung,” Clare wrote, very scared that her rogue operations in Katowice might make her a particular target.2 It was two long hours before she was finally allowed to board her connecting flight to Warsaw, but, by early evening, she was in the Hotel Europejski, drinking cocktails with the Telegraph’s Central European correspondent, Hugh Carleton Greene.

Greene had been reassigned to Poland after his incautious rage over Kristallnacht had got him expelled from Berlin, and Clare liked him immediately—an amiably lanky man, with enormous feet, a “grin like a half moon” and an absolute seriousness of mission.3 The previous day, Chamberlain had issued a warning to Hitler, reiterating his resolve to assist Poland in case of attack, and, when Hugh took Clare on a drinking tour of Warsaw, the Poles seemed almost hysterical in their conviction that they “would give the hated Germans a good hiding.” In the mirrored, smoky bar of the Hotel Bristol, the collective mood of intoxication seemed only partly due to the excellence of the vodka: “journalists, diplomats, spies and call girls” all stood crammed together, Clare wrote, “jostling, laughing, whispering and hugging” as they waited to see whether the scales would tip them towards peace or war.4

The following morning Clare travelled straight down to Katowice, where Hugh needed her to monitor activity around the German border, and the mood here was surprisingly phlegmatic. Soldiers might be crowding the streets and mobilization notices might be plastered on the buildings, yet most of the people to whom Clare spoke seemed to believe that Hitler would not make his move. She was unconvinced, however, which was why she resolved to cross into Germany and look for evidence of military activity. She knew she was taking a risk and she was very careful with the truth when she begged her lover, John Thwaites, for the loan of his consular car. But, while the guards on the German border looked surprised to see Clare, they waved her through, and, buoyant with the success of crossing her first hurdle, she was determined to make the most of her adventure. She dined on an excellent lunch of roast German partridge, she went shopping for goods like camera film and torches, which had become scarce in Poland, and it was while she was driving along the frontier road from Hindenburg to Gleiwitz that she lucked into the evidence she’d been hoping for. As the wind had blown aside the camouflage screens that flanked the route, Clare saw the battle-ready tanks, armoured cars and field guns that were parked in the valley below.

John Thwaites had assumed Clare was joking when she returned with her news. “Now, come on, old girl,” he’d chaffed. “Stop pulling my leg. You could not have got into Germany.”5 His tone had changed, though, when she’d flourished her German shopping bags, and he’d instantly retreated into his office to prepare a coded message for London. Clare, meanwhile, telephoned Hugh, and it was on the basis of her startling dispatch that the next morning’s Telegraph boasted its first exclusive of the war. “1000 tanks massed on Polish border. Ten divisions reported ready for swift stroke,” ran the, slightly exaggerated, headline; and while the report was published anonymously—attributed only to “Our Own Correspondent,” as was the Telegraph’s way—Clare knew, and her bosses knew, that she’d made her reporting debut in remarkable style.

Even with this new information in play, the British were hoping to keep Germany at the negotiating table. But Hitler had his own agenda. Early on 1 September, Clare was awoken by an apocalyptic sound, “like the slamming of giant doors.” It was German bombers, delivering the first of their payload, and, in the pale dawn sky, Clare could see them circling close to the border, haloed by the smoke of anti-aircraft fire. Somewhere in the distance, she could also hear the bark of artillery, the rumbling of Polish tanks. Guessing this must be the start of the invasion, she immediately telephoned Hugh.6

It was, he acknowledged, “the most dramatic call of my life,” and he had no hesitation in passing news on to London that the war had begun. When Clare tried to alert Robin Hankey, First Secretary at the British embassy, however, he was sceptical. Even when she held the telephone receiver out of her window so that he could hear the sounds of gunfire, Hankey doubted it was a German attack, and when hopeful rumours began flying around Katowice that it was merely a practice drill, she began to question herself, and to panic that she had “made the gaffe of my life by reporting a non-existent war.”7 Later that morning, however, German tanks were reported on the Polish side of the border, and Clare understood that she was now, by default, an active war correspondent. It was a heady realization—as far as she could tell, she was the only British reporter on the scene—but it was also daunting; unlike Martha, in Madrid, she had no one to mentor her and she would have to work out for herself what kind of stories she was meant to relay back to London, and what level of danger she was meant to face.

Hugh had asked Clare to remain close to the border for as long as possible, but, having driven around the region during the afternoon, she learned that the Germans were blitzing their way through Poland’s defences, and that Katowice must soon become a target. John Thwaites urged her to retreat with him to Krakow overnight, where he reckoned they would be safer from German bombs, and by the time they embarked on the seventy-kilometre drive east, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of men, women and children already travelling in the same direction. “The road for miles was a jostle of peasant wagons,” Clare wrote, “and the blue lights of my car brought out the humped figures, the carts over-piled and everywhere the white discs of children’s faces…I felt inhumane then, passing in my car, but I should have felt infinitely worse had I known what sad days awaited these folks.”8

She and John had to return to Katowice the following morning to evacuate the consulate. All sensitive documents had to be destroyed and transport organized for the staff, and by the time the little convoy of diplomatic cars set off for Krakow, the route had become even more jammed. Military vehicles were competing with columns of civilian refugees, and the slow-moving traffic had become a target for German fighter planes, which circled overhead, strafing the roads with machine-gun fire. Eventually the consulate party was forced to bump its way east down tiny lanes and farm tracks, and when they eventually reached Krakow they were not surprised to learn that the invasion was progressing faster than anyone had previously thought possible. German bombers were crippling the Polish air force by targeting its bases and fuel depots; German tanks were rolling effortlessly across the dry, flat, and recently harvested fields; German guns were mowing down regiments of Polish infantry before they’d even mustered their positions of defence. Everyone wanted to know where the British were, given their guarantee of support. As things stood, it seemed to Clare that the helplessly out-classed Poles were fighting “like a second-rate boxer being beaten to the punch.”9

She and John Thwaites had booked themselves into the Hotel Francuski, in Krakow, while John awaited his next orders, and they were still there on 3 September, when Chamberlain finally committed Britain to the war. Clare would always remember how she’d felt when, walking down the Francuski’s grand circular staircase, she heard the Prime Minister’s speech being broadcast in the lobby. The Poles in the hotel had been exuberant, joining in the singing of “God Save the King,” but Clare had to stop and steady herself. “It was the worst moment of the war for me and I felt slightly sick…I thought of my years on the staff of the League of Nations Union and all that we had worked for seemed lost. London would be bombed and the friends and the buildings I loved would be destroyed.”10

There was little time for mourning, though. The Germans were closing on Krakow and, as the British contingent prepared to retreat further east, there were now six of them squeezed into John’s car—Clare had to transfer all her belongings into a pillowcase, which she could sit on to make extra room. The war was spiking in all directions: they had to drive through air raids and machine-gun fire, to cross bridges that might be booby-trapped with explosives. But at least they were in cars, unlike most of the refugees, who were having to camp along the roadside at night and beg the passing traffic for food. “I felt the loneliness and hopelessness of a nation awaiting the relentless approach of the invader,” Clare wrote, and it was with a melancholy stab of guilt that she observed a group of peasants stoically gathering in the last of the harvest.11 The scene appeared almost pastoral, the men rhythmically bending and scything as the early September sun glowed low on the horizon. But then a squadron of German bombers emerged, high and leisurely, from a bank of cloud, and Clare braced herself for the now familiar “puff of shells” and “tremor of bombs.” A cylinder of smoke, pushing upwards from the nearby city of Łuck, told her the Luftwaffe were hitting their mark; and, as the last of the day’s sun illuminated the scene, it seemed to Clare that the sun was setting on Poland itself.12

But still the British were doing nothing. Despite Chamberlain’s declaration of war, there was no sign of his promised troops and arms, and now, when Clare and her party needed to buy petrol and food, they were met with increasingly marked hostility. It’s unclear why Clare, in such difficult circumstances, made the decision to finish the journey alone, in a separate car. Perhaps John’s over-burdened vehicle was struggling, more probably she wanted the freedom to follow her own reporter’s itinerary. But she’d made herself vulnerable, and she was badly shaken by one particular incident, when two terrified, wounded horses came charging at her from nowhere and almost wrecked her car: “They galloped with a hideous high action of the forequarters and below, blood and intestines came away” Clare wrote, and it was with this image still horrible in her mind that she continued her solitary way east, to the hillside city of Krzemieniec.13

Krzemieniec had become the temporary refuge of the Polish government and the foreign embassies, now that Warsaw was uninhabitable, and Clare was delighted to find Robin Hankey and the rest of the British embassy already settling into a small hotel and toasting their safe arrival with sherry. Gratefully, she accepted a glass, but she’d barely sat herself down on one of the wooden crates that crowded the floor when she was accosted by the British ambassador, Sir Howard Kennard, who seemed irascibly put out by her presence. “Hmm, you’re a peculiar woman, Miss Hollingworth,” he huffed. “What are you doing running about in the middle of all this? Love of excitement, I suppose.” When Clare politely responded that she was a reporter for the Daily Telegraph, Sir Howard had been rudely unimpressed. “Pfff, journalist! What’s the trouble? No family?” he’d asked, clearly unable to comprehend why any woman should choose to get involved in so unreasonable a profession.14

In fact, Clare was pretty much the only British journalist left in Poland; that evening, over a meagre dinner of eggs and rice, she learned that even Hugh Carleton Greene had retreated to the safety of Romania. He was expecting her to follow, but the fact that she now had near-exclusive access to the war made Clare reckless. She learned from Hankey that Warsaw, encircled by German tanks and planes, was now battling for its life and she believed that, if she could only find a way to report on that battle, she’d be back on the Telegraph’s front page. “I was not being brave,” she insisted, “my overriding feeling was enthusiasm for a good story.” The next morning, after begging the loan of a diplomatic car, she filled a hip flask with whisky, tucked a revolver in the glove compartment and set off on the 500-kilometre drive.15

She was heading right back into the heart of the fighting. Lublin, still intact when she’d passed through two days earlier, was now an unrecognizable shambles of rubble, corpses and free-running sewage. A young man whom she met wandering through the ruins stared at her uncomprehendingly when she asked for the best route on to Warsaw. Undeterred, Clare continued, keeping to the safety of cart tracks, dry river courses and bridle paths; when night fell, she curled up on the back seat of the car, congratulating herself on evading bombs and machine-gun fire, and dosing herself to sleep with whisky. The following morning, however, she hadn’t driven far when she spotted a division of soldiers marching in her direction. They were wearing the field-grey uniform of the Wehrmacht, and she saw, “with a hollow feeling under my heart,” that they were “striding with a precision that had nothing to do with defeat.”16

For an instant, she was paralysed, “so scared that instead of turning the car I actually shut off the engine and gazed at the green uniforms approaching.” But, once the adrenalin began to course through her body, she realized how powerful this fear could be. It was one of the defining moments in Clare’s war, for, as she gunned her car into action, “bumping across maize-stubble, rolling into rutted tracks,” she felt preternaturally alive, high on a cocktail of euphoric hormones.17 Trying, rather inadequately, to compare the sensation to the “glow” that she got from “a very cold bath,” Clare understood that this was the reason why people became war reporters. Although she never made it to Warsaw, her near-encounter with German troops had been more exhilarating than anything she’d known and, over the next few years, she would seek to replicate that exhilaration again and again.18

Whatever remained of the pretty Knighton girl, with her marcelled hair and hopeful ideals, was being whittled away during these last days in Poland. A future colleague would describe Clare as “wiry as a tennis player in training,” as mentally alert as “a bundle of tightly wound springs,” and, if she was acquiring a new physical toughness, she was also disciplining herself to a new level of detachment.19

On 17 September, Poland’s last hope of resistance was crushed, as Russian troops crossed into the north and east to claim their own chunk of the beleaguered nation.*1 By now, Clare had joined Hugh in the Romanian border town of Cernăut.i, and, with him, she was watching the rump of the Polish air force fly overhead for the safety of Bucharest airport. The narrow, muddy streets were choked with the cars, wagons and bicycles of fleeing Poles; the cafes and bars were crowded with dazed, distraught people, searching out news of their families and friends. But, while Clare could acknowledge the tragedy of Poland’s defeat, her principal concern was where the war would take her next. While journalists like Martha would focus on the human tragedies of this conflict, Clare would always follow the hard news. “The three-weeks war was almost over,” she wrote, “but for Britain and the rest of the world it had hardly begun.”20

Just a day or two after Clare had moved on from Cernăut.i, Virginia Cowles arrived. She’d badly wanted to cover the invasion, but had been delayed by visa regulations and by the newly tortuous complications of wartime travel; when her train had finally steamed into Bucharest station on 18 September, she was told that Poland was no longer accessible. “I had never imagined,” she wrote, “that a nation could be destroyed so quickly there wouldn’t even be time to get to it.”21 Germany and Russia had sealed all the borders, and the only stories that were left for Virginia to write were of the Poles who’d managed to escape. At Bucharest airport, she interviewed some of the dozens of Polish pilots who were now sleeping rough in the terminal, their planes parked on the runways outside. Dishevelled and exhausted though they were, most seemed unable to accept the collapse of their country and determined to continue the fight: “They can’t shut us up,” one young officer repeated again and again. “We must go on.” But, when Virginia arrived in Cernăut.i, and walked among the crowds of refugees, she could see no signs of hope or resistance, only defeat and despair.

The small town had become a theatre of tragedy: “Every now and then an incident caught your eye like a fragment of broken picture and your imagination flared up as you wondered what story lay behind the scene.” Virginia was transfixed by one very young woman, with “a fine head and long slender hands,” who was sitting alone and silently weeping. Her heart broke for the three tiny children whom she saw perched obediently on their suitcases, apparently expecting to be met by their mother and father, still innocently unaware that their parents were almost certainly dead, or else trapped on the wrong side of the border.22

Images of these poor smashed lives would stay with Virginia as she travelled back to London. An American woman was interrogated at the French border because she’d been unable to produce the correct travel papers. “I only wanted to buy a dress at Schiaparelli’s,” the woman had shrilled indignantly at the police, and, to Virginia, it already seemed impossible that a world had existed where anyone cared so much about clothes. Once home, she wished desperately to be assigned to some serious war news, yet the strategy on which Chamberlain and his war cabinet had decided was one of attrition. Rather than engaging directly with the enemy they planned to blockade the northern sea routes to Germany, impeding the import of its fuel and food and starving it into submission. The air-raid wardens and firefighters of Britain might be manning their posts, the hospitals might be geared to a state of readiness, yet the most significant casualties during the autumn of 1939 would be the 1,300 civilians who were injured or killed during the blackout.23

“The period of inactivity seemed interminable,” Virginia reflected, as Britain languished in what newspaper wits were already calling the “Bore War” or “Phoney War.” She wrote about the charities being set up to assist families deprived of their breadwinners, about the women signing up for work in munitions factories, but she felt like a war correspondent without a war. And there was a very personal twist to her frustration, too, because the man with whom she’d recently fallen in love had been sent away to a Sussex air base for training, and, since neither the RAF nor the Luftwaffe had been ordered to engage, it was hard to accept the necessity of his absence.

Aidan Crawley, in peace-time, had been a political journalist. Committed to his work, unaffectedly handsome, with his broad shoulders and open smile, he had been very attractive to Virginia when Randolph Churchill had introduced them two years earlier. At the time, however, she’d been too much in love with Seymour to take more than a friendly interest and had not been aware that Aidan’s own curiosity had gone deeper. He’d actually recognized Virginia straight away, as the party girl he’d seen in Long Island in 1933, being “rushed” by admiring young men. Half-dazzled, half-disapproving, he hadn’t asked for an introduction back then, but, meeting her properly in London, he realized that Virginia was both more serious and more complicated than he’d imagined. As he wrote, decades later: “She was not so much pretty as fascinating to look at, with large brown eyes, far apart, which held one’s own steadily, a broad forehead, wide mouth, tapering chin and a slender figure. She was neither flirtatious nor coy, but had a talent for entering swiftly and sensitively into one’s thoughts.”24 She was also a woman whose upbringing and experience made Aidan acutely aware of his own quintessential Englishness.

As the second son of Reverend Stafford Crawley, Canon of Windsor, and just one or two removes from aristocracy, Aidan had progressed easily from Harrow and Oxford to a brief but distinguished outing in first-class cricket. He’d then drifted into journalism, where an assignment to cover impoverished mining communities in Wales had turned him from moderate liberal to socialist. In 1936, he’d resigned from the Daily Mail in protest at the paper’s whitewashing coverage of Hitler and Mussolini, and afterwards had travelled to Palestine to make a documentary about gathering tensions between native Arabs and incoming Jewish refugees.

The political sensitivity of that project made Aidan doubly impressed by the “scrupulously honest” balance to which Virginia had aspired in her reporting from Spain.25 He found himself admiring her very much, but, attracted though he was, there was an older married woman in his life with whom he was making himself romantically miserable; for the time being, he was happy to settle into a platonic routine with Virginia, breakfasting in her Mayfair lodgings or lunching with her in a local pub.

By the early summer of 1939, though, Aidan had accepted the futility of his own affair, and Virginia was ready to move on from Seymour, who, always a heavy drinker, was showing signs of becoming a drunk. Friendship progressed naturally to love, and when Britain went to war on 3 September, Aidan thought very seriously of proposing marriage, gripped by the same romantic fatalism that was prompting a rash of wartime weddings across Britain. A mixture of good sense and superstition held him back, however. Aidan had long been predicting this war and three years earlier had signed up for the British Auxiliary Air Force, a government-sponsored network of civilian pilots which could be drawn on in times of crisis. Guessing that the conflict could be professionally dangerous for both Virginia and himself, he felt it might jinx their chances of survival if they were to marry, and, sensing that Virginia would agree, he remained silent.*2

Yet, separation was hard on them both when Aidan’s mobilization papers came through and he had to leave London to begin training. Virginia managed to wangle a visit to his camp, on the pretext of writing a story about pilot morale, and when Aidan emerged from his barracks he looked reassuringly himself, despite his stiff blue uniform. He had a thick economics textbook under his arm, using the empty hours between training sessions to study for what he hoped would be his post-war career in Parliament. But he told Virginia that most of the other men were wretched with boredom. They’d signed up to fight the Germans but the only missions to which they could currently look forward were reconnaissance or patrol.

Autumn turned to winter and still everyone waited. In northern France, the troops who’d been stationed to defend the Maginot Line were becoming drunk and mutinous from the tedium of their drôle de guerre. The Germans’ term for this Phoney War, der sitz krieg, “sitting war,” was no less telling. Keyed up from their success in Poland, they found it ignoble as well as frustrating to be doing nothing. And, in Britain, where most of the civilian population had willingly blacked out their homes, where women had hidden their tears as they’d sent their men off to fight and their children away to safety, the mood was similarly souring to one of sullen rebellion.26*3

Helen Kirkpatrick, however, had much to keep her busy and buoyant. Her career was still on the rise: she was broadcasting for the BBC, she was working on a new book*4 and she was, most important, writing for one of the great American publications, the Chicago Daily News. The paper’s London bureau chief, Bill Stoneman, had come to rate Helen’s work highly, over the last two years, and, although he could only offer her a stringer’s contract, he was giving her responsibilities far above her pay grade. During the summer and early autumn, as the news cycle accelerated, Helen was assigned a number of key pieces, including an analysis of German and Russian interests in the Balkans; and, at the beginning of September, when Bill had to go to France to investigate rumours of military action, he entrusted her with running the office. “How will I know when I’m really covering the main story?” Helen had asked in an attack of stage fright. But she had good instincts and, even in the media doldrums of the Phoney War, she’d been able to provide her paper with one remarkable, front-page exclusive.27

The exiled Duke of Windsor—formerly King Edward VIII—had just returned to England in the hope of securing some kind of official war role. A friend of Helen’s had learned that he and his wife were staying in Sussex, at the home of the Duke’s aide-de-camp, Edward Metcalfe, and, because this friend was a close neighbour of Metcalfe’s, she thought she could help Helen organize an interview. Bill Stoneman’s response had been withering when she pitched the idea—the former King had attracted so much scandal when he’d abdicated the throne, he had vowed to have nothing more to do with the press. Even if the Duke and Duchess had been disposed to make an exception for Helen, Bill pointed out they were under orders from the government to give no interviews during their visit home.

Disobedience did not come easily to Helen but she knew that Bill was wrong to order her to drop the idea. Quietly, she asked her friend to contact “Fruity” Metcalfe, and, within a day or two, she was told that the Duke had agreed to an informal conversation. Helen’s hands were shaking as she drove up to Metcalfe’s house. She believed that she’d finally got the measure of the British upper classes. Victor Gordon-Lennox had secured her invitations to the London salons of Sibyl Colefax and Margot Asquith, where, as she’d reported back to her family, “the conversation was fascinating and I sat flapping my ears.”28 She’d been taken to country house parties, where she’d familiarized herself with the inbred oddities of English etiquette and pronunciation, and where she’d learned to understand that two politicians of ragingly opposed views could still remain clannishly united because they’d attended the same public school, or ridden with the same hunt.

But royalty, even ex-royalty, was a different matter, and as Helen tried to rehearse her line of questioning, she was fretting over the correct form of address and wondering whether she was obliged to curtsey. Mercifully, when the Duke and Duchess came sauntering out to meet her, they were far less intimidating than she’d feared. While the Duchess merely proffered a formal handshake before returning to the house, the Duke seemed positively eager to talk—so eager that he claimed to have had an amusing idea about how to circumvent his own media ban. “I didn’t say that I wouldn’t interview anybody,” he said, with his boyishly charming smile. “Why don’t I interview you?”29

Helen could already see the headlines dancing. Even though the Duke’s notion of an interview didn’t go much beyond gossip about American politics and a few of their mutual acquaintances, and even though a large part of her finished article had to be padded out with descriptions of his “Riviera tan” and the “smart knitted black suit” worn by his wife, their conversation had opened a window onto the Duke’s character and situation. She could sense the urgency of his desire for rehabilitation, his hunger to be back in uniform or to do “something with the war cabinet” which would liberate him from the banality of his exile’s life.30 Several years later, when Helen learned about the treacherous links which the Duke had formed with the Nazi regime, she was surprisingly lenient in her judgement. He was “a weak character,” she thought, who’d been flattered into the belief that he was serving his country’s best interests. She also felt she owed the Duke a certain retrospective gratitude, since it was the fluky success of their interview which would eventually give her the nerve to lobby her bosses for promotion.31

In the meantime, as the war news remained sluggish, Helen was also having to accept less starry assignments. As the only woman in the office, it was left to her to cover the female angles on the Phoney War—the trend for military-influenced tailoring, the shocking rise in hosiery prices and the prejudices surrounding wives and girlfriends who were replacing their men at work. “Mrs. John Bull may soon run the land, Englishmen fear,” ran the headline of one piece, which Helen had clearly written through gritted teeth.

But, if a touch of humiliation rankled through her reporting that autumn, by the end of November, she was back on hard news. For months, Stalin had been issuing threats to Finland, pressuring for the return of territories that had been taken from Russia back in 1917. He’d been particularly hungry for the Karelian Isthmus, a wide stretch of land that was the Finns’ main link to Europe and central Asia, and, now that he had Hitler’s backing, he was ready to take it by force.

When the “Winter War” began on 30 November, everyone assumed that it would be even shorter than the Three-Week War in Poland. The Russians were fighting the Finns with three times the number of soldiers and planes, and with hundreds more tanks and armoured vehicles. So massively disproportionate was their display of military strength that Helen had speculated whether Hitler himself had requested it, hoping that his new ally might help cow the French and British into suing for a negotiated peace. Yet, against all the odds, against all the predictions, the 300,000 men of the Finnish armed forces were magnificently holding their own. In the south of their country, they fought with what traditional arms they possessed, doggedly maintaining their defence of the Mannerheim Line. Up in the frozen north, however, they were waging their own ingenious and deadly form of guerrilla warfare. Finland’s dense, snowbound forests were difficult for the cumbersomely armoured Russians to navigate, yet the Finns were in their natural element. Travelling swiftly and silently on skis, they had all the advantage of surprise, disabling enemy tanks with flaming bottles of petrol (the original “Molotov cocktails”) and forcing armoured convoys off-road with hidden mines. So effective were the Finns at disabling their enemy’s supply and communication lines that entire Soviet divisions were left stranded in the forests, their men freezing and starving to death, or picked off by sniper fire.

When the world awoke to the fascination of this David and Goliath battle, over a hundred correspondents began converging on Finland. Helen was hoping to be among them, but, because she was not yet on staff and had no previous combat experience, she was left to process the incoming war reports from her desk. Virginia, though, had better luck. As a veteran of Spain, she was able to persuade the Sunday Times to send her to Finland, and, early in January, with an uncharacteristically practical wardrobe packed in her bags, she embarked on the long journey for Helsinki.

The first leg of that journey took her to neutral Stockholm, and Virginia was so disorientated by its brightness and bustle, she could almost imagine that the war in Europe was a bad dream. But, twenty-four hours later, when she was flying over Finland, everywhere was in darkness and she could sense violence in the blackness below. On the way to Helsinki, the train passed through air-raid territory, and an attack forced the passengers to take cover in the snowy forests. It was thus two in the morning when Virginia, exhausted and shivering, arrived at the Hotel Kämp, where she and all the other foreign correspondents were based. She’d been assured that Helsinki itself was not especially dangerous, even though Moscow Radio had recently announced that a “special bomb” was awaiting the Hotel Kämp and all “the Lying Journalists of the Capitalist Press.”32 The following day, when Virginia was driven on a tour of the region, she learned that the Russians were currently focusing their bombs on the ports and factories, and on the smaller towns and villages, whose traditional wooden houses could burn like tinder from a single incendiary raid.

It actually seemed incredible to her that so frozen a country could still be so flammable. On her first morning she’d been shocked by the cold, a cold so cutting it had bored through her fur-lined boots, her woollen underwear and her padded ski suit. Yet when she stopped at a cafe for a meal, she discovered that the upper half of the premises was still alight from a recent attack, that she was actually “sipping coffee in a burning building…trying to get warm in a house that was on fire.”33

No one but she was alarmed, however. The proprietor stoically assured Virginia that his sons were putting out the flames, and, in the following days, she formed a wondering respect for the Finns, “a quiet, reserved people who made no show of bravado.” One night, when her press car got stuck in a snowdrift, she and her driver were given shelter by a middle-aged woman who assured them of her absolute faith in the Russians’ defeat: “God will not let us perish beneath so terrible a foe,” she said serenely. “All will be well.”34

Virginia was reminded of the Loyalists in Spain, who’d shown similar fortitude against impossible odds. But privately she doubted the Finns’ chances, for, while Britain, France and America had promised to send out planes and anti-aircraft guns, Sweden and Norway were refusing them transit, for fear of German reprisals. On the other hand, Virginia had yet to visit the northern fronts on which the Finns were pinning their best hopes of a military miracle, and, in the second week of January, she requested permission to go up to Rovaniemi, capital of Lapland, where the northern press centre was based.

Until this point, she had been allowed to travel wherever she wanted. There were an unusual number of female correspondents in this war*5—the majority from Sweden, according to Virginia, who was greatly entertained by their uniform prettiness: “all had blonde hair, big blue eyes, and wore dainty white fur coats and little white hats that tied under their chins. They looked like the front row of a Cochran chorus.”35 The Finnish military had seemed happy to accord all women the same treatment as men. However, the day before Virginia filed her application to go north, one of the Swedes had complained of an “inappropriate advance” made by the public-relations officer who’d been escorting her to the south-eastern front at Viirpuri. In their rush to limit the scandal, the authorities had slapped out an order requiring all female journalists to remain close to the Hotel Kämp, where their “safety” could be guaranteed; and Virginia, aghast, saw her assignment slipping away: “My heart sank, and I wondered if I had come all the way from England merely to sit in Helsinki.”36

Back in Madrid, she would have been able to find a biddable or bribable officer to get her to the front, but here in Finland the protocol was far more centralized and strictly enforced. Experience, however, had taught Virginia that there was always someone, higher up the chain of command, who had the power to waive the rulebook; after furiously cabling her best contacts, she was able to reach the Finnish Minister in London, who was willing to grant her a special pass to Rovaniemi. The twenty-four-hour drive north was long and arduous—the remote ice-bound city was just a mile and a half from the Arctic Circle—and Virginia shivered under coarse military blankets as the car jolted along ice-rutted roads. Once in Rovaniemi, the cold felt even more inhuman than it had in Helsinki. But the landscape was exquisite—mile after mile of “white forests and glassy lakes.” Every morning, when Virginia rose early to catch the brief hours of daylight, she was captivated by the pristine beauty of her surroundings—the air still frozen in an unearthly calm, the ice-frosted trees etched to “lace valentines” by the glow of the rising sun.37

It was on a particularly beautiful morning that she was driven out to investigate the scene of a recent battle at Suomussalmi, but, on this occasion, the magic of the landscape felt suddenly malign. The Finns had won a stupendous victory, annihilating two Russian divisions, and the sub-zero temperatures had left the battle scene freakishly intact. “It was the most ghastly spectacle I have ever seen,” Virginia admitted. “For four miles the road and forests were strewn with the bodies of men and horses, with wrecked tanks, field kitchens, trucks, gun-carriages, maps, books and articles of clothing.” Some of the dead Russians had been covered with a merciful blanket of snow, but others, she wrote, had been frozen hard, “like petrified statues, sprawled against the trees in grotesque attitudes.”38 A small group of boys was playing with one of the corpses, burying it head down, so that its desiccated legs stuck up stupidly from the snow, and this childish act of desecration was too much for Virginia. It was all she could do not to vomit.

She imagined what terrors those 30,000 Russians had endured at Suomussalmi—ambushed by an invisible enemy, trapped in a wasteland of whiteness and cold—and when she was permitted to speak with some of the luckier men, who’d been taken prisoner, she felt nothing but pity. They were very young, uneducated and raw, and they’d clearly been sent out to Finland with little understanding of who they were fighting or why. They’d even been told that the Finnish people would welcome them as liberators. When they’d been confronted by an army of white-camouflaged fighters, gliding out of the trees, they’d believed they were fighting against demons or ghosts.

But it wasn’t just the ignorant Russian conscripts who struggled with reality out here, in the snowy remoteness, on the edge of the world. Virginia noticed that she and the rest of the Rovaniemi press corps were also losing their bearings. One day, they’d been moved to a nearby ski resort, to escape a Russian raid, and they’d whiled away the hours at the rifle range. Virginia—a terrible shot—had earned a crashing defeat when she and her fellow Americans had competed against the others in the group. But the one German present, Herbert Uxkull, for United Press, had joked in a melancholy way that he and the BBC correspondent, Eddie Ward, ought to have been firing at each other. Virginia had been baffled by this remark, and it was only after a moment or two that she remembered “the other war” in Europe and was reminded that Uxkull and Ward were officially each other’s enemy.

Otherwise, there had been an unusual camaraderie within the northern press corps. The sheer strangeness of this Winter War, with its freezing logistical challenges, had bound them all together, and the intensity of the fighting precluded any rivalry over stories. During the month that Virginia was based in Rovaniemi, she crawled across a frozen lake to find shelter from Russian planes, she dodged Russian shells, just 300 metres from the border, and she narrowly escaped the inferno of a burning building.

Despite the Finns’ heroic defence of the north, however, they were running out of time. Down in the south, the Russians were conquering swathes of territory, and by the time Virginia returned to Helsinki in late February, they had breached the Mannerheim Line and were closing in on Viipuri.

Here there was no more possibility of romance or hope. So fierce was the fighting that none of the journalists, male or female, was allowed anywhere close, and they had to get their information from official briefings and second-hand rumours. The Finnish telegraph and phone services, meanwhile, were so badly disrupted that most of the stories they managed to file were too old or too mangled to be fit for publication. Virginia was livid when she learned that United Press had bribed the authorities for priority use of the phone lines, but her frustration would be short-lived. With the approaching spring thaw, the Finns were losing their only military advantage, and, faced with the collapse of their army, the Helsinki government was pressing for a negotiated peace. It was the only viable option, but to the people it felt like a betrayal: “We’ve had a lot of bombs fall…but the worst bomb of all has been this peace,” mourned one elderly factory worker.39 And on 12 March, when Virginia watched the flags of Helsinki being lowered to half mast, she despaired that Finland had joined Czechoslovakia and Poland in the roll call of valiant nations, thrown under the wheels of tyranny and greed.*6

Martha, too, had despaired. Back in October, a cable had come from Charles Colebaugh suggesting that she travel to Helsinki to report on the then-deteriorating relationship between Russia and Finland. So deeply ensconced had she become in her Cuban idyll, she’d all but cut herself loose from international news, and she admitted that she could not even identify Finland on a map. Yet, she was glad of a chance to pick up her reporting career. The writing of her Spanish novel had been going badly: “What I have is patience, care, honor, detail, endurance and subject matter,” Martha grieved. “And what I do not have is magic.”40 She couldn’t understand how Ernest was able to get roisteringly drunk every night, yet still wake up the next morning to produce pages of magnificently concentrated prose, while she, with all her discipline, was left with characters and dialogue of dismaying flatness. When the assignment came from Collier’s, it felt like a reprieve, allowing her to escape from the frustrations of fiction to the writing she knew she did best.

This time, however, Martha was resolved not to feel the pity and the fury that had crushed her in Czechoslovakia and Spain. During her fourteen-day crossing to Europe, she schooled herself to a state of near-anaesthetized calm. “For the purposes of mental hygiene, I gave up trying to think or judge,” she recalled, “and turned myself into a walking tape recorder with eyes.”41 Even when her ship passed through a flotilla of bloated corpses, victims of a recent U-boat attack, she strove to keep her terror in neutral gear.42 But, in Helsinki, all of Martha’s instinctive partisanship came flooding back. Like Virginia, she was deeply moved by the courage of the Finns as they withstood the first of the Russian air strikes: “the people are marvellous, with a kind of pale frozen fortitude,” she wrote to Ernest. “They watch with loathing but without fear this nasty hidden business which they did nothing to bring on themselves.”43

But, however unhesitatingly Martha drove out to the battle zones to watch the Finns wage their Winter War, she had no intention of lingering longer than was necessary. The cold was intolerable, she missed Ernest, and, by the time Virginia arrived, the only news she had of Martha was an anecdote told her by the American military attaché, Frank Haye. He recounted how he’d spotted a “beautiful blonde” drinking in the bar of the Hotel Kämp one night, and how, having warned her that the press were being bussed out of town to escape the night’s raids, he’d been impressed by the speed with which she’d run up to her room and returned, almost immediately, with a pair of pyjamas and a bottle of whisky. Admiringly, Haye had whistled: “I knew that girl had been evacuated before.”44

Once back in Cuba, Martha had been happy to put Finland behind her. Warmed by the colours of her garden and the exuberance of Ernest’s welcome, she told Collier’s that she was resolved to accept no more assignments for the present. “I have grown wondrously fat,” she wrote to Charles Colebaugh. “It is perhaps wrong to be so happy in this present world but, my God how I love this place and how happy I am.”45

But, even in her desert-island refuge, Martha could no longer ignore the war. Now that Stalin had defeated Finland, Hitler was ready to take his own piece of Scandinavia, and, on 9 April, he launched a dual attack on Denmark and Norway. Ernest, under pressure from Martha, had bought a small radio so that they could “get [their] disasters shrieked fresh and on the minute” and, by early May, the two of them were grimly transfixed by the news as German forces, having smashed their way into Denmark and Norway, began turning their firepower on Holland, Belgium and France.46

The response in Britain was cataclysmic. On 2 May, Helen was in the House of Commons to witness the jeers that erupted from both sides as Chamberlain announced that Norway was lost. Grey faced and shaking, the Prime Minister looked disturbingly frail, and it was clear to Helen that he was slipping from power. She herself had long been campaigning for a change of leadership, and the authority with which she was now able to argue her case, within the pages of the Chicago Daily News, was due to her finally getting the promotion she’d sought, to the paper’s elite cadre of foreign correspondents.

That promotion had not come without a fight. Early in 1940 Helen had been invited on a lecture tour of America, to promote her new book, and speak about the British war effort, and she’d taken the opportunity to meet with her paper’s publisher, Colonel Frank Knox, and her Chicago editor-in-chief, Paul Scott Mower. Bill Stoneman’s high regard for Helen, coupled with the Duke of Windsor scoop, had raised her hopes of gaining a place on the foreign news team, but her two Chicago bosses had been unmoved, informing her that it went against their policy to promote a woman above the level of stringer, however impressive her work. This was exactly the line that Helen had been spun a decade earlier, when she’d sought work at the New York Herald Tribune, and impatience now made her uncharacteristically rude: “Well, you know you can change your policy,” she’d snapped at the two men, “but I can’t change my sex.”47 She feared, afterwards, she might have argued her way out of a job, but she had an admiring ally in Chicago—the foreign editor, Caroll Binder—and he went to Knox with a trumped-up story about United Press making moves to poach Helen for their London office. Suddenly, it seemed the “policy” could be changed. “We can’t have that,” Knox had briskly responded, and the following week, when the Chicago Daily News ran a full-page promotion of its international news team, Helen’s name and photograph were prominently displayed. Even though there were complaints, from a conservative core of readers, who did not want to get their war news from a woman, Knox and Binder would continue to promote Helen as one of the paper’s stars.48

It was spring when she returned to take up her new staff position, and she could discern the “undercurrent of desperate tension” in London, as the British war cabinet floundered to keep abreast of events.49 Plots were being hatched to get Churchill installed in Chamberlain’s place, and, when Helen went to stay at Ditchley Park, the Oxfordshire home of Ronald and Nancy Tree, she found herself in the midst of a political conspiracy. “There’s much fascinating [sic] that can’t be written about,” she confided to her parents,50 but she was taking careful notes, and, later, she would have an exact recall of the moment when Nancy Tree came in from the garden and, “dancing through the room,” had urged the assembled plotters to call for an immediate vote of no confidence in Parliament. “Listen, all you people, talk is cheap. Why don’t you make up your minds?”51

As the political crisis unfolded in London and the war began to escalate, Helen was writing up to twenty or thirty articles per week. To her family, she complained she was “going grey” from the strain, but the knowledge that she was writing history, fresh each day, was exhilarating.52 On 3 May, she was able to send an explosive dispatch to Chicago, with news that the Belgian army had been placed on high alert in anticipation of a German attack. The information had to be published anonymously to protect Helen’s source, but there was no question of its accuracy. A week later, Hitler sent his troops into Belgium.

Virginia was in Rome when she learned that the battle for Europe had begun, but, unlike Helen, she’d been taken off guard. Although she too had sensed a nervousness in London, although Aidan had been sent on his first serious mission, assisting the Balkan intelligence service in Istanbul, it seemed to her that the Phoney War still had months to run. The grass in St. James’s Park was a reassuring spring green, the middle-aged businessmen were going to work in their pinstriped suits and, when she was sent out to Rome in early May, to assess the mood of the Italians, the prospect of fighting seemed equally remote to them. None of the civilians to whom she spoke were enthused by Hitler’s war, and Italo Balbo, “as lively and gutsy as ever,” was only interested in persuading Virginia to fly back to Libya with him. Typing up her article on the evening of 9 May, she concluded that, while Mussolini might have an appetite for battle, his people didn’t, and he would only risk committing himself once he was certain of being on the winning side. Virginia was uneasy about the piece she’d written, fearing that she hadn’t canvassed a sufficiently wide range of opinion. But in the end, it didn’t matter. The following morning, she was telephoned by John Whitaker, who told her that speculation about Mussolini’s intentions had become irrelevant. “Tear up your article, honey,” he brightly announced. “No one wants to read about the Wops. Hitler’s invaded Holland and Belgium.”53 (Pg.146)

“The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II” by Judith Mackrell.

WE&P by: EZorrillaM.