Scoops of the Century

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‘Deutschland über Alles’ can hardly be a frequent selection on Desert Island Discs. But in 1999, it was the second pick of foreign correspondent extraordinary Clare Hollingworth, then aged 88, for whom it triggered memories of her two ‘scoops of the century’ sixty years before. The first was in late August 1939, when she drove across the Polish-German border in a borrowed official car and spotted scores of German tanks lined up facing Poland. The second followed a few days later when, woken by anti-aircraft fire, she rang her paper’s senior correspondent in Warsaw with the news that the war had started. When he told her he didn’t believe her, she held the telephone out of the window to catch the sound of exploding German bombs. Not bad for a cub reporter on her first foreign assignment.

Her next assignment was to be rather longer in duration and only marginally less dangerous: a commission to write a book about Romania. The result was There’s a German Just Behind Me, the catchily (and aptly) titled book that covered her Balkan travels between the fall of France in June 1940 and the invasion of Russia a year later when, as she writes in the preface, ‘the Balkan states were the principal object of Germany’s designs’. As such, the region was of interest to other powers: Britain was anxious to keep the Axis’s hands off Romanian oil and protect British territories in the Eastern Mediterranean; Russia was concerned for her fellow Slavs in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia; and Italy, having occupied Albania, now had her eye on Greece. The Balkans were obviously the place for a keen young reporter like Hollingworth to be, with her knowledge of the region (acquired by poring over maps of the Balkans as a child) and her single-minded dedication to ‘the story’.

Journalism has been called the first rough draft of history and while Hollingworth’s book certainly reads like journalism – it was written at speed, by someone also w

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About the contributor

Anthony Wells spent five years covering the Balkans for BBC Monitoring in the 1990s. Unlike Clare Hollingworth’s, his was a safe, desk-bound job where the only hardship was the coffee in the BBC canteen.

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