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The Correspondents

Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II

by Judith Mackrell

The Correspondents by Judith  Mackrell X
The Correspondents by Judith  Mackrell
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  • Published:
    Nov 2021, 464 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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The Correspondents follows six remarkable women journalists as they risk life and limb to report from the front lines during World War II.

In the introduction to The Correspondents, author Judith Mackrell points out that although there had been women journalists reporting from the front lines of earlier wars, it was the Second World War "which was to become the defining opportunity for female correspondents." By the end of the conflict, she continues, "around 250 of the reporters and photographers accredited to the Allied armies were women." The author focuses on six of these intrepid journalists, each of whom not only braved the dangers of reporting from a war zone but had to fight rampant sexism to do so.

The six shared a disregard of danger and a determination to report the news, but came from vastly different backgrounds. Virginia Cowles began her career as a gossip columnist for New York and Boston publications, but became the first person of either gender to report from both sides of the Spanish Civil War (see Beyond the Book). She went on to crisscross Europe as Nazi aggression increased, and was in England when the Blitz began. Clare Hollingworth, the lone Brit on Mackrell's list, was a novice reporter for London's Daily Telegraph when she was sent to Poland before the outbreak of war. She famously "scooped" every other newsperson, getting an early warning about Germany's invasion when she accidentally saw German troops and tanks amassing on the border. Martha Gellhorn began reporting in the United States early in her life, but her first war reporting was during the Spanish Civil War. She went on to cover nearly every conflict that occurred during her 60-year career, up through the 1989 US invasion of Panama (she was 81 years old at the time).

Highly-educated American Helen Kirkpatrick was the first woman provided with full war credentials, at the request of then-General Dwight Eisenhauer, whom she had impressed with her reporting. Lee Miller had a career as a model and fashion photographer before becoming a war correspondent for Vogue magazine, recording the fall of Germany as well as the liberation of the Nazi death camps. And Sigrid Schultz, born in Chicago, was the first female foreign bureau chief of a major US newspaper, reporting from Berlin for the Chicago Tribune.

Mackrell adroitly informs her readers about each of these women's lives, from their varied childhoods through their post-war careers, including how they dealt with what we'd now consider post-traumatic stress. Each had supporters, but they were mostly forced to forge ahead independently as they encountered roadblocks, many erected specifically to bar women from the front lines. The persistence they showed and the creativity they used is astonishing. Shultz, for example, faked heart palpitations to get admitted to a clinic treating Germany's President Ebert so she could get information about his condition before anyone else, and Gellhorn stowed away on a Red Cross ship so she could cover the invasion of Normandy.

The women also knew they had to set an example, acting braver than their male counterparts. Fitzpatrick and Cowles were on a bluff in England when enemy fighters suddenly flew overhead and began strafing it with machine-gun fire. While the men fled for cover, the two women laid flat on their backs in the meadow, counting the planes to report on later, knowing "it was imperative to betray no signs of weakness." They drove through combat zones from one end of Europe to the other; flew with pilots carrying out bombing missions; interviewed men on the front lines as well as the wounded in the hospital; documented the liberation of concentration camps; and reported from all corners of the conflict, from frigid Finland to the dunes of North Africa. Their stories are nothing less than remarkable, and Mackrell's accounting of the ordeals each faced highlights exactly how extraordinary these women were.

In addition to a fascinating portrait of these six journalists, The Correspondents makes an excellent historical narrative. I found the author's portrayal of Hitler's rise to power particularly absorbing, and her cinematic descriptions of the war zones are absolutely gripping. The book reads at times like an action-adventure novel, and is quite the page-turner in spite of being a nonfiction account of a well-documented conflict.

As previously noted, these six weren't the only women covering the war; the author mentions many others, sometimes devoting several paragraphs to one or another of them. I would have liked to know why the author chose to concentrate on these specific six correspondents. In addition, I sometimes found it challenging to keep track of which woman was the current subject. The author's seamless transitions from one correspondent's activities to another's, while well-done from a literary perspective, caused me a certain amount of confusion, particularly because the women were so similar in many ways. That said, I still found the book enthralling; it grabbed me from the first paragraph and kept me engaged, start to finish.

I find it amazing that although I've read many books about WWII, I keep discovering new ones that add an interesting facet to my understanding. The Correspondents does just that. I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a new take on the war, and for those interested in women's history in particular. Its fast pace and vivid descriptions combine to create a very approachable narrative, and it's one of those books I feel should be on high school recommended reading lists. Book groups, too, will find much to discuss here.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review first ran in the November 17, 2021 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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Beyond the Book:
  The Spanish Civil War

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