The women reporters determined to cover World War Two

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Mary Welsh, Dixie Tighe, Kathleen Harriman, Helen Kirkpatrick, Lee Miller, Tania Long, London, England 1942’ Unknown Photographer, Lee Miller Archives, England 2014. All rights reserved.Image source, Lee Miller Archives
Image caption,
Women correspondents accredited by the US Army: Mary Welsh, Dixie Tighe, Kathleen Harriman, Helen Kirkpatrick, Lee Miller, and Tania Long

Seventy years ago, a group of American women journalists made history when they covered the greatest story of their generation. They called them the D-Day Dames.

"It is necessary that I report on this war," writer Martha Gellhorn fumed in an angry letter to military authorities. "I do not feel there is any need to beg as a favour for the right to serve as the eyes for millions of people in America who are desperately in need of seeing, but cannot see for themselves."

She was writing from London in June 1944, where she and other women war correspondents gathered in anticipation of the Normandy landings on the French coast which marked the start of a major offensive against Germany.

Like any major news event today, there was an extraordinary buzz among journalists waiting in the city, hanging out in hotels such as the elegant Dorchester in the heart of London.

And a group of US women, gutsy and glamorous, was part of it - they were fighting their own battles on every front to overcome the ban on women going to the front lines in the Second World War.

"They were all watching each other and there was a huge sense of competitiveness," wrote Martha Gellhorn's biographer Caroline Moorehead. "Even Martha who was not very interested in scoops was affected by this huge sense of excitement."

Image source, Lee Miller Archive
Image caption,
Martha Gellhorn speaking to soldiers in Italy during World War Two

Gellhorn had her scoop - a remarkable one - when she smuggled herself onto a hospital ship to get to Normandy, locked herself in a toilet, and became the first woman to report on the invasion.

"When night came the water ambulances were still churning into the beach, looking for the wounded. We waded ashore in the water to our waist," she wrote.

Gellhorn made her way to Europe at a young age. "I wished to be a foreign correspondent and it seemed to me to be the most natural thing in the world to set off with $50 or so," she said. "I was 21 and on those days 21 was younger than it is now."

Her first experience of war reporting was in Spain in the 1930s when she covered the civil war with her future husband Ernest Hemingway.

As Moorehead describes it: "Hemingway said to her 'why aren't you writing about the war,' and she said 'I don't know about weapons and battles,' and he said 'write about what you do know and that is people'."

When D-Day approached, their marriage had broken down - Hemingway tried to block her by getting his own war accreditation for Colliers, the magazine Gellhorn had long worked for.

But she made it into Colliers with her first despatch from Normandy, taking her signature focus on civilians and the casualties of war.

Success felt even sweeter when she realised that Hemingway did not manage to go ashore even though he was on one of the invasion boats close by.

This was a historic period, marking a turning point for women reporting from warzones. They reached front lines, sent despatches from Normandy, entered newly liberated Paris and later visited concentration camps across Europe.

One of Gellhorn's contemporaries, Lee Miller, took a different route to war reporting. She began her career as a model in the 1920s, but not content just to be photographed she decided to become a photographer herself. Bored by fashion, she went out into the streets of London in 1940 during the Blitz to document the terrible devastation caused by aerial bombings.

"To begin with we scuttled about, vulnerable like soft-shelled crabs," she said. "I was often afraid but it became a matter of pride that work went on."

And, by a stroke of luck, when she went to photograph the American broadcaster Ed Murrow for Vogue magazine, the writer didn't show up so she wrote what turned into a witty article herself.

By 1942 she was accredited as a war correspondent for Vogue, which was thrilled to have its own writer who could tell a story of women and war, and much more.

Miller photographed women playing many roles including nurses, charity workers, and the WRENS (Women Royal Naval Services). But some of her most vivid reporting was in St Malo, France in August 1944, where she had been told the fighting was over, but wasn't.

"I sheltered in a Kraut dugout squatting under the ramparts. My heel ground into a dead detached hand and I cursed the Germans for the sordid ugly destruction they had conjured up in the once beautiful town," she wrote in Vogue.

"I picked up the hand and threw it back the way I had come and ran back, bruising my feet and crashing into the unsteady piles of stone and slipping in the blood. Christ it was awful."

Image source, Lee Miller Archives
Image caption,
Lee Miller photo of a ruined street in St Malo, 1944

Another trailblazer was Helen Kirkpatrick who had been in London for several years before D-Day and, by 1944, was bureau chief for the Chicago Daily News.

She came to Europe and then "cabled back to her husband - 'not returning,'" writes Nancy Sorel Caldwell in The Women Who Wrote the War.

When told that women didn't belong in fighting zones because they couldn't dig latrines, an American editor in London responded that Kirkpatrick "could beat anybody in the room in that particular activity".

There were many American women with memorable bylines - Margaret Bourke White, Ruth Cowan for the Associated Press, Katherine Coyne of the Herald, Lee Carson, Mary Welsh, and more.

The women "made it look easy but there was a constant battle against a real heavyweight prejudice, a misogyny, and disbelief that women that could do anything useful at all," Miller's son Antony Penrose remarked years later.

Even by the standards of our time, all these women journalists displayed a steely determination and derring-do.

It was a remarkable achievement but some paid a heavy personal price for their tenacity and compassion.

"Today we would understand she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder," Penrose said of his mother, who at one point in the war was under fire for 30 days. "She entered into a spiral of depression which took her 20 years to claw her way up out of."

And for some, a deep bitterness also lingered.

"I have too frequently received the impression that women war correspondents were an irritating nuisance," Gellhorn wrote in a letter to military authorities. "I wish to point out that none of us would have our jobs unless we knew how to do them and this curious condescending treatment is as ridiculous as it is undignified."

The indomitable spirit and style of the D-Day Dames gave the world some of the most distinctive and daring chronicles of an epic period of history.

They did it, not just because they were exceptional women, but because they were great journalists.

Listen to Lyse Doucet's D-Day Dames on the BBC iPlayer or on the BBC World Service from 0500 GMT on Friday 6 June. D-Day Dames is a City Broadcasting production.

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