Much of the coverage following the death of Clare Hollingworth has focussed upon her reporting on the outbreak of World War II and the fact that she broke the first stories about Germany’s invasion of Poland. But a little more can perhaps be said about her role in another major 20th-century news story. Hollingworth played a significant part in the outing of Kim Philby as the so-called “Third Man” in the Cambridge Spy Ring, following his disappearance from Beirut in January 1963.

Correspondence held at the National Archives at Kew between the Foreign Office and Sir Moore Crosthwaite, the British ambassador to Lebanon illustrates the concern that was immediately raised by Philby’s vanishing act. Crosthwaite wrote to London on January 28 with the news that Philby “has been giving us all a certain amount of trouble and worry”, having disappeared without trace on January 23.

It’s hard to believe that in certain quarters, the British authorities, even at this early point, would have had any great doubt as to what had happened. Earlier in the month, Philby had been visited by his old friend and fellow intelligence officer Nicholas Elliott. Armed with recently discovered evidence that clearly incriminated him, Elliott offered Philby immunity from prosecution in exchange for a full confession of his espionage for the Soviet Union. Within a matter of days of a series of meetings with Elliott, Philby had fled.

According to Crosthwaite, the curiosity of Beirut’s foreign correspondents had initially been assuaged when they “were told … of action taken by Her Majesty’s Consul at request of Mrs Philby” (Philby’s wife Eleanor had, he wrote, “requested her Majesty’s Consul Beirut and the Lebanese authorities to try to trace his whereabouts discreetly, since it was possible that he was either on a trip for journalistic purposes or (being of somewhat irregular habits) he had gone off on a ‘lost weekend’”.)

This information, Crosthwaite noted: “Apparently satisfied their curiosity for the time being.” However, with no sign of Philby’s return to Beirut by the end of February, Crosthwaite warned the Foreign Office that: “Correspondents have been showing renewed interest in his whereabouts particularly because of his known connexion [sic] with Burgess/Maclean case.” As it happened, this interest came in particular from Clare Hollingworth, who Crosthwaite incorrectly referred to as Hellingsworth.

Crosthwaite went on to note that:

Yesterday Clare Hellingsworth [sic] of the Guardian, who had stopped here on her way from Paris to the Yemen, called on the Counsellor, whom she has known for many years. He received here with the R.I.O. [regional information officer]. She told him that Mrs Maclean had shown here at the time certain communications she had received from her husband after his defection, and drew parallel [sic] with the information Mrs. Philby had given about communications from Philby since his disappearance. She strongly implied that he too might have defected. Hankey pointed out that correspondents here were in the habit of absenting themselves for quite long periods, and that although, as she said, it was odd that Philby should not have told his wife where he was going before he left, it was unfair on him and his family to jump to conclusions. She then dropped the subject.

Crosthwaite went on to warn London what Hollingworth’s interest likely meant:

I understand that she has been talking along the same lines to other correspondents here and it seems to me certain that by now some stories have been filed, if only as background, for London papers, linking Philby’s disappearance with Burgess/Maclean case.

Hollingworth was one of the most accomplished foreign correspondents of the 20th century.
Hollingworth was one of the most accomplished foreign correspondents of the 20th century.

Hollingworth did indeed file a story suggesting that Philby had defected to the Soviet Union, but the Guardian was reluctant to run it, fearing the prospect of libel action. With Philby still missing, a version of her story was finally published by the newspaper on April 27 1963.

Murky business

Some months after Philby’s disappearance, the general public remained ignorant of the reason behind it. As such, Hollingworth played a significant role in breaking down the wall of official secrecy surrounding his disappearance and in bringing the story to the attention of the public. There was much more to come, of course, in which the wider press would play a part.

The Philby story exploded the following year, in large part as a consequence of the investigative work carried out by the Sunday Times Insight team, in which another celebrated journalist, the late Phillip Knightley, who died last year, played a prominent role. But much as she had done with the outbreak of the World War II, Hollingworth got there first, her work starting a story that continues to generate interest to this day.

Christopher J. Murphy, Lecturer in Intelligence Studies, University of Salford.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.