The Gutsy, Glamorous 'Dames Of D-Day'

Jun 5, 2014

Martha Gellhorn and her husband, far right, Ernest Hemingway. Gellhorn left to cover the Spanish civil war in the 1930s when she was 21. Although she wasn't allowed to cover D-Day, she smuggled herself onto a hospital ship.
Martha Gellhorn and her husband, far right, Ernest Hemingway. Gellhorn left to cover the Spanish civil war in the 1930s when she was 21. Although she wasn't allowed to cover D-Day, she smuggled herself onto a hospital ship.
Credit Credit Wikimedia Commons

When the Americans entered World War II in 1944, reporters joined their ranks. Women, however, were not allowed.

That didn’t stop Martha Gellhorn, who smuggled her way onto a hospital ship and locked herself in a toilet.

“When it drew up to the Normandy coast, it was too late, and there she was,” said Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent. Doucet created an hour-long documentary on female reporters at Normandy. It’s called “Dames of D-Day” and features several female reporters, including Gellhorn.

Reporter Helen Kirkpatrick of the Chicago Daily News in 1944.
Reporter Helen Kirkpatrick of the Chicago Daily News in 1944.
Credit Credit Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 6, marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy, France. It was a major turning point in the war and led to the ultimate defeat of the Nazis.

Gellhorn had started writing about the war in the 1930s, when she and her husband, Ernest Hemingway, covered the Spanish civil war. She was 21 when she left the U.S. to cover the war, with just $50 in her pocket.

By 1944, her marriage was over, but her career was still going strong. Gellhorn was known for her distinctive style of writing that focused on the human side of war.

Hemingway – possibly out of spite, Doucet says – had snagged accreditation for Colliers, Gellhorn’s magazine. But Gellhorn managed to scoop her ex-husband regardless, by arriving at the beaches before him.

Some male editors defended female reporters. Helen Kirkpatrick, the bureau chief for the Chicago Daily News, headed to Europe and immediately cabled her husband, “I’m not coming back.”

Her editor, George Lyon, defended her decision to cover the war to a group of newspapermen who worried she wouldn’t be able to dig her own latrine: “She can build a latrine better than anyone in this room.”

“They had to fight personal battles on many fronts,” Doucet told David Hyde on The Record. “I was really taken aback. They are remarkable for their determination. Even by the standards of the world we live in today. To see how fiercely to get to the front line to get the scoop. You have to admire them for everything they had to do.”