Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998) was arguably one of the most important war correspondents of the Second World War. However, because of her personal affairs, her work is often overlooked, which is a gross injustice to her legacy. In this article, I’ll try to rectify that by looking into exactly who she was, the amazing things she did, and how she remembers D-Day.
Gellhorn Reported on Hitler Before the Second World War
Long before D-Day, in 1938, Martha Gellhorn spent some time in Germany, where she reported on Hitler’s rise to power. She was, at that point, a well-known geopolitics and war correspondent. She had even reported on the Spanish Civil War that occurred just before the Second World War.
She would also write a novel called A Stricken Field, describing how Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia (today, the capital of Czechia), had changed after the Munich Agreement. The Munich Agreement was reached in 1938, allowing for Nazi Germany to annex Sudetenland – a western part of Czechoslovakia with a German majority.
Hitler essentially bullied the international community to allow this by starting a small war with Czechoslovakia. England, France, and Italy allowed the Nazis to annex Sudetenland, hoping to appease Hitler’s appetite. The Czechs and Slovaks remember the agreement as the Munich betrayal.
She describes Czechoslovakia as a democratic country that had swiftly changed into a shell of what it was. The novel goes into great detail regarding Gestapo control and the inability of the Czechoslovakian people to avoid dictature and death. Her novel would become one of the crucial works of World War II, and it’s a must-read if you’re wondering how quickly and intensely a country can go from being free to being oppressed because of politics and spinelessness.Aside from France, she visited Germany, England, Finland, Singapore, and Hong Kong during the war.
How Did Gellhorn Get to Normandy?
Unlike today, women weren’t allowed to serve in combat units during the Second World War. They were employed, however, as nurses, doctors, and administrative staff within the cogs of the military. The story of how Martha found herself on the beaches of Normandy is quite incredible.
At the time, Martha Gellhorn was married to Ernest Hemingway. If you search for Martha Gellhorn in a search browser, you’ll mostly see articles about her being Hemingway’s third wife, not one of the most daring war reporters of all time.
However, at first she lost the opportunity to apply for journalist accreditation to the British Government, which was in charge of choosing which journalists and photographers to allow to participate in D-Day. It was once believed that she was rejected on the basis of being a woman, but this is a myth. Martha was already an established, well known war correspondent and was thought of highly even then.
She was rejected, not by the British government, but by Collier’s, the well-known American magazine she wrote for at the time. Initially, Collier’s planned to send Martha to Normandy, in which case she could apply for accreditation and the British government would approve her request. However, her at-the-time-soon-to-be-ex-husband Ernest Hemingway was angry with his wife, and he used his larger-than-life presence and reputation to get Collier’s to assign the Normandy job to him.
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It’s assumed that he was partly motivated by the recent falling out between him and Martha. Hemingway is remembered as a very selfish, difficult person to have a relationship with, and he was unhappy with Gellhorn investing so much time in her career instead of staying with him and following him around.
When he learned that Gellhorn would still try to get into Normandy (either illegally or by improvisation), the famous writer actually tried to sabotage her trip to London.
Martha ingeniously hitched a ride with a munitions barge that was headed for England, and arrived only eleven days after her husband.
It would only get more difficult from here onwards, as nobody would let a civilian with no accreditation onto one of the 5000 military vessels.
Intuitively, Martha waited on the docks and decided to climb onto a hospital barge. When someone from the military approached her, she showed her journalist badge (which wasn’t valid anymore, but they didn’t notice that), and said she was there to interview the nurses.
Miraculously, they allowed her onto the barge! She hid in a toilet and spent the night bouncing on the rocky waves of the English Channel, waiting to invade Normandy in the morning.
The Horrors of Normandy Through the Eyes of Martha Gellhorn
D-Day, officially known as Operation Neptune, was the largest amphibious assault in military history. About 156,000 soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy and about 195,700 naval personnel took part in the assault, albeit without actually fighting.
Martha was, unknowingly, about to become part of the naval personnel. Although she boarded the ship with the intent of reporting on what would soon become the most talked about operation of the Second World War, Martha didn’t fully understand the scope of what was about to happen.
On the beaches of Normandy, more than 50,000 German troops were waiting for the assault, armed with 170 artillery guns ranging from 100 to 210mm (and 320mm rocket launchers). The Nazis were very well fortified, relying on artillery and AA guns to destroy as many ships and aircraft before they ever reached the shore. The bunkers on the coast were equipped with machine guns that would spray constant fire at the invading Allied force.
Read More: The Largest Battles of World War Two
The assault on Normandy and the resistance the Allies faced is the true meaning of the word hell, and Martha wasn’t aware of just how intense the fighting would be when she boarded that ship.
When the fight started, Gellhorn put her journalist duties aside for a second and started helping with supplying the forces and helping the wounded. She also briefly helped with interpretation, as she had already spent some time in France. Gellhorn quickly became a saviour, putting the duties of humanitarianism and camaraderie before her self-imposed duties as a reporter.
Gellhorn Helped Out as a Nurse
Gellhorn wasn’t aware that by boarding that ship, she was getting front-row seats to a theatre of chaos and destruction.
In her article, Gellhorn says that there were so many wounded, she had “…no time to talk; there was too much else to do. They had to be fed as most of them had not eaten for two days…
The journalist-turned-nurse was helping with feeding, changing plasma bottles, and generally assisting in every way she could, even with the simplest of tasks such as making coffee.
At the same time, her husband was confined to the ship that took him and all the other journalists to Normandy. They never left the vessel and none of them ever got close to Omaha Beach. None of them ever got as close as Martha Gellhorn, experiencing the battle first-hand, so none of their reports were nearly as accurate as hers.
Most importantly – none of them ever helped the wounded, as they were too far away. According to Gellhorn, water ambulances were working around the clock, essentially without stopping. They were more active during the night, though, as the chances of getting hit were lower.
Gellhorn personally went out with water ambulances, often getting into waist-deep, piercing-cold water to stretcher a wounded soldier out of the cold. This was not only a difficult and thankless job, but a dangerous one – visibility towards the beach was low and the crew, including Gellhorn, had to make sure they didn’t set off a mine or damage the ship by hitting a sunken vehicle.
Because of the swift tides, the crew sometimes had to carry the wounded on the stretchers above their shoulders. Crew members themselves would often end up in neck-deep waters. At times, the tide would lock them out on the beach, and they’d become stranded, waiting to return to their boat, hoping the Nazis wouldn’t score a direct hit.
During her time as a makeshift nurse, Gellhorn helped countless soldiers, but at the same time listened to their stories and reports about what was going on in Normandy. Armed with those stories, Martha Gellhorn wrote an absolutely incredible article which still stands the test of time.
After Operation Neptune had ended, Gellhorn was arrested by British Military Police and had her journalist credentials stripped (however, they were already invalid, so that didn’t seem to stop her).
However, she wasn’t charged with anything, and she eventually regained permission to follow and report on Allied movements. Her story on D-Day was published in Collier’s in 1944 – Hemingway’s story was also published, but it didn’t gain as much recognition since it wasn’t a first-hand account.
Gellhorn would continue to report on the Second World War until its end, even becoming one of the first people to report on the liberation of the notorious Dachau Camp.
At the same time, her husband would return to their home in Cuba with another woman. They would divorce later in 1945. Initially, Gellhorn set out to report on D-Day; the fighting, enemy movements, Allied advancements, the relentlessness of the human spirit against an unyielding enemy – the thing a war correspondent is supposed to do.
However, as soon as the shooting had started and her world had turned upside-down, her role turned into something more. Martha started doing the things a war correspondent in her situation should do. She became the only woman on Omaha Beach, and she got to experience the war in its truest, rawest form, without actually having to fire a weapon.