Media: The story they didn't want women to tell: Britain refused to send female journalists to cover D-Day. But that didn't stop the intrepid Barbara Wace, as she told Anne Sebba

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In June 1944 the British government accredited 558 writers, radio journalists and photographers to cover the D-Day landings. Not one was a woman. Four weeks later Barbara Wace, who worked for the American news agency Associated Press, became the first British woman to report on the Allied invasion.

Wace, then 36, knew the importance of the story but had no idea she was making history herself. 'There wasn't any time to think about that sort of thing. I was phoned up one evening and told to go the quartermaster's store to get some special underwear impregnated against gas,' she recalls. 'I couldn't even go home for breakfast.'

She set off for Omaha Beach early next morning in a boat full of male and female American soldiers and back-up personnel. Her brief was to cover the arrival in France of the first American WACs (Women's Army Corps) - a story which it was felt needed a female touch.

'This was big news for the girls' hometown newspapers and I filed at least five stories about the activities of the WACs. But I got into dreadful trouble once because I wrote what I thought was a very complimentary piece but mentioned how, when we were in a lorry, we were whistled at. The sub on the army newspaper, the Stars and Stripes, lifted this sentence and made it the lead. The WACs were very annoyed when they read it, thinking I didn't take them seriously.'

However, Wace had good contacts and she soon broke away from the WACs' compound. A friend, C D Jackson of Life magazine, was directing press operations in French villages as they were liberated. 'I managed to tag on to him and got some marvellous human interest stories talking to the people about their wartime deprivations and fears.'

Meanwhile British women reporters were intensely frustrated at being refused formal accreditation and accused the War Office of being deliberately obstructive. Some individuals, such as Iris Carpenter of the Daily Herald, paid a personal visit to point out to Lord Burnham, director of British public relations, that they had been reporting war on the British battle front through the Blitz years anyway. Those already in the field, such as Clare Hollingworth, were forced to join American news organisations in order to operate at all. But there was no way that Hollingworth, based in Cairo, could get back to England for the invasion.

Such was the scramble for places that even Martha Gellhorn, throughout the war accredited to Collier's, the American magazine, found herself elbowed out of the D-Day coverage by her estranged husband, Ernest Hemingway. None the less, by locking herself in the lavatory of a hospital ship and emerging to work as a stretcher bearer on the Normandy beaches, she managed to write a brilliant first-hand story of the invasion.

After a few weeks in northern France, Barbara Wace returned home but made two more trips there before August, when Paris was liberated, and the first British women war correspondents were finally accredited - by which time the main action was over. At the end of the third trip Wace was redirected to cover the siege of Brest: the Germans were still holding out in the town, sharpshooting from concealed pockets. It was the first time she had witnessed action.

In spite of the American attitude, which generally welcomed the contribution women could make as war correspondents, Wace - tall and striking, with penetrating blue eyes - now recognised for the first time how handicapped she was by her sex. 'Of course, there were always problems finding a loo; you couldn't go in the fields or by a verge because they were mined and the latrines were 40-holers with men around, so you just learnt not to drink, hoping you wouldn't need to go.' But the problem at Brest was more serious: where to sleep.

'The men lived in a camp nearby but they went about naked and, as the only woman, you couldn't possibly live there. They didn't want you.' The public relations officer found a hospital where she could stay. 'But that was absolute hell, too. It was miles away and I couldn't transmit my copy in time.'

Eventually she found a bed in a farmhouse near the camp but somebody took her bedding roll with her clothes in and there were no other women to borrow from. A telegram - 'Lost skirt, Brest fallen' - caused much merriment in AP's London office. The final blow came in the last days of the siege when AP sent a man to Brest and his byline appeared on the story of the German collapse.

'I did feel a little sad at that,' Wace admits today, but she never thought to complain, recognising how lucky she was to have been an eye-witness at such momentous events when she had only been a reporter for two years.

Born in Kent into an Army family, she had spent much of her childhood in Germany while her father was head of the Boundary Commission of the Saar, which decided on the Franco- German border after the First World War. She trained as a typist and took a job with the British embassy in Berlin, where she was working at the time of the 1936 Olympics.

In 1940 she accepted a post at the embassy in Washington, setting up the British Information Service there, then moved on to New York and San Francisco to do similar jobs. But by 1942 she felt guilty at not suffering from the Blitz in the way her friends in London were and returned to Britain.

When AP invited her to join them she accepted and was immediately given her accreditation as a war correspondent and a uniform - olive drab, tailor made - so that she could interview GIs and write stories that might have military sensitivity.

After the war, Wace remained with AP for a few years but then became a freelance writer and photographer, using a skill she learnt from Felix Fonteyn, the late Dame Margot's brother and a good friend. In 1959, reading in the Court Circular that the Queen had taken tea with the Sultan of Oman, Wace wrote proposing that she too should meet him.

As a result she made three trips to Oman at a time when few journalists were allowed there and before oil wealth had transformed the Sultanate. 'There were only two miles of road you had to let your tyres down to move on to the corrugated section of track,' Wace recalls.

She continued to travel the world and write about what she saw for the next 30 years. In 1988, by then the last journalist living in Fleet Street, she became unable to climb the 96 stairs to her flat and was forced to move out. Now approaching 87, Wace is still working and travelling: last month she visited Ghana for a story and is also writing her memoirs.

Anne Sebba is the author of 'Battling For News: The Rise of the Woman Reporter' (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 19.99).

(Photograph omitted)