Obituary: William Forrest

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The Independent Online
William Forrest was the last of the great Fleet Street foreign correspondents; the final echo from that school of remarkable reporters who, along with Hemingway, Arthur Koestler and company, covered the Spanish Civil War with pencils and notebooks and cables filed from postal depots under shell-fire, long before the electronic revolution brought warfare into our sitting rooms.

Forrest was there, on the ground, when Hitler's and Mussolini's dive bombers devastated Guernica to help General Franco's Fascist armies. He was listed by Franco, personally, as a "wanted man" and, had he been caught by the Fascists, would certainly have been shot. But they didn't catch Willie Forrest. This diminutive, slightly built, soft-spoken Scot had a pedigree of toughness that was wholly concealed by his warm friendly charm.

Reporting the Spanish Civil War originally for Lord Beaverbrook's Daily Express, Forrest was with the Republican forces shortly after the outbreak of fighting in 1936. His accounts of that bloody war were constantly on the front page. Forrest was a Communist Party member before he went to Spain and he never had any doubts as to which side he was on; with or without a rifle he was an anti-Fascist. He was so angered by the failure of the Western powers (and Britain in particular) to support the Republican cause against Franco that he returned to London in 1937 without the approval of his newspaper to plead the cause of the Republicans and, in particular, to lobby Parliament for desperately needed medical aid supplies. Years later, he insisted that this action was the one of which he was most proud.

But Beaverbrook took a different view and denounced him for it. Forrest resigned from the Express and walked across Fleet Street to join the News Chronicle, which already had a corres-pondent covering the Spanish war - Arthur Koestler. With Forrest as a reinforcement the News Chronicle team in Spain became the most accomplished of all from the British press. On one occasion when Koestler was jailed by Franco's troops Forrest helped to rescue him and almost certainly saved his life.

That was a period when the News Chronicle under the editorship of Gerald Barry reflected, more than any other national newspaper, the liberal, radical conscience of a Britain in terrible torment about the growth of fascism in Nazi Germany, Mussolini's Italy and Franco's Spain. The Daily Herald, the Manchester Guardian and the Observer were also marshalled behind that banner - but not to the degree of the News Chronicle.

With the outbreak of the Second World War Forrest was an established roving correspondent throughout Europe. Indeed he was actually on the spot when Hitler's Wehrmacht invaded Poland in 1939, just managing to file a piece and escape from being captured, via Romania. Then came the Russo-Finnish war - and with it his break from the Communist Party. Though he remained a deeply committed socialist to the end, his experiences covering the Soviet invasion of Finland - which Stalin justified later by claiming it was vital to protect Soviet frontiers and border defences - disillusioned him.

Forrest covered the retreat from Dunkirk, then the Eighth Army's Desert campaign (where he was wounded at Tobruk), the Allied landings in Sicily and Salerno, the Normandy landings, the Rhine crossing and the fall of Berlin. He was already a prodigious linguist - self-taught in the main - speaking Russian, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, French and German, and his grasp of military strategy, indeed the whole cunning of warfare, was the equal of any general. In 1946 Forrest was appointed an OBE.

Not that this wee lad from the outskirts of Glasgow was ever concerned with the baubles. Forrest was authentic Scottish working-class. His father had been in the drinks trade until his mother, a formidable woman of early Communist conviction, persuaded him that this was immoral and certainly improper for a socialist. So Willie's father became a labourer on a wage barely enough to keep the Forrest family of five in basic food. Young Willie delivered bread and newspapers before going to school each morning and brought home five shillings. He left school at 15 with a choice of three jobs: working for a coal merchant at 10 shillings a week, a job at a floor mill at seven shillings or employment as a copy boy at the Glasgow Herald at five shillings and ninepence.

Forrest's mother advised him to take the copy boy job. But when Forrest was taken to see the editor of the Herald the great man looked at the boy and said: "Start on Monday as a sub-editor" (there was a great shortage of journalists in Glasgow because of war recruitment in 1917). So Forrest was literally press-ganged into journalism.

In the post-war years from 1946 onwards Forrest continued as a foreign correspondent, first as the News Chronicle's resident man in Paris, but also roving about Europe, and then as the paper's Chief Diplomatic Correspondent. For many years his record as a former Communist meant that he was barred entry into the US and when that was finally relaxed Forrest's sardonic comment was that he appreciated America for three things: apple pie, iced water and soft toilet paper.

Willie Forrest never officially retired from journalism. In his late eighties he still contributed to the international periodical Gemini and regularly broadcast for the BBC World Service. When the James Cameron Memorial Trust awarded him the first Emeritus presentation, without a note Willie, then just turned 90, held us all enthralled with an account of his coverage of the Spanish Civil War.

William Downie Forrest, journalist: born 21 March 1902; married (one son); died 28 October 1996.