Barbara Wace

The first British woman reporter into France after D-Day

Barbara Wace, journalist: born Gillingham, Kent 4 September 1907; died London 16 January 2003.

Barbara Wace enjoyed great popularity among British and American journalists for both her courage and her generosity. She scored her first scoop or "beat" when she became the first British woman to report from France after D-Day, and spent the rest of a long and adventurous life reporting from remote places that other reporters had barely heard of. Tirelessly inquisitive, she was a brisk and unfussy writer, and a fine photographer.

As the London newspaper trade drifted eastwards, first to Wapping, and then to Canary Wharf, Barbara Wace clung on to her tiny flat under the eaves at 53 Fleet Street. She used to throw the door-key down to the pavement, muffled in a sock. Up five flights of steep stairs, past the frosted office doors of precarious businesses, a wide acquaintance climbed up to visit her. When she finally left Fleet Street in 1988, she turned off the lights on a professional way of life.

Wace was born into an army family in 1907 in Gillingham, Kent. Her father, Brigadier-General E. Gurth Wace, had served with the Royal Engineers in India and there married her mother, Eva Sim. Barbara was educated at the Royal High School, Bath, which was reserved in those days for the daughters of army officers, and spent some of her childhood in France and at Saarbruecken, where her father was British representative on the commission established in the Versailles Treaty to delimit the new League of Nations trust territory of the Saarland.

Training as a secretary, she worked at the British Embassy in Berlin under the redoubtable Sir Eric Phipps, and attended Hitler's showcase Olympic Games of 1936. In 1940, she was sent to the British Embassy in Washington, and worked at the new British Information Service there and in San Francisco and New York. In February 1943, she made the difficult sea-crossing to Britain and was taken on by the Associated Press. The following year, she was one of 18 writers and photographers assigned to France to cover the Allied invasion.

Her first job in France was to report on the first contingent of 38 women soldiers who arrived at Omaha Beach on 14 July 1944 mostly to serve as mobile switchboard operators. The Women's Army Corps was a controversial novelty in American society – there was a scurrilous report that each Wac had been issued with condoms – and filing for the AP's small-town subscribers required a little tact.

In that dangerous summer, Wace also covered the ferocious battle for the town and harbour of Brest in Brittany, where 40,000 German troops held out against an assault by two US infantry divisions until 18 September. Among other assignments, she was in Oslo in June 1945 to cover the return from his London exile of King Haakon of Norway.

After the Second World War, she set up as one of the very few women freelances in Fleet Street. A typically pioneering journey by Greyhound Bus from the east to the west coasts of the United States produced a long story for Reader's Digest and established her style. She continued to travel, to Albania (in a coach tour groaning with spies and journalists in disguise) in 1956, Madagascar, the Andaman Islands, Tibetan Ladakh and, in 1991 when she was in her eighties, Mongolia. She made three trips to Oman at a period when the notoriously xenophobic Sultan Said bin Taimur signed visas with his own hand. She wrote for National Geographic, covered the Queen's Coronation in 1953 as a stringer for The New York Times, and broadcast for the BBC. Many of her photographs are now lodged with the Royal Geographical Society.

She lived at first in Mitre Court, and then spent a quarter-century in Fleet Street, before moving to public housing just north of the Barbican. Her rooms, both in Fleet Street, and then later in Golden Lane, were cramped and cluttered with far-flung objects – stacks of Kodak boxes, sea-shells, cushions and textiles from the Arab world and India, a canary bird – that enlarged and refreshed the mind far more comprehensively than the most spacious house. In 1997, she moved to an old people's home in Blackheath.

Everything about Wace – her address, her unstuffiness, her indifference to money, her diffidence and her old-fashioned Liberalism – might have been designed to appeal to children and young people. No teenager was too rebellious, shy, lumpish or lazy not to be made to feel quite special. At her lunch parties, people sat on the floor, eating sausages and kicking over one another's drinks. As a thorough Londoner, she was rewarded with the Freedom of the City in the early 1970s.

Barbara Wace never married. In reality, she was the last representative of a once famous widespread social type: Englishwomen of military or Anglo-Indian background for whom absolutely nothing in the world is impossible except, as it were, a conventional female existence.

James Buchan

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