William Downie Forrest, the son of a labourer, was born in Glasgow on 21st March 1902. His friend, Geoffrey Goodman, has claimed: "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." On the advice of his mother he became a copy boy. However, because of the First World War, the newspaper was short of journalists and he soon became a sub-editor with the Glasgow Herald.
Forrest eventually became a foreign correspondent with the Daily Express. In 1936 he was sent to cover the Spanish Civil War. Forrest was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and his reports showed that as an anti-fascist, he was definitely on the side of Popular Front government.
Geoffrey Cox considered Forrest his mentor in Madrid. He described Forrest as "a small open-faced Glaswegian, with a quiet, wry manner." Cedric Salter claimed that he never showed signs of being afraid under fire, "strolling about happily with bullets whining uncomfortably close, and not bothering even to duck".
Another journalist, Sefton Delmer, added that Forrest had "won everyone's respect for the cool-headedness with which, come air-raids, come bombs, come murders, come Franco's Moors, he could be counted on to get on the telephone every evening to dictate a graphic report on the ordeal of Madrid and its one and a half million citizens."
In 1937 he returned to London where he campaigned for the Spanish Medical Aid Committee. The owner of the Daily Express, and fascist sympathizer, Lord Beaverbrook, denounced his actions. Forrest resigned and joined the News Chronicle where he worked alongside the newspaper's other correspondent, Arthur Koestler, during the rest of the war.
Constancia de la Mora, who worked with Forrest in Spain pointed out: "Forrest was one of the best all-round correspondents covering the war. He had a fine Scotch sense of humour, which turned up at the most difficult moments. I never saw him flustered or worried. I never heard him complain. Bombardments never gave him the jitters, defeats never shook his faith in the Spanish people. He knew Spain intimately and used his knowledge to give his dispatches an informative and understanding tone few reporters achieved. He moved slowly around Valencia and Barcelona, apparently never in a hurry, never worried. Yet his dispatches were always on time and they always covered more facts than many reporters who stirred up lots of dust and trouble and got nothing for their pains."
Forrest became disillusioned with the way the Soviet Union behaved during the Spanish Civil War but he remained a strong anti-fascist and under the editorship of liberal-minded Gerald Barry, he was able to write campaigning articles against Adolf Hitler and his government in Nazi Germany.
During the Second World War Forrest was the newspaper's roving correspondent in Europe. He was in Poland when the German Army invaded on 1st September 1939. He was also in Finland when the Red Army invaded in November of that year. It was this act that resulted in Forrest leaving the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Forrest covered the retreat from Dunkirk, then the Desert War in Egypt, the Allied landings in Sicily and Normandy, and the fall of Berlin. According to Geoffrey Goodman: "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."
After the Second World War Forrest continued as a foreign correspondent and then as the paper's Chief Diplomatic Correspondent. During the height of the Cold War, Forrest, as a former Communist Party of Great Britain member, meant that he was barred entry into the United States.
William Downie Forrest died on 28th October 1996.
William Forrest was one of the best all-round correspondents covering the war. He had a fine Scotch sense of humour, which turned up at the most difficult moments. I never saw him flustered or worried. I never heard him complain. Bombardments never gave him the jitters, defeats never shook his faith in the Spanish people. He knew Spain intimately and used his knowledge to give his dispatches an informative and understanding tone few reporters achieved. He moved slowly around Valencia and Barcelona, apparently never in a hurry, never worried. Yet his dispatches were always on time and they always covered more facts than many reporters who stirred up lots of dust and trouble and got nothing for their pains.
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 correspondent 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.