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Love, War and the Countess

I think it was my old friend the Evening Standard columnist Angus McGill who recommended Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly’s war diaries: Angus would have loved her unpretentious skill at conjuring up another place, another time. Published in 1994, they have the enthralling quality that Dostoevsky called ‘living life’, offering you a front-row seat at the great unfolding historical drama of the Second World War. They were written on the hoof, in moments snatched at the end of long, exhausting working days when letter-writing had also to be fitted in. Fifty years later she prepared them for publication and was astonished by their success.

‘In three phrases, she paints a man, in two more, she gives the background and then . . . she sets them in motion, they talk, gesticulate and move about . . . I could have listened to her forever.’ Thus Hermione praises the descriptive powers of a Beirut acquaintance. She could equally have been describing her own unshowy gift for bringing her world to life.

Dan and Hermione Ranfurly were on a deer-stalking holiday in Scotland when war was declared. They had met and fallen in love in Australia in 1937 when he was aide-de-camp to Lord Gowrie, the Governor-General, and she was personal assistant to Lord Wakehurst, Governor of New South Wales, and they had married in January 1939 when both were 25. On hearing the news of war they returned to London, where a telegram from Dan’s Yeomanry regiment told him to report for duty. Dan turned to their portly cook-butler Whitaker and asked if he was coming too. ‘The old fatty looked over the top of his spectacles and said “To the war, my Lord? Very good, my Lord.” Then we started to pack.’

If this suggests an Upstairs, Downstairs scenario it is misleading. Whitaker is as much friend as servant and when, long after the war, he dies, as Hermione describes in a memoir she wrote in her old age, she and Dan cried ‘like children’. From a desperately poor north of England family, a piano-player, resourceful, talented and self-educated, and so fat that the cinema seat breaks under his weight when he is watching Olivier’s Henry V, Whitaker shadows Hermione through much of the war, providing comic relief.

The real joke, however, was that a Yeomanry officer was permitted to take his servant to war but not his wife. ‘Grannies, sisters, mothers, mistresses and regular Army wives may go – only Yeomanry wives will not be allowed to go overseas.’ Dan and Hermione joke that they might have to get divorced in order to stay together. It is satisfying to watch Hermione outmanoeuvre these absurd regulations. Soon after Dan leaves for Palestine she acquires visas from a shady travel agent to cross France and sail from Marseilles to Egypt to be reunited with him. She travels with a newly purchased .25 Colt revolver hidden – though she can’t yet shoot – inside her elastic girdle.

There was a desperate shortage of English-speaking secretaries in the Middle East, and Hermione, though well-connected – her aunt was lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary – was also impoverished and had trained as a shorthand typist, working for the War Office. Nonetheless a fanatical one-eyed Brigadier, bent on forcibly evacuating illegal war wives, sneers, ‘You can’t expect me to believe that a Countess can type.’ Soldiers duly take her away and Dan receives a £40 bill for her evacuation to South Africa. In Cape Town she quietly jumps ship, asking a taxi-driver to drive her the 6,000-odd miles back to Cairo. Though unsuccessful she was lucky. The ship she had just left was sunk off the coast of Ireland and among the casualties was her best friend ‘Toby’ Wallace, who had followed her husband to Palestine, but was now returning home.

A Cape Town banker loans Hermione £115 to pay for a three-day flying-boat trip back to Cairo, where, by December 1940, she has found a job as confidential secretary to the head of the Special Operations Executive, responsible for dropping agents behind enemy lines to help organize local resistance. It is fascinating to see her move swiftly from being persona non grata to being at the very centre of operations. SOE activities were both maverick – flouting directives from London – and also duplicitous, covering this up. Security was lax and SOE wasted ‘fabulous’ sums of money with dubious results. Hermione decides to leak this information to Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary, secreting sensitive documents in her bra when leaving the office at night and making copies at home before returning the originals the following morn-ing. A reform of SOE results and she starts to be seen as a formidable asset.

In early April 1941, Dan goes missing. Four agonizing weeks later she learns via the Red Cross that he is still alive. His first letter as a POW in Italy takes five months to reach her. She puts on a brave face by day and unleashes her misery only when closing her bedroom door at night; the smell of Dan’s hairbrushes makes her cry. This new separation lasts three years: they were finally reunited in May 1944, after he had spent ten dangerous, hungry months on the run in northern Italy.

In July 1941 she moves to work in Jerusalem as personal assistant to the High Commissioner in Palestine where her efficiency, discretion and social skills evidently tell. By October 1942 General Wavell is offering a posting within his HQ in India (Hermione noting Lady Wavell’s ‘delightfully vague air, as if she had lost or forgotten something’) and Freya Stark wants her as an assistant; but she chooses to work as private secretary to General Jumbo Wilson (later Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean). He has a ‘twinkle in his eyes [and] is so large he looks silly holding a cup and saucer. He puffs when he sits down and he puffs when he gets up again.’ Hermione clearly becomes indispensable to the General, and only his wife’s jealousy eventually saves her from having to accompany him to America at the end of the war.

Soon her job is to be sent anywhere at any time, meeting aeroplanes, playing hostess on official occasions – at one point she helps organize a lunch party for 86 guests – comforting lonely officers, giving tea to Partisan dictators. Americans, French, Greeks, Poles, Czechs and Egyptians pass through her office and she has to remember all their names. She has the fun of being ‘in the know’, reading Churchill’s cables to General Jumbo, knowing about D-Day in advance, watching the great come and go. At one point she helps a 20-year-old Royalist Greek, who would otherwise almost certainly have been killed, to escape by borrowing a uniform for him. But there is also much carbon paper and a lot of bores. When she visits the sick and wounded, their lack of self-pity moves her. She determinedly suppresses her tears and any reference to activities to which the lame or sightless can no longer look forward.

‘In a war’, she writes, ‘animals and birds help one very much.’ A white mouse with pink eyes called Fuad, slipped into her pocket by a Cairo shopkeeper, consoles her and quickly becomes a general pet. And she loves birds – taking a budgerigar to Egypt in 1940, and a parrot home in 1944. She values those many who make her laugh, from King Farouk to Lord Beaverbrook. She is friendly, brave, unsnobbish, full of sharp little observations that bring people alive. In Jerusalem she makes friends with Freya Stark, ‘very small and ugly. She wears eccentric clothes and has her hair looped down on one side to hide something. It is said she fell on to, or in front of a mowing machine when she was young and lost an ear . . .’

Hermione Ranfurly would surely have laughed at any suggestion that her book was ‘Tolstoyan’. Yet she conveys what it feels like for the lonely individual to be caught up in a vast cataclysm. She was evidently a sympathetic listener in whom many confided, and there are few major players in the theatre of war whom she does not at some point meet. Tito, short, stocky and dressed to kill, talks bad German with her, Nancy Mitford’s lover and de Gaulle’s future chef de cabinet Gaston Palewski chats her up, true to form.

She is tolerant of difficult, egotistical men. Orde Wingate wants her to parachute into the Horn of Africa to provide secretarial assistance while he raises a revolt in Abyssinia; General Patton, who insults both a GI and a distinguished professor who is showing him the sights, she finds ‘very direct and great fun’; Randolph Churchill and Evelyn Waugh shout at each other like furious schoolboys and argue about nothing, but she is ‘very fond of Randolph’ for all his nuisance value and rudeness. Though she has sharp comments to make, she nonetheless likes almost every-one, with the exception of the British general Montgomery. ‘Of all the VIPs we look after, he is the least attractive.’ Many of her friends have more sympathy for his German opponent, General Rommel.

She also has an unfailing ability to find the right person to help her at the right time. Home in London in January 1945 she bumps into one-eyed General Carton de Wiart, believed to have been a model for the bloodthirsty Brigadier Ritchie Hook in Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. Hermione learns that the General, who is about to fly to China, owns his own plane. So she hitches a lift from him to ‘anywhere in the Mediterranean’ to be near Dan once more.

She never doubts that war is an abomination. Midway through watching film of the ‘liberation’ of Belsen she has to leave the cinema: ‘beyond our wildest dreams of atrocity . . . How can anyone ever forgive the Germans?’ The annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki appals and terrifies her. Half the Ranfurlys’ generation of friends, ‘so young and attractive and so brave’, are dead, others wounded, six years of their youth stolen. By 1944 she fears that there is little hope for humanity. Yet that war also brings out the best as well as the worst is a platitude that she brings memorably to life. War is unspeakable, but – as commentators since Homer have observed – it also enables singular acts of heroism and kindness.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 65 © Peter J. Conradi 2020
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 50: To War with Whitaker

About the contributor

Peter J. Conradi has written – inter alia – biographies of Iris Murdoch and Frank Thompson, Going Buddhist and At the Bright Hem of God. Writing a family memoir has made him think afresh about the Second World War ‒ his father escaped from Normandy ten days after Dunkirk and married a week later.

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