When war did break out I was asked by a London professor if I would like to join him in the Ministry of Information and I worked there for almost two years.After I had been working at the Ministry of Information for some time I was invited to Oxford to join a Foreign Office intelligence unit run by Arnold Toynbee. He read the foreign press and prepared reports. I met all sorts of distinguished people like Bayners and Humphrey Summer. We used to have staff meetings once a week when one of the specialists reported on the part of the world he was watching. I started on the Spanish section but was moved to the German one with instructions to stop the Head of the Section from having a nervous breakdown
One day I had a visit from a friend with whom I used to fence in Cambridge. She was looking very smart in uniform and asked if I’d like to join her outfit. When I asked what she did I was told it was so hush hush that she couldn’t tell me but that the boss of her outfit, whose father had been a friend of my father, would like me to have lunch with him in London. I went up to London one Sunday and had lunch in a very smart hotel the name of which I can’t remember. I liked the boss but came away knowing no more of what the outfit did. I turned the offer over in my mind. The work I was doing in Oxford was being done by at least two other acquaintances and in any case could be done by an old gentleman of 70. I was not even sure that the information we were supplying was of any use. The ‘hush hush’ outfit said it was really [indecipherable] with people who were fighting. I decided to join the ‘hush hush’ outfit.
All the new recruits went on a training course somewhere in the south east of England. Some of the recruits were wireless operators and learnt Morse. Some were to be drivers and learnt about the insides of engines. I was put among the drivers and enjoyed it very much. It was very easy and I learnt it all very thoroughly.
Then I was posted to another place. I think it later became a sort of prison. There I found out I was not to be a driver but attached to a wireless section and I spent my first few days filling in records of sequences and when they would be used. At last I asked what the unit did and was told that we were part of the Special Operations Executive which dropped saboteurs and intelligence agents into occupied Europe. The training as a motor mechanic was simply a cover story in case anyone asked what I was doing.
After a few weeks I was sent to London because someone was ill. I spent a lot of time tidying up his files and had just got them in order when one evening … there appeared an officer wreathed in gold braid and red flannel who must have been very senior indeed. He asked if I knew which frequencies worked Algiers. With quiet pride I was able to say “yes sir” and I did not add that I had just sorted them out that afternoon.
He asked when the frequencies were free and I explained that my latest information was seven days out of date but that I thought the frequencies would not be too busy. Then he asked for crystals that would pick up the frequency he wanted. I sent up a prayer for guidance and went to the store cupboard. Crystals were not part of my department but I found two with the right frequencies marked on them and handed them over … the set was used to negotiate the peace with Italy and we in London followed the negotiations with quiet interest until the people in the mediterranean changed all the code names and we could no longer understand what was happening.
I was told I was to take a draft of girls overseas. When I asked “what draft and over which seas?” the only answer I got was “Hush”. It turned out that the girls were from a unit that looked after Poles and we were to go to Italy. They were a cheery lot of girls, about a dozen of them, and the trip in a big liner as part of an enormous convoy was quite fun and mercifully uneventful. Among the people on the ship was Peter Ustinov. When the convoy got to Egypt it was dive bombed.
We were disembarked at Algiers where there was a detachment of our unit making radios. We were given billets in a little sea-side village called (I think) Sis Barani. There we waited for transport to take us to Italy. While we were there Christmas arrived and we were all invited to the main camp for Christmas dinner and in the festival tradition I waited on the troops before having dinner with the other officers. But before I even got my turkey and plumb pudding a message came through that a troopship had docked with our Poles on board and would the girls like to go down to the docks and see them. The girls were delighted for they had known the Poles in holding camps in England. I hadn’t been a member of the unit there so I had never met the Poles but went down to the docks to keep and eye on the girls.
The girls disappeared into the ship and after a while a rather sheepish Pole came out to ask what was to be done. The British Captain who had been sent to meet them had passed out. He had not missed his Christmas dinner. I lent the Pole my small vehicle and my driver so that he could go out to see the transit camp where they had to spend the night. He came back furious. The transit camp was six inches deep in mud and the Poles had no camp equipment so would have to sleep on the ground … It was Christmas Day and getting dark. No-one would be in the office to help the Poles. I remembered that I had been told to try and give the Poles a good impression of our friendliness and efficiency … I remembered that we had recently received a new consignment of camp beds.
Our unit was the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and the codename of our mission was torment. We had enough beds for the Poles. I decided to take them home to Sidi Barani. But first I had to scrounge some transport and warn my cook. I found a telephone and the cook assured me that we had enough rations to feed the Poles. Then I went to find a transport sergeant somewhere in the docks. I found one and he lent me a 15 cwt and a 3 tonne. We collected the Poles and their kit and had a convivial Christmas evening.
Southern Italy in January is very cold indeed and the houses in which we were billeted had marble floors and were meant as summer holiday homes for people living in Brindizi. I have seldom been so cold. At last the weather improved the Poles got ready for action. Our business was to give them a very good meal before they set out for the airfield and to see that each man had a ration of spirits, whisky or rum. One day just before Easter we were told that instead of simply seeing the Poles off in army lorries we were to accompany them and give them a meal at the airfield. There was a slight crisis for we had no ration of spirits to fill their drinking flasks. Vino yes but whisky or rum no. At last I found the Officers’ Mess of a unit near us. The mess sergeant was sympathetic but only had curacao. I prayed that this had enough kick and accepted what he could offer me.
A few days later the Chaplain came round to give us our Easter communion for which we used a private chapel that was part of our billet. As we knelt in the chapel I heard a lorry coming up the drive to the house, then another and another. There was only one explanation. The operation had not been successful. No boys had been dropped and they had all been brought home. When we got out after the service we found morale absolutely at such [indecipherable]. Perhaps it was after this that my 18 year old cook prevented two of the boys from committing suicide. She was working late in the kitchen, probably making cakes, when two of the boys drifted in saying they were going to kill themselves and bring their revolvers with them. The cook was alone in the kitchen and did not dare leave the boys alone to go and fetch help. She welcomed them warmly and asked if they would like some coffee and some newly baked buns. They accepted and put their revolvers on the kitchen table so they could warm their hands round their mugs of coffee. The cook then picked up the revolvers saying that they gave her the creeps and locked them in a kitchen cupboard. She then sat down and drank coffee and talked to the boys until they felt better and decided to go to bed.
Later in the year a very official officer from England came to inspect us … As far as I remember she was pleased with our arrangements for looking after the Poles and quite happy about our vehicles but after she had visited our kitchen she had me on the mat. My cook was a disgrace. She must wear proper uniform. She would be inspected again in a fortnight and if she had not improved she must be sent home. In vain I said she was a first rate cook even if she did look a little strange. She wore an old fur coat – Italy is very cold – purple velvet ski pants, ski boots and a purple chiffon scarf round her hair. I just managed to make the point that as FANYS we got no uniform for cooks. A great many of us had to buy the uniforms we were wearing.
The inspecting officer was reasonable and said that she would arrange for me to draw white overalls … but could I get my cook to wear them? Eventually on the day of the inspection one of my sergeants and I got the cook out of her warm and comfortable clothes and into the regulation, very chilly white overall etc. We tied the white headsquare around her head and locked her in the larder until the inspecting officer arrived. When we saw her car coming I went to meet her and my sergeant let out the cook. The inspecting officer pronounced herself satisfied and I drew a sigh of relief until I realised that she was enjoying her visit and proposed to stay to dinner. By that time our cook had got rid of her chilly uniform and put on her familiar, if unorthodox, fur coat and purple velvet ski pants. She popped in and out of the mess with pans of admittedly delicious food and the inspecting officer, bless her, noticed nothing.