Reviewed by Claire
If I were knowingly heading into an active theatre of war, I like to think I would go armed with the necessary information, wardrobe, and exit plan (I’m a desperate coward). What I would never have thought to put on my packing list are a valet, a parrot, and a little black book with the names of seemingly everyone interesting, exciting and important. Hermione Ranfurly had all these things and more with her when she followed her husband, Dan, to the Middle East at the beginning of World War Two. Dan was fighting Germans, Hermione was fighting the British military for the right to stay near her husband, and Dan’s valet, Whitaker, was fighting to keep as much order as is possible in a) a war zone and b) a desert. Hermione’s diaries of these days, collected in the excellently-named To War with Whitaker, make for wonderful read and offer a perspective on that war that is certainly unlike any I’ve come across before and all the more welcome for that.
Dan and Hermione were only twenty-five when the war broke out, newly married and living in a small flat in London. Though grandly titled – as the Earl and Countess of Ranfurly – they were essentially a hard-working pair of cash-strapped – though well-connected – young people, in love and excited to start their lives together. The outbreak of war in September 1939 upset their plans, as it did so many people’s. Within a few months, Dan was posted with the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry to Palestine and Hermione was outraged to discover that Yeomanry wives were not allowed to follow their husbands to the Middle East. Not officially at least. A determined young woman, Hermione snuck around the military officials and found her own way to Palestine…where the military promptly began its concentrated efforts to throw her out again. They even put her on a boat home but she just got off the ship in Cape Town and came back over land instead.
The irony of all this is that Dan was taken prisoner in the spring of 1941. After working so hard to be near her husband – eventually winning a rightful place for herself in military and government circles as an intelligent and discreet secretary – he disappeared to the one place she could not follow him to. They would be separated for the next three years, with Dan in Italy and Hermione all over the Middle East and North Africa. They were sad years for both, with Hermione always very conscious of their separation, but she filled them with some absolutely fascinating experiences and encounters with memorable characters. It is not everyone whose war years included up-close encounters with film stars, famous writers, powerful generals, and multiple monarchs. She went shopping with Patton, hosted a tea for Tito, sailed in the harbour at Alexandria as the ships set off for the invasion of Sicily, lived in Baghdad with the explorer Freya Stark (of whom Hermione said, “She is priceless; when I asked her what I should pay for board and lodging she just said, ‘Whatever you earn I’d like three quarters of it.’ It was said so charmingly I agreed and now I’m rather short.”) and came close to sassing the wife of the Soviet Ambassador to London, who was surprised to find an English Countess working:
I told her that, like a great many other people in England, I had earned my own living since the age of seventeen. I refrained with difficulty from adding that I thought it a good deal more surprising that she should live like a capitalist and talk communism. (29 September 1943 – Cairo)
These were exciting times and as someone working within and closely tied to military and diplomatic circles, Hermione was well positioned to see and hear much. From 1943 onwards, she helped organise the meetings at which the Allied leaders plotted the terms of their victory in Asia and prepared their final strategy for the defeat of the Nazis. Thankfully for us, she recorded many of her encounters during these historic days. It’s oddly charming to know the jokes the aides were laughing over on days when Churchill, Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-Shek were planning Japan’s unconditional surrender.
I love diplomats’ diaries (Charles Ritchie and Harold Nicolson spring to mind) and Hermione’s are the next best thing. They certainly offer a welcome contrast to all the Home Front diaries of the same era. Goodness knows I enjoy those too, but I can only read so many entries moaning about rationing and the blackout, air raid shelters and double summertime before losing patience with the heroic housewives. Instead, Hermione’s diaries introduced me to a theatre of war that I knew comparatively little about and focused on the sort of details I love best: fascinating people, major world events, and behind-the-scenes insights.
Claire blogs at The Captive Reader and knows no glamorous people, has no title, and doesn’t know shorthand. Other that than, she and Hermione Ranfurly have much in common.
Hermione Ranfurly, To War with Whitaker, (Bello: London, 2014). 978-1-4472-5940-4, 372pp., paperback.