Thursday, May 04, 2006

To War with Whitaker

To War with Whitaker is an absolute gem. It is certainly the best memoir that I've read since Gore Vidal's Palimpsest, and that was six or seven years ago. And it has the great virtue of being an actual diary, written at the time -- it is not an account of events half-remembered after n years.

Widely reviewed, and very popular when it first appeared (in 1994), the 1995 paperback edition of To War with Whitaker was reprinted six times that year, and twice in 1996.

I am telling you all this because I want to make sure that you know how good To War with Whitaker is before I give you further details of it, details which may perhaps put some of you off. The book's subtitle is The wartime diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly, 1939-45. And, if you're thinking that you could not possibly be interested in a book about events which happened such a long time ago, and especially one written by a member of the British aristocracy, I urge you to think again.

Yes, I suppose this book will be of most interest to people who, like me, are English and are old enough to remember the second world war. But the basic themes are surely universal. The book involves, for one thing, a married couple who are absolutely devoted to each other (a not entirely dead concept, one hopes, even today). It is a story of courage, loyalty, and determination: of lives risked, and of lives lost. And, for the feminists among you, it is an object lesson in how to make progress in what was then even more of a man's world than it is today.

From here on in I shall refer to the author of this memoir as Ranfurly, and to her husband as Dan, because that is how she speaks of him.

Dan was actually Thomas Daniel Knox, sixth Earl of Ranfurly. And so when he married, in January 1939, his wife became, formally, the Countess. They were both aged twenty-five. Dan was, incidentally, the nearest living descendant of William Penn.

In late August 1939, Ranfurly and Dan were on holiday in Scotland. And then, on 3 September, they heard that Great Britain was at war with Germany. Dan was sent a telegram saying that he must immediately report for military service.

By aristocratic standards, the Ranfurlys were not, it seems, particularly well off. But they did have a cook-butler, whose name was Whitaker. And when Dan got the call to join the army, he asked Whitaker if he would like to go with him.

'To the war, my Lord?' said Whitaker. 'Very good, my Lord.'

This was a brave move on Whitaker's part. He was not young; he was short, and fat; and he wore glasses. But in 1939 the British army was not too fussy about who volunteered, so he was taken into the ranks; though at first they couldn't find a uniform to fit him, and he had to parade in a blue pinstripe suit.

Dan now became a junior officer in a regiment known as the Notts Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry. And Ranfurly, newly married, quickly decided that she was not going to stay at home and knit socks for soldiers. Wherever Dan went, she would go too. And she did go, despite repeated attempts by the army to ship her back home. Most of the time, Whitaker also contrived to be where his peacetime employers were.

While Dan's regiment was training in England, Ranfurly had little trouble in staying in touch with her husband. But when the regiment was posted overseas, it was much harder. With bizarre logic, the army decided that the wives of regular army officers could accompany their husbands on service abroad. But the wives of officers who had simply joined because of the war could not. Typically, Ranfurly ignored this rule.

Dan's regiment took him to the Middle East, where in due course he became a Desert Rat, fighting the war in the North African desert. By March 1940 Ranfurly had followed him, and throughout the war years she remained in that area.

Ranfurly had earned her own living from the age of seventeen, beginning in the War Office typing pool, which is about as far down the pecking order as you can get. In any event, she had typing and secretarial skills, and this was her strength. Both the civilian and military British authorities in the Middle East were desperate for trained secretaries, and so Ranfurly was able to get jobs.

She held a succession of appointments, in each case serving as secretary cum PA to a very senior officer. In each post she rapidly made herself indispensable.

First, however, she had to avoid being sent back home. The army bureaucracy made repeated attempts to ship Ranfurly back to England, regarding her as an 'illegal wife'. On one occasion, in the autumn of 1940, she found herself forced to board the Empress of Britain, a liner which was going back to England.

When the ship called in at Cape Town, Ranfurly got off. Being broke, she borrowed some money from a friendly bank manager and flew back to Cairo. Her friend Toby, another army wife, stayed on board the Empress of Britain because she wanted to go home to her children. The ship was later sunk by enemy action and Toby was killed; she thus became the first of many of Ranfurly's friends who would not survive the war.

Eventually the bureaucratic attempts to force Ranfurly to go home were ended by General Wavell. Faced with yet another peremptory demand to send Ranfurly packing, he wrote back as follows: 'This lady has outmanoeuvred every General in the Middle East and I do not myself intend to enter the arena.'

On 15 April 1941, Ranfurly suffered a disaster. She got a telegram to say that Dan had been reported missing in action; he was believed to be a prisoner of war. In fact, Dan had been on night patrol in the desert, accompanying a couple of Generals, and they had been ambushed by Italian troops who took them prisoner. Dan would spend the next three years in prison in Italy. Ranfurly was eventually able to write to him, but letters took months in each direction. Dan eventually escaped, and in 1944 he and his wife were reunited.

While Dan was imprisoned, Ranfurly consoled herself with work. At various times during the war years she worked for the Special Operations Executive; for the civil authorities in Palestine (then under British control); and for a long period she was with General Jumbo Wilson, who was British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, and was based in Cairo. Typically, the formal terms of employment in each of these jobs was a twelve hour day, seven days a week. There was, after all, a war being fought.

Although she is far too modest to say so in her diaries, it is obvious that Ranfurly soon became one of General Jumbo's key aides: she was virtually the only woman, and the only civilian, on his staff. She had secretarial skills, yes. But she had far more. She was tall, slim, and of striking appearance; she had social standing. She could converse in French and German. A spook called Abercrombie ('That's as good a name as any') taught her how to use a pistol so that she could hit a playing card from some distance; he also taught her to use a machine gun . Ranfurly saw every signal that came into or went out of the military HQ office; and she became the depository of many confidences and secrets.

Throughout Ranfurly's diaries we constantly find the names of everyone, politician or soldier, who played a key part in the war. Sooner or later anyone and everyone came to see General Jumbo: Churchill, Eden, Eisenhower, Montgomery, and a thousand others. Most of these men seem to have taken Ranfurly out to lunch or dinner. And why should they not? She knew at least as much about the war as any of them; they picked her brains, and she picked theirs.

On 24 November 1943, for example, Ranfurly lunched with the King of Greece and Colonel 'Wild Bill' Donovan, the head of the American equivalent of the SOE. They discussed Generalissimo Chiang Kai Chek. On 16 September 1944 she dined with three Polish officers, General Anders, General Bouciewicz, and Major Lubienski. Conversation was in French. The Germans were at that time hacking their way through the suburbs of Warsaw, and all three men had wives and children in the city; their mood was gloomy.

On another occasion, Ranfurly found herself at a dinner seated on the left of General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied forces. Eisenhower spent the whole meal talking to the woman on his right, who was his English secretary, Kay Somersby. (And we know why, now, don't we? They were having an affair.) When Ranfurly did try to engage him in conversation, he bit her head off.

The next day, Eisenhower realised that he had been rude and invited Ranfurly to have dinner with him on a one-to-one basis. She politely pleaded a previous engagement.

Please remember, however, that a woman who had started her working life in the War Office typing pool was not likely to be a snob. And Ranfurly wasn't. She was happy to meet distinguished visitors as an equal, but she also took the trouble to talk to the ordinary soldiers, and the local people. And they gave her, she noted, very different reports of the war from those which came from the top brass.

When she could, Ranfurly visited the wounded in hospital, although she was nauseated by the smell of rotting flesh (no antibiotics in those days). She wrote letters for the men who were too ill to write for themselves, and she noted that they never spoke of anything but victory.

In 1944, when she was in Naples, Ranfurly had an Indo-Chinaman as a house servant. She persuaded him to tell her his life story, which he did, half in English and half in French; she took it down in shorthand and later incorporated it into her diary. As a young man, Lonj had been forcibly removed from his home village by the French, who at that time controlled the Cambodia/Laos/Vietnam area. He was transported halfway across the world, almost starved, suffered great hardship, and eventually, tossed about like a piece of wood on the sea, he found himself as the servant of a great British general. In Italy.

'Lonj, are you happy here?' Ranfurly asked.

'Sufficiently, Madame la Comtesse,' he replied, with great politeness. 'But you will understand that I cannot enjoy myself till the war is over and I return to Thien Hoa where my family await me.'

Ranfurly herself was luckier. She was reunited with Dan before the war ended, and they both survived.

There are many passages in To War with Whitaker which I found moving: in fact some of them were deeply upsetting, and I have been thinking about why that should be. I have decided that it's because there was a three-year period in my early childhood when I never saw my father, because he was serving in India with the British army. And also, even as a child, I was aware that there were many who went off to war and never came back.

There is, however, one key passage in Ranfurly's diaries which I shall not forget. It was written on 16 February 1943. On that day Ranfurly travelled from Baghdad to Cairo, and when she arrived she found Whitaker waiting for her. He had bad news. Pat Hore-Ruthven, who had been Dan's best man at the wedding, had died of wounds. Two other close friends were missing.

'My Lady,' said Whitaker, 'you'll have to write and tell all this to his Lordship. I don't envy you writing the letter or him reading it. Please tell him we're going to win this war and that you and I will stick together until it ends -- come what may. Tell him that the likes of me will never surrender.'

Nor did they.


Merisi said...

I decided to have "Lunch with GOP" and got rewarded with a wonderful story. Thank you so much, I shall buy the book, too,

Anonymous said...

I just placed my order on Amazon. Prices ranged from $18.96 to $69.99!

Thanks for the review! I know the perfect person to whom to give this book as a present, after I read it, of course!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for telling the world - or at least the blog-reading part of it - about one of my absolutely favourite books. It's so much of its period, but also confounds as many stereotypes about class and gender, perhaps because she had a colonial background as well as a working one. It's also very, very funny in places.

One of my favourite moments it the diary entry for her flight via Lisbon back to Britain. It's very short and says very little except that she's anxious. Later you look at the date and realise the entry's about two days before D-Day, which of course she knew all about, but didn't even put in her diary.

Bernita said...

Very beautiful review.
Thank you, Grumpy.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, it sounds a lovely read. I've ordered a copy as well, and at's suggestion have also bought her childhood memoirs - 'The Ugly One'.

It might be worth mentioning that there were a lot of secondhand copies available, and even with delivery charges it may be cheaper to have a copy shipped to the US than to pay the prices Lynne quotes. [The copy I ordered was priced at 1p + delivery.]

Amol said...

Dear Grumpy,
It's reviews like this that I keep coming back for,to your blog. Thanks for introducing me to a wonderful book. I was reading your latest review and saw the name of this one, mentioned by a reader. Thank god I decided to look it up on your previous blogs.

The Accidental Bus Driver said...

I know that this comment is 6 years after your post, but a) I concur that it is a wonderful book, and b)Toby Wallace, who was killed on the Empress of Britain was my Grandmother. The Grandmother who I never met.

I feel I know her intimately as i have her letters written just before she died.

Good comes out of bad. My mother, 41 years later, started a one-man-band charity, 32 times, driving trucks to hospitals, churches and charities in Poland - something which was done because of her mother's exploits and the legacy she left.

So perhaps there is another book coming out one day. Different from To War With Whittaker, but equally interesting.

The Accidental Bus Driver said...

I know that this comment is 6 years after your post, but a) I concur that it is a wonderful book, and b)Toby Wallace, who was killed on the Empress of Britain was my Grandmother. The Grandmother who I never met.

I feel I know her intimately as i have her letters written just before she died.

Good comes out of bad. My mother, 41 years later, started a one-man-band charity, 32 times, driving trucks to hospitals, churches and charities in Poland - something which was done because of her mother's exploits and the legacy she left.

So perhaps there is another book coming out one day. Different from To War With Whittaker, but equally interesting.

Anonymous said...

Recently on a family holiday in Mulranny Co. Mayo, I came across an antique shop with an old thatch roof and musty interior. I stumbled in and amongst a fine treasure of old memorabilia I came across this book and purchased it on a whim. Tip toeing through this young womans life and all her life's adventures has been a pleasure which I will always cherish. Your analysis has opened up an insight into a great read.

Anonymous said...

Dear Grumpy Old Bookman. Though I wonder whether you are really a grumpy old man - but if you are,are you still there? - I must react to your beautiful account of "To War with Whitaker". You may be of nobility yourself. Meaning that nobility knows the meaning of 'noblesse oblige'. And that seems to be the case both with you and with Lady Ranfurly. Many (wo)men outside of nobility only see the privileges and not one of the "duties". As a matter of fact I am just a farmers daughter, and in many ways the life and works of Lady Ranfurly AND her husband do comparable to the life of a farmer.You will laugh and feel that I am rude. But yet, because she is very caring and very hard working in whatever circumstances life brings her, she is in this respect very unlike some stiff and proper ladies of her time and very much like the mother of twelve children working on a farm. After all, there is a war going on. Privileges indeed! The Guerlain scent she so much coveted she had to let go. It would have cost her 20 % of her pay that year. (Of which she was paying Freya Stark already 75%).
The same goes for Whitaker himself. He fortifies Lady Ranfurly when she is down and out, fearing for her Dan. Whitaker is truly caring.

In her book Lady Ranfurly tells us about a meeting with Russian communists, in full western gear, behaving like the capitalists they say they despise, not believing her when she tells them she has worked since she was 17 years old, and started in a most humble job.

We should all understand.