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To War With Whitaker: the Wartime Diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly.

When, on September 3rd, 1939, her husband Dan had to report to his regiment, the Notts Sherwood Rangers, he asked Whitaker, his staunch butler-cook, if he would like to go with him. The old fatty looked over the top of his spectacles and said: 'To the war, my Lord? Very good, my Lord'. And then started to pack.

Thus began what can only be described as a really romantic love story - how the three of them kept in touch by courage, subterfuge and gritty determination not to be separated. Uncharitable lay readers will say that, if you have a title and know almost everyone in high places, it was not difficult for the authoress to succeed where lesser mortals would have done nothing but complain of their lot. But they would be forgetting that she was a fully trained secretary and such personalities were in short supply in the Middle East.

So, when her husband's unit was posted to the Middle East she was determined to follow even though she was classed as an 'illegal' wife - non-regular wives not being allowed to follow their husbands overseas. Through devious means she got a passage to Cairo via Marseilles and was reunited with her husband in Rehovoth, Palestine. Very soon she was in trouble with the army authorities and was ordered home on the 'Empress of Britain'. This was altogether too much, so she jumped ship in Cape Town with only [pound]28 in her pocket. Nothing daunted, she had a go at the manager of Barclays Bank who lent her the money for her flight back to Cairo.

From then on it was a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, living clandestinely in the flat of some friends until, after turning down a job as Orde Wingate's secretary, she was put in touch with the small SOE office in Cairo, run by George Pollock. Armed with a new passport which described her as a civil servant instead of an army officer's wife, she hung on precariously.

By February 1941, she began to worry about the abysmal lack of security in the office. By March it also became clear, for instance, that reports to London stating that certain operations had been successful had not in fact taken place. She decided to warn Mr. Eden that all was not well. In due course, the talk in Baker Street was that Mr. Eden had asked SOE to clean up 'that Augean stable in Cairo'. Your reviewer can confirm this as when he was being briefed on joining the relatively new Security Directorate of SOE at the beginning of June, he was told that they had not been able to get any security personnel out to Cairo to instil some form of discipline.

By the end of June, she had obtained a job as secretary to Sir Harold MacMichael, the High Commissioner in Palestine but she could not leave until her work with SOE was completed in mid-July. In the meantime, to add to her 'office' troubles, her husband had been captured with Generals Heame and O'Connor.

In December 1942, she became General 'Jumbo' Wilson's secretary (she could have gone to India with Wavell but that would have separated her from her husband and Whitaker). They were in Baghdad until they moved to Cairo in February 1943 and to Algiers in January 1944. On May 13th of that year she and Dan were reunited after his spectacular escape in Italy with two Brigadiers. It was three years and one month since they had last seen each other. The stories of his capture and escape are compelling reading. General 'Jumbo' gave them both well-deserved indefinite leave and promised that her job would be kept until she came back. In the event they had about six weeks in Scotland and London, being lucky not to have been rubbed out by flying bombs. Yet, on July 1st, they had to say good-bye once more as her husband had been taken on by Fitzroy Maclean.

In July 1944, she moved to Caserta where General Wilson was Supreme Allied Commander but in December, he was posted to Washington to take over from Sir John Dill who had died. Wilson wanted her to continue as his secretary. All was packed and her luggage half-way across the Atlantic when she had a letter saying that Lady Wilson had objected to her presence! Out of a job in Caserta, the only thing to do was to go back to England, sort out her affairs and try to get back to the Mediterranean theatre to be nearer her husband. Once more luck came to her rescue. She was offered a job as Air Marshal Slessor's P.A. at Caserta. By May 1945 she was back in London with Slessor at the Air Ministry, waiting for her husband and Whitaker to be demobbed.

What a story and so beautifully told with humour, compassion and sincerity.

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Author:Lee, Peter
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1995
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