Ibegan my working life by going to the Montessori School […] After that I went to an art school where it was huge fun, but I was too young to take the examination, so left. My father then got me into a job at the Ministry of Labour at Sydenham. It was an employment place, very dull, full of dull people, but very necessary. To pay those people their money, it was needed, because it was so little in those days. I was put on the counter to pay them. I was no good ever at adding up and I always had paid them too much and we were always short and after a year they thought I should move on and they got me into London, to Great Marlborough Street, to the Ministry of Labour where they had a special register for women, the first one in England.
A special register for women. It was a professional women's register and women with special qualifications from university – and in those days there were very few women from university – would come there and look for a job with the BBC or top posts in Whitehall. My job was to sit there and select them. How I managed to do that without any qualifications whatever, I have no idea. But it worked and then I thought, well, what shall I do for the War?
The War started in 1939. Terrible bombing, terrible bombing in London, and I had to get to London every day. I couldn't get home [to Kent], night after night.
… the railways were always bombed. The roads were bombed and all the water was bombed, the gas, the electricity. I just didn't know what to do. So I slept sometimes in an air-raid shelter for 900, particularly the one in Piccadilly, near Piccadilly Circus. You dived down a dark hole under what is now the road in Piccadilly and there were shelves where there were places to sleep where there was a blanket and you slipped into one of those. They would hold up to 900. It was dark, there could be no light in there. There were no facilities for washing and it was full of people and very little air, because there must be no light to come out. So you felt the lack of air in the mornings and, although young, you could hardly get up the stairs for lack of air all night. And then you got up and it was either bombed, or not bombed, but it was a grim start to the day and you had probably no food and very little money and you just went to work.
And one night I stayed the night in the Ministry of Labour building. I'd just bought my first coat and skirt which had been made for me, and it was powder blue. I stayed in the building because the bombing was so intense. It was one of the nights that they had decided to bomb London. I got under a shelf to sleep, no blankets or anything, just under the shelf. And while I was under that shelf, there was a direct hit on the building. This was quite a serious one because it hit the staircase, and the staircase went. I struggled up through the dust and the bricks falling, and there was a knock at the door. I opened the huge door and there was a young policeman.
"Are you alright Miss?" I said, "Yes, I'm alright."
And he said "Keep the door locked. I must go down the road, people are in great trouble there," and he disappeared. What it had done, it had hit the staircase which was beside the room, and the bricks and everything had come down, and I was covered in dust, my mouth, ears and face, and my very first coat and skirt were now white!
In the morning all the people came to work and stood on the street. It was pay-day and the Cypriots who worked in Soho all came round wanting their dole money. Well, of course, we couldn't get it because the documents were upstairs and no-one would pay out without knowing who should have it. So I was young, and I looked at the stairs, and there were a few steps left going up beside a wall, so I said, "I think I can get it." Because I had calculated that it was only one floor and if I fell, one might get hurt, but someone wouldn't be killed, falling only one floor. So they said, OK.
I went up, brought down the documents, gave them to the officer who was dealing with paying these Cypriots who were being very difficult. I remember to this day that nobody ever even just said, "Thank you."
I decided that I must go home. The boss said, "Go home, you need a bath and a change of clothes. If you can get home." What I found was, I didn't notice anything for about four days. I didn't notice people talking to me, or anything. My mother said nothing, she just fed me and kept me away from everyone. And then I suddenly came to, started again. It must have been shock, but I didn't know it at the time.
This sort of thing, one didn't comment about, because it was commonplace. Bits of aeroplane would fall in your garden, and what had happened the very first night when we had the bombing, my father had bought a little shelter. It was of corrugated iron, and you dug it into your garden. The bottom went on the soil and it was half showing and you just fell down into it. You put a mattress there and went on it, with a blanket, and you went in and the bombing went on all around you. You would hear things. It was very very frightening. The sound of a bomb. When it leaves the aeroplane it starts to make a whining noise. As it comes nearer the whining gets louder and louder. And the extraordinary thing is, you feel it is intended for YOU. They did it in strings of five. One… two… three… four… five. Then another string of five. And each one you felt you couldn't cope with. And what was so awful, you'd see grown men weeping. Fear was everywhere. I went to my mother and I said – my mother incidentally had decided she wasn't going to be sent by Mr Hitler into a rat hole for the night. She would stay in her bed. I said to her, "I am absolutely terrified, I can't manage another night." She looked at me with surprise and said, "Haven't you come to terms with death yet?"
And I thought, "How clever of her, why didn't I think of that?"
She said, "You've got at least half a day before they'll be back. Go out and walk, come to terms with death, and you can cope then." And that really has seen me through the whole of my life. But people who have not experienced war cannot imagine it. You have to experience it.
I was working all the time in London. But I decided now … we moved on and there was Dunkirk. That was in 1940. It was so shattering to have the British Army driven back, driven away, and the Germans were now all round waiting to pounce. If you went to the coast of Kent you could see their shining tanks waiting to get into barges to come across. We knew that we had only a few aeroplanes. The Home Guard notionally only had sticks. There was nothing, and you felt very helpless. But I felt I must join the Army. Sometimes when you are very young you feel you can move worlds and I felt I could. So I applied to leave, but the Ministry of Labour wouldn't release me and I fought them for two years but it wasn't until I misplaced one young thing, who wanted to drive London buses in the blackout but she should have been filing or going in the Army, and I gave her the authority to drive buses. The authorities came down on me, and I said, "I want to go in the Army, let me go." And now they did. So I felt my life had started. I could save the world and with great rejoicing I went off to join the Army.
The first thing was a medical. My mother said, "You won't pass", but I was determined to. There were hundreds of women there who didn't want to join the Army, but women were now being conscripted because we were so short of men. So all women between about 18 and 24 had to join the services, the Land Army, or fill bombs with ammunition. I felt the Army was the thing that needed me. They needed help.
It was about 1942. It was hard work. They turned me down at the medical. I burst into tears there and then. The young doctor pleaded for me and said, "We can always discharge her." So they agreed in the end I could join. While we were waiting to have the medical we had to do what I thought was … because the Army couldn't afford Punch they gave us some amusing books to fill in. But later I discovered this was an intelligence test and you were graded one to six. These were all the young women, 18 to 24, throughout England who were now being tested for intelligence. Later, when I was sent to get a commission, I was given an envelope actually and I was told it had my intelligence grading on it. So I said to my friend, "Let me see what it is." She said, "You can't do that." I said, "I can!" So I had a look and it said, "SG1". So I thought, "Whoopee, I leave school at 14, do some odd jobs and I got a top intelligence grade!" And she had been to university, she didn't have to work she had enough money, and she looked at her's and it said "SG2". She said, "Well it's because you're young." Well anyway it gave me some help because I had always thought I would lack in everything, because I had had so little schooling, so little anything and now I found I had top intelligence anyway. So that gave me a great fillip, but of course I kept it secret, terrified that anyone should know.
In the OCTU [Officers' Training Unit] there were about a hundred women to be commissioned … […] I felt that it would not be done! So I didn't tell a soul, not even my parents.
When I was at OCTU there were a hundred women who were being looked at for a commission. And then they sent for me and I was told "You can't be considered for a commission, you're too clever." I thought, here it is again. I said, "I'm not, you know." And they said, "Yes, you are, you never make a mistake and you always answer all the questions correctly." I said, "Well, you always tell us about it during the week, how can I make a mistake?" But they were fairly intent on this.
Before I went in to be commissioned, I had been an acting unpaid lance corporal in charge of 150 cooks and they were a pretty rough grim lot, but they were good cooks. My job was to keep them happy while they cooked. Some of these were up here cooking and when they heard I was going they went to the commandant, who we found pretty fearsome, and said, "You can't take our corporal, we love her, you must keep her here." So they decided to send for someone to come from London to see me. I found this extraordinary in the middle of the war, to Edinburgh where I was, of all places.
Well, she arrived, without notice, and I was playing hockey. We weren't like they are today, we were very new, all of us. So when they said, "The inspector is here to see this cadet", the officer-in-charge said, "Tell her she'll have to wait till the game is over." We were all so new, we didn't know army ways. "She is the centre half, the captain, and we rely on her."
So the message was sent back. When it was over I was told I had better shower and go. When I got there this was the first friendly female face I'd seen. She had grey hair and laughing blue eyes, and spectacles, and she said, "Do you enjoy hockey?" And I said, "I do." And she said, "Did you have hockey when you had your company of cooks?" I said, "Yes, I taught them hockey." She said, "Did you win?" I said, "Always. Because our goal keeper had been a fish-fryer at Great Yarmouth, and whenever they came near our goal to shoot she would shout ‘Get out of my goal you bloody buggers! This is my goal, not yours.'" And we always won.
[…] So I found myself training others to start with. And then I wasn't well, I kept fainting and so on. So the medical officer – this is the middle of the War, we are surrounded by U-boats, difficult to get food or anything and they recommend – they sent a letter to the commandant, from the medical officer. "She needs a long sea voyage." So they obviously racked their brains and they sent me to heavy guns training at Burrow Head in Wigtownshire right on the coast of Scotland.
When I came back from there, my mother said, "You never looked so well." It was very healthy. Sheep came into the bedroom in the morning, rats ran round the lavatories, but nothing really seemed to make one ill. One blossomed in the wind and the rain. And I was there for quite a long time until the commandant started prowling around. And he shouldn't have done, it was women's quarters. He told me he was writing a book entitled Twelve Women in Nightdresses and he had only got to chapter nine. I told him he wouldn't find any more up here, the climate was totally unsuitable. But I did speak to the officers in Edinburgh and they moved me to Derby.
[…] My job was looking after the girls working on the guns. The girls worked on the guns. They had to wear boots and trousers and mittens. They had to use the height finders and range finders, and there was a girl locked in a kind of a shed and there was a flat bit of land always around. This was called the G.L. set – radio location it was. She sat in this blank room and when she saw a little bleep she had to decide, was this an oncoming aeroplane? If so was it a friendly one, or an enemy one? And she had to get used to what these bleeps looked like and try and decide before you saw them and alert those outside. And if it was an enemy one, the height finders had to use their instruments and the range finders. You had to decide whether it was an enemy plane or not.
Then you had to get the bomb, the shell you were going to fire, and you had to get it set to the right voltage to go off at the right height, which you would have found out. But because of the Geneva Conventions that women mustn't actually fire, we couldn't put the shell in the gun. So we had a soldier who was medical category about four or five and couldn't go and fight, to pick the shell up and put it in the gun and actually fire it. And this meant you had to coordinate the whole thing. It was quite interesting work.
A lot of decision- making at speed as well.
Huge decision-making. And of course you made mistakes. Sometimes you did, sometimes you didn't. It was the only way in those days, because it was beginning. And you see, all the men, after Dunkirk, they were killed and imprisoned and we didn't have enough to go round. So we had to have … the anti-aircraft, which had been formed now, were practically all manned by women. There were of course some men in charge, because the women had known nothing about this. Where I was wasn't too uncomfortable but some of the places were in swamps and their feet were always wet, and we only had leather jerkins on so our arms were free over our uniforms and mittens – you couldn't wear gloves because you needed the ends of your fingers to work the instruments. And if you looked up to see, is that really an enemy? you always lost it when you looked down again. It was fatal to look up.
[I was moved on to Derby] in the middle of the country, and there they had what they called rocket batteries. They were always impressive to me as a gun. They were quite a collection of small rockets joined together and they moved together up and down. One waited for the enemy aircraft to come. But they didn't come there. The Germans had no more interest, after all nothing was happening much at Derby, not like other places. So I got fearfully bored there. The commanding officer got drunk every night. It was boring, so I found some paint and they were all Nissen huts, you know, which are corrugated, very difficult to paint. And I painted out the bathroom with fish coming straight out at you to swallow you. There was an inspection. Now comes the General "Who painted that frightening fish? I was terrified to go in," he said, "Why did you do it?" I said, "I was so bored, I have nothing to do. There is no-one to shoot down. What can I do?" And next thing I found myself posted to the War Office and this is when I felt my real contribution to the Army started.
Now I had never been to the War Office, never been to Whitehall, didn't understand any of it and turned up with my kit-bag. Was interviewed in the cellar because there were doodlebugs now, so I was down in the cellar. I was put to write White Papers. I thought all paper was white, but it seems the special ones for the Army council are called White Papers. And we were all writing White Papers asking for special things for the Army. Mine was the only White Paper that got past and it really seemed to make my name. It certainly made my day and I realised now that life could be quite exciting.
I spent quite a time there. It was very interesting because the women's army – there hadn't been a real one before – was formed by a general choosing the women to run it. Because they were mostly all titled, because they thought titled women know how to organise other women. So there was the Marchioness of this, and Lady Londonderry and Lady Mountbatten. They were all here calling each other by their Christian names, because they had all been debutantes together. (Posh voice.) "Oh hello, Chrissie darling, I must go and have my hair done today, Charlie's coming home."
Life was like this, but it worked well and when I was in the countryside. I was in a horse drawn … she had a pony and trap. And she said, "Child, get out would you, and gather some of that delightful weed." And child obediently jumped out and gathered some of this weed, which she obviously taking home to decorate the Hall. It was a good friendly atmosphere, nobody seemed angry. Everybody just talked. And it worked very well indeed. Because they were people who hadn't come up a cheap way, they were all born into aristocracy. So they knew how to treat people. Everyone was treated as they should have been. Rules were kept and one could never really find a complaint. It was a happy atmosphere. They had all come to report to the commandant. And I would meet all these people and deal with them all, and after a time in the War Office it was decided I should move outside.
I was now posted to a holding unit near Paddington where the girls were now. The war was over. Incidentally Mary Churchill was another captain with me. Delightful to work with. It was so near her home and the election was coming up. Actually we were both there when the election took place and Churchill lost it. Of course we were all very upset for Mary. That was when the war ended. So I was positioned very well to go to Buckingham Palace [when the war ended]. We want the King! We shouted until we couldn't shout any more. All we wanted was the King. And that was a night to remember.
It was all very exciting this war, to me. And then I was told, the War Office wanted to see me. When I got there they were talking about a job behind the Curtain in Rumania. And I said, "Well send me straight away." They said, "You won't see another woman army officer." And I said, "I can't wait to go." And they sent me. They told me I must pack one bag. And in those days no one knew where Rumania was, where Bucharest was. I rang Selfridges information bureau, Mayfair 1234, and asked them where was Rumania, what was the climate like? And I was told I must take two evening dresses, only one suitcase, and be ready to go.
Well, I said goodbye to my mother, my father, my brother was brought – my young brother I knew was dying. He was 18 yet he had cancer. And this was a terrible blow saying goodbye to him. We loved each other dearly. I went … there were no tourist places like there are now. It is difficult for the modern person to visualise. England without places to fly from. I had to go, it was night and it was stormy. We drove somewhere – I don't know where, never knew. It was an air place, Air Force. I got there with my one suitcase and I got into a great hangar and everybody seemed to know what they were doing except for me.
And I said, "Rumania". And people looked at me as if I was talking about the North Pole. And they looked at me and said, "Oh, take the flight to Rome." Where is it? There were no notices or anything. And I said, "Could someone give me some Rumanian money?" And they said, "No, no, no, no." And a really nice looking captain came over and said, "Are you M.C.?" and I said, "Yes I am." He said, "Oh, I've been told by the War Office MI1 to look after you. Have you ever been before?" I said, "Never. I don't really know what I'm doing." He said, "No, well, I'll look after you. You're going to Rumania, I'm going to Bulgaria. OK. Now let me see what you're carrying, so you don't forget anything."
So we got onto this aeroplane. It was a little aeroplane. Not many seats. And everybody had sandwiches except me. I hadn't thought about food. Off we went. I felt so sick, I would have jumped out had I been able to. I felt awful, and all I wanted to do was get out. People started eating round me. I couldn't bear it. We stopped for petrol – because we had to keep stopping for petrol. (Laughter). We stopped for petrol, I can't remember the place; it was still on the Continent before we got to the Mediterranean. I said, "I'm not getting on the aeroplane again, I can't bear it." He said, "Come with me. What you need is brandy." And we sat down and he plied me with brandy. I'd never drunk brandy in my life. Then when we got on the aeroplane I just fell asleep. He wakened me and said, "We're going down at Rome." I said, "OK". That sounded alright to me.
So we went down at Rome and went out, found somewhere to stay and he said, "What would you like to do?" I said, "Look at St. Peter's." Off I went. But it was closed. I was so disappointed. But I thought then I'd look at the Tiber, where Horatius had been so brave. It's now a little stream almost, so that was disillusioning. So he said, "Well, let us eat iced cherries." That seemed at least positive. And then he said, "We must see Rome while we can." And everywhere it said, "Keep out! Smallpox." And he said, "You never take any notice of notices or you don't go anywhere." So we took no notice of smallpox. He bought fluffy animals for his children. We went to the Foreign Office and got them in the diplomatic bag to get them sent home. He bought scent for his wife and did the same thing. Then he said, "We've got to get in a Wellington bomber tomorrow morning and fly north to Bari." Well, this wasn't too bad because it was only a short distance.
So we went from Rome to Bari and there we had to wait again. Then he said, "We shall go sailing, because we must get brown." And the boom hit me on the head, and I was sick and said, "I can't stand it any more." So we didn't sail. But we were now ready to go, and he was to go off to Bulgaria the next morning and I was to go to Rumania. Usually, he suggested bed quite early. He looked so healthy, and I could see that he and his wife had always gone to bed quite early. But this time, he kept talking, and I thought, "I wonder why." And when it got to midnight he said, "I noticed on your passport, it is your birthday today. I want to wish you many happy returns when you get to Bucharest." And he gave me a lovely present of some very nice scent. No. 5. Chanel No. 5. I had not been given scent before like that. So the next morning off he went to Bulgaria and I went to Rumania.
Now this was a little aeroplane and a little airfield and there was nobody to tell me anything. There was a door so I walked in and there was a pile of mail on the floor. No seats, so I sat on the mail, and a lot of windows blown open and no glass. I saw no-one, but it took off and off I went. Total confidence I was going to Bucharest. Went over the Carpathian mountains where, with no glass in some of the windows and the height, I started to feel very odd. I had strange thoughts and I thought, "Am I going mad?" and there was no-one to say I was going mad to. It took quite a time and then we went down. It was boiling hot. It was midsummer's day in Bucharest, tremendous heat and I was in my ordinary clothes. Outside, when it stopped, there was a young officer with wings and he said, "The General's waiting for you." No-one said, "Are you thirsty? Do you want to go anywhere?" Just, "The General's waiting for you." There was a tall man with dark hair, dark eyes, standing. As I walked in, he said, "Can you shoot?!" I said, "No, sir." He said, "Right, practice, you'll need it." And he slung across the table a Beretta and a hundred rounds of ammunition. "And don't sing ‘Rule Britannia'," he added. "Good morning."
So I left, clutching this box of bullets and a gun. When I got outside there was this young officer with wings, called T. And he said, "What did he say?" "He said I wasn't to sing ‘Rule Britannia'". (Laughing.) I said, "I never had any intention of doing so." He said, "What's in that box?" I said, "Bullets. I've to practice." He said, "Right, let's go." Still nobody thought about me. Off we went to the woods. He pinned the lid of the box on the tree and said, "Right we start shooting." I said, "I don't know how to." He said, "Right, follow me." And so here was a man, airborne officer, teaching me to shoot. Then there was gentle clapping. "Oh, those are the peasants," he said. "They're watching us."
And after I'd finished all the bullets and my fingers were now covered in blisters – they weren't used to guns and things. I said, "Do you think I'd shoot anyone?" He said, "Well aim for the middle and see what happens."
But why would you want to shoot someone?
He never told me. Ever! (Laughter). The only people I was going to be with, as far as I could see, were the Russians. I was brought up that the starving Russians, poor things, they never had anything to eat. But here they were, and we were there to watch them, as far as I could see. But they did seem to be quite a bit of shooting going on. Because in the morning there were dead bodies. You stepped over them and walked on.
Was it factional shooting?
I'm not sure what it was, but it just seemed to be the order of the day that people shot people. So I kept my little Beretta with me and hoped I wouldn't have to use it. I wasn't sure I'd be very good at it.
My job was liaising with the Russians and the Americans and it was nothing but parties as far as I could see. It suited me admirably. Rumanians left poetry everywhere for me. Like "I see a garden in her face, where roses and white lilies bloom." Things like this. And I'd read them. Throw them away, never answer them. A little colonel gave me a little cactus – a dried-up little cactus. And my boss, brigadier, said, "I hope you realise that's cost him a meal. He won't be eating, he's given you that."
And there were some other officers there, British, who'd all done very very brave things. All under 27. They'd done tremendous things. One had been a keel bomber. And one had his own little, miniature submarine. One of them had been in Intelligence and was caught. They were all very brave and full of fun we were. Because there was no-one really to stop us. We all had revolvers, I found, and we all kept them by us. Life was tremendous fun. We just had parties. Because all the Rumanians were wanting us, they're just party people. They're not serious. The Russians were. It was the Russians, I gathered, I had to look out for. Because the Colonel came one day and said, "You're not to be alone with Colonel Molohovsky. He's been raving about you." And I thought, "Good God, I don't want to go anywhere near Colonel Molohovsky. He's got such bad breath." (Laughter)
But the Russians shot very fast. There were always dead people. They wanted a watch and they'd said "davai chas". If you didn't give them your watch, in one minute they shot you and took it. They were very uncivilised. They couldn't read, most of the soldiers. And they only had one suit of uniform and when it rained, they take it off, strip naked, and put it in a puddle, stamp on it and put it back on again. And dive into the lake if they wanted to swim, to wash. They were very primitive and therefore easy to grab a gun and shoot. That was all they thought.
But the work I was doing was letting the Foreign Office know what was going on. My mother had always been keen on Queen Marie and she asked me to go and find out what I could. So the first weekend being no-one had asked me to do anything, I asked a Rumanian colonel if I could go to find out about Bran Castle. And he said, "Yes, of course. Bran Castle is very old and beautiful and the Princess lives there, and it is Queen Marie's name day – she's dead. They are having a requiem mass. If you go up there, you could go to the requiem mass and meet them all."
I thought, "Now that would be interesting." So I went there, miles off into the Carpathian mountains. I didn't feel any worry or fear, and there was nothing about. The roads were empty. Just full of holes and animals. Potholes everywhere, and just nothing – but lovely country. I got up there. It seemed to me that you just said what you wanted, because it was, sort of, the end of the war, and we'd been victors. And I just said, "I want a bed in a hotel." We never paid, I was told not to pay. I got into this hotel and the person who ran it knew the lady-in-waiting to the Princess. She said, "I'll take you." Next day I went into Bran Castle, which is now called the home of that man … the horror of Rumania. That's where it all happens now.
The castle is very old, built into the side of the mountain, at the bottom is a lake and rushing down the mountain is this water, into the lake. And something to do with the force of that, I don't know, made a lift and the lift took you into the castle, up to the top where the dining room was.
But I first had to go into the woods and in the woods. There was a chapel and here they were holding a requiem mass for Queen Marie's soul. I knew nothing about Orthodox services and when I got in I was given a candle, stood holding the candle and in came a man, a woman and four children. The four children were in national dress, the woman was in Red Cross uniform and the man was in uniform. Everybody stood up when they came in so I knew this must be the Princess and her husband. The service went on forever, and I stood there with my candle. Then I had to take the candle – we all did – climb up the mountain and kneel down on the stones and then put our candles outside, it seemed to me like a little golden gate in the mountain. And this is where Queen Marie's heart was.
Then the next moment, there was a huge General, dripping with medals, who said, "The Princess awaits you." I thought very quickly, "What does one do?" They were the enemy; they had been with the Germans. How did I greet her? I knew if she was the Princess Royal, and in England I would give her a curtsey. And I thought, "What would I do here?" Well, then good manners prevailed and let me give her a bob curtsey and shake hands. And she said, "My husband and my children …" The children all curtseyed; the husband shook hands and clicked his heels. And we went off and had lunch.
The husband was very unfriendly. He did not utter a word to me and didn't answer much. And later of course I discovered he was Von Hapsburg, an enemy fighter pilot, and I didn't know that I shouldn't really have been talking to them. They were imprisoned in the castle. I had no idea of course, because I had only just arrived and hadn't spoken to anyone about it. But the Princess said, "Would you like to swim? I won't be swimming today." And I said, "Well, I haven't a costume. " She said, "Well, you can have mine." So I did. And the lady-in-waiting, and the children and I all swam. Icy cold water, straight down the mountains. And then I sat with her and she talked and she told me all the gossip about all the different people who were, mostly, from the House of Lords, who had been in touch with the King and everyone during the war. It was quite interesting politically. Then, talking to the Princess, Ileana her name was, the King's aunt. I liked her very much, and she liked me. We were about the same age. And she said, "I'd like to come and visit you." I said. "You can come and stay. I'm in Bucharest." "OK", she said, "That would be great."
So then I went back, and when I got back, the colonel said to me, "How did you spend your first weekend?" I said, I went to Brasov, I went to the castle and met Princess Ileana."
"You did what?" he said. "Did you not know they are outside the pale? We don't talk to them."
"Oh, I said, "I've invited her to come and stay."
He said, "You'll have to let the Foreign Office know at once. Why did you do it?"
I said, "Well, my mother's interested in Queen Marie and they were having a mass for her soul, so I naturally went." (Laughing) And I said, "It was a very good weekend, very interesting. But her husband wasn't very nice to me."
"No!" he said. "He's a Nazi pilot." "Oh", I said, "I see." "They are prisoners there." I said, "I think it's a bit much."
"You really shouldn't have gone there."
What I heard was, that the Princess didn't swim because she was pregnant. When I got back everybody in Bucharest seemed to know I had been there. I hadn't seen anybody; I hadn't spoken to anybody, but this seemed to be all over Bucharest. And the diplomats' wives said, "How was the Princess? How did you find her? Didn't you notice she was pregnant?"
I said, "No, I didn't think about it."
They said, "Well, she is the mistress of the No 1 of the communist party, and she wants her son, that's going to born (it's his) to be King and get rid of the King."
These were all the foreign diplomats' wives chatting. "And you went there?"
"Yes", I said, "I thought she was charming."
"She looked alright?"
I said, "She looked splendid to me. I had a wonderful weekend." I said, "Now I know why he wouldn't talk to me." "Well, of course not," they said.
Well, Colonel wasn't pleased, but I couldn't see why he should be angry. How did I know? No-one had told me. How did I know these things out of the blue? Anyway, the Foreign Office was quite pleased to have all the gossip. And that showed me how things worked.
That was my introduction to Rumania, which of course I found very exciting, very enthralling. But I had a Russian opposite number. He was always turning up. It is very interesting what one can do, actually, if you just think before you do it. We knew that a very nice Austrian, and her husband, they were members of the Red Cross and had been doing marvellous things. We knew the Russians were about to arrest them. So I had to go and warn them. It was an interesting job warning them. I never wrote addresses down, I remembered them always, and I knew always why I could go into a house by the smell, usually. This one smelled strongly of cats. And when I went in I went to the top floor and there were these two little Austrian people and I warned them that they must get out, they were about to be arrested by the Russians and taken away. If they could get out in time, the Russians would forget it after a time, I thought. Then I had only just got outside and I met my opposite Russian number. "Hello," he said, "Where have you been?" I said, "Walking. And where have you been?" He said, "Walking." And he put his arm through mine and sang You are my Sunshine all the way back.
And then I complained in the cold winter that my ears froze. And he asked someone to give this to him. And then the Colonel presented me with a Russian hat. And my boss said, "You'll now have to wear it." This had all that fur, and it came down, with ear-flaps, under your chin. I didn't really want to wear it. I had to put my ATS brooch in the front and wear this awful old hat. Because it had been presented to me by this Russian colonel. I was so afraid of being shot as a Russian! But I wasn't.
But I did have one rather frightening moment. I had been working late in our place, gathering up the information I knew the Foreign Office needed urgently, and I suddenly felt very lonely working alone there. I thought, "I won't do that, I'll come out and I'll finish off in my own flat."
The snow had fallen. There were no cars, nothing about. They only had sledges, but there was nothing. It was about ten o'clock at night. And I was coming down the main boulevard in this deep snow and suddenly in front of me there were three Russian soldiers. I knew this would spell trouble, but there was nothing I could do. They blocked my way, so I stood quite still. They pushed me, but I didn't fall over and I didn't speak. My Russian was very limited. I knew how to say in Russian, "son of a bitch", but I didn't think this was the moment to use it. So I said nothing. And then I wondered what was going to happen. I felt for my revolver – I didn't have it. It was under my pillow still. So I stood quite still and one of them moved away to one side, and I knew I would now have to walk over the main boulevard in the snow. And I decided I would walk, I would not run, I would not hurry, I would not look round. But to this day, I can feel what it I feels like to imagine a bullet in your back. When I got to my room I ran upstairs, grabbed the gun from under the pillow, leaned out of the window. If they had been coming I would have shot them. They didn't come.
The next day I was telling T. about this, who'd trained me in shooting. And he said, "You keep your gun under your pillow! By the time you'd found it you'd have been shot six times."
He said, "That isn't what you do. You tie your gun to a long piece of string and you tie it round your big toe and you put it between your knees, and you learn to turn over with the revolver between your knees. And it's ready to grab and shoot."
"Now, you must practice this", he said, "it is the only way to survive."
Are you sure he was serious?
Absolutely. And I did it. Every night I had my revolver on a long piece of string tied to my big toe. And whether I had the safety catch on or not was up to me. You might have shot your toe.
I was thinking that!
But only your toe. (Laughter)
But life in Rumania was like that. And so it went on until it was time for us to leave.
So how long did you stay in Rumania?
Only a year. And then we signed the peace treaty with Rumania and the Russians – my opposite number was a member of the NKVD, the secret part, but they always had other jobs and you weren't supposed to know. We knew because he had a daughter; and the daughter he loved and he would do anything to save his life for his daughter. Now we needed information about the Russians quite badly and he got venereal disease, and we had the medicine and they didn't. We didn't mind saying, "You can have some of that medicine if you tell us." And of course they did. That sort of thing, one had to use, because how else would we cope with the war? When we'd signed the peace treaty we came back to England and it was totally different. When you came back you felt you'd been in another world.
But I felt that Rumania had given me … There were these young men, four of them, and we parted every night. They didn't want anything like these days, people always introduce sex. Sex didn't come into it. Excitement came into it. Skiing came into it, up the mountains; travelling, doing the most dangerous things came into it. That's what they'd done during the war, all of them, and that's all they really knew about, what they liked. And so it had been a very exciting time. It had been fun! Always great fun.
So we are now up to about 1950?
[…] I can't remember exactly which year this would be. […] '48, '49, I would think. '46 I went there. No, '47, '48 it would be. In England it was clothes rationing, austerity. And out there nobody thought about anything like that. Rumania had sided with the Germans, because the Russians – they had to choose the Russians or the Germans. They chose the Germans. Because they were not interfered with in any way, the Germans ran it with a chap called Antonescu, who was a Fascist, and they had their Fascist small army controlling everything. Marshall Antonescu was in charge and ran Rumania. Just about the time I came out, which was '46-'47, we shot him. And I had his valet, who had been trained, which was very nice to have. But he had ruled Rumania with a rod of iron, which made it work, because they worked well being told what to do. And so this is what had happened and they had only just seen the fringes of the war. King Michael was still there. He was still young. Wonderful man. King Carol had abdicated and gone off with Madame Lupescu to Spain with a trainload of goodies, and left King Michael as a child and he had grown up and was now ,I suppose, about twenty-something, early twenties, very serious, a very good king. He wasn't sure how to cope with all this going on but he decided that he'd stay in Bucharest and be with his people, not go out. They thought he would because he went to the Queen's wedding and there he met a German princess and they got engaged, but he said, "No, I must go back to my country, it's in a muddle." When he got back he decided he must stay.
Now. the Russians were on the South border and they were going to come rushing up and fight the Germans. It would have been a most terrible war. So King Michael decided this mustn't happen, they must switch over with the Allies now. He, of course, was related to the Royal Family, anyway. He got them to do this. When they did this, he called back the Rumanian army and they sent the German army flying. But before that he got hold of the German Obergruppenfuhrer and he sent for him, and he said, "This is what I want." And he said, "No, you can't do it." What the King did, he made a secret sign to one of his people, he grabbed the German and they put him in a safe, a walk-in safe, and locked him in. And then somebody came and asked, "Where is the Obergruppenfuhrer?" He said, "Oh, he's in a safe place at the moment." And he sent for his top generals and they decided to swing over to be with the British.
Now, this infuriated Hitler, who sent bombing of the Palace and the King disappeared into the woods. This went on for a time and things got worse for the King and he was surrounded and the Russians came in and said "You've got to leave. If you don't leave (just like that) we're going to kill all the young students." That's hundreds of them. And he couldn't bear to see that happen so he and his mother abdicated. They were taken from the Palace with nothing at all, not even a change of clothing, and flown out to England.
And now it came under Russian rule and that was how it was left. And the British and Americans left, and left it for the Russians. Then communism was introduced. That started with the Prime Minister Doctor Groza. He wasn't too bad, but then it came to Gheorghiu-Dej and he was a most terrible dictator, he was so cruel. And after that it was Ceausescu. I actually met Ceausescu. He wasn't Prime Minister at the other time, he was another minister. It was the New Year and we decided we must do something for New Year. They said, "Ceausescu's having a very good party, let's go in."
So we just drew our revolvers and the four of us, officers, different sorts of officers, we went in.
This is during your year in Rumania? Yes, we just waited for the New Year, had some good food, and everybody looked terrified. And we chatted, and came out again when we had finished, and carried on. That was our dinner that night. Ceausescu's wife, she looked daggers at me. We were both wearing white … you can imagine. I thought she was wonderful. She had black hair in long ringlets right down to here. And I thought she looked so glamorous, and I didn't look that at all. My servant said, "You look like a Studenten." I had flowers in my hair. I suppose I did look young – I was young. English young. I looked so different from the very dark Rumanians.
Well, then we all had to get out and off we went back to England which seemed such a dreary place. Clothes rationing, everything rationed. Dull, you know.
I stayed in the Army because there didn't seem anything else to do then. England was so dull after the war, you know, very dreary, we had all that rationing. We still had rationing, clothes and food. And if you went round London it was bombed, terrible to look at. Everything had to be repaired. And people were feeling so tired, and so unhappy. There was no jollity. And Norman Hartnell, who was the couturier, he wakened us all up by having … I don't know if you know, but during the war, because we were so short of everything, skirts should only come to the knee, there was no turn-up on trousers, nothing like that. He introduced long skirts and under-petticoats where the lacy bottom just showed. And if you were poor and couldn't afford a petticoat, you got a piece of lace and sewed it to the bottom of your skirt, so it just showed. That made the day for women, the New Look, the long skirt. And feminism after all those years in uniform, austerity, there was still clothes rationing … Food rationing, there was still food rationing, I honestly thought I'd starve to death when I heard of it. So dramatic, but we were all so slim and healthy. But it was so dull, it was so dreary, everything was being repaired, nothing had colour, nothing was new. And there seemed no future; that was the awful thing. It was so, so grim.
So you stayed in the Army and what were you doing when you returned?
Well, I was again at the War Office, in Whitehall.
That had the advantage that it was always lovely to go up to Trafalgar Square and go into the art galleries and see things. That was still going on, people were still painting. Art galleries were happening, and music. The Albert Hall; that was working. art was back. And so it was quite good being in London. But everything was fairly grim still, and one had to take time to come out of it.
But I was in the War Office, which was quite the place to be, in a way a good place to be. I went on a long tour to Lapland, where no-one had really been. Had a holiday there. Then I was sent out to Singapore. Now that made a change. That was totally different. But of course there was another war on there. We were fighting the communists in Malaya. So, you see, the Army had a lot still to do. You didn't feel it was finished.
Singapore was grim. No air-conditioning whatsoever. Huts, travelling in backs of huge lorries, like the coolies. It didn't suit me at all, Singapore. The humidity was 98 percent. Desperate. But the work was interesting and one went up to Malaya, where the commies were fighting in the jungles. And of course it was a terrible time, finding these people. Then you had to identify them, which was difficult. So the Army – it's bad enough dragging yourself through a jungle like that – you might have all these ulcers on your legs and terrible things happening to you – but you had to identify a leader, if you thought you'd killed him. So we used to cut his head off and bring it back, so you could identify him. Then, of course, somebody heard about it in the House of Commons. "You must bring the bodies back." So, of course no-one had taken someone from the House of Commons, put them in the jungle and said, "As well as your equipment and your guns and everything, and your ulcers on your legs, carry a dead body back for identification." But of course these stupid rules got passed because that is what happens! In the end we quelled that thing of the commies, they were now gone from Malaya and I came back to England.
I trained young women to become officers in the Army. All my different experiences were used for that, which was very interesting. And I did of course do a spell just in the War Office living in London. And that was interesting too, for a time. And then it gets a bit dull, you know, just the same round, but some of the things that landed on my desk really shook me. It was at the time of Korea and suddenly, a colonel comes in and says, "You won't believe it, they've run out of ammunition in Korea, the British Army has." You just couldn't believe it. "Right", he said, "Get some out urgently." I'll do my best. So I walk over to the Treasury (can't do anything without the Treasury), explain what's going on, gone to a senior enough person. "No," he said, "Can't do that." I said, "You're talking about the British Army, British people … no ammunition."
"No, no, it doesn't work like that. It's applied financial principle." I said, "You don't mind having that, and people being shot." He said, "It's applied financial principle. There is no other way." So I said, "I've got to send this by sea. Have you any idea how long it takes for a boat to get to Korea?" He just said, "That isn't the point."
I kept a red book, a little one, in which I put the names of people I thought were communists at heart. Because it may not be generally know that there was quite a communist movement and people were talking about it. So I kept this book of anyone I thought would be a communist.
I now went back to my colonel and said, "You'll have to go and see the Vice General and get him to go and see the top Treasury man if you want to get it out faster."
"Oh", he said, "They are a bore, aren't they. Alright, I'll do that. I'll see to it and we'll get it out." [I was then made a Major.]
Things like that happened. Bridges over the River Po because it was flooding, and the Italians would scream, "Can you help us with a bridge?" "Yes, we'll send the engineers out, they'll put up a bailey bridge."
This sort of thing made it quite interesting to do, but you know, after a time it gets a bit boring, although it's a nice way to have a civilised life. I was there in the War Office on and off, backwards and forwards. But I did train officer cadets, and I was sent to Trieste. Now Trieste was a lovely place. Before that I'd been to the Staff College, only twelve people chosen to do that. And on my report they put "She'll get the VC or never be heard of again". (Laughs)
I was sent out to Trieste. Now that was in Intelligence, to do counter-espionage. That was interesting. But before I did that I had to go to Maresfield, the home of Intelligence, and take a course on advanced Intelligence. They'd never had a woman on it before, so they hadn't anywhere for me to stay. So I stayed in a hotel on Ashdown Forest. One of the chaps said, "We've got a tennis court, shall we play tennis? Let's gather up some of them and let's play." So we used to play tennis and do things. Now I knew where I was going. I knew that I was going to Trieste. He had no idea where he was going. He'd been a Chindit and he'd been fighting behind the lines, secretly, the Japanese. His name was T.C. and he had the DSO, I knew. When we were at this hotel, the owner, a very strange woman. He was a strange man, very nice, very strange … She said to him, "Would you like me to tell you your fortune?" He said, "Why not?"
I said, "What about mine?" She said, "I can't tell you yours." Looked at my hand.
She looked at his, and she said, "You've cut a knot."
He said, "Yes, I'm divorced." Well, I hadn't a clue.
"Yes," he said, "I'm divorced." Well that gave me sort of a feeling of confidence that she knew something. She said, "You're going to be posted to a place where there's sunshine, and I see small boats everywhere. It's very sunny. It's a dangerous job. And she went on about it. And I went off to Trieste. Next thing I heard, he was going to Trieste. And it was a dangerous job. There are small boats there, and it is sunny. I thought, you know, how extraordinary.
[para omitted for space reasons]
So around 1958 you were sent to Cyprus.
Yes. That was because there were 500 women there and EOKA was there and the women's' morale was low. I spent three years, the idea being to raise their morale, which I hope I did. At the end of that time I came back to England, went briefly to Catterick to do some Army work, and then came south to London to work as a Press Officer to the Minister of Defence and Lord Mountbatten. During this time my mother died and I was sent to Germany. While in Germany, quite soon after arriving, I met George and we got married.
And did that mean you automatically had to leave the Army?
Well, it was about that time that they might have let me stay if I'd asked to, but it hadn't come in yet. And I left the Army because I felt I wanted to. I felt the time had come. It was no more useful. All these things had happened. Communism was over mostly. Wars were over.
… One thing I didn't mention. The whole time I was skiing; racing, getting things in the Army ski championships. It was a very exciting Army life really.
Well, first of all, we went there taking lorry loads of stuff for people and places. And I then visited the hospitals to find out what was going on. And what they needed was stuff against AIDS for the children. So I flew this medicine out whenever I had enough money – that means a few thousand pounds – to buy it and send it out. But I couldn't let it go alone because it would have gone astray. It was worth so much. I had to go out personally each time and hand it over personally to a doctor in the hospital. And at the same time I saw what was required. In mental homes, where they were sleeping two in a bed because there was no room and everybody only had a very little money. There was unhappiness. Nobody smiled. They were all so grim. Everything was too terrible. And I felt I must stay and help. So my husband and I drove lorries and we took what we thought they needed. We found out and we took, like 500 nightdresses this place had asked for. Had them made. Every single thing. Our lorries were stuffed full. And orphanages and children … but it wasn't just those people who needed it. Everybody was in need. Doctors were in need – everyone.
[… this was] '89 or something like that. It was then. And I went on doing that – of course it seemed a really good thing to do – until my husband died. And then I couldn't go round alone. I couldn't drive a lorry and go round alone. So I was reading newspaper articles that talked about someone who'd been out there and had come across a bright young man who was a great help. I got in touch with him, and he worked for the Patriarch. And I knew that if you want real poverty go to the capital town of a country, not in the country, where I could see many of the charities had gone. It's lovely in the countryside. The Carpathian mountains are the most wonderful thing on earth. They've still got bears and wolves and wild boar and they are beautiful beyond belief. But it's no good going up there, that's not where the masses of poor are, they are always in the big towns and cities.
So I went to the Patriarch. There I was introduced to this young man who was not a priest, but he worked for the Patriarch. He was very intelligent with degrees in this and that and the other thing, but he felt a calling to do this. His name was Michael, but everyone was called Michael in one way or another! He helped me when I said "I want to do this. How do I do it?" "Well, there's a block of flats here …" Remember, Ceausescu is dead, so there's no-one running the country. It's at a loose end as it were. You could do what you liked. There were no rules saying you can't have your water like this, or your electricity like that. It was the most wonderful time to do things. And I would go to a huge block of flats where there may be a hundred people.
What had happened, Ceausescu had decided that people must stop farming and he would take over and it would be collective farming. So he built blocks of flats where he put one family in one room regardless of how many children, and he took over the farming. This happened all over the country. Well these flats were terrible. I went in and there was a family with a woman ill in bed, her husband doing the washing, which was hanging in the room. Of course there was nowhere else. And there were two buckets. One was for water and one was … There was only one lavatory a floor, in the centre of this building. So they had to have something else, particularly when there were children. And so there might be one child, there might be eight children, there might be more than eight. They all had one room. The lavatory was in the centre of the building and served both sides by the staircase. There was no running water in the room. Everything was central.
So I decided to, with money, go and buy a lavatory for each room. Sewers and everything that was required to have a shower in each room. All the pipes, a lavatory in each room and a shower and a washbasin and a screen to go round it. that was in every room. And I'd go to the market – you had to go to the market. And the money – the value changed every day so it had to be worked out at great length. I bought everything that was required and got them in lorries and I had to stop them being stolen, not only by people you might come across, but by the people in the flats. So I signed each lot out to each family and said, "Do it now, while I'm coming every day and I'm watching you." And they were delighted and they did it. They are very skilled the Rumanians, they can do things. They can do the lighting, the electricity. They can lay the sewers. They all know where everything is. They know somebody who can fix something. It was wonderful not having to ask any authority. You just fixed everything. You got it done. And they were so delighted – they never stopped photographing their lavatory, their shower … everything. So we had a party at the end and they had a stove on a long piece of wire, frightfully dangerous, and they cooked a pizza and we had some orangeade with it. Everyone rejoiced.
I went through the country seeing what was needed. In old people's homes it might be food, or clothing, and I tried to fill that in. There had been Chernobyl, so we needed different drugs and we got those. So it was all a matter of money. So I had to have my charity and raise money. I wrote a book called "The Poisoned Spy" and I went round selling it and at that moment – I don't know why – it seemed spies were in and I went to Harrods, Waterstones, Selfridges, all the shops and they all took them. Nobody sent one back. And I went through Norwich with the same thing.
I really stopped because I got exhausted. But it was very rewarding and in the end Micna had now become a priest, working for the Patriarch. And he said "We would like to do something to remember you by, What should it be?"
I said, "It should be something for the aged, for the dying, because they don't have anything." So I created a hospice for the dying in Bucharest. And it's still going well. I arranged so that the Patriarch pays so much, and the Mayor pays the other, so when I'm dead it will go on. It's very popular. It's not big enough really. It's impossible to enlarge it. But it was the first one there. And that's what I felt, I had now given back something to Bucharest. Which gave me something. I suppose it was the end of the war and life had been pretty frightening and dreary and at the end of the war I went out there and these people were full of pleasure still. They had never fought a war, you see, and their big thing was love. They've always been good at that. And it was quite amazing. So I thought that really I should do that. I remembered it right from the start, and then how Ceausescu left it. That is what I did out there.