Review: To War with Whitaker: The Wartime Diaries of Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly 1939–1945

This book is available from the Library

A diary featuring the lives of a countess and a valet during the Second World War might not instantly appeal to those of an egalitarian turn of mind, but Hermione was no typical countess nor Whitaker a typical valet.

True, Hermione came from a wealthy family; but they had lost their money when she was in her teens and she trained as a shorthand typist to earn her living. Whitaker, overweight, cheerful and resourceful, came from a poor family in Sunderland and had a varied career before becoming a valet—from merchant seaman to pianist in a Pensacola brothel.

To our eyes it seems astonishing that the yeomanry went to war in 1939 with their horses and valets. Indeed, as her husband remarked, he could take anyone he liked: grannie, sister, mistress even—but not his wife. Undeterred, Hermione wangled a visa and set off for the Middle East. Throughout the early part of the diary she records the persistent efforts made by the authorities to deport her. Escorted on board The Empress of Britain in September 1940 she jumped ship in Cape Town with £28 in her pocket. Against all the odds, she managed to get a seat on a flying boat leaving Durban and after a 3-day journey north she was back in Cairo. The Empress was sunk by German bombers 300 miles off the coast of Ireland.

Finally the authorities gave in—in the words of General Wilson, she had ‘outmanoeuvred all the generals in the Middle East’—and allowed her to stay. Tellingly, her passport occupation was changed from ‘officer’s wife’ to ‘civil servant’. Her wartime exploits included smuggling documents (in her bra) out of the Cairo SOE office, where she had found it difficult to tell if the staff were working for the Germans or the British. Her secretarial skills were put to good use in various postings throughout the Middle East, and the list of people she met ran from Evelyn Waugh to Eisenhower. Tito came for afternoon tea, she took General Patton shopping and had lunch with Douglas Fairbanks (pork with jam and hot chocolate). The diary records the progress of the war in all its theatres, including the siege of Stalingrad, the bombing of Cologne and the destruction of Hiroshima: ‘Now . . . we have all become murderers in one way or another.’

Hermione had the endearing quality of being interested in everyone she met and liking nearly all of them. She made a wonderful companion and I was sorry to say goodbye to her when the book came to an end. I searched the internet to find out what she did in later life and was delighted to discover that she set up a library project to provide books to developing countries. This project later became the charity Book Aid International, which is still active today providing books to public and community libraries around the world.