Friday, July 17, 2009

To War With Whitaker: The Wartime Diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly 1939-45 : Hermione Ranfurly

A terrific book! This is a different view of life during WWII – the view from the Middle East, and also a woman’s view. Yes, she’s a countess, but when fighting the military bureaucracy that only seems to make things more difficult. She’s young – 25 at the start of the war, and only just married. Her husband (also just 25) is with the Nottinghamshire Sherwood Rangers, and they get posted off to Palestine. Wives are not allowed to follow, but that doesn’t stop Hermione! Thus begin her adventures around the Middle East – Jerusalem, Cairo, Baghdad, Aleppo, Algiers, and eventually Italy. Early on the military brass try to get rid of her, and force her to leave on a ship going back to England. She jumps ship in Cape Town (the ship is eventually bombed by the Germans, and her best friend is killed) and manages to get a seat on a plane going back to Cairo by pretending to be a secret service agent.

She has excellent secretarial skills and eventually the powers that be are forced to admit that they really do need her, as there’s a desperate shortage of English-speaking secretaries in Cairo and Jerusalem. Not too long after her return to Cairo, her husband is captured and taken prisoner by the Italians, and she spends much of the war wondering and worrying where, and how, he is. In spite of this, she still meets dozens of fascinating and important people through her work, and writes about them charmingly. She describes the enormous difficulties of wartime life, the uncertainties, the minimal living conditions, lack of bathing facilities, cramped spaces, all in a straightforward manner without complaint. She’s the type that gets on with it, no matter what. The book isn’t really about Whitaker, her husband’s batman (“a soldier assigned as a personal assistant to a commissioned officer”), although he provides a constant reassuring presence.

There’s an excellent obituary of Hermione, with more details of the book here: