It is 1942, and wounded are pouring into Palestine because the hospitals in Cairo are overflowing. The Countess of Ranfurly, whose husband is a prisoner of war in Italy, is helping at a Jerusalem hospital, being taught to shoot, and scribbling in her diary whenever possible. But she is also enjoying society. She confides in her diary, for example, how, dining with the Duke of Gloucester, she suggests the rubber shortage is worse for women than for men, and then, embarrassingly, is obliged to explain her point - ‘I said it may become difficult to obtain elastic girdles and that bras are very dependent on elastic, but I dodged mentioning needs further south.’ Weeks later corsets arrive in the post from India, from the Duke; and the Countess then tells her diary about how she fretted over the wording of a thank you telegram. The colourful Countess died ten years ago today.
Hermione Llewellyn was born in 1913, and brought up on her grandfather’s estate in Baglan, Wales, by apparently dysfunctional parents: her father was a gambler and her mother a manic depressive. They separated when Hermione was still a teenager. Her elder brother, whom she adored, was killed in an air crash. After studying secretarial skills, she went to Australia in 1937, and became the personal assistant to the Governor of New South Wales. There she met Daniel Knox, 6th Earl of Ranfurly.
Back in Britain, the couple met again and married in 1939. When her husband was called up for service in the army, Hermione broke the rules by travelling out to the Egypt to be with him; although, once there, she found if difficult to find work. She was expelled from the country, but returned secretly, only to suffer when her husband went missing. Nevertheless, she remained in the Middle East (becoming a favourite among the rich, royal and famous passing through); and Ranfurly’s cook/butler, a man named Whitaker, stayed with her. After three years in an Italian prison, Ranfurly eventually escaped and the couple were reunited. With the war over, Ranfurly worked in insurance, until Winston Churchill appointed him in 1953 to be Governor of Bahamas.
Horrified by the lack of education resources on the island, Hermione asked friends to send unwanted books. Thus, she was able to launch the Ranfurly Library Service in Nassau. The couple returned to Ranfurly’s Buckinghamshire estate in the late 1950s, where Ranfurly took up farming, and Hermione helped develop Book Aid International. By 1994, the charity had sent an estimated 15 million books to over 70 countries. She died on 11 February 2001. The Daily Telegraph’s obituary and Wikipedia have more biographical information, and the Bahamas Information Service reported, a few years later, that the couple’s only daughter, Lady Caroline Simmonds, had presented a new consignment of books to the Minister of Education.
For much of her life, starting aged only 5, Hermione kept a diary. On returning from the Bahamas, the writer Peter Fleming helped secure her a contract for publication of some extracts. However, she changed her mind about the project, and it was only much later, after the death of her husband in 1988, that she began again to edit the letters and diaries, partly with the help of her friend and neighbour Lord Carrington. Heinemann published them in 1994 - To War with Whitaker - The Wartime Diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly 1939-1945 - to much acclaim. The Daily Telegraph said the book was one of the ‘most delightful memoirs of recent times’.
In her introduction, the Countess says, ‘Since I was about five years old I have kept a diary. Though I am now eighty, most of these have survived my many adventures and travels and sometimes I glance at them to remember with laughter. . . My diaries, written mostly at night and always in haste, in nurseries, school rooms, cars, boats, aeroplanes and sometimes in loos, expose how we all arrive, helpless, innocent and ignorant; and then, as we step gingerly into the jungle, show how afraid, selfish, show-off and silly we often are. Mine also prove how lucky I have always been. Most of the creatures in my jungle have been extra special.’
Here are a few extracts from To War with Whitaker.
26 May 1942
‘Jerusalem: We had an official dinner for HRH Duke of Gloucester who is staying with us. He is visiting troops all over the Middle East and next month he is going to India. His itinerary is enough to give anyone a stroke. At dinner there was a discussion about the rubber shortage and, stupidly, I chipped in and said I thought this news was worse for the women than for men. HRH fixed me with an amused look and demanded that I explain exactly what I meant. I said it may become difficult to obtain elastic girdles and that bras are very dependent on elastic, but I dodged mentioning needs further south.’
26 June 1942
‘Wounded are pouring into Palestine because the hospitals in Egypt are overflowing. Each day between one and five I go down to a hospital in Jerusalem to help in the wards. I have no training so I do all the odd jobs such as washing soldiers, making beds and emptying things. Today I washed four heads which were full of sand. I am learning a lot about pain and courage and getting used to smells and sights. The soldiers make fun of everything and, even in the long ward where the serious cases are, no one ever grumbles. I cannot describe the courage of these men. Only when they ask me to help them to write home do I glimpse their real misery: some of them are so afraid their families will not want them back now they are changed. They call me ‘Sugar’.’
12 July 1942
‘While we were talking several people joined us and soon an argument began as to whether we can hold the Germans in Egypt and what will happen if we don’t. There was talk of evacuation which I still find rather a sore subject. ‘Lord Byron said women and cows should never run,’ I said. A little man who was standing nearby turned round - he had a red, rather belligerent face: ‘And what use would you be?’ he asked. Robin came to my rescue: She would fight with the rest of us,’ he said. ‘Can you shoot? the stranger asked me. I shook my head - I was beginning to feel foolish. Red Face glared: ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I like that bit about Lord Byron. I’ll teach you to shoot. Be at the police station on the Jaffa Road at six tomorrow.’ He stumped off before I could ask his name.’
13 July 1942
‘This evening I went straight from the hospital to the police station on the Jaffa Road. Red Face was waiting for me in a bare Arab room. I asked his name. ‘Call me Abercrombie,’ he said, ‘it’s as good as any other. Now sit down,’ he continued, ‘I shall tell you all I know. I was taught in America by “G” men and I am a bloody fine shot. Make the gun part of your arm. . . He showed me how to hold it easily in my hand, how to cock it and recock it without moving anything but my fingers and wrist. ‘Never pull the trigger,’ he said. ‘Your gun is like an orange in the palm of your hand. You must squeeze that orange.’ . . .
He took me over to the range. It was dark inside and after the stark Palestinian sun I could not see. ‘There are six dummy men in here,’ he said, ‘stay where you are and use your eyes. Kill them.’ He was unsparing. I shot with my right hand, with my left hand, and with both hands. I hated the noise and blinked my eyes. My wrist wobbled; my mind wobbled. He made me go on. Sometimes I shot in the dark. Sometimes he turned on the light. He bawled. I shot. ‘One, two. One, two. Now left. Now right. Now both together. Squeeze that orange. Keep your eyes open.’ Sweating and shy I plugged on, standing close-to and then far from his life-size dummies. After an hour he told me to return at the same time tomorrow.’
16 July 1942
‘A magnificent parcel, covered in tape and seals, arrived for me from India. Inside were two pairs of old-fashioned corsets with bones and laces. They were sent by HRH The Duke of Gloucester. Nick and I had an argument as to how one should thank one of the Royal Family for a present of corsets. Whichever way we put it looked disrespectful. Finally, we sent a telegram saying: ‘Reinforcements received. Positions now held. Most grateful thanks.’ ’