In August 2009 I read a childhood memoir by Hermione, Countess Ranfurly, called the ‘Ugly One”, a book I came across by chance. Having finished it I wanted to read about the next stage of her life, in her war time diaries published as To War with Whitaker. I bought a copy of it some time ago – and I am stunned it has taken me quite so long to read it.
In January 1939 Hermione Llewellyn became Countess Ranfurly when she married her Dan, that is Daniel Knox the 6th Earl of Ranfurly. Their lives together were beginning at a particularly tumultuous time in European history, and soon the happy young couple were thrust right into the fray. In September 1939 Dan reported to his yeomanry in Nottinghamshire. The Ranfurly’s cook/butler Whitaker went too. Hermione followed after them.
Dan Ranfurly was then posted to the Middle East, unlike regular army wives, yeomanry wives were forbidden from joining their husbands in the Middle East, however Hermione had no intention of listening. Coming up against many very grumpy old generals, and miles of red tape Countess Ranfurly was determined not to return to England without her husband. Travelling between Cairo, Jerusalem Beirut, via South Africa the young Countess eventually manages to secure her place in the Middle East as a secretary – working first for the SOE Cairo office and later as a civil servant in Jerusalem.
In April 1941 Dan Ranfurly is among a group of men captured in the dessert by the Italians. Hermione is devastated by his disappearance, but she is powerless to do anything but wait for news. The Countess and the ever faithful Whitaker decide to wait it out in the Middle East, and not to return home without him. Eventually Dan’s letters start to come through to her – although they often take weeks and even months to reach her, and he is allowed only a few lines to write on.
Later the countess and her husband are reunited, and after a brief spell in London they are back working separately but in the same country – this time Italy. Throughout the years of World War II the Countess Ranfurly worked hard, often enduring long hours – earning the respect of many soldiers and civilians, among them “General Jumbo” for whom she worked for over 2 years in both the Middle East and Italy.
The dairies that Hermione kept are remarkably detailed and well written. Enormously atmospheric, they are also hugely readable and provide a marvellous history of the war in the Middle East particularly. During these years the Countess met some incredible people including Churchill, Eisenhower and Marshal Tito, and became the proud owner of a parrot called Coco – who was often given bananas by the Countess’s guests. As I read, I was continually impressed by this aristocratic young woman’s way of dealing with what the war threw at her. The Countess’s love for her young husband never wavers, she is absolutely devoted to him, but not in an over emotional way, she sheds the occasional tear but then just gets on with what she has to do – works hard, is sensible intelligent and brilliantly unstoppable.