From her private diaries, Winston Churchill’s daughter Lady Soames gives a vivid account of London society at war.
By Lady Soames
[Editors Note: The Daily Mail incorrectly refers to our Patron as “Lady Mary Soames,” when, as she herself has often pointed out, she is “Lady Soames,” having acquired the title by marriage rather than inheritance.]
THE DAILY MAIL, 3 September 2011—It was September 3, 1939. There was a blue summer sky with white clouds floating slowly by and I had made plans to ride with friends in the country.
At 11.15 came the brief statement by Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister. No reply had been received to Britain’s ultimatum that Hitler withdraw from Poland, he said, and, consequently, we were at war with Germany. I found it impossible to believe.
There must have been five or six of us there, subdued and moved by the announcement. Then we set off in a gallop.
This gesture of sheer theatre was the perfect touch – releasing tension and emotions. But I believe it marked the end of our world as we had known it.
During these early days of the war I divided my energies between helping with the major task of sewing blackout curtains and doing four-hour shifts as a telephonist at the ambulance headquarters in Westerham, near our home at Chartwell in Kent.
My father Winston Churchill had become First Lord of the Admiralty and it was planned, to my delight, that I should live in London with my parents. Just short of my 18th birthday, we moved into Admiralty House, between Whitehall and Horse Guards Parade.
I started as soon as possible at Queen’s College, Harley Street, joining a part-time course in English Literature, History and French. I also enrolled with the Red Cross making bandages: this was a severe test of my patriotism, as my natural aptitude with needle and thread is zero.
I much preferred my shifts at a Forces canteen at Victoria Station (except when one of my superiors took the unsporting view that I talked too much to the customers and planted me behind the steaming tea and coffee urns, from where I emerged rather crossly, and with my hairdo predictably ruined). I was unashamedly happy and excited by what I regarded as my first taste of ‘grown-up’ life – the badges of which were a telephone in my room and a latchkey.
‘It was now that my love and admiration for my father became enhanced by an element of heroworship. My affection became inextricably entwined with all the emotions I felt as a young, patriotic Englishwoman’
London social life was lively – theatres were full, there were plenty of nightclubs and often we would dine where we could dance. The Savoy, the Dorchester, the Cafe de Paris and Kettner’s were favourites.
I was not deemed to be ‘out’ and so nightclubs were officially forbidden, but the most dashing of us contrived to sneak off to clubs with a favourite young man. War was never far away.
We walked home in darkness. There would be no traffic, the only sounds those of distant footfalls. In May 1940, as I danced at the Savoy until the early hours with Mark Howard, heir to Castle Howard in Yorkshire, Germany swooped in on Holland and Belgium. I wrote in my diary: ‘The bestiality of the attack is inconceivable.’
With Chamberlain’s resignation, my father became Prime Minister. I listened spellbound to his broadcasts and was thrilled when my mother took me to hear him in the Commons on June 4, when he reported the dramatic tale of the Dunkirk evacuation. He spoke of our determination and ability to ‘defend our island home . . . if necessary for years, if necessary alone’.
“It was now that my love and admiration for my father became enhanced by an element of heroworship. My affection became inextricably entwined with all the emotions I felt as a young, patriotic Englishwoman.“
With the Blitz becoming daily more ferocious, I spent more time back at Chartwell. In one letter, my mother referred to Winston’s speech in the Commons on September 5, 1940, when he had announced the exchange with the United States of 50 old American destroyers for naval bases in the Caribbean – a deal of huge importance to us at the time. ‘I read Papa’s speech of course,’ I wrote back, ‘and it was so cheering and invigorating . . . I think it is the best thing I’ve heard for a long time.
What a “poke-in-thesnoot” for Hitler!’ In ordinary times, my contemporaries and I would have been making our ‘debut’, the highlight of which was being presented at Court. Of course in wartime, presentation parties were cancelled. But one great annual social event – Queen Charlotte’s Annual Birthday Dinner Dance for debutantes at the Grosvenor House hotel – continued to take place. In 1940, this was the event of the season, and it evoked much excited anticipation.
I (according to my ‘dear diary’) began dressing at about 5.30 . . . ‘Well, I must say it was lovely to wear such a really beautiful white taffeta hooped dress (slightly off the shoulders!) I wore tiny camellias in my hair – my pearl necklace – my aquamarine & pearl drop earrings, long white gloves – & a sweet little diamond naval crown!’
I was in a state of euphoria – and my cup of happiness overflowed when towards the end of dinner my father unexpectedly arrived to join us for a little while. Summing it all up in my diary: ‘I can only say the evening was a dream of glamour & happiness.’
Early in 1941 I went to Petworth House, Sussex, for a dance given by Lord and Lady Leconfield. Leaving Chequers early on an icy Saturday morning, I took the train to London and I was shocked to see the effects of a winter’s bombings: yawning gaps, boards replacing blown-out windows, apparently abandoned shops declaring in large letters ‘BUSINESS AS USUAL’, and entrances shored up with sandbags.
Arriving at Petworth, I found an ‘enormous house party assembling – some of whom I knew already’. The dance itself was ‘nothing short of heaven. Positively pre-war. Oh the glamour of not having tickets – & its not being in a hotel. Retired footsore & weary but very happy to bed at 4.30am.’
It was only two months later in 1941 that I found myself returning to none other than that hardy perennial, Queen Charlotte’s Ball for debutantes in the vast underground ballroom at the Grosvenor House hotel.
We of the previous year’s vintage rather patronisingly agreed, as I noted in my diary, that ‘this year’s debs aren’t much to write home about’! Just as we were going down for dinner an air raid began, but we heard only odd bumps and thuds above the music.
Emerging from the ball in the early hours after the All Clear had sounded, our party heading for the nightclubs met barriers and closed streets, with ambulances and fire engines clustered round the Cafe de Paris in Coventry Street, which had received a direct hit [more than 30 were killed].
Recalling it now, I am a little shocked that we headed off to find somewhere else to twirl away whatever was left of the night. Chequers brought some delightful friends into my life, and some quasi-romantic interludes – the latter of short duration.
My Arabian prince
Young men on leave lunched and dined with us, and we saw each other on and off in London: the uncertainties of our lives heightened feelings. Local dalliances apart, in a period of two months I became engaged to be married – and then dis-engaged – to Eric Duncannon, the son of Lord and Lady Bessborough. We met in March at their home at Stansted Park in Sussex. Eric was nine years older than me.
An officer in his county regiment, he was extremely cultivated. During April he courted me elegantly: letters, long telephone calls, an evening or two dining and dancing, and John Donne’s Collected Poetry And Prose. I became much attracted to him.
At the beginning of May, he came for the weekend to Chequers, and on the Sunday, in the White Parlour, he asked me to marry him. My diary shows me as being taken by surprise: ‘I’m in a daze – I think I’ve said “Yes” – but O dear God I’m in a muddle.’
My mother, Clementine, was not enthusiastic; my father – with other things to think of – was genial, but left it all to her. I vacillated. My mother confided her doubts to Lord Beaverbrook, the newspaper magnate, writing: ‘It has all happened with stunning rapidity.
She is only 18, is young for her age . . . & I think she was simply swept off her feet with excitement.’ The families conferred, and no one could have been kinder or more welcoming than my future parents-in-law. But on a long and tedious journey to join my parents at Ditchley in Oxfordshire, serious misgivings crowded in on me.
At last we arrived. My mother whisked me off to her room and told me she had discussed the whole matter with my father and they wanted our engagement put off for six months. I was aghast. My mother asked me if I felt certain of my feelings – and I was unable to answer.
Letters were sent by dispatch rider to the Bessboroughs, and drafted announcements rescinded. We all got through the evening in civilised fashion, aided by a long film: ‘Had a lot of cider cup – felt better,’ I wrote in my diary, but I was aware I had behaved stupidly and went to bed ‘crushed, humiliated, but fairly calm’.
© Lady Mary Soames 2011. A Daughter’s Tale: The Memoir Of Winston And Clementine Churchill’s Youngest Child, by Lady Mary Soames, is published on September 15 by Doubleday, priced £25. To order your copy at the special price of £20 with free p&p, call The Review Bookstore on 0843 382 1111 or visit www.MailLife.co.uk/Books.