An Interview with Susan Kidder
Finest Hour 138, Spring 2008
Susan Kidder is a recent transplant from New England to Wisconsin and founder of the Winston Churchill book group of Wisconsin. WSC was Susan’s inspiration since middle school years: “I learned the power of the spoken word, which I used to disarm my verbal tormenters!”
Danny Mander was born in Lancashire to a Scottish mother and English father in 1917, and after school became a journeyman engraver. In 1939 he volunteered for the Military Police and attended the Police College in March 1940. He was discharged in April 1946 and later emigrated to the United States. Now 91, Danny is an active real estate broker in California, where he is regularly taken for thirty years younger. He is living testimony to the late Alistair Cooke’s vow that he would never retire, “because I’ve observed that my friends who retire immediately keel over.” Danny and his wife Heather live in Sacramento.
True to history, Danny has recorded his recollections on a CD and has made plans to publish a small book. The CD is available for US$20 in the USA and US$24.95 elsewhere, plus US$5 shipping anywhere by airmail. Credit card orders can be made on www. mmpublishing.com or send check or money order (US$ only) to MM Publishing, PO Box 791, Aromas California 95004.
Susan Kidder: How did you get to Teheran?
Danny Mander: In June 1942 I was posted to Teheran to ferret out German spies. With Iranian agreement, German “occupational plants” had been sent there in 1937-38, hoping to be absorbed into the Iranian community by the time Hitler got through Russia, easing his access to Iranian oil fields. As managers of newspapers, railways, local industry, even the branch of a police station, they were experts in their fields and had learned the language well. Fortunately, our own secret branch of the Intelligence Corps, the Field Security Police, were nondescript types who merged into the community and were quickly able to identify the culprits. One by one they were arrested at pistol point and taken to a wing of an Iranian jail allotted to us for our questioning. We treated them humanely but questioned them closely, and when we had learned enough we put them on a train to Basra, Iraq. From here they were sent by boat to India for safekeeping until the end of the war.
Taking our prisoners to the railway station was the most dangerous time. “Relatives” would appear to bid them good-bye, trying to pass them guns, knives and cut-throat type razors….It was hazardous work, and the only advice we had was to be careful. Their fate in India was far better than Allied soldiers in German camps. I always found Indian Army soldiers to be friendly and hospitable. But without the Field Security Police of the British army, we could never have achieved such intelligence success—and it was all done without a shot being fired.
SK: Were these agents dedicated Nazis?
DM: Hard to tell. There were no Nazi salutes or Heil Hitlers. They were clearly middle class and well educated. Had Hitler won, they would have enjoyed a comfortable life with more freedom than in Germany. They had come to Iran with few regrets, and as the war progressed I am sure they felt they had chosen right. They behaved well under the circumstances, not like desperately oppressed people, and not like dedicated Nazis.
SK: Your next job, I gather from your tapes, was creating a route between Teheran and Sheba, 30 miles northwest of Basra, as a supply route to Russia—part of Lend-Lease aid to the Soviets. This was all behind-the-scenes work, very important but sometimes missed in the history books.
DM: You would be amazed at what Lend-Lease entailed that the American public never knew about. I set off with three other policemen, a Jeep and a pick-up truck, bedding in a tent so as not to waste any time packing and repacking. Experts from the Royal Engineers rode with us, checking every bridge over the dried-up stream beds (which became raging torrents in the wet season). My job was to read the poor quality maps and try to keep us on the dirt and gravel roads. We went from sea level to three or four thousand feet, where there was snow; then down to the terrific heat of the sandy plains, then up to the 3000-foot Teheran plateau.
I could not remember how long it took to do this survey—until the time I saw convoys traveling this route to Russia after I had been moved from Teheran to Ahwaz in early 1944. This was a forsaken place on the River Karun, which empties into the Persian Gulf—hot and filthy, with lots of malaria. We took precautions against malaria, but we caught sandfly fever instead.
At Ahwaz, I finally saw the results of my outing with the Royal Engineers. Convoys were rolling from Basra with cargoes from America, Britain and Canada, where we’d put them on trains for Teheran. The railway was built before the war by a consortium of British, Dutch and German engineers; it winds up and around huge mountains, and on the top you can look back and see six or seven stations in the distance. There are also scores of tunnels. I’d never heard of this monumental undertaking until I saw it. Its builders were proud of it, as they had a right to be.
Moving military material to Russia was a phenomenal achievement. Americans never knew the extent of Lend-Lease—and it was all for free. I am sure the Russians never paid a bean, although I read not too long ago that Britain paid off its last Lend-Lease loans to the United States in 2006.
My job in Ahwaz was to administer security checkpoints. In August 1942, I was ordered to organize security for an upscale conference of “senior officials”—British American, Russian and Iranian. By now, Iran had decided to ditch Germany and to be on our side. This showpiece meeting was at an old chateau on large grounds, the like of which I hadn’t known existed in Ahwaz. It was like a king’s palace.
The participants assembled. As each general stepped out of his car he was given a raffle-type ticket to reclaim it. He would then walk into the garden, where he was smartly saluted by three lance corporals (British, Russian, American), with fixed bayonets. Farther on he was saluted by three corporals, then three sergeants. As they dined, it was interesting to see the British and Americans stack their arms in a corner, while the Russians sat with their rifles between their knees!
Making conversation, I asked what happened to the Lend-Lease Studebaker trucks, laden with arms and medical supplies, that we had sent on the railway cars to Russia. The Russians replied that they were in storage. So I asked, “Why aren’t they being used?” They replied: “We are saving them to fight the Americans.” Quite a straight answer—and with venom to go with it.
SK: In August 1942 you first encountered Churchill, who flew in from Cairo, where he had just installed Alexander and Montgomery in the Middle East Command. How did you come to be assigned?
DM: I was thoroughly vetted. A sergeant-major cross-examined me on everything: schooldays, religion, church attendance, first job, social activities, sports (football, cricket, running). Was I a non-smoker and non-drinker? Yes. “Right,” he said, “report at 5 AM tomorrow morning, and bring a comrade you can trust.” I chose Charlie Oakenful.
The next morning we drove out to a disused airfield named “Qualy Morguey” (area of wild rabbits). Other cars began to arrive, loaded with foreigners: Russians, Persian generals, American brass. We had no inkling of what was about to take place.
Sometime after 6 am an American plane the size of a jetliner touched down and taxied to where we were all assembled. A side door opened and a rather rotund figure appeared, wearing a siren suit and a large cigar. There was no doubt who he was.
The brass made a receiving line and Winston Churchill was introduced to each “victim.” Charlie and I were at the end, and realized we were not part of the “high echelon.” So, as he got to me, I stepped out of line, saluted him (which he returned) and opened the car door for him to enter. He smiled and muttered, “Thank-you, corporal.” We were off and running on a “harmonious friendship”!
At the British Legation in Teheran, the kitchen staff had breakfast ready, despite the early hour. Charlie and I took turns walking around the building, mainly guarding the rear access. I called for more help at the front, where locals were gathering, realizing something was up; it would have been easy for a terrorist to mix with them and get inside. I will never forget the “breakfast dessert,” which we shared: peaches with their stones removed, filled with liquid chocolate, cream on top, and the slice preciously cut replaced at a jaunty angle in the cream. Having spent two years in the UK when no fruit was imported, it was wonderful to see such luscious peaches. They tasted as good as they looked.
I was asked to command a motorcycle escort for the embassy limousine which would take Churchill to the Shah’s summer residence at Shimran for lunch. From here we went to the summer residence of the British Minister, where the Prime Minister decided to take a swim in the pool and a walk around the gardens. I followed closely, trying to answer his avid questions about plants and flowers.
Mr. Churchill always noticed and talked to people allocated to serve and guard him. Jokingly, he invited me to join him in the pool. Of course, he knew that as a bodyguard I could not do so, and he laughed when I had to refuse. In short, he behaved as a normal person—not at all stand-offish.
Rather than return to Teheran, the Prime Minister decided to stay overnight at this cooler altitude, so Charlie and I were on continual duty all night long. The next morning, astride the motorcycles again, we escorted the PM to the “airport,” and he flew off to visit Stalin in Moscow.
SK: What were your impressions of the “Big Three” at the November 1943 “summit conference”?
DM: It was a fraught time for Churchill, and he dictated to stenographers non-stop when returning to his room after a session with Stalin and Roosevelt. This I admired, for he always returned fresh as a daisy inside and out, ready to face another gruelling meeting. It is a lesson anyone in such an important position should learn.
He never went to a social event without emptying his mind of all that had transpired at the plenary sessions beforehand. This also impressed me. It made such a difference to his attitude as he went off to his next meeting, usually of a very different calibre to the last. How wonderful he must have felt to be fresh every time in mind and spirit. It was a great trait.
When we took Churchill to the Russian Embassy, the OGPU (Soviet secret police) were trying to hide behind every tree on the great lawn. It seemed very silly because we all could see them. It was very different from the security we were trained to provide. We never used large numbers of men, but we placed them far more strategically.
The only time I saw the PM the worse for alcohol was when I helped him walk back to our legation after one of those long dinners with the Russians. It was a fine, clear night and he and Eden chose to walk rather than ride in the limousine. They were still on their feet—just. I put my arm within his to hold him steady and had a corporal do the same for Mr. Eden. Thus they continued straight and upright to the British consulate, talking together (but not carousing!) in proper British fashion.
November 30th was Churchill’s 69th birthday and his turn to host dinner at the British Legation. The Russians were uncooperative on security and trusted no one. The Americans were the opposite, entrusting Roosevelt to our own police.
Roosevelt could not use the stone steps at the front door, so carpenters had made a ramp up to the rear kitchen door, which was situated along a narrow alley. His car drove up, and his driver pulled a folding wheelchair from the boot. As he unfolded it I lifted FDR from his car into the chair. I was impressed by his size, his large head and massive chest. From the waist up he was a great looking man, but his buttocks and legs were wasted away from polio. As he was being pushed up the ramp to the kitchen door, Churchill welcomed him inside.
Stalin was a different kettle of fish. He drank multiple toasts but with very small glasses, and always remained firmly sober. I remember him arriving at the circular drive around a lily pond at the bottom of the Legation steps. A corporal who sprang to open the car door for him had to use two hands: It contained heavy panels of bullet-proof steel. As Stalin stepped out, a surge of Russian officers from the cars following behind rushed up to enclose him totally, so no one else could get near. It was all done quickly. I remarked at the time that the only person who could put a knife in Stalin’s back were his own officers.
SK: How did you save Marshal Voroshilov?
DM: The Stalingrad Sword, which the British made to present to the Russians, was on display at our legation. Stalin said Voroshilov had earned this trophy, so the Marshal decided to visit us to familiarize himself with it before presentation. He wanted to read the inscriptions, which were in English on one side of the blade and Russian on the other.
As Voroshilov arrived, cars shuttling to and from the American Embassy were sweeping through our gate without stopping to make it difficult for any hidden sniper. Voroshilov, already inside, was walking up the drive, which had a hedge on either side. I called to him to get out of the way, but he didn’t understand English and strolled on as if deaf!
With a convoy approaching at high speed, I took immediate action. Running across a strip of lawn, I jumped the hedge, grabbed him around the waist like a Rugby tackler, and bowled him over the hedge just as the motorized convoy whizzed past. He was completely stunned as we got up and brushed off bits of grass. I tried to apologize, but he realized I had taken him out of mortal danger, and tried to say thanks. A legation staffer later told me he had come inside very shaken, asking for water and a chair to sit on. Hopefully, he said his prayers to whatever deity Communists still prayed to.
SK: What was your relation with Detective-Sergeant Thompson, Churchill’s bodyguard?
DM: When I learned that a film was being made about him I wrote to the BBC offering information about the Teheran Conference, but I never heard from anyone. I liked Thompson and got on well with him on Churchill’s visits. We talked a lot, and I gave him the benefit of my local knowledge.
Walter always made the decision as to where in a car Churchill would sit, and he was the man in the PM’s room. Legation security was left to the Military Police, helped by infantry guards inside and outside the walls. The units chosen were ones Churchill had been associated with in his early military life. I was never regarded as working for Walter Thompson; my job was security as a whole. Wherever the PM landed was the jurisdiction of the British military, and Walter was off-duty except within the quarters where Churchill slept.
I have been a regular member of the Churchill Centre for many years, and have visited Blenheim Palace and Bladon churchyard in England. When we were in the church no one else was there, and my wife Heather asked me to play “Amazing Grace” on the organ. No way, I replied, Sir Winston’s favorite was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I played at full blast. We were both thrilled to hear it in his own backyard. I trust he heard it loud and clear.
I have ad-libbed these words, not referring to my CD or my notes. It certainly brings back many memories of those years. The magnitude of it all was and still is in my mind astonishing. I can hardly believe it ever happened.
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