Monday, 8 June 2009

too much news killed the radio star

As some of you know, I was on the verge of media stardom last week but at the last minute I was cruelly tossed aside like the proverbial worn-out glove.
Earlier in the week BBC4 Today did a short feature on the Cabinet War Rooms, with historian Richard Holmes who has written a book highlighting some of the stories of people who worked there.
One story he didn't have was that of my parents, who met when they both worked in the War Rooms, so I emailed Today to tell them that. I expected, at most, that they might read the email out but instead they set up a studio interview with James Naughtie for Saturday morning, 7.30am. Which meant getting up at 5.30am for a 6.30am taxi to Plymouth... At 6.25am, just as the taxi arrived, a phone call from Today called the whole thing off.
Anyway... my father was at that time a sergeant in the RASC and unfortunately I know very little about much of his war service except that he worked in the Map Room in the War Rooms, presumably sticking pins in maps.
My mother was a corporal in the ATS and had been posted to the CWR some time in 1940, as a shorthand typist. She had both very fast shorthand and very fast and accurate typing and worked for what she refers to as the "top brass" by which I think she means the top military bods in the War Rooms, up to and including the General Officer Commanding.
She both worked and slept in the War Rooms while on duty. If any of you have been there you will have seen, shortly as you go in, a glass plate let into the floor and steps leading down even further into the warren of rooms and tunnels under Whitehall. She slept down there... she remembers calling a sentry one day to deal with a rat running over the pipes snaking around and over where she slept. He bayoneted it and said he was taking it to the canteen. Joke, I hope.
She's now 91 and her memory is shot to pieces, so I can't get too much more out of her than I already know but she says that at the start of the posting she was told that in the event of invasion no-one down in the War Rooms would get out... scary but I suppose in the war it seemed perfectly normal.
She remembers Churchill wandering around in his siren suit and occasionally watching her type. She says that when she'd finished typing something - letters, orders or whatever, she'd take her shorthand notes, the finished work and any carbon papers used, in to be signed, when the shorthand and the carbons would be burnt. She also remembers trekking through the various tunnels (funnily enough, my husband, who was in the Navy, worked for several years in the MoD and used the same tunnels some 30 odd years later. The underground bunkers are all still there and all operational...).
Exactly how my parents met and how they conducted a courtship I do not know and, of course, I reget bitterly that I never asked my father more about his war service... it's a lesson too late in the learning. He continued for a while in the War Rooms after they married, but she had to leave because married couples weren't allowed to work together (she says)... she didn't stay in theArmy much longer because she became pregnant - not with me - and had to leave. My father was given a commission and during D-Day was in Essex - rather annoyed, judging by his letters - and later went to Italy and Africa.
I'm quite relieved about the loss of the interview, but I did want to highlight the work of the Army typists in particular as most of what you hear about War Rooms staff comes from the civilian side - Churchill's secretaries and civil servants. There were so many people with fascinating stories.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating story - and sad that you didn't ask your father more. Makes me think I must ask my parents more now before it's too late.

    My parents knew a couple who met during the war. They were both Morse code officers. They used morse code to communicate secretly with each other at social functions by holding hands and tapping on the other's hand with one of their fingers. Very useful at dinner parties - they could safely say things like 'I'm really bored; can we go home now!'