Hermione Ranfurly: War Diaries 1939-45

Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly (1913 - 2001)

At the outbreak of the Second World War Hermione Ranfurly's husband, Second Lieutenant Dan Ranfurly, was posted to Palestine and she followed him to be near him. She was 26-years old at the time. I have taken the following passages from her wartime diaries To War With Whitaker, published in 1994 when she was eighty-years old. 

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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.

Growing up is like entering a jungle where some of the larger creatures look alarming and possible man-eaters; and most of the smaller ones - like insects - go unnoticed. As one grows up the jungle gets denser and so, most likely, do you.

But now I am old and in the Departure Lounge - though certainly still growing up - I look back with amusement at how 'cock-sure' I became and how often wrong; so many of those creatures who, at first, looked big and fierce became my life-long friends; so many 'insects' turned out to be brilliant, fascinating and kind companions.

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.

Two friends who helped me through thick and thin I never met: Alexander the Great, who said, 'One must live every day as if it were one's last, and as if one would live for ever, both at the same time,' and Oscar Wild, who said, 'All of us are standing in the gutter but a few of us are looking at the stars.' These two remarks should get anyone through their jungle.

Then, of course, there was Dan; forever the best human being I'll ever know.

I have only one regret: that soon the diaries must stop and no longer record - with laughter - what happened next. This is an account of my life during the six years of World War II.

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3 September 1939
Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire

Two days ago we left Torridon. It seems an age. As we stacked our guns, golf-clubs and fishing rods into the back seat of our Buick, fear pinched my hear, those are the toys of yesterday I thought; they belong to another world. General Laycock, Dan [Dan Ranfurly, Hermion's husband] and I sat in front. We hardly spoke. No doubt the General was thinking of his sons, Bob, Peter and Michael, who will al have to go to the war. Questions teemed through my mind; where will Dan's Yeomanry, the Notts Sherwood Rangers, go? Will I be able to see him? Mummy, ill in hospital in Switzerland - should I fetch her back to England? And Whitaker [ our cook-butler - perhaps he is too old to be a soldier? It was raining. The windscreen wiper ticked to and fro' and it seemed as if each swipe brought a new and more horrifying thought to me. We had started on a journey - but to where? And for how long?

We sent a telegram from Inverness to our flat in London and drove on to Edinburgh where we were surprised to find the street lamps out. All night we drove slowly, through thick fog. It was hard to see without headlights. None of us slept.

We dropped the General at his house, Wiseton, near Doncaster, where we ate a hurried breakfast and then drove on to London. Whitaker and Mrs Sparrow, our charlady, were waiting for us and a telegram from Dan's Yeomanry saying he must report immediately at Redford in Nottinghamshire. After reading this Dan asked Whitaker if he would like to go with him. The old fatty looked over the top of his spectacles and said, 'To the War, my Lord? Very good, my Lord.' Then we started to pack.

Short and stout, his huge face much creased from smiling, Whitaker has many abilities - all self-taught - but I just can't imagine him going to war on a horse. [The Notts Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry was part of a Cavalry Division.] ...

Thousands of children are being evacuated from London to the country. They, and their parents, must feel as desolate as me.

10 January, 1940

A Farmhouse in Lincolnshire

Nancy Yarborough has organised a canteen at Brocklesby Station for the Sherwood Rangers, who are leaving in batches all this week. I bicycled over to help her. We doled out tea and buns on a long trestle table and watched horses being loaded on to the train - some of them were terrified and took ages. Straw had been laid down everywhere to prevent the horses from slipping on the icy roads and platform. There are about 1000 horses to be moved.
It is bitterly cold - the newspapers say 'It's the coldest snap in the country since 1815, the year of Waterloo.'

4 March, 1940
Rehovoth, Palestine

I am staying in Rona Trotter's rented, unfurnished bungalow on the edge of Rehovoth alongside an orange grove which smells wonderful by day but seems creepy after dark. With camp beds, orange boxes, and a table, two chairs and some blankets lent by the Royal Scots Greys' wives who live nearby, we are quite comfortable. Dan and Henry Trotter are camped at Latrun some distance away. They can come and see us on their two half-days off a week.
The worst of the Troubles in Palestine are supposed to be over but tensions still exist. Rona and I have been warned not to stray off main roads or go out after dark. There is still risk of roads being mined - rape and murder are not unusual. Even soldiers may go out at night only in pairs. Rona has been given a revolver and we are to have shooting lessons in a quarry.

20 May, 1940
Karkur, Palestine

Winston Churchill, now Prime Minister, has made another broadcast. It gave a clear understanding of the gravity of the hour and of his absolute belief in the British people - that we will never surrender. His news was petrifying but I felt braver for his words. Whitaker came up to the bungalow. He, too, had taken courage from Mr Churchill. We had a chat before his bath and he looked over the top of his spectacles and said, 'My Lady, the likes of me believe we will win this war, somehow, someday. I think it will help all our "hesprits du corpses" if you and His Lordship gave a Ball in this bungalow - just like they did before Waterloo." I agreed. When he'd gone back to camp, I locked the doors, pulled the curtains and wept till I fell asleep.

3 November, 1940
Cairo, Egypt

... Orde Wingate telephoned me and asked me to dine with him tonight in his flat. When I arrived he said cheerfully, 'Goodness you are unpopular.'  He explained he got it all taped at GHQ when, just as he was leaving, he was stopped and told there is an order out that no military unit could employ me. He went straight to the Deputy Adjutant General's office where, after an argument, he was told that if he took me to Abyssinia it must be on the understanding that I could not come back to the Middle East.
I explained to Wingate that i'd be foolish to leave neutral territory. He argued that this offer was my only hope of getting a job. I still refused to go but promised that, if I were forced out again, I would join him and try to help but still only on the proviso that when his mission had succeeded he'd get me back into the Middle East, by parachute or whatever. ... I like, and admire, Wingate and feel sure he'll win his little war.  

15 July, 1941
In the train

When I crossed the canal at Kantara and heard the frogs croaking I felt, suddenly, desolate. Palestine will be different this time. Dan is in prison in Italy; Tobby is dead; the Sherwood Foresters are besieged in Tobruk; and Whitaker is left behind in Cairo ... As the train puffed its way north I felt increasingly afraid lest, from panic over my job in Cairo, I'd made a huge mistake.

18 November, 1941

We have attacked in the Desert. Ironic to be fighting for territory we occupied last year. I hate to think of so many friends struggling down there in the dust.

21 November, 1941

Bob Leycock's Commandos have raided Rommel's headquarters and it is rumoured that Geoffrey Keyes was killed and Bob is missing. By ill luck Rommel was away and so escaped capture or worse. Other news from the Desert is good so far. It must be a thrilling moment for the garrison in Tobruk.
Cables keep coming from anxious wives and mothers in England asking for news of their men, but, of course, we know little about individuals. In Cairo I was better informed. It's difficult to find time and money to cope with these sad enquiries - telegrams are so expensive.

25 November, 1941

A letter has come from Dan dated May 10th, written two days after he arrived at Sulmona POW camp in southern Italy. He wrote they had a terrible journey back across North Africa to Tripoli. Nearly all the prisoners had dysentery. He found my telegram waiting for him at Sulmona - forwarded by the Red Cross in Geneva. He wants cigarettes, chocolate, books, tinned butter and a shaving brush. He may only send one letter of eighteen lines each week ... My poor Dan ...

9 July, 1942

News from Egypt seems a little more reassuring. In Jerusalem emergency preparations are being hurried on. Civilians drill on the golf course.
Lady MacMichael went over to tea with some of the evacuees from Cairo. They are billeted in two convents in Bethlehem  - two thousand of them. 

7 December, 1942
Cairo - Baghdad

I got up at 3.30 a.m. after a chequered night, having been disturbed by the man in the next room quarrelling with his wife, or somebody else's; every time I knocked on the wall he called, 'Come in.' I was collected from the hotel by a lorry, climbed into the back of it with my suitcase and typewriter and drove with a lot of soldiers to the aerodrome. It was dark but peasants were already driving their overloaded donkeys into the markets; they made a soft cloppety noise as they passed.
We flew off before daybreak - twenty passengers packed on narrow steel benches; we had to sit bolt upright because of the joints in the fuselage. When the sun came up over the Sinai Desert, Lord Moyne, who was sitting opposite me, fished  some gadgets out of his pocket and began calculating our height and speed; from time to time he compared notes with the pilot. We landed at Lydda to refuel so I got out to stretch my legs. It had been raining and the earth smelt good. 'Wonderful thing, air travel,' said my neighbour; 'from Cairo to Palestine in a couple of hours - it took Moses forty years.'  Flying over the long stretch of desert to Habbanyeh I began fussing  about my new job; will I ever learn military terms and initials? Will my shorthand be fast enough? Where shall I live? So many people warned me that Baghdad is a horrible place - famous only for boils. ...

16 May, 1943

Last week all Axis forces in Tunisia surrendered. The struggle for North Africa is ended. It will not be long now before we invade Hitler's fortress, Europe. Bill Stirling and I dined together and drank to all prisoners of war, this news must be most precious to them if they learn of it.
The RAF have made a thrilling raid on the Mohne and Eder Dams in Germany.

13 January, 1944

We have said goodbye to all our friends in Cairo, the Sofragis, baggage men, our Italian dressmaker and her fat pug, the King of Greece in his villa on the Nile, etc. Daphne and I are packed and ready to go to Algiers. For years I have lived close to the Desert but never seen it. Tomorrow I shall see the stage of all those adventures, tragedies, retreats, sieges and victories. The land where all those people I knew and listened to, lived and fought and perhaps died.

11 October, 1944

The Poles in Italy are keeping two weeks' mourning for Warsaw. The fate of Poland, and particularly Warsaw where most of their families are, has been a deep agony for them. For once neither their gaiety nor their elegant manners could hide it. It is comforting to remember that though Catherine the Great of Russia used the throne of Poland as a lavatory seat - she died on it.

14 November, 1944


Yesterday was my thirty-first birthday. It was a warm sunny morning and Raphaeli carried his canaries out into the garden. A puff of cloud or white smoke hung over Vesuvius. On the way to work Olroyd told me about a gang of British and American deserters and some Italians, who have been doing armed hold-ups on the main roads. Sometimes they are dressed as military police and travel in a jeep. They halt cars, like a check post, and then rob the owners. ...

31 December, 1944

The last day of 1944 - 366 days of terrible fighting on land, sea and air - and of unforgettable heroism and tragedy. It seems unbelievable that for five and a quarter years we've all left our homes and happiness behind to concentrate on conflict. We can never get those years back - or all the friends we've lost. Pray God the New Year will bring victory and peace so we can all have private lives again.

3 February, 1945


... Randolph Churchill paid me a visit, full of gossip from Malta. 'The Prime Minister had received a telegram from Stalin at Yalta saying "Here I am. Where are you?" The Prime Minister's valet had left Churchill's handkerchiefs behind which caused a major rumpus ... '  Randolph always refers to his father as the Prime Minister or Churchil, and I always interrupt and say, 'Oh, you mean Daddy.' Randolph is so often rude to high and low that we enjoy teasing him. For all his nuisance value and rudeness I am fond of Randolph - he reminds me of nursery days when often I was disgracefully rude to Nannie. He's never grown up.

13 April, 1945

... [during breakfast] I reached for my newsheet. I read it from start to finish and then folded it up and put it in my pocket.


26 May, 1945

On Thursday I put on my prettiest clothes and arrived at King's Cross Station an hour early for Dan's train. 'When the train glides in,' I thought, 'it will be the end of all our misery - the beginning of living happily for ever after ... '
I saw him a long way down the platform. I stood and watched him, just like I did a long time ago, on sand, at Rehovoth. Heaven ... is being together.