Mary Churchill’s War: The Wartime Diaries of Churchill’s Youngest Daughter
‘I am not a great or important personage, but it will be the diary of an ordinary person’s life in war time – though I may never live to read it again, yet perhaps it may not prove altogether uninteresting as a record of my life – or rather the life of a girl in her youth, upon whom life has shone very brightly, who has had every opportunity of education, interest, travel and pleasure and excitement, and who at the beginning of this war found herself on the threshold of womanhood.’
With Churchillian prescience for great events, and blessed with the family gene for recording them, Mary Churchill began keeping a diary in earnest in January 1939, recording the thoughts of a rather prim sixteen-year-old obsessed with her pony, the state of her fingernails and with her shortcomings in the sight of the Lord. Eight months later, just before her seventeenth birthday, war was declared and a few days later, on 18 September, she muses on her future – one that turns out to more than fulfil her own, or anyone else’s, expectations.
By 1939, the three elder Churchill siblings had all left home, but Mary was living with her parents, moving first from Chartwell to Admiralty House and thence in short order to No. 10 Downing Street. Thanks to her assiduous journalling it is not long before the reader of these diaries is eavesdropping on history and her descriptions of great events as viewed from her father’s elbow.
Watching from the Strangers’ Gallery, Mary describes the impact of many of her father’s speeches in the House of Commons and – most revealingly perhaps – she records conversations where he was going through the birth pangs of writing them. She tells of travels with her father too, of visiting Bristol and Cardiff as the Blitz raged, and her description of the crowds’ reactions to seeing Winston as they crawled out from bomb shelters is better than Pathé footage. Later, in 1943, she went with her parents on a transatlantic journey as her father’s aide-de-camp, first to the Quebec Conference and then on to stay with President Roosevelt at the White House. The Americans took her to their hearts.
Mary is also by her father’s side the day after VE Day and, in 1944, on another magical, historical journey she goes with her parents to Paris for the celebration of the Liberation of Paris. Mary and Clementine watched from the stands as Winston processed at the side of General de Gaulle down a Champs Élysées packed with cheering Parisians. After many a vin d’honneur – one with the cream of the French Resistance – Mary, Winston and de Gaulle board a train for eastern France to inspect – in freezing snow – the reconfigured French forces. There de Gaulle presents Mary with a Croix de Lorraine, the symbol of the Free French (which she wore with pride on Remembrance Days for the rest of her life). More soberly she records being with her parents when the results of the 1945 election came in – results that seemed to upset her more than her father, who was a philosophical democrat.
But woven into this narrative of great events, the enormously powerful presiding genius of her father and the long shadow of war, is the story of a teenager who is becoming a woman. The thoughts and feelings of a high-spirited but dutiful daughter, devoted to her parents, but eager to leave home; a young girl turning from an innocent ingénue to an eligible young woman with three years of army experience under her belt, a Captain’s stripes on her khaki sleeve and a military MBE. Mary suffers the universal concerns of young women as ever were and will be: she alternately obsesses about food and then the need to lose weight; she compares herself unforgivingly against the society beauties she dines with; she describes dressing up in enthusiastic detail; and her excitement at events like being piped aboard one British Navy vessel and launching another is joyful and infectious. She is beady in her observations and portrayal of the players around her father during these years, canny in her analysis of Pamela ‘Spam’ Churchill and her descriptions of sitting next to FDR at dinner are charming but not bedazzled. She also falls very out of love with her brother Randolph, who causes so much family unhappiness that she chronicles in detail; it is the first of very few moments where she doesn’t support her father who she feels spoils Randolph and forgives him too readily for his boorish behaviours. Sometimes she is very funny.
The most powerful thread that runs right through in the diaries is Mary’s admiration of her father. Her feelings for him intensified when she saw up close his conduct of the war, when she came to appreciate the stresses he was under, carrying an often secret and always great burden of the destiny of this country, while the brilliance of his speeches left my mother in awe of his intellect and his personality. After his adept speech to the Commons winding up the censure debate in 1941 she writes, ‘I think my love and admiration of Papa is almost a religion to me – I sometimes feel I cannot hold the emotions I have for him.’
Thus the guiding force of her personality became Mary’s determination never to let her father down. From her first public speech when she launched Westerham War Weapons Week in February 1941 aged eighteen, ‘I could not help feeling mighty proud of Papa – because it was all for him. And it made me determined to do him credit – and so to behave that he would not have to make excuses for his daughter.’ This determination coloured her behaviour throughout the war and stayed with her for the rest of her life: she never forgot the responsibilities that went with being her father’s daughter. When I sometimes accompanied her on public engagements fifty years later, as the moment came for her to perform, I could see her pulling herself up to her full height to channel her love for her father and her powerful sense of duty to burnish and protect his memory.
In supporting her father, she was doing the same for her sometimes fragile mother, the clever, elegant Clementine who found the hectic life of a wartime PM’s consort occasionally frazzling. Mary, who loved her mother deeply, became a frequent understudy for her at dinners and events when Clementine took to her bed. Thus, her parents both came to rely increasingly on their youngest daughter. Mary understood this and, for instance, her decision to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service was made agonising for her as she worried about leaving her parents.
But it wasn’t all duty and dinners with Generals. Mary and her best friend, the clever and well-connected Judy Montagu, were longing to do more in the war effort and, in 1941, they signed up for the ATS with the express intention of joining the very first mixed anti-aircraft batteries. They went through the fairly gruelling training together – made particularly excruciating at moments for Mary as the War Office started to use her as a poster girl for the Service while she was hoping to remain private Private Churchill (instructing her mother not to write using envelopes bearing the No. 10 seal). Nonetheless Mary dried her tears and, as ever, did her duty.
Both girls became NCOs and then did Officer training together before going their separate ways – Judy to become eventually a senior instructor in the ATS and Mary to serve in anti-aircraft batteries from Whitby to Newport. But those ‘powers that be’ close enough to observe the Prime Minister evidently appreciated how beneficial it was to him to have Mary close to hand, and consequently, much of Mary’s war service was spent in units close enough to London to allow her to see her family; indeed, her battery in Hyde Park received almost as many official visitors as it did VE bombs. Winston liked to show off his daughter’s prowess at dealing with the enemy.
Like that of so many serving soldiers, Mary’s leaves were a riot of fun: trips to the theatre, dinners at the Savoy, more champagne and nightclubs than you can imagine and then walks back to Whitehall at dawn. All with a dizzy procession of men, serving soldiers or airmen, some of them childhood friends and others more recent and of the American variety. In camp, barely a night passed that there wasn’t a dance. Some remained friends, and a few were killed in action, most notably Tony Coates who Mary had met at Chequers.
Mary’s romances were, by current standards, very innocent (she records a kiss only in 1942), but their intensity was dazzling. When she was eighteen she ill-advisedly became engaged to a boy she had met only a couple of months previously. After she had taken Eric Duncannon to Chequers to meet her parents, her mother unleashed an A-Team of the PM’s advisors to talk her out of marriage. The team consisted of US Ambassador Averell Harriman, the President’s Special Envoy Harry Hopkins and the leading British political figure Max Beaverbrook. After several walks around the lawn at Chequers with the cream of global diplomacy Mary wept, caved in and the wedding was called off.
The Chequers effect became rather a characteristic of her romances which tended to grind to a halt when exposed to the intense oxygen of the place. Men who were fun and flattering in the Mess, and perhaps demons on the dance floor, didn’t match up to the high standards of home where the fascinating could suddenly seem dull. Indeed, to this day there is no greater ordeal than taking a boy home.
Mary’s narrative opens in January 1939 when she is sixteen and absorbed by school and country life. We have chosen to end her story in 1945 when she decides to leave the Army and return to London from Germany to support her parents after the debacle of the 1945 election. The diaries do not end there, but as marriage and motherhood enter her life Mary spends less and less time on her diary. Other entries are not included for reasons of length, but the entire diaries are available to read digitally at the Churchill Archives Centre, where my co-editors Allen Packwood and Katharine Thomson have provided huge support, invaluable historical background and encyclopaedic expertise.
My mother wrote in the introduction of her life of her mother, Clementine Churchill, ‘This is a work of love, but I hope not of blind love’. I echo her words here.
When I first learned of the existence of Mary Churchill’s diary, I knew that I absolutely had to read it. I was researching a book about how Winston Churchill, his family, and his close advisors endured the German air campaign of 1940-41, which included the period we know today as the Blitz, when the Luftwaffe bombed London 57 nights in a row. There are many books on the war and on Churchill, of course, but I wanted to tell a different kind of story, one that captured an intimate sense of how the family really managed to get through that period—how they dined, what they did for fun, and so forth. Mary was 17 when her father first became Prime Minister, on May 10, 1940, the day Hitler invaded the Low Countries and turned the so-called Phoney War into an all-too-real conflagration. I could not imagine a more compelling perspective than that of Churchill’s daughter in that time of turmoil.
When I began my research, Mary’s diary resided in the vast collections of the Churchill Archives Centre at Churchill College in Cambridge. I had read bits of it that Mary herself had excerpted in a memoir, A Daughter’s Tale, published in 2011, three years before her death. When I inquired about reading the complete collection, I learned that its guardian, Mary’s daughter Emma Soames, had not yet made it available to researchers. This was deeply disappointing, but as a writer of history, I was accustomed to rejection and frustration. The archives’ director, Allen Packwood, suggested that I try contacting Ms. Soames directly. Having been raised on the motto “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” I composed a request, which Mr. Packwood then relayed to her. Weeks passed, and I assumed my petition had failed. I plunged into other diaries by other men and women of the era, but always with a flicker of hope that I’d get a chance to read Mary’s.
One morning—to be precise, at 4:57 A.M. on the last day of February, 2018—I received an email from Ms. Soames, granting me permission, and soon afterward I found myself in the quiet embrace of the Archives Centre, slipping backward in time to Mary’s world. I found myself engaged, charmed, and enthralled. She made entries on all manner of subjects, in clear and articulate prose, and, thankfully, in easily legible handwriting. For the record, I did not encounter a single misspelling or grammatical breach. To read Mary’s diary is to look over her shoulder into her world, and see what she saw, and hear what she heard, as she moved though her days, gracefully coping with the destruction and chaos of those fraught times.
She embodied everything I hoped to convey about the Churchills’ capacity for endurance, and for love. Because really that’s what suffuses this diary: Love—for her father, her mother, and above all for life. One always has to ask, of course, what biases a diarist brings to her vision, but in Mary’s diary there is a lovely guilelessness that makes it all the more valuable. I knew immediately that these pages would provide an element often missing in the realm of Churchill scholarship, which skews toward massive “great man” biographies in which, necessarily, there is simply not room or time enough to consider the views of a seventeen-year-old girl. Through Mary’s eyes we see Churchill not merely as a political titan, but also as an indulgent, if at times aloof, parent who, despite the deepening war, is attentive to such small details as a daughter’s 18th birthday and the christening of a grandson. Mary gives us an intimate portrait of her father, her mother Clementine, and her own rich life as their “country mouse,” sequestered for a time in the countryside to keep her safe. This country mouse, however, soon rises to command a force of female anti-aircraft gunners.
I confess to have fallen for Miss Churchill. She is charming, funny, spirited, and deeply empathic. She loved her father very much, and grieved when he came under attack by the press and political foes. But she also loved to have fun. Her diary is full of moments that attest to the idea that even in the midst of war, life has its bright side. We see Mary attending dances at nearby RAF bases, and once being forced to flee with her hosts into a muddy air-raid trench as bombs fell into a nearby field. The bombs did no damage; the mud, however, destroyed a favorite pair of suede shoes. We go with Mary to Queen Charlotte’s Annual Birthday Dinner Dance, London’s debutante ball, held in March 1941 in the bomb-proof cellar of a hotel, where the festivities continued even as an air-raid began and anti-aircraft guns from a nearby emplacement began firing away. Here Mary examines the year’s fresh crop of debutantes with a cool eye. “I must say,” she writes, “we all agreed this year’s ‘debs’ aren’t much to write home about.”
After the ball, and the raid, she and her friends moved on to dance at a favorite nightclub, the Café de Paris, only to find that the club had just been destroyed by a German bomb that exploded on the dance floor, with great loss of life, including the decapitation of its famed bandleader, Kenrick “Snakehips” Johnson. Mary was struck by the awful juxtaposition of joy and death. “They were dancing & laughing just like us,” she writes. “They are gone now in a moment from all we know to the vast, infinite unknown.”
In these pages the war is always near at hand, but what I love most are the little moments, the grace notes, that shed light on daily life. One of my favorites is when Mary, on a fine summer’s day in the country, decides to go for a swim. “It was so lovely,” she tells us: “—joie de vivre overcame vanity.”
Casting aside all convention, she jumped in without a bathing cap.
I am grateful to have had the chance to spend time with Mary. It is fair to say that my own book about the Churchills would have been a much colder affair without the joyous clarity of this particular teenage girl, enthralled with life and her own youth.
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|Epub||June 18, 2022|
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