Chapter 21 (1953-1956)

Title

The world which I now entered was far removed from anything I had known before. The First Lord was a Cabinet Minister, the Right Honourable J P L Thomas, the Member of Parliament for Ross-on-Wye. The Private Office was his link with the huge Government Department which he headed. He had a magnificent room overlooking the Horseguards Parade, with sound-proofed doors leading to the more modest but still luxurious office housing his Principal Private Secretary, his Parliamentary Clerk, and me. As he also answered to Parliament for the regulation and actions of the Royal Navy, he had a Rear Admiral as his Naval Secretary with similarly discreet access to the other end of his room. The First Lord was unmarried and lived in Admiralty House, his official residence, a beautiful 18th Century edifice built as part of the Admiralty Office itself in Whitehall, where he was tended by a personal valet, a cook and a housekeeper. His official functions were also graced by a polished and decorative naval officer known as the Flag Lieutenant to the Admiralty Board, or FLAB for short.


The Principal Private Secretary was one Bill Marshall, a Scottish lawyer who had joined the Admiralty during the war and stayed to make it his career. His young Assistant Principal, whose responsibilties included seeing that the First Lord was properly advised on Parliamentary Questions, was Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Hockaday, an Oxford graduate who did national service as a "Bevan Boy" in the mines, and was also a rugby referee. These brilliant, exuberant men and those who succeeded them created an atmosphere which was always stimulating and often hilarious. The work was usually frenetic and overwhelming, then would suddenly quieten down when the House went into recess and "Jim" visited his constituency.


Private Office staff in all Ministries have a special place in the Department in that their first loyalty is to the Minister; and it could, and did, happen that we had to advise him not to accept the Department's view. This needed diplomatic handling, but one quickly learned to see wider public or political implications in apparently simple issues and would ask the Department to think again before the matter went to the Minister. Several "perks" attended the job, including an occasional Saturday morning off when the rest of the Department worked, parties at Admiralty House and even a large portion of venison from culls of deer in the Royal Parks. Most popular was the splendid view from the Private Office windows of the Trooping the Colour ceremony on Horseguards Parade in celebration of the Queen's official birthday, when it was customary to have a modest party for friends and relations while watching the proceedings.


Although an embryo Ministry of Defence had been set up after the war, it did not yet have the dominant role it later acquired when Lord Mountbatten became Chief of Defence Staff, and its main purpose was to propose how much of the nation's resources should be allocated to Defence, and in particular how much money should go to each Service. In terms of real power, the Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry effectively still controlled the policies and actions of their respective Services. The Admiralty was a most complex organisation, with interests reaching into many aspects of the life of the nation. It was very nearly the largest, and was certainly the most comprehensive, employer in the country, having its own lawyers, administrators, engineers, shipbuilders, architects, doctors, scientists, accountants, chemists and a host of supporting technical staff with thousands of skilled workpeople, whose job was to ensure that Britain's still very large Navy was an effective fighting force.


Many national and international issues required attention and decision by the First Lord in those days. The death of Stalin in March 1953 had made no difference whatever to USSR policy towards the West, and later the same year the first Russian-made nuclear bomb was exploded. Britain had produced its own atom bomb which was held in readiness as a "deterrent" to nuclear attack upon us. Of course, it would only deter an enemy if he knew that however devastating a surprise attack might be, fearsome retaliation upon his own country would inevitably follow. The question how our deterrent might best be safeguarded and delivered constantly occupied the minds of the Cabinet, Air Council and Admiralty Board.


Submarine-launched missiles were being developed by both the USA and Russia but at that time the aeroplane was the only practical means of attack. The Vulcan "V" Bomber was then being introduced as the vehicle for the British deterrent but the vulnerability of both planes and airfields to Russian technological advance, assisted by industrial and military espionage, suggested that aircraft from the Royal Navy's carriers, moving undetected in the wide oceans, might be more effective. There were endless papers and meetings of high-powered people to discuss strategy and resources.


As Assistant Private Secretary, my own duties in this heady environment were more concerned with the world of real people. I looked after the First Lord's heavy programme of engagements, screened his incoming telephone calls, intercepted unwelcome visitors, answered official and non-constituency enquiries, dealt with the Palace on invitations to Garden Parties and the like, wrote modest speeches for him, and briefed him on how to respond to the more routine matters of Admiralty and Naval business which came to him for decision. The Queen being Head of the Anglican Church, divorcees could not then attend a Garden Party and I once had delicately to ask a shipping magnate, whom some hapless official had nominated, to return his invitation. Today, even members of the Royal Family are divorced.


Jim was a handsome bachelor and a marvellous raconteur; he was also very well connected and often accompanied members of the Royal Family to private engagements. He was in great demand for dinner parties and other social occasions, so that keeping both official and private diaries in harmony was sometimes difficult and he would occasionally need assistance in ditching one date for something more attractive or important which had cropped up. Among his many ex-officio appointments was a raher obscure one - that of a Trustee of the Hunterian Collection. This is not an Art Gallery but a large array of anatomical specimens assembled by a famous surgeon in the 18th Century, some of it said to be from bodies stolen from graveyards, but augmented by later generations. The Trust met annually by law but Jim never attended. However, I thought he ought to show some interest so asked the Royal College of Surgeons if I could view the Collection on his behalf. They were most accommodating and together with my friend Jock Telfer, duly presented myself at their imposing premises in Gower Street. We gazed at the extraordinary sight of hundreds of glass jars containing heads, trunks, limbs and every conceivable piece of human anatomy. For good measure, specimens from battlefields and concentration camps of the recent war had been added. After a time we reeled away thinking to restore our strength with some lunch. "What's the dish of the day?", we asked the canteen staff. "Liver", they replied. "No thank you", we gasped, and bought ourselves a cheese sandwich.


One of my regular jobs was to supply the great man with cash when he visited his constituency, since his mode of life in London rarely required him to soil his hands with the stuff. Another was to write to the Palace seeking the Queen's approval to the naming of new warships. Her grasp of affairs was immense and I was not the first, or the last, to discover that she personally interested herself in everything sent to her; it was a salutary experience to be told that an awkward question about one's letter was not from a private secretary but from Her Majesty herself.


One special task was to prepare a document called the "Board Patent". The office of Lord High Admiral of the Fleet is held by the Sovereign, but the job itself had for many years been vested in "Commissioners for Executing the Office of Lord High Admiral" otherwise known as the Admiralty Board. At that time this body consisted of three Members of Parliament, six top Naval Officers and the Permanent Secretary, then Sir John Lang. During the nineteenth Century the British Navy was the largest in the world, kept at a strength equal to the navies of any two other countries combined, and it policed the oceans of the world to bring the Pax Britannica to their farthest corners. Although its relative strength was much reduced in the Twentieth Century, it was still a large and powerful force with bases at strategic points around the world, and the Board of Admiralty in 1953 had considerable areas of jurisdiction and patronage extending over the globe. Whenever any Board Member changed, it was a legal necessity for a new Board Patent to be prepared and signed by the Queen or Privy Councillors acting for her. I had to arrange this. At one time the Board Patent was adorned with a massive chunk of sealing wax about 10 cm across with an embossed pattern upon it - the Great Seal of England - attached by a coloured ribbon; but this had by now been replaced with a red paper wafer common to other legal documents.


Numerous luminaries of the world stage flitted through the First Lord's Office. Messrs Bulganin and Kruschev, who jointly ruled the Soviet Union for a short period, called at the Admiralty, followed by Mrs Ghandi, later Prime Minister of India. I recall leading our own Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, through a small private door on the Horseguards Parade into Admiralty House for a clandestine meeting on the fate of Commander "Buster" Crabbe, who died in strange circumstances connected with the visit to Portsmouth of two new Soviet cruisers; and there were meetings on the transport of Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus by Navy frigate to internment in the Seychelles. Earl Mountbatten was the First Sea Lord for a time, and a table in his office displayed the samurai sword which he had accepted from the Japanese as token of their surrender in South East Asia.


There was, and always is, continuous real or imagined crisis in the world of politics. Uproar over disposal of an estate at Critchell Down established the citizen's right to the return of land compulsorily acquired by the State when no longer needed by the Nation; and the Minister of Agriculture, though not personally to blame, resigned over the shortcomings of his Department, who had coolly planned to sell it to the highest bidder. A man's suicide over the compulsory purchase of his humble cottage, called Briar Patch, forced Governments to pay the market value instead of a derisory amount determined by officials. Defence Departments were major purloiners of other people's property and a steady stream of delicate cases for the First Lord's decision came to our office. The first beginnings of upheaval in South Africa and Kenya also threw their shadow over Defence affairs, where British influence in South and East Africa was still regarded as vital to our world-wide interests now that the Indian continent had attained independence. Overshadowing it all was the constant agonising over the shape and size of the Fleet in the light of escalating technology and costs, the relative claims to dominance of the Royal Air Force, and the inexorable pressure of Britain's declining role and resources.


From this intense atmosphere I would retire at close of play and speed to New Addington. My journey was made easier by the privilege of a permit to park on Horseguards Parade as a consequence of my position in the First Lord's service. I shared the car with three other young men who also lived at New Addington - Maurice Ockenden, my school Captain at Ecclesbourne, later a fighter pilot and now working at the Air Ministry; Frank Molkenthin, Secretary of the local Labour Party and a clerk at the War Office; and Les Annetts, who worked for the Crown Agents for the Colonies. This last Department was a semi-commercial Government body supplying goods of all kinds to British Colonies and dependencies, but its days were now numbered, partly through the disappearance of its customers and partly by revelations of scandal and incompetence. The old Morris 10 conveyed us to Whitehall faithfully and regularly, to the accompaniment of endless stories, laughter and argument.


Here, on the Surrey hills, Freda and I felt at home in the pioneering spirit of the ever-growing estate and made many friends, she becoming active in setting up a Community Association and in local politics. Brian went to the nearby Fairchilds School where he usually came near the top of the class, and he also joined the Scout Cubs; like me, however, he could never enter really wholeheartedly into the social activities of such groups. Like me, he admired those who did so, but we both found it difficult to discipline our thoughts and actions to the "club" atmosphere. We became friendly with a farmer whose land adjoined the estate, a Welshman called Mr Duncan, and we also enjoyed walking to the famous Battle of Britain RAF Station at Biggin Hill, whose new Meteor jets would take off over our heads with a terrifying roar and swoop low over the estate.


The Turners accompanied us on holiday to a house in the country near Minnis Bay in Kent, and we also had two memorable holidays at a small hotel in Margate, where the children delighted in visiting the huge Dreamland funfair. The weather was rarely good but most people had never known holidays otherwise and went prepared with macintoshes, sweaters and wind-breaks for the beach. We were also fortunate in that Freda's mother decided to sell her bungalow at Rhiwbina and bought a delightful old miner's cottage on the hills above St Agnes in Cornwall, where we had wonderful holidays for several years until age and infirmity compelled her to leave it.


Freda's brother Peter was a constant source of interest and entertainment through our early married years. While pursuing a degree at London University, he lived in a bed-sit near Victoria Station where he registered as a vegetarian, which entitled him to extra cheese and other items in return for surrendering his meat ration. This was not a real sacrifice, for it was still permitted to eat meat off-ration at restaurants and canteens. However, he found that there was a limit to his ability to consume cheese, large quantities of which consequently found their way to us.


By 1955 we perceived that we must try to buy a house of our own. But having started our married lives completely from scratch both financially and materially, we had accumulated little spare money. Neither of us had relations whom we could, or at any rate would, ask for help, so it was decided that Freda should get a part-time job, taking advantage of Kay Turner's kind and generous nature in looking after the children. She obtained one with a branch of the Law Society in Croydon, and embarked on a strenuous but hilarious period recording cases involving the grant of legal aid. She was the soul of discretion, but the odd anecdote opened my eyes to the apparently limitless extent of human folly, greed and envy, and the amazing inventiveness of ordinary people in getting their lives into a mess.


Peter lodged with Joan and Geoffrey at Swiss Cottage for a time but eventually got a job with Boots at Nottingham, where in due course he met and married a young Scottish dental surgeon named Myra Davidson. Joan and Geoffrey managed to scrape up enough money to buy a house at Northolt, in Middlesex, where prices were then noticeably lower than elsewhere in London. Shortly afterwards she became pregnant. While spending a weekend with them we looked at property there and by coincidence found an attractive semi-detached house a few roads away from them, which we thought we might manage to buy. Mortgages were difficult to get in those days but a helpful estate agent smoothed the way, with the aid of a loan from Joan's mother, and in the summer of 1956 we said goodbye to Croydon and moved to 28, Briar Crescent, Northolt. Sadly, only weeks before we moved, Joan was suddenly stricken with toxaemia as a result of which her baby did not survive and she herself came near to death.


Brian was now 11 years old and while still at New Addington had passed the examination for admission to a grammar school. We now set about finding him a place in this new and unfamiliar area of West London and he was accepted at Ealing Grammar Boys School, pleasantly situated in the middle of Ealing town but some miles from where we lived. It was an excellent school with a fine record of achievement but it also had a rigid and somewhat snobbish outlook in which there was no place for Brian's non-conformist and imaginative mind. He was not always happy there and we have often agonised over whether we could and should have done something different; but at the time we were only too delighted to see him safely installed in one of the precious grammar school places. Carolyn went to the nearby Wood End Primary School, but was at an age when the transition presented fewer problems and she soon settled down with new friends.


Almost simultaneously, I was promoted to Higher Executive Officer and left the Private Office to return to the more prosaic world of Admiralty administration. But I had learned a great deal about the machinery of power in a democracy and the people who exercise it. One discovery was that the great men (and women) who rule us are larger than life in many unexpected ways. While their personalities, ability, social awareness and energy stand out above those of ordinary mortals, simple human failings such as envy, greed, distrust and insecurity often appear in similar measure within their complex natures. Another was the realisation that one must be wary of judging people without seeing them actually at work in their own field. This was brought home to be by the example of a Naval Secretary to the First Lord, one Admiral Onslow, to my young eyes a kind, genial, slightly deaf old man to whom the frenzied life of the Private Office seemed rather a bore. I learned that he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order no fewer than four times for fearless Destroyer attacks against enemy ships in true Nelson tradition. He later went as Second in Command to the Home Fleet, then consisting of a great many warships and thousands of men, where Arthur Hockaday was invited to join him for a few days and reported that everything ran like clockwork.


I was also given an object lesson in political leadership. Jim Thomas was neither an intellectual nor a statesman; and he was no eager beaver, slaving over official papers or steeped in dogma. But he knew all the right people and had a keen sense of what was reasonable and practicable. His personality and charisma enabled him safely to guide the Navy through a remarkable transformation - the "All of One Company" concept. The phrase was coined by Drake in the sixteenth century and described his philosphy that everyone in a ship was of value and should be allowed to exercise his talents to the full. In its modern form, the best officers of any Branch could be appointed to most jobs in the Navy. Hence one could meet a Navy pilot commanding a frigate, a Supply Officer who doubled as anti-aircraft officer, and officers of all Branches who had risen to top posts at Flag rank.


Jim also succeeded in ending the traditional 13-year-old entry to Dartmouth and opened the Service to bright schoolboys at 16 or 17. Shortly before I left his office he was made a life peer and all his staff were invited to see him introduced to the House of Lords as Lord Cilcennin. Sadly, he died a few years later at a relatively early age, the victim of osteo-arthritis.


A few months after I left the Private Office, Britain embarked upon an ill-fated operation, in consort with France and Israel, to retain control of the Suez Canal. A revolution in Egypt had deposed the obnoxious King Farouk and a new President, one Gamal Nasser, took power. His first act was to nationalise the Suez Canal Company and despite his assurances that it would be safeguarded as an international waterway, Britain and France felt they could not afford to let this vital communication with their Eastern possessions become a hostage to fortune. They landed troops in Egypt and sped down the length of the Canal; but the USA would have none of it and threatened to stop the economic aid on which Europe depended. The invasion collapsed.

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