Book Group choice for April: Egypt

To War With Whitaker

The Wartime Diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly 1939-45

This month, our topic to choose a title was ‘Egypt’ – any book set in or about anything to do with the country. The nominations were:

  • Death on the Nile – Christie
  • Ice Cold in Alex – Christopher Landon
  • Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
  • The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany
  • The Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald
  • To War with Whitaker by the Countess of Ranfurly
  • The Automobile Club of Egypt by Alaa Al Aswany

My choice came out of the draw. I’d been hoping it would be Al Aswany as I’ve been meaning to read The Yacoubian Building for ages. But, having read To War With Whitaker, I wasn’t disappointed at all – for the Countess of Ranfurly is one formidable woman!

Hermione Ranfurly came from a wealthy family of Welsh origin, but her father lost the family fortune on the horses when she was 13. She came to London aged 17 and got a job, ending up as PA to the Governor of New South Wales. It was in Australia in 1937 that she met Dan Ranfurly, aka Daniel Knox, 6th Earl of Ranfurly. They married back in London in January 1939.

Dan was an officer in the Sherwood Rangers, a reserve light cavalry squadron in the Royal Yeomanry Regiment. When war was announced, he had to go to his regiment. At first, his manservant, Whitaker was left behind to look after Hermione. Whitaker, from Sunderland, had been with Dan’s family for twelve years. He’d been telling Hermione his own life story:

As he ended his story Whitaker remarked, ‘The difference between His Lordship and me is that he was brought up and I was dragged up. I’ve had to educate myself in every respect.’ Fascinating, but sad, to think of what Whitaker might have achieved if he had gone to a good prep school, Eton and Cambridge, like Dan. He is talented – intelligent, witty, energetic and a brilliant piano player and cook. (p9)

Whitaker is the short, stocky one on the cover. He soon joined up too, and conspired to always been in the same region as Dan or Hermione, usually with a piano somewhere, but I’m jumping the gun.

As soon as Dan was posted to Palestine – shipping out on their first wedding anniversary, Hermione came up against a big problem. The wives of yeomanry officers were forbidden, by regulation, to join their husbands abroad, (presumably as they were part of the reserve outside wartime – although this is never explained). Hermione was determined not to stand for this. She planned to sneak out somehow to the Middle East, then to get a job and make herself indispensable and be allowed to stay.

With the services of a friendly travel agent who is used to arranging secret visas etc, she sets off for the Middle East, via Marseilles, ending in Cairo where she is met by one of Dan’s friends.

When I asked Robin what Cairo was like he said, ‘A filthy, Frenchy, modern town – an ancient, elegant, primitive city.’ Then he showed it to me. […]

Through overcrowded streets, where horse-drawn vehicles, dilapidated taxis, trams hung about with people, army trucks ad the seething populace struggle to move around, we made our way past modern stores, luxury flats and piteous dwellings, to Gezirah island where there is a golf course, polo ground and Club House. In Cairo the ancient and the new world, riches and poverty, peace and war, are cheek by jowl. It is a very noisy city.

Cairo will become Hermione’s base for some time, with forays into Palestine to see Dan, always dodging the authorities who want to send her back. Then in April 1941 comes a shock. Dan had been reported missing, believed to be a prisoner of war. Luckily, he’s a PoW in Italy, and they will communicate intermittently over coming years before escaping in 1944. Meanwhile Hermione is given permission to remain in the Middle East, as she is a good secretary and they are hard to find. She ends up working to General ‘Jumbo’ Wilson, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Middle East.

Hermione may have always worked for a living, but she has superb contacts – which add to the diplomatic effort of the Allied Forces. This occasion, in 1943, made me gasp with the almost surreal gathering at a dinner in Cairo:

Last night  went to a dinner party given by Air Marshal Sholto Douglas. There I met the King of Egypt, the Caseys, Noël Coward and all the Service Chiefs. After a buffet dinner we saw a film called Arsenic and Old Lace, and then Noël Coward sang.

There are more funny moments, like when she arranges a Professor to show General Patton the antiquities of Cairo. The professor wanted to show him the mosques. Patton wanted to see the Sphinx – which the professor knew nothing about. The professor bought a guide book to Cairo and saved the day.

Whitaker pops up occasionally and as a useful man, he sometimes gets to move on the periphery of some exalted circles – he’d recently met:

‘Some queer types,’ said Whitaker and showed me a photo of Monty.
‘Was he nice to you?’ I asked.
‘He’s a phoney,’ declared Whitaker with distaste, ‘no more General Montgomery than Ginger Rogers.’

Yes, Whitaker had met ‘Monty’s double’, part of the deception plan for Operation Overlord.

Dan and Hermione are reunited at Algiers in May 1944, and their HQ is relocated to Casserta in Italy. Ere long General Wilson is posted to Washington DC – he wants to take his beloved secretary Hermione with him, but Jumbo’s wife foils his plans, by deciding to join him there, saying that Hermione is just too well known, and that Hester says that staff won’t react to her in the right way which could affect the diplomatic effort!

It’s fair to say that the diaries were less interesting to me once Dan and Hermione were reunited and moved to Italy, and eventually home to England. I really liked Hermione, who is resourceful and plucky, but I wouldn’t have liked to get on the wrong side of her. I liked that she worked for a living and worked hard too, but she was still one of the privileged few, living a very different life to the rank and file – but I can forgive all the name-dropping.

Through her work, she had a good grip on what was happening in the Mediterranean theatre of war and her descriptions give good detail about that. Real life and the real world outside her windows rarely get a look in however, I didn’t get much of a feel for the geography or landscape of wherever she was. These diaries were made compulsive reading though due to the sheer force of her personality that leaps off the page. Very enjoyable reading indeed and a good book group choice with plenty to talk about. (8.5/10)


Source: Own Copy

Mandarin paperback, 376 pages.

12 thoughts on “Book Group choice for April: Egypt

  1. Sounds different but interesting read. Like your book club idea of theme and choices – will suggest that to ours. Like you I’d have wanted to pick Al Aswany’s Yacubian Building too – read the Automobile Club of Egypt recently and thought it was terrific!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      We wanted to spice up how we decide on our books – the topics are working well. So we pick a topic two months in advance, then the next month – everyone pitches a book into the mix and we draw for it (unless one book appeals to everyone). Then the month after we discuss it. So it’s a rolling three month process.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was excellent Karen. Having read many Christies when younger, I don’t feel the need to revisit them much, so I was very happy with the one we randomly picked – my choice!

  2. My mum had a copy of To War With Whitaker when I was a young’un and she always said it was completely wonderful. She also loved Palace Walk—I’d have been rooting for that one!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      We couldn’t decide as a group from that shortlist – so we made a draw. I really enjoyed To War With Whitaker, though I’d have been happy to read Palace Walk or either Al Aswany.

  3. I like the sound of this! And I do think a bit of name-dropping is essential in such books – it’s fascinating to know who was where when, and who else was there – and often surprising! I think all the diplomats were cut from that same Eton – Cambridge cloth, as were all government departments. It’s almost like a reference in itself. Although naturally that didn’t work so well with MI5… What’s really frustrating as these people still get a head start! Still sounds like an interesting read though.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was interesting – and they may have been posh but they had to work for a living at that stage of their lives. There is another volume of her diaries called After To War….. but it’s out of print. I shall be looking out for it though.

  4. I like the sound of this! And I do think a bit of name-dropping is essential in such books – it’s fascinating to know who was where when, and who else was there – and often surprising! I think all the diplomats were cut from that same Eton – Cambridge cloth, as were all government departments. It’s almost like a reference in itself. Although naturally that didn’t work so well with MI5… What’s really frustrating as these people still get a head start! Still sounds like an interesting read though. Is Ice Cold In Alex a good read? I only have the film for reference.

  5. What an absolutely splendid list, I want to read them all right now and am eyeing the TBR mountain with disapproval as it is decidedly thin on Egypt.

    Although I vaguely remember this book being published, I had completely forgotten its existence until now. Your review makes it sound fascinating. Do you get much of an impression of Whitaker from it?

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      There wasn’t enough Whitaker really, he ended up in a different place, but their paths crossed sometimes, but he was obviously much loved and very capable!

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