Sarah and I sat in the back of a black London taxi cab as it swept through the traffic round Trafalgar Square and turned left into Whitehall.
We were both dressed in smart new Royal Navy uniforms. Although Sarah and I were both on the naval reserve payroll, neither of us had ever worn uniform before, not least because Britain officially had no women service personnel. Today's formalities, however, required uniform.
The Wrens' uniform of the Great War had been unflattering even then and received not even a cursory consideration for us. Instead, my father, Commodore Sandy MacKenzie set his tailor the task of coming up with a suitable uniform, working in collaboration with my mother's Bond Street dressmaker. The finished result was stunning, the uniform jacket was a complete feminine re-interpretation of the Naval officer's monkey jacket. The jacket buttoned right over left as women's coats should and was neatly tailored at the waist to give just the right emphasis to the figure and flared slightly at the hip. It was teamed with a plain A-line skirt reaching just below the knee. We wore black lisle stockings and sensible low-heeled shoes. The whole ensemble was topped off with the tricorn hat worn by Wren officers in the Great War. The uniforms achieved exactly the right blend of feminine flattery with naval swagger and, of course, became well known from the thousands of Wren officers and petty officers who wore them in the ensuing conflict.
On my jacket cuffs I wore the wavy gold distinction braid borne by officers of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve - two broad stripes and a single narrow one between them denoting my new rank of Lieutenant Commander. Sarah wore the crossed anchors and crown of a Petty Officer and the winged lightning flash with crown and star of a Wireless Operator First Class.
We had spent a humiliating day at Chatham Dockyard learning enough parade ground drill to at least be able to march without disgracing our uniforms. The Petty Officer Instructor had honed the acid sarcasm used against officer trainees to a new pitch when entrusted with female charges, "Don't wiggle your bloody bottom like a bloody Portsmouth whore! ...Ma'am."
Our taxi stopped outside the Old Admiralty building in Whitehall and I paid off the driver. As we stepped out onto the pavement, the rating on guard outside the door presented arms smartly and I saluted in return. His eyes were wide with confusion - we were clearly the first female naval personnel he had ever seen, but he responded to my gold braid. Inside, the grizzled Chief Petty Officer in charge of security rose from his seat and saluted me. Self-consciously, I returned the salute - I had known him since I was a child. He put me at my ease immediately, "You look splendid Miss Flora."
We made our way up to the second floor, where the offices of our department were housed. Our first call was on my immediate superior officer. We paused to check our uniforms like schoolgirls outside the headmistress's office before tapping on the door. A stern voice replied, "Enter!" We marched in as smartly as we could, Sarah closing the door behind her and we finished at attention in front of the desk, bringing our feet down neatly in unison.
The formidable Lady Gillian Beaumaris looked up from her work and examined us over the top of her spectacles. Lady Gillian was a genuine heroine. She had worked behind enemy lines in the Great War at great personal risk, successfully shortening the closing stages War. She gained for herself the Distinguished Service Order, the Legion d'Honneur and a sniper's bullet through one knee. It was alleged that during the Great War, and for some time afterwards, she had not only been Richard Hannay's close colleague but had also been his mistress.
Lady Gillian pushed herself upright and grabbed the malacca cane she used as a walking stick (widely rumoured to conceal a sword blade) and came over to us for a closer inspection. She was small, only about five feet one, plump and prematurely grey. She had a commanding personality, but when the occasion demanded she showed the warm and generous private side of herself. I held her both in awe and in great affection.
After a detailed examination, Lady Gillian nodded her head and grinned broadly, "Not bad, girls. Not bad at all." She always gave credit where it was due, but her standards were uncompromising to say the least.
Just then, the door opened unannounced and my father walked in. Sarah and I turned round and saluted. He was not wearing his uniform cap, so he waved his hand in reply, "At ease, ladies and hats off." We removed our hats and stood at ease as ordered. He turned to Lady Gillian, "What do you think, Jillie? Will they do."
Lady Gillian smiled and nodded, "They're a credit to us all, sir."
My father smiled, "I think so too." Then he nodded to us and tapped his watch, "We'd better not keep the King waiting."
The naval staff car took us to the porte cochère inside the quadrangle of the Palace, where an equerry was waiting for us. We were led along coridors and up stairs until we were shown into a room overlooking the gardens behind the Palace.
I spotted the King immediately. He was wearing the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet. I was surprised to see that he was only a little taller than me - I had expected him to tower over me. He was talking to another man, who was very tall and thin, gaunt even. I judged the man to be in his eighties, although he looked very fit. He looked familiar, but I was unable to place him.
Presently the tall man broke off his conversation and, at the King's invitation, sat down on a nearby chair, his hands folded on top of a black cane. He eyed me quizzically, but said nothing.
The King held out his hand to my father and greeted him like an old friend, "Sandy! It's been too long. How are you?"
My father clearly knew him well, which was a surprise to me, and replied cordially, "Not bad thank you, and you're looking well too, sir." It was a flat lie, the King was looking drawn and ill.
The King turned to Sarah and me next. We saluted and he gravely returned the salute. He asked a great many questions and listened with interest as we related our adventures in Austria. He closed the interview by formally awarding us our medals, a Distinguished Service Cross for me and a Distinguished Service Medal for Sarah.
After placing our medals onto the hooks already pinned to our jackets, the King told us that there were two admirers who particularly wanted to meet us. Accordingly, Sarah and I spent the next hour walking through the Palace gardens in the company of the two Royal Princesses while we recounted an edited version of our exploits to them. Princess Elizabeth was thoughtful and concerned and wanted clarification and expansion of many points. Princess Margaret Rose was enthralled by the high adventure but less interested in her sister's exploration of the background to the story.
We returned to the Palace to find the King deep in conversation with my father and the tall stranger I had seen earlier. After a while, my father made his farewells and the three of us were led back to the waiting staff car. On the way, I asked who the stranger had been. My father looked surprised at the question, "Why, that was Mr Sherlock Holmes. He's a valued advisor to the King. I thought you would recognise him." Inwardly, I cursed myself - of course I recognised him, that's why he had looked familiar. I had seen Mr Sidney Paget's drawings often enough and, while they depicted a much younger man, they had clearly been based on life sketches.
As we drove back to the Admiralty, my father explained that he and Mr Holmes had been discussing the growing crisis in Europe and he outlined some particular problems that Sarah and I might be able to help with.
The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
On 12 March, the Austrian state had collapsed and Hitler drove into Vienna. The following day, he announced the Anschluß, the annexation of Austria to become an integral part of a Greater Germany.
Hitler's designs on the German-speaking Czech Sudetenland became apparent over the ensuing months and on 30 September 1938, the four-power conference in Munich reached an accord allowing Germany to annexe part of Czechoslovakia.
Our Prime Minister, Mr Chamberlain, spoke of "peace with honour" and "peace in hour time". History has largely reviled him for his apparent appeasement of Hitler at that time, but I believe his actions bought us the valuable months we needed to rearm ourselves in order to wage war against Nazi Germany.
Copyright © 1999 Gillian B
Flora MacKenzie's Casebook
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