Margaret Rhodes, first cousin to Queen Elizabeth, was a bridesmaid at the 1947 wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, and three years later married Denys Rhodes, a grandson of the 5th Lord Plunket. The World War II years were spent at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, where she lodged while she worked for MI6. Margaret Rhodes was lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. She now lives in the Great Park in Windsor, although still regularly visits Balmoral and Sandringham.
In this extract, Margaret Rhodes talks about her time at Buckingham Palace, working for MI6 and the VE Day celebrations.
‘I was twenty in 1945. VE Day was a euphoric moment. I was still at the Palace and that evening we had a huge party. My eldest brother, John, who had been a prisoner of war, was there and a gang of us, including the two Princesses, were given permission by the King and Queen to slip away anonymously…’
The Final Curtsey: A Royal Memoir by the Queen’s Cousin
Chapter 4 – Secret Army
I tip-toed into the world of work with a difference when I finished my shorthand and typing course. I wanted to ‘do my bit’, as the saying then went and join the Women’s Royal Naval Service, the WRNS, but for a now forgotten reason I found myself in MI6 as a small cog in the shadowy world of espionage. It was all dreadfully hush- hush, and for an impressionable eighteen-year old tremendously mysterious. I reported each day with some trepidation to an office disguised as ‘Passport Control’ near St James’s Park underground station. Perhaps it was ‘Passport Control’ on the ground floor, but upstairs we were MI6. The big chief, ‘M’ to James Bond fans, hid behind the letter ‘C’. He wrote in green ink, and God-like powers were attributed to him by us underlings. Years later I was told that the spy Kim Philby had at one time been in line for the ‘C’ job. He would probably have written in red ink. But my boss, a Major Maufe, was an excessively dull character. When forced to make a rare venture into the social circuit and attend a smart cocktail party given by people he didn’t know, he introduced himself by saying: ‘I’m Maufe’, as in ‘Orf ’. The invariable response was: ‘Oh, so sorry you couldn’t stay longer’. Thereafter things became a touch confused.
My department co-ordinated the work of our secret agents in the Near East. They all seemed to travel by caique. Then I went to work for the Deputy Director DD/Admin, with a very nice lady whose husband was an agent and I remember her distress when he broke both ankles dropping by parachute into occupied France. With the ever vigilant Gestapo on their tail, mobility could mean the difference between life and death to our agents. I never learnt his fate, but I hope so much that he survived. One of my daily tasks was to read every single message transmitted by our spies all over the world. It was fascinating, but frightening too. I knew all about Germany’s war time race for nuclear weapons being conducted at their heavy water plant in Norway and it was a tremendous relief when in 1943 a team of British trained Norwegian commandos succeeded in blowing up the plant. The Special Operations Executive described it as one of the most daring and successful acts of sabotage in the Second World War.
I was also aware of the Peenemunde project on the Baltic coast where the Germans were developing their new secret weapon, a rocket to be launched on London and the south east and the building of the rocket launching sites in Holland and France, with the aim of bringing Britain to its knees. It was to be Hitler’s last throw. The evidence had been brought to Winston Churchill by his son-in-law Duncan Sandys who, having been badly wounded in the battle for Norway in 1940 had been made responsible for the search for and the discovery of secret weapons. My husband, Denys Rhodes, later worked for Duncan Sandys when he was involved in the foundation of the European Movement, a forerunner of the European Community.
In 1943, it was useful, but scary, to know that the V1 and V2 rockets were stoking up long before they actually fell on us. Forewarned was forearmed, and one of the girls with whom I worked and shared a flat in Chelsea went to bed every night wearing a tin hat. She failed in her attempt to persuade me to take the same precaution. I thought it was carrying personal safety too far. When the V1 onslaught began it was frightening, mostly because of its total unpredictability – its fall being decided by its petrol tank. The moment one heard the engine noise cease, one knew it had started its descent. But defiantly nicknaming these death carrying projectiles ‘Doodle Bugs’ helped to allay the fear and they became just another horror to get used to. I had first hand experience of this one Sunday, in June 1944, when I was on duty in ‘Passport Control’ and heard a V1 cut out. It sounded very nearly overhead and stupidly I craned out of the window to see where it would fall. A rather crusty old colonel saw me as he was passing and rugby tackled me down on to the floor, a rescue operation accompanied by some round curses. That was the rocket which hit the Guards’ Chapel, in Wellington Barracks, barely a hundred yards away. It was the middle of the morning service. Sixty three servicemen and women and fifty-eight civilians were killed. The V2s were even more frightening as they were silent and gave absolutely no warning of their approach. They were like an express train and the noise of the impact when they hit their target was terrifying. then of course it was too late for so many innocent victims.
I have often reflected since those momentous days, on how curiously adaptable human beings are. At the time all the dangerous situations thrust upon us during the war strangely didn’t actually seem dangerous; just commonplace. I remember after a weekend in the country arriving back at Victoria station, just after an air raid, and picking my way through piles of shattered glass and rubble along streets with flaming buildings on each side. One just took it in one’s stride. It was just as well, of course, otherwise life would have been completely intolerable. But beside the air raids and work there was play. The theatres and cinemas remained open and there were lots of young men around, all in uniform of course. They looked so handsome in their dress ‘Blues’ and as often as not we would end up at the 400 club, in Leicester Square. It was dark; smoky and romantically mysterious. There was a tiny square dance floor on which we smooched around, cheek to cheek, imagining ourselves in love.
I had two weeks leave a year and usually headed home to Scotland. The trains were slow and packed with servicemen. I would sit bolt upright all night in a third class compartment, with the windows blacked out and covered with some sticky protective material in case they were blasted in or out during a raid. The only illumination was a dim blue light in the roof. At Carberry I found that my mother had risen to the challenge of supplementing the meagre rations with home grown recipes. We ate stewed nettles both as vegetables and in soup, melted down rose hips and very old eggs preserved in something called ‘waterglass’. Each adult was entitled under the strict food rationing regime to two small meat cutlets a week; about four ounces of butter and the same amount of sugar. Fruit was only the home grown variety and everywhere one looked one could see flower gardens turned into vegetable patches and allotments. We were luckier in the country than people living in the towns. We could always shoot rabbits or pigeons and many a hen past its laying prime would find its way to the family table. It was a long way from the lavishness of our pre-war picnics and dinners when my parents entertained house parties during the shooting season, but most people, particularly the children, seemed remarkably healthy. Childhood obesity was not then a problem.
Back in London, the girls with whom I worked and lived with, and I, were overwhelmingly affected by the drama of our jobs and were only too ready to see spies lurking round every corner. Those were the days when people, unbelievably now, regularly reported spotting parachuting nuns, every single sister a spy of course. Liz Lambart and I lived as paying guests in a house in Chelsea. Our landlord spoke with a heavy foreign accent and limped, although we once caught him running up the stairs. He was often away and something of an enigma. Was he, I wondered, transmitting to Berlin. He would offer us lifts to work in the morning — how did he get the petrol for his car — and we went to extraordinary lengths to convince him that we worked in a totally different part of London. We were convinced that he was a spy. We even went as far as reporting him to MI5, although I never found out what happened to him. In retrospect I hope it wasn’t anything too serious.
Later in the war my mother managed to engineer both my brother Andrew and me into Buckingham Palace as lodgers. I would think that it probably would not have needed much more than a telephone call to her sister, the Queen. Our new home was wonderfully convenient, because it was, for me only a short walk across the park to ‘Passport Control’. We had a bedroom each, a sitting room and a bathroom all on the second floor and a housemaid’s pantry as our kitchen. There was a small electric cooker, but no fridge. I thought it would be a good idea to utilise the window ledge and so put our milk bottles out there to keep them cool, only to bring down on my head the wrath of the Master of the Household, a dear old boy called Sir Piers Legh, who gave me the most fearsome ticking off for defacing the architectural purity of the palace facade; as if he didn’t have other things to worry about.
The palace had already been bombed nine times, and there were all those refugee royals passing through, like Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who having narrowly escaped capture by the invading Germans, arrived with little more than what she stood up in and a tin hat.
Our window overlooked the forecourt and I don’t suppose my domestic improvisations enhanced the Changing of the Guard. Our great culinary forté was a stockpot which we kept going for months on end and in which we would pop whole pigeons. There were plenty of them to be had, and cheap at 2s 6d (12.5p) each. I imagine that Trafalgar Square was rather depleted. Once we actually invited the King and Queen to dinner — imagine in a house maid’s pantry. The horrified staff was convinced that Their Majesties would succumb to food poisoning. The King’s Page, the tall and elegant Mr Hailey, was particularly distressed about His Majesty slumming in his own palace, and appeared, unasked, to check over our arrangements, which he found highly unsatisfactory. Buckingham Palace was of course the most prestigious address in town, but it did deter some of my after-dark escorts. The conversations with these hopeful gallants would run something like this: ‘Can I see you home?’… ‘How Kind’… ‘Where do you live?’…. ‘Buckingham Palace’… ‘Oh REALLY’, with an emphasis on the ‘REALLY’… ‘But where do you live?’… ‘Honestly, Buckingham Palace’. Unfortunately my connection with the big house at the top of the Mall sometimes dashed my chances of romance. My escorts had to leave me at the Palace railings, where I still had to get past the soldiers and policemen.
I was twenty in 1945. VE Day was a euphoric moment. I was still at the Palace and that evening we had a huge party. My eldest brother, John, who had been a prisoner of war, was there and a gang of us, including the two Princesses, were given permission by the King and Queen to slip away anonymously and join the rejoicing crowds on the streets. This sort of freedom was unheard of as far as my cousins were concerned. There must have been about sixteen of us and we had as escort, the King’s Equerry, a very correct Royal Navy captain in a pin striped suit, bowler hat and umbrella. No one appeared less celebratory, perhaps because he took his guardian responsibilities too seriously. Princess Elizabeth was in uniform, as a subaltern in the Auxiliary Transport Service
– the ATS. She pulled her peaked cap well down over her face to disguise her much photographed image, but a Grenadier among the party positively refused to be seen in the company of another officer, however junior, who was improperly dressed. My cousin didn’t want to break King’s Regulations and so reluctantly she agreed to put her cap on correctly, hoping that she would not be recognised. Miraculously she got away with it.
London had gone mad with joy. We could scarcely move; people were laughing and crying; screaming and shouting and perfect strangers were kissing and hugging each other. We danced the Conga, a popular new import from Latin America; the Lambeth Walk and the Hokey-Cokey, and at last fought our way back to the Palace, where there was a vast crowd packed to the railings. We struggled to the front joining in the yells of ‘We want the King; we want the Queen’. I rather think the Equerry got a message through to say that the Princesses were outside, because before long the double doors leading onto the balcony were thrown open and the King and Queen came out, to be greeted by a rising crescendo of cheers, to which their daughters and the rest of us contributed.
It was a view of their parents that the Princesses had never before experienced and for all of us young people it was the grand finale to an unforgettable day. I suppose that for the Princesses it was a unique burst of personal freedom; a Cinderella moment in reverse, in which they could pretend that they were ordinary and unknown.
After that life returned to what passed for normal in those days. In mid-July the lights went on again ‘all over the town’, as the popular song had it. After more than two thousand nights of the black out and dim out, Britain was once again ablaze with light, and there was no excuse for bumping into trees or each other in the dark, drunk or sober. Many people listened on the wireless to the news of the continuing war against Japan, culminating in the ultimate horror of atom bombs vaporising Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on 6 and 9 August 1945. There has since been a revisionist view of those two raids, but, I think at the time the great mass of the people, weary of war, were overwhelmingly relieved that it was at last ending and were not overly concerned at the time about the moral argument. That was to come later. Four days after the second raid Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. Prince Philip of Greece, second in command of the destroyer HMS Whelp, was present in Tokyo Bay for the formal Japanese surrender.
On VJ Day – victory over Japan – we were all out on the streets again in full party mood. It was yet another riot of song and dance and once again I was with the Princesses. I can’t remember exactly what we got up to, and so the Queen has provided me with an aide memoire taken from her diary entries for that time. She starts on 6 May 1945: ‘Heard that John and George free and safe!’ The exclamation mark probably expresses her pleasure at the return from captivity of my brother John and her paternal cousin, Viscount Lascelles, the elder son of Mary, the Princess Royal, and the Earl of Harewood. Then on 7 May: ‘After tea saw John and George who flew back today. John just the same’. On VE Day, 8
May: ‘PM announced unconditional surrender. Sixteen of us went out in crowd, cheered parents on balcony. Up St J’s St, Piccadilly, great fun’, followed on 9 May: ‘Out in crowd again — Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, Pall Mall, walked simply miles. Saw parents on balcony at 12.30 am — ate, partied, bed 3 am!’
There is a gap until 14 August when she recorded the Prime Minister announcing the complete surrender of Japan, followed on 15 August: ‘VJ Day. Out in crowd, Whitehall, Mall, St J St, Piccadilly, Park Lane, Constitution Hill, ran through Ritz. Walked miles, drank in Dorchester, saw parents twice, miles away, so many people’ and finally, on 16 August: ‘Out in crowd again. Embankment, Piccadilly. Rained, so fewer people. Congered into house [a reference to Buckingham Palace and that rather wild dance]…Sang ’till 2 am. Bed at 3 am!’
My cousins were obviously having the time of their lives. Meanwhile I had been making occasional forays to Windsor where the Queen arranged rather more sedate small dances for her daughters, attended by young Guards’ officers stationed at the castle and in the town’s barracks. Queen Mary, rather wryly, called these boys ‘the bodyguard’. Princess Elizabeth dutifully waltzed, fox-trotted and quick stepped, and engaged her partners in small talk, but she was waiting for one man to come home from the war. She had been enamoured of Prince Philip of Greece from an early age. I’ve got letters from her saying: ‘It’s so exciting. Mummy says that Philip can come and stay when he gets leave’. She never looked at anyone else. She was truly in love from the very beginning.
With total peace came some sobering statistics which told the price of victory and defeat. I read that over 55 million people were killed, from all sides. Then there were the spine chilling images filmed when the concentration camps were liberated. A world food shortage brought the return of rationing on a near war time basis and there were long queues at food shops. The winter of
1947 blew in with heavy snow storms and sub-zero temperatures, meaning serious fuel shortages and power cuts. A frozen Britain lived and worked by candlelight. So the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten, newly minted as a British subject, in November that year, brightened our austerity ridden post war world. This time I was on the Palace balcony myself, as a bridesmaid, standing between Princess Margaret and another cousin, Diana Bowes-Lyon, gazing down on the crowds, who from that distance seemed Lilliputian. Our dresses were designed by Norman Hartnell. They were of ivory satin and net silk tulle, embroidered with syringa flower motifs. We bridesmaids didn’t have a girl’s party on the wedding eve as they do now, but we did, on the wedding day itself, have an evening party hosted by the best man, David Milford Haven. He was perhaps not the most attentive of hosts and it was not a great success: anyway we were probably all too exhausted.
There were eight bridesmaids, the traditional number for a royal bride. We flitted round the red carpeted corridors of the Palace waiting for the cars to take us to Westminster Abbey and I remember waving to the crowds. It was very exciting but I was shocked to learn that the price of a window view in buildings overlooking the processional route could cost up to ten guineas a head, a lot of money in those days. I know that there were some last minute crises. The bride’s bouquet disappeared. A footman remembered taking it in and bringing it upstairs, but no one had seen it since. With the panic at its height he suddenly recalled putting it in a cool cupboard to keep it fresh — and there it was.
Then Princess Elizabeth decided she wanted to wear the double string of pearls which had been a personal wedding gift from her father and mother. The pearls could not be found either, but someone remembered that they had been sent over with the rest of the wedding presents for public display at St James’s Palace, half a mile away. The Princess’s Private Secretary, Jock Colville, was dispatched poste haste and he commandeered the car of the King of Norway almost before he got out of it. At St James’s the detectives guarding the gifts thought he was telling them a tall story, but after some while he convinced them and returned clutching the pearls with only minutes to spare. There was a third mishap. The frame of the sun-ray tiara lent to the Princess by the Queen, as ‘something borrowed’ snapped as it was being fitted on her head, and the Crown Jeweller who was standing by in case of any emergency rushed to his workroom with a police escort and repaired it just in time. Regrettably I lost my lovely dress in a house move.
I left my M16 job soon after the end of the war, and thereafter spent a lot of time trying to find new and interesting employment. Eventually I pulled off an interview with the fledgling European Movement. I was invited to lunch at the Jardin des Gourmets restaurant in Soho to meet my putative employers. One introduced himself as Denys Rhodes. It was the start of an exciting and romantic adventure which was to take me to the top of the world
— and down again.