The Price of Cows is Rising - A Young British Woman's Call to Arms
One afternoon in June 1944, Miss Grace went out of the office she shared with several other secretaries and went upstairs to take down a letter under the dictation of her boss, Col. Dismore. Her concentration was suddenly disturbed by the characteristic sound of a flying bomb. After the emotions of the Blitz, the V1 rockets or doodlebugs, their petit nom, were really scary: the first modern unguided missiles used in wartime. There was no mistaking the sound they made, like a bubbly and distant motorcycle engine, and then the sound would suddenly stop. And during that stop you wondered, where is it going to fall? Is this one for me? Miss Grace pricked up her ears and held her pencil tighter: she had heard the buzz and then the fatal stop. The bomb was going to come next. Miss Grace looked at Dismore and wondered: "Is he going to go on dictating? He went on. So I had to carry on..."
The commitment and courage that this small anecdote evokes were a hallmark of the people working with Alicia Grace and the secret agents they were handling.
For four years during World War Two our building was occupied by a section of the Special Operations Executive, a secret organisation set up to train and infiltrate secret agents behind enemy lines. In the course of research into the section which occupied our building (known as RF and about which less is known than about F section, the other section dealing with operations on France) I traced and met agents and other staff who were still living. One of them was Alicia Grace, now Comtesse Gérard de Brosses, who worked as secretary to successive heads of RF section.
This is her story based on interviews with her. Alicia was startled when I told her that, as far as I could ascertain, she was one of the longest-serving members of staff in RF section, working for all four of its directors. I wanted to know what life was like in our building then.
Alicia Vere Grace was born on 18 May 1916 in Harmondsworth, Middlesex. Her father, Dr John Johnston Grace, was born in Wellington, New Zealand and her mother, Eleanor Vere née Greenfield, in Hawaii, both with British nationality. Her father, a surgeon, co-founded in Jamaica in 1922 an import-export company, Grace Kennedy, still thriving today. Alicia came to Jamaica aged four, leaving England after her mother had tied all loose ends. They lived at Strawberry Hill, now a luxury hotel in the Caribbean.
From June 1940 to June 1941 Alicia worked as a secretary to the manager of another import company, T. Geddes Grant. Her reason for leaving, in her SOE application form, states that is was "climate unsuitable" but in fact Alicia was determined to rejoin England to do her bit for the war. Even though she knew England quite well from visiting the place regularly, it is still surprising perhaps that someone would wish to leave a comfortable life in the tropics to go to Blitzed London, her final destination. She was 25. Her parents thought it was the least they could do for Britain, and would have joined her if they could.
"Jamaica was a little bit of an outpost. So we would dream of big cities, like Paris, dream of wonderful places where the action was going on. But, en dehors de cela, when war broke out, there was no question - my place was there."
Alicia was told that Curaçao was the place to wait for a ship to cross the Atlantic. And so in the summer of 1941 she went to work as a secretary for Naval Intelligence at the British Consulate. She was waiting.
"A close friend, who was in a regiment in Curaçao said to me, I’ll tell you when it’s time. I’ll have to tell you in code. When I tell you the price of cows is rising, you’ll know you can stand by and sailing off is nigh... That was my call to arms!"
In those days crossing the Atlantic was no cruise, even though Alicia did dine at the Captain’s table! MV Tuscan Star, of the Blue Star Line, was a refrigerated cargo liner, transporting frozen meat, lamb from New Zealand, beef from Argentina (it was later sunk on 6 September 1942 SW of Cape Palmas by a German submarine.) And as Alicia recounted to me:
"The transatlantic crossing was the event of my life! How can one forget?!... I was on the Tuscan Star... It was like the Tatler! ... But the captain said to me, Gracie ... which was infuriating ... I did not call myself GRACIE... I was Alicia Grace, as you know... Gracie, I want to tell you something ... It will be a miracle if we get through ... Wasn’t I glad to hear this! And then he kept on saying ... it’s 50/50 Gracie! How could one ever FORGET? ... It’s 50/50 Gracie, I want you to know. You can still change your mind. It’s 2 times 2... I decided I would not go. And I packed my trunk... You could still fly from America. America was not in the war. I had a cousin in New York where the ship would call... Anyhow I did make plans to leave the Tuscan Star, I nearly turned back, but then I said to myself, you’re craven! This is CHICKEN-hearted! You’ll be ashamed of this the rest of your life... You’ve got to unpack the trunk again! And so the die was cast. I went on... [... At Halifax], we had to wait for the anti-aircraft gun to be fixed; it had been broken during a storm. Then, later, we were attacked. By a submarine. They tried to torpedo us. I was told, Miss, you have to wait in a locker. Then we were let out. We knew we had been attacked, and they said afterwards that what happened was they torpedoed us, they tried to torpedo us and we put down depth charges to scare them off... It took 5-6 weeks to reach Liverpool... I struck up a great friendship on the ship with the son of a Scottish farmer, he was a charmer, it helped me cope!"
She arrived In Liverpool on 24 March 1942, and made her way to London where she probably arrived a bit sea-sick, a bit love-sick and certainly home-sick for she was very close to her family and here she was on her own in London at war. She recounts:
"I wrote a lot of letters to them. But not about what I was doing, only about the pleasurable things! I was top secret to the last!... But before I became a spy [she laughs] I was a nurse. I had taken a crash course in Jamaica, decided ‘I’ll nurse!’ and I enrolled in the VAD’s. I was hoping to nurse gallant men from the front and when I discovered that the hospital I was assigned to was women’s only, nurses and patients, I decided it was not for me. I managed to get out of this with pull! It was John Carlton, a friend of a close friend, who said when we were having lunch, if you are interested I can get you into something secret. I said, yes please! It turned out he had his entrée with SOE."
Carlton wrote on 1 May 1942 to Miss Furse, in charge of the recruitment of female civilian personnel for SOE, suggesting Alicia for employment: she is "a friend of a great friend of mine, who is himself ‘100% reliable’. I imagine that having come from the Colonies she is probably not liable to the ordinary call up regulations". The same day Miss Furse invited Alicia to an interview.
Alicia stated on her application form that she was fluent in French and had a working knowledge of German. She had learnt French at school and practised during regular holidays near Saint-Malo and in Cannes; she had spent three months in Switzerland. She had good typing and shorthand but her main "atout" was French shorthand, or her own version of it anyway. A hand-written note at the bottom of the application form reads "sound personality, intelligent. Yes just the type."
Of her recruitment, Alicia remembers a "Mr Mott", of whom she says, "actually he was a soldier, I remember him in khaki but I have forgotten his rank. I saw him when we were put through the security drill. He tested us to see if we were reliable." She adds: "we were told we’d have to kill if necessary!" She is referring to Captain Norman Mott, in charge of the security of SOE headquarters and other buildings. His signature appears below that of Alicia’s on the Official Secrets Act form. Alicia’s application form also tells us that she could ride, drive a car, swim, ski, cycle and sketch. But she could not drive a motorcycle or lorry, sail a boat, mountaineer, shoot, run, box, fly a plane or read and transmit Morse!
Alicia found her way to 1 Dorset Square where she was interviewed by Wing-Commander Yeo-Thomas, in what is now our Yeo-Thomas Room. The interview took place in French. At some point, Yeo-Thomas made or received a call from Duke Street (the BCRA) and exclaimed "qu’est-ce que tu fous, Larat?", which startled Alicia but she took this use of colloquial French in front of her as a way of both testing her French and her composure! Then he said to her: "you speak French? You take French shorthand? You’re not squeamish about sabotage? You’re in!" Alicia admits she bluffed him as far as French shorthand was concerned and she made up her own French shorthand as she went along.
She initially worked for Yeo-Thomas. Presumably when Pauline May, secretary to the section’s head left, Alicia was poached to replace her. Her main duty was typing under the dictation of the section head. Well into her nineties, she could still hear Capt. Piquet-Wicks saying, "Miss Grace, can you take a letter?", and remember that the first one she typed was a note to Capt. Bienvenuë at the BCRA. The bulk of the letters to be typed were for the Free French. The filing was done by clerks: Alicia remembers Miss Fitzgibbon, a fun person with whom she got on well and who would exclaim "let’s smoke ourselves to death!", rallying the secretaries to a well-deserved break. A most important task was to burn documents and lock up the safe in the evening. She remembers forgetting one day, some papers being later on that evening spotted by the caretaker, and "did I hear about it, boy!" James Hutchison, Piquet-Wicks successor gave her "a good wigging" for this security lapse.
Senior secretaries were in positions of high trust, working directly for RF bosses, and privy to many things other staff would not be. Indeed, they knew everyone and what they did, even if they were not given formal explanations. Just typing up outgoing post and filing the incoming courrier gave one a telling glimpse into the affairs of the secret war.
Another task of Alicia’s was to go and open the door when a bell was heard. She remembers opening to Piquet-Wicks, to Jean Moulin, to the agents visiting. An occasional duty was to "baby sit" certain agents when they were brought in from the field before they had been properly debriefed and vetted. Her mission was to prevent any contact between the agent and anyone else before the agent had been cleared, which could take a week or more. Alicia vividly evoked to me a most welcome incidence:
"When we arrived in the morning and there was a smell of Gauloise wafting down the stairs, we knew the operation had been a success and some men had been brought over and we were very excited."
But there was also a permanent background anxiety about whether agents would return. In early 1944, for example, when news came in that both Yeo-Thomas and her friend Kay's amoureux, Charles Gimpel, were arrested (more or less at the same time but in different circumstances), and taken to concentration camp (not that they knew that then), Alicia confirmed the pervading sense of gloom at such times. But she added "we worked hard, that was the only way to cope, we busied ourselves in work and that became the only reality."
RF Section was always considered eccentric by other SOE personnel and they had some unorthodox ways of working: Alicia accompanied four women would-be agents on their training. Exasperated by their clumsiness, she tried to show them how to roll over the wooden horse. But she badly tore a ligament in her knee, which immobilised her and as a result she could not go back to work at Dorset Square for several weeks. She has often wondered if any of these four women made it as agents (but has not recognised any of the names and photos I showed her). Her accident prompted an SOE officer to write:
"I consider it most inadvisable that secretaries should be permitted to act as accompanying officers, unless there is absolutely no alternative. With regard to the injury to Miss Grace’s knee, I consider that if any secretary attempts to do PT twice daily when she has for the last two years been employed on secretarial work and, therefore, cannot possibly be physically trained for work of this kind, that accidents of this kind will be the obvious result. Perhaps you will have a word with the R/F Section regarding the legitimate employment of secretaries in their section?"
As early as 1943, Alicia had wanted to enrol in the FANYS because she knew that, if and when the time came to go to France, uniform would be essential. The transfer was not approved because she wished to continue with her work with RF section in the capacity of a FANY officer while still doing a senior secretary’s work. The section’s establishment did not allow for this and the rank of Sergeant did not appeal to her.
In Autumn 1944 Alicia was transferred to the FANYs in order that she could go to France with the SOE mission in Paris. Obviously this transfer was approved because of her knowledge of the French language. After undergoing training as a FANY at an SOE special training school (STS 46), she left the UK in uniform on 4 November 1944. Once in Paris, actually based in Chantilly, "we worked at Hôtel Cecil and played at the British Officers Club off Boulevard St Honoré."
"It was the 11th of November, Armistice Day. I was in my FANY uniform with a friend having a drink at the Drugstore on the Champs Elysées. A young man was also having a drink. He was looking at me and when our eyes met he said ‘thank you’. I said ‘not at all’, wondering what I had done, I had not passed him the salt or anything! He went on: ‘because I see your uniform – ah, I said, oh, I did it for France! – you did it for all of us!’ A real tear-jerker that!"
And I could hear her voice catch so many years later. She was signed off on 26 September 1945 and left the UK for a well-deserved holiday, joining her parents who had by then settled in New-York. For her war time services she received the 1939-45 Star and the France and Germany Star. She returned to Paris and worked for the newly-formed UNESCO until her marriage.
Alicia is a woman of enormous joy and whenever I have chatted with her I have been struck by her unflappable cheerfulness, her tendency to break into a song or whistle a tune at any opportunity. And it is quite visible even today that Alicia's time at 1 Dorset Square was of several intense years in the life of a young woman. They must have counted: Alicia, like others, kept her FANY uniform all her life which she recently gave to us to display in her old office.
Alicia's uniform (with the ribbons of the 1939-45 Star and the France and Germany Star) and a photo from her wedding in London in 1951
Note: This is an edited extract of the forthcoming RF is for Real Friends, research enlivened with testimonies and unpublished documents. You are welcome to quote any of the above and if you do then it will be appreciated if you would kindly acknowledge this research and include a link to this page.
© CH 2014; Photos, CH & AVG; sources: CH interviews & The National Archives.Back to top