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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

King`s Counsellor

One always has pleasure in reading diaries: especially other people`s. Selections from an important diary kept by Sir Alan Lascelles have recently been published.About sixty years after the events they describe. Nowadays one is used to hearing about things immediately after a public servant leaves office. But Sir Alan Lascelles was of the old school. It still is an important diary for the historian.

The Times Literary Supplement has a review of KING'S COUNSELLOR Abdication and war: The Diaries of Sir Alan Lascelles (404pp. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. £25.) (Edited by Duff Hart-Davis).

“Tommy” Lascelles was a consummate courtier and Private Secretary to King George VI during the Second World War. Because of his position, he was in constant contact with Churchill and other members of the War Cabinet.

In the review by Richard Davenport-Hines, it is clear that Lascelles was privy to most if not all secrets of the British Government. He knew about atomic research as early as February 1944.

There are many revealing remarks and episodes.

The full review is at the above link. But here are a few extracts:

"With the exception of 30 or 40 High Esoterics – the War Cabinet and its immediate minions – I get as much illumination on the drear fog of war as anybody in this country`, Lascelles notes in these diaries, which he began in June 1942. This is not an exaggeration: he heard about atomic research as early as February 1944, and, six months before Hiroshima, had been told by the government’s chief scientific officer (“who looks like a fox-hunter and is an ardent Trollopian”) that a couple of atom bombs dropped on Japan “would end the war overnight”...

Though he confided strategic secrets to the diaries (about the D-Day landings in 1944 as well as atom bombs), he circumscribed his references to George VI, and made no references to the King’s hopes, fears, finances, religion, political beliefs, or feelings for his wife and daughters. This self-censorship leads to conspicuous omissions: at the end of the war, for example, Lascelles reports giving the King a dossier of captured German papers detailing the Duke of Windsor’s contacts with Nazi agents in 1940, but records nothing of the monarch’s reaction...

Lascelles’s diaries are a rich source of Churchilliana. Sometimes he encounters the Prime Minister in “a devilish bad temper”, and deplores his “dictatorial habits”. He was crucial in preventing Churchill and King George VI from rashly accompanying British forces at the D-Day landings, and noted then that the Prime Minister’s “naughtiness is sheer selfishness, plus vanity”.

But there are many affectionate, even adulatory glimpses of the great war leader: Churchill, after receiving the news that British forces had launched their great Egyptian offensive, astonishing the Palace footmen by striding down a corridor singing “Roll out the barrel” with gusto; and Churchill ending a stormy interview with de Gaulle with a threat: “Et, marquez mes mots, mon ami – si vous me double-crosserez, je vous liquiderai”.

The diaries, though full of office routine, are enlivened by revealing remarks and episodes. Sir Arthur Harris, the Head of Bomber Command, explains that people need not worry that the Russian army will reach Berlin before the British, “because by that time there won’t be any Berlin to get to”. The Archbishop of Canterbury appears in Lascelles’s room deploring “young men and maidens” standing each other rounds of drinks which “leads to a vast amount of fornication”. Nye Bevan reassures Lascelles that “sky- scrapers” to house the post-war poor “need not be a blot on the landscape any more than a church steeple”. "