A Cog in the Wheel

by Adelaide Lubbock
(edited by Sara Goodwins)
Loaghtan Books, 2012 (£9.95)
(ISBN 978 1908 060 037)

There seems to be an almost insatiable demand for books about all aspects of the Second World War. This book is not actually about the War itself, but about its immediate aftermath in Italy and Austria. Towards the end of the war in Europe the author applied to join the Allied Commission for Austria (ACA) which was to be established to ensure the transition from military to civilian rule. She became, as she wrote, ‘…a very small cog in a very large wheel’. Her responsibility was to look after the health and welfare of displaced persons, of whom there were very many in Austria at that time. Adelaide Lubbock was well qualified for this role. She had commanded Red Cross first aid posts in London throughout the war and she spoke fluent German, Italian and French. Yet she was not a single woman without commitments who was in search of adventure, but a married woman aged 39 and the mother of two teenage children. The book is an edited version of Adelaide Lubbock’s personal diaries and runs from February 1945 to July 1946.

Adelaide Lubbock (1906-1981) was the daughter of Sir Arthur Stanley (later Lord Stanley of Alderley) who had been Governor of the State of Victoria during the First World War. In 1926 she married Maurice Lubbock and they had two children. Their son, Lord Avebury (better known as the Liberal politician Eric Lubbock who won the famous Orpington bye-election in1962), has contributed a foreword. In 1968 Adelaide became President of the Norwood Society, an office she held until her death. I do not remember her, but I remember reading with enjoyment some of the articles she contributed to the Norwood Review in the 1970s.

During the 1930s Adelaide was a professional opera singer, playing major roles in productions of the Sadler’s Wells Company in London and elsewhere. She was in Vienna when the Nazis occupied the city in March 1938. The Lubbocks lived in Lowndes Square, Belgravia and their wealth and social standing made them very much part of the ‘upstairs’ side of the pre-War life portrayed in the television drama Upstairs, Downstairs. Her social confidence, together with her nursing experience and proficiency in languages, enabled Adelaide to apply for and obtain the post with the ACA. What follows is a delightfully frank and sometimes indiscreet personal diary of her experiences in Italy and then Austria. It is also an excellent travel memoir and an important historical document.

After some initial training and briefing in London, Adelaide joined a troopship in Liverpool for the voyage to Naples. The war was not yet over and the U-boat danger remained. But Adelaide and her companions arrived safely and the women were conveyed to Rome in Army lorries. She had never been to Rome and her first impressions of the Eternal City are memorable. She wrote,’…I don’t think I have ever seen anything so beautiful, and stood humbled and overawed before such antiquity and splendour’. Despite the chaos and squalor of Italy in the immediate aftermath of the war, Adelaide, like tourists of every epoch, was seduced by Italy’s charms:.

‘Florence is like a lovely lady holding her arms out to you, full of charm and dignity. Venice is a gay and beautiful courtesan, while Rome, Verona and Siena are masculine, grave, handsome and noble, with the remote fascination of royalty or celebrities’.

Adelaide spent many months in Italy, moving northwards in the wake of the victorious Eighth Army, before entering Austria. Accustomed for too long to a British wartime diet, even simple meals of pasta and roast chicken and salad, accompanied of course by red wine, are described with relish. She was able to attend opera performances on occasion and saw and heard these with professionally attuned eyes and ears. Her sharpest comments are reserved for her military colleagues, often time-serving bureaucratic majors and colonels, ‘jobsworths’ for whom adherence to rules was more important than bringing relief to dispersed persons. She regarded some of her civilian colleagues with complete contempt. One of them, Elizabeth Isaacs, daughter of the first Lord Reading who had been Lord Chief Justice of England, Foreign Secretary and Viceroy of India (not all at the same time) she thought completely useless. Wandering around refugee camps wearing valuable rings and jewellery, she avoided all work and was constantly in the company of a young British officer called Derek Hornsby to whom she became engaged. Eventually both of them were sent home.

Just occasionally, Adelaide’s social prejudices get the better of her. A kindly officer called Major Johnson drove her to Venice by jeep on one occasion. He buys a chiffon scarf for his wife. ‘I can see her with the scarf knotted round her neck’, writes Adelaide, ‘dressed in a sat-out tweed suit saying to her friends in Banstead, which is where they live, “My hubby sent me this from Venice. Isn’t it ever so sweet?”’. While in Venice they meet an old friend of hers, Hamish Erskine the son of the Earl of Rosslyn. Suddenly the presence of the plodding middle-class Johnson becomes an embarrassment, as Hamish asks her to attend a party later. But she is upstairs when Hamish calls after dinner and he goes away without waiting for her, so Adelaide is left with Johnson’s company for the evening.

The first half of the book is almost entirely about Italy. It was only in August 1945 that Adelaide reached Austria, the British zone of occupation being the south-eastern portion of the country. The rest of the book is a mixture of personal anecdote and more serious comment about the dreadful conditions obtaining in Austria at the time and her work with displaced persons. In April 1946 she attended the trial before a British military court of former Volkssturm troops (roughly the German equivalent of the Home Guard) who had been responsible for the dreadful massacre of 300 Hungarian Jewish prisoners just before the end of the war. But before that she describes a brief home leave. While returning from London to Vienna she stopped in Paris where she dined with the British Ambassador Duff Cooper and his glamorous wife Lady Diana Cooper. In Paris she bought a case of champagne for the ACA mess!

Adelaide Lubbock has an engaging writing style that carries the reader along. Her book is full of interest and it mentions countless numbers of people, some of them well known, others not at all known. Sara Goodwins the editor has provided some useful footnotes about many of the characters mentioned, but I felt it was a weakness that the book has no index. The book is attractively printed and bound, has many rare and interesting photographs and a useful map of Italy and Austria. Adelaide Lubbock’s book deserves a wide readership. It ought to become a Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’ or be dramatised as a ‘Woman’s Hour’ serial.

Richard Lines, The Norwood Review