Joan Bright Astley THE INNER CIRCLE : A VIEW OF WAR AT THE TOP
Back-room girl in Churchill’s Cabinet Office who briefed the top brass and recorded the lighter moments of the war.
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Joan Bright Astley: ‘house-keeper’ of Churchill’s War Cabinet
Joan Bright Astley had a remarkable career working behind the scenes in Whitehall corridors of power during the Second World War.
Joan Bright Astley bore unique witness to the inner workings of the British high command during the second world war. From 1941 she was responsible for a special information centre in the cabinet war rooms, supplying confidential information to British commanders-in-chief. From 1943, she accompanied British delegations to the key inter-allied conferences, where strategy and the fate of the postwar world were decided. The Inner Circle paints eloquent pen portraits of allied leaders.
Joan Bright Astley, who died on Christmas Eve aged 98 , worked at the core of the wartime Cabinet Office as personal assistant to General Sir Hastings “Pug” Ismay, who was deputy secretary to the War Cabinet and a confidant of Winston Churchill.
In this role, she ran a special information centre and was responsible for keeping the commanders-in-chief in the field briefed about wartime planning. She also acted as “housekeeper” responsible for the administrative arrangements for the British delegations at the summit conferences of Quebec, Yalta and Potsdam.
Although she was never present at important strategy meetings, in her memoirs, The Inner Circle (1971), Joan Bright Astley recalled some of the lighter moments of the war.
In 1939, for instance, when the invasion of Poland seemed imminent, she recounted how military intelligence hurriedly dispatched 20 officers to Warsaw equipped with passports identifying them as commercial travellers, entertainers and agricultural experts. One vital feature had been overlooked: “The numbers on the brand new passports were consecutive.” Fortunately, their commander, Colonel Gubbins (later head of SOE), managed to get them changed before they arrived in Warsaw.
The next year, when German troops invaded the Low Countries, the ticker tape machine in the War Office announced: “Hotler’s troops have overrun Luxembourg; Hotler proclaims fall of Belgium and Holland. Hotler says he will crush Britain. Hotler says… .” The machine paused, then fell silent. A few seconds later it hiccuped into life again: “Correction. For 'Hotler’ read 'Hitler’ and the meaning will become apparent.”
She was on board the Queen Mary in May 1942 when Churchill and the chiefs-of-staff travelled to Washington. Security was tight; the liner had to plough a zigzag course to avoid U-boats; even a cigarette smoked at night was a danger. But when Cabinet Office staff decided to burn top secret papers in the ship’s furnaces, sending billows of black smoke out of her funnel, her position was advertised to every vessel in the vicinity. “On the bridge there was consternation,” Joan Bright Astley recalled, “bells rang and the further burning of secrets was hastily stopped.”
She also recounted how, when the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden went on a secret visit to Turkey, Churchill insisted that Eden agree beforehand on a set of code words connected with ironmongery. Eden, Churchill said, must make sure to use the code when he spoke to Churchill on the telephone from Cairo as it would disguise the fact that he was having secret talks with the Turks.
The call came through and Eden began carefully: “I went to the ironmongers and there I bought… ” “What?” the line from England roared. “What are you talking about? I thought you had been to see the Turks.”
In 1944, on the way back from the Moscow conference, the British delegation was surprised to be given several crates containing 200 bottles of Crimean champagne, 30 bottles of vodka and six tins of caviar. The presents were duly distributed and rapidly consumed.
The next week, Joan was received an unexpected call from Moscow airport, where the Russian military mission had been inquiring about the whereabouts of cases of food and drink for their Red Army Day party.
Later that day Eden called in a bemused Russian ambassador and with profuse apologies handed him six dozen bottles of scotch whisky and 1,000 cigarettes.
She was born Penelope Joan McKerrow Bright on September 27 1910 in the Argentine, one of seven children of what she later described as “an average family with a less than average income”. Her father was an accountant with a banking and shipping firm. He was on his way to try for a job in North America when the liner Lusitania went down in 1915. His own ship was so delayed picking up survivors that he lost the job. Instead, he took the family to southern Spain, where he took a job with the Zafra Huelva railway in Andalucia.
Later the family returned to England, settling first in Derbyshire, then at Bedford, where Joan attended local schools until her father took a job in west Africa and the rest of the family settled in Bath, then Bristol.
Because she was considered nervy and “difficult”, instead of being sent to boarding school with her sisters, Joan was sent, aged 12, to a country house in Norfolk to be educated with the only daughter of some friends of her father.
She returned to her family four years later and spent a year at Clifton High School, then took a secretarial course at Mrs Hoster’s Secretarial Training College in London, living in a girls’ hostel.
After working briefly for an antiques dealer, in 1931 Joan Bright took over her elder sister Betty’s job as a secretary at the British legation in Mexico City, after Betty had left to get married.
Returning to England in 1936, she was offered a job working with Duff Cooper on his biography of Talleyrand, but she declined. She also turned down the offer of a post in Germany with a Mr and Mrs Rudolf Hess, who wanted someone to teach their family English.
Instead she took a temporary job as a typist with the Territorial Army. Then, in April 1939, she received a mysterious message instructing her to go to St James’s Park underground station on a certain day wearing a pink carnation. There she was met by a woman who led her to an anonymous office where she signed the Official Secrets Act and was assigned to work in the Military Intelligence directorate of the War Office.
Her section — D/MIR(R) — was involved in the planning of clandestine operations behind enemy lines. Later she would collaborate with Sir Peter Wilkinson on Gubbins and SOE (1993), a biography of Colonel (later Major-General Sir) Colin Gubbins, who would become director-general of the SOE and with whom she had worked in Military Intelligence on a series of instruction pamphlets (printed on edible paper) for the use of would-be saboteurs.
Her section was dispersed on the setting up of SOE in 1940, and Joan Bright then took a post as assistant to Colonel Cornwall Jones, secretary of the Joint Planning Staff in the War Office. In December they moved from the War Office to the War Cabinet Office rooms in Great George Street, a deeply constructed citadel under the heart of Westminster.
It was, she found, a strangely disconnected world. The Joint Planning Committee secretariat knew from maps and plans exactly how the war was going all over the world, but had to look at a notice board to find out if it was raining outside. Red or green lights would tell them whether an air raid was “on” or “off”.
In 1941 General Ismay offered her a job running an information room for the commanders-in-chief. After some hesitation, she agreed and as head of the new “special information centre” she battled against bureaucratic obstacles to provide information that would be useful to them in their commands. She and Ismay began a regular series of telegrams to all commanders-in-chief containing background information about the progress of the war and, where possible, plans for the future.
Joan Bright got to know many of the commanders quite well. A particular favourite of hers was General Wavell, who became a regular correspondent. “The main ethical objection to war for intelligent people,” Wavell told her on one occasion, “is that it is so deplorably dull and usually so inefficiently run.” In 1942 Wavell cabled Ismay to ask whether Joan Bright could be sent out to India to set up a secretariat on the War Cabinet Offices model. The answer was a firm No.
Between the Quebec conference of 1943 and the Potsdam conference of 1945, Joan Bright was responsible for the administrative arrangements for British delegations at six conferences held abroad.
On the voyage over to Quebec, she was surprised by Orde Wingate, who had come to her office looking for a change of clothes. “We have met before,” announced Wingate, dispensing with the usual preliminaries, “in a former life.” As he departed with a bundle of new clothes he observed: “Without religion, man will perish.”
Another passenger was Wing-Commander Guy Gibson, who had led the “dambusting” raid on the Mohne and Eder dams, continuing to direct his bombers after half his own aircraft had been shot away. What had he felt? she asked him. “Nothing much,” Gibson replied, “but I let loose vile oaths — 'Here it is, you ----s’, 'Take this you -------s’, I shouted.”
One of Joan Bright Astley’s last memories of the war was of picking her way through the files and iron crosses strewn over the floor of the ruined Chancellery building in Berlin during the Potsdam Conference: “The smell of Berlin, as of the military suburb of Potsdam, was quite definitely the smell of decayed death.”
In 1949 she married a retired Army officer, Colonel Philip Astley; he had fought in the First World War and was the former husband of the actress Madeleine Carroll, who starred alongside Robert Donat in the film of John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps (1935).
As well as The Inner Circle, Joan Bright Astley was the author of A History of the Northumberland Hussars, 1924-1949 (1949) and 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, 1936-1945: The Story of an Armoured Regiment in Battle, published in 1951.
Her husband died in 1957, and she is survived by their son.