The 17th Earl reports the outbreak of World War II
We tend to think of World War II as an event involving Britain, France, the Commonwealth and the USA against Germany and Italy, commencing in September 1939. However, there was a major campaign from 1938 in which Germany seized control of Eastern Europe, mainly by political means. The late Chief, known as plain Patrick Maitland in those days was the correspondent of the London Times covering the area from Poland to Greece during this period, and we review here a further instalment of his adventures, mainly by extracts from his book European Dateline, published in 1946, and also translated into Dutch as De Klauw over Oost-Europa – the Claw over Eastern Europe.
This article concentrates on his travels and activities, and we don’t try to describe the war or the events in any detail, but it is worth understanding the sequence of events.
1933 Adolph Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany
1938 April - Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria
September - Munich agreement, Germany takes control of
Czechoslovakia, re-drawing frontiers, handing territory to Germany, Poland and Hungary.
1939 April - Italy invades and annexes Albania
September - Germany invades Poland
State of war with Britain and France, but little military action in the west
October - Poland divided between Germany and Russia
November – Russia invades Finland
1940 May June Germany attacks France, and British forces withdraw
July – September Battle of Britain,
September Germany, Italy & Japan form the Axis
Czechoslovakia joins the Axis powers
September – Germany establishes control over Romania
October - Italy invades Greece
1941 March Yugoslavia joins Axis, but government is overthrown two
Bulgaria joins Axis
Germany postpones attack on Russia to invade Yugoslavia and Greece.
April – 17th Earl taken prisoner in Yugoslavia by Italians
June – Germany invades Russia
17th Earl released, reaches Lisbon
December – Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour
Although the seizures of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Romania were achieved with little military action, the campaigns in Yugoslavia and Greece involved substantial armies. Yugoslavia and Greece were quickly overrun early in 1941.
We left our hero escaping from Albania into Yugoslavia a few hundred yards ahead of chasing Italian officers and followed by pistol shots. This was in April 1939. From there Maitland was sent on to Greece where the Prime Minister had been warned that Italy planned an early invasion. In the event, after British warnings, the Italians desisted. After a few weeks he went on to Warsaw in Poland. His descriptions of Warsaw and his life style are illuminating.
“Drabness was my first impression. The main station was unimposing, but there were fine boulevards: though the streets lacked any decisive East-or West-European characteristic. Some of the shops were fine, none were big; but all were tasteful. The Pilsudsky Square was fine, open, had good lines. Behind it were gardens with lovely fountains. In the middle was a column and arcade, the War Memorial. In a corner stood the Foreign Office. Opposite the Europejski Hotel also in the Pilsudsky Square, was the War Ministry, before which granite-faced sentries kept day and night watch. The President's Palace, the Zamek, was a magnificent building before the Germans ruined it, buried its treasures. The Prime Minister's residence was a good Baroque structure with a garden. The ancient Ghetto was squalid but beautiful, clustering around the gabled Old Market where a French wine-shop had done business since 1690. Life was gay. There was much dining out; there were alluring night clubs and several excellent restaurants, of which one ranked with the best in Europe.”
One of Maitland's colleagues was Hugh Carleton Greene from the Daily Telegraph, lately expelled from Berlin. "He was a sporting competitor. We were each other's main rivals and made an unofficial non-aggression pact. We argued the war was coming and, as we represented the two most important British papers, it was in the national interest that we should follow similar lines in our correspondence, which together would influence the public at home.” The BBC later made a film of the Maitland/Greene collaboration at the outbreak of the Second World War. Maitland described his daily routine: “for a month, till war broke out, there were excitements and relaxations of the tension, alarms, detentes (easing of tension). I would spend the morning from about 9 to 11 reading the Polish press. Then I would go down to the British Embassy to pump Robin Hankey, the energetic First Secretary. My car would race me to the Foreign Office to see one or other of two overworked officials in the Press Section. They would give what official news they had. Thence to the offices of the Polish Telegraph Agency (PAT) to see The Times regular informant, Pat Bogucky. Thence I usually went to the Europejski Cafe to hobnob with fellow journalists. I generally lunched with one of them, took a short drive in the car for air, then between four and five settled down to write. Before me would be my notes of the days news-hawking, the latest rumours, a pile of telegrams from PAT and Bogucky's notes.
"First came a series of phone calls - one more to the Foreign Office, then a long one to Greene to exchange ideas, then to writing. It would now be about six and the evening's phone call from the London office of The Times would come about seven. By then as much as a column had to be written and if possible typed out for rapid dictation. A second call would come through about nine, plumb in the middle of dinner, and I would dictate alterations to the earlier despatch for the second edition. In between there would have been calls from and to Greene, Bogucky, the Foreign Office, one or two German or neutral newspaper men, the French and British Embassies, perhaps also Ambassador Drexell Biddle of the USA, always obliging, never ruffled, handsome, agreeable, kind. The nine o'clock call did not end the business. There would be a good deal of nervous hanging around until about 11 when the next call generally came through, with five minutes more breathless dictation. Hoping all would thereafter be quiet, and fearing to call my informants again, I would then go out to the Europejski or to the Bristol, and relax. Just as the party was going with a swing, the inevitable Bogucky would call up about 12. 30 or 1 AM. There would be a race home, another call to London, getting in about 2.30 or 3.00, and thereafter I would retire, exhausted."
Greene and I made plans for joint coverage. We decided to take a villa on the east side of the capital, so that if the Vistula bridges were destroyed we should have a base to work from and from which we could telephone our despatches either to Romania or Latvia. We motored out with our baggage and laid in food. It received a stick of bombs the first day of war.
But the public were relatively undisturbed. They had been expecting war. Housewives were quietly laying in stocks of food and hundreds were attending courses in A.R.P. Otherwise all was as usual. Coffee-houses and bars were still full; the streets were gay as ever. Pavement repairs to the Nowy Swiat went on as if there were no earthly likelihood of the place being blasted to bits.
I was asleep. The telephone rang. Hugh Greene was on the wire to say something I couldn't get; I was too bunged with sleep -war -oh yes, war. Clare Hollingworth had called up to say there was a war on in Katowice, Polish Silesia, something about shelling and bombing. It was 5.20 a.m. September 1 st, 1939. The news made no impression. It jumbled itself up with a dream. I tottered back to bed, and dropped off. 10 minutes later I woke with a start. My God, had that been a real phone call? This time I bounded out of bed, ran to the phone, called up green to ask whether he had really spoken to me or not. I was awake and alive now - it was 5.35. I called up the British Embassy to check. Yes, they had it from the Consulate in Katowice.
I picked up the receiver again to put in “Blitz” calls, super-urgent calls for which you pay 10 times the normal rate, to Bucharest and Moscow. Restlessly I pounded out my first despatch on the greatest story in 25 years. I shivered a little; it was a mixture of this will and fear at sitting down to write a story at last worthy of the adjectives momentous, terrific, stupefying.
"PRESSE TIMES BLACKFRIARS LONDON EXMAITLAND WARSAW FIRST HOSTILITIES BEGAN FIVETHIRTY SMORNING GERMANPOLISH FRONTIER CUMHEAVY ETAPPARENTLY UNANNOUNCED BOMBARDMENT KATOWICE AIRWISE FULLSTOP CITY ATTACKED CUMHIGH EXPLOSIVES FULLSTOP APPARENTLY THERES UMBEEN DECLARATION WAR FULLSTOP CRACOW TCZEW BRACKET NEAR DANZIG BORDER UNBRACKETS TUNEL BRACKETS BETWEEN CRAWOW CZESZOCHOWA UNBRACKETS ATTACKED CUMINCENDIARIES PARA MAITLAND"
By six my call to Moscow came through. At intervals a Soviet censor cut in: we must talk French, Russian or Polish. We were cut off several times; I had to spell out each letter. It was 6.15 when I finished. Then I heard the sirens, saw the first bombers circle over the capital. I added:
"SIXFIFTEEN SIRENS SOUNDED PRIMOTIME WARSAW UNBOMBS YET PARA."
I rang off, bounded down to the shelter with my housemates. That day I typed out about 3,000 words in cablese. Some I phoned to Moscow and Bucharest; some I handed in at the Warsaw Telegraph office to go by radio. I sent 25 telegrams and my colleagues swore my paper would curse me for my pains. But only about half a dozen arrived. At intervals the sirens went. If I put my hat on, I felt secure and could continue at the typewriter.
I had to go on the air that night. I still had to write another story before I was through – another thousand words. The broadcast would keep me up to 2.00 am. After dinner I wrote my piece and went out. It was a long tramp down the Marzalowska, one of Warsaw's main streets, about 3 miles long. It took nearly an hour to get to the radio station. At intervals I was held up by military pickets, had to show my Foreign Office Press Card. Near the main station troops were still assembling to go to the front. They were fairly cheery, were having a last fling. There seemed to be hundreds of girls about, flirting, ogling in the moonlight. I did my talk, came out. It was pitch dark. The streets were deserted save for a few girls, a few policemen, a few soldiers, columns of horse drawn supply wagons clattering over the granite cobbles with loads of bread and ammunition.
At the Embassy they said they would be the last to leave, but files were being burnt. Crates cluttered the front hall but a typist told me afterwards she was even at this 11th hour given the irrelevant task of typing out menu cards for a dinner the Ambassador was supposed to give next week.
We each had angry telegrams from exasperated editors. I had a cable telling me off for “appalling waste” of words in my successive messages. In the evening Greene and I went to dine at the Hotel Bristol. I have never anywhere met such a nauseating miserable gloom. Three waiters were left to tend 30 tables. Usually there where more than a dozen. The entrance was heavily curtained; inside the lights were dimmed. The bar was closed. The fountain had ceased to play. There was no music. The change was uncanny. The waiter told us “the Germans are 40 miles away.”
At the Embassy they were still burning and packing but officially were not planning to leave but a junior official warned us “You chaps had better get ready to move. Nobody here will stop to bother about you journalists.” The Germans in fact were only 20 miles away.
In the morning I took a step of which I have since been ribaldly reminded. If we were to spend the winter in the Pripet marshes, it would be wise to dress accordingly. The fact that this day was boiling hot was irrelevant, although not to my colleagues. I knew we should be unable to buy kit once we left. This led me to disappear into a shop, wearing trousers, and to emerge instead with an oversize pair of Polish army breeches, a large pair of top boots, a warm leather coat and a couple of arm bands which I thought would be useful for identification. One arm bravely bore a Union Jack and the other TIMES LONDYN in white on a blue background. I bought a forage cap too.”
After ten hours driving the journalists caught up with the fleeing Polish government and its assortment of embassies in a health resort. The police found them accommodation in a deserted mansion. But the radio news broadcast from Berlin was bad – it named the village where they were staying. Air raids could be expected the following morning. A meeting with the Polish Foreign Office was not helpful. Telegraph facilities were offered, but several hours after the cables were submitted, they were returned, unsent. The only solution was to drive to Romania, two days drive away. Maitland queued to get petrol.
"It arrived at 2 a.m. and was unloaded by two men who smoked spluttering cheap Polish cigarettes while they emptied the barrels into the well. If the cigarettes slipped, or the vapour caught them. . . . At last my turn came. We departed at 2.30 on the morning of Thursday seventh September.
The night was quite black. There was no moon. Clouds hid the stars. Car lamps, even flashlights were forbidden. It is hard to drive in absolute dark along a road pocked with holes when your car is a light one over-loaded.
The first yellow streaks of dawn were a relief. Out here in East Poland, as we neared the Polish Ukraine the towns were now sprawling, muddy, grey little places.
Lwow was the first presentable town we had seen since Warsaw. It is European, has an old castle and ancient towers, a bequest of Austrian influence. We reckoned our Polish money would soon be worthless and decided to spend it.
We calculated that the Germans might be only 30 miles away. We had two tyre bursts in succession. The delay made us frantic. What was more there was Delmer of the Daily Express racing ahead in a high-powered Ford. Night fell, we had been driving for 17 hours and covered only 250 miles, and there was a Panzer division behind us. We stopped in a town of shadows with the unearthly look of some dead city of ruins turned up by the archaeologists' spade. We had trouble to get rooms.
It was Friday, September 8, we still hoped to reach the border that evening. Everything went wrong. Tyres needed attention. We were held up by raids. Luckily, Delmer had suffered similar misfortunes. We ran short of fuel. As we refuelled people gathered, marvelling at the Union Jack. One bright fellow kept on asking if we were really British. “I always longed to see an Englishman, but I never thought he would look like that” and a scornful finger was pointed in my direction.
Still slowed up by the poor roads we slid down to the border beyond Snyatin about five or six. To behold at Oraseni the peaceful gabled gateway to Romania after the poverty of the Polish Ukraine was wonderful. My car had a Polish registration. I had to leave it behind. The British Consul from Cernauti arrived and took us, and gave us money. We raced the odd 15 miles to Cernauti. As we had just time to catch the train I sent a cable to The Times that I was alive and would file a full story next day, Saturday.
Here we were in a world yet at peace. There was no blackout; shop and restaurant signs were ablaze. We took our sleepers. It seemed unbelievable; and we could at last have a good night's sleep.
In the Athenée Palace Hotel in Bucharest I had at last finished my dispatch and called for a drink. With it the waiter brought a cable from London:
"FIRST THREE SECTIONS ARRIVED FULLSTOP HEARTIEST CONGRATULATIONS TIMES."
I could relax. Some hours later came another:
"ALL TWELVE SECTIONS NOW RECEIVED FULLSTOP BEST THANKS EXCELLENT DESPATCH TIMES."
A week later, the Polish army had collapsed. Maitland returned to Cernauti, then made for Zalesczycki, where the Polish government was currently established. He called on the British Embassy.
“This latest British Embassy consisted of eight iron bedsteads, one enamel washstand, a table with an oil cloth covering, several hard chairs and no telephone. We had endless trouble getting our stories through to Bucharest. The single telephone line was always busy.
By now the Polish troops and refugees alike were streaming across the bridge by the thousand. The procession of misery stretched out a good 12 miles. I reckoned there must have been 10,000 vehicles.
A minor problem caused by the collapse was that of saving the British Military Mission, whose members were naturally in uniform and if they crossed into Romania as soldiers, would be interned. They needed civilian passports. One would see a colonel, or a choleric major growl out to the British Consul their civilian professions for entry in their new passports. But the rescue turned out less easily than we had figured. We bribed the Romanian customs and frontiersmen wholesale; then German agents from Bucharest would bribe them again. Then when we tried a second bribe, we would find the officials changed and we had to start afresh.
So I remember this quaint mad evening at Oraseni railway station with the British Consul from Lwow. The last train from Poland was due next morning at two. The consul was worn out. This night he had to meet the last train and see that the Romanians gave entry visas to the last few British subjects. But the Romanians refused.
So while waiting for the train, the Consul and I sat the Romanians down to drink in a gloomy station restaurant. The visa situation was in the hands of one man. We concentrated on him. We began on whisky and presently three whisky bottles, the only ones the restaurant could produce, stood empty among the litter of broken glass. Next we tried champagne. There were a dozen bottles. Bit by bit our Romanian, a gross fellow, began to sweat. His unshaven chin bristled, glistened. He dripped. He swayed, sang, chortled, stood up, made speeches, plonked down again with a bang. Soon he grew confidential. He was now sweating horribly, leered into someone's ear: “when I feel fine, I'll do anything, visas, passports, currency, women, smuggling, anything you like. I feel fine when I sweat like a pig. Right now I'm just beginning to sweat. Wait a bit, and I'll be fine – let's have another drink”.
We opened another bottle, then another. It was a strange carousal. We British were dead tired, but the lives of those five men coming on the train depended on our drinking the man under the table. We wanted to sleep, but had to spur each other on. Why, I remember reflecting, should champagne corks on this particular night choose to spurt out across the room and either bounce against the ceiling or hit someone on the head?
The train, it seemed, would never come. Having finished the champagne and the whisky we turned to Romanian brandy. At intervals we or the Romanian telephoned drunkenly. Yes the train would be held up a few hours more but would surely move in the morning. So we went on drinking.
We grew hot and sticky, but dared only take the air in turns; or our man might give us the slip. Bit by bit he sank down in his chair. An hour more and our friend was fast asleep, though now and again he revived to murmur a drowsy “God save the King.”
The key to his bureau stuck out of his pocket. Carefully we stole it. At 7 a.m. the train arrived; we unlocked the sleeping Romanian's office; we stamped the passports, locked the bureau again. We slipped their key back in its pocket, drove quietly away.
My coverage of the Polish war ended. There was nothing left that I could describe. The siege of Warsaw was still on. I tried to get back there to get a story. But it was impossible to go by land. The only way was to fly. I looked for a plane – there were now nearly 200 Polish aircraft which had flown to Romania rather than fall into German hands. I tried hard to get a pilot to take me up. I even took the risk of offering £300 from my own pocket. Every Polish aeroplane was now interned. None could be moved without the sanction of the Romanian government. It was impossible even to get gas.”
Maitland went on to Bucharest, a story for our next Yearbook.
However there is a little footnote. Many years ago,
I (the18th Earl) had to negotiate a concession for duty free stores on a
minesweeper in dry dock in Greenock and remembered the saga outlined above. We
invited the customs officers to come aboard to discuss the request and opened a
bottle of whisky. The whisky finished, the concession was readily agreed.