Lady Prudence Cradock-Hartopp interview: Wartime experience

How did you start in journalism?

When I left school my parents were upset that I didn’t want to go to university but the war had just started and I wanted to get a job to do something to help that.  They said: “You are quite useless as you are so you had better get yourself trained in something.” So I decided to take a secretarial course and I got a job with something called the Central Price Regulation Committee which was laying down standards to stop profiteering. Clothes – a dress – could only have so many yards of material and a cupboard could only have so much wood in it. You know, all different things. It was pretty boring just shorthand and typing but anyway it was a job and I was paid £2/10s a week. Then I got the offer of a job in the American Embassy through some friends of my parents who lived nearby so I moved to that which was £3 a week. And I didn’t have to do fire-fighting duty any more because they had troops there for that. Previously we had had to do that about once a month. It was all right because the head of the department said I could do it with her and she would dictate to me all evening because we never had a raid on while I was doing it and I got paid overtime. I didn’t mind doing that.

Then in 1943 I decided I had had enough of London and I joined the Wrens and became a cypher officer eventually. They wanted me to go to Bletchley but the Wrens there had a very raw deal and I had a friend there who was trying desperately to get away from it. She said the conditions there were simply terrible. They were housed in some stately home about an hour’s drive away at the beginning and end of every shift and they were very inadequately fed there. Anyway I had another friend who heard the same thing and we both said we would rather do something else thank you. They said you can either be a cook or clean guns, do qualified ordnance. So we said we would do qualified ordnance and we went to Portsmouth and did a gunnery course for a month. We learned to strip and clean various guns. Then they sent me to Southend which was a training base and there was nothing there but rifles which couldn’t be fired. They were only there for drill purposes as they had no safety catches. I complained to the First Officer that there were too many of us. There were two of us which was just about all right and then another two arrived – then four which was ridiculous. I said there was not enough to do so she said you can do shorthand typing, come and work in my office as one of my girls is sick. So I went back to shorthand typing.

I had been recommended for a commission and became a cypher officer and I had various postings in this country and then went out to India. I went down to Cochin in southern India which was quite an experience. It was two nights and one day on the train getting from Bombay to Madras and another night on the train getting from Madras to Cochin, zigzagging across the country. Then we lived in huts with rats running round them. We had mosquito nets. There were no mosquitos but I was very grateful for them because the rats would run around the top of the wooden thing and I knew they couldn’t get into the bed because of the mosquito net. I could feel out and put the light switch on and they would scamper away. I knew they would be back as soon as the light went off again but at least I got off to sleep and it didn’t worry me.

We had VE Day at sea on the way out so we were only there a short time. I walked into the office one morning at 8 o’clock to do my shift  and was greeted by the petty officer who was in charge of the signals office which I had to walk through to get to my office. He said you’re not needed anymore. I said what do you mean I’m not needed anymore. He said: “Well everything is coming through in clear. We think the war has ended but we’re not quite sure. There’s nothing coming through in cypher anymore. We don’t know but we think there’s been some sort of a bomb.” So I played around with a few corrupt signals that had come through in the night but he said they’d all been sent for in clear so not to worry. We got some leave and got home by Christmas.

Then I had a job that I didn’t like very much and my father had just retired from the Treasury and he was asked to become Governor of the National Bank of Egypt. So I gave it up and went out to Egypt for several years which I thought was much more fun. I got a job out there for a couple of years and I became very friendly with somebody called Clare Hollingworth who was on The Economist at that time and her husband [Geoffrey Hoare] who was on the Morning Post [actually News Chronicle]. Another one was The Times correspondent. She [Claire] rather inspired me to try to get on a paper. I stayed out there for three years. I worked in the Embassy for one year and at Shell for a year. And then I came home and got this job on the Derby Evening Telegraph. It was about 1949.