From Eastern Approaches
by Fitzroy Maclean
War, it has been said, is diplomacy continued by other means. Certainly, to me, as I sat at my desk in the Foreign Office, my own occupation, once hostilities had begun, seemed suddenly to have lost its point. I decided to resign my commission in the Diplomatic Service and to enlist.
But this was easier said than done. No sooner had I mentioned my intention of resigning than it was pointed out to me, in no uncertain terms, that my behaviour was extremely unpatriotic. For six years, they said, I had been learning my job. Now, just as I was beginning to be of some slight use, I wanted, in order to satisfy my personal vanity, to go off and play at soldiers; I must lack all sense of responsibility. But, in any case, my resignation would not be accepted. The new Defence Regulations gave the Secretary of State full powers in this respect.
‘And what if I simply go off and enlist?’ I asked.
‘If you do that,’ they said, ‘the War Office will be asked to send you back at once. In irons, if necessary.’
They had me there. I decided to go away and think again.
I allowed some time to elapse before making my next approach. Then I asked for an interview with the Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Sir Alexander Cadogan. In the meanwhile I had made a careful study of the Foreign Office Regulations. Paragraph 22 gave me what I needed.
‘And what do you want?’ said Sir Alexander, who was a busy man, looking up from his desk.
‘I want to go into politics,’ I said.
‘In that case,’ he replied, without enthusiasm, for the idea of Party politics is repugnant to the permanent official, ‘in that case, you will have to leave the Service.’
I replied that I was prepared for that. In fact, if he liked I could let him have my resignation at once. And, laying a neatly written letter of resignation on his desk, I escaped from the room. A few minutes later I was in a taxi and on my way to the nearest Recruiting Office. It had been simpler than I had expected.
The processes of medical examination and enlistment took their usual somewhat lengthy course. What to me was the beginning of a new phase in my life was, to the clerks and doctors who took my particulars, so much dreary routine. After swearing the Oath and filling in a number of forms, I was given the King’s shilling and a railway warrant to Inverness. I was a Private in the Cameron Highlanders, my father’s old regiment.
Then one day, I was summoned to the Orderly Room and given unexpected news that I had been given an immediate commission and posted as a subaltern to the 1st Battalion.
There were other rumours too, disquieting hints from friends in London that my failure to enter politics had not passed unobserved; that steps were being taken to secure my return to the Foreign Office, at that time painfully under-staffed. It began to look very much as though, after a promising start, my military career might be brought to a premature end.
Only one thing could save me: early election to Parliament. I had already been in touch with Conservative Central Office. I returned to the attack with renewed vigour. I was told that there was to be a by-election at Lancaster; a Conservative candidate had not yet been adopted. If I liked, I could go up there and see what the local Association thought of me. I applied to the Colonel for a few days’ leave and went.
Diffidently I presented myself at the local Party Headquarters. It was my first experience of politics. I did not know the answers to half the questions I was asked; it was no good pretending I did. With a sinking heart I admitted my ignorance. The Executive Committee adjourned to discuss the rival merits of the various potential candidates. Surprisingly, when they came back, I was told that I had been adopted. All the more surprisingly, since I had made it clear that, if I was elected, my military duties would have to come first and my political duties second.
There was about a month before the poll. I applied for a month’s leave and started electioneering. I had hardly ever attended a political meeting. I had never made a speech in my life. By the end of a week, I was making three a night. By the end of a fortnight I was almost enjoying it. Not only my supporters, but everyone I met, took me in hand. They fed me; they stood me drinks; they gave me advice; they told me what to do and what not to do; they told me, with characteristic North Country frankness, what they thought of my speeches. Dazed but happy, I drank gallons of beer and shook thousands of hands. Perpetually late for my next appointment, I walked or drove from house to house and street to street and village to village.
Wherever I went, among supporters or opponents, I met with the same forthrightness. I had hardly ever set foot inside the House of Commons and I had no means of telling whether the life of a parliamentarian would suit me or not. But of one thing I was quite sure: that, if I was to be a politician, these were the sort of people I should like to represent.
Then came the eve of the poll: packed, noisy meetings; polling day; a tour of the constituency decked with rosettes and favours like a prize bull; the count; hushed suspense in the Town Hall; the result: I was in: MP for Lancaster.
Member of Parliament, or Platoon Commander?
As things turned out, I was not called upon to try to play this dual role for long. One night after a long day’s training on the moors, I was roused from my sleep by a dispatch rider and told to report at once to Battalion Headquarters. There I was shown a signal from the War Office. I was to proceed forthwith on embarkation leave. I had told my constituents repeatedly that, if ordered abroad, I should go. And so, leaving them in the able and experienced hands of Jim Thomas, an old friend from Foreign Office days, I went.
A week later I was in a seaplane on my way to Cairo. I had no idea what awaited me at the other end. But at least I was bound for what, in that bleak autumn of 1941, was the only active theatre of operations: the Middle East.