- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Joan Schwarz (nee Evans)
- Location of story:
- Yalta Russia
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 03 July 2005
I was one of Churchill’s cypher officers at the Yalta Conference.
I was selected in January 1945 and went down to London for two weeks to learn a special cypher. There were 20-30 of us.
We had no idea where we were going but thought it was possibly Archangel as we were measured for arctic clothing — obviously a security measure.
At the end of the fortnight we were put on a train at Abbey Road, Olympia — it was closed for normal traffic — and taken to Liverpool where we boarded S.S. Franconia which was equipped as a peace-time cruise ship to impress the Russians. Originally we were put in one large area next to the engine rooms but were soon moved to cabins —with stewardess service!
We sailed down the Irish Sea — we were detailed to de-cypher all incoming messages — we received one warning a U-boats in the area. Out of curiosity we plotted where they were and found there were five in a half-moon a few miles ahead — Franconia turned round and we went round north of Ireland
There were many top-flight service and civil service personnel on board. We were allocated different areas in the dining room but after the first night we were invited to join the hierarchy for dinner. Franconia had her pr-war stock of wines. There were deck games and dancing every night.
We sailed through the Mediterranean, the Bosphorus into the Black Sea and finished up at Sebastopol. When we sailed past Istanbul we had to wear civilian clothes as Turkey was neutral.
Sevastopol was a wreck we were told only seven buildings remained
intact. Armed Russian women soldiers were in charge of groups of Romanian prisoners who were clearing the rubble.
Three of us were to go to Yalta as Churchill’s personal cypher officers — we drew lots — I was lucky. We went in a convoy of five or six cars, leaving the cold of Sevastopl over the heights to the warmth of the Russian Riviera -—passing Balaclava on the way. Every few yards there was a soldier guarding the route. We were housed in a building about one mile from the Livadia Palace where the Conference took place and where we were to work.
Our house was newly decorated and had hairdressers and manicurists on site. The food was good, the waiters were elderly and we thought left over from Tsarist times. We noticed that on the way back to the kitchen they hurriedly ate anything we had left on our plates — so we left as much as we could. Sculpted Russian bears about 1ft high and made from butter were placed on our tables.
There was a bath house where large women scrubbed ones back. Everything was of the best — including the bed bugs, which were rife.
There were a large number of cleaners around and we were warned the young men idly pushing brooms around were probably spies.
We were taken by bus to the Livadia Palace. A Major in security came with us. We were shown into a room on the ground floor with french which would be our office. The Major checked it for bugs — I was intrigued as the idea of bugs was new to me. However he decided the room was vunerable — we had all the cypher information - … and we were moved upstairs. There was a sailor with us 24/7. Normally when two people are working on a cypher a lot of the work is verbal but we were told to be completely silent and all scrap paper was put into bags to be taken back to the ship. We covered 24 hours a day — two on during the day and one at night,
I remember one particular message which was one of Churchill’s parliamentary speeches — it didn’t fit easily into service terminology.
We decided to walk to work — all the side roads had warning signs of unexploded bombs but as the locals were using them quite happily we decided to explore. There was a lot of wartime debris — I saw a tin hat with part of a head inside it. The locals were in shacks with earthen floors but they had tended their gardens and planted their vines. They were friendly and smiled.
The Palace was guarded by the Kremlin Guard —tall, good-looking, the elite. I swopped a threepenny bit with one for his red star cap badge, which I wore on my uniform tie. When I returned to the UK it was not approved of and one day it mysteriously disappeared.
A British Naval Delegation from Moscow were at the Conference — not having seen a British girl for a long time decided to have a belated New Year’s Eve party. It ended up with them drinking champagne out of WRNS shoes.
I never saw Churchill or the other leaders — any request was obviously dealt with by his PPS or similar. On the way back sailing towards Malta all the WRNS were taken one deck down to see Churchill walking across the top of the passage in which we were standing. He was in his siren-suit, plus cigar. He stopped and waved and I believe said a few words of appreciation. It was many years later that I learned that at the last moment Churchill, who had intended to have a break sailing to Malta, flew instead to Greece where some crisis had arisen. So we were conned with one of his doubles.
One unexpected bonus was that on entering Malta we fouled the boom and had to spend ten days there in glorious sunshine with nothing to do.
I was a very junior member of the delegation and obviously not involved in any decision making. But I still feel that for those few days I was part of history.
Joan Schwarz nee Evans
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