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Combined Operations HQ - Memories of a Secretary

Joyce Pitchford, nee Rogers, was employed in Combined Operations Headquarters (COHQ) in WW2.  She worked with both Keyes and Mountbatten before moving to the War Cabinet.

Her transfer to the War Cabinet led to her attendance at the historical Yalta conference, which laid down the foundations of the political landscape of Europe in the post war period. Extracts from her diary of the journey to Yalta are reproduced below. They reflect the experiences of a young woman on the periphery of a global, historical event, which Combined Operations contributed to in the opening of the western front in Normandy that ultimately led to the defeat of Nazism.


Joyce was not old enough to remember WWI but WW2 was to play a significant role in her adult life. She grew up in Sidcup, Kent and attended Sydenham Secondary School, followed by a secretarial course at Pitman's college. Career aspirations of the young seldom work out as the contingencies and opportunities of the real world take hold, but Joyce was an exception. It was her ambition to work as a Secretary in the Civil Service, which is precisely what happened.

[Photos; (left) Sir Roger Keyes with COHQ staff, courtesy of Philip Hennessy, (right) the Duchess of Kent inspects WRNS at COHQ, Norfolk House, on the 29th January 1943 wearing her uniform of Commandant of the WRNS. Behind her is Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. © IWM (A 14176).]

In the late 1930s, on leaving Pitman's, she gained employment as a clerical officer in a general administration department of the Civil Service. While there, she was head hunted to work in a small office in Richmond Terrace, Whitehall. No details were provided in advance but she accepted the offer and in the second half of 1940, found herself working at COHQ, only a stone's throw from Downing Street. The location close to Prime Minister Churchill was no accident. Click here for more information about the move of COHQ from the Admiralty to Richmond Terrace.

She soon discovered that COHQ was an unusual organisation, whose service personnel were uniquely drawn from all three services. It had been set up by Churchill primarily to plan for offensive operations against enemy held territory, culminating in what would become known as the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy.

Combined Operations Headquarters - COHQ

Joyce worked with 6 other civilian clerical/secretarial staff and numerous officers from the Army, Navy and Air Force.  Her day to day work involved telephone, reception, diary and appointments, planning and organising visits, typing, travel warrants, shorthand etc..

Her pay and conditions were standard for the Civil Service in London requiring her to work regular office hours. There was a good spirit of co-operation and common purpose amongst all the staff. Inter service rivalry was not part of the culture of the organisation.

Although Combined Operations developed a huge network of training and landing craft bases throughout the UK and abroad, Joyce's work seldom took her beyond the office and its environs. She worked closely with both Sir Roger Keyes and Lord Louis Mountbatten and when Keyes was replaced by Mountbatten in October 1941, he presented her with an autographed book in appreciation of the work and support she have given him during his time as Director of Combined Operations.

1a Richmond Terrace was a substantial stone building with underground basements, where Joyce spent most of her working hours. Although the work of Combined Operations was mostly secret, there were no guards or sentries posted at the entrance to the basement.

[Photo; Sq Ldr Keeling at COHQ, courtesy of Philip Hennessy.]

Yalta Conference

The working conditions were very different at the Cabinet Offices, where staff routinely worked night duty requiring them to sleep and work underground. However, the bulk of Joyce's work was routine until she was selected for a short overseas tour of duty. Recorded history is punctuated by momentous occasions involving great leaders yet, behind the scenes, unheralded support staff undertake essential work.

By the early part of 1945, it was clear that the war in Europe would end in a few months with the defeat of Germany in the form of unconditional surrender. There was much to discuss about the future of post war Europe, most notably among  the Americans, British and Soviet Union leaders. A special conference was convened at the Russian port of Yalta attended by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin with sizeable entourages of military and non military advisers with secretarial and support staff. It was against this background that Joyce found herself on the adventure of a lifetime, when long distance air and sea travel was the preserve of the rich and the powerful.

[Photo; Keyes at his desk, courtesy of Philip Hennessy.]

She sailed on the’ Franconia’ from Liverpool via the Bay of Biscay en route to Malta, where preparatory meetings were held in advance of the main conference. Joyce's first ever flight was to Russia's Saki airport in the Crimea. It had been snowing. After a four hour car journey, she arrived at Sevastopol near Yalta and embarked on the ‘Franconia’. After a week of working late on board the ship, she endured the tedious drive back to Saki and a flight back to Malta. The following day she flew back to the UK in bad weather and landed at Thorney Island near Portsmouth. She was then driven back to Whitehall where she spent the night.

This is Joyce's story (later Mrs Joyce Pitchford of Christchurch, New Zealand) taken from her daily wartime diary.

Tue/Wed 16/17 January 1945

Left office by car at 9:45 pm for Addington Road Station. Four of us in 3rd Class sleeper. We left about midnight. Disjointed night, but felt OK. Got up at 7 o’clock and queued for wash. Breakfast at 8:30am – not bad. Stopped in a siding outside Liverpool for nearly 3 hours and proceeded when meal was over. Train went straight on to the pier and we embarked at 10am.

It took some time to sort ourselves out in cabins and dormitories. I was lucky and had a cabin with Connie Cole. After unpacking we strolled round the ship until lunch at 12:30pm. Had a marvellous meal with crisp white rolls and loads of butter and sugar.

We sailed at 1pm on the dot. We were eating at the time and had no idea we had cast off until we glanced out the porthole and saw things moving past. We finished our lunch and put on scarves and coats and went on deck. The sun was shining and the breeze wonderful. We passed an American Red Cross ship and also the half-submerged wreck of a ship damaged by enemy action.

We have on board a whole contingent of WRENS but can’t imagine what they are going to do - they can’t all be signals people. We brought about 90 marines with us. They have helped with our luggage and are presumably going the whole way.

None of the officers are with us at the moment, they are flying and will pick us up later. This means we have a week’s clear holiday with no work: but we think we deserve it! We have been very closely guarded the whole way: Armed guards on the train, police and detectives on the platforms and close inspection of our special “British Delegation” passes.

The dining room is beautifully decorated, separate tables with table lamps to each one. The appointments - cutlery and glassware - are really a sight to behold. Such a contrast to present day service .. etc, one gets. The head waiter, second steward and staff (with one presumes some of the other staff) have been loaned from the ‘Queen Mary”.

We were sitting peacefully in the lounge writing when we were informed over the microphone that we would have to attend boat drill in quarter of an hour. What sights we looked! The life jackets now have a small electric apparatus fitted to them. The idea is that if one has to go overboard there is a small plug which if inserted in one end of the battery, will produce a small red light sufficient to guide rescuers to one’s whereabouts. A comfortable thought!! We have had to carry this around with us the whole time, until the completion of the voyage.

We have now been sailing for 4 ¼ hours and there is hardly any motion (touch wood). We appear to be in some sort of convoy but don’t know where we are. There is a rumour that we are going to Gourock for the night, but that seems rather senseless as it is a good way North. It seems in my inexperienced ears that a terrific gale is blowing up: The ship is nothing more than it was ¼ hour ago - so here’s hoping. Ran into a Gale Force 120, ship speed 3 knots!

Thu 18th


Fri 19th


Sat 20th

Not so rough but took me 3 hours to get up. Roll for lunch but managed a little tea. Not much peace on deck because of the marines, soldiers and RAF. Had dinner and went to bed early.

Sun 21st

Felt grand after breakfast of orange and toast. Sun shining and sea blue. Have just been to church service on the Prom Deck. Actually it is warm enough on deck without a coat and everyone is lying about on long chairs. Again on deck after lunch.

Went to the flicks after dinner - Abbot and Costello in ‘In Society”. Dorothy, Connie and I went on deck about 10pm and collected 2 RAF, 1 soldier and 1 Sailor who told us about the stars etc. Marvellous moonlit night, very calm - saw phosphorous in the sea. They took us to the bows of the ship, which are really out of bounds for us. We stayed talking until midnight. First good night’s rest since we left home. Off the coast of Spain.

Mon 22nd

Started with a good breakfast. Another heavenly day with warm sun. Very interesting morning chatting to all and sundry. Mid-morning one of our four escort vessels came in close and shot a gun with a rope onto our decks. We passed back a tin containing despatches to her and then she steamed back into position.

After lunch I did a spot of work in the Administration office and spent the rest of the afternoon in the quite strong sun with two service Corps. It was quite warm with only a blouse and a skirt.

After dinner we discovered a sergeant playing the piano. It appears he was a professional before the war and could he play! We then joined in a game of Tombola, or housy housy, in the Winter Garden Lounge. Between our party of five we won £4-10-0. (I won 19/-). Drinks for six at the bar  - gin and limes - cost only 2/4p for the lot! Mr Davey says we are to get 10/- per night subsistence – we seem to be making on this trip. Bought some cigars at 6 pence each.

Heard that Dorothy, Mary and myself are to disembark at Malta, then fly to join the ship again. Are we on air!

Had another walk round the decks in the moonlight. I must confess that I was rather tipsy just on 2 gin and limes. Shows how strong they are on board.

We expect to pass Gibraltar Rock round about 4am so we have decided to split ourselves into two watches so as to not miss it. Connie, Dorothy and I are to waken the others at 2am when they will take over from us.

We started passing Gib. at about 2:30am. Saw Tangiers first on the South with lights twinkling. We were arrayed in pyjamas, house coats, top coats and boots. The Rock loomed up after a while - the moon of course was hanging low in the sky and everything was faintly outlined. There seemed to be a number of lights around on the two coasts, north and south and also on the buoys marking our path through. There was one particularly bright light ahead and when we drew level it turned out to be a small rowing boat containing a man with a lantern. When we had passed him he seemed to turn aside as though his job was done, so it must have been for our benefit.

I forgot to mention that several times during the day aircraft have stooged around us. It’s nice to think that people are looking out for us en route.

Back to Gib. Somehow the air was particularly soft and sweet smelling. This really is not logical in the view of the smelly African coast just south of us, but it is a fact. We stayed watching until about 3:45am and then went below for that day.

Tue 23rd.

Another heavenly day with hot sun. We are all to have our hair done this morning and also baths. A laundry has opened on board and there is also an ironing room.

After lunch Dorothy and I parked on deck with Jock, Cyril and a few others. We missed tea. Nothing visible but North Africa in sight on south. Evening at ‘flicks” and saw “Standing Room Only”. Another lovely evening on deck, mostly with Jock. Bed about 12:30.

Wed 24th

Weather still glorious. We did some ‘dobying’ in the morning – stewards fixed up a line in the cabin. We also sent pyjamas to the laundry. Walked 18 times round the deck after lunch with Jock and spent the rest of the afternoon exhausted in chairs with sweets and chocolates. Evening on Deck. Passed Bizerta.

Thu 25th

Managed to get on deck before breakfast and was rewarded by the sight of Pantalaria bathed in sunshine. It is only a small island, long and narrow and we could see quite a number of small white houses dotted on the hills.

Completely finished letters for the censor. Dorothy and I handed our extra money to Mr Davey and did some desultory packing. Major Boddington gave the first class passengers a security talk after lunch and he made it very impressive. Very hot on deck so lazed in the cabin with Jock.

We sighted Malta at about 4pm and actually docked at 5:15pm. Jock had to go on duty and Dorothy and I, with Mary, decided to finish packing. Our first impression of Malta was a mess of buildings - all white - right down to the water’s edge. Even from the ship we could see the bomb damage.

At first we were told we were to land on Friday morning, then at 6:40pm Davey rushed in and said he had orders from the Captain for us to go at 7pm. We had a terrific flurry around and could not say goodbye to anyone. We collected on C deck and embarked in a kind of largish launch. It was by now quite dark, but all the ship’s lights were blazing and there were two searchlights from the ship turned on to us. Everyone was hanging over the side of the ship, making us feel like celebrities, and we had to stand for quite a while until the luggage was brought aboard. We had 4 WRNS, officers and 2 ratings with us and also several soldiers who carried our things. I managed to pick out Jock from the crowd on deck and that was the only goodbye we had. We started and everyone on board shouted and waved goodbye.

 [Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

All around us in the water were gondoliers manned by one or two men with long oars, which they used by standing up, with a twinkling light on each end. It was a lovely scene with the lights of Malta all around. Of course there was no blackout. We landed on a small quay and found several army cars waiting for us. Although the chaps appeared to be in khaki, they spoke a queer kind of dialect. A despatch rider roared up on his bike and yelled, ‘follow me’ and we started. When we thought about it afterwards in cold blood we realised what we might have been letting ourselves in for here. After all we were in a strange country being whisked away in a car driven by a native: Gosh did he drive!! We were in the first car and we just flew with the driver jamming on the brake at each corner. We wished we had made our wills. As an anti-climax we landed at the YMCA.

After an indifferent dinner we walked around in the moonlight and had a last look at the ship. The bomb damage is terrible and the rubble is still around. We all felt rather browned off so went to bed early, three of us in the same room. Nice not to have to bother about blackout.

Fri 26th

We woke about 7am and the scene out of the window was amazing. A brilliant sun and blue sky. Palm trees outside, the water just below and a mass of stone and cream coloured buildings all seemingly flat. A typical eastern picture. We were getting thrilled about this when the door opened and two little Maltese girls came in bringing breakfast trays. We had a real grapefruit, sausage and fried bread, marmalade etc and tea. After having this we felt much better. We still have no instructions and haven’t the slightest idea what we are to do next. We imagine our ship must have sailed by now and it makes us feel forlorn.

We went around Valetta after breakfast. The streets are really narrow and often steep. Where they slope too much the pavements graduate into wide steps. The people are of Italian appearance and although they chatter away in Maltese they all seem to speak English. We met our soldier escorts and they took us to a lace shop they had discovered in a side turning. We used English money. Valetta is really a typical port with scruffy side turnings and little mysterious shops. Quite a number of the poorer people and children walk around with no shoes on. There is a national costume which the older women appear to wear, composed of a black garment with an enormous hood affair projecting at the sides. Rather ugly.

We had a good lunch and received some mail. We had another walk and bought some tangerines. Just now some Maltese kids started singing ‘Pollywolly Doodle’ in English. We are now on the balcony sunbathing. By the way, our ship is still in port. I bet they are mad that they have to stay on board!

I have not yet described the house we are staying in. We went up a spiral staircase with rooms opening off towards the front. All the floors and walls, (I think) are stone – very clean but plain. The door of our bedroom is slightly oval and cut to fit into the stairs.

We thought we would treat ourselves to some chocolates this afternoon, but thought again when we found they were 10/-per pound. Joan Bright and El Armstrong turned up at teatime and we heard that we are to stay here until next Wednesday or Thursday. The ship sailed at midday so we are forsaken.

The food has been good today with a most delicious soup at lunchtime that had cheese in it. We all had a bath and went to bed early. The sunset was marvellous and the moon nearly full.

Sat 27th

Brigadier Salen arranged for us to have a tour round the island in the morning and at 9am a staff car turned up with an army captain (Bruce) and a naval Lt. Cdr (Stewart) and off we went. It really was a heavenly day and quite warm. We drove through the Hal Far airfield past rows of planes - apparently no guard - and had some coffee at Rabat which is a clean town and much nicer than Valetta. The houses have courtyards inside the front doors with trees. We passed several orange and lemon groves. Every street corner appears to have a shrine - the catholic influence is very strong. We went through the gardens on Verdella Palace, one of the three residences of the Governors. On the way back we visited the Malta Cathedral which has a marvellous dome, a round church. Several of the natives were in there but they stopped praying to look at us. During the bombardment a bomb came right through the roof and landed without exploding. The priests decided that this was an act of God or something so have railed off the damaged part on the floor and left the rubble. St Paul’s Bay is a pretty spot and that is the most fertile part of the island. Quite a lot of people still live in the underground caves and seem to thrive on the dirt and smells. There is no sanitary inspectors to pull them up. Malta is only 16 miles by 9 miles and is known as the island of “yells, bells and smells”. The roads over the island are terrible and Stewart thought we should write to Vauxhall to tell them how his car was behaving in one of the “Empires far-flung outposts”.

A phone message had come while we were out telling us to be on call after 4pm. In the meantime the Governor’s daughter, Miss Schreber, rang us up making arrangements to meet us the next day. Another staff car arrived with a chauffeur at 5:50pm and we were driven to G.H.Q. Malta Command where we did a spot of work for Brig. Salen, and Group Captain Earle, who had landed the day before.

After dinner at the YMCA we three went to the flicks. We were practically the only girls there and the floor was covered with peanuts and orange peel. Apart from that it was OK. We paid 2/6 and were given a box affair. The news was British, but months out of date. For instance they made a great splash of the Home Guard stand-down of last November.

Sun 28th

Grapefruit for breakfast. Mary and I went to the Castille about 9:30am to arrange our room and machines, while Dorothy stayed behind to wait for a phone call from the boys and also visit Miss Schieber. This Castille has been blitzed but patched up. It is built of Malta Stone and gives me the impression of a kind of mosque with arches everywhere. At the moment it is full of British and Maltese soldiers chasing around with furniture and unpacking things. It is sometimes rather difficult to differentiate between the soldiers as they all have British battledresses. I asked one of them now just for a light for my cigarette and he turned out to be Maltese. All the officers are really friendly and breeze in and out all the time.

One disadvantage of the stone floors is that everyone makes such a clatter walking along. I have just heard that most of the Malta Government Offices were in this building and have been turned out for us. They were given 10 days to do this and to paint the whole place.

I missed Diana Schieber as I was in the office but the others saw her.

Bruce invited us to lunch in Slienna at the Union Club where we met Stewart and Neville Nash. They took us for a car ride (two cars) after lunch and we visited a degaussing station, on the most northern part of Malta, for tea. We had terrible roads for the last part of the ride over most bleak country. The post is manned by the navy and is miles from anywhere. There were three officers there and we played darts before tea. A sailor came in and laid the table etc. As we had arranged to meet Diane Schieber at 5:15 we tore back at about 40mph over the twisted roads, but were late. We went on to the British Institute and Neville and I stayed to listen to a piano recital by a Captain Grover. We joined the others at Bruce’s flat in Sliena for a tidy up and had dinner at the Union Club. After that we went back to the flat and had a spot of dancing.

Mon 29th

Beastly day with a howling wind and rain. Started at the office and tried to get things in order. The people from TSM and London arrived during the day. We now have lunch and dinner at the Union Club in a room specially put aside for all delegates: and the food is very good. Left the office at 8pm for dinner. Dorothy went out with Bruce.

Tue 30th

Started work in earnest at 9:30am and finished at 11pm.

Had a topping lunch at the club. Went to buy tangerines at our usual shop and the man tried to make me pay 2 ½ d instead of 2d. Scored quite a victory when he finally gave in after an argument. You have to keep your eyes skinned in this place. We can get chocolate free at the canteen and the Castille and periodically we have tea or coffee brought to us with ham sandwiches and with white bread and real butter. Are we pampered?

Bought some cakes in a shop today and paid 6d each.

All the V.I.Ps have arrived including the PM, and there was a terrific crowd outside the Union Club where they lunched. We felt quite important when we marched past them all and entered the building flashing our passes. We have to show these passes again before we can enter our dining room. Every corridor in the Castille is guarded with soldiers, and the whole town definitely has a different appearance from when we arrived. There seem to be hundreds of Yanks about who are afraid the Malts will get wise to them and put the prices up. There seem to be quite a lot of civil police here. They wear khaki uniform with a heavy peaked cap and arm stripes – quite a smart crowd. Of course there are no traffic lights so one has to be posted at most of the street corners as they are so narrow and dangerous.

Wed 31st

Office at 9am and quite a spot of work before lunch. Bought some Ciro[?] Pearls for £2. We finished at 8pm and Bruce and Neville took Dorothy and I out to dinner at the Malta Officers Club. There was a dance afterwards and we had a grand time, finishing about 12:30. Neville brought his car. Most of the girls were in evening dress and the civilians in dinner dress. The floor, as in all the buildings was of stone, but not as good as the wooden floor for dancing.

Thursday 1st February 1945.

Busiest day of the conference, but finished at 11pm. The adjutant took me right up to the ‘crow’s nest’ of the Castille – quite a thing up ladders and up stairs, but the view was wonderful. This is the highest point on Malta. We could get a good idea of the outline of the island and could see the way the ship had come in to port. In the distance were the military barracks which are now full of German prisoners. The Malta Dome was visible in the distance. We also had a good view of the various US and UK conference ships in port.

This place is now full of yanks and of course they are spoiling the place as they usually do!

Fri 2nd

We have had our instructions and labels given to us regarding the next hop. We are not to fly until Saturday night and unfortunately I am in a different plane from the others.

This is the most perfect day we have had - so warm that all the windows are open. We are now getting used to seeing crowds just standing about outside our buildings, and being watched as we leave and enter the building. The guards don’t ask for our passes now as they know us. One said that it is nice to see English faces - he has been in Malta so long, that he is fed up with them.

At lunch today at the Union Club we had Stettinins, Harry Hopkins and Harriman (high ranking USA officials. Ed)  at the next table to us. I have had an advance of £10 and did a spot more shopping today. After lunch Adjutant Captain O’Brien and Mr Armstrong took Peggy and I for a trip in a car to St Andrews military cemetery to see EPA’s brother’s grave and came back via Musta and Rabat. We were out for about 1 ½ hours, Not much doing in the office because most of the people are flying off tonight. We all came in early and had a bath, then started packing.

Sat 3rd

Absolutely nothing doing at the Castille. I watched a parade of the Palace Guard with Cpt. O’Brien and Mr Armstrong. Afterwards O'Brian took us over to the officers mess of the main guard. It is a room which 9 out of 10 people in Malta have never been in. The walls are covered with drawings and paintings of all descriptions dating from before the last war. These are done on bare stone wall.

It is now mid-day and the sirens have just sounded in Valetta – a practice we hope! We are all more or less packed up at lunchtime and Paddy O’Brian took Mary and myself with Larry Brown for a car ride. I had a sherry with Paddy and we both went back to the Y.W. and had dinner with Winnie, John, Sid, Mary, Larry and Arthur. We all went to the flicks afterwards to see “Greenwich Village”.

Two cars arrived at 11.15 to take us to the airport and Arthur and John came with us. Dorothy and Mary flew in a Yank plane which was really rather luxurious, but I was in a Liberator with Larry. It seemed terribly narrow and one could not stand upright towards the front of the plane. We had straps on our life jackets and they made a pillow. We were of course blacked out but heard Dorothy’s plane leave. Ours revved up for quite a while and then started to move along the runway. Suddenly there was a quick lurch, such as one experiences in a life and we were airborne.

We settled down gradually, the steward getting extra rugs (We had been given flying boots) and dropped off to sleep.

Sun 4th

The most marvellous part was when the steward took down the blackout at 5am. We were flying at 9000ft above the clouds and the sun was just rising. It is most peculiar to look down on clouds. They are fluffy and look like small mountain tops. I was surprised that I could look down without getting giddy. There were 12 of us on board (6 girls) and a crew of, I think, 5. We had sandwiches and a flask of tea and a tangerine each. There was a man behind me with a map and he pointed out Greece and Turkey when we passed over.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

We started crossing the Black Sea at 8:10am and arrived at Saki airport at 9:10. I was a bit worried about the landing as the pilot came and gave us instructions about holding our noses etc and the steward strapped in our safety belts. Actually we had been losing height gradually for about twenty minutes: when we came through the clouds it was like a white fog. Towards the end it was a little rocky as we lost height more quickly, but no one else took any notice so I pretended not to. It was perfectly smooth as we circled round the drome although the land was dipping up and down. There was only a slight jolt as the wheels touched ground and then we were on Russian soil.

The snow was about 4" deep and terribly slushy. We got into an army truck and were driven to the sanatorium which was used as an HQ. Quite a picturesque place with trees and a fountain playing, and snow all around. Actually it was quite warm and thawing. We saw some of our chaps in the distance and then had lunch. It seemed to consist largely of rice and cabbage and they seemed concerned because we could not finish everything. A small Russian band played some music at top speed and included “Roll out the Barrel”.

Afterwards we scouted round to find the boys, and one of them got Jock out of bed – he had been on night duty. We only had 20 minutes all together before we had to go. The drive from Saki airport to Sevastopol was a nightmare. We were in a car which had been specially built for this trip, heating etc, but it was not very comfortable and the roads were absolutely shocking. We had one or two breathers on the way, but they didn’t help much. All along the road people stopped to watch the six cars go by, and all the sentries on guard at bridges and buildings presented arms or saluted each car individually. We passed a number of Russian girl soldiers carrying rifles. On the whole the people are very poorly dressed with shawls over their heads, and very grim looking. The girls wear thick stockings and boots, most shapeless dresses and no make-up.

At one point when we had a halt I combed my hair and did my face. When I had finished the driver told me that I had an audience and sure enough there were several of them gazing in the car: one of them, I am sure, looked at me very scornfully. We drove through the battlefields and there were steel helmets and broken tanks lying around. In one valley there had obviously been some sabotage as there were railway engines and carriages upside down on the hillside where they had rolled.

We reached Sevastopol after a 4 hour drive. The damage here is the worst we have seen - I haven’t seen a whole building and the streets are churned up with bombs. No wonder the people look so grim. We poured into our launch and at last reached the Franconia, but what a change. Hardly anyone on board and our cabins changed. But after a wash, dinner and a few drinks we felt much better.

Mon 5th

A fine day and not too cold. Evidently just before we arrived in Russia there was a blizzard and the snow was inches deep on the decks. It has quite disappeared from the land now. We have had to put our watches forward 2 hours. We are on duty at 2pm. Our offices are on the Prom Deck and have been converted from cabins, but are not very large. We had quite a lot of work to do and finished at 3am. Sandwiches and coffee were brought to us at midnight. I had my hair set.

Tue 6th

On duty until 2pm. A trip onshore had been arranged for after lunch, but for some reason the Yanks got in first and took all of the transport. Instead we piled into a motor launch and had a trip around the harbour for ½ hour. One of the girls had a birthday so we all gathered together for dinner and shared in a marvellous iced cake that the chef had made especially for her. It was loaded with fruit and had pounds of icing and marzipan on it. We just managed to stagger on deck after it all.

There was a small Russian craft alongside us and we tried speaking to the sailors on board her. The girl who had the birthday had had two lessons in Russian but she managed very well: and one of the Russians knew a little English - so we soon got going. It was, of course, quite dark but one of the Ruskies put a searchlight on us and we hung over the rail. They wanted us to go aboard their ship and dance with them, but it looked rather scruffy so we thought not.

Wed 7th

We hurried with our breakfast so as to catch the launch ashore. There were four of us and we filled it. We had to queue to land as it was busy just then. It was a lovely day and fairly warm. There were quite a number of people walking about, all poorly dressed and looking pale and drawn, which, in view of the fact they have only been liberated for 4 months is not surprising. They look at us but don’t pass any comments concerning themselves – the result, I suppose, of German occupation. Most of the men are injured in some way, the fit ones are at the front line.

[Photo; UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the President of the United States, Mr Franklin Roosevelt and Marshal Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union photographed in the grounds of the Livadia Palace, Yalta during the eight day Yalta Conference.

Standing behind the three leaders are, left to right: the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, MP, the American Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, the British Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Cadogan, the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov and the American Ambassador in Moscow, Averell Harriman. © IWM (TR 2828).]

We went into a small doorway into a kind of shop and Nina tried out her Russian. We ended up with a card of Stalin insignias each and in return we gave them a bar of soap and some chocolate. We have not been given any roubles as there is not anything to buy, and no shops at all. The devastation is terrible, because, of course they had shelling and bombing to contend with, apart from deliberate destruction by the Germans.

We attempted to talk to several people and in the end we had several Russian soldiers with us. One of them co uld speak English so we got on quite well. We got back to the ship about 11:15 as I had an appointment to have a face massage. The others followed suit, We had a drink at the bar and then lunch with F/O Jock Darby.

On duty in the afternoon and evening. Had a turn around the deck before bed.

I don’t know that I mentioned that the Russians have requested that we do not light up the ship, so we have to grope our way around. I think we know the deck by heart!

Thu 8th

Finished duty at 12:50 and had a drink. Lunch with Mr Davey and Lt. Richmond. Our names have been drawn for a trip ashore and at 2pm. we set off in a launch. We went well supplied with chocolate and cigarettes to give to the Russians. We had a Russian officer with us and a girl interpreter who was in a naval uniform. First we piled into cars and went to the Cathedral. It must have been a beautiful building, but it was bombed and the Germans took away everything they could lay their hands on.

We passed a number of Rumanian prisoners working on the buildings and they looked a miserable crowd. Next we visited the Panorama which is the highest point of Sevastopol. It is very much knocked about and only the staircase is intact. From there we went to the gun battery with one of the seventy Sevastopol guns still mounted. We met a Russian who is decorated as a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ and who was the only survivor of his regiment. He took us into his dugout and showed us his Cossack uniform.

We passed on to the Navy House where we inspected portraits of famous Russian Generals and where we were shown Russian film of the recapture of Sevastopol. We were absolutely frozen when we came out as it was devoid of heating. This building was absolutely gutted but it was rebuilt in 4 months. It was full of Russian Naval personnel. When we were held up in a traffic block on the way back some people smiled at us so we gave them some chocolate. In return they piled some tangerines on to us. Exchange is no robbery. We passed a whole line of Nazi tanks. After dinner I stayed and played ping pong with Jock (P/O) and Sq/Ldr. Robertson and then had a breather on deck.

Fri 9th

Dorothy managed to get a lift in a jeep to Elupka, so she went off at 9am and I played ping pong for a while with Robbie, then several of us went ashore and roamed around. We found ourselves in the local market and we were soon surrounded by a crowd of people all trying to talk to us and watching everything we did. The people were very poorly dressed and had presumably come from outlying districts for the market day. I don’t suppose they had ever seen English girls before. We bartered for some lemons and cigarettes. Back to the ship for lunch. Our launch was not in sight so we had a lift on an American boat. I then had confirmation that I was to return by air and although I contacted Group Captain Earle I could not get out of it. I had been looking forward to the return sea trip.

Spent the afternoon packing and then met Robbie and Jock in the bar for a drink and dinner. I did a spot of work for an hour then joined the RAF in a sing song in the Winter Garden. Strolled round the deck with Jock.

Sat 10th

Called at 6:15am and left in launch at 7:30am. Then started that dreadful drive from Sevastopol through Simferpol to Saki aerodrome. We stopped on the wayside for some sandwiches and self-heating cocoa. We drove straight to the airfield where our planes were lined up. The planes belonging to Churchill and Roosevelt were at the end of the line. We saw one or two of the boys but Jock was once again in bed. We embarked almost at once on our Yank – I very much wanted to travel in one of these. It was luxurious compared to the liberator and could seat 21 people. It made a perfect take off, and in 2 seconds we seemed to be several thousand feet up. The steward looked after us very well with coffee and biscuits and later with orange and sweets. The passage was fairly smooth but all the same I felt a bit groggy and was sick. We landed about 4:30 (Malta time) on the drome (Luga). More lines of people and cars waiting for us and we had a reception committee headed by Brigadier Salen. We were whisked off to the Savoy Hotel at S’Liena and I went straight to bed for 2 ½ hours as I felt rotten. I managed to get up for dinner which we had in the officers’ mess of the military barracks. We had a job getting away from there but eventually got to bed.

Sun 11th

We were woken by a Maltese servant at 4am who told us that our departure had been altered and we had to leave the hotel at 5am. Did we curse!! While having breakfast (which we had to force down), Bruce Powell came in and eventually we had about five officers waiting on us. Our plane left, after all, at 6:15am, there being some delay owing to a wireless fault. We took off just as dawn was breaking. An ATS officer was very decent to me and gave me a commando sickness pill just before we left.

We flew over Sardinia, with its snow-capped mountains and then met a 30mph gale which reduced our speed from 210 to 190 mph. The skipper sent round a note stating our position, height, speed and temperature and any news he had picked up from the radio. We were getting on well when we started gaining more height. I had rather unwisely just started some soup and that just finished me. At the same moment that one of the crew came to fix on our oxygen masks I had to make a dash for it. We went up to 18,000 ft so those masks were very necessary. We stayed up there for 1 ½ hours and I was nearly passing out with the helmet clamped on my head. We ran into bad weather and ice was forming on the plane. We hardly saw a thing over France, just a white fog around us, so instead of going to Northolt where we were due, we landed at Thaney Island near Portsmouth. The pilot would not risk going on. We were not of course expected here so we had to phone for transport. This was at 2:30 and the cars did not come until 8:30. In the meantime we had tea and afterwards drinks and dinner with the crew in the officers’ mess.

We reached the office at 12:45am and as an anti-climax had to stay the night. This ended the Crimea Conference as far as I was concerned.


Looking back over 65 years I'm amazed to find that I was involved in major historical events whilst working closely with real historical figures. At the time we were so busy just getting on with our jobs that we were largely unaware of the historical significance of the work of the organisation we served. In fact, even now, I don't think of my experiences as anything out of the ordinary. I even wonder why anyone would be interested in such humdrum adventures. In life we just have to get on with whatever we're doing, and that's just what I did.

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We thank Joyce for information about her work in COHQ and for permission to reproduce her diary of events surrounding her attendance at the Yalta Conference. We also thank her nephew, Robin Knights, for his assistance in the provision of text, photos and comment.

Joyce's stoicism was recently tested, during the preparation of this webpage, when her house in New Zealand suffered structural damage in an earthquake. Apparently the experience was not as bad as the blitz!

Sadly, Joyce died in Christchurch on November 28th, 2014, aged 99. Comparatively few people will have, amongst their possessions, documents bearing the names of such illustrious personalities from the war years as Keyes and Mountbatten. These documents are reproduced on this web page with the consent of Joyce's nephew in tribute to her contribution to the war effort and in her memory. Keyes penned a message to Joyce on his book 'Adventures Ashore & Afloat' when he left the Command. It reads; 'J Rogers in remembrance for your help in strenuous days from Roger Keyes 1940-41'

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