A Whale of a War

C.H. Sisson

  • By Safe Hand: Letters of Sybil and David Eccles
    Bodley Head, 432 pp, £16.00, January 1983, ISBN 0 370 30482 9

It is hardly an odd notion for a man approaching 80, who has held office as Minister of Education, President of the Board of Trade and Paymaster-General, to look back to the beginnings of his public career and to see what he can make of it, at a distance of forty years or more. And nothing could be more natural for any man, after the death of a wife to whom he had been married for 50 years, to turn out a heap of old letters which had been exchanged between them long ago. It must be highly unusual, however, for these two retrospects to come together to the extent that they have done for David Eccles, who now publishes both sides of his correspondence with his wife in 1939-42, which was the epoch of his first start in public life, at the age of 35. My Who’s Who is silent as to what Eccles was doing before the war, but we learn from one of the introductory pages he has written for this book that since 1932 he had been chairman of a company which had built, and was operating, the Santander-Mediterraneo Railway in northern Spain, with its main station in Franco’s old headquarters, Burgos. Hardly surprising, then, that he should be listed as someone whose knowledge of Spain, where, as he says, ‘Franco was winning the Civil War,’ might come in handy. We are told that early in 1939 the Foreign Office asked Eccles to ‘transfer from the reserve of officers to the skeleton staff of the Ministry of Economic Warfare’ – a department for which he entertained some contempt while adoring the Foreign Office where his Winchester contemporary Roger Makins had already made a name for himself.

There would be a volume at once comic and instructive to be made out of the histories of the academics, businessmen and others who flooded into Whitehall as temporary civil servants during the war. They brought a variety of talents, some of them much needed, and contributed largely to a loosening of hierarchic relationships which must sometimes have assisted the transmission of ideas and sometimes added to the general confusion. The Ministry of Economic Warfare, newly invented for the occasions of the war and faced with problems which changed with the military and diplomatic situation, cannot have been among the least confusing and confused. It did not take them long, however, to find a suitable role for Eccles, who, in November 1939, was sent to Madrid as a member of an inter-departmental mission charged with working out a War Trade Agreement with Spain; the Treasury and the Board of Trade were also represented. The agreement was signed and scaled in March 1940 and apparently bound up in red, white and blue ribbon left over from Christmas, there being no silk ribbon to be had in Madrid to do the job with propriety. All this while Sybil Eccles, the daughter of Lord Dawson of Penn, was in Wiltshire with the three children: hence the correspondence. It is from Madrid and later from Lisbon that most of David’s letters are dated, with an interlude in Washington in 1941.

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