Emma Soames

Mary Churchill's War

1 October 2021
Headshot of Emma Soames standing in front of a green bush.

When the battlecruiser HMS Renown dropped anchor off Greenock in September 1943 Mary Churchill’s diary records that her father Winston addressed the crew – then all present removed their hats and sang Eternal Father Strong to Save.

It was a hymn of grateful deliverance after a long sea journey back from the Quebec Conference, a voyage that could have ended in calamity had Nazi U-boats located the ship, the Prime Minister and his family.

Mary Churchill’s War, the newly published diaries of a truly remarkable woman, are packed with insight and anecdote. Some entries are joyful jottings about small delights, such as buying an absolute “honey of a hat at Harvey Nichols”. Others betray personal angsts about looks and style – typical teenage worries.

Except that this was no typical teenager. Just 16 when she started the diary, and already with a deep sense that dark days loomed and she must do her bit to help, Mary became a close personal witness to events, people and decisions that shaped the fate not just of nations, but of the world. 

Her own daughter, Emma Soames, edited the diaries and will be at Wigtown Book Festival this Saturday to discuss them. 

Although Mary (1922-2014) had written a book of her own she was “reticent” about describing her own feelings and experiences. The diaries show us the person. More than that, they thrust us back into the moment and the atmosphere, to get a sense of what it was like to be on a small island amidst a desperate struggle for survival.

Indeed Emma takes great pride in her mother’s military service record. She joined the ATS, crewed anti-aircraft guns, and worked her way up the ranks. She also acted as aide de camp to her father at some critical moments in the war.

The Quebec Conference of 1943 helped lay the foundations for D-Day and the liberation of Europe and saw Mary accompanying her father to dine with the likes of US president Franklin D Roosevelt. Mary wrote that she found him magnetic and that “his sweetness to me is something I shall always remember”. However his tendency to be a raconteur could be a little “tedious”.

At a later date she had very slight dealings with “Uncle Joe” Stalin, who came across as charming. 

What Emma found so touching about the diaries was the how personal insecurities and harsh self-judgement (Mary thought herself fat and unsophisticated) sat alongside immense competence and profound determination. As a body of work she says that they clearly detail a personal growth into womanhood taking place under extraordinary of circumstances.

Perhaps one of the greatest tributes to Mary is that she appears to have come through the process as a very likeable person. Emma, a distinguished magazine editor says: “As her daughter, it's been really moving to me personally to read and edit the diaries. And everyone who read them before publication fell in love with my mother.”

Some of this may be due to the small, very human comments. For example Mary gives short shrift to Neville Chamberlain and family for leaving 10 Downing Street “very dirty” when they departed and the Churchills move in.

Emma was close to her mum – she remembers her as a warm, funny and loving woman.

In editing the diaries she was encountering the inner life of a potentially very different Mary Churchill, much younger and in the process of growing up.

So what was that like for Emma?

“It was completely fascinating and it was a great privilege to be able to look one's mother in the eye when she was a 17-year-old girl. I'm just so proud of her. She was an amazing person. She was a very good soldier, she ended up as a captain with a military MBE. She was a huge support to her parents. 

“And she did us all an enormous favour by keeping these diaries.”

You can get tickets to Emma Soame's Wigtown Book Festival event here. You can purchase a copy of Mary Churchill's War from our online bookshop