Wartime secretary to Churchill
Born: 14 June, 1917, in Suffolk.
Died: 30 October, 2007, in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, aged 90.
ELIZABETH Nel had the historic but sometimes unenviable task of being personal secretary to Prime Minister Winston Churchill during most of the Second World War. She spent long hours with him underground in the Whitehall Cabinet War rooms towards the end of the Blitz, sometimes by his bedside ready to take notes, often in his official car while she juggled pen, paper, his matches, his prime ministerial black box and his spare cigar. He wasn't an easy man to work for, but she quickly learned that he had "a loving heart".
Nel (ne Layton) was by Churchill's side at the Yalta conference in the Crimea in February 1945, when Churchill met the other two major allied leaders, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, to plan Hitler's final defeat. At one of several banquets in the Crimea, her boss raised his cigar into the air to call for a toast "to Miss Layton, the only lady present". His Ukrainian hosts, thinking she must be his mistress, reportedly plucked some flowers from a nearby vase and presented them to her to loud applause.
In recent years, she was invited back to London on several occasions, including in 1990 for the 50th anniversary of Churchill becoming prime minister. She also came back in 2005 to join the Queen for the opening of the Churchill museum in the underground war rooms, beneath what is now the Treasury on Horse Guards Road, where she had loyally served by his side. The museum features one of his partly-smoked cigars, which she kept and treasured after the war.
Her fascinating book of memoirs, Mr Churchill's Secretary (1958), was republished only two months ago under the new title Winston Churchill by his Personal Secretary. Describing how he would pace the room while dictating, she wrote: "Sometimes his voice would become thick with emotion, and occasionally a tear would run down his cheek. As inspiration came to him, he would gesture with his hands, just as one knew he would be doing when he delivered his speech, and the sentences would roll out with so much feeling that one died with the soldiers, toiled with the workers, hated the enemy, strained for victory."
She added: "That great man - who could at any time be impatient, kind, irritable, crushing, generous, inspiring, difficult, alarming, amusing, unpredictable, considerate, seemingly impossible to please, charming, demanding, inconsiderate, quick to anger and quick to forgive - was unforgettable. One loved him with a deep devotion. Difficult to work for - yes, mostly; loveable - always; amusing - without fail."
Sometimes, she wrote, "the cigar must be lit, and relit (and relit) from a candle rather than one of the extra-large matches he usually favoured. This was more likely to happen, as I recall, in the morning as he sat in bed working. The candleholder would be by his bedside. One would be instructed to light it, then the cigar would be got under way, then one would remove the candle from the room, close the door, blow it out, open the door and return it to its place." Nel admitted that, once she was outside his door, the procedure set her off in a fit of giggles.
Elizabeth Layton was born in Suffolk on 14 June, 1917, and spent the First World War years in England before her family emigrated to Canada in 1924. In 1936, she returned to England to study shorthand typing in the hope of becoming a senior secretary and in early 1941 answered an ad from Downing Street seeking a personal secretary to the prime minister. She started working for Churchill on 5 May that year, at the height of the Blitz.
Nel's final wartime task for her boss was to take dictation of his historic speech of 8 May, 1945, VE-Day, when he announced to a jubilant nation, and millions gathered in and around Whitehall, that the Nazis had surrendered and the war in Europe was over. Later that day, she managed to squeeze herself on to the balcony of the Ministry of Health building, where he addressed the revellers in Parliament Square and brandished his famous V-sign and cigar.
"As I was leaving the scene there arrived dear old Mrs Landemare, the Churchills' cook throughout the war, who had been unable to leave her kitchen sooner and had thus battled her way through those corridors too late to see the fun. Mr Churchill, full of the moment of triumph, was just going off with his ministers; but on seeing her he broke away from them, came and shook her hand and thanked her for having looked after him so well through those years. When he had gone she turned to me almost in tears, and said that being spoken to like that meant much more to her than just seeing the crowds."
In a romantic twist of fate, it was during those tumultuous victory celebrations in Whitehall that she met Frans Nel, a South African lieutenant of the Prince Alfred's Guard infantry regiment, who had been repatriated to London after being freed from a German prisoner-of-war camp. With the war over, she returned to South Africa to get married and the couple lived there afterwards.
Elizabeth Nel died in her sleep. Frans had died in 2000. They are survived by their son and two daughters.