Patrick Kinna: Churchill's wartime secretary

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The Independent Online

As Winston Churchill's secretary and assistant, Patrick Kinna often found himself at the centre of events during the Second World War. The Kinna family had generations of army service but Patrick, slight of stature and not cut out to follow his four elder brothers into the forces, thought to have a career as a journalist and enlisted in a local secretarial college to acquire shorthand and typing skills, winning the All England Championship for secretarial speeds. He joined Barclays Bank as a clerk while deliberating whether to be a journalist or a skating instructor; he had been training with Belita Jepson-Turner and achieved British gold medal status in ice dancing.

When the War came Kinna had to go from London to Catterick to receive his uniform. By the time he got there all the small sizes had been distributed and he returned to London in a baggy, ill-fitting uniform with a rifle and a kit bag too heavy for him to carry. He was committing the unpardonable offence of dragging his kit bag along the station to catch a train for Caterham, where he was to join his basic training unit, when a Guards Sergeant took pity and offered to carry his bag to the train. On the way he asked if there was anybody in the unit who could do shorthand and typing. Kinna stopped dead in his tracks and said " Well, how extraordinary! I can." "Are you any good ?" asked the sergeant. "Well actually, I am the champion!" was the reply.

Two days later he had been promoted to Lance Corporal, signed the Official Secrets Act, given a uniform that fitted and was on the Golden Arrow to Paris to be, nominally, the Clerk to the Duke of Windsor at the British Embassy. His real task was to ensure that the Duke never took a single piece of paper home where it might fall into the hands of the Duchess.

The Duke and Kinna got along famously and were going to drive to see the Maginot Line the day the Germans walked round the sides. Instead, the Duke and Kinna spent the day tearing up secret documents and burning them in the fireplace of the Duke's Embassy office. The Duke was then spirited to safety and Kinna began to hitch-hike to the French coast in an attempt to find a ship home. Along the way a General and two staff officers stopped and picked him up. Kinna sat up front, his rifle between his knees and pointing at the General's head. The General asked if the safety catch was on. Kinna, who had not received any arms training, had to say that he had no idea. The car was stopped and the General took the rifle to find that not only was the catch not engaged but there was a live bullet up the spout. Kinna never forgot the dressing-down he received.

Back in England he was offered the job of shorthand typist to Winston Churchill. He asked for a day to think this over, then said he did not think he wanted the job; it was politely explained that it was like a Royal Command and that he would start the next day. The pool of clerks and typists worked shifts round the clock as Churchill frequently dictated tele-grams and memoranda in the middle of the night. After two days the green light indicating that a stenographer was required went on and Kinna entered Churchill's office for the first time. Churchill was pacing up and down and said, "This is a very sad and tragic story." Patrick replied, "Oh! I am so sorry!" Churchill shouted, "Well, take it down! Take it down!" – he had already begun dictating.

Kinna's proficiency soon impressed and Churchill usually asked for him when he needed something typed urgently. Kinna could take dictation straight on to the typewriter; there was a problem, however, as his typing was so fast the keys jammed, so a special portable typewriter was acquired with the keys shaved. This machine went on every overseas trip Churchill made, and always with Kinna. Women were not allowed on the overseas missions as it was thought too dangerous.

As a result Kinna met the likes of President and Mrs Roosevelt and President Tito, but, after he had shaken hands with Stalin he immediately excused himself and, aghast, disappeared to wash his hands muttering, "God forgive me! I have shaken the bloody hand of Joe!" to the mirror.

Kinna got used to staying at the White House and the Kremlin and meeting most of the allied heads of state. It was while at the White House that he was taking dictation from Churchill in the bath. It was Churchill's favourite location for composition: he would disappear under the water, re-emerge, blowing out a plume of water like a whale and produce the next considered phrase. Once Churchill got out of the bath and, wrapping a huge bath sheet round his middle, continued dictating. As he prowled up and down, the towel became looser and looser. There was a knock on the door, Churchill sped round – and President Roosevelt was wheeled in just as the towel dropped to the floor. "You see Mister President, I have absolutely nothing to hide from you!" Churchill said.

Kinna was also present at the Yalta Conference, and took down the Yalta Agreement in shorthand.

While in London Kinna lived in the bunker of the Cabinet War Rooms and was present at many of the meetings of the Defence Chiefs, some of whom he got to know well. When the War Rooms were to be opened to the public Patrick was interviewed there by the BBC and found the name cards of key players still piled up on the table. The television crew and Museum staff were amazed that he could remember exactly where each of the participants had sat, and the cards were positioned accordingly.

Flying with Churchill was sometimes hazardous and on several occasions at night Kinna had to try to sleep in the bomb rack, fervently praying the pilot did not press the wrong switch. On one occasion, flying back from Europe in a Dakota the plane began to lose height. Churchill said they might have to jettison one or more of the passengers but looking at the diminutive Patrick went on: "No use throwing you out – there's not enough of you to make a ham sandwich!" Patrick also remembered having to take dictation in the small bathroom at Chartwell as Churchill bobbed up and down in the bath. The only place for him to sit was on the lavatory seat, balancing his trusty portable on his knees.

After the election that ousted Churchill Kinna was summoned to the Cabinet Room to say farewell. Churchill reminisced about all the trips they had taken and remarked that now, although he had won the war for the people of Britain, they no longer wanted him. Tears were streaming down both men's faces.

Kinna was awarded the MBE at the War's end. Churchill asked Kinna to stay on his staff in Opposition, but he was so worn out by the long hours, incessant travel and late nights he pleaded for a break. The two men kept in touch and always exchanged a white pelargonium on their birthdays.

Later he became the secretary of Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary in the Labour Government. Again a strong bond was made and Bevin relied on Kinna to ease sometimes difficult social situations. For example, he always asked Kinna to order the wine at dinner, saying under his breath "You know what I like – it's that New-its". Patrick would then order the Nuits St Georges.

In the early 1950s Patrick joined the timber firm of Montague Meyer and became personnel director. He later lived in happy retirement with his sister, Gladys, and became very active in Brighton, obtaining a grant to replace the railings round the Sussex Square Gardens that had been taken for War Effort. He was also of great assistance to many writers of wartime books and especially to Martin Gilbert, Churchill's official biographer, and to the Archivist of Churchill College, Cambridge, where a great deal of memorabilia is stored. When asked to contribute to a television programme on the life of the Duke of Windsor, however, he refused – having signed the Official Secrets Act he did not want to betray any confidences. He did not realise the programme was being made by the company headed by Prince Edward.

He gave a number of talks into his eighties on his wartime experiences and said he had never ever seen Churchill the worse for drink. These talks raised several thousands of pounds for local charities. He did not marry.

Martin Kinna

Patrick Francis Kinna, secretary: born London 5 September 1913; MBE 1945; died Brighton 14 March 2009.