Monday, 30 November -0001

The governess who helped win the war

As an orphan, she endured a Dickensian childhood. But after Vera Magee was sent to Europe as a governess with a single sovereign in her pocket, she went on to play a key role in the battle against Hitler. Elizabeth Bartley tells her inspiring story

Written by Elizabeth Bartley

Dickens could hardly have penned a more austere childhood than the sombre beginnings of wartime veteran Vera Magee. And yet, in the course of a lifetime, this woman would rise to the very top of her profession, freely mixing with generals, presidents and princes. General Patton even gifted her his famous chair.

She was honoured by President Bill Clinton in 1998, and when the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, met Vera, she requested her story be written down so that a copy could be placed in the White House library.

Born into a modest Northern Irish family in 1907, Vera had suffered the loss of both parents by her 11th birthday. Entrusted to the care of a convent, she described her treatment as ‘outdoing all the fictitious hardship endured by Jane Eyre at Lowood Institution’.

Addressed only as ‘Magee’, she experienced neither warmth nor caring. The orphaned youngsters here were frequently beaten, and bed-wetting was punished by withholding fluids to the point of dehydration. But when Vera turned 17, she was summoned by Mother Superior. ‘Prepare to leave for France tomorrow,’ Reverend Mother commanded, without looking up from her daily report. ‘The Duprez family, near Lille, have asked us to send a governess for their children.’ Pushing a passport and one sovereign across the table, Reverend Mother snapped her fingers in the direction of the door. ‘Don’t idle girl… go along at once!’

No one acknowledged Vera’s leaving as the convent gates swung shut. She perched on the box next to the horse-and-cart driver, whose instructions were to see the young woman safely on a train bound for Belfast docks. ‘Clutching that sovereign, the journey passed in a haze,’ she recalled.

‘My understanding of things worldly was virtually nothing, for I had never been outside those walls during my stay. Families think little of owning three cars today,’ she ruminated. ‘Then, I possessed a cardboard suitcase containing second-hand clothing donated to the Sisters of Mercy. That sovereign paid for my entire passage and by a miracle I reached Dover. I had never travelled by train and found it fascinating. It was autumn and I can still picture fields of ripening grain rushing towards me, then passing into oblivion.’ From Calais Maritime, Vera journeyed to Tourcoing. Reaching out to press the doorbell at an imposing chateau, confidence superseded uncertainty. ‘At that moment, a thrill of exhilaration swept my being. Sixth sense told me that this massive door would lead to a new chapter in my life.’

Governess-war-02-382Vera Magee meets Hillary Clinton

Her unruly charges were the children of a wealthy industrialist, so they lacked for nothing. ‘I assumed responsibility when they returned daily from their lessons at Notre-Dame-des- Anges. Monsieur retained an impressive entourage of servants as the family lived and entertained lavishly,’ she reflected. ‘Bread and jam with the rare treat of cold macaroni cheese gave way to a menu comprising mushroom volau- vents, salads with zesty dressing, cherry clafoutis and café noir.’

Once a fortnight, Vera met her contemporaries at a café in town. ‘How I loved this time,’ she enthused. ‘It was from these girls that I acquired an appreciation of classical fashions in the French mode: polo-neck sweaters, collarless jackets, perfectly cut and tailored. Hairstyles then were piled in loops on top of the head. Past austerity urged that I waste not a moment – nor did I. Our little group discussed working conditions or jobs on offer over aromatic coffee that I can still savour.

Back on duty I’d discover that the children had hidden my belongings behind the fire screen or under a bed. It all added to a spirit of fun that I had never known. I embraced the ethos and language of France… and within four years moved to Lille itself, where I began teaching English to the locals.’

But then war came. ‘With the dawning of May 1940, we awoke to the news that France had surrendered to Germany. An Armistice allocated two-thirds of the country for German occupation. People stared speechless on learning that they were to carry the cost of the invasion. General de Gaulle escaped to England where, with the help of Churchill, he remained in London for four years. Naturally his people felt abandoned at the ignominy of it all. But what was the alternative?’

The next dramatic chapter of Vera’s life began on 1 March 1941 with an edict from German Headquarters. All British citizens in the vicinity were ordered to assemble at Central Station.

‘I packed a suitcase with enough items for a few days. Little did I know that similar orders sent millions to their deaths. Jewish citizens and French nationals had been deported but, like my neighbours, I knew nothing of the grim memorial the Third Reich would carve across Europe. We were due to be taken East, bound for one of the camps I imagine but, due to a misunderstanding, we disembarked 20 miles from Saint-Remy-Chaussée.’

Vera was placed under house arrest, and reported weekly to the area Commandant: ‘Radio confiscations meant we were starved of war news until the Normandy landings in June 1944.’

Following the subsequent liberation, American Forces formed the Railway Transportation Organisation. Translators were urgently needed and linguistically brilliant Vera was deemed highly competent. ‘Metz was captured by the US Third Army under the command of General George Patton, so I was transferred there,’ Vera continued. ‘Soon afterwards, the stationmaster called me aside, whispering, “It’s a special assignment – they want you”. I was introduced to General Patton and he explained that details of troop and ammunition movements must be accurately translated without delay.’

Towering over her, General Patton asked Vera if she’d heard of a comedy couple, Fibber McGee and Molly, who were popular in the United States. ‘Do you mind if I call you Magee?’ he asked. ‘Of course I did not,’ Vera said, ‘and we set to work. General Patton used a special chair on these occasions, a rather beautiful French, fruitwood spoonback. Soon this piece of furniture was revered as Patton’s chair.

Within the Nazi regime, Patton was probably the most hated, most feared general of the Second World War. Ruthless, but we worked amicably, and when our assignment was over he left his chair along with a massive box of chocolates. I loved the chair but you cannot eat a chair… I can taste those chocolates yet… can you imagine the luxury of chocolates after five years of war?’

Razor-sharp, Vera clearly remembered the restoration of de Gaulle’s leadership in 1944 and the new National Assembly and Council of the Republic. Her work in diplomatic circles led to an appointment with the British Consulate at Strasbourg. She also found love. ‘I fell in love with a handsome Frenchman, a teacher of languages. We married in 1952 but our entente cordiale did not last. Still,’ she added brightly, ‘I had many friends in the Council of Europe and, just before retirement, I met Prince Charles who was extremely complimentary on the matter of my wartime service.’

Vera Magee returned to Armagh, the town of her birth. But within weeks she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Without a shred of selfpity, she contacted me, asking that her story be laid down for First Lady Hillary Clinton. President Clinton sent congratulations to Vera at a Palace reception held by Armagh City Mayor Pat Brannigan, but she died shortly after her 90th birthday.

However, Vera had one last surprise: she had left me General Patton’s chair in her will – given the alarming fall in property prices, it’s probably worth more than my house. Better still, I am sitting in it as I write this.

Vera had a fair share of hardship, but I once asked her if she would change any aspect of her life? To which she regally replied, ‘Je ne regrette rien… I regret nothing’. It should be a lesson for us all.

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