‘You are not to say that I was a spy,’ I am told in warm but no-nonsense tones when I speak to Mildred Schutz recently. Now in her 97th year, Mildred, like so many other women of her generation who signed the Official Secrets Act, has always been remarkably modest about her wartime record in the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (the FANYs) in occupied Italy where she was also working for SOE, Churchill’s secretive Special Operations Executive, intended to ‘set Europe ablaze’. Today, she is one of the last women of wartime SOE still alive.
‘I knew that if we were captured, we’d be shot as traitors. You just hoped it wouldn’t happen,’ she recalls calmly almost 80 years later when we chat on the phone.
Nineteen-year-old Mildred Buck as she then was, or simply Buck, may not have conducted undercover espionage operations but her job as part of the SOE unit organising the partisans, handing out weapons to them, sometimes under fire or dodging mines as she travelled around an Italy not yet free of German Nazis nor Italian fascists, required nerves of steel and a cheerful disposition. Fortunately, she had both as her superiors in London no doubt recognised when she passed the test to go abroad.
One of her most enduring memories is the Christmas carol service she and her fellow FANYs organised in December 1944 shortly after she arrived in Italy, based in Monopoli, a coastal town on the heel of Italy. It was so cold and snowy that winter that she slept in her clothes and heavy coat on top of a thin straw pallet.
‘In those freezing conditions and far from home we needed something to raise our spirits,’ Mildred said.
So when somebody found a cellar leading off from an underground tunnel in a badly damaged derelict building, everyone was excited.
‘It was full of rubble but we girls set about clearing it up and decorating it with greenery and the men scrounged chairs and planks to put between the chairs. A church organist was found who could play a badly out of tune harmonium we discovered.
‘News of the carol service spread like wildfire so we managed to get all the carols translated into various languages, typed up and then copied on an old cylinder-type copying machine with a wind-up handle.’
‘There were Poles, French and many other nationalities, probably some pro-German Italians, escapees on the run and even German deserters,’ recalled Mildred. ‘We knew they were out in the countryside because they would raid our kitchens to get food from our mess. I think there was a reluctance to capture them and put them in a POW camp because then you would have to feed them,’ she recalls.
On December 25, 1944 the cellar was packed, with about a hundred people of different nationalities squashed together belting out Hark the Herald Angels and Silent Night, using different words but a familiar tune.
Today Mildred says she can still picture the scene, a room full of young men and girls ‘all fighting the same war, all hoping to survive… every time I hear that plaintive tune today I feel a lurch in my tummy.’
She had a box brownie camera on which she was allowed to record certain scenes as long as her pictures did not include details of precise locations. ‘Security was very tight and we weren’t allowed to keep diaries. But I can remember that day very clearly. It started with a girls vs boys netball match in the town square and was followed by an unappetising lunch of tinned turkey and dehydrated vegetables. But there was always plenty of Italian wine to wash it down with.’
Cadet Ensign Buck arrived in Naples, sailing from Liverpool via Gibraltar, in the autumn of 1944 after a ten-day crossing in rough waters dodging U boats during which she was violently seasick. Once at Monopoli, she worked as PA to the officer in charge of handing out weapons to partisans as well as poison pills, silk maps and ammunition.
‘You were always aware that this was dangerous territory,’ Mildred tells me with classic understatement. ‘But war was an everyday way of life and you just hoped it would be over and done with as quickly as possible.
‘I went up to enemy lines on occasions, which was quite scary. But I never actually lived behind enemy lines,’ she recounts, more interested in telling me what she did not do during her time overseas rather than what she did. Following strict instructions, she, like many women, never talked to anyone, even her parents, about what she had done in the war.
The role of her unit was to organise and train the various disparate groups of partisans, which might include catholic aristocrats as well as communist peasants, who were operating not only in Italy but also Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece, trying to persuade them to work together, give them cash as well as arms and make sure they really were on the Allies’ side.
She recalls one particularly hair-raising reconnaissance trip up a mountainside intended to gather lists of those who insisted they were partisans when the jeep in which she was travelling, acting as a lookout, narrowly missed being overturned by boulders being thrown at them from higher up the mountainside. ‘I was lucky to return with only a big bruise on the side of my face.’
Mildred Buck was born in Kent in 1923 but grew up in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. After school she trained at a business college and undertook nursing training before joining a shipping company as a secretary, a reserved occupation. While there she was mysteriously selected for further interviews in London, initially for something she was told was the Inter-services Research Bureau, SOE HQ, in Baker Street. ‘I’ve never found out how it happened but after several more interviews, I was asked if I would like to go overseas and I said I would.’
There followed a period of training at Chicheley Hall in Buckinghamshire after which ten of the 200 girls with Mildred were selected to go abroad.
Mildred remained in Italy until the end of the war in 1945. After a few days leave in Venice, she returned home and went back to work at the shipping company. There she met Reginald Schutz, an accountant at the firm who she married in 1952. But Reginald died of a brain tumour in 1983.
Mildred still lives in Surrey, not far from where she grew up, and although her five children and six grandchildren are close by, she has, until this year, always been active in several voluntary causes and associations, many with a wartime connection. Through one of these, the Escape Lines Memorial Society, she became close friends with Bob Frost – an RAF rear gunner shot down in Belgium who got back to England through France, over the Pyrenees into Spain – until his death in 2019. But because of Covid, her protective family has insisted she does not go out this year so Christmas will be a quiet affair, with family in her support bubble.
When I ask for her abiding memory of the wartime christmas carol service she tells me: ‘How ridiculous war is. We are all human beings.’
Anne Sebba is the author of Les Parisiennes How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)