Joan Bright Astley

Like Winston Churchill did himself during much of the second world war, Joan Bright – who has died aged 98 – worked alone in one of the “cabinet war rooms” beneath the often blacked-out streets of Westminster. By title, she was “only” an executive secretary and archivist but, as personal assistant to Churchill’s defence chief of staff, she became the closest woman to the British wartime leader’s inner circle of command.

She played an important role in the war effort by setting up, on her own initiative, what she called the Special Information Centre to exchange information, much of it classified, between Churchill and his commanders- in-chief. She had noted that field commanders, when visiting Churchill’s war rooms, often lacked a detailed, overall picture of how the war was progressing beyond their zones of command.

By the end of the war, Bright had crammed more than 800 classified files into her one-room SIC, which became the first stopping-off point for visiting army, air force, navy, intelligence and diplomatic personnel, including Field Marshal Montgomery. Such was Churchill’s trust in “Miss Bright” that he made her his “housekeeper” – handling administrative arrangements for his delegation – at the tripartite summits with Roosevelt and Stalin, including the Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam conferences, that shaped the world.

Her immediate superior, General Hastings Ismay, Churchill’s defence chief of staff, once said he and Bright, though confined to the cabinet war rooms beneath the Treasury buildings, “spent the whole war in the middle of the web”. Ismay also entrusted Bright to recruit the first dozen intelligence agents to the new Special Operations Executive, charged with carrying out sabotage. One was future Tory MP Douglas Dodds-Parker. Another was Peter Fleming, brother of the man who would create James Bond, Ian Fleming; Bright “dated” Ian when he worked for naval intelligence.

Asked about this in a recent interview, she said: “I liked Ian. I thought he was awfully attractive and fun, but elusive. I think he was a ruthless man. He would drop someone if he didn’t want them any more, and that would be it. We were just friends. No torrid love affair.”

Penelope Joan McKerrow Bright was born on September 27 1910 in Argentina, where her English father Trevor Bright, an accountant, had met and married a Scottish governess. She went to school in Derbyshire, Bedford, Bath and at Clifton High School, Bristol. A secretarial course at Mrs Hoster’s Secretarial Training College on London’s Cromwell Road, famed for “turning out gels for the establishment”, helped her to land a job as a cipher clerk at the British legation in Mexico City, where she stayed for five years. After returning to England in 1936, she was offered a job in Germany as an English teacher to a couple called Rudolf and Ilse Hess. She declined, although she did not know Hess was Hitler’s Nazi party deputy and perhaps wanted to learn English with an invasion of her country in mind.

Shortly before war broke out, while working as a temp typist for the Territorial army, Britain’s volunteer reserve force, she received an anonymous message telling her to show up outside St James’s Park Tube station wearing a pink carnation. Military intelligence had been monitoring her ever since Mexico City and believed they had found their “man”.

After signing the Official Secrets Act, she worked first for the War Office’s military intelligence research unit – MI (R) – where she helped to draw up instructions on sabotage for allied agents in case of a German invasion. The documents were written on paper the agents could swallow if captured. In late 1940, after MI (R) had been incorporated into the new SOE, she was assigned to Churchill’s joint planning committee in the cabinet war rooms in Westminster, now the site of the Churchill Museum. In her autobiography The Inner Circle: A View of War at the Top (1971), she recalled that, in the underground labyrinth, she was au fait with all the action on the front lines but had to check a noticeboard to see what the weather was like above.

She also related many anecdotes, including when a classified ticker tape chattered into life, saying: “Hotler’s troops have overrun Luxembourg. Hotler proclaims fall of Belgium and Holland. Hotler says he will crush Britain.” There was a long pause before the tape stuttered back into action. “For ‘Hotler,’ read ‘Hitler’ and the meaning will be apparent.”

Despite her executive status, Bright had to muck in with the rest of “the girls” during the Blitz, acting as an air raid warden and fire watcher, patrolling the cabinet war rooms, checking the blackout was observed and carrying sand-filled buckets in case of firebombs. She also coached the other “girls” on how to deal with the temper of the man they gigglingly called “The Master”: Churchill.

In 1946, Bright was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire for her services to the war effort. In 1949 she married retired army Captain (later Colonel) Philip Astley, who had been divorced from Madeleine Carroll, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller, The 39 Steps. In addition to her autobiography she published, with Sir Peter Wilkinson, an acclaimed biography of wartime SOE leader Sir Colin Gubbins, Gubbins and SOE (1997).

Throughout her postwar life, she kept in touch with old intelligence cronies – men and “girls” – at the discreet Special Forces Club, behind Harrods in Knightsbridge. After her husband’s death she lived in Chelsea, in a flat packed with books but as orderly as her wartime office. Although she lived alone, she was rarely lonely. Friends described her as “fiercely independent” but said her “angelic” sister Pam had given her great succour towards the end of her life.

Joan Bright Astley died of septicaemia on Christmas eve, 2008, 50 years to the day after her husband’s death. She is survived by their son.

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