Originally published in the Scotsman. Original article here.
The true story of a naval officer’s doomed wartime love affair with a married Scots aristocrat is being kept alive at the Fringe, discovers Roger Cox
ON 1 SEPTEMBER 1942, a 22-year-old Royal Navy Air Arm officer called Peter Medhurst wrote a letter home to his mother in New Zealand. It ended with a prophetic sign-off: “Just to say that (she] and I are frightfully happy together and if we do get sunk we’ll be together so what the hell.”
The woman Medhurst was referring to was a prominent Scottish aristocrat – married with children. The pair had fallen in love the previous year, and she was now four months pregnant with his child. Both of them were destined to die at sea just days after he posted this final missive, following the sinking of the Cunard White Star liner the Laconia by a German U-boat.
The story of their affair would almost certainly have died with them had it not been for some diligent detective work by Medhurst’s nephew, theatre producer Peter Christopherson, who uncovered his uncle’s last letter (along with 129 others) following the death of his grandmother in 2006.
Gradually, by reading between the lines of this wartime correspondence and tracking down first-hand accounts from those who survived the Laconia sinking, Christopherson was able to piece together the final days of these two doomed lovers, and their story is now the subject of a powerful new play by David Walter Hall at Edinburgh’s Hill Street Theatre.
Out of respect for the dead woman’s two sons, both of whom are still alive, Christopherson has opted not to name her in the play. He has been in contact with them, however. “I managed to get in touch with the younger one,” he says. “He’s just over 70. He was very sceptical at first, but I told him that I had letters, photos, the whole scoop. No-one in the family knew about the love affair, the pregnancy. In their eyes she was a complete saint. He then told his older brother, who wanted to sue us and close us down and all sorts of things, but the younger brother said, ‘No, you can’t.’
“I met the younger brother – I came up to Scotland and had lunch with him. I said we’d change his mother’s name and that we’d change the references to her father’s title, but we wanted to tell the story. I gave him a copy of the script to read and he came back with some useful comments – things like, ‘She would never have said that.’ Then I backed off, so I have no idea if they’re coming to see the play.”
At one point during our interview, Christopherson is showing me one of his uncle’s letters, written in beautiful, neat handwriting on Cunard White Star headed notepaper, when he realises the name of the girl’s family is clearly visible. But he is right not to publicly identify them: the story is just as remarkable whether you know the woman’s identity or not. In the play – titled Now is the Hour, after the famous wartime song – she is referred to simply as “Catriona”.
Catriona and Peter Medhurst met in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1941. He was a pilot, and evidently a very good one, as he was charged with flying Churchill around during one of his visits to the region. She was the wife of a senior officer in the British Army and, at 27, some five years Medhurst’s senior.
It is clear from his candid letters to his mother that Medhurst had fallen helplessly in love. In one, when Catriona enters the room, he writes: “Heaven has just walked in.”
“He would do things like borrow a plane and fly her down to Nairobi or over to Palestine for the weekend,” says Christopherson. “In one of the letters he took the husband as well and they all played golf together. He said it’s very strange having this mnage trois with someone who doesn’t realise.”
But the good times were not to last. By June 1942, German tank divisions commanded by Rommel had advanced beyond Torbruck and were rolling swiftly towards Alexandria. Preparations were made to evacuate civilians. As an airman, Medhurst could have caught a flight out of danger, but he had sworn to take Catriona to safety, so the pair embarked on the Laconia, which had been requisitioned as a troop ship.
As the Mediterranean was under Axis control, the ship would have to sail down the Suez Canal, around the Cape of Good Hope and then all the way up the west coast of Africa before finally docking at Liverpool. U-boats were a very real danger, hence the rather morbid tone of Medhurst’s last letter, which he posted in Durban when the Laconia stopped to refuel. A few days later, disaster struck. At 10:20pm on 12 September the Laconia was torpedoed by a German U-boat approximately 600 miles off the west coast of Africa. On board were 80 civilians, 136 crew, 285 British Army personnel, 160 Polish soldiers and about 1,800 Italian prisoners of war.
Almost immediately the ship began listing heavily to starboard, rendering half the lifeboats useless, but with difficulty four boats were launched from the port side, carrying around 200 survivors. Amid the chaos, Medhurst managed to get Catriona safely into one of the lifeboats along with a nurse called Dorris Hawkins, whom they had met during the voyage, and it is at this point that Now Is The Hour picks up their story.
To say their odds of surviving were slim would be an understatement. The lifeboat had been looted of most of the essentials in Durban, including flares and a rudder, and with 66 people on board a vessel designed to carry 30, rations had to be spread exceedingly thinly, with each person receiving just one tablespoon of fresh water a day.
After 12 days of exposure to the searing tropical heat, Catriona died of what was then known as “privation” and after a brief service her body was thrown over the side. Two days later, Medhurst smashed the ship’s compass, drank all the alcohol out of it and stepped off the back of the boat, effectively committing suicide. Before he did so, however, he handed Hawkins a silver cigarette case to give back to his mother, and this same cigarette case now appears as a prop in the play.
After 27 days at sea, Hawkins and 15 others who had managed to keep themselves alive reached the coast of Liberia.
Medhurst’s cigarette case was returned to his mother in New Zealand and when she died it was discovered by her grandson. “It’s a really special thing for me to have found that case and to have it in the show,” he says, “to know the journey it was on and that that journey ends here.”
• Now Is The Hour is at Hill Street Theatre until 25 August, 4:05pm.