22 MARCH 1997, Page 33

His finest hour

Sir: I was greatly chuffed to read the long letter you published in your issue of 8 March from one of my possibly rather rare fans down under, a Mr Peter Sekuless. He quoted a footnote reference to me he had found in Sir Martin Gilbert's Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour 1939-41, referring to mY presence at Chequers on my return (aboard the first Ark Royal aircraft carrier) from the ill-conceived and ill-fated opera- tion in the fog off Dakar. Had Mr Sekuless not been perhaps too Young to have been a Spectator reader in March 1985, he might have learned from the contents of the longest letter ever sent in those pre-faxing days at the writer's expense of my journey out to the South Atlantic aboard HMAS Australia, happy

days indeed in the best possible company. I quote from it:

I dare say I never saw as much active service as my American mother on duty with her can- teen in WVS uniform night after night in London's Blitz.

Yet I suppose that if I had not been nar- rowly missed by the bomb aimed by a low-fly- ing Luftwaffe pilot at Fort Cumberland out- side Southsea, which did for the writer Christopher Hobhouse and several other of my fellow Marine neophytes, my death at least would have been recorded as having been 'on active service'. Likewise if I had a little later that year been one of the fatal casualties in the cruiser in which from Scapa Flow I was making for the South Atlantic when it was torpedoed off the north-west coast of Ireland, or might not that have been 'in action'? It would certainly have been the latter if I had been hit by any of the many alarming 16-inch shells that flew over my head for a couple of days on the bridge of HMS Barham When I had finally caught up, in HMAS Australia, with the disastrous Dakar expedition, during which I first saw Charles de Gaulle plain though he did not stop to speak to me.

Though in the same war and after it at Suez time, I thought Menzies the most pompous old political fart I had ever come across, I have been lucky enough to share an important part of my life with the sweet- est and most talented of all Strine-born beauties, whose delightful children of dif- ferent beds invited me to deliver, for a large and motley assembly of friends, the funeral address after her death after a 20- year fight against cancer.

To take his mind off Menzies, Winston Churchill several times asked me to retell the discomfiture of Dimbleby pere who, to kill time while awaiting the arrival of the Queen, was rash enough to hold his micro- phone up to a lady with the query, 'Do you ever go back to the old country?' only to receive the reply, 'What! Where the con- victs came from? Not bloody likely.' As for that admirable naval historian Tom Pocock's suggestion that I was ever an employee of Max Beaverbrook, that too is a matter covered in my long letter of 1985, in which I described refusing his offer of three times my then Rothermere salary, 'fearing contamination from the surely damned soul of the little Canadian Calvinist'.

Alastair Forbes

Château d'Oex, Vaud, Switzerland

PS: Though younger than my friend of many a long year, Sir Edward Heath, I am nevertheless occasionally prone to fearful senile lapses of memory. Thus, because of the similarity of their given names, I recent- ly wrote of Alice Bohlen as the wife rather than the daughter of the Admirable Chip Bohlen, in whose Slavophone steps she is now asserting her intelligence as US Ambassador to Bulgaria.