P G Wodehouse was no traitor, just a 'silly ass'
P G WODEHOUSE, denounced in Parliament for his wartime broadcasts from
Germany to America, was regarded by the Government as a naive and
conceited fool rather than someone intent on betraying his country,
according to newly-released papers.
One senior civil servant dismissed the creator of Jeeves and Wooster as
a "silly ass", although the author was also considered a major
embarrassment to Britain. The papers made available at the Public Record
Office yesterday illustrate the lengths to which the Government went to
ensure that he did not return home and prompt public calls for him to be
tried for treason.
Civil servants were also exercised by questions concerning his
substantial British assets. One official thought that the Board of Trade
should consider whether releasing the property to him was "undesirable"
and whether it should be put beyond his power. But Sir Frank Newsam, the
permanent Home Office under-secretary, insisted that it was important, in
case Wodehouse did face prosecution, that there was no suspicion that he
had faced improper pressure.
Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, were living in Le Touquet, Normandy,
when the Germans advanced through France. In July 1940 he was interned but
later released and the couple lived at the Hotel Adlon, Berlin. His radio
broadcasts came to be regarded as whimsical descriptions of his life as an
internee rather than virulently pro-German. However, he was roundly
condemned in Britain. The Daily Express called him "Herr Wodehouse", he
spent the rest of his life in exile and had to wait until 1975, a month
before his death, for a knighthood.
An MI5 investigation after the liberation of Paris, when the Wodehouses
were living in the same hotel, the Bristol, as the British ambassador,
Alfred Duff Cooper, led the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide that
there was insufficient evidence to justify a treason charge. The director
also found no grounds for pursuing Wodehouse in connection with payments
he received while in Berlin. But he left open the possibility that a "more
sinister" motive for the author's conduct in Germany might later be
Major, later Col, E J P Cussen, the MI5 officer who investigated the
author's conduct, concluded that Wodehouse did not appear to have been
guilty of treasonable conduct. Wodehouse insisted that his 1941 broadcasts
were merely a response to the kindness hundreds of Americans had shown him
in writing to express their concern about his internment. News of the
broadcasts, scripts of which Wodehouse handed to Malcolm Muggeridge, then
an Intelligence Corps major, caused uproar in Britain.
'If the rat has enough intelligence to leave the sinking ship, I
should suspect he must have enough intelligence not to put himself
within the jaws of the British mastiff'
In a letter to the Home Secretary in September 1944, he admitted he had
been "criminally foolish" but said the broadcasts were "purely comic" and
designed to show Americans - not then involved in the war - a group of
interned Englishmen keeping up their spirits.
A Whitehall official's note in October 1944 described the author as a
man "without political cause who lives in a world of his own and is only
interested in creating humorous characters and incidents to please himself
and his book-buying public". He wrote: "He was a silly ass and a selfish
ass to broadcast, but there seems no point in trying to charge such an ass
Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, said Wodehouse should be regarded
as "definitely suspect" and "shifted away from official contacts".
The papers also disclose evidence of incredulity on the part of the
French, who briefly detained Wodehouse after the liberation of Paris, that
his actions should be viewed so mildly.
The first hint of official disquiet at Wodehouse's travel plans emerges
in correspondence in 1943, when he applied to the Portuguese consulate in
Berlin for a visa allowing them to travel via Lisbon. A Whitehall memo on
whether the couple might try to visit Britain suggests that, for all his
political ignorance, Wodehouse must know enough to realise his position at
home would be "to say the least unpleasant".
"If the rat has enough intelligence to leave the sinking ship, I should
suspect he must have enough intelligence not to put himself within the
jaws of the British mastiff," it read.
But Mr Morrison was against taking chances and opposed any action to
facilitate the trip. "They should stay where there are," he directed. The
Portuguese government was told only of transport difficulties and refused
According to the MI5 report, Wodehouse put his assets at the time he
was interned as £56,000 in British Government securities and $100,000 held
in a New York bank. His wife had securities of £48,000. The sale of a film
to the Berliner company in 1942 brought him 40,000 marks - a deal that
prompted him to ask his MI5 questioner two years later if he had
contravened the Trading with the Enemy Act. He said he received 250 marks
for his five broadcasts.
After the liberation of Paris, Mrs Wodehouse received 560,000 francs
from Germany via the Swiss consulate which she took to be a large sum she
had left in Berlin, plus the balance of her husband's bank account there.
Despite the unclear state of the couple's finances, Major Cussen
reported, they were able to live comfortably in Germany on loans and the
proceeds of the sale of film rights, a novel and jewellery.
Major Cussen said Wodehouse sometimes found the "energy" of his wife in
social activities a problem. But he relied on her organisational
abilities, and internment had left him having to make his own decisions
for the first time in years.