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P G Wodehouse was no traitor, just a 'silly ass'
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The Daily Telegraph 1 October 1996

P G Wodehouse was no traitor, just a 'silly ass'

Colin Randall

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 established.

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 with treason."

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 the visa.

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.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2023. Established 04/04/1996.