Aden: The Curtain Falls: The Memoirs of Dick Eberlie: Part 4, 1965 to 1967

My Job as Private Secretary

Hours of work

Foreign and Colonial Office officials were at their desks in Whitehall until late in the evenings on weekdays and often all morning and afternoon on Saturdays. The time difference between Aden and London meant that we had to work even later at night and all Saturdays in order to send our reports back to London by telegram so they could be put in Ministers’ red boxes before they were driven home for the weekend. Moreover, in Aden, Friday was the day of rest for the Muslim community and Sunday was a full working day; while the military worked through Fridays and took Saturdays and Sundays off. As a result HE and his staff were on duty seven days a week - and it was sometimes a little wearing.

All through the summer months Aden was unpleasantly hot with a searing, blistering, enervating heat. I was in the habit of swimming in the very early mornings before breakfast when there was nobody about. Then, unless HE was up-country or abroad, I used to drive up to GH and set to work in the coolest hour at 7 o’clock. By that time he had already been at his desk for an hour or more, reading or, more frequently, writing notes and ideas in fat foolscap notebooks in his stylish hand in red ink. He would then work through his meetings until round about 1.30 p.m. when I could nip home for a bite to eat.

European businesses and the armed services’ headquarter staff took the afternoon off; most civilians spent it on the beach or relaxing in a shady spot, but Government House was open to visitors at all hours. After lunch was a good time for them to pay their calls, and in any free moment I needed time to catch up on my reading and filing. I soon found more than enough to do in my office until 6.30 p.m. or so each evening. On many evenings, I would then go home and dress for an evening engagement back in GH. When not on evening duty, my preference on reaching home after work was to collapse in an air-conditioned room with a long, cool drink.

In essence, I suppose my job was to do everything HE asked me to do and anything I could to ease the load on him. For the most part it boiled down to six things:

The Red Boxes

Sir Richard’s in-trays and out-trays were large, red, tin boxes, which were kept locked unless he was in the office working on their contents. Only he and I had keys, and it was my role to ensure that incoming telegrams from London, local correspondence, other documents and drafts for his approval were put in the in-box as soon as they came in, and that the out-box was emptied several times a day. I had to pass on its contents in HE’s red ink as fast as possible to the right addresses, some coming to me to deal with, others going out to the secretaries to type up to be signed, and many others going across to the staff of the High Commission or elsewhere for action or disposal.

Our communications to the Colonial Office went by telegrams, often of some length, reporting events up to the minute, and their replies and instructions came into us at all hours of the day and often in the evenings. Sir Richard’s style of writing was direct while also easy and, at times, chatty with those officials in London whom he had known in previous jobs. His reports were clear and straightforward, whereas some of the Colonial and Foreign Office messages back were clothed in excessive diplomatic obscurity. In times of crisis – which seemed to be most of the time in Aden - telegrams went to and from London every hour of the day and sometimes until late at night. Some of them labelled Flash demanded instant replies, while others had to be encoded before despatch or decoded on their way to HE. The basic ciphers I could manage, but a few documents were so secret they had to be taken by me personally to a military cipher office some distance from us.


I was soon writing straightforward replies, acknowledgements, social chitchat and holding letters on HE’s behalf, and it became my job to draft for his signature a good deal of his routine correspondence in order to free his time to work on policy matters.

All too frequently, he had to write to offer sympathy to those injured by the terrorists and condolences to the relatives of those murdered by them, and he used to ask me to draft what he called an ‘Eberlie Special’ on such sad occasions. I picked up his style and believe I became fluent at expressing his thoughts on paper, while always leaving him with the opportunity to add a few words of his own for the personal touch.

The Engagement Diary

When HE needed to see someone it was my job to find the person, and on many mornings and evenings the flow of people in and out of his office lasted all day. His life was one of constant meetings with political leaders, ministers, sheikhs, emirs, sultans and other dignitaries, businessmen, officials, the press, the police and the military. In addition Aden received a steady stream of VIPs from London – Government Ministers, opposition leaders, MPs on a ‘swan’, the top brass of the armed services and many others. All visitors to Aden who believed themselves important insisted on calling at GH, while journalists from all over the world were constantly pressing for interviews. It was my task to give them appointments to suit HE’s convenience, and to fit them in between the numerous business meetings and other engagements.

Every Wednesday morning HE set aside time to go over his diary, first with his senior colleagues at the High Commission and elsewhere, and then for a few minutes to check arrangements for the week ahead with the ADC, the Housekeeper and me. One way and another, the foolscap diary was always full to overflowing with names and times and data about our visitors. The conflicting demands on HE’s time required a good deal of juggling, and it was up to me to sort it all out.

One particular job had to be done with care. Sentries provided by an infantry battalion were always on duty not only at the GH gates but also at the entrance to the whole Steamer Point complex at the bottom of our hill, and they had orders to search for suspicious objects in cars unless the visitors had passes or were cleared in advance. Either the ADC or I had to be sure to warn the guard commanders to alert their sentries whenever HE was expecting callers without official passes, and such people called on us almost every day. Occasionally the message did not get through, and we could be horribly embarrassed if a brash, young soldier waving a rifle treated our guests with casual disrespect.

The Social Side

As a member of the ‘household’ I dined, probably once a week, informally and quietly with the Turnbulls. In addition I was, along with Jeremy and Eliane, required to be one of the hosts at the formal receptions and evening functions at GH, and one or other of us had to accompany HE to outside events. The Turnbulls saw it as their duty to entertain as often as they could and as widely as they could among Colonial Service colleagues and their wives, senior military men, visitors from home, and leading members of the Arab, Indian and European communities in Aden. We also kept in regular touch with the Consuls of foreign powers, notably the French, Americans, Italians and Ethiopians who all wanted to know what we were doing up at GH.

Along with the ADC, I was called upon to don a black tie for at least one official occasion a week, and to earn my keep by looking after GH evening guests, shepherding them around, seating them where required, and ensuring they were properly looked after by the local staff. The big dining room, with French windows opening on to the terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean, could seat thirty-six comfortably and was a superb venue for formal meals. The Housekeeper had the task of finding the food and making most of the advance arrangements for GH parties, and the ADC had to produce the right wines and do most of the organisation of outside activities. I was frequently invited to join the party, and for many months it was all new and exciting and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

We had not only to arrange and implement HE’s varied programme, but also support Lady T in her busy life. Without Arabic and with little knowledge of local customs, it cannot have been easy to do her job; she persisted and made it her business to get out and about, spending time at the hospitals and with the Red Cross and other charities as well as the principal women’s organisations in the town.

She had to fly to London in late June 1965 to complete the purchase of their Henley home and tried to spend a part of each summer in England, but on her return each autumn she resumed a full and varied life.

The Early Morning Walks

As before, in Dar es Salaam, HE relished his early morning walks to escape briefly the problems of the day and get up a good sweat before breakfast. Jebel Shamsan provided a suitable challenge on his doorstep and replaced the Pugu Hills behind Dar es Salaam for his weekly exercise. It was very much the ADC’s job to accompany HE on these scrambles, but I was invited to join them soon after my arrival. While I disliked the early starts and violent exercise before breakfast, I looked upon these walks as part of the job and enjoyed the cool air high on the mountainside before the sun rose over the horizon.

Recent illness slowed me down, but I kept at it for several months. Later in the year I disgraced myself by collapsing at the top of the mountain (a story that appears in an early chapter), and it was some relief that HE never invited me to join him after that.

Staff Management

While no precise pecking order existed among the GH staff, it fell to me to make sure HE’s instructions were carried out and to keep an eye on every single thing in and around GH. I was constantly in and out of the offices of the ADC and Housekeeper to have things done as the Turnbulls wanted.

All sorts of odd jobs came my way, too. For example, I found it was often my lot to supervise the work of the young man who kept the Purdah Garden tidy, and to order tools and plants for it from Mr Bhicajee’s shop in the Crescent.

The Language

HE spoke some Arabic on arrival in Aden doubtless gleaned when he had been in Kenya’s Northern Frontier Province many years earlier. I had none when I joined him. In Dar es Salaam he, as Governor, and I, as ADC, had both spoken fluent Swahili and been aware of the value of conversation with local leaders and officials in their own language, as only thus could one get to know them personally and understand their thought processes. In Aden knowledge of the language would have been a big advantage, but the opportunity to learn it was denied us. The High Commissioner was able to rely on the help of the Arabic speakers on the political staff as interpreters in his meetings with the Adeni politicians and up-country rulers, but he must have found it frustrating, as did I, to be unable to grasp the nuances of discussion on these occasions.

For myself, I bought the Teach Yourself Arabic book and mugged it up. During HE’s first trip to London, I spent every free afternoon with a group of young officers learning basic Arabic in a classroom on the military base. I was instructed in the alphabet and the rudiments of the language, but to speak and understand it needed a great deal of time which was not available to me. In any event, I soon discovered that, however desirable, Arabic was not essential for my work. The GH local staff knew enough English for me to get by, while my day-to-day contacts at work were with my immediate colleagues, the High Commission and resident officials and the political staff, the police, the armed services and visitors from home.

I was at a disadvantage, however, with our frequent Arab callers at GH. Few had any English, and my conversation with them was much inhibited as they spent time with me on their way in and out of HE’s office.

map of Aden
Maps of Aden
Aden: The Curtain Falls: The Memoirs of Dick Eberlie: Part 4, 1965 to 1967
Colony Profile
Books by Dick Eberlie
District Officer in Tanganyika: 1956 - 1960 Part 2: The Memoirs of Dick Eberlie
by Dick Eberlie

The Winds and Wounds of Change: 1961 to 1965 Part 3 (The Memoirs of Dick Eberlie)
by Dick Eberlie

Aden: The Curtain Falls: The Memoirs of Dick Eberlie: Part 4, 1965 to 1967 by Eberlie, Dick

Articles | Aden: The Curtain Falls


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames |

by Stephen Luscombe