December 24, 2020

The First Wartime Christmas

The third week of December, 1941, a British delegation including Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff arrived in Washington, D.C. for ARCADIA, the first of several meetings in the nation’s capitol, and the last of several conferences attended by the British and American delegations that year.

Staff at Atlantic Conference in August 1941. Marshall and Dill are at right.

Gen. Marshall suggested to Katherine that since they would all be away from their families and friends for Christmas that the Marshalls invite them to a family Christmas at their home, Quarters 1 on Fort Myer. The official party would be British Ambassador and Lady Halifax, Lord Beaverbrook, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, Field Marshal Sir John Dill, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, Admiral and Mrs. King, and the Marshalls, as well as son, Clifton.

Gen. George Marshall and Field Marshal Sir John Dill, 1941.

During the previous year, Marshall had begun to develop a close working relationship with Sir John Dill, British liaison to the Combined Staffs in Washington, D.C. Still, it was a surprise phone call from Marshall’s office on Christmas Eve that told Katherine that Sir John Dill’s birthday was on Christmas, and asked if Katherine would supply a birthday cake with Christmas dinner. This left Katherine in a quandary, as her “cook’s cake would have sunk the Admirals. A cake was one thing she could not make.” Where could she get a birthday cake made on no notice on Christmas Eve?

She sent for Master Sgt. James Powder, Marshall’s driver, who had “long been George’s ‘trouble shooter’ and when a thing had to be done Sergeant Powder got the assignment.” Katherine asked Powder for a white undecorated cake, and asked him to find a small British and a small American flag. The British flag proved a problem, but Powder finally turned one up in a five and dime store getting ready to close for Christmas.

On Christmas Day, the Marshall house was surrounded by Secret Service, as the guest list was very important to world affairs at the time. Katherine checked that all was ready for dinner, and found that the cake was now beautifully decorated with holly leaves and berries, the two flags, and candles in the shape of red-coated soldiers. Katherine noted it was “lovely.”

For all the dignitaries involved, the dinner was informal, and not without interruptions. Every few minutes, the phone would ring for one of the attendees, and the party would take the call without feeling the need to apologize, and then return to the dinner. This led to slight disruption to the flow, “some were still eating the main course when the salad was being served, others salad when the dessert was brought in” reported Katherine.

When dinner was finished, Marshall toasted Dill and the cake was brought to the table. Dill was surprised that anyone realized it was his birthday, and was “really quite overcome” said Katherine, “He said it was his first birthday cake since he was a small boy.”

Marshall had wanted this dinner to be relaxing, and to Katherine, it was a success. “They could not have been more at home; they codded each other no end and over early memories and childhood  predicaments. For an hour or two at least the war was forgotten and they were boys once more in Merrie Old England.”

One source of merriment never got to the party, however. Dill’s fiance, Nancy, had heard of a new American custom, the singing telegram, so she called Western Union to deliver one. The Secret Service would not let the messenger in, so it was never delivered. Marshall was unhappy when he heard about it, as he thought the group “would have been greatly amused,” according to Katherine.

Quotations from Together by Katherine Marshall.
Photos of the Marshall’s Christmas table setting from Cody Youngblood.

Melissa has been at GCMF since fall 2019, and previously was an academic librarian specializing in history. She and her husband, John, have three grown children, and live in Rockbridge County with three large rescue dogs. Keep up with her @MelissasLibrary.