A tall, red-haired gentleman with a pocket full of medals shining against his blue blazer glided through Elk Grove’s Camden Springs retirement community on Sunday, attracting admiring glances.
Danny Mander, 98, paused in the dining room to look at a 1943 photo of him next to Winston Churchill. The legendary British prime minister had entrusted young Mander with his life at the Tehran Conference with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. The fate of the free world hung in the balance, and Roosevelt and Churchill got Stalin to join the war against Japan and to open an eastern front against the Germans.
Mander slid onto a piano bench and began playing classic ballads, including “Danny Boy” and “Peggy O’Neil,” an ode to his late wife Heather. “If she’s smiling all the while, that’s Peggy O’Neil. If she walks like a sly little rogue, if she talks with a cute little brogue...that’s Peggy, Peggy O’Neil.” A trio of female residents sat on a nearby couch, transfixed, and one teared up as she swayed to the melody.
Some of Mander’s selections were the same as those he played in the back of a lorry for his fellow troops battling the “desert fox,” German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, in the 1942 campaign for North Africa. He would later play them at convalescent hospitals in Northern California.
“He’s 98 going on 70,” said Mander’s friend Erin Reed.
Reed is helping coordinate Mander’s upcoming visit to the USS Hornet Museum on the aircraft carrier docked in Alameda. At 1p.m. March 21, Mander will share his memories of guarding Churchill and British Field Marshal Bernard “Monty” Montgomery during “Living Ship Day.” For information and tickets, go to www.uss-hornet.org.
Mander, a Royal Military Police warrant officer, was just 23 when he was put in charge of “Winnie’s” safety while Tehran swarmed with German spies. He recalled Churchill as a colorful figure who enjoyed a drink or three, and a fearless speaker who always carried a gun and refused to ride in the front seat of his official vehicle.
“In his bedroom in the British Consulate in Tehran, he woke up at 4 a.m., sat up in bed, lit a cigar and answered all of his messages from London,” Mander said. “He could be serious and funny, and he liked to hear jokes.”
When the temperature hit 120 degrees in Tehran in the summer, Churchill jumped in the Shah of Iran’s pool and ordered Mander to come in. “I said ‘No, what good would a bodyguard do in the pool?’ I stayed in the garden with a gun until the consular guards arrived, then jumped in.”
Mander was put in charge of 100 military policemen at the Tehran Conference, the first strategy meeting between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.
“They were all jovial and happy,” Mander recalled. “The Americans brought a lot of liquor, and Stalin used to like to see all his generals drunk under the table.”
He said Roosevelt hosted the first day of drinking, Stalin the second and Churchill, whose birthday fell on the third day, hosted at the British Embassy. “There was a whole big flight of stairs and Roosevelt couldn’t get up them, so I took him up through the cookhouse,” said Mander, who lifted Roosevelt into his wheelchair and pushed him up a ramp. “I put my hands under his backside to lift him out of the car and there was nothing but a bag of bones.”
Mander grew fond of Churchill, and was absolutely devoted to Monty, with whom he served in North Africa. “He was honest, he was a gentleman, he was very reliable and was as good as his word,” Mander said.
He recalled that when Churchill ordered Montgomery to attack the Germans in North Africa in the spring of 1942, after 30,000 soldiers from Australia and New Zealand left to defend their homelands from the Japanese, Monty refused to do so until he had superior manpower and arms.
“He tossed the ball back to Winston; that’s why the British did not attack Rommel until autumn,” Mander said.
Mander was born Feb. 24, 1917, in Monton Green, a village near Eccles, England, the son of a British foundry worker and his Scottish wife. Mander said he was about to be conscripted when he joined the British Army at 23 and was assigned to the military police.
Not only did he serve as the bodyguard to Churchill and Montgomery, he protected Queen Elizabeth when she was still a teenage princess. In his neat room at Camden Springs, where he keeps his medals for victories in North Africa and the Middle East, he also keeps a military police shield given to him by the monarch.
“When I was stopped for speeding between San Jose and San Francisco, my driver’s license was next to my shield. The officer took one look at it and said, ‘Get the hell out of here,’” Mander said with a grin.
There’s also a bust of Monty and other photos of the great men and woman Mander protected, along with his own family photos. His first wife, Edna, a teenage Rose Queen he met at a Sunday School dance, died early of cancer, as did his children, Keith and Carol, who were both in their 30s.
In 1960, Mander moved to California with his parents. He met his second wife, Heather, in Los Gatos when he was selling real estate and she wanted to buy a beauty shop he had for sale. The couple moved to Rancho Murieta to be closer to Heather’s daughter.
After Heather died in November 2013, Mander no longer wanted to live on his own and moved to Camden Springs. On the wall is a plaque she gave him that reads: “If a man has enough horse sense to treat his wife like a thoroughbred, she will never grow into an old nag.” There’s also a playbill from a comedy he performed in, “No Sex Please, We’re British,” in Saratoga.
Mander quipped that he’s now only 6 foot 1 – “I’ve lost half an inch” – but insists his vision is “50-50.” His hearing remains strong and his long-term memory flawless. Aside from a sense of humor and a love of music, he said his secrets for long life are a bowl of oatmeal with milk and sugar, just the way his Scottish mother used to make, and plenty of exercise.
“I never smoked, I only drank Shandys (beer mixed with lemonade) in the war, I played soccer,” he said. “I remember Monty would have us run 30 miles cross country every few weeks. And I sleep eight hours a night.”
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.