It was 1941, coming up to 1942.
The war was still very much in the balance.
Although the Americans had come in on the Allies' side, the German war machine was barely dented, and the tide had not yet turned against it. We know now who won the war, but back then the result was still uncertain, and bookmakers were still taking a lot of money on both sides. There were some in the Foreign Office who wrote very guarded memos when asked their honest opinion about the end result of the war. There was one famous occasion on which a source close to the Foreign Secretary was asked when he thought we would win the war by. After thinking hard and long, he said, ‘I'm not sure you're asking me the right question. I think the question you should be asking me is: “Do you think we will actually win the war or not?” ‘
‘All right,’ said his interlocutor. ‘Do you think we will actually win the war?’
The important man thought hard and long again and then said, ‘I really don't think that that is a question you ought to be asking me.’
Truly has it been said that a politician is the best person to drop behind enemy lines, because if a politician fell into the hands of the enemy and they tortured him to get the truth, he would resist all attempts to get it out of him. If a politician will not tell his friends the truth, why should he tell his enemies?
Yes, it was 1941, nearly 1942.
The war was desperate, as it always is when both sides still think they can win.
And in a small Shropshire town one man prepared to go forth and do battle with the enemy.
That man was my father.
He had volunteered for the Army in 1939.
He had volunteered again in 1940.
He had volunteered once more in 1941.
Each time he had been turned down for reasons of height.
Each time he hoped against hope he had grown meanwhile.
In 1940, in fact, he had even shrunk a little, though this turned out to be entirely due to the thinness of the poor quality wartime socks he was wearing.
Every time he was interviewed, he stressed his qualifications for taking part in a World War, such as his ability with languages. ‘Konnen Sie Deutsch sprechen?’ said the interviewing officer in 1941.
‘Ja, ziemlich gut,’ said my father, ‘aber nicht so gut wie Ich es schreiben kann.’
The officer stared at him blankly.
As an officer, he had been trained to ask the right questions, and to recognise ‘Ja’ and ‘Nein’ as answers, but this was beyond him.
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means I speak German pretty well, but not as well as I write it.’
‘Does it indeed?’ said the officer heavily. ‘Very impressive, I'm sure. And what use would this be to us?’
‘Well,’ said my father, ‘you could drop me behind enemy lines.’
‘And then what?’
‘And then, using my German, and my ability to live off the land, I would gradually travel back towards the British lines and eventually rejoin our forces.’
‘Having achieved what?’
My father thought about it and could think of nothing he would have achieved.
‘You see,’ said the officer, ‘you must leave these things to us. We will send for you if we need you. Meanwhile, back to civvy street.’
But he was so desperate to get to the fighting in 1941 that he had gone straight from the Army to volunteer to join the Navy.
‘You're too small,’ they told him.
‘Put me in midget submarines!’ he implored them.
‘We've already got all the midget submariners we can handle,’ they told him. ‘Did you know that there hasn't been a pantomime production of Snow White anywhere in Britain since 1937?’
‘Yes. You can't get seven dwarves anywhere, for love nor money. They're all in midget submarines.’
And then an amazing thing happened. After all that rejection, the Army did send for him. A Captain Webb summoned him to a small army office in Ellesmere, and said that after reviewing his qualifications - especially the fact that he spoke several languages, including German, combined with his persistence in trying to get into the Army and the fact that he had done a lot of amateur acting - they thought he was just right for a new secret project which had just been dreamt up by the Army at the highest level.
‘What I am about to tell you is in the highest confidentiality and you must not pass it on to a single soul.’
My father agreed.
Captain Webb then discreetly unfolded the current difficulty in which the government found itself. The trouble was that there was a general apprehension in the country as a whole that the Germans were going to invade Britain. The creation of the Home Guard had not only allayed fears, it had increased them...
‘How can it do both?’ asked my father.
‘Well, the presence of the Home Guard reassures people that we are ready to withstand an invasion. But people hadn't really thought there were real fears of an invasion until the government created the Home Guard. Also, most people know someone who is in the Home Guard, and usually that someone is a bit old and past it, so most people privately doubt whether the Home Guard will be up to repelling the Germans. Unless the Germans send in an army of old age pensioners. Which is unlikely.’
There was a pause. My father said nothing, as he felt they hadn't reached the crux of the matter yet.
‘The crux of the matter,’ said the officer helpfully, ‘is that we know that before the Germans invade, they will have to gather a lot of intelligence first, which means planting a lot of agents and spies in Britain. Now, we simply haven't got the manpower to mount a thorough counter-intelligence operation, so we are going to have to rely on the commonsense and co-operation of the British public to recognise the presence of agents and report their activities. We have appealed to them constantly to do so, and they are beginning to respond, but we simply don't know if they are up to it.’
My father said nothing again, as he felt that although the officer had said he had come to the crux of the matter, he had not in fact really done so yet.
‘What we are going to do is mount a secret operation to test the reactions of the British public. We want people to go out into the towns and countryside and behave suspiciously and discover if anyone takes any notice of you. In other words, we want you to devise various situations in which you might be a German spy and see what happens.’
‘In other words, you want me to be shot?’ said my father, who thought he knew a crux when he saw one.
‘I don't think it will come to that,’ said Webb smoothly. ‘That's not the British way of doing things. We don't go out and lynch people.’
‘Then what do we do?’
‘We report them to the police,’ said Webb. ‘There was a German spy caught in Portsmouth last month. He had been photographing the movement of ships for weeks. Everyone assumed he was a harmless ship-spotter.’
‘So how was he rumbled?'
‘He left his car in a space reserved for the admiralty, and got done for illegally parking. They found enough German stuff in his car to incriminate a dozen spies.’
‘And what happened to him?’
‘Ten years for spying. £3 fine for illegal parking.’
‘I don't remember reading about that.’
‘Oh, we don't put too much stuff about German spies in the papers. It might affect morale if people thought we were being spied on.’
‘So what would you want me to do?’
‘As I said. Go out into the wilds of Shropshire and act suspiciously. See what happens. See if you get challenged as a German spy. We've got people doing this in almost every county now. Helping to make people aware of the Hun threat. We'll give you a petrol allowance, and your own parachute.’
‘Parachute? What would I want a parachute for? I've never done a parachute jump in my life.’
‘Oh, you wouldn't have to jump with it. All you would have to do is take it somewhere and unfold it, probably in a tree. It's the classic way in which spies are supposed to arrive, dropping out of the sky in a parachute in some deserted part of the country. If you drove past a wood and saw a man rolling up a parachute, what would you think?’
‘How nice it was to see people keeping the countryside tidy?’
‘No, you wouldn't,’ said Webb briskly. ‘You'd think to yourself: “There, if I am not much mistaken, goes a German spy!”
Now, get out there and act suspiciously!’
It was 1941, going on 1942, and much to his surprise my father had now been hired by the Army to masquerade as a German spy to test the intelligence of the British public. To be honest, it was his sort of thing. He set to work immediately. He drove round the countryside looking at everything through binoculars, writing things down in a little notebook, and clicking away with a camera which hadn't got any film in. He went into pubs and shops and ordered things with a foreign accent. He even hung around barracks in Shrewsbury trying to look suspicious, sometimes reading a German daily newspaper when he was feeling brave, though with its heavy typeface it looked very like the Daily Telegraph and was in any case a 1937 edition, as during the War it was next to impossible to get hold of current German papers in Britain.
The trouble was that people in Shropshire are not generally, even now, predisposed to think of other people as potential enemies, except the Welsh across the border, and there was not a lot of industry in Shropshire to attract potential spies. It is true that the industrial revolution had started in Shropshire, at Ironbridge, so that for a few short years Shropshire had all the heavy industry in the world, but it had quickly moved on and elsewhere, and now it probably had the least heavy industry of anywhere in the world. To this day Ironbridge still has the oldest metal bridge in the world. The significant thing about that is not that they built it, but that they never replaced it.
My father did think at one point that he might go to the far-famed annual Shrewsbury Flower Show and behave suspiciously there - photographing roses close up, asking intrusive questions of the growers, taking obsessive notes, etc - but it occurred to him that that was how most gardeners behaved anyway, and besides, somebody told him that the Flower Show had been cancelled for the duration of the War so he couldn't go, even if he wanted to.
One day he drove over to Lake Vyrnwy, which sounds very Welsh and natural, but is actually one of the largest artificial reservoirs in the country. Wales is dotted with large lakes whose only purpose is to supply people in Birmingham or Liverpool with drinking water, and this has caused enormous resentment among the Welsh in recent years, for two reasons: 1) because the English are taking Welsh water away from the Welsh; 2) because it gives the impression that water is the only thing worth taking out of Wales. However, in World War II Welsh nationalism was at a low ebb, subsumed to the common good, and if anyone was guilty of setting English second homes in Wales on fire during the War, it was not the Welsh; it was the German Air Force.
Why, wondered my father, had the Germans never targeted places like Lake Vyrnwy? Easy to hit, undefended, full of priceless water. One big bomb on the dam holding back Lake Vyrnwy, and nobody in Birmingham would have a bath for a fortnight. That would send British morale crashing. So reasoned my father (he found himself more and more adopting the philosophy of a German spy, without even trying) and he spent a most enjoyable afternoon over there, wandering around the lake, photographing and taking copious notes. However, he was virtually unobserved and saw nobody in the offing except a man walking his dog who sheered off nervously when he saw my father approaching.
It was at this point that my father reflected that although being a spy was sometimes painted as a dangerous and harrassed existence, with the threat of capture and torture always close behind you, in fact it turned out to be a very lonely existence. It is very easy to pass unnoticed in a crowd. It is very easy, too, to pass unnoticed by Lake Vyrnwy if there is nobody else around, excepting a nervous man with a dog.
‘I had a very strange mission,’ my father pointed out years later. ‘I was employed to masquerade as a spy, that is, to attract no attention whatsoever. Yet I was also asked to attract attention, in order to test the British public's reaction to my “activities”. Now, how is it possible to unobtrusively seek attention? That was my objective in the middle of the War.’
Every week he was required to report back to the small army office in Ellesmere and tell Captain Webb what reactions he had got from the public.
‘So, what is your estimate of the gullibility of the British public this week past?’ Captain Webb would say. ‘Do they show any symptoms of invasion hysteria?’
‘Quite the opposite,’ my father would say. ‘They show a sangfroid which it is hard to overestimate. They are not afraid of the Germans. They make fun of them. The danger of German spies is not very real to them.’
They make fun of them?’
Captain Webb seemed almost cross at this.
‘They make fun of everything,’ said my father. ‘When I am sitting in a pub with the British, I am struck by their attitude of mockery to everything. Not just to the other side. But to the Frogs too. And to the Yanks. And not just to the allies, but us as well. They make fun of Churchill's voice, and of wartime regulations, and the blackout, and the black market, and everything.’
You would think Captain Webb would be pleased by this, but he wasn't.
‘Then you must try harder!’ he told my father. ‘Take more risks. Pretend to be more German than heretofore.’
The next week, obeying these instructions, my father went to Shrewsbury Railway Station, to be observed monitoring the movement of rail traffic up and down the line. He was observed all right, by several young boys who were also on the platform with notebooks and pencils. One of them came over to him and said: ‘Seen any Castle class come through here this week?’
"Nein," said my father gruffly.
"Nine!" said the boy, hugely impressed.
To get away from the boys and their train-spotting chatter, my father adjourned to the station buffet, where there was nobody else present except a man with his dog, who came and sat down beside him. My father sipped at his mug of tea. The man ate a large biscuit very slowly.
Then he turned to my father and said very softly, ‘Also, Wie geht es Ihnen?’
‘Ganz gut,’ said my father without thinking.
Then he froze.
The man had spoken to him in German.
And the man had also expected my father to reply in German.
(Which, indeed, he had.)
All this time my father had been bracing himself for the moment when he was going to be arrested for being a spy, or lynched for being a spy, or at the very most just jostled for being a spy, at which point he would attempt to claim convincingly to be Dutch, a language that he could also speak.
What he had never expected was to be greeted warmly and clandestinely by someone who was also German.
‘Ich habe Sie letzte Woche in der Nahe von Lake Vyrnwy gesehen,’ said the man, even more softly.
I saw you last week near Lake Vyrnwy.
He recognised him now.
This was the man with the dog who had avoided him up at Lake Vyrnwy.
What should he do now?
He, my father, was a pretend German spy, whose intention was to raise the consciousness (as we now say ) of the British pubic and make them more aware of real German spies.
Aware of German spies such as, to take an example, the man with the dog now sitting beside him in Shrewsbury Railway Station.
Should he now, then, raise the hue and cry and denounce the man as a German spy?
For one thing, he already knew from experience that people were not likely to be interested or convinced.
For another thing, he would have a hard job explaining how he knew that the man was a German spy.
For a third thing, there was no-one else in the station buffet, except an elderly lady behind the tea-urn.
So he decided, quite sensibly, to continue chatting to the spy.
‘A good target, Lake Vyrnwy,’ he said casually.
‘Yes,’ said the other man. ‘We ought to report back that it is worth ... attending to.’
‘Yes,’ said my father. Then, ‘Have you been over here long?’
‘Several years. I came in 1938.’
‘Before the war?’
‘Naturlich. It is always easier to get settled in before a war. Dropping in by parachute is such a messy business.’
‘Of course. Did you ... bring the dog with you?’
‘No,’ said the spy, looking down with fondness. ‘I bought Otto here. He is the perfect alibi. You can go anywhere in England walking with a dog. No-one ever suspects you.’
‘And what do you do when you are not...?’
‘I teach German at a large public school.’
‘So they still teach German...?
‘Oh, yes. The English educational system is very fair like that. They do not ban things they are fighting against, as we have banned Mendelssohn...’
Still nobody had come into the buffet, so my father asked the man for his telephone number and promised to get in touch with him, then left. He drove straight to Ellesmere, where he reported to Captain Webb that an unbelievable stroke of good luck had befallen him. He had fooled a German spy into giving away his identity to him! Accidentally, of course, but...
Captain Webb looked a bit taken aback at the thought, but he promised my father that he would look into it, and took the phone number from him.
Two days later, having heard nothing, my father went back to Ellesmere and was thunderstruck to find that there was no sign of the little army office any more. Where it had been was now occupied by a coal delivery business.
‘What happened to the army office?’ he asked the coal official inside.
‘Left in a hurry,’ said the man. ‘Scarpered. We desperately needed the premises, so we moved in. They took everything with them. Except this envelope. Left it for someone called...’ He looked at it. It was for my father.
My father took it, and opened it. It contained his petrol money and most recent pay packet. There was a note saying: ‘Mission now completed. Thanks for all. Webb.’
There was something not quite right about all this, and my father had the good sense to go back to the original Army officer who had interviewed him for the Army in 1939, 1940 and 1941.
‘You remember,’ said my father, ‘that after I had failed to get into the Army in 1941, the Army got in touch with me again to put me on the German spy scheme?’
‘Pardon?’ said the man.
‘Well, presumably you must have known about it, otherwise Captain Webb would never have got in touch with you.’
My father sighed and went through the whole story. He had even kept a copy of the telephone number the spy had given him.
‘Wait here a moment, would you?’ said the officer. ‘I have some phone calls to make.’
My father was kept there waiting for three days, under close arrest, before the officer came and explained things to him.
‘Your Captain Webb, as you must have guessed by now, was not a bona fide English Army Officer. As a matter of interest, we have never had an Army Office in Ellesmere. No - Captain Webb was in fact a German agent who had set up a fake agency to send people out into the English countryside masquerading as German spies, in order to weaken the morale of the British public. He must have had some sort of source inside the British Army to get names of possible recruits, like yours. That phone number, incidentally, was the German Embassy in London.’
The world swam round my father for a moment. He remembered suddenly that Captain Webb, although he spoke English perfectly, had one or two oddly Teutonic turns of phrase. Thank you for all... What is your estimate of the gullibility of the British public this week past...?
‘Yes. You have been working as a German spy - for the Germans.’
‘Hold on a minute!’ said my father. ‘I wasn't working as a spy! I was acting as a spy! I never found out anything and I never gave away any secrets!’
‘Oh no?’ said the officer. ‘How about your suggestion that Lake Vyrnwy would be a good target for German bombers?’
The world swam round my father again.
‘How on earth did you know that? The only person I ever told that to was ... ‘
He tried to think who it was.
‘A man with a dog on Shrewsbury Station,’ said the officer.
‘How on earth do you know that...?’
‘He wasn't a German spy, as you thought he was,’ said the officer. ‘He was one of ours.’
My father started to get the feeling that the earth wasn't going to stop swimming round him for a while yet.
‘So you're going to have me up for treason, are you?’ he said dully.
‘Good Lord, no,’ said the officer. ‘We quite like the way you've been operating. And after all, you didn't think you were working for the Germans. So it wasn't treason, not really. And we've got a proposition for you now. We'd like you to do a job for us.’
‘I'm not tall enough, remember?’ said my father.
‘Ah, but this isn't an Army job! This is a spying job! And there are no height requirements for spies!’
‘I see. What does it consist of?’
‘Well,’ said the officer, ‘we want to test the reactions of the British public to the presence of possible German agents among them. We want you to go out and devise situations in which you could be mistaken for a German spy...’
‘That's exactly what I did for the Germans!’
‘Two things you have to get used to in this spying job,’ said the officer. ‘One, height doesn't matter in spying. Two, you're never quite sure which side you're working for, as long as you remember which side it is.’
And so it happened that my father ended up doing for British Intelligence exactly what he had done for German Intelligence. He once told me that he wished he had gone on to do the same job for American Intelligence.
‘Why? To complete your set of three?’
‘Well, partly that, of course. But mostly because they get paid so much better.’