Monthly Archives: June 2015


I had lunch with a spy last week. A real one. It was part of my research for an article on the history of SIS/MI6 for OMEGA Lifetime magazine. I had heard many of his stories before, but I always liked this one. Unfortunately, when I came to look at the finished article it was almost 4,000 words long. SIS has a lot of history. Just to do justice to the grim Philby era eats up the words. So this story had to go but I thought it worth posting here as an example of the men who fought on the frontline of the real Cold War.  


The winter of 1947-8 in Berlin is particularly bleak. The city, under the combined occupation of Russia, France, America and Great Britain, still mostly consists of piles of rubble. Food and fuel are in short supply. The surviving occupants are scarred, physically and mentally, by the brutality shown by the Russian forces when they swept through the city. Now, it’s a wind from the East that is knifing down the wide streets and bringing misery. The bitter cold it delivers is killing the old and the weak. People are selling whatever they can to stay alive – their last possessions, their bodies and above all, information, for Berlin had been plunged straight into the front line of a new war, a clandestine conflict between the Soviet Bloc and the West. The front line of this battle runs right through the former capital (and, a city in a similar plight, Vienna). And the commodity everyone wants most is intelligence about what the other side is up to. James Fraser, not yet thirty but already a veteran of Britain’s various secrets services, is one of the warriors in this Cold War. He is sitting in a shabby café, overcoat and gloves on, his breath clouding the chill air as he sips an acrid cup of adulterated coffee and peers out into the street. Across the road is the Russian sector, marked at this juncture only by a virtual border – no wall, no barbed wire, just the agreed concept that one side of the street is the Red of oppression, the other, Fraser’s side, is the Red, White and Blue of liberty.

Some years later, after The Wall went up. But the job was the same.

Some years later, after The Wall went up. But the job was the same.

Fraser is, ostensibly, an administration officer with the Control Commission for Germany. In reality, he is a member of SIS, the Secret Intelligence Agency, sometimes known as MI6. And he is waiting for Otto, one of his ‘assets’ or agents in the east. As case officer, he is like father and brother to this young man, who is charged with watching train movements to and from the uranium mines of the SAG/SDAG Wismut mining company in Erzgebirge and Vogtland. A mundane job, but vital. The frequency of trains will tell someone, somewhere back in England, just how Russia’s nuclear programme is progressing. It is one of the tiny scraps of information that SIS uses to build a picture of what is happening in the East. Fraser has the madams of several high-end brothels over there in his pay, listening for pillow talk from Russian offers, and other assets working in the Red Army’s kitchens, for Napoleon was right, an army does march on its stomach, and if there is sudden increase in the amount of provisions ordered, it could be a sign that Soviet soldiers are about to move. Into the West, perhaps. Fraser lights a cigarette and checks his watch. Leo is late. That’s not necessarily a cause for concern. He has had to travel across an occupied country where military traffic always has priority. Across the road, a shadowy figure detaches from a doorway. Fraser is careful not to react. Like any good spy coming in from the cold, Otto has been observing the rendezvous, scanning for signs that the meet is compromised. As his prodigal son hurries towards the café, Fraser orders a second coffee for him from the owner. As he turns back, he catches an unexpected movement in the street from the corner of his eye.


Almost seven decades later and it is me sharing a beverage – tea, this time – with James Fraser at the Caxton Grill at St Ermin’s Hotel in London, not far from Broadway Buildings, once the home of his old ‘firm’. In fact, St Ermin’s is something of a ‘spy’s hotel’  – plenty of MI6 men used it and  it was once a favoured watering hole of Ian Fleming, who, of course, spent WW2 in Room 39 at the Admiralty as Personal Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. During the war SIS and the Admiralty would have informal meetings at the Caxton, probabaly complaining about that noisy upstart, the Special Operations Executive.


Fraser, long retired but still sharp as a tack and with the impeccable manners of a trained diplomat (which is what he pretended to be for so many years), worked for SIS, and before that its sibling Special Operations Executive (SOE), from 1939 until the early 1990s. I have asked him to tell me the story of SIS from his perspective, given he dedicated so much of his life to the organization. He agrees, but with a number of provisos. He will not name names, unless that person is on public record as having been a member of SIS, and he will give no details of operations he was personally involved in (Otto is an exception, as he used him to make a more general point about the nature of intelligence gathering) or which remain sensitive in any way. What he did in postings to Asia, Europe and the USA must remain off the record. This is, he makes clear, deep background only. I agree. And so much of what follows comes from him.

[You can read this missing section in the next issue of OMEGA Lifetime]

Back at the Caxton Grill, James Fraser agrees that the world of spying has moved on since his day. And not always for the better. He misses the world of dead letter drops and seedy cafes. He isn’t alone – how else does one explain the remake of the Smiley books with Gary Oldman and the BBC’s recent The Game series, set in the 1970s, all muted browns and beiges and with more moles than Wind in the Willows? What about Otto? I ask as we finish up. Last seen heading for a cafe in West Berlin? A car pulled up, Fraser explains, a new Moskvitch 400 with Soviet Embassy plates. Otto was bundled inside by some hoods and driven off. A few days later, his belongings were delivered to the SIS HQ at the Olympic Stadium (the very same one where Jesse Owens triumphed in 1936) as a message. Otto was dead. Fraser blinks, drinks his tea and rises to go. He pauses. ‘You know’, he says wistfully, ‘despite computers, satellites and drones, I bet somewhere in the world, right now, there is an SIS agent sitting in a bar or café waiting for his contact to show.’ And somehow, like me, he clearly finds that thought oddly comforting.


The Polish Embassy (@PolishEmbassyUk) has begun a Twitter campaign to raise awareness of the role played by Polish pilots in WW2’s Battle of Britain. Using the hashtags BoBPoles and BoB75 (it is the 75th anniversary of the battle) it will publish daily images and info celebrating their contribution to a battle every bit as decisive as Waterloo.


      For the past two years I have been working on a script, with an Anglo-Polish production company, about Jan Zumbach, one of the pilots who flew with the most well known outfit (mainly because it was the first made operational; there were sixteen in all), 303 Squadron, which operated out of RAF Northolt, not far from the Polish War Memorial. Below is part of an early funding submission.

   Like Agincourt, Waterloo and Trafalgar, The Battle of Britain has become part of Great Britain’s modern creation myth. But like all such legendary tales of derring-do, time (and a few obfuscations and exaggerations) has knocked off some of the rougher edges of the story, leaving a smooth, one-sided narrative, an easily digested piece of jingoism. The truth, as is often the case, is messier and more compelling than the usual tale of British, blue-eyed, blond public schoolboys in Spitfires fighting Nazis in the skies over Southern England (with a little help from the British Empire in the form of Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and South Africans). Because the Battle of Britain was also the Battle for Europe, as many of the pilots were fighting for their own homelands, trying to defeat Germany so that France, Holland, Czechoslovakia and Poland could be free.

         The members of 303 Squadron had fought over their own country, and in France before it was overrun, and then made a last stand with the RAF. Older and more experienced than most of the pilots that the host country could provide, they were fighting on several fronts at once – against the Luftwaffe, against unfamiliar planes (the controls were reversed; they were not used to using R/T) and protocols, and against the British prejudice that saw them as demoralized and defeated at best, uncivilised savages at worst. They were also lonely and homesick, as well as constantly worried about what was happening to their families back in Poland. They overcame all those adversities to become the highest scoring squadron in the Battle of Britain, even though the RAF’s reticence to deploy them meant they entered the fray relatively late.  And they did this not in the sleek, graceful Spitfire, but the more quotidian Hurricane, the Shire horse to the Spit’s thoroughbred.


       Like all the Polish squadrons, 303 initially had RAF commanders – ex-stockbroker Ronald Kellett was Squadron Leader – he famously who fitted the men out with uniforms from his Savile Row tailor and paid their wages when the government didn’t – and under him Flight Lieutenants Johnny Kent and Athol Forbes. To make matters even more complicated, the highest scorer in the squadron was not a Pole, but a Czech, Sgt Josef František. He ended his career with 15 kills, but died just as 303 was stood down for rest and re-equipment in October 1940, ploughing his plane into a hillside for no apparent reason. It is possible he was suffering from the sort of combat stress Geoffrey Wellum described so well in his memoir ‘First Light’.

Lotnictwo Polski na Zachodzie. Piloci z dywizjonu 303 .

        The squadron was stuffed with interesting characters, but I decided to concentrate on Jan Zumbach, because he began the war as an idealist with an adventurous streak and ended it as a cynic, with mercenary tendencies (he was a gunrunner, diamond smuggler, and one-man airforce for various African rebel groups). It was an understandable arc for a man who felt the contribution of his countrymen was undervalued and who, after all the fighting for its liberation from Germany and Russia, saw his country ‘gifted’ to Stalin at the end of the war.

Jan Zumbach, who went on to become 303's Squadron Leader later in the war and later the one-man Biafran Airforce.

Jan Zumbach, who went on to become 303’s Squadron Leader later in the war and later the one-man Biafran Airforce.

          The story of 303 also has a powerful contemporary resonance, in that, as “immigrants”, the Polish pilots were faced with prejudice on arrival in the UK, followed by, eventually, acceptance when it transpired they were simply people, with the same hopes and fears as the Brits, who happened to be very good at shooting down Germans. Yet when the economic and political circumstance changed at the end of the war, as outsiders they become convenient scapegoats once more (and accused, in all-too-familiar rhetoric of “taking our boys’ jobs”).  The tale of Britain’s treatment of the Poles who served and of those who came as refugees during and after the war is not very edifying. We didn’t even thank them properly before pushing them off to Canada or Rhodesia or Poland or corralling them into camps.

The script opens with a radio announcer commentating on the Victory Parade that took place in London in June, 1946. It is taken almost verbatim from the broadcast at the time:

“I can see the Allied marching columns approaching now and what a sight! A two-mile procession made up of units from every corner of the globe, of every colour, race and creed, over 21,000 fighting men and women. The representatives of Allied forces are led by the United States, whose contingent includes the Marine Corps. After the American contingent come the troops of China and behind them a bewildering variety of flags and uniforms – France, Belgium, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Luxembourg, Mexico, Nepal, Netherlands, Norway and Transjordan. “

But no Poland. The reason being, Stalin was busy subjugating the East and did not want ‘Free’ Polish forces celebrated and he put pressure on the British to make sure they were not represented. I think I am right in saying that the RAF Polish squadrons were invited to take part, but declined once they realised the other Polish services were forbidden from participating. 


           This is the ‘card’ (or end caption) that finishess the script.

The 147 Polish pilots who served in the Battle of Britain claimed 201 aircraft shot down, around 20% of all Luftwaffe bombers and fighters destroyed.

      After the war an opinion poll showed that 56% of the British public thought the Poles should repatriated.

      Many of those who did return were persecuted, executed, imprisoned or deported to work camps.

       Not until 1992 was the contribution of the Poles serving with western forces recognised in their home country.




One of my finest sources of background information when researching my WW2 books (especially Early One Morning, The Last Sunrise and Dying Day)  was John Debenham-Taylor who, over the years, has become a friend. This week I learned that he has just been awarded a medal, 75 years after the event. In fact, he now has two medals gained during the war and two awarded afterwards. Both of the post-war medals concern the Winter War in Finland when, in November 1939, Russia invaded.


The Arctic Star

 This conflict is little remembered now in this country, but at the time (during the so-called ‘Phony War’) it was front-page news. Martha Gellhorn sent brilliant dispatches from a bombed Helsinki. An International Brigade, of the sort that fought in the Spanish Civil War, was raised across Europe, with some 12,000 volunteers, including the recently deceased Christopher Lee. Around 50 of these died, a low figure because the Finns (probably wisely) kept most of them from the front line. The Finns were fighting a new kind of war – hopelessly outnumbered, they opted for guerilla tactics. They were the first to mass-produce Molotov cocktails for use against tanks and their lethal, well-camouflaged skiers/snipers became a source of fear among Russian troops. Farmer and hunter Simo “Simuna” Häyhä, known as ‘White Death’ because of his snow camouflage suit, killed more than 500 Red Army Troops with a Mosin-Nagant rifle.


The British tried to help. It secretly sent obsolete WW1 guns to Finland, although there were no instruction manuals. Which is where John Debenham-Taylor, who was with the Royal Artillery, came in. I already knew his story but digging a little deeper I found an obit of a British pilot who had ferried Blenheim bombers, donated by the British, to the country and had been awarded the Talvisodan muistomitali (the Winter War commemorative medal). Surely John deserved recognition for his service there? So I wrote to the Finnish Embassy:

John was just 19 and was a very good gunner of ‘instructor quality’ and a 2nd Lt. When asked if he would volunteer to help ‘a friendly nation’ under attack (he guessed Finland) he volunteered and along with seven others he was taken out of uniform and sent to Finland in civilian clothes via Sweden.

       He stayed there for months, writing manuals for the guns that SOE had smuggled up (mainly 3 inch anti-aircraft guns). Then, with the diplomatic bag consisting of a briefcase plus great crates of Russian guns and bombs for the British to analyse, he went north to the Artic circle and caught a trawler back to Liverpool

       The whole story is quite an adventure, and although he did not fight, his commitment to the Finns and his love of them and his time in Helsinki and the countryside shines through to this day. (He even introduced one fellow officer to his future Finnish wife). Because it was a secret mission and because he later became a full-blown SOE operative the story never came out. He believes that, as he was the youngest of the group, he is the sole survivor.”

The Finns acted with admirable speed. A new Winter War medal was struck and John was invited to the London Embassy to receive it from the Finnish Military Attaché.

Winter War medal

Winter War medal

But the story didn’t end there. John’s son-in-law discovered that anyone who had served north of the Arctic Circle was entitled to the Artic Star. John had commandeered that trawler, loaded with captured weapons, and sailed in it from the far north of Finland. He even passed Norway while it was being invaded by the Germans. I asked if he had witnessed any of it and, as laconic as ever, he said: ‘Actually, no. I was below. I was suffering from terrible constipation – living on reindeer for six months rather blocks you up, or so I found.’

And so, last week, the Arctic Star arrived through the post, almost 75 years to the day after that escape from Finland. Well deserved, and better late (John is 95 this year) than never.


Coming in September, a free Kindle anthology of six “new” stories featuring Dr Watson. In writing these I have drawn upon Arthur Conan Doyle’s non-Holmess short stories, as I did in the tale that concluded A Study in Murder. There is also a seventh story, which didn’t make the cut, called The Locked Room (based on ACD’s The Sealed Room). It will probably appear here sometime soon. Meanwhile, the cover of the new collection looks like this.51wJMmWonbL._AA324_PIkin4,BottomRight,-56,22_AA346_SH20_OU02_