THE SPY WHO INSPIRED ME
It is summer 2004 and I am sitting in the sunshine at the rear of Gunton Hall near Norwich, sharing a bottle of red wine with my friend John Debenham-Taylor, admiring the Robert Adam chapel that sits at the end of his garden. I have known John for five years or so. He helped with the Special Operations Executive background to my novel – based on a true story – Early One Morning, about Bugatti champions turned secret agents (he was for a while an instructor at the Beauleiu ”finishing school” and seems to know everyone who passed through SOE), and we have kept in touch. He is excellent company, a raconteur and gentle bon viveur, a man in his early eighties but with an enviable lust for life and an ear for a good story.
I have come this day, though, to pick his brains once more. I am working on a novel set during the Berlin airlift of 1948 and he mentioned in passing at one of our previous meetings that he had been there at that time, as part of his peripatetic diplomatic career. As the wine flows, he offers me plenty of insights into his time in the city, including a memorable trip to East Berlin, where he attended an opera and found that the Russian officers weren’t inclined to remove their ludicrously tall hats during a performance and that the chronic shortage of soap was most in evidence during such gatherings (“You could buy almost anything with a bar of Lifebuoy,” he said).
As I am leaving, my notebook and tape recorder full, I hesitate and ask one final question. “John, you said you were a diplomat in Berlin at that time?” He nods. “But there was no embassy. The city was under military governance by all four Allied powers.”
John, for the first time since I have known him, looks uncomfortable. “Excuse me a moment, Rob,” he says and scurries inside. He comes back, his face set to serious and sits, beckoning me to do so once more. “I have just asked my wife if it is all right to tell you the truth.” About? “Well, I was in Berlin working for SIS.” Or MI6 as it is more commonly known. “In fact, I worked for them all my life since the war.”
I take my coat off and fetch my notebook once more. I can always write in the margins.
What were you doing in Berlin? I ask. “Waiting for the Russians to roll across and take West Berlin. We had a network of ex-Luftwaffe radio operators who would come on line if that happened, to be our eyes and ears.” Anything else? “Well, yes, we ran a couple of brothels in the East.”
That was a showstopper.
“The idea was that the Russian officers would indulge in a little pillow talk.” Did it work? He thinks for a moment. “No, but we gave them some terrible diseases.”
For several weeks I was chuffed with myself. I had tricked the old spy into admitting that he had switched from SOE to SIS at the end of the war. Then the realisation slowly dawned on me. John had been an instructor in escapology at Beaulieu – in his seventies he had demonstrated for a TV documentary how to get out of Gestapo handcuffs when your hands are behind your back – and techniques in resisting interrogation. There was no way I had trapped or cracked him. He had taken me by the hand and led me to a point where even a dolt like me had to ask the right question. A career spy like him would never volunteer information. I had been played. (And by the way, the “giving them some terrible diseases” remark wasn’t just an off-the-cuff joke – any officer who caught such a thingw as shipped back to Moscow; it was a good way of nobbling a troublesome opponent).
Later, I found what a remarkable career he had really had. His first secret mission involved going to help the Finns against the Russians in 1939 by instructing hem how to use the howitzers that the UK had (secretly) shipped to the country. When I told the Finnish Embassy about this, they struck and awarded him The Winter War medal, more than seventy years after the event. In 1943 he helped plan D-Day, subsequently joined SOE, volunteered as a Jedburgh – three man sabotage teams – to help the partisans in Warsaw, although the Germans liquidated all opposition (while the Russians stood by) before he could be deployed, so he ended up working out in the Far East for Force 136.
As all these facts and accompanying stories dripped out slowly over the years, some of these found their way into my books – The Blue Noon, After Midnight, The Last Sunrise and Dying Day in particular.
Later I discovered that he had enjoyed a career in espionage that took in Bangkok, Hanoi, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Washington and Paris, and that back in London he was deputy head of MI6 and had even turned down the top job. Much of this latter information came to light after his death last year. So here we have a man who was covert operative from 1939 to his retirement, just after the Berlin Wall fell. I miss him a lot; miss our chats, his wine cellar and his astonishing adventures.
So, I am going back to my notebooks, to write a series that will eventually run the gamut of his remarkable life in secrets, from Finland to the last days of the Soviet Union. It will be fiction (much of what he did remains classified) but this way I hope I can hear his voice, and self-deprecating chuckle, in my head once more. The title of the series? The Longest Spy.
* You can find a summary of John’s life and times here: http://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/obituary-john-debenham-taylor-intelligence-officer-1-4050722