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       Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, p.1

           Giles Milton
Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

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  For Simon, ever the gentleman

  Clive, my dear fellow, this is not a gentleman’s war. This is a life and death struggle. You are fighting for your very existence against the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain – Nazism. And if you lose there won’t be a return match next year, perhaps not even for a hundred years!

  The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

  Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger


  THE WORLD WAS going mad in the spring of 1939, or that’s how it seemed to Joan Bright. A jaunty twenty-nine-year-old with swept-up hair and a button-down dress, she had travelled to London in search of secretarial work, having just turned down a job in Germany as governess to the children of Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Führer of the Third Reich.

  When she mentioned her need for employment to an old friend, he gave her a strange piece of advice. He said he could get her work if she ‘went to St James’s Park Underground Station at 11 a.m. on a certain day, wearing a pink carnation’. He added that a lady would be waiting for her and would whisk her away for an interview.

  Joan only half believed what her friend had said. Indeed as the day approached, she felt convinced that he was playing a practical joke. But she went to the rendezvous at the appointed time and, sure enough, there was the mystery woman. She offered a whispered introduction and pointed towards a red brick Edwardian mansion block in the distance, indicating that this was the building in which the job interview would take place.

  Joan was led on a roundabout route to the building, passing through the maze of alleys and backstreets that lie between Broadway and St James’s. Her dizzy imagination went into overdrive. She convinced herself that the woman had chosen the route quite deliberately ‘in order to reach it unobserved’.1 She still knew nothing about the job for which she was being interviewed, but had high hopes of acquitting herself well. She had previously worked at Chatham House, where her efficiency and discretion had left a deep impression on her colleagues.

  Only as she was led up to the fourth floor of the residential mansion block did she realize that this was to be no ordinary job interview. She was ushered into an office that overlooked Caxton Street and introduced to a military officer by the name of Chidson, ‘short, ginger and very precise’.2 He gave a cursory introduction and then slid a sheet of paper across the desk and told her to sign it. She was too nervous to ask what it was. She simply scribbled her name at the bottom and handed it back to the colonel. As she did so, she noticed that she had just signed the Official Secrets Act.

  Colonel Chidson took the paper, fixed his steely eye on Joan and asked if she knew why she had been brought to Caxton Street. When she shook her head, he told her that she was being interviewed for a job so secret that she would be tortured if she were ever to be captured by the Germans.

  Joan was completely lost for words. She had been expecting to be tested on her typing skills, her shorthand and her ability to make a good strong cup of tea. In the silence that followed, Chidson got up from his seat, beckoned her over to the window and pointed towards a shadowy figure standing on the corner of Caxton Street and Broadway.

  ‘He has been there all morning, watching,’ he said. ‘When you leave here, don’t let him see you; turn left and keep going.’3

  Joan had not yet been offered a job, at least not formally, and yet the manner in which the colonel was speaking suggested that she had already been accepted. He asked her to be seated and once again reiterated that ‘very dreadful things’ would happen to her if she were to be caught by the Germans. This time, he was rather more specific. ‘You will get needles up your toenails.’4

  Half of her wanted to treat the whole thing as a grand hoot, one to recount to her flatmate, Clodagh Alleyn, later that evening. Yet Colonel Chidson remained cold and unsmiling throughout the interview, which Joan took as a sign that he was in deadly earnest. She also knew that in the newspapers and on the wireless the talk was of nothing but war.

  Just a few weeks earlier, on 15 March, Hitler had scored his latest coup by marching his storm-troopers into Bohemia and Moravia. In doing so, he completed his annexation of what had previously been Czechoslovakia. The German soldiers met with so little resistance that a jubilant Hitler was able to travel to Prague on the following day and proclaim a new addition to the Third Reich. Henceforth, Bohemia and Moravia were to be a German protectorate, firmly under the rule of Berlin. Although Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, insisted that Hitler’s annexation was not an act of aggression, there were many in the country who felt that his policy of appeasement had passed its sell-by date.

  Joan was among those who felt a deep sense of unease, worried that Britain was being dragged into a conflict for which it was woefully ill-prepared. But when she weighed up everything that she’d been told by Colonel Chidson, the prospect of full-time employment and a generous salary overrode all her fears about the future. Besides, she was young, unattached and fancy-free. And a strange job in a strange office might just add to the gaiety of life. She convinced herself that it was all ‘good clean fun’ and thanked the colonel for what she assumed to be the offer of employment. She promised to show up for work punctually on the following morning.

  Although she would have never admitted it to Colonel Chidson, she was rather excited to be joining an office ‘in which fact and fiction played so smoothly together’.5 Yet she couldn’t help but quicken her pace as she emerged from the building into Caxton Street, and she studiously avoided catching the eye of the mysterious man who was still standing on the street corner.

  Joan would have to wait another twenty-four hours before learning what her new occupation entailed. In the intervening time, she could do little more than ponder over the strange situation in which she found herself. She felt torn between happiness at having a job and a vague sense of unease at what that job might involve. It was as if someone were leading her into a bizarre twilight world in which all the cherished norms had been subverted.

  * * *

  Joan Bright was not alone in finding her world turned upside down in the spring of 1939. Sixty miles to the north of London, in Bedford, a caravan enthusiast named Cecil Clarke was tinkering in the workshop behind his house at 171 Tavistock Street when his wife summoned him to the telephone. There was someone who wanted to speak to him.

  Clarke took the receiver and found himself having a conversation that was as strange as it was unexpected. The person at the other end was not calling about caravans, that much was clear. Nor was he enquiring about the new anti-rolling suspension system that Clarke had recently invented. Clarke tried to probe the caller for more information, but the man declined to reveal why he was calling and was, by his own admission, ‘very guarded’6 when Cecil asked as to his identity. All he would say was that the two of them had met a couple of years earlier, and that he
would be paying a visit to Tavistock Street on the following day.

  Cecil Clarke hung up the phone, still puzzling over the caller’s identity and utterly perplexed as to what he might want. But in common with Joan Bright, he had a vague sense that his life was about to take an altogether more exciting twist.

  In that, he was correct. The visit on the following day was to change his life.


  The Third Man

  CECIL CLARKE VIEWED his caravan with the sort of affection that most men reserve for their wives. He polished it, tinkered with it and buffed up its cream paintwork with generous quantities of Richfield Auto Wax.

  More than fourteen feet in height, it stood taller than a London double-decker and its low-slung chassis was a revolutionary piece of engineering. But the real joy of Cecil’s creation was its luxurious interior. It came with lavatory, bedrooms and an en suite bathroom. It had hot and cold running water and its own home-built generating plant. It also had a well-stocked bar. Little wonder that Cecil referred to it as his ‘Pullman of the road’.1

  He had built it in his workshop behind the family home in Bedford. At weekends he would hook it to the family charabanc and take it on road trials, hurtling through the local country lanes while his wife Dorothy clutched the dashboard and their two sons, John and David, made mischief in the back.

  The young lads yelped with delight when their father announced that he was taking the family off to north Wales. There were a few tense moments as they bid their farewells to Bedford: Cecil had added a new bedroom on the caravan’s first floor and the vehicle was now so tall that he had to stop at every bridge and check that they had the necessary clearance.

  Once they were out on the open road, obstacles such as bridges were quickly forgotten. He got ‘rather blasé’ and simply ‘charged at every bridge he came to – fortunately without any real damage’. The fact that young John and David were larking about on the roof of the caravan, ‘getting a fine view of the countryside’,2 did not seem to bother him one jot.

  Cecil ‘Nobby’ Clarke had set up his company, LoLode (the Low Loading Trailer Company) in the late 1930s, with himself as principal designer and Mrs Clarke as company secretary. All LoLode’s caravans came equipped with a unique suspension system that promised passengers a smoother ride than any other caravan on the road. It was a promise in which Clarke took considerable pride, for he was the designer, the engineer, the architect and the mechanic.

  Clarke was portly and bespectacled, a lumbering gentle giant with heavy bones and a mechanic’s hands. Half boffin, half buffoon, he had more than a touch of the Professor Branestawm about him. An enthusiastic smoker and fervent patriot, he was viewed by his neighbours with affection tinged with humour: ‘the embodiment of an ideal,’ thought one, ‘always in his own way striving after the betterment of society.’3 In Cecil’s case, the ‘betterment of society’ meant building more comfortable caravans. Those Bedford neighbours would smile knowingly to one another as they watched ‘Nobby’ buffing the paintwork of his beloved vehicles, unaware that he had the hands of a magician and the brains of a genius.

  Caravans were not the only thing that quickened his pulse. As a young volunteer in the First World War, he had got himself attached to a pioneer battalion that specialized in explosives. He acquired an early taste ‘for making loud bangs’4 and won himself a Military Cross for his part in helping to blow the Allies to victory in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. Although he had made the transition back to civilian life with greater ease than many of his comrades-in-arms, there was a part of him that continued to harbour dreams of making loud bangs.

  In the summer of 1937, Clarke had submitted a LoLode advertisement for inclusion in his favourite magazine, Caravan and Trailer. Describing his vehicle as a ‘three berth living van of the most advanced design’,5 it even had a servants’ quarters at the rear.

  The editor of Caravan and Trailer was a man named Stuart Macrae, an aviation engineer by training who had fallen into the world of journalism by accident rather than design. He was intrigued by the pictures of Clarke’s outlandish creation and decided to pay a visit to Bedford, taking the day off work in order to meet him.

  His first impression was one of disappointment. Clarke was ‘a very large man with rather hesitant speech, who at first struck me as being amiable but not outstandingly bright’. He was soon forced to revise his opinion. Clarke had an expanding brain that functioned like an accordion. He sucked in ideas, mixed them together and then expelled them as something altogether more melodious. Where most people saw problems, he saw only solutions.

  Clarke opened up the yard behind the house in order to show Macrae ‘his latest brain child’. It was huge, far bigger than it looked in the pictures, and ‘streamlined into the bargain’. Macrae was stunned: he felt as if he were looking at ‘something from the future’.6

  Clarke proposed a spin round the Bedfordshire countryside, with himself at the wheel and his guest in the caravan. Macrae made himself comfortable on the Dunlopillo cushions and got happily sloshed on the various bottles in the well-stocked bar. ‘And as there were no breathalizers in those days’ – nor any stigma attached to drink-driving – he was able to drive back to London without fear of being caught by the police.

  When he was back at work the following morning, somewhat sore of head, he wrote a fulsome article about Clarke’s extraordinary prototype. And there the story might have ended, for Stuart Macrae quit his job at Caravan and Trailer soon afterwards and took up a position as editor of Armchair Science.

  But one morning in the spring of 1939, Macrae’s secretary answered the phone to a most mysterious caller. ‘There’s a Geoffrey Somebody on the phone,’ she called across the office: he was calling on a matter of some urgency. Macrae took the call and found himself speaking to someone called not Geoffrey, but Millis Jefferis.

  Jefferis said that he was keen to find out more about one of the items featured in the latest issue of Armchair Science. ‘You have an article about a new and exceptionally powerful magnet. I want full information about this magnet right away, please.’

  Macrae was taken aback by the caller’s gruff manner and asked to know more. ‘Well it’s a bit awkward,’ admitted Jefferis. ‘I’m not at liberty at present to tell you what this is about.’ He suggested that they meet for lunch and talk it over in private.

  Forty-eight hours later, Macrae found himself in the Art Theatre Club, seated opposite one of the most extraordinary individuals he had ever met. Millis Jefferis had ‘a leathery looking face, a barrel-like torso and arms that reached nearly to the floor’. To Macrae’s discerning eyes, ‘he looked like a gorilla’. But when the gorilla opened his mouth, ‘it was at once obvious that he had a brain like lightning’.

  Jefferis explained that he worked for a highly secret branch of the War Office, one that specialized in intelligence and research. With international tensions on the rise, he had been tasked with devising unconventional weaponry that might be needed in the near future.

  His interest in magnets stemmed from a revolutionary underwater mine that he was trying to develop. Its explosive charge was coated in magnets and equipped with a time-delay detonator. The idea was that it ‘would stick to the side of a ship when placed there by a diver, and go bang in due course and sink the said ship’.7

  The need for such a weapon was real and urgent. Less than six months earlier, in the winter of 1938, Hitler had launched his Plan Z, the immediate and dramatic strengthening of the German Kriegsmarine. The plan envisaged the construction of 8 aircraft carriers, 26 battleships and more than 40 cruisers, as well as 250 U-boats. Britain was in no position to compete in such a naval arms race and was faced with having to find a more creative way to redress the balance. Senior figures in the War Office and Admiralty decided that sinking German ships would be more cost-effective than building British ones.

  But Jefferis faced an insurmountable problem. He was unable to find magnets that would function underwater and was also too busy
to build a reliable time-delay detonator. Without one, he knew that his half-built magnetic mine wouldn’t work.

  After a well-lubricated lunch finished off with goblets of brandy, Macrae rashly offered to take over the project. One of his previous jobs had been designing bomb-dropping mechanisms for low-flying aircraft. He was more than willing to tackle this new challenge. Jefferis was surprised by Macrae’s offer, but glad to accept. He said that ‘he had a private bag of gold from which he could at least pay my expenses’.8

  It was only later in the day, when the mists of brandy had cleared, that Macrae began to regret his decision. He didn’t have a clue how to build a magnetic mine and nor did he have a workshop in which to experiment. As he pondered how best to proceed, he was suddenly reminded of Cecil Clarke, his prototype caravan and his Bedford garage. He called LoLode and, without revealing who he was or why he was calling, arranged for a meeting. The following morning, he pitched up at 171 Tavistock Street with a bagful of magnets and a cry for help.

  * * *

  Stuart Macrae’s visit to Cecil Clarke’s Bedfordshire workshop came at an ominous moment in international relations. A few days after Hitler had marched his storm-troopers into Bohemia and Moravia, he ordered them into the Baltic port of Memel, in Lithuania. Memel was a German-speaking enclave that had been detached from Germany after the First World War. Hitler had repeatedly denied having any designs on the port, but in the wake of his Prague triumph he demanded Memel’s capitulation. Lithuania’s Foreign Minister was faced with acceding to the Führer’s demands or risking a full-scale military invasion. He had little option but to agree.

  ‘A large, blazing swastika announces to the traveller that the administration of Memel has changed hands.’ So wrote an English journalist who got the scoop of his life by happening to be in the port when the storm-troopers marched in. ‘In village windows, candles flicker and a Brownshirt parade continued till a late hour.’

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