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.’
Hitler arrived in triumph the following morning and welcomed Memel’s overwhelmingly German population into the Fatherland. Ominously, he declared that the Third Reich was ‘determined to master and shape its own destiny, even if that did not suit another world’.9
The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, continued to chase after a peaceful solution, even after the illegal annexation of Memel. ‘I am no more a man of war today than I was in September,’ he said in reference to the previous year’s Munich Agreement that had handed the Sudetenland to Hitler.10 But not everyone agreed with his policy of appeasement, and some were starting to prepare themselves for more direct action. Among them were Stuart Macrae and Cecil Clarke.
Clarke was delighted to renew his acquaintance with Macrae, for the two men had got along famously when they had first met. This time around, Macrae was invited into the Clarke family home and offered a snack. ‘Sweeping a number of children out of the living room,’ he later wrote, ‘which also had to serve as an office, he filled me up with bread and jam and some awful buns and then got down to business.’
Clarke showed characteristic enthusiasm from the outset, informing Macrae that lethal weapons could be constructed from the simplest pieces of equipment. Macrae was nevertheless surprised to find that their first port of call was Woolworths on Bedford High Street. Here, they bought some large tin bowls. Next, they visited a local hardware store and bought some high-powered magnets. And then they took everything back to Tavistock Street, where Clarke created ‘an experimental department by sweeping a load of rubbish and more children off a bench’.
Clarke took to the task in hand with undisguised relish. He commissioned a local tinsmith to make a grooved metal ring that could be screwed on to the Woolworths’ bowl. When this was done, he poured bitumen into the ring and used it to secure the magnets. His idea was to fill the bowl with blasting gelatine and then screw on a makeshift watertight lid.
The key factor was to make the mine light enough to stick to the side of a ship. ‘Eventually after using up all the porridge in the house in place of high explosive for filling, juggling about with weights and dimensions, and flooding Nobby [Clarke’s] bathroom on several occasions, we got this right.’
It was one thing to design a weapon, quite another to make it work. Clarke and Macrae took themselves off to Bedford Public Baths and, after explaining to the janitor that they were conducting vital military research, obtained permission to use the main swimming pool once it was closed to the public.
They propped a large steel plate in the deep end and then strapped the welded Woolworths’ bowl to Clarke’s ample stomach. ‘Looking as if he were suffering from advanced pregnancy, he would swim to and fro removing the device from his belt, turning it over and plonking it on the target plate with great skill.’ It worked perfectly. The mine stuck to the metal plate each time and remained securely in position.
There was just one thing missing. A bomb could not explode without a detonator, and the detonator for this particular weapon needed to be absolutely reliable. If it exploded too early, it risked killing the underwater swimmer.
Clarke set about designing a spring-loaded striker that was held in a cocked position by a soluble pellet. When the pellet dissolved in the water, the striker would hit the detonator and the bomb would explode. But finding a suitable pellet proved difficult. The two men tried all manner of devices but none of them worked in a satisfactory fashion. Pellets made of powder dissolved too quickly. Pellets that were too compact didn’t dissolve at all.
In the end, it was Clarke’s children who inadvertently provided the solution. As Cecil swept them off his workbench for the umpteenth time, he upset their bag of aniseed balls and dozens of sweets rolled across the floor. Macrae popped one into his mouth and began playing with it on his tongue. As he did so, he was struck by how it shrank in size with absolute regularity. It was exactly what was needed. Clarke rigged up his strikers to the children’s aniseed balls while young John Clarke looked on crossly. Each spring-loaded striker was placed in ‘a big glass Woolworth’s tumbler’ and put through a series of tests until Clarke had worked out the exact time it took for the sweet to dissolve.11
‘Right, that’s 35 minutes,’ he would shout across the living room.12 Sure enough, the aniseed ball would slowly dissolve over the course of half an hour until the striker was suddenly released. There was no explosive charge, so the damage was confined to the glass, which invariably shattered and fell to the floor in pieces. Mrs Clarke spent her afternoon sweeping up fragments of broken glass.
The men were delighted that their idea had worked. ‘The next day the children of Bedford had to go without their aniseed balls,’ recalled Macrae. ‘For not wishing to be held up for supplies, we toured the town and bought the lot.’
The last remaining problem was to find a suitable means of storing their magnetic mine. It was essential that the aniseed ball be protected from damp, otherwise the mine risked exploding while in storage. Their solution was once again homespun but inventive: they pulled a condom over the striking mechanism and found that it formed a perfect damp-proof sleeve, expanding neatly over the various bumps and creases.
Thus it was that two middle-aged gentlemen found themselves walking around Bedford, going from chemist to chemist, buying up their entire stocks of condoms, ‘and earning ourselves an undeserved reputation for being sexual athletes’.13 Macrae neglected to record whether, nine months later, Bedford experienced any short-term spike in its birth rate.
Just a few weeks after his introductory luncheon at the Art Theatre Club, Macrae was able to show Millis Jefferis the prototype magnetic mine that had been given the provisional name of limpet. Jefferis immediately recognized Cecil Clarke’s weapon as a work of technical wizardry. For a little less than £6 (including labour), he had produced an explosive device that was lightweight, easy to use and devastatingly effective, one that had the potential to be a game-changer in time of war. For if a single diver equipped with a single limpet mine could destroy a single ship, then it stood to reason that a team of divers could destroy a fleet of ships. And that made it a very significant weapon indeed.
It was also extremely versatile. Its magnetic surface meant that it could be used to blow up turbines, generators, trains – anything, indeed, that was made of metal. It was the perfect weapon for sabotage, small, silent, deadly, and with a touch of dark mischief that particularly appealed to Jefferis.
Cecil Clarke returned to his caravans in Bedford, unaware of the fact that unknown men in clandestine offices were already planning his initiation into a world so secret that even most ministers in Whitehall knew nothing of its existence.
It was the very same world into which Joan Bright found herself entering on a seemingly unremarkable spring day in 1939.
* * *
Joan Bright turned up at Caxton Street for her first day of work knowing only that she was being employed by an organization so secret that she risked torture if captured by the Nazis. She assumed matters would become clearer once she was installed in the office: instead, the mystery only deepened. The building was almost deserted when she reported for duty and there was not even Colonel Chidson to greet her. She was escorted to the fourth floor and told to wait for the rest of the staff to arrive.
‘I sat at my new desk and took stock of my surroundings,’ she later wrote. There was an Imperial typewriter, a small pile of documents and the stale smell of cigarette smoke that pervaded everything. The carpets, curtains and even the woodwork stank of old cigarettes.14
Joan cast her eye over the books on the shelves and was surprised to find that they contained none of the usual volumes kept in government offices. Instead, there were works by Trotsky, well-thumbed pamphlets about Sinn Fein and a number of books about the Arab rebellion, including Lawrence’s Revolt in the Desert. Increasingly mystified, she began to wonder what sort of place she had joined.
Her boss swept into the office shortly afterwards, arriving with his briefcase, his homburg and his affectations. Lawrence Grand immediately struck her as one of the most eccentric people she had ever met. He was wearing dark glasses, smoking through a long cigarette holder and sporting a red carnation in his buttonhole. He had ‘all the paraphernalia of the spy master of popular fiction’.15 Even his hair seemed to be playing a role, slicked with so much brilliantine that he looked like Errol Flynn in The Perfect Specimen. Although he was undeniably tall and good-looking, she couldn’t help thinking to herself that, ‘really, this chap’s a bit mad’.16
He did, at least, take Joan into his confidence, telling her everything that Colonel Chidson had hitherto failed to reveal. He explained that she had been hired to work for a top-secret Whitehall department known as Section D. The ‘D’ stood for destruction and Grand and his staff had been tasked with conceiving a wholly new form of warfare. In the event of conflict with Hitler’s Nazis, a small band of specially trained agents was to be dropped behind enemy lines in order to engage in murder, sabotage and subversion.
The work was to be done ‘by undercover men, spies and saboteurs, who, if caught, would be neither acknowledged nor defended by their government’. They would be working outside the law and were to borrow their tactics from guerrillas and gangsters like Michael Collins in Ireland and Al Capone in America. In signing up for Section D, they were effectively signing away their lives.
The work of Section D was highly contentious, which is why it was being orchestrated by the Secret Intelligence Service. Few in the government knew of its existence. Even the Treasury had been kept in the dark. Grand reiterated Colonel Chidson’s warning to Joan that she must never breathe a word to anyone.
Section D was one of two organizations housed in that Caxton Street apartment block. Working alongside Grand’s team was a second unit that was known as MI(R). This was a branch of military intelligence that dealt, somewhat euphemistically, with army research.
The boss of MI(R) was Joe Holland, to whom Joan was introduced later that morning. He made almost as much of an impression as Lawrence Grand, a tough-as-horsemeat soldier with the looks of a pin-up and the mind of a fox. He had made a name for himself as a fighter pilot during the First World War, leaning out of the cockpit and lobbing grenades on to the German trenches below. Although the war had ended more than two decades earlier, he had never quite shaken off the habit of hurling missiles through the air.
Many a visitor had found himself at the receiving end of a hail of books and files, thrown by an irate Holland. Joan was not immune to such attacks: she would later joke with her girlfriends about the ‘quick downward movement by which I ducked the impact of a book flung at my head one day on opening the door of his office’.
She kept a wary eye on ‘dear old Joe’ as she typed up his letters, watching in appalled fascination as he sucked hard on his cigarette. He would stop breathing, ‘holding in the smoke until the last wisp of nicotine had reached his boots’. Only when his face had turned vivid purple was it ‘expelled with full force’.
Joan had plenty of gossip for her flatmate when she returned home later that evening. But it was neither Grand nor Holland who formed the principal subject of her conversation. There was a third man in the office, very different from the other two, and he left an even deeper impression. His name was Colin Gubbins and, from the very outset, Joan marked him down as someone quite unique – someone, she felt, who was ‘destined for a distinguished career’.17
* * *
Colin Gubbins was a dapper little fellow who wore smooth suede gloves and walked with a silver-topped cane. He was ‘dark and short, his fingers square, his clothes immaculate’,18 and was fortunate in having the looks to match the attire: ‘slight and superbly built’, wrote one, with ‘beetling eyebrows, penetrating eyes and a gravelly voice’.19 Some of his acquaintances were troubled by the sharp glint in his eyes, which seemed to hint at an icy ruthlessness. But Joan convinced herself that the glint was more of a twinkle, reflecting mischief and an inner playfulness.
In common with Lawrence Grand, Gubbins wore a fresh carnation in his buttonhole. But there the similarity stopped. Grand talked grandiosely, languidly, as if the last cognac at luncheon had left him in command of an elaborate soliloquy. Gubbins, by contrast, had a clipped speech, clipped moustache and clipped façade. He was as punctilious in his work as he was fastidious in his manners.
‘Quiet-spoken, energetic, efficient and charming’, at least that’s how he appeared to Joan as she peeked at him from behind the keyboard of her Imperial.20 He had the air of a perfect gentleman, one who bought his buttonhole from Solomons and his eau de cologne from Floris. But she had a sneaking suspicion, even on that first day at work, that Colin Gubbins would prove a gentleman full of surprises.
He had joined the Caxton Street office only a few weeks earlier and was still finding his feet. Forty-two years of age, and with the energy of a terrier, he had already lived more lives than most. Born in 1897 in Tokyo (his father worked for the British Legation), he had been shipped back to the Isle of Mull at a tender age and placed in the hands of a veritable clan of terrifying Scottish aunts. They had knocked him into what he was: tough, resourceful and independent of mind. His wicked sense of irony, deliciously wicked, was all his own.
Queen of the roost in that childhood home was Aunt Elsie, a formidable matriarch with ‘rigid standards’ and a fierce pride in her Scottishness. She didn’t allow young Colin to be seated in her presence because, she said, ‘it encourages indolence’. She instilled in him the notion that toughness was a uniquely Scottish virtue.
Killiemore House was a draughty Scottish manse with chill corridors and dimly lit parlours. ‘Run round the house if you’re cold’ was Aunt Elsie’s mantra.21 As the sleet and drizzle tipped from the Killiemore gutters, Colin would slip on his sodden boots and perform yet another circuit of the property. Laughter was frowned upon and parlour games strictly forbidden in that austere childhood home. Such things, Colin was told, were frivolous. He would later write that jollity was seen as ‘an unprofitable diversion from the more serious task of filling the larder and thereby adding some variety to the porridge and salt herring which seemed to be our staple diet’.22
The figure to admire in this dour household was old Grandpa McVean, a kilted ornithologist who spent much of his time studying H.E. Dresser’s History of the Birds of Europe. On the occasions he ventured outside, it was invariably to blast his beloved birds out of the sky. In the evening, as the pale Highland sun slumped into the glacial waters of Loch Na’Keal, Grandpa McVean would settle into his armchair and pronounce judgement on all the issues of the day.
In 1913 Gubbins hatched his escape by signing up for the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. He made a deep impression on the other new recruits, in part because of his utter recklessness. With Gubbins ‘it was neck or nothing’, wrote one of his contemporaries after watching him compete in sport. Another spoke of his ‘wild, devil-may-care streak’.23 The academy accepted him immediately and listed him as a gentleman cadet, one who was destined to fight a gentleman’s war.
His comrades-in-arms found him ‘a ripping little fellow’ who displayed nerves of granite when fighting the Boche. His brigade soon found itself at the receiving end of a ferocious German artillery attack that left half his comrades blown to shreds. ‘Gubby’ dug his mutilated chums out of the Flanders mud, thereby earning himself a Military Cross. Aunt Elsie could finally be proud of him.
There followed such a ‘beastly frozen nightmare of hardship’24 that made life at Killiemore seem like a picnic. Gubby fell sick, got shot in the neck and shivered his way through trench fever. By the time he’d recovered, the war was over.
His pals called him Whirling Willie because he shared the same unbounded energy as the famous comic character. He certainly whirled his way through the armistice. He drank a skinful at the Savoy and then shimmied up one of the restaurant pillars, thereby proving that even Highlanders could have fun. Then it was off to Ciro’s nightclub in order to dance his way through the early hours.
Most Tommies who had lived through the Western Front had seen enough horror to last them a lifetime. Not so Gubbins. He spent a few listless months in London, taking his sister, Mouse, to a succession of West End reviews. But he had war in his blood and he wanted more. After a brief tour of duty in Murmansk, having a crack at Lenin’s Bolsheviks, he offered his services in Ireland.
It was to change his life for ever. He found himself engaged in running street battles with Michael Collins and his band of Sinn Fein revolutionaries, a bitter, nasty and unpredictable conflict. Gubbins had previously experienced the trenches, shrapnel and shellshock, yet he had never experienced warfare like this. He complained to his superiors at ‘being shot at from behind hedges by men in trilbys and mackintoshes and not allowed to shoot back’. But those men in trilbys taught him a lesson he would never forget: irregular soldiers, armed with nothing but homespun weaponry, could wreak havoc on a regular army.
After a tour of duty in India, Gubbins joined the London War Office where he was given a desk job in military intelligence. He was still at the War Office in the spring of 1939 when ‘a cold hand took me literally by the back of the neck and a voice I knew said, “What are you doing for lunch today?”’ It was Joe Holland inviting him to dine at St Ermin’s Hotel in Caxton Street.
Gubbins declined his offer, explaining that he was about to head to his regimental races at Sandown. Holland stopped him mid-sentence. ‘No, you are not,’ he said. ‘You are to lunch with me.’
Gubbins found himself whisked to a private suite in St Ermin’s, a well-known watering hole, ‘where I found the real host, who was waiting for us there’. It was Lawrence Grand of Section D.
Two hours later, over coffee and brandy, Gubbins accepted a new job. He was invited to join ‘the left wing’, as Holland liked to describe their work. Gubbins’s task would be to plan a dirty, mischievous and thoroughly ungentlemanly war against Hitler’s Nazis.
When he asked where the ‘left wing’ had its offices, Grand got up from his chair, walked over to the far side of the hotel room and with a theatrical flourish unlatched a hidden door.25
‘The suite, true to the best Boys’ Own Paper traditions, had a secret passage communicating with Section D’s offices at Number Two, Caxton Street, next door.’26
* * *
Few in the regular army had any experience of fighting an ungentlemanly war. Gubbins’s priority was to prepare an instruction manual in such warfare, setting out in terse prose how best to kill, incapacitate or maim the maximum number of people.
‘My difficulty,’ he later admitted, ‘was that, strangely enough, there was not a single book to be found in any library in any language which dealt with this subject.’27
Gubbins had to look elsewhere, drawing inspiration from Sinn Fein and T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), as well as from Al Capone and his Chicago gangsters. They had terrorized America with their audacious hit-and-run raids on nightclubs and their tommy guns had proved devastatingly effective. Gubbins wanted his band of men to be similarly armed. He felt that ‘the whole art of guerrilla warfare lies in striking the enemy where he least expects it and yet where he is most vulnerable’. Guerrillas should not think of themselves as soldiers; rather, they were gangsters working outside the law and their task was to inflict ‘the maximum amount of damage in a short time and then getting away’. Gubbins wanted them to be ‘a running sore’ that would confuse, exhaust and ultimately defeat Hitler’s regular army.
As he began to prepare his instruction manual, he set down practical advice on everything from strangling sentries with piano-wire to contaminating water supplies with deadly bacilli. A pint or two of biological agent could wipe out an entire town. A carefully placed explosive could kill hundreds of people. There were also handy tips on such things as how best to destroy factories and ambush trains. ‘It is not sufficient merely to shoot at the train,’ he said. ‘First derail the train and then shoot down the survivors.’28
He was already eyeing the bigger opportunity: destroying infrastructure so vital to the Nazi war machine that it could wholly change the nature of the conflict. But he also knew that such destruction could only be undertaken by specialists. It would require the services of men outside the military, men who understood how power plants worked and how viaducts were constructed. And it would require weapons that didn’t yet exist.
Seated at the far side of the office, secretary Joan grew increasingly intrigued by Gubbins. Whenever she brought him his afternoon cup of tea, she found him hunched over his desk drawing neat diagrams of bridges and viaducts. They were no idle sketches. The arrows and crosses showed would-be saboteurs where best to plant their gelignite.
Joan couldn’t help feeling that Gubbins’s impeccable politeness masked a far more turbulent spirit. He was ‘a still-waters-running-deep sort of man’, she thought, who had ‘just enough of the buccaneer in him to make lesser men underestimate his gifts of leadership, courage and integrity’.
She also found him darkly romantic in a way that Lawrence Grand and Joe Holland were not. For beneath the starched-collar exterior she could sense ‘a man at arms, a campaigner, the fires banked up inside him as glowing as those round which his Celtic ancestors had gathered between forays for glen and brae’.29
Joan had a sharp insight into people’s characters and she had read Gubbins to perfection. He was a curious blend of Scottish prudence and youthful recklessness. She duly typed up his guerrilla warfare texts on her Imperial; he called them The Art of Guerrilla Warfare and The Partisan Leaders’ Handbook. He had stressed the importance of agents being able to dispose of the manuals quickly and quietly. Joan therefore took the decision to have them published on pocket-sized edible paper. Both manuals could be consumed in less than two minutes, if swallowed with a large glass of water.
Copyright © 2016 by Giles Milton