Goodbye to Some of That

Basil Davidson lays SOE to rest

In the west cloister of Westminster Abbey a modest plaque is about to be unveiled. It will be a memorial to the volunteers of our Special Operations Executive, otherwise forgotten, who were killed in action between 1939 and 1946, murdered by the enemy after capture, or failed to get home again. It is fairly much a private occasion and has taken some time to come about: the wonder is that it has come about at all. Fifty-eight years have passed since Major Lawrence Grand launched his ‘Section D’ in a niche of the old War Office, which had concluded, quite privately in the wake of the Munich sell-out of the Czechs, that a war with Hitler’s Germany would be unavoidable, in which case several European countries east of Germany would be overrun by the Wehrmacht, and steps should now be taken, even at these many minutes after midnight, to discover and support friends in those countries who might continue resistance – but the word came into use only with the thing itself – after invasion. So it was proposed, and was going to be done.

Today, on this calm afternoon in the Abbey, by suitable accident the 13th of the month, that distant project can seem in retrospect impossibly and even ludicrously ambitious although not much more so, I remember, than it did at the time. Building from zero resources, and no experience of what subversive warfare on a continent bunkered against all obvious access might in due course involve, would require an amateurism that was going to be much deplored, but which proved to be a very practical exercise in useful illusion. Perhaps that is why, in the end, it succeeded so well, even if the end proved painfully long in coming.

Towards the close of 1939, the optimistic Lawrence Grand had rented a large flat near St James’s Street, handy for clubs and such, and called with discretion for recruits. Most of these, as I know from my own joining in December of that year, arrived from merchant banks and oil companies; others, like myself, from journalism: activities which have natural affinities with the trade of illusionism. I was duly enrolled after a pleasant lunch at Simpsons in the Strand with a man pretending to be a spy, and rapidly instructed to depart for Hungary ‘since you know the Balkans’. Major Grand’s Chief of Staff, the late George Taylor, who had come from Australia (it is very much that kind of story), was unimpressed when I objected that while I had sojourned in Yugoslavia, a manner of Katmandu for the dissident young of those remote times, I had never done so in Hungary, which was not, moreover, in ‘the Balkans’. There was now a war on, said Taylor; one would do as one was told. So at the hopeful age of nearly 26 I entrained for Budapest, still quasi-neutral, and sat for a week or so looking across a boulevard at a startling neon sign which advertised the seat of Kozponti Takareki Penztar. This formulation looked properly menacing, for as yet I knew no Hungarian – but what are foreign languages, after all, except an irritation to be thrust aside? – and turned out to mean nothing more dangerous than ‘Central Savings Bank’. Meanwhile I prepared to open an agency for dissemination to the Magyar press of news received by wire from the Ministry of Information in London, and took orders to embark on illegal projects such as the printing and distribution of anti-Nazi leaflets. I can report without exaggeration that all this was slowly achieved, through 1940, in quite a satisfactory way. We called the agency Kulfoldi Hirek (Foreign News) and I hired an office for it on the Petofi Ter, a garden space on the Danube embankment with a fine monument to that great liberating poet. With the aid of patriotic Hungarians Kulfoldi Hirek spread its messages widely across the Magyar press, and machinery in the cellars of a state printshop was soon yielding harvests of inflammatory leaflets aimed at the local Fascists. These were the clandestine product midnight hours, and according to SOE archives, which may or may not be accurate, we printed 1,200,000 leaflets between September 1940 and February 1941, when things went out of control; we undoubtedly printed a great many.

Such was more or less how we began, a handful of us scattered around distant countries; and it remains a fact of some interest, at least archivally, that this hopeful amateurism brought results in the early years of the war although many more in later years when European resistance had become a widespread and very violent affair. One reason for this relative success, I believe, was precisely the ingredient of amateurism, if only because the enemy would never have thought it worthwhile to attend to us: the Wehrmacht and its various derivatives being, even by the middle of the Thirties, nothing if not strictly professional. Our specific opponent, the prestigious but strangely slapdash Abwehr in those months before the rise of the horrible but highly skilful Gestapo, proved entirely void of creative imagination, let alone illusionist fantasy, whenever, as rarely, it ventured the amateur approach. In that phase of the war, moreover, the Abwehr suffered with the Wehrmacht as a whole from an absolute sense of immunity to muddle and dismay, disasters never long avoidable in warfare no matter what the memoirs claim. This was quite different from our own state of mind, and duly led the Abwehr, in the matter of subversion, to one self-inflicted disaster after another. The wonderful fictions evolved for enemy consumption by M16, invented by the Garbo ‘network’ and recently explained in detail by HM Stationery Office, were far beyond the prudent Abwehr, while not a single Abwehr agent, attempting after 1939 an ‘SOE in reverse’ by infiltration into Britain, was able to survive a British firing squad, or ‘turning’, with one partial exception.

Otherwise, through 1940 everything went the enemy’s way and the future seemed unrelievedly bleak. By that summer, with the collapse of the French in a dégringolade beyond anyone’s imagining, Grand’s puny cohort knew all too well that merely ‘getting into Europe’ – let alone doing anything useful once you got there – was going to be difficult. Now in 1996 I glance along the pews beside me at our sparse survivors and am bound to think that, give or take the blunders and defeats, some of them still dreadful to remember, whatever was done might easily have been done far worse. The puzzled and perfectly obscure projects of ‘Section D’, so named to allow a proper precedence to ‘C’ of the Secret Intelligence Service, may have had to grow without C’s blessing and with many upsets, but they did grow, even during the miseries of 1940, into the well-financed SOE, wartime being possessed, after the threadbare Thirties, of a magical capacity for producing money and spending it. Returned to England in 1941, after various troubles and adventures, and given ten days’ leave, exactly ten, to see my mother, I found now this SOE portentously installed in Baker Street, its origins in the flat near St James’s Street long since forgotten. Being lately extracted from arrest in Mussolini’s Italy, I was favourably impressed. Then I was flown back to Cairo, our Mediterranean base.

Most of Europe was thoroughly barred and shuttered against British infiltration, and whether you were waiting in London or in Cairo the task of doing something useful inside Hitler’s ‘fortress’ remained a problem without clear solution. Although early casualties began to hit our meagre ranks, it was perhaps a good thing that a certain hilarity managed to prevail. There was also, enduring into 1941, the matter of office rivalry to be taken into account. The lords of SOE in London were understandably jealous of their overall control, but the ‘sublords’ in Cairo, commanding the Mediterranean theatre of SOE operations, were soon subject to urges and intuitions of their own, and dangerously liable to think they knew better. There was a coolness, not to say hostility, between the two, and 1941 saw the first of several purges of senior ‘Cairo’ personnel. This, in turn, confirmed the Army Command at Cairo in an already powerful although unjust suspicion that SOE, lock, stock and barrel, was little better than a deplorable racket. Bitter things were said, and numerous internal spies enlisted. Self-defence became a priority, and I think in this respect of Captain Sleede and his secret inks. Very important persons arriving from London filled with the wrong ideas about ‘Cairo’ could be taken, if greatly privileged, to see a little evidence of Sleede’s importance. Having climbed many stairs in a house just off the Sharia Suleiman Pasha, they would be shown the bottles. Usually there were three, sometimes even four, of the sort that pharmacists used in ancient times, great fluted bowls a metre tall, topped by glittering stoppers. Each contained a secret ink for one or other dastardly purpose. Sleede himself, an amorphous figure in some kind of uniform, was not the man to give away secrets. ‘Those who can,’ was his well-known maxim, ‘discover and invent. Those who can’t explain.’ Sleede never explained. But there came a time, as I recall, when Sleede’s patience began to fail. The important visitors were too many, their questions were tiring. He needed time to refresh himself and meditate; there was besides, one gathered, a danger that the enemy in London might swoop down and confiscate this man of devious talent. His attendance at the office faltered. His uniform became more creased; there were days when it seemed that he must have slept in it.

Sleede took his measures: silently, as was his way. He vanished one day in search of a rare component of Damascus ink that was believed to induce erotic needs in the user and thus, when palmed on some lascivious Abwehr agent, to weaken willpower and concentration. Sleede was next heard of having left Beirut in a caique for the distant island of Crete, a destination now within our network of clandestine communication. Back in Cairo malicious tongues inevitably wagged. Fresh jealousies were aired. A squalid spy from another organisation even claimed that the bottles, when analysed in Sleede’s absence, were found to contain no more than coloured water. There was some question of signalling Sleede to come back and answer questions, even explain himself. But Sleede appears to have stayed in the mountains of Crete. On summer nights in that enchanted isle, you may still hear among the voices of the ancestors, echoing in cavernous consent, the gentle plashing of a liquid as it laps from stone to stone. Crete in any case was a risky sail from Beirut, beating round the lee of Cyprus and running for the cliffs of the southern shore; and the mariners under ‘Skipper’ Poole who worked that link in their cockleshells of caiques were hard men, not in the least inclined to elucidate the night-club bills run up in Beirut by Captain Sleede or anyone else. Meanwhile the war continued, and the High Command, remotely far above us, had other problems to consider.

As the British and their allies (at that time not many) persisted in recovering from early disasters, defensive hilarities lost their virtue. A new professionalism insisted on being taken seriously, even while a settled delight in ‘doing the unexpected’ might still be allowed and even encouraged, as the admirable feats of the Long-Range Desert Group, harassing the enemy across hundreds of miles of desert, would show. Our scattered handful of 1940 also began to make a little headway. Those few concerned with raising anti-Nazi resistance in Northern Europe, notably in France and Norway, acquired organisational substance and the makings of a new effectiveness. In the Mediterranean theatre, the fall of 1941 saw fragile links established with resistance groups in Greece and Serbia. The characteristic pattern of SOE operational effort began to be foreshadowed and consisted, in the more fortunate cases, of a three or four-man team – leader, wireless operator and back-up – using lately improved parachutes. Meanwhile nothing availed to halt the flow of volunteers for missions involving serious risks, including the practical certainty of being summarily shot if taken prisoner by an enemy who obeyed no ‘rules of war’. The difficulties were many and the fatal casualties not few but now, after Alamein and the great Russian victories of late 1942, there came a feeling that we had the wind in our sails, however improbable this seemed.

It remains quite strange that no comprehensive histories of our ‘clandestine’ war within Hitler’s Europe have yet appeared. The ‘memorial guide’ for today’s occasion in the Abbey, a notable document compiled with devotion from obscure or still forbidden archives, records the names of men and women of no fewer than 26 nationalities who were killed in SOE service. These are among the volunteers we are remembering in the Abbey today. They number no fewer than 759 in a certainly incomplete list. Much might be said about them and their views and motives, and a little has been written; but one thing that is perfectly sure is that any narrow contemporary notion of ‘not fighting for Brussels’ – not fighting for the all-European cause so much despised by current chauvinism – would have seemed disgraceful to them. They died for their own loyalties, of course, but these carried no trace of puling parish-pump provincialism.

If no complete histories of this ‘other war’ inside Hitler’s Festung Europa seem likely to appear, it may yet be wondered why we have had to wait until 1996 for a modest plaque of remembrance to be mounted. Surviving archives are still being ‘weeded’, so I am told; they are in any case seriously defective because of the hasty immolation of documents at critical junctures during those years. Yet one can discern other reasons for the silence. To begin with there is always the peculiarly English horror of admitting to be true whatever has been kept secret. Another less intimately English reason for reticence is that the Cold War and its paralysing effects on political thought had to end before a lot of things that were done could be admitted to have been done. Naturally there were ruses de guere, sometimes of an ingenuity that would have brought a blush to the cheeks of Captain Aubrey and Nelson’s Navy, while ‘lying for one’s cause’ was an everyday obligation. But there were other initiatives which were to become seriously unthinkable, let alone admissible, after Churchill’s speech at Fulton and the McCarthy madness.

Even today it may be hard to believe that the commanders of SOE in London, working to Downing Street directives, should have devised and secured agreement to a solemn treaty of tightly clandestine co-operation with the NKVD during the fall of 1941, at meetings in Moscow shortly after Germany’s invasion of the USSR had brought us that welcome if evasively. Little came of it because of an inveterate Soviet distrust, but in those tense months of Russian catastrophe it was seriously intended; and before the treaty died of malnutrition around 1943 at least one valuable project in partnership with Moscow, more precisely with the Comintern, was mounted and carried through.

It related to our pressing need for effective action against German lines of supply and reinforcement, principally by rail, from Central Europe across the Mediterranean to and from North Africa. Through 1942 SOE in Cairo had tried to achieve such action through Serbian monarchist or Chetnik formations then under the command, notionally at least, of the Yugoslav exile government in London. But the Chetniks for the most part sat on their hands or made pacts of convenience with the enemy, either because they wished to avoid reprisals or preferred to conserve their strength in the hope of destroying their internal rivals after the war. These rivals were already on the scene. They were anti-monarchist and generally left-wing forces, later to become famous as the Partisans organised by the Yugoslav Communist Party. A huge discrepancy in fighting value between Tito’s Partisans and attentiste or downright hostile Chetniks was confirmed, in the early days of January 1943, by the decryption of highly secret enemy ciphers, an uncontaminable but hitherto unavailable source of information on the enemy. This gave SOE the green light from the War Cabinet to contact the Partisans, a complex operation which took some time (I was by this time, long emerged from Hungary, the GSO 2 in charge of it), but by April of the same year, the job was done. We had secured reliable radio and ground contact with strong Partisan units in Croatia and Western Bosnia. Of crucial value in achieving this were perhaps a score of Yugoslav Canadian emigrants of decidedly, and in this case necessarily, left-wing views. They volunteered to go to the Partisans, initially as interpreters, by whatever means as soon as they got given their own green light from the Comintern. This muffled authority turned out to be a Montenegrin revolutionary holed up in Pittsburgh – his name was Nikola Kovacevic – who had to be smuggled in the boot of a friendly car across the frontier into Canada to give the go-ahead. Thus approved, our Canadian volunteers were in due course shipped to Cairo and dropped into Yugoslavia with little delay if much risk, the first of their ‘parties’ having to parachute blind before pre-arranged dropping sites could become possible. In this way we made increasingly fruitful contact with by far the most effective military resistance in any country of occupied Europe. The rest followed. I do not know if anyone ever thanked those Canadians.

With the Cold War impending, those in SOE who were most closely involved in forming this fortunate alliance with the Partisans soon found themselves regarded with dismay, or worse, by Whitehall and Washington, and by their burgeoning progeny up and down the line of influence or approval. All this became part of the hysteria of the Cold War. Great capacities for private malice were given space and opportunity, and led to small persecutions which were disconcerting. Nowadays we are less innocent. In our present vexed times you may expect to become the target of all manner of lunatic accusations hatched in the sad manias of envy or frustration. Only recently I read in the London press that officials of the military regime in Nigeria have produced evidence from an ‘un-named American magazine’ which ‘proves the existence of a conspiracy to eradicate states [in Africa] and return the continent to tribal kingdoms’. This little project to undo an entire century’s political upheaval and historical change in Africa is the aim, say these Nigerian officials, of a wicked conspiracy between MI6 – not Dame Stella’s outfit but the Secret Intelligence Service itself – and ‘the historian Basil Davidson’. Poor devil, he’ll have work on his hands.

The consequences of becoming known as ‘pro-Tito’ and therefore ‘anti-Mihajlovic’, in the jargon of earlier years, were soon felt. In 1946, unwisely impatient (but the war had cost me nearly six years), I published a memoir of the Partisan war. It was well received in Britain; the Observer went recklessly over the top, calling it ‘without question a genuine masterpiece’ and the prospects for a tyro author looked hopeful. But, as the American writer Louis Adamic recalled in The Eagle and the Roots (1952), enthusiastic American publishers were deterred by ‘the anti-Communist and particularly the anti-Tito hysteria’ from taking the memoir on. In short order, the same ‘hysteria’ crossed eastward over the Atlantic. All manner of creepy-crawlies came bustling from the fretwork so as to invent or promote a truly absurd ‘theory’ that Communists or the like, active in SOE, had caused the British authorities to switch their aid from the Chetniks to the Partisans, thus clearing the way for a Communist regime in postwar Yugoslavia. There was indeed a single well-known and even rather notorious Communist in Cairo’s office for Yugoslavia, who was at that time a second lieutenant. But to believe this ‘conspiracy’ theory you had also to believe that Churchill and his War Cabinet, endorsing the British decision to ‘switch’ their aid, had allowed themselves to be ‘hoodwinked’ by junior or very junior officers. No serious observer has ever shown the least sign of believing any such nonsense; but even as late as the Eighties, British promoters of this theory were still finding quite a few eager listeners. None of these propagandists has added any substance to the history of those years, but their method and reliability were summarised by Jessica Douglas-Home, in an article written for the Guardian in November 1991 when the embers of the Cold War were not yet cool – wisely much rewritten before publication. In her original, which I was sent, this person of no known expertise in Balkan affairs was eager to explain how I and two others in SOE, none of us remotely a Communist (one, in fact, was a Tory MP) had manoeuvred to withdraw aid from the Chetniks and give it to the Partisans: which is what, while acting on the highest possible authority, we had proposed doing and eventually did, it being the case that the Chetniks would not fight for our side while the Partisans would and did. But to bolster the conspiracy theory it had to be shown, by innuendo or invention, that the switch-makers were all Communists or near enough and Mrs Douglas-Home set to work. The best she could do was to tell her readers that when recruited in 1939 I had been working for ‘the Communist newspaper, the Star’, identifying the pre-war Liberal evening Star with the Communist Morning Star of postwar years. Later in the Nineties, when the collapse of Yugoslavia duly revealed what contemporary Chetniks in Bosnia were capable of, the ‘conspiracy theorists’ ran for cover, and their voices seem to have fallen silent.

The achievements of SOE were very real. At their best, they were war-winning achievements. They called for complex and often very difficult deliveries of military aid, ranging from the supply of arms, ammunition and high explosive for sabotage, through a wide range of supplies to medical assistance for wounded fighters. This in turn called for active liaison with resistance units and survival for long periods in the field. My own time in Bosnia and north Serbia lasted from August 1943 till November 1944; it was followed by work with Partisans in north Italy from January 1945 until war’s end. Several other ‘mission leaders’ served even longer stints. In my Yugoslav position of isolation along the Danube frontier, probing for signs of resistance in Hungary, survival often depended either on hiding in holes in the ground or on incessant movement. It was in these long periods of total dependence on the local peasants that one learned to recognise the merit of the Partisan slogan of ‘brotherhood and unity’, and how these merits far out-measured whatever Communist doctrine might claim. Nothing in that ‘doctrine’ could even begin to explain why, for instance, the peasants of Srem should have stood in iron solidarity with us – in this case, with the Englishman they were hiding and feeding – so that British pilots should be able to land with two hours’ safety on a make-shift strip (while a very large Wehrmacht force lay in Belgrade no more than a dozen miles away) and then fly back to Italy packed with sick or wounded Partisans. This was done as often as necessary from ‘my’ Piccadilly Phyllis, as the RAF code-named my strip, and the same was done from other strips in all parts of Yugoslavia. I still think these rescue operations for the sick and wounded symbolised a great moral victory for all concerned.

For the rest, as today with me in the Abbey, the register of memory is on a lowlier plane: of lice and fever, hunger and dysentery, disaster or the daily anticipation of it: familiar memories shared by all who have had to operate far from major units of resistance – memories spewed up across aching solitudes through months and even years, for the bloody war went on and on as though it could never end, with each countless dawn inviting the craven fear of being forgotten. It seems hard to get oneself clear of all that, and I doubt if it can be done. We stand for the Queen Mother, SOE’s staunch patron, as she makes her way to the west cloister where she will unveil our plaque. As she walks past, a small murmur of relief – of rounding off – goes along our pews: we are alive and we are sane, more or less, and we are here. As I think this, I am glad to have attended our occasion of memorial but I am sure that I will not attend another: better by far to let all that go, once and for all and finally. Now from the cloister comes a consenting buzz of chat and congratulation while we say our nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine and at once stumble upright and file away into the afternoon sunlight. We shall repair to the nearby and hospitable Institute of Civil Engineers. There we shall partake of tea. And of cakes and wine. And that will be that.