Silk, swimming and ice-skating

When you feel silk slipping over your skin, by turns coolly caressing and indifferently sliding away, how could you think of it as the thin line between life and death? And who, warmed by the sight of a father lifting his daughter joyfully into the air, would suspect that a love so pure and deep could prove lethal? Sometimes survival is maintained – or destroyed – by the most fragile thing.


Hans Schmidt steps off the Tube train at Charing Cross and makes his way to the wooden turnstile at the exit. The rancid smell of the hundreds of Londoners who had sought shelter under ground the previous night hangs in the air.

“Your ticket, sir?”

“There you are, my good man. A cold day, eh?”

“It is, sir. And icy. Watch your step out there.”

The winter of 1940 is bitter. At the top of the stairs Hans turns left towards Trafalgar Square and raises the collar of his coat to protect his neck from the biting wind. Trevor Sandown has agreed to meet him at 2pm; he has ten minutes to walk down to the Old Shades pub. Hans has spent three months in London and this is his last meeting. The arrangements have been made and he will be home with Birgit and Anneliese within 48 hours. He can’t wait to see them again but he has this one last piece of business to attend to.

He enters the smoky pub and spots Sandown at a table opposite the bar. Sandown looks nervous – as well he might; he’s been Hans’s contact for five months but who knows when their luck might run out? Hans will make this as quick and painless as possible then make his excuses and get the hell out of there. But as he strides forward and thrusts his hand out to shake Sandown’s, another man slides out of the shadows and Hans knows he won’t be going home that week.


The golden rule for spies working undercover in enemy territory was ‘No Personal Effects’. A photo, a piece of jewellery, a letter – anything that contradicted your cover identity – all of these could betray you if you were caught, especially if they held a particular emotional attachment. If you had to carry information such as coded plans, British ingenuity had helped, but only if you worked for the Special Operations Executive: some clever sod realised that silk could be written on and sewn into the lining of clothes – it didn’t rustle like paper during a casual search.


Hans doesn’t know about silk but he isn’t stupid. However, he also loves his daughter with all his heart and believes that love to be a lucky charm as he carries it back and forth on his many trips. At their home in Germany, they are surrounded by fields, trees and a beautiful lake – the land smells of freedom and peace; he wants this war to be over so that he can reclaim it. He wants to be able to smile at a shopkeeper and not have to worry that he’s remembered his ‘English’ smile. He wants to be back home with his family. The lake freezes in the ringing coldness of winter and he has taught his little girl to ice-skate on it. He has also taught her to swim, mainly so she could enjoy the lake in the warm summer months too, but he thought – foolishly, he knew – that if the ice did break… Well.

Within half an hour and with the minimum of fuss, Hans finds himself in a small, clinical room faced with two business-like men. Just at the moment that the interrogation begins, a few hundred miles away Anneliese is spinning round and round, faster and faster – a move she’d only learned on her ninth birthday a month ago. She can’t wait to make her dad proud of her, for him to see how she can glide around the lake with her mother – a swan and her cygnet, floating over the milky white surface. He’ll be home soon. She’s been practising her English to surprise him, writing the words over and over, just like he showed her, until they feel natural; so much love poured into her childish scrawl. She had thrown away the pages that weren’t perfect – her father had laughed at this when he was there to see. She had patiently explained that they were wrong and she wanted to write a page worthy of his attention – one to keep! – for when he returned.

But he had kept one page. Perhaps he had become careless because this was his last trip; perhaps he really did believe in the protective charms of love. He’d often rubbed his fingers over the notepaper in his pocket when he had a difficult decision to make during a mission, or, like today, when he wanted an extra bit of luck when he was nearing the end of a trip.


The last German spy to be executed in the Tower of London was Josef Jakobs, in 1941. He was blindfolded and seated in a brown Windsor chair on account of the broken ankle he suffered during his parachute landing. Then the firing squad did their thing. Had the Home Guard who apprehended him not witnessed his descent, there’s a chance his cover would have been blown by the German sausage he decided to pack alongside his forged papers, radio and British currency. The things we can’t do without in times of crisis.

Subsequent spy executions were carried out by hanging at Wandsworth prison in south London. But Hans has been caught during the time of the Tower

He is brave and confident but when his interrogators search him there is a rustle. He remembers Anneliese excitedly telling him about how far she can swim and how good she is at skating just before he left. He remembers her sitting at her little school table with her writing pad, concentrating on her hand as the pencil danced across the page like a girl skating round on ice. He remembers picking up one of her discarded pages and slipping it into his pocket. For luck.


As the soldiers line up in the Tower and cock their guns, the scrap of paper they found inside Hans’s trousers flutters away through a window, down to the street and, caught by the breeze, round and round in the air. The paper flies further and further away, leaving the Tower, the firing squad and Hans far behind.

by Sharon Gethings

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