Cornwall is in the grip of an English heat wave, slumbering in a drowsy fug. The Ship Inn perches precariously on the edge of Falmouth Bay. It’s a quiet Monday lunchtime, no-one in but Len, drawing deeply on one of his foreign cigarettes, a rasping cough followed quickly by a dark stream of spittle. He sups on a pint of warm bitter.
Len, 45, learnt his trade on the streets of the East End. It hadn’t changed much since Dickens’ time; there were the richer classes, the rulers, living side by side with the under classes. The relationship was a symbiotic one with a shared code of conduct. Like a dog with fleas, they kept each other honest.
Len knew his way around London. He looked at the poor saps on their bicycles burrowing through the warren of streets, lamps boring their way through the fog, all to get their badge of honour, “The Knowledge”, from the imperialist bureaucrats at the Public Carriage Office.
Len hated authority, unless it suited him not to. He still visited the capital, but infrequently. On those occasions the most skilled exponent of the Knowledge would not have found his destination: buildings that officially did not exist, where visitors were “by invitation only” and accompanied by a minder.
Len made useful contacts on both sides of the divide. They served him well when he found himself a deserter during the Great War. He made sure he was one of the few, not the many; a survivor, though he always wore his poppy on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. He had been spirited away in the night to lie low in Cornwall.
After the war, he picked up where he’d left off, and filled a need in the post-conflict vacuum, where food was as scarce as eligible young men. Len was not one for relationships but he had charm, and a steady income stream of dubious provenance. He employed both ruthlessly.
Under its Edwardian exterior, English society was no different to any other. Men had needs: favours were bartered across the land like any other illicit commodity. There was a constant market value, a good exchange rate, and a regular customer base.
Falmouth was a labyrinth of dark alleys, stairs leading to hidden landings. It’s dark and murky past still shaped its present. A centre of trade and commerce, the deep estuary and bustling dockyard fuelled an economy that wasn’t always as transparent as the bay on a sunny day. The 1930s cast their ever darker shadow over the town; the local economy went further underground, where it flourished.
The big containers from the Americas and Europe and the ever present Royal Navy ensured a cosmopolitan clientele in The Ship. Len picked up smatterings of whispered conversations in pidgin English and foreign dialects, understanding enough to detect a growing undercurrent of unrest across Western Europe: social division in Germany, anarchy in Spain, the rise of fascism in Italy. While England dozed, world- shaping events were unfolding on the continent.
Len had a visitor, sharp-suited, straight off the train from London. He was well spoken, his face a blank canvas, but his comportment cried out Armed Forces. His English was perfect, a bit too perfect perhaps. Business with Len was concluded quickly and the two left. Neither were seen in the Ship again.
14 July 1936
Len leant into the strong and rising south-westerly wind as he steered a course around the north west of Spain. He was relieved to see the lights of Vigo looming into view through the inky black darkness. Captain Bill Peters, as he called himself, was busy down below with papers and a radio transmitter. Len’s curiousity, though tempered by the large sum he had been promised, couldn’t stifle a certain sense of intrigue as to the captain’s business. He whetted his lips.
Len had charted the seas of this corner of Europe, a gateway to Africa, over many years. He traded mostly tangible contraband but understood how his knowledge of these dark oceans was valuable to those shadowy figures in Whitehall, those who traded not in cigarettes or brandy, but in the sponsorship of world conflict, when it suited their interest.
15 July 1936
Len was up early, setting course for African waters. Next stop: Gran Canaria. He pulled out his charts. They were not where they should be. Captain Peters had been busy in the night. A scrap of paper fell to the floor. Heavily typed in Spanish. Short and to the point:
18 Julio 1936
Todo por la patria
Len, with his rudimentary Spanish, understood: “Operation Knowledge”, “All for the Fatherland” ….in three days time!
He heard steps and put the paper back quickly. Captain Peters came up behind him, slapped him on the back and demanded coffee. Len turned round and noted the penetrating eyes.
16 July 1936
Gran Canaria emerged through the early morning haze that had drifted across from the North African coast. The old Spanish Colony reeked of rotting fish and human decay. Len ignored the main harbour and tracked across to a lonely cove, his regular disembarkation point. No welcome party, no record of entry.
Captain Peters handed over the attache case of laundered banknotes. Len knelt down to tie the boat securely. He heard a click, turned, and was shot dead in cold blood, cleanly through the head.
17 July 1936
Captain Peters, who had become Flight Lieutenant Smythe, drummed his fingers on the table top. All was going to plan. The plane was waiting, fuelled and stripped down. He wore civilian clothes. Captain Peter’s papers and effects had been disposed of, along with Len’s body. A new passport and identity had been issued. The penalty for being discovered by the authorities, he knew, would be execution.
An English officer, illegally operating on Spanish soil, was a risk. Even his status as a special envoy of the British Government, engaged on official business, would not save him. The British Consulate would deny all knowledge of his presence, an unmarked grave would be prepared. A small corner of a foreign field forever British and German. For Captain Smythe had been chosen for this task due to his dual nationality. He had spent many years growing up in Germany and witnessed firsthand the rise to power of Hitler. His son was an eager product of the Hitler Youth movement, proud of his brown shirt and fascist salute. He was seen by the British Conservative establishment as ideally placed to advise on the changing social structures in 1930s Germany.
Tension was building between the two countries, and indeed the rest of Europe. The American allies were concerned, though the Wall Street crash and its aftermath preoccupied them. Britain was carefully positioning itself as the threat of war loomed closer. Its economy was weak, the banking elite was wary of war. Shadowy meetings took place in discrete country house locations. Ministers sounded out business leaders.
The elite that ruled England from the shadows was not in favour of war. There was a grudging respect for Herr Hitler and his effective marshalling of austerity measures. The talk was of appeasement.
A motor car came to a halt outside, escorted by a pair of uniformed motor cyclists. Flight Lieutenant Smythe stood up and saluted.
18 July 1936
The weather was breaking over the south west coast of England. The band of high pressure was moving away to the continent. The oppressive heat of the last week was waning. There was a crackle of thunder in the air. It was 11 o’clock in The Ship, time for the news on the BBC World Service.
“This is the BBC,” announced the clipped tones.”Today saw the outbreak of civil war in Spain. General Franco, commander of the North African Brigade and exiled to the Canaries, was flown into the south of the country under the cover of darkness to take charge of the rebel nationalist forces. Mr Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, has just made a statement in which he reassured the British public that their government had no prior knowledge of this dramatic development, which was entirely an internal matter for the Spanish authorities.”
by Paul Murphy