Authors: Alex Gerlis
Vermeulen felt tears swell in his eyes. Never in his life had he heard such personal remarks like these, at least not in such a direct way. He always assumed that those people in the office in Brussels made them, but that would be behind his back. And his neighbours. Even some of the people at the church. He must stay calm. This was a ruse. He had been warned about it. It was proof that they had nothing on him, he tried to reassure himself. What was it the instructor had said?
Don’t react to abuse. It will be a sign that they have nothing on you.
‘You spent your time either at work, or at church or in your small apartment playing with your radio and your gramophone. You applied to join the Free Belgian Forces when you arrived in this country, but, of course, you knew you would be turned down. You are a weak man; you are not an example of the Aryan race which you so aspire to, are you? And this story about you being a lawyer? You were a clerk at a law firm in Brussels and not even a very good clerk. You had not been promoted in years and, of course, you blamed the Jewish partners for that, didn’t you? The German Sixth Army hadn’t even taken their boots off after they entered Brussels on the seventeenth of May last year before you were knocking at General von Reichenau’s door volunteering your services. And what did you have in mind? Probably being a very senior clerk, with other clerks working for you. You would spend your time denouncing Jews and socialists, assisting the Nazis in their occupation of your country and for the first time in your miserable little life becoming someone important. But you made one mistake.’
There was a long pause. He had no idea that the Dutchman had been aware of some of the things he was saying now.
‘The mistake was to let your new masters know that you speak fluent English, probably your only real talent, Mr Vermeulen. We know that your employers had sent you over here for a while in the early 1930s to work in the office of their London associates, did they not? So when the Germans discover that Arnold Vermeulen is not just an eager collaborator who understands radios, but also speaks excellent English and is familiar with London they realise that you have a perfect role to play here in London!’
Vermeulen decided now to deploy the one card he had left, though he had to admit it was a creased and low value one. The last thing the instructor had ever said to him:
f you sense things going wrong in an interrogation, g
ive them something.
Admit to a failing, own up to a minor deceit.
There was an outside chance that it might work, but his confidence was not strong. His voice was shaking; he knew that he sounded too eager to please.
‘It is true, sir. I lied about being a lawyer. I felt ashamed that I had never had better qualifications and I thought that if people believed I was a lawyer in Belgium then they would give me a role here that would better suit my skills. My employers in Brussels had never given me a chance. They always promoted these young family friends but never me. And the radios? It was to listen to music. Is that a crime?’
‘So as we say: we were expecting you.’ Again the Dutchman had ignored Vermeulen’s answer.
‘You had made enough noise in the Nazi headquarters when you first turned up there to bring attention to yourself. Did it really not occur to you that we may have our own people there? And we knew what your role would be. You were not going to be doing any spying yourself. True to your vocation as a clerk, your role would be to be the conduit through which the intelligence gained by a more active German spy would be passed back to the Nazis. In other words, you would not do any actual spying yourself, but you would pass on the information of an agent who did. Perhaps someone not able to send their own messages. At this point, Mr Vermeulen, would you care to comment?’
‘I am not a German spy, sir, that is a ridiculous accusation; I keep telling you that I am an innocent refugee ...’
‘That’s right, an innocent refugee who only wishes to assist in the liberation of his country from Nazi occupation. Very admirable I am sure; we have heard it for the past week. We are very familiar with your story, Mr Vermeulen. But let me continue. Our information was that you would be what we call a “sleeper”. For a period of time, you would do nothing. You arrived in this country without a radio, so we knew that only when your agent was ready to pass on information would you collect the radio from where it had been hidden. Until then you would lead, as I say, a blameless life. But then you would receive a signal that would let you know that your life as an active Nazi agent was to begin. Our understanding is that this signal would come from your agent once they had information that they wished to be transmitted to your masters. Do you wish to comment at this stage?
The Belgian shook his head. ‘It simply is not true ...’
‘Two weeks ago we followed you to Oxford. You were using all the old tricks to check that you were not being followed, but you were not very subtle about it. For instance, you took five different bus journeys while in Oxford and constantly looked behind you. That is how an amateur behaves. We believe that the purpose of your visit to Oxford was to collect the radio transmitter that had been hidden in that area. Of course, once you had the transmitter, we would arrest you and with such concrete evidence you would be persuaded to tell us the truth.’
‘I tell you this is not true. I visited Oxford to see the sights and the ...’
‘... and the architecture which is your special interest, yes I have heard that all week, Mr Vermeulen. You keep telling us. Let me continue. Our plan went wrong, did it not?’
The Englishman to the left of the Dutchman coughed and nodded.
‘You are clearly a very nervous man, Mr Vermeulen. Obviously you are nervous now. That is understandable. You are being interrogated. But I think that your general disposition is a nervous one, is it not? Because what happens in Oxford when you are about, we believe, to collect your transmitter? You are sick. Not in a discreet manner. You did not find a toilet or a quiet alleyway. You were sick in the street, drawing attention to yourself. And as we all know, one of the people who came over to see what the fuss was all about was an enthusiastic member of the local police force, who decided to question you. When he asked for your papers, for some reason he was not satisfied and decided to take you to the police station so that he could check them out further. Maybe it was your nervous manner that made him suspect something, I don’t know. My guess was it was because you are foreign and the British police are always suspicious of foreigners. So our plans — that is, your plan and our plan, were ruined by that overzealous police officer. If he had minded his own business, I believe you would have led us to the radio transmitter. So, once again, where is that transmitter, Mr Vermeulen?’
‘There is no transmitter, I assure you. I don’t know what you are talking about.’
‘Now we come to the interesting developments. A radio transmitter is very important if you are to send your messages. That is obvious, as I am sure you know, Mr Vermeulen. But what is also important is the code in which you are going to send that message. And it is in connection with that, that we have some news for you today.’
The Dutchman lit another cigarette. A thin mist of grey-brown smoke now hung between the Belgian and his questioner. The Englishman leaned back in his chair, his gaze remaining fixed on the Belgian, but his features faded as he moved out of the light.
‘You will appreciate that once you were arrested in Oxford, we were able to search your room in Acton. You kept it very neat, Mr Vermeulen. You lead a simple life. You did not have many possessions and we were able to examine everything that you did have very thoroughly. It is something that I specialise in. And until last night, we found nothing incriminating.’
He repeated the last sentence in Flemish.
Another pause. The Belgian was now feeling sick. ‘
Until last night
,’ the Dutchman had said. What did he mean by that? He wondered whether to say anything now or whether this was another of the tricks that the Dutchman used.
‘You are a religious man, are you not, Mr Vermeulen?’
The Belgian found himself nodding.
The Dutchman reached to a briefcase on the floor behind him and produced a much-used leather-bound book. The Belgian could feel his breathing quicken. He could not imagine that they could not hear it.
‘The Holy Bible. Flemish version. Very devout. We found it by your bedside. I read your bible very carefully, Mr Vermeulen. I must admit that it was the first time I have done so in many years. And then I spotted something, Mr Vermeulen. Little pinpricks that had been made under the first letter of the first sentence of some chapters. Very deliberate marks. They are not mistakes. And they only appear under the first letter of the first sentence of a chapter, nowhere else. And there we have it. Your code! You would transmit the chapter numbers and your controllers would understand from the collection of chapter numbers you had selected and the order in which you sent them, what the message is. It is clever, but it was not clever enough. So you see, we have our proof.’ He banged the bible down on the table.
For the first time, the Belgian could say nothing. He did not know how to respond. He had been assured that it would be impossible for anyone to spot the marks in the bible. He could not understand how the Dutchman had spotted them. Even he had trouble finding them and he knew they were there. He had nowhere to go.
The Dutchman now dropped his more conversational style and spoke in a firm manner in the Belgian’s native Flemish.
‘Vermeulen. Since the war started I have interrogated ten men who turned out to be Nazi spies. I would estimate that in half of the cases, the evidence against them was not as strong as it is with you. Eight of those men have been executed. The current interval between being found guilty of espionage in a court of law and execution is around five weeks. Do you want to ask me a question?’
The Belgian’s shoulders sagged. He was terrified. It was taking all of his efforts to try to show no emotion, but he had no doubt that he was failing.
‘Shall I help you with the question, Vermeulen? What you should really want to know now is what happened to the two spies who were not executed. Shall I tell you?’ The Dutchman had reverted to English. His tone was markedly less aggressive. It was almost friendly.
‘They came to work for us. To carry on sending information to the Germans, but this time, the wrong information. Now, you would not actually do that yourself. But, of course, we do need your co-operation. We need it to locate the transmitter, to find the correct frequency and the times they would expect to hear from you and the correct use of the codes. We need you for all of that. And no tricks, no tiny changes to procedure that would alert the Germans to the fact that you have been captured. We would soon spot that and that would be your death sentence.
‘Can you imagine what it is like, Vermeulen, to be told one day that your final appeal against execution has been turned down and that you will die the next morning? Can you imagine how it feels to have to get through the rest of the day and then through that night? Who will you write to Vermeulen ... anyone? Would you still believe enough to be able to pray? And then as you see the sun start to rise through the cell window, you will be alert to every sound, but even then, you will not hear them until they are in the cell. I’ve witnessed the execution of some of my spies. It is not a pleasant sight. The look of fear on a man’s face as his hands are bound stays with you forever. If I close my eyes now, I can picture them, desperately looking round for someone to comfort them, for just a smile. They know then that whatever drove them to be Nazi agents, it wasn’t worth it. The distance from the cell to the gallows is very short, but I promise you it will be the longest walk of your life. And then they will strap your feet and place a hood over your head and that will last another lifetime. Only you will know the muffled fear as you feel your hot breath close to you and the struggle to breathe as you wait for the trapdoor to open.’
The Dutchman paused while he lit another cigarette and the haze between the two of them thickened. For the first time, the Belgian could detect the very slightest trace of a smile on the Englishman’s face, before it faded as he leaned back into the shadows again. The Belgian was sure he was on the verge of losing all physical control. Nothing that the instructors had told him had prepared him for this moment. The Dutchman was in no hurry to continue as he carefully examined the lit end of his cigarette from different angles, before placing it again between his lips and inhaling deeply. He stared again at the Belgian. He could see it in his eyes now. There was a moment when their eyes told him it was over. It was usually quite sudden, the realisation that they knew the game was up. Often, this look of doom appeared before the man realised it himself. With a quiet satisfaction, he spoke again.
‘So, what I need to know, Mr Vermeulen, is whether you wish to join the eight agents in unmarked graves under the walls of a British prison, or whether you want to join the two whose necks are still intact?’
Vermeulen was sobbing now, so much so that it was some time before he could speak properly. They were enormous sobs of sheer fear.
‘You see, Vermeulen, I think the Germans see you as clerk, nothing more than that. I think your role is to help another agent. Someone more important, perhaps. I could be wrong, but that is my guess. Am I right?’
The Belgian fought hard to control his breathing before he was able to speak.
‘I was never a Nazi, sir, I was fooled. There has been a misunderstanding, sir. I wanted to help Belgium. This is all such a relief to be able to tell you the truth and to be able to help you.’
He was pleading now, his arms stretched out towards the two men in front of him. He did not know whether to be terrified or relieved. He was shaking and his voice quavering.
‘I did not hate the Jews. Mendelssohn is one of my favourite composers and my dentist — he is a Jew. I promise you, I never supplied any information to the Germans. I promise you, sir. I always intended that the minute the agent tried to give me information here, I would contact the authorities. You have my word.’