Authors: Alex Gerlis
At that moment, the ball ran towards him. Owen ambled over to trap it. As his did so, the boy ran over to collect it. Owen trapped it and flicked it up for the boy to catch it neatly.
For a moment, just a moment, the two looked at each other. Owen knew it was fanciful to imagine that there was any connection there as far as the boy was concerned. Just curiosity. But he did look him directly in the eye and flash him the broadest of smiles before running back to join his friends.
Owen stayed for another few minutes. He was blinking back the tears now, the first time he had cried in fifteen years. He moved a bit further away from where the boys were playing, towards the safety offered by the lengthening shadow of the trees.
He was not sure what to do now. The journey that had begun fifteen years ago in Strasbourg had finally come to an end.
As he and André had driven away from Strasbourg that February night in 1945 he could not be sure that he was doing the right thing. He realised that he could hardly just turn up in England with his son. Who would believe his story? Edgar was unlikely to come to his aid, probably quite the opposite. What proof did he have? How could he bring him up on his own? What would his parents say? Everyone would probably treat him as if he was mad. Literally mad. When he thought about it, he realised his son would probably be put into care. Another war orphan.
They had argued in the car. Owen told André the plan that was forming in his head. ‘He is your son,’ André had insisted. ‘You cannot abandon him.’
Owen told André that the most important thing that he could give to his son was the chance of a normal life and he knew where he could get that.
For the past fifteen years he had hoped that he had made the right decision. Now he was sure that he had.
He moved around the pitch, still in the safety of the shade thrown by the tall trees in the late afternoon sun. He was aware that he cut a solitary figure and he did not want to draw attention to himself. Mostly, he felt a sense of relief. His son was clearly healthy and happy. But as he watched him playing with his friends, he could not fail to be reminded of himself at that age. The same build, the same turn of speed and even his own favoured position on the right wing.
But he also thought of how his mind used to wander when he was that age, returning home after a game of football or cricket. He’d pass the families walking through the park and assume that would be him one day. That is all he wanted then, nothing more than a beautiful wife and a couple of children.
Be careful what you wish for.
A few minutes later Owen noticed a couple moving slowly to the side of the pitch: Françoise and Lucien. Naturally, they looked much older that when he had first met them in 1944, broken and totally bereft in their house near Boulogne. Lucien was walking, although with the aid of a stick.
They had come to collect their son. They were calling out for him to come and join them.
The Best of Our Spies
The Best of Our Spies
is a work of fiction, many of the events described in it and some of the characters are based on fact.
At the heart of the book is the Allied invasion of northern Europe which began on 6 June 1944 – D-Day. The Battle of Normandy was ultimately successful but in its early stages, all did not go according to plan. Despite having air superiority and many other advantages, it took the Allied armies far longer to break out of Normandy than the original battle-plan envisaged.
There can be little doubt that history would have been very different had the Germans not split their forces in northern France between the Pas de Calais (where their superior Fifteenth Army and most of their Panzer divisions were based) and Normandy (where the Seventh Army was based). This was due in major part to the dramatically successful Allied deception operation known as Operation Fortitude. Details of Operation Fortitude only began to emerge many years after the war, which is why it is never referred to by name in the book.
There is no doubt that Operation Fortitude succeeded in convincing Hitler and many of his generals that the main Allied landings would be to the north east of Normandy, in the Pas de Calais. The deception was ingenious enough to continue to fool the Germans for a few weeks after D-Day, thereby delaying the sending of reinforcements from the Pas de Calais to Normandy. By the time they realised that there were never going to be landings in the Pas de Calais, it was too late. Arguably, this was the critical deciding factor in ultimately determining the Allied victory in Europe.
Fortitude was a complex operation and there were many aspects to it, including the creation of the ‘dummy’ army called FUSAG (First US Army Group), apparently based in the south east of England (and referred to in Chapter 21), along with the use of inflatable tanks and deliberately misleading radio traffic. Perhaps the most effective aspect of Fortitude was the use of agents sent to Britain by the Germans and whom the Allies turned into double agents so as to send false information back to the Germans. Perhaps the best known of these was a Spaniard called Juan Pujol, who was known as Agent Garbo.
The London Reception Centre at the Royal Victoria Patriotic School in Wandsworth, the Double Cross Committee, the SOE (Special Operations Executive), the London Controlling Section and COSSAC all existed. F Section of the SOE sent some 470 agents into occupied France, many of whom were flown in by Lysanders of 161 Squadron of the RAF. All the BBC broadcasts on and before 5 and 6 June are accurately quoted. HMS
was sunk on 22 May 1941, during the Battle of Crete.
Neither the hospital at Calcotte Grange nor Lincoln House where Owen Quinn worked are real places, although Duke Street in St James’s was at the heart of a number of organisations related to D-Day. The Free French were based in Duke Street and the headquarters of COSSAC were round the corner in St James’s Square. The Chequers Tavern is still there in Duke Street and Geales restaurant in Notting Hill Gate, where Owen and Nathalie went for dinner in Chapter 15, also exists to this day.
The Nazi concentration camp of Natzweiler in the Vosges Mountains, referred to in Chapter 29, did exist. Known by its full name of Natzweiler Struthof, this was the only concentration camp on French territory. Its main purpose was to deal with political prisoners and resistance fighters (a number of SOE agents were murdered there). However, Jewish prisoners were transported there from concentration camps in the east to be murdered in its gas chambers so that their bodies could be transported to the nearby University of Strasbourg. Their corpses were then used for racial medical experiments by August Hirt.
The German agent Cognac is fictional. It had long been believed that throughout World War Two, no Nazi agents in the United Kingdom evaded capture. However, in 2006 the Public Records Office in London released papers suggesting that an Abwehr spy called Wilhelm Moerz did operate in Britain throughout the war and evaded capture. Cognac is loosely based on Moerz. The FTP – Francs-Tireurs et Partisans – was one of the most active of the French resistance groups. The details of the treatment and fate of Parisian Jewry are based on fact.
Many of the German characters in the book did exist in real life. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was head of the Abwehr until early 1944. His opposition to Hitler and his increasing anti-Nazi tendencies, along with contacts with Allied Intelligence, are now well known. The extent to which he was aware that the Germans were being deceived into believing that the Pas de Calais was the main destination of the Allies is unknown. What is clear is that he and many others in the German military (including those involved in the July 1944 ‘Valkyrie’ bomb plot) had realised long before D-Day that Germany was beaten and accordingly felt that it was in Germany’s interests for the war to end as soon as possible. The circumstances of his execution, along with his deputy, Generalmajor Hans Oster, are accurate. The Abwehr case officer in the story, Georg Lange, is fictional.
Apart from the major historical characters referred to in passing, none of the other characters in the book existed in real life. Any connection between any of these characters and people who may have existed in real life is, of course, purely coincidental.
The true events around D-Day, Operation Fortitude, the occupation and liberation of France and the opposition to Hitler will always be more dramatic than any work of fiction. Nonetheless, I hope that
The Best of Our Spies
does, in some modest way, shine a well-deserved light on the sheer brilliance and guile of the deception operation that played such a critical, yet still understated part in the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe.
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