I’m easily distracted. This was going to be a short story. Going through my file of scraps of this and scraps of that, I found a scrap that said – enigmatically, even for me – Story set in Lydd. Story set in Lydd is not much to go on, on a grey Thursday morning with snow, or more likely that dank, British sort of rain, in prospect. Whatever had I been thinking?
“Story set in Lydd” will no doubt be forthcoming, but whilst researching it I stumbled across an unbelievable real story. An actual, sad, funny, tragic wartime tale of spies and the planned Invasion of Kent. Looking up Lyddite, a particularly nasty and corrosive sort of gunpowder that was developed on the shingle banks at Lydd, I found a mention of four spies captured at Lydd during the second world war.
I dug a bit further and came across an old book by novelist Graham Greene and his brother Hugh. Hugh Greene was Director General of the BBC from 1960 – 1969. Graham Greene was a famous English novelist, Catholic and depressive. (I remember as a teenager being horrified by a passage in one of Graham Greene’s essays where he casually describes playing Russian roulette with a loaded gun.) Recruited into MI6 by his sister Elizabeth, who happened to work there, he was to become a spy and travel widely.
On the 2nd of September 1940 four young men embarked on a fishing boat at Le Touquet. The little boat was escorted across the Channel by three minesweepers. The crew of the boat were probably Russians, and maybe a Latvian. They may have been very drunk, as afterwards none of them were able to give a coherent account of the journey.
The four spies consisted of three Dutchmen and one German. The Dutchmen were there because having committed some minor offence they had been blackmailed into it. They had been told that an Invasion of Kent was imminent. They were to hunt in pairs, sending back information of military importance. They had been issued with an elementary wireless set and a book of ciphers. Other than that, these poor young men had had no training whatsoever.
To make things worse, whilst one of the Dutchmen spoke fluent English the others had only a smattering. The German spoke fluent French, but no English. Also, one of the Dutchmen had a Japanese mother, and his clearly oriental appearance was bound to arouse suspicion.
Two of the Dutchman were arrested almost immediately after landing at Hythe. The one German succeeded in setting up his radio, keeping the aerial aloft by means of a tree. In his fluent French he transmitted a single message, but it is difficult to see what use, or even sense, his military supervisors could have made of it:
“This is the exact position yesterday evening at 6 o’clock where three Messerschmitts fired machine guns in my direction 300 metres south of the water reservoir painted red.”
And what had happened to the third poor Dutchman? It seems that all four of them may also have been drinking the night before, with the Russian crew, trying to find some Dutch Courage. At breakfast time the next morning, hung-over and thirsty, the third Dutchman (presumably the one with the fluent English) went in to a public house in Lydd – the Rising Sun – and asked for some cider. The landlady pointed out to him that under the British Licensing Laws of the time it would be illegal for her to sell alcohol to him before 10 in the morning. She suggested he went and have a look round the church in the meantime, and come back at 10 o’clock. So he went away and – unbelievably – returned to the Rising Sun at 10, when he was arrested. The police had been waiting for him. Why didn’t they didn’t go to the church, I wonder?
Unfortunately this story, though farcical enough, does not have a cosy Dad’s Army ending. All four of these unhappy young men were tried under the Treason Act, in November 1940. One of the blackmailed Dutchmen was acquitted but at Pentonville Prison, London, in the December the other three were hanged.