Heil 15 März

Prague – the capital of the Czech Republic that was in 1939 the capital of Czechoslovakia

Heil 15 März, or Hail the fifteenth of March, was the cipher key used by SS signal regiments in the field in 1937. The Nazis entered Prague, taking control of Bohemia and Moravia on that day in 1939. Was it a coincidence that this date was already in the mind of the German high command some two years earlier? Who can know for sure? But what we do know is that the Czechoslovakian government had ample warning of the probable invasion of their country because the code was given by a German double-agent to the Czech intelligence service in December 1937.

What came next was the Munich Agreement. The greatest effort to avoid a world war or the greatest betrayal of a sovereign state? It depends whose side you were on. Two men had no illusions about what they thought would happen. One was the Czech president, Edvard Beneš and the other was Churchill. Beneš had been instrumental in negotiating the setting up of Czechoslovakia after the First World War and had been president since 1935. Hitler loathed him and frequently mentioned him in his speeches as the embodiment of cowardice. He challenged the Czech president to hand over the Sudetenland to Germany but Beneš refused. He tried everything in his power to accommodate the Sudeten Germans wishes in order to avoid war but on one subject, the free expression of Nazi doctrine on Czech soil, he would not back down. Many thought that he had offered too many concessions but, as his biographer wrote later, it was beyond the courage of any man to take responsibility for throwing the world into war.

Hitler was never going to be satisfied with anything Beneš offered him in the way of concessions. He needed not just the Sudetenland but the whole of Czechoslovakia and for two reasons: one was a matter of geography. Czechoslovakia jutted deeply into German territory and with its military strength it had been the keystone of the post-war French alliance in the east. And with the German plans of expansion announced in Mein Kampf the country stood in the way. Secondly, by the late 1930s Czechoslovakia had developed heavy industry with an enviable record of workers’ rights including an eight hour day; sickness and employment insurance, government aid for housing and more besides. Hitler would have a ready-made highly skilled work force to boot. A French writer and politician saw this all too clearly in 1938 writing in Époque: ‘Bohemia and Slovakia are a bastion, a great junction that commands all the roads of Europe. With Czechoslovakia under her rule, Germany will be able to encircle Poland and Hungary, and gain an outlet to the reserves of oil and wheat in Rumania and Russia. If Hitler takes Prague, he will, in fact, have become master of Europe.’

Churchill saw this too. He was implacably opposed to appeasement and made no secret of his fear of the dire consequences of Chamberlain’s plans to negotiate with Hitler using Czechoslovakia as a bargaining chip. On 21st September 1938, a full eight days before the Munich Agreement was signed, Churchill wrote: ‘It is not Czechoslovakia alone which is menaced, but also the freedom and the democracy of all nations. The belief that security can be obtained by throwing a small nation to the wolves is a fatal delusion.’

After the agreement was signed he was even more gloomy. He stood up in the House of Commons and predicted a terrible fate for Europe. He bemoaned the lack of preparation, particularly in the field of air defence. He said: ‘We have been reduced in those five years from a position of security so overwhelming and so unchallengeable that we never cared to think about it. We have been reduced from a position where the very word ‘war’ was considered one which would only be used by persons qualifying for a lunatic asylum.’

President Edvard Beneš (with hat) and members of the Czechoslovak military intelligence services in Britain, July 1940 courtesy Jaroslav Tauer c/o Neil Rees

Czech Intelligence had been feeding the British secret services with information about the build up of Goering’s Luftwaffe for years. They had nurtured two German spies who produced valuable and accurate information from the early nineteen thirties. The first agent, known as A52, was Major Selm. He was deeply in debt and needed large amounts of money to fund his lavish life-style. He turned double agent and for his information on numbers of planes of the various fighter and bomber types, on the nature and training of pilots and their support crews as well as battle tactics he was paid 2 million Czech crowns, worth about £6,000,000 today ($8 million). In 1936 he was rumbled by German counter-espionage, caught and beheaded. The second agent, A54, was even more valuable to the Czechs and the British. His identity was not known by the Allies until a decade after the war but his information was of the highest calibre. It turned out that he was a high-ranking Abwehr officer and a member of the Nazi party who, for unexplained reasons, was disillusioned with the regime and he betrayed many secrets that were highly damaging to Germany, including details about Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.

A54 Paul Thümmel 1902-1942

In 1937 A54 gave the head of Czech Intelligence, General František Moravec, the cipher keys Heil 15 März and fifteen months later, at the beginning of March 1939, he appeared in person in Prague to warn Moravec and his team about the proposed invasion. Moravec wrote later how ‘the master spy stood facing me, stiff and erect. We were all standing – almost to attention – as we listed to A54’s report, which made it perfectly clear that in exactly eleven days our country would cease to exist.’ When Moravec warned the Czech Parliament of the impending invasion the following day he was dismissed and told to go and ‘bring us better news in the future’. It was the most humiliating experience of his life.

On the evening of 14 March Moravec and ten of his closest intelligence colleagues flew out of Prague with their most valuable files. The following morning, 15 March 1939, the Germans made their move and, as A54 predicted, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. A tragic anniversary but one to be marked, nonetheless. It is one of many stories told in Our Uninvited Guests.

A Quiet Celebration of International Women’s Day

Lady Denman, the inspirational chairman of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes showed women courage by example during the Second World War.

I celebrate women every day of my writing life. I do it quietly and with respect, humour and awe. I write about ordinary women who do extraordinary things when faced with intractable problems or simply difficult situations. So while I am thrilled with all the fuss being made about International Women’s Day in this significant year marking the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, I don’t want to lose track of the immense and often dogged bravery of women who are not famous but whose lives are nevertheless impressive.

My current book, which happens to be coming out on 8 March 2018, is not about the Suffragettes or feminists, so it seems to be somewhat out of tune with the current zeitgeist. Or is it? I revisited the stories of women in the book and a few sprang out at me immediately. These are tales of how everyday women rose to the challenge of the times and did things that they did not know they were capable of. Sometimes it was out and out bravery, such as the women who became special agents, at other times it was all about being calm and coping in strained circumstances.

Barbara and Antony Bertram c. 1937

Mrs Bertram, or Madame Bertram as she was known to her French agents, was one such. She secretly housed over a hundred men and women in her modest house in Sussex during the Second World War. She called them the hullabaloos, so named by her two little boys who couldn’t understand the excited babble of conversation that was to be heard in Bignor Manor during the ‘Moon Period’. Those were the two weeks every month when it was light enough for pilots to fly by the light of the moon and drop their precious cargo in France.

This cargo comprised men and women who were working with the French Résistance either as agents, radio operators or couriers. The risks for them were immense. Once in France they had to evade discovery by the Nazis, knowing full well that if they were captured they would be tortured and almost certainly killed. Mrs Bertram provided a safe house for them with comfort, food and friendship. She always managed to find flowers for the bedrooms and cigarettes for the nervous smokers. Her store cupboard was a miracle of minutiae and she prided herself on being able to put her hand on any single thing the agents might want, from hairpins to typewriter ribbons. When returning agents arrived at the house they were given ‘Reception Pie’ which might be a pie or bacon and eggs, but it was delicious and always welcome. When some of them cleaned their muddy boots on the doorstep she would scoop up the mud ‘so that I could offer salad grown on French soil to the next moon’s French’.

Agents were flown from Tangmere in Sussex by Lysander into France. The little planes could barely accommodate three passengers

It is those little gestures of kindness that move me when I write about women. Another perhaps not exactly ‘ordinary’ woman was Lady Bearsted. When she and her husband moved to Upton House in Warwickshire she noticed that the local midwife was doing her rounds on a bicycle, even in the depths of winter. So Lady Bearsted bought her a car. She could afford to but it strikes me still as thoughtful and practical. She noticed children were walking to school along the road and having to jump on the verges if a car or lorry drove by. So Lady Bearsted paid for a pavement for them. During the war, by which time she was nearly sixty, she ran a mobile canteen in bombed out London.

Suzanne Warren soon after she escaped from the Gestapo

Suzanne Warren was one of the heroine-types, if they must be type-cast. She was French but she had a strong link to Britain, having spent much of her childhood visiting Clacton-on-Sea. After the fall of France she could not face the idea of sitting idly by as the Germans marched across her country and into the capital, Paris, where she was living with two aunts. So she decided she would do anything she could to undermine them. At first she acted as a courier, helping to get men left behind after Dunkirk out of France via Spain. It as dangerous work and she was part of an organisation that was ultimately betrayed. She was captured by the Germans and severely tortured but she managed to escape and get to the coast where she was picked up and brought to Britain. At the time she appears in my book she was undergoing Special Operations training in the West Highlands and hoped to be flown back into France. Luckily for Suzanne the liberation of Paris and France came before she was sent back but she would have gone. She was brave to the bottom of her boots.

Another woman who was brave in a very different way was Elsie. She was pregnant as a result of a love affair with a married man (she too was married). Naturally enough she was in deep disgrace and her family disowned her. She left home with one suitcase containing her worldly goods and, accompanied by her partner in crime, as she described him, went to Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire where she was giving a serious ticking off by Matron on her arrival. The partner was sent packing and Elsie was taken below stairs where she was given a brown uniform and told she would have to work in the washing and drying rooms until she went into the second stage of labour. The Brownies, so-called because of their uniforms, were not allowed to be seen by the legitimate mothers for fear that their scandal would pollute their pure worlds.

Mothers in the Prince Regent suite at Brocket Hall recovering from childbirth. Naturally enough there are no photographs of the Brownies

Eventually Elsie went into labour and had a baby girl. She was not allowed to bond with the baby and it was taken away after a week for adoption. After the baby had gone Elsie was sent back down into the kitchens where she was given a blue dress and allowed to wait on the mothers upstairs. She never said anything about her own grief for the baby but she wrote about others:

Most of the girls knew it would be impossible to keep their babies and all they had to look forward to was leaving Brocket heart-broken. Sometimes we got to hear when one of the Brownie babies was going to be collected for adoption. We all congregated at the window which overlooked the back entrance to watch the baby being carried out by the nurse and handed to the adopting parents. How can you hope to ease the pain after the mother had witnessed that? She had loved the baby so much for just a few days and may never have the chance to have another. It was sheer torture for her and we all went to bed very sad and subdued on those nights.

If that doesn’t call for courage, I do not know what does.

For International Women’s Day I say a loud ‘hurrah for brave women’ and then I say it quietly every day of my life even if no one is listening.

Our Uninvited Guests is now on sale in all good bookshops