The Neal James Website

                              Le Fantôme du Maquis

                     

                               

 

 

1

 

 

            Alan Harrison turned from the window through which he had been staring for the last five minutes and looked at the young man sitting at the opposite side of his desk. He had been the governor of the North Sea Camp Borstal since its opening in 1935, and John Naylor had been in and out of the institution on two occasions. Knocking out the contents of his pipe into an ashtray, he sighed and sat down.

            “All right, Mr Brough,” he said. “That’ll be all; I’ll call for you when Naylor and I are finished.”

            “Sir.” The clipped reply was typical of an army NCO which was, in fact, what Brough had been until an honourable discharge at the age of forty in 1934.

            With the door now closed and privacy assured, Harrison opened the brown manila file on the desk before him. He read again the contents, slowly shaking his head at the familiar words. He closed it and looked into Naylor’s eyes.

            “What is it, John, that drives you back here time and again?”

            “Don’t know, sir,” Naylor replied, looking directly ahead.

            John Naylor had one week left to serve at North Sea Camp and then he would once more be free to return home and carry on with his life. That life had been one of juvenile delinquency since early childhood, and he had progressed through a range of institutions culminating in two visits to the Borstal run by Alan Harrison.

            He had been born in 1916 to a tannery worker in the Derbyshire village of Langley Mill. His father, Reginald, had served with the British army and was killed at the Battle of Cambrai on 22nd November 1917. Left to bring up their son alone, Emily Naylor worked tirelessly to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads, but by the time John was seven he had become a troublesome youngster. Roaming the streets after school, he was a constant source of irritation to neighbours on Sedgwick Street initially, and then further afield as he grew older. When Emily died from pneumonia in 1926, John was sent to live with an aunt in Nottingham.

            From the age of ten until his first incarceration at Approved School, the youngster took to the city’s streets, regularly missing school and finding amusement with a group of older boys in the Meadows area of his new home. Jean, his aunt, struggled hard to cope with the disruption of her formerly placid life but when, at the age of nineteen, he was sent to North Sea Camp for the second time, she made it clear that he was no longer welcome in her home.

            “Look, lad,” Harrison said. “You need to get your life sorted out. I don’t want to see you back here in another few months. How old are you now? Twenty-one?”

            “Twenty, sir,” John replied.

            “Twenty,” the governor shook his head again. “You do understand that if you carry on like this you’ll probably end up in prison, don’t you? Borstal can only take you up to twenty-three, and it’s a much harder life inside.”

            “Yes, sir.” Naylor stared at the floor, suddenly realising the seriousness of his situation.

            “Have you considered joining the army? They’ll give you training, and at least you’ll have a home to go to now that Nottingham’s no longer an option.”

            “Sir?” Naylor looked up – he had never considered the lifeline that Harrison was holding out to him.

            “Go and speak to Mr Brough, son. He was an RSM in the Northumberland Fusiliers; I’m sure if you ask him politely he’ll point you in the right direction.”

            “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” John replied, brightening suddenly.

            “Well, this time next week you’ll be free again, and I really don’t want to see you back. You’re much better than the rest of the lads in here.”

            As good as his word, John Naylor spent an hour with an extremely surprised Arthur Brough and, at the end of that time, came away with not only the address of the recruiting office in Nottingham, but also the name of a former colleague in the army. One week later he left Nottingham, bound for the Northamptonshire Regiment in Wootton; from there he was sent for basic training in the Norfolk town of Thetford with a number of other new recruits.

            Naylor prospered in the disciplined lifestyle which the army presented to him. He had always considered himself to be reasonably fit, but a regime of route marches, frequently in excess of twenty miles, and daily drill under the watchful eye of SM Barrowman, saw him quickly become one of the best recruits in his company. By the end of his ten week stint at the Norfolk camp, he was looking forw ard to a brighter future in his new ‘family’.

            When the war clouds began to gather over Europe in 1938, John had been in the Northamptonshires for almost two years and, as a result of dedication to the task at hand, had risen to the rank of corporal. He looked at the new recruits coming through ‘B’ Company and smiled - had he really be that raw himself? When war was declared by Neville Chamberlain’s government on 3rd September 1939, he was amongst the first of the Northamptonshire Regiment to be sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force committed to driving the German invaders out of Poland.

            Nine months later, he was a member of the rear guard protecting the retreating British and French forces on the road to the beaches of Dunkerque where a flotilla of small boats was ferrying soldiers to larger ships offshore.

            “Corporal Naylor!” the command came from Lieutenant Peters. “Take a dozen of your best shots and pin the Jerries down at the end of the street.”

            “Yes, sir,” John replied. Calling out a series of names, he led the way back along the rubble-strewn street and took up a position at the crossroads one hundred yards from the retreating members of ‘B’ Company.

            A steady toll was taken of the advancing German infantry during the following two hours, as a regular stream of sniper fire from both sides of the ruined French street kept them pinned down and unable to make any headway. That scenario suddenly changed with the appearance of the tank summoned to clear the way.

            “Fall back!” Naylor shouted. “Two sections – one covering the other.”

            With his group now retreating before the advancing armour, Naylor saw his chance. The tank commander, seeing the fleeing British troops, appeared above the turret for a better view of the street. Passing Naylor’s position without a sideways glance, he was unaware of the danger into which he had allowed his crew to stray. John looked back up the street and, seeing no infantry, made his move. He stole in behind the vehicle; a burst of shell fire from the tank concealed his progress up the track guard and by the time the commander turned it was too late. A crushing blow from Naylor’s rifle butt sent him slumping back into the interior of the tank, and he was followed by a fistful of grenades dropped in behind him by the now fleeing British corporal.

            The four-second fuse gave Naylor just enough time to dive for cover as the tank exploded killing all those on board and sending the first wave of advancing German infantrymen running for shelter amongst the ruins of the once beautiful street. John took the opportunity to make good his escape, joining up with the rest of his company at the beach,

            “What was all that, Naylor?” Lieutenant Peters asked. “The rest of your men arrived here a while ago.”

            “Just a bit of a lesson for the Jerries, sir,” John smiled. “Where’s the Bren?”

            Moving back up the beach, Naylor set the machine gun up to cover the end of the street now blocked by the burning tank. His only targets would be the German infantry inching past the searing heat of the wreckage – they were easy prey, and bought more time for those on the beach. He maintained his position for a full hour until ordered to withdraw by his commanding officer; he was one of the last to leave for the ‘little ship’ sent to rescue them.

            Back home, and at regimental headquarters ten weeks after Operation Dynamo, he stood to attention before his battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Dodsley. Dodsley had served in the Great War and had risen to his current rank by means of the same kind of action for which he was now about to reward Naylor.

            “Corporal Naylor,” he barked. “Your field promotion to sergeant, awarded by Lieutenant Peters, is confirmed and the regiment is proud at the recommendation of the award of the Military Cross in recognition of your acts of outstanding bravery in the face of the enemy at Dunkerque.”

            Naylor snapped to attention and saluted smartly. Once free from the ceremony, and after a round of handshakes from his fellow ‘B’ Company regulars, he was summoned to a side room by Lieutenant Peters who gave him a note.

            “I’ve been ordered to give you this,” he said.

            Naylor frowned in puzzlement at reading the contents and looked up at his superior officer.                     

            “I don’t understand, sir. Am I being discharged?”

            “All I know, sergeant, is that the man whose name is on that note has pulled some strings to get you seconded to his unit from the Northants. Can’t tell you anymore, but I’d get your skates on if I were you.”

            Two days later, Sergeant John Naylor was in London’s Baker Street, knocking on a plain door bearing the number on the note in his hand. He was greeted by the smiling face of an older man who opened it.

            “Sergeant Naylor?” he asked. “Please come in; we’ve been expecting you.”

            With the door now closed behind him, John Naylor was about to ask why he had been pulled out of his unit – he was beaten to the punch.

            “My name is Ralph Morrison – welcome to the ranks of the SOE.”

 

 

2

 

            “The what?” Naylor asked as he followed Morrison into a sparsely furnished office.

            “SOE, Mr Naylor, stands for Special Operations Executive.” He waved to a chair on the other side of the desk where he was now sitting. “Do please take a seat.”

            “And what does it do?”

            “The Special Operations Executive is a new organisation. It was officially formed by Hugh Dalton, the Minister of Economic Warfare on 22nd July, to conduct espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements.”

            “Never heard of it.”

            “Oh, few people are aware of SOE's existence, Mr Naylor.”

            “It’s Sergeant Naylor, Mr Morrison – I’m in the army.”

            “No longer, I’m afraid.” Morrison smiled and sat back in his chair. “You’ve been officially transferred to us under emergency powers - we are at war, you know.”

            “Okay, what do want me for?” Naylor crossed his arms and sat back.

            Opening the top right hand drawer of his desk, Morrison placed a file before himself and opened it. He smiled as he leafed through the pages, enjoying Naylor’s irritation at a situation which was out of his control.

            “I see that you’ve been in trouble quite a few times down the years.”

            “How did you get those…?” 

            “We have our ways and means, even at this early stage in our development, and we need people like you.” He paused, briefly, to let the statement sink in. “I understand that your last stay at the North Sea Camp was as a result of a shooting.”

            “Pigeons.”

            “You were sent to Borstal for shooting pigeons? What did you use, a double-barrel shotgun?”

            “An air rifle - while they were in flight.”

            “Impressive, but surely shooting pigeons shouldn’t have earned you a place at North Sea Camp.”

            “They were the local police sergeant’s racing pigeons, and he wasn’t very pleased about it.”

            “Ah, yes, I see. That would explain it.” Morrison smiled again. “You no doubt took that skill into the army with you, as I can see that your record on the firing range was exceptional whilst you were undergoing basic training.”

            “Static targets are a piece of cake once you get used to the kick of a Lee Enfield; I never failed to hit the bull’s-eye.”

            “That’s going to come in very handy where we’ll be sending you after you’ve had some additional training. You’ll have to go through a crash course in French and German, though. I’m afraid there’s no way around that.”

            “Not necessary.”

            “I beg your pardon?” Morison looked up from the file where he had been reading of Naylor’s exploits at Dunkerque.

            “I’m fluent in both.”

            “How so?”

            “My mother was Swiss, and after she died my aunt couldn’t cope with me all the time, so in the school holidays she sent me over to Switzerland to stay with her mother and father. They run a hotel just outside Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland. I picked up both languages pretty quickly – you can do that when you’re very young.”

            “Well, that’s certainly going to help,” he said. “You will, of course, cease to exist from this moment as John Naylor, and we’ll furnish you with all of the paperwork and information to establish a new identity. You’ll undergo a six month training regime which will provide you with all of the skills and knowledge needed by an operative working behind enemy lines.”

            “So, I’m to be a spy?” Naylor asked.

            “No, that would take far too long,” said Morrison. “The French are setting up a resistance movement – they’re calling it the Maquis – and the task for you and others like you is to train them in acts of guerrilla warfare against the occupying forces.”

            “How do I keep in touch with you?”

            “You won’t at the start; that would be far too dangerous. Supplies will come through a series of pre-arranged night-time drops, but essentially you’re on your own once your briefing is completed.”

            “Seems I have no choice in the matter.”

            “Excellent!” beamed Morrison. “The sooner we get started, the better.”

            John Naylor’s six month training was carried out at a secret base in Snowdonia. Summer quickly turned to autumn and winter, and conditions in the Welsh mountains soon made army life seem like a distant dream. He learned survival techniques, armed and unarmed combat, use of explosives, and sabotage. From a raw recruit back in 1936 he had become a hardened freedom fighter, prepared to kill without question and dispose of any evidence efficiently. He was also drafted into SOE’s language program to train other recruits without his native abilities. By February 1941 he was ready and sitting once more in the Baker Street office where he had first met Ralph Morrison.

            “We have your first assignment.” Morrison looked up from an identical file to the one he read from at their first meeting. This time, however, he slid it across the desk. “You’ll be dropped by parachute under cover of darkness outside the town of Abbeville in the French region of Picardy. There you will be met by members of the Maquis and taken to a place of safety; you will do as they say without question and their leader will brief you.”

            “That would be…?”

            “There are no names in that file except for your own. The Maquis will tell you all that you need to know at their end. For the moment, you have one week to memorise your new identity.” Morrison paused. “You also have to understand that the Gestapo will certainly have operatives working in the same area - do I make myself clear?”

            “Perfectly, but if it’s that dangerous why not leave it to the French?”

            “Because once the Nazis are defeated and De Gaulle returns to France in triumph, Britain will call in the debt which his country owes through people like you. Guerrilla warfare isn’t an exercise in altruism – there’s far more at stake than you could possibly imagine.”

            “I assume that I can’t take this file away from here.”

            “Correct. You’ll live here whilst you complete the preparation work, but once you hand that information back you’ll have to remember every detail.”

            “When do I leave for France?”

            “Depending on the weather, and we need cloud cover to conceal the aircraft’s approach, it will be sometime next week and will be carried out at a moment’s notice, so be ready.”

            The Westland Lysander crossed the English Channel on Thursday of the following week shortly after midnight. Its course failed to attract the attention of any German forces either on the ground or in the air, and a single parachute opened automatically as the sole passenger left the plane. John Naylor’s descent was smooth and uneventful, and the training he received on the parachute equipment in Snowdonia gave him an almost soundless landing.

            Almost immediately, three figures appeared out of the tree cover to his left and he feared, initially, that his mission had been compromised. A French voice removed all of his doubts.

            “Come with me, quickly,” it said. “German patrols are common even at this time of night.”

            Their destination was a farmhouse two miles from the drop zone, and John was ushered in through the back door. The room was lit only by a log fire and candles - all of the windows were covered by thick curtains. An older man approached as they entered.

            “Good evening, I am Pierre Clichy,” he stretched out a hand. “You must be Gaston Dubois.”

            “I am,” John replied, wondering if the man also knew his true identity; he took the proffered hand and smiled in reply.

 

 

3

 

The extent of the gaps in the knowledge of the Abbeville Maquis became apparent to John Naylor very quickly. A group of dedicated and enthusiastic patriots, their harassment of the occupying German forces had been limited, so far, to sporadic and largely ineffective raids on their stores. Nothing of any real value had been obtained beyond the odd item of small arms and other equipment. They lacked not only the raw materials to mount a serious assault on the Nazi war machine, but also the technical know-how to use those resources even if they had them.

Using a range of prop materials, Naylor demonstrated how to plant, arm, and wire an explosive device to inflict maximum damage to a range of German facilities. He also trained the small team in methods of silent approach, camouflage, and a variety of ways of killing an enemy without leaving any evidence behind. In six weeks, he had around him a well-coached group of resistance fighters all of whom were prepared to lay down their lives for their country. The first real test came with information relating to the movement of a consignment of arms destined for the German front line. At a clandestine meeting the day before the arrival of the train, Naylor laid out the details of the plan which he had concocted.

“Timing is the key,” he said. “We need to lay the explosives just before the scheduled arrival; too early and we risk discovery by German patrols, too quickly and we’ll probably fail to set the devices properly. Stick to the training which I’ve given you and we’ll be fine. Any questions?”

The ensuing silence gave Naylor some comfort, and preparations began for the laying of explosive charges along a section of the track three kilometres to the south east of the town. Just after midnight on the day in question, the group of six were in position under cover of trees. Naylor looked at his watch.

“Okay, we split up into three groups and plant two sets of charges each,” he said. “Make sure you lay them twenty metres apart so that we inflict maximum damage to the train.”

“What about anyone leaving it?” The question came from one of the two women in the group. Naylor had not really noticed her before, but as she stepped forward he held his breath; she stood five feet six, had black hair and a pale complexion.  Beyond that, her features were denied to him by the darkness. Nevertheless, he felt an instant attraction which he shook off with some difficulty.

“I’ll take care of that,” he replied. “Pierre,” he turned to the older man who had greeted him on his arrival at the Abbeville farm, “you man the plunger, and wait for my signal.”

Clichy nodded, and Naylor was glad of the diversion which the instruction had given him - there would be time to return to the subject of the young woman at a later stage. With an hour left before the arrival their target the group split up on their individual missions, returning forty-five minutes later with the cables connecting the detonators to the explosive charges which had been laid. Naylor stripped the wires and wound them around the plunger terminals as the rest of the group watched. He turned to Clichy.

“Pierre, as long as the plunger is down, we’re safe. When I give you the first signal, pull it upwards to arm the connection, but wait for me to drop my hand to depress it fully, Okay?”

“Of course, Gaston,” he replied.

Naylor still found his new name and identity strange, but nodded in return. His attention was drawn away by the sound of an approaching train in the distance behind the trees further down the line.

“Positions,” he said.

The munitions train was advancing at speed from Pont-Remy, and Naylor watched its approach through a set of binoculars which the Maquis had stolen on one of its earlier forays against the local German garrison. He raised his hand as it closed on their position and Clichy pulled the plunger up to its full height. A raised finger held the Frenchman’s attention as John counted down to its arrival at the point where the explosives had been laid.

“Now!” He dropped his arm, and the plunger hit the box with a thud. For a moment nothing happened and Naylor thought that the detonators had all misfired. Then, with a thunderous roar, three of the wagons left the track in a flash of light; other connected trucks ignited as they came into contact with the heat generated by the first batches of explosive. Flames reached high into the sky and smoke poured into the night.

“Look!” Clichy pointed to the rear of the train where five figures, illuminated by the flames, were running from the guards’ van at the rear. “They’re getting away!”

“Stay where you are!” Naylor hissed. Unshouldering his rifle, he leaned against the nearest tree and shouted out a command in what he hoped was a convincing German accent. “Halt! Hände hoch!”

            In true Wehrmacht tradition, the five fleeing soldiers stopped in their tracks and looked around for the source of the command. It was the last thing they ever did. Naylor picked them off in rapid succession and they fell where they had been standing. The silence following the explosions was deafening, and all eyes turned to Naylor in disbelief at what they had just witnessed.

“Go!” he shouted. “Bring the bodies over here – we’ll bury them in the woods. Take from them whatever you can – guns, grenades, knives; anything that we can use.”

With the raid completed, and the train fast becoming nothing more than a smouldering wreck, the Maquis gathered up whatever kit they had taken from the dead soldiers and began to make their way back to the farmhouse three kilometres away. One of the group, a young man, walked alongside Naylor and pointed at the rifle.

“My name is Etienne. Your gun is a fine weapon; what is it?”

Naylor unshouldered the weapon once more. “A Lee Enfield Mark Four. It’s been modified for use as a sniper rifle,” he replied.

“May I hold it?”

“No, it’s not for anyone else to use.” Naylor tucked it under his arm.

“You are not a Frenchman,” Etienne, feeling snubbed, replied in the way that only one of his countrymen could; the sneer was not lost on John Naylor. “Your accent is good; good enough to fool a German, but you would never pass for one of us around here.”

“Listen.” Naylor stopped and grabbed the younger man by the sleeve. “As far as you’re concerned I’m Gaston Dubois; do you understand?”

Clichy, having heard part of the exchange, stopped and returned to their position. A flick of the head was enough to send Etienne ahead of the group.

“He’s a young man full of zeal, and with an intense hatred of anyone daring to take from him the things that he loves. The Germans are the focus of all of his loathing at present, but I fear that you may have inadvertently made an enemy of him. Take care to keep him within sight, Gaston.”

The group’s return to the farmhouse was followed by the departure of three of the team to their homes in a neighbouring town. Some of Clichy’s cell were carefully selected from outlying areas which the Germans would find hard to locate. Etienne and the young woman were the only other ones from the locality. In the light of the large kitchen, Naylor got his first clear look at the young woman he had seen in the darkness of the trees. She was a foot smaller than him; her black hair cascaded down across her shoulders, and a pair of the brownest eyes he had ever seen flashed a smile at him from across the table.

“My name is Michelle,” she said, extending a hand which Naylor took. Turning it over he planted a brief kiss upon it in true French style.

“Enchanté, mademoiselle,” he replied in flawless French.

Across the room, Etienne smouldered with rage at this insult. He had long considered that Michelle and he would reach an understanding, and now this foreigner dared to step into his territory. He left the farmhouse and slammed the door. Clichy glanced after him and shook his head; he left to fetch a bottle of wine from the cellar.

“Oh, ignore Etienne,” Michelle said with a shrug. “He believes more than he can achieve. He and I grew up together and now he thinks that I’ll marry him. He’s just a young man with a temper. You, however, are a mystery, Gaston Dubois.”

“I’m just a freedom fighter, the same as you and your group.”

“Perhaps, in your own way.” She came round the table and stood directly before him. “But I sense something more, something deeper – you’re a troubled soul, aren’t you?”

“And how could you soothe my pain?” He reached out for her hand, but she pushed him gently away.

“Maybe when we know each other a little better I’ll answer that question,” she smiled and nodded in the direction of the door. For the moment, my father returns with a celebratory drink.”

The three of them drank a bottle of the finest red wine Naylor had ever tasted, and an hour later John made his way to the outbuildings where the group had stored the weapons taken from the dead Germans; they would need to be concealed from any passing patrols. He rested his rifle against the wall and began to examine the weaponry which had been gathered. He turned swiftly at the soft footfall which betrayed Etienne’s presence, but was not quick enough to prevent the young man from seizing the Lee Enfield.

“Now let’s see how brave you are, Englishman,” he sneered. “Oh, yes, I worked that out for myself very quickly. We don’t need your kind here, and Michelle is mine. Such a pity that you were foolish enough to look at her in the way that you did. I’ll tell everyone that I heard the shot as I was leaving after checking and hiding the German guns. You have to be so careful with dangerous rifles like these.”

 

 

4

 

            “Put the gun down, Etienne, before someone gets hurt.” Naylor spoke softly to the young man, holding his gaze.

            “What’s the matter, Englishman? Are you afraid now that I have control?”

            Naylor’s eye was drawn to the barn door which had slowly begun to open, and he held his breath as the figure of Pierre Clichy moved silently to the left. The older man was too far from Etienne to attempt to disarm him and went, instead, for a direct approach.

            “What’s going on here?”

            The words sent a jolt through Etienne Gaubert, and he turned sharply to face the farmer, stepping backwards to bring both men into his arc of fire. A tense stand-off ensued as all three weighed up their options.

            “What are you thinking of, you fool!” whispered Clichy. “This man is our comrade; he risks his life in a fight which is not his own.”

            “We don’t need the English, Pierre,” he replied. “They ran away at Dunkerque instead of standing and fighting.”

            “And if they had, how many do you think would be left to carry on against the Nazis? They left to fight another day – over three hundred thousand escaped instead of being slaughtered. This man is here to help us in our struggle.”

            “No! You’re wrong.” Etienne raised the rifle, pointing at the older man. “You will share his fate!”

            Naylor, reaching behind his back whilst the young Frenchman was ranting at the farmer, pulled out his knife from the sheath attached to his belt. Etienne never saw the blade as it whistled across the barn, burying itself in his right arm just below the shoulder. Screaming in pain, he dropped the rifle, his right hand clutching at the knife in his arm. John picked up the rifle and grabbed Etienne, pulling him across the floor to a pile of straw.

            “Pierre!” he said. “I need a needle and some thread to stich this wound, and any anaesthetic that you have.”

            “Anaesthetic? We’re at war, Gaston; that’s impossible.”

            “In that case, I’ll have to resort to another method.” He looked down at Etienne, “Sorry, young man.” Raising the rifle, he brought the butt down at the back of Etienne’s head and he passed out. “I’ll staunch the blood while you get the needle and thread.”

            With the blood flow stopped and the knife wound stitched, Naylor lay the young man back on the straw. Clichy shook his head at what had happened.

            “That could have gone very badly for us all,” he said.

            “You have no idea,” replied Naylor. “He was lucky – a German would now be lying dead with that knife sticking out of his throat. What are you going to do with him?”

            “He won’t remain here after what he’s done,” the farmer said. “We can’t have members of the group fighting amongst themselves. He’s a good man, but full of his own importance – he thinks he can take on the entire Wehrmacht single-handed. We’ll get him out of the area as soon as possible. He has family in Poitiers; he’ll be safe there.”

            John Naylor’s budding relationship with Michelle Clichy developed over the course of the following eighteen months as the Maquis caused significant disruption to the German war effort in northern France. To the French he had become known as ‘Le Fantôme’, but by the end of 1943 the garrison Commander, at his wits end, was replaced by Walter Altendorf, Standartenführer in the Waffen-SS. He was a brutal man who saw no advantage in maintaining any kind of relationship with the French ‘peasantry’, and treated them with all the distain of an aristocrat, which is what he was. His appointment signalled a halt to the activities of the Abbeville Maquis, and Naylor’s recall to London came soon afterwards.

            “Don’t worry,” he said to a tearful Michelle, “I will return. When all of this is over, I’m coming back to you.”

            Two days later he was back in Baker Street sitting opposite Ralph Morrison in the very same office where his career as a saboteur had begun. The room looked just the same – faded wallpaper, yellowing white paint on the skirting boards and window frames, and curtains which had clearly seen much better days. After the homely warmth of the rural French countryside, the atmosphere in the building was depressingly drab.

            “Ralph,” Naylor said. “Where’s the fire? The recall came a bit out of the blue.”

            “You’ve done as much as you can in the Maquis - with the SS now breathing down their necks we felt it best to pull you out. Anyway, there’s a much more important matter that we need to address. Ever seen this man’s photograph before?” He slid a black and white image across the desk and John picked it up.

            “No,” he said after a cursory glance. “Who is he?”

            “Take a closer look; you’ll be expected to recognise him on sight.” Morrison lit his pipe, waved away a cloud of bluish smoke and continued. “His name is Claus von Stauffenberg; he’s a colonel in the Wehrmacht and also the Chief of Staff for the Commander-in-Chief of the home army.”

            “Very interesting – what’s that got to do with me?”

            “The Germans are losing the war,” Morrison said. “The retreat from Moscow and the defeat at Stalingrad have them on the back foot for the first time in mainland Europe. It’s come to us through contacts in Germany that several of their high-ranking army officers are hatching a plot to have Hitler killed along with his entire general staff. They’ll then take over command of the army and sue for peace with the western allies.”

            “Before the Russians reach the border,” Naylor finished the sentence. “They’re scared to death, aren’t they?”

            “Like you wouldn’t believe. The idea is to keep as much of Germany intact as possible and line up with Britain and America whilst they have the chance.”

            “Okay, so what’s their plan?”

            “Hitler is holding a meeting with all of his top brass on July 20th at the Wolf’s Lair, his East Prussian headquarters. It seems von Stauffenberg may have drawn the short straw in planting a bomb at the meeting. With any luck the entire Nazi hierarchy will be taken out in one fell swoop.”

            “Sorry, I don’t understand,” Naylor frowned. “What’s my part in all of this?”

            “The SS and the Gestapo have eyes and ears all over the place – it’s the only reason Hitler’s survived so long. SOE need someone over there to ensure that von Stauffenberg gets to the Wolf’s Lair alive.”

            “You want me to be his bodyguard?”

            “More than that. SOE will provide you with all of the paperwork and equipment to enable you to cut right through the ranks of the Wehrmacht that surround the Colonel, and take down anyone who comes within a mile of harming him. Come with me, and I’ll show what we have in mind.”

            Moving further into the depths of the building, Naylor was ushered into a large back room where a number of people were occupied at a variety of tasks. Morrison led him to a corner where an older man stood making final adjustments to a collection of clothing on a tailor’s dummy.

            “This is Gerald,” said Morrison. “We’ve borrowed him from an exclusive Savile Row gentleman’s outfitters.”

            “I’m astounded,” Naylor said, shaking hands with the man. “Is it authentic?”

            “Of course,” Gerald replied. “All the materials come from the same source, and the buttons and insignia have been copied from original patterns. I doubt whether anyone where you’re going will be able to pick you out from a real officer.”

            Back in the office, Morrison laid out the plans for the mission and equipped Naylor with everything that would be needed to complete the task.

            “The thing to remember is attitude,” he said. “Act the part and, wearing that uniform, no-one in the Wehrmacht will even look at your face. Remember – arrogance is the key and confidence will get you exactly where you’ll need to be. Good luck!”

           

 

5

 

            The silent parachute descent placed John Naylor two miles to the north west of the town of Olsztyn in occupied Poland, 6 miles short of the Wolf’s Lair at Rastenberg. He had been told that von Stauffenberg would be in the town briefly before moving on to the headquarters where the Führer was scheduled to meet his general staff. Quickly donning the uniform supplied by SOE, he made his way carefully into the Polish town. Stepping unseen into the main street, he flagged down a passing army staff car and directed it to von Stauffenberg’s headquarters.

            “Wait here!” he snapped to the driver.

            Marching up the steps he entered the building, raising a hand in the accepted manner as he passed through the reception area filled with Wehrmacht troops. He stopped in the middle.

            “You!” he pointed at a random individual. “Take me to von Stauffenberg immediately!” The omission of the Colonel’s rank was never questioned, and he followed a guard up a flight of steps to a room on the first floor. He entered without knocking and dismissed the guard.

            “Who the hell…?” the Colonel began, suddenly silent as the effect of the black Waffen-SS uniform stilled any protest.

            “Can we be overheard?” Naylor asked.

            “No, but who are you?”

            “An Englishman sent to ensure the success of your mission at the Wolf’s Lair. Once you’re inside the perimeter your life will be in considerable danger. My orders are to ensure your safety, and once there you’re free to do whatever it is that your group has planned.”

            Over the course of half an hour, Naylor went over the details of his mission with the German officer, and he left the building in the same staff car which had brought him there a short time earlier. Stepping out of the vehicle at the place where he had commandeered it, he dismissed the driver in true Waffen-SS style and strutted away. Once certain that he could no longer be seen, Naylor headed across country to the spot where he had concealed his parachute and clothing. Burying the SS uniform, he headed for Rastenberg and the compound containing Hitler’s bunker.

            Though security at the Wolf’s Lair was tight, all Naylor’s SOE training came to the fore as he evaded detection and entered the woodland surrounding the complex. Out of sight of any guard posts, he quickly assessed the route which von Stauffenberg’s car would follow on its way to the meeting. A bend in the route, hidden from the main access road, was the spot which he would have chosen for an ambush, and a lone figure, unaware of his silent approach, was already in position awaiting the arrival of the Wehrmacht colonel. Naylor settled down to wait, unshouldering his sniper rifle in readiness.

            The staff car rolled slowly up the drive – only von Stauffenberg and the driver were inside. Suddenly the figure, dressed in Wehrmacht uniform, stepped out and held up a hand. A demand for identification was made and, arguing strongly, the Colonel stepped out of the vehicle to confront his inquisitor. The machine gun slipped smoothly into the assassin’s hands and von Stauffenberg stepped back. The driver, seeing the gun, began to exit the car. A burst of automatic fire threw him back into his seat and the weapon now turned on the Colonel.

            Naylor’s reaction was fast – much faster than the assassin’s. A single shot dropped the killer where he stood, and John raced to the shocked figure of von Stauffenberg. 

            “Quickly” he said. “Drag the body into the undergrowth while I change uniforms with your driver. You can’t turn up on foot!”

            “What will you do?”

            “My mission is to get you to the Wolf’s Lair,” Naylor said. “Beyond that, you’re on your own.”

            Moments later they were back in the car and drawing up outside Hitler’s headquarters.; the last Naylor saw of the German officer was as he passed through a guard point at the main door. Moving the staff car to the side of the complex, he stepped outside and lit a cigarette from the pocket of the borrowed uniform. Once the attention of the guard had strayed he slipped away into the woods and disappeared. As he was leaving the area, the sound of an explosion ripped through the air from the location of the Rastenberg complex. A swift escape was now the key, and he had a perfect hiding place to wait out the war.

            An eight hundred mile journey had faced John Naylor at the outset of his trek, but concealed amongst host of refugees his nondescript clothing protected him from enquiring eyes. The Russian advance on the eastern front had caused mass panic, and large numbers of Poles and Germans fled before them, heading west. Crossing a now abandoned border post three weeks after leaving Poland, he was in the Swiss town of Interlaken as night fell. Joyous arms embraced him at his grandparents’ guest house as light from an open door lit up his face. He remained there for a further eighteen months as the chaos in Europe finally began to subside.  It was in the summer of 1946 that he stepped once more onto the streets of Abbeville; hitching a ride with a local man, he descended from the horse and cart at the gates to the farm belonging to Pierre Clichy.

            The farmer frowned and shaded his eyes from the sun as the stranger walked down the dusty track to the farm gate. He beamed in delight when he recognised the approaching figure. He turned to the farmhouse in search of his daughter; the figure racing across the farmyard had not needed any summons.

            “Gaston!” she cried, burying her face in his shoulder as they met. “You came back!”

            “Didn’t I promise that I would?” he smiled.

 

 

 

Back to Top