United Kingdom

Hundreds of WWII operatives owed their lives to a small but plucky unit of gunboats

Book of the week

A Dangerous Enterprise: Secret War At Sea by Tim Spicer 

(Barbreck £18.99, 312 pp) 

At the start of the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger, Sean Connery’s 007 climbs out of the sea, blows up a drug factory and — job done — strips off his wetsuit to reveal a white dinner jacket with a red carnation buttonhole.

Typical over-the-top Bond fantasy? Not a bit of it: the episode was based on fact — and well known to the writer and director of the film from their own wartime experiences.

At 4.50am on November 23, 1941, a figure in a dinner jacket smelling strongly of drink staggered past German guards in the Dutch town of Scheveningen — they thought he was just another sad local unable to cope with defeat.

In fact, the man in the DJ was Peter Tazelaar, an agent with the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), who had just been dropped off in a dry suit near the shore by a British motor gunboat. The ruse worked and Tazelaar went on to contact the Dutch Resistance in Cccupied Holland and set up a complex network of radio and mail connections with London.

At the start of the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger, Sean Connery’s 007 (pictured) climbs out of the sea, blows up a drug factory and — job done — strips off his wetsuit to reveal a white dinner jacket with a red carnation buttonhole. Typical over-the-top Bond fantasy? Not a bit of it: the episode was based on fact

James Bond had his origins in World War II and especially naval intelligence. The books were written by Commander Ian Fleming, a naval intelligence officer.

Guy Hamilton DSC, who directed Goldfinger and three other Bond films, knew Fleming and was himself a First Lieutenant on a motor gunboat. The story of Tazelaar was part of a shared naval memory and, the old comrades decided, was well worth a place in the film.

Tazelaar’s gunboat was from the 15th MGB [Motor Gunboat] Flotilla, soon to be based at Dartmouth and the subject of this extraordinary book of heroism, courage and adventure. Gunboats were small, high-speed, highly armed and manoeuvrable British military vessels which played a hugely significant role in the outcome of the war. Not surprisingly they were known as the ‘Spitfire of the Seas’.

The 15th won more awards for bravery than any comparable naval force, each medal with the discreet and laconic citation, ‘For gallantry and distinguished service on hazardous operations’.

Tim Spicer, a former senior Army officer whose colourful later career in security and counter-terrorism was not without its controversial moments, admits to a love of ‘clandestine warfare . . . and lonely fighters’. And there is a treasure trove of both here in his book.

In the chaos after Dunkirk and the fall of France in 1940, with the intelligence world in chaos, the 15th MGBF was set up to ferry agents to and from landing sites on the wild Brittany coast of Occupied France.

The journey was about 100 miles, more or less all of it dangerous, and landings could be made only at the dead of night.

Once they had deposited their agents and supplies for the Resistance, the unit picked up returning operatives and escaped POWs, as well as downed RAF and U.S. pilots who had been sheltered by the escape lines run by MI9. The Breton coast is famously spectacular but it’s also a navigational horror story, with its sombre cliffs, invisible rocks and sharp reefs hidden just below the surface.

Most of the coast was impenetrable to all but the most skilfully handled small boats. The names of the channels give some idea of what was in store: the Channel of the Great Fear, the Bay of the Dead and Shipwreck Coast.

It would have been insane to approach from the sea except in broad daylight, but this was not an option for the gunboats of the 15th flotilla who relied on the cover of darkness.

Thankfully, though, they could call on Lieutenant Commander David Birkin DSC, the flotilla’s heroic navigating officer and a brilliant artist and mathematician. Handsome and highly intelligent, his exceptional navigational skills and homing instincts earned him the nickname ‘The Pigeon’.

Birkin documented his wartime exploits in meticulous detail, illustrated with his own drawings. His daughter, the actress, singer and model Jane Birkin, and his son Andrew, a screenwriter and film director, gave Spicer unrivalled access to their father’s detailed archive, and much of this remarkable book is based on his accounts.

Guy Hamilton DSC, who directed Goldfinger and three other Bond films, knew Fleming and was himself a First Lieutenant on a motor gunboat (pictured)

Intertwined with the heroism of the naval operators are the stories of the agents and French Resistance fighters they were responsible for. Many were women: all resourceful, brave and capable of limitless endurance, and all of whom you feel are worthy of a film.

Women like Suzanne Warenghem, a Resistance fighter since she was 17, who was betrayed by a lover working for the Gestapo. Sent to a prison in Castres before she was due to be executed, she organised a mass break-out while the guards were at dinner.

She escaped to Paris and was rescued by MGB after hiding behind a pile of freshly baked loaves in the back of a baker’s delivery van making its way through the Breton countryside. None of the German guards had any idea one of the Gestapo’s most wanted women was under their noses. Literally.

Or women like the American Virginia Hall, one of the most successful agents of the entire war and later a CIA legend. Fluent in several languages, she was sent to Lyon by the SOE under the cover of being a reporter for the New York Post.

Immensely brave and active, despite the loss of her left leg in an accident, she smuggled out vast amounts of vital information, helped downed RAF pilots to return to England, and organised a mass escape of a dozen agents from a prison near Bergerac.

Fearing discovery, she escaped to Spain, crossing 50 miles over the freezing Pyrenees, wooden leg and all.

In 1944, she returned to France on a mission to organise sabotage in support of D-Day. Always asked to work under less able male agents, she eventually became a successful Resistance leader in the Loire.

A Dangerous Enterprise: Secret War At Sea by Tim Spicer (Barbreck £18.99, 312 pp)

She was awarded an MBE by Britain, the Croix de Guerre by France and the Distinguished Service Cross by the Americans. After the war she joined the CIA, where a training facility is named after her. Why there’s no film of her life is hard to fathom.

The book is decorated with wartime snaps of steely-eyed naval and intelligence officers, as well as pictures of more comfortable-looking French Resistance, with their rumpled collars and signs of a good lunch, which take you back into an extraordinary world in which life for a resister could easily end in prison, torture and death.

Theirs was a very special kind of bravery and acknowledged by Gen Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander: ‘It takes little imagination to understand the sublime quality of the courage that French citizens displayed in undertaking to rescue Allied flyers downed over France with the certain knowledge they were risking not only their lives but those of all they held dear.’

After reading this compelling book, you realise that Ike knew of what he spoke.

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