Authors: Peter Lovesey
âJesus Christ! Where did you get this account?'
âFrom Averil Harriman's book,
He was present at the meeting,' said Jane.
âMax was covering up like mad, I presume?'
Jane gave Cedric a knowing smile. âIt seems likely.'
âAnd Stalin wasn't taken in?'
âWell, he harped on about it at every opportunity. He said he couldn't understand why Britain didn't bring Hess to trial as a war criminal. In 1942, the Cabinet sent Moscow a report on the whole escapade, but it didn't stop Stalin from badgering Churchill about it when they met at Teheran in 1943 and Moscow in 1944.'
Cedric sized up Jane over his brandy-glass and curled his finger at her. âCome on, you're holding out on me. What did Stalin know?'
She answered, picking her way with care, âWe're not certain yet, but let me give you an informed guess. In 1941, Hess flew to Britain on Hitler's orders to negotiate a peace with Churchill. The previous missions had prepared the way. Churchill had made sympathetic noises. The deal was to include a joint attack on Russia to destroy their mutual enemy, the Bolsheviks.'
âBut what about the right-wing coup to unseat Churchill?'
âA bargaining-point,' said Jane dismissively. âThreats were always in the background when Hitler negotiated. He knew he had to deal with Churchill in reality. As Stalin knew.'
âAh, hence the scepticism in Moscow.'
âYes. You see, Hitler, being smart, or devious, had covered his bets. He had made a counter-offer to Stalin. At this time, Germany and Russia were still on diplomatic terms. He suggested Russia should join Germany in defeating Britain and then carving up Europe, Asia and Africa between them.'
âBugger me!' Cedric frowned, took a sip of brandy, scratched his head and produced a more considered response. âSounds to me as if you're spot on. Hitler
think of something like that.' He then had another thought. âWhere does America fit in?'
âStill officially neutral,' answered Jane. âIt's quite possible that Roosevelt knew what was happening and was waiting on the sidelines to see which of the deals would stick.'
Cedric lit a long cigar and drew on it strongly. âThis certainly explains why Hess is still in Spandau and kept under such close scrutiny. Not one of the Allies comes out with much credit. Except France.' He peered at Jane through the smoke. âIsn't it time you told me why the hell Dick has flown off to France?'
âAll right.' She held out her glass for more brandy. She was beginning to enjoy herself. The prospect of staying behind while Dick flew off to Paris had not pleased her much, even if she had seen the necessity of one of them being on hand for information from Don or Red. It might as well have been either of them, but she couldn't help feeling she was cast in the old, old role of the patient woman who stays at home and waits.
Somehow, she was going to get a slice of the action.
She started to tell Cedric what had happened. âDick and I agree with Stalin. We think some kind of deal was being done with Germany in that second week of May 1941, but we had to discover what put the stopper on it. Churchill's diary of appointments â as you might expect â is missing, so we tried to reconstruct one ourselves â not just for Churchill, but for Hitler as well. We wanted to know who they were seeing and what was happening in that all-important week.'
âThe blitz, for one thing,' suggested Cedric. âThe night-bombing was at its worst.'
âMm. And on 16 May, the night that Hess was moved to London, it miraculously came to an end.'
âI never realized that,' pondered Cedric.
Jane let that point rest, and moved on. âThe main thing apart from Hess that occupied everyone in London and Berlin that week was Syria. Do you know about Syria in 1941? It's terribly important.'
Cedric took out his cigar and said, âIn that case, my dear, I won't hedge. I know sweet fuck-all about Syria in 1941.'
âIt was a French possession. To be exact, they held a mandate, and it was still administered by the defeated French government in Vichy. There were 30,000 French troops there, said to be loyal to Marshal PÃ©tain.'
Cedric obligingly picked up the inference. âSaid to be?'
Jane nodded. âThe Free French had other ideas.'
âAh, the alternative government. General de Gaulle,' said Cedric heavily. âI
know a few things about him.'
âBut not many people did in Britain. Churchill disliked him from the start. He wanted to know why this lanky, gloomy Brigadier had been brought to London, and he was told that no one else would come. Right from the start, Churchill regarded him as a thorn in the side. De Gaulle was ambitious and imperious. He wanted to reclaim the whole of the Empire for the Free French. Churchill wanted him replaced. In December 1940, there was a fiasco in West Africa when a combined Free French and British force tried to seize the port of Dakar from Vichy control. They were forced to withdraw.'
âI've got the message: de Gaulle was bad news as far as Churchill was concerned.'
âRight,' confirmed Jane. âLet's concentrate on the Middle East. In the spring of 1941, trouble flared up for Britain in Iraq. There was a military coup, led by Rashid Ali, a pro-Nazi. He attacked one of the two British airfields in Iraq, laid siege to the British Embassy and appealed to Germany for arms supplies. The only way Germany could supply them was through Syria, using it as a staging-post. There was also a stack of French arms conveniently cached in Syria. So the Vichy French were invited to give their stamp of approval. This was agreed on 6 May. Admiral Darlan, their Foreign Minister, was brought to Berchtesgaden to meet the FÃ¼hrer on Sunday 11 May.'
âThe day the Hess story broke?'
âYes. But while this was going on, Rashid Ali had been beaten off by the British and had fled to Iran on 8 May, three days earlier.'
âPanic over, then.'
âNot entirely,' said Jane. âGerman planes still started arriving in Syria. De Gaulle wanted to go in with a Free French force, but he would have been outnumbered five to one, and neither Middle East Command nor Churchill would sanction it.'
âNot after the Dakar defeat,' put in Cedric.
Jane gave a nod. âIt was unrealistic to go in without Allied support, and that raised all kinds of problems. For one thing, the Foreign Office were trying to keep a line open to Vichy.'
âAnd for another,' added Cedric, âwe were appallingly over-stretched already.'
âYes, General Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, made that crystal clear to London. He was desperately defending Egypt against Rommel after being beaten back in Libya. There was still fighting in Abyssinia. Greece had just been lost, and Crete and Malta were under imminent threat. Wavell told London that he believed the Free French alone would be ineffective in Syria and he didn't want to be burdened with another front.'
Jane paused. âBut what happened? He was ignored. On 20 May, he was ordered to prepare a force to invade Syria with the Free French. He asked to be relieved of his command.'
âHe resigned? In the middle of a war?'
âHe telegraphed to London to say that if the Chiefs of Staff preferred to rely on the advice of the Free French leaders, he didn't wish to carry on.'
âHe blamed de Gualle? What happened?'
âHe was pulled out of bed in the small hours and given two cables. The first was from Churchill. It ordered him to back the Free French in Syria regardless of anything. And the second came from de Gaulle. It said the same thing.
âWavell came back into line and Syria was taken in six weeks. It wasn't the bloodless takeover de Gaulle had promised. Frenchmen fired on Frenchmen, and I believe over ten thousand lives were lost. But it brought de Gaulle out of the wilderness. He was a credible leader after that.'
âOK,' Cedric agreed, eager to move on. âLet's come to the crunch. How do you think he fixed it?'
Jane was inwardly amused to see him on tenterhooks, but she resisted the urge to pay him back for the times he had kept the team in suspense that first weekend. âSome time in the week after Hess arrived in Britain, de Gaulle found out the truth about Churchill and the peace plan and threatened to trumpet the whole story from the rooftops.'
âHow did he find out, for God's sake?'
âProbably from Germany. Admiral Darlan was in Berlin to do that deal with the Nazis, and you can bet your life there were Free French agents monitoring everything that happened. They excelled at intelligence-gathering, and the Vichy French were as leaky as sieves.'
Cedric sat looking into his brandy, assimilating what Jane had said. âSo it was political blackmail. De Gaulle got his way by threatening to expose the peace plan before anyone could make it stick.' He sat back and stared at the ceiling, thinking hard. âIt answers all the questions I can think of. De Gaulle was one man who wouldn't have peace with Germany on any terms. And he has desperate enough to play a card like this. It must have been wholly justifiable from his point of view. But the problem is how to prove it. That's why young Garrick has hared off to France, I take it?'
Jane answered, âHe's hoping to get in touch with some of those resistance people Justin Stevens interviewed last year.'
Cedric heaved himself out of his chair. âI'm ready for my bed. I can see agonizing decisions looming. I take it you'd like to have the room you slept in before? Everything you need should be there.'
Everything except Red, thought Jane.
At about the same time, Dick was lining up with the foreign passport-holders in Charles de Gaulle Airport. When it came to his turn, he showed his passport and was nodded through without a word. Then, out of Dick's line of vision, the immigration officer nodded to someone else, who followed Dick through customs and out to the taxi-rank.
Dick telephoned Justin Stevens from the airport, and they arranged to meet for breakfast at a crÃªperie in the Rue de Rome, a narrow shop with a tall wooden counter, behind which
cooked with a stack of prepared crÃªpes, while the
received the customers and dispensed drinks and a shy
managed the half-dozen small tables. There, with the breakfast rush finished, they had the place to themselves, except for one late arrival in a dark suit who sat on a stool at the counter and opened a newspaper. He didn't seem near enough to their corner position to overhear much.
Whoever had assigned Justin Stevens to Paris had known his man. He was a charming and fluent conversationalist, whose mobile, expressive face showed just that suggestion of the sardonic that finds favour with the French temperament. After Dick had updated him on Fleet Street and Stevens had declared how fortunate he was to be out of it, even if he sometimes suffered from the foreign correspondent's malady of âperipheritis', they got on to more urgent matters. Dick explained that he was on a project involving Churchill and de Gaulle in the early years of the war. There was no reason to bring Hess into the explanation, so he didn't.
âMarvellous stuff to work with!' Stevens commented. âI envy you enormously. Literally great characters, each with a sense of theatre the like of which we've rarely seen in statesmen. And the bickering and backbiting: terrific! De Gaulle was constantly calling Churchill on the phone to press the case of the Free French over this and that, and poor old Churchill, who liked his meals, couldn't even get through dinner at Chequers without interruptions.'
âDe Gaulle probably ate later,' said Dick.
âQuite. Anyway, on one occasion, Winston was determined to get through his meal. The soup was hardly served when Sawyers, the valet, announced that the General was on the line. Churchill set his mouth in the bulldog grimace and refused to go to the phone. In a few minutes, Sawyers came back, his ears buzzing from the haranguing he had just been given, and pleaded with Churchill to relent. Out to the phone storms Churchill, and when he comes back the soup is cold. He sits hunched in his chair for some time. Then he says, “Bloody de Gaulle! He had the impertinence to tell me that the French regard him as the reincarnation of Joan of Arc.” There's a long Churchillian pause, and then he adds, “I found it necessary to remind him that we had to burn the first!”'
Dick had heard the story already, but he chuckled convincingly before homing in on the real business of the morning. âI'm hoping you can give me some background on the Syrian campaign. It was the turning-point for de Gaulle when Churchill agreed to back the invasion.'
âSyria? Yes, it set him up. Terrible shambles, of course. He admitted it later. A civil war, in effect. The Free French had something like ten light tanks and eight guns between them. They went to war with camels, horses, private vehicles, buses, anything. And the British contingent sang “We are Fred Karno's Army” as they moved in. Good thing the opposition was half-hearted.'
âWhat I'd really like to discover,' Dick persisted, âis how de Gaulle persuaded Churchill to support the campaign. When you did your colour feature on the Resistance, did you come across anyone, or hear about anyone, who was with the General in London about that time?'
âYou mean in Carlton Gardens?'
âYes, if that's where he had his headquarters.'
âHe was more often holding court in a suite at the Connaught, old boy. Portraits of Joan of Arc and Napoleon on the wall behind his desk. Better food, too.'
âI can imagine,' said Dick, trying to be patient with this affable man. âThe problem I have is tracing someone who was with him in London in May 1941, when the discussion with Churchill must have taken place.'
âThat's not going to be possible,' Stevens told him. âYou see, de Gaulle wasn't in London then. He was in Brazzaville.'