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Authors: Peter Lovesey

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BOOK: The Secret of Spandau
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‘Brazzaville?'

‘His power base. Most of French Equatorial Africa rallied to him in 1940 and he saw that it was properly administered. He went there from London in March 1941, or thereabouts, and stayed until he moved to Cairo when the Syrian thing began.'

Dick was stunned, his visions of de Gaulle in secret conclave with Churchill, facing him with the truth about his dealings with the Germans and putting his demands in return for silence, were dashed. It couldn't possibly have happened like that. Maybe it hadn't happened at all.

‘Bad news?' queried Stevens.

‘Makes a large dent in my pet theory,' Dick admitted. ‘I thought there were discussions in London.'

‘There may have been,' Stevens pointed out. ‘De Gaulle had his representatives in London.'

Dick shook his head.'The discussions I had in mind could only have taken place between the two leaders.'

‘There must have been some sort of communication. Cables, I expect. De Gaulle was a great sender of cables.'

Dick nodded, reassembling his thoughts.

Stevens continued, more to himself than Dick, ‘I was once given the name of a woman who was with de Gaulle as his cryptographer. Everything had to be in code. I wonder whether she was in Brazzaville with him.'

Dick was fully attentive again. ‘How could we find out?'

‘I could try a couple of calls to people who might know.'

‘Would you?'

‘It's rather a long shot.'

‘It's all I've got now.'

‘All right. We'll use the phone on the wall.'

‘I'm afraid I don't have any small change.'

‘It works on tokens. You buy them from the
patron
.'

After a couple of unproductive calls, Stevens located someone who could help. Yes, the woman had travelled everywhere with the de Gaulle entourage, so she was probably in Brazzaville in 1941. Her name was Madeleine Guillon, and she lived on the coast near St Malo.

‘How far is that?'

‘A good 350 kilometres. At least 220 miles.'

35

Dick had rented a Porsche 944 Lux for the journey to St Malo, which would probably send Cedric through the twelve levels of the office and into outer space when he got the bill for expenses, but he had asked for quick results and they would have been longer coming in an economy car. And if Dick were tailed, he stood a decent chance of shaking them off in the Porsche.

Madame Guillon, he learned at the post office in St Malo, actually lived several kilometres along the coast to the west, near Cap Fréhel, one of the great landmarks of the Emerald Coast. Weaving through narrow coast roads, and being forced to stop several times for oncoming traffic, he cursed himself for not having had the sense to backtrack and take the more established route from Dinan to Lamballe and then up to the coast. Yet it was still early afternoon, not yet 3.00 p.m. He was betraying signs of stress. He had been driving too long without rest.

He told himself to relax and take encouragement from the empty lanes behind him. Once or twice on the autoroute, he had stared in the rear-view mirror at other cars, but he was damn sure he was not being followed now.

So he could give all his attention to what was to come. The old lady might be difficult. She lived alone and had no telephone, suggesting she might be some kind of recluse. In the post office, they had asked if he knew her, and he thought he had detected a significant exchange of looks between the staff. A pity he had not been able to let her know he was coming.

The main thing he hoped was that she was mentally OK. And if so … He took a deep breath, not daring to guess what she might be able to tell him.

The house had been described to him as granite-built in the local pink stone, and standing alone on the cliff road south-west of the Cape. He soon spotted the only possible house, sited spectacularly above the red and black granite cliffs, at least 150 feet above the foam that was surging up intermittently between the reefs. He took the car as close as he could, and still had to climb some way on foot. As he mounted the last steps he was conscious of being watched from inside. He could imagine the feelings of an old lady on seeing a stranger approach the house.

She opened the door before he had his hand to the knocker, an exceptionally small, bright-eyed woman with white hair scraped back from her forehead in the French style. In her left hand, clutched to her chest, was a black, snuffling pug.

‘
Bonjour, madame
.' Dick showed his press-card and explained that he was a British newsman researching the participation of the Free French in World War Two. He mentioned the name of the Resistance agent who had suggested he should speak to her, as she had been a personal assistant of de Gaulle.

She said in French, ‘I was very unimportant. I don't see what use it is talking to me.'

‘On the contrary, madame. I understand that you accompanied the General everywhere.'

‘Yes, but I hardly ever had a conversation with him.' She flicked her eyes upwards to indicate the problem she would have had trying to parley with six feet four inches.

Dick smiled and so did she.

‘But you had better come in, if you've come all the way from England.'

A press picture of de Gaulle in uniform addressing a crowd was hanging in the narrow hall. He was standing in front of the Tricolour, flanked by the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. Dick's memory for dates came in handy. ‘The liberation, June 1944.'

‘But, yes!' she peeped, delighted. ‘His first speech in the square at Bayeux.'

‘A moment of history.'

She took him into the front room and asked him to wait there while she made coffee, which he felt it would be ungracious to refuse. The pug sat in a chair by the window and growled softly as Dick inspected the pictures on the walls. Many were photos of places he didn't recognize, but there was one of the Sphinx.

‘You were in Egypt, then?' he commented as she came in with the tray.

‘Several times. When I look back, we seemed to be travelling all the time.'

‘Would this be 1941?'

‘I can't tell you. It was so long ago. I expect you take your coffee white.'

‘Please. De Gaulle made several visits to Cairo in 1941.'

‘You must be right, then.'

Dick persevered, trusting that something would trigger her memory. ‘He was there first in the spring, in April. He had a plan for the Free French to enter Syria. There was a meeting with General Wavell, but it was unproductive, because Wavell couldn't offer any support. De Gaulle was angry, and returned to Brazzaville.'

‘I remember Brazzaville,' said Madame Guillon. ‘The picture on the left of the fireplace. That's Brazzaville.'

‘Yes.'

‘I'm not very helpful, am I? The diplomacy all went over my head.'

‘Perhaps you remember when a message came from Churchill inviting the General to go back to Cairo?'

‘No.'

‘It was the turning-point of de Gaulle's career. He was given the go-ahead to work out a plan for the conquest of Syria with General Wavell.'

‘It meant nothing to me.'

‘It was the campaign against the Vichy French, madame.'

‘I was a foolish young girl with other things on my mind,' she admitted. She moved to the window and stood looking out to sea. ‘I'm sorry. It's a wasted journey for you. Before you go, why don't you walk up to Cap Fréhel itself? On a clear evening like this, you can see the Channel Islands.'

‘You don't remember anything that might help me?'

‘I'm sure if I did, you couldn't rely on it.'

A pendulum clock ticked like a metronome as Dick tried to decide whether to admit defeat.

Madame Guillon turned from the window and asked, ‘Wouldn't your friend like some coffee as well?'

Dick frowned as the possibility arose that she was not only woolly-minded, but mad. ‘My friend?'

‘The gentleman down there by the car.'

‘I came alone, madame.' He got up to have a look, but he could see no one in the area of the car.

‘He was probably walking to the Cap. Some people think this is a short cut.' She put down her coffee and picked up the dog. ‘We've been caught like that before, thinking visitors were coming, haven't we, Jojo? And now that we have a visitor, we have to send him away disappointed.'

He braced himself for a last attempt to unlock her memory. ‘Your work involved encoding and decoding messages, I understand?'

‘That's correct.'

‘Important work.'

She shook her head and laughed. ‘It was purely mechanical. I didn't have to think about what I was doing. These days a computer would do it in a fraction of the time.'

‘Did you see de Gaulle's reaction when he received the messages after you decoded them?'

‘No. I had to pass them to his adjutant in a sealed envelope.'

‘And I suppose when the General had a message to put into code, it was handed to you in the same way?'

‘Yes.'

‘In his own handwriting?'

‘Always.'

‘Obviously you had no difficulty reading it.'

‘Only once, when he wrote in English.'

‘In English?'

‘Yes. It was the only time I ever knew him write a message in anything but French.'

‘Do you remember the occasion?' asked Dick, holding his breath and hoping that the fates would favour him this time.

‘No.'

His sigh of desperation was probably heard in the Channel Islands.

Madame Guillon added casually, ‘But I could turn it up for you.'

Dick stared at her blankly. ‘What do you mean?'

‘If you don't mind waiting. My box of messages is in the wardrobe upstairs.'

‘You kept copies?'

‘Oh, no. That would have been against regulations. I typed one copy of each message in French and it went back to his office with a copy of the coded message.' She smiled. ‘I kept the originals, in his handwriting. I had them in my desk for ages, thinking someone would ask for them, but no one ever did and at the end of the war, when the time came to clear my desk, I decided to keep them as souvenirs. They're not worth anything, because he never signed them. I've often thought of throwing them out.'

‘Madame, I would very much like to see them.'

‘Then you'd better come upstairs. They're too heavy for me to carry at my age.'

Dick's mouth had gone dry and a pulse was beating in his temple as he followed the old lady up the bare wooden staircase. Was it too much to hope that his luck had changed, or was this going to be another kick in the teeth?

The bedroom had a crucifix, candlesticks and a print of a Raphael Madonna over the fireplace. The white counterpane on the brass-framed double bed was stretched so that not a crease was visible. Madame Guillon went to the only other piece of furniture, a massive Normandy wardrobe, unlocked it and pointed to a cardboard carton at the bottom.

‘May I?' asked Dick.

‘Please do. You can put it on the bed. It should be clean.'

He folded back the flaps. She had sorted the messages and put them in large brown envelopes, one for each period of three months, beginning in July 1940.

‘Take them all out, and spread them on the bed,' she told him.

‘There's only one batch that interests me now,' he said, pulling out the envelope marked
Avril-Juin 1941
. It was one of the bulkiest.

War historians and archivists would have blanched at the way Dick handled the precious documents in de Gaulle's own handwriting, licking his finger and leafing through them like a clerk with a ledger. But this was make or break time. She had arranged the papers in sequence, so it was a simple matter to turn up the crucial dates. Some of the writing was in pencil and had faded as the paper had aged, but it remained legible. De Gaulle had a clear, neat hand.

Dick scanned each one for the name of the recipient. There were several sent to Churchill in the first days of May, tartly drawing the attention of the Prime Minister to a Free French blockade of Djibouti, where British support was ‘indispensable', but not, from the tone of the messages, forthcoming. The first message to Churchill that did not concern Djibouti was dated 7 May 1941, and when Dick read it, he spontaneously caught hold of Madame Guillon's hand.

‘This is it!' he told her huskily. ‘This is what I'm looking for.'

It was marked
TOP SECRET
. The terse wording ran:
Reliable source in France suggests Germany is in negotiation with you through Dublin. Kindly deny by return
.

De Gaulle
had
learned about the German peace missions flown in by Frank Perry. Three days before Hess arrived, this had landed on Churchill's desk in Downing Street. It could not have been ignored. Was a denial ever sent, and, if so, had it satisfied de Gaulle?

Anything Churchill had telegraphed must have been shredded before the end of the war. In an imperfect world, there was not going to be a little old lady somewhere on the south coast with a boxful of Churchill's messages, Dick reflected. He had to read between the messages.

Which brought him to the next: T
OP
S
ECRET
.
To PM of GB & NI. 14 May 1941. Free France demands immediate rejection of Nazi peace terms and imprisonment of Hess. Failure to notify by midnight will be treated by Free France as collaboration and communicated to other interested governments.

The clincher! The irrefutable evidence, in de Gaulle's own hand, that he had blown the whistle on the Hess mission. What else could
other interested governments
mean but Russia, threatened with a joint invasion by Germany and Britain?

Whilst Dick read and re-read the crucial words, Madame Guillon had picked up the rest of the batch and was looking for something.

‘Ah! Voila!'

She handed Dick the message de Gaulle had drafted in English, the only message he ever wrote in anything but French: T
OP
S
ECRET
.
To PM of GB & NI. 21 May 1941. 1. Thank you. 2. Catroux remains in Palestine. 3. I shall go to Cairo soon. 4. You will win the war
.

BOOK: The Secret of Spandau
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