Hundreds of WWII agents owe their lives to a small but brave unit of gunboats

Book of the week

A Dangerous Endeavor: Secret War at Sea by Tim Spicer

(Barbreck £18.99, 312 pp)

At the beginning of the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger, Sean Connery’s 007 climbs out of the sea, blows up a drug factory and – done – takes off his wetsuit and reveals a white tuxedo jacket with a red carnation buttonhole.

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

On November 23, 1941, at 4:50 a.m., a figure in a tuxedo that smelled strongly of liquor staggered past German guards in the Dutch city of Scheveningen – they thought he was just another sad resident 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 the coast in a dry suit by a British motor gunboat. The ruse worked and Tazelaar contacted the Dutch resistance in Beccupied Holland and set up a complex network of radio and postal links to London.

At the beginning of the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger, Sean Connery’s 007 (pictured) climbs out of the sea, blows up a drug factory and – done – takes off his wetsuit and reveals a white tuxedo jacket with a red carnation buttonhole. Typical over-the-top Bond fantasy? Not A Bit Of It: The Episode Was Based On Facts

James Bond had its origins in World War II and especially in 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. Tazelaar’s story was part of a shared naval memory and, the old comrades decided, was definitely worthy of a place in the film.

Tazelaar’s gunboat belonged to the 15th MGB [Motor Gunboat] Flotilla, soon to be based in Dartmouth and the subject of this extraordinary book full of heroism, courage and adventure. Gunboats were small, fast, highly armed and manoeuvrable British military ships that played a huge part 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 bearing the discreet and laconic quote, “For gallantry and distinguished service in dangerous operations.”

Tim Spicer, a former senior army officer whose colorful later career in security and counter-terrorism was not without controversial moments, admits he loves “clandestine warfare.” . . and lone warriors’. 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 MGFB was set up to transport ferry agents to and from landing sites on the wild Breton coast of occupied France.

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

After dropping off their agents and supplies for the Resistance, the unit rounded up returning agents and escaped POWs, as well as downed RAF and American pilots sheltered by MI9’s escape lines. The Breton coast is famously spectacular, but it’s also a navigational horror story, with its bleak cliffs, invisible rocks and sharp reefs hidden just below the surface.

Most of the coast was impenetrable to all except the most proficient small boats. The names of the canals give an idea of ​​what lay ahead: the Channel of the Great Fear, the Bay of Death and the Shipwreck Coast.

It would have been insane to approach from 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.

Fortunately, however, they were able to call on Lieutenant Commander David Birkin DSC, the fleet’s heroic helmsman 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 great 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 unparalleled 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)

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 for whom they were responsible. Many were women: all resourceful, brave and capable of limitless stamina, and all of whom you think are worthy of a movie.

Women like Suzanne Warenghem, a resistance fighter since she was 17, who was betrayed by a lover who worked for the Gestapo. She was sent to a prison in Castres before being executed, and staged a mass breakout while the guards were having dinner.

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

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 guise of a reporter for the New York Post.

She was immensely brave and active, despite losing her left leg in an accident, smuggling out huge amounts of vital information, helping downed RAF pilots return to England and organizing a mass escape of a dozen agents from a prison. near Bergerac.

Fearing discovery, she fled to Spain and crossed 80 kilometers over the icy Pyrenees, wooden leg and all.

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

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

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

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

The book is decorated with wartime photos of naval and intelligence officers with straight eyes, as well as photos of the more comfortable-looking French Resistance, with their rumpled collars and signs of a good lunch, transporting you back to an extraordinary world where life because a resistance fighter can easily end. in prison, torture and death.

They had a very special kind of courage and were recognized by General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allies: “It takes little imagination to comprehend the sublime quality of the courage shown by French citizens in their attempt to defeat Allied airmen. who had been brought down over France with the sure knowledge they risked not only their lives, but the lives of all those dear to them.’

After reading this captivating book, you realize that Ike knew what he was saying.

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