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Section Fifteen: Christopher Robin goes to spy school

Number Two ITW (Initial Training Wing) of the Royal Air Force aircrew training scheme had taken over more than half the Colleges of Cambridge University; the flight to which I was assigned was billeted in Downing College. It was composed mostly of AC2 trainees, but also a smattering of Army and Navy officers, and one or two general service RAF officers, all hopeful for their wings.

The recent Battle of Britain had destroyed so many young aircrew that pilot replacements were desperately needed. Apparently we were them. We went to classes in various other colleges and university venues in the town. When I say ‘went’ to classes, it was more like a mad but disciplined flat out rush. We formed up in threes and marched at approximately one hundred paces a minute, which if you want to try it is an almost impossible pace to even start – let alone maintain. Somehow we managed. We must have looked like a ridiculous crowd of hooligans. But the townsfolk were oblivious – they’d got used to it.

On about the second day of training we went to Magdalene College for signals training – Morse, wireless telegraphy and radiotelephony. Instruction was of a very high standard and I meshed into it right away. Signalling was one of my things, I had adored it since I was a lowly Sea Cub Scout of eight. When I upgraded to the school Sea Scout outfit, the Troop Leader, one Martin Fitzalan-Howard, Lord and grandson of the Duke of Norfolk, and I, were two of the capricious young lunatics responsible for acquiring a radio transmitter.

We had constructed it ourselves and it resided in our Sea Scout cottage in the middle of the valley, mostly hidden under floorboards with the seventy two feet of aerial concealed in a large nearby oak tree and wound round the branches. It was surprisingly effective and picked up a lot of RAF and Admiralty signals, which was completely and utterly forbidden, especially with war looming.

Code Names

I had heard Uncle Desmond touch on some of this before, but never to this extent. However one thing he had never revealed, and did not do so on this occasion. What was all this about? What was it leading to? For what task was I being so relentlessly trained!?

“You’ll find out soon enough, Christopher – and when you do, you’ll fervently wish you hadn’t!”

I returned to aircrew training with even more zeal and determination than before. But signals training suddenly stopped, so did other vital pilot training classes. Instead I found myself in the early morning transported to a country house some twenty miles outside Cambridge, ostensibly to do specialist Air Navigation training, but actually to attend a school with a very different curriculum. It was a bizarre and terrifying experience.

My arrival had to be upon a precise minute. Morton had given me a code name for this encounter. It was ‘Dave’, a nickname that had been with me for years at school, based on my real name Davis. As I entered that hallway, I was seized by strong hooded men. They turned my face away from them, and placed or rather peeled a similar hood on my head. It was skin tight, and covered my face almost entirely, except for my eyes, nose, mouth and ears. Something clicked at the back. It was, I later discovered, a small padlock. No one but the ruling authority could take it off. Everybody wore them – instructors and trainees. Thus no one knew who anyone else was, what they looked like, their rank or service, where they came from or what they were being trained for. They could only be identified for the purpose of this training by the code name on their battledress.

In this school I learned many ways of killing and every kind of deception. I absorbed Jujitsu, the art of self-defence, not to be confused with Judo, which is a sport. I also learned the use of the poison capsule to be used as a last resort, for instance under torture. This fitted into a special cavity drilled in the lower teeth. When sucked out and bitten it would result in a violent painful death in about ten seconds. But to be effective – it had to be bitten. If you just swallowed it, the capsule would not be affected by the gastric juices and would appear tout ensemble (all together) the next day – no harm done.

We used to transmit our own messages to ships and aircraft pretending to be a warship at sea, but the Navy became suspicious when ‘our ship’ never moved from its anchorage in the middle of the Yorkshire Moors. They tracked us down with RDF (Radio Direction Finding), and one day the police and Military police arrived at our cottage in the Ampleforth Valley just as we were sending out a particularly poignant distress signal. The Headmaster, Father Paul Nevill, persuaded them not to arrest us and undertook to have the appropriate action taken. Such action was carried out by the head school monitor wielding a supple three-foot rattan corps cane. None of us sat down for at least a week. In Cambridge, I learned to transmit Morse code at one hundred letters a minute and to receive within the same operational gambit. Most of us found that receiving was much more difficult than transmitting and our capabilities with the former were significantly less. I learned an important lesson – do not transmit faster than you can receive as most operators will reply at the same speed and you’ll be scuppered.

My signals training came to an abrupt halt after much too short a time. I was called from a class just as it was starting and ordered to report to the Signals Office in another part of the College. I knocked and entered. “Good morning, Aircraftsman Second Class John Davis”, said Major Desmond Morton: “I am glad to see that you’re adequately playing your new role!”

I wasn’t at all pleased to see him. In my new exciting quest to be a fighter pilot, and what with my growing relationship with June, I’d almost forgotten about him.

He soon reminded me: “You’re not here to play the fool, you’re here to study much more important things − To kill − To torture − To desecrate − To sink to any level of degradation that may be necessary to establish in you the possibility of being a vital link in the missions of Special Operational Intelligence − My missions − My ‘M’ Section!’ Uncle Desmond continued to make it vibrantly clear that I must throw away and totally disregard the Benedictine tenets of Ampleforth and entirely submit myself to the cause of resisting the fearful Nazi threat and returning it to the sewers from whence it had been spawned. “By whatever means, Christopher,” he said.

Needless to say, none of us were keen to put it to the test. The accent was always upon winning a fight in close quarters, unarmed combat, and assassination. The knife, the garrotte, the marlinspike, and the steel wire. The hands and fingers used as instruments of terrible injury, or of dreadful mutilation and agonising death. A hand moving up powerfully toward an opponent’s face, knocking up his chin with the palm of the hand, gliding on, first and second fingers apart, taking balance and aim from the base of the face, and driving the two fingers on with maximum force into the unsuspecting eyes of your target. The fingers plunge in deep, the screams are vibrant and uncontrollable, the blood seeps out, the eyes and their sight are utterly destroyed . . . and that routine was only one of many.

To start with it was all quite horrifying to me. Then slowly but surely my killer responses became part of my being, as natural as drinking a glass of water or going to the lavatory. I learned to act with cold and calculated brutal ruthlessness. From the point of view of the vicious secret war, I had graduated. I was returned, a changed man, to Cambridge.

But there was one more part of my studies I had yet to complete. Owl had given me specific instructions as to what offences I should commit on this occasion in order to ensure the desired repulsive reputation. These consisted of stealing money from everyone in sight, taking cheques and postal orders from mail waiting to be collected, cashing them and spending the proceeds all around the town and similar nasty petty crimes.

Fortunately I was still billeted at Downing College and spent half the day with my aircrew training flight, so once more it wasn’t very difficult to commit the specified offences. But, as in Longparish, no one wanted to catch me and I had to go back and leave clues the size of elephants before anyone finally condescended to arrest me.

This time it all went well or, shall we say, as Owl wanted it to go, and the press headline linking this nasty petty criminal with his father, a world champion and Cantabrigian graduate, proved to be more than he had hoped for. Eloquent pleadings on my behalf by a most helpful RAF officer ordered to defend me, saved me from a jail sentence, which would have rendered me presently useless to Owl.

I got off with a five-pound fine and two years probation. Step one was successfully complete. I was a convicted man, a contemptible petty thief. One day, still under close arrest, I was sitting with some RAF Police in a room in Jesus College, their Headquarters in Cambridge, when there was a stir outside. I could hear the click of heels and the stamp of boots as people jumped to attention. The door opened and all the police in the room leapt up onto their feet, standing rigidly upright.

A senior RAF officer had entered the room. He was of medium height and wore pilot’s wings and decorations from the First World War. On each lapel were the insignia of the RAF Medical Service. He glanced round the assembled company and then said quietly: “Clear the room.”

Within seconds, my father and I were alone. “Hullo, Johnnie boy,” he said, quietly – almost gently, maybe even affectionately: “So what’s all this about then – and why?”

Even though he’d hardly ever been a father, mostly because he’d never been there, and for the most part his place had been taken by Desmond Morton, I felt for him. Yes, I felt for him terribly, and for myself as well, for the two questions he had asked me, were the two that I could not answer. I remember the two of us standing motionless for an almost endless moment. The silence was excruciatingly painful. But I could not speak. I wanted to run.

“Your actions haven’t exactly helped our family reputation.” His voice was almost pleading: “Can’t you say something, or tell me anything?” In the drastic step of inducting me into the world of special intelligence – Desmond Morton had taken my mother partly into his confidence – he did not, however, tell my father, because he considered him a poor security risk. At Cambridge, my father, ‘A-D’, as everybody called him, had proved himself to be an outstanding sportsman and Olympic champion, but he was also a fine scholar and musician. At Cambridge, with his Quinquaginta jazz band, he had attracted stars of the calibre of Noel Gay (R.W. Armitage) on the piano together with Claude Hulbert and his brother Jack – and on occasion Mountbatten pounded on the drums. Later A-D played Grieg’s Violin Concerto under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult.

After my conviction and a ‘Not fit for aircrew’ designation for discharge from the RAF, Morton sent me off to various other establishments, each specialising in its own highly skilled field . . . Parachute school, fanatic fitness outfits, commando courses, athletic centres.

I learned enough German to understand, but not speak, the language. I travelled all over Great Britain; I trained in silent killing and killing without trace; raiding tactics and how to use every sort of weapon. I learned sabotage by land and sea. I was taught to destroy anything from a train to a bicycle, a man-of-war to a submarine. I learned to work with many types of explosives; how to withstand interrogation and maintain security and a cover story; how to keep a secret and conceal the fact that you even had one to keep; how to live off the land; hide up by day and travel by night.

I was given advanced courses in map reading and navigation. I learned to be self reliant and patient, always quietly waiting and recognising the best moment to strike, however small, and seizing it upon the instant.

When I had finished, I could have dealt with anyone, no matter how big or strong, whatever the adversary’s ability, I could and would kill him. I was rarely with the same trainees twice, nor did we have any duplication of instruction. Each of us was an individual training for a multitude of different purposes or schemes. It wasn’t very difficult to see how Ian Fleming got his James Bond ideas while serving with the Royal Navy Intelligence in London in the room known as ‘39’ . . . I was not only licensed to kill, I learned to live with nothing else. It came to fill my every waking thought and even my dreams.

I found myself encompassed by the glorious summer of 1941 and an order from Major Morton to report to the main operational headquarters of his M Section. It was a Royal Naval Shore Base and officially part of Combined Operations, and could be found in a large country house hidden in the midst of some thirty acres of land on the south coast, close to Chichester not far from Portsmouth.

“The Navy have taken you back,” Morton said with some sarcasm. “And for some unknown reason they’re going to promote you Sublieutenant.” He had also become a brilliant genito-urinary surgeon. As a man, he was warm and generous, but he was also inclined to be silly and to show little common sense. Although at heart the stoutest of patriots, he could not be guaranteed to keep quiet or make discreet inquiries if he heard anything unusual about me. Instead he would contact all his old friends in high places, including Mountbatten, and demand to know what was going on, causing great difficulty and embarrassment.

Later in the war, A-D wrote to Mountbatten asking his old friend if he could use his influence to have my petty criminal record rescinded so that I could get a commission in the Royal Navy. I never saw his reply, but Mountbatten told me that he had managed to hold a satisfactory line between satisfying A-D and maintaining my intelligence cover. A-D was particularly chuffed that after all this time, Mountbatten had signed his letter ‘Dickie’.

Bearing all that in mind, I decided to let someone else bear the brunt of this and get my father out of this present impasse with the least possible upset: “Why don’t you ask Desmond Morton?” I asked quietly. A-D was not only hurt – but furious: “What the hell has Desmond Morton got to do with all this?” he almost shouted at me.

I could have told him almost all he knew already. While serving as an operational pilot with the Royal Flying Corps in France during World War One, A-D had met Major Morton. They became good friends and Morton introduced A-D to Lieutenant-Colonel Winston S. Churchill, who had just relinquished his post as First Lord of the Admiralty and was now commanding a battalion of the line.

These meetings had resulted in Morton being able to arrange for our family to live in Chartwell Cottage in 1932. A-D also knew that Morton had abrogated his position as my father by establishing himself as my ‘stepuncle’.

A-D abruptly left the detention room of the RAF Police. As he went, he said: “You talk to your Uncle Desmond, if you wish. Just leave me out of it.” When I told Morton about this encounter, he said coldly: “You will have to learn not to be affected by such things. They’re part of the job.”

It was in fact just normal progression after a year as a Midshipman, but to me, it meant not only more pay but the right by tradition of the service to kick any snotty Midshipman up the backside – which I fully intended to do.

I biked into Portsmouth and on to Chichester and reported aboard the Shore Base. Royal Marine Commandos guarded the main gate and patrolled the grounds with Tommy guns and Colt .45 revolvers.

It was heaven being back in the Royal Navy, calm and restful, my food and quarters comfortable and safe. What more could I have asked for? But it didn’t last long for within days I took the Gosport Ferry across Portsmouth Harbour and reported aboard Dolphin, home of the 5th Submarine Flotilla to take a short course on submersibles. Dolphin was of course ‘HMS’ Dolphin – but the Navy does not refer to her ships, boats or shore bases as ‘HMS’ – just the name alone.

It was a fascinating course and something I had always wanted to do since my experience with the U-boat refuelling base in Ireland and our boat that had helped to destroy them. However I was utterly terrified by the thirty-foot DSEA tank. (Davis Submarine Escape Apparatus) which to me was even more hair raising and dangerous than my previous experience with it as a Naval Cadet.

That course finished, I re-crossed Portsmouth Harbour to do another at Vernon, the Navy’s depot for torpedoes, mines, explosives and other funny things. This was mind-boggling, but utterly intriguing for I had a tremendous amount to learn and knew I had to learn it. Exhausted once again, I returned to my base near Chichester.

Since coming to this glorious country house, with its spacious grounds, lawns and fabulous trees and flowers, I found that this atmosphere inspired me to return to music and the piano, a long lasting love of my life. Except for one or two light diversions, my heart had always been in the classics. Now I became interested in popular music, dance music and jazz – things that most everyone in the forces liked and wanted to hear, not only on the radio, but also for their dances. I tried to play it, but I could not get the technical basis and there is nothing more awful or pathetic than to hear a classically trained musician playing the precise notes from a song sheet. No one wanted to dance or listen to that. But help was at hand. One of the top hit tunes was ‘The Lambeth Walk’, from the hit London Musical ‘Me and My Girl’ by Reginald Armitage (otherwise known as Noel Gay), and yet another old friend of my father’s. Earlier in the year an invitation had been arranged for me to go to the Victoria Palace where ‘Me and My Girl’ was running. At the end of the show, Noel Gay took me to a piano and asked me to play the dominant 7th of C. I did – B flat. He asked where that led me.

Classically speaking, I didn’t have a specific answer. “To F,” he replied, “and then round to all the keys of the piano and back to C.” He sat down and played them with some wonderful harmonies, and then into ‘The Lambeth Walk’, ‘Leaning on a Lamp post on the corner of the street’, ‘The Sun had got his Hat On’, ‘Run Rabbit Run’ and all the rest. I played them myself and soon realised that a whole new enormous vista of music was opening up to me. As I left, he said: “And that’s jazz!” Noel Gay arranged for me to meet Carroll Gibbons, one of the leading jazz and dance music pianists of the war. I knew his music and had some of his records – he was currently at the Savoy Hotel. “He’s a patient of A-D’s.”

Who isn’t, I reflected. Everyone called my father A-D, and in this instance, I felt immeasurably grateful to him. Carroll quite wonderfully took me on, and I believe I was the only pupil he ever had. I had lots of tutorials, sometimes as much as one every week.

At the Chichester shore base I had already found a Bechstein piano in storage in the vaults of the great house. Down there I could play without anyone hearing or interrupting me, and would play a quite different sort of music . . . Gershwin – Jerome Kern – Cole Porter – Rogers and Heart – Irving Berlin – Me and My Girl, and all the current hits of the war – even Fats Waller. My depression lifted. I was rising on a high, almost to euphoria. Somehow, maybe, with God’s help, everything would turn out all right.

I started to have runs ashore, usually to Southsea and the Queen’s Hotel. At the side of the hotel and up some steps was a club called the Jokers. A great little place, it was always packed, and to top it off, it had a super piano. After a while, I found myself playing there most evenings, as well for dances in the various Wreneries (quarters for the Women’s Royal Naval Service) and the Portsmouth Royal Navy Band.

On the evening of Friday the 28th of November 1941, an officer I knew came to the Jokers and said I was ordered to return to Base immediately. Just before I entered the Manor House, I was given a pair of large dark glasses, told to put them on and escorted into a secure room. It was dimly lit, and I found myself alone with a tall slim Naval officer, but all that was visible through the dark glasses were three gold wavy stripes on his sleeve.

A Commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, immeasurably my senior, he too was wearing dark glasses; there would be little chance of either of us identifying the other. The Commander was quietly pacing the room and when I came in he stopped and quietly spoke: “Christopher Robin” he said.

My heart leapt out of my throat, but I fought hard to stifle any recognition of my code name, one known to hardly anyone. Softly, but authoritatively, the Commander continued: “I come from the Prime Minister, and his intelligence advisor – Major Desmond Morton.” He paused for a moment longer – and then said: “From Tigger and Owl . . . I believe you know these code names, Christopher!” There was now no point in maintaining my stance of ignorance. This Commander was genuine.

“Yes, Sir, I do.” Only too well. Three and a half years later I was to learn that the name of this Commander – was Ian Fleming.