In a darkened cell, a woman lay uncomfortably on a hard, narrow prison bed. The source of her discomfort lay in the strips of cloth that bound her. She was lying on her left side, facing the wall, with her knees drawn up slightly. Her wrists were crossed behind her back, bound painfully tightly and secured to the small of her back by a strip of cloth around her waist. Her legs were bound at both knees and ankles. Short strips linked her ankles to the metal bed frame on one side and her knees to the other side. A rag was wadded in her mouth as a gag and secured with a strip of coarse cotton cloth ripped from a bed sheet. The woman moved slightly to try to ease her discomfort, taking great care not to put any tension on the rope, carefully braided from cloth, that formed a noose around her neck and which was tied to the head of the bed. Any large movements would surely result in her choking herself. She was covered with a grey prison blanket and her position in bed would pass for a sleeping figure to anyone looking into the darkened cell through the peephole in the door.
The woman dozed fitfully from time to time, but her dreams were filled with nightmare images. She consoled herself that in a few hours it would be dawn and she would be found and released.
The day had begun normally enough. She had done some last minute Christmas shopping before going to Holloway to pay a pre-Christmas visit to the German prisoner she had befriended there.
The woman's visits had begun by chance when her brother, a civil servant in the Home Office had mentioned the presence of a female German prisoner who might benefit from a visit. She was surprised to be required to sign the Official Secrets Act, but it was explained that the prisoner's situation, indeed her very existence, was politically and diplomatically sensitive.
The prisoner could technically not even be charged with any crime and certainly not with treason or espionage as she was a foreign national and all her activities had taken place on Austrian, now German, soil. Nevertheless she was a threat to national security and had been interned using that most mediaeval of mechanisms, an Order in Council. The Home Secretary had refused to countenance her execution without trial, so instead she was being held "until His Majesty's pleasure be known". Indefinitely, in other words.
The woman had visited the German prisoner on a regular basis and increasingly frequently through the autumn of 1938. The woman spoke good German and, as the prisoner's English was halting and heavily accented, they communicated exclusively in German. The woman was pleased that it seemed the beginnings of a friendship had began to blossom between them.
All had gone well until the evening of Friday the 23rd of December. The woman had visited the prison to wish her friend a merry Christmas and to deliver a small gift. The woman was admitted to the prisoner's cell as usual and the door locked behind her.
No sooner had she entered the cell than the prisoner produced a small but wickedly sharp-looking knife, clearly adapted from an ordinary table knife. The prisoner's demeanour was completely changed and she made it clear that she was prepared to inflict serious injury or even death on the woman if she did not co-operate fully. The woman was defenceless against an attack like that and agreed to do as she was told.
The woman had been gagged and then ordered to strip to her underwear. The prisoner was already well prepared. She had already cut a bed sheet into strips and twisted them into makeshift ropes. The binding followed swiftly.
The woman lay in abject terror, not daring to move a muscle while the prisoner prepared for the next stage of her plan. She was of a similar build to the woman she had overpowered and both had brown hair but the resemblance was otherwise slight. She helped herself to the cosmetics in the woman's handbag and applied a simple make-up in the same style as the woman adopted. She brushed her hair out and formed it into a bun, helping herself to hairpins from the bound woman's head as and when she needed them.
The prisoner removed her grey prison dress and hung it up in the small clothes cupboard in her cell. She removed her darned woollen stockings and tossed them into the bottom of the same cupboard. She carefully drew the woman's silk stockings on, smoothed them out, checked that the seams were straight then put the woman's dress on. It was a slightly loose fit, but no one was likely to notice.
The woman's shoes were also slightly too large. The prisoner retrieved her own discarded stockings and cut them down to short socks to help fill out the shoes. The fit was still not perfect but would pass a casual inspection.
The prisoner picked up the woman's wristwatch and put it on. As she did so, she glanced at the time and speeded up her preparations.
The woman's outerwear came next. The prisoner carefully settled the hat on her head and pinned it at exactly the right angle. She put the woman's heavy tweed coat on then felt in the pockets for the woman's thin leather gloves, which she put on. Finally she hung the woman's long woollen scarf round her neck and tossed one end over her shoulder, arranging it to cover her chin.
At last, the prisoner addressed the bound woman on the bed, "I have come to enjoy our times together and I deeply regret doing this to you. It's only for a little while and I'm sure they will not blame you for this. Goodbye."
The woman would have gasped in surprise had it not been for the gag in her mouth - the prisoner had addressed her in perfect and unaccented English, even with a passing imitation of her own voice. She would surely have no problem walking out past the skeleton staff of warders on duty all looking forward to Christmas.
The prisoner, her disguise complete, tapped on the cell door to be let out. As the warder opened the door, she pointed to the blanket-covered form on the bed and held her finger to her lips. The warder said nothing but let her past then closed the cell door very quietly and locked it.
I staggered out of my office at Dover Citadel carrying a huge stack of folders of documents, attempting to keep them under control with pressure from my chin. My friend and loyal colleague, Wren Petty Officer Sarah Marks flung open the door of our Humber staff car so I could dump my burden on the back seat. I closed the back door then settled myself in the front passenger seat while Sarah started the car and we set off.
Before the war Sarah and I had been performing on stage as MacKenzie and Marks, escapologists. Covertly, we had used our tours of Europe and elsewhere as a means of gathering information and delivering messages on behalf of His Majesty's Government. Equally covertly, we had been serving members of the Royal Navy, I as a Lieutenant Commander, Sarah as a Petty Officer Telegrapher. We were mobilised properly when war came and the theatres all closed (many re-opened later of course). When the Women's Royal Naval Service - the Wrens - was re-established at the beginning of 1940, we were transferred and started to wear uniform regularly. I now found myself as First Officer Flora MacKenzie, a rank equal to my former rank of Lieutenant Commander, but with three royal blue braids on my cuff in place of the two wide and one thin wavy gold braids I had worn as a member of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.
The sky was clear and blue with occasional white puffs of cloud. It was going to be another glorious day in a seemingly endless summer. We ground our way slowly up to the beginning of the cliff-top road which runs the length of the famous white cliffs of Dover southwards and westwards towards Folkestone.
We had already seen ample evidence of a German build-up along the channel coast with invasion barges apparently already in place at major ports. Our job was to distribute instructions to the commanders of all units stationed along that stretch of coast to look for significant enemy activity and to collect notes of observations already undertaken. Every service man or woman along that coast had a part to play as the eyes and ears of the nation.
We paused briefly at the sentry post guarding the beginning of the cliff-top road, once an ordinary lane but now of vital strategic importance. The sentry recognised me and saluted smartly before commenting on the beautiful weather.
We were now above Shakespeare Cliff, the cliff-top where King Lear in his madness met the blinded Duke of Gloucester. Our first destination was in sight, a 3.7" anti-aircraft battery.
As Sarah drew the car off the road onto the short turf of the chalky grassland, we saw another visitor to the location. There was a small Bedford van with RAF registration plates next to the battery headquarters caravan. It was parked facing the sea and sitting on its bonnet was a young female officer intently peering through binoculars at the French coast. Even from the back, she was unmistakable. As I walked across to her I could see that the van was a radio truck. A jumble of blankets on the front passenger seat bore testimony to where the officer had spent the previous night. She still hadn't registered my presence, so I watched as she scanned the horizon. A microphone was ready for use on a lanyard round her neck.
"Diane," I said softly. She brought the binoculars down and her face broke into a grin.
Diane looked exhausted. Fatigue had settled into dark smudges under her eyes. I wondered how long she had been sleeping in the van. Just then her radio crackled into life and she clamped a pair of headphones down over her ears. She briefly acknowledged the message. "That was Control at 11 Group Headquarters, Uxbridge," she explained to me. "Bader's wing from 12 Group is up in support of the 11 Group squadrons now." After a long pause, she added, "I just hope it's enough."
"Reserves?" I asked reading the fear in her face.
"There aren't any more," she replied quietly.
All this time, Diane's eyes had been scanning the horizon. Suddenly she lifted the binoculars up. "Oh, dear God," she said softly. As she spoke into the microphone her voice was steady and professional, "Control? Bandits in sight between Calais and Boulogne, range 25 miles, angels 18 to 20. I see Heinkels and Dorniers, maybe 80-100 aircraft. No fighters in sight yet." The chain of radar stations along the south coast would already have detected the aircraft although not the numbers or type. Other observers would also be reporting back. It would take only a little over five minutes for the aircraft to cross the Channel.
Somewhere down in Dover we could hear the vicious banging of a Bofors gun starting to fire a little prematurely. The long barrels of the 3.7" guns turned to face the sea and silently swung up to point at the sky. The cheery face of the Battery Sergeant Major appeared over a sandbag wall, "Battle bowlers girls!" then added "...ma'am," as he spotted the braid on my cuffs. We put our steel helmets on just as the guns started firing. The concussion was felt as much as heard and all further conversation was impossible. We made silent farewells and went in search of the battery commander to hand him briefing notes, occasional shell splinters falling around us as we went.
Our milk round of military installations took us to Folkestone by late afternoon on a day with the fiercest aircraft engagement we had ever seen. When we set off to return, rather than take the direct route along the main A20 road, Sarah and I decided to go back the way we had come.
When we reached the ack-ack battery where we had met Diane, we found her still there. She was sitting on the grass with her back supported by the side of her van. She had a blanket round her shoulders held in place by her folded arms, like a Red Indian squaw. Her uniform cap was tilted forward over her eyes.
"I'm not asleep," she said as I walked quietly up to her. Whether or not she had been a few seconds earlier, I didn't like to speculate.
A hand appeared from under the blanket and pushed her cap back to reveal her big green eyes. "I've just heard," she said, "175 German planes down, only 26 of ours. I don't think they can take a pounding like that much longer." In a quieter voice she added, "I'm not sure we can either."
In the event, that day proved decisive. The Luftwaffe attack tailed off and invasion no longer seemed imminent. Britain could now look towards the longer-term objectives of the war beyond mere survival, and those objectives would inevitably involve the United States, then still steadfastly neutral.
Once the immediate danger of invasion had faded, I had become increasingly frustrated with my role collecting and distributing intelligence reports. It was important work but I felt that a Petty Officer Writer with even quite modest management skills could do at least as good a job as I. Finally, I had vented my irritation during a Sunday visit to my parents' house in London and told my father that I was being under-used and that I was sure I could be of more use to my country than being a glorified mail clerk. My father was sympathetic but emphasised the importance of my current work.
In the cold grey light of the following morning, I realised that my passion was unlikely to achieve much and while I was slightly ashamed at my self-indulgence, I still felt better for having said all I had.
I glanced in the hall mirror in the house where I was in digs in Dover and checked my uniform. My landlady, a naval officer's wife in her mid twenties, had already gone out to her job as a bus driver, one of many women doing what was regarded as 'men's work' during the War. As I opened the front door to leave, a red Post Office van drew up outside and the postman emerged with a large parcel. "First Officer MacKenzie?" he asked.
"That's me," I confirmed.
"Official package, Miss, got to sign here and here and here." He handed me a sheaf of papers and I signed them where he showed me. "And I need to see your Identity Card please, Miss." I handed it over and he examined it carefully. "This says 'Lieutenant Commander'," he pointed out.
"First Officer is the same thing in the girls' navy," I assured him and he was satisfied.
I carried the parcel back into the house and up to my room. It was bulky but not nearly as heavy as I expected. I carefully undid the large paper sack it was wrapped in, which looked too useful not to preserve. Inside was a cardboard box and inside that was a uniform hat. It was identical to the one I was wearing except that the fouled anchor badge on the front was embroidered in Wrens' royal blue instead of Royal Navy gold. I burst out laughing. I wasn't sure whether to despair at the pettiness of red tape in the face of national emergency or to applaud the 'business-as-usual' attitude.
I dutifully swapped hats, stored the old one in the cardboard box and put it on top of my wardrobe. Once more, I set off for work.
I was sorting the day's intelligence notices into piles for distribution when my office phone rang. The telephonist gave me the base Commandant's compliments and asked me to go to his office immediately. I popped my new hat on then hurried off as ordered.
I snapped a smart salute to the top of the Commandant's head as he sat hunched over paperwork at his desk. "Your father's on the scrambler, Flora," he said, gesturing vaguely towards the green telephone on the end of his desk and not bothering to look up.
If it was on the scrambler, this was serious official business of some kind. "First Officer MacKenzie," I announced, picking up the phone.
"Putting you through," came the voice at the other end and I heard the Dover operator announce the call to his opposite number in Whitehall.
"Good morning, Flora," came my Father's voice.
"Good morning, sir," I replied formally. My Father's voice sounded relaxed and conversational but Rear Admiral Alexander 'Sandy' MacKenzie was also my commanding officer and I was sure this wasn't idle chat.
"Flora," he began, "I quite understood your outburst yesterday. I didn't say anything then but Lady Gillian Beaumaris and I had already been thinking about a job that might just suit you and your team. I will brief you, Sarah and Diane tomorrow here at the Admiralty. The Citadel Commandant knows about this, but - apart from Sarah - you must tell no one else. Take a staff car and drive up to London tomorrow morning. I will arrange for your personal things to be packed and sent on. The Air Ministry will brief Diane to report to you this afternoon. Agree a meeting place but tell her nothing else yet."
I acknowledged my orders and confirmed the key points. I was mystified; this sort of posting would normally be arranged in advance and notified by telegram. I was even more puzzled by the need for such secrecy.
I walked slowly back to my digs after my day's work. The work had been important but nevertheless dull as usual. I was quietly excited at the prospect of a new assignment and I had managed to communicate that to Diane when she reported to my office, even though I was not permitted to tell her any details.
I unlocked the front door of number 32 and checked the hall table for any mail. I heard a noise of movement from the kitchen. "It's Flora," I called out, "I'm just in." There was no reply, but a definite thump, so I went to investigate.
Margaret Cliffe, my landlady, was sitting securely roped to one of the kitchen chairs, looking at me with desperate eyes over the top of a gag. I hesitated before I released her, in order to take mental note of what had happened. Her coat was hung on the back of another chair but otherwise Mrs Cliffe was wearing the dark blue serge trousers and maroon sweater she wore to work and even still had her archetypical busman's fingerless gloves on.
She was sitting bolt upright, held in position by ropes round her waist and chest and over her shoulders. Her arms were by her sides with her wrists bound to the back legs of the chair just below the seat and her arms tied to the sides of the chair back with coils of rope above and below each elbow. Each coil of rope securing her arms was carefully cinched tight with an extra two turns of rope between her arm and the woodwork. Her legs were bound separately to the front legs of the chair with ropes at her ankles and just below her knees. Finally, and probably unnecessarily, several turns of rope across her thighs held her down to the chair seat.
I untied the scarf which covered the lower part of Mrs Cliffe's face and eased out the handkerchief filling her mouth. I held a glass of water to drink from before I did anything else. "Thank you," she croaked hoarsely.
I remembered Mrs Cliffe telling me her shift pattern for the week. "Have you been here since 1 o'clock?" I asked, horrified. She nodded wearily.
I used the sharpest knife I could find in the kitchen to cut through the ropes so as not to aggravate the bruises she undoubtedly had by then. As I did so the story came flooding out. Moments after she returned home, there was a ring at the front door and she found a man and a woman in civilian clothes standing there. They identified themselves as police officers and showed their warrant cards as proof of identity. They explained that there had been some suspicious goings-on in the neighbourhood that morning and, as she had naval personnel living with her, they had to check that nothing had happened which might compromise security. She invited them in without hesitation. They dragged her into the kitchen and the woman tied her up while the man searched the kitchen. After that, they disappeared upstairs. She had heard sounds of movement from various parts of the house them finally leave the house after spending about three quarters of an hour there.
"I need a pee," announced Mrs Cliffe matter-of-factly as I finished releasing her. I helped her to her feet and guided her as she limped unsteadily to the back door and out to the privy in the yard.
While Mrs Cliffe was relieving herself, I went up to my room. I presumed that it had been searched, but it had been done very professionally; there were no obvious signs of disturbance. The only thing I could find missing was the paper sack that had contained my new hat. It must have looked official enough to warrant further investigation. I glanced at the top of the wardrobe; the box was still there.
I returned to the kitchen and told Mrs Cliffe that the only thing missing was an official envelope addressed to me. I explained that I believed the house must have been watched and the postal delivery observed. I was not sure why they had waited until 1 o'clock to search the house but it seemed that they wanted Mrs Cliffe under control rather than risking her coming home to find them in the house.
In view of the secrecy of my mission, I decided not to report anything to either the police or the Naval Provost until the next day. Instead I made some hot sweet tea for Mrs Cliffe and did my best to comfort her.
I commended Mrs Cliffe for not resisting and that way risking violence or death. I also pointed out to her that her assailants had brought rope with them and seemed to have gone to some trouble not to hurt her in the way she was bound.
Mrs Cliffe was surprised. "I didn't know it would be like that being tied up. It doesn't look too awful in films and the first hour wasn't too bad but I ache all over now." I nodded sympathetically and told her it could have been much worse.
Her surprise deepened. "Have you ever been tied up then?" I burst out laughing and told her what my pre-war job had been. She joined the laughter; she had seen me on stage at the Pavilion Theatre in Dover in 1938 and never realised that I was the same Flora MacKenzie. I jollied her out of her terrible ordeal by telling her some of my experiences on stage.
I couldn't tell Mrs Cliffe but it looked very much as though MacKenzie and Marks were back in business.
Copyright © 2001 Gillian B
Foreword Chapter 2
Flora MacKenzie's Casebook
KP Presents Contents