MacKenzie and Marks' American Tour

MacKenzie and Marks' American Tour

by Gillian B

Chapter 3: Acton Tea Party

6.45 pm Tuesday 8 October 1940
37 St John's Wood Crescent, London

Diane and I had rushed back to my parents' house from our encounter with the Belsize women, who had attempted to discover some codebook in my care. Although there was no such codebook to be discovered, we realised that Sarah might also receive unwelcome attention in the same fruitless quest.

Any hope we might have had of seeing a taxi on the way was in vain. Sarah had our only official transport and I had already decided to solve our problem by borrowing my cousin's motorcycle which was stored in a shed behind the house.

Diane and I were both still in uniform from our morning briefing but had both elected to wear trousers rather than skirts for practicality. I helped myself to my cousin's leather flying helmet, goggles and gauntlets to wear for motorcycling. Diane popped into the house to find a suitable hat while I tried to persuade the bike to start on its wartime fuel mixture of petrol adulterated with kerosene.

Just as the engine roared into life with an immense cloud of blue smoke, Diane appeared. She still had her uniform cap on but had secured it with one of the scarves intended for servicemen over the top of her head and knotted under her chin. She had also found some gloves.

7.15 pm: 58 Church Street, Acton

The journey had taken us about half an hour, threading our way through traffic in Kilburn and Willesden. We passed the Alhambra cinema in Acton where Sarah told me she learned to pick locks so she could see the Saturday morning serials without paying. I stopped the engine some way short of Sarah's mother's house and pushed the bike the last few yards in view of the risk of intruders being on the premises.

We made our way down the passageway through the row of houses a few doors away from Sarah's house. There was a lane along the back with gates into the back yards behind the houses. Diane removed her gloves, which I now realised were actually socks from the same source as her borrowed scarf, and reached over the gate to push the bolt back. "Not locked," she hissed at me. She opened the gate and we entered. I propped the bike up and we made our way as quietly as we could to the back door.

There was no sign of any forcible entry, but as the back door would rarely be locked in daylight, that really told us nothing. I opened the door as quietly as I could and was thankful as it swung back silently on well-oiled hinges. Given the chosen illicit profession of some of Sarah's family, I was not entirely surprised to find the door prepared for swift and noiseless exit.

As we entered the kitchen, which I knew also to be the main family room of the house, our fears were confirmed. The room was in chaos, with all the kitchen drawers and cupboards opened and the contents strewn around the floor. Facing us in the centre of the room were two women, roped to chairs and gagged. I recognised Sarah's mother and I took the other woman to be Sarah's younger sister, Rachel. From the way they were drooping against their bonds, they looked exhausted. I wondered how long they had been tied up there.

The tying was as neat and expert-looking as I had seen in Dover and at my parents' house. Each woman had her wrists crossed and bound behind the back of her chair. Their wrist bindings had been tied to the woodwork of their chairs and their arms were roped to the sides of the chair back. More rope bound them to the chairs around their waists, over both shoulders and over their laps. Their knees were tied together and ankles tied separately to the front legs of their chairs, splaying their legs out rather uncomfortably.

The women's gags were too tight for me to pull down. Thick pieces of cotton rag had been forced between their teeth and then knotted behind their heads. The knots were very unyielding, so I cut the gags with a vegetable paring knife from one of the heaps on the floor.

"Is Sarah here?" I asked anxiously. Her mother tried to speak but could get no sound out of her parched mouth. She nodded wearily and glanced towards the door into the rest of the house.

I left Diane to hack through Sarah's mother's and sister's bonds while I went in search of Sarah.

7.30 pm: Upstairs

Each room I looked in was just as chaotic as the others. A search had been carried out but it did not appear to have been either methodical or carried out with professional skill.

Sarah was in the main bedroom upstairs. She was lying spreadeagled on her parents' bed, securely and comprehensively tied to the iron bedstead. She was gagged and blindfolded.

I removed Sarah's blindfold first. She blinked in the light and tried a half-hearted grin round her gag as she saw my face. It took me a minute or so to get the gag untied while Sarah lifted her head as far as she could to give my fingers some room. "Thanks, Boss," she croaked as the gag came away.

I looked in dismay at the quantity of rope and number of knots that had been used. Each wrist and ankle had a coil of three or four turns of rope around it and a very substantial knot. The ropes leading from these were hitched around the bars of the head and foot of the bed and the ends tied off on the legs of the bed so they were well out of reach. Several turns of rope encircled Sarah's waist and was tied off to the sides of the bed frame. There was a similar coil around her chest, just below her arms. That too was tied to the sides of the bed but there were also ropes going over her shoulders and those were anchored to the bed head.

As if that wasn't enough, a pair of ropes were tied to the centre of the bed head, spread out to the sides of the bed about half way down, where they were tied to the frame and then converged again to be tied to the centre of the foot of the bed. The ropes thus traced out a big diamond shape on the bed. Sarah's elbows and knees were tied to this diamond where the ropes passed under them.

"Don't go away," I quipped and headed back to the kitchen for a knife.

7.35 pm: Back in the kitchen

When I returned to the kitchen, Diane had freed Sarah's mother, who was nursing her bruised arms, legs and mouth. Sarah's sister's mouth was free but Diane was still sawing through her bonds.

I confirmed with Diane that I had found Sarah and that the whole house had been turned over. Sarah's mother rolled her eyes and muttered something in Yiddish.

7.36 pm: Upstairs again

As I worked on freeing Sarah, I debriefed her. It seemed that she had entered the house about 4 pm after delivering the first load of our props to my parents' house and then collecting the second load. As soon as she walked into the kitchen, she had been threatened with a gun. Her mother and sister were already tied up as we had found them and Sarah decided that co-operation was by far the wisest course of action.

The description of her assailants matched the Belsize women so I tentatively concluded that they had been here before going to my parents' house. They were alarmingly well informed about what was supposed to be a completely secret intelligence operation. Someone inside our intelligence services was clearly leaking information to a well-organised group of spies. My father's precautions seemed to be very wise.

7.45 pm: Back in the kitchen again

When Sarah and I returned to the kitchen, Diane was making a pot of tea and informally debriefing Sarah's mother and sister, who were still sitting in the chairs they had been tied to.

Mrs Marks told most of the story in her 'talking to officialdom' voice which betrayed little of her usual rather fruity Jewish accent. It seemed that the intruders had arrived shortly after 3.30 pm, when she had been alone in the house. They had not asked her any questions at all but simply tied her up, using rope and rags they had brought with them, obviously for the purpose.

"Never am I tied up like so!" she exclaimed, reverting to Yiddish word order, as she described what happened. It seemed that one of the occupational hazards of being a member of a family whose business activities occasionally strayed into professional crime was that rivals would sometimes pay unfriendly visits, apparently often leaving members of the family tied up.

"S'right," Rachel chipped in. "usually you just wriggle around a bit and you get loose in half an hour or so. I've never been done up like this before. We'd have been here all night if you hadn't of come!"

I nodded in the absence of anything sensible to say and Diane diverted the conversation by declaring that the tea was ready. I watched fascinated as Mrs Marks introduced us to the traditional Eastern European approach to tea drinking, black unsweetened tea drunk with a sugar cube gripped between the teeth. She apologised that since war broke out lemons had been unavailable.

The conversation veered back onto its surreal course as Diane commented sympathetically about the bruises on Rachel's wrists. "Yerse, she replied examining them thoughtfully, "I wouldn't ever tie somebody up so tight they got really hurt. You only got to keep them out of the way for long enough to go through the house after all. What do you think Mum?"

Mrs Marks was in a more expansive mood now, "That's right, dear. I always taught you both so. You always be careful when you tie person up. Not so, Sarah?"

The confusion on Sarah's face was priceless. After frantic thinking she managed to steer a middle course. "Right, Mum. But these people weren't like us. Miss MacKenzie says they've caught them already and they're traitors spying for the Germans."

Sarah's mother and sister growled their disapproval of spies and their methods. I quickly rounded the conversation off by agreeing a time to meet in the morning and then ushering Diane out through the door.

Diane was uncharacteristically quiet and thoughtful during our journey back. I don't think she had ever met a family quite like the Marks before. Neither had I for that matter.

8.00 am Wednesday 9 October 1940: 37 St John's Wood Crescent

Our final briefing meeting was convened over breakfast round the family dining table. Sarah had driven over from Acton very early and Lady Gillian joined us too.

My mother had insisted on giving us a good breakfast and had managed (by fair means or otherwise) to serve us sausages, bacon and real eggs with fried bread. Mother was slightly dismayed to realise that Sarah's dietary requirements ruled out anything that had been part of a pig in life. Sarah nevertheless declared herself well pleased with poached eggs on toast spread with margarine, which she ate very carefully to spare the bruises she had acquired from being gagged.

We reported in turn. I told the group of my success at obtaining new material. I described with enthusiasm the new tricks and smaller items we would have. I gave Sarah a note of the addresses to visit in order to collect everything.

Diane produced an Aladdin's cave of theatrical make-up. Most of it was pre-war Leichner grease paint but she had also obtained some new American water-based make-up by Max Factor. In addition, she had a selection of wigs virtually given to her. We compiled a list of extra items to be purchased in Canada or the United States.

Sarah gave us a list of what she had collected of our props already and just how enormous it all was. We resolved to spend the evening separating the vital items from the desirable and discarding the unnecessary.

Lastly, we all discussed security issues. I expressed my gravest misgivings about the apparent leakiness of Naval Intelligence, given the precision of the three attacks my team had suffered so far. My father and Lady Gillian agreed that there must be a leak and it was worrying but they were convinced that the arrest of the Belsize women the previous evening had headed off any immediate disaster. Lady Gillian reported that their desire to furnish information had been almost embarrassingly eager, having been given only the merest hint that coercion might be possible. In particular, there was enough information that their radio traffic (they had a transmitter hidden in a wardrobe) could be continued even after their demise, transmitting suitably misleading information back to the German intelligence services.

I was still unhappy but the importance of the mission outweighed my own desire for complete peace of mind.

In parting, Lady Gillian told us to have the van loaded and to be ready to move out at 6 am the next day. We would learn where we were to go some time before then.

Later the same day

The remainder of the day passed busily but uneventfully.

All three of us went out on a short spending spree in the morning to obtain some suitable civilian clothes for our trip to the United States. My father had furnished us with a quantity of money and the necessary extra ration coupons for clothing so that we could get what we needed.

Later on, Sarah worked on transporting the remainder of our props and equipment old and new back to my parents' house. Diane made lists of all the items we had and assessed which were in need of repair or refurbishment. I busied myself doing cleaning, testing and maintenance of our main items.

By evening, we had selected which items we intended to take with us and had packed the small van to the limits of its capacity. It was parked with its back doors tight against the wall at the end of the driveway as an added security measure. We had also decided that Sarah should sleep at my parents' house that night.

The three of us exchanged ideas for shows over a substantial and surprisingly tasty supper laid on by my mother which seemed to consist largely of potatoes and turnips with a trace of corned beef. By the end of the meal, we had a series of programmes for shows blocked out.

It was past midnight by that time and we still had no news of our transport arrangements. We decided just to go to bed and await developments.

5.30 am Thursday 10 October 1940: 37 St John's Wood Crescent, my bedroom

Climbing out of my bed at 5.30 am was a great struggle. I shut off the alarm clock and shivered in the morning chill, despite my warm flannel pyjamas. I turned on my bedroom light and willed myself to make a move towards the bathroom. Suddenly, there was a short ring at the doorbell. The blackout screens prevented me from peeking out to see who was there, but I assumed it would be a caller with orders for me.

I pulled on my warm woollen dressing gown and made my way downstairs through the darkened house. As I passed the hall table, I withdrew the service revolver kept there by my father and crept to the front door, the polished wooden hallway floor toe-curlingly cold under my bare feet.

I squinted through the peephole in the door and could make out a familiar figure. I opened the door to reveal Lady Gillian Beaumaris, warmly, if unconventionally, dressed in a seaman's duffle coat and a knitted balaclava. Without comment, she handed me a typed note instructing us what to do next. I glanced at it and then put it in my dressing gown pocket.

"I could have been anyone," Lady Gillian commented reproachfully.

"So you could," I replied and looked down.

Lady Gillian followed my gaze downwards to the revolver I was holding pointing steadily at her at stomach level. "Good girl," she commented with a grin, then turned on her heel and left.

5.50 am: The kitchen

After a mad scramble to get washed and dressed, Diane, Sarah and I were ready to eat and go. Characteristically, my mother was not about to trust me to fend for myself, at least not where matters of nutrition were concerned. She had insisted on getting up too and had placed a steaming bowl of porridge in front of each of us. Together with the cups of surprisingly good coffee that had also appeared before us, the food worked its customary magic and we felt able to face the day.

I had given the piece of paper from Lady Gillian to Sarah, who read it through and then nodded before handing it back.

6.00 am: Outside

We stepped out into the chilly pre-dawn air and I turned my greatcoat collar up, rather envying Diane's warm flying jacket. Sarah drove out onto the street and I closed the gate behind the van. I glanced back at the house silently wishing it farewell then joined Diane as we squeezed ourselves into the passenger seat while still allowing Sarah room to manipulate the gear lever.

We set off through deserted streets, seeing only an occasional policeman or air-raid warden. Our route took us down through Kilburn and Notting Hill to join the Great West Road at Hammersmith. The main road was noticeably busier than the streets we had passed along earlier, with a fair amount of military traffic.

As we passed Hounslow Barracks, we were abruptly in open countryside. Three miles further along, we turned left into the gate to RAF Heathrow, named after a farm which had been taken over for the duration of hostilities.

6.45 am: Heathrow Aerodrome

The RAF Regiment sergeant at the airfield gate gazed in disbelief at the tightly-packed wall of strange odds and ends that faced him when he opened the van's rear doors. "All right, ma'am," he said, allowing Sarah to close the doors again. I was told to expect you and what you would be carrying, only I didn't quite believe it." He waved us on with an imperious sweep of his arm and a cheeky wink.

Heathrow was being used for much of the civilian air traffic serving London, insofar as there was any truly civilian traffic in wartime. Sarah had parked the van while we sought out the dispersal point where we had been told to meet our transport. Sleek and impressive DC3s and Lockheed Electras were much in evidence, some in gleaming polished aluminium, others in camouflage with minimal airline markings.

At last we reached our goal and stared at a diminutive Airspeed Oxford. It was in camouflage with the red and blue flashes of British wartime civil aviation on the fuselage and wings. The former legend, British and Continental Airlines was gone. In its place the proud branding, British, Continental and Transatlantic Airlines was neatly stencilled.

"I've branched out," announced a familiar voice behind me.

I turned to see the grinning face of my old friend Squadron Leader Ranulph Alexander Stupp, known to all, inevitably, as 'Mick'.

"The usual suspects, I see," he said acknowledging Sarah and Diane with a nod. "I was told to expect luggage?"

Sarah set off to fetch the van while Stupp asked me about our mission only to look rather crestfallen when I told him it was secret. I asked him about our flight plan and he in turn retorted that it was a secret too. "At least until we're airborne," he added with a grin.

Some of the seats had been taken out of the Oxford, leaving only the two behind the pilot's and co-pilot's seats, so there was room to pack our gear in. Mick was relieved to find that it was bulky rather than enormously heavy but it still put the aircraft close to its maximum load.

7.30 am: Takeoff

The sky was quite light now. Diane was a qualified pilot from her short time delivering aircraft in the ATS before she was transferred to the WAAF for intelligence work, so Mick put her in the co-pilot's seat while Sarah and I sat behind.

Diane read out the items on the pre-flight checklist while Mick checked each one. Sarah and I strapped ourselves in and both had good intentions of getting in some much-needed practice in close-up magic during the flight.

The take-off was smooth and expert as always. After leaving Heathrow, Mick steered a north-westerly course.

With my lack of sleep and the soporific drone of the engines, my eyes felt increasingly heavy and I gave in to the inevitable. I pulled my scarf up round my ears and snuggled down into the collar of my greatcoat then dozed off.

10.00 am: Scotland

I woke slowly, feeling slightly stiff from the cramped seat and with a remarkably cold nose. I peered out of the window beside me and tried to locate myself.

Mick had evidently heard me rousing myself and replied to my unspoken question, "Glasgow."

Given that clue, I recognised the Firth of Clyde far below us to the left and the Western Isles just visible in the distance ahead.

The air was beautifully clear and although I worked on a long series of card manipulation exercises, cursing my clumsiness at times, my eyes were drawn to the magical pattern of mountains and lochs around us. Many of the higher mountains already had their winter caps of snow. From this height, it was hard to remember that the beautiful country far below was still at war.

We crossed the coast at Oban and flew along the narrow seaway of the Sound of Mull, finally leaving Ardnamurchan Point, the westernmost point of the British mainland, behind us.

"So, where are we going?" I asked, "And don't say 'America.'"

Stupp chuckled at the stymied wisecrack. "Barra, for fuel, then Reykjavik, Narsarsuaq in Greenland, Goose Bay and Halifax, Nova Scotia." He pointed forwards at the island straight ahead of us across the grey waters of the Minch as he mentioned Barra.

11.15 am: The Cockle Strand

The airfield on Barra was a revelation to me. Strictly speaking, it isn't on Barra at all, for aircraft land on the hard sand of a broad beach in lieu of a runway. The usual control tower and ancillary buildings sit slightly incongruously amid the marran grass just above the high tide line. Of course, at high tide, there is no airfield at all.

When we sighted the 'aerodrome', it was immediately apparent that there were no other aircraft on the ground or in the vicinity. Mick decided to maintain radio silence just for security.

Mick took a low approach pass first, then circled round again. He explained that the wind direction on the sand was often slightly different from that suggested by the windsock flying above the control tower. When we landed, the sound and motion of the aeroplane over the ripples in the sand and over the thousands of seashells was quite unlike any conventional landing.

We taxied up to the airfield buildings where a bowser stood ready for us. "Welcome to the Cockle Strand," announced Mick. "Apparently the real Gaelic name for the beach is something rather less romantic."

"The first time I flew with him, he landed on a beach too," I remarked.

"Easier to hit than a runway," he replied disarmingly.

Diane, Sarah and I climbed out into what my mother called a 'lazy wind'; it didn't trouble to go round you but just went straight through!

An elderly and immensely fat squadron leader descended the ladder from the tower and made his way towards us with a curious rolling gait like a sailor on a storm-tossed deck. He was evidently the station commander for this remote outpost of the RAF.

"Good morning!" he boomed. "All ready and waiting for you chaps!" He beamed at each of us in turn and then added, "And chap-esses as well, of course!"

I was surprised to see that he wore pilot's wings on his uniform. On closer inspection, the wings had RFC rather than RAF embroidered at the centre; his flying days had been with the Royal Flying Corps in the Great War.

"I'll see to the fuel," the squadron leader continued, "Shona will get you some tea and sandwiches." He gestured towards the large wooden shed which appeared to contain the sum total of the station's indoor facilities.

11.25 am: Shona

Mick stayed with the squadron leader to supervise refuelling. The rest of us made our way to the shed and let ourselves into a small office, luxuriating in its comparative warmth. A small desk with a typewriter and a telephone and a row of filing cabinets seemed to mark the nerve centre of Shona's sphere of influence but there was no sign of the lady herself. There was a kettle on a small unlit oil stove. I touched it tentatively but it was barely warm.

"No Shona," I commented rather obviously.

"Maybe she's through there?" ventured Diane, nodding towards the door at the back of the office. A sign on it read, NO SMOKING IN STORE. Shona was probably the quartermaster as well as the secretary, telephonist and office manager, so it was worth a try.

The door was not locked, so Sarah led the way. The store was quite large, with rows and rows of steel shelves stacked with crates, boxes and various pieces of aviation equipment. It was shockingly cold in the store after the cosiness of the office; we could see our breath condensing in the air.

"Shona!" I called out, but there was no reply. We wandered further into the store.

The store was a prefabricated timber affair with a roof consisting of two parallel ridges, like a rather squashed capital M. Down the centre of the building was a row of timber posts supporting the central valley between the ridges. There was a figure sitting against the furthest post, its arms apparently spread in welcome.

We hurried down the length of the store. The figure was a woman, although it was hard to tell at first glance. She was wearing an RAF greatcoat an had an RAF blue knitted watch cap pulled right down over her head and tucked into a scarf knotted round her neck.

The woman was sitting on a chair with its back to the stout timber post supporting the roof. A surveyor's ranging rod, a 6-foot-long red-and-white striped pole, was lashed horizontally across the top of the chair back. The unfortunate woman was tied to the chair and to the post with many turns of rope round her body and over both her shoulders. Her arms were securely lashed to the ranging rod, with rope spiralling up from wrists to shoulders. Her hands, hidden inside hand-knit RAF blue mittens hung limply like autumn leaves. Her feet were propped up on another chair which had been placed in front of the one she was sitting on. Her ankles were bound and also tied down to the second chair. Her legs were also bound just above and below her knees. Some care seemed to have been taken to wrap her legs with the skirt of her greatcoat and to hold it in place with the ropes.

"Shona?" I asked in concern. She nodded and mumbled something unintelligible.

I loosened the scarf and pulled the hat off her head to reveal a gag between her teeth and knotted behind her head and a blindfold, both cotton rags. When I removed the gag, I discovered that her mouth had been filled with a third rag.

While I worked on removing the gag and blindfold, Diane was cutting the ropes securing Shona's arms while Sarah freed her body and legs. We helped her stand and then supported her as she walked unsteadily back to the office.

11.40 am: Security crisis

I made a pot of strong tea and Sarah made up some corned beef sandwiches while Diane rubbed a bit of life back into Shona's cramped limbs.

The story came out slowly. It seemed that around 9 am, two men, apparently merchant seamen, came into the office. That was not in itself an unusual occurrence but as soon as the outer door was shut, one of the men produced a gun and told Shona to co-operate completely or they would shoot without hesitation. There were no secrets worth dying for in the files, so Shona agreed to do as she was told. They then told her that she would be tied up but unharmed and ushered her into the store.

Shona commented on how solicitous the men had been for her wellbeing. As soon as they discovered how cold the store was, they had her pick up her coat and her hat, scarf and mittens. "The were very careful when they tied me up too," she explained in her soft Hebridean lilt. "They made sure it wasn't too tight. They were so polite too, really perfect gentlemen."

She thought for a moment, "Except of course they did tie me up."

Nothing seemed to have been taken or even disturbed, which all seemed very strange.

"One funny thing," Shona mused, "the men said that they wanted me to give a message to you, Miss MacKenzie, but they never left any message."

"Oh, yes they did!" I replied. "You were the message yourself. Loud and clear."

The message was simple, stark and frightening, We know where you are going and we can reach out and touch you whenever we want to. The most worrying aspect was that almost no-one knew our plans. Not even I knew that we would land here until we had already taken off. Someone in Naval Intelligence itself and someone very close to us must be leaking information. It could not have been Sarah or Diane because they were as ignorant as I about our flight plan. Surely not my father? And surely not Lady Gillian? She was the one with most opportunity, but surely, like Caesar's wife, she was above suspicion? Wasn't she?

Copyright © 2001 Gillian B

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