The sight of our hostess, Mrs Donaldson, bound, gagged and menaced by some unknown assailants, had driven any residual sleepiness from me. My mind raced, searching for some course of action, but the first move was obvious; I must rouse Sarah and Diane but do so silently so as not to raise the alarm prematurely.
Young Magnus and I crept back up the stairs as silently as we knew how. I made my way to the room shared by Sarah and Diane. I wakened Sarah first by the simple expedient of clapping my hand over her mouth and shaking her. She woke with a start but made no noise. I repeated the process with Diane.
The three of us, and Magnus, held a whispered council of war. There was no time to think of complicated plans; we needed something that would work quickly and which had a good chance of success coupled with minimum risk to the Donaldsons.
I sent Magnus back to his room to put warm outdoor clothes on over his pyjamas. Sarah also dressed herself warmly. By contrast, Diane readied herself for action by wearing the minimum of clothing. I stayed as I was in my unflattering striped flannel pyjamas with warm socks on my feet.
As soon as Magnus had returned, we were ready to start. I briefed him that he was to stay out of the action and, if it looked as if things were going wrong, he was to fetch the police immediately. He was still very frightened but seemed reassured by my firmness and nodded his assent.
We slowly and carefully opened the bedroom window. The air outside was viciously cold in the sub-arctic night. We helped Sarah climb out of the window, leaning out and clutching her hands so that she had only a few feet to drop to the frozen ground below. Magnus came next. We lowered him in the same way and Sarah took his weight for the final drop.
Diane and I shut the window and waited a moment for the cold air that had entered the room to dissipate a little, so that it would not be immediately obvious when we opened the door.
When we judged ourselves ready, Diane and I slipped out of the bedroom, closing the door silently behind us. I crept downstairs first.
I maintained silence until I entered the sitting room. I walked in, stretching myself and adopting the sleepiest voice I could, "Mrs Donaldson? I thought I heard something..." I allowed my voice to tail off and looked around, obviously fully awake, eyes and mouth wide in shock.
I took in the scene in as much detail I could in the few seconds I held the advantage of surprise. Mrs Donaldson was bound to a chair and gagged as I had seen earlier. She was actually sitting in the same chair that Diane had used for her medium act the previous evening. Her binding was untidy but sufficient to hold a frightened woman under armed guard. Her wrists were crossed and bound with rope in her lap, her ankles were bound together and she was secured to the chair with several turns of rope round her arms and body and more over her lap. She was gagged with a handkerchief stuffed into her mouth and a length of rope tied round her head. If she had been unguarded, she could almost certainly have reached the gag and removed it. There was an ugly bruise covering Mrs Donaldson's left eye and cheekbone.
There were two assailants in the room. A huge man was standing with his hands in the pockets of a dark raincoat. He also wore a seaman's cap. A woman was sitting with a large automatic pistol, which I later recognised as a Navy-pattern Luger, trained on Mrs Donaldson. I suspected the gun was the source of Mrs Donaldson's bruise. The woman also wore a dark naval-style raincoat with a black headscarf hiding her hair and a pair of black leather gloves on her hands.
I was acting for all I was worth, but it didn't take much effort to feign fear when confronted with a situation like that. I opened my mouth wide and hoped that would signal to them that a scream was about to follow.
Action was immediate, as I had hoped. The man and woman said nothing but pounced on me immediately. They wrestled me to the floor, knocking the wind out of me as they did so. I found myself lying on my stomach, pinned down firmly on the floor. The woman clamped a gloved hand tightly over my mouth while her colleague first gripped both my wrists in one enormous hand then bound them firmly together. It didn't feel like rope and I concluded that he was tying me with the belt of his coat.
My task was to make sure that all the attention was focused on me, so I kicked and squirmed with all my might. I drummed my heels against the man's arm as he was binding my wrists. This earned me a slap to the back of the head, as did my attempt to bite the hand that was silencing me.
Once my hands were immobilised, my attackers could proceed slightly more easily. The woman produced a large cloth, which tasted slightly of oil (I suspected that it had been used to wrap her gun), and formed it into a gag thick enough to force my jaws apart. I was still struggling hard but could do nothing to hinder the man as he bound my ankles with a length of rope he had produced from somewhere.
Our plan had now reached maturity. Both intruders' attention was wholly absorbed with immobilising me. They were therefore completely unprepared for the assault which followed.
Diane joined the fray first. She had positioned herself just outside the door as soon as she could without attracting attention. She certainly attracted attention now. She was wearing a pair of pink silk knickers, an embroidered cotton camisole, a pair of thick woollen stockings (which she had been wearing under her nightdress) and nothing else.
After a second's stunned inaction, the man slowly stood up and moved towards Diane. She was ready for him. Almost too fast to follow, her left leg flicked out and up in a high kick. Her toes, curled to form a fist, struck him just below the angle of his jaw. I have seen strong men felled by this manoeuvre, but he just stepped back under the impact and resumed his advance. Diane was unfazed and delivered a second kick, which he dodged, putting her off balance. The third kick had an element of desperation and Diane's full weight behind it. Her heel struck him full in the throat. He raised his hands to his neck, leaving his body unprotected. Two more sharp kicks jabbed him in the guts then the groin. He buckled and as his head came down, Diane completed her attack with a final hard kick to the jaw, slamming his teeth together and snapping his head back. He was unconscious before he hit the floor.
While all this was going on, the woman stood up, foolishly leaving her gun on the floor. As soon as I could I wriggled across to it and lay on it.
Under cover of the noise of Diane's attack, Sarah had lifted the catch of the window with her pocket-knife. The window was a pair of inward-opening hinged casements, so Sarah was able to open them and burst in with a single fluid action. She was menacingly dressed for action, entirely in black, with only her eyes showing between the scarf masking her face and the tight wool cap covering her hair.
The woman was still trying to help the man withstand Diane's attack, so Sarah was able to tackle her from behind. The training we had received with the Royal Marines assault troops (who later became the famous Commandos) stood her in very good stead. She reached over the woman's left shoulder and grabbed her right wrist, pulling her arm up and back. Taken to its logical conclusion, you can use this move to strangle an opponent with their own arm. Sarah, however, only needed to control the woman. The disabling blow came in the form of a knee applied to her kidneys with devastating force. The woman collapsed to the floor in her own private world of pain and took no further interest in the proceedings.
"Excuse me, Boss," said Sarah, politely, as she retrieved the Luger from under me. She checked that the man felled by Diane still had a pulse then stood guard over our vanquished assailants. Meanwhile, Diane attended to Mrs Donaldson, untying her and gently helping her to stand.
While Mrs Donaldson recovered her composure, Diane helped Magnus climb in through the window and then closed it to shut out the freezing night. As soon as she had done so, she set out to search the house for Frida, who was not in the sitting room, where we had expected to find her.
I was still bound and gagged on the floor and discovering that a tightly tied fabric belt round my wrists was distinctly tricky to escape from. The friction with my skin was more than would be the case with an equivalent rope binding, so the usual circular motions with one hand were making painfully slow progress. Sarah was watching the process with evident interest, but not making the least effort to help.
Diane returned at that point, carrying a sleepy Frida in her arms. Diane had also sensibly put on a sweater and a pair of trousers on top of her rather skimpy attire. Seemingly Frida had slipped out of bed in her sleep, her bedclothes going with her, and Diane had found her fast asleep in a nest of blankets in the narrow gap between her bed and the wall. Magnus had missed her in his search.
Ingrid's relief at the safe return of both children was almost palpable. She shooed them back upstairs to fuss over them and tuck them back into bed.
I finally managed to free my hands and then started to untie my gag and ankle binding. "That took a while, Boss," Sarah commented with a disarming grin. "I thought you were losing your touch there."
I took a closer look at our two assailants. The man was still unconscious and looked likely to stay that way for a while. His massive build and rough hands suggested a man used to hard manual work and the sweater and serge trousers he wore under his coat would be consistent with his being a seaman. However, almost every second man you met in Iceland was a seaman, so this did not get us far.
The woman was beginning to recover from the disabling blow Sarah had delivered to her. Her breathing sounded less ragged and, if not actually sitting up, she seemed to be taking notice of her surroundings.
I was feeling very cold by this stage and distinctly underdressed in only my pyjamas, so I left Sarah and Diane in charge and returned to my bedroom in search or more layers. I debated just getting dressed, but I still harboured fond hopes of more sleep, so I settled for putting on a heavy sweater on top of my pyjamas and a thicker pair of socks on top of the ones I was wearing already.
When I returned to the sitting room, I saw that Sarah and Diane had already begun steps to secure our prisoners. The man was still out cold, but I saw that his wrists and ankles were now bound. The woman was now sitting in the chair from which Mrs Donaldson had been released. Her raincoat and headscarf had been removed and I was able to take a good look at her for the first time. She appeared to be in her thirties, with a fine complexion and striking blonde hair tied back in a severe but practical bun. She was wearing a black sweater and a mid-calf length black skirt, which looked very European and old-fashioned compared with the rising hemlines forced on us by wartime shortages. Her ensemble was completed with a pair of well-polished black boots.
While I was taking stock of what to do next, Diane had finished tying up our woman prisoner, who seemed to have recovered considerably from Sarah's surprise attack. Her wrists were bound together behind the back of the chair and her arms and body securely lashed to the chair-back. Because of the long skirt, Diane had tied her legs together rather than tying them separately to the chair legs. Her knees were bound somewhere up under the skirt and ankles tightly tied, with ropes going under the soles of her boots for good measure. She was now gagged with a handkerchief stuffed into her mouth and held in place with her own headscarf pulled tight between her teeth.
Sarah was standing guard with the captured Luger. "What happens next, Boss?" she asked. A very good question, I wasn't sure what should happen next. I concluded that we had to ascertain quickly what risk the captured intruders (and whoever had sent them) posed to us and to our mission.
I squatted down on my heels, so my face was level with that of the bound woman. I addressed her in German on the assumption that whatever other languages she might speak, German was certain to be one of them. "Sie und Ihr Anhänger haben unsere Mission gefährdet," I began, politely but firmly, in an even voice. "Dafür, müßen Sie alle meine Fragen beantworten." ("You and your henchman have endangered our mission, so you must answer all my questions.")
The woman stiffened slightly as I spoke, so she clearly understood, but she stared straight ahead, not even meeting my eyes. I decided to increase the stakes.
I stood up and sighed then, after a pause, I added in a regretful tone, "Es wird schwer für Sie. Ich verletze Sie sehr viel, wenn Sie mich nicht beantworten." ("It will be hard on you. I will hurt you a lot if you don't answer me.") She faced me at last and glared impassively at me over her gag but made no sign of being about to co-operate.
I had been betting that she was a wartime recruit and not a professional agent and that she would break easily at the mere threat of violence. My gamble did not seem to be paying off so far, but there were lives at stake not only ours but also many British and Allied servicemen and women. I decided to up the ante again. I turned to Diane and ordered her to get the woman's boots and stockings off and to tie her feet down to a wooden stool which stood in the corner of the room. Diane looked astonished but did not question my orders. Sarah raised an eyebrow but also said nothing.
I left the room and went in search of the kitchen. I knew I was tired and angry and wondered if my judgement was clouded too much to trust myself. I decided to follow my instincts despite my misgivings and having found the kitchen, I selected a small but very heavy cast-iron frying pan from the utensils hanging on the wall.
When I returned to the sitting room, the woman had been prepared as I had asked. Her boots were standing neatly at the side of her chair with her black stockings tucked into the tops of them. Her ankles were bound and tied down to the stool, which was supporting her calves. She was beginning to look apprehensive.
Without pausing, I strode over to the woman, grabbed her right foot in my left hand and then swung the frying pan like a tennis racquet. The smooth flat base of the pan hit the unprotected sole of her bare foot with a resounding thwack. She lurched against the ropes that held her and shrieked through her gag with the shock and sudden pain of the impact. Diane turned away from the scene and Sarah's face hardened but neither of them said anything.
I now grabbed the woman's left foot. Her eyes were wide and her struggles almost toppled her chair. Sarah held the back of the chair upright but still said nothing and her face was unreadable. I delivered the blow to the left foot and the woman screamed again and then tailed off into hysterical sobbing behind her gag.
A tousled and exhausted-looking Mick entered the room at this point, having been woken by the noise. "What the Hell do you think you are doing, Flora?" he barked. I briefly explained the break-in and our counterattack. I pointed out how essential it was to know what our prisoners were up to and who else might be involved.
"But you can't torture prisoners, Flora," he replied. "We just don't do that."
"We have to know," I persisted. "An hour or so of this and she'll be pleading for a firing party and a wall to stand against."
Mick looked embarrassed and helpless. "I'm senior to you," he countered, "and I'm telling you to stop."
"Sorry, sir," I replied, "but this is an intelligence matter and I'm the senior intelligence officer here."
"Actually you're not," came another voice. It was John Donaldson who had returned unnoticed while we were arguing. We turned to face him. "Lieutenant Colonel, Army Intelligence," he replied in answer to our unspoken question.
"Well, if no-one can trump a half colonel, I think Mr Donaldson wins the hand," quipped Mick in relief and in a desperate attempt to lighten the tension of the moment.
"Well, sir, we'll do whatever you say," I offered, bracing myself for a dressing down.
"I say you're doing the right thing, Miss MacKenzie," he replied. "Carry on."
I turned to our prisoner once again, the frying pan still in my hand. Her eyes were round with terror and she was shaking her head and trying to shout through the gag. I concluded that she was ready to talk.
I removed our prisoner's gag and waited while she regained some of her composure. John Donaldson filled me in on some background. It seemed that the two intruders were known to him. They were a Danish couple who had been living in Reykjavik since before the German annexation of Denmark. He was a seaman and she worked as a bookkeeper.
Mr Donaldson knew that the couple's papers were good and that they came from Sønderborg in Schleswig-Holstein, that province which had swapped between Danish and German rule several times over the preceding century. It seemed likely therefore that they held some sort of long-term remit for German Intelligence and had just been activated.
The woman had crumbled completely at the first tangible threat of extreme violence and was all too anxious to talk. Their mission was chillingly simple; they had been ordered to kill all four of the Donaldson family. Orders had come from an unknown seaman who presented the correct password and who instructed them verbally. There was no explanation as to why they had not already killed Mrs Donaldson, but she had clearly had a lucky and very narrow escape, as had the children.
Lt Col Donaldson and I retired to the kitchen to discuss the issue. I expressed bafflement at the extreme incompetence of many agents put into the field by the Germans. I included in that the network of spies in Britain who were captured on the outbreak of war. Admiral Canaris was certainly no fool and I was sure that the Abwehr, the German intelligence agency he headed, was the equal of ours in many ways. My conclusion was always that many of the spies we caught were deliberately expendable in order to mask the activities of the real spies.
I suspected that in this case the aim was bring about confusion and discontinuity in the British defence of Iceland as a transatlantic stopping point, so that some more serious damage could be done. It also implied that the Germans had a good idea of Lt Col Donaldson's role. We tentatively concluded that the adventure of that night had nothing directly to do with my own mission and did not threaten it.
When we returned to the sitting room, Mrs Donaldson had come back downstairs having settled the children and the local police had arrived. The prisoners would be put into police custody while Lt Col Donaldson and the judge acting as Minister of Justice in the provisional Icelandic government decided whether they came under British jurisdiction as spies or Icelandic as traitors. Either way, they would probably face a firing squad at dawn on Monday.
We still had a long journey ahead of us and I, for one, was desperately tired. I was glad to fall into my bed for the few hours remaining of the night. I was disturbed by my actions. What I had done was certainly illegal under several sets of laws, but was I justified? I am always wary of the argument that the end justifies the means, but it was just possibly valid in this case. Sleep overcame my troubled introspection before long.
I was expecting a typical Danish breakfast of bread cheese and cold meat, but Ingrid Donaldson was up early, despite her ordeal of the night before, preparing us a hearty feast of succulent kippers and fried bread. The thought, as much as the food, went a long way towards lifting my flagging spirits.
We bade farewells to Ingrid, Magnus and little Frida then all piled into John Donaldson's venerable Mercedes for the journey to Keflavik.
The Oxford was waiting for us, parked neatly in the middle of the immense steel mesh runway. Not only had it been filled up with petrol, but it had been cleaned and polished by the ground crew. The two military policemen guarding the aeroplane came smartly to attention and saluted as we drew up in the car.
Sarah and I loaded up all our hand luggage into the plane as Mick and Diane carried out a minute visual inspection of the exterior. We had already agreed that it would be sensible to make use of my flying skills to relieve Mick and Diane on our second day in the air. Accordingly I settled myself in the right-hand seat in the cockpit, removed my uniform tricorn hat, which is incompatible with pilot's headphones and substituted a seaman's knitted watch cap.
Mick joined us, sitting alongside me in the pilot's seat. Diane squatted behind me and went through the pre-flight checklist with Mick, then strapped herself in alongside Sarah and we were off.
As soon as we were airborne and up to cruising altitude, Mick and Diane checked the chart, gave me a bearing to follow and gave me control. Strictly speaking, I had a single-engine private pilot's licence and was not a qualified military pilot at all, but flying the twin-engined Oxford straight and level was well within my capabilities. Besides, as Mick had pointed out before, the RAF rules were that you were allowed to fly anything you were ordered to fly.
We were strangely quiet on this leg of the journey. I was certainly very thoughtful about the events of the previous night and assumed the others might be too.
The sector of our journey from Keflavik to Narsarsuaq in Greenland was long and monotonous and somehow lacked the anticipation of the previous day's flying. My eyes roved across the instruments every few minutes: airspeed indicator, altimeter, rate of climb indicator, compass, engine temperature gauges. The rest of the time, I stared forward through the windscreen, although there was nothing to see apart from endless slate-grey ocean and lighter grey sky. I saw the occasional gannet, a mere speck of white 5,000 feet below us.
Suddenly I became aware of a larger shape ahead of us and off to port. "Mick," I called out, "what do you reckon that is? On the sea and about in our 11 o'clock."
He considered for a moment then said, "Looks like a submarine on the surface. That's its conning tower and I think I can make out the shape of the hull behind."
Diane had appeared squatting just behind Mick. He leaned as far right as his seat harness would allow while Diane propped her binoculars on the back of his seat. "It's a U-boat," she announced. "We don't have anything with a conning tower that looks like that. It must have gone right round the north of Iceland and now it's heading out through the Denmark Strait to attack shipping in the Atlantic."
"Our shipping," growled Sarah. "It's good to be reminded what we're up against."
Just seeing that U-boat stiffened our resolve and, somehow, the rest of the flight to Greenland seemed to pass quicker.
11.30/9.30 am Landfall Narsarsuaq, Greenland
For half an hour before we landed, we had seen the wall of mountains that is Greenland's south-east coast rise out of the sea and fill our forward view. I handed over control to Mick and swapped seats with Diane, who had the local chart out ready to navigate the last few tens of miles to the airfield.
Narsarsuaq is a desolate airfield at the southern tip of Greenland where the main island gives way to a rocky archipelago. The airfield exists only as a stopping off point for transatlantic travel. As at Keflavik, there were signs of engineering work going on, presumably to upgrade the facilities for much larger aircraft.
Mick delegated the refuelling and checking of the Oxford to a sergeant of the Royal Canadian Air Force who had arrived with the bowser. Meanwhile, the four of us made our way through a bitter wind to the one and only building we could see, a concrete construction of consummate ugliness which seemed to combine office accommodation and control tower.
We were hoping to scrounge an early lunch, but as it was only 9.30 by local time, the best they could offer was a late breakfast. Unfazed, we adjusted our watches and tucked into our second breakfast of the day, thick sandwiches packed with excellent Canadian bacon (except for Sarah, who had managed to wangle asteak sandwich).
Diane took the pilot's seat and Mick sat alongside for the next leg of the journey. I was exhausted after my four hours at the controls, so I deliberately snuggled myself down into my greatcoat and was asleep as soon as we had reached our cruising altitude.
I was awake again for the last two hours or so of the flight from Greenland. I awoke to a clear blue sky and the magical sight of the Labrador Sea below us dotted with ice floes of different sizes as far as the eye could see. The last 45 minutes of the flight was over the endless conifer forest of Labrador's coastal fringe, then up the length of Meville Bay to the mouth of the Hamilton River (since renamed the Churchill River).
Once again, we found an airfield in course of frantic reconstruction, with Canadian army engineers working everywhere. The only obvious habitation was a small city of tents clustered around a wooden control tower.
As usual, our second concern (after the well-being of the aeroplane) was food. Sarah set off in search of a cookhouse or equivalent and returned beaming. The mysterious fellowship, which appears to unite NCOs of all armed forces and nationalities everywhere, had worked its magic. She led us to a tent which was serving as the sergeants' mess for the troops. In the middle of the tent, a table had been set for four and we were invited to take our seats for lunch. We were served a basic, but well cooked, beef stew and potatoes and as much superb coffee as we could drink. I had not seen so much meat on one plate all for me for over a year and enjoyed every forkful.
Once the plane and its occupants had been suitably refuelled, we took off for the final leg of our flight to Halifax Nova Scotia. I was feeling well refreshed, so as soon as we were airborne again, I took the controls once more. Diane sat beside me in the left hand seat and followed our position on the chart. Although the flight was, in principle, a straightforward hop to the south-south-west, the variation between true and magnetic north changes almost from minute to minute at flying speeds when you are this close to the north magnetic pole (which was in northern Quebec at that time). To follow a straight line on the ground, I had to follow a series of magnetic bearings for a few minutes each.
By the time the seemingly infinite landscape of trees and mountains ended at the shore of the Gulf of St Laurence, it was getting dark. Mick replaced Diane in the pilot's seat and Diane replaced me in the right hand seat. I was glad to rest my eyes but didn't want to miss the remainder of the flight. Below us, we could see the lights of widely separated settlements and the navigation lights of ships travelling to or from the ports of the Great Lakes. We crossed Prince Edward Island, which brought back memories of the Anne of Green Gables books I had read as a child.
At last, we were flying over the Nova Scotia peninsula. Mick contacted the tower at Halifax airport and was given immediate clearance to land. It was very strange to see towns with lights on and an airfield with a fully lit runway as we made our final approach.
We turned off the runway and taxied to the airport apron, where a marshal guided us in with his illuminated batons.
We were met by a rather harassed-looking female captain in Canadian army uniform. This was the point at which our cover story was adopted officially. She was part of the Canadian branch of ENSA (Entertainments National Services Association but alleged to stand for Every Night Something Awful) and was in charge of the administration of our brief sojourn in Canada before travelling to the United States. She knew nothing of our actual mission.
Halifax was a major port for exports of goods and war munitions to Britain and also an embarkation point for Canadian troops and for British troops who had been trained in Canada. Naturally it was also a focus for a small industry dedicated to entertaining bored servicemen in various ways, legitimate and otherwise.
The reason for the captain's harassment was that she had lost contact with her assistant and a complex process of escorting performers to and from accommodation, performance venues, ships, the airport and the railway station was slowly but surely unravelling. I told her just to give us a destination and we would find our way there somehow. She grinned broadly at me and called me a poppet. I had obviously said the right thing.
We were issued with a travel warrant, which apparently entitled me to charter, hire, commission, impress or even commandeer any suitable transport. More to the point, the local cab drivers knew exactly how to negotiate the red tape that surrounded these documents and we were soon on our way to the Hotel Excelsior, which was being used for officers' billets. I planned to rely on some rather fast talking to get round the fact that Sarah wasn't actually an officer. Mick travelled with us, as this was his accommodation too until he flew back to Britain on another mission later in the week.
7.15 pm Hotel Excelsior, Halifax, Nova Scotia
The hotel foyer was packed with service personnel of all kinds but the reception staff were expecting us and swiftly issued Mick with a single room up in the attic somewhere and appointed Sarah, Diane and me to a shared room just one floor up from the entrance.
The room proved to be palatial. It was at least 20 feet by 15. To provide sufficient accommodation, there were no less than six beds in the room, four of them as two pairs of bunks, although we were not required to share with anyone else. A motley collection of wardrobes and chests of drawers had been pressed into service making the room a little more crowded than it had undoubtedly been in pre-war days.
"Luxury," announced Sarah, with delight, sitting down on the bed hard enough to bounce.
"I want a bath, a change of clothes and food," I announced firmly, "in that order."
I unbuttoned my greatcoat and chose a wardrobe at random in which to hang it. As I opened the door, a figure tumbled out. It was a woman in Canadian army uniform, securely bound and gagged, possibly the missing ENSA lieutenant. She was conscious but looked very distressed. I pulled down her gag and removed the soggy mass of wadding in her mouth. She swallowed and then croaked, "They said I should ask MacKenzie and Marks for escape lessons."
Copyright © 2001 Gillian B
Chapter 4 Chapter 6
Flora MacKenzie's Casebook
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