He had outwitted police and army Intelligence. He knew secrets that might win a war. This man was too dangerous to live
JOHN NORMAN HARRIS
Who, I wondered at intervals for many years, was the Major, and why would he slug a humble pilot officer and steal his uniform? I had an answer to that, of course—the man was one of those simple Walter Mittys off the rails who dress up as admirals just to feel like somebody. But if that were the case. I would sometimes ask myself when 1 was trying to get to sleep, why did the police and MI-5 get so all-fired steamed up about him? And why. all of a sudden, did they lose all interest, after keeping Percy Lowndes and me locked up all one precious night?
Right after that night in jug I went out to Egypt, anti I kept meaning to write to Percy and find out if he had ever discovered anything, but then I met a fellow whom we had both known at Manning Pool, and he told me Percy had been killed, so there the thing rested, just a teasing little enigma that bothered me just once in a while — until . . .
The break in the case came when I met a corpse on King Street—Percy Lowndes himsell, looking exceptionally hale and robust for a man who’d been dead a dozen years.
"Percy Lowndes!" 1 said. “Have you got a forty-eight-hour pass from heaven?"
"Hank—of all people! Where did you turn up from?" he said.
"I work near here." 1 told him. "But where did you turn up from—that's a much bigger question."
"Oh. you're talking about the report of my death." he said, after looking puzzled for a moment. "Well it was—okay. 1 won't quote Mark Twain—it was false. Long time no see. eh? Gosh. Hank, you're as fat as a pig. you old beggar."
He was in town for a convention of credit men. he said, and he showed me a list of old comrades-in-arms he meant to look up. because it was his first trip east since the war. and naturally we arranged to meet at his suite in the Royal York that same evening. So through the day I kept recalling the remarkable circumstances of our last meeting—outre or bizarre circumstances
when considered in the light of downtown Toronto . . .
IT WAS blackout and it was London and it was May . and Percy and 1 had agreed to meet at the Park Lane bar. Two other chaps were to meet us. two fellows we had been at Manning Pool with in Toronto, when we were all eager to be Spit pilots and shoot down 109s. None of us got near a Spit, as it turned out. and only Bran Hignell got to be a pilot. Percy and 1 were navigators, and Hap Roberts, after being washed out as pilot, navigator and W OP A/G. passed out as a straight air gunner and got to man Bran’s rear turret.
So the meeting at the Park Lane was to have been a reunion, but Hap and Bran couldn't make it. They were, for some reason, confined to camp, and Percy and 1 had to go it alone, which we did without too much melancholy.
Outside, the ack-ack was thumping and searchlights crisscrossed the sky and now and then you could hear the distant crump of a bomb, and
this combined with the moist spring air to raise our spirits and make us feel convivial.
So when the nice Lnglish major came along we let him join the party without a murmur. All kinds of things happened in the London blackout, all kinds of chance acquaintances were made, and this was hardly out of the way. This bloke was about thirty, with one of those silky brown mustaches and an accent that fascinated us—-sort of la-dee-dah and at the same time masculine. A real guy. the May-jaw. with an MC and a couple of other ribbons we didn't know the meaning of.
He was just back from the desert, he said, from C'yren-aik-aw. and he had been through Wavell's campaign and the Greek show and Crete, and we felt privileged to listen to such a warrior, so that before we knew it. it was closing time and we were broke.
"Oh. come along, chaps, we cahn't break it up now. you know," the Major said. "What do you say we pop along to the Coconut Grove or you say we pop along to the Clickety-Click?" We explained to him that we were broke and couldn't continue to drink, but the May-jaw had an answer for that.
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We were hotter than an oil bomb. The Major had skipped mysteriously and MI-5 wanted to know why
I say. chaps." he said. I’m somewhat burdened down with air-force money, owing to a little poker school I got into with your chaps at Gib on the way up. so I'll tell you what, l et me cash a PD cheque for each of you for a liver, and then we can keep going. Fair enough?"
Fair enough, we agreed, and we dragged out our chequebooks and. leaning against the bar, made out two postdated cheques.
"Make them payable to Self’ and endorse them." the Major suggested, and away we went with the happy, carefree, blackout throng, into feverish dives where sweating bands blared and young people grasped frantically for an evening’s excitement—navy, army ATS. WAAFs. air force, merchant marine, land Girls, nurses and the civil populace.
I was staying with cousins down in Catford. S.E., so 1 left them about one. and Percy and the Major looked at that time like going on all night.
Next day. by arrangement. I turned up at the Park Lane bar at six, to meet Percy, who was staying in the hotel. I waited a few minutes and drifted off into a brown study, from which I was sharply awakened by the appearance of Percy.
He was perfectly fit and well and carried himself like a regular soldier. But that wasn't all. He was dressed like a soldier—in the uniform of a major, in fact, with an MC and a couple of other ribbons on the left breast of the tunic. His face was stern and troubled.
"Percy, you bloody fool," I said. "That’s lèse-majesté or something. 1 believe they can hang you for it. Wrong service, wrong rank, and gongs you don't own."
"Shut up. you fool." he said. "I'm in a mess.”
"You look it." I told him. "What have you done with our Major?”
"You mean. What has he done with me?' Hank. I woke up about an hour and a half ago—I had to find the time by phoning the desk. My head is split right down the centre, and my eyeballs are incandescent. The last thing I remember was the May-jaw offering to help me up to my room, and then offering to pour me a nightcap. Golly! When 1 woke up the May-jaw was gone, and so was my uniform and everything else, and he’d hung the 'Do Not Disturb’ sign outside my door. Where do I go from here? 1 can’t go on wearing this thing!"
"Hardly,” I said. "Percy, old boy. I have an idea that at this point we pay a visit to the police.”
TITHE sergeant on duty was most friendJL ly. and highly amused, and he called some other policemen in to hear the story of the Major swapping uniforms. Then they told Percy he could leave the uniform there, and they would lend him some slacks and a jacket, items they kept on hand evidently for various emergencies.
But just then another policeman, who was reading something, exclaimed, "Oy!
’Arf a mo—steady the Buff's. Just sit right where you are. There’s a circular on this. We’ve got to call the Yard.”
Percy and I exchanged a furtive guilty glance, and waited for perhaps twenty minutes, when about five or six people burst in. some in army uniform, some in mufti. We gathered that the uniformed officers were MI-5 and the civilians were CID men, or Special Branch—we were not sure what the difference was.
But we did know that we were hotter than an oil bomb. We were grilled for hour after hour. We were taken from the police station to somewhere down in Whitehall, and questioned some more. Every paper, coin and trinket in our pockets was examined, and we had to relate every tiny incident that had taken place from the time we met the Major.
While we were thus engaged, some more men arrived, carrying the few things that had been left in Percy’s room, including a bottle and some tumblers. From a remark they made, we learned that other men had gone off to the night spots we had visited with the Major.
And for the tenth time, an MI-5 officer, himself a major, asked Percy, "Now then, old chap, let’s check ovah this list again. You're quite sure this is everything you had in the pockets of the uniform that was stolen? Comb, handkerchiefs, twelve-fifty (that was the identity card we had to carry at all times). Cigarettes— ah — sundry useful articles. Any letters, old boy? Correspondence, I mean?”
"Yeah, now I come to think of it. there was one, sir," Percy said. "A letter from Flying Officer B. V. Hignell, at Royal Air Force Station, Holkleigh. It was . . .”
The MI-5 man’s face lighted up at that, and he carefully copied down all that Percy could remember of Bran Hignell's letter.
Then he left us.
A little later we were given some cocoa and biscuits, and a corporal showed us to a couple of bedrooms, where we were invited to spend the night. After an hour or so I poked my head out of the room and found there was a man stationed in the corridor, so I went back to sleep.
In the morning, after a beautiful breakfast. with two eggs and bacon and genuine marmalade, they let us go—just like that.
A captain spoke to us, said it was quite all right. Percy could borrow some things and nip up to his tailor. What about our Major. Oh. that fellow—nothing to it.
"Just a crank," the captain said. "We get a number of them, poor chaps. Turned down for the services, you know, or possibly cashiered, so they dress themselves up as admirals and air marshals and even as humble captains. We caught your johnny—quite harmless, you know. We’ll charge him in due course.”
"Then how about my uniform?” Percy asked. "Can I get it back?”
" 'Fraid not, old boy,” the captain said. "He got the wind up and chucked it in the river. We caught him in mufti.”
So that was that. Very shortly I was on my way to Egypt, and not long after I got there I heard the news of Percy’s death. Later still, I heard that Bran and Happy had been shot down, but had bailed out and were prisoners. So that was the end of it.
But 1 always wondered a little every now' and then—why all the fuss, and then the anticlimax?
SO some dozen-odd years later we had the reunion that we had meant to have at the Park l ane. Percy had dug up Bran Hignell. a grey-haired QC. who was in town and registered at the same hotel, and he had also found Happy, who was living right in town, unbeknown to me. Happy looked much the same as the grinning boy 1 had met at Manning Pool.
It was a shame, washing me out as a pilot." Happy was saying as 1 entered Percy's corner suite. "They said I couldn't land a plane. Why boy. when / landed 'em. they stayed landed. I'll bet nobody could get ’em up again. Hank, you old horse, you've put on three hundred pounds. Say. boy. Percy’s been tell in' us about the party we missed in London that time—in '42, wasn't it? The time you and him got hooked up with the phoney Major. Of till the cheeseheads I ever heard tell of. you two guys are about the dopiest. They shouldn't of let guys like you loose in a town like London, not in the blackout, anyway."
"All right. Happy, you can be quarterback now that it's Monday morning," I said. "I know you'd have been a lot smarter, but it so happens you didn't meet our phoney Major, or . . ."
"Not much we didn’t!" Happy said. "Where do you think he went when he left you? Why. he came straight up to visit us at Holkleigh! Boy. did we ever meet him!"
"No kidding?" i said. "Was that where they caught him—tit your station?"
"Nope, nobody never caught him." Happy said. "Not that boy. We knew you guys were mixed up in this thing, but Intelligence told us to shut up. and right after that we were shot down and never got a chance to see you. But ask Bran, he’s the guy who can tell you. He went all over England after the war to track the story down."
"Well shut up. then." Percy said, "and let the guy tell it."
"Your Major." Bran said, looking important, "evidently left London, wearing your uniform and carrying your dog lags and twelve-fifty. He also had the letter I had written to you—that's how he knew enough to come to Holkleigh. You can't accuse him of lack of nerve. We were confined to camp for a good reason. Butch was planning to put one thousand bombers in the air over Cologne—-the first thousand-bomber raid, if you reber—and we were all teed up for it.
"The first 1 knew of this visitation was when somebody came down to the flight and said that there was an old friend of mine waiting to see me up at the mess. Somebody called Lowndes or something. It seems this chap had walked in at the guard room, flashing your twelve-fifty, carrying a parachute bag with some pyjamas and things in it. and claiming he'd been posted to Holkleigh.
"Well, they called the orderly room, and they had no word about the posting, and they asked him if he had a copy of the signal posting him. and he said he hadn't. He was a cool customer. I hey took him to the Adj. who was very busy and said he'd get a signal ofl to Hullavington to check up on the thing, meanwhile he could have tea in the mess. Did he know' anyone at Holkleigh? Why sure, he knew Bran Hignell—just like that.
"He was taking a fantastic risk—I might have been right in the next room. But I was at the flight, so they sent him over to the mess with a runner, and when they got there he dismissed the runner airily and drifted in. That was the last anybody saw of him—except for one little incident later in the evening. He just plain vanished from the mess, which was a very easy thing for an officer in uniform to do. and everybody was too busy at the time to worry about him.”
“My gosh, what a story!” Percy said. ' I get it now. That’s how come I was killed’—he had my dog tags. Everybody kept telling me I’d been killed — they heard it on German radio, and the Red Cross reported it to London. He . . .”
Percy’s eyes were glowing with a fine emotion.
"He what?” Bran asked coldly.
"Why. well, the poor devil couldn’t get into the service, so he stole a uniform and got into action—stowed away in a plane, and got killed. Probably the end he wanted. I never thought of that before. By golly . . .”
"Well don’t think of it now,” Bran said. "Out of all that romantic nonsense there is one correct conclusion. But for a start, for your information, your Major was not a demented 4-F with a death wish. He was a real, honest-to-goodness major—only not English. I tracked the whole thing down after the war and, let me tell you, it was one honey of a search.
"Your Major was, in fact. Herr Major Gerhard Otto von Kalbfuss=Jägersdorf, a real major on Rommel’s staff, and a count of the Holy Roman Empire or something. And he was playing for keeps. Percy, you’re lucky he didn’t stiffen you out once and for all—though I don’t think he’d do that unnecessarily. The Herr Major was a gentleman and a Junker among other things, and you have to admit there was nothing wrong with his nerve.”
"Well what was he doing in the Park Lane?” Percy demanded.
"Ah!” Bran said. “That is the story.
¥T seems that about that time, the A arm y wallahs called a special technical conference on desert equipment, to take place somewhere on Salisbury Plain. They were going to demonstrate new tank ventilation systems, new gun sights, all kinds of new gadgets. They brought quite a few blokes up from the Eighth Army to have a look-see. Among those invited was a clot—the kind of character that can’t blow his own nose. He made a copy of the signal, and wrote down a lot of notes about the conference, and then walked into the enemy lines with all the stuff on him. When they caught him he was trying to eat the signal, but they took it away from him and rushed it to Rommel himself, after tidying it up a bit.
"Naturally Rommel expressed a wish to know what was going to go on at the conference, and that was where Major Graf Kalbfuss=Jägersdorf came into the
picture. He was an Intelligence bloke. He had attended Cambridge, and spoke better-than-perfect English. He knew the details of every captured British tank, gun, aircraft, uniform, parachute and respirator, and he had kept abreast of the current slang and jargon by chatting with prisoners. So up springs K-J and offers to go to England and attend the conference, taking copious notes.
"It turned out to be a lot easier than they expected. They found a name, rank and regiment for him, fixed him up with papers, signals and letters from generals, and flew him to Holland.
"From there he was taken by U-boat to the Norfolk coast, and he paddled ashore in a captured Spitfire pilot's dinghy. He had lots of money and lots of nerve, and he bluffed his way clear into the meeting, where he made some of the most intelligent comments heard.
"He played a bold game right through, they tell me. About the last day of the thing, somebody bellowed through the Tannoy system that General Park hurst wanted to see Major Armstrong—-that was his nom de guerre—and that was the last they saw of Armstrong. General Parkhurst was one of the senior men he had claimed to know, but he was supposed to be in Somaliland or something, and he had turned up inopportunely. So Armstrong-Kalbfuss cleverly vanished, and then there was a real panic.
“Signals all over the country—police. FANYS, land army. Salvation Army and the Boy Scouts were alerted—about the time you guys were having your second drink with the guy. He knew he had to move fast, and you’ve got to admit he didn’t exactly fool around. By the way, a fingerprint taken from a tumbler in your room, which matched one from Armstrong’s room at the conference, proved that he was your guy.”
"But the mustache,” Percy said. "No spy could grow one like that!”
"All make-up. Percy boy, and the eyebrows too,” Bran said. "Anyway, he disappeared from London and then he disappeared from our mess at tea time. And what he did after that we can guess. When we were getting dressed for the trip, some wireless op was moaning that somebody had pinched his boots, his Irvin jacket, his harness and his parachute, and if he’d thought he was getting in amongst a pack of thieves he would have joined the navy instead. Well, naturally, nobody had much time to help him, and I didn’t give it a thought until the next day.
"Anyway, we get airborne and cross the English coast and get out over that dark water—you know, the quiet bit— when the engineer says to me, over the intercom — speaking very calmly and quietly — ‘Skipper,’ he says, ‘there’s a queer bloke sitting down by the flare chute, holding a parachute pack, and he’s plugged into the oxygen there.’
WELL, so help me, the hair went straight up on the back of my neck. I was all keyed up for flak and night fighters, but little brown men by the flare chute was too much. When I recovered the power of speech, 1 told the engineer to sit tight, handed over to the second dickey, and went back to have a look. And that was when 1 met the Major Graf Kalbfuss.”
He paused, for effect probably, and slowly slit the lead foil around the neck of another of Percy's bottles.
"Help yourselves, chaps,” he said. "Well. I looked at this guy. and he stood up and covered me with an automatic— just like that. Right away 1 could see he knew how to handle a rod, so 1 didn’t argue. I dropped my flashlight, but he turned one of his own on me right away, and shouted to me. 1 lifted my ear-piece and he shouted again: ‘You will proceed to Holland and land at Schiphol.’ Then he waved me back to the cockpit, and followed me up. neatly blackjacking the engineer en passant. The wireless op and navigator were, of course, too busy to know what was happening.
“Well, he got the second dickey out of the driver’s seat, or at least I did. and then he made him lie on the floor. 1 climbed in and plugged in my intercom quickly, while the stowaway was still busy, and 1 got my licks in fast. 1 told the crew that we had a spy on board, that he had me covered. I said to shoot him or get him out some way fast. But nobody had a gun. except the ones in the turrets. The navigator moved up. The stowaway put a bullet through the sleeve of his Irvin jacket. We were stumped. But all of a sudden I had an idea.” “And a wonderful one too.” Happy said loyally.
“Thank you. Hap. Well, 1 said to the crew, I'm going to say we're attacked, and fake we're hit and going down, then I'll give the order to jump. We’re over the coast now.’ 1 told Hap to report a fighter and fire some rounds—corn it up good. After this enemy character jumps, we'll be okay.
“Just then the wicked count saw I was talking and yanked my plug out. Then he plugged himself into the second dickey's outlet, before he connected me again.
“ ‘Don’t do any more talking, old boy,’ he said. ‘Start losing height at once.’
"So I started losing height, and 1 waited and waited for Hap to get cracking. Finally he started to scream (which wasn't like Happy) that we were being attacked — JU88 on the starboard quarter. I swung hard round right and Hap and the mid-upper started firing. Then the engineer (who had quickly regained consciousness) hit a longeron with the axe, and I shouted that we were hit. I had pulled the nose way up, and right then 1 pushed the stick forward hard, throwing the gas away from the carburetors, so all four engines cut at once. A flak shell burst nearby. I screamed that the controls were shot. The engines came on again, with a horrible whine, because they’d gone into fully fine pitch, and when I said. Jump,’ the stowaway was ready.”
“I’ll bet he ran like a scalded cat,” Percy said.
"Oh no, don’t wrong the man,” Bran told him. "The Herr Major Graf was a Prussian officer. He moved quickly and without panic, all very soldierly, keeping me covered till he was out of sight. I kept chucking the aircraft about to make it seem real. Half a minute later the navigator yelled, ‘Spy’s gone, Skipper. He went out through the mid-under hatch.’ So we went on to Cologne and
then returned to base, and that was that.” "So he got home safely after all?” 1 said.
"Ah, but no,” Bran said. “Not at all. Let me tell you.
WE GOT home, and already there was a great stink and flap about this character that had disappeared from the mess, and some MI-5 guys from 1.ondon had just arrived in a five-litre Bentley or something, and we were interrogated from hell to breakfast time. Finally this MI-5 major shook his head sadly
and said it was a very poor business all round.
"That got me mad, and I said anyway we’d managed to get rid of the guy and saved the aircraft and crew, and he smiled and shook his head again.
“ ‘Quite wrong, old boy,’ he said. ‘It would have been much better if your whole squadron had been lost and that fellow hadn't got home alive. That is all 1 can tell you about him. that it would have been worth a squadron to eliminate him.’
"And that,” Bran concluded, "was
where our friend Happy stepped into the picture. Happy, you do your line-shoot now.”
“Aw.” Happy said. "It seems like the whole thing happened a hundred years ago. Here we are. all back, all workin' to meet the installments—1 can’t believe there really was a war. But anyway, this night 1 sit there through interrogation, sayin’ nothin’ cause 1 didn't want to say anythin’. Until this crack about the stowaway guy bein’ worth a squadron. So 1 taps the major on the arm, and he whirls round.
“ ‘Oh, did you have something, Sawjint?' he asks, liftin’ his eyebrows. So 1 said sure I did. namely, he didn’t need to be too certain our stowaway did get back to Germany alive. ‘Oh, indeed. Sawjint?’ he says. (I like the way those pongo types say. Oh.’ They make it sort of oblong.) So I told him.
‘‘As you guys know, in between my navigator’s course and my wireless op’s course I did a hitch as a parachute packer, and 1 learned to pack them things in my sleep. So when I heard Bran and the engineer talkin’ about an enemy agent boldin’ a parachute pack by the Hare chute, it set up a kind of idea. Bran wanted to con the guy into jumpin'. Well, line. You know, in an aircraft you almost automatically get to figure which hatch you use in dinghy drill or in a bail-out. as soon as you get in. This guy must have figured he'd go out the mid-under, right by the Hare chute. I was sure he'd left his pack either in the stowage there or lyin' by the Hare chute. So I squeezed out of my turret—a job. that—and snuck back and sure enough, there it was."
"What could you do with it?" Percy asked. “Cut the rigging lines or something?"
"Ha! You never did a parachute course,” Happy said, "or you’d know. Why all I did was slip the little old elastics off and slip ’em back on again backwards. The elastics are supposed to whip the canvas cover open when you pull the rip cord, so the canopy can come out. But if you reverse ’em, they hold the thing shut. Well, in all the horsing about, we’d lost a lot of height, and we were under
four thousand feet when old Siegfried left us—giving him less than thirty seconds to figure out what was wrong and put it right, by ripping the elastics off again."
"Gosh!” Percy said.
"1 didn't want to say anything about it." Happy explained, "because the more I thought about it. the worse I felt. He must have been a very brave guy. and it’s a sneaky way to kill anyone. But that didn't worry the MI-5 major. He said. ‘Really, old boy, / dain't mind if you fed the blightah poisoned Easter eggs. I onlv hope you did for him.’ ”
"And he did.” Bran said. "We felt pretty sure of it when the German radio announced Percy's death, although we couldn’t be one hundred percent sure that our stowaway hadn’t got down safely and used Percy's dog tags to fool us into believing he hadn’t. However, after the war our MI-5 man got the full answer— poor old Kalbfuss hit a concrete highway and was an awful mess. Not a word about our desert equipment conference reached Rommel—or so our Intelligence bloke said: I tracked him down in London after the war."
"Well, well." Percy said. "So our last reunion really was quite a do. even if we didn’t all get there. Open up another jug. Bran, and see if you can remember the words to Salome. Hank, you realize the implication of all this? Our Major Kalbfuss never cashed those cheques — you and I, old boy. were subsidized by enemy funds."
Which was something we were not. at that date and hour, prepared to worry about, if