And that is how I first came to meet Dr. Otto John, that tragic victim of post-war Germany's vendetta against the `traitors and collaborators' and of Whitehall's eternal readiness to sacrifice the friends of Britain. I found John in one of the innumerable London school buildings that had been turned over to the government for the duration of the war.
My own school, St. Paul's, had been serving my fellow Old Pauline Field Marshal Montgomery as his planning head quarters for the invasion. The school which I was visiting now had been turned into an interrogation and detention centre for incoming aliens.
Dr. Otto John was occupying, all by himself, what must before the war have been one of the assistant masters' private studies. It was a dark and gloomy room. But even in its darkness one thing shone out-the peroxide brightness and blondness of Otto John's hair.
" Good God," I thought, "I do hope he is not another one of those!" For C had already supplied me with a German diplomat who wore long silk stockings. I did not wish to complicate the life of my little community at MB by adding to it yet another member of exotic tastes. My first words, therefore, when we had been introduced and left alone to talk, formed a highly personal Beaverbrook-type question.
" Do you peroxide your hair regularly, Herr Doktor? It is a becoming colour."
Otto John laughed. I was relieved to note that he laughed freely and easily.
" I dyed my hair and eyebrows black while I was hiding from the Gestapo in Spain," he said. "Now I have used a little artificial aid to start my hair on the road back to its normal fairness. I did not relish looking like a Zebra while the black dye grows out."
As we talked I looked him over. It was clear that he was still suffering from the mental strain of his narrow escape. His blue eyes were fixed on mine with an unnecessarily concentrated stare. Beneath his rather short and stubby nose he was drawing down his upper lip as though to prevent it from twitching. But when he spoke he was clear and articulate.
The first thing I wanted to hear from John was how he had got away. It seemed almost too good to be true, I told him, that one of the most important plotters of the conspiracy should have escaped the Gestapo so easily. After all he had been moving around quite openly among men who, because of their known attitude to the Third Reich, had been immediately arrested when the great round-up began after the Putsch. His own brother had been arrested-and condemned to death. How was it possible for Otto John to have escaped abroad? At MB we had assumed that flights to foreign destinations would have been automatically stopped just as all flights out of Britain had been stopped in the weeks that preceded D-Day. It seemed a routine precaution for a Security Service to take.
" No," said Otto John, "you were wrong in assuming that. The Lufthansa flight to Spain on the morning of July the 24th was allowed to leave as usual. The Gestapo bosses are not as imaginative as all that. For them it was good enough that only passengers with exit visas could leave. I had my permanent exit visa as a Lufthansa official who had to travel frequently to Madrid on Lufthansa business. I presented it at Tempelhof Airfield and they let me through."
" Did you say you only left Berlin on the 24th?" It seemed unbelievable. But even more incredible-if one had any sort of respect for the efficiency of the Gestapo-was that John, in the time before he left, as he now told me, moved openly around Berlin calling on a number of his fellow plotters. He telephoned to Stauffenberg's secretary in Stettin to inquire after Stauffenberg-`he is travelling' was her answer-and he called at the homes of two other conspirators to find one of them arrested while the second, the Foreign Office man and former Oxford Rhodes Scholar Trott zu Solz (also arrested later and executed) urged him "Get out, Otto. You're the only one of us who can get abroad. Hurry!"
He made it all right. The Lufthansa plane flew straight through to Barcelona and thence on to Madrid. Once in Madrid John immediately got in touch with the British.
Under orders from his associates in the opposition group he had been secretly meeting members of the British and American Intelligence ever since 1942, putting them in the picture concerning the plans and expectations of the conspirators, and giving them also any bits of information that came his way. For Otto John and his friends believed that the only way in which Germany could be saved physically and morally from the evil that Hitler embodied was for them to fight him in every possible way.
As soon as the British in Madrid learned of the danger John was in, they smuggled him out of Spain into Portugal. Even in Lisbon the Gestapo and SD were still after him. But our people got him safely aboard a British aircraft and brought him to England-only to shut him up in London in this not very congenial interrogation and detention centre.
I had seen enough of Otto John, during our talk, and heard enough from him of his underground work and friends, to make up my mind that I certainly wanted to have him in my team, if he would join it. He knew the people around Hitler and a good many others, too. He would be invaluable in bringing us up-to-date and filling in those bits of detail and local colour essential to our operations. Even if he did not turn out to be a writer, he would still be immensely useful. So I now went into the routine which, with only slight variations, I used with all prospective recruits once I knew I wanted them.
" I am in charge of a unit," I said, "about which I can only tell you very little at this stage. But I will tell you this-we are waging against Hitler a kind of total war of wits. Anything goes, so long as it serves to bring nearer the end of the war and Hitler's defeat. If you are at all squeamish about what you may be called upon to do against your own countrymen you must say so now. I shall understand it. In that case, however, you will be no good to us and no doubt some other job will be found for you. But if you feel like joining me, I must warn you that in my unit we are up to all the dirty tricks we can devise. No holds are barred. The dirtier the better. Lies, treachery, everything. Your experience in Germany, your acquaintance with leading Germans-which you would of course have to place unreservedly at our disposal-would I think make you very useful. What do you say?"
I had deliberately overstated the rascality of our operations. I did not want John to develop pangs of conscience once he had joined the unit. John looked me in the eyes for a moment.
<< Table of Contents | Previous Page | Next Page >>
The bricked up exhaust ports for the diesel engines that powered Aspidistra