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24 January 2011

A Spy in the Family

I found out some exciting news just this week. My lovely Uncle David, a charming and funny man, who passed away some twenty years ago, was a member of MI5 during World War II and his papers were released for public viewing at the UK Archives (although not online) a few years ago. I'd grown up hearing about how Uncle David did intelligence work--or something--during the war, but it wasn't a big deal in the family; probably partly because of English reticence about the war but also because he knew the information would be classified for sixty years. And a good spymaster knows how to keep a secret!

He was stationed on Gibraltar, that British-owned rock hanging off the edge of Spain. Spain was officially neutral, but Franco's regime was sympathetic to Nazi Germany. Of great strategic importance as a gateway to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar was coveted by the Axis powers and Spanish intelligence worked closely with the Nazis. The whole place was a minefield of intelligence, counterintelligence, and sabotage.

As head of Security Intelligence Department of Gibraltar's Defense Security Office, David Scherr's job was to identify Spanish agents and turn them to double agents, the "double cross" technique that had worked effectively in Britain. Although many Spanish citizens were fanatically anti-British, others, who had fought against Franco were sympathetic to the Allied cause. In less than a year, sabotage acts against Gibraltar's airfield and naval base ceased, and 43 attacks were prevented.

My uncle gave this entertaining account of the recruitment of one of his agents, the Queen of Hearts, and I believe this is his cartoon also (he was a great cartoonist and humorist; his letters to us were always a joy):
Just as the interview I was having with another member of the public was drawing inconclusively to an end, I was called into the next room to cope with a most extraordinary visitor. This was a woman in her 30s whose dress, mannerisms, speech and general appearance made her a rather seedy but not unattractive imitation of the seductive female spy of the thrillerette type.

She sat down in front of the office desk, crossed her legs, adjusting the hem of her dress to reveal them to the best advantage, slowly lit a cigarette, inhaling and breathing out the smoke in the approved furtive, reticent fashion, looking down her long and aquiline nose at the same time, and then smiled across at her interrogator-to-be and said, in cosmopolitan English, "I am the Queen of Hearts. Who are you?"
This slinky femme fatale was married to the harbour master in one of the small ports of the Bay of Gibraltar and provided a great deal of information on a series of underwater attacks on Allied shipping off Gibraltar. These daring attacks, using Italian frogmen as human torpedoes, inspired Ian Fleming to include such attacks in his James Bond novels. More here.

I'm always thrilled to find some interesting family history and it's nice to see my uncle's work acknowledged, although he was awarded an MBE in 1945.

Have you made any recent interesting historical discoveries? About your family or as part of writing research?

7 Comments:

Blogger Isobel Carr said...

This is fabulously cool . . . about the coolest thing I’ve ever discovered is that my great-great-grandmother’s white deer skin wedding dress is in the Smithsonian collection (it’s probably now been moved to the Museum of the Native American). GGG steadfastly maintained that it had been stolen from her and given to the museum by the rep of the BIA on the Rez. I have no idea what the truth of the matter is, but it’s kind of cool to know it’s there.

Oh, and that my great-great-aunt and uncle (on the other side) were trapeze artists with Barnum and Bailey. I have photos of them c. 1906 in their costumes (one during practice and one that was used for their poster).

11:38 AM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Nothing so exciting for me. My great great grandfather built a chuch in upstate NY after his family was saved from dying from a storm at sea.

I love that you are related to a spy!!!! and Isobel, your ancestry is very very cool! I must visit the museum and search for the dress.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Isobel, did you watch the PBS series about Big Apple circus? Lots of the performers came from families that had been in the business for decades/centuries. Is GGG's wedding dress on display? I want to go and check it out.

5:53 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Amazing, Janet! What a memorable page in your family history! And your uncle definitely had some writer's skills!

Isobel I would LOVE to see your GGG's wedding dress. Unfortunately I am not surprised it was stolen from her.

My Mom's ancestors are on the Cherokee Removal Rolls. They were forced to walk the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. Family legend has it they didn't like Oklahoma so they walked back to Alabama.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

GGG's dress was in storage last I heard. It's a traditional Cherokee costume from the late Victorian era (they were already on the Rez in Oklahoma), but made out white leather in a nod to the Victorian tradition of white wedding gowns.

@Louisa: Bet your bottom dollar we're related.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

I'll bet we are too, Isobel !!

5:08 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

So cool! And obviously good writing runs in the family :-). I've been buried in Waterloo memoirs and letters and diaries, but I can't say I've discovered anything new. There are some wonderful tidbits that bring the past to life, like Magdalen DeLancey writing about how her husband asked her to bring him some green tea on June 15 in the midst of frantic preparations for the army to move. Somehow when I think of Regency/Napoleonic characters drinking tea, I think of black tea. I love finding details like that in people's own words.

12:21 AM  

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