War was bad for business. The beautiful and rich of the continent had migrated, the English and Americans stayed away. Even the local fascists were too busy mopping up and mopping down, paying homage to their dictator Franco, to bother with the town of Algeciras. It was the end of the railroad from Madrid, an Iberian backwater to the blood-letting across Europe. Only the strays came to visit out of season, only marooned drunks, the occasional journalist, the odd spook, bothered to sip chilled sherry on the peeling verandahs of the Hotel Reina Cristina. Late February 1942. A poor time to visit.
Somewhere a phonograph played Mozart, the notes of a clarinet thin and reedy above the palms, the empty pool, the parked stacks of wooden sun-loungers. It was a dull, spiritless day, the wind slight, the brown cloud base hanging low over North Africa, sepia-shrouding the horizon. No-one would stand in the roof-top cuppola to take the view, no-one would stroll in the grounds to take the air. The music merely added to the emptiness, reinforced despondency. There had been better days, happier times. The elite had summered and watered here, promenaded and partied, laughed and caroused among the alcoves and elegant reception rooms of the sprawling white-fronted Edwardian edifice. They were ghosts, memory. Now there was the residual chill of winter and world war, the solitary clink of a glass, the low murmur of sporadic conversation. The place was waiting for spring, for warmth, for conclusion, for the moment when the dust sheets were thrown off and the guests returned. For the day when a victor was decided. It could go either way.
The Englishman was bucking the trend. He carried himself well, had the lean musculature and tall frame of a soldier or athlete, moved with the casual confidence of a risk-taker. Old hands could spot the type, speculate as to what he had seen and what he had done . He was a rare specimen, that they would agree upon, a veteran in a young man’s guise, battle-hardened beneath the veneer of sophistication and a powder-blue linen suit. It was in the eyes, those careful, dark, watchful eyes set in the tanned and handsome face. It was in the hands, in the loping stride, in the manner with which he held and smoked his cigarette. It was in his very presence at this location at this time of year. A womanizer certainly, a chancer unquestionably, a killer perhaps. They could only guess. And few were near enough to do so.
He leant to mash the tobacco stub in the filigree ashtray and pulled back a chair from the table to sit. The incumbent opposite remained motionless. He was an older man, slight and short, the shoulders rounded, the manner diffident, the bearing unmilitary and unthreatening. White hair topped an oval face aged and etched with the melancholic concerns of high-office and unhappy marriage. A light grey flannel suit had been chosen to complement the mild grey personality. It fitted perfectly. He was easily overlooked, routinely underestimated. A legend in the intelligence world. The Englishman had studied the file. He would never dismiss, nor be fooled by, the quiet little German.
The German looked at him. ‘The birds have yet to start migrating across the Straits’, ‘I hear it is a spectacular sight when they do’.
Code paroles exchanged, the older man poured iced water for his guest. They would keep to German. ‘Does anyone know you are here?’.
‘Not even our Iberian section. C was adamant’. He sipped from his glass. ‘I take it those were your two goons tailing me from Madrid?’.
The German gave a small, introverted smile. ‘I am impressed’.
‘Don’t be. They gave themselves away. Like your three men guarding the approaches to the hotel’.
‘It is brave of you to come alone’.
‘Your Abwehr outstation is only a short walk from here. We know its location, we know how to reach it with a raiding party from Gibraltar. I fail to return to London, your personnel will fail to make it back to Berlin’.
‘An equation I understand’.
‘We haven’t forgotten you snatched two of our officers at Venlo in ’39 on the Dutch side of the border’.
‘The work of Heydrich and his Security Service, I am afraid’.
‘Ah yes, Reinhard. How is he?’.
‘Up to his elbows in blood. As one would expect from the chief of Himmler’s Reich Main Security Office’.
‘It’s hard to distinguish between a good and a bad German these days’.
The German turned his face towards the window, staring out across the Bay of Algeciras towards Gibraltar. Conflict could throw up strange situations, stranger alliances, the Englishman mused. He had left Dublin for Madrid disguised as an Irish republican, left Madrid for Algeciras disguised as a cork merchant come to inspect alcornoque trees in the shallow hills of southern Andalucia. Lying was part of the act, acting was part of the role. On both sides of the table. And neither were taken in.
He narrowed his eyes, mapped the profile, noted the long nose, the high forehead, the surface weariness that masked the underlying tension. A good and a bad German. Enemies always made for the best friendships. One had lower expectations, would not feel disappointed, betrayed when things fell apart. The reason for the invitation would soon become apparent. He trusted the man almost as far as he trusted himself.
‘Africa’. The hand waved vaguely in the direction of the continent. ‘During February alone, Rommel has thrown you out of Cyrenaica, pushed your forces back over three hundred miles’.
‘I’ll concede it hasn’t been our finest month’.
‘And Singapore?Seventy thousand of your troops have just surrendered to the Japanese. India?It stands on the brink of collapse. Britain?The U-Boats continue to tighten the blockade’.
The gaze swivelled back to the Englishman. ‘Simply observation. Your empire is falling away, your people are being starved into submission’.
‘The ebb and flow of hostilities’.
‘And still Churchill refuses to parley’.
‘A prerogative of all bad-tempered old men’. And the privilege of anyone who recalled how the presidents of Austria and Czechoslovakia had once tried to negotiate with Adolf Hitler from a position of weakness.
In espionage, the operative developed a sixth and seventh sense, the prickle-instinct for survival, a sharpened awareness of subterfuge. The German was exploring his way, building a case. Peace was not his immediate agenda. For that, a myriad of conduits, a host of diplomatic missions, existed to pass on messages and put out feelers. In the salons of Stockholm they talked, in the steam baths of Ankara they briefed, middlemen and mountebanks representing their governments or themselves, promising negotiation, offering cures. Not here, not in this ragged and dust-infested join between Africa and Europe. The purpose of this meeting was darker, its mission more bleak, the Englishman decided.
He let a cube of ice melt on his tongue, allowed the chill to trickle in his throat. It was all to do with control, all to do with burying fear, masking coldness.
‘And how is the war for you?’. The numbness of the ice anaesthetic rose.
‘For me?’. His host leant back, the expression thoughtful rather than offended. ‘You should address your question to the mothers of the two hundred thousand German boys who have lost their lives since the Führer launched Operation Barbarossa against Russia last June. You should address it to the eight hundred thousand wounded’.
‘There will be hundreds of thousands more’.
‘The Führer and his generals are optimistic. He plans the knock-out blow for this summer’.
‘He promised that in 1941’.
‘Around Hitler, memories are short’.
‘I prefer to dwell with premonition, prediction’.
‘Are you as confident as your leader?’.
‘I am confident that Germany and its Reich face total annihilation’.
It was a statement given force by lack of emotion, by the subtle shades of fatalism and sadness pressing beneath the neutrality. Germany was on a roll - rolling up enemies, rolling over territory. And this man did not believe, did not share the vision. This man dared to question. Troubled times, bloody times. The Englishman waited. His pulse was steady, his mind and imagination restless and panting ahead.
‘I enjoy Spain’. The German redirected the conversation, pulling back from commitment. A professional. He was testing the air, gauging the terrain.
‘As a rule, I’m less enthusiastic for their national pastime of bullfights, dictatorship and throwing innocents from belfries’.
‘Their churches hold a fascination for me’.
‘I understand you have a similar interest in our ships passing through the Strait. It’s no secret the Abwehr has attempted to establish covert radar bases along the coast’.
‘The ebb and flow of hostilities’. If there was irony, it was enigmatic. The German wished to engage, wanted to confide. ‘Perhaps in the future we will sit across from each other as friends’.
‘And perhaps it will take the destruction of National Socialism to achieve it’.
‘We will try our damndest’.
So too would the United States,so too would the Soviet Union. The Americans were massing, flexing their war economy, preparing to take on the Atlantic and Dönitz’s U-Boats. And, behind the Urals, the Soviets were rebuilding, re-equipping, preparing a hundred reserve divisions to blunt and turn the Nazi onslaught. It was a matter of manpower, production and time. The Germans would bleed to death, be beaten by all three. Next year or the next, or the year after that, it would happen.
The German was again examining the hidden view through the window, his manner remote. ‘A pity so many millions will die before the finish’.
‘That’s Hitler for you’.
‘Let us hope for a swift conclusion’.
‘You have a plan?’.
‘Everyone has a plan’. The greyness of the day outside reflected on to the tired face. ‘Everyone has a fallback, a second front’.
‘Especially in our game’.
‘It can take the form of aerial bombardment by your Royal Air Force. It can take the form of arming sabotage and resistance movements, of dispatching supply convoys to Russia. It can take the form of landing armies on the coast of Europe’.
The man sat still, a product of old Germany and its Imperial Navy, of Abwehr military intelligence, a composite of false identities and assumed names. Today he was Señor Guillermo. Tomorrow he might be himself, could be anyone. Two cheats, manipulators, intelligence officers, facing each other, seeking mutual agreement, a common truth.
‘Or’. He continued to stare out to an inner space. ‘I can help you obliterate the entire Nazi hierarchy’.
‘What are you saying?’.
‘The final battle, mein Herr. Endkampf. The end of the Third Reich’.
A storm of blood-red particles was beginning to form and settle across the skyline. Go to top of page Back