Authors: Leslie Thomas
'In July I managed to get permission, after a lot of trying,
to go back to Preston to interview Smales' family again. This
time the journey took the best part of three days there and back and I was only in their house for twenty minutes. But I got something for my trouble. His mother, who wasn't too sure what was going on in the world, being a touch simple, let
it out that they had received word from the Red Cross that their Albert was a prisoner-of-war and in a military hospital somewhere in France, but she did not know where.
'After that there did not seem very much I could do. I mooched around the army camp at Richmond Park and in the pubs in Kingston but it seemed that everybody was getting fed up with me and Lorna Smith. We were being a nuisance. Nobody seemed to care but me. My superiors even told me straight out to drop the case until after the war. And, in addition, it was very difficult to go asking questions around anywhere that particular summer, especially at military establishments. Twice I was arrested by the army police on suspicion of espionage.
'Then came one of those twists of fate which change people's lives. In July 1940 there was a conference being held at the Military Staff College at Camberley in Surrey and all sorts of high-ups were there. Every day we expected the Germans to invade, although I personally did not, and this conference was to discuss resistance operations to be carried out if the enemy occupied Southern England. It seemed funny to think of the Germans taking over Kent and Surrey, although in the odd way I was thinking about things just then, it did cross my mind that if they did occupy this country then at least France and Britain would be under the same umbrella, so to speak, and it might well be easier to get Smales. I know it seems amazing now that I should have thought like that, but I certainly did, I remember clearly. Naturally I kept it to myself. If I'd have mentioned it to anybody I'm sure they would have put me in the Tower of London for treason.
'Anyway, at this Staff College conference there was naturally a lot of security and I was given the job of keeping an eye on a man called Brigadier Elvin Clark during the off-duty time. He stayed at the Staff College but he went out to Virginia Water to dinner in a hotel a couple of times and once he got off early in the afternoon to have a game of golf. I can't say I was looking forward to this a lot because it was my job to stay with him all the time and I didn't fancy traipsing around a golf course. But there was nothing for it so I set out with him and the caddy. There was nobody else playing and he said he
did not mind because he quite enjoyed going around by himself. I made a bit of a joke about it, I remember, telling him that at least in that way you didn't get beaten. He asked me if I had played golf and I said I hadn't although I had played football for the Metropolitan Police team before the war.
'It was a warm July evening and it was strange out there on the green fairways to think that the Germans had been sending over bombers all day and the sky had been full of dog fights. Even now the vapour trails of the Spitfires and Hurricanes were drifting in the blue sky and a Nazi Dornier had crashed that afternoon only half a mile from where we were. The Brigadier never talked about the war at all (I suppose he was tired of it already) but only about golf and his home and his family in Scotland.
'After a while he began to ask me about my police work and, almost by accident it seemed (although in my state of mind it was more or less bound to come out, I suppose), I started to tell him about Lorna Smith and my efforts to get the man Smales. The Brigadier was a man who listened intently, I could see that, even when he was playing golf shots, which he did pretty well as far as I could see with an inexpert eye. Then, like the intelligence officer he was, he began to ask me questions about the case and my feelings towards it. It was like a cross-examination in the witness box and I had to think very carefully about my replies.
'"Where is this man in hospital?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. "All I know is he's a prisoner and he's in hospital in France. He's safe for a while anyway."
'For a quarter of an hour he did not speak. Even I could see he knew how to play the game well and he did not take many strokes over the par. "And you'd still like to get at this man, would you?" he went on eventually, as if we had never interrupted the conversation. It was a statement, quietly put, more than a question. I thought it was just something to say.
' "I'd say I would," I answered.
' "Why is that?" he asked shrewdly.
I was a bit shaken. "Well... well to start with, I'm sure he killed that girl," I began. "I want to get him for that. I want him brought to court."
' "But surely there are one or two murderers, maybe even more, running around loose today," he said to me. "And they're get-at-able, here in this country. Why not go after one of them?"
'I was not sure how to answer. "This is my case, sir." I hesitated. "And I don't like to be beaten. I think crime should be punished. I'm a bit of a puritan like that."
' "What about after the war?" he said, putting the ball right into the hole from all of twenty feet. He hardly paused in his talking. "Don't you think that with things as they are you ought to get your mind off it? After all the Germans could be playing this hole in a month's time." He paused again, then decided to go on. "Do you think it's a sort of frustration because you're not serving in the army?"
' "A sort of guilt you mean?" I said, knowing he did mean that. "Well it might look like that, I admit."
'He had played the last hole. He scratched his nose with his putter. "I mean," he said turning away, "how do you feel about
the war? Does it worry you?"
'The questions were confusing me. "Yes sir," I answered. "Of course I worry like everybody else. I read the papers and I hear the news. I mean, I wouldn't like us to lose."
' "But you're not actually taking much part." It was funny, I thought, he was so persistent. We were walking towards the club house and he asked me to go in with him for a drink. "Who
taking part at the moment?" I asked, probably a bit rudely because he had touched a tender spot. "As far as I can see we're all sitting here, just waiting."
' "Right," he agreed sportingly. "You've got a point Ormerod. Not many of us are fighting just now. Except the chaps up there in the Spitfires. But don't mind my saying so please -it just seems from what you've been telling me that the war itself is a trifle ... well ... remote ... yes, remote, from you."
' "You could say that," I agreed moodily in the end. Then I thought I might as well say it. "Albert Smales is my war."'
Two weeks after his conversation with Brigadier Elvin Clark,
Superintendent Lowe of Wandsworth police station called Ormerod into his office and amazed him by telling him that a
confidential message had been sent to the division requesting
that Detective-Sergeant George Ormerod should report to a department at the War Office on the following day.
'What have you been up to?' the Superintendent said, eye
ing him cagily from the desk. 'All this top secret stuff. You've
got to see this Brigadier Clark. He was the one you kept an eye on during the Staff College conference wasn't it?'
Ormerod shrugged. 'That's him, sir,' he said. 'Can't think what he wants. Probably thinks I'll make a good batman or caddy. I traipsed around the golf course with him. He'll have another think coming if that's what he's after. God, I could hardly walk for a week after that.'
'Well, he wants to see you, so you'd better go,' Lowe laughed.
'This could be one of those things when we don't see you until after the war George. You'd better pay the tea club and empty
'The tea club's paid and there's nothing in my locker except a spare pair of shoes. I don't keep a lot there. After all, you never know when you might not return from Battersea Park in this job.'
The Superintendent frowned. 'Oh come on, George. We're
doing as much as we can. It's not very spectacular, I know,
police work, but people still steal, kids still go missing, and the
peace, such as we have, has got to be maintained.' He stood
and thrust his head towards Ormerod, like a bull. 'Most of the
manpower of this country is now sitting on its arse waiting to
see if the Germans make the next move. Personally I'd strike
back now, while they're taking a breather. Invade in the Brittany area, around Brest. Get around the back of the bastards. Strike first.'
Lowe was one of those who really believed it, despite the fact that at that moment elderly men in quiet hamlets where
there had been no violence since the Conqueror were sharpen
ing pitchforks and seriously hoping to annihilate a Panzer division. Ormerod had no inclination to argue, indeed he was not sure he did not agree. He went out and took his spare shoes from his locker, just in case, and then went home.
On the following morning he took the underground to West-
minster. He was early so he walked through the park to the War Office. The bombing of London had not started in earnest for the Luftwaffe were attacking Biggin Hill and other airfields from which the British fighter planes were taking off to intercept the bombers. It was a promising summer morning with the trees and flower beds shining with sun and freshness. There were pyramids of sandbags all around. The pelicans squatted ponderously on the lake. Around the park were anti-aircraft guns and people walked about, their gasmasks either in oblong cases like picnic boxes or in tubular tins. Policemen wore their newly-issued, cumbersome revolvers a little selfconsciously.
Although he was a Metropolitan policeman, Ormerod never felt at home in Central London. He was never sure where anything was for a start. He produced his warrant card, asked a policeman the whereabouts of the War Office and was treated to a supercilious grin for not knowing. If he had asked at random, and without showing his authority, he might very well have been taken for one of the mythical German parachutists the entire nation was hunting.
There appeared to be a complete regiment guarding the War Office and it was some time before he could persuade anyone to let him in, although a cheerful milkman breezed right through the defences while Ormerod stood waiting; soldiers and policemen kept coming to have a look at him while he stood awkwardly in a waiting room, bare of any decoration except for a poster warning against careless talk which announced : 'Walls Have Ears.' He pursed his lips as though to stop himself divulging a thousand secrets.
A frowning corporal of military police came in. The man had a bright red face as if he were always shouting and a small moustache like gold wire.
'Department Four BX,' recited the corporal. 'That's where you're heading. Part of MIR, see. Military Intelligence Research. Got your authority, have you?'
The man knew full well that he had both his warrant card and the authorizing letter because he had already asked for them, and seen them, twice. Ormerod had also displayed them to numerous other security guards and officials, so faceless
they could have been phantoms. 'It's getting worn out,' he observed to the corporal, handing the authority across. 'The paper's not all that thick.'
The military policeman had no concealed channel of humour. 'It should last,' he grunted. 'These sort of things are done on thin paper, you understand, in case they have to be destroyed. There might come a day when every bit in this building might have to be. Follow me.'
Ormerod went after him, conjuring a mental picture of the entire staff of the War Office frantically chewing thin secret
paper in the face of an advancing German army. They went through many corridors hung with signs and arrows and across two large chambers where senior military men were talking in
whispers, their voices hissing up to the tall ceilings.
They arrived at a lift which was not working because of the
war and they had to walk up twelve flights of stone steps to reach the fourth floor. 'I'll come and fetch you to take you out
again,' said the corporal stiffly as they walked by doors marked with titles like algebra problems. 'We don't like visitors memor
izing their way around.'
'No, well you wouldn't, would you,' agreed Ormerod, puffing
after the exertion of the stairs.
His escort gave a stiff sniff which hissed along the vacant
corridor like the lash of a whip. They reached the second of two doors marked 'Four BX. Strictly No Entry' and the corporal knocked with what Ormerod thought might be a secret signal. The 'No Entry' sign was obviously another clever ruse to fool the enemy because the door opened quite easily and they went in.
Ormerod was relieved to see that, after the frigid aspect of the outer corridors and their denizens, this office was com
fortingly untidy with two desks not quite in line or order, piles of paper and haphazard trays, one of which was loaded crazily
with dirty tea cups. A cheerful girl clerk, with a pneumatic bosom almost rending the buttons of her uniform tunic, got up from the floor where she had been collecting the spilled
contents of a box of paper clips. Ormerod took her in appreci
atively as she got to her feet, red-faced and slightly out of breath. The escorting corporal said: 'This is Detective
Sergeant Ormerod.' He hovered, apparently undecided whether he ought, after all, to leave Ormerod there. The girl decided him. 'Thank you, corporal,' she said sweetly. 'You can leave him with me. He'll be quite safe.'
'Oh yes,' blinked the corporal. He cast a last suspicious glance at Ormerod and then withdrew with military movements. Ormerod grinned sheepishly. I thought he might ask you to sign for me,' he said.
'Don't put ideas into their heads,' the girl pleaded. She looked around the polished floor. 'Now are there any more of these blessed clips down there? I'm always doing it. Knocking them down.'