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Authors: Len Deighton

Spy Story

Spy Story

‘But war's a game, which, were their subjects wise, Kings would not play at.'

William Cowper,

Table of Contents


I don't know how or when I became interested in the history of military uniforms but I remember why. It was because John Edgcombe, manager of the Times Bookshop, told me that collectors of model soldiers were the most expert and dedicated group of military enthusiasts he had ever come across. We met on the third Friday of each month in the Tudor Room of Caxton Hall, London SW1. And my first visit there was a revelation. I didn't know what model soldiers were until I saw these amazing figures, painted with the skill and detail that I had hitherto associated only with the sort of fine miniature paintings on display in museums.

Copies of
The Bulletin
, the monthly newsletter of The British Model Soldiers Society, alongside those of the associated Military Historical Society (Saturday afternoons at the Imperial War Museum), still fill a shelf in my library and they go back to January 1959. I have never discarded them because they provide a wealth of information not available elsewhere. I never collected or painted model soldiers but I enjoyed those evenings and it was a member of that group who invited me to a naval war game session.

I expected to see a complicated desk game, perhaps something like three-dimensional chess, which was going through a fashionable phase about that time. In the event I went to one of those grim Victorian-period school buildings that are still to be found in south London. It was Saturday morning and the war gamers had taken over the whole premises for the weekend: ‘war doesn't stop when it gets dark,' it was explained to me.

One classroom was occupied by the staff of battle group Red. Another held the staff of battle group Blue. A ‘sentry' was at the door to ensure that a trip to the toilets did not include a chance to glimpse the gymnasium. For on the floor of the gymnasium model ships, drawn up into two battle fleets, were arranged and constantly moved by monitors. Isolated in the upstairs classrooms, the staffs would only be given information that could come from the crow's nest of their tallest warship.

The staffs were all at sea but for us spectators, standing around the gymnasium, the whole picture was provided. On the stage a row of chairs gave half a dozen ‘referees' a place to supervise, observe and declare damage or sinking as the engagement progressed.

I was captivated. This was serious stuff and there were not many smiles or jokes. This was war and I had no doubt that many of those involved in this game knew what the real thing was like. I must have been an incongruous figure at these gatherings. I never painted a toy soldier or participated in any of the war games; younger than most of the others, all I did was ask questions. Fortunately most people enjoy answering reasonably sensible questions that test their expertise so I was accepted. Many years later it was that elaborate war game that provided the starting place and background to a book, and it was naval combat that was in my mind.

I am not in a minority as far as my interest in submarines is concerned. Starting with Jules Verne, there have been dozens of books and movies about the men who brave the claustrophobic tin tubes. Submarines have interested me ever since childhood when I discovered that submarines that carried aircraft really did exist. In the Second World War the Japanese navy had many of them. In September 1942 the submarine I-25 launched a seaplane that dropped incendiary bombs on a forest in Oregon and returned safely back to its submarine.

A more bizarre type of submarine was the steam-driven K Class that the Royal Navy used in the First World War. The difficulties and dangers of reconciling diving under water with the capricious machinery of steam engines surprised no one but the men in the Admiralty; and these submarines were a tragic disaster for those assigned to them.

When in January 1955 the submarine
USS Nautilus
was underway on nuclear power for the first time, it was a triumph for Admiral Hyman Rickover, one of the most important and prescient men of his century. The conversion of ships and civilian power supply to nuclear energy was largely due to him. In 1959 the
USS George Washington
, a nuclear-powered (and nuclear missile-equipped) submarine, was launched it was followed by the first nuclear-powered warship and the first nuclear-powered merchant ship in that same year. The following year, 1960, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was launched. The coming of the nuclear-powered submarine completely changed naval warfare, and this joined the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier as the major strategic weapon. In this book I have attempted to give a glimpse of what life was like in the nuclear submarines during the Cold War that sometimes became hot, and when some submarines did not return from patrol

But above all, this is a book depicting the ‘great outdoors'. I have always admired those writers who have a deep and lifelong obsession with nature. I had very little experience of the countryside when I was a child. I grew up in central London so the trips to Wales and to Cornwall, on which my father took us, were exciting expeditions. As a footloose teenager I would frequently splurge on a cheap overnight railway ticket to the Scottish highlands and the region of the great lochs. From that time onwards the rough country that Scotland and Ireland provides was my first choice when on walking holiday. In the 1950s, with an equally foolish fellow-student, I hitchhiked to Edinburgh to be there for New Year's Eve. Short of money, we pitched a two-man tent each night and more than once awoke to find ourselves buried under a snowdrift. My travelling companion – Bob Hyde – had done his military service in the RAF mountain rescue service so he was rather hardier than I proved to be, but I persevered. In December, northern England becomes dark early. We learned how to pitch our tent in darkness and brewed tea using a tiny Primus stove. One morning we were awoken by the cheers and jeers of young girls. We climbed out of our tent to find we had pitched on the well-kept front lawn of a girl's boarding school

We had allowed for a week on the road and as the holiday approached traffic became infrequent. One of our early morning lifts was on a lorry, and when we were dropped off at a smart hotel for a hot breakfast the waiter was polite and welcoming. It was only later that day that we realised that the lorry had been carrying boxes of herring and that we both stank of stale fish. I so admired the
sang froid
of that waiter.

With good luck and good lifts we arrived at Edinburgh's YMCA in the early evening just in time for New Year's Eve. But after three flights of stairs carrying my heavy rucksack I dropped down on my bunk, my eyes closed and by the time I awoke it was morning and a New Year. I was an urban creature who had to learn what life was like when devoid of city comforts. It was only as an adult that I came with my family to live in rural areas and saw it season by season at its best and at its worst. Some of my experiences in harsh winter informed the scenes in this book, Spy Story.

Len Deighton, 2012


As each bound ends, units cease to be operative until commencement of next bound.


Forty-three days without a night: six pale-blue fluorescent weeks without a sniff of air, sky, or a view of the stars. I drank in a cautious half-lungful of salty mist and smelled the iodine and seaborne putrefaction that seaside landladies call ozone.

a deep water anchorage in western Scotland, is no place to celebrate a return to the real world. The uninhabited islands, a mile or more out in the Sound, were almost swallowed by sea mist. Overhead, dark clouds raced across the water to dash themselves upon the sharp granite peaks of Great Hamish. Then, in threads, they tumbled down the hillside, trailing through the stones and walls that had once been a Highland croft.

There were four submarines alongside the one from which I emerged. Out at the anchorage were more of them. The lash of the westerly wind made them huddle close to the mother ships and their crooning generators. The yellow deck lights were visible through the grey mist, and so were the flocks of gulls that screamed and wheeled and shrieked as they fell upon the kitchen garbage.

The wind brought gusts of rain, whipping up crested waves that awoke the subs. Underfoot I felt the great black hull strain against its moorings. The brow tilted. Stepping from the edge of each horizontal fin to the next was easier if I didn't look down.

Now the next hull groaned, as the same wave sucked and gurgled at its bow. The forecast had been reasonably right for once: overcast, low cloud, drizzle and wind westering. The rain scratched at the slop-coloured sea and crept into my sleeves, boots and collar. My rubber shoe slipped but I recovered my balance. I shook the water off my face and cursed pointlessly.

‘Steady on,' said Ferdy Foxwell behind me, but I cursed again and built his name into one of the inversions.

‘At least the navy is on time,' said Ferdy. There was an orange-coloured Ford on the jetty. The door opened and a slim man got out. He was wearing a Burberry and a tweed hat but I knew he'd be the British naval officer from the police office. He bent his head against the rain. The armed USN sentry at the end of the gangway poked his head out of his shelter to check the pass. I recognized the officer as Frazer, a lieutenant. He made his way along the slippery walk towards us, stepping across the gaps with commendable agility.

‘Let me take that.' He extended a hand, and then smiled in embarrassment as he noticed that the shiny metal case was padlocked to a shoulder-chain under my coat.

‘Help Mr Foxwell,' I said. ‘He never fastens his.'

‘Neither would you if you had any sense,' puffed Foxwell. The man squeezed past me and I had a chance to look down at the oily scum, and smell the diesel, and decide that Ferdy Foxwell was right. When I reached the brow – the horizontal fin – of the next submarine I rested the box and looked back. The young officer was bowed under the weight of Ferdy's case, and Ferdy was stretching his arms to balance his two hundred pounds of compact flab, teetering along the gangway like a circus elephant balancing on a tub. Six weeks was a long time to spend in a metal tube, no matter about sun lamps and cycling gear. I picked up the case loaded with spools and tape recordings, and remembered how I sprinted across these brows on the outward journey.

A red Pontiac station wagon came along the jetty, slowed at the torpedo store and rolled carefully over the double ramps. It continued along the front until turning off at the paint shop. It disappeared down between the long lines of huts. The curved huts were shiny in the rain. Now there was no human movement, and the buildings looked as old as the black granite hills that shone rain-wet above them.

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