Leigh Fermor’s Intelligence Training, 1940

From Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper (New York Review Books, 2013), Kindle loc. 2085ff.

On release from hospital in early February, Paddy went to stay with his sister Vanessa. He had high hopes of joining the Karelian campaign, in which the Finns were fighting off a Soviet invasion. He had heard about a unit that was going to support the Finns and he was keen to join, but was still too weak; Finland was then forced to concede to Russia’s demands. The Intelligence Corps, on the other hand, were very interested in the fact that Paddy spoke French, German, Rumanian and Greek, and with the situation in the Balkans developing fast they offered him a commission. If he took it, he would be spared any more training at the Guards Depot, but he still clung to the hope of a commission in the Irish Guards.

He had an interview with the regiment’s commander. There was no opening for him in the Irish Guards at present, Lieutenant Colonel Vesey told him; indeed, he might have to wait for months before the opportunity arose. Although most regiments at this time were desperate for young officers, Vesey was in no hurry to commission this particular cadet: one of Paddy’s reports had described his progress as ‘below average’. The Intelligence Corps, on the other hand, were offering immediate employment and the opportunity to return to Greece.

The Intelligence Corps uniform was not very romantic, and he disliked the cap badge – a pansy resting on its laurels, as it was disparagingly known. But the lure of Greece was strong, and financially he could not afford to wait for a place in the Irish Guards. Paddy began his officer training in the Corps in early May, stationed at the 168th Officer Cadet Training Unit at Ramillies Barracks, Aldershot. Here he learned how to keep records of enemy movements, how to read and make maps, and how to assemble and coordinate intelligence. There was also much to absorb about the formation of the German army, and he tried to learn the Gothic deutsche Schrift. One of his fellow trainees was Laurens van der Post. Years later, on a television show with Paddy, van der Post recalled the moment they heard about the fall of France. The news left everyone shocked and aghast, van der Post recounted, except for Paddy ‘who was writing a poem about a fish pond in the Carpathians, and he didn’t really take it in until he had finished the poem’. Slightly embarrassed, Paddy added, ‘Well, I was pretty smitten after that.’

Soon Free French soldiers who wanted to continue fighting began to appear at Ramillies Barracks, and word went round that the Corps was looking for people who would be willing to be parachuted into occupied France. Paddy volunteered, and was rather offended when they rejected him. He spoke the language fluently and was widely read in French literature: why was he passed over? That the selectors were looking for quiet, inconspicuous people seems not to have crossed his mind. His training finished on 12 August. The final, prophetic remarks on Paddy’s report were written by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel R. C. Bingham: ‘Quite useless as a regimental officer,’ he wrote, ‘but in other capacities will serve the army well.’ Paddy himself had very mixed feelings about his future. ‘I looked forward to my new life with interest and misgiving. It was rather like going to a new school.’

Second Lieutenant Fermor was ordered to proceed to the Intelligence Training Centre in Matlock, Derbyshire, where he was to take two month-long courses: one on war intelligence, and another on interrogation. The training centre, filled with polyglot officers, was housed in Smelton’s Hydro – ‘a castellated, bleak and blacked-out Victorian pile perched high above the rushing Derwent’. His initial reaction to the place was ‘Bedlam in a Morte d’Arthur setting’, made more depressing by the fact that all the windows were blacked out; but there were compensations. One of the perks of being an officer was that Paddy now had a batman, Geoffrey Olivier – ‘my first soldier-servant. It was peculiar to think that I would probably never shine a button or spit and polish a toe-cap again.’

The war intelligence course was hard work. Lectures were interspersed by long spells ‘scrambling over the Derbyshire hills . . . making out strategical and technical plans for advancing to, holding, or withdrawing from various features, holding improvised conferences . . . which invariably ended with the Major saying: “Now Leigh Fermor . . . What information have we about the enemy in the sector 22314567 to 4678?”’

In between one course and the next, there was a week’s break which Paddy spent in blitz-torn London. He saw three fires blazing in Piccadilly, while in Berkeley Square, ‘the blaze of an explosion revealed two sides of that sentimental quadrangle in a disordered wreckage of wood and stone. Only one thing remained standing. Perched three stories high on a tottering pinnacle was a white marble privy, glowing shyly in this unaccustomed radiance.’

Thanks to the services of anti-Nazi and Jewish volunteers, much of the interrogation course was conducted in German. One of the secrets of a good interrogation, he learned, was to conduct it while the prisoner had an empty stomach and a full bladder. With friends such as Gerry Wellesley and Osbert Sitwell at Renishaw close by, the high point of this happy time came when someone decided to organize a ball. One of the instructors, Henry Howard, brought over a spectacular couple from nearby Chatsworth: a tall young ensign in the Coldstream Guards, and an incredibly beautiful girl. He was Andrew Cavendish, who in 1950 was to become the 11th Duke of Devonshire; while she was Deborah Mitford, whose sister Diana and her husband, Sir Oswald Mosley, were in prison as pro-Nazi sympathizers. ‘Funny, Howard bringing that Mitford girl,’ said someone when they had gone. ‘After all, this is meant to be the Intelligence Training Centre, and there is a war on.’

Another of the Matlock instructors was Stanley Casson, ‘donnish, witty and slightly disreputable’, a Greek scholar and archaeologist who had had a lot to do with the British School of Archaeology in Athens. Casson, who always spoke to Paddy in Greek, was one of the moving spirits of what was to become the Greek Military Mission. The Italians had invaded Greece on 28 October 1940, and Paddy followed their rapid advance with anxiety. When the Greek army began to turn the Italian tide a few weeks later, ‘It was joy and agony mixed’, as he put it: joy that Greece was acquitting herself so well, agony because he was not there. Stanley Casson went to London, and soon after Paddy was told to join Casson’s Greek Military Mission.

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Filed under Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, language, military, war

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