My Friend, My Enemy
I don’t know why I’m so disturbed by that phone call. I’ve done nothing wrong. So why am I so worried? Why do I reproach myself for the follies of youth? I was only twenty-two when it all happened. And folly is the wrong word anyway. I did my duty. I’m a patriot. My DSM says so. I’ve never worn it. Not even on Remembrance Day. I’m ashamed of it, that’s why. I’d almost forgotten I’d ever won the damned thing. And here’s this Colonel Summers ringing me up out of a clear sky, just as I’m about to sit down to tea. I didn’t tell Sue of course. Women don’t understand anything about honor and trust. All they see is the end result.
“Mr Jack Kyle?”
“It’s Colonel Summers from Victoria Barracks here, Mr Kyle. I’m just checking that you’re the right Mr Kyle. Do you hold a DSM?”
“That’s fine. Sorry to have troubled you.”
“What’s this all about?”
“Just keeping our records up to scratch, Mr Kyle.”
“I didn’t award myself the DSM. In fact, I never expected it. I didn’t want it. I didn’t ask for it.”
“But you have it, Mr Kyle?”
“I congratulate you, sir. Please have a pleasant evening.”
He’d hung up before I had a chance to tell him that I wanted to return it.
I’m still shaking. An unpleasant memory will do that. A traumatic experience. And yet it all started off as such a grand adventure.
There I was in Egypt. Nineteen years old in 1939 and I’d landed a job assisting Professor Kurt Schroeder in his dig in the Valley of the Kings. A remarkably successful dig too. Especially from a man with such little academic feel. In fact, the professor rated as a rough diamond. A short but powerfully built thug with muscular shoulders, Schroeder was further handicapped by a florid, coarse face menacingly half-hidden by his thick, gray-speckled beard. He looked like a cut-throat.
Nonetheless, Schroeder seemed the answer to all my dreams. So much so that I allowed myself to be blinded at first to Schroeder’s true character and designs. He told me his dig was sponsored by the University of Vienna. Certainly he spoke German like an Austrian or Bavarian; but even this naïve youth soon doubted if he had any real affiliation with a respectable university. The jail, the brothel, the cheap dive, the illicit tourist trap — these doubled as the professor’s stamping grounds. Plainly and simply, Schroeder was really a robber. A bandit. A brigand who’d established a thriving trade in receiving stolen goods, then legitimizing the desecration by filtering pilfered artifacts through his own otherwise empty diggings. Made two or three thousand per cent profit. Even after deductions for bribery all along the line. I held out my hand too. Naïve, but not stupid. The “professor” needed me. His big problem was that he had little Egyptian. He needed someone he could trust to make his deals. And I must admit that personally, I could see little wrong. The robbers would have smuggled their loot out of Egypt anyway. Now at least some finds were being recorded and some of the tomb reliquaries ended up where they were supposed to go – the Cairo Museum − rather than into the obsessive hands of unscrupulous private collectors.
Came the 1940-41 war. Schroeder declared he’d urgent business in Berlin. He placed me in temporary charge. Naturally I never told him I was an enemy alien, that I’d set out from Australia in 1936. Instead, I nominated Cairo as my birthplace, so we were both lying to each other. With my natural olive complexion darkened even further by the Valley sun, I could certainly pass for Egyptian. The language of course was another matter. A native could pick me instantly. But Schroeder was no native. More importantly, in the name of Karl Sterler, I held a German passport issued at Cairo, which I’d used to travel to Stuttgart for a semester or two.
Soon after Schroeder decamped, a dapper official from the German embassy came looking for me.
“You speak German well, Herr Sterler?”
“And why not?”
“I have reason to believe, Herr Sterler, that you are not from Stuttgart.”
“I didn’t say I was. I studied there. At the university.”
“May I see your passport?”
I handed it over.
He examined it closely. “It is very good,” he announced – in English! “An excellent forgery. One of the very best I’ve ever seen. I congratulate you. I was going to offer you a better one, old chap. But there’s no need.”
“Why?” I continued to speak in German. I’d no intention of arguing with him. My passport was no forgery; but I felt it was his business to recognize a genuine passport when he saw one. How I obtained it I’m not going to reveal. A girl was involved. A lovely, kind-hearted girl. There are such creatures. Rare, but they do exist. She’s probably dead now. I haven’t seen her for sixty years. God bless her and keep her. Surround her with your angels, oh Lord! Bear her up lest she scratch her sweet little foot against a stone!
“We’d like you to do a little job for us,” Mr Dapper answered. His accent was definitely British diplomatic corps. Gung ho! He may have been genuine. Or maybe it was all an act. Act One.
“No way!” I continued to hand him German. I didn’t trust myself to use English without giving away some hint of accent. Naïve but not stupid.
“Let me put it this way, Herr Sterler. I’m doing you a favor, that’s what it is. Surely you realize your position in Egypt is no longer tenable, old chap. On the one hand, you face internment. On the other, you could be shot as a bloomin’ spy.”
“Let me tell you something, my friend,” I answered smugly in Stuttgart German. “You are not a member of the German legation, as you falsely claim. So, on the one hand, you face expulsion. On the other, a lengthy term in an Egyptian jail. Not a pleasant prospect, my friend, as I’ve been told by some of Professor Schroeder’s less savory associates.”
To my surprise, he laughed. “What really brings you to Egypt, Jack?”
“Karl!” I insisted. “And please speak in German. I find your English difficult to follow.”
He smiled. “Would you believe, I was hesitant about approaching you, Karl? I told General Auchinleck you lacked training and experience. He replied, ‘Who else is there, old boy? Who else?’ ”
“You realize you’ve just admitted to me you’re a British spy?”
“That puts you in the cat seat, old chap. As a good German, you must denounce me. If you are a good German?”
I picked up the phone, turned the handle, waited for the exchange. No response.
He was still smiling. “I’m sorry, Karl. I cut your wire. I couldn’t take the risk.”
“What’s Guinness good for?” I suddenly snapped – in English.
“ Better buy Capstan?”
“I’ll half-pay that,” I declared. “But I was actually looking for?”
“They’re blended better.”
“Timothy Whites and Taylor.”
“So what do you want me to do?” I asked.
“I must admit you’re a most amazing young man, old chap. Best natural spy I’ve ever encountered.”
“Naïve but not stupid. So I’m spying for the British?”
“You know Benghazi?”
“A dump. A hole in the desert. Nothing of interest there. Unless you’re an entomologist. And I believe there are no flies on the Lion of Saxe-Coburg.” I meant young King George.
He shrugged. “A strategic port and supply depot for Rommel, old chap.”
“The whole world knows that,” I reminded him. “Tell me something I don’t know.” Naïve but not stupid!
“But what the whole world doesn’t know, old chap, is where and when the Afrika Korps will strike. Against Egypt, of course, but exactly where? Perhaps at this stage, it’s likely Rommel doesn’t even know himself. I’d just love to read his mind. Anyway, as it happens our estimable German legation in Cairo has received a little request from the Field Marshal, would you believe? He seeks a reliable German-Egyptian- speaking linguist, who is also familiar with the territory between Benghazi and Cairo.” To my amazement, he suddenly snapped to attention and spoke in flawless High Prussian — the olde-worlde language of Iron Chancellor Bismarck. “We at the German Embassy have resolved to recommend you, Herr Sterler. Do you accept?”
“A double agent!” I exclaimed in English. “God help me! Let me understand you right, my friend. What sort of bob-a-job are you handing me exactly? To help the Field Marshal formulate the best possible invasion plans?”
“Absolutely, old boy!” he enthused in English. “First class!”
“Not the second best?”
He shook his head. “It’s absolutely vital you give these plans your best shot, old chap. Rommel must trust your advice. Implicitly.”
“How do I pass the information on? To you?”
“You won’t and you don’t.” He reverted to Bismarck’s Prussian: “We at the Imperial German Embassy have another source of information at Rommel’s camp. If he is detected, there is no connection whatever between him and you.”
“Let’s hope not. But there are such things as accidental friendships. If I knew his name I could keep well clear of him.”
Mr Dapper smiled, but shook his head.
“Since you already have a spy in Rommel’s HQ, why need me then?”
“We need someone we can trust to give Rommel the best. The unqualified best. Rommel is no fool. Not the slightest hint of suspicion must attach to the German Embassy. Not the slightest scent.”
“Particularly as the German Embassy in Cairo is stacked high with British spies,” I commented. “How long is all this going to take?”
“Two or three months. Six at the outside. Perhaps two or three weeks? Who knows the mind of a Field Marshal?”
“I’m no Mesmer or clairvoyant! I’m just an assistant pirate.”
“What about money?” I asked. “What do I live on for six months? Fleas and flies? I can’t see myself going cap in hand to the Panzer paymaster.”
“We’ll give you an advance.”
“You’ll pay my expenses. Every penny. And then some!”
He nodded. “The embassy will pay. Rest assured.”
“And what do I get personally out of all this? If I’m not lined up against a wall?”
“A field commission. General Auchinleck offers a full lieutenant.”
“Oh, glory? No cash? I’d rather be a full captain. At captain’s pay. Or a major!”
“Sterling,” I specified. “No Egyptian pounds. And a DSM.”
“Why a DSM, old chap?”
“Family pride. One of my uncles says he missed out last time. The officer got the DSM and he was fobbed off with a crummy campaign ribbon.”
“You are surprisingly young?”
I stood at attention. “I know the territory, sir. I speak Egyptian.”
“But not Italian?”
Rommel pursed his lips. “Not that it really matters. I intend to replace – ”
“I agree with you, sir.”
“I don’t trust Italians, sir. Get rid of them. That is my first piece of advice, sir.”
Rommel glared at me through his monocle. I had spoken out of turn. “I will be frank. I asked the Embassy to send me an expert. On geography. I did not ask for a racist. I did not ask for an opinionated self-seeker. I didn’t even ask for an overbearing young man with his own agenda. I want facts. Not opinions. I want service. Not smiles. I want answers. Not excuses. I want smartness. I expect discipline. Look at yourself! You are a civilian. But I expect you to conduct yourself as a soldier. You are no longer the servant of that sloppy, tired, outmoded aristocratic anachronism that paints itself as the Embassy of the German people. You think I don’t know it is in fact a nest of counter-National Socialist bigots? The remnants of a failed aristocracy clinging to faded power and days of empty glory? Dismissed!”
But I stood my ground. “If you think so little of our Cairo legation, sir, why ask their advice?”
To my amazement, his lips curled into a slight smile. “Who else could I ask for such information?” he barked.
“And am I tainted by their recommendation?” I asked, surprising even myself by my boldness.
His smile widened. "You have two days to think up a plan of attack."