It was a man called Otto Skorzeny who started it all. On 3rd September 1943 Italy surrendered. Mussolini, the Leader, was arrested and held in complete secrecy. Hitler demanded that he be found and set free.
"Impossible!" declared Hitler's generals.
But Hitler gave the task to Otto Skorzeny, Chief of German Special Forces. And Skorzeny learned where Mussolini was being held and stole him past his two hundred and fifty guards.
Hitler was delighted. Three days later, on 15th September, he held a meeting to discuss Italy. At the meeting were Mussolini himself; Josef Goebbels, Minister for Total War; Heinrich Himmler, Head of the SS; and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Chief of Military Intelligence, Abwehr.
At first Hitler was cheerful, full of charm. But when Admiral Canaris dared to question the usefulness of rescuing Mussolini, he exploded with fury.
"And what have you and the Abwehr achieved lately?" he demanded. "Nothing! Yet with men like yours you should be able to fetch the devil from hell--or bring me Churchill out of England."
There was complete silence as Hitler glanced from face to face. "Is that not so?"
Himmler was the first to speak. "Why not, my Fuhrer? Anything is possible, as you have shown by rescuing Herr Mussolini."
"Quite right." Hitler was calm now. "A wonderful opportunity to show us what the Abwehr is capable of, Herr Admiral."
Canaris could not believe his ears. "My Fuhrer, do I understand you to mean....?"
"Certainly," said Hitler cheerfully. "See to it, Herr Admiral. Get things moving -- work out a plan. I'm sure I can rely on you as always."
Canaris and Himmler flew back together to Berlin that night.
"Get Churchill!" Canaris said. "Have you ever heard anything so crazy?"
"Since Skorzeny got Mussolini out, the Fuhrer has come to believe in miracles, Herr Admiral." Himmler's words were friendly enough. But when the Admiral fell asleep, Himmler watched him, eyes cold, fixed. There was no expression on his face -- none at all.
Canaris went straight from the airport to his office. "Coffee, lots of coffee," he ordered. "And tel Colonel Radl I'd like to see him."
He sat down to wait, suddenly tired. A servant appeared with the coffee. As Canaris poured it, there was knock on the door. Colonel Max Radl, the man who entere, was thirty, but looked fifteen years older. He had lost his right eye and left hand during the Winter War in 1941. He had worked for Canaris ever since.
"Ah, there you are, Max," Canaris said. "Join me for coffee and restore me to sanity."
"Was it as bad as that?"
"Worse. You know what Hitler suggests we do, Max? Get Churchill for him."
"Good God," said Radl. "He can't be serious."
"Of course not. He'll have forgotten it already. No, Himmler is the only worry. He said we should look into it. He'll remind Hitler at some future date, just to make it seem as if I don't do what I'm told. He wants my blood."
"So what do you want me to do?"
"Just what Himmler suggested. A nice, long report to look as if we've really been examining the possibility. See what you can manage."
And there it might have rested, except for an extraordinary coincidence. A week later, Radl was going through a mass of information from foreign spies. Among it was the latest report from an agent in England, Mrs Joanna Grey. The report contained a short paragraph that filled him with nervous excitement.
It was simple enough. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was to inspect an airforce station and visit a factory, both in Norfolk, on Saturday 6th November. Afterwards he intended to spend the weekend at the home of Sir Henry Willoughby, seven kilometres outside the village of Studley Constable.
It was a purely private visit. The details were supposed to be a complete secret. But Joanna Grey, who lived in Studley Constable, was a personal friend of Sir Henry's. And he had told her of the plan.
Radl sat staring at the report for a few moments. Then he called his assistant, Sergeant Karl Hofer.
"Bring me all the details we have on Joanna Grey. And, Karl, everything she's ever sent. Everything we have on the entire area."
The door closed. Radl felt strangely depressed, full of self-disgust. This silly business -- this Churchill thing: it was so unreal. While good men were dying in their thousands, he was playing a stupid game which couldn't possibly come to anything.
Or could it? Joanna Grey's reports, and her own history, were certainly promising. She had been born Joanna Van Oosten in 1875, in South Africa. In 1900, during the Boer War, her father and her first husband were killed by the British. She herself, her mother and her three-year-old daughter were imprisoned in a concentration camp. Her mother and daughter died there. Joanna was saved only by the loving care of an English doctor, Charles Grey.
Her hatred of the British was burned into her for ever. But she was twenty-eight years old, broken by life, alone, penniless. She married Grey, who remained with her in South Africa.
It was a happy enough marriage. But in 1925, when she was fifty, Dr. Grey died. Joanna Grey was again a penniless widow.
To earn her living she taught the children of an English civil servant. At the same time she attended anti-British meetings. There she fell in love with a German engineer, Hans Meyer.
Meyer was in reality an intelligence agent, seeking naval information. It happened that Joanna Grey's employer worked with the British Navy. She was able, at no risk to herself, to take from his house certain interesting papers. Meyer copied these before she returned them. She was happy to do this. For the first time in her life she was striking a blow against England.
Then, in 1929, Joanna Grey had her first piece of good fortune. Her husband's aunt died in England, leaving her a cottage in Studley Constable and a comfortable income. There was only one condition: she would have to live there.
To live in England. She hated the idea. But what else could she do? She had no future in South Africa.
She went to England, and was very happy there. She was liked and respected by her neighbours. And she loved the cottage, the village, above all the coast.
Hans Meyer visited her in England. He told her that he was now with the Abwehr, and asked her if she would work for them as an agent.
Joanna Grey said yes immediately, filled with excitement. So at sixty, she became a spy, this upper-class English lady, for so she was considered, with the pleasant face and white hair.
She was an excellent spy. Trusted by everyone, moving freely as a lady from the Women's Voluntary Service, she obtained a great deal of useful information. And if danger ever arose, she would be able to handle it: brought up on a South African farm, she could shoot the eye out of a deer at a hundred metres.
"When is Mrs Grey's next radio contact time?" Radl asked, when Hofer came back in.
"This evening, Herr Colonel."
"Good. Send her this message. "Very interested in your visitor of 6th November. Like to drop some friends in to meet him and persuade him to come back with them. Your early reply expected with all relevant information.""