Hunting Aquila

By James Hume

Crime & mystery, Historical fiction, Thriller

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490
4 mins

 

Chapter 1. Porritt


Commander Jonathan Porritt hurried through the dim, dank November morning, his rolling gait reflecting his many years at sea. His old boss from his Admiralty Intelligence days before the war, Sir John Halton, had a problem and wanted Porritt, as head of Special Branch in the UK, to help solve it.

Halton had been a great mentor, thought Porritt. Together, they had used tiny slivers of information to identify and catch some very nasty people who wanted to harm Britain. It was very satisfying work and had culminated in them setting up the codebreaking operations at Bletchley Park that were now, in 1942, doing so much to turn the war in Britain’s favour.

Porritt skipped up the steps of the anonymous building in central London. He still got a thrill at a new challenge. In this building, no one used names in public. Everyone was ‘sir’ or ‘madam’. He was shown up a wide staircase and along a dark-panelled corridor to an unmarked door. The security man knocked and opened it. ‘Your visitor, sir,’ he announced.

Halton came out from behind a desk at the far end of the room with a smile and welcoming handshake. ‘Jonathan, great to see you again. Thanks for coming in. How are things at Special Branch?’ They sat at the conference table.

‘Very well, sir. Got rid of the dead wood. Now we have the right people in the right jobs properly directed. Haven’t had any complaints from the top for a long time.’

Halton smiled. ‘You’re right. I can tell you the PM is very happy with what you’ve done there. They needed you, Jonathan. That’s why I recommended you.’

Porritt liked meeting Halton. Always so positive. At least with him. And still alert and active, though maybe a bit greyer now and more stooped. ‘And how about you, sir? I thought you’d retired.’

‘I did, Jonathan, I did. But when Churchill became PM a couple of years ago, he wanted me back on some of the key War Office committees. To give them my experience, of course, but also to give him the inside story of what’s going on. Too many people tell him what they think he wants to hear. He needs people he can trust to tell him the real story – the one that’s not carried in the minutes of the meetings.’

Porritt nodded, but stayed silent. He knew Halton was a long-time friend of Churchill.

‘And that brings me to my problem, Jonathan. The PM thinks there’s a leak from one of our key committees and wants us to find it and fix it – sharpish.’

Porritt raised his eyebrows. ‘Blimey, what makes him think that?’

Halton hesitated for a moment. ‘I meet the PM about once or twice a month. About six weeks ago, I told him I had missed the September meeting of the Strategy Review Committee because of illness, but I was unhappy at an item in the minutes.

‘They had assessed various Normandy beaches suitable for a British invading force and rated a beach near the village of Yport in the top five. Now, I know that area well from birdwatching holidays, and it’s a ridiculous conclusion because of boggy terrain and limited access roads beyond the beach. So I told the PM I would force a review of the assessment criteria at the next meeting.

‘However, two days ago, the PM saw, in one of the many notes that pass across his desk, that the Germans had moved a full division of troops to that spot near Yport. He wondered whether the move might have something to do with the assessment I had mentioned, and whether the info had been leaked.

‘So, he’s asked me to assess the other eight committee members, plus their staff, and see if we can identify a mole. We have to be very discreet, of course, and I need your help to do that, Jonathan. The PM also made it clear he’s working on a new strategy to invade France, so we need to do it as soon as we can.’

Porritt had listened to Halton with interest and felt the familiar excitement of a new hunt building inside him. He would agree, of course. The case was interesting enough to take on even if Halton hadn’t been the one to ask him.

Porritt and Halton discussed and analysed their options and agreed a two-step action plan. Their first move would be to try to confirm a leak from the committee.

Halton sat on another committee that approved sabotage acts by the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service on targets overseas. They had looked at attacking the huge ACL–Penhoët shipyard in Saint-Nazaire in France, where German warships were now being built. Their agent there had noted they could enter the site through a disused and dilapidated gate at the south-west corner of the shipyard.

Halton would mention this at the next Strategy Review Committee and make sure it was included in the minutes. He would then ask the agent in Saint-Nazaire to monitor the gate and report any activity.

The second step of their plan assumed there was a leak. The Germans would want evidence from the leaker, such as a copy of the minutes. Halton showed Porritt the minutes from last month as an example. The front page included an executive summary and, at the bottom, a table giving the distribution list. The example had an ‘X’ against Halton’s name.

Porritt agreed to have Special Branch teams tail all staff who had access to the minutes. The combined group of committee members, with their personal private assistants and confidential secretaries, gave seventeen targets for Porritt’s people to assess.

Porritt, on his own initiative, introduced a third step. He realised that someone taking a photograph of the minutes just had to cover the ‘X’ column to hide the member’s identity. However, the department was in the process of replacing the machines that produced the minutes. He took it upon himself, therefore, to visit the technical director of Gestetner, the company providing the machines, and got him to introduce a secret feature into the collating facility.

The new machines marked an ‘X’ against the first name on the distribution list on the first copy, then against the second name on the list on the second copy, and so on.

Now the machines would also mark a small dot at the first line of text in the first copy, against the second line of text in the second copy, and so on. A casual reader would never see the dot among the other blemishes on the copy.

Porritt kept this secret feature to himself.

                                            * * *

Five weeks after their meeting, Halton showed Porritt a note from his agent in Saint-Nazaire. It stated that a squad of builders had removed the dilapidated gate and fence and replaced it with a new security fence – with no gate. Halton and Porritt agreed this showed there was a definite and efficient German mole leaking info from the committee.

On the second step of their plan, Porritt had had Malcolm Craig, head of Special Branch in London, and his team monitor each of the seventeen targets. But after eight weeks, they cleared all of the targets of any suspicion.

Porritt puzzled over their conclusions and reviewed the evidence himself. It became clear that the mole was well hidden, and unless they could look over each person’s shoulder 24/7, they were not going to find him. And without catching the information as it left the country, he had no chance of checking his third step – the secret dot.

He went through the evidence with Halton. ‘We can’t see who it is, sir, without blowing our cover. And we don’t want to do that and lose him.’

Halton thought for a few moments. ‘He’ll make a mistake at some point, Jonathan. Stay alert and then pounce.’



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