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Monday 11 December 2017

Secrets and spies – riveting wartime tales of derring-do

WWII's Secret Spy Camp
WWII's Secret Spy Camp

IT WAS a case of secrets, secrets everywhere at the weekend.

 WWII’s Secret Spy Camp, the story of Camp X, the spy school set up in Canada to train Allied agents, had all the ingredients necessary for a riveting documentary.

And riveting it was, despite being marred by cheesy reconstructions and a thumpingly stupid cod-rock soundtrack. The recollections of surviving agents, one of them now 92 (“Only the good die young,” he quipped) with a mind still as sharp as the tip of a commando knife, were more than enough reason to watch.

Camp X opened in 1941, fortuitously, the day before Pearl Harbour, so British and Canadian trainees were immediately joined by Americans. A key member of the staff was urbane Mancunian Paul Dehn (pronounced “Dane”) – better known in the ’60s and ’70s as the screenwriter of Goldfinger, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Murder on the Orient Express and several Planet of the Apes sequels – whose job was to draw up the definitive manual on spying behind enemy lines.

It covered, among other topics, how to pass oneself off as a local, how to deflect an interrogation and the most convenient way to search an enemy: “Kill him first.” But trainees first had to learn how to kill.

To this end, a former colonial policeman in Shanghai, famed for his ruthlessness and brutality, was brought to the camp to instruct them in the most efficient way to slit a man’s throat. It was vital to quell the sound of the blood gurgling, which could alert the enemy.

Training, recalled former OSS agent, the grandfatherly Robert Cordell, also included crawling under barbed wire while a machine-gunner sprayed live rounds inches above your head. Miraculously, only one trainee was accidentally killed.

Far and away the most enjoyable element of the film were the hair-raising stories told by Cordell and others. “The whole thing for me was just a game,” said Greek agent Helias Doundoulakis. A very dangerous game.

While trying to hide a radio transmitter in the roof of a barn, Helias had to cling to the rafters for three hours while a trio of German soldiers got drunk a few feet below him.

Some of the yarns were the stuff of espionage fiction, such as the American agent who had a Chinese baker bake powdered Compound C (plastic explosive) into bread rolls.

There was a late twist when it was revealed the traitorous Kim Philby also worked at Camp X on Dehn’s manual – and no doubt relayed every chapter of it to his KGB masters in Moscow. Utterly fascinating.

There was also a last-minute surprise, and a deeply unpleasant one, in Martha Kearney’s excellent The Secret World of Lewis Carroll, a perfectly balanced look at both the enduring popularity of Carroll’s surreal children’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the strange, intimate relationship between Carroll (a pen name for Oxford academic Rev Charles Dodgson) and Alice Liddell, the inspiration for the book’s heroine, who the author first met when she was four and he 24.

The debate on whether the celibate Dodgon’s hobby of photographing Alice and other little girls, sometimes in “artistic” nude poses (a fashion in Victorian times), marks him out as a repressed paedophile – contributor Will Self believes it does – is nothing new.

But the full-frontal nude photo, almost certainly taken by Dodgson, of Alice’s then 12-year-old sister Lorena, that was unearthed in a Paris museum while the programme was being made, is certainly damning material.

The question of whether you can love a writer’s work while being appalled by their personal life is a tricky one. Kearne tackled it with intelligence and restraint.

 

WWII’S SECRET SPY CAMP ****

THE SECRET WORLD OF LEWIS CARROLL ****

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