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Feather's Miscellany: Blake Hartley’s Military Medal

In this gripping tale of a Cold War spying journey into East Germany John Waddington-Feather recounts how Blake Hartley’s cool bravery merited the Military medal.

To read more of John’s superb stories and articles please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/feathers_miscellany/

The Revd Detective Inspector Blake Hartley (retd) sat in his chair before a warm fire one autumnal evening, sipping his favourite Glenfiddich whiskey; and as he gazed into the depths of the fire, his mind went back over went back over fifty years before. He was alone as his wife was visiting a neighbour – alone with his memories.

He’d been retired several years from the police force and had that day attended the funeral of an old friend, who’d served with him in the army. How fast they seemed to go the years now, falling thick like the autumn leaves outside. The friend whose funeral he’d attended near Bradford was an old comrade from his National Service in the Intelligence Corps in the 1950s. It had been at the height of the Cold War, when the Iron Curtain was well and truly down, splitting Europe in two; a time of tension when the threat of nuclear war was real as Communism and Capitalism confronted each other; a time when frontierleering was rife and two stand-off armies sent their agents across the border to test each other’s order of battle and defences. It was on one such frontierleeeing expedition into East Germany that young Blake Hartley won his Military Medal.

After training at the Intelligence Corps Depot in Sussex, he’d been posted to a Field Security Service unit in West Germany, close to the border with East Germany at Ratzeburg. His unit’s job was to monitor the Communist battle order; and from time to time that meant crossing the border to make contact with anti-Communist German agents who lived there and spied on the troops stationed in the area. There was no shortage of agents, for there was growing number of Germans utterly disillusioned with the harsh Communist regime which had been forced on them by Stalinist Russia. After a decade of ruthless and incompetent government many Germans had had enough. So had the Poles, the Hungarians, the Czechs and all the rest.

It wasn’t the first time Blake Hartley had nipped across the border, but it always came as a shock to see how run-down East Germany was compared with the affluent West. The self-proclaimed workers’ paradise looked more slummy each time he saw it. And what shocked him most of all was that well heeled, well educated British traitors like Maclean, Burgess and Philby and all the rotten rest wanted to turn his beloved Britain into a similar Communist slum. He was dedicated to keeping Britain free as much as the Cambridge traitors were intent on making it Communist.

When he and Second Lieutenant Peter Whiteoak made the crossing into East Germany through a neutralised corridor in the minefield which ran the length of the border, they looked like any East German office workers. Their clothes had been bought at a department store in the East and were shabby and ill-fitting; but more than the shoddy clothing they wore, their bearing was that of Communist workers. They walked with a stolid, draggy gait and looked no one they passed in the eye, still less wishing them good-day as they would have done in the West. Those living under Communism were and looked subdued; always being spied on by the East German secret police, Stasi. Both of them carried a standard battered briefcase, an essential trapping of the bureaucracy which ran the country. Both also spoke good German and Whiteoak, whose mother’s family came from Russia, was fluent in Russian, too.

It was late October and the wood they emerged from early one cold misty morning was already losing its red and yellow leaves, as there’d been an early frost. They hurried through the mist to the road skirting the remote wood where their contact, Hans Gruber, was waiting for them in his decrepit Skoda car. They climbed in and he drove off quickly towards the nearby town of Schwerin, where they had to pick up the information about a Soviet armoured brigade newly drafted into the area. But some miles down the road they were unexpectedly flagged down at a cross-roads and ordered to stop by a hatchet-faced Russian military policeman. He asked them for their IDs which were duly passed through the window. Their hearts pounded as he scrutinised them closely and peered through the window at them. Satisfied, he passed them back and ordered them to wait till a military convoy had passed.

Ahead a long line of heavy transporters carrying Soviet T55 tanks passed by heading south. Later they discovered why. Opposition to Communism was coming to a head in Hungary under Imre Nagy., whose government was soon to be crushed by Soviet tanks, the same tanks rolling by them now. They had to wait some time till the last of the transporters had gone, then the policeman waved them on, much to their relief.

They drove into the centre of the town and pulled up outside a large concrete office-block. Like all the buildings it was featureless and badly built. Though put up only ten years before, parts of it were already crumbling. They climbed the steps to the entrance, and inside a big-breasted frau in a grey uniform sat stony faced behind the reception desk. She had close-cropped hair and baggy eyes which stared accusingly at them as they presented their IDs again.

She looked briefly at their IDs, flicked a glance at all three then nodded them on, watching them all the way to the lift at the end of the corridor. They went up to the sixth floor and got out. Like the rest of the place, paint was flaking off the walls adding to the general seediness of the building. It looked like those working in it – drab and lifeless.

Hans Gruber stopped at the third door along the corridor and knocked softly five times. It was opened warily by a small stocky man, balding and wearing steel-rimmed glasses. His tense pasty face relaxed when he saw them and he ushered them in quickly, glancing along the corridor before he closed the door behind them and locked it. Once inside they shook hands. He was a new contact and introduced himself only as “K” and got to work at once while Hans Gruber looked on standing by the door.

On his desk was a map with various locations on it pin-pointed with white tapes on which were the names of Soviet units and weapon sites. One location particularly interested the two Intelligence Corps operatives. They’d noticed the site on an aerial photograph before they’d set out and been briefed to find out more. It was a newly constructed bunker of some sort and their C.O. wanted to know what was in it. “K” gave them their answer.

“It’s a T-47 rocket launcher,” he said, wiping his glasses. “We couldn’t get a closer look at it for the place was stiff with guards; but there’s a silo for a sizeable rocket built in there. It’s my hunch the Russians are setting up a string of those launching sites to match the Americans.”

“Nuclear?” asked Whiteoak.

“I’d say so,” “K” answered, looking intently across at him. He ran his finger along a line down the map. “I suspect there’ll be others built in time right down here where there’s a lot of building going on. We’ll try and confirm that, but what’s for sure is this one’s already in place.”

Whiteoak twisted the cap off a metal button on his coat. Inside was a micro camera with which he photographed the map on the table. Then he replaced the camera and cap. That done, “K” took the map from the table, folded it neatly into four, then sliced it with a letter-opener, before burning the map in a cast-iron stove by the wall. When he was satisfied, he raked the fire and closed the lid on it.

“Now, gentlemen,” he said, smiling for the first time, and nodding at Gruber, “how about some coffee? I managed to buy some today. It’s like gold here.”

. Gruber went to a sink in one corner and filled a battered aluminium kettle with water and placed it on the stove. Then he went to a cupboard and took out a coffee percolator and four mugs. Everything looked tacky, including the mugs one of which was cracked. But the coffee tasted good and as they drank they chatted a while before the two Brits made their way back to the frontier. It didn’t do to hang around too long for the Stasi had their informants everywhere and who knows what the woman at the desk might have done after they’d left her? She’d watched them like a hawk; and she watched them just as closely when they left the building.

Outside, Hans Gruber drove them back to the frontier and dropped them where he’d picked them up, and they entered the wood. No one was about and for a time everything seemed to be going to plan when suddenly a voice barked out on the track behind them, “Halt!” They swung round and standing with his dog on a lead was a frontier guard, aiming at them with his rifle.

“Halt!” he shouted again, but they ignored him and bolted into the dense brushwood at the side of the track The guard opened fire blindly but hit Whiteoak in the leg. He dropped and lay on the ground as the guard threshed around trying to find them. He’d released his dog and they could hear the brute crashing through the undergrowth, barking madly. If it found them they were done for.

By now Whiteoak had ligatured his leg and managed to struggle to his feet and Blake Hartley, always one for being prepared, pulled a water pistol from his pocket. His officer stared in surprise. Both of them had Massaretti pistols but daren’t use them on the dog which was closing in on them. A shot would have alerted the guard immediately where they were and there were certain to be others on patrol with him.

The guard-dog was a huge Alsatian and as it broke cover it lunged at Hartley snarling open-mouthed. Coolly, Hartley took aim with his water pistol and squeezed the trigger. A jet of lavatory bleach caught the brute full in the face, blinding it and sending it yelping away, rubbing its head on the ground.

“You get away, Hartley!” gasped Whiteoak, ripping the button from his coat and holding it out. “Take this and scarper while you can. I’ll hold them here.”

“No you won’t,” said Blake Hartley, and before he’d realised it, Second Lieutenant Peter Whiteoak found himself across Private Blake Hartley’s broad shoulders and being carried back to the border crossing not far away.

He could hear the frontier guard behind him tending to his dog and blowing his whistle furiously to attract the rest of the patrol; but with his dog out of action he lost their trail and the two operatives managed to cross the border to safety. In the British sector was a border post which they reached as the East German patrol arrived at the border. They couldn’t cross it, nor dare they fire across it at the two fugitives. They could only yell insults.

Once they’d reached the observation post, an ambulance was sent for and the wounded officer taken to hospital. His wound wasn’t serious and he soon recovered; and both he and Hartley were highly commended for the information they’d brought back. More than that, Blake was awarded the Military medal for his courage under fire, but later, when he’d left the army and joined the Police Force, he never said how he’d won that medal. Indeed, he couldn’t. He might have compromised “K” and the other contacts in the East.

By the time the Cold War was over thirty years later, the Communist Empire had collapsed, and Blake was the other side of middle age and coming up to retirement. It was an age away from that when he’d won his medal and a very different world, a world transformed by the 1960s. .

But he did gain some kudos from his medal. You see, he never really got on with his Superintendent in Keighworth, Arthur Donaldson, who envied Hartley, a wiser and more experienced officer. Donaldson was some years younger than Hartley, too young to do National Service, which might have sorted him out; for Donaldson was a self-trumpeting little twit, who got up Inspector Hartley’s nose. However, there were times when they’d both had to attend civic functions when medals had to be worn. Blake Hartley proudly sported two: his Military Medal and his National Service Medal. They always attracted attention and made Donaldson as envious as hell, for his breast was woefully bare.

John Waddington-Feather ©

(The Revd D.I. Blake Hartley is the central character in the Blake Hartley mysteries published by Feather Books at www.waddysweb.freeuk.com )


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