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Conrad Fulke O'Brien-ffrench. Artist and Spy.

The Spying Begins!



Cathleen Mann


Augustabad was about five days’ walk from the Baltic coast and possible escape to neutral Denmark and Sweden. It was housed in two villas, each in separate compounds – camp A and camp B. Conrad was placed in camp B. During his time in London he had made the acquaintance of Cathleen Mann, daughter of the famous painter, Harrinton Mann. During his 4 years as a prisoner of war, she wrote to him regularly. He conceived the idea of establishing a secret mode of communication with her, “To say things I did not wish the censor to know of.” He created a code over three stages, each stage containing the key for the next, the final step being invisible ink made with potassium iodide solution which he acquired from an orderly, ostensibly to treat his wounds. In an earlier letter on glossy paper he had mentioned an aunt, Mrs Washit, who lived in Inink Road, Bath. The game was set. As fate would have it, Cathleen had just secured a job in the War Office as secretary to the then dashing cavalry officer, Stewart Menzies. This was Conrad’s introduction to ‘M’, fresh in his new posting as assistant head of MI6. It seems likely to me that Conrad played some small part in Stewart Menzies’ eventual career in the service. At all events, he will have raised an eyebrow or two.

The Hanley Paige

Conrad gathered intelligence from Royal Flying Corp pilots and soldiers. He took their undelivered reports of troop movements and artillery emplacements or observations from their journey to Augustabad, compiled them into reports, and popped them in the post to Cathleen and Menzies – and thence to a disbelieving War Office. They were flabbergasted that someone could be so foolhardy as to undertake such a mission, and at first they refused to accept even the hottest reports. But one day the British flew their new top-secret Handley Page bomber to Air Command in France. An electrical storm over the Channel wrecked the instrument panel, rendering them blind. They decided to land the aircraft and ask directions. They circled a few times and found a suitable landing site. No sooner had they landed than a German patrol appeared and captured the plane and its crew of two. Wishing to capitalise on their good fortune, the German General Staff took the pilot to the place where they were building their own bomber designed to bomb London. They made the mistake of showing him their blueprints: he had a photographic memory. Soon he and Conrad were creating a report on the plane's most interesting aspects for the next letter to Cathleen.

Two weeks later, the plans were in the hands of the War Office. Conrad had caught their attention. In essence, he was M’s first agent. It had been suspected the pilot had been a spy. The press was full of it; he had a foreign name. The plans and Conrad's intelligence repudiated such suspicions. Soon London had an escape planned for the pilot and Conrad. He wrote for German money and maps and enquired about the possibility of using a boat to get out of the country. Cathleen sent five 100-Mark notes concealed in the false bottom of a biscuit tin. The guards were Landsturm reservists, whom they had been plying with titbits from food parcels – coffee, tinned meat, butter, etc. When Fritz was offered a hundred Mark note – a veritable fortune to him – the deal was made. It was arranged that at a given signal, Fritz would turn a blind eye and allow them to escape. Fritz had also bought a couple of bicycles for them, which he had hidden in the woods. Everything was set. They both waited impatiently for word from the War Office.

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