Having been lent a book about Danish resistance in the Second World War, I trawled through my shelves to get at the bigger picture. The book I was lent is a new title by Elizabeth Buchan called I can’t begin to tell you, a novel about Kay Eberstern, an English woman married to a Dane and happily living on a beautiful estate near Copenhagen who gets caught up with conflicted loyalties two years after the Second World War brought the Germans.
Historically, what happened in Denmark is even more extraordinary than the rest of Europe. Germany simply annexed the country with some co-operation from the government and a huge number of the population. Many of the larger landowners having signed The Declaration of Goodwill in which they had effectively signed over the land to the Germans for the duration. The fighting in 1940 lasted for ten minutes, the Danish Government refused to give the order for the army to resist. The Germans landed in Jutland and quickly made their way south, while at the same time invading by sea at Copenhagen, as result of the swift capitulation the occupation began as a relatively benign affair and the population were slow to realise the implications. As well as the occupiers, there were the usual unpleasant crew of collaborators and Gestapoman (German police) who made life difficult for the resident population.
The Danish King, Christian X remained in Copenhagen and insisted on making his way about the capital unaccompanied by guards as often as possible. Ultimately he became a symbol for the resistance, and it is known that he financed the escape of many of the Danish Jews who were transferred to Sweden when in 1943 the Germans demanded that they be sent to the East. He wrote in his diary:
When you look at the inhumane treatment of Jews, not only in Germany but occupied countries as well, you start worrying that such a demand might also be put on us, but we must clearly refuse such this due to their protection under the Danish constitution. I stated that I could not meet such a demand towards Danish citizens. If such a demand is made, we would best meet it by all wearing the Star of David.
In fact, Germany demanded a huge effort on the part of the farmers, many of whom were tenants and quantities of Danish farm produce was sent to Germany to feed the armies. All pigs were supposed to go to Germany, most of the dairy produce and some grain, the accumulation of these demands was slow but after about two years the Danish people were feeling the effects of the shortages. At first Britain was so busy in other fields that no assistance or encouragement was given to anyone in Denmark who might have objected, but by 1942 Special Operations had started to drop supplies and agents…which is where this novel begins.
In fact, although the derring-do is interesting, a more gripping aspect of the novel is the description of the lives of the women on the Home Front, the decoders and the listeners. So while the action takes place in Denmark, it is the Marys and Rubys in London, the ones listening for the wireless transmissions, and the ones decoding the messages that were really intriguing. The barriers of secrecy being so strict that the line “if I tell you this, I will have to shoot you” was more of a reality than one cares to think about too closely. The team that inculcated the agents with their codes and the team that received the encrypted messages and the ones that decoded them were strictly quarantined and everyone had signed away their secrets for life.
At the beginning of the SOE training and actions, the agents were given a code based on poems, generally doggerel that was made for the purpose or obscure poems such as the one made famous in Carve Her Name with Pride. The idea being that you chose five words from the poem, hopefully known only to you and your handler and giving them the relevant coordinates you passed important messages in and out. This system was far from foolproof, as this novel demonstrates and later on a more sophisticated system was devised. Meanwhile…the Germans were using the Enigma Machine.
We read such a lot about the French Resistance and about agents in France and Belgium, that it is refreshing to read about Denmark. There is a very good film Flame et Citron and several other very good books. I would hope that there will be more in future.
But if it is really the cryptography and the science of it, the foundation of the SOE and such like, the book to read is really the masterly spy volume by Leo Marks called Between Silk and Cyanide. This is the story written by an insider and gives a unique picture of the extraordinary outfit that was the Special Operations Executive. There have been many books and films, both fiction and non-fiction about the agents and their handlers in World War Two, but none such as this, a book which celebrates individual courage without losing sight of the tremendous cost and the utter horror and brutality of war.
I had the privilege of meeting the late Leo Marks once at the funeral of another person who was intimately involved in SOE. I will never forget either of them.