The Best of Our Spies

By: Alex Gerlis


Northern France

May 1940

The first time they saw German troops was around eight hours after they had left Amiens.

Fear had swept through the twenty of them, mostly strangers who had silently come together by happening to be on the same road at the same time and moving in the same direction. ‘Don’t head north,’ they had been warned in Amiens. ‘You’re walking into a battle.’

Some of the original group had heeded that advice and stayed in the town. A dozen of them had carried on. They were refugees now, so they kept moving. It had quickly become a habit, they couldn’t stop themselves.

A tall, stooped man called Marcel had assumed the role of leader and guide. He was a dentist, from Chartres, he told them. The rest of the group nodded and were happy to follow him.

Marcel decided that the main road would be too dangerous, so they dropped down to follow the path of the Somme, passing through the small villages that hugged the river as it twisted through Picardy. The villages were unnaturally silent, apart from the angry barking of dogs taking turns to escort them through their territory. Anxious villagers peered from behind partially drawn curtains or half-closed shutters.

Occasionally, a child would venture out to stare at them, but would quickly be called home by an urgent shout. Some villagers would come out and offer them water and a little food, but were relieved to see them move on. Refugees meant war and no one wanted the war to linger in their village. In a couple of the places, one or two more refugees joined them. No one asked to join, no one was refused. They just tagged along, swelling their numbers.

On the outskirts of the village of Ailly-sur-Somme a middle-aged couple came out from their cottage and offered the group water and fruit. They sat on the grass verge while the couple appeared to be arguing quietly in their doorway. And that is when they called her out.

‘Madame, please can we have a word with you?’

She was sitting nearest to the house, but was not sure that they meant her. She looked around in case they were addressing someone else.

‘Please, could we speak with you?’ the man asked again.

She walked slowly over to the doorway. Maybe they had taken pity on her and were going to offer a meal. Or a bed. She smiled at the couple. Behind them, in the gloom of the hallway, she could make out a pair of piercing eyes.

‘Madame. You seem to be a very decent lady. Please help us.’ The man sounded desperate. ‘A lady passed through the village last week.’

There was a pause.

‘From Paris,’ his wife added.

‘Yes, she was from Paris. She said that she had to find somewhere in the area to hide and she asked us to look after her daughter. She promised she would be back for her in a day or two. She said she would pay us then. She promised to be generous. But that was a week ago. We cannot look after the girl any longer. The Germans could arrive any day now. You must take her!’

She looked around. The group were getting up now, preparing to move on.

‘Why me?’ she asked.

‘Because you look decent and maybe if you are from a city you’ll understand her ways. Are you from a city?’

She nodded, which they took as some kind of assent. The woman ushered the girl from inside the cottage. She looked no more than six years old, with dark eyes and long curly hair. She was dressed in a well-made blue coat and her shoes were smart and polished. A pale brown leather satchel hung across her shoulders.

‘Her name is Sylvie,’ the man said. His wife took Sylvie’s hand and placed it in the woman’s.

‘But what about when her mother returns?’

The wife was already retreating into the dark interior of the cottage.

‘Are you coming?’ It was Marcel, calling out to her as he started to lead the group off. His voice sounded almost jolly as if they were on a weekend ramble.

The man leaned towards her, speaking directly into her ear so that the little girl could not hear. ‘She won’t be back,’ he said. He glanced round at the girl and lowered his voice. ‘They’re Jews. You must take her.’

With that, he quickly followed his wife into the cottage and slammed the door behind them.

She hesitated on the doorstep, still holding the little girl’s hand. She could hear the door being bolted. She knocked on the door two or three times, but there was no response.

She thought of trying to go round the rear of the cottage, but she was losing sight of her group now. Sylvie was still holding her hand, glancing up at her anxiously. She knelt down to speak to the little girl.

‘Are you all right?’ She tried to sound reassuring. Sylvie nodded.

‘Do you want to come with me?’

The little girl nodded again and muttered ‘Yes.’

This is the last thing I need. She thought of leaving her there, on the doorstep. They’ll have to take her back in. She paused. I need to decide quickly. Maybe as far as the town, there’ll be somewhere she can go there.

By the time they had walked down the path and started to follow the group, the shutters in the cottage had been closed.

It was as they left the next village that they came across the Germans. They emerged from behind the trees one by one, with their grey uniforms, black boots and oddly shaped helmets, not saying a word. Slowly, they circled the group, which had come to a halt, too frightened to move. The German soldiers moved into position like pieces on a chessboard. They waved their machine guns to herd the group into the middle of the road.

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