Published in 2018 by The Observatory Press.
All rights reserved.
The right of Amal Thea and Tim Dawson be identified as the authors has been asserted in accordance with The Copyright Designs And Patents Act (1988).
Cover design and origination: Charles Gris
To find our more about Dame Katherine Jane Trefusis-Forbes, Professor George Forbes and their remarkable home in Pitlochry, Scotland see: www.observatorypitlochry.com
he Morris Eight made heavy weather of the Devil’s Punch Bowl that day. July 1936 was being spoken of as the wettest summer on record and the seemingly endless rain made the road treacherous. As the gradient rose, the engine strained and sounded worryingly like it might overheat. To make matters worse, the noise from Jane TrefusisForbes’ backseat had grown frenetic. Her favourite Dandie Dinmonts, Jupiter, Callisto and Europa were uncharacteristically ill-tempered, snapping at each other and exchanging angry growls. The summer’s rain felt like it was soaking into her soul as she reflected on that morning’s frustrations. She was an independent woman, a year older than the century, who was running a successful business. When would life stop feeling like a struggle, she wondered? Those swirling thoughts distracted her as she approached the usually deserted little stone bridge just before Bell Meades Kennel School. As a result, she was late spotting the group of cyclists who had dismounted and leant their bicycles in such a way that they nearly blocked the road. She could see the texture of their shorts and the manufacturers’ crests on their bikes by the time she hit her brakes. The little car aquaplaned as its wheels locked and swerved violently across the narrow road. The terrified scream of one of the cyclists pierced the air as the Morris screeched to a halt inches from his leg. Jane breathed out, just as the dogs, who had been thrown from the back seat, started to yelp. For a moment, fear, panic and the instinct to curl up was overwhelming. 3
As that receded, though, she opened the car door and stepped out. She loved her long, pleated skirt and its matching coat, but they were not designed for driving. She had removed the coat and hitched up the skirt so that she could operate the pedals. Getting out in a fluster, she felt exposed. “I’m terribly sorry – are you alright”, she said to the young man. He too was regaining his composure. Running his hands through his golden hair, he reassured the driver that he was unhurt. In her peripheral vision, Jane was conscious of the other cyclists, probably all in their early 20s, busily packing away some kind of equipment. So fast was her heart beating, however, that focusing on much beyond the young man in front of her was more than she could manage. “We are to blame” he said. “We stopped to see if the stream would be worthwhile for fishing and should have had more care for cars coming around the corner, I suppose. The roads here seem so quiet it is easy to assume that there are no motor vehicles”. His English was perfect, but there was an accent. Dutch, Scandinavian, German – Jane could not quite pin it down. She did realise, however, that the athletic young man and his friends were soaked to the skin. Rain water visibly ran down his well-toned legs and she could see that his neat little cycling shoes were squelching wet. “Look, my place is just around the next corner, why don’t you cycle behind my car and I will give you a warm drink and you can dry off”, she said. The cyclist was polite, but firm. They had somewhere to
go and the rain had made them late already. His friends were now packed up and swinging their legs over their crossbars and he did the same. “No one harmed, no bad feelings”, he shouted with a wave, as he started to pedal. The mangled idiom stuck in Jane’s mind, as she too returned to her vehicle and completed the last half mile to Bell Meades. She was drained. The kennel school was really a farm house and a range of outbuildings that Jane had converted to accommodate up to a dozen students. She put her head around the door to see her trainees practicing their grooming, then she slunk off to the farmhouse kitchen. After feeding Jupiter, Callisto and Europa, she took the seat closest to the Aga and leafed through her mail. Along with the usual bills for pet food and the Kennel Club magazine, were two unexpected missives. The first came from a Mr Calvin Black Esq. By way of introduction, he explained that he sought training advice for a pack of Alsatians. Jane’s reputation with dogs had reached him via a Pathé news short featuring Bell Meades some months earlier. The second note was from an old chum, Hannah Samuel, who said that she was working in the London office of the Central British Fund For German Jewry. Her friend was seeking to place a German teenager who had left her home city to escape growing hostility to Jews. The girl in question hoped to work with dogs in the future. A sweet tea worked it magic and the Aga lifted her chill, so Jane dashed off replies. Of course she could advise on Alsatian training and the refugee would be most welcome. 5
By the end of the week, Esther Ebert from Chemnitz had joined them at Bell Meades. After her first morning she was kitted out in dungarees and a white shirt and tie, like the rest of the girls learning their trade. Only her accent distinguished her. Jane had also arranged to visit Mr Black, who gave his address as a farm outside Godalming. On the half-hour drive, she was pleased to note that the Morris seemed to have regained the verve that it lacked climbing the Punch Bowl. She arrived at her correspondent’s residence to find a red-brick Georgian farmhouse surrounded by working buildings. Mr Black was a fastidiously turned out fifty-year-old, who wore a checked suit, hand-made brogues and a knitted tie. He had 40 Alsatians in his kennels that he said he wanted to train for some kind of guard work. It was not really Jane’s field, but she made what suggestions she could, and explained what additional help Bell Meades might provide should it be required. Touring the outhouses to see the dogs she was directed past one whose door was open and was full of bicycles that looked familiar. Mr Black seemed put out that the door was unsecured, but explained that the bicycles belonged young friends of his who had been exploring the area ‘awheel’. They have all gone to France now, he explained, sounding flustered. “Oh dear, I fear that I very nearly crashed into them the other day”, Jane said, her face reddening. Mr Black, however, stated talking with increased animation about issues with a patent worming powder.
They parted cordially with vague talk of a future working relationship. Jane’s next stop was a few miles to the north in Farnborough. She had arranged to meet a dog breeder who was interested in pairing some of their animals. They met in a cafe that was wholly unexceptional, save that in the cafe’s window seat sat the young cyclist into whom she had nearly crashed some days earlier. His attention was focussed on whatever lay beyond the window and he appeared not to notice Jane as she entered. The question of what this touring cyclist might have been doing in the cafe, without his bicycle, played on Jane’s mind. As she was leaving, he looked up at her. For a second his face froze in apparent alarm before he resolutely refocused his concentration on the cup of tea before him. Reaching the pavement Jane experienced a moment of clarity. The cafe was opposite the Royal Airforce Establishment. What they did there was considered ‘hush hush’. Giving the RAF a technical edge over potential enemies was generally understood to be its business. Jane’s dull unease that the visiting cyclists’ interests might not be quite what they seemed was coming into focus. She spent the journey home first joining the dots and then telling herself that she must be mad. Could the young men on the bicycles really be involved in some kind of spying? And if they were, was Mr Black involved in their work or was he an unwitting dupe? As she turned back into Bell Meades, she had persuaded herself that she was being ridiculous. At this rate she 7
would be suspecting her own shadow of collusion with enemy forces. She had always found it hard to resist acting on an instinct, but she had the better of her impulses by the time she was back in the kitchen. That day’s mail brought a pleasant surprise too, but not for Jane herself. A big package had arrived for Esther from her parents. The relief on the newcomer’s face was palpable and a little later that day she sought out Jane to show her a magazine cutting that had been included from the German dog lover’s title Hunde Heute. Esther explained that the article set out new research into the way that limited gene pools posed a risk to pedigree dogs. Jane turned the piece of paper over in her hand as she considered this possibility and was shocked to see on its reverse a familiar face grinning back at her. He was surrounded by a familiar pack of Alsatians, but the caption called him ‘Herr Schwarz’, not Mr Black, as he had introduced himself only a few hours earlier. The accompanying article had been trimmed off, but it was enough for Jane. Surely this confirmed the uneasy feeling that she had after the cyclists peddled off? With a cold sweat at her temples, she walked into the hall, picked up the phone and asked for the Whitehall switchboard. “I wish to speak with David Petrie, please. Tell him that I am the niece of Professor George Forbes”. There was a long pause and some impression of whirring and clicking in the earpiece before a familiar Scottish voice greeted her and asked after her uncle. Jane had met Petrie only once a decade earlier when he
and she had happened to be in Pitlochry visiting her uncle George at the same time. Then Petrie worked in the Indian Police, although her uncle later told her that his role was in intelligence. Her uncle’s inventions – possibly his rangefinder – had somehow come to the attention of the intelligence services and the two men had struck up a friendship. Jane knew that more recently Petrie had taken a senior role in the domestic security service. She brought the small talk to an abrupt conclusion and outlined her fears – that German spies were operating undercover in Surrey. They were roaming the country at will by bicycle as well as building up a detachment of ferocious dogs. At first Petrie tried to talk down her worries – reminding Jane of her impulsive teenage campaign to be sent to serve in France during the Great War. She persisted, however, and eventually he agreed to come and take a look himself. He was good to his word. The following morning he arrived in an army staff car with a driver and a uniformed army sergeant who carried a well-used Lee Enfield rifle. The men tried to insist that Jane give them the address of Mr Black’s farmhouse so that they could visit without her. They were still arguing this point when she climbed in their camouflage-green car and challenged Petrie to remove her himself. He relented and the four of them set off. The farmhouse at which they arrived, however, was emptier than the one that Jane had visited the previous day. The dogs, bicycles and Mr Black were nowhere to be seen. Petrie’s sergeant tried the windows around the back, 9
found one that he could climb through. Ten minutes later, the soldier reappeared at the back door to report that the house was both empty and deserted. If Petrie was angry at what appeared to be a wild goose chase, he did not show it. “You obviously scared them off Jane”, he consoled. “His Majesty is lucky to have such a vigilant and observant subject as yourself. What chance do the Hun have against you, eh?” Still the drive back to Bell Meades felt somewhere between anti-climactic and embarrassing. Jane offered them tea and cakes, but the intelligence men apparently had pressing business back in town. § It wasn’t the last time that Jane’s suspicions were roused as the wet summer turned into a dismal Autumn, but she kept her worries to herself. Esther flourished as a kennel maid and her English improved dramatically. She continued to receive cuttings from her parents which she and Jane combed their for further sightings of Herr Schwartz. It was in vain. He had apparently disappeared without trace, at least from the circle of German dog enthusiasts. The following Spring, however, a brown ‘OHMS’ envelope arrived for Jane containing a note from Petrie. In it, he thanked her again for her help and explained that he had taken what she told him very seriously indeed. Deploying an officer in Germany, he had mounted a monitoring operation on the Hitler Youth Cycling Club. 10
Their magazine, it transpired, had proved a particularly fertile mine of information. It was from this that Petrie had included a modest cutting of his own. Esther translated the passage, which encouraged Nazi-sympathising cyclists to undertaking tours of southern and eastern England where they might: “make careful notes of road sizes, bridge widths, and the locations of railway stations. “Get into your head all landmarks like steeples and towers and all fords and bridges and acquaint yourself with them in such a way that you will be able to recognise them by night,” the injunction continued. Petrie wrote that as a result of this intelligence nearly a dozen German cycling parties had been either placed under surveillance, misdirected or denied entrance to Britain. His own conclusion was both bleak, and slightly thrilling. “Jane – I fear that we may have more very dark times ahead. I believe that you may have a vital role to play ensuring that our freedoms are preserved. The time to act is upon us.” He concluded with his direct phone number with a request that she journey to London for an urgent conversation about the campaign to come.
About this story This manuscript was among a jumble of Jane TrefusisForbes’ papers that I inherited with The Observatory, bundled with fragments of diaries and letters. The author’s identity is unknown – Amal Thea is probably an alias based, like the names of Jane’s dogs, on Jupiter’s moons. Trefuis-Forbes had many literary friends who holidayed with her in Pitlochry. Perhaps this story is the result of a parlour game? Its provenance might be uncertain, but many of the facts are easily verified. Trefusis-Forbes did run the Bell Meades school for kennel girls, was famous for her Dandie Dinmonts and featured in several Pathé news films. She is known to have petitioned to be given a role during the First World War and would go on to serve with distinction during the second. At the time these episodes are set, David Petrie had left the Indian Imperial Police and was working for MI5. He would be appointed its director in 1941. Forbes undoubtedly had connections with the military on whose behalf he devised various pieces of technology – but there is no evidence of his acquaintance with Petrie. I can find no sign of a Mr Black/Herr Schwartz. If he did exist and gathered intelligence on behalf of the Germans, it would not be surprising. There was a panic about German ‘spyclists’ in the years before World War Two. The quote from the Nazi cycling magazine is accurate and in the year before the outbreak of hostilities, the movements of German cyclists came under close scrutiny. Was it Trefusis-Forbes who warned first of spyclists? Perhaps that will have to remain a matter of conjecture? Tim Dawson, Pitlochry, November 2018 12
An intriguing tale of Dame Katherine Jane Trefuis-Forbes from before the second world war. A little-known aspect of military intelligence ga...
Published on Nov 6, 2018
An intriguing tale of Dame Katherine Jane Trefuis-Forbes from before the second world war. A little-known aspect of military intelligence ga...