"My favorite mission during the War," George Smiley said comfortably, "was helping to establish a prisoner of war camp in Germany as a clearing house for escaped prisoners, underground operatives, defectors, and sabotage."
Guillam's eyes popped. "A prisoner of war camp?"
"Oh, yes. It was primarily Americans, but there were others. At that time the Americans had little access that deep into Germany, so we served as the head of operations for the group, and I was called in at the beginning because of my undercover work in Germany.
"It was entirely the idea of the ranking officer, an American Air Force colonel called Hogan. He was shot down early in the war and spent the next months in various prisoner of war camps biting his nails with frustration. Then he was transferred to the Stalag Luft called Stalag 13, and there he found a constellation of circumstances which birthed his idea. If any one of those circumstances had been different, it would never have worked, but they weren't different, and it did work for three and a half years.
"What he found was a number of men of different nations with specialized skills and a great deal of patriotism and resolve, an active underground, a concentrated location for German movements, and several of the stupidest officers and soldiers in the German army. The prisoners had already made progress in digging an escape tunnel inside one of the barracks, to come out in the woods outside the camp. They were afraid he would dissuade them, as many ranking officers in the camps did, whether out of a misguided sense of nobility or fear for the well-being of their soldiers should they be caught, but he only provided greater levelheadedness and guidance. He asked, How could they make it across Germany if they did get out, especially if several hundred men were to escape at once? His plan was to contact the underground in the area if at all possible and ask them for help. Instead they asked him for help. When the tunnel was completed, he and another prisoner were doing reconnaissance and met an underground member fleeing for his life. They sheltered him in the tunnel until the search had died down and then assisted him in escaping Germany by stealing a German uniform.
"This was what made Hogan realize that he had an ideal situation for work of that sort, and this was the first we heard about it, when the man from the German underground made it to safety and passed on Hogan's offer and request for supplies. It staggered London, this idea of his. It was an audacious idea, something only an American could dream up.
"In those days we were willing to try anything. The Circus communicated with the American Cousins, and they agreed to the project, if we could manage it. The first I heard of it was when one of my contacts got hold of me in Germany and asked me to make the first contact with Hogan. I spent much of the war in Germany, you know. My advantages for the project, other than that I was in place, so to speak, were that I am an expert in German and, of course, that only the most astute person would look at me and think I am a spy." He smiled complacently and folded his short hands over his round stomach, settling to his tale.
"The journey across Germany was harrowing at times, though aided by underground contacts. Near Stalag 13 I was given a low-ranking Gestapo uniform, and a car with a driver, gathered at great cost by the local underground, and I went into the stalag as an inspector of prisons and camps."
Peter Guillam passed his hand over his forehead. George smiled at him.
"I made a very good Gestapo inspector," he said. "My Anglo-Saxon heritage has lent me a look that is compatible with the Germanic, and I look like nothing so much as a minor, unimportant official sent on dull errands by superiors. As a Gestapo I adopted a little arrogance, but as a minor official I tried to appear negligible and forgettable as well. I had complete paperwork authorizing the inspection, and the colonel in charge of the camp welcomed me with an odd combination of obsequiousness and self-defensive pugnaciousness.
"Colonel Wilhelm Klink was one of the strangest men I have ever met. Tall, fine-looking, bald, hook-nosed, obsessed with himself and his monocle, he was a prideful coward in a Luftwaffe uniform who was easily manipulable by anyone who understood his tastes, his sense of pride, and the depth of his stupidity. It had not taken Colonel Hogan long to recognize this.
"Klink literally fell over himself to welcome me and assure me of his full cooperation, because I was Gestapo of some authority. He also hated me and my presence, because I was Gestapo. He hated anyone who could disrupt his authority, but he became a doormat for them as well. Hogan used that to his own advantage on multiple occasions. I realized that my job could be easier than I imagined, and I assured Klink that I was on his side, that these inspections were as tiresome for me as for him. I told him they were part of a minor power struggle between one Gestapo officer and the Luftwaffe. I told him my brother was with the Luftwaffe, fighting bravely on the Russian front, so I was sympathetic to the brave and hard-working Luftwaffe and knew my superior was talking through his hat. I told him a man of his experience could not fail to run a tight ship and I was only here as a matter of form. He loved me after that. I was his dearest friend. He also had no reason to repeat anything I said or mention my visit to anyone.
"He gave me a tour of his stalag, which gave me an opportunity Hogan had probably not had to examine the facilities and resources available to him. I interviewed a few soldiers, including one sergeant who was to be a great advantage to Hogan because of his stupidity and his appetite. Finally I requested to interview the ranking prisoner, alone, I said, so that his fear of his captor should not influence his responses to my questions, but only because those were my orders, and wouldn't Colonel Klink set that large sergeant on guard some little distance away in case the prisoner attempted to assault one of the superior race? Klink gave me everything I wanted.
"I met with Hogan in the open area between the barracks, because I was afraid of listening devices in the buildings. We walked up and down, and I maintained a stern and superior demeanor, taking care to speak in slightly accented English. He had no reason to know who I was, until I spoke the words he had dictated in his message to us: 'The porridge is too hot.' Prisoners of war always have food on their mind.
"He did not expect me. He knew little of espionage in those days and expected a British agent to be a man like himself, in the prime of life, strong, quick, handsome. Perhaps he was inclined to be contemptuous of me at first. I am designed that way, though I was in those days younger and less stout. But Hogan was a man of rapid perception and soon recognized that I was a professional and would not give him away through carelessness.
"I have never lost my admiration and respect for Robert Hogan. He was a pilot, not an intelligence officer, but perhaps the Cousins' intelligence agency would have been improved if he had joined it after the War. He was a natural mastermind, concealed behind a typically American hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie. I never met an officer who faced the Nazis with more perfect cheek and got away with it. If we had played chess, I might have won, but he might have made me believe he had. Or else he would have used his loss to achieve some unrelated victory for himself.
"We spoke quickly together. He was naturally inclined to believe in American superiority, but he did not disdain my intel nor my ideas. I gave him more information about the stalag, gave him his first contact information with the local underground, laid out what I saw of the possibilities held out by the camp authorities, gave him call signs for contacting London, and told him as much as I could about the countryside, the infrastructure, and German installations nearby. He fed me ideas for what he and his men could do, everything from sabotage missions to a network of tunnels for hiding escaped prisoners. We agreed that he would follow London's orders but would be largely autonomous.
"Then, as I had told Colonel Klink I would, I went into Colonel Hogan's barrack with him, ostensibly to investigate the conditions but actually to meet the peculiarly international mix of soldiers Hogan had decided would be his particular team. They were the ones who had been working together to dig the tunnel, an American named Kinchloe (a black man but treated with perfect equality by the other prisoners) who was an electronics expert, an Englishman named Newkirk, and a Frenchman named LeBeau. He added a demolitions expert named Carter to the team later. All the prisoners in the stalag helped at one time or another in the work Hogan started, but these four, with Hogan, were the brains and most of the hard work behind the operations they accomplished. None of the men were told that I was a friendly agent rather than Gestapo, because my own operations in Germany were too valuable to compromise, and they viewed me with no friendly eye, albeit a contemptuous one. Hogan already had a strong command over them, however, the British and French as well as the Americans, and I could see in their interactions much promise for the future.
"I left that evening after a sickeningly rousing dinner with Colonel Klink, who was prepared to make me his blood brother when I told him how impressed I was with his camp. 'I understand you've never had any escapes in your time here,' I said. Well, he had only been there three months, scarcely more than Hogan himself.
"He seemed to seize on this with delight, and I told him, 'I will venture to predict that you never will. The regimentality and efficiency with which this camp is run preclude it entirely. I shall say so in my report. Only you must promise me not to mention anything I have said to you to my superiors, or I will be sent to the Russian front.'
"He became nauseating, and I escaped as soon as I could. But my prediction was true: Stalag 13 never did have an escape, because its prisoners were too busy helping others to escape. They helped Lumley once, when one of his German operations went awry.
"I did not see them again during the War, because my assignments became too important to break cover, even with allies, but I was able to help them set up communications with London and get them radio equipment, explosives, and German uniforms through the underground. In a remarkably short amount of time they had quite the network set up and were doing extraordinary work. They fostered the blindness and stupidity of the camp commandant, and he never once had an escape during the whole war. I understand Hogan faecetiously recommended him for a Bronze Star for his many services to the Allied effort, but Klink was never able to find out the real role he had played, because he died at the end of the War, in the last battle for control of the stalag. Much of the camp was destroyed, and Hogan used the opportunity to blow up their tunnels and equipment. The British corporal Newkirk died in the battle as well.
"I learned much of this when I helped debrief Hogan and his men. The men sang his praises, and he received nearly every medal the Americans, British, and French could give him."
"And why have you come all the way to Washington to tell it to me, George?" Guillam asked.
Smiley looked at him with mild eyes made huge by his thick spectacles. "Because you are going with me to his funeral, Peter."