In what had once been the salon of Grendon Hall, a nineteenth-century stately home in the village of Grendon Underwood, some two dozen young women sat in front of two-way radio sets with headphones clamped to their ears. One of them glanced at a schedule pinned above her desk, tuned her set to a particular wavelength and waited, pen at the ready. At exactly 21.35, a series of bleeps transmitted a recognition signal in Morse code, followed by a message. The young woman diligently transcribed the dots and dashes into five-letter groups, until she heard the recognized signal for message ends. She returned with message received and broke the connection with a sense of relief. She knew the sender only by the code name ‘Fisher’, but she had been picking up his transmissions for several weeks and had come to recognize his ‘fist’, the characteristic style of transmission that was unique to each operator.
She looked at what she had written. The transmission had been short and clear with no need to ask for a repeat. It had been forcefully impressed on her that every extra second spent on air exposed the agent at the other end to the risk of being located by one of the German detector vans, with grim results.
The five-letter words meant nothing to her. She tore the sheet on which they were written off her message pad and handed it to a colleague, who carried it up to the decoding department on the floor above.
Twenty minutes later, the commanding officer of Station 35a, as Grendon was known to the Special Operations Executive, put through a call via a scrambler phone to an office in Baker Street, London.
‘We’ve just received a message from Fisher. It reads, Urgent exfiltration required.’
‘Who do they want picked up?’
‘It doesn’t say, but I think we can presume whoever it is is in a pretty desperate situation.’
That night a Lysander aircraft took off from an airfield in South East England. Arriving over the target area in occupied France, the pilot picked out the expected pattern of fires laid out on the ground below, two in a line and the third at right angles, and flashed a recognition code. When someone on the ground flashed the agreed code in return, he circled, losing height, and brought the plane in to land on a strip of open ground marked out by torches. The plane bumped over the uneven surface, came to a stop and then swung round to taxi back to the point where it had landed, turning again with the nose into the wind ready for a quick take off. Even before it had come to a standstill a little group of men emerged from the surrounding trees and ran towards it, carrying a stretcher. The pilot opened the cover of the rear cockpit and the men manhandled the stretcher into the plane.
The pilot looked down at the upturned face of one of the men. ‘Who is it?’
‘It’s Max. She’s in a bad way. The bastards have tortured her.’