My father fought in WWII, and the story I’m about to share with you is so unusual that you might choose not to believe it.
When I was a little boy, my dad told me many stories about his experiences during the war, and I wish I had listened more carefully, or had some way of recording what he related, because it was only many decades later that I realized just how incredibly valuable (not to mention cryptic) the things were that he shared with me.
My father was assigned to service on the front in North Africa, in Egypt and neighbouring territories, where he and my grandfather fought alongside each other against invading Nazi and Italian divisions.
A BRUSH WITH THE GHOST PATROL
One of his most astonishing anecdotes was a mention of something that he referred to as the “Ghost Patrol”. His first encounter with the Ghost Patrol happened in Cairo, and here’s the story:
On one sweltering hot night under brightly glittering stars that he described as “the most beautiful jewels in the sky that I’ve ever seen”, he was in the cellar of a café somewhere in Cairo. It was in the middle of a night market, and the city was crowded with soldiers and civilians from all corners of the world, a bustling melting pot of noise, language, intrigue, and commerce, with all the textures and fragrances you’d expect to find in an Agatha Christie novel.
Lanterns flickered, multi-hued tents and drapes sagged in the still air, and the sweet, intoxicating aroma of cinnamon and incense mingled with the smells of diesel and camel dung and unwashed human beings. Across the city, drums and tambourines played, people sang, and the tide of humanity held fast against the vast, silent sands of the desert that lay beyond.
My father, and a group of about twenty other Allied soldiers, were downstairs at this particular café, all seated at a long table where there was a fair bit of drinking and gambling going on. The crowd was a mix: mostly servicemen, with five or six ladies present (I use the term “ladies” respectfully, because I inferred from my father’s smile that apart from two British nurses who were actual girlfriends of servicemen, the others weren’t exactly there as waitresses, but were quite happy to make some very good money nevertheless). There was much merriment, a great deal of noise, and the camaraderie provided a respite from the confusion and fear which is pervasive in wartime.
(Just a few days previously, my father and his platoon had been the target of a sustained attack by a German Stuka divebomber, the almost-invisible terror of the skies that shrieked like a demented banshee when it came hurtling down out of the furnace of the sun, spraying thousands of bullets that shredded anything beneath it. He was lucky to have survived; several of his men died in the hail of fire, and others were badly injured.)
The café cellar they were seated in had only one door, at the staircase, and it was locked and bolted, to prevent unwanted intrusion from pesky officers or military police.
And then, in the middle of all the festivities –
The lights went out.
The cellar was plunged into utter darkness, a blackness so complete that it was like being struck blind.
My father told me that he and his men had been briefed at some point about the “Ghost Patrol” and had been warned that if any such thing should ever happen, that the overriding warning was to sit absolutely still.
“Do not move an inch, do not speak, do not do anything at all, or you will die”, is what they had been told, and in that instant of silence and darkness, he froze.
A few seconds later, he felt something very softly pass over his foot, under the table, like the brush of a soft hand. And then, a few seconds after that, he heard the man next to him cough once, and all was silent once again.
Within thirty seconds or so, the lights came back on, and everyone looked around in bewilderment, and then in horror – because the man sitting next to my father was dead. His throat had been cut from ear to ear, and a deep stab had been inflicted down into his thorax behind the collarbone. Blood was welling profusely from his body, dripping onto the sandy floor, congealing as it did.
Nobody (it seemed!) had moved. Everyone was still seated, and the nurses and other female companions were still standing around a makeshift bar table off to the side.
When the military police arrived, it quickly became apparent that the man sitting next to my father was not - in fact - the jovial and good-natured British infantryman that everyone had assumed he was. It turned out that he was a Nazi agent, and when the body was searched, a handkerchief was found with a strip of paper embroidered into the seam, upon which was written coordinates and instructions in German.
The giveaway had been the man’s boots – or rather, the way they were laced. British boots were customarily laced in a “ladder” fashion (laces running across horizontally), while German military boots were laced in a crisscross fashion.
And, it seemed, somebody in that cellar had switched off the lights, rapidly gotten under the table, identified the infiltrator by touch, and then killed him, before resuming their position, unidentified – all in less than one minute.
Nobody knew who it was, and nobody ever would.
And that was my father’s first encounter with the Ghost Patrol.
PRISONER OF WAR
His second encounter would come a year and a half later.
Some time after the Cairo incident, my father’s platoon was ambushed in the desert by a German advance patrol, and he and his men were taken prisoner by the Nazis. They were handed over to an Italian prison detail, and he was shipped across the Mediterranean to a POW camp in Italy.
He spent many months there as a prisoner of war, starved, beaten, put to forced labour, and seeing many of his friends die around him. Desperate to escape, he and a handful of others eventually decided to plan a breakout. There were just a few little obstacles, though: barbed wire, anti-personnel mines, vicious guards who patrolled around the clock and along the entire perimeter, and an automatic death sentence for anyone who tried to escape.
Nevertheless, they decided to ready themselves, and to look for any opportunity that came along.
A week later, while he was breaking rocks near a fence behind the barracks, my father saw a middle-aged woman, a local farm worker from what he could see, walking along a path near to the perimeter. She looked at him, beckoned for him to come closer, and approached the fence. As he got to the fence (which was in itself an offense punishable by severe beating if he was spotted by the guards), the woman passed him a piece of paper and said, in perfect English: “There will only be one opportunity. Take it, and we’ll see that you’re safe.”
The note she handed him contained a date, time, and an arrow pointing to a corner of the fence on the North side of the concentration camp. My father studied it carefully, and then promptly ate it.
And so, on a fateful moonless night a few days later, my father and a close friend escaped, at that exact spot, where the fence had been expertly and invisibly cut, the guards mysteriously delayed, the searchlights momentarily beaming elsewhere, mines dug out of the ground to provide a safe path.
Then, for weeks, they crossed Italy on foot, severely weakened and starved and injured, hiding by day, travelling by night, assisted here and there by members of the Italian resistance who showed enormous courage in helping them and hiding them.
A NARROW ESCAPE
One afternoon, weeks later, he and his friend were resting in an orchard, dressed as farm workers, eating a loaf of bread and waiting for nightfall. Unexpectedly and suddenly, a German armoured car pulled up to a stop on the nearby roadway, and a soldier jumped out. He was carrying a rifle, and came running through the trees toward my father and his comrade, shouting at them to raise their hands.
My father’s friend panicked, turned to run, and was shot dead as he ran. The German soldier was by now within fifty paces of my father, who stood still with his hands raised, determined to attack barehanded if the Nazi got close enough to do so.
Just then, a woman stepped out from behind a nearby tree, holding a pistol, and shot the German soldier in the head in mid-run; he went down instantly.
She glanced once at my father, smiled, and disappeared. My father stood rooted in shock: he had not even been aware of her presence, so close to him, until that moment. When he recovered, and searched for her, she was gone, as if she had never existed.
However, he had seen her face, and recognized her.
She was one of the nurses that he had met, so long ago, in that cellar in Cairo, in another world.
My father completed his journey, eventually reaching Switzerland, where he recuperated for several months in a hospital and then a convalescent home, before rejoining the war back in North Africa and continuing to fight with great valour until the end of the war.
I wish I had listened more intently; I wish I could honour him more greatly. He passed away in 2012, in his nineties, and I’m sure that he is one of hundreds of thousands of heroes whose stories deserve to be more fully told, men and women who have been described as “the greatest generation”.
My father at Chalet Di Caux in Switzerland, recuperating after his escape.
WHO WERE THE GHOST PATROL?
So, who were the “Ghost Patrol”?
One theory says that they were members of MI9, a branch of the British intelligence services responsible for facilitating the escape of POWs in Italy, Germany, Poland, and other Nazi-occupied territories at the time. Another theory is that they were an “invisible unit” operating under the auspices of the SOE (Special Operations Executive), the top secret British military organization that trained and installed hundreds of spies and undercover civilian agents behind enemy lines during the war.
Yet another conversation I’ve had with someone extremely knowledgeable seems to suggest that they were a completely non-military group, recruited, financed and trained privately and in great secrecy, by a Swedish industrialist with very deep pockets and an equally deep hatred of the Nazis.
According to this person the members of this group were truly international - British, French, American, and others - and were predominantly female.
I suspect that we'll never truly know, but this I do know: they were extraordinarily good at what they did.
WHY DID I SHARE THIS STORY?
More to the point, why am I sharing this story with you?
Quite simply, because it helped me realize that the most dangerous people are the ones you don’t see.
That smiling young woman seated over there in the corner of the restaurant? The grey-haired gentleman sitting across the aisle from you on your flight? The immaculately-bearded hipster busy playing Pokemon Go on the tour bus? The lady with a limp and a walking stick, the one you respectfully give way to when entering the elevator?
Don’t for one moment assume that what you see is what you get.
Every one of the people I’ve just described above, the seemingly elderly, the harmless, the unimportant – I have met people exactly like this, and they have each been extremely – extremely - dangerous individuals.
The Ghost Patrol from so long ago may not exist anymore, but there are others, generations later, in a new world. And right now, you wouldn’t spot one of their people in a million years.
Their motives, their agendas, may also be different, but if you’re the wrong kind of person, on the wrong kind of list, they will be the terrible shadow that you will never see coming.
SEE BEYOND THE ILLUSION
The braggart, the egotist, the guy who boasts about how he was “in the special forces”, the dude who swaggers around trying to pick fights or stir up controversy… ignore people like that.
Smile and wave. Because someone who behaves like that, who raves and boasts and tries so hard to be hard, is not truly dangerous. In fact, people who operate on inflated ego and a manufactured bad boy image, are actually quite laughable and a little bit pitiable.
The ones you need to be most keenly aware of are the ones who are gentle, mild-mannered. They may even appear a little cowardly or slow or inept sometimes. They may not even register on your “danger radar”.
Trust me on this.
Conventional perception can deceive you very easily.
And the best place to hide is in plain sight.
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