Editor and linguist Simon Sykes recounts a thrilling mystery bringing together World War II code-breaking, French poetry and, of course, Portsmouth.
Some time ago, I was living in the outlands of southwest France. It was then the poorest of regions and I managed to exist as a carpenter doing running repairs on ancient barns, patching up rotten shutters and fixing dilapidated gates and fences. The work materialised through a vague network of acquaintances and I would often simply be given a potential customer’s name, their nearest village and a very loose description of the work that seemed to be required. One such foray took me to M. Prie’s farmstead near Cabrerets. His very elderly housekeeper showed me into a courtyard where, I remember, a cracked and shaken beam sagged under an upper walkway between two outbuildings. A tricky problem. I set about the solution.
A couple of hours went by and the housekeeper summoned me for a drink on the perron. There sat an elderly, bespectacled and finely turned-out gentleman. Across a small, round, iron table he presented himself to me.
‘Prie,’ he said. We shook hands, I sat and explained the solution to the problem of the beams to which he simply nodded. We drank our citrons pressé and he asked if I was Dutch. I said no, I am British.
‘Ahh, and where are you from exactly?’
‘From Portsmouth,’ I said.
He spoke then in a precise and slow English: ‘I know Portsmouth a little… and Southsea.’
‘I visited once during the war – four days in 1944.’
‘I see, just passing through?’ I imagined a soldier encamped or a sailor embarking.
‘I was investigating, you might say.’
‘Ah, I see.’ I didn’t push him for more details, favouring discretion at this point.
A minute or two of silence passed as we drank. He then settled himself back into his chair. ‘There was a pretty but ruined church in the old part of the city,’ he said. ‘By the sea and in a park full of troops and barbed wire fences. These fences were everywhere!’ He smiled wryly and paused again in reflection. ‘I stayed in a Royal Navy barrack that overlooked it. There was a cobbled square and old ramparts. The church inside had been bombed. I had only to walk a little way to a modern building in a street of public houses with the port at its end. At that time, the building was an Invasion Dispersal Headquarters.’
‘It sounds like the Garrison church,’ I said, finishing my drink. ‘It still has no roof. Au boulot.’ I started to get up.
‘No, sit, sit. I insist,’ replied Prie.
I considered the work to be done – mortices and tenons on ten-by-ten oak baulks, and by hand. Not a five minute job. I also wanted to get back early enough to take my children to the river. Furthermore, the sun was heating up! Even so, I sat back in surrender.
Prie, visibly contented, went on. ‘I worked at de Gaulle’s headquarters in Mayfair. I was a signals specialist, radio particularly. I got captured in 1940 by the Germans but had escaped – rather easily actually – and then I came to England. But Portsmouth, yes, we received some information, an obligation really, from the British that transmissions in French were being sent from Portsmouth to the continent, as they called it, you see?’ He pulled out a silver cigarette case, opened it, and offered it to me. ‘This would be April or May. Anyway, the invasion was imminent. You can understand the alarm we all felt?’
I nodded as we lit our Sobranie Black Russians.
‘Whoever was responsible for the transmissions,’ he continued, ‘was echoing our very own method of coding messages in verse, in this case the works of François Villon. Are you familiar with Villon?’ He looked nonchalantly at me.
‘I am. I have read some Villon. The language is quite difficult but…’ I struggled to elucidate further and embarrassed myself by quoting unnecessarily the most obvious Villon line: ‘où sont les neiges d’antan.’
Prie was rightly unimpressed. ‘Quite. La Ballade des dames du temps jadis. And yet these verses transmitted were random. All the code breaking people had studied the transmissions for many days and found no sense, no code, just French verse in the airwaves from Portsmouth. We knew too that the Germans were listening and, either they were scratching their heads like us, or this was very valuable intelligence for them from the city close to the Allied Command HQ.’
I had now forgotten the job in hand and the trip to the river. I listened closely.
‘I was driven to Portsmouth through the night, arriving there in the early morning. Dark and foggy, I recall, and many checkpoints throughout the city. Straightaway I went to work in a radio detection truck that travelled around the city and its environs. The British crew had been doing this rather dispiriting exercise for some time and they were not enthusiastic about the prospect of spending shift after shift in the company of an unknown Frenchman from De Gaulle’s Staff. We drove here and there and waited for the transmissions to begin. At some time during that first shift, I heard through my headphones a clear and precise voice quoting Villon – an educated rendition of fifteenth century French – the first line of ‘Le Grand Testament’: ‘En l’an trentiesme de mon eage’. Immediately the crew began to vector the transmission and we, led by our motorcycle outriders, hurried off having alerted the waiting interception teams located throughout the city. It was very exciting. We reached a bombsite, of which there were many, somewhere in the city. The Military Police were there already but the bird had flown – nothing left but a few cigarette butts and an empty rum bottle where the technicians believed the transmission had originated’.
Prie proffered another cigarette and went on. ‘And so it went on for the next two days: a transmission, a dash to the location and nothing. But the need to solve this mystery became more dire: an exercise involving the Americans along the coast had gone awry due to some security breach, so it was believed. We were summoned to Allied Headquarters outside Portsmouth. Myself and my British colleague, Commander Duff, RN were taken to task by some high-ranking representative of the Supreme Commander. At all costs we must find the “agent” transmitting Villon in medieval French!’
Prie tapped his fingers lightly on the table. ‘The next day our ranks had swelled. As well as the usual contingent of technicians and vehicles, six jeeps jammed with commandos, bristling with weapons, accompanied us. I sat scanning the networks, listening to all manner of communications on my headphones as I considered, without enthusiasm I have to say, the possibility of an extended stay in Portsmouth. Then I remember a tap on my shoulder usually meaning ‘tea-up’, but this time, an officer beckoned me outside the truck. On exiting, there stood Duff and two stern-faced military policemen. We jumped into a vehicle and sped off into the city. On the way, Duff explained the situation saying that two Canadian soldiers had been arrested for the murder of an elderly French civilian called Léonard Perec, as a result of a drink-fuelled, bungled burglary. During the subsequent police search of the victim’s room, a long-range but portable radio transmitter had been found.
‘We arrived at the address of the unfortunate gentleman. A normal Victorian house in a typical street of similar houses in the Southsea part of the city, divided into rather shabby rooms. Perec’s room itself carried the odour that accompanies those who drink excessively and care for little else. Yet also in evidence was a very apparent love of radiotelegraphy. Amongst the empty bottles and general detritus of a life crumbling to pieces lay various lengths of cabling, valves, chassis and switches – all the paraphernalia of a radio enthusiast.
‘Through this clutter, I was directed to a functional transmitter set out on the soiled bed. It was a very well made but amateur machine, reminding me of some I myself had built as a youngster. Commander Duff then handed me a vintage book entitled Oeuvres de François Villon.
To my great surprise, Prie, without a word, rose slowly and went from the perron into the house. I immediately thought his tale over and, somewhat perplexed, I rose to leave the table. But he returned with a book in his hand. He sat again and indicated me to do the same. He then passed the old, red-brown book to me over the table and I read the dirty gold title: Oeuvres de François Villon.
Prie’s voice softened. ‘We never did find out if the verses transmitted were coded, or whether they had any effect on the invasion. The transmissions stopped so we knew we had our man, at least. I opened the book and read the inscriptions: “Margaret Hodgson”, and then an address in Clapham Common dated 1909, and an inscription, in English: “With my love, Léonard.”
‘The housekeeper appeared at the table. The shade had turned past me and I was in full sunlight. ”T’as pas calor, M’sieu?” she said sweetly. Then, more sternly, she said, “Monsieur Prie, il est tard.”
Prie rose stiffly and obediently. I stood quickly and offered the book back to him. He waved it away as he gathered himself. ‘You can keep it – a mystery for you to solve!’ He turned and began to walk slowly toward the house.
‘The address in London was checked by the police,’ he said as he strolled. ‘It turned out that Margaret Hodgson had committed suicide in Nice in 1915. She was married, but not to Léonard.’ He turned to me. ‘You know Villon and you are from Portsmouth. There, you are some way to the solution!’ He entered the house, saying, “Bon. Allez, m’sieu. Au boulot!”
I eventually solved the problem of the rotten baulks and the housekeeper paid me. I still have that copy of Oeuvres de François Villon and I still live in Portsmouth. But there is no solution to the mystery of Léonard and Margaret, even though from time to time I leaf through the book and, in considering Villon, I consider Monsieur Prie’s tale. Whichever way one contemplates the intrigue, it all unravels soon enough.