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Unsung Heroes by Gerald Seymour

Master Thriller Writer Gerald Seymour on the real-life Crocodiles and Crocodile Hunters that inspire his fiction…



They seem rather tired, far beyond their shelf life.


Fiction’s image of the spy master and the action hero maestro – furled umbrellas, waging class wars, doing business in Pall Mall gentlemen’s clubs – as portrayed in the Smiley replicas and the Bond imitators, should be consigned to the bin.   The real men and women who defend the state are so different.   The sneering cynicism and extravagantly mixed drinks is good yesterday escapism.  If they ever existed, I didn’t get to meet them – thank Heavens.


The people who do today’s heavy lifting are, as I’ve learned, very decently ordinary.   Not elevated on the social ladder, without Oxbridge degrees, can’t afford big mortgages, and carry colossal responsibility.   If they screw up, we suffer.   If they win, we don’t hear of it.


When an ITN reporter, I’d meet the special forces people operating covertly in Aden, in Northern Ireland, in Israel.   Utterly discreet, always economical with words, dressed in Arab gear or looking like punters from a down market charity shop.   They were police constables, lance corporals and civilians from the intelligence agencies, and the good chance was that the back-up was too far away to intervene if the opposition rumbled them.   Superhuman?   Absolutely not.   Fallible?   Yes … I reported on a trial in the snow shrouded Norwegian town of Lilliehammer where five Mossad people – usually gilded as the world’s most deadly and effective intelligence crowd – had gone after a leading Arab terror boss, killed the wrong man, then all been captured.   Massive embarrassment in Tel Aviv.


I covered the killing of a British soldier, 20 year old Ted Stuart, in Belfast in 1972 and saw the bullet riddled ‘laundry van’ he drove into IRA territory while a colleague touted for trade.   It was supposed that gunmen and bombers would send firearms and explosives contaminated clothing off for dry cleaning, and also gave an excuse to meander through housing estates and watch for suspected activists.   The Provos said afterwards that the van was identified because they undercharged every legitimate business.   Intelligence gathering, what I’ve seen of it, survives few Risk Assessments.


It would be convenient if clever analysts could come up with the answers: does not work like that.  Intelligence depends on men and women, on both sides, putting their safety on the line in dark,  dismal and dirty corners.


The opposition can also be pretty ordinary.   I flew to Poland with the KGB agents Peter and Helen Kroger.   If they had been caught years earlier, when part of the New York based atom spy ring, they’d likely have sat in the electric chair as did Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.   After fleeing via Canada to Russia, they were resurrected as antiquarian book sellers living in Ruislip, west London.   They had a radio in the attic and sent back the details of the research at the Portland naval base, were arrested and served 9 years imprisonment before being swapped for a hapless Briton the Russians had dumped in a labour camp.   Peter looked like everybody’s favourite uncle until his eyes glinted malevolently while I stood beside him and recalled the sentencing judge’s unflattering remarks.   Helen, his superior in rank, became noisily tipsy on the flight, BEA’s champagne, autographed the snack menu for me ‘Make love, boys, not war’, stumbled on the steps getting off, dropped all the courtesy magazines she’d snaffled from the cabin, and had to be helped up into the windowless van there to meet them.   Very ordinary, very dangerous to UK security.


I remember a teenage boy shot dead by the army in the Falls area of Belfast who had gone out with an M1 carbine to ambush a foot patrol.   His corpse was under an armoured vehicle to prevent the weapon being retrieved, and a soldier noticed that the sole of one of his trainers was worn through to his socks.   His death featured for a few seconds on the night’s TV news, and his funeral attended by 400 did not make that evening’s bulletin.  Utterly ordinary but with the potential to kill.


That is a random snapshot of the sort of people I try to write about.


I didn’t get to see senior men on the streets.   That is reserved for a lower level.   Junior grades recruit spies through the MICE tradition: Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego.   Compromise and Ego usually do the business.   Of the most notorious spies in history, Ego would have been a huge for Richard Sorge, German, who from wartime Japan sent Stalin’s Russia advance warning of the German attack in 1941, which was ignored.   He died on the gallows with no effort made to negotiate for his life.   Oleg Penkovsky was shot in the yard at the Lubyanka having been the UK’s most renowned agent with access to the Kremlin thinking during the Cuban missile crisis: the flattery of his handlers sustained him before his arrest, kept on the treadmill for always ‘a little longer’.   Eli Cohen, hanged in public in Marjeh Square in Damascus, provided the Israeli Defence Force with the layout of Syrian strong points on the Golan Heights, captured in a day two years after his execution, would have been Ideology.   Also not lining his pocket was Klaus Fuchs, the brilliant physicist who had escaped Nazi Germany and been given safe haven in the UK, then betrayed to Soviet Russia the blue prints of the atom bomb.


But Compromise remains the best recruiting sergeant.   A Belfast taxi driver, a Catholic, has a generous fare, drinks too much, is stopped by the police.   He’ll lose his license, his livelihood, head in his hands in his cell but a friendly Englishman turns up.   ‘Just a little bit of help with this and that, who’s in the taxi, where do you drop them, and we can forget this other problem.’   They used to end up in ditches, after torture, on the border with the Republic, shot through the head.

They keep on coming.   We seem able, with the certainty of a horrible death awaiting, to persuade Syrians or Afghans or Iraqis to act as our eyes and ears in hideous conflict corners.   They are Human Intelligence, HumInt, the best, the most effective.   A man agrees to take an electronic tag from an agent of ours, walk towards the home where an ISIS leader visits his family in secrecy, and has a stone in his sandal and beside the leader’s parked car he kneels to remove it, and slaps the electronic tag under the car and has put himself in a window of risk.   Could be Mosul or Aleppo a couple of years back, or a last refuge for the Black Flag butchers in a village on the Euphrates yesterday.   The leader is driven away, and the hunter-killer drone tracks the tag and the Hellfire missile is launched.   Neat and clean, no collateral casualties, only the targets are ‘taken down’.


In Yemen, the Al Qaeda Arabian Peninsular group had a penalty for spies who had taken our shilling: crucifixion.  The CIA and the Israelis regularly lose assets, on the rope of the Tehran hangman, but still manage to delay and delay, and further delay – with acts of sabotage and assassination – the Iranian efforts to build as nuclear warhead.


An endless war, high stakes, and for real.


Some army units shun publicity.   I met an NCO recently who had done rarely described tours of Afghanistan and he talked me through the detail of being alone, far forward in a camouflaged sand scrape and watching for Subjects of Interest.   No fuss, no drama, no hero stories, pretty much telling it like it was just another day’s work.


It’s a hard world out there and does not need fantasy fiction latched to it.   A life for very focused people, not for the squeamish, for rather brave people.   Some winners and some losers.   And plenty there who play God in matters of survival and death – and don’t need a classics degree for that, or a well shaken cocktail.