Dinner with a German spy and his frau - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Dinner with a German spy and his frau

During most of my 30 months at No 26 Signals Unit, one of my secondary administrative duties on the main base at RAF Gatow had required me to deal on an almost daily basis with one particular German civilian. To protect his identity, for reasons which will become clear, I will refer to him as Herr Franks. He never asked me about my work at 26SU and I never asked him about his earlier life. To get on well with Germans of a certain age (roughly my age!), it was neither wise nor polite to ask them what they or their fathers had done during the war.

Just before I was due to leave Berlin, Herr Franks invited me to a farewell dinner with him and his wife and I was delighted to accept. I was entitled to an RAF car and driver, so I didn't have to worry about drink-driving. When I arrived at Herr Frank's home, bearing a bouquet of flowers for Frau Franks - with an odd number of stems as German social protocol requires, I was rather surprised to find that there would be just the three of us at dinner. They lived in a beautiful house only a few miles from Gatow and as I entered a fabulous smell greeted me. It turned out that the smell emanated from the main course, a concoction of snails in a thick, savoury sauce. I had never eaten snails. I have an allergy to shellfish but, although snails are not shellfish, they do live in shells and the very thought of eating them made me apprehensive.

"Mögen Sie Schnecken?" asked Frau Franks as she brought the steaming, fragrant dish to the table. We conversed in a mixture of German and English.

"I've never had any," I replied truthfully, but added untruthfully and unwisely, "but I've always wanted to try some."

Herr Franks ladled a large helping of the food onto my plate and he and his wife bade me start. I looked carefully at the suspicious objects floating in the sauce and then bravely dug in. I tentatively chewed into one of the snails and found it rubbery and unyielding. I couldn't taste anything unpleasant because the excellent garlic sauce disguised any flavour the snails might have had. Without realising it, I ate speedily, swallowing the snails whole, with the misguided idea that the sooner I got it over with, the better. I soon emptied my plate - long before my hosts had emptied theirs. I sat back contentedly in my chair sipping a truly excellent Liebfraumilch Auslese, which was actually my favourite tipple - after beer.

"You seem to have enjoyed your first snails," beamed Frau Franks and, as I nodded enthusiastically while dabbing my lips with a napkin, Herr Franks spooned another large helping onto my plate. "There's plenty more," he added.

I began to feel rather unwell before the long meal was finished but I managed to conceal that and tried to concentrate on the conversation. Herr Franks asked how I was getting home from Berlin and whether I was looking forward to my next job.

"I'll be driving home through the Central Corridor and then across France before taking the ferry from Calais to Dover," I answered. "I don't know what my next job will be - I expect they'll tell me before my disembarkation leave is over." That was another lie. I knew perfectly well that I was posted as an instructor to the Joint Services School of Intelligence at Templer Barracks, Ashford in Kent. I had pre-booked a room in the Officers' Mess at Templer Barracks to recover from the drive and to drop off some of my belongings. That was why I intended using the short sea crossing from Calais to Dover rather than one of my preferred, but much longer, routes in a cabin on the overnight car ferry from either Hamburg or Bremerhaven to Felixstowe.

"I believe I heard someone saying you were being posted to an Army unit in Kent," said Herr Franks, his bushy eyebrows raised questioningly.

"I don't know where they got that from," I lied, for the third time, and changed the subject.

Over brandy, liqueurs, Schwartzwäldekirschtorte (Black Forest Gateau) with added fresh cream, and with scrumptious Bavarian chocolates and coffee to follow all that, the conversation turned to music. Frau Franks put an LP of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll on the hi-fi in the corner of the room. As it happens, it was a recording of von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic that I often played on my own equipment in my suite in the Officers' Mess at Gatow. As we listened to the dreamy work, which was Wagner's 1869 birthday present to his second wife, Cosima, I explained how much I had enjoyed my frequent visits to the Berlin Philharmonic Hall and the West Berlin Opera House.

"Siegfried Idyll  is one of my favourites," I said, "I have an LP of this particular version in my suite in the Mess."

"Yes, I know," said Herr Franks. Alarm bells sounded in my head. How did he know? Perhaps he was just showing off?

When the music slowed to a close, fading very gradually into silence (Wagner had written 'bedeutend langsamer' in the score), I sensed that it would be an appropriate time to say my farewells. On the spur of the moment, I offered to hand on to Herr Franks my Philharmonie protocol season ticket. He was overcome with gratitude at my offer and, of course, accepted it. It was my way of thanking my hosts for an excellent evening - and eased my conscience for having lied to them three times. Neither Frau nor Herr Franks seemed disappointed that the season ticket was for a single seat, not a pair.

There are a couple of corollaries to that story. First: when I unpacked my crates on arrival at my new unit in Kent, my LP of Siegfried Idyll was missing. Second: about 10 years later, shortly after the Wall had been demolished and Germany reunited, I read on the Internet that the very same 'Herr Franks' had been sent to prison, having been convicted in a German court of being a long-standing spy for East Germany. His duplicitous activities, which had started before my time in Berlin and continued afterwards, had apparently been known about for a long time. I also read that many Germans had worked as spies for both East and West at the same time and that this was well known by the agencies of both sides. Herr Franks, it seems, came into that category. But who was he working for when he invited me round for the farewell dinner?

I had an email in 2005 from someone who claimed to be very interested in writing a book about the years of the divided Germany. He had read an earlier version of this story on my website and wanted to know the real name of Herr Franks so that he could go and interview him for his book. I refused several times in a series of emails and told him that if he really was a historian, he would know how to find out what he needed to know from official sources. Eventually he stopped sending me emails. Only several years later did it suddenly occur to me that the person seeking information about ‘Herr Franks’ could have been the real Herr Franks. It was then far too late to re-open the email correspondence – although I was tempted.

I do wonder who got my season ticket to the Philharmonie. Before the Philharmonic Hall was refurbished a few years back, I sometimes caught sight of what had once been my seat during the many TV concerts relayed via Sky Arts channels. I froze the frame when I could, to take a closer look at the man sitting in what used to be my seat. I wanted to see if it was Herr Franks, but it never was.

Above: That's me, trying to talk my way out of trouble, during my appearance in Kenneth Horne's play 'Wolf's Clothing' at the RAF Gatow Theatre Club in 1979.

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