I Spent the War
Golfing in Scotland
A Novel in Progress
by Katherine Harris
Although grounded in extensive research, this book is entirely a speculation, in which no character is meant to resemble a real person, living or dead, with the partial exception of my father. It was inspired by certain odd possessions found after his death and my subsequent discovery that he’d told at least one blatant lie about his wartime intelligence career with the Eighth U.S. Army Air Corps. Ardent and highly skilled at the sport, he always said, “I spent the war golfing in Scotland” – this despite his being based hundreds of miles south at Saffron Walden in East Anglia. According to a consistently terse account, his daily responsibilities were fulfilled by presenting to top officers a pre-dawn report on the location of enemy installations, after which he traveled by fast train to play golf at such venues as St. Andrews. Having slept during the return journey, he was briefed by staff on arrival at headquarters, where he prepared the next report and then did it all again. When living in England, I recounted his story while visiting the former headquarters of 65th Fighter Wing, a school now as it was before the war. With a dumbfounded stare, the local history expert informed me that no fast train ran in wartime between Saffron Walden and Scotland. Further, non-essential travel was discouraged and, in any case, the journey would’ve been too long to make daily by train.
My father’s familiarity with golf in Scotland couldn’t be doubted and he’d never gone back later, so I concluded that he reached the area during the war by other means. He worked then for the “airlines,” as it were, so it’s logical to consider flight an option, provided that his regular hops were job-related. Intrigued, I began to study and found that wartime Scotland was a hotbed of clandestine activity, where agents of all persuasions converged for meetings on the links and where secret landing grounds (SLG’s) were rife, some on private golf courses. Trained in aircraft mechanics prior to being tapped for intelligence, my father was well-qualified to work in remote facility maintenance. An interesting thought. It was also fascinating to learn that 65th Fighter Wing HQ was placed in charge of monitoring all aviation in and out of the UK during the crucial months before D-Day, when the nation was supposedly sealed as tightly as a bottle.
If he was involved with secret flights in Scotland, why didn’t he say so? Well, he died almost two decades before the 50-year “hush” period imposed on most intelligence operations had elapsed. I can state confidently, although we weren’t close, that he wouldn’t have violated such a rule. But did he leave clues? Maybe. Among his war souvenirs is a map of all landing grounds in Scotland, which bears marginal notes in his hand: a few numbers and sums. Normally, this wouldn’t seem peculiar, but my father could add a page-long column of numbers in his head. Never during the 26 years that I knew him did he calculate travel distances in writing, and he complained if anyone wrote on a map.
Yet more strangely, given that he said nothing of leaving the UK in wartime, his box of mementoes contains items that were distributed only to personnel assigned to overfly enemy territory: a set of maps comprising the whole of Europe and western Asia (printed on silk, to be opened silently by men eluding capture); a survival kit; and a so-called “blood chit.” About postcard size and laminated, these chits printed to aid downed flyers bear the flag on one side and, on the reverse, a message promising reward if the bearer is taken to Allied forces. The appeal was translated into various languages – typically those spoken in Axis and Axis-occupied nations. But the one my father saved for the rest of his life is in Russian. Such keepsakes could simply have been extras left lying around the office, but this “red flag” (so to speak) spurred me to investigate connections between the 65th Fighter Wing and the Soviet Union.
Given the extremely high mileage involved and the fact that the Soviets were on our side by the time we entered the war, it didn’t seem likely that fighter pilots based in East Anglia would’ve faced potential peril over Russia – but this line of inquiry led me directly to the issue of Poltava: a most unsettled matter in my mind, although military authorities still refuse to grant this ambush the significance I suspect it deserves.
Shortly after midnight on June 21, 1944 (just after sunset during “White Nights”), the 8th USAAAC suffered what was to date its greatest disaster – pounded by Luftwaffe bombs on the ground at Poltava. This was one of three US airbases newly opened near Kiev, Ukrainian facilities long sought for so-called “shuttle bombing” – meaning pilots would fly from Italy or the UK, strike Nazi targets along the way, land in the USSR for rest, refueling and reloading, bomb targets in that area for a few days and then bomb again on the run home. This was viewed as a chance to show what long-range bombers and fighters could do alone – totally without ground or sea involvement – and strengthen the case for breaking away from Army control, as the RAF had already done. Quite possibly, some in high places also regarded the bases as a resource to aid partisans in eastern Europe.
Despite likely fears of U.S. support for anti-communist partisans, Stalin at last permitted use of bases at Poltava, Mirgorod and Piryatin, because the Red Army’s advance stalled in February. He wanted help to strike oilfields in Rumania and throughout Eastern Europe – more help than the US & UK could provide from their nearest installations in Italy. By the time the bases were actually ready, though, the Red Army was again strongly on the move and Stalin was no more enthusiastic about a U.S. presence in the East than Hitler can be assumed to be.
Although authorities deny this still, it seems there had to be Soviet/German collusion in the Poltava attack, for the Soviets had placed themselves in strict control of base defense and there was none. AA guns were so ineffective that no Nazi plane was hit during a barrage that lasted hours; further, Soviet “defenders” turned on searchlights far too early, at the first alarm, and effectively guided the Germans in. Too, Soviet fighter planes supposed to be there had been moved away (positioning for a major attack on the unsuspecting Germans in a few hours). Not a single US fighter was allowed to go up – even when, hours before, a Nazi recon plane was sighted here and at Mirgorod (thus allowing the pilot to return to his base at Minsk and take credit for the “find,” although German bombers had been massing and loading there for hours, and some took off before the PRU landed). It’s also recorded that Germans had been flying unmolested over the Russian bases since April, that American complaints about the lack of camoflage and other protective measures fell on deaf ears and that command of anti-aircraft measures was rather conveniently taken over in late May by Moscow, which couldn’t be reached during the raid. Moreover, as if by very careful arrangement, every plane was hit, but not one adjoining building – within which the Soviets were holding a VIP party for US dignitaries and Allied journalists, all of whom were ordered to say nothing against their “hosts.”
Opportunities for collusion certainly existed, as anti-Hitler Germans were frantically suing for a separate peace in 1944, either with the US/UK or with the USSR. We were constantly in touch with the Germans and have admitted working with them in certain quarters to slow the Soviets, who were doing likewise to slow us. So why cover up the truth of this particular event?
Discretion made sense at the time, when Stalin was being allowed to get away with a lot, in hope he’d continue fighting the Nazis and allow use of Siberian bases against Japan. Also at issue was the Soviet claim that a US radio had been found with spies executed a bit earlier at a house near Mirgorod. Had we publicly alleged misconduct, they’d have done the same. If an anti-communist group supplied by the West was actually operating near the bases, it seems reasonable to conclude they meant to watch over them and would have warned when Soviet fighter craft moved out of the area, had they survived. This might have kept the Poltava mission from flying into ambush and could additionally have apprised the Germans that attack was imminent, since such a spy operation would almost inevitably have included leave-behind agents loyal to them.
The Soviets also reported, in an attempt to shift blame, that a US plane en route to Russia had been downed with a map and that another, downed after the prior shuttle bombing mission from Italy, carried photographs of the bases. How they would’ve known these things, if true, is of course another question – possibly answerable by the fact that they fired merrily on every plane crossing their borders, even Allies arriving on schedule.
At any rate, because of the Poltava disaster and the attitude adopted toward it, U.S. bombers never returned to Russia, and desperate appeals for use of the bases during the final battles in Poland were rejected. The heroes of Warsaw could’ve won their city that summer, had Stalin allowed U.S. flights from Ukraine to deliver material and eager Polish commandos. Instead, he called for partisans to rise against the Nazi occupiers and then held his army back, claiming they’d expended all their strength. Across the river, within sounds of gunfire, the Soviets waited. That easily – with Gemans doing their dirty work and suffering their own losses, as well – the way opened for Stalin to install his “Moscow Poles” in preference to the government then in London exile. From there, he pushed on to take all of Eastern Europe, which had effectively been lost several months before at Poltava.
In the realm of fact, I can find no reasonable cause for an ongoing cover-up, which returns us to the purpose of this work of fiction. It provides an entirely spurious reason. Within the context of the Poltava question, I’ve taken up the issue of the Scottish SLG’s, along with secrets such as lie behind headlines today, as the last battle of World War II is being fought over plundered assets. Do bear in mind that the book is a total speculation, with the exceptions already cited – and the final noodge I got from calculating those distances noted on my father’s map. One sum equals the span between Saffron Walden and St. Andrews; the other, from Scotland to Poltava.
©1997-2011 Katherine Anne Harris. All Rights Reserved.
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This material is not meant for young people.