Deborah Swift on The Silk Code

Amy Chandler

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Deborah Swift on The Silk Code

Deborah, congratulations on The Silk Code. What encouraged you to write about the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the Second World War?

Like most people, I’m fascinated by those who are prepared to risk death in order to further a cause. I liked the fact that the SOE was shrouded in secrecy, which provides many opportunities for the novelist, where some characters in the book are unaware of the activities of the others.

I also liked the fact that the SOE had a mission to ‘set Europe ablaze’ (Churchill). This incendiary activity was unlike the more sedate operations of MI5. SOE agents were mainly tasked with sabotage and subversion behind enemy lines, and these activities would be bound to bring my characters into danger.

The novel’s protagonist, Nancy, is female – what inspired you to place a woman at the centre of your story instead of a male agent?

The main buyers and readers of my books are female and enjoy seeing real historical women, (especially unsung heroes) reflected in stories of WW2.  A female protagonist was also suggested by the publisher, who had a specific target audience in mind for the book. However, I have always enjoyed writing all sorts of characters, and in fact two of the main point of view characters in The Silk Code are men. Both Tom Lockwood the coding trainer, who is fighting to uncover the deadly Abwehr game, and Neil Callaghan, the man recruited by the British Union of Fascists, play a huge part in the novel.

Tom Lockwood is inspired by the real Leo Marks, are any other characters inspired by real people during the Second World War?

Some of the other characters are real people, such as Marita Perigoe, who was a driving force in the BUF. Her husband was in prison as a known Nazi sympathiser. Hans Kohout in the novel, another fascist resident in Britain, was also a real person, and was genuinely involved in the manufacture of aluminium strips used as pre-radar defence against the detection of aircraft.

Eric Roberts appears as himself. He was an unassuming-looking bank clerk who worked for the Westminster Bank  – a real person recruited to form a fake Gestapo cell. Roberts was a former fascist sympathiser, but he had changed allegiance and now became an undercover agent in the BUF.

Over the next three years, under the name ‘Jack King’, he put together a network of hundreds of Nazi supporters. His aim was to channel all the information given to him back to MI5 whilst pretending that this intelligence was being fed back to the Gestapo in Berlin. Despite danger of discovery,  Jack King was able to successfully defuse many of the plans made by Hitler’s supporters in Britain.

The novel mentions the Englandspiel (the English Game)– what research did you undertake to understand the historical context to help create your narrative?

England Spiel – also known by the Germans as Operation North Pole (Unternehmen Nordpol), was a successful counter-intelligence plan by the Abwehr (German military intelligence) that ran from 1942 to 1944. Once Allied resistance agents in the Netherlands were caught, the Germans used the agents’ codes to fool the SOE into continuing to send agents, weapons, and supplies. Agents sent from London were captured immediately upon landing and met a fate of torture or execution.

The man in charge of this operation was quick-thinking Hermann Giskes, who actually wrote a book about it from the German perspective; it’s called London Calling North Pole, and is available from the British Library. It gave me an insight into Giskes’ mindset. Surprisingly, I didn’t find him a monster, but rather intelligent and interesting. Another very useful library book was ‘Errors of judgement : SOE’s disaster in the Netherlands, 1941-44’ by  Nicholas Kelso. But undoubtedly the most useful book of them all was ‘Between Silk and Cyanide’ by Leo Marks, which gave an insider view of life in the SOE offices in Baker Street.

These books were useful for the actual plot, but the background came from British newspapers of the time, such as the London Standard, bought cheaply on ebay, and which gave an accurate picture of London life in the 1940s.

Nancy notes many open-ended questions regarding the fate of some of the agents at the end of the novel. What influenced your decision to not tie up these loose ends?

Mostly because the novel is told from Nancy’s close point of view in the moment, and in 1944 she can’t possibly have known the fate of all the agents she met whilst abroad. All she can do is surmise what might have happened to them, and the reader is left with the same questions as Nancy. As this is a series, we may find out what happened to them in later books, in the natural way she does!

Neil becomes entangled with the British Union of Fascists – how did these groups undermine the work of the British?

 They aimed to provide German Intelligence with maps showing the location of Britain’s petrol and aviation stocks, top secret research on new types of engines for fighter planes, and reports on experimental tanks. Marshalling yards and other vital infrastructure were also on their list of sabotage targets. Some recruits spied in their home towns for information on possible targets for German bombers, or for sites of military bases and civil defence.

More than that though, they sought to influence the upper classes, and push their views on members of the Government, and promoting the views of Hitler and the National Socialist Party.

 Can you recommend any fiction books for readers who enjoyed The Silk Code and want to continue reading about espionage in the Second World War?

One of the first books I ever read about a German spy was Ken Follet’s The Eye of the Needle – a fantastic thriller that is still worth reading even though it was published in the 1970’s. More recently I have enjoyed Pam Lecky’s espionage book A Secret War. Alan Furst’s books are masterful at conveying the real, slightly dull and less sensational world of real spies, and I find them all excellent. I’d highly recommend ‘A Hero in France’.

Do you have a historical figure you admire from the Second World War? And why?

 Violette Szabo, an SOE agent who was executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1945. I remember watching ‘Carve Her Name With Pride’ with my mother, and us both weeping! The film is a biographical account which tells the story of her life. She had a surprisingly ordinary war before joining the SOE because she’d been brought up in France. Since then I have read about many more female agents of the SOE, who were successful mainly because they were inconspicuous. In occupied zones men were deployed either to work camps or German manufacturing, so women on the streets were much less obvious. Of course the work was still deadly and they had to learn to live with the constant fear of being outed.

What’s next? Can readers expect the return of Nancy and Tom?

The second book, The Shadow Network, in mostly Neil’s story, in which he undergoes a redemption and meets the love of his life, a German refugee called Lilli. It centres around the fake news broadcasts made by Britain during the war. The third book will see the return of Tom and Nancy, and also Neil and Lilli.

Deborah Swift is a USA Today bestselling novelist and author of The Silk Code.

Interview by Amy Chandler.