Immediately after the declaration of war in September 1939, my father, James MacGibbon, volunteered to join the Royal Fusiliers and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Openly a Communist, he was disobeying the Party line (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had decreed it a ‘capitalist war’), but James was not in any doubt. He wanted to serve in the front line but because he spoke German fluently he was posted to the Intelligence Corps. Before his posting we were visited by the local police constable and his wife, accompanied by two Special Branch officers who searched the house for incriminating papers. The wife joined us for breakfast, to make sure we didn’t try to hide anything. It was evident that she was embarrassed, and all the more so when I showed her ‘the little Lord Jesus’ that I had lifted off the arms of the Virgin Mary on a small musical box, presumably (in this atheist household) borrowed from nursery school. The police officers laid out what they had found: the official history of the Soviet Communist Party, obligatory reading for CP members, and a book in German about Dürer. When James reported for duty at the War Office, he was casually asked why he hadn’t reported the home visit. James explained that he had no idea whom he should inform. The major took the point, and asked some questions about James’s Party membership. Finally he inquired: ‘Are you for Stalin or for us?’ James truthfully answered: ‘For us, sir.’ ‘Shake on it, old man’ was the reply. ‘For the rest of the war, no secrets were withheld from me,’ James would later say – surely an exaggeration, but maybe not a very big one, as I recently discovered. In spring 1941, he was posted to the War Office in MO3 (Military Operations, Section 3), the department that would eventually deal with plans for Operation Overlord.
LRB 16 June 2011 | PDF Download