By Nigel West

Frontline Books (Pen & Sword). 252 pages. £14.99. ISBN 9-781-39907-509-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I was once on a train travelling North and couldn’t help overhearing the man seated across the aisle telling a young woman sitting opposite him about his adventures as an officer in the Territorial Army. They included some sort of training with the SAS and visits to France where he had a relationship with the daughter of a high-ranking French Army officer he’d met at a reception at the British Embassy in Paris. He was plausible and dropped enough factual hints to give his account a touch of authenticity. I didn’t believe him, though, and wrote him off as just another sad fantasist.

But I did sometimes later wonder if there had been any kind of truth in his story? Perhaps he had experienced at least some of what he referred to, hence the occasional references to locations and the like, and had then suffered a breakdown or some other misfortune that had caused him to confuse fact and fantasy? After all, I hadn’t been in a position to challenge what he said.

The man may have been merely a harmless crank, and never likely to take his tales beyond trying to impress young ladies on trains. But there are people who extend their fantasies into print and persuade publishers to advertise their myth-making as being accurate accounts of fighting against great odds, achieving miraculous rescues deep inside enemy territory, and somehow surviving extremes of weather that would quickly kill off most ordinary people. They no doubt appeal to armchair warriors who can imagine themselves in such situations but coming out of them unscathed, while sometimes having had the opportunity along the way to hop into bed with an attractive agent.

One of the more bizarre stories that Nigel West examines is that of Lawrence Gardella whose book, the curiously-titled Sing a Song to Jenny Next, purports to be the true story of how, at the time of the Korean War in the early-1950s, he was one of a seven-man unit parachuted into Manchuria to attack a Chinese nuclear facility. They teamed up with Nationalist guerrillas and a Scot who had lived in China since the 1930s. The mission successfully accomplished, despite having to fight off hordes of enemy troops, Gardella made his escape by somehow travelling a thousand miles across China in twenty-two days, reaching the coast to be picked up by submarine, and eventually arriving home in America where he was decorated by President Truman. But he was sworn to secrecy. Officially, the operation had never taken place. It was only in 1981, just before Gardella died, that he decided to speak out and his book was published. I forgot to add that among the Chinese guerrillas who helped  Gardella was the attractive Dragon Lady, whose favours he managed to enjoy at one point.

West takes Gardella’s tale to pieces, and links it to another similar account by Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur T. Boyd, published in 2008, in which he “revealed in Operation Broken Reed that in 1952 he had been selected for a clandestine assignment”. This involved venturing deep into enemy territory and resulted in some curious encounters. But Boyd doesn’t seem to have found it necessary to have killed dozens of Chinese or North Korean communists while following orders in yet another highly-secret operation that may never have existed. Like the one Gardella undertook, it appears to be completely absent from all the CIA, Marine Corps, and other military records. West closely questions the facts referred to by both men, and sums up the mysteries surrounding Gardella’s and Boyd’s books when he says, “In retrospect, Operation Broken Reed appears to have much in common with Sing a Song to Jenny Next, and each seems as bogus as the other, although Colonel Boyd at least has the excuse that he has suffered from a psychiatric disorder”.

It’s obvious that some people with little or no involvement in military or espionage situations may want to create a false impression to make themselves look good. But why would someone who already has a genuine record in these matters need to fabricate supposed incidents that could easily be disproved? Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wyckham Fiennes Bt. is a colourful personality with a reputation for adventuring in various parts of the world.  West says that he “fought in Oman and in 1975 wrote a well-received account of the conflict, Where Soldiers Fear to Tread”. But Fiennes then authored The Feathermen, about four British soldiers who had participated in an ambush in Qum in October 1969. This was “during the ‘secret war’ fought in the mountains of Dhofar, to protect the Gulf states from communist insurgents”. This truly was a real “secret war”.

If Fiennes was to be believed the four soldiers concerned became the targets of hitmen hired by a rich Dubai merchant whose son had been killed in the ambush. One of the four died when a helicopter he was piloting crashed into the sea. An accident? No, said Fiennes, it was the result of a time-bomb planted in the helicopter, A second soldier died in a road accident. It wasn’t, it was a planned murder, as was the death of a third soldier who, according to the inquest, died of hypothermia while taking part in an exercise on the Brecon Beacons. Fiennes himself claims to have been targeted by the hired assassins and was only saved by the intervention of some volunteers recruited by SAS’s wartime founder, David Stirling. As West says, the story has a “veneer of authenticity” due to Fiennes’ “stature, but also because almost all the names in the book are authentic”. He’s perhaps being kind when he adds that Fiennes’ friends “regard The Feathermen as an aberration……but are tolerant of his eccentricity because of his many accomplishments”.

Northern Ireland inevitably comes into consideration, which isn’t surprising when one considers the amount of delusion, confusion, collusion, and other factors at play there during the Troubles. West inspects a book called The Nemesis File by a Sergeant Paul Bruce, "supposedly an authentic account of how the SAS had murdered numerous terrorist suspects in Northern Ireland, and then buried the evidence”. Bruce was actually a vehicle mechanic in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who claimed he was transferred to the SAS and took part in undercover operations. But West reckons that the SAS troopers were not really active to any great extent in Northern Ireland in 1971 and 1972, when Bruce said he was there. And it turned out that Bruce was actually “a psychiatric patient named Paul Inman, a former soldier from Weston-Super-Mare who had a long history of mental illness”.  It further transpired that The Nemesis File had actually been written “not by Inman but by Nicholas Davies, a former Daily Mirror journalist” with a somewhat questionable background in arms dealing. The book was later acknowledged as a work of fiction and not fact.

There is much more in Cold War Counterfeit Spies to intrigue those who sometimes wonder if the security services, branches of the police and armed forces, and even some government departments do get up to some decidedly dodgy things. I can remember the furore that erupted over the death of the peace campaigner Hilda Murrell who, in 1984, was found dead in a field a few miles away from her home. Gary Murray described himself as “a former MI5 undercover agent”, and in his book, Enemies of the State it was suggested that she might have been killed by a private investigator who broke into her house while collecting information about anti-nuclear activists for the Atomic Energy Authority. The police took the view that it was more than likely a case of an ordinary burglary that went wrong. Some years later, in 2003, a local man who had been sixteen when Murrell was killed, was charged with the crime and convicted on the basis of DNA and fingerprint evidence.

I don’t suppose West’s investigations (his book was first published in 2016) will deter anyone, fantasist or not, from wanting to embroider on the truth and even totally construct what might be called alternative facts. Nor will it stop anyone reading bogus tales and believing in conspiracy theories and distrusting what the authorities say. And some fantasists do tell a good story.