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Erwin Rademaker told everyone he was a Dutchman but, within a few months of arriving in the village, I realised that this, among other things, wasn’t true.
It was during the summer of 1915 that I first saw the new curate of our Parish church of St Mary the Virgin, in Essendon, a small village tucked away in Hertfordshire. Small in stature with a rough cut face at odds with his soft, slightly-accented voice, he moved with purpose and vigour. As he airily greeted the congregation at the church gate that first Sunday morning in his crisp white collar, he was drawing admiring glances from the women – and I realised, from the warm way he clasped their hands and looked into their eyes, that he was courting their attention. I wasn’t watching the workings of an anxious to please new clergyman; Erwin knew what he was doing. As the Vicar’s bicycle, I have spent much of the past six years leant against the trunk of the Yew tree near the gate, so I know plenty about the comings and goings at the church. Despite my humble beginnings in Nottingham, I always liked to think that being so closely associated with the dour Reverend Higham I’d become an important cog in the workings of the village machine. No one knew as much about the people of the village as the vicar and I. But Erwin was different to the vicar.
Essendon is a quiet place. It’s always been that way. Before the war the two hundred and fifty souls of the small village perched on the hill only had the surrounding farms and a few big houses for employment; some of the younger people were now working at the new Telephone Exchange in nearby Hertford, but that was about it. As the second decade of the twentieth century sucked the World into the most brutal human conflict of all time, even quiet little Essendon felt the effects as its own young men joined up to march over the precipice in northern France.
The first inkling I had that he was up to no good was just three weeks after his arrival. Erwin was lodging with crotchety old Mrs Blakey at her red brick cottage in West End Lane. At around 10 o’clock one warm summer evening, he arrived unexpectedly at the churchyard. It was past sundown, and, as he disappeared into the darkness of the church, I recognized his silhouette against the remains of the day still glowing out to the West; the smell of beer as he passed also told me that he’d spent the past few hours in the Rose and Crown public house. Looking furtively about, he noiselessly unlocked the vestry door and went inside. A few minutes later he was followed through the same vestry door by a woman; regular Eucharist and Evensong devotee, Mrs Davies, whose husband had tragically gone missing in action the previous year in France; close to, but not actually at the battle of Mons, so I overheard. The two of them weren’t inside for long, but I knew from the clandestine nature of their meeting, that she hadn’t gone there to ask Erwin for absolution. My suspicions were proved correct when they left separately; Mrs Davies’ flowery summer dress was definitely askew.
Shortly after the incident in the vestry, Erwin started using me to ride around the village. The rarity of my usage by the vicar meant that I had hoped he would but, sadly, his cycling was a bit of a disappointment. The two of them had come to an agreement and so we spent many summer evenings comforting the sad young war widows and giving cheery chats to absent soldiers’ loved ones. With a lot of the able men away in France, the women were having to work in the fields and seek comfort and succour from the church; little Erwin must have seemed an inspired engagement by the tall, glacial Reverend Higham; his diligence and attentiveness to the parishioners was completely at odds with the vicars conspicious indifference.
As winter approached the days got shorter and our visits begun earlier. Erwin even began to extend our range; we rode down the steep West End Hill to a small group of houses on the edge of Hatfield Park where we met with a young man called Toby Warriner; Toby, one of the Estate workers, always came straight out to meet us and closed the door behind him whenever we arrived. Apart from his mother, who I never saw, I felt there was something else that he was hiding. We also went in the other direction to the village of Berkhamsted where Erwin had befriended the doctor; they always met to drink in the Five Horseshoes.
Meeting Toby became a more regular event during the harsh cold of the 1915/16 winter. One day, shortly after Christmas, when curate Erwin had taken Toby a bottle of beer, I overheard them talking. Erwin was being very demanding;
“So when? – when will it happen?” I was surprised at how his words had become clipped and more accented; he was clearly agitated.
“I don’t know sir,” Toby was a simple, deferential type who apparently held the clergy in high esteem, “they said that somethin’ would happen in late January.”
“Who are they, and what is ‘something’?”
“The master, sir. He said yesterday morning that that man from the Navy, you know, that man Churchill, has been to see that area in the Park and he’d said it was good for what they wanted.”
“What can the Navy be wanting with the Park?”
“I don’t know, sir, but he heard ‘im mention that the ‘landships’ was bein’ made now somewhere up north of the country.” Erwin seemed to think for a moment.
“Oh well, I guess they have a plan for something. Let’s just wait and see. I’ll be down again next week and you can let me know if you’ve heard any more. It would be very interesting to see these ‘landships’ don’t you think?” I got the feeling that Erwin was now being a little patronising. He was clearly more interested than he was making out.
“Oh yes, sir. If I find out when they’re coming, then I could take you in to see them – well, not official, of course, but we could watch from the trees if you wanted?”
“Good idea Toby. Now, you keep that mother of yours well.” He tapped his nose as he said this. I didn’t know what he meant by this but I guessed he had something over the young land worker. Perhaps Toby’s mother had been one of the late night visitors to the vestry.
Erwin and I left and, as we pedalled back to Essendon, his face was marked with a smug smile. A little later he hummed himself a triumphant tune as we spun along the bumpy lane. Now I’m no musician, but I would say that the marching tune he hummed wasn’t Dutch….it was definitely German. He even sung the words of the last line, ‘Und lasst uns alte Kameraden sein’. Whoever sung the marching songs of another countries army?
Despite my reservations, and despite that fact that, as a rider, he treated me particularly badly, I did like Erwin. He seemed oblivious to the Parish politics and the demanding Reverend Higham; it was as if he agreed to everything that was said by the ‘old parsnip’, as one of the parishioners called him. Erwin did whatever he was told because he knew he had another, more important reason for being there; Erwin had a big secret. For while I couldn’t work out what it was. Until one day in late January of 1916.
It was the day that I finally discovered what he really was. I thought Toby might have guessed too, but he was so taken in by the lively Curate’s interested exterior, and the fact he was a man of the cloth, that he had no reason to think he was up to no good. The hurried trip to meet with the doctor the day after a trip to the forest with Toby, made me think that perhaps he, Dr Kemp, might know something as well, but I wasn’t sure. At that time, I thought I was the only one that knew. Erwin Rademaker was a spy. I was being ridden around the village of Essendon by a German spy – I was convinced of it! Now look, I’ve never pretended I was an angel and I’ve done my fair share of ungodly things; I once deliberately rode into a dog that always barked at the vicar – I think I may have killed it. I also made one of the young farm lads fall off and break his arm – he thought it would be funny to take me home after an evening at the pub; I decided otherwise. Despite this, I never thought that I would end up working with a spy and possibly betraying my country.
So what happened on that day late in January that gave him away? Well, after seeing Toby on a particularly cold evening, Erwin picked me up straight after Morning Prayer the following day, and we headed back down West End Hill. This time it was so cold and the road so covered in frost that he didn’t risk riding me down the ice-covered slope. He slipped to his knees three times with me next to him – thankfully I managed to stay upright. He cursed a lot….in German.
We finally arrived outside Toby’s house and he came out with his buttoned great coat and a woollen scarf wrapped high around his face. Silently we crossed the field opposite the house and Erwin walked with me between the two of them into the woods. There were no real paths but Toby seemed to know the way through the thick undergrowth. After a while I saw a large clearing with a series of trenches dug across it; the three of us ducked down behind some dense brambles. After an hour or so, a number of heavily overcoated and hatted men came from the direction of the large house – Hatfield House – over to the right, and gathered behind a low rope strung between posts. Then we saw it. To be correct, we heard it first – a huge black, steel, rhomboid-shaped behemoth that rattled its way across the field at walking pace towards the waiting reception committee – I heard later that they were men of very high rank and included that Churchill man, Lord Kitchener himself and even the Prime Minister, Mr Lloyd George. The monster stood over eight feet high and belched the filthy fumes of a combustion engine as it crissed-crossed the trenches and the marshy, barb-wire covered stretches of the clearing.
Erwin was clearly fascinated and stared hard at the exhibition from his crouched position behind the bush. The ‘show’ ended with shells being fired from gun ports protruding from each side of the beast. The noise was deafening.
“So this is what they are planning.” Erwin, breathless, was clearly in raptures.
“Yes, Mr Rademaker, this’ll show the Hun what we’re made of.”
“So will they be ready soon?”
“My friend at the house said he heard one of the Navy men saying that we ought to have 3,000 of them!” I genuinely saw Erwin’s eyes widen in wonderment; something that usually only happened to him in the presence of women,.
Later that evening we pedaled off to the Five Horseshoes again and, from my resting place outside, I saw Erwin in deep conversation with the doctor through the steamy pub window; he was clearly explaining what he’d seen earlier in the day in the Hatfield grounds – I could tell by the shapes described by his hands that he was talking about the landships.
A few days later, Erwin took me to Hatfield Railway Station and stood with me in the Guards van to Kings Cross Station in London – there he rode me to small house off York Way and disappeared inside for an hour or so before before taking me home again. We did this trip a few times over the following months and I never knew who he was seeing or why; but it was nice to ride around the busy city roads for a change.
After all this excitement, things died down for a while. Erwin went back to his cold evening rides around the Parish and his occasional assignations in the vestry with the lonely ladies; some of them were even allowed to ride me home after their couplings, which was a rather odd, melancholy, experience. Over time I almost forgot that Erwin was a spy.
When the Spring arrived, the mood in the village began to lighten, people started to meet again in the streets and the children played again in the field behind the Church. There was one wonderful day in March when the late snow fell with heavy flakes for a whole night, and happy families came out to toboggan the slope on all manner of household sleds and boards of wood; most of the winter on top of the hill had just been cold, wet and windy so it was a relief to see everyone smiling again. The growing excitement of those early months of 1916, suggested that we might be seeing an end to the war; but, as had happened in the previous year, the lack of news of heavy conflict was simply because the opposing armies were having to combat the penetrating cold and the foul conditions of their trenches rather than each other. The monumental battle of The Somme that July proved that there was to be no let up, and that the opposing sides were still intent on pummelling each other to a standstill on that fractious Western Front. Word of more village casualties began to filter back and mood became sombre again.
In the middle of July, another turn of events occurred which put Erwin under increased pressure and me with a difficult choice. I was already feeling guilty for being party to his spying and extra-curricular activities, but I didn’t know what else I could do. I was being drawn into his world of espionage and subterfuge as an innocent bystander. Then one particularly sunny day I felt that I was given an opportunity that could assist Erwin’s cause. It wasn’t as if I wanted to help him with his spying; I just thought that Mrs Davies was being particularly unfair on him. It all started in the churchyard when she apprehended him near the gate as he was leaving to go for his lunch one day.
“Mr Rademaker, sir, have you got a minute.” Plump Mrs Davies in a high-necked smock, was as deferential to the clergy as Toby was.
“Yes, Mrs Davies, how can I help?” He sensed, as I did, that this wasn’t a social enquiry about booking the vestry for the evening.
“Well, sir, this is a bit difficult but, well, I’m pregnant with our child.” I watched him closely; his expression didn’t change but I’m sure I saw his jaw set a little as he thought through the implications of being responsible for a child with an enemy war widow – there was also the suggestion however that part him thought that it might look good on his record as proof of his commitment to the cause.
“Oh.” He paused briefly. “So I suppose you will be wondering what you should do – I mean, this could lead to some difficulties for you – your widows pension being withdrawn, for example?” Whilst it was true that some local pensions offices had been reported as doing exactly that to widows who they thought were behaving in the ‘wrong’ way, it was a harsh thing to say. Mrs Davies’ face fell in disappointment but, at the same time, I could see bitterness bristle in her eyes.
“So you’re not going to…!” Before she finished Erwin put his hands out to hers and, holding them firmly, he looked into her eyes in the way he always did, and spoke to her in a firm, but reassuringly comforting, tone.
“Please, Mrs Davies, Ethel. The war is making life hard for all of us. I can see that the loss of your husband, Reginald, still weighs heavily on you, so I think we should take some time to think things through properly. But first, I think you should go to see a doctor friend of mine in Little Berkhamsted – just to be sure that everything is, you know, as it should be. I will give you a letter which you should give to him. You can take the bicycle now if you wish?” It wasn’t really a question. “Just wait there a moment and I’ll write you an introduction.” Erwin disappeared into the vestry and Mrs Davies turned and looked slightly scathingly at me. I could tell that she knew I was in cahoots with the curate and I guess she had heard of his jaunts around the village to visit other women who’d lost loved ones. I saw a tear roll down her cheek as the enormity of what might be about to be suggested by the curate and the doctor dawned. I knew that she had now become a threat to him and to our little world in the village. If this got out then he might have to leave and there would be no one to do his good works.
A few minutes later Mrs Davies and I left the village and wobbled down Cucumber Lane towards Little Berkhamsted; Mrs Davies was clearly not an experienced cyclist, and although I was no racing machine – Erwin had kept me nicely oiled and my wheels ran free and true – we were moving along more quickly than I think she anticipated we would. I realised there was an opportunity for me. As we accelerated down the slope I resisted the temptation to allow the pressure she was putting on the brake levers to actually connect to the wheels; consequently our speed began to rise. It went up and up. We were never going to make the left hand bend into Berkhamsted Lane and Mrs Davies should never have attempted it. We didn’t even get close and, instead, we ran straight across the junction and into the thick bushes on the opposite side. Ordinarily, they might have cushioned her fall, but the tall Larch tree hidden just behind the broad-leaved hedge did not. Mrs Davies’ head struck the trunk at around twenty-two miles an hour and her death was instantaneous. I know this because I was there.
A week later I observed the funeral with deliberate detachment from my place against the Yew; Mrs Davies’ coffin was carried sedately from the horse drawn hearse towards the clean cut hole in the ground I’d watched being dug by the grubby grave-digger the previous day. It was nice spot with a clear view – one that she wouldn’t appreciate – down the hill to the West. The large congregation – Mrs Davies was a popular village figure – was commendably sombre and the summer breeze in the leaves was interrupted occasionally by the muffled sniffs of the village women folk. There appeared to be no knowledge of the pregnancy, and the Reverend Higham and Erwin conducted the funeral with the necessary propriety and solemnity. Erwin’s face gave nothing away, although I’m sure he glanced over to me at one point; I think he treated me slightly differently from that day on. I actually like to think he might have known that I was entirely responsible for the accident that caused the death of Mrs Davies. Thankfully, his sealed letter she had carried in her purse at the time of her death, was given to the doctor to whom it was addressed and handled, again, with the discretion it deserved. Nothing was ever divulged about it contents, although I was sure that Erwin had suggested some sort of termination of the pregnancy with the doctor. The two of them had met the night before the funeral at the Five Horsehoes for their regular discussion at the quietest table in the corner of the bar.
In August, the summer was at its height with glorious sunny days and warm sticky nights, but the tension with Erwin didn’t lessen. I knew he was was waiting for something and our weekly visits down the hill to see Toby were getting more anxious. Every time they met, Erwin got more forceful. I once saw him push Toby up the against the side of the house and grasp him by his collar. It seemed odd that a slight man of the cloth should be able to exert such a physical imposition over the stoutly built estate worker, but Erwin’s demeanour was as rugged as his face and it was times like this when he justified his undercover calling. He was after information about something and knew how to extort it from people.
Finally, at the the end of August he seemed to get what he was looking for. It was one of our weekly visits to see Toby and the young man was, unusually, waiting outside for us by the side of the road. He seemed excited and clearly had something for Erwin.
“Sir”, he exclaimed before we’d even come to halt, “Sir, I think I have it.” Erwin wasn’t going to be rushed – he’d heard promises like this before. He carefully put me against the wall of the house and turned toward Toby.
“Hello Toby – what exactly do you think you have?”
“This sir!” He held up a small sheaf of papers which looked to have drawings and numbers on them. Erwin took them and examined them carefully. I could just make out the familiar rhomboid shapes.
“Hmm, I’m not sure – where are they from?” He looked sternly at Toby.
“Oh, one of the butlers saw them on his Lordship’s desk and took them.”
“He did what?”
“Well, not all of them, just some of them.”
“And his Lordship didn’t notice?”
“No – the butler said that his lordship doesn’t read much of the paperwork he brings home – I don’t think he understands it to be honest.” Erwin look at Toby with slight admonishment – it really wasn’t for him to question his employers’ intelligence.
“Well, as you know, I have wanted to see these plans for a while – my friends in the Army have been intrigued to know what the Navy have been up to.” I knew this was a lie – but it contained an element of truth; the ‘Army’ that Erwin was referring to was almost certainly the Imperial German Army and not, as I assumed Toby thought, the British Army.
Things happened quite quickly after this. We flew back up the hill to the village with the papers tucked away in his pocket and, panting, he left me outside Mrs Blakey’s house and disappeared inside. After a few minutes there was a brief commotion with raised voices – well, Mrs Blakey raised her voice. As quickly as it had started, it suddenly went quiet and he came out again. Something had happened which wasn’t very good. Erwin was in a panic; he grabbed me and, stomping on my pedals and muttering away in German, he rode me furiously out of the village, past the water tower, and down the hill towards Little Berkhamsted – it could only be the Doctor that we were going to see. I was right, but instead of meeting the doctor in the public house as usual, Erwin rode me to a big house further down the road. Throwing me against the hedge outside, he marched into the garden and thumped loudly on the door.
The doctor eventually came out and calmed him down – I couldn’t hear everything that was being said but Doctor Kemp’s voice did sound to be soothing Erwin. They were still inside the garden, behind the hedge, but as Erwin was about to leave I heard a few bits and pieces of their conversation.
“I think she’s dead….”
“…as I said, Erwin, don’t worry – I will sort it out.” A minute later, “..you wait and see tonight – there will be a lot of Zeppelins – just stay at the church and Mrs Blakey will be all sorted by the morning.” Finally I heard one slightly plaintive snippet from Erwin,
“So these will get to the right people?” Erwin could only have been talking about the plans with the landship drawings.
I had not the slightest idea what the Doctor had been talking about but I got the feeling that he was saying that he would sort out whatever had happened back at Mrs Blakey’s house.
Erwin rode me back to Essendon very slowly. Stopping at the first house in the village just after the Water Tower – where Mrs Bullard lived alone as her husband, Brigadier Thomas ‘Bully’ Bullard, was away in France – Erwin went inside. I decided that all the ‘visits’ to the wives waiting for news of their husbands away at war was as much for him to glean information about proposed military plans written in letters from the Front, as much as it was him getting his leg over. But this time, I think he just wanted somewhere to be other than at his lodgings. I think that Mrs Blakey must have discovered something…perhaps Erwin had the left the plans on the table and she’d found them!
We didn’t leave the Bullard’s until around 10pm, and after stopping off at the Rose and Crown we went to the Church. I was left in my usual place against the yew tree and Erwin disappeared into the darkened vestry once more. Nothing happened for some time. The sun finally set in the west and the sky slowly turned an inky black. The village was dark and the air was still.
After a couple of hours, I became aware of a noise. It was only a very low hum but there was definitely a noise coming from the north. Imperceptibly, the sound grew louder. It was then interrupted by another, much closer sound, that I recognised. Erwin had opened the door and was coming out of the vestry. He walked slowly to the edge of the churchyard and gazed out into the night in the direction of the noise. Then I saw them. Thirteen huge cigar shaped objects floating in the sky. They were at least three miles away over Hatfield and travelling slowly south in the direction of London. I had heard the word ‘Zeppelin’ from a couple of half-caught conversations in the village, and I had always assumed that they were some sort of German gun or aeroplane that had been attacking London. So this is what the Doctor was talking about. I had never seen or heard anything like these huge eerie objects advancing across the dark skies under the half light of the moon. Erwin stood with an almost reverential pose and seemed to rise up at the power of the vision in front of him. His country was bringing a heavenly destruction upon the people of London.
Forty minutes later – Erwin was still stood watching, even though there wasn’t much to be seen any more – there was a sudden bright yellow flash in the sky to the south. I later learned that one of the German airships had been shot down near Cuffley by an intrepid English pilot from the Royal Flying Corps. As the glow of the fireball died down, I became aware of the sound of the Zeppelins, well one of them at least, coming in our direction – it was much closer to us this time and coming straight for us. It was high above the fields, but not so high as it got close to the hill where Essendon perched. Closer and closer it got, until I could see very little else in the sky. Erwin raised his arms as if to hail the flying leviathan – he began to jump up and down with joy. The sound of the engines was deafening. Then, just as it seemed that it would strike the tower of the church, the nose began to rise and it soared up over us. At the same moment, a whistling sound could be heard; whistling, followed by a dull thud and then a huge explosion in the field behind the church. The Zeppelin was dropping its bombs on Essendon. Erwin stoood still and then turned and ran back towards me with genuine fear in his eyes. The last I saw of him was when he burst through the vestry door and slammed it behind him. A second later the vestry itself exploded in a huge ball of flame and dust as a bomb smashed through the roof and detonated inside.
After a few minutes, futile screams could be heard from the village. A number of bombs had hit and destroyed houses and two young girls were tragically killed at the forge. There was no panic; instead, a very English response to the disaster ensued. The village bobby, his uniform undone, was on the scene within minutes and everyone was returned to their homes with calmness. Apart from the two girls, no one else was injured and the majority of the bombs fell on open ground surrounding the village; the damage was much less than it could have been.
I stood there, unnoticed, against the Yew with the wreckage of the vestry strewn about in front of me. Huge lumps of stone lay across the path and the inside of the church could be seen through the gaping hole left by the explosion. At first light, the Bobby returned with another man in a trench coat with a very official bearing. It took me a while to realise that it was the Doctor. The two of them searched the rubble for a few minutes before finding what was obviously the remains of Erwin buried underneath. Nothing was said. The area was cordoned off and later that morning, after Lord Cecil arrived from Hatfield House to show official support for the villagers, some other men came and, before anyone else knew about it, brought out Erwin’s body and took it away. When Lord Cecil arrived it was the Doctor that had met him – he looked like he knew him – and conducted the tour of the damage. I never saw or heard anything about it again. It turns out that Mrs Blakey’s house was also destroyed in the bombing and her body found inside; another unfortunate victim of German aggression on mainland England – albeit at the hands of Erwin and not the Zeppelin.
It was a long time before I was ever looked at again – both my tyres had been punctured by shrapnel from the explosion and there was a big dent in my crossbar from a piece of falling masonry that had put me all out of shape and probably useless. Shortly after I was moved and put in a storage building at the back of the pub. I’m still here. I don’t regret my part in the deaths of those two ladies, and I’ll never forget being ridden around the village by Erwin. He was a bad man, but a charmer; he was a spy, but he also kept the home fires burning.
[The first tanks were deployed by the French Army in April 1917 at the Nivell Offensive and later that year on September 15th the British Mk 1 tanks were used at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette (part of the Battle of the Somme). The Germans never did know about the development of the tank in Britain – by the end of the war, the British and French had produced many thousands of tanks between them whereas the Germans had managed only 20.]
Simon’s Cycle Shorts are now available to buy in both paperback (£8.39) and Kindle (£2.99) versions from Amazon. HERE
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