Tuesday, 13 August 2013

If Walls Could Talk....

This piece was written by Mark Jones, who rediscovered it recently and passed it on to us. Mark won our Tales of Unease competition last year with Moonlight Over Inverkip, and runs his own proofreading business Wordsmith Jones Editorial, which proofread the Identity : Kith and Kin book this year. Mark has very gamely just started republishing excerpts from his 20 year old teenage diaries on A Diary of Teenage Embarrassment, which gamely contrasts his painfully recognisable diaries with videos and images from the same period. Nice stuff.

If walls could talk, what would they tell? The Greenock house opposite mine could spin an intriguing yarn. I wonder if the current occupants know. I’m tempted to ask, but I won’t for it has far from a pleasant plot and no happy ending. Besides, who wishes to learn that their home once housed a man hanged for treason?

Its former inhabitant is Duncan Alexander Croall Smith, later known as Scott-Ford. Born in Plymouth, 1921, and raised there until his father – a sick bay attendant in the Royal Navy – committed suicide in 1931, Scott-Ford had, by June 1939, joined the Navy. With war looming, he sailed aboard HMS Gloucester, bound for Dar-es-Salaam, in modern Tanzania.

Here, he met a 17 year-old German girl, Ingeberg Richeter. Having visited her family home several times, the pair traded three letters, a fourth being returned to Scott-Ford after the Richeters repatriated to Germany – perhaps indicating that his ardour for the girl was stronger than hers for him.

A year later, Scott-Ford docked in Egypt. Escaping war for a while, he dallied with a prostitute whose fees impoverished him. He twice forged his Post Office book to withdraw non-existent funds, and was courts-martialed, discharged dishonourably from the Navy. However, following his mother’s repayment of the money, his prison sentence was reduced to honourable discharge. Thus it was, in July ’41, that he arrived amid the bomb-shattered streets of Greenock.

It’s uncertain how his mother and stepfather moved to Bannockburn Street, but evidence suggests they had family connections to the town. Scott-Ford’s reunion with his mother went badly. After accusing her of spending his wages on fur coats for herself and his cousin, he harangued her for sullying his dead father’s reputation. To the relief of all, he decamped to Union Street, and – once his Admiralty papers arrived – signed to a merchant ship.

After touring the Caribbean, Scott-Ford returned to lodgings on West Blackhall Street, before securing a berth aboard the SS Finland. On February 10th 1942, he sailed from Greenock to Lisbon – a course that would lead, ultimately, to disaster.

One evening, Scott-Ford repaired to a Portuguese bar, where he was joined by a stranger who introduced himself as Rithman, a sea captain. Scott-Ford chatted with Rithman, reminiscing about Ingeberg. Rithman offered to arrange the resumption of the young lovers’ correspondence, but only if Scott-Ford confirmed a rumour that all British ships were to return to port by June 28th. Rithman then handed Scott-Ford 1,000 Escudos – no fortune, but a handy sum for a seaman.

Perhaps Scott-Ford had no knowledge of this rumour but decided to string along his companion, for either the money or a reunion with Ingeberg. Yet in doing so, he must have known he courted danger. This, after all, was an era in which sailors were warned that ‘loose lips sink ships’. For Rithman to supply money suggested he was more than merely curious in the whereabouts of British ships. And to have promised to put Scott-Ford in contact with Ingeberg could only mean he had relations with people inside enemy Germany. This was not a conversation any British seaman should have pursued.

The pair met again the following day, along with a mysterious Captain Henley. Scott-Ford may have been drunk the night before, but he’d had time enough to sober up and reconsider Rithman’s bargain. Yet, still he went. Why? Evidence suggests Scott-Ford was something of fantasist: he later portrayed himself as part of the ‘international spy racket.’ He was never that, for all the damage he may have caused. Nor was he very intelligent: any intent on his part to collude with the enemy put not only his fellow crewmembers at risk, but also himself. He was either stupid, or suicidal. Had he inherited his father’s depressive disposition? It’s possible he blamed the Navy for his father’s suicide; possible too that he resented it for representing the only career option available to him.

During May and July, Scott-Ford collaborated five times. In return for money, he signed receipts, naively using his own name, allowing Henley to blackmail him with the threat of exposure to the British consulate. Consequently, Scott-Ford surrendered a wealth of increasingly damaging information. After providing anecdotal comments concerning attitudes towards Churchill and the state of morale following German air-raids on Britain, he gave details of his convoy and ships lost along the way to torpedoes. He also provided the location of an aircraft factory at Merseyside, and details regarding the training of troops for a planned invasion of Europe he claimed to have overheard from Royal Marines in Greenock.

Conversely, his German paymasters became exasperated by his inability to supply other information regarding Britain’s minefields, warships Henley claimed were being built, and up-to-date copies of Jane’s military annuals. In a report made after Scott-Ford’s later internment, he was described as having arrived ‘full of bombast, visualising himself an important figure in the international spy racket […] eventually shown to be the traitorous rat he is.’ Traitorous, certainly. But in truth, Scott-Ford was never the master spy he made out.

Upon returning to Britain, Scott-Ford was twice asked whether he’d been approached by enemy agents while abroad. Initially, Scott-Ford claimed he had been approached but hadn’t co-operated. Perhaps he hoped to provide an alibi for any mysterious disappearances his colleagues might report. Perhaps he wished to appear important enough for agents to have taken an interest in him, but admirable enough to have spurned them. Possibly, his claims drew suspicion rather than deflected it, his superiors wondering why he’d waited so long to report the incident.

Asked again, on August 18th 1942, Scott-Ford proffered a similar answer. But British intelligence already knew Germans in Lisbon had been talking to an informer they code-named ‘Rutherford’. Confronted, Scott-Ford crumbled, confessing all. His personal effects were searched and notes discovered not only of the Finland’s movements since it left Lisbon but the names and positions of all ships in the convoy, as well as details of the aircraft protection provided.

He was sent to MI5’s Camp 020 in London and subjected to ‘rigorous methods of interrogation.’ Complying with the authorities, he became ‘increasingly alarmed’ at his situation. Like Timothy Evans – wrongly hanged for the murders of his wife and child in the later Christie affair – Scott-Ford appears to have been a man of below-average intelligence whose overactive imagination prevented him from separating fact from fiction, leading him to tell outrageous lies in order to impress others. Professor AWB Simpson has speculated that he may have been spared had he provided information on the German intelligence system. Tragically for Scott-Ford, this was information he simply didn’t possess. He just wasn’t the calibre of spy he’d led his accusers to believe. Only when he felt the cold shadow of the gallows fall slowly over him did he finally realise that the very people he should have been convincing of his innocence were people to whom he’d wasted time bragging his guilt.

On the 16th October 1942, Scott-Ford went on trial, in camera, at the Old Bailey. Judge Birkett heard from Sub-Lieutenant Wood, of the Admiralty’s intelligence division, that Scott-Ford’s actions would have proven ‘extremely useful to the enemy.’ Asked if Scott-Ford deserved reprieve, the Commandant of Camp 020 replied, ‘death by hanging is almost too good for a sailor who will encompass the death of thousands of his shipmates without qualm.’ Scott-Ford’s fate was sealed and the prophecy he made upon arrest was fulfilled:

‘If they can prove I’m a spy, they’ll send me on the eight o’clock walk.’

On 3rd November 1942, at Wandsworth, Albert Pierrepoint led the prisoner to the appointed spot, placed a white noose over his head and – with the pull of a lever – sent all 5’5", nine and a half stone of Duncan Alexander Scott-Ford’s body plummeting through the dark, gaping trapdoor and into the world beyond. The following day, a report appeared in the Times, with a warning to all British seamen against fraternising with strangers who might ensnare and blackmail victims.

One can only surmise how the news was received in Greenock, particularly by his family.

Scott-Ford wasn’t innocent. Neither, on the evidence we have, was he a particularly pleasant person. As for his motives, they are impossible to comprehend. Perhaps it hardly matters. Just the very thought that in different circumstances he might still be alive today makes his story, and the waste of his life, seem all the sadder.

I discovered his story while failing to find stories of former residents of my own home. My walls, it seems, don’t talk. However, soft whispers from a house opposite have intrigued me. They have transported my mind across oceans, aboard ships I’d never heard of, to cities and brothels and scenes of which I could never have imagined, and into the dark mind of one of Greenock’s lesser-known inhabitants. It makes me wonder what other tales remain to be told of our towns, if only we listen. If the walls of your street could talk, what might they tell?

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