Monday 21 May 2018

The secrets, sex and danger in Forsyth's life

REAL-LIFE THRILLS: Writer Frederick Forsyth was once tipped off that he had 80 seconds to flee his hotel in Hamburg before underworld arms dealers would arrive to exact revenge on him
REAL-LIFE THRILLS: Writer Frederick Forsyth was once tipped off that he had 80 seconds to flee his hotel in Hamburg before underworld arms dealers would arrive to exact revenge on him

Gordon Rayner

Writer's life as thrilling as his novels and would make former Wicklow resident a natural fit as a spy.

The voice on the other end of the phone was urgent and insistent. "Grab your passport and money and run like hell!" Frederick Forsyth, operating under a false identity, had upset the wrong people - underworld arms dealers - who had discovered his real name and were on their way to his hotel in Hamburg to exact revenge.

Forsyth was in his room when the anonymous call came through, telling him he had 80 seconds to get out of the city. He did not need to be told twice.

"I left all my clothes, grabbed my money and passport and ran across the square to the train station," Forsyth recalled. "There was a train pulling out so I vaulted the ticket barrier and did a parachute roll through the window, landing on a bewildered businessman. The ticket conductor asked me where I was going. I asked him where the train was going and he said Amsterdam. 'So am I,' I said."

The breathless episode could for all the world be an action scene from one of Forsyth's bestselling thrillers, set in the world of espionage, terrorism and secret agents.

The fact that it happened in real life is down to Forsyth's lifelong love of danger, which took him from the pilot's seat of an RAF jet fighter to Communist East Germany as a Reuters correspondent and war-torn Africa as a BBC reporter.

Now Forsyth - who lived in Co Wicklow for a number of years - is expected to reveal in his forthcoming autobiography that he played another, previously unknown role in life, as a spy for the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

As a former serviceman who spoke German and French like a local, and whose job took him across the Iron Curtain and behind enemy lines in Africa, Forsyth would have been a natural choice for an approach by MI6.

He also lived like James Bond even without the help of Britain's overseas spying agency.

The incident in Hamburg in 1974 was a case in point. Having found success with his first two novels, The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File, Forsyth was researching his next book, The Dogs of War, about a mining millionaire hiring mercenaries to topple an African republic.

Forsyth's experiences as a war reporter in Biafra, the short-lived breakaway state from Nigeria, in the late Sixties had brought him into close contact with mercenaries, but he needed to know how the soldiers of fortune in his novel could acquire an arsenal of military hardware on the black market.

Told by his contacts that the centre of the underworld arms trade was in Hamburg, Forsyth posed as a South African on a buying mission for a wealthy patron, and essentially played out the plot of his book.

"I managed to penetrate their world and was feeling rather proud of myself actually," he said later. "What I didn't know was that the arms dealer had passed a bookshop shortly after our meeting. And there, in the windxow, was The Day of the Jackal. With a great big picture of me, the man he thought was a South African arms buyer, on the back cover." Then came the call to his hotel room from a man he describes as "an insider friend". Exactly who this "friend" was he has never said, though one possibility must surely be that it was an MI6 agent who had infiltrated the arms dealer's inner circle, thus knowing that Forsyth was in imminent danger. His book later came out in German with the arms dealers thinly disguised, and "they didn't like it at all", he was told.

Forsyth (76), cut his teeth as a foreign correspondent in East Berlin, where he was routinely bugged and tailed by the Stasi. He quickly found himself sleeping with the enemy. During one excursion to Czechoslovakia, where he was used to being followed by the StB, the Czech secret police, 25-year-old Forsyth made eye contact with a beautiful young woman called Jana in a bar.

They had a drink together, then dinner, and Forsyth suggested a night-time drive on what was a stiflingly hot August evening.

"I suggested we go out to some lakes north of the city and have a swim," he said. "So we did. We parked the car, walked down the meadow to the lake, stripped off and had a swim. Then I spread a blanket out and we made love.

"Afterwards, I was lying down staring up at the stars, and I just murmured - I wondered what happened to my StB escort tonight? And she said: 'You've just made love to it'." Another romantic liaison led to Forsyth's swift retreat from East Germany a few months later. "I had been having a torrid affair with a stunning East German girl," he said later. "She explained she was the wife of a People's Army corporal, based in the garrison at faraway Cottbus. She was an amazing lover and rather mysterious.

"She was immaculately dressed and after our almost-all-night love sessions at my place refused to be driven home, insisting on a taxi from the railway station. I wondered about the clothes, and the money for taxis. One day I spotted one of the drivers at the station whom I had seen at my door picking up Siggi. He said he had taken her to Pankow. That was a very upscale address, the Belgravia of East Berlin. On a corporal's salary?

"It was in a bar in West Berlin that two buzz-cut Americans who screamed CIA slid over to offer me a drink. As we clinked they murmured that I had a certain nerve to be sleeping with the mistress of the East German defence minister."

Realising how much trouble he was in, a week later, having made excuses to Reuters, he walked through Checkpoint Charlie with a single holdall and flew back to London.

His next posting was to Biafra, where he reported from the Biafran side, highlighting the growing humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of children died from malnutrition. While there he was strafed by a MiG fighter jet, leaving a dent from a bullet in his typewriter.

Even in his seventies, he refused to allow danger to get in the way of his research. For his 2010 novel, The Cobra, he needed to find out about drugs cartels and flew to Guinea-Bissau in West Africa.

While Forsyth was flying into the country, the army's chief of staff was assassinated, then he was woken in his hotel room by the army's revenge, a bomb exploding at the nearby presidential villa. The president was hacked to death. "I spent the night hanging out of my hotel window watching the military avenge their leader, with rocket-propelled grenades going off everywhere," Forsyth said. For his trouble, he developed cellulitis and almost lost his leg.

"It is a bit drug-like, journalism," he once said. "Even in your seventies, I don't think that instinct ever dies. But my wife worries all the time. She rails at me."

Sandy Forsyth might now rail at him even more, if, as expected, he reveals that for years he was also risking his life by spying for MI6.

Sunday Independent

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