The origins of “The Best of Our Spies”

Alex Gerlis tells the story of how his first novel, The Best of Our Spies, came to be written.

The origins of The Best of Our Spies go back to the spring of 1994, although it was to be a number of years before I started to write the book.

June 1994 was the Fiftieth anniversary of D-Day and at the time I was an Assistant Editor on BBC Breakfast News when I was asked to lead the programme’s coverage of the Fiftieth Anniversary of D-Day.

At the time, my knowledge of D-Day was fairly superficial. When I did History A Level, the Crusades were regarded as modern history.

I was aware that my father’s eldest brother, a sergeant-major in the Kings Royal Rifles, had landed in Normandy a day or two after D-Day, at the same time as his younger brother was flying RAF Lancasters over Occupied Europe.

As far as I was concerned, D-Day was a straightforward story: heroic Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy were followed by an emphatic Allied victory and the fall of Berlin and VE Day almost exactly eleven months later.

But as I researched D-Day it became evident that the story was much less straightforward that it first appeared. The Allied landings were indeed heroic, but the battle that followed was far more protracted than the Allies had envisaged.

For example, General Montgomery’s battle plan was to capture Caen within twenty four hours; in the end it took a month for the city to be liberated. The truth is that despite the overwhelming superiority that the Allies had in terms of troops and air and naval dominance, the Germans put up a strong defence.

This is all the more remarkable considering that only one of the two Germans armies in northern France, the 7th, was based in Normandy on the 6th of June and for the rest of that month. The far superior 15th Army was based in the Pas de Calais and remained there until July, by which time the Allied victory was assured. Had the German 15th Army been in Normandy on D-Day or had moved there immediately after the landings then the outcome of the Battle of Normandy and possibly of the whole war could have been very different.

The reasons for this are many and varied, but there is no doubt that a hugely significant factor was the Allies brilliant deception operation, known as Fortitude. Fortitude played on the disagreements in the German High Command as to where the landings were going to take place; Normandy or the Pas de Calais. Fortitude helped convince many in the German High Command, including Hitler, that not only would the main Allied landings be in the Pas de Calais but that the landings in Normandy on 6th June were a feint, so keeping the 15th Army in the Pas de Calais for a few more crucial weeks.

I became fascinated with the deception operation and how it had contributed to the Allied victory. This is the factual basis of The Best of Our Spies. Over the years I read what I could on Fortitude but it was a number of years before the story came to me. We were on holiday in France, although nowhere near either Normandy or the Pas de Calais, when out of the blue, these following lines came to me:

“Owen Quinn woke with a start from a deep sleep on the morning of that first Tuesday in June. He would not sleep properly again for the next eight months.”

I scribbled them down and the plot and the characters all flowed from those thirty words. These lines were intended to be the opening sentences of the book and indeed were in the first draft of the book; you will now find them at the start of Chapter 18.

Over the next few years I began to do more work on the story, developing the plot and the characters. Although it was always going to be a work of fiction, I did try and adopt as journalistic approach as possible. I wanted to story to feel authentic and where I was dealing with events that actually happened or with real locations, I wanted those parts of the book to be as accurate as possible. I visited the Pas de Calais, Normandy, Paris and Berlin as well as various locations in London. I spoke to a number of people with first-hand knowledge of some of the events covered, including a former member of the French Resistance from the Boulogne area and a survivor of the pre-war Jewish community in Paris.

In the summer of 2008 I was having lunch with a friend and talking about the book. Their response was something like “why don’t you write it then?” I couldn’t think of a good answer why not, so I did.

I took some time off work in late December 2008 and January 2009 and the first draft of The Best of Our Spies. I showed the first 50,000 to a friend who is a professional actor so is used to looking at scripts. He liked it and so a second draft followed and I sent that to Curtis Brown, a leading London literary agency. One of their agents, Gordon Wise, took me on – and here we are.

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