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Not waiting for the wind

By Warren Reed - posted Thursday, 12 January 2012

Three strands come together to make this one of the most powerful and insightful stories to emerge from WWII in recent times: the spectre of German-occupied Denmark, a strong sense of duty and an indomitable human spirit.

Tommy Sneum was a twenty-two-year-old flight lieutenant in Denmark's Fleet Air Arm when the Nazis rolled across the border in April 1940. To avoid being crushed by the might of the German military machine, the Danes chose to surrender, but that decision left men like Sneum bitterly resentful. They wanted to fight the Luftwaffe in the skies over Copenhagen, but instead found themselves grounded and powerless. The Germans, aware of this sentiment, boldly courted them with attractive offers in the hope of luring them across to their side. But Sneum was unmoved and opted to work for the Allies. Fluent in both English and German, his key aim was to escape to England, but before leaving he sought to gather intelligence that would not only aid the fight against the invaders but also earn him a pilot's place in the RAF.

His exploits in mapping and photographing German radar installations on the Danish coast ultimately proved invaluable to the British. But before he had a chance to personally deliver the material, he found himself obliged to marry the daughter of an influential family with whom he had an affair that resulted in pregnancy. This made his escape all the more complex, though when it finally came a year later, it involved an epic flight that makes readers of this book turn its pages at record speed.


Another Danish patriot provided Sneum and his fellow pilot with a Hornet Moth bi-plane for their getaway. The only problem was that its 600-kilometre range meant that they would fall short of Britain's coastline by over 100 kilometres. And that was if they managed to take the most direct route. But Sneum came up with a solution: load the tiny aircraft with extra cans of fuel and refill its tank mid-air. That would entail him going out on the wing to tackle the task. The pair took off just before midnight from a downward-sloping grass runway near the sea, knowing that they had to gain altitude fast in order to clear a railway embankment and power lines that lay dead ahead. Having passed the point at which their take-off could no longer be aborted, they suddenly spotted a late train trundling along the track. Worse, the extra fuel that they had on board had weighed the plane down. But by a miracle – and with the help of a few desperate prayers – they did make it, narrowly missing both obstacles and passing under the power lines. Then they had to contend with German anti-aircraft fire and later, over the North Sea, with an engine that froze because of the cold and ice, but which they managed to restart just before hitting the water.

Put simply, this is the sort of story that explains why truth is stranger than fiction.

Sneum and his colleague eventually made it to Britain, though when they landed, their reception quickly turned to farce. A home guardsman who approached them on a bicycle refused to confirm that they'd landed in England.

Sneum was recruited by MI6 – the Secret Intelligence Service – and sent back into Denmark as a spy. He ever only understood that he was working for "British Intelligence", which was a dangerous generalisation that actually heightened the risk of his being caught by the Nazis and subjected to their infamous torture methods, and ultimately being executed.

And this is the nub of the story: the rivalry between the long-established MI6 and the 'upstart' SOE – Special Operations Executive – which had been set up to cause havoc behind enemy lines. Two different organizations were sending operatives into the same field of activity, yet often at cross-purposes. Despite this, Sneum and the outstanding band of sub-agents he recruited kept producing top quality intelligence (including on the German quest to build an atomic bomb) and sending it back to be fought over by personalities desperate to gain kudos over others in different parts of the system in London.

When Sneum escaped a second time to England, some so feared his outspokenness and were so jealous of his achievements that they cast doubt on his loyalty to the Allied cause. They claimed he was a double agent, who had been 'turned' early on by German intelligence. This led to him being thrown into Brixton Prison where he narrowly escaped the hangman's noose, and that only because a few brave men in the system stood up for him. He was later cleared of all charges and honoured for the work he had done.


When Sneum died in 2007, a few months short of his 90th birthday, his son included in his death notice in the Danish newspapers a poignant observation made about his father during the war. Reginald Jones, key scientific adviser to Winston Churchill and also assistant director of British Scientific Intelligence (a sub-section of MI6) at the time, always believed in Sneum. He understood the Dane's bravery in putting his life on the line, without hesitation, to win the battle against Nazism. 'If they survive,' Jones noted, 'the men who go first are rarely popular with those who wait for the wind to blow.'

This well-written book is apt testimony to the quality of the man, and woven through its narrative is Sneum's legendary love of women. Had he been able to join the RAF in the first place, he would undoubtedly have had enough testosterone left over to bomb Germany into prompt submission.

Warren Reed was an intelligence officer for ten years with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and was trained by MI6 in London.

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This is a review of The Hornet's Sting: The amazing untold story of Second World War spy Thomas Sneum, Mark Ryan. Piatkus Books, a Little Brown Imprint, London, 2008.

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About the Author

Warren Reed was an Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee scholar in the Law Faculty of Tokyo University in the 1970s. He later spent ten years in intelligence and was also chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. He served in Asia, the Middle East and India.

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