In January 1921 hundreds of bonfires began burning in the hillsides around the Mongolian capital of Urga. The Bloody Baron had returned.
Baron Roman Feodorovitch von Ungern-Sternberg had first besieged Urga the previous October. Four attempts by his Asiatic Cavalry Division to take the town were beaten back by Chinese troops.
The Division retreated back into the steppes to regroup, recruit fresh troops, and make contact with Mongolian nationalists. Few locals liked the new Chinese overlords who had moved into the power vacuum left by the Russian Civil War. Rumours spread that a clique of lamas in Urga, close to the Living Buddha, were plotting to help the Baron’s men.
The Chinese tightened security; some Russians in the town were imprisoned, others were shot. In the hills, the Baron waited for his fortune tellers to tell him the best time to attack.
Darul Islam was on the run in late 1949. The jihadist army’s jungle camp was a hive of soldiers in short-sleeved shirts and Dutch army helmets. They slept in bivouacs under the palm trees and leaned their old rifles in tripods. The perimeter was strung with rattling tin cans strung on wire.
Down time was spent crouching around cooking fires watching cassava boil. On a good day the jihadists would get an extra pinch of sugar or salt but sometimes food was so scarce they ate leaves. A pack of Escort cigarettes was the kind of luxury that could make a man feel like a king.
The 15,000 strong Islamic army was trapped in a shrinking triangle of territory down in Pasundan’s south-east, a state in newly independent Indonesia. Some locals supported them. Others waited until the green Darul Islam flag with its crescent moon wrapped tight around a star had passed out sight, then contacted the authorities. If the soldiers of Darul Islam discovered the disloyalty they would return and exterminate the village, leaving houses in ruins and crops polluted by bodies and blood.
When you hit the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 1992 you stayed at the Metechi Palace Hotel. Everyone did.
You got a taxi from the airport. It cost $5 and the driver spent more time negotiating bribes with the roadblocks manned by young men with AK-47s and leather jackets than he did at the wheel.
The city was a wreck, smoke-black from the recent fighting. Out the taxi window you saw the shops embracing free enterprise, selling Malaysian exercise books, Korean playing cards, fake Camel cigarettes, leather jackets from Turkey. The bookshops that sold only Soviet engineering texts and copies of the twelve century Georgian epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, that everyone in the country already owned. The Stalinist-style parliament building, half destroyed in the fighting, its supporting columns eaten away by RPG rounds. The street vendors selling orthodox icons, nesting dolls, glassware, ornamental daggers, the family silver.
Sitting comfortably? Then put a new cigarette in its ivory holder and refresh your whisky and soda. Get the servants to stoke the fire because these old houses can get so cold at night. And make sure your service revolver in the desk drawer is loaded. Captain Grimes is coming round tonight to discuss the accounts.
The little matter of those post-dated cheques in the mess tin. You might be forced to take the gentleman’s way out. Or you might be forced to shoot Captain Grimes.
The wealthiest stratum of British society has always prided itself on loyalty and devotion to duty. But too many of the aristocrats, trust fund beneficiaries and members of the officer class who sit at the apex of Britain’s social triangle have a moral backbone like a bit of wet spaghetti. From Rupert Bellville to Simon Raven, the Earl of Erroll to John Aspinall, the most respectable part of the country has churned out black sheep on a production line scale.
So put away that portfolio of artistic French photographs and leave answering the love note from your brother’s wife until later. Let’s take a stroll through the last one hundred years of bankrupt aristocrats, corrupt golden youths, and frankly untrustworthy remittance men. Books and the odd flick will be our signposts.
We’ll start gently, with some flawed heroes. Let’s go back to the days when we still had an Empire … .
When the ambulance crew got there they found Stepan Bandera dead on the block’s third floor landing outside his apartment. The crew guessed the fifty-year-old Ukranian had died from a fall. Bandera’s crying wife insisted he had been murdered. It was Thursday 15 October 1959.
It took until the following Tuesday for the coroner’s report to reach Munich police. The Ukrainian had traces of cyanide in his stomach. Now it looked like suicide.
‘We are completely in the dark as to the motive,’ a police spokesman told reporters.
Wednesday, 22 August 1962. Ten past eight in the evening.
It was just a yellow Estafette van parked in front of a hedge on the road to Villacoublay. The few pedestrians around didn’t pay it any attention.
If they had, they would have seen Serge Bernier sitting in the back, a slim and blond Korean War veteran with startlingly blue eyes. A man called Lazlo Varga at the wheel. Three men in the back seat: Gérard Buisines, and the Hungarians known as Sari and Marton.
Observers might have wondered why Bernier was scanning the road with a pair of binoculars. The answer was simple: Charles De Gaulle’s limousine sometimes used this route. And the men in the van were trying to kill him.
On the morning of Monday 19 July 1976 two employees of the Société Générale’s Nice branch trotted down the stairs to the steel door of the bank’s underground vault. The pair of keys required to open the vault door had to be turned simultaneously in locks too far apart to be operated by the same man. Société Générale prided itself on its security measures.
Each man inserted his key in the lock and turned it, expecting the door to swing open. Nothing happened. They tried again. Same result. It would be three and a half hours before anyone discovered the vault door had been sealed shut from the inside with a welding arc.