The Mermaid Chair


So what exactly did Operation Remorse achieve? Reckoning up the value of a clandestine organisation like SOE is always difficult. For every Heroes of Telemark mission, there is the depressing debacle of SOE in Holland, where, thanks to ‘turned’ radios (when the Germans operated captured sets, pretending to be British agents still in the field), every single parachute drop of men and materials for more than a year fell straight into the Abwehr and Gestapo’s outstretched and welcoming arms.

Remorse, though, is rather different, although whenever it is mentioned in histories of SOE, it is treated as a something of a mere sideshow. After all, it didn’t involve glamorous female agents going undercover, midnight landings by Lysander or interrogation by the Gestapo; it was grubby old Trade, a war fought across the pages of ledgers and bank statements, rather than any kind of covert derring-do. Yet it is far easier to quantify Remorse’s success than its more celebrated cousins. As Professor Bickers writes: ‘It served as an effective substitute in one sense for the formal presence of the British in China.. Remorse flew the British trading flag, and kept up a British presence in specific markets, where and when it could, for example in medicine.’

It also, of course, made a substantial profit. At one point in the undertaking, the Kunming office received a cable from John Venner in London asking them to stop trading for a while: thanks to Remorse, SOE had made a world-wide operating surplus for the month and he was having trouble explaining the situation to the Chiefs of Staff. The operation’s total profits may have amounted to as much as £77 million – in today’s terms, 2 US billion pounds.

SOE must be the only spying organisation ever to come out of a war with its books, at least for Far East operations, balanced and in the black. No wonder Walter Fletcher was awarded a Knighthood after the war.

By the end of 1945, Remorse had been shut down. Lionel Davis and Frank Shu (who was rewarded for his efforts with a British passport) subsequently formed a currency dealing company in Hong Kong, using the knowledge gleaned from Remorse to carry on the lucrative work by legitimate means. Wharton-Tigar went back to mining and his ever-expanding collection of cigarette cards. He eventually bought the house next door to his own in Kensington to store them all, and bequeathed the bulk of his catalogue to the British Museum on his death in 1995.

Jill and Lorna Tidmarsh both married ex-POWs and settled down to be wives and mothers. And Sir Walter Fletcher? What possible career was there for a freebooting, carpetbagging man of gross appetites, a ‘thug with good commercial connections’, a roguish charmer who once described himself thus:

‘Garrulous, old, impulsive, vague, obese,
Only by luck ‘not known to the Police’
Wedded to Wine and Food, and oft-told tales,
Stuffed over-full, as foie gras in Quails,
A mind once keen, now almost in eclipse,
A figure, too, that looks like an ellipse:
This, and no more, be Walter’s epitaph:
‘In War’s worst hour he sometimes made us laugh.’

Well, he had no hesitation in identifying a suitable calling - immediately after the war he took his seat at Westminster as the Conservative MP for Bury, a position he held until 1955, when ill-health forced him to stand down. Sir Walter Fletcher died the following year, well before anyone outside a tiny circle of tight-lipped insiders had heard of his great billlion-dollar adventure in China.