An old-school ambassadors’ row on Dag Hammarskölds Väg, Stockholm, Sweden
I’ve found that scouting out the foreign locations I plan to cite in my stories can draw me into fascinating encounters. E.g. (exempli gratia)…
A compact Swedish patrol car glided to a stop just in front of me. A man inside, clad in a uniform, summoned me to his side window as it slid down.
“You!” he said. “You take picture embassy.” His tone was accusatory.“Sure.” I brandished my camera to show I felt had nothing to hide.
“Why you do this?” he demanded.
“The building once held Britain’s legation during World War II.” I pointed to a three-story brick building behind me, an ornate but crumbling pile with a weed-choked back lot. It stood in Stockholm’s venerable Östermalm district, a few meters from a blue inland waterway. “Resistance fighters and spies from Norway used to meet there, in rooms and basements,” I said. “To eat, rest, gear up for the next mission.”
The guard’s eyebrows climbed toward his sleek haircut. “Truly?” he wondered.
“Yep,” I said. “It’s why I’m here. I came from California to research operations from that period in your country.”
His gaze stayed suspicious, yet reduced its hostility. Time for me to close my sale.
“Look. In ten minutes, I have a meeting with Commander Moore—defense attaché for the present British Embassy. Just around the corner. Why not follow me to that building and watch as I go in?”
He considered this. “Not necessary,” he said.
“Good,” I said. “I get it man, you’ve got a job to do in the here and now. But my job is looking into events that occurred, like, eighty years ago. Don’t see why that should bother you.”
“Right,” he conceded, finally smiling as he drove off.
A QUIET CLUSTER OF TRANQUIL ISLES
A famed formula by Prussian general Carl von Clauswitz (simplified here) made in 1832 goes: War is politics by other means. That equation works equally well in reverse: Politics can often become war by other means. In Sweden of the 1940s, both styles were put to use. As World War Two raged, Germany occupied Denmark and Norway and allied itself with Finland. Thus encircled, Sweden fought to remain neutral. This meant, in practical terms, its capital city became a mecca of intrigue and spycraft—or, as historian Alf Skjeseth says in his 2018 book—a Casablanca for Northmen.
The Östermalm District of Stockholm, then as now, is an archipelago of foreign embassies large and small. Amid the war, these isles of diplomacy were wreathed by other, less formal or reputable outposts, such as: spy and commando headquarters, propaganda outlets, clandestine armories, safehouses and the like. Platoons of spooks spent each waking hour hatching plots, stealing secrets, wreaking mayhem and smuggling goods, all the while continually seeking to outmaneuver, tail, outscheme, and (literally & figuratively) bug the hell out of one another.
What a lovely place—I thought, as this picture grew ever more clear—for me to establish a setting in “Splinter II.” That would be my sequel to the novel, “Splinter,” which came out in July, and covers the rise of resistance to the German invasion of Norway in 1940. I thought I might up my game for its sequel by broadening its scope. Stockholm could be a fine location to attempt that.
GALUMPHING INTO TOWN
However, my own arrival in Stockholm turned problematic. Then, it didn’t even look possible. Scandinavia in August was inundated by strong storms that drowned highways and railroad tracks, booting many people’s journey plans into cocked hats.
Luckily, my wife Dawn is a highly seasoned traveler who almost never takes “no” for an answer. When it looked like we might get stuck in Bergen due to a canceled train, she snared us two of the last seats left on an airplane. Once we landed in Oslo, we used a cab to make up for the trains that weren’t running and skirt all the buses jammed by frustrated commuters.
Next day, I took off solo for Stockholm. Not by the direct train I’d originally bought a seat for, which simply wasn’t running. I was forced to take a bus to Gothenburg, then catch a supposed express train to Stockholm. But it ran ever slower, and at times stopped entirely. Announcements about cause and effect were in Swedish. I asked a woman seated behind me for the skinny in English.
“Oh, we have downed power lines,” she told me. “Then they located an alternative track, but a moose happens to be standing on it.”
“I may have a solution,” I advised. “Mooseburgers for everyone.”
The upshot was, we slipped into Oslo Central Station 3.5 hours late. My fond hope had been to arrive by daylight, then get to know this city by walking across its center, a jaunt of about two miles, to reach my hotel.
I followed a guy who seemed to know exactly how to exit the station. Next, I found myself on a high, wide platform. No street bore any sign that matched my map. Instead of immersing myself in a cheerful daylit scene, I gazed out into a vast globe of darkness stippled by street lights and slashed by neon signage.
TAKE IT EASY—OR TRY THE OTHER WAY
My predecessor leapt into a waiting cab and zoomed off. I yearned to do the same. “Just give a driver the name of your damn hotel!” I thought. “Let him take care of you.” But then, I scolded myself. “Dude, don’t wimp out. Now, imagine yourself in a different scenario. You’re a downed Allied pilot, forced to sneak into town, past all the high-risk opposition. Need to reach your embassy. How can you do that?”
Numero uno, ya just gotta start. After walking in two faulty directions, I realized the upper level of this station was really a mass of ramps rising above that area’s true streets. I slid a hidden compass out of my Swiss Army travel watch, got my bearings straight, exited to the south, then headed northeast.
I gave myself a break. Any desperate refugee might try to seek help from locals. I stopped at a convenience store where teenaged boys were swatting away at control panels on kiosks that seemed to display video games. I asked them to point out where I was on my map. They looked aghast that anyone in the 21st Century might not navigate by smart phone. Their stares made me feel a bit like The Ancient Mariner. (“Unhand me, greybeard loon!”) But one, taking pity, said: “I think that maybe you could be close to here…” in heavily accented English, and stabbed his finger at my unfurled paper.
I kept on. I noticed a thoroughfare with a hanging sign offering a word “Östermalm” and an arrow. Still better! Abruptly I found myself next to a triangular plaza and near a building whose shape leapt out at me. Not that I’d ever been there before. But I had seen photos online of a Gothic structure holding a bistro on its lower floor that was dubbed “The Spy Bar.” It won that label because in World War II, this place supposedly had been a watering hole named “Regnbågen” or “The Rainbow”—a major hang for this city’s very robust contingent of Gestapo agents.
OUT ‘N’ IN AT A WORMHOLE
In that exact instant, the world shuddered for me and its outward manifestation seemed to alter. A crowd of nocturnal revelers flowing across this downtown Stockholm plaza seemed to shift before my eyes from youths clad in casual, modern mufti to men wearing long coats and brimmed fedoras and women in calf-length dresses, silk stockings and flats. Of course, I had to pardon my brain for loosening its grip on reality somewhat, since I was extremely tired.
However, beyond that, for years I’d stayed in keen quest of a wartime period that had fully captured my interest. Now, I’d spontaneously begun to visualize it.
Well, if this was indeed the city’s Stureplan plaza, then my hotel lay a defined number of blocks to my north and east. All I need do was count them off as I strode on a zig-zag path. Key to arrival at my new home base would thus just be a wee game of hopscotch. I found the Hotel Karlaplan banner hanging out above the pavement of Skeppargatan, scooted through the high stone arch of its entrance, checked in, got my key, flopped onto the bed and slept like the dead for six hours.
Then it was time to resurrect, avail myself of breakfast (Karlaplan presents the best morning buffet I’ve ever chomped in any hotel) and then set about scouting out the other locations on my agenda. Of which there were lots.
ECHOING OUT OF THE PAST
I had buildings to meet plus people to see.
I planned my two days of walking tours as a series of loops. For instance, one began as a stroll past The Grey House on Östermalmsgatan, where the Swedish secret police labored to make sense of all the chaos that swirled around them and attempted to shape and control the worst of it. That place looked to be an appropriately anonymous structure. All its excitement was inside. Staff members within must’ve felt their feet oft were about to land on banana peels no matter which way they stepped.
Next, on to a more classic embassy, the Soviet’s mansion on Villagatan where the GRU (army intelligence) and NKVD (secret police) hatched their plots. Then, the phony passport office on Birger Jarlsgatan where the British SIS (secret intelligence service) or MI6 concocted countermoves. Southward to the peninsula by Nybroviken where fancy hotels like Grand Royal and The Strand were likely hangouts for such operatives as might have fat rolls of bribe money stashed in their trouser pockets. East again on Strandvägen, past a hideout for Wild Bill Donovan’s OSS agents, then the location of a safehouse for Churchill’s Special Operations Executive or SOE—whose personnel were charged by that wartime leader with a mission of, “setting Europe ablaze.”
These walking tours helped me garner overall impressions. Such as, observing a German tendency—at the Regnbågen, at Goebbels’ propaganda office, at the Abwehr’s headquarters and the legation building—to settle into places with a brooding, Gothic ambiance, often garlanded by stonework filagree. But beyond that, I gained an appreciation for this district’s tightly drawn chessboard, where secret agents fought for years to figure out whether they were knights or pawns, based on which moves they could pull off, versus what tricks got pulled on them.
A MEASURE OF BRITISH CHARM
Many embassies today still use the genteel, consular mansions of a bygone era, albeit with various security enhancements. For example, near that old British Legation house, the Turkish and South Korean embassies occupy quite similar brick buildings. However, fences around the Korean unit are wrapped in razor wire, while the Turks settle for high and locked steel gates. Both are ringed by security cams; which explains how and why a security guard might’ve grown a bit excited as he watched me snap photographs only a few meters away.
Plenty of brand-new embassy buildings—American, German, British—now forego old-school gentility in favor of erecting bland concrete fortresses, with blockhouse sally ports, beefy bollards, and windows that appear thick enough to block an RPG. We’re still at war, all these structures seem to say, yet differently.
The morning I met Commander Moore, I was sized up, documented, escorted, stripped of my electronics, and then introduced to a trim, well-tailored man who led me to the inner sanctum. This was Moore: polite, curious, and welcoming. We got tea and settled in a conference room. Neither he nor I had much time to get acquainted, a scant half-hour. But he was keenly interested in the WWII mission that had started me down this path.
In 2005, I’d written a front-page story for The San Francisco Chronicle about the wartime exploits of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Back in 1943, he was assigned to transfer three American subchaser vessels to members of the Norwegian Resistance, then train them in their use. I gave Moore book and verse on this operation. And as for me, I mainly wished to thank Moore for the interest and help and advice I’d already received from his staff.
They had answered my initial, e-mailed inquiry kindly, telling me about the old Legation office, and introduced me to Swedish wartime historian Lars Gyllenhaal, who had introduced me to his colleague Anders Johansson, who in turn would introduce me to Alf. These authorities on the war in Scandinavia directed me to books and studies that enriched my grasp of the war era and guided my explorations in Stockholm. And they, like Moore, seemed to understand that while our world appears to have changed, many of its dynamics have kept stubbornly similar.
Or as the sage Churchill once put it, “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”
I gave Moore and his staff one of my precious hard copies of Splinter (I hadn’t been able to bring many with me). And I signed it, “To the British Legation of the 1940s and its heirs, and to the heroes of the SOE and their successors.”
A view of the waterfront side of the British Legation’s home in Stockholm in the 1940s. Here, resistance fighters, spies and SOE commandos would gather to plan exploits during World War II.