"Just one more call to make, then I'm finished for the weekend," thought Peter Greenfield as he drove the black Citroen along the potholed country road. It had been a good week and he'd made his sales target comfortably with some to spare.
Peter was a travelling salesman and a very good one. In fact he'd topped the sales list for Clarion Radio Receivers for the past two years. Some travellers were content just to sell the product but not Peter. He listened to his customers and got to know and understand them. He applied the same philosophy to his competitors, to his advantage and their discomfort. "Know thine enemy" was the dictum from his years of active service and he treated each business opportunity like a military campaign.
The post-war world was brimming over with opportunities. The cinema with its Hollywood fantasies was the stuff of dreams but wireless, or radio as it was becoming known, was the entertainment medium for most of the people. They listened to it at home and they listened at work, with the encouragement of the government that had cause to be grateful for its morale-boosting effect during the dark years of the war.
The war - it had been over for nearly four years but sometimes it felt as though it had never stopped. True, the bombs no longer fell but the government still kept the population on a short lead. Rationing, the necessity borne out of wartime shortages, was still in force - in fact it had become more stringent.
People didn't expect miracles but they wondered why butter, meat and other basic foodstuffs were in such short supply. The Attlee government had delivered a lot of its promises but people were beginning to grumble. Was it really necessary to spend precious public money on nationalising railways, coalmines and road transport? The miners had shown their gratitude by striking during the arctic winter that had almost paralysed Britain in 1947.
Apart from the occasional much-heralded arrival of a consignment of tropical fruit such as bananas, the British people were denied anything that smacked of luxury. "Austerity with a purpose" summed up the puritanical approach of that first post-war government. Peter sensed a change coming and not far off.
Production was getting back to normal and consumer goods were being manufactured but the home market was denied them. "Export or die" was the slogan as the government cajoled manufacturers to send the lion's share of their production abroad for much-needed foreign currency. Clarion's wireless sets were no exception. Only a small proportion of the output found its way into British homes. Exporters were king and Peter Greenfield was an exporter.
Fluent in French and German, Peter looked after a territory that covered most of northern France. From time to time he found himself in southern France as Clarion had failed to maintain a permanent representative in that area. Where a big order was concerned, Peter would go virtually anywhere.
He spent most of his time on the continental mainland, preferring to live where he sold rather than be based in England, so he spent many of his evenings passing orders back to Clarion via frequently unreliable telephone connections.
The British have never been keen linguists and Peter's ability to converse freely in French gave him an inbuilt advantage over those few competitors who troubled themselves with a non-English speaking market. With so many sets having been confiscated by the Germans, the French wireless market was ripe for exploitation.
Peter's astuteness also resulted in Clarion adapting its products to the French market. At his suggestion, Clarion sets could be easily adjusted to run on a variety of mains voltages and function on direct or alternating current. Much of rural France had no mains electricity or only had electric lighting so Clarion sets could also be run on the wet accumulators that were charged by almost every garagiste in France.
Rather than wait a year or more for a new Austin or Morris to fulfil the role of his company transport, Peter had suggested that he be permitted to purchase a car in France. After all, he would spend most of his time driving on the continent and a left-hand drive vehicle would be more practical.
After their initial surprise, Clarion's Sales and Finance Managers had agreed and Peter bought a 1938 Citroen Traction Avant that had been laid up for the duration of the war for want of fuel to run it. André Citroen's front-drive construction was revolutionary in its concept and the retired doctor who was selling it told Peter he was convinced that, one day, most cars would be driven via the front wheels.
Peter's wartime experience of exploiting shortages came into play and he financed the Citroen with a string of deals involving wireless sets, cans of corned beef, cigarettes and perfume. In real terms the car cost him little more than his month's salary. That's what came of having been his army company's "Mister Fix-it".
Despite having spent the war years under German occupation France was a pleasant place to live. Virtually anything you wanted was available - at a price - and people were optimistic about the reconstruction of Europe. Peter felt comfortable with the continental lifestyle but thought he'd probably return to Britain one day, maybe when it had a government sympathetic to private enterprise.
It had all been so opportune that he still couldn't believe his luck. During the German retreat after D-Day, an SS-Panzer unit had captured a British tank and its crew. Scharfuehrer Peter Grünefeld was bright enough to realise that, with the invasion, Nazism was doomed to failure. Unlike most of his diehard compatriots, Peter's allegiance was to himself first and his Fuehrer second.
Sergeant Peter Greenfield of the British Tank Corps was about his own age and bore a striking resemblance to himself, so the plan virtually formulated itself. The SS never was an organisation to obey the Geneva Convention that governed the rules of war. Stripped of their identities, the Tommies were quietly executed and their bodies destroyed in a barn fire. The SS NCO had feigned mechanical trouble with his kubelwagen and was left behind by those seeking to escape the Allied onslaught.
Donning the British uniform and tying a white sack to the PKW's radio antenna, Grünefeld gritted his teeth and drove back along the road that would lead to his salvation or his death. On reaching the Allied lines he was challenged by a British infantry captain and offered his carefully rehearsed explanation of capture and escape.
In the confusion that followed the invasion, all manner of strange things were happening and it wasn't unusual for soldiers to become detached from their units, sometimes fatally. Few questions were asked and Sergeant Greenfield was found a place with the infantry. After all, a good NCO was always useful!
The genuine sergeant had been an orphan, one of hundreds of Barnardo Boys who'd been encouraged to join up and swell the ranks of the British forces, so relatives would pose no problem. One army runs much like another and Grünefeld, a natural linguist, slipped easily into his new surroundings.
Occasionally, his slight accent was remarked on but was explained away as the product of his having been one of the thousands of Barnardo's children who had been sent to Canada as emigrants in the 1930s.
The following two years had proved difficult at times but Grünefeld's natural inventiveness enabled him to maintain his cover. His knowledge of German and Germany, though concealed from the British Army, was immensely useful and led in no small part to his promotion to Staff Sergeant before his demob in late 1946. In Civvy Street his exemplary service record and language skills opened doors for him, leading to his job with Clarion.
The Citroen clattered over the cobblestones and stopped in front of an imposing double-fronted emporium in the main square. There were still few private cars on the roads and those that arrived in the small town always drew an admiring audience of housewives, children and the idlers who frequented the cafes and bars.
Peter reached over into the back of the car for his briefcase. He opened it, checking that it contained the latest catalogue and his all-important order book. "Just this call," he thought, "then I'm finished for the weekend".
© Brian Smith 2003
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