A ripping real-life yarn of espionage and daring that also inspired Ken Follett’s novel Hornet Flight (2002).
Shortly before feisty 89-year-old Thomas Sneum died in 2007, British journalist Ryan tracked down the former pilot and elicited his amazing story of spying for British Intelligence in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Sneum grew up on the island of Fanoe, off the West coast. In April 1940, he was a 22-year-old flight lieutenant, furious that his superiors had refused to engage the mighty Luftwaffe as the Germans rolled into Denmark. Vowing to help the British, Sneum was careful to ingratiate himself with the occupiers. When a Nazi officer responded to his questions about a mysterious installation the Germans were building on Fanoe by boasting of “special technology” that could spot aircraft from far away, Sneum didn’t realize it was radar (then a little-known innovation), but he did guess it was a dangerous new tool. When he got to the British Legation outside Stockholm with this information, the naval attaché suggested he return to Fanoe and take photographs of it. Sneum not only got the photos, he insisted on flying them to England himself. With the help of his friend and co-pilot Kjeld Pedersen, he refurbished a beat-up Havilland Hornet Moth and took it on a hare-brained flight across the North Sea. Ryan’s depiction of this six-hour odyssey is studded with jaw-dropping facts: To refuel, for example, Sneum had to walk out on the wing while airborne. The author also crafts a convincing description of his subject as a scrappy, immodest, slightly oily charmer. The SIS sent him back to Denmark to learn more about the Germans’ boasts of a “super-bomb,” and he transmitted information by radio with the help of Danish Resistance engineer Duus Hansen. However, Sneum’s berth within Britain’s complicated intelligence network was always uneasy. He became fatally entangled in interdepartmental rivalries, and his allegiances were eventually called into question.
Ryan skillfully builds and sustains interest through a narrative that grows increasingly convoluted.