"Safely and Freely to Pass"


In 2015, the United States Embassy, a great block of concrete and glass, dominates one side of Grosvenor Square at the heart of Mayfair – London’s swankiest district. On most days of the year, there are queues of Britiish citizens outside, lining up to get visas for travel to the US, watched over benignly by London police officers packing sub-machine guns.

America has had a diplomatic presence in Grosvenor square since the founding of the Republic. If you came here anytime during World War II, you’d have found more Americans than Britons; not only was the US Embassy here, so too were the headquarters of General Eisenhower and the American Red Cross.In those days, the Embassy was on the other side of the square, in a smaller but more elegant building.

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Grosvenor Square, London; view of the statue of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and (left background) the former headquarters of General Eisenhower. There is also a memorial here to the British victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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The former US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London. The building now houses the Canadian High Commission.

It was in this building, 70 years ago today, that Captain Robert M. Trimble, veteran bomber pilot of the US 8th Air Force, had his photograph taken and placed in a brand new passport. After being told that he was being sent to the USSR, he’d been kept hanging around in London for some time, and had been through some interviews with military attachés which had been troubling – to say the least. Although he’d been told that his job in the Soviet Union would be as a ferry pilot, transporting salvaged American bombers back to England or down to Italy, he’d heard things in those interviews that made him wonder if there was more to it than that. Much more.

From Beyond The Call

Like an aero engine on a cold morning, the bureaucratic machine had got off to a halting, juddering start. But now that it had been set in motion, it turned with a will, and Robert was swept along in the prop wash. In short order, he was equipped with travel warrants and other requisites for the long and roundabout journey to the USSR. He was also photographed and fingerprinted for ID documents. Unlike the plain, regular War Department AGO card he and every other officer carried, this was a real embassy-issue passport. Still unsure what intentions the military machine had for him, and whether they would be for good or ill, Robert lost the cheerful countenance he usually wore when a camera was pointed at him, and stared with deep suspicion into the lens. 

The photo was printed, and he signed it; then it was fixed into the passport, and “American Consular Service” was stamped across it. He was now officially part of the machine. Unofficially, and though he didn’t yet know it, he had passed beyond the bounds of the Army, and was now in the orbit of the Office of Strategic Services. 

rmt passport photo

Inside the passport, the US government stated its standard request to “all whom it may concern to permit safely and freely to pass, and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection to Robert M. Trimble.”

In reality it wouldn’t quite work out that way.

Content © Jeremy Dronfield and Lee Trimble 2017