Journalists on national newspapers get used to crank calls from people claiming the government is controlling their minds using radio waves or the Duke of Edinburgh is opening their post. So when Val Hann first called me at the Observer almost exactly five years ago, I was, I have to say, extremely sceptical about what she told me.
She had read an article I had written about Unity Mitford, the 1930s society beauty who became a groupie to Adolf Hitler and shot herself in Munich at the outbreak of war. Although the bullet entered her brain, Unity survived and lived out the rest of her short life as an invalid. But my caller claimed to have an extraordinary new angle on the story.
Val was a little nervous as she explained that her aunt Betty Norton had run a maternity home to the gentry in Oxfordshire during the war and that Unity Mitford had been one of her clients. Her aunt’s business, in the tiny village of Wigginton, had depended on discretion and she had told no one except her sister that Unity had had a baby. Her sister had passed the story on to her daughter Val.
I casually asked who she thought the father might be and there was a short silence on the other end of the line before she said: “Well, she always said it was Hitler’s.”
I must say I was tempted at this point to put down the phone. Christmas was coming and I was very busy. But for some reason I decided to carry on listening to this bizarre tale. Val didn’t sound mad, and she said she was merely passing on a family story.
The child was a boy, she believed, and he had been given up for adoption. She didn’t want any money; she just wanted me to look into it. So here was the prospect of Adolf Hitler’s love child alive somewhere in Britain - it was either the scoop of the century or completely bonkers. But it had to be worth a few hours of my time, even if it turned out to be a dead end.
For the Brits around here: “Hitler’s British Girl” will be shown on Channel 4 on Thursday 20 December at 9pm
Please video and put online