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In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes," wrote Benjamin Franklin in the revolutionary year 1789. To that list might be added a new word: expenses. It did not need British parliamentarians to demonstrate that there is nothing so trivial or momentous that it cannot be claimed as an expense. One man tried to claim starting a war on expenses — in fact, the biggest war in history.

The story is told by Andrew Roberts in The Storm of War, his new history of the Second World War, which is published in August by Penguin. On 26 August 1939, a commando unit of the German Abwehr (military intelligence) was ordered to infiltrate Poland to pave the way for the impending Nazi invasion (codenamed Plan White). The 24 men of the "Construction Training Company 800 for Special Duties" had the task of capturing a railway station at Mosty at the dead of night to secure a strategically vital tunnel in the Carpathian mountains. Their commander, Leutnant Dr Hans-Albrecht Herzner, carried out his mission, but the Polish guards fought back and a confusing nocturnal skirmish broke out, with casualties on both sides. Meanwhile, and unknown to Herzner, Hitler had ordered a postponement of Plan White, so the whole operation had to be aborted: order, counterorder, disorder. Not until day broke were the Abwehr able to get their commandos out.

To the Poles, the Germans tried to explain away the incident as a mistake about the forest border. "As the operation had not been an official military one," writes Roberts, "and had taken place in peacetime, Herzner very Teutonically put in for overnight expenses of 55 Reichsmarks and 86 pfennigs." The officer got his money, though the award of an Iron Cross (Second Class) had to wait. It is not known if he had to provide receipts.

Less than a week later, Operation White was reactivated and the Second World War commenced. The exploits of Construction Training Company 800 were worthier of Dad's Army than the Wehrmacht. But the affair marked the opening of hostilities that would last for six terrible years. Leutnant Dr Herzner's claim certainly puts Westminster's expenses in perspective.

 
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