22 September 2014

Language Skills of a German Spy

One would naturally expect that any German spy who arrived in England during World War 2 would have been relatively fluent in English. If a spy wanted to blend into English society, language would have formed an important part of their disguise.

Unfortunately, most of the German spies who arrived in England were less than fluent in English. Those who could speak the language passably had obvious foreign accents. For example, of the four spies who landed along the coast of Kent in early September 1940, only one, Carl Meier, could speak a bit of English, and his was heavily accented.

Logo of Berlitz Language Schools
Logo of Berlitz Language Schools
The Language Skills of Josef Jakobs

Josef Jakobs didn't speak English very well. According to his own admission, he had only taken a few English classes at the Berlitz language school in Hamburg in the fall of 1940. He did have a smattering of French, a bit of Spanish and had even learned Latin and Greek in school. But English had never been part of his repertoire.

German-English Metoula Sprachführer - similar to the one Josef had.
German-English Metoula
Sprachführer - similar to
the one Josef Jakobs had.
Some of the MI5 officers thought that Josef was pretending to have a poor comprehension of English. They couldn't understand why the German Abwehr would send poorly prepared spies to England. But with a bit of French, Spanish and Latin in his background, plus German, Josef would have been able to identify and perhaps use various English words with the same linguistic roots

When Josef landed in the farmer's field near Ramsey on 31 January, 1941, he had a blue English-Germany Metoula dictionary in his possession (similar to the one at left). After his convalescence at Dulwich Hospital, Josef was taken to Camp 020 in April, 1941, where the dictionary was eventually returned to him. He was given English newspapers to read, and probably improved his English skills during that time.

Josef's little blue dictionary disappeared into the mists of time, possibly taken by the officers of MI5 or thrown into the trash.

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