Did the British Security Service (MI5) capture every single one of the German spies who parachuted into England during World War II? That was the claim made by John C. Masterman, chair of MI5s Double-Cross Committee, in his classic book published in 1972. Today, MI5 still claims that the only spy to evade their net during World War II was Engelbertus Fukken (alias Willem Ter Braak) who committed suicide in a Cambridge air raid shelter early in 1941. But is this claim of infallibility actually true?
In February 1941, double-agent SNOW visited Lisbon to meet his German spy master, Nikolaus Ritter. During their conversation, Ritter expressed frustration with the parachute method of inserting spies into England. He acknowledged that the Abwehr had “lost many men by parachute” and his suspiciouns were aroused. “We’ve sent a lot of men over and nothing’s happened. They’ve gone wrong. There’s something wrong somewhere.” How many men did the Germans actually send over by parachute? The British Security Service extracted numbers and descriptions from the Abwehr handlers after the war, but one wonders if the Germans told the truth in its entirety. Perhaps the Germans omitted a few due to "faulty" memories.
The Spy in the Canal
Dropping agents by parachute, in the dark, with very little training was an endeavour fraught with risk. Several of Ritter's spies had been injured during their landings - wrenched and broken ankles, scratches, concussions. More serious yet, Ritter suspected that one of his agents had landed in a canal and drowned. Ritter told SNOW that the spy destined for Manchester had been sent over and yet this same spy had apparently not made contact with SNOW.
These two statements match up with a reference in Game of the Foxes by Ladislaus Farago. Farago stated that a spy "came down in the Manchester Ship Canal near the Mersey estuary above Birkenhead. He drowned, helpless and alone, on the night of September 7, 1940." Ritter also told SNOW that the same thing had happened to the spy from South Africa who probably "came down in a canal and sank because of the radio on him".
Beyond that, there is no reference to this mysterious spy of the Manchester Ship Canal. No hint as to his name or mission.
The Spy in the Cave
In 1947, in a cave on the Yorkshire Dales north of Manchester, two cavers found a skeleton. The police were notified and the body was sent off for forensic analysis.
The remains were found to be those of a male, about 5 ft 5 in tall with light brown hair. At the time of his death, two to six years prior to 1947 (i.e. 1941 to 1945), he would have been in in his mid to late 20s.
Although his clothing was badly decomposed, he appeared to have been well-dressed wearing a blue shirt and tie with a grey-blue suit that had red and white stripes. His outfit was completed with a tweedy, herringbone overcoat, a grey trilby hat and a plum coloured scarf. The scarf indicated the possible cause of death, being over his mouth at the time of death.
The skeleton was found with a small glass bottle and an unbroken ampule, both of which contained sodium cyanide, a lethal posion. The glass bottle was full to the shoulder and the coroner concluded that a lethal dose could possibly have been extracted from it. The coroner admitted that the bottle and ampule were of a design that he had never before seen.
The man also had two pairs of shoes, a mineral water bottle of the type issued to local hotels, a wristlet watch, handerchief, shaving tube, studs, toothbrush, fountain pen, propelling pencil, compass, box of matches, tablets, flashlamp, and toiletries. All of these items were typical of the sorts of things that parachutist spies brought with them. In addition, the man had a key but the police could not figure out which lock it might open.
Wide publicity around the discovery brought many people forward, claiming the body as their missing relative or acquaintance. But after exhaustive studies, all were ruled out. The identity of the body remained a mystery.
Was the man a German spy? A lost businessman wandering the Yorkshire Dales in the mist? Had he committed suicide or was it murder? Perhaps the key found on his person was to a briefcase containing his wireless transmitter, tucked away in some secret place?
The Spy in the Attic
Interestingly enough, there is yet another mysterious case from the Liverpool/Manchester area. This one is a bit sketchier.
Apparently, during the war, a man went up into his attic and heard the tapping of morse code from the semi-detached house next door. He told his wife that they should inform the police that they had spies living next door. She supposedly replied, "We shall do no such thing. Whilst they are spying the Germans are not going to bomb us". So, nothing was done.
After the war, the "spies" moved out and a new family moved in. The new man of the house later said that he found lots of aerial wires hidden in the chimney in the attic, but no wireless set.
Rumour or truth? Was there a lodger next door tapping out morse code from the attic? Was it simply a harmless radio buff practicing his morse code before being assigned to a ship as a signals officer? Or was it a British-born spy acting on behalf of the Germans?
SNOW: The Double Life of a World War II Spy. Nigel West & Madoc Roberts, Biteback Publishing Ltd. 2011.
The Game of the Foxes: The Untold Story of German Espionage in the United States and Great Britain during World War II. Ladislas Farago, David McKay Company Inc. 1971.
In the Highest Degree Odious. A. W. B. Simpson, Oxford Press, 1992.
MI5 website - World War II.
Spy in the Attic - History of the Wirral Hundred website.
Trow Ghyll Skeleton - Wikipedia.
Trow Gill Skeleton - Walking with a Smacked Pentax blog, 21 March, 2015.
The Unsolved Mystery of Body Pot - A Three Peaks Up and Under blog, 23 June, 2013.