19 August 2017

HD Paranormal Film - Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm - Untold Secrets (2017)

HD Paranormal - Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm - The Untold Secrets (2017)
HD Paranormal - Who Put Bella in the
Wych Elm - The Untold Secrets (2017)
A few weeks ago (August 4, 2017), the HD Paranormal film on Bella in the Wych Elm was released and screened to an audience of 400-plus people in Stourbridge Town Hall. According to audience reviews, it was a very engaging film.

There are a few reviews of the film which offer some tantalizing hints of what is in the movie.
    Express & Star review
    Midland Movies review
    Stourbridge News review

The reviewers note that it is a well-researched film that keeps the audience wondering... what really happened. Unfortunately, none of the reviews really touch on the espionage aspect of the case and the far-fetched theory that Bella was Clara Bauerle.

Which means... one would either have to buy a copy of the film or... view it in person at another screening scheduled for October 31 at Stourbridge Town Hall.

The DVD is available for £5 but is currently out-of-stock. Another £5 to ship to Canada. Once I get my hands on a copy, I'll post a more detailed review here. Stay tuned.

29 July 2017

The Mystery of the Red Barns in Norfolk

I came across a few interesting news articles from 2015 that, while a bit far afield from the story of Josef Jakobs, are intriguing nonetheless (see links below). The stories centre on some Dutch farmers in Norfolk who were apparently building secret airfields and hangers for Germany's invasion of England.

Barn built by Dutch farmers in Norfolk (from Daily Express article)
Barn built by Dutch farmers in Norfolk
(from Daily Express article)
For 4 years, commencing in 1936, Dutch farmers of the East Anglian Real Property Company had been building huge barns and apparently preparing fields to serve as air strips for the German invasion. The RAF, on the hunt for new air strips in 1940 saw that all the likely looking sites were already occupied by suspicious barns with red roofs, chicken coops in the shape of swastikas and fields devoid of crops.

The Dutch farmers were all rounded up, arrested and interrogated. While some newspaper articles call them "spies", this seems highly unlikely as all were later released. Although... some news articles note that some managers were kept in jail while "their children were found billets in local houses and later deported."

The 2015 articles all refer to English Heritage military expert, Roger Thomas, from the York area who came across an Air Ministry file at the National Archives by accident. None of news articles give the folio reference for the file, which makes it extremely difficult to corroborate the information. One would think that such a story might be published in a reputable journal with relevant references so other researchers can confirm and contribute to the story. So far... no luck.

Roger Thomas does work for English Heritage and seems to have a broad interest in military history, and architecture.

I am going to hazard a guess that this was one of those "pre-invasion jitters" stories that were so common in 1940. English folk saw evidence of Nazi spies everywhere... in strange markings on telephone poles, in lights flashing from houses, in German paratroopers dressed as nuns and obviously... in strangely shaped foreign-looking barns and weird farming practices by Dutch farmers.

One news article went so far as to suggest that Hitler may have had a bizarre plot to capture King George VI, given how close these suspicious farms were to Sandringham, one of the royal estates. Wild speculation I would suggest.

One of the comments on the Daily Express article noted:
"The story is both an old one, and also complete nonsense. It first came to light more than 20 years ago, and has not been 'recently unearthed'. The barns were built in the 1930's by a Dutch concern who built them to support the local sugar beet harvest. The beet were processed at the factory at Cantley - at the end of the road where the barns are lined up. If you looked at the fields surrounding them, you wouldn't land a helicopter there, much less a glider, and they are emphatically NOT hangars - their design precludes their use for anything other than storage. Fifth column? Didn't exist...." (BruceWG)

The Easter Daily Press article does have a few tantalizing details from the Air Ministry files but... sadly... no actual references for the files. A writer by the name of Steve Snelling has suggested that the stories were all part of the invasion scare and, given that the Dutch farmers were all released, suggests there was no truth to the stories.

An article on the Geograph website has a list of the remaining Dutch barns that are in existence and a short write-up of the furor generated by Roger Thomas. The author of the article, Evelyn Simak, notes: "A record of these events is apparently kept at the National Archives but confirmation of the buildings having been constructed in order to serve a purpose other than farming has so far eluded historians other than Roger Thomas." I think that says it all. Until such time as the actual reference number for the mysterious Air Ministry file is revealed, the story is pure speculation.

References

York Press - Did Hitler Hatch Bizarre Plot to Capture King George VI?

The Mirror - Revealed - Hitler's Plot to Invade England from the sky using secret network of airstrips hidden in Norfolk countryside
Eastern Daily Press - Was Norfolk at Centre of Hitler's pre-war invasion plans?
Daily Express - Hitler's Secret Airstrips that were built by spies in Norfolk
Lynn News - North Pickenham linked to Nazi invasion plot

Geograph - East Anglian Real Property Company farm sheds

14 July 2017

Marking the Graves of World War I Spies in England

After the Battle Magazine - Volume 11
A number of spies were executed in England during World War I, most of them were shot at the Tower of London, and one, Robert Rosenthal was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in July 1915.

Carl Hans Lody was the first spy to be caught and executed. He was buried in the East London Cemetery in 1914. For decades, his grave was unmarked. In the early 1970s, his descendants placed a marker on his grave (see cover of After the Battle magazine - Volume 11 - at right).

The other spies who had been executed in the Tower were also laid to rest in the East London Cemetery, but none of their graves received individual markers. According to After the Battle magazine:
"Only the grave of Karl Lody can be seen today--the other bodies, buried by the State in common graves, have since had other remains buried above them, the ground having been used several times.

When the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberfursorge, the German War Graves Commission, were planning their cemetery at Cannock Chase (opened in 1967), they asked if it would be possible to disinter the bodies. Authorities at the cemetery pointed out that under British Law permission would have to be obtained from relatives of those buried above, before the graves could be opened--an almost impossible task where common burials are concerned. It seems the German authorities were satisfied with these arguments and the bodies remain interred at Plaistow.

Near Karl Lody's grave is a memorial stone to the other ten Germans executed in the Tower. The stone also records the names of seven other Germans who died in British prisons during 1915/16."
Stone commemorating German spies & soldiers at
Plaistow Cemetery.
(Find-a-Grave - photo by Geoffrey Gillon)
The war ended almost a century ago and little remains to tell the tale of these men who paid the ultimate price for their foolhardy bravery. What motivated these men, few of whom were German citizens, to spy for the Germans? Was it money? Was it coercion? A steep price to pay for very little reward and huge risk.

Carl Frederick Muller - born in Libau, in what is now Latvia
Willem Johannes Roos - Dutch
Haicke Petrus Marinus Janssen - Dutch
Ernst Waldemar Melin - Swedish
Augusto Alfredo Roggen - Uruguayan
Fernando Buschman - French
George Traugott Breeckow - born in Stettin, in what is now Poland (at the time part of Germany)
Irving Guy Ries - American (his real name is unknown)
Albert Meyer - unknown nationality (court martial file destroyed/missing)
Ludovico Hurtwitz-y-Zender - Peruvian

The stories of these spies is told best in the book by Leonard Sellers - Shot in the Tower - published in 1997. Sellers does not tell the tale of Robert Rosenthal, the only "German" spy to be hanged during World War I.

10 July 2017

Flurry of Activity around Jan Willem Ter Braak

Engelbertus Fukken (alias Jan Willem Ter Braak) (National Archives KV 2/114)
Engelbertus Fukken (alias Jan Willem Ter Braak)
(National Archives KV 2/114)
There's been a flurry of activity around Jan Willem Ter Braak the last couple of weeks. The media has learned that a gravestone is going to be placed on his grave and there have been a couple of articles that have come out.

The Cambridge News and the Daily Mail have similar articles that both mention my website and blog (even quote it!)... although both call it a Dutch website... which it most certainly is not. I did contact the author of the Daily Mail article regarding the error... but we'll see what comes of that.

The Mirror has an article on Ter Braak as well - but no mention of Josef Jakobs or this website/blog.

On another note, I was contacted by ITV Anglia via Skype and answered a few questions about Ter Braak. It would seem that there is more interest in the stories of the wartime spies. I'm also becoming aware that while I have a fair degree of knowledge about German espionage against Britain during the war... and think that much of this is common knowledge... most of it is not!

Update - ITV Angia piece available at this link.

28 June 2017

Web Review - Compilation 11 Site - 12 of the Weirdest Secrets of World War 2

Well, there is always something new. I came across a blog post on the C11 (Compilation 11) website. This is a rather dubious site that has a bunch of posts about "The 10 most this..." and the "The 13 most that...". Why one should expect accuracy from such a site is a bit of a mystery... but...

A couple of days ago, there was a post by one Patrick Barnes entitled "12 of the Weirdest Secrets of World War 2". Item #7 was "The Last Execution in the Tower of London".

Screenshot from Compilation 11 - 12 of the Weirdest Secrets of World War 2 - segment on Josef Jakobs using the wrong image
Screenshot from Compilation 11 - 12 of the Weirdest Secrets of World War 2 - segment on Josef Jakobs using the wrong image
Wikipedia entry on Josef Jacobs WW1 German Flying Ace
Wikipedia entry on Josef Jacobs
WW1 German Flying Ace
Now, you only have to look at the image of Josef Jakobs on my blog to know that the image used in the Compilation 11 post is not of the same man. The author of the post has unhelpfully confused Josef Jakobs, WW2 German spy executed on August 15, 1941 in the Tower of London with Josef Jacobs, WW1 German flying ace who died in Munich in 1978 at the ripe old age of 84. Two very different men.

The post notes:
"On August 14, 1941, the German spy Josef Jakobs became the last man to be executed in the Tower of London. He was buried in an unnamed tomb and while his boss Rudolf Hess (the last prisoner in the Tower) is remembered, Jakobs has long been forgotten."
The blog post has the wrong execution date - August 14, 1941 - when it was actually August 15, 1941. Rudolf Hess had absolutely no connection with the German Abwehr (German Intelligence Service) and, if we want to get technical, Josef's ultimate boss would have been Admiral Canaris.

I have to admit that no one has ever mixed up Josef Jakobs (spy) with Josef Jacobs (WW1 flying ace).

22 June 2017

Marking the Grave of Engelbertus Fukken a.k.a. Jan Willem Ter Braak

Engelbertus Fukken a.k.a.  Jan Willem Ter Braak (National Archives - KV 2/114)
Engelbertus Fukken a.k.a.
Jan Willem Ter Braak
(National Archives - KV 2/114)
The sad tale of Engelbertus Fukken, alias Jan Willem Ter Braak has recently been published in more detail by Jan Willem Van den Braak (no relation). The author's persistent research tracked down relatives of the unfortunate Fukken who filled in some of his background story. Their astonishment at having such an infamous character in their family tree was understandable. Given the secrecy surrounding wartime espionage activities in Britain, shame amongst Fukken's immediate family at his nefarious activities and the obvious language challenges, it would be easy for later family members to dismiss the rumours surrounding the strange uncle/cousin who disappeared during the war. But now that Fukken has stepped from the shadows, his relations are arranging for a marker to be placed on his grave.

After the Battle - Ter Braak's Grave
Our knowledge of Fukken's final resting place is due in large part to the work of Winston Ramsey and After the Battle Magazine. Researching the wartime spies during the mid-1970s, Ramsey had the advantage of speaking with eye witnesses of the events in question. Without Ramsey's dogged research, Fukken's final resting place may have remained unknown forever.

After the Battle magazine - No. 11
After the Battle magazine - No. 11
"The Coroner who examined the case, Mr. Walter Wallis, died in 1959 and from the enquiries that we made, we found that all his papers have been destroyed. We searched the records at every Cambridge cemetery looking for the entry noting Ter Braak's burial but could find no trace. Once again we seemed to be up against a blank wall, which the passage of thirty years and fading memories did nothing to help.

"That is, until we traced Mr. John O'Hannan, a funeral director in Cambridge during the war--the man that buried Ter Braak. It was just prior to Christmas 1974 that the editor went to see Mr. O'Hannan, 76 years old, in poor health for some time, and nearly blind. This is what he told us.

"On the morning of April 1, 1941, he received a telephone call from the Cambridge police and was told that a man had been found dead in an air raid shelter. He was asked to come and remove the body but not to mention a word about it (a silence he had kept until we spoke to him).

"Reaching Christ's Pieces, he was asked by the police to back his van up to the shelter which he did from Pikes Walk. The Chief Constable, Mr. R.J. Pearson and the Coroner's official lifted the body into Mr. O'Hannan's shell coffin used to transport bodies.

"The mortuary at the time was situated in Mill Road (now used as a maternity hospital) and Ter Braak was placed in the small end room which could be locked, rather than the main room.

"As Mr. O'Hannan undressed the body with the help of his assistant he was surprised to find Ter Braak was wearing two pairs of trousers. They removed these together with his coat and waistcoat and laid out the body.

"When he returned home Mr. O'Hannan was surrounded by reporters (he believes the mortuary attendant at Mill Road gave the story away although he had retained the key to the small room to stop anyone entering). However, Mr. O'Hannan kept his silence and denied any knowledge of the body.

"The Chief Constable had told him that when the Coroner's certificate was issued he was to bury Ter Braak in an unknown grave.

"On the day the certificate was obtained he was called to another suicide death at nearby Madingly. As reporters were still pestering for information, Mr. O'Hannan decided to switch the body of the woman who had committed suicide with that of Ter Braak. The switch passed unnoticed and Ter Braak was taken to Mr. O'Hannan's funeral parlour at 203 High Street, Chesterton (since demolished) and placed in the back room.

"However, within an hour reporters had discovered the switch of bodies and arrived at Chesterton, but Mr. O'Hannan again denied any knowledge. He had already been to Great Shelford, three miles to the south of Cambridge, to see the vicar, the Reverend F.W. Jeeves of St. Mary's Church and the parish clerk. Mr. O'Hannan told them he had the body of a student who had been killed on a motor cycle and whose parents had disowned him. He explained that he wanted a quiet funeral as nobody would be attending. He paid a fee of L3.0.6 to the clerk.

"At 9:00 a.m. on April 7, Ter Braak was buried, attended only by the Vicar, the gravedigger, Mr. Duisly the clerk and Mr. O'Hannan.

"No official mention was ever made of Ter Braak being a German spy. We found that Reverend Jeeves had since died and when we spoke to the present vicar at St. Mary's, Reverend Hale, he knew nothing of it and had no entry in his records. Until we traced Mr. O'Hannan, the grave could have been lost for ever. Mr. O'Hannan was, in fact, too blind to show us where it was. The grave remains unmarked to the present day when we photographed it with the Parish Clerk, Mr. P.E. Holdrup, in January 1975. We found the entry in the Register of Public Graves recording that L3.0s.6d. was paid for Grave 154."
The church referred to in the article is likely Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin, located in the southwest corner of Great Shelford (blue marker at bottom of image below). While the parish church does have a small churchyard with some older headstones, Engelbertus Fukken (a.k.a. Jan Willem Ter Braak) was NOT buried in St. Mary's Church cemetery. But... thanks to the After the Battle magazine article, at least we are in the right village!
Google Map - have added blue markers for St. Mary the Virgin (bottom of image)
and Great Shelford village cemetery (top of image).

Information gleaned in the last few years indicates that the grave is actually located in the Great Shelford Cemetery northwest of the village.

In a few months (one hopes), a stone will be placed on the grave site and Engelbertus Fukken's final resting place will be marked for posterity. It is one of the only firm pieces of information we have on Fukken during his time in England. Did he manage to contact the Germans via wireless transmitter? Were they supposed to send someone to him with more cash? These questions will likely remain unanswered.

I have created a Google Map marking some of the other sites associated with Jan Willem Ter Braak.

Great Shelford Online has a short article about Jan Willem Van den Braak's book about Jan Willem Ter Braak.

19 June 2017

Book Review - The London Cage - Alexander Paterson Scotland - 1957

The London Cage - Book Cover
The London Cage - Book Cover
The Book
The London Cage; Lt. Col. A.P. Scotland, O.B.E.; Evans Brothers Limited; London; 1957.

Summary
I purchased a copy of The London Cage several years ago and got around to reading it this past week.

The London Cage was one of a series of interrogation centres run by MI19. It was commanded by Lt. Col. A.P. Scotland. After the war, Scotland wrote the story of the London Cage but ran afoul of the Official Secrets Act. His original manuscript apparently outlined many of the controversial methods he used to extract confessions from the prisoners of war who passed through his hands. After being sanitized, the book was published in 1957.

Scotland outlines how he became involved in intelligence work in South Africa, even to the point of serving in the German Army for four years. We learn of his derring-do during World War I when he crossed enemy lines and sniffed out information on the Germans. Much of the book deals with the aftermath of World War 2 and how Scotland and his group sought to extract confessions from suspected war criminals. Given the sanitized nature of the London Cage's interrogation methods, there is actually very little information on the Cage. Scotland spends a fair bit of time outlining the war crimes that took place - the mass murder of Allied troops at Paradis, the execution of 50 Stalag Luft III escapees, and the execution of Italians by the Germans in retaliation for a partisan attack.

The London Cage - title page
The London Cage - title page
While Scotland acknowledges that many of the Nazi war criminals claimed torture at his hands, he denies that any took place. Interesting, given the fact that he had initially included so many of the methods in his initial draft. One thing Scotland lamented was that he, as an Intelligence Officer, had been called upon to testify at the war crimes tribunals. He was thereby subjected to questions, harassment, accusations and cross-examination, something he felt no Intelligence Officer should have to undergo. In that respect, the officers at MI5s secret interrogation centre, Camp 020, had an easier time of it, for none of them were ever called to testify at the German spy trials. In fact, the officers of MI5 would do anything to avoid being called by the courts, even to the point of dropping charges against at least one suspect.

Review

The book was definitely readable and interesting. I learned quite a bit about some of the war crimes committed against Allied troops by the Germans. I didn't learn a lot about the London Cage, however, and that is disappointing.

This article by The Guardian has a nice summary of the saga concerning Scotland's book.

Several War Office files at The National Archives relate to the publication of Scotland's book.

14 June 2017

Book Review - Rough Justice: The True Story of Agent Dronkers, The Enemy Spy Captured by the British - 2017

Rough Justice by David Tremain
Rough Justice by David Tremain
The Book
Rough Justice - The True Story of Agent Dronkers, the Enemy Spy Captured by the British; David Tremain; Amberley Publishing; The Stroud, Gloucestershire; 2016.

Summary
Johannes Marinus Dronkers was a poor sod of a guy. A Dutchman who struggled to make a living in Nazi-occupied Holland, he was an easy mark for the German spy handlers. Dronkers, and two other Dutchmen, sailed for the English coast in a little boat in the spring of 1942. Their boat ran into difficulties and they were eventually picked up by the British. All three of the men underwent serious interrogations and, eventually, Dronkers caved. On December 31, 1942, Dronkers was hanged at Wandsworth Prison.

It would seem to be an open and shut case on a very minor World War 2 spy but... author David Tremain has conducted some intense research into Dronkers background and delved into the declassified MI5 files at the National Archives. As with many of the ill-fated men who were "recruited" by the Germans to spy against England, there is more to the story than meets the eye.

Review

Rough Justice is meticulously researched and is, therefore, not a book for the first-time espionage reader. However, for someone with a keen interest, in World War 2 espionage, the book makes fascinating reading. I had scanned Dronkers files when I last visited the Archives and had picked out a few things in his interrogations and prosecution that had a bearing on my grandfather's case (Josef Jakobs). It is very nice to see that someone has taken on the case of Dronkers and written a thorough analysis of the case.

I highly recommend this book for the reader who has an interest in World War 2 espionage. it reminds one that even the "minor" spies of World War 2 have stories to tell that shed light on the bigger picture of the war.

For those who are following the Bella in the Wych Elm theories, Mr. Tremain devotes one paragraph to the theory that Bella was the wife of Johannes Marinus Dronkers:
An even more spurious story which is still persistently circulating on the internet is that Dronkers was connected to the 'Hagley Wood Mystery' and the 'Who put Bella in the Wych Elm' claim. It has been alleged that 'Bella' was a Dutch woman named Clarabella who was a Nazi spy, and may have been Dronker's wife, who had been murdered in about 1941 and her body stuffed in a wych elm (really just an elm) in Hagley Wood, part of the Hagley Hall estate, near Kidderminster, in the West Midlands. The story, perpetrated by a number of websites, is so ridiculous that no further discussion is warranted. But whoever she was, she was not Dronker's wife.

05 June 2017

Book Review - Bella in the Wych Elm by Andrew Sparke - 2014

Bella in the Wych Elm - In Search of a Wartime Mystery - cover image - by Andrew Sparke
Bella in the Wych Elm - In Search
of a Wartime Mystery - cover image -
by Andrew Sparke
The Book
Bella in the Wych Elm - In Search of a Wartime Mystery - by Andrew Sparke - 2014 and 2016

I came across reference to this book through the HD Paranormal site - the people who are doing a film on Bella in the Wych Elm (due to be released in August 2017). I hemmed and hawed a bit about buying the book but... it was less than $5 and an e-book, so why not.

First off... "book" is a bit of a stretch. The e-book has a grand total of 80 pages (that includes the front page, copyright pages, table of contents, further reading, etc). There are also another 46 pages of police file transcripts. This "book" is more like a pamphlet... particularly as the e-book pages are quite short and the font quite large. A paperback version has a grand total of 54 pages.

Secondly, the author appears to have accessed some of the Worcester police files and yet these are not referenced. In fact, there are really no references. Given the amount of speculation and supposition that surrounds the Bella case, it would be most helpful if researchers, authors and bloggers would actually cite their sources. Sparke's devotes an entire "chapter" (6 pages which include 2 of photographs) to the Clara Bauerle theory. He refers to Allison Vale's article at length and then debunks the theory by noting (a) the height of Clara (courtesy of descriptions by Karel Richter and Josef Jakobs); (b) her recording career in 1941 and 1942 and (c) the fact that she died in Berlin on December 16, 1942. This information is cleared based on my research work and yet the author makes no reference to sources.

Similarly, the author uses photographs that clearly come from the West Mercia police files in the case - including some clear photographs of the skeleton's lower jaw. He also uses that Clara Bauerle post card images from the National Archives website. Again - no references for any of the photographs. Given that the author is selling a book... I would wonder if copyright permission was secured for those images.

This book provides a lot of information on the Bella in the Wych Elm case. Unfortunately, since none of the information is sourced, the reader is left wondering what is fact and what is fiction. Given that the author quotes some questionable sources (Donald McCormick's book and Allison Vale's article) side-by-side with what appear to be police files for the case, fact, fiction and speculation end up inextricably intertwined. This is unfortunate as the book, had it cited its references, could have been a great reference for the Bella mystery. As it stands, it is a disappointment.

31 May 2017

Digitized Police Files - Bella in the Wych Elm

I wrote a blog post a couple of weeks ago about the release of the police files from the Bella in the Wych Elm case. The files now reside in the custody of the Worcester Archives. I emailed them asking about digitization of the files, access, etc.

West Mercia police files relating to Bella in the Wych Elm -
Worcester Archives - Explore the Past
The files have been digitized (yay!) and include about 1400 TIF files. The items include paper files, photographs, photocopies and one VHS recording of a Crimestalker TV programme. Many of the documents are duplicates. The TIF files plus an MP4 of the VHS program come out to about 35GB (a fairly significant amount of data!) And... the whole package "only" costs £275. That includes the USB drive that would hold all that data. When I think that the National Archives only charges £3.50 for some of the WW2 spy files... the Bella amount seems a little steep.


One naturally wonders what is included in the files... beyond "paper files, photographs and photocopies". I did manage to get a copy of the catalogue of the files. This is a breakdown of everything that was included in the police files. For example, the first folio contains:

  • the West Midland Forensic Science Laboratory report on the remains, 1943;
  • police reports relating to the discovery of the body, 1943;
  • list relating to female  missing persons, 1943;
  • enquiries relating to shoes found in Hagley Wood, 1943;
  • enquiries relating to a handbag found in Hagley Wood, 1944;
  • enquiries resulting from writing on the walls at Oldbury, Halesowen, Birmingham and  Old Hill, Staffordshire. 
Another folio contains newspaper clippings from:
  • The Express and Star,
  • Tit Bits,
  • Worcester  Evening News and Times, 
  • Birmingham Evening Despatch,
  • Birmingham Gazette
  • Bromsgrove Advertiser and Messenger.
There are numerous folios that deal with running to ground various possible victims. It all sounds very intriguing. The question is... is it worth £275?

26 May 2017

Book Review - Spion Tegen Churchill (Spy Against Churchill) - 2017

Cover image of Spion tegen Churchill by Jan Willem van den Braak
Cover image of Spion tegen Churchill by
Jan Willem van den Braak
The Book
Spion Tegen Churchill - Leven en dood van Jan Willem ter Braak (Spy Against Churchill - Life and Death of Jan Willem ter Braak); Jan Willem van den Braak; WalburgPers; 2017 (in Dutch)

Summary

You only have to read the title of this book and the author's name to do a bit of a double take! The story of spy Jan Willem ter Braak... as told by author Jan Willem van den Braak. Despite the similarity in their names, the author says there is no relation between the two. Although the similarity in names intrigued the author as far back as the 1970s.

Image of Jan Willem ter Braak's Dutch papers (from National Archives)
Image of Jan Willem ter Braak's Dutch papers
(from National Archives)
The author has researched the life of Engelbertus Fukken (alias Jan Willem ter Braak), a Dutchman who was caught up in the web of the German Abwehr's spy machine. Little is known about Fukken as he is one of the very, very few German spies who managed to evade the Home Guard and MI5 during the war. Fukken arrived in England via parachute in early November 1940, landing near Bletchley Park, Britain's top secret code-breaking facility (a coincidence it would seem). He made his way to Cambridge and over the next few months lived under the radar, more or less. At one point, his Ration Card caused a bit of a stir but, despite the fact that it was brought to the attention of the authorities, no one pursued the issue. Finally, in late March/early April 1941, having apparently run short of funds, Fukken took his own life in an air raid shelter in Cambridge. At least that's the accepted theory. After the body's discovery, MI5 did some searching and Fukken's radio transmitter was found in a locker at the local train station. The question that bothered MI5 was... did Fukken actually manage to make contact with the Germans via his radio transmitter? That answer to that question is still a bit of a mystery.

As for Jan Willem van den Braak's book... it is written in Dutch, and while my German is passable... my Dutch is virtually non-existent. I have used Google Translate to get the gist of the book from the publisher's website (with a bit of grammatical correction and some help from the author):
Spy Against Churchill, written by Jan Willem van den Braak in Dutch (WalburgPers 2017), is the story of the search for the forgotten Jan Willem ter Braak, who spied for the Germans in England and committed suicide with his Abwehr pistol in an air raid shelter in Cambridge in March 1941.
With the help of newly discovered sources and information from relatives, the pre-war youth of the spy in Noordwijk aan Zee [Holland] and the aftermath of his death have been taken out of bed. Among the many fascinating discoveries in the life of the spy: his father in the First World War in Germany was arrested in Königsberg for espionage against the Germans; MI5 only discovered the true identity of Ter Braak after the war; and that he had a half brother, Willem Briedé, an infamous war criminal, who received the death penalty in absentia after he had escaped to Germany. From the now-public MI5 file, Ter Braak was not the only spy sent England to spy for Hitler's Germany but he was the only one to escape arrest and eventually committed suicide in despair, because he ran out of money and the Germans did not invade England, as foreseen.

Spy Against Churchill puts forward strong clues on theories that circulate about Ter Braak. Among other things, his involvement in a murder case in the English countryside [our friend Bella in the Wych Elm], his alleged espionage for Russia and the sacrifice of Ter Braak and other spies by the German Abwehr.

The main question is what exactly Ter Braak did in England. There were even rumours after his death that the Spy Against Churchill was preparing an attack on Churchill. Thus, this forgotten spy finally comes back from the fog, disappearing three quarters of a century ago.

Spy Against Churchill is initiated by a preface from Ad van Liempt. In this he says: "I have been able to follow the research and writing process of Jan-Willem van den Braak fairly closely. He is not a professional historian or researcher, but he has developed into a keen and committed researcher, and also emerges as an unstoppable storyteller."
Review
I would dearly love to read this book but... I think I will have to wait until it is translated into English. It sounds like the author has uncovered quite a bit about the family history of Engelbertus Fukken. Some members of his extended family also worked for the Germans.

Apparently his father, Willem Briedé, had been arrested in 1915 in Königsberg accused (it would appear falsely) of spying against Germany. Engelbertus' half-brother, Willem Briedé Jr. (his father's son by a first wife) was apparently involved with the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst (SD) in Holland (arresting Jews) and was deemed a war criminal in Amsterdam in 1944. He received the death penalty in absentia in 1949 but had escaped to Germany where he continued to live until his death in 1962 (presumably by natural causes). The author also discovered that Fukken became a member of the Dutch NSDAP (Nazi Party) in 1933/1934. He was later arrested for stealing money and was thrown out of the party.

Finally, the author investigates a number of flimsy theories about Engelbertus, many put forward in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, before MI5 documents were declassified. One theory, put forward by Donald McCormick was that Jan Willem ter Braak was somehow involved with Bella in the Wych Elm. After extensive research, the author concludes that there was absolutely no connection between the two cases. Given that so little was known about Jan Willem ter Braak, it is no wonder that his story was a magnet for strange and fantastic theories. It is nice to know that someone has done enough research to dismiss many of these!

22 May 2017

Bella in the Wych Elm - An Unexplained Podcast

Unexplained Podcasts - Richard Maclean Smith
Unexplained Podcasts - Richard Maclean Smith
I came across a podcast site last week that is rather interesting. The Unexplained Podcast is produced by Richard Maclean Smith and has garnered some great reviews.

Smith tackles the Bella in the Wych Elm saga in two podcasts. The first aired on January 26, 2017 and the second aired on February 11, 2017. Various sources are listed and it would appear that much of the podcast is based on Andrew Sparke's book, Bella in the Wych Elm (more on that below). A transcript of both podcasts is also provided.

The podcast is quite well done and definitely worth a listen. Unfortunately, the same misinformation around McCormick's speculations are included here as well. The most glaring errors are the following:
  • In 1968, McCormick is alleged to have conducted a series of interviews with a former Nazi called Franz Rathgeb. It turned out that a number of German spies had been active around the Midlands after all at precisely the time that the unknown woman would have gone missing. One of those spies was Rathgeb.  Although he claimed not to know anything of the murdered woman he did recall a fellow spy by the name of Lehrer who had a Dutch girlfriend called Dronkers, Clarabella Dronkers, who was herself a spy living in the Birmingham region. [Having read McCormick's book, in actuality, this is all inaccurate. Rathgeb spoke of a spy who had possibly been parachuted into England named 'Clara'. He did not recall Lehrer's girlfriend's name, but supposedly put McCormick in touch with a Frau Kremer in Amsterdam who thought that 'Clara' was identical with a woman named Dronkers. As we can see, there are three different females here: a spy named 'Clara', an unnamed girlfriend and a woman named Dronkers Ifirst name unknown). Over time, these three have been been amalgamated into one, but there is no evidence supporting McCormick's assertions. In addition, no where in McCormick's book, does he refer to Clarabella.]
  • [In reference to the picture post card of a woman that Josef had on his person...] On the back of which was a message written in English.  It read, ‘My Dear, I love you forever.  Your Clara, Landau, July 1940." The woman is Klare Sophie Bauerle. Born in Ulm, Germany on 29th of Jun 1906, in 1941 she would have been 35 years old.  She is a cabaret singer and sometime actress who not only worked for a number of years performing in music halls across the west midlands but speaks fluent English with a Birmingham accent and was known locally as Clarabella. Not only that, but according to Jakobs she is extremely well connected with Nazi Party and had been recruited as a spy with plans to drop her into the Midlands region.  Finally it seemed that the pieces were coming together. Is it possible that Klara Bauerle is our unknown woman? [MI5 had searched their records of people arriving and departing the UK and had come across a Klara Sophie Bauerle who had arrived in the 1930s. This woman is NOT the same as Hedwig Clara Bauerle, the cabaret singer that Josef Jakobs knew. Josef never said that Clara had spent time in the West Midlands, nor that she spoke with a Birmingham accent, nor that she was known locally as Clarabella. He also never said she was well connected with the Nazi Party, nor that she was destined to be dropped in the Midlands area. These inaccuracies seem to be a result of the Anna of Claverley information being blended with the MI5 files.]
These podcasts rely heavily on Andrew Sparke's book, and the inaccuracies are therefore more a reflection of that book. Still, an enjoyable podcast.

18 May 2017

Murder by Witchcraft - Donald McCormick - A Font of Inaccuracies

Murder by Witchcraft - Donald McCormick
Murder by Witchcraft -
Donald McCormick
In April 1943, four boys searching for bird's nests while trespassing on Lord Cobham's estate near Hagley, England, found rather more than they expected. Within the hollow bole of an old Wych Elm were skeletal remains. The police were called and a massive investigation ensued. But, to date, no one knows who the female victim was... or how she died.

We humans do not like unsolved mysteries and over the decades, many theories have been put forward. A recent spate of activity on the internet has reactivated interest in the case. Some of the theories, however, while quite fanciful, are not firmly rooted in the facts of the case.

Murder by Witchcraft - Donald McCormick
I have come across innumerable references to Donald McCormick's book, Murder by Witchcraft. Published in 1968, the book put forward an espionage connection. Alas, only fragments of McCormick's theories exist on the internet and so I decided to seize the bull by the horns and buy a copy of the book. It wasn't quite what I expected.

The book is a slim paperback, a mere 189 pages in length, with 8 glossy pages of photographs. The reference list, which is of great interest to a serious researcher, is disappointingly short. There are 18 book references, most of which have to do with witchcraft. There are also 7 newspaper references. Still, I had bought the book, and so I read the entire volume in one sitting.

The main focus of the book is the death of 74 year old Charles Walton, a farm labourer, near Lower Quinton on February 14, 1945. Stabbed through the neck with a hay rake and with a cross carved into his chest/neck by his pruning hook, the case reeked of witchcraft (at least to McCormick). McCormick then draws in the story of Bella in the Wych Elm as evidence of another unsolved mystery with possible links to witchcraft. It would appear that McCormick relied upon the newspaper articles for most of his information on the Bella case. He references the "Anna from Claverley" letters that were sent to a journalist and which suggested Bella's death was linked to a Dutchman, Van Ralt, who was gathering information for the Germans. From this tiny seed of concrete information (Anna's letters), McCormick then proceeds to make some rather wild assertions and assumptions.
"Most attempts by the Germans to infiltrate England at this time were consequently made from Holland. The most successful of these for a while was Johannes Marius [sic] Dronkers who was found drifting off the Essex coast in a small boat flying the Dutch flag. He told the authorities a story about his activities in the Dutch Resistance and produced a letter of recommendation purporting to come from the head of a secret group in Utrecht. Dronkers was accepted as a genuine escapee and for some time became a regular broadcaster on the Free Radio Orange transmissions arranged by the B.B.C. Later he was found to be a spy, arrested, tried and executed at the end of 1942." (p. 111) [This information is inaccurate. Dronkers never broadcast anything on the Free Radio Orange and, of the three men found in the boat, he was always viewed with suspicion during his interrogations. He was never at liberty in England and was hardly a "successful" spy. For those who want more information, I highly recommend David Tremain's thoroughly well-researched book - Rough Justice: The True Story of Agent Dronkers, the Enemy spy Captured by the British.]
McCormick then makes some rather confused references to Abwehr diaries (none of which are referenced) while admitting that many documents are missing or inaccessible.
Rudolf Hess, who was contemptuous of the Abwehr, had organized the Verbindungsstab as an attempt to create a coordinated espionage system. By means of this he aimed to set up listening posts inside Britain: undoubtedly even then Hess was obsessed with his theories of being able to find sufficiently powerful sympathisers inside Britain who would pave the way to a negotiated peace. (p.111) [The Verbindungsstab or Liaison Office was generally a failure from what I can gather. In all my reading of Germany's World War 2 espionage attempts against Britain, this is the first time I have heard of this organization.]

Now among the agents of the Verbindungsstab was a man named Lehrer who had been one of the most active recruiters of persons for infiltrating Britain. That Lehrer himself was intended to do some infiltration is clearly shown in the Abwehr diaries: 'an attempt is to be made to set down the agent Lehrer with a wireless operator on the coast of South Wales in order to establish better communications.' (p. 111-112)
[It would, of course, be nice to know what Abwehr diaries McCormick has supposedly accessed.]

Lehrer had a Dutch mistress who not only knew Britain well, but had had a love affair before the war with a man living in Stourbridge--which, incidentally, was only about five miles from Hagley Wood. The Dutchwoman had lived in Birmingham for five years in the 'thirties and spoke English fluently, she had acquired a Birmingham accent." (p. 112) [Again, a reference for this?]

From the Abwehr records it is clear that in March and April, 1941, five agents were infiltrated to England from Holland. Two were captured, two men were sent across by boat and one, a woman, code-named 'Clara', was dropped by plane in the Midlands area between Kidderminster and Birmingham under cover of an air raid. If one draws a line between Kidderminster and Birmingham, it runs very close to Hagley Wood. (p. 112) [According to British records, the only spies who came over during March and April 1941 were MUTT and JEFF. They turned themselves in and became Double Agents. Not sure who the two captured spies would be. Josef Jakobs was captured in January 1941 and Karel Richter was captured in May 1941.]

Of course there is no suggestion that the woman was dropped in Hagley Wood, though the Germans could hardly have chosen a better site for such an operation. Nor, for that matter, is there any confirmation that she was dropped, or that the authorities in Britain had any knowledge of a Dutch agent in the country. It could be that she was intended to pose as a Dutch refugee and to infiltrate intelligence circles: it seems unlikely that she was intended as a saboteur. All the Verbindungsstab records reveal that she failed to make contact and was presumed missing. (p. 112-113) ["Nor is there any confirmation that she was dropped"... but "she failed to make contact and was presumed missing". Soooo... was she sent or not?]

The Dutch police could not assist much in the inquiries about the missing Dutchwoman reported by Anna [Claverley] because it seems fairly certain that when she was in the Midlands she kept her true identity a carefully guarded secret." (p.113) [How about the Aliens Registry?]
McCormick then makes some tenuous connections between Lehrer's mistress, the 'Clara' parachutist and 'Bella' in the Wych Elm. After a "lengthy search of Abwehr III's records" [Abwehr III was concerned with counter-espionage within Germany], McCormick apparently tracked down Herr Franz Rathgeb, a former Nazi who had been in the German steel business and made frequent trips to the Midlands before the war. Apparently, Rathgeb was a recruiter of Nazi sympathizers in Britain. McCormick tracked him down in Paraguay, living under an alias [quite the feat I would imagine, but McCormick does not elaborate on how he managed this coup].
Today Herr Rathgeb is in his seventies, living in retirement and anxious to forget his Nazi past like most of his contemporaries. At first he was suspicious as to my intention, but when I finally convinced him that my interest was not in his past political peccadilloes, but purely in the identity of a skeleton in a tree in the Midlands, he agreed to volunteer some information. (p.114) [Herr Rathgeb must have had a phenomenal memory to recall the following information.]

'I spent much time in England, which I visited on business before the war and my contacts were mainly in the steel areas of the Midlands and South Wales. It is perfectly true that I was anxious to establish contacts with any Britons who were sympathetic towards my country, though my main purpose was trade, not politics. (p. 115)
[Most Britons who were sympathetic to Germany, or belonged to the British Union of Fascists, were rounded up shortly after the declaration of war.]

'I also knew the agent Lehrer and it is correct that he had been living in Germany with a Dutchwoman who had spent some time in the Birmingham area before the war. She was well educated, intelligent, attractive and about thirty years of age, I should say. Not more than thirty, possibly slightly under that age. I can't recall much about her except that her teeth were slightly irregular and, as she was attractive, this single blemish was perhaps rather more noticeable. She wasn't tall, probably well below average height for a woman. (p. 115) [Convenient that this description tallies with the particulars of Bella in the Wych Elm, particularly the teeth and the height.]

'As to her name, there I cannot help you. It is not a question of evading this issue. I just cannot remember it. She had an alias and even that I cannot recollect. The alias that I knew was only a first name. The only reason why I recall her so well was that she was singularly well informed about the Birmingham area. she knew the exact locations of most of the big factories in the Midlands, she could memorize map details with remarkable facility and was especially knowledgeable about plans for the evacuation of factories from the Midlands in the event of war. I always imagined that she must have had some means of communication with England after she left that country. This was certainly the case up to about 1939.' (p. 115)
[Sounds like an ideal spy.]

'Lehrer said that she had had an unhappy love affair with a man who lived in Stourbridge. I remember distinctly that it was Stourbridge because I had visited that town and the fact stuck in my memory.' (p. 115) [Perhaps she ran afoul of this unhappy lover who, of course, would know about the hollow Wych Elm, and it was he who stuffed her into it!]

'There was some mystery about her origins. She claimed to be Dutch and said she came from Utrecht. But I have an idea that in fact she was part German, or at least German on the side of one of her parents. It is more likely that she posed as Dutch and for some purpose or other--probably espionage--assumed Dutch nationality. (p. 116)
[No concrete evidence of anything other than Herr Rathgeb had an "idea" about her origins.]

"I do know that she had been working for Abwehr III and had helped to infiltrate the Dutch Resistance right from the beginning, in the summer of 1940, in fact. she traveled between Holland and Germany quite freely' (p. 116) [I imagine the Dutch would have loved to get their hands on her.]

...'It is therefore quite possible that Lehrer's mistress and 'Clara' were one and the same. Their group was certainly the same. The last time I saw this young woman must have been about the end of 1940. I seem to remember a party at which she read horoscopes about that time. I never heard any mention of her after that. Things became rather difficult in 1941 and it was often politic not to ask questions and not to know too much. I thought that she might have been killed in an air raid in Germany. Or even that she was rounded up in the Aktion Hess.' (p. 116) [Aktion Hess was a round-up of astrologers and occultists that happened around June 9, 1941 in Germany after Hess' ill-fated solo trip to Scotland. Apparently Hess dabbled in the occult and after his trip, Hitler went on a tear against all occultists.]
 McCormick admits that the "foregoing is, of course, no proof as to the identity of 'Bella' " yet then turns around ad says "it certainly points to a strong possibility". I rather suspect that McCormick's standards of proof are much lower than mine, particularly as he cites no references in his book. He goes on to weave a very tenuous web around the mysterious Dutchwoman named "Clara', Lehrer's mistress and Bella. He then returns to his equally vague theories about the Charles Walton murder. A few dozen pages later, he revisits the 'Clara' topic while digging up information on Aktion Hess (horoscopes = astrologers = witchcraft). Perhaps 'Clara' had been rounded by during Aktion Hess? Or perhaps she had dabbled in witchcraft?
A further appeal to Herr Rathgeb for information brought from him the suggestion that I should contact a Frau Cremer in Amsterdam. Frau Cremer replied that while she could not positively identify 'Clara', which was undoubtedly a code-name, she felt sure that from the details I had given the woman in question was also known as Dronkers and was a relative of Johannes Marius [sic] Dronkers who had been executed by the British. 'She always posed as a friend of the Dutch Resistance, but there were some who had doubts about her and remarked on her frequent trips into Germany. We rather suspected she might be playing a double game. But it was never proved who she was working for. She was a very serious student of astrology and had attended astrological conferences. ... [digression into various Dutch Resistance contacts] ... Fraulein Dronkers was always a mystery and I should not like to say whose side she was really on, despite what you may have heard. As to whether she had anything to do with witchcraft I cannot say, but I would think it was possible, even probable, [how quickly Frau Cremer goes from "I cannot say" to "I would think it was possible" to it is "even probable".] for the reason that she was particularly superstitious about the number thirteen--not in the normal way, that it was an unlucky number, but rather in the sense that it was lucky. Thirteen is the number of a witch's coven. It was once noticed that she wore a garter of green snakeskin, which was sufficiently unusual to draw comment, especially as a garter of this kind is said to be a witch's badge.' (p. 155-156) [The web of intrigue gets more tangled. A mysterious Frau Cremer could "not positively" identify 'Clara' but is "sure" that she was a relative of Dronkers. I'm just surprised that McCormick wasn't able to link the green snakeskin garter with Bella in the Wych Elm. A pity really as it would have been proof positive of her identity. Unfortunately Bella was wearing blue rayon under garments, not green snakeskin.]
McCormick notes that Frau Cremer was also very knowledgeable about occult matters. Obviously her credentials are impeccable. He is then off on a hunt for German spies in the Midlands.
My next search was into any records which showed whether the Germans had successfully infiltrated their spies into the Midlands during the war. This proved both lengthy and in the main unrewarding. This was quite understandable in that what I was looking for was almost certainly something which the British authorities themselves had not uncovered. [Or maybe there were no successful German spies in the Midlands because of the Double Cross system, the existence of which was still under wraps when McCormick 'researched' his book.] During world War II a German spy, never positively identified, carried out a remarkable number of coups in Britain over a long period. He delivered to the Germans a top-secret report prepared by Sir Alexander Cadogan, then Permanent Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, a dossier of maps showing the emergency system of food and fuel distribution in Britain, information about the deficient defences at Scapa Flow which led to the penetration of that naval base by the U-47 and the sinking of the Royal Oak, blueprints of British docks and maps of air-fields as well as a complete report on the organisation of shadow factories around Birmingham and Coventry. But who was this mysterious spy who evaded capture? He was still active in 1944. [This seems to be lifted verbatim from a Ladislas Farago book entitled War of Wits. Farago was another "historian" who had questionable sources. Farago goes so far as to make a link between these reports and Jan Willem Ter Braak.] One suggestion from the German side after the war was that he was a German-Canadian named Karl Dickenhoff, who lived in a house at Edgbaston. Dickenhoff also had many aliases , but his real name was said to be Hans Caesar and is believed to be still alive. [According to Farago, Dickenhoff was 'a demented, amnesia stricken inmate of an insane asylum in England.] (p.157-158)

Whether Hans Caesar, alias Dickenhoff, was the ace spy or not matters very little now. But it is known that he was an associate of a Dutchman named Jan Willem Ter Braak, who, according to Frau Cremer, was a friend of 'Clara' alias Dronkers. The Dutchman was found dead in a deserted air raid shelter in Cambridge, with a bullet in his brain and a German revolver by his side. In his lodgings were found false papers and a German-manufactured radio transmitter. (p. 158) [I am impressed with McCormick, how he has managed to weave such a convoluted web based on mere speculation.]
The Verdict on Murder by Witchcraft
You don't have to search very far on the internet to find repeated denunciations of Donald McCormick. He apparently liked to write on controversial topics where hard facts were scarce, and where his reliance on oral informants made his conclusions unverifiable. I would classify him as a fictional historian. McCormick, to put it gently, stretched the truth a bit, or perhaps more than a bit. Writing after World War II, when many of the espionage files were still highly classified, McCormick could let his imagination run wild. Today, with many of the files declassified, his theories evaporate like mist in the sunlight.

For those interested, there are a few sites that tear McCormick to shreds for some his "history" books. One site examines his book The Identity of Jack the Ripper (surprise, McCormick "identified" the "real" Jack the Ripper - and as early as 1959! Somebody should tell the world, or at least Wikipedia.).

Simon Read's book, The Case that Foiled Fabian, (2014) notes that McCormick was "something of a controversial figure, as his use of anonymous sources made verifying his work difficult". No kidding.

Another site looks at McCormick's reliance on Margaret Murray for the witchcraft theory and also has a post about McCormick himself. That post references Hayek: A Collaborative Biography - Part III, Fraud, Fascism and Free Market Religion, a series of essays written by a variety of scholars with experience of Donald McCormick. I am still tracking down a copy of the book but I gather that it eviscerates McCormick as a serious historian. Some even go so far as to call him a "fantasy historian". Enough said.

Alas, McCormick's tenuous, and unverified, ideas have wormed their way out into the internet and metamorphosed into strange hybrids. For example, The Unredacted states: "According to McCormick’s information, A Nazi agent by the name of Lehrer was operating in the Midlands in 1941 and he had a Dutch girlfriend living in Birmingham called Clarabella Dronkers." That statement stretches McCormick's already tenuous theory to the breaking point. Even McCormick wasn't willing to admit with 100% certainty that Lehrer's girlfriend was a Dutchwoman named 'Clara' who was identified as 'Dronkers'. No idea where the Clarabella came from... at no point does McCormick call this mysterious Dutch woman "Clarabella".

Any books published prior to the revelation of the British Double Cross system (J.C. Masterman's book - The Double Cross System - published 1972) are full of errors and inaccuracies. Many relied on recollections from former members of the German Abwehr (Lahousen and Ritter) who, unfortunately, were not aware that their spies had been compromised by MI5. Even books published between 1972 and the declassification of the MI5 documents in the early 2000s struggle with a lack of concrete information.

McCormick's theories about Lehrer's girlfriend, the Dutch "spy" named 'Clara' and Bella in the Wych Elm are built upon inaccuracies. He provides no references or sources that can be used to substantiate his theories. Unfortunately, many readers and armchair historians have taken his tidbits of false information and treated them as if they were facts. They should be taken with, not just a pinch, but a pound of salt.

12 May 2017

The Police Files - Bella in the Wych Elm

Drawing of clothing worn by Bella
in the Wych Elm - from West Mercia
Police files - held at WorcestershireArchives
The upcoming HD Paranormal film on Bella in the Wych Elm claims to have access to the police files surrounding the case, as well as declassified MI5 documents. After a bit of searching, I came across a couple of blog posts from the Explore the Past blog of the Worcestershire Archives.

The first post (September 2, 2016) introduces the story of Bella in the Wych Elm and reveals that the Worcestershire Archives have received the police case files from the West Mercia Police. This is excellent news! The files are currently being catalogued by the archivists but are due to be available for public viewing at some time in the near future (we hope).

The blog post notes:
The spy-ring theory gained more weight when MI5 published some of its wartime files.  Particular interest centred around Josef Jakobs, an enemy agent who was arrested after parachuting into Cambridgeshire in 1941.  Jakobs had on him a photograph of the German singer and actress Clara Bauerle.  He said that Clara was a secret agent who was to have parachuted into the Midlands.  Several people have linked the names Clara Bauerle and Clara Bella and speculated that Bella was Clara Bauerle.  This is an avenue still being explored to this day.  Another candidate put forward was 'Clara' Dronkers, a relative of a Dutchman, Johannes Marinus Dronkers, another spy executed by the British during the War.
Most readers of this blog know about my thoughts on the Clara Bauerle theory - but for those who don't - Clara Bauerle passed away in Berlin on December 16, 1942. There is a Klara Sophie Bauerle that MI5 found in their Home Office records as having been in England during the 1930s. But that is an entirely different woman and has no connection to our German cabaret singer, Hedwig Clara Bauerle.

The second post on the Explore the Past site is a short update on the story with a note referencing my discovery of Clara Bauerle's death certificate. It's always nice when people reference and acknowledge the blog.

As for the West Mercia Police files... I've put out feelers to the Worcestershire Archives. Perhaps they will digitize the files, making them more easily accessible for those who live across the Pond (like myself). Time will tell.

08 May 2017

Bella in the Wych Elm - Carnie Films (2017)

Bella in the Wych Elm - A Folk Mystery Phantasmagoria - Carnie Films
Bella in the Wych Elm -
A Folk Mystery Phantasmagoria -
Carnie Films
Bella in the Wych Elm: A Folk Mystery Phantasmagoria
Carnie Films
Tom Lee Rutter
2017
35 minutes

A few weeks ago, I had the chance for an advance screening of this film produced by Tom Lee Rutter. The sound hadn't quite been finalized but I got a good impression of the film.

It's done in an old-fashioned black and white style with a narrator. The cinematography is rather interesting and it definitely kept my attention. Overal, the film had a spooky, ghostly flavour - very other-worldly, which is rather appropriate given the topic.

Still shot from Bella in the Wych Elm - Carnie Films
Still shot from Bella in the Wych Elm - Carnie Films
The narration of the story touches on the usual theories about Bella in the Wych Elm: witchcraft, gypsies, Dutch spy ring, etc. There is some speculation that Bella could be Clara Bauerle and some of the information presented is inaccurate: Josef Jakobs was not Czech-born. He never told MI5 that Clara Bauerle had been in England, nor that she spoke with a Birmingham accent. There are a number of sources that seem to have created a "hybrid" story about a certain 'Clara' who may have been a spy - a bit from Donald McCormick's book (Murder by Witchcraft), a bit from Una Mossop's story, plus a mis-reading of the MI5 files on Josef Jakobs. The hybrid story keeps circulating on the internet and is rather hard to put to rest once it gets going.

All in all, enjoyed the film!

19 April 2017

A Blog, a Podcast and a YouTube Video explore Bella in the Wych Elm

Clara Bauerle
Clara Bauerle
My goodness... how people love an unsolved mystery. I guess there is a fair bit of fun in speculating on solutions. Bella in the Wych Elm generates a fair bit of blog posts, articles, podcasts and videos out there. I've come across a couple more recently...

Oh How Peculiar 
A blog post on Tumblr notes the usual possibilities - prostitute, Dutch member of a spy ring, victim of a witch's coven and... of course... that she was Clara Bauerle:
[one theory...] She was a part of a Nazi spy ring operating in the area. In declassified documents, a Nazi spy named Josef Jacobs was reportedly carrying a photograph of a woman he identified as Clara Bauerle. A music hall performer who had toured the Midlands before, he claimed that Bauerle was recruited and going to parachute into the area in 1941. Jacobs was captured before she was to have arrived and he was later executed by firing squad at the Tower of London. Investigators have been unable to eliminate Clara Bauerle as a match for “Bella.” [There is no evidence whatsoever that Clara Bauerle toured the Midlands. The Home Office records that tracked entry and exit records noted a different Klara Sophie Bauerle who had been in England in the 1930s.]
Thinking Sideways
Thinking Sideways Podcast - cover image
Thinking Sideways Podcast - cover image
This is a bit different... a podcast on Bella in the Wych Elm. The podcast runs to about 45 minute and is, interestingly, hosted by a trio from Portland, OR - Joe, Steve, Devin. The main host (Joe) introduces the history of the story with the other two hosts (Steve and Devin) interjecting comments at various points In many ways it sounds like a morning radio show in North America where the hosts chat quite a bit with themselves. The co-hosts ask various clarifying questions, for example, how would the investigators know that the mystery woman had given birth? Answer - the hip bones change during pregnancy/child birth. Those questions and answers are generally helpful although sometimes they tend to go off onto tangents.

Apparently, the forensic examiner originally concluded that the body had been in the tree for four years (so, since 1939) and then revised his estimate to 18 months. That's a pretty big spread... 18 months to 48 months. Clearly, determining time of death with little more than a skeleton is a tricky business. Many of the theories that Bella in the Wych Elm was Clara Bauerle would require the 18 month estimate to be fairly firm. It doesn't sound like the forensic examiner would have been that certain of his estimate.

The podcast hosts cover the usual possibilities for Bella in the Wych Elm - victim of a witch coven, thief who had her hand cut off, a music hall singer of a West Midlands spy ring, and, of course, the Clara Bauerle theory. The hosts actually get the details of what Josef Jakobs said about Clara correct. Josef didn't actually think Clara would be sent over since the Germans hadn't heard from him. The hosts did make a tenuous connection with the music hall singer and Clara Bauerle - but it is a tenuous connection indeed. The hosts even mentioned my blog - which is nice. They do engage in a fair bit of discussion as to whether Clara could have been the singer who spent two years in the West Midlands, whether Clara spoke English, etc. According to one of the hosts, the Tower of London has all of Josef's parachute gear (painted white). Actually, the parachute gear at the Tower are just generic props. The location of his parachute gear is unknown.

The hosts do mention the height difference between Bella and Clara and reference my website and conclude that the spy theory is far-fetched. The podcast was produced in 2014 so there is no mention of my tracking down Clara's December 16, 1942, death certificate from Germany. The hosts then touch on a variety of other interesting parts of the story. Why was the body stuffed in a tree? Was she a local woman? Was she a refugee from London?

I thoroughly enjoyed this podcast. It was interesting and well researched, as well as entertaining.

Cayleigh Elise - Nameless #3
This video, just over 15 minutes, goes into a fair bit of detail about about the West Midlands spy ring and the possibility that Bella in the Wych Elm was Clara Bella Dronkers, a Dutch woman and a member of the spy ring.

The video later notes that another spy, Johannes Marinus Dronkers was captured near the same area and might have a connection with Clara Bella Dronkers. This is not accurate. Johannes Marinus Dronkers was captured from a boat off the southeastern coast of England, nowhere near the West Midlands.

The video also spends a fair bit of time on the Clara Bauerle theory and does reference my blog and website. Again, there is no evidence that Clara Bauerle spent two years in the music hall scene of the West Midlands.Produced in November 2016, the video does reference my discovery of Clara Bauerle's death registration in Berlin.

This was an interesting video and generally well-researched. It touches on many of the theories about Bella and presents the information well.

14 April 2017

Bella in the Wych Elm - Carnie Films

Carnie Films - Bella in the Wych Elm
Carnie Films - Bella in the Wych Elm
I know that there is an HD Paranormal film in the works about Bella in the Wych Elm but... in searching the net, I came across a link to another film, this one with Tom Lee Rutter as Writer/Director/Producer. The film, Bella in the Wych Elm, is billed as A Folk Mystery Phantasmagoria.

A review of the film was done by Midlands Movies on April 12, 2017. I'm kind of keen to see this film as the reviewer notes: "In real-life the victim, whose murder was estimated to have occurred in 1941, remains unidentified but Rutter takes a very interesting premise and turns it into much more than the tale itself." Wonder what the interesting premise is...

It looks like the film was just completed a week ago sooo... have to be satisfied with the Teaser/Trailer on Vimeo.


10 April 2017

Arbitrary Times... and Facts?

Arbitrary Times logo
Arbitrary Times logo
Came across another little site called Arbitrary Times that has a short post on the Last Execution in the Tower. I'm not sure of the information source for this article but there are some inaccuracies.

The last execution in the Tower of London took place during World War II when Josef Jakobs, a German soldier, was captured while parachuting into England.

After a quick trial in Brixton
[trial actually held at Duke of York's Headquarters], he was convicted of espionage, brought to the Tower, held overnight [brought to the Tower on the morning of his execution], and executed by firing squad on August 14, 1941 [Nope, August 15, 1941].

The chair in which he sat during his execution is still on display.

Jakobs was one of hundreds who were executed at the Tower of London during its 900 year history
, and as a result it has gained a reputation as one of the most haunted locations in Britain. [I don't know about hundreds - according to the Capital Punishment UK site - confirmed executions from 1388 to 1780 were 122 with another 11 in the 20th Century. Not sure if 133 counts as hundreds. As well, those actually executed within the confines of the Tower (and not Tower Green) are much fewer - only 10 from 1388 to 1780 and then the 11 spies from WWI and WWII.]
  Even a quick glance at the Wikipedia entry for Josef Jakobs would have corrected the inaccuracies.