31 October 2018

Book Review - Operation LENA and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain - Bernard O'Connor (2017)

Cover - Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain
Cover - Operation Lena and Hitler's
Plots to Blow Up Britain
The Book
Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain. Bernard O'Connor. Amberley Publishing. 2017.

Summary and Review
I bought this book last year with excitement. I knew a bit about some of the sabotage plans concocted by MI5 using their double agents (G.W., MUTT & JEFF, ZIGZAG) and was intrigued to learn more. I am also always interested in anything to do with Operation Lena. I really wanted to like this book, but after I bought it, I flipped through some of the sections pertaining to Josef Jakobs and the other Lena spies and... I put the book down in frustration. Where to begin.

There is no doubt that the author has tried to present a comprehensive overview of a very complicated topic. He admits that providing a detailed account has been a challenge and that this book is "more the work of an archaeologist than a historian". Reading this book did feel a bit like watching someone present every fragment of information that they have dug up during their years of research. Unfortunately, there was very little continuity or context for much of what was presented. I found the narrative exceedingly difficult to follow. On any given page, the author might refer to events in 1938, 1945, 1942 and then 1939. The book could have benefited from some front matter, namely a list of abbreviations and a cast of characters. The index has some holes - for example, there is no mention of Jakobs, Josef.

At the same time, the author has relied on sources that vary wildly in their reliability. While much of the book is sourced from primary records at the National Archives, the author also gives equal weight to some very out-of-date sources, specifically Ladislas Farago's Game of the Foxes (1972) and Charles Wighton & Gunter Peis's Hitler's Spies and Saboteurs (1958). Both books purportedly rely on German documentary sources but this is questionable. Farago's sources, secret Abwehr microfilm, have never been found and cannot be consulted to check their veracity. While Wighton and Peis claimed that their source was the diaries of Abwehr II's former chief, Lahousen, they did not cite any references. In reading their book, one is also struck by the narrative/story style, much of which was unlikely to have come from Lahousen's diaries. More on Wighton and Peis in a later blog post...

The author's reliance upon Wighton & Peis and Farago meant that I had to read the book whilst constantly flipping back to check the endnotes. I kept wondering, was this information based on a primary source or a questionable secondary source? The author also relied on many websites for his material (e.g. information on Dorothy P. O'Grady from h2g2 Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy: Earth Edition). This too is fraught with danger. In my research into Josef Jakobs, I have come across many, many websites, most of which contact inaccurate information.

There is also the glaringly inaccurate account of agents "Hans Schmidt" and "Jorgen Björnsen" supposedly parachuted into England in the summer of 1940... according to Wighton and Peis. The author has treated Wighton and Peis's account as if it were accurate when it is most likely a garbled version of Wulf Schmidt and Gösta Caroli. As mentioned earlier, while an entertaining read, Wighton and Peis are not a source of accurate information.

The book also suffers from numerous small errors:
  • p. 27 - in relation to spies sent to Camp 020 - "enemy agents who refused to collaborate were tried under the Treason Act, found guilty and executed at the Tower of London and later at Pentonville Prison".
    • Inaccurate. Spies were tried under the Treachery Act (1940) and only one was executed at the Tower of London, whilst others were executed at Wandsworth and Pentonville prisons.
  • p. 35 - Neville Chamberlain demanded Kell's resignation and rush through amendments to the "Defence of the Realm Act".
    • Inaccurate. I believe it was Churchill who demanded Kell's resignation. The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was from World War I. During World War II, Great Britain had the Defence Regulations and the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act (1939). 
  • p. 63 - "was on 22 October 1940, eight weeks after the start of the war".
    • Inaccurate: I believe the war started in September 1939, not 1940.
  • p. 72 - "Professor Charles Andrew".
    • Inaccurate. Professor Christopher Andrew.
  • p. 109 - Treachery Act passed on 23 March 1940.
    • Inaccurate. Passed on 23 May 1940.
  • p. 112 - Schmidt taken to the London Cage.
    • Inaccurate. Schmidt was taken to Camp 020 where Lt. Col. A.P. Scotland from the London Cage roughed him up.
  • p. 113 - Caroli was awarded Iron Cross and transmitted to end of war, etc.
    • Inaccurate. It was Schmidt who was awarded the Iron Cross as double agent TATE and transmitted to the end of the war.
  • p. 228 - Barton earned a Kriegsverdienstkreuz - which the book translates as War Medal Cross.
    • Inaccurate. It should be War Merit Cross.
I could go on, but I think the point is made. There may also be some problems with the endnote citations. On page 304, the citations for Chapter 16:
30. Farago, op.cit. p.287.
31. Ibid. 28 November 1943
32. Ibid. 14 January 1944
33. Wighton and Peis, op.cit. p.276.
34. Ibid. 21 April 1944
35. Ibid, 26 September 1945.
36. TNA KV 2/1068
37. Ibid. 8 May 1943
38. Ibid. 15 September 1943
Endnotes 31 and 32 would seemingly cite the preceding endnote (30) except  for the fact that the format is different. Endnote 30 cites a book with a page number, whereas 31 and 32 cite a date which would seem to indicate reference to a KV file (see endnotes 36-38). A similar issue arises with endnotes 33-35.


On page 185, the author references Plan Pyramid in relation to MUTT and JEFF. Apparently MI5 were going to try and convince the German Abwehr that an escape organization in Norway was placing red pyramids (triangles) on identity documents. The Germans would theoretically do the same with spies that they tried to slip into the stream of legitimate Norwegian escapees seeking refuge in England. All well and good as the account is referenced in the KV files on MUTT and JEFF. Perplexingly however, the author also references red triangles/pyramids in relation to other, earlier, spies:
  • p. 108 - the four spies who landed in Kent had "identification papers with the triangle on them that SNOW had given the Abwehr, thus proving they were German agents"
  • p. 118 - Eriksen and Druecke were found "carrying forged identity and ration cards with the red pyramid that SNOW had recommended the Abwehr add to their documents"
I have never come across any reference to the above two statements and the author provides no source citation. The only reference to red pyramids that I have come across is in the MUTT & JEFF files. If the information on pages 108 and 118 is accurate, and SNOW/MI5 did initiate a red pyramid scheme earlier, it would be quite a startling revelation and worthy of more than a few lines. Although, in TNA KV 2/12, Kieboom criticized the Abwehr for not providing them with any identity cards which calls into question the above statement from p. 108.

The author references many intriguing stories about sabotage (e.g. p. 138) but it is difficult to assess the accuracy of such accounts given their reliance on secondary sources. For example, he mentions that after the crash of a Mosquito aircraft from RAF Banff, an inspector "working at one of the Mosquito shadow factories had links with the IRA. He was arrested and shot for sabotage". The reference cited is: Andrew Bird, A Separate Little War (Grub Street, 2003, p. 113). Having never come across any reference to this execution by firing squad, I am a bit leery of taking it at face value. Similarly, the author cites an account from Juliet Gardiner's Wartime Britain 1939-1945 which mentions that "in 1942 a Birmingham woman was convicted of sabotaging munitions for aircraft which would have exploded immediately on firing." This may be a reference to a story included in The Prosecutor by Allen Andrews (1968), an account of the life of prosecuting solicitor M.P. Pugh. The woman (and her boyfriend), although charged with tampering with munitions, were ultimately only convicted of stealing a cup and saucer from the canteen at Kynoch. I have not, however, come across any primary sources that confirm the account in The Prosecutor so, while an intriguing story, it must remain on the sidelines.


It would also have been most helpful if primary sources from the National Archives were cited in such a manner that other researchers could review them. Rather than simply citing "TNA KV 2/2822" cite the reference as completely as possible, "TNA KV 2/2822, no. 18a, 18/10/1943, report by Stephens to White". As it is, the author had an intriguing reference to Josef Jakobs in his section on Josef Starzincky [sic] on page 171. The only citation for the entire paragraph is KV 2/546, 27 November 1945 which refers to the case of the crew of the M.V. Josephine. I couldn't find any reference to "Starzincky" [sic] in the National Archives, but after a few wildcard searches, tracked down KV 2/2844 and KV 2/2845, the two files on Josef Starziczny. I will now need to sift through both files searching for the exact source of the Josef Jakobs reference.

Returning to the author's assertion that the book is "more the work of an archaeologist than a historian", it would have perhaps been helpful for the author to create a clearer distinction between information gleaned from primary sources versus that has been passed on from secondary sources. I know from experience how challenging it can be to write a book when one has so much research to incorporate. I would suggest that this book would have been much better had the accounts from secondary sources been relegated to the Notes section. Weaving the two types of sources together leaves the reader wondering what is fact and what is fiction. I also think the author's attempt to arrange the book chronologically is rather like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It might have been better to focus on the major sabotage schemes (e.g. G.W., MUTT & JEFF, ZIGZAG, etc.) without presenting, in excruciating detail, all of the minor schemes.

I think this book could be a valuable addition to the tale of Second World War espionage/sabotage, but it needs some tidying up.

Review Score
2 out of 5 - I did learn some things and found a few intriguing primary source references which I'll be consulting. Unfortunately the author's tendency to give equal weight to primary sources and questionable secondary sources leaves the reader questioning the accuracy of the entire book.

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