Book Review - They Came to Spy - Stanley Firmin - 1947

The Book
They Came to Spy: An Account of Nazi Espionage in Great Britain. Stanley Firmin. London-Hutchison. 1947.

For over a year, I've been meaning to review Stanley Firmin's 1947 book, They Came to Spy, but somehow, there is always another blog that seems more pressing. But, today is the day. Mind you, I should add a caveat. While I thought that I had actually purchased this book, that turns out not to be the case. Last year (2019), fellow researcher Tony Percy kindly sent scanned pages from one of Firmin's chapters that relate to Josef Jakobs. Given what I've read therein, I'm not sure spending $30 CAD on the book is a worthwhile use of my research funds! As Percy wrote on his blog from February 2019, the book is "wildly inaccurate".

Chapter 11 of the book is titled "The Parachutist who wore Spats" and refers to Josef Jakobs who, in addition to being dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase also had grey spats over his shoes. A very debonair looking spy who would not have blended well into the rural landscape around Ramsey, Huntingdonshire.

Firmin begins the chapter by outlining the traditional gear of each spy, "fitted out in regimental fashion with exactly the same 'equipment' ". Firmin notes that each spy came equipped with £500 in one-pound notes which is patently false. Only Josef had £500 in one-pound notes. He notes that that their British documents were "almost perfectly forged" but that each had some simple mistake. Yet, just a few lines later, he states that their ration and identity cards were "perfect forgeries of current issue" which is also false.

His first story of a spy in Chapter 11 sounds a bit like the tale of Gösta Caroli, although the details are quite inaccurate.

"One at least owed his capture to a mishap in his parachute landing. He had been dropped near Northampton, and the jolt of reaching earth brought his nose [his chin actually] sharply into contact with the wireless set that was strapped round his chest. His nose, in fact, was broken. [I have come across no evidence of a spy with a broken nose.] It was still bleeding as he set out to walk along a road he gained from the field in which he had landed. [Caroli was so groggy after being knocked silly by the wireless set that all he could do was drag himself under a hedgerow.] Before he had gone very far he chanced to meet a clergyman, who naturally noticed the damage to his nose and proferred help. [Caroli was discovered by a farmer who saw his legs sticking out from underneath the hedgerow.] With his first words in reply the clergyman found his suspicions aroused, and he remained with the man until he could hand him over to official custody. (p. 75-76)

Only two spies landed near Northampton, Gösta Caroli (September 1940) and Kurt Karl Gross (November 1940). Only Caroli was injured by the wireless set strapped to his chest. But, clearly, whatever the source of Firmin's information, it was a bit muddled.

Following the Northampton story, Firmin tells the tale of Karel Richard Richter and gets most of the details right, likely relying on published newspaper accounts which detailed the story of the Police Constable who had come upon Richter. Firmin's story does omit the phone box and the fact that the PC called his Sergeant for backup.

There is then a piece on George Johnson Armstrong, "the first Englishman to be hanged as a spy" during the Second World War. I haven't looked into Armstrong's file deeply enough to know if Firmin's story is accurate but tend to think there might be several inaccuracies.

Finally, we get to the story of the spy with spats, Josef Jakobs, who, according to Firmin, landed on English soil on his 43rd birthday at the end of June 1941. This glaring error might just be a transcription error of hastily written notes... "Jan" vs "Jun", for Josef landed on the evening of January 31 1941. The  rest of the account is no better:

"It was at the end of June 1941 that the Germans sent to Britain, so far as is known, the last of their parachute spies. [Of the LENA wave perhaps, but technically, Richter was the last of those spies. And Nikolai Hansen arrived in 1943 via parachute.] The man chosen for this adventure was Josef Jakobs--that at any rate was the name on the British identity card [the ID card was in the name of James Rymer] and on the British ration book [there was no name on the ration book] he brought with him. Jakobs was a soldier--a member of the German Army Meteorological Department--and he had been given a big job to do. It was nothing less than the setting up of his own weather station on British soil so that the German Air Ministry could be provided with their own daily weather reports. [Earlier spies were also to report on the weather.]

This information was vital for the Luftwaffe's campaign of bombing English targets, and they were not getting it--high evidence of the success of the work of British Intelligence in preventing any real news from reaching Germany.

Jakobs, a German born in Luxembourg, was not a young man. The night on which he was dropped in his parachute harness over the countryside of England was the night of his forty-third birthday. [Firmin does know that Josef's birth date was 30 June 1898, where he errs is in thinking that Josef arrived on the night of 30 June.] But he was an expert meteorologist. [Hardly. He was a dentist who received some hasty weather training.]

He had bad luck right from the start. He landed in a potato field some distance out of London, [Given that there were numerous post-execution newspaper articles which pinpointed Josef's landing spot as Ramsey, I am perplexed that Firmin didn't get the details] and landed so clumsily that his ankle was broken. [And he had injured it leaving the aircraft.] He made futile efforts to drag himself to some sort of hideout but found that he was helpless. [As the farmers noted, Josef landed, rolled over and didn't move from the landing spot.] The best he could do was to crawl to a nearby hedge and try to bury his parachute. [He didn't crawl to any hedge but he did try to bury his radio where he had landed. He used the parachute to protect himself from the weather.] This job even proved too much for him, and Jakobs came to the pathetic conclusion that all he could do was to stay there on the edge of the potato field and wait for the coming of dawn--and discovery.

He was found, groaning, by a farm worker [two of them] who passed along the road on his way to work shortly after sunrise. [Josef had to fire his pistol into the air several times to get their attention.] He was wearing a parachutist's steel helmet [it was lying on the ground next to him] and a flying suit, beneath which was a grey overcoat and a grey striped suit. Oddly, he was wearing spats. And strangest of all he was still carrying [wearing], undamaged despite his heavy landing, a brown bowler hat [blue trilby hat]. Had he not broken his ankle he would have been quite a well-dressed visitor to some English town. Hidden in the hedge close by [buried beneath him] was a suit-case containing a five-valve wireless transmitting set [transmitter/receiver set] and the trowel with which the parachute had been half buried. [Josef had covered himself with his parachute as protection against the weather. It was not half-buried.] And, like all other spies sent from Germany, he had £500 in one-pound notes, identity and ration cards, a loaded pistol and enough food to see him through four days, including the traditional German sausage. [One mince meat sandwich, half of a German sausage and two half-pound chocolate bars aren't really enough for four days.]

"Me flying, me bale out," were Jakobs' first words to the farm worker. Which of course had been true enough. The things found with him however left no doubt as to what had really brought him into that English potato field.

It was, however, recognized that Jakobs was a member of the German Army, and he was tried as such. [And he was an enemy alien which also made him eligible for a court-martial.] At his trial he told the story that had been heard before. "Me not in war," he said, apparently referring to the fact that he was in the Meteorological service and was not a fighting man. "Me made to come." [These were actually words that he spoke to the farmers and Home Guard during his capture, not at the trial.]

But it was inevitable that he should be found guilty of spying, or rather having come prepared to spy, for he had not the slightest chance of doing anything in that direction. He was sentenced to death. And because he was a soldier he was shot, thus becoming the only German spy to be shot in Britain throughout the war, all the others being hanged. Jakobs met his end in the Tower of London on August 15, 1941. (p. 77-78)

I don't have the rest of the chapter but... judging by the above, I have to agree with Tony Percy... "wildly inaccurate".

Given that Firmin wrote this book in 1947, he must have been relying primarily on newspaper reports. In the case of Josef, there were numerous articles from August 1941 which contained details on Josef's capture. It is therefore perplexing that Firmin got so many of these wrong. While the book reads quite well, very exciting (at least the chapter I read)... it should be read with a pound of salt. Inaccuracies abound and it can't be taken as a serious source of history.

Review Score
 2 out of 5 - exciting but inaccurate


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