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Sunday 24 March 2019

West Cork bids farewell to the Cold War Swiss spy who set up a 'secret army'

Majella O'Sullivan and Ralph Riegel

Col Bachman, right and below, bought the 200-acre Liss Ard estate, above, in the 1970s -- reportedly with the intention that it should be used as the base of a Swiss government in exile in the event that the country was invaded by the Soviet bloc.

SWITZERLAND's most famous spy has died in Ireland following a short illness. Col Albert Bachmann was head of Swiss intelligence during the 1970s.

During that period, he bought an Irish estate for use by a government in exile in the event that his country was invaded during the Cold War.

His death on April 12, aged 81, was only announced yesterday in the Swiss paper 'Tages-Anzeiger', sparking huge media interest in his native country.

Col Bachman ranks as one of the most controversial figures in Switzerland, having set up a so-called 'secret army' in the 1970s to counter any Soviet-bloc invasion.

This 'secret army' -- which was later known as Projekt-26 (P-26) -- was trained in special guerrilla-warfare tactics including laying bombs, assassinations and sharp shooting.

It was set up as a so-called 'stay-behind' army in Switzerland in the event of the country being invaded and the government having to leave.

It was dissolved in November 1990, after the Swiss government declared it to be a clandestine organisation that operated outside of either parliamentary or governmental control and which operated as an autonomous structure hidden within the Swiss secret service.

Some Swiss politicians maintained that large elements of the operation had not been fully authorised by the government.

In the scandal over the discovery of the secret army in 1979, the defence minister, Georges Andre Chevallez, disbanded the group and directed that Col Bachmann retire.

A major investigation was ordered, although the probe subsequently found that Col Bachmann -- who had been a communist as a young man -- was not a double agent and had acted in good faith.

In the early 1970s, Col Bachmann purchased Liss Ard outside Skibbereen in west Cork -- an imposing 200-acre estate with two Georgian houses.

While he steadfastly refused to discuss the deal for the remainder of his life, it was reported that Liss Ard was intended as a base from which a Swiss government in exile could operate.

And Col Bachmann -- who fell in love with west Cork in the 1960s -- planned to transfer part of Switzerland's massive gold reserves to the Liss Ard basement if his country was ever invaded by the Soviet bloc.

The house was among the first in Ireland to be fitted with high-tech computer equipment in the 1970s -- at a time when most Irish homes were still getting used to colour TVs.

The intelligence officer disposed of Liss Ard in the early 1980s but continued to dabble in property deals in nearby Tragumna and Schull over the next two decades.

At one point, he is said to have owned at least 10 properties in Tragumna.

The Liss Ard estate manager, Arthur Little, said he did not personally know Bachmann -- although he was an acquaintance of the estate's current Swiss owners.

"He was a friend of the current owner, Mr Stern, who said he will miss his conversations with Mr Bachmann," Mr Little told the Irish Independent.

Bachmann frequented pubs and restaurants in Skibbereen, Castletownshend and Schull, where he lived over the past decade with his wife.

"He was an amazing character with a great sense of humour -- but a lot of people thought he was a retired banker and not an intelligence officer," said one local.

Last year, the Bachmann family staged a special reunion in west Cork after the colonel had been in poor health for several months.

Locals expressed astonishment at the revelations surrounding the background of the popular retiree.

"He was a lovely gent -- everyone knew he came from an army background of some kind but no one knew a whole lot more. I actually thought he was German," said Jim Sullivan.

"You'd see him around the place every so often with his wife, although he pretty much kept to himself. But he was a lovely man."

Locals did note that Col Bachmann was shy of being photographed and would often step out of pictures being snapped in pubs.

The Swiss investigation into Bachmann's activities also revealed that he had asked a Swiss businessman to "monitor" manoeuvres by 32,000 Austrian soldiers near the town of St Polten in 1978-79 -- a move that subsequently resulted in the man being detained by Austrian police.

The Austrians, who were bemused that a neutral ally should take such bizarre action, dubbed the affair "the spy who came in from the Emmentaler" in a reference to Switzerland's most famous cheese.

However, the Berne authorities were not amused at the potential insult to a key ally and Col Bachmann's zeal for John Le Carre-type operations was officially dubbed "a problem".

Despite living in west Cork since 1980, Col Bachmann retained close links to Switzerland and was regularly visited by friends and relatives.

Irish Independent

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