Saturday 24 March 2018

How Hitler's botched plot got bogged down

Our reporter looks back on the astonishing - and hilarious - story of Nazi spies in Ireland

Taoiseach Eamon de Valera was told the Alo Alo antics were a British plot
Taoiseach Eamon de Valera was told the Alo Alo antics were a British plot

Damian Corless

Don't forget your shovel if you want to go to work. No don't, especially if you're a German spy who's been dropped over Ireland and you need that shovel to bury your parachute.

But that's just what happened to the unfortunate Hermann Gortz when he jumped from a Heinkel bomber in the dead of night in May 1940. Not only did Gortz misplace his shovel, but he lost the wireless set that was instrumental to his mission. And it got worse. When Gortz got his bearings, he discovered that he'd landed near Ballivor in Co Meath, some 70 miles from his intended drop zone.

A middle-aged lawyer who had no knowledge of Ireland, Gortz's track record had not been promising. On a mission to England four years previously his ineptitude had landed him in Brixton Prison. His Irish trip would fare no better, not least because he stood out like a sore thumb in a land where continentals of any shape or size were as rare as hen's teeth. Clad in Teutonic breeches and riding boots, he cut a strange figure as he slogged the 70 miles to Dublin in search of Iseult Stuart, the wife of the writer and Nazi propagandist Francis.

Mrs Stuart arranged a meeting with members of the IRA which didn't go at all well for the German. Four young republicans menaced Gortz and relieved him of his cash before eventually taking them to their leader. Suffice to say that Gortz soon managed to blow his cover - carrying his World War One medals didn't help his case - and he went on the run. When the whole sorry saga of this hopeless spy was raised with the German ambassador Dr Hempel, the diplomat insisted that the 'Allo 'Allo style farce could only be a British plot to embarrass Germany.

The story of Gortz is just one of many tragicomic tales in a new book by the distinguished English historian Max Hastings. His sprawling tome takes a global view of spying during World War Two, but the chapter devoted to Ireland is by far the most entertaining and - this can be said - hilarious.

The Germans believed that they had enough popular and official support in Ireland to open a new front against Britain, and they felt the resurgent IRA could be the people to do it. The British, too, felt that this was a distinct possibility. A few years before the outbreak of war, when word spread out across the Irish Sea that our Government was in negotiations with Siemens-Schuckert to construct the Shannon Rural Electrification Scheme, the British government and media went ballistic.

The Daily Mail ran a condemnation headlined: "German Intrigue In Ireland - Bid For Economic Control". The Mail claimed that a so-called "Siemens Syndicate" was plotting to use the scheme as a Trojan Horse to set up Ireland as a German-controlled state on Britain's doorstep. The outbreak of war had changed the circumstances, but the idea remained the same.

The trouble with the Nazi plan to recruit the IRA was a conspicuous lack of planning. As Hastings points out: "A pervasive strand in all Germany's Irish operations was an awesome ignorance of that country, much greater than Britain's about, say, Albania."

The first spy sent to make contact with the republican movement was Oscar Pfaus, who was dispatched in early 1939 before the outbreak of hostilities. The extent of the spy's briefing before setting off on his mission was a lecture from a Celtic folklore enthusiast which, says Hastings, "bored the agent half to death". Had Pfaus bothered to do any homework, the last person he would have asked to put him in touch with the republican movement was General Eoin O'Duffy. Incredibly, the first person the spy approached was the former Garda Commissioner, founder of the Blueshirts and sworn enemy of the IRA. The fiery drink-fuelled O'Duffy told the German what to do with his plot.

When Pfaus finally tracked down some republicans, he indicated that he'd learned everything he knew about his job from spy novels, tearing a pound note in two and telling the IRA men to present it to identify themselves when they arrived in Germany to buy guns.

One of the funniest accounts in Hastings' book concerns perhaps the most unlikely of all the Nazi secret agents sent here, Ernst Weber-Drohl.

He was Austrian, tiny, aged over 60 and a former circus strongman. Weber-Drohl's sole qualification for his selection to travel was that he had fathered two children by an Irish woman. The mission got off to a disastrous start when he had a falling out with his wireless operator, who point blank said he was taking himself off the case.

Forced to go it alone, Weber-Drohl was put into a dinghy from a U-Boat off the Irish coast clutching the unwieldy wireless set. Almost inevitably, the former circus performer couldn't manage the balancing act and as he tried to paddle ashore the dinghy capsized. With his precious wireless set gone, he swam to shore. His mission didn't get much better from there and he was eventually arrested, fined £3 for entering the country illegally, re-arrested and interned. After his release he opted to live out his days in Ireland, scraping a fitful living by touring his strongman act. His story sums-up the story of Nazi spies in Ireland.

The Secret War: Spies, Codes & Guerrillas by Max Hastings is published by William Collins

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