Friday 26 April 2019

The spy who was left out in the cold

The antics of German agent Hermann Goertz, who was based here during the Second World War, are more bizarre than any fiction. ALBERT SMITH reports

At the rear of the German graveyard in Glencree, in the Wicklow mountains, stands a small but striking granite monument commemorating a man whose life, times and death, by his own hand, contain all the drama, tragedy and farce of a blockbuster.

Hermann Goertz was a German spy who became entangled in a deadly web of intrigue during which the wartime Irish intelligence service, G2, played a sometimes deadly, occasionally laughable game with him. But G2 had the last laugh so much so that one of the fictions they wove around the hapless agent is carved on his gravestone.

A rabid Nazi propagandist, a doctor of law, a philanderer and, above all, a fantasist, Goertz was a brave, though highly-strung, man of many talents.

In the First World War he served alongside Hermann Goering, who rose to become Hitler's number two. During the 1920s and 1930s, Goertz became a committed Nazi, writing passionately in favour of German supremacy and racial purity.

He spoke good English and was thought to be just the kind of ardent National Socialist who might galvanise a fifth column in Ireland.

On the night of May 5, 1940, he was flown out of war-torn Europe and dropped by parachute into the pastoral peace of Ballivor, Co Meath, with a radio, which was immediately lost, and US$20,000 in cash. He spent four days walking, in jackboots and with his First World War medals in his pocket, to the house of Iseult Stuart, the wife of writer Francis Stuart, in Laragh, Co Wicklow.

He claimed he swam the River Boyne along the way, but there was no evidence of this from his clothes or remarkable boots. It was the beginning of a troubled relationship between Dr Goertz, the Irish and the truth.

His mission was to make contact with German sympathisers in Ireland especially the IRA and see what could be done to encourage attacks on British installations in the build-up to, and during, the planned German invasion. Little did the hapless spy know, though, as he bobbed and weaved from safe house to safe house in Ireland, that he had been rumbled almost from the moment of his arrival.

Goertz never recovered the radio he lost when being parachuted in and was usually reduced to written coded messages to make contact with Berlin. Through a combination of genius and luck, gardai and G2 intercepted his written messages and rapidly cracked the code he used.

The genius element to the equation was provided by Dr Richard Hayes who, until war broke out, was the Director of the National Library. An accomplished linguist, he volunteered for service and was assigned to G2, where it was discovered that he had a natural gift for code-breaking.

Hayes broke Goertz's cipher, and that used by most other German agents, through a combination of mathematics and inspired guesswork. Most of the information G2 picked up from German agents was shared with MI5.

One problem for the intelligence services was to keep from Goertz the fact that his messages were reaching them, rather than the German High Command. To do this it was necessary to draft replies which could, credibly, have come from Berlin.

Goertz's dispatches made gloomy reading so, to win his confidence and, perhaps, cheer him up, G2 added to one bogus return message the news that the humble captain's work was so greatly appreciated that he had been promoted to the rank of major.

From then on, the self-important agent styled himself to all and sundry by his new, higher rank. To this day, his gravestone in Glencree describes him, erroneously, as Major Hermann Goertz.

Duping Goertz into believing his messages were being received in Berlin paid dividends. He proved an invaluable pointer for G2. His trail led to the doors of other agents, sympathisers and couriers.

Goertz's fellow spy, Gunter Schutz, claimed after the war that between 50 and 100 people were arrested because of Goertz.

After 18 months of rather leaky, and increasingly unhappy and ineffectual liberty during which he womanised with gusto for a man reaching his half-century Goertz was arrested at a house in Blackheath Park, Blackrock, and interned, along with 11 other Germans and suspected agents, in Athlone Jail.

There, the increasingly deluded spy enjoyed a relatively benign regime so much so that he continued to communicate, as he thought, with Berlin, still unaware that all his coded messages were being taken straight to G2 and, usually, on to MI5.

Among the pastimes the dozen spies were encouraged to take up in Athlone were cookery and stone-carving. Goertz showed a flair for the latter, chipping out the striking monument near his grave at Glencree, which depicts a sword wrapped in barbed wire.

It is a painful image created by an increasingly tortured man. Insisting on his innocence, and still unaware of how totally he had been rumbled by the intelligence services, Goertz went on a number of hunger strikes, demanding his liberty.

Throughout his confinement, he also refused to make contact with the wife, two daughters and son he had left behind in Germany. Even when Frau Goertz managed to contact him through the Red Cross, he would not reply, saying he was convinced it was part of a plot.

Since his arrival in Ireland, Goertz had shown increasing signs of delusion. In his communications with the IRA, the 'Major' had greatly exaggerated his status and influence with the German High Command. At the same time, the communications he believed he was sending to Germany gave a greatly inflated account of both his influence and importance here.

As the war ground on and Germany faced certain defeat, a number of Goertz's fellow spies began to trim their sails according to the wind. By the time they were released from internment in 1946 some had married Irishwomen, others had arranged to slip quietly away. Almost all had toned down their political views.

But Goertz remained as strident and uncompromising in his Nazi beliefs as ever. In a clear indication of his delusions of grandeur, he began libel proceedings against the Daily Mail in London and journalist John Murdoch, after the paper referred to Goertz and a fellow internee as "spies". Eventually, in 1946, Goertz and most of the other agents were freed, pending repatriation. He and another spy went to stay with two pro-German sisters, Bridie and Mary Farrell, in Dun Laoghaire.

By the time he was released from Athlone, Goertz's plea to Justice Minister Gerald Boland to grant him political asylum had been turned down. In the hope it would help his case to stay in Ireland, Goertz became secretary of the Save the German Children Society.

Interviewed by the Department of External Affairs, he refused to accept their assurances, saying that the postwar German authorities were "the scum of the country", bent on persecuting "good Germans" like himself.

The Fianna Fail Government even sought, and got, assurances from the Allied Command Control then running Germany that Goertz would not face harsh treatment upon his return there. Nothing worse than brief imprisonment and mild interrogation was in prospect, they assured.

At a secret and potentially embarrassing meeting, Minister for External Affairs Fred Boland passed these assurances on to Goertz in person, at the home of German envoy Eduard Hempel. They failed to set his mind at rest.

Goertz began muttering to various acquaintances that he would rather die than go back to Germany. His mental state seemed to be worsening. Even a meeting in Dublin with Dr Richard Hayes at which he was finally confronted with the extent to which his messages had been intercepted and his efforts thwarted since his arrival in Ireland failed to deflate Goertz's growing conviction that he was a very important person who faced particular persecution in Germany.

After the Appeals Court and Supreme Court both rejected his pleas, the writing was on the wall. On May 23, 1947, Goertz went to the Aliens Registrations Office near Dublin Castle to renew his parole. Patrick O'Connor, the detective sergeant in charge that day, told him that a plane was ready to fly him back to Germany and he would be detained until he could be taken to board to it.

He sat in the waiting room, seemingly unperturbed, smoking his pipe. A detective detailed to wait with him described what happened next. Goertz calmly removed the pipe from his mouth, took something from his trouser pocket, slipped it into his mouth and bit down hard.

The glass ampoule full of cyanide shattered. As the detective struggled to remove the poison and shards from his mouth, the spy swallowed hard, telling him: "This is none of your business."

Goertz died shortly afterwards in hospital despite, ironically, a desperate attempt by a Jewish doctor to save his life. He was 56.

The Fianna Fail Government made it plain that they would not cooperate with the inquest into his death, lest their dealings with Nazi agents be shown in an embarrassing light. Taoiseach Eamon de Valera ordered that all Government records relating to communications with Goertz be destroyed. The job was done so thoroughly that virtually nothing turned up in 1997 when the cache of records from 50 years before were finally released.

Coroner Dr DA MacErlean reached a verdict of suicide. The funeral, on May 26, 1947, drew hundreds of people. A number greeted the coffin with a Nazi salute. The Farrell sisters wore the dead man's First World War military decorations, including his prestigious Iron Cross. Several hundred followed the swastika-draped coffin to Deansgrange, where Goertz, his body clad in a Luftwaffe greatcoat, was to rest.

But not for good. In 1974, he was dug up and reburied among his countrymen at the German cemetery in Glencree.

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