A German Spymaster, A Medieval Spy, and a Master of Spy Literature
This is the first of an occasional series in which I briefly revisit older posts and expand a little on them or add some details that have since come to light. Sometimes, too, I might drop in some odds ‘n’ ends that I think are interesting.
You might recall that in my post, “Spionage!”—click the box below—about Imperial Germany’s only female intelligence officer, I mentioned that her boss was a certain “Colonel Walther Nicolai, the chief of Abteilung IIIb (Military Intelligence).”
Well, I’ve since dug up some more information about the mysterious Nicolai. He was born in 1873, the son of a Prussian Army officer, and during his time at the General Staff College (1901-03) he learned Russian and was sent to reconnaissance the Tsar’s border forts. He was so good at it that upon graduation he was attached to the General Staff and put in charge of a small, four-officer unit dedicated to collecting military intelligence on Russia.
In the meantime, he acquired more languages (French, Japanese) and was elevated (now a major) to the position of Chief of the Intelligence Service of High Command in 1913. At the outbreak of the Great War a year later, Nicolai was initially concerned with France—hence his connection to Dr. Elsbeth Schragmüller, discussed in the above post—but soon turned his attention to the eastern front.
Before the War, Nicolai had embarked on several undercover missions there with the intention of establishing a V-Mann (Vertrauens Mann, or secret agent) network behind enemy lines. He tended to recruit peddlers, traveling salesmen, and tradesmen who would report to him on Russian troop numbers and railway movements. When War came, the V-Mann network was activated.
Of equal or greater importance was Nicolai’s mischief-making and dirty tricks. Commanders of Russian forts were bribed to surrender, and the Minister of War himself was framed as a German agent by a returned Russian POW trained by Nicholai.
By now a colonel, Nicolai was moving in ever-righter circles by the closing stages of the War; it would not be an exaggeration to say that he was an ultra-reactionary monarchist. He, like his friends, was convinced that the War could still be won, and when it wasn’t, he lurched into the deeper reaches of the political fever-swamp that dominated post-war Weimar Germany.
With the Intelligence department disbanded, he was out of a job. A form of financial security came in 1926, when the Turkish leader Kemal Atatürk invited him to create an intelligence service on the most modern lines.
Nicolai stayed in touch with Dr. Schragmüller and other old hands, and after Hitler came to power in 1933 he served as a consultant to a Nazi think-tank, the Reichsinstitut für Geschichte des neuen Deutschland (Reich Institute for the History of the New Germany), which was devoted to the “Jewish Question.”
In the mid-30s, he gave a speech at one of its conferences, entitled “How the Chief of Information Service of the Supreme Command Saw the Influence of the Jews during the World War.” I have not read the speech, but I think I can guess the gist of its contents, though I expect he discreetly left out that he had hired numerous anti-Bolshevik Jews as V-Mann spies during his Great War stint, and had had no complaints at the time.
He had some correspondence with the likes of Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich in the 1930s, but was not in any position of power. A German exile in the U.S., Curt Riess, published a sensational book in 1941 called Total Espionage that claimed the sinister Nicolai was running the feared German Secret Service, but Riess, alas, had let his imagination run wild. From what I can gather, the elderly Nicolai did nothing of any interest during the Second World War.
The Russians, however, had long memories of his activities, and Stalin was paranoid about leftover V-Männer and sleeper Nazi spies in the Soviet Union. Whereas the smarter German intelligence chiefs hightailed it west to surrender to the British and the Americans in 1945, Nicolai—by now 72 and long out of the game—stayed put when the Soviets occupied eastern Germany.
When the head of the NKVD in the Soviet zone, Colonel-General Ivan Alexandrovich Serov, heard that Nicolai, that dinosaur of a long-ago war, was miraculously still alive, he had the colonel arrested. Nicolai died in NKVD custody—a euphemism for being shot in the back of the head—once their interrogations were completed at Moscow’s giant Butyrka Prison on May 4, 1947. His body was cremated, but his death was not confirmed until 1979.
Further Reading: K.J. Campbell, “Colonel Walter Nicolai: A Mysterious but Effective Spy,” American Intelligence Journal, 27 (2009), 1, pp. 83-89; W. Nicolai (trans. G. Renwick), The German Secret Service (London: Stanley Paul, 1924).
Another Medieval Spy
I also wrote about the treachery of Sir Thomas Turberville, but his is a rare case, for unfortunately little has been preserved of the medieval secret world.
However, I’ve since come across a short note containing a few tantalizing hints about one Geoffrey Broun of Staunton, arrested in 1380 during the reign of Richard II and charged (as had Turberville a century earlier) with spying for France.
Written in Latin and French, his “confession” was extracted, perhaps not entirely voluntarily, from Broun (or “Brown”) by two inquisitors. One was John or Jonathan Stevens (called in the document, “Janekyn Estephine”), a tenant and servant of Richard FitzAlan, 3rd earl of Arundel, and the other, Thomas Warnecamp, a landowner of some means with strong connections to the earl. Stevens was probably the muscle, Warnecamp the velvet glove. The interrogation took place at Arundel Castle in Sussex on Tuesday, October 11, 1380. It didn’t take long.
One gathers from the confession that Broun was originally an Englishman, who for unstated reasons served with the French at Harfleur for at least two and a half years before being dropped off by an enemy ship near the port of Winchelsea on the southeastern coast of England. His task was to spy on the English sea defenses as he traveled west along the coast.
At Christmas 1380, he was to rendezvous 120 miles away at Beaulieu in Hampshire with a French-Castilian raiding fleet of some 29 ships. Since Beaulieu was near the Isle of Wight, that fleet would no doubt be on its way either to or from the isle, but would be certainly intent on striking along the southern coast with Broun’s intelligence in hand.
We know nothing more of Broun or his motivations. Based on Sir Thomas Turberville’s experiences, I’d hazard that he’d been captured during an English raid and threw in his lot with the enemy to either save his skin or pay his way home.
Arundel’s motivations are clearer. At the time of Broun’s capture, this mighty peer was in bad odor with the king. In the 1370s, with the resumption of hostilities between Paris and London, the English had mounted a number of chevauchees (large inland raids) in France, and the French had returned the compliment by seizing the Isle of Wight for a month, sacking Winchelsea, burning Hastings, and generally being a nuisance along the Channel coast between 1377 and 1380.
Arundel had been appointed the chief commissioner of Sussex, which bore the brunt of these attacks, and he had not overly distinguished himself. One report noted that he had left Lewes Castle undefended and then told the locals that he would send 400 men to protect them from the French only if they reimbursed him.
Even worse was that when he roused himself to attack the raiders’ nest at Harfleur in 1378, it was a dismal failure. My guess is that Geoffrey Broun was captured at that time. The point is that when Broun was arrested in the late summer of 1380, the earl really needed a scapegoat for his failures, moreso if Broun had been taken at Harfleur as the result of his ineptitude and had returned as a spy.
Broun’s fate is unclear, but I wonder whether there was something personal in the earl’s treatment of him. It appears that Broun, despite his confession—which should have resulted in his hanging in short order—never went to trial. He seems instead to have confined to the dungeon at Arundel Castle until 1390, a decade after his arrest, after which there is no record of him.
Further Reading: D. Crook, “The Confession of a Spy, 1380,” Historical Research, 62 (1989), 149, pp. 346–350.
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Mission to Tashkent
One of the finest memoirs of the “Great Game”—the long twilight struggle between the British and the Russians in Central Asia before World War Two—is Colonel Frederick Bailey’s Mission to Tashkent (1946), which includes an entertaining section about the time he joined a Bolshevik spy-hunting team hunting high and low for an anti-Bolshevik spy named . . . Colonel Frederick Bailey.
It’s great stuff, well worth a read, but here I’d just like to highlight how Bailey really knew how to craft an opening. Here are his first, amusing lines:
“One day in March 1918, when in Shushtar in the province of Arabistan in south Persia, I received a startling telegram: Was I medically fit for a long and arduous journey? I replied that I was. Then, a reply: Would I go to Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan, passing through India to receive orders as to what I was to do?
I was in many ways glad to leave Shushtar. I had taken over a species of blood feud from my predecessor and three murderers had a few days before entered the town with the avowed intention of murdering me. The narrow streets made murder very easy.”
And so off he goes.