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  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis

German spies in Britain before WW1

In all my writing, I have three aims; to entertain, to inform and to inspire. To achieve the latter two objectives, I carry out meticulous research to convey real events that I believe will be of interest to my readers and, I hope, get them to learn more about the real history after reading my books.

The early part of my second novel, Now the Darkness Gathers (due for publication on 17 December 2018), centres on the early formation of the two security services known today as MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (popularly known as MI6). There was indeed a German intelligence network operating in Britain prior to the First World War. The inspiration for my fictional character, von Trotha, was Karl Hans Lody.

Lody was a reserve officer of the German Navy and worked on the Hamburg America Line, many of whose sailors were employed by German Naval Intelligence to pass on information gained in British ports. Lody was initially tasked to spy on the French, but on the outbreak of war, was sent to spy on the Royal Navy instead, posing as an American. However, he had received no training in spycraft and his activities quickly came to the attention of the Security Service thanks to a secret section of the Admiralty intercepting mail addressed abroad (against the wishes of the Home and Foreign Offices). He was allowed to remain at large to enable MI5 to learn more about the German spy ring. However, he was eventually arrested in October 1914, tried and shot in November 1914. He subsequently became a hero in Germany under the Nazi party and was awarded an Iron Cross posthumously.

The man in charge of the German spy ring in Britain was Gustav Steinhauer. Steinhauer, whose alias was Mrs Reimers, was a naval officer in German Naval Intelligence, the Nachrichten-Abteilung or ‘N’ division and, during the funeral service for Queen Victoria in 1901, had helped Special Branch foil a plot to assassinate the Kaiser. Until 1914, ‘N’ division was headed by Captain Arthur Tapken, who was married to an English woman.

One of Steinhauer’s main agents was Karl Gustav Ernst. He and his assistant Wilhelm Kronauer operated from a barber’s shop in Islington. Unluckily for them, when Steinhauer accompanied the Kaiser for the coronation of King George V in 1911, MI5 tailed him to the barber’s shop and were then able to uncover the whole spy ring. However, it was not deemed politic to have public trials of spies as it would have revealed too much of Britain’s counter-intelligence methods. Instead, German spies were either detained indefinitely or allowed to roam under surveillance. It was only on the outbreak of war that MI5 swooped to arrest those on their “watch list” and Ernst was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.

Karl Lody

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