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  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis

A German plot to blow up the Bank of England

A namesake of mine was the German Intelligence Service's spymaster in Britain during the period leading up to the outbreak of WW1. W Lewis's real name was Gustav Steinhauer, the head of the British section of the German Admiralty's intelligence service, the Nachrichten-Abteilung or ‘N’ division. He had many other aliases, including the one to which I refer in my novel, Now the Darkness Gathers, Mrs Reimers. He was a German naval officer who had been trained by the Pinkerton Detective Agency for his intelligence duties and he spoke fluent English.

Steinhauer was well known to the British counter-intelligence service, the Home Section of the fledgling Secret Service Bureau (now MI5), as he had co-operated closely with Special Branch during Queen Victoria's funeral to help foil an attempt by Russian anarchists to assassinate the Kaiser. It was in response to many scare stories of dastardly deeds being plotted by the Germans against Britain, largely stirred up by The Daily Mail and the novelists William Le Queux and Erskine Childers, that the SSB was established in 1909. However, it was not until 1911 that 'N' division began seriously to establish a spy network in Britain. The German Navy's intelligence service was a tenth of the size of that of the army and its focus was on France and Belgium.

Steinhauer travelled extensively in Europe, but rarely visited Britain. Instead, he communicated with his agents through a number of intermediaries, mainly German barbers in London. Unfortunately for him, Special Branch had tailed him to one of these barbers' shops during his visit for Queen Victoria's funeral and, henceforth, monitored mail passing through the barber's shop. He did, however, visit Britain immediately prior to the outbreak of WW1, but the SSB had too few men available to mount a full surveillance operation on him. Even so, a few weeks later it was able to round up the entire German spy ring very swiftly.

In my novel, I describe a fictional account to destroy the naval magazines in Kent. In actual fact, the Germans planned to blow up the Bank of England. Had the plot not been uncovered and then been executed, it would have destroyed Britain's economic ability to prosecute the war and changed history. An historian has suggested that this plot was the inspiration for Ian Fleming's book, Goldfinger. Like Ian Fleming, 'Everything I write has a precedent in truth.'

Gustav Steinhauer

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