Spying on the Reich: The Cold War against Hitler

Spying on the Reich: The Cold War against Hitler

Published by Oxford University Press, 2023, pp.358

In 1936, the Nazis beheaded six spies including four who had worked for the British. This was a transient reflection of the secret cold war that Britain was waging against the clandestine German rearmament programme. The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) was stationed in different European capitals — Timothy Breen, a ‘press attaché’ at the Berlin Embassy, working undercover, ran four different operations.

R. T. Howard tells the story of figures such as Frank Foley, nominally a passport control officer, who braved the ruthless brutality of the Gestapo, not only to help Jews leave, but also to gather vital intelligence.

One British diplomat in Czechoslovakia, allegedly ‘committed suicide’, but was reportedly shot dead at his desk by German agents.

During the early years, the SIS struggled to make sense of Hitler’s policies. Was Hitler’s rearmament an opportunist measure? Was it a quick fix for mass unemployment? Were his ramblings in Mein Kampf to be taken seriously — or merely a device to secure power? Some believed that Hitler would change, others thought that he would not last long.

In late 1934, the British discovered that the Germans were secretly building submarines on the slipways of the Krupp shipyards at Kiel. A few months later, new information, fed by disaffected Germans, suggested that Hitler intended to build 87 submarines each year — the British built between four and six each year. The Admiralty also believed that the battleship, the Bismark, would face the Soviets and not the British.

Howard tells this sorry but familiar story of misinterpretation and complacency — one which Churchill in the political wilderness raged over. His Majesty’s Government may have increased the intelligence budget, but it was paltry, given the danger.

The Jewish film director and magnate, Sandor Kellner, better known as Alexander Korda, provided cover to the subterranean intelligence ‘Z’ outfit, employing its operatives at his studios at Denham and then securing professional accreditation and a passport so that they could travel abroad. It was also supported by two self-made millionaires, the brothers, Solly and Jack Joel together with several other Jewish businessmen. R. T. Howard has reclaimed the valiant struggle of those men and women who worked in the shadows. He reminds us that Hitler would have invaded northern France in the spring of 1941 if Britain had not opposed the invasion of Poland in September 1939.  Howard’s incisive work cannot but force the reader to make comparisons with the war in Europe today — and how we must react to it.

Jewish Chronicle 7 April 2023

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