Mata Hari dossier made public

Of the 7 Dutch nationals that got shot for being a spy Margaretha Zelle alias Mata Hari is de most famous. The other 6 were less colourful men. Ironically, Mata Hari was not really a spy. She was a loose woman with a weakness for men in uniform. She fell victim to an Allied phobia for femmes fatale who supposedly seduced their officers. This mindset explained why the French and their allies were losing from the Germans at that stage of the Great War. 

Recently the French Ministry of Defence has published their dossier on Mata Hari on the internet. At first glance it confirms the picture that evidence against Zelle was very thin and that she fell victim to the desire to make an example of her.

To understand how she got entangled into the dangerous world of espionage my book Spynest offers context, as during WW1 the neutral Netherlands was a hotbed of international espionage.


Magna November 2016


For the November 2016 issue of Magna, the magazine of the Friends of the National Archives, I wrote a piece on the role of Rotterdam as the First World War's premier spynest.


The truth about Edith Cavell

In this interesting BBC Radio 4 documentary by Dame Stella Rimington, former chief of MI5, the truth about the British nurse and WW1 martyr Edith Cavell is revealed. Was she as innocent as British propaganda made people belief? The question is half the answer...

Listen here.


Sunday Spy Show Podcast 41

On this Sunday Spy Show bij Spies & Shadows TV I tell a bit more about de British and German espionage activities in Rotterdam (after the 33rd minute):




Eye Spy Magazine

Eye Spy Magazine #103 features a lengthy article written by me on Holland's position as playground for espionage in World War One.


Mata Hari's Painting

In 1916 the Dutch artist Isaac Israëls paints Margaretha Zelle alias Mata Hari. That year they both live in The Hague. Israëls lived from 1913 to 1915 in London and before that in Paris. He did not paint her in her "work attire", but dressed as a lady in a black cloak with fur. It is unknown how Israëls and Zelle met. Did she approach him? Had they met before in Paris or London? The painting was purchased by the Kröller-Müller Museum. The museum is based on the private art collection of Anton Kröller and his wife Helene Müller. Kröller became rich as a trader in Word War I and had regular meetings with representatives of secret services.


Leopold Vieyra

Leopold Vieyra (source image)
On 23 May 1916, MI6 Rotterdam station chief Tinsley reported to MI5 that the Dutchman Leopold Vieyra alias, Leo Pickard, was a German spy. His correspondence was checked by the censor, leading to Vieyra and his handlers exchanging telegrams wherein they complained to each other about the delay of their mail. Inspection of Vieyra's letters by the censor, however, did not prove the use of secret ink. Or did it?


Franz Laibacher

On 21 May 1915, Rotterdam Head Commissioner A.H. Sirks personally questioned the 64-year-old German national Franz Leibacher or Laibacher at Rotterdam Police Headquarters (image). Leibacher received letters from German spies in the United Kingdom, such as Karl Müller, John Hahn and Anton Küpferle, who the previous day had hanged himself in his British prison cell. Müller would be shot in the Tower of London. After Leibacher's cover was blown to MI5 by an unknown informant, they were caught. Sirks wondered why Leibacher had false Belgian identity papers. He was doing nothing illegal in the neutral Netherlands. Leibacher belonged to the circle of German secret agent Martin Wilhelm Rehder.


George Breeckow alias Reginald Rowland

On 11 May 1915, the German spy George Breeckow arrived in Tilbury Docks, London, and made contact with another spy named Lizzie Wertheim. They both made spying trips to British ports. When, on 30 May, money was wired to Breeckow’s cover account from a known German front company he was made a spy. He was arrested on 4 June. His letters were checked for secret messages and found to contain naval intelligence and a reference to Wertheim in Inverness. There, she had already aroused suspicion, leading to her arrest on 9 June. Breeckow and Wertheim were tried together in a civil court as Wertheim was a British subject by marriage and Breeckow’s nationality was still unclear. Breeckow was sentenced to death, which was upheld on appeal, and he was executed on 26 October. Wertheim died from tuberculosis caught in the Broadmoor criminal lunatic asylum where she had been locked away since she was certified insane in 1918.

Breeckow belonged to the Dierks-Hockenholz group of the KNSt Antwerp. Wertheim was recruited by the Vollrath-Brandt group of the KNSt Wesel.


A Dutch Spy in German Service

On 12 May, a Dutch seaman named Haicke Petrus Marinus Janssen left Rotterdam for Hull. He arrived there the next day and stayed for a week before travelling south to London and further on to Southampton on the pretext of being a travelling cigar salesman. In Southampton, he stayed in the Crown Hotel from 24 to 28 May and sent five telegrams to Dierks & Co. in The Hague. Not long after, Janssen was arrested by Scotland Yard detectives on suspicion of espionage.
Janssen was born in 1885 in the town of Kampen and had been a bookkeeper in Amsterdam before he became a sailor. In 1913, he was working on the Red Star Line’s ss Kroonland as a lookout man when she came to the rescue of Tinsley’s Uranium Steamship Company’s ss Volturno after that ship caught fire in the Atlantic Ocean. America and Great Britain had awarded him and other seamen involved a medal for rescuing the Volturno’s passengers and crew. Janssen had visited Liverpool in February to collect his medal but now the sombre-looking, dark, bearded man had come to spy for the Kaiser.


Batavier Line

In February 1915 the German secret service 'N' engaged Batavier Line passenger attendant Arie van Meeteren on the ss Batavier V for 2½ Guilders per sighting of a British warship. When the German Imperial Navy seized the Batavier V at sea and commandeered her to the Flemish seaside port of Zeebrugge, the attendant ironically lost his job. When a colleague he had befriended warned Van Meeteren he had heard he worked for the Germans, the passenger attendant had second thoughts about his new job. 

As he feared he could never work on the ferry service again once word got out he was a German spy, he went to the police, where he told an inspector about his predicament. Van Meeteren also said that from October onwards he had brought German newspapers and magazines to the bureau of the London News and other newspapers, who paid him three times the price of the German papers. He regretted his foolish engagement with the German service but stated he had done nothing wrong.

The Germans would release the Batavier V, but in May 1916 the ferry would bump into a sea mine and sink of the coast of England.


The Death of Dieudonné Lambrecht

Belgian patriot Dieudonné Lambrecht had been on his way to join the Belgian army by way of the Netherlands when he was recruited by the British army's secret service Cameron Folkstone, led by Major Cameron. He went back to Liège, where he set up a train watching service along the strategically important railway between Aachen, Liège and Namur that took fresh German troops to the Western Front. The 32-year-old businessman was a devout Catholic and his first partners in resistance were two Jesuit priests with whom he started to recruit railway workers, expanding his group to thirty members. Day and night, they would keep an eye on German troop trains steaming between the Eastern and the Western Front. The reports they produced were smuggled by Lambrecht across the Belgian-Dutch border concealed in the buttons of his clothes.

When the Death Wire was erected, one of the first victims would be the premier spy of the British intelligence services in Belgium. The fence had cut off Lambrecht and many other Belgian resistance groups from their handlers in the Netherlands. The Cameron service tried frantically to re-establish contact with him from the Netherlands by sending him a letter via a courier. The letter was somehow intercepted by German counter-espionage, who sent in one of their agents to deliver it and thus gained Lambrecht’s confidence. Before arresting him, they shadowed him and others to identify as many group members as possible.
The reports on the German troop movements prior to the Battle of Verdun would be the last feat of the group. Lambrecht was arrested and on 18 April 1916 he was executed. During the war, the Germans would execute a total of 277 people in occupied Belgium and north-eastern France, of which 196 were Belgians, seventy-seven French, four British and three Dutch.


The Death Wire

In April 1915, the German High Command took an important decision that had a major impact on the work of particularly the British secret services, their representatives in the Netherlands and their Belgian spy networks. Despite the presence of border guards of the Landsturm, who patrolled the Dutch-Belgian border constantly, many smugglers, deserters, refugees and resistance couriers got through. As the border was 450km long with lots of curves and corners in a then lightly populated and forested area, it was difficult to monitor.

The fence consisted of three parts: a centrepiece that was electrified and a barbed wire fence either side of it to prevent people and animals electrocuting themselves accidentally. The electrified centrepiece was generally between 1.35m and 1.6m high and consisted of five separate wires. In some parts it was later increased to 2.5m and ten wires. In mid-July 1915, the power was put on. The current ranged from 500 to 4,000 volts or more. The voltage was not constant and it could occasionally fall out or be increased further. How many victims the so-called Death Wire claimed is unclear, but according to estimates it could have been as many as 3,000 people.


A Hunting Lodge

During WWI the Rotterdam businessman Anton Kröller would gain a fortune trading in grain, iron ore and coal.

As far as espionage is concerned Kröller is a shady figure. His company Wm. H. Müller & Co. was originally a German company before he married the heiress, Helene Müller. On 5 August 1914 MI1(c) chief Mansfield Cumming, better known as 'C', asked the London manager of Wm. H. Müller & Co. to put agents at six points along the Dutch coast and report on German warship movements. Kröller himself would have regular meetings with the Dutch intelligence service GSIII.

Part of his company was the Batavier Line, a ferry service between Rotterdam and London. In several cases the German naval intelligence service 'N' approached sailors of the Batavier Line to give them information on sightings of British warships.

The photo is on Kröller's "modest" hunting lodge, that he had build in what is nowadays National Park the Hoge Veluwe.


Mata Hari & Me

Thinking about espionage in the First World War one of the first names that comes to mind is that of Griet Zelle alias Mata Hari. This week I participated in the making of an international dramatised documentary about her life: The Mata Hari Files. Mata Hari's case was not an unique one. Dutch citizens were in high demand as spies by both warring sides. As neutrals they could travel almost everywhere, from Berlin to London, from London to Paris and back again.

On 15 October 1917 Mata Hari was executed by the French as a spy for Germany. Looking at her French and British dossiers the evidence is staggeringly thin. Scotland Yard Special Branch's chief Sir Basil Thomson was not convinced either. Nowadays no prosecutor would even consider her case. But Mata Hari was not the only Dutch citizen that got entangled in WWI spy games. In total seven Dutchmen were executed for espionage. Two by the British, two by the French (including Mata Hari) and three by the Germans in occupied Belgium.

As far as the two Dutch spies in German service that got shot in the Tower of London are concerned, there is no doubt about their guilt. Willem Roos and Haicke Janssen did spy for the German naval intelligence service Nachrichtenabteilung im Admiralstab also known simply as 'N'. They were part of a large spy network that was set up and led by German secret agent Hilmar Dierks in Rotterdam. He would send more spies to a premature death by execution squad in the Tower of London, until he got arrested by the Rotterdam police.

For more information on the making of The Mata Hari Files click here.


Richard Bolton Tinsley alias T


If your a secret agent and your surname is Tinsley, then 'T' might not be a good alias. Especially if you are in the newspapers. A lot. But T was a quick learner and perhaps it was just a nome-de-guerre (here my spell checker suggests gnome-de-guerre). There is actually no photograph of him that I know of. There is no doubt there must have been pictures of him, if not made by his employer, than certainly by the Germans who photographed everyone entering or leaving the office of the Uranium at de Boompjes 76. Apart from a caricature drawn by a colleague, until now there are no known photo's of Mr T.


The 'Witte Huis'

The building on the cover of Spynest is the 'Witte Huis' (White House) in Rotterdam on the corner of Wijnhaven and Geldersekade. It dates from 1898 and is a 43 meters high private office building. It is a classic construction with Gothic and Romanesque motifs and contemporary Art Nouveau decorations. The façades are made of white glazed brick. In the niches on the first floor are six statues placed, which depict Labour, Progress, Industry, Trade, Shipping and Agriculture. During the Battle of Rotterdam in May 1940, the Labour statue was destroyed by shrapnel. The Shipping statue is moved leaving an empty niche. In the façade are all kinds of decorations made with stone and brickwork coloured in yellow, red and blue. Above the windows are tiles with curly plant and floral motifs. Under the corner towers are stone winged dragons. The interior has stained glass and ironwork. It was recommended as very modern. It had two electric elevators, which in those days were a novelty for Rotterdam. For a few cents people could go up to a platform on the rooftop, where you had a good view of the city. The building survived the destructive German Luftwaffe bombardment of 14 May 1940, because the Heinkel bombers had to avoid bombing nearby positions of their own paratroopers. During the First World War the German Imperial Consulate General had its office in the Witte Huis. From there it coordinated espionage in Britain and orchestrated smuggling operations.


Inspector François van 't Sant

Born in Den Helder on 11 February 1883 as the 8th child of a protestant vicar, François van 't Sant in 1914 became one of the most important players in the Rotterdam spy scene. The young police inspector and commander of the Rotterdam River Police would become the rising star of the Dutch police and intelligence community. The root of his success was his close professional relationship with Richard Bolton Tinsley, the MI1(c) station chief, who in return for protection, supplied him with intelligence. It is a pity though that there is almost nothing left of Van 't Sants dealings during the First World War. He left few traces. His activities, on orders of high ranking members of the powerful General Staff and the Public Prosecution Office, were mostly clandestine and not government approved. In 1920 he became Head Commissioner of The Hague. There he had to cover up the extravagances and sexual escapades of Prince Heinrich, the German husband of Queen Wilhelmina. Heinrich was a typical 19th century prince: not very smart, dissipated and horny. François van 't Sant would remain a confidant of the Dutch Royal Family, until his death in 1966.