Battle of the Spies

CHARLES LANIUS September 1 1944

Battle of the Spies

CHARLES LANIUS September 1 1944

Battle of the Spies


Spy against spy, fear against terror...A startling story of the breaking down of German espionage in Turkey

BEYOGLU, TURKEY (By Cable)—The semiOriental background of Istanbul is a battleground today for a secret and vicious war in which words, money and brains are the weapons, but seldom guns. Espionage agents from every country operate in this geographically strategic city, which spraddles from exotic Asia across the prized straits into western Europe. Every night ciphers flash out to all the world’s capitals where sharp-eyed men evaluate, classify and file in steel cabinets what often seems to be irrelevant information. Even while the machines are still ticking out the complicated numerals men and women of all nationalities and types, professional and amateur, watch and scheme for the next day’s grist.

The atmosphere of this city of surface neutrality is as unnatural as the weird barbaric chants which float monotonously up from the ancient cobbled streets. The narrow dusty Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main street, leads up to Taksim Square and merges into the curving Ayas Pasha, which is dominated by the massive German Embassy. Formerly when the German ambassador, Franz von Papen, was in residence the Swastika floated over the imposing building, but since the time when he just managed to cheat death when a bomb was tossed at him, the flag flies only on Sundays.

Next door the Park Hotel, Istanbul’s best, overlooks the beautiful Bosporus. In the early days of the war it was inhabited almost exclusively by Nazis. The Allies held out in the gloomy old-fashioned Pera Palace and the depressing rickety Tokatlyian Hotel in the downtown section. But they gradually invaded the modern comfortable Park until now the balance has swung about—in favor of the Allies by about 75%.

The Armenian manager of the Park Hotel systematically puts the Allies and their friends all on the same floor and the Germans and their cohorts in a different section. Still, when the hotel is filled, as it usually is, your next-door neighbor is likely to be a German or a Jap. Therefore it is customary to speak in low tones which can’t carry through the thin walls, and to use the telephone as little as possible.

Blacked-out Istanbul still has plenty of night life. The Taksim Casino with its modern terraced restaurant and its characterless night club down below is the show place of the town. The Anglo-American colony calls the high-priced Taksim’s “the snakepit.” The hostesses are always ready to dance and drink and are more than willing to listen to clients’ patter. Listening gets money in Istanbul today and the girls have learned to keep their ears open. Occasionally they are good-looking but usually they’re not. The majority come from the Balkans—Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, and, sometimes, even Germans. Some are known to work for the Gestapo, others only suspected. Keeping close lips is a good principle to follow' in Istanbul.

The “Studyo” is another favorite night spot. It is a smaller and more intimate cabaret where people can relax a bit easier than at Taksim’s. Occasionally, however, enemies clash at the Studyo. Recently a group of Americans tangled with some German drinkers. Several Turks joined the brawl and it became a free-for-all fight. When the police arrived the Turks w’ere slinging chairs at each other, the Americans were having a drink, and the Heinies had completely disappeared.

Istanbul is only 100 miles east of Nazi-occupied Europe. New's from Germany and the satellite Balkan

countries leaks across the sealed frontier in spite of all the Nazi efforts to plug the pipe lines. Since the Allied invasion started the German controls are tighter, but the seepage of news through the frontier continues to flow persistently. As a result Istanbul is the world’s biggest rumor factory. Nevertheless, many important facts emerge from the chaff and become vital information in the hands of expert operators.

Story of Treachery

THE major Allied achievement in this part of the world was the partial dynamiting of the German espionage system in Turkey and the subsidiary cells in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Palestine and even Egypt. The recent defection of several key men in the Nazi spy organization, who spilled what they knew, shook the entire ring to its foundations. The inside story of the defections is one of treachery and drama with a slight coating of gold and more than a touch of terror. It started back in the summer of 1943 when the war was turning inexorably against the Germans.

Gestapo Captain Wilhelm Hamburger, known in the bars and night clubs of Istanbul as “Willi,” first saw the handwriting on the wall. Willi, 27-year-old son of one of Austria’s chief industrialists, in pre-Nazi days was an incurable playboy. He had the air and the manner of a bon vivant and spoke English perfectly. His handsome, blond, lantern-jawed head w'ould have been the perfect Aryan model for a Wehrmacht recruiting poster.

But Willi had his weakness. German policy and methods apparently did not disturb his conscience, but he resented the Prussian discipline of the Gestapo, Continued on page 32

Continued from page 18

which interfered with the easy life he had learned to like as a rich man’s son. He had convinced the Gestapo that he was the right man to make important contacts and watch the enemy in Istanbul’s night life. He was one of the very few Germans privileged to dance —a fact which the Allies often remarked on. Willi was bright enough to j see that he was likely to wind up on the losing side. So he determined to make a liaison with the Allies.

First, and in a manner which cannot be described here, he approached the British, but got nowhere. But Willi was persistent. Paradoxically he explained his desire to a Jewish pianoj player in one of Istanbul’s night clubs ! whom he had known in Vienna in the pre-pogrom days. The Jewish pianoplayer, a great favorite with the Americans, immediately got in touch with an American member of a legitimate agency doing business in Istanbul. Although this man was entirely but of the cloak-and-dagger sphere he passed on the information to his superior, who j decided to use Captain Hamburger for : specialized information. Thus Willi I became a traitor to his country and a paid agent of the Allies.

After he had committed himself . Hamburger became frightened. He wanted to come over completely to the Allied side with the assurance that he j would be taken out of Turkey and j brought to Allied territory. His American civilian contact was in no position to accede to Willi’s demands, so there the matter hung for months. Meanwhile Willi supplied the Americans with valuable data.

One day Captain Hamburger “funneled” a message that another important personage of the German Secret Service in Turkey had ideas similar to his own. He was Doctor ; Erich Vermehren, a 24-year-old Roman Catholic and assistant to Doctor Paul Leverkuehn, chief of the German Secret Service in Turkey. Vermehren

was the son of the well-known German woman journalist, Frau Petra Vermehren, in Lisbon. He was a Rhodes scholar but never got to Oxford owing to the war.

Vermehren was a different kind from Hamburger. Although anti-Nazi from the beginning he had remained loyal against his inner convictions through four years of war. Finally, being unable to square his democratic and religious principles with Nazi ideology and brutalities, he became convinced that his duty required him to assist in purging G ermany of National Socialism. His wife, Countess Elisabeth Vermehren, nine years older than her husband, was also a Roman Catholic and a cousin of Von Papen. She was in Germany but was striving to join her husband in Turkey.

Shortly afterward another cog in the German Intelligence machine slipped. Karl Alois von Kleckowski, 33-yearold Austrian and an associate of Thomas Ludwig, chief of the German counterespionage in Turkey, signified a desire to work for Free Austria. His 36-year-old wife, Stella, was a Jewess converted to Roman Catholicism and was with him in Istanbul. His motives were parallel to those of Vermehren.


ALL THREE of these men worked . for the Allies either directly or through an intermediary. The affair remained stagnant for several months while the British and American heads conferred jointly on the advisability of taking them over. Countess Elisabeth Vermehren arrived in Turkey on Christmas Eve. The Gestapo allowed her to cross the frontier only because she, was Von Papen’s cousin.

Then, during the first days of February, things rapidly came to a head. Loyal Gestapo operatives suspected something was wrong. The Vermehrens were ordered to report to Berlin at once. They knew death probably awaited both of them. They told Allied authorities and disappeared from their home. The Nazis tried to cover their absence by first inventing the story that Vermehren had pilfered official funds and then announced that he had committed suicide. About a week later, on Feb. 10, Kleckowski and his wife likewise dropped from sight. Then, on the afternoon of Feb. 12, Gestapo officers imported from Berlin went to Hamburger’s apartment. They gave him a mild third degree and ordered him to the German Embassy under arrest until the departure of the regular Saturday courier plane to Berlin. Next morning Willi realized the jig was up. He adopted the attitude of the well-disciplined soldier and pretended that he was willing to return to Berlin and face the music. He asked for half an hour to settle his affairs.

The Gestapo agents had failed to realize how deeply Hamburger was involved and they believed that every avenue of escape was closed to him. They granted him time and detailed a man to follow him. But Gestapo Captain Willi was no fool. He shook the man tailing him and headed straight to the first telephone he could find and called his American contact.

“The Gestapo has arrested me,” he said. “For God’s sake get me out of this. They’ll kill me if I have to go back to Berlin.” The American, whose activities covered nothing of this nature, moved fast. He got in touch with the American and British Intelligence and half an hour later Hamburger was safely hidden in a secret British rendezvous.

The hardest part of the task was getting Hamburger out of Turkey before the Germans, now thoroughly aroused, could put their hands on him

again. Von Papen broke off his holiday at a winter resort and had just arrived back in Istanbul when the Vermehrens disappeared. He got the shock of his life when it was announced that his j cousin and her husband had arrived j safely in Syria, Feb. 8, on British I passports. Kleckowski and his wife I arrived in British-controlled territory I a few days later.

Von Papen, realizing the harmful and demoralizing effect of these defec-1 tions and not unmindful of the possible ; repercussions with regard to himself, I decided that Hamburger’s escape must be stopped at all costs. He sent out j orders to German agents all over Turkey to leave no stone unturned in ¡ their efforts to locate Hamburger | and if necessary force Turkish authorities to arrest him on a trumped-up charge—robbery, murder, or any other accusation sufficient to hold him in this country. It didn’t matter if the charge was subsequently proven false. In fact, Von Papen foresaw that if Hamburger was caught and then released he would be legally turned over to the German authorities, who would then be in a position to shanghai him back to Berlin.

But the British Intelligence also visualized the same possibilities and countered with traditional resourcefulness. How they spirited Hamburger out of Turkey is a full story in itself and can’t be told until after the war, but it can be revealed that with ordinary routes blocked and frontiers watched the British used rail, sea and automobile transportation to evade the Nazi net. They got wobbly Willi Hamburger out in record time.

Effect Immeasurable

These turncoat Nazis gave elaborate and sensational details of the German Intelligence here and in the Near and Middle East in return for sanctuary in Allied territory, but probably more important was the demoralizing effect on the German colony here. Its effect was immeasurable. Von Papen can no longer confidently place implicit trust in any staff member. It is known that Hitler practically held the wretched Von Papen personally accountable for the defections. He sent special agents under the direction of Erich Pfeiffer, one of Himmler’s most merciless henchmen, to delve into the minutest and most personal details of the lives of every German in Turkey.

When the huge, high-powered Allied cloak-and-dagger setups in Turkey finally got to work they did the job well. But ironically the most significant counterblow at Nazi activities was handed to them on a silver platter. The 1 spadework was done by a refugee Jew who pounds out a living on a piano in a mediocre Istanbul night club. The J men who acted as go-betweens and kept the ball rolling while the official Allied groups passed the buck to each other were a renegade Englishman, who [ lives by scrounging and is practically j ostracized by the British colony, and a former American newspaperman.

Espionage is the bread and butter for | hundreds of swift-thinking tricky men ; and women in this city of mixed j nationalities. Beautiful young women and married matrons are paid by Japs to ferret out Allied secrets. Seriousminded young Americans awkwardly posing as businessmen match wits with cunning supertrained Gestapo sleuths ' from Berlin. Pleasant but obvious j Englishmen work behind various ■ “fronts” plying a devious backdoor j trade from the most unexpected local channels. Spies from all the United Nations mingle with and watch agents from the Balkan satellite countries in Istanbul’s myriad cafés and rakihouses. Behind this web of espionage stands the

Turkish police force, silently and vigilantly filling fat dossiers with detailed records of the movements of every foreigner.

No subterfuge is too fantastic to he used in this business and no traitorous deceptions are barred. Recently a grinning Jap gladly paid a redheaded Frenchwoman $300 for what purported to he the Allied plan of action in the Pacific, which he happily shipped off to Tokyo. It was an imaginary battle program lifted almost verbatim from an American magazine and “planted” with the Frenchwoman by an American cloak-and-dagger man. Even the German agents had a good laugh.