In the late summer of 1940, Britain was gripped by spy paranoia. Enemy agents and fifth columnists, people believed, were everywhere. Stories did the rounds – of spies recently arrived on Dunkirk evacuation ships, of lamps being flashed at low-flying Dorniers in the Home Counties, of a Lincolnshire vicar arrested for transmitting wireless messages from his vicarage. The stories were almost invariably untrue – but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…
As Britain waited for invasion in September 1940, four men were chosen by the German Intelligence Service to act as the invasion’s advanced guard. They were to be the scouts, the eyes and ears that would help the first German invasion for fifteen hundred years to gain a foothold.
The four men would be expected to report back on coastal troop positions, frequency of patrols, locations of landmines, and weather conditions – but their preparation was insufficient. They were given just a month of cursory training in Morse and cryptology, they were shown how to use their transmitters, and they were given a few sketchy lectures about the structure of the British army. The German Intelligence Service, poorly run at the best of times, had been taken by surprise by the speed and success of Blitzkrieg, and these invasion spies had been a very quickly organized response. The mission to England was acknowledged to be so dangerous that it quickly became known to prospective spies as ‘Himmelfahrt’ – ‘the journey to heaven’.
The men were sailed to within a few miles of the British coast, placed in rowing boats, and pointed towards the Kent coast. Now they were on their own.
In one rowing boat were Jose Waldberg and Carl Meier. Waldberg was a committed Nazi, a German born in France, with some experience of spying in France before its fall. He spoke no English. Meier was a Dutchman born in Germany who had studied in the United States. He spoke English with an American accent, but had no experience of spying. And, as it turned out, not a great deal of aptitude for it.
In the other boat were Charles van den Kieboom and Sjoerd Pons. Kieboom was a half-Dutch, half-Japanese YMCA receptionist. Pons was an unemployed Dutch army ambulance driver. These two men had known each other for years – and it appears that they had both been involved in illegal currency smuggling which had been discovered by the Nazi authorities. As a result they were blackmailed: either they agree to spy in England, or they would be sent to concentration camps. They chose Himmelfahrt.
The two boats landed in the very early hours of the morning; one near Dungeness, and the other by the Dymchurch Redoubt. Only Waldberg, unsurprisingly, had the makings of a decent spy. In his few hours of freedom on the Kent coast, he managed to make wireless contact with his German handlers. The other three men were truly hopeless. Meier gave himself away by knocking on the door of The Rising Sun pub at Lydd at nine in the morning and asking the landlady whether he could have a champagne cider, and whether he could take a bath. Lydd was no hub of cosmopolitan activity in 1940, and Meier with his foreign accent, ignorance of pub etiquette, and lack of the correct papers, was soon under arrest. The landlady had explained to him that a bath was not on offer, and had called for assistance. Two members of the public stepped up to arrest him. “You’ve caught me,” Maier told them, “and I don’t mind what happens to me, but I don’t want to go back to Germany!”
Yet even before Meier had been picked up, Kieboom was already in police custody. His abandoned boat had been noticed by a patrolling soldier in the early morning gloom, and he was spotted minutes later. I am a Dutch refugee!” he exclaimed, “And I can explain the situation!”
The others were duly arrested, and all were sent to Britain’s wartime spy prison – just around the corner from Richmond tube station. Latchmere House, known as Camp 020, was run by Colonel Robin ‘Tin-eye’ Stephens. Stephens’s role was to interrogate his prisoners, and to decide whether they could be used as double agents against their German masters. Before they could be ‘turned’, however, the spies had to be ‘broken’, and to admit that they were spies. Stephens used his own carefully concocted methods to break his guests.
One method was known as ‘Blow-hot/blow-cold’. This was a prototype of ‘good cop/bad cop’, long before it was being featured in television dramas. Stephens would begin by behaving ferociously towards the prisoner. A calm officer would intervene, apparently trying to pacify Stephens. The kindly officer would take the prisoner aside and explain gently that, perhaps it would be better if he confessed, because Stephens could become a very angry man indeed…
Stephens also invented ‘Cell Fourteen.’ Just as George Orwell’s Room 101 contained ‘the worst thing in the world’, so Cell Fourteen was intended to conjure up a prisoner’s darkest fears. It was actually a perfectly ordinary room around which a story of death and madness was created. The prisoner was told that the previous occupant had committed suicide in it, that it was opposite the mortuary, that he would not be spoken to again, that he would remain there until he confessed – or until he left “for the last time…”… Very often, a confession was forthcoming.
Perhaps surprisingly, Stephens would never allow physical violence to be used against his prisoners. But this was not the result of progressive thinking on Stephens’s part; he simply understood that a confession gained by torture could rarely be trusted.
While in Stephens’s custody, Waldberg admitted to being a willing German spy – but the others all vehemently denied being spies. Sjoerd Pons, the fourth man, claimed that he had intended to give himself up as soon as he arrived: “I want to take it all to you,” he said, “I want to tell the police and take him my apparatus under my arm.” Pons was asked, in interrogation, whether he would be willing to become a double agent. His dilemma was clear from his stumbling answer. Believing that the Germans would invade Britain in the coming days, he didn’t know what to say. After all, if he refused, the British might execute him summarily as a spy. But if he agreed, the Germans might execute him on arrival. So Pons chose a different option. Instead of answering the question, he asked his interrogator whether he could possibly be sent to America, where he had wanted to go all along. The answer, unsurprisingly, was no…
In the end, Colonel Stephens concluded that the men could not be used as double agents. He gave three reasons. Firstly, Waldberg had already made contact with his handler. Secondly, their arrests had been widely observed. Thirdly, three of them denied being spies at all. And so they all went to trial at the Old Bailey – except for Waldberg who pleaded guilty.
The trial, held in Court One, began on 19 November 1940. The three men were charged under a brand new law – The Treachery Act – which had just been introduced to fill a legal loophole. The trial was held in secret, with the jury being told by the judge to “Make up some story if you are asked what you are trying.” The judge also told them to keep “an open mind” – but at a time when spies were feared and hated, when Britain was expecting an invasion, when the Blitz was raging, when Britain and its dominions were fighting without Russian or American help, an ‘open mind’ was an extremely tall order. Rarely can a jury have approached a trial in a more justifiably prejudiced frame of mind.
Section 1 of the Treachery Act read: “If, with intent to help the enemy, any person does, or attempts or conspires with any other person to do any act which is designed or likely to give assistance to the naval, military or air operations of the enemy, to impede such operations of His Majesty’s forces, or to endanger life, he shall be guilty of felony and shall on conviction suffer death.”
The penalty was death. The stakes were high. In his examination-in-chief, Pons told his impressively named counsel, Christmas Humphreys, that the Nazis had caught Kieboom and himself smuggling currency between Holland and Germany. The Nazis, he said, had given them a choice – either agree to spy for Germany in England, or be sent to a concentration camp. (It is possible that this was true; blackmail was a common Nazi inducement to spies). They had agreed to the offer, said Pons, but had decided that they would hand themselves in to the police as soon as they came ashore. “Did you mean to help the Germans when you got to England?” Pons’s counsel asked. “No, sir!” he replied. Pons was trying to convince the jury that he had done nothing, as the Act put it, “likely to give assistance” to the enemy.
During Pons’s cross-examination, the judge interrupted to ask Pons why, if had really intended to surrender, he hadn’t come ashore waving a white handkerchief. Pons said that he hadn’t thought of it. Describing Pons’s evidence in his summing up, the judge said: “You may think that that is merely a cock and bull story.” He was leaving the jury little room for manoeuvre.
The jury retired to consider its verdict half way through the third day of the trial – and an hour later it came back with a question. What should they do, the foreman asked, if they thought that one of the defendants had originally conspired with the others to spy for Germany – but that “when he arrived in England he decided that he would not do anything to help the enemy but he would make a clean breast of it here.” Sir William Jowett, solicitor general and prosecuting counsel in the case, stood and said that would be a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict.
And so, minutes later, the jury returned with a Not Guilty verdict for Pons, and Guilty for Kieboom and Meier. In the view of Sir William Jowett, solicitor general and prosecuting counsel in the case, Pons was acquitted “mainly because the jury did not feel keen on his execution.” Pons may well have cut a more sympathetic figure than Kieboom, and it is perfectly possible that the jury simply didn’t want to punish him with death. It is not unknown for juries to decide cases on emotion rather than brutal logic. It is certainly true that while the other two defendants had made attempts to hide their equipment, or conceal their identities, Pons had been unresisting and co-operative.
Whatever the reason for his acquittal, though, it stands as an extraordinary testament to the independence of these jurors – and a testament to the jury system itself – that Pons was acquitted as the Germans stood poised to invade. When people cast doubt on the jury system nowadays, this trial should be remembered. As a nation, we should invoke it with pride.
Waldberg, Kiebook and Meier were subsequently hanged at Pentonville Prison – and the public was informed that three men had been convicted and executed. A photo of Waldberg’s radio transmitter even appeared in The Times. But the public was NEVER told that a fourth man had been acquitted. The British public never learned about Sjoerd Pons at all. He was swiftly rearrested and placed in internment for the remainder of the war.
In Sjoerd Pons’s file, open to all in the National Archives in London, it is noted that Pons’s wife was murdered in a concentration camp in 1943. This is not true; in fact, the couple divorced in 1951, after Pons’s repatriation. He remarried before moving to Spain in 1983 where he died. He had no children.
A search through the case files reveals letters that Meier, Kieboom and Waldberg wrote to their loved ones shortly before their executions. They died believing that these letters had been sent via the Red Cross – but they never were. Meier wrote to his American fiancée in perfect English. The letter’s last paragraph reads:
“Darling, keep your chin up! Say goodbye to all our friends from me and here’s all the love that my last thoughts will convey. I’m not going to say goodbye, because there must be something after this. Darling. XXXX So long! Carl.”
But the letter also includes a section which gives an insight into Meier’s true state of mind, rather different to anything he told the jury:
“I went into this with both my eyes open, telling myself that a man who has an ideal must be willing to sacrifice everything for it or else the ideal isn’t an ideal at all, or the man isn’t a man at all, but a humble creature who deserves only pity.”
This extraordinary story, in the end, stands as evidence of the only part of the invasion actually to arrive, of the appalling quality of German wartime spies, of the extraordinary fair-mindedness of a British jury…and of the first attempted Germanic conquest since the fifth century…