The German Defector

In 1943, Kim Philby secured his rise through MI6 by orchestrating a daring defection. Secretly, it would also prove to be the first of his many great betrayals. An excerpt from A Spy Among Friends.

September 8, 2014

In the spring of 1943, Kim Philby learned that a young German named Erich Vermehren had turned up in Lisbon, where his mother was working as a journalist, and made a tentative approach to British intelligence. The Vermehrens were a prominent family of Lübeck lawyers with known anti-Nazi leanings, and Erich Vermehren hinted that he was thinking of defecting to the British. This first contact went no further. Vermehren had little of intelligence value to offer, his wife was still in Berlin, and he soon returned there. But the approach was intriguing, and Philby filed it away for future use.

Eric Vermehren was one of those rare people whose conscience expands and strengthens under stress. In body he was fragile, the result of a gunshot injury suffered as a youth; but his soul was made of some tensile, almost impossibly resilient material that never broke or even bent in its certainty. Vermehren was convinced of his own moral rectitude, patriotic, pious, and quite prim. In 1938, at the age of 19, he won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, but was prevented from taking it up because his repeated refusal to join the Hitler Youth had rendered him, in Nazi eyes, “unfit to represent German youth.” Hitler himself is said to have ordered that his name be struck off the list of scholars. Unfit to serve in the army on account of his injury, he worked in a prisoner of war camp. In 1939, he converted to Catholicism and married the aristocratic Countess Elisabeth von Plettenburg, a devout Catholic 13 years his senior whose loathing for Nazism was as staunch as his own. Elisabeth had come to Gestapo attention before the war for distributing religious tracts critical of the pagan Nazis. The Plettenburgs were deeply implicated in the anti-Nazi resistance, as were the Vermehrens. Adam von Trott zu Solz, a German Foreign Office official who would become a key player in the plot to oust Hitler, was Vermehren’s cousin. The marriage of Erich and Elisabeth thus brought together two wings of the secret anti-Nazi resistance—which was, in part, a family affair. In this small band of German resisters, religious and moral outrage fused with politics. These were not liberals: they were deeply conservative, often wealthy, fiercely anti-communist, old-fashioned German families, fearful that Hitler was leading Germany into a calamity that would usher in rule by the godless Bolsheviks. The plotters dreamed of ousting Hitler, making peace with Britain and the US, and then defeating the Red menace from the East, to create a new German state that was democratic, anti-communist, and Christian. Erich and Elisabeth Vermehren decided, along with a handful of like-minded conspirators, that Hitler must be destroyed, before he destroyed Germany.

In late 1943, with the help of Von Trott, Erich Vermehren was assigned to the Abwehr, given two weeks’ training in the use of wireless codes and secret inks, and then deployed to Istanbul as personal assistant to Paul Leverkühn, an old friend and legal colleague of his father from Lübeck. Officially, wives were not allowed to accompany their husbands on diplomatic postings, to discourage any possibility of defection. Elisabeth, already a marked woman, remained in Berlin, in effect held hostage. Vermehren arrived in Istanbul in early December, and began work at the Abwehr office under Leverkühn. Two weeks later, he again made contact with British intelligence; Harold Gibson of MI6 passed his name on to Section V; Kim Philby’s Iberian section flagged up his earlier approach in Lisbon; the Vermehren file was forwarded to Elliott in Istanbul, and the wheels began to turn.

On December 27, 1943, at 7.00 in the evening, Erich Vermehren made his way to an address in the Istiklal Caddesi, the main street of Pera. A servant with a strong Russian accent answered the door to the apartment, showed the young German into the sitting room, and handed him, unbidden, a large Scotch. A few moments later, a lanky, bespectacled man emerged from behind a sliding door, and stuck out his hand with a friendly grin. "Erich Vermehren?” he said. “Why, I believe you were coming up to Oxford.” Nicholas Elliott had done his homework.

Vermehren vividly recalled that moment, and Elliott’s unmistakable, reassuring Englishness. “I had a sense of tremendous relief. I felt almost as if my feet rested already on English soil.”

The two men talked while Elizabeth Elliott served dinner, and they continued talking through the night. Vermehren explained that he was anxious to strike a blow against Hitler, but agonised at the thought that he might be betraying his country. He insisted he could not leave without his wife, who would certainly be arrested and probably killed if he defected. Elliott detected “signs of instability” in the young man: he coaxed and cajoled him; he summoned Elizabeth to stress the moral responsibility incumbent on Vermehren through his Catholic faith; he explained that it would take some time to arrange the false paperwork, but when the moment was right he would spirit the Vermehrens out of Turkey, and bring them safely to Britain. Vermehren’s defection, Elliott promised, would strike a devastating blow to Nazism. When the German still hesitated, Elliott’s voice took on a harder edge. Vermehren was in too deep to back out now. As dawn broke over Istanbul, Vermehren rose to his feet, and shook Elliott’s hand. He would do what Elliott, and God, required of him.

In his report to MI6, Elliott described Vermehren as “a highly strung, cultivated, self-confident, extremely clever, logical-minded, slightly precious young German of good family,” who was “intensely anti-Nazi on religious grounds.” Elliott was “fully convinced” of Vermehren’s sincerity.

Vermehren flew back to Berlin and told his wife to prepare for the moment they had long discussed. Von Trott had arranged a job for her at the German embassy in Istanbul, where her cousin, Franz von Papen, was the German ambassador. This might provide some protection if the Gestapo demanded to know how husband and wife had travelled abroad together in violation of the rules. Elisabeth divided her bank accounts among her siblings, and the Vermehrens set off by rail for Istanbul. But as the train trundled through Bulgaria they learned, to their horror, that the man occupying the wagon-lit compartment next door was a Gestapo officer. They were already under surveillance. Sure enough, at the Bulgarian border, Elisabeth was arrested and taken to the German embassy in Sofia. Erich had no choice but to continue on to Istanbul alone. After a wait of two weeks, again with the help of Adam von Trott, Elisabeth wangled her way onto a courier plane to Istanbul, and was finally reunited with her husband. Leverkühn knew Frau Vermehren was on the Gestapo blacklist, and he was distinctly alarmed to find her turning up, unannounced, in his city; he instructed Vermehren to write a memo to Berlin explaining exactly how, and what, his wife was doing in Istanbul.

The Vermehrens had to move fast, and so did Elliott. Under the pretence of familiarising himself with the office paperwork, Vermehren began extracting what seemed to be the most important Abwehr files, including an organogram of “the complete Abwehr setup in Istanbul” and a “quantity of detailed information” about Abwehr operations in the Near and Middle East. These were photographed by Elliott, and then returned to the files. Leverkühn gave his new assistant full access to the files, and Vermehren was soon passing on huge quantities of information every night. But time was running out. On January 25th, one of Elliott’s informants in the Turkish police tipped him off that they knew Vermehren was in contact with the British; Leverkühn had his own police spies, and “it would not be long, therefore, before the Germans got wind” of what was afoot.

Two days later, Erich and Elisabeth Vermehren attended a cocktail party at the Spanish embassy. As the couple left the building, they were seized by two men and bundled into a waiting car. The scene was stage-managed by Elliott to make it appear that they had been kidnapped, in order to buy time and perhaps limit reprisals against their families. The Vermehrens were driven southeast to the coast near Smyrna, transferred to a fast motor launch, which then accelerated into the Mediterranean darkness. Twenty-four hours later they were in Cairo, still wearing their party clothes.

Paul Leverkühn reacted to the Vermehrens’ disappearance with bafflement, followed by anger, and then sheer, paralyzing panic. The Abwehr chief, MI6 reported happily, was in “a hell of a flap.” Von Papen cut short a skiing holiday in the Bursa mountains to take personal command of the crisis, and demanded that the Turkish police track down the fugitives. The Turks politely agreed to help, and did nothing at all. Leverkühn was ordered back to Berlin. As the Germans scoured Istanbul, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Hitler’s brutal security chief, gave orders that the Istanbul Abwehr be thoroughly investigated and purged, since more enemy spies must be lurking there. He was right. Several of Luverkühn’s colleagues now also decided to bolt. Karl Alois Kleczkowski, a 43-year-old journalist who had worked as a German propagandist and rumour-collector for the Abwehr, went into hiding in a safe-house on the city’s outskirts. Wilhelm Hamburger, the heir to an Austrian paper fortune, was one of Leverkühn’s most trusted deputies. Posing as a flax buyer, he had spent much of the war gathering intelligence on the Middle East, while seldom leaving his table at the Park Hotel. He was also in touch with the Allied intelligence services. On February 7 he was woken by two German officers and told he was under arrest. Hamburger asked if he could call his most important Turkish agent “lest his disappearance provoke controversy.” Bizarrely, he was allowed to do so: Hamburger dialled a prearranged number, gor through to his OSS contact, and uttered the following words: “I am going to Berlin for a week and will be back. Tell it to the Marines.” (Slang for nonsense.) Half an hour later, with Hamburger still packing and stalling, a car pulled up outside his house. Hamburger raced out of the front door before his captors could stop him, jumped in the back seat, and was driven at high speed to the British consulate, where “he was given breakfast and a new identity.” The two defectors followed the Vermehrens’ secret escape route to Egypt. Packy Macfarland of OSS sent a jubilant message to Washington, reporting that Cairo was in danger of being “swamped by an invasion of evaders and turncoats.” Kaltenbrunner conveyed the bad news to Hitler: Vermehren’s defection had “gravely prejudiced the activities not only of the Abwehr-Istanbul but of our other military agencies in Turkey. The entire work of the Abwehr station has been exposed and its continuation seems impracticable.”

Having spirited no fewer than four defectors out of Istanbul, Elliott followed them to Britain. He travelled by train to Lebanon, and then on by air via Cairo, Algiers and Casablanca, before finally arriving at Newquay, Cornwall, after an “exceedingly tedious and uncomfortable” journey lasting more than a week.

Kim Philby, ever helpful, had offered the use of his mother’s Kensington flat as a place to house the Vermehrens on their arrival in London. The defection was so secret that not even MI5 knew they were in the country. Elliott went straight to Dora Philby’s flat in Drayton Gardens, where he was greeted by a beaming Philby, and reunited with the Vermehrens. Over the next fortnight, Philby and Elliott put the couple through a friendly, detailed and rigorous debriefing. Vermehren had worked for the Abwehr for only a few months, yet the information he had to impart was supremely valuable: the structure of German intelligence, its operations in the Middle East, the identities of its officers and agents; Elisabeth Vermehren furnished chapter and verse on the Catholic underground resistance in Germany. The Vermehrens’ piety made them quite irritating. Whereas most spies are compelled by a variety of motives, including adventure, idealism and avarice, and can thus be manipulated, the Vermehrens served only God, which made them unpredictable and occasionally uncooperative. “They are so God-awful conscientious you never know what they’re going to do next,” Elliott complained to Philby in exasperation, after sitting through another of Vermehren’s religious homilies. Vermehren was codenamed “Precious,” because that is what he was, in more ways than one.

During a break in the debriefing process, Elliott at last had an opportunity to meet his parents-in-law, which might have been a confusing experience for someone less familiar with the eccentricities of the British upper-class. Sir Edgar Holberton turned out to be convivial, pompous, and distinctly odd. Years in the tropics had left him with a peculiar verbal habit: every so often, and quite without warning, he would say something entirely inappropriate. Elliott met Sir Edgar for lunch at his club. The older man launched into an exceptionally boring disquisition on the Chilean economy, and then suddenly observed, without breaking stride: “I don’t mind telling you, my boy, that I too kept a Burmese girl in Rangoon. Didn’t cost me a penny more than £20 a month.” Conversation with Sir Edgar, Elliott reflected, was an “obstacle race with frequent jumps.”

Some of the material extracted from the Vermehrens was deemed of sufficient value to be passed on to Britain’s allies. Moscow was informed that Vermehren had revealed that certain Turkish officials were passing information to the Abwehr. The Soviets protested loudly over this violation of Turkish neutrality, and Turkey immediately ceased all “German-Turkish intelligence exchanges regarding the USSR.” But many of the defectors’ revelations, notably those relating to the anti-communist resistance organisation in Germany, were considered far too sensitive to be shared with the Soviet Union. More than a year later, Moscow was still complaining that it had not seen a full account of Vermehren’s debriefing.

The news of Vermehren’s defection was carefully leaked. The Associated Press reported: “The 24-year-old attaché and his wife declared that they had deserted the Germans because they were disgusted with Nazi brutality. He is said to possess detailed information of the greatest value.” MI5 was annoyed to discover that the defection was being exclusively handled by MI6. “If an enemy alien is to be brought here solely for the purposes of his being pumped for information he should, I think, be under our control,” wrote Guy Liddell. This was pure professional jealousy. In securing Vermehren’s defection, MI6 trumpeted that Elliott had struck an “outstanding blow” against the enemy: the information he brought was useful enough in terms of intelligence, but the symbolic impact of his defection on Germany was quite shattering.

Hitler is said to have “exploded” when told of Vermehren’s defection. For some time, he had suspected (rightly) that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and many of his fellow Abwehr officers were less than fully loyal to the Nazi project, and secretly conspiring with the enemy. Here was proof. Hitler also believed (wrongly) that Vermehren had taken the Abwehr’s secret code books with him. Anyone who had aided, or even merely known the Vermehrens, was now under suspicion. Vermehren’s father, mother, sisters and brother were all rounded up and imprisoned in concentration camps. Hitler summoned Canaris for a ferocious dressing down, and told him the Abwehr was falling apart. With more bravery than tact, Canaris replied that this was “hardly surprising given that Germany was losing the war.” Two weeks later Hitler abolished the Abwehr, and created a new, over-arching intelligence service under Himmler’s SD. Canaris was shuffled into a meaningless job, placed under effective house arrest and finally, following the failure of the July Plot, executed. The Abwehr might have been corrupt, inefficient and partly disloyal, but it was, at least, a functioning worldwide intelligence service. The defections set off a chain reaction that destroyed it utterly, just three months before D-Day. In the words of the historian Michael Howard, German intelligence was “thrown into a state of confusion just at the moment when its efficient functioning was vital to the survival of the Third Reich.”

Nicholas Elliott was the darling of MI6. An internal assessment concluded that he had handled the case with “consummate skill and sympathy, but with just the necessary touch of firmness”. Some of the glory rubbed off on Philby, who had helped orchestrate the defections from afar, and then debriefed the Vermehrens in his mother’s flat. The operation, it seemed, had ended in complete triumph. Elliott would “dine out” on this success for a very long time, but the wining and dining began immediately, in celebration of Elliott’s “dazzling coup.”

It was through Philby that Elliott met the gaunt but convivial young American, James Jesus Angleton. The three intelligence officers became firm friends, and spent a good deal of time in each other’s company, from which Elliott emerged “formidably impressed both by Jim’s intellect and his personality, as well as by his enjoyment and capacity for food and drink.” Angleton had taken to wearing a Homburg, like Philby, and he peered out from underneath it through heavy-lidded eyes. “Beneath the rather sinister mystique was a very likeable man,” Elliott recorded, “with a formidable personality and breadth of vision.” Angleton and Elliott had much in common: fierce ambition, daunting fathers and, of course, a shared admiration for Kim Philby.

Before heading back to Istanbul, Elliott was summoned to MI6 headquarters by the head of security, a former soldier newly-appointed by the Foreign Office to oversee vetting and secrecy procedures within the diplomatic service and MI6. This was an issue that had never been raised before with Elliott, who was almost pathologically discreet. “At that time, secrets were secrets,” he wrote. But he now wondered if he had let his guard down in some way, or spilled some information to the wrong person. He need not have worried. The ensuing conversation, which he wrote down afterwards, said a great deal about the organization of which Elliott was now a most valued part.

Security officer: “Sit down, I’d like to have a frank talk with you.”

Nicholas Elliott: “As you wish colonel.

Officer: “Does your wife know what you do?”

Elliott: “Yes.”

Officer: “How did that come about?”

Elliott: “She was my secretary for two years and I think the penny must have dropped.”

Officer: “Quite so. What about your mother?”

Elliott: “She thinks I’m in something called SIS, which she believes stands for the Secret Intelligence Service.”

Officer: “Good God! How did she come to know that?”

Elliott: “A member of the War Cabinet told her at a cocktail party.”

Officer: “Then what about your father?”

Elliott: “He thinks I’m a spy.”

Officer: “Why should he think you’re a spy?”

Elliott: “Because the Chief told him in the bar at White’s.”

And that, once again, was that.

Elliott and Philby existed within the inner circle of Britain’s ruling class, where mutual trust was so absolute and unquestioned that there was no need for elaborate security precautions. They were all part of the same family. “For centuries the Office had operated on trust,” said George Carey Foster, the Foreign Office security officer. “In that family atmosphere they couldn’t conceive that there was a wrong ’un among them.” Elliott trusted his wife to keep a secret; Elliott’s employer trusted his father to keep a secret; and Elliott trusted his friend Philby to keep his secrets, never suspecting that those secrets were now being put to murderous use.

The information passed on by the Vermehrens included a detailed description “of all their contacts in the Catholic underground in Germany, and the role they could play in a post-war democratic and Christian Germany.” This was intelligence of the greatest value, since it listed the names, addresses and occupations of all those who, like the Vermehrens, opposed Hitler but wished to prevent a communist takeover of their country—the “leading Catholic activists who could be instrumental in the post-war period in helping the Allies establish an anti-communist government in Germany.” For obvious reasons, with the Red Army poised to march into Germany from the East, MI6 did not pass this list on to Moscow.

But Philby did.

After the war, Allied officers went in search of the anti-communist activists identified by the Vermehrens, people who “could have formed the backbone of a Conservative Christian post-war German political leadership”. They found none of them: “All had been deported or liquidated”. The final months of the war were bloody and chaotic: Nazi loyalists killed some 5,000 people in the wake of the July Plot, including many in the Catholic resistance. It was not until years later that MI5 worked out what had really happened: Philby had passed the list to his Soviet controller, who had passed it to Moscow Centre, which had sent in the killers with a ready-made shopping-list of influential ideological opponents to be eliminated as Stalin’s armies advanced. “Because Moscow had decided to eliminate all non-communist opposition in Germany, these Catholics had been shot.”

No one knows how many died as a consequence of Philby’s actions, because MI5 and MI6 have never released Vermehren’s list. In his diary, Liddell of MI5 noted reports that Soviet forces were liquidating opposition in East Germany in the “drive against the Catholic Church, which the Russians recognise as the most powerful international force in opposition to communism.” Years later, Philby observed: “I was responsible for the deaths of a considerable number of Germans.” It was assumed he was referring to Nazis, but among his victims were also an unknown number of German anti-Nazis, who perished because they did not share Philby’s politics. Any lingering doubts Moscow may have had about Philby seem to have evaporated at this moment.

The Vermehrens believed they were alerting the Allies to the men and women who might save Germany from communism; unwittingly, they were handing them over to Moscow. Through Philby’s betrayal, Elliott’s greatest triumph was a secret, sordid tragedy.