MI5 v MI6: Tug-of-War Over a Triple Defector
18:35 GMT 29.11.2021 (Updated: 18:45 GMT 29.11.2021)
The two famed British spy agencies fell out with each other over a German who was looking for British help to kill Hitler, according to UK National Archives. The botched attempt to blow up the Fuhrer at his Wolf’s Lair bunker in East Prussia on 20 July 1944 led to a vitriolic spat within the British Intelligence community.
In November 1944 an unusual exchange of letters took place between the British Security Service MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) MI6.
“I think the behaviour of SIS in this case merits your attention, and possibly you may think that some protest should be addressed to them.”
“We discussed this case this morning, and came to the conclusion that we could justifiably register a protest with SIS”
“The matter of Otto John between ‘our two departments... has gone astray'.”
“I am afraid that I must agree that the matter was not treated [by MI6] with the care and attention it deserved and, particularly, that the undertakings we must be presumed to have accepted in the course of negotiations with MI5… appear to have been ignored or, at least, not taken as seriously as they obviously should have been.”
At the heart of the dispute was a certain Dr Otto John, a member of the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler, codenamed Operation Valkyrie. A senior lawyer with Deutsche Lufthansa airline, he travelled frequently to neutral Spain and Portugal on company business. Because of that he was drafted into the Abwehr, German military intelligence agency, to act as a go-between for the German plotters and western Allies. From 1942 he used his trips as cover to make contact with British diplomats - who were also spies - to discuss conditions for the “removal” of Adolf Hitler.
When the 20 July 1944 plot literally misfired, John fled Germany for Spain, flying a Lufthansa plane as second pilot and bypassing passenger checks. Very quickly he became a suspect, and Himmler’s secret services started hunting him down.
SIS immediately went into action to save their “asset”, as this letter from MI6 to MI5 shows.
“John was exfiltrated to Portugal from Madrid at our request [MI6 - NG] towards the end of August, and, although our own organisation is no longer able to find any use for his services, our representative in Lisbon has formed such a favourable impression of the man that we think it would be worth while [sic] enquiring whether the [Foreign Office] would have any objection to our bringing John to the [UK] and whether [the Political Warfare Executive] or some other organisation would be prepared to employ him.“
Otto John had been smuggled across the Spanish-Portuguese border in British Embassy cars and on British ID papers under the assumed name of John Collinson, and sent to a safe house pending evacuation to Britain.
But MI5 was not keen on letting somebody who was not, in their view an “accredited agent” into the UK and they told MI6 so:
“It does seem to me, however, that there would be every Security objection to a German national and member of a strongly anti-Russian Group, bent on effecting a negotiated peace to avoid unconditional surrender, being allowed to come to this country to take up employment with [the Political Warfare Executive] or some other organisation here.”
Unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany was a fundamental principle of the Allies, agreed by Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, and anathema to German generals who believed they were “stabbed in the back” by politicians at the end of the First World War, and did not want a repeat of this humiliation. Otto John’s mission was to find out whether western Allies would be prepared to break their agreement with Stalin and negotiate separate peace with Hitler’s replacement. Despite the official policy of London and Washington on unconditional surrender, MI6 and their US partner, the OSS [Office of Strategic Services – the forerunner of the CIA] kept their lines of communication with the Germans open.
There is no shortage of efforts by British historians and journalists to find a bigger role for MI6, the Secret Operations Executive (SOE) and a plethora of associated organisations in Operation Valkyrie. But it is a historical fact that Churchill expressly forbade SIS to establish links with German internal opposition to Hitler. The ban followed the infamous Venlo disaster of 1939 when two senior British agents were lured into captivity by German spooks posing as a home-grown resistance group. Since then neither Churchill, nor the highest intelligence and security forum of the British Government, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) believed there was any internal opposition to Hitler to speak of. SIS had a slightly more positive opinion but did not share it widely, largely because of the efforts of one Kim Philby, a KGB mole inside MI6. The West's dalliance with German opposition peace feelers when the Red Army was shedding blood, sweat and tears to drive the invader from Soviet territory was not in Moscow’s interests. Fortunately, the July 1944 plotters were not easy to deal with.
As Kim Philby reminisced after the war:
“John was a difficult man. We tried to use him as a double agent but he was always changing sides. The trouble with the German peace terms was that they were too demanding to take seriously. They were suggesting terms that might have been appropriate if Germany had still been winning the war instead of losing it. We rightly turned them down, so the good Germans had to go it alone, and unfortunately for them they failed.”
But how good were the “good Germans”?
The transcripts from the Nazi Enigma traffic, hacked into by the British, revealed that on his visits to Spain in April and May 1944 to meet MI6 agents, Otto John recruited a spy for the Abwehr and during his stay transmitted to Berlin, via secret wireless link, several reports about the Allies’ military intentions that he had gleaned from his meetings with his SIS “handlers”. The last of such reports was transmitted on 12 July 1944, a mere eight days before the attempt on Hitler’s life.
So who was using whom? A 25-page report of his interrogation in London by MI5 led to some pretty embarrassing disclosures... for his handlers at MI6.
“John did not leave me with a very favourable impression of his straightforwardness and frankness. Throughout the interrogation it appeared that he was seeking to be vague and, moreover, extremely unhelpful by the thoroughly muddled way he – a barrister – unfolded the story of the part he played in the Opposition movement.”
“Indeed, in view of John’s unsatisfactory attitude it is perhaps the angle of intrigue by Himmler and the Gestapo, and the possibility that they had double agents inside the group that needs the most thorough consideration and closest investigation if John’s case is to be properly cleared up."
The interrogator, Captain Bassett surmised that Otto John could have been either an Sicherheitsdienst (SD) agent on a special political mission from Himmler, or indirectly controlled by the SD either through general invigilation of the opposition or through an SD double agent working inside the opposition movement.
“To sum up, it is clear that John’s interests were those of Germany and not of the Allies… “
As a result, Captain Bassett was not sure whether Otto John was suitable for employment by the political intelligence department (PID) of the Foreign Office, as MI6 had hoped. They had second thoughts about John’s usefulness to them and suggested that the Home Office could intern him if PID did not employ him. Their only request was that "he not be put into the company of determined Nazis who would certainly make his life extremely unpleasant."
This duplicity sent MI5 into a fit.
"This ran quite counter to our advice and does, I think, show how unsatisfactory it is that your department should, without consulting us, tender advice to the Home Office on questions of internment or release."
The draft of the MI5 letter to MI6 was even blunter: “…in future your Department should not tender advice to the Home Office on matters concerning internment or release but should leave it to us to do that, if necessary on your behalf.”
“In any case [MI6's] letter seems to me a very curious way of complying with the ‘undertaking’, which your Department gave, to be responsible for Otto John ‘from a financial and administrative point of view’ and certainly no one here imagined, when we agreed to Otto John's being brought to this country on these terms, that your Department’s intention was to invite the Home Office to intern him if PID failed to employ him."
MI5 called SIS’ behaviour "altogether wrong". MI6 retorted that although Otto John had been of some service to them they felt that their obligations to him were met already by having brought him over from Portugal and thus having saved his life which was undoubtedly in danger.
However, the real reason for such magnanimity appeared to be SIS’ apprehension that “had Otto John been kidnapped by the Nazis that might have endangered various things.”
Of particular concern was the security of the operation run by an ace MI6 agent Garbo, real name Juan Pujol Garcia, who almost single-handedly ran rings around the Nazis with fictional agents and wireless reports that completely deceived them about the place and time of the Allied invasion of Normandy in July 1944.
“If the enemy is able to assess GARBO as having been controlled since he has been operating in the UK, the following would be the repercussion:
The cover plan for future operations would be blown;
The special agents, BRUTUS and TATE, would be blown;
The Germans would discover that our military operations are co-ordinated with operational deception plans backed by wireless cover and implemented by special agents;
From the cover plan, the enemy would learn the true nature of our operations now in progress.”
It transpires that although John was presented by MI6 as an outside informant and not as an “accredited agent”, he was apparently trusted with extremely sensitive information that could have put in danger the entire Double Cross System of double agents painstakingly created by MI5 in the course of the war.
After the war his intimate knowledge of spy rings in Germany, Spain and Portugal put him in the cross-hairs of rival agencies on both sides of the emerging Iron Curtain. As a result, Otto John switched sides three times during his long spying career. But this is another story for another time.