Hitler's strange bunch of spies
Sunday, December 01, 2002
David O'Donoghue

Mark Hull's bearing is military and his conversation crisp, clipped and precise, as one might expect from a US army captain turned academic.

His addresses his interlocutors as `Sir' and, for all the world, might well have stepped off the set of A Few Good Men. But that's where the similarity with Hollywood ends. Hull's business is strictly non-fiction, as his long-awaited study of German espionage in neutral Ireland in wartime testifies.

Hull now works as assistant professor of history at St Louis University in Missouri, a Jesuit institution, specialising in European history. He spent three years in UCC working on a 500-page doctoral thesis from which Irish Secrets was rewritten.

It is the most complete history of Nazi Germany's covert war on Irish soil. Hull is sanguine about his new book and reflective about the many long hours he spent poring over documents at the Irish Army's archives in Cathal Brugha Barracks in Rathmines, Dublin.

"I think the strong army tea kept me going," he says.

The archives boast files on all subversives operating in Ireland during the war, including the `dirty dozen' German agents parachuted in or landed by U-boat.

In many ways, Hull was ideally suited to write the definitive history of German espionage in neutral Ireland. "The US army has always been a strong influence on my life. My father served in Vietnam and I grew up with a fascination for military adventure," he says.

As a teenager, Hull attended school in West Germany, where his father was serving with the American military. "I learned to speak German during that time, and it came fairly easily to me. It proved very useful later on when I had to study wartime documentation in the German language for my doctoral thesis on wartime espionage in neutral Ireland."

Having joined the US army himself and attained the rank of captain, Hull moved to Cork in the 1990s to write his PhD. "I found the whole story of Germany's covert involvement in wartime Ireland so fascinating, although the agents sent here were not up to much. They were inept. Most were arrested within hours of landing, with the exception of the so-called master spy, Hermann Goertz," he says.

Hull pulls no punches in his assessment of Germany's Irish espionage effort here, and brings his military expertise to bear. "It was an absolute failure, due mainly to hazy objectives and a shocking lack of selection standards when it came to picking agents.

"Several of the spies that came here had only a rudimentary grasp of the English language and couldn't focus on their espionage tasks.

"In addition, it was very unwise to send an Indian spy, Henry Obed, here -- even if he was en route to England -- because he would attract the attention of the police immediately, as indeed, he did, spending the rest of the war in Athlone Barracks."

Despite the seriousness of his book's subject matter, Hull can see the funny side. "The agents sent to Ireland were a strange bunch of guys. In fact, the more I studied their backgrounds and modus operandi, the funnier it became. There was no way they were going to succeed in their missions. The key question is whether or not they were deliberately chosen to fail, given what we now know about Admiral Canaris's links to the British intelligence services."

Irish Secrets updates earlier research done in the 1950s by German author Enno Stephan, whose seminal book Spies in Ireland was published in 1963. Stephan fought with the German Army in WWII and spent some years as a prisoner of the French.

Apart from providing an excellent reference book on Germany's covert wartime interventions in neutral Ireland, Mark Hull managed to track down two surviving German agents -- Dieter Gartner who lives in retirement in Namibia, and Jan van Loon, a Dutchman living in Sutton.

"Van Loon was more forthcoming than Gartner who seemed to want to forget all about the events of 60 years ago," says Hull.

Irish military intelligence -- the redoubtable G2, run for most of the war by the enigmatic Colonel Dan Bryan -- rounded up nearly all the German agents quickly. They spent the rest of the war in Athlone Barracks, where they were treated well. But they were never allowed to mix with ordinary POWs -- the stranded British and German sailors and airmen who were incarcerated at the Curragh Camp, along with the IRA.

The eccentric figure of Hermann Goertz -- as Hull notes, "he was wearing a Luftwaffe uniform and First World War medals when he landed here" -- looms large in Irish Secrets, and provides an unforgettable pen picture of the entire German espionage effort in Ireland. He remained at large for 18 months, having arrived by parachute near Ballivor, Co Meath, on May 12 1940. He was finally arrested on November 12 1941.

Hull is sceptical about some historians' `master spy' label for Goertz.

"His position was, of course, compromised, as he had been imprisoned by the British in the late 1930s following a bungled mission to photograph air bases in England. I am confident that he was deliberately allowed to wander around the country so the Irish army and police could find out who his contacts were. They roped him in when he had served this purpose," says Hull.

There is evidence that the German spy became unhinged while in custody in Athlone: he practised suicide techniques with a fellow prisoner, carved an elaborate tombstone for his own grave and, according to his diary, envisaged taking over the leadership of the IRA.

Goertz broke down in tears when a message smuggled into Athlone informed him that he had been promoted to the rank of major. Professor Hull comments: "The `promotion' was dreamed up by Irish military intelligence, who had fooled Goertz into thinking he could send secret messages via a courier to Berlin. The messages were decoded in Dublin. After a delay, coded replies were sent back to Goertz in a classic ploy to get information from him."

Professor Hull makes the point that not all the wartime agents were sent here by the same German sources. "Most of the German agents sent here in the war were run by German counter-intelligence, the Abwehr, but the last two were Irish: Jack O'Reilly from Kilkee, Co Clare, and John Kenny from Dublin," says Hull.

"They landed within days of each other in Clare in mid-December 1943. They were sent by the SS-controlled Sicherheitsdienst (security service), but by then it was too late in the war for them to be of any use to Nazi Germany."

After his release from Athlone camp, Goertz was terrified of being sent home to Germany, where he feared he would be tortured or executed by Allied or Soviet investigators.

While awaiting repatriation in the Aliens Office in Dublin Castle in 1947, he took his life by biting on a cyanide tablet. He is buried in the German war cemetery in Glencree, Co Wicklow.

Irish Secrets: German Espionage in Wartime Ireland, 1939-1945, by Mark M Hull, €49.50, is published by Irish Academic Press