Forgotten Heroes of Espionage (5)

Anton Copperlee (? – 19/5/15)

One of the great mysteries of espionage is that you do not know what awaits you in the land of the enemy. Not all heroes of espionage were a success. Like troops leaping out of a trench, sometimes a spy is doomed before they even get started. There are thousands of brave men and women of all nations who have paid the ultimate price this way. We remember Anton Copperlee as one of the many who fell without a chance.

His birth name was Anton Küpferle. He was born in Germany, but at some point he lived and worked in America (in Brooklyn) becoming a naturalised American citizen in 1912. Like many German immigrants, he then anglicised his name and became Anton Copperlee. However, he was still a patriotic German and when the First World War broke out, he returned to Germany. At this stage he may have renounced his American citizenship, it is not clear. But he did fight in the German army on the Western Front from August 1914 to January 1915.

During the war, Germany had two intelligence services: that of the army, known as Abteilung IIIb and that of the navy, known as Service N. The records are now destroyed, but somehow Copperlee came to the attention of Service N. His American nationality seemed like a gift too good to be passed over. At this stage in the war, America was a neutral power and a spy for Germany would have good cover and a measure of diplomatic protection.

Copperlee was briefed by Service N on a mission directed at Britain. His task was to establish himself as a Dutch wool merchant and gather as much information as possible about troop movements and defences in British ports. He was first sent to the United States in February 1915 both to collect a US passport and because a spy coming from America rather than the Continent would be less suspicious.

It was in America that the first leak may have occurred. It was well known that the attachés at the German embassy in New York were spies: Franz von Papen for Abteilung IIIb and Karl Boy-Ed for Service N. (And yes, that is the same von Papen who later paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power). Both of these men were kept under observation and it is possible that Copperlee was detected. The German intelligence services should have known of this risk.

Anton then boarded a liner bound for Britain. He arrived in Dublin and travelled to Liverpool and then London. From Liverpool, he managed to send two letters to a cover address in Rotterdam– an address supposedly connected with his wool business. (The Netherlands was also neutral territory). But, once again, Copperlee had been undermined through no fault of his own. In the first place, Copperlee had been taught to send his messages written between the lines of a cover letter in secret ink. That was fine, but the secret “ink” was lemon juice which is exposed by heat. This schoolboy trick was well known to the British censor’s office and they routinely ironed letters destined for the Continent. Copperlee’s letters were detected. The cover address he was writing to in Rotterdam was also known to British security services. It was run by a sub-agent named Franz Laibacher. This agent had been betrayed to the British by one of his contacts and they were monitoring mail sent to his address.

Essentially, Copperlee never stood a chance. His details were quickly circulated to the British police and he was arrested at the Wilton Hotel in London on 19 February 1915. He was put on trial for espionage.

It is now that a further mystery enters Copperlee’s story. His situation was perilous. Britain was executing German spies and the evidence against him was damning. But Copperlee had a good chance of escaping with a lighter punishment. Officially he was an American citizen and America was a neutral country. It was unlikely that Britain would wish to irritate the United States by executing one of its citizens. It was true that Copperlee had committed espionage, but there were millions of immigrants of German origin in America and they were torn about where their allegiance should lie. An execution of a German-born American might inflame anti-British feeling. George Bacon, who was also an American spying for Germany in 1917, was caught and initially sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment and he was released after the war. Escape for Copperlee was not certain, but it was a chance.

But the issue never arose. On 19 May 1915, on the very first day of his trial, Anton was found hanged in a cell beneath the court. He appeared to have used a silk handkerchief that had been given to him for his appearance at the trial. One end of it was tied to the ventilation grille in the cell.

Did Copperlee hang himself? Certainly he knew that there was a serious risk of being shot, but he also knew that there was a campaign in America to have him freed. He should have known that his chances of getting away were at least possible. Why did the British give him a silk handkerchief that was large enough for him to construct a noose? Was he assassinated because of the trouble his case might cause with US authorities? It is unlikely, but it cannot be discounted.

In any case he was dead. And because he had committed suicide rather than face a firing squad his name is often omitted from the list of those German agents who died in Britain during the First World War. In Copperlee’s defence, he did not really do anything wrong. He kept to his cover story and he followed the tradecraft instructions that he was given. It was just that those instructions were flawed. Sometimes in espionage, that is just the way it is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *