Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Scotland (1882-1965)
In February 1947 some strange headlines appeared in British newspapers such as: “MI5 officer was on Nazi General Staff!” and “Britain’s Master Spy!”. Of course, the headlines were all poppycock as newspaper headlines generally are. But beneath those headlines lurked a story of a first rate spy and a piece of classic tradecraft that has since been lost in the mists of time.
Alexander Scotland was born (perhaps unsurprisingly) to a Scottish family who lived in London. His father was a railway engineer. When Alexander was aged twenty he travelled to South Africa. He had hoped to take part in the fight against the Boers – one of his brothers was already there in the British Army – but by the time he arrived there in 1902, the struggle was over. So, having been a grocer’s assistant in London, he began working in the supply trade. His post was on the border between Cape Colony and German SW Africa where one of his regular customers was the German army. Business became so good that he was invited to officially join the German army as a civilian supply officer. This suited Alexander as it was likely to increase his business with the German military and also because it meant that he could claim German protection for his delivery wagons. So, from 1904 until 1907, Scotland was a supply officer in the German army. Over the years his German became impeccable, without a trace of an accent. Any titbits of intelligence that he picked up he passed to the British military. The Germans sometimes suspected this, but he never admitted that he was doing it and they couldn’t break him – despite trying to get him drunk on several occasions.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Scotland was imprisoned as an enemy alien. He was released by British forces in July 1915. He then travelled to Europe where he enlisted in the British army. His impeccable German earned him a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the newly formed Intelligence Corps.
Alexander’s job for the next two years was to interrogate German prisoners. But, late in 1917, one prisoner came up with an interesting story: he had been regularly sneaking across the Lines. His reason? To visit a Belgian farmer’s daughter with whom he was in love. At first the story sounded preposterous, but when Alexander checked out the prisoner’s story it turned out to be true. On a quiet sector of the front near the Dutch border, there was a canal. It was possible to sneak across the canal by boat without being seen.
This is where Alexander demonstrated that he was a first rate spy. It is one thing to gather intelligence, but it is quite another to act upon that intelligence in order to turn it into something greater. From his time in Africa, Alexander knew the German army inside and out. His German was so good that he was sure that he could pass for a German soldier if challenged. He put it to his commanding officer that he could use the prisoner’s route to sneak across the Lines, infiltrate a German base and gather intelligence. Since he was only risking his own neck, his commanding officer agreed.
Alexander made three trips. The first time was late in 1917. He crossed the border wearing the clothes of a Belgian farm labourer (his Flemish was by this time good enough to pass any German roadblock). He walked all the way to Brussels, the capital of Belgium, which was under German occupation. There, from an old South African acquaintance who was working in the German army, he obtained papers as a civilian worker for the German army. Alexander returned through the Lines and now, with the correct paperwork, he planned the next part of the operation.
On his second trip, in the winter of 1917, he made his way across the Lines to a major German barracks at Beverloo in Belgium. He signed on at the Libesgabe, a cafe and bar where soldiers could spend their off duty time or buy supplies. Alexander swept the floor, served at the bar and listened to the soldiers’ talk. He noted uniform flashes and cap badges. He monitored the state of morale and noted when new regiments were moving up to the Lines. He stayed there for some weeks, lodging at a house in a nearby village. The house was ruled over by a grandmother who hated having a German billeted at her place so Alexander had to watch his step. However, he later said that he always thought she somehow suspected that he was not a real German. The house had been selected as safe because the occupants were actually part of a British train watching network – although Alexander never let on that he knew.
After some weeks Alexander told the Germans that he was going on leave and returned through the Lines to a hero’s welcome. But if the trick worked once, why not again? It was this boldness that almost got him killed.
In the spring of 1918, he returned to the Beverloo barracks and once again started collecting intelligence. But perhaps he had become too bold. One evening, a German sergeant began to take a suspicious interest in him. He wanted to know where Alexander was born? Alexander explained that he was an “auslander”, a German born in South Africa. The sergeant wanted to know why he wasn’t fighting? Why did he ask so many questions of the soldiers? Alexander pretended that he was just curious. He managed to have an answer for all of the sergeant’s questions, but he could tell that the sergeant was not convinced. The sergeant finished his drink and left, but Alexander’s instincts told him that this man was going to report the matter to an officer. That would mean that the Field Police would be on their way to investigate very soon.
Alexander wanted to run, but he could not abandon his post. He was alone in charge of the bar that night. His absence would be noted and that would look even more suspicious. He stayed and finished his shift. Every time the door opened he expected to see the grey uniforms of the dreaded Field Police. After the last customer left, Alexander closed up the building and turned off the lights. But through a window he could see several men standing in the darkness, watching the building. It seemed that the Field Police had arrived.
Alexander gathered his belongings and climbed out through a window at the back of the building. If he was caught now, there would be no excuses. Keeping low, he fled along the hedgerows and out into the open countryside. Once away from immediate pursuit he weighed up his chances. He did not think he could make it to the Belgian border – that was what they would expect. So he took a longer route and escaped into neutral Holland. From there he was able to take a ferry to England and a few weeks later was back at his post in France. That was the last of his missions.
So why all the fuss thirty years later in 1947?
During the Second World War, Alexander became a British army intelligence officer once more. When the war was over, in 1947, he gave evidence in Venice at the war crimes trial of the German general Kesselring. During that trial the defence rather sneeringly asked how he could know so much about the German army? Alexander replied that it was because he had served in the German army. There were gasps in the courtroom. He then went on to say that he had also met Adolf Hitler (which he had, though purely by accident, in 1937).
The Press put two and two together, made five and the ridiculous stories followed. Some newspapers said he had been in MI5, some in MI6, but in fact he was in neither. They said that he had been in the German General Staff, possibly even as a General himself. That was also untrue. His real story of initiative and courage was completely forgotten. But it is that story, rather than the popular headlines that we so often read, that shows what real espionage is like.