Forgotten Heroes of Espionage (7)

Wilhelm Wassmuss (1880-1931 or 1935).

Most people have heard of T.E. Lawrence, the British military intelligence officer from the First World War, immortalised by the famous movie “Lawrence of Arabia”. But very few people know that there was another spy working in the same area at the same time who was almost as successful as Lawrence – who was working for Germany.

His name was Wilhelm Wassmuss. Various descriptions of him survive: “the Adonis of the German political service”, “short, broad, heavy with blue eyes and a melancholy mouth”, “a mystic, megalomaniac and a man, like Lawrence, with a deep love for the Arabian desert and its peoples…”. He has also been described as “one of the first covert action operatives”. Above all he was known as “the German Lawrence.”

Wassmuss was born in 1880 in Ohlendorf, Germany. He entered the German Foreign Office in was 1906, was sent to Madagascar and then was promoted to vice consul and sent to Bushehr in the Persian Gulf in 1909. He spent his time there studying the tribes and their ways.

At the start of the First World War in 1914, he proposed stirring up the tribes in holy war against the British. In February 1915, he was summoned to Constantinople and told that his plan was accepted and that he was now in the German secret service. His principal mission would be cutting the pipelines owned by the British controlled Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC – this was 51% owned by the Admiralty as it was an important supplier of oil to the Royal Navy). Shortly afterwards he was on a steamer heading down the Tigris to a point below Kut. From there he moved east into the deserts of British Mesopotamia to start his work.

Wassmuss very nearly came to a sticky end straight away. He had barely begun his mission when there was an attempt by the British to trap him at Bushire on 22 February. His confederate Dr Linders was caught, but Wassmuss managed to get away and in the words of one British officer: went on “to wreak havoc” among the tribes. As another of his British opponents put it: “By 1915 he was well on the way to acheiving his aim. Mobs roamed the streets of all the main cities and the few British-Indian troops were in grave danger.”

His tribal allies managed to block the key road to Shiraz and it looked as if the city might fall. To add insult to injury, one of his allies Kezr Khan Tangestani kidnapped the British consul to Shiraz, Frederick O’Connor and held him and six other Britons hostage at his fortress at Ahram, forty miles from Bushire.

Wassmuss also successfully organised the Tangsir and Qashghai tribes to revolt in the south of the country. The British knew from their own spies who was behind these reverses and made desperate attempts to catch Wassmuss, but each time he got away. He was arrested at Shushtar as a suspected spy, but managed to escape, travelling south to Behbaban. There the local chieftain invited him to dinner and hearing that the British were offering a reward for him promptly placed him under armed guard. The British arrived and were actually handing over the ransom in the next room when Wassmuss escaped through a window and out into the darkened streets. They never caught him – although they did manage to get his luggage containing his codebook. Slowly but surely, the British closed Wassmuss’s operations down. Superficially it seems that Lawrence was far more successful than Wassmuss and to an extent this is true, but what the films do not show is that Lawrence did not operate alone – he was supported by dozens of other officers (Lawrence took great care to acknowledge this fact in his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”) But, in contrast, Wassmuss was alone. If he had enjoyed the same level of support that Lawrence did, who knows what he might have achieved?

Wassmuss was finally captured near Qom in March 1919 after the war had ended. Released in 1920, he returned to Berlin. The parallels with Lawrence’s life are remarkable: not only was he a master of desert warfare but with the war over he tried to get the German Foreign Office to honour the promises that had been made to the tribesmen he had dealt with. They did not. As was the case with the British Foreign Office and Lawrence.

Feeling a loyalty to the people of the region and with a sense that he had let them down, in 1924 he was back in Bushire hoping to introduce modern agricultural methods to the region. But the project failed, largely due to clan rivalries and despite his best efforts. He returned to Germany broken-hearted and died there in poverty sometime in the 1930s (Either 1931 or 1935 there is some dispute about this).

As well as his skill as a spy, Wassmuss left one final legacy that no-one could have foreseen. Wassmuss lost his luggage when he escaped from British custody. His luggage was forwarded to the India Office in London where it remained unexamined until a young officer, recently returned from the region and who knew how important Wassmuss was, decided to examine it. Two codebooks were found and forwarded to “Room 40”, the British codebreaking centre. Shortly afterwards, the codebreakers at Room 40 deciphered the Zimmerman Telegram, an action that was to bring the United States into the war on the Allied side. But Admiral “Blinker” Hall, in charge of Room 40, did not want to reveal how the code of the Zimmerman Telegram had been broken. So, the story was put about that it was Wassmuss’s codebook which had allowed the deciphering. In fact we now know that these were two completely different codes (the Wassmuss codes were from what was known as “the 18470 family”, the Zimmerman code was from what was known as “the 13040 family” – although German records were so poor that no-one in Berlin knew that.) Hall claimed this connection as he wanted to disguise the cryptographic power of Room 40. He figured, correctly, that the Germans would rather think a stolen codebook had given them away than think the British could crack their codes. This action may have borne more fruit than he realised – in World War Two, one of the reasons that the Germans felt so safe using the Enigma machine was because they did not realise just how advanced British codebreaking was.

Why is Wassmuss important? For two reasons: first, he showed how important an understanding of language and foreign cultures can be in winning hearts and minds in the lands of the enemy and secondly, because he showed how much one spy, even working alone and desperately outnumbered, can achieve.

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