AGENT JOSEPHINE: A BETRAYAL TOO FAR. Robert Verkaik is a British author and award-winning journalist. He was the Home Affairs Editor of the Independent and the Security Editor of the Mail on Sunday. He is the author of Defiant: The Untold Story of the Battle of Britain, Posh Boys and Jihadi John: Making of a Terrorist, as well as the Sunday Times bestseller The Traitor of Colditz. He is a non-practising barrister and lives in Surrey. His most recent book is The Traitor of Arnhem: WWII’s Greatest Betrayal and the Moment That Changed History Forever.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Robert Verkaik, what happened in Arnhem, Holland, in September 1944 during World War II when the British launched Operation Market Garden in an attempt to punch their way through to Berlin?  

A few months after D-Day, the Allies were in a commanding position. Having been bogged down on the beaches of Normandy, they broke out. It looked like the Germans were on the run, and it became apparent that a swift, very ambitious air landing supported by tanks might catch the Germans by surprise, capture the key bridges over the Rhine and end the war by Christmas. The British wanted to get to Berlin before the advancing Russians and blunt Stalin’s ambitions. However, Operation Market Garden was the last Allied defeat of the Second World War, and 17,000 Allied soldiers died. The consequent recrimination atrocities carried out by the Germans was maybe tens of thousands of Dutch, and the Germans razed the city of Arnhem to the ground.  

Why did ambitious Operation Market Garden  go so badly wrong for the Allies, as later portrayed in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far? 

Detractors of Montgomery would say it was an extremely reckless operation. Everything had to be right, and they had to have the weather and the luck and they assumed the Germans were not going to fight back. But in the planning itself things went wrong; radios didn’t work, and they were dropped too far from Arnhem. It was hanging by a thread, and they captured the bridges around Eindhoven and Nijmegen  but although the British reached Arnhem the armoured column of tanks were still more than 40 miles away. By the time the British surrendered, it was an extraordinarily close-run thing. Maybe the intelligence that the Germans received was the difference between victory and defeat.

Blunt himself was responsible for editing the MI5 monthly briefings which were handed to Churchill, so was in a very good position to bury everything that Churchill may or may not have wanted to know about Agent Josephine and Arnhem.

Robert Verkaik, your book is largely about two very different providers of this treacherous intelligence, the legendary Dutch resistance leader Christiaan Lindemans known as King Kong, and the Cambridge educated English art historian and mathematician Anthony Blunt? 

A strange couple of spies that couldn’t be more different. King Kong a psychopathic killer, who seems to have no loyalty to anybody but by the end of the war was working for the Russians. Whereas, Blunt a scholar who serves communism and is a loyal and very effective agent. There were two significant leaks. King Kong told the Germans what the British and Americans were planning, about the 40,000 paratroopers, about the Sherman tanks, the 350 British guns. The second leak was from a mysterious agent called Agent Josephine. Purportedly operating from London, she sent secret messages to a German agent in Stockholm who sent them to Berlin.  

Why was it so critical that Berlin received these messages? 

The Germans were in a state of disarray, and didn’t know what the  British and Americans intentions were. They may have guessed it was the bridges, but this intelligence arrived on September 17th while the Germans were deciding what to make of Market Garden. There were paratroopers dropping all over the place and there was even talk about a sea landing. Suddenly, Berlin sends them this very detailed report that identifies the three airborne divisions involved and identifies the targets, the bridges, as well. I’d say that’s crucial intelligence.  

Isn’t it odd that Anthony Blunt, who was a spy for the Russians since the 1930s, had a very important job in MI5, was close to Prime Minister Churchill during the war and was associated with the royal family after the war?  

MI5 is the British domestic intelligence agency that looks after threats to national security, and in 1940 Blunt used his contacts, such as Lord Rothschild who was already with MI5, to get a very good job as a personal assistant to Guy Liddell, the Head of Counterintelligence B division in MI5. Blunt was very clever, erudite, a Marxist art critic in his own right that people played up to before he joined MI5, so he had certain reputation and to people like Guy Liddell he was an impressive asset.  

So much so that Blunt, this Soviet spy, was himself put in charge of finding out who Agent Josephine was? 

Yes. We didn’t know who Josephine was, and in 1943 when we first found out that there was this Agent Josephine, we were very worried. Josephine seemed to be able to supply Berlin with high grade intelligence through the German Karl-Heinz Kraemer, a very intelligent lawyer whose reports via the embassy in Stockholm were being read by Adolf Hitler and was considered Germany’s best spy. Kraemer claimed not to know who Josephine was only saying there were rumours that she was a London hostess mixing in high circles, but he certainly benefited from her intelligence. Blunt himself was responsible for editing the MI5 monthly briefings which were handed to Churchill, so was in a very good position to bury everything that Churchill may or may not have wanted to know about Agent Josephine and Arnhem.  

But why would Blunt, a Russian spy, help the Nazis?  

I give 60 reasons at the end of the book why I think Blunt was Josephine. In 1944 London the Russians had an extraordinarily sophisticated espionage operation, and Blunt was simply part of it. The idea that the Russians would give the Germans intelligence about an Allied operation might seem extraordinarily difficult or impossible to believe for us, but that’s exactly how Stalin operated. He invented this technique on the Eastern front, just outside Moscow, giving intelligence to the Germans on the Russian front about his own troops. He would sacrifice tens of thousands of soldiers in order to deceive the Germans into believing he was attacking on front only to launch the real offensive from another direction. In this way the Soviets gained tactical advantages on the battlefront. This was standard operating procedure as far as Stalin was concerned, so the idea that a Soviet spy would plant intelligence about an Allied operation to the Germans is not unusual.  

The arguments that Blunt was making about his own treachery are the same ones that some of the British jihadis were using to justify their own actions.

Robert Verkaik, yet you don’t accuse Blunt of being a Nazi? 

No, I certainly don’t. I think he was an idealist who never gave up on communism. When he was publicly exposed by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 he was a revered art historian who had been Director of the Courtauld Institute between 1947 and 1974, and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. He was under suspicion during 1950s and the 60s, and at the height of the Cold War did a deal with the British government, but gave as much or as little information as he could get away with. In return he was offered immunity from prosecution. What he knew about the Russian operation would have been extremely important to MI5 and MI6, because there were ongoing investigations that he would have known something about.

Did he stop being a Russian spy after 1945?  

I don’t think so. He was instrumental in helping the Cambridge Five spies Burgess and Maclean defect in 1951, and he was around to fulfil Phiby’s defection a few years later in Beirut. He was always in the right place at the right time. He had a prominent role in the Cambridge Five, and I don’t think there were five, I think there were, seven, eight, nine, ten. We’ve only found out now there are two more Cambridge spies. It suits the Russians, and the British actually, to let the public believe there were only five spies, but it’s quite clear that there were more than five spies and Blunt was one of the shrewdest and the greatest manipulator.  

His private life was also quite controversial, not because he was a homosexual but because he employed many of his lovers?  

Yes, such as Jackie Hewitt, a gay man who’d come from the northeast of Britain. Guy Burgess picked him up as his lover first, and when he was discarded Blunt picked him up. But Blunt didn’t just have him as his lover, he used him as an agent. That’s how total Blunt’s dedication to his craft of espionage was. It was his entire life.  

As a writer, do you get obsessed by the story you are working on?  

Yes, and I first became interested in treachery during the rise of ISIS in Syria when some British Muslim jihadis travelled  to Syria to fight with ISIS. I happened to know so-called Jihadi John in London before he went to Syria where he beheaded British and American victims. I built up a kind of relationship with him, not knowing what he was capable of and that he was, in terms of modern conflict in the Middle East from a British perspective, a terrible traitor and a murderous psychopath. The arguments that Blunt was making about his own treachery are the same ones that some of the British jihadis were using to justify their own actions. They were serving an ultimate Islamist cause, the ummah which was beyond country, and it was more important to them that they served their god, just as it was more important to Blunt that he served communism.  

One of the many curious characters in your book is Prince Bernhard of Holland, grandfather of the current King Willem-Alexander? 

In the war Prince Bernhard was head of the Dutch armed forces in exile. He had a checkered past and as a German had joined the Nazi Party, which later he played down a lot. He married into the Dutch royal family and was based in Piccadilly in London in a grand house where he commanded the Dutch forces. After D-Day he accompanied the Allies through Normandy, and there’s a lot of stuff written about him in Holland, a lot of people think he was a diehard Nazi and that he wasn’t really a patriot. I haven’t found that to be the case.  I think he probably was a patriot and was embarrassed by his Nazi past. He was instrumental in carrying the Dutch forces into Holland and its liberation.   

Robert Verkaik

Waves of paratroops land in Holland.  This file is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties.

Robert Verkaik

Stalin 1943. By Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs

Robert Verkaik

17-pounder anti-tank gun near Nijmegen Bridge. By Midgley (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit. This photograph comes from the collection of Imperial War Museums.

Robert Verkaik

Anthony Blunt = Agent Josephine?

Robert Verkaik

Christiaan Lindemans – aka King Kong (1912–1946)

Robert Verkaik

Raising a flag over the Reichstag -Restoration By Yevgeny Khaldei Adam Cuerden

Things haven’t changed as far as the Russian leaders view the world.

Robert Verkaik, why do you give a lot of space in the book to Christiaan Lindemans, the legendary Dutch double agent known as King Kong?  

One of my relatives, Eddie Verkaik, was a member of the resistance and in Eindhoven helped to capture King Kong in 1944  after the start of Operation Market Garden. I started looking into Lindemans’ life, the son of a Rotterdam garage owner who ended up first driving petrol tankers for the Nazis and then fell in love with a French resistance fighter. He became head of his own resistance unit, and by 1944 was one of the most senior Dutch Belgium resistance fighters, but he had a secret. Which was that he was also working for the Germans.  

And you say that he might also have worked for the Russians?  

By 1944 he was also, I believe, working for the Russians. In 1946 he’s captured for his treachery and held in prison in The Hague. British intelligence officers interrogate him and we find out that his wife is, in fact, working for the Russian embassy He gives the British about 30 Russian spies who he knows, and talks about how the Russians have infiltrated the Dutch state and the French state, and about possible British infiltration as well. Three weeks later he’s taken his own life. Apparently he’s taken a drug overdose, but there’s a lot of people who believe that he was murdered, possibly by the Russians. 

How long did it take you to research and write this book?  

It took me about three years to put it all together, but this book was led by the archives. When I first started writing the book, I didn’t know anything about Anthony Blunt’s involvement. I didn’t know that he would be in the book. My book was about  King Kong, Christiaan Lindemans, the Traitor of Arnhem. It was only later on when Blunt suddenly appeared in some of the archives which are kept in the National Archives in Kew. He was at the heart of the British system and knew all our military secrets and was in a position to make a big difference. He suddenly kept appearing in the MI5 memos in the interrogation of Karl-Heinz Kramer, who was supposed to be running this Agent Josephine, and Blunt was the officer who kept telling MI5 that Josephine didn’t really exist because Josephine was a made-up agent by KarlHeinz Kramer. And MI6 were telling Blunt: No. We think that he or she is working in London. Blunt said: No. No. Made up. Or if it’s not made up, then it’s the Swedish attaché. Since the noughties, when archives have gone digital, there’s so much material sitting there but the difference now is you can search for all these leads and key documents . Before you had to trawl through hard copies. Now it’s all there, and it’s been a revolution in terms of historical research.

What do historians say about your book? 

Biographers of Blunt don’t particularly like it, because it paints Blunt as a much more malevolent figure. He has been perceived as a benign character who happened to make a mistake and backed the wrong horse during the Second World War and suffered for his  mistake. Whereas I paint him as a much more treacherous character, who knew what he was doing and has real blood on his hands.  Operation Market Garden was a real tragedy: 17,000 soldiers and the death of countless Dutch people, and also the fact that the Allies were beaten to Berlin by the Red Army. 

What are the implications of your conclusions? 

It has resonance today because you might argue that if we had gone to Berlin and Stalin had been pushed 100s of miles back towards the Russian border, the Iron curtain would have been moved several hundred miles further East and maybe the Cold War would have been played out very differently. The lessons of the Second World War are very important because the decisions made then are still being played out today, like Putin and Ukraine. Putin still talks about the patriotic war in the same way that Stalin talked about the Great Patriotic War. Things haven’t changed as far as the Russian leaders view the world. The appeasement of Stalin was a mistake after the Second World War, and the appeasement of Putin was a mistake after the invasion of Crimea in 2014. What’s happening in Ukraine is a tragedy, and could be the beginning of a terrible conflagration in that part of the world which may suck us all in eventually because Putin’s not going to back down and Europe is not going to back down. I suppose, if re-elected, Trump might end up being the peace broker, forcing land concessions on Ukraine. 

How is your research as a writer and journalist received?  

I used to be the Security Editor of the Mail on Sunday, and you have to have a relationship with the security services when you’re doing that job, but there’s a lot of tension in that relationship. Security services don’t want you to know very much, and you want to know as much as you possibly can. There has to be a working arrangement between the two, but I’ve always said that we don’t know a fraction of what’s actually going on in terms of intelligence. We only see the very surface. In Ukraine at the moment there’s an intelligence war going on that we don’t know anything about, and probably never will.

Thank you very much.