The price of a slice of the truth

Nearly 350 years ago William Prynne, a lawyer from Lincoln’s Inn, found himself in a dank and dirty corner of the Tower of London.
It was a place where soldiers and civil servants refused to work ‘for fear of fouling their fingers, spoyling their cloathes, endangering their eyesight and healths by the cankerous dust and evil scent.’
Prynne was King Charles II’s new keeper of the National Archives.
And he was no stranger to the Tower. He had been jailed for life, had his cheeks branded with the letters SL – for seditious libel – and his ears chopped off, for a pamphlet attacking actresses and, by implication, Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I.
A report of  the trial of William Prynne Esq, in the Star Chamber, for writing and publishing 'A Scourge for Stage-Players,' can be found in the Archives. Subsequent keepers have been less harshly treated.
Prynne wrote: ‘In raking up this dung heap I found many rare antient precious pearls and golden records &c.’
It is a sentiment echoed every day in the modern National Archives building at Kew, where researchers request 600,000 document files a year and millions of documents are viewed online.
These are just some of the gems from my researches, many of them published for the first time, but none of them worth losing an ear for.

© These pages and their content are copyright of Peter Day 2014.

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Otto John

German spy chief who defected three times was working for Britain

During a long career in politics and espionage Otto John managed to defect three times. It remains unclear to this day whose side he was really on.
Documents released to me under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Britain was pulling his strings behind the scenes while he was head of the West German equivalent of MI5.
When the Nazi regime came to power in 1933 he was a lawyer for Lufthansa while his brother Hans, also a lawyer, was employed by the German Air Ministry.
Both were identified with the underground resistance to Hitler, before and during the Second World War, and had links to the Abwehr - military intelligence.
Otto John’s job enabled him to travel often to neutral capitals, Madrid and Lisbon, where he passed on peace initiatives, leaked military secrets like the development of V1 and V2 rockets, and provided details of German plots to assassinate Hitler.
He appealed unavailingly for British and American support and it has long been suspected that the double agent Kim Philby, head of MI6’s Iberia section, did his best to frustrate these plots because Stalin feared the Western Allies would make a separate peace. Philby sent the MI6 agent Klop Ustinov to be his eyes and ears in Lisbon.
When Claus von Stauffenberg’s attempt to blow up Hitler in his Eastern Front HQ failed, Otto John fled to Lisbon and was smuggled back to Britain. His brother Hans was among the many executed for suspected involvement in the plot.
Towards the end of the war Otto John took part in British propaganda broadcasts to Germany, and later assisted at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials.
In 1950 he was appointed president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, responsible for internal security - the West German equivalent of MI5.
It was widely assumed, by Allies and the Communist bloc alike, that he was a British place man, answering to two masters. That has always been denied by the British government but the newly released Foreign Office documents make clear that he was telling his British handlers more than he told his own government and that they, at least, were forewarned of the extraordinary developments that were to follow.

On July 20, 1954, after a thirtieth anniversary commemoration ceremony in Berlin for Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed attempt on Hitler’s life, Otto John disappeared.
Three weeks later he emerged in East Berlin to denounce West German rearmament plans and to allege that former Nazis were again assuming positions of power in the Adenauer government.
Before taking up his appointment Otto John had meetings in London with the British intelligence chiefs and agreed to report to them regularly. His main contact was Keith Randell of the British Services Security Organisation in Germany.
In 1952 he revealed to Randell that he had been contacted by Wolfgang zu Putlitz from East Germany. Putlitz, an aristocratic former German diplomat, had been Klop Ustinov’s best informant pre-war.
But like Otto John he had been disillusioned by the way Germany was being re-constructed and had returned to the Communist East. He accused Otto John of presiding over a new Gestapo staffed by former Nazis and invited him to come over to the East to meet senior Russian officers. It was a classic KGB softening up operation.
Randell was so concerned he ordered phone taps on John and his associates but was powerless to prevent his defection. But the two did not lose touch and two years later Otto John sent a Danish intermediary to tell Randell he wanted to defect back the West.
The Foreign Office wanted nothing to do with it and when John did eventually reappear on 12 December 1956 he was arrested by the German authorities and tried for ‘treasonable falsification and conspiracy,’ found guilty and sentenced to four years in jail, of which he served two. He claimed that he had been drugged and kidnapped, subsequently going along with his captors’ demands to avoid more intensive interrogation.
* A fuller version of this article appears in Klop: Britain’s Most Ingenious Secret Agent, published by Biteback.



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