Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Spy Among Us

They went to the electric chair in alphabetical order: Haupt, Heinck, Kerling, Neubauer, Quirin and Thiel, six German spies and saboteurs who were dropped from U-boats on Long Island and in Florida. The two colleagues who ratted them out sat pensively in another cellblock of the Washington City Jail.
It had happened so quickly. In June, 1942, they had come ashore and, within days, had been betrayed. In July, they were tried by a special military commission, (the last time such a court was used until the trials of suspected al Qeada terrorists at Guantanamo). They were found guilty August 1 and, within five days, President Franklin Roosevelt had chosen the place, method and time of their execution.
On August 8, it had taken just over an hour to kill them in the Washington jail’s electric chair in America’s largest mass execution of the 20th century. Roosevelt chose the electric chair because of its horrors. The British might shoot Nazi spies in exotic and romantic places like the Tower of London, but the President wanted the deaths of the Operation Pastorius spies to deter any other Nazis who might come ashore on the Atlantic seaboard.
The story of the six executions filled the front pages of newspapers throughout the Allied nations. In Ottawa, they certainly had an avid reader: Alfred Langbein, the most interesting guest at Ottawa’s Grand Hotel.
Langbein had landed on the New Brunswick coast a month before the Operation Pastorius spies arrived. To this day, his mission is vague. He claimed to have been sent to Halifax or Montreal to watch for convoys and report ship departures so U-boats could position themselves. Supposedly, he decided not to spy, to simply lie low in Canada for the duration.
Yet, of all the places in Canada he could go on the thick bankroll he’d been given by Germany’s Abwehr spy agency, he chose the Grand Hotel, a long-gone rookery on the west side of the Market. The Chateau Laurier is the only hotel closer to Parliament Hill, but even Nazi Germany had some budget constraints.
So what was Albert Langbein doing in Ottawa for more than two years while he lived at centre of Canada’s wartime capital, camped out in a room over a busy beer parlor favored by politicians and military officers? We may never know because, it seems, no one has ever asked.
Langbein’s adventure began April 25, 1942 when Amelung von Varendorff, captain of U-213 had a secret agent come aboard his U-boat in sub pens at Lorient, France. Off the coast of Portugal, U-213 stalked a British convoy but, before von Varendorff could get his torpedoes off, he was attacked by a British destroyer. The sub’s crew raced forward to weigh down the U-boat’s nose as it crash-dove to 200 metres.
Ten depth charges went off, close enough to make the lights flicker and the hull shake. Several of the sailors, most of them fishermen from the Baltic Sea, began to cry and sob. The sub’s tough first officer tried to talk them back to their senses while the captain lay silently on his bunk, his automatic pistol at his side.
The rest of the trip was tedious. The sub fought the Bay of Fundy’s and emerged May 12 near St. Martin’s, New Brunswick. Just after midnight, the sub surfaced, popped the hatches prepared a dinghy for launch.
Langbein left with a Lt. Kueltz and two sailors who helped haul Langbein and his gear cross the boulder-strewn beach and scale the 80 metre bluff along the shore. By 7:30, the dinghy arrived back at the sub and U-213 disappeared. Six weeks later, U-213 was sunk off the Azores by three British warships firing depth charges. The captain and his 50 crew members died.
The man they left behind was born on April 6, 1903 in Graefenthal, Thuringia, Germany. His father, Willy, worked as an insurance broker, but Alfred liked to travel. First, he went to Shanghai and found a job as a special constable on the Shanghai police force. He returned to Germany in 1926.
Things were grim in Germany. His father’s firm was failing. In 1928, Langbein sailed for Halifax. He took a train across Canada to find a family in Pearce, Alberta that he had met on the ship. In Alberta, he found a job as a surveyor, then went to Northern Manitoba to work as a railway laborer. Langbein had been caught in a cat house in Flin Flon, but never got into serious trouble.
He wandered to Ontario, where he worked briefly as a freelance writer. Langbein arrived home just as Hitler took power.
Through the rest of the Depression, Langbein ran a small factory in Germany, then supervised construction of four kilometers of an autobahn – jobs that have a whiff of Party patronage. By the beginning of the war he was married with a daughter (a son had died soon after birth) and he was waiting for his army call-up papers to arrive in the mail.
Instead, Langbein got a phone call from an old school friend, Oscar Homann, who invited him to Hannover to talk business with a mysterious stranger, Dr. Nicolaus Bensmann, a former patent agent for a U.S. oil company operating in Romania. After a few formalities, Langbein was packed off to “The Nest,” the spy training school in Bremen that also taught sabotage to Abwehr agents.
Langbein turned down one assignment, parachuting into England to scout airfields and anti-aircraft gun emplacements, saying his German-Canadian accent would betray him. Then, his spymasters planned to set him up in a fishing boat operated by Belgian collaborators that would scout the English coast. This plan was foiled when British planes sank the fishing boat in Flushing, Holland.
A spying expedition with Bensmann in Romania was also a failure. Instead of spying, Bensmann spent most of the time trying to collect money owed to his American employers.
The Abwehr had a new plan: a U-boat drop in Canada, bury his equipment, get to Halifax or Montreal where British convoys assembled, find a job and blend in for about three months, then return to the landing place to get his radio. After three months, the Germans would listen for his signal every night at 11 p.m. German summer time. If Langbein did not retrieve his radio, he could write letters in invisible ink and send them to mail drops in neutral Switzerland and Portugal.
Langbein christened the mission “Operation Gretl” after his wife.
U-213’s was crew led to believe he was a reporter in Germany’s elite Propaganda Kompany. Langbein was given his fake ID and $7500 in US $50 bills, the same type used on Operation Pastorius. The spy realized with some horror that the wartime registration card, vital for employment, was made out to A.B. Haskins, Young Street, Toronto. Langbein knew Toronto’s main street had been spelled wrong, and he was sure someone would catch him because of it.
After the sub left, Langbein slept for a few hours. Then he traipsed through bogs to St. Martins, New Brunswick, where be bought a razor and some soap. The spy managed to hitch a ride to St. John in a lumber truck. He told the driver he had a cold, and spoke in hoarse whispers to disguise his strong German accent.
His biggest challenge was cashing those American $50 bills. He spent much of the next two years shopping, looking for stores that would accept large-denomination bills. Usually, he let them keep the 10 per cent exchange.
Arriving in Montreal by train, the spy checked into a rooming house where he had stayed in a decade before. On June 18, while the eight Operation Pastorius spies were still free in the States, Langbein went to a store to buy a couple of pipes. The owner couldn’t make change for the $50 bill Langbein offered, but a furtive little man grabbed him by the shirt sleeves and pulled him down St. Catherine Street and into a house on a side street. It was a bordello. The madam said she could get change.
Langbein, no stranger to Canadian whore houses, later said he stayed long enough to collect his change and have a beer, but he didn’t drink it fast enough to avoid a police raid. The cops booked him as a “found-in” under the name A.B. Haskins – his lack of real ID and strong German accent obviously of little concern to the vice cops – and eventually let him go on $50 bail, the Canadian change from his American $50.
When he got back to his rooming house, he packed his stuff and caught the first train to Ottawa. The spy claimed he flagged a cab at the Ottawa train station (now the Government Conference Centre, right across from the Chateau Laurier) and asked the driver to take him to a good hotel.
If Langbein told the truth, the cabbie drove him about a block, to the Grand Hotel on Sussex, about where the Rideau Street Chapters store now has its parking lot. There, Langbein made himself at home.
The hotel was a watering hole for politicians, civil servants and the hundreds of soldiers rolling through the city at any given time. It is exactly the place you’d expect a spy to set up shop.
Yet, for more than a year, in a city that was the headquarters of the RCMP and Canada’s military intelligence, the 40-year-old stranger with a heavy German accent and a seemingly never-ending supply of American $50 bills held court within shouting distance of Parliament and a five-minute walk from the military’s headquarters on Cartier Square (now the site of Ottawa’s city hall).
“The night after I arrived in Ottawa, I seriously considered surrendering myself to the RCMP or any other suitable authority and spent considerable time consulting the phone book to decide the most suitable authority to approach,” Langbein later told Canadian intelligence agents. Instead, he adapted to life in Ottawa and made an interesting group of friends.
Langbein bought a ping-pong table from a store on Rideau Street because one of his Air Force friends liked the game. So did Langbein: he had learned ping-pong from a friend in the Abwehr. He made friends with some of the hotel staff. Two of them had girlfriends who worked as secretaries for Naval Intelligence.
During his first six months in Ottawa, the spy left the hotel at 9 o’clock every morning and returned about five in the afternoon. “I would put in the day as best I could, taking long walks, going to picture shows and taking in any sporting events that might be in progress.”
Eddie Sabourin, a cook in the hotel, was his best friend. Through him, the spy became part of a group of young people who liked to party at the Grand Hotel. On summer weekend, they took short drives to Constance Bay and Buckingham to picnic and drink beer. Langbein usually picked up most of the tab.
Yet Langbein’s friends seemed to be of little interest to the spy’s interrogators. At least once, a friend had taken him into the Naval Intelligence offices in Temporary Building 8 at the Experimental Farm. Still, month after month went by without Langbein raising suspicion from the dozens of army, navy and airforce officers, the politicians and political staffers, and the war bureaucrats who drank with him at the Grand Hotel. His biggest problem was homesickness.
There was just one close call. In the early summer of 1943, while riding home from a Hull bar in a cab with “Bea”, the sister-in-law of the owner of the Grand Hotel, and her soldier boyfriend, Bea’s friend was a soldier. He looked at Langbein and said “I think you’re a spy.” When the drunken soldier left the cab in Hull to look for a cop, Langbein talked Bea and the cabbie into heading for Ottawa. Presumably, the Hull police paid no attention to the soldier’s accurate suspicions.
Once he got back to the Grand Hotel, Langbein avoided Bea and started looking for a new place to live. With some help from a waiter in the Grand’s beer parlor, he found a place to live in Lowertown.

(For the rest of this story, see the April, 2010 issue of Ottawa magazine

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