Tue, Mar 09, 2010 - Page 6 News List

MI5 papers show Britain feared Hitler ‘spyclists’


Clouds of war were gathering over Europe, and the English police officer was concerned. A group of black-clad Germans had been spotted heading for London — by bicycle.

Newly declassified British intelligence files reveal the ripples of alarm that spread through the country as Hitler Youth cyclists toured Britain in 1937. Reports of sightings poured in from local police amid fears the teenagers might be two-wheeled “spyclists” scouting the country for a future invasion.

“The general image of fit young Germans with blond hair and leather shorts cycling through parts of England where nothing much had happened for years created quite a stir,” said Christopher Andrew, author of the official history of MI5, Britain’s domestic espionage service.

The Hitler Youth group aimed to instill the Nazis’ racist and xenophobic ideals into young Germans, through a mix of indoctrination, outdoor activities and military-style training.

Before World War II, members of the group visited Britain, and MI5 documents released yesterday by the National Archives show that its leaders sought closer ties with the Boy Scout movement.

The dossier’s dispatches about the group’s activities in Britain read like a spy thriller — apart from the Boy Scouts and Rotary Club suppers.

One memo, sent by police Superintendent T. Dawson of Spalding, England, to his superiors, is headed “Party of young Germans en route for London.”

“I respectfully beg to inform you that a party of German youths arrived at Spalding on Friday the 30th of July 1937,” he wrote. “They were entertained by the Spalding Rotary Club and camped for the night in Fulney Park, leaving the following morning and traveling south.”

He enclosed a clipping from the local newspaper, which failed to convey much sense of menace.

It reported how “the homey atmosphere familiar at an English fireside at the Christmas season prevailed when the Spalding Rotary Club entertained a party of German youths to a sausage-and-mashed potato supper.”

Another police report warned that the Germans were “in possession of cameras” and had been seen taking pictures.

Another document described how a Hitler Youth group was kept under surveillance as it arrived at London’s Liverpool Street station, dressed in black shorts, brown shirts, backpacks and “various pictorial Scout movement badges.” The undercover agent reported that “there was no untoward incident” as the Germans took the subway across town.

However, organized groups of Hitler Youth also toured other nations in the 1930s that eventually became the victims of Nazi aggression, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Yugoslavia. They reportedly took part in reconnoitering roads and bridges and in other activities that helped the Nazis map their invasion routes.

Still, the MI5 spy agency did not appear to have been overly alarmed by the Hitler Youth presence.

MI5 chief Vernon Kell responded to one report on the cyclists with a note: “Should they come this way, which is unlikely, I will let you know any information that I can obtain.”

However, MI5 did keep an eye on the Hitler Youth in the years before Britain and Germany went to war in 1939, and investigated reports that German cyclists had been advised to memorize terrain and landmarks “for the benefit of the Fatherland.”

That idea turned out to have come from exaggerated newspaper reports, one of which was headlined “Nazis must be spyclists.”

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