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Case Studies

A 1940 spy story, part two of two

Here was the case so far about Wilhelm Moerz, a known German spy spotted in the centre of London in late May 1940, a critical time for the British when their army was surrounded around Dunkirk and the country feared a parachute invasion.

Moerz had certainly been in Britain before, probably from April 1939 to June 15, 1939 when he flew from Croydon (then the main British airport for flights to the Continent) to Basle, and at Lexham Mansion Hotel in London had given a Zurich address, claiming to be an engineer called Wilhelm Nowak. The Lexham Hotel’s description of the man matched Moerz’s. He had had a girlfriend, ‘probably a prostitute’ as the blunt police file put it, staying at 53 Lexham Gardens. Police had some 100 photos of Moerz circulated and had ports on alert: Liverpool, Stranraer, Holyhead, Fishguard, Glasgow and Southampton. Insp Hunt of Special Branch told MI5 ‘that the principal at the El Morocco has reason to be grateful to him personally’ and police trusted him to tell the local Vine Street police station if Moerz ever showed up.

On May 30, London detectives PC Bridge and Kelps went to Belsize Park, addresses in South Kensington, various places in Piccadilly, and seached premises in Roland Way. That evening at 7.55pm, someone who had been shown the picture of the wanted man was struck by a man walking with a woman along Rotherwick Road, near Golders Green Tube station; struck enough to turn and follow the couple. The man explained to a passing special constable, who told the man to ring police while the constable followed. The man did; and went on to Golders Green police station by 845pm. The special last saw the couple buying tickets to enter the Golders Green hippodrome. While that trail died in the file, presumably it was a false alarm.

On May 31, the detectives went to the Cafe Royal; and watched a ‘special night’ at El Morocco. Over the next weeks, the detectives patrolled West End clubs, hotels and restaurants, and as they reported later ‘numerous milk bars and cafes in the Tottenham Court Road, Piccadilly and Regent Street areas’.

Police correctly assumed that a spy could not find a regular place to live, and besides anonymous places suited a spy, who might not want to settle anywhere because it would be less dangerous to keep moving. This was proving a roll-call of central London social and night-life, some still going to this day, the Trocadero restaurant in Piccadilly Circus, the RAC Club in Pall Mall; and many long gone, such as Lyons chain of ‘corner houses’ and the Regent Palace Hotel.

In June, informants thought they saw Moerz, and an intercepted letter to Budapest may have mentioned him. There is a suggestion in the file that Moerz may have been behind the Venlo captures of British officers in 1939, and that he betrayed Czech agents in German-occupied Prague, shot by Gestapo. According to another story which may have been mistaken, German officers were enticed to the former Czechoslovak border to offer to sell secrets to the Czechs; Moerz reported them to the Gestapo for shooting as traitors.

Who was Moerz? A former Hamburg police captain, he had arrived in Prague in 1935, claiming to be an anti-Nazi escaping arrest; he had been taken up in Czechoslovakia by their secret service, and given work arms trafficking to the Spanish Republic, in the throes of the civil war against Franco. Instead, Moerz passed details of the gun-running to the Gestapo for the Spanish Fascist navy to intercept.

By January 1940, MI5 felt they had plenty in their records on Moerz as a ‘dangerous double cross agent’, whose contact in London might have been one Hans Jaeger of 21 Anson Road in NW7, a man ‘working among refugee circles …. on behalf of the Gestapo’, seeking to learn who were agents of the anti-Nazi German opposition, inside Germany.

Moerz was seen on June 8, on Tottenham Court Road in a grey suit and looking ‘thinner in the face’ than his photo. He got onto a bus; the detective who spotted him followed by taxi but lost him. By the end of July police gave up their search. Separately, a man detained at Chelsea police station answered Moerz’s description, but on Special Branch checking it was not who they wanted.

Those two young detectives were almost continuously visiting restaurants, cafes and night-clubs so that by August police faced ‘a rather formidable bill …. and I am afraid are still without any Wilhelm Moerz!’ The police and an agreeable owner settled for £30, the equivalent of about £2000 in 21st century money.

In March 1941, Buckinghamshire police found an American barman, Frederick Langford, working at a hotel in Taplow, who recognised Moerz from his photo as a prewar visitor to a Bray, Buckinghamshire hotel. In July 1941, the security services gave up trying to trace him. As one MI5 man typed in Moerz’s file, he thought he had seen Moerz as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant in Piccadilly Circus; the description was of a ‘fairly common type’.

The file included some evidence that Moerz under another name, Victor Michelson, was staying in hotels in March and April 1940, in Edinburgh, Newcastle, then Leeds and Liverpool. If so, what was he doing? Who if anyone was he meeting? And what became of him? Unlike in films, true spy stories do not necessarily have neat endings; according to a German newspaper report that reached the file, Moerz survived the war.

You can view the full file, KV 2/2106, with a free download from the ‘Discovery‘ part of the National Archives website.


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