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Espionage from neutral Holland in World War I


When the First World War broke out, the international port city of Rotterdam became the biggest spy centre of the world. Both British and German secret services choose neutral Holland, and Rotterdam in particular, as their forward base for espionage operations in each other’s territory.

Mata Hari, the most famous spy of the First World War, was not the only Dutch citizen that got involved in the secret war of 1914–1918. During these years espionage and the trade in (dis)information were big business in Holland.

Why was Holland so important for the intelligence services, especially those of Great Britain and Germany? The reasons are simple. Firstly, the Netherlands was a neutral country. All foreigners could go there and Dutch citizens could travel almost everywhere. Newspapers from both sides were for sale and there was hardly any censorship. Secondly: location. The country was strategically located in between the two most powerful belligerents: the United Kingdom and the German Empire. Moreover, the Western Front was not far away. The only way for an entente spy to get into Occupied Belgium was via the Netherlands, and Rotterdam had excellent ferry and railway connections with Britain, Belgium and Germany. The third reason was the tolerant approach of the Dutch authorities towards foreign secret agents, or so it seemed …


The British secret service MI1(‘C’), that we now know best as MI6, had its Rotterdam office on de Boompjes, a busy quay along the Nieuwe Maas river, which divides the city in two. At 76c the Canadian owned Uranium Steamship Company held office. It was a low-budget passenger service between Rotterdam and North America that catered mostly for poor Eastern European, often Jewish, emigrants. But when the war started, emigration came to a halt and the Uranium’s ships were requisitioned by the British government. So the manager of the Rotterdam branch Richard Bolton Tinsley, who already worked for ‘C’ transformed the business into MI6’s main European station.

From his office Tinsley, or ‘T’, managed ‘C’s espionage networks in Germany and Occupied Belgium. He worked closely together with Dutch citizens, who could travel to Germany, and Belgian resistance groups. In the beginning neither Tinsley nor his co-workers were experienced intelligence gatherers. Many of his early spies were caught in Germany and convicted to prison sentences. But with trial and error Tinsley managed to turn the Rotterdam station into the most successful of the war. His most valuable assets were Belgian resistance groups who, at great risk, spied on the German forces behind the Western Front. Their couriers managed to get their reports on Tinsley’s desk in Rotterdam. From there the reports went on to London and France.

The Germans

Not far from Tinsley’s office stood an eye-catching white, castle-like office building. There the German Imperial Consulate General coordinated the Kaiser’s secret agents, setting up spying and counter-espionage as well as smuggling operations. The naval intelligence service ‘N’ was especially active, as they were tasked with espionage in Britain. Secret agents such as Paul Vollrath, Martin Rehder and Dr Willy Brandt operated from the Netherlands and sent their spies to Britain.

Just like Tinsley, the Germans recruited Dutch citizens. In return for lots of money many made spying trips along British naval ports to detect Royal Navy warships. Many escaped the attention of MI5, but two got caught and executed in the Tower of London in 1915: Willem Roos and Haicke Janssen. A third, Leopold Vieyra, escaped the death penalty. Most of the German spies executed in the Tower, including Roos and Janssen, were handled by one German secret agent in particular.

But how did the Dutch authorities deal with all this? Why did they allow this to happen? Well, they made the foreign secret agents an offer they could not refuse …

By Edwin Ruis

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