The destination for history

Uncovering Josef Jakobs


In many ways, history is a tapestry, formed of myriad multi-hued threads woven together into a complex whole. Some of which is visible to us… and some of which is invisible. We rarely see the entire tapestry and many sections are faded and worn by time.

In 1988, I asked my mother a question about one small thread in our family tapestry – who was Josef Jakobs, my paternal grandfather? I only knew that he had died long before I was born. That simple question, however, sucked me into a tapestry of exceeding complexity.

In answer to my question, my mother pulled The Game of the Foxes by Ladislas Farago off of my father’s bookshelf. One line stated that ‘Two of the seventeen spies sent to Britain in 1941 were tried in camera and paid the supreme forfeit. One was Josef Jakobs, a 43-year-old meteorologist from Luxembourg.’ Could this man be my grandfather? The age and birth location were correct but surely he hadn’t been a spy, had he?

It wasn’t much to go on, but access to the extensive library at the University of British Columbia in Canada brought forward two references which ultimately connected me with intelligence author, Nigel West, then a serving Member of Parliament in Great Britain. Although fragmentary, there were enough threads to convince me that, indeed, my grandfather, Josef Jakobs, had been executed at the Tower of London on 15 August 1941 for espionage. How had it come to that? My father, only nine years old in 1941, knew virtually nothing and the fate of his own father had been a lingering mystery to him.

I searched for more fragments of the storyline and finally, in 1993, was rewarded with the release of Josef’s court-martial documents. My sister and I travelled to London that summer to receive a copy of the court martial file from the Lord Chancellor’s office. We were astonished to also receive a sealed envelope addressed to my grandmother (long deceased) containing Josef’s final letter to his wife and children. Although it was to have been delivered to my grandmother at the end of the war, the letter sat quietly in MI5’s files for over 50 years. Finally, in 1993, it reached the last surviving member of Josef’s immediate family, his youngest child and our father, Raymond Jakobs. Upon reading Josef’s poignant words to his family, my sister turned to me and said: “You need to write his story”.

My sporadic attempts to piece together the tapestry of Josef’s life began in earnest. In 2003, I received a copy of MI5’s intelligence file on my grandfather and I sought to corroborate aspects of his story. In the process, I discovered the interwoven stories of countless individuals: the Catholic priest and his housekeeper who became Josef’s parents; the military policeman who accompanied Josef to his execution and who told his daughter that Josef was “a good man”; the German-Jewish refugee questioned by MI5 because of her passing acquaintance with Josef, a German spy; the implacable MI5 interrogator who, upon hearing that Josef’s final words had urged the firing squad to “shoot straight”, grudgingly acknowledged that Josef Jakobs was a “brave man”; the German cabaret singer who dallied with Josef and would later become a candidate for Bella in the Wych Elm; the prison governor who admired Josef for his “soldierly manner, his courtesy and his quiet courage”; the Royal Artillery gunner who almost supplanted Josef as the last person executed in the Tower of London. Every single story was fascinating in its own right and situated Josef’s story within a broader tapestry, one that is still growing.

I began this quest with a simple question: Who was my grandfather? The answer has turned out to be far more complex than I could ever have imagined. He was a husband and a father. He was the last person executed in the Tower of London. He was a rogue and a scoundrel. He was a fool and a criminal. He was a dentist and a convict. He was a victim of both the German and British intelligence services, torn asunder by the blades of war. The thread of Josef’s life was pinched out on 15 August 1941, but his story continues to weave itself into the tapestry of history, even today.

By Giselle Jakobs

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