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Vera Eriksen: The Second World War’s most enigmatic spy

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In September 1940 a beautiful young woman arrived by sea plane and rubber dinghy on the shores of Scotland accompanied by two men. It was to be yet another episode in the Germans’ attempt to penetrate British defences and infiltrate spies into the country.

Of all the female spies during the Second World War, Vera Eriksen alias Vera Schalburg, is perhaps the most mysterious. Described as ‘The most beautiful spy’, by her German controller Nikolaus Ritter, she could almost rival First World War spy Mata Hari and the various ‘Bond girls’ who followed her. Indeed, she was perhaps the archetypal ‘femme fatale’ of the Second World War spy, but who was she really? Like most spies, nothing about her background is clear-cut, or straightforward. Many of the facts surrounding her life are contradictory; some are speculation, or simply fantasy; the rest have been expunged from her official MI5 files, and few can be verified absolutely, making it difficult to discern which are true and which are not. She is perhaps best summed up by Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted remark about Russia, ‘… a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.’

Little is known about the rest of her family. Her father was a businessman, and her eldest brother, Christian (also known as Constantine), became an officer in the Danish Freikorps, then the SS, before being killed on the Russian Front in 1942. Born into a Russian family who fled St. Petersburg following the October Revolution, she first lived in Copenhagen before moving to Paris, where she became a dancer under the tutelage of the great Anna Pavlova. There she was befriended by an enigmatic White Russian officer whom she knew as Ivan Ignatieff, but as with almost everyone with whom she came into contact, his true identity is also something of a mystery. Was he actually Sergei Ivanovitch Ignatieff, ‘an unscrupulous rogue engaged in drug traffic and espionage for the Soviet government’, as Gerhard Dierks, the brother of Hilmar Dierks, claimed, or was he perhaps Theodore Málly alias Paul Hardt, the NKVD ‘illegal’ who would later recruit the ‘Cambridge spies’? Both would disappear and die mysteriously during Stalin’s Purges in the Thirties. During their relationship Ignatieff held a Svengali-like hold over her and persuaded her to act as his courier, possibly even as a drug ‘mule’. Later, when she tried to break free of him she received death threats and two attacks on her life.

Prior to the Second World War she was recruited by the Abwehr, working under Ritter alias Dr Rantzau, and Hilmar Dierks, who she allegedly married. With the connivance of the Duchesse de Château-Thierry Ritter sent her to England to act as her companion, with the intent of making contact with influential people within the Duchesse’s circle on the fringes of London Society. Ritter had also inveigled the penurious Duchesse into working for the Abwehr in return for his offer to secure funds belonging to the Duchesse tied up in the USA and Europe. It has also been suggested that during that time she became an agent of MI5 spymaster Maxwell Knight, but no evidence has come to light to prove it.

At the beginning of the war Vera was recalled to Germany only to be sent back to Britain on a mission with her two companions, Karl Theodore Drueke and Werner Heinrich Walti. The day before her mission in September 1940 tragedy struck – Hilmar Dierks was killed in a car crash. Was it an accident, or had it been engineered by someone wanting him out of the way? Their arrival in Scotland immediately aroused the suspicion of railway staff and the police, and they were all arrested and sent to London to be interrogated by MI5. Vera was interned in Holloway prison, and her companions sent to Wandsworth prison.

Incriminating evidence – a radio transmitter, a pistol, maps and a code disk – were found in Drueke and Walti’s possession. The two were tried and convicted under the Treachery Act at the Old Bailey in June 1941 and hanged in Wandsworth prison that August, yet Vera was never charged with any offence, nor called as a witness at their trial. No reasons are given in her MI5 files, but rumours abound that she had been pregnant. Who was the father? Was it Dierks? Was it Drueke? Or was it a member of the Establishment, as one rumour suggests? If so, who was he, and had this protected her from prosecution? Or had she received immunity from prosecution because she had been recruited as a double agent by British Intelligence to work for them after the war? Another rumour still circulating today was that she had given birth to a son while staying in England with the Duchesse, but the child had been sent to an orphanage in Essex. None of these rumours has ever been proven.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of her story, she was taken to spend a few days in the country with ‘Klop’ Ustinov, a part-time agent for MI5, and his wife, Nadia Benoit, where it was felt she might be more comfortable and willing to open up. But by far the most successful interrogations of Vera were obtained by Dr Harold Dearden, the MI5 psychiatrist attached to Camp 020, with whom she built up a rapport. At one point her name was even mooted as being a possible contender to exchange for Andrée de Jongh (Dédée), who had been running the ‘Comet’ escape line in France and Belgium, and a prisoner of the Germans in Ravensbrück and Mauhausen concentration camps, instead of her namesake My Eriksson. Later Vera was transferred to a camp on the Isle of Man.

When the war drew to a close there were a number of people wondering first, what to do with Vera, and second, what had happened to her after she was released from prison, which still remains a mystery to this day. Was she repatriated to Germany as the paperwork in her MI5 file suggests? But when her uncle, Ernst Schalburg, enquired as to her whereabouts in 1948, no-one appeared to know. There the trail goes cold, as MI5 and the Home Office claim to have lost further contact with her. Had she, as some such as Major General Arnhim Lahousen (Erwin von Lahousen) have suggested, gone to live on the Isle of Wight, possibly with convicted spy Dorothy O’Grady? If so, does this account for the loss of documentation and Vera ‘going off the grid’? Or did she in fact die in Germany soon after repatriation? Again, few of these rumours can be supported by concrete evidence.

The story of Vera Eriksen remains open-ended – we will probably never know who the real Vera was, who she became in later life, or if she even survived for very long after the war. Her whole life was something of a mystery, the secret of which was best known only to herself. Perhaps she always wanted it that way. Certainly she never attempted to dissuade people from believing whatever they wanted to about her. It suited her to be enigmatic – and that is the way she will remain.

By David Tremain

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