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The first execution in the Tower for over 150 years was of a German spy

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, London, World War 1 on Friday, 25 May 2012

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This edited article about espionage originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 712 published on 6 September 1975.

Tower of London, picture, image, illustration

The Tower of London, where Lody was executed by firing squad on 6 November, 1914. Picture by Angus McBride

The British counter intelligence agent studied the telegram that had landed on his desk for comment. If this were the communication of a spy, the agent thought to himself, it was almost unbelievable in its naivety.

There was nothing sinister in the principal message in the telegram. What had evoked the counter-intelligence agent’s curiosity was the last sentence in it. It said simply: “Hope we beat these devilish Germans soon.”

The sender was an American living in Britain, a man named Charles Inglis. The intended recipient was Adolf Burchard, of Stockholm. In this year of 1914, both America and Sweden were neutral countries in the First World War, for America did not enter the war until 1917. So the immediate question presented by the telegram was, “Why should one neutral express such patriotic sentiments to another neutral – especially in an international telegram, where every word cost a good deal of money?”

The British counter-intelligence department could think of no suitable answer to this simple question. So, as a matter of routine, it was decided to set a watch upon Charles Inglis. And what they found out amply justified the effort they were put to.

The story of Charles Inglis began with a German named Carl Lody who, before the war, had worked as a tourist guide for the Hamburg-Amerika shipping line. As a result, Lody knew the United States and Britain like his own country, and he had learned to speak fluent English with a trace of an American accent.

When the First World War began, Lody was in Berlin. As a naval reserve lieutenant, he at once reported for duty, but was found to be unfit for active service.

“But we can use your knowledge of shipping and your linguistic ability, Lody,” his superior officers told him. “You could go to England and report back to us on the movements of the Royal Navy.”

“A spy?” Lody asked.

“A spy,” came the answer.

Lody was a patriot, and he did not hesitate. The American passport given to him by the German secret service had belonged to an American tourist named Charles A. Inglis. The unfortunate Mr. Inglis had had his passport “mislaid” by the Germans when he applied for a visa. By the time he had been issued with a new one Lody had the original, untouched except for the fact that, instead of Inglis’s photograph, it now bore Lody’s.

A week later Lody went to Norway and from there sailed to Scotland. Hiring a bicycle, he set about his first day’s work as a spy.

The extraordinary thing about his career up to this point was the abrupt method of his recruitment and the almost suicidal way in which he was plunged into the dangerous game of espionage without even so much as an hour’s training. The reason for this was simple – the Germans had no spies in England at that moment, and they were desperate to have them.

Only a few months earlier they had had what they thought to be a highly efficient network of 22 spies scattered at strategic points across Britain. But, on the day that war broke out, British counter-espionage swooped on the whole nest. Twenty-one were arrested; the twenty-second escaped from the country.

This sensational coup was brought about as so many important moves in the game of espionage are, by an insignificant incident. Four years before the war, the chief of the intelligence service of the German Admiralty visited London on a good will mission with the German Emperor. One evening while he was there he called at the hairdressing shop of a Mr. Ernst, who traded in a very out-of-the-way part of North London.

It was an extremely imprudent move, for any foreign secret service chief should have known that his host’s own secret service people would be watching all his movements with consummate curiosity. And why, British counter-intelligence now wondered, should so high a person go to the barber’s after closing time in such an inaccessible place?

A watch was kept on Mr. Ernst, a German born in England. It was soon discovered that he was the funnel through which all the information gathered by German spies in Britain was passed to Berlin. Ernst, in fact, was the pass key to the whole German espionage system.

For the next four years, British counter-intelligence men read every letter addressed to the North London barber and thus discovered the names and addresses of all the 22 German spies in Britain. The Germans never knew this, and the British took care that their hornets’ nest was never disturbed. Until, that is, war was declared, and it was time to make the dramatic swoop.

It was this great void in the German espionage system that the hopelessly inexperienced Carl Lody, on his bicycle tour of Scotland, had been sent to fill.

From the start things began to go wrong. In Edinburgh, Lody met an American with whom he had been friendly in pre-war days. The American did not know that he was a German and that he had changed his name to Inglis. Lody was able to shrug off the incident, but it left him unnerved.

Then, unbeknown to him, his telegram to Adolf Burchard of Stockholm was intercepted by counter-intelligence. In fact, the British authorities were studying all telegrams between Britain and Norway and Sweden at this time, and anything suspicious was acted upon.

Lody was not immediately arrested – it was decided to see what else he would find out. His next telegram was hilarious, for in it he reported that Russian troops were passing through Britain on their way to fight with the English and French on the Western Front.

This story, widely repeated in Britain in 1914, arose when a railway porter in southern England spoke to some Highlanders on a troop train which had come from Scotland and which was halted for a moment in a wayside station. Unable to understand their accents, the porter asked them where they were from.

“Ross-shire”, replied a bearded Highlander. Seconds later the train steamed out of the station.

That evening in the local pub the porter, who had never heard of Ross-shire, told the story of the soldiers from Russia who had come to fight for Britain. The rumour spread; it was even claimed that the “Russians” still had snow on their boots, and it reached the ears of Carl Lody.

Lody knew that a good spy should never report rumours; only facts that he had verified with his own eyes. So he set out to find the “Russians” and soon his search was successful. In a troop train he saw men who looked like Russians and, satisfied that Berlin would decorate him for this, he sent off his telegram.

What he had actually seen were British Marines wearing the blue uniforms and peakless caps of the period – caps that were similar to those worn by Russian soldiers.

Guffawing, the British allowed his telegram to pass through unaltered. As false information, it could only serve to mislead the enemy.

And in that it was highly successful. The telegram threw the Germans, already hard pressed on the Western Front, into a state of consternation. Their lines of communication from Germany right across Belgium to the French battlefields were extremely vulnerable to attack, and if the Russians landed on the Belgian coast and cut these lines it could be disastrous for the German army.

So concerned was the German High Command at the consequences of this possibility that they decided to send two of their best divisions from the army in France to guard the Belgian coast against possible invasion.

The perpetrator of all this mass military movement, Carl Lody, was still cycling around Britain’s naval and military areas. Another of his telegrams, this time addressed to a man named Stammer in Berlin, was intercepted. It read: “Must cancel. Johnson last four days very ill. Shall start shortly.”

British counter-espionage, who had been studying Lody’s movements as well as his messages, guessed that the real meaning behind this apparently harmless communication was that the British fleet was to leave the Firth of Forth in four days.

Only a month after the war started Lody had become aware that he was being followed. Then he acted with amazing boldness. He went to the police and complained that they were annoying him, an American subject. The police officer apologised profusely; it was not yet time to act.

London, Liverpool and Northern Ireland all figured on Lody’s itinerary in the next four weeks. Then, in October, 1914, British counter-espionage decided to cut short the spy’s cycle tour.

Arrested, Lody was brought before a court-martial. With him came all his notebooks, filled with information about Britain’s defence system, as well as all the particulars of British shipping losses in the North Sea. These notes, the court was told, were the best that had fallen into the hands of the British authorities from the point of view of “their acute observation and clear expression”.

Lody’s case was hopeless, but his counsel, Mr. George Elliott, defended him brilliantly. “He is not a miserable coward or a faint-hearted fellow, but a man faithfully devoted to his native land, its history and its traditions.” Mr. Elliott said. “Whatever his fate may be, he will meet it as a brave man.”

Lody fully supported his counsel in that assertion. He was taken to the Tower of London and there, early in the morning of 6th November, shot by a firing squad. It was the first execution to be carried out in the Tower since the middle of the eighteenth century.

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