Researched using previously unstudied MI5 and MI6 files, this study reveals the part played by Count Laszlo Almasy, the protagonist of the film The English Patient
John Eppler thought himself to be the perfect spy. Born to German parents, he grew up in Egypt, adopted by a wealthy family and was educated in Europe. Fluent in German, English, and Arabic, he made the Hadj to Mecca but was more at home in high society or traveling the desert on camelback with his adopted Bedouin tribe. After joining the German Secret Service in 1937, in 1942 he was sent across the desert to Cairo by Field Marshal Rommel. His guide was the explorer and Hungarian aristocrat Laszlo Almasy, a man made famous by the book The English Patient. Eppler's mission was to infiltrate British Army Headquarters and discover the Eighth Army's troop movements and battle plans. This book reveals the story of Operation Condor and its comedy of errors and how it was foiled by Major A.W. "Sammy" Sansom of the British Field Security Service. It is a tale of the desert, of the hotbed of intrigue that was 1940s Cairo, and the spy who was to send his reports using a code based on Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca.
|Publisher:||Spellmount, Limited Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Mark Simmons has written more than 100 feature articles mainly on naval/military and travel subjects for publications in the UK and U.S. He is the author of The Battle of Matapan.
Read an Excerpt
The Rebecca Code
Rommel's Spy in North Africa and Operation Kondor
By Mark Simmons
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Mark Simmons
All rights reserved.
Johannes Eppler, Beirut, May 1937
Spring was a good time to be in Beirut before the heat in July and August became oppressive on account of the excessive humidity, driving people inland to seek the more agreeable conditions of the mountains.
Johannes Eppler was 23 in May 1937 when he went ashore from the luxury of the Khedive Ismail passenger ship that had brought him from Alexandria to Beirut. He had travelled on the ship many times, which sailed between Piraeus, Famagusta Cyprus, Beirut and Alexandria. Eppler was small, on the thin side, with a square, handsome face, small moustache and blue eyes, unusual amongst Egyptians but not unknown, even going back to the time of the Pharaohs. He looked what he was, a young wealthy Egyptian, playboy/man-about-town.
His Egyptian name was Hussein Gaafar but his parentage was German. His mother had inherited a small hotel in Alexandria to which the family moved and she managed. His father died soon afterward and his mother later married the wealthy Egyptian lawyer Salah Gaafar who adopted her son. Johannes becoming Hussein Gaafar, holding joint nationality. He became fluent in Arabic, German and English, the latter learnt while attending English-speaking schools in Alexandria and Heliopolis. He was baptised Roman Catholic; his mother had come from the Catholic south of Germany. As a young man he also made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The German embassy in Cairo had contacted him, acting on orders from the Abwehr headquarters in Berlin, to find likely people with German connections abroad. This clandestine meeting seemed melodramatic to Eppler. He was to meet a Herr Haller, a stranger who would have a half page, number 145, of Juliette Adams' book L'Angleterre en Egypte, to match the half given to Eppler. They would meet at the Saint George Hotel where he would stay.
He arrived the day before the meeting and that night picked up a woman, a Hungarian, Ilona, in the hotel. The bars and dance floor of the Saint George were often buzzing with all sorts of people of many nationalities. He spent the night in her arms in his room.
Eppler rose early on 15 May for a swim; he hoped Ilona would be gone by the time he returned. The meeting with Haller was not until the evening. He swam out into the bay from the diving jetty of the Saint George. Swimming was an exercise he was fond of having been brought up in Alexandria where trips to the beach and swimming were part of daily life. He swam far out for perhaps a mile into the sea. A fast motor launch passed nearby, swamping him with its wash. He surfaced, choking, to see a pretty blonde girl waving at him from the stern. He did not take it as an ill omen; he was looking forward to the clandestine meeting.
Returning to the hotel there was little to do but wait. He had a whisky and soda down on the bar terrace. He had never been a devout Muslim and he enjoyed alcohol. He found Islam to be radical, like the desert extremes of hot and cold. Not suited to his free spirit.
After a siesta in his room, at about 8.00pm he began to dress for the meeting. At 8:20pm the reception desk phoned to inform him someone was waiting to see him.
Soon there was a knock on the door. Opening it Eppler saw a tall, fair, blue-eyed man. Smiling he presented his half page and said 'Haller.' The two half pages fitted. Eppler was not impressed. Was Haller trying to unsettle him? And how could they send such an obviously northern European man for a secret meeting in the Middle East?
They went down to the bar and found a secluded corner. Both ordered whisky.
'You know,' began Haller, 'that we don't think it's of any importance for you to do two years of military service with the army proper.'
Eppler was glad to hear this but did not interrupt.
'It is for this reason that the Attaché in Cairo arranged this meeting. We have other things in mind for you.'
Eppler, irritated, informed Herr Haller he did not like people arranging his life, but was open to suggestions.
It made little difference to Haller who continued with what seemed to be a prepared speech. 'Since you are German and born in 1914, you must serve your two years with the forces. That is a decree of the Führer's which you must obey, like anybody else. But we are reasonable people, we are prepared to talk, especially in the case of Germans living abroad, like yourself, and there are always possibilities.'
Eppler began to feel bored and wished Haller would get to the point. He was hungry, so took Haller into the big hotel restaurant where he had reserved a table. There he showed Haller his Egyptian passport. Haller was surprised by the number of stamps and visas.
'When I am in Germany from time to time, I have found it useful to have my German passport with me, otherwise it is more convenient to use this one.' Eppler explained that he had found the authorities suspicious in Germany.
'No need to be offensive.'
'It is only an observation, no judgement.' Eppler found Haller's manner insolent, but stayed silent. It was them that wanted him; after all they had paid for all this. And he felt hopeful it might help in his quest for adventure. He waited for Haller to show his hand.
Haller continued. 'I need hardly tell you that we are fully informed about you, down to the smallest detail. We know precisely with whom we are dealing.' He then concentrated on the wine, finding the 1931 Chateau latour Bellegarde first class.
Eppler was uneasy; he later wrote that he found Haller to be 'aggressively Aryan' and did not like the 'supercilious bastard'. If he had to deal with Herr Haller very much his Abwehr career would never get off the ground.
'My colleague Rohde will be here in a quarter of an hour, said Haller.
'This Rohde, would he be your chief?'
Haller acknowledged this, and that Rohde was responsible for the Middle East.
The meeting took a turn for the better with the arrival of Rohde. He was of medium height and build, and was tanned after many years in the east, well-dressed with impeccable manners. A man from the old Germany. Straightaway he began to chat in an informal, engaging manner. Haller however remained silent for most of the rest of the evening, much to Eppler's relief.
'It would be a waste of time,' said Rohde, coming to the point, 'to make a little speech about the Fatherland, a sense of duty and service to the people. I really can't expect you to feel such things. The gap between you and the new Germany is too great. You live in a different world.'
Eppler agreed eagerly that 'philosophising' with him was pointless, but said that he was keen on 'anything that smacks of adventure'.
Rohde continued, outlining the nature of the work of a secret agent. They needed information about the military of other countries, but as a Military Attaché in Greece and Turkey, his own freedom of movement was limited.
Thus he needed 'trusted men who were at home in the Levant.' He felt Eppler fitted their requirements. But he warned him that Secret Service work was 'no picnic' and was 'dangerous', requiring great courage and intelligence. The agent was on his own most of the time. He wanted relations between them to be clear from the start, and should they fail to reach an agreement they would go their separate ways as if nothing had happened.
Eppler liked his frankness and felt he could work with this man. He told him he was not acting out of patriotism and that he felt more Egyptian than German; they were lucky that Egypt was basically a British colony and he wanted to see the back of the British. Rohde pointed out that Egypt had been independent since 1922, but admitted that the British had certain 'privileges'. Eppler agreed this was the case but that Egyptian independence was a sham, conditional on guaranteeing lines of communication to the British Empire. The British also had 'suzerainty of the Sudan' as well.
'Otherwise, Herr Rohde, we are quite independent.' Rather, in fact, Egypt was just Britain's 'Lancashire cotton plantation'. Certainly Egypt's plight would affect his decision. He pointed out he would not be bought; money was of no consideration.
Rohde advised Eppler to sleep on it and they would have a more private meeting the next day. And now they should 'enjoy themselves' with the cabaret. There was an interesting belly dancer gyrating in the spotlight on the dance floor that they should investigate. They agreed to meet at the Hotel Metropole where Rohde was staying – without Herr Haller – the next day.
The next morning after his swim Eppler rang Rohde, changing the meeting place to his room at the Saint George. The Metropole was known to be 'German' and watched by the French Secret Service. Rohde agreed. At their second meeting Eppler accepted the German's proposal. An appointment was made to meet again, in July in Athens, where he could sign on with the Abwehr.
During the intervening weeks between the meetings in Beirut and Athens, Eppler returned home to Alexandria. In June 1937 the city was still very cosmopolitan with large Greek and Italian populations. He did not waste time and arranged a meeting with the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. He himself was a fringe member of the Brotherhood. Odd given his playboy lifestyle and the wealthy pro-British background of his adopted family but he felt new ideas were overdue and would take off in Egypt; he wanted to be part of it. The Brotherhood's aim was to rid the country of foreign rule. More important for Eppler, he knew it had a secret intelligence branch. He was already thinking how he might help his potential new masters. Could he instigate contact between the Brotherhood and the Abwehr, and would it be useful to the Brotherhood? He needed a meeting with its leader, Hassan el Banna.
A distant cousin and member of the Brotherhood's inner circle took him along to meet Banna at the Mosque of el-Khalid Ibrahim. Eppler found Banna more like an old Turk; he was a fanatic and 'fanatics were dangerous'. In private, Eppler asked his questions but Banna did not answer for a while, looking him straight in the eye almost unblinking. When he did speak, it was slowly. He told Eppler that he was not the first to ask such questions. The Italians were putting feelers out; Mussolini had become the self-appointed 'Protector of Islam'. They were trying to infiltrate Egyptian Nationalist organisations.
Eppler interrupted the flow. 'At the moment, I am not trying to do anything, Hassen bey, nothing at all. No one has sent me.'
'Good. We are first and foremost an Arab and a religious movement.' Banna pointed out that he was willing to use the Europeans of all types for his own aims; however he could not compromise on the supremacy of Islam in Egypt, which the Europeans were against, be they British, Italian or German. But he was not against contact if Eppler could provide it.
It struck Eppler after this meeting that he had reached a crossroads: either he worked for the Abwehr and kept the meeting with Rohde, or went back to his old lifestyle. However, he did not want merely to become a German lackey. He kept making contacts, the next being the 'Greenshirts', Egyptian Nationalists. The organisation had grown out of a disaffection with the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, and was extremely anti-British. He vaguely knew its leader, Ahmed Hussein, who months before had sought his advice on a trip to a Nuremberg Nazi Party rally. He did not like the man but was willing to cultivate him.
In the coffee houses of Alexandria he found out that Ahmed Hussein was in Tanta. The city was 80 miles southeast of Alexandria, the centre of the cotton ginning industry and the rail hub of the Nile Delta region. It was an ideal opportunity to try out his new Lancia sports car on a long run. The journey proved to be frustrating at times, as he weaved through the slow traffic of donkeys, camels and carts that were in no hurry to make way for the speeding car, even when he used the horn.
Hussein was at prayer in the Sheikh Said el-Badawi mosque. Reluctantly Eppler joined the prayers but felt 'I would rather have a decent meal than spend time in prayer.' Then he spoke with Hussein who agreed to help Eppler if he could.
Eppler did not stop there but went on to cultivate other nationalists, particularly in the Egyptian Army, where many of the young officers were 'fellow travellers'. One who was trying to organise a cell was Hussein Sabri Zulfikar. Eppler flew down to Cairo to see him. Like many wealthy young Egyptians, Eppler had learnt to fly on a Tiger Moth at a British-run flying club.
He met Zulfikar at the army officers' club in Zamalek for a game of squash, and to sound him out about how things stood in the army. He already knew many officers sympathised with the Brotherhood, but would they act? After the game they found a coffee house where Eppler asked Zulfikar whether he would be willing to help him, which he warned could be risky. Zulfikar agreed instantly.
During this busy time Eppler got married, revealing the impulsive side of his nature. Sonia was a Danish national with a touring ballet from Copenhagen. Eppler first saw her in a nightclub. 'I shall never forget her entrance. She was stunningly beautiful, with hair the colours Titian loved to paint, dark red with glints of gold.'
After two weeks they were married at the Danish Consulate in Cairo on 25 June, much to the vexation of his stepfather, Salah Gaafar. He called Sonia 'the acrobat' and refused to see her. He informed his stepson, 'You'll have to manage on what you get.' While he made no increase to his allowance however, he did not cut him off.
Thus, unwittingly, the pro-British Salah Gaafar helped push Eppler toward the Germans, although really his impulsive stepson needed little encouragement.
Sonia had to stay with the Danish ballet company but agreed to meet her husband in Athens once the tour was over. Provided Eppler was taken on by the Abwehr they would travel on to the World's Fair in Paris and then visit Denmark, before he went on alone to Berlin.CHAPTER 2
Eppler, Athens and Berlin, July–August 1937
Eppler arrived in Athens on 20 July 1937, a Tuesday. He obeyed his instructions to telephone Rohde when he arrived, doing so from the luxurious King George Palace Hotel, a fairly new establishment with an uninterrupted view of the Acropolis. A meeting was arranged and Eppler met Rohde's driver in the hotel lobby. After a short drive Rohde greeted him at the door of a large villa 'that could just as well have been in Munich, if it had not been for the Acropolis visible over the roof.'
Rohde took him to the study, which overlooked 'the sundrenched garden'; the room was 'tastefully furnished' and 'immaculately clean'. The building was quiet and appeared deserted, the only sound being the faint murmur of traffic noise from the road.
After brief pleasantries Rohde went over the offer he had made Eppler in Beirut.
'So that there can be no misunderstandings. You know I prefer to work without complications. If you have any doubts left, please tell me frankly.' Eppler did have questions but did not interrupt, instead lighting a cigarette. The air was soon thick with Turkish tobacco smoke as both men smoked.
Rohde told him he would have to go to Germany for training, and on his return Rohde himself would be Eppler's boss. In time he might work for others or on his own.
'We've thought it over, you realise. I am only a link in the chain, and it has been decided to establish you firmly in the Middle East. After your training period has ended, that is where you will begin your work, provided of course the political situation remains what it is today.'
His cover was first class, his job was 'exclusively' to collect military intelligence. He was to keep out of politics. 'We are soldiers, not politicians.'
Eppler told him he had recently got married; Rohde knew already. He admitted he was surprised. It would have been better if Eppler was not married, as with any agent, but it changed little. They would give Sonia a monthly allowance, an amount to be decided in Berlin. Eppler of course would be paid, and have expenses; the latter would be decided by Rohde once Eppler was in the field, and they could be generous.
Eppler told Rohde of the groundwork he had begun in Egypt. He was pleased with this; it was something he could build on later. Eppler emphasised that he would not work against the interests of Egypt or Denmark, Sonia's country. They went on to discuss pay, which would start at 1500 marks a month. Eppler also asked for a contract.
'You will have to discuss that in Berlin. They'll fall about with laughter when you tell them; they'll never have heard of anything like that.' However the two men did reach an agreement after more bargaining. Eppler found Rohde 'obstinate but not unreasonable'.
Excerpted from The Rebecca Code by Mark Simmons. Copyright © 2012 Mark Simmons. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I The Characters 13
1 Johannes Eppler, Beirut May 1937 14
2 Eppler, Athens and Berlin, July-August 1937 20
3 László Almásy 30
4 Alfred Sansom 35
Part II The Scene 40
5 Cairo, Spring 1941 41
6 The Western Desert 47
7 Tripoli, March 1941 54
Part III Operations 59
8 The Troublesome General 60
9 Exit Ritter 70
10 Under the Pagoda Tree 74
11 The ?Good Source' 81
12 Interview with the Führer 87
Part IV Kondor 90
13 Planning 91
14 The Rebecca Code 96
15 False Start 100
16 Operation Salam 105
17 Assiut 114
18 The Flap 117
19 Kondor Calling 123
20 The Ring Tightens 130
21 Currency Matters 137
22 The Raid 141
23 Rommel at Bay 147
24 Interrogation 151
25 The Riddle of Alam Halfa 159
Dramatis Personae 166