Tag Archives: OSS

Flight of the Invader

How an air crash investigation in Germany uncovered the story of one of the most secret spy operations of World War 2

A mysterious crash

In the small hours of the 20th of March 1945, Olinde Kruse woke up from the sound of a loud crash. Startled by the sudden bang, she sat up in her bed, listening on, holding her breath – but nothing further could be heard in the quiet of night. Her husband, Bauer, was still in deep sleep beside her, exhausted after a hard day’s labour in the fields. He didn’t seem to have noticed the loud noise at all. Hermann, their 6 year old son was still asleep in his bed across the room too. Olinde was very tired herself after a long day tending to the farm, and thinking it must have been the last thunderclap of the storm passing over the Schwege moors, she promptly went back to sleep.

An air photograph of the Hunteburg farmland (approx bottom right) and the south coast of lake Dümmer (top left) © Bundesarchiv

The farmstead outside Hunteburg (a small town near Osnabrück in Lower Saxony), belonged to the Kruse family for generations. It meant hard work every day, but especially in recent years, ever since all the young men who used to work for them had been called up for military service. The state had sent replacements in the form of able Russian and Ukrainian prisoners of war, who now helped working the fields and tending to the animals. They didn’t speak much German, but they were capable farmers.

Ukrainian Ostarbeiter (Workers from the East) © Bundesarchiv

The following morning, Olinde discussed the curious incident with everyone at the farm. Some workers had been startled by last night’s noise too, raising further suspicions about the nature of the loud crash. In the afternoon, after the day’s tasks had been completed, Olinde, young Hermann and a Russian hand set off through the fields, heading towards what she thought was the general direction of the bang she’d heard the night before.

As they approached the lakeside of Dümmer See, they arrived at a scene of carnage : before their eyes, there was the mangled metal hulk of an unmarked black aircraft, part-buried in the marshland – and on the left side of the wreckage, lay the dead body of an airman, badly wounded in the left leg. The body of another airman could be seen in the meadow about 50 metres away. A third airman could be seen in the water, a bit further away, while a fourth member of the crew was eventually discovered at a distance of about 100m from the crash. They were all bearing US insignia.

Wreckage of a Douglas A26 Invader (not the one mentioned in this article)

On the right side of the wreckage, the Kruse family made an unexpected discovery : the body of a man dressed in civilian clothes, bearing a fatal wound on the side of his head. The papers found on the body identified him as Pawel Nowak, a Czech citizen. He carried documents from the Hermann-Göring works in Prague, recommending him for work in a factory near Mülheim in the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial heartland.

The Ruhr at Mülheim © muelheimerhafen.com

The family alerted the Gendarmerie at Bramsche, about 30km away, who promptly reported the incident to the airbase at nearby Achmer. Wonder Weapon aircraft like Me262 and Ar234 operated there in the final stages of the war, and the skies over the marshland frequently buzzed with the unfamiliar sound of jet engines.

A Me 262A1a Schwalbe jet from JG7 Green 3, towed to position by a Kettenkrad in Achmer airfield – January 1944 © Asisbiz.com

Before long, a Luftwaffe rescue contingent led by officer Ernst Grussendorf arrived at the scene, removed the bodies, and confiscated documents and other evidence from the crash site. With the help of Luftwaffe’s British and American Aircraft Identification Manual, the wreckage was identified as a US aircraft, initially thought to be a Douglas Boston. The offices posted a number of Hunteburg’s Volkssturm – the local militia – to guard the crash site overnight. A few days later, they brought in heavy lifters and removed the wreckage to the airbase for inspection.

A copy of the original Gendarmerie report of the incident.

By the end of the investigation, authorities had realized that this was a indeed a more advanced aircraft type – a Douglas A-26 Invader. The bodies of the deceased airmen were interred with full military honours at the prisoners of war cemetery close to Achmer airfield – and alongside them, the body of the civilian Pawel Nowak. For the next 70 years, the nature and circumstances of the crash remained a mystery, and so did the unexplained find of a Czech factory worker among the crew of the crashed US aircraft.

A transcript of Olinde Kruse’s statement

It’s a cold winter day in February 2015, and Gertrud Premke had been knocking on doors and accosting people on the streets of Hunteburg all morning. The freelance journalist, reporting on behalf of local media group Wittlager Kreisblatt, was an avid researcher of local aviation history. She had been following up on a cold case from WW2, the rumour of an American airplane crash in the marshland near lake Dümmer. The crash itself wasn’t unusual : the lake was a substantial body of water, and flyers frequently used it as a visual navigation point. Allied bombers flying in from Britain especially favoured it : once they trespassed into occupied Europe through the reasonably flak-free Zuider Zee corridor in the Netherlands, they would turn east by southeast at Dummer Lake. It was a manoeuvre that lined them up with targets at Hannover, Braunschweig, and Magdenburg, before reaching Berlin. As a result, several aircraft, both Allied and German, were known to have crashed in the region around lake Dummer, whether by flak, weather or accident. For her investigation, Premke had teamed up with the one person who was familiar with every single one of those incidents : Martin Frauenheim, a local aviator and aviation historian, who was also a known air crash investigation authority in the region.

Lake Dümmer in Lower Saxony, with Hunteburg farmland (approx. top right)

Frauenheim reveals : “I was born in 1947, and been married for more than 50 years. I have with two adult children and four adult grandchildren. I studied Mechanical Engineering, and worked at a machine factory for railway signaling technology – but it was aviation that fascinated me since I was a child. I have been a member of the Osnabrück-Atterheide Aeroclub since 1972, and have spent the last 60 years building a collection on Osnabrück’s aviation history, in particular the story of local rocket pioneer Reinhold Tiling. My many years of voluntary work as mayor of our municipality of Hagen am Teutoburg Forest, resulted in many local contacts, from whom I have learned a great deal about the region’s Second World War history. Through the years, I have also been involved in aviation archaeology. In addition to the numerous plane crashes recorded near our local community, crashes in the greater region have also been extensively researched and documented.

Dr Martin Frauenheim (right) with attendees at an air crash investigation lecture

I became somewhat known locally for my involvement in air crash investigation & research. So some years ago, I received a tip about a WW2 plane crash in the region – one that involved a secret agent. All experts following up that rumour up to that time considered it unsubstantiated, a cold case. But this very fact stoked my own curiosity further ! It took about a decade of meticulous research before all the facts finally surfaced. ”

After teaming up with Premke to look into the case and cross reference newly declassified documents, Frauenheim came to realise that this particular crash was different. US Air Force documents from the 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaisance) recorded the lost aircraft after it failed to return from its flight. But previously unknown facts about the true nature of the activities of 25th BG had began emerging around 2010 : specifically the use of its aircraft to insert secret agents into occupied Europe, and then harvest the intelligence they transmitted via radio. Both of these missions required stealth, and so the groups “special” squadrons were equipped with the latest, fastest light bomber aircraft available to the Allies at the time : DeHavilland Mosquitos and A-26 Invaders. Painted pitch black, and bearing no insignia, the aircraft could fly deep into enemy territory at night in relative secrecy.

An A26 Invader painted in a matt black scheme. The aircraft that crashed near Dummer Lake had no insignia

Frauenheim recalls : “..the hitherto completely unexplained nature of the crash was the incentive for a detailed investigation. At first there very few clues to follow up. But then came the publication of a book – “The 25th Bomb Group (Rcn) in World War II” by Norman Malayney An aviation friend had given me a copy, and in it, I found the first references about the lost Invader mission in March 1945. Eventually I got in touch with Norman Malayney, who has kindly corresponded with a wealth of information and material on those secret missions over Germany. I am grateful to Malayney for his valuable insight – finally, some well-founded clues and hypotheses about what might have taken place that night began to emerge.”

Norman Malayney’s book and subsequent publication was a turning point in the research

The declassified manifest of the Douglas A-26 Invader as well as the missing aircraft report specified 4 crew members unaccounted for – 3 airmen and a US Marine Corps Sergeant. However, those didn’t match the German incident and eyewitness records. Those records mentioned confirmed that a 5th body had been recovered from the crash, identified as a Czech civilian, Pawel Novak. So what was the answer to that mystery ? What really happened that night ? The researchers knew that in order to answer this, they first had to locate the crash site. And sometimes, it seems, all you got to do is ask.

The declassified Missing Air Crew Report. Note how the 5th person in the airplane is not reported at all

That was the reason Premke turned up at the village that February morning in 2015, asking around local stores, businesses and passers-by about whether they had any memory or information about the airplane crash that happened near the lake in March 1945. She knew from existing archival records – Olinde Kruse’s and Ernst Grussendorf’s official testimonies – that the plane had been found near the Kruse farm, and after inquiring with a number of locals, she was directed there. As Premke reached the farm, she saw an elderly man driving a tractor, and waved him down. The elderly man’s eyes lit when Gertrud Premke revealed the nature of her visit : the 76 year old was no other than Hermann Kruse, the little boy who, alongside his mother, had witnessed the aftermath of the crash in March 1945. Kruse still lived and worked his family’s land 70 years later, and the horrific memory of what he witnessed as a 6 year old child was still very much with him. He promptly led the researchers to the brook where he remembered seeing the wreckage all those years ago.

Hermann Kruse in 2015

The dig

Frauenheim, Premke and a group of volunteers began scouring the exact spot pointed out by Kruse. Soon, the scanners began picking up metal signatures in the wider area next to the brook.

Martin Frauenheim (left) with Julia Schlöpker Os1. TV / Osnabrück Television (middle) and an unknown photographer (right) at the site of the crash

This was, beyond doubt, the missing A26 Invader that crashed in the marshes on that fateful night in March 1945. But what could have been the cause the crash? Frauenheim had already been developing a well rounded theory about what might have happened :

One of A-26’s engine RPM indicator found at the crash site

“After a lengthy search for the crash site, we finally found the exact location of the event, thanks to information provided by two surviving eyewitnesses. Although the crash site was cleared at the time, everything that penetrated the ground due to the force of the impact could still be found today by scanning and probing. The subsequent dig at the site brought extensive material to light, which enabled us to make an exact match of the aircraft involved. The discovery of the nameplate of the machine at the crash site was the highlight of the dig, and a real stroke of luck. The crash site investigation was spread over several weeks and even across seasons, due to the realities of the site being used as arable farmland. Our search could only take place after the harvest, but it resulted in the discovery of countless small aircraft parts, which I itemized and photographed meticulously prior to assigning those to the schematics and structure of the aircraft. With time, we were able to determine even specific flight instruments from the fragments found at the site.

A major find : the A26 Invader’s factory plate (as found) specified the model and serial number of the aircraft

It was hinted somewhere that the aircraft might have been unarmed. However, we found hard core 12.7 mm rounds, which could only have come from this aircraft. A contemporary witness confirmed that the entire wreckage was painted glossy black on the outside, without insignia of sovereignty. He also described how the tail rudder was made of fabric, just like the elevators, rather than aluminium – an important identifying detail. We also found a small sealed glass tube. Could it have been some form of soluble drug? I suspect that amphetamines could have been used by aircrews to keep them sharp during longer night missions. Further analysis would be required to confirm this assumption.

Alternative flight aids?

(Back then as it is today) ..every aircraft was routinely subjected to a safety check after it has been flown and used between 50 and 100 hours, and particularly crucial parts are immediately replaced when found to be defective. It was probably the same with this Invader. The aircraft should have been thoroughly checked before the mission, including the possible replacement of both engines – which could have been shot up by flak during its previous mission. But due to a confusion over its final orders on the day of the flight, there was a great deal of hectic activity, which suggests that the technical checks were carried out hastily. A test flight usually follows a technical check-up, but in this case, none of those seem to have been carried out thoroughly enough, or even at all. In addition, the crew was inexperienced, and had never flown missions together before. The pilot himself didn’t have much flight time at the cockpit of an Invader. Last, it is surprising that this flight was in our area despite the adverse weather forecast. So, hypothetically, many of the the failures that led to the crash could have been avoided.

Schematics from the aircraft’s original 1944 handbook had to be sourced and consulted to match the various part finds

The operation would have involved low-level flight at night, indicated by the matt black paintwork for camouflage. The low level flight is assumed because German anti-aircraft guns wouldn’t be able to depress their barrels enough to shoot in such a steep trajectory. But low level night flights pose particular challenges too. Eye witnesses reported that the wreckage didn’t appear to have exploded on impact, and it didn’t look burnt out either. However, we did find charred engine parts at the site. My guess is that there might have been an engine fire prior to the crash, forcing the pilot to shut down the engine and trim the aircraft for single-engine flight. But it is likely that the aircraft was flying too low to cope with the loss of one of the engines. It possibly got into an incline, and its wing caught the ground at full speed, cartwheeling sideways with the terrible consequences witnessed at the crash site. Had the aircraft been flying much higher, they could have used the parachutes (they had already been wearing) to survive..”

Crash site at the Kruse farm between Hunteburg and Lake Dümmer © Google Earth

Later revelations would affirm Frauenheim’s hypothesis to a great degree. But the mystery of the identity of the Czech civilian was soon to be revealed too. And none of this could have ever been possible if it wasn’t for more recent developments in the declassification of OSS documents pertaining to the agency’s wartime activities.

Glimmers of Light

Around 1980, the CIA transferred all Office of Strategic Services (OSS) files held in their vaults since wartime to the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA), with a view to begin the process of their declassification under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. The records contained detailed information on every clandestine operation performed by the OSS during WW2, including the names of the agents and personnel involved. Slowly at first, the nature and scope of OSS secret effort to penetrate the 3rd Reich was gradually being revealed.

Declassified OSS records can be accessed in various NARA locations, such as the archives held at College Park, Maryland, pictured here. Photo by Jarek Tuszyński / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GDFL

In 2002, a New York lawyer named Jonathan Gould began publicizing the memoir of his father, former OSS Labour Division Leutenant Joseph Gould. The story he revealed was rather incredible : it appeared that in the final stages of the war, the OSS, under pressure to provide credible intelligence ahead of the Allied advance beyond the Rhine, had sought to train exiled German Communists for the task. The so called TOOL Missions were a fact : Lt Joseph Gould himself was the man who sought, recruited, trained, and then successfully launched those men into Germany. For his service, the OSS recommended him for the Bronze Star in summer 1945. By October that year, however, the OSS had ceased to exist, and was replaced by the CIA. With the Red Scare, McCarthyism and Cold War mistrust on the rise, intelligence work was fast adapting to a new post- war environment. At some point, someone high up in the hierarchy decided that the inconvenient details of this unholy wartime alliance with Communists should rather remain secret. So the commendation was never pursued, and Lt Gould had still not received the Bronze Star Medal at the time of his death in 1993. This injustice prompted his son, Jonathan, to make his story known, and petition for a posthumous award. After a long campaign, during which Jonathan uncovered a trove of formerly classified OSS documents about the TOOL missions (not least the original 1945 medal commendation for his father !) the well-deserved Bronze Star was finally awarded by New York Congressman Charles Rangel.

Jonathan’s efforts, however, had begun revealing much more than the story of his father. Through the archival research of declassified documents and interviews with survivors and their relatives, the stories of the men who took part in those top secret clandestine missions began taking shape, in glorious detail. As early as 2002, Jonathan published a clue about one of those men, Kurt Gruber “..killed when the US Air Force plane carrying him to his destination in the Ruhr Valley crashed in bad weather on 19 March 1945”

Lt Joseph Gould’s declassified report of the chaotic events of the eve of the flight

Martin Frauenheim recalls “The name Kurt Gruber and the “Free Germans” were completely unknown to me for a very long time. For many years I only had the aircraft’s declassified casualty report, as well as the police incident report, initially sourced by Dutch researcher Jan Hey, an expert in the field. Even him, however, could not provide further details before he sadly passed away a few years back. But I was already becoming familiar with the name of Lt. Joseph Gould, a name that kept turning up in declassified documents about the March 1945 crash. One thing led to the other : eventually I discovered the name and address of his son, Jonathan Gould, as a result of an Internet search. When I asked him about the events surrounding the crash, he immediately got in touch and provided me with further information. He was equally grateful that in this one case we were able to provide a great deal pf accurate information about the location of the crash.”

Joseph Gould, outside his flat on Mount Street in London, December, 1944. Jonathan Gould has written a book about how his father Joseph Gould recruited spies in Nazi Germany during WWII.

The publication of his (Jonathan’s) book brought many more names, dates, facts about operations over Germany at the end of World War II. His extended research revealed a host of other secret agent missions in and around the Osnabrück area, which fortunately went on without incident.

Frauenheim began corresponding with Jonathan Gould in March 2015, shortly after the discovery of the Hunteburg crash site. By that time, Gould had began turning his father’s memoir into a book, and was already in possession of substantial declassified material about the “lost” CHISEL mission. It soon became apparent that Pawel Nowak, the Czech national whose body was unexpectedly found among those lost in the fatal air crash, was the same person as exiled German dissident Kurt Gruber, whom Lt Gould had trained and instructed into an OSS agent at the Franklin Mansion in Ruislip, England between late 1944 and early 1945.

A secret 1947 report linking OSS agent Kurt Gruber with the crash near Hunteburg. The document had remained classified for six decades

Kurt Gruber had been trained to present several identities as part of his agent assignment, and that complicated my research for decades, making it hard to connect the dots. But once we had established his real name, we found the first solid traces of his identity through making contact with his birthplace at Ahlen in North Rhine – Westphalia. Kurt’s brother Karl, who was also a communist, had been murdered in a street fight by Nazi paramilitaries in 1931 under a trivial pretext – for being a protester. His funeral was attended by everyone in his town. Kurt Gruber took his brother’s death as a sign to go into hiding and begin his resistance activity. Their story stirred enduring sympathy within the local community, where he is still remembered to this day.

Article about the street clash and murder of Kurt Gruber’s brother, Karl – Ahlener Zeitung, 26 March 1931

Through my research into Gruber’s life and deeds, I became familiar with the Free Germans and their activities. Defying the Nazi regime at that time was an act of extreme courage. Joining these secret missions voluntarily shows a very clear determination to oppose the Third Reich. It would be desirable if the United States erected a memorial at the crash site. The premise of German communists supporting American clandestine operations is unique, and deserves to be commemorated. That would certainly be a difficult decision for the Americans to make, however there is merit to it since four American crew members also lost their lives.”

Martin Frauenheim (left) and Hermann Kruse (right) at Hunteburg, 2015

Special thanks to Martin Frauenheim for sharing the details of this astonishing story and his detailed research on the Hunteburg Crash. All photos and documents in this blog post, unless otherwise specified, come from his personal archive

Disclaimer : The dramatization of the night of the crash is entirely fictional, loosely based on all available data. The sole intention of this dramatization is to add flavour in the presentation of the events surrounding the crash.

Chisel the life and death of Kurt Gruber

CHISEL : The life and death of Kurt Gruber

Miner, Communist, OSS Agent : the short life of the Free German who trained in Ruislip during WW2

A cold wind sweeps over the vast war cemetery at Neuville-en-Condroz outside Liege. Snow twirls, teeth rattle and hearts groan in the vast field where 5300 young men are buried. Many of them are men who fell during the bitter fighting in the last winter of the war in Hürtgenwald, or the Ardennes, or crossing the Rhine into Germany. Over half of them are U.S. airmen, brought down from the skies during the bombing campaigns that devastated the Reich in its final days. The cemetery has 11 cases of brothers who died side by side in the fighting… among the endless array of crosses, blocks, and stars of David, one can find the graves of Kurt Gruber and the fateful crew of the secret CHISEL mission that was lost over Germany in March 1945.

Germany

The story of Kurt Gruber begins in the coal mining town of Ahlen in Westphalia. Its major colliery and proximity to the Ruhr industrial area saw Ahlen grow rapidly in the early 20th century, attracting a diverse, multicultural worker population. By the 1920s, bad working conditions, low social status, and poverty, had become common sources of discontent among Ahlen’s miners. Then, a serious accident at Westfalen colliery’s shaft 2, cost the lives of 14 miners. By 1929, following a decade of demonstrations and strikes, the local branch of the German Communist Party (KPD) had become the dominant political force in the city’s council, with 24% of the vote.

The now abandoned ‘Westfalen’ Coal mine, Ahlen, Germany . Photo by Jens Flachmann (2000)

The young Gruber brothers, Kurt and Karl, were Ahlen miners and active members of the local KPD. By 1930, however, the Nazi party had become the second largest in Germany, amidst the rampant financial and social crisis that characterised the Weimar Republic. Thriving in that environment of discord and political uncertainty, Nazi militias began to take law in their hands. On March 24th 1931, during another meeting engagement between Nazis and Communists in the streets of Ahlen, Karl Gruber was shot, and killed. His funeral was attended by 3000 people, nearly the entire miner population of the town, and was the largest demonstration Westphalia had ever seen. In February 1933, four months after Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor, the Reichstag is mysteriously destroyed by arson. Hitler points the finger at the Communist party, and the persecution of KPD intensifies.

Kurt Gruber

Gruber’s anti-fascist activity has also intensified in the aftermath of his brother’s death, and his KPD membership and involvement in various acts of civil disobedience has made him a target for security services. In 1935, the Party helps Gruber emigrate to Prague, where he continues to resist as a courier for confidential communications to Berlin – a trip he appears to have undertaken at least 10 times, putting himself at great risk. On his last trip as a courier, he reportedly

stepped off the train in pre-war Berlin only to be confronted by wanted posters with his face on them all along the platform.

Realising that Gestapo officers were waiting at the exit, he ran for his life – only escaping after a tram driver who witnessed the chase slowed down enough for Kurt to jump aboard and then sped off, leaving his pursuers behind.

Michael Alexander, The Courier 08 Jun 2019

Soon after the fall of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Gruber manages to escape to Glasgow, with the intention to continue his political activity and resistance there.

Scotland

After a period of internment on the Isle of Man, Gruber was allowed to resettle in Glasgow, where he continued to work as a miner, joining the National Union of Scottish Mineworkers. During his time in Scotland, Kurt Gruber authored a pamphlet called “I am a German Miner” which was published with a foreword by trade unionist Abe Moffat, leader of the Scottish Mineworker Union and a leading figure among British coal miners.

My rare copy of I am a German Miner by Kurt Gruber

Kurt Gruber found solidarity in Scotland, and also found love. Jessie Campbell Leith was a Scottish woman who after leaving school at 14 worked as a secretary. She was subsequently involved with the local Communist party, where she met Kurt Gruber during anti fascist campaigning in Glasgow.

As far as I know Kurt and my mother fell deeply in love with each other

Catriona Joyce (Jessie Campbell Leith’s daughter from another marriage)

In 1944, Gruber was approached by the OSS to participate in a top secret infiltration mission into Nazi Germany, an opportunity he found hard to decline.

Jessie Campbell Leith in 1943

Kurt and Jessie married in a civil ceremony in Glasgow before moving to London to be closer to where OSS was based, in preparation for the mission. His recruiting officer would be Lt Joseph Gould, an American labour law expert from New York with proven experience in trade unions. Gould had been assigned to the Office of Strategic Services’ Labour Division. It was an office dedicated to the recruitment and training of dissident workers, trade unionists, and other civilian anti-fascist collaborators for deployment in a variety of stealth operations.

London

According to Lt. Gould’s memoir, Kurt Gruber was part of the small cadre of volunteers recruited among London’s Free Germans to be trained by the OSS at Franklin mansion in Ruislip (later known as the Battle of Britain House). They were men with similar background as Gruber : workers, trade unionists, and socialists : all united by their hatred against Nazis, and ready to risk their lives behind enemy lines. They also had the advantage of being native German, and by virtue of their OSS training and forged paperwork, would be able to mingle with the population at their point of insertion. Sure enough, Kurt Gruber was assigned to the mission codenamed CHISEL. The mission brief was insertion into the Ruhr Valley, where Gruber was to put his miner background to good use by reporting on the status of German industry and troop movements in the area. By March 1945, the Allies have already reached the Rhine at Remagen, facing fierce resistance – including wonder weapons such as V2 rockets and Arado 234 turbojet bombers, the likes of which have never been seen before ! The situation beyond the Rhine was completely unknown. Local intelligence was needed urgently, and therefore CHISEL got its go ahead for the night of the 19th of March 1945.

A gloss black A26 Invader, suitable for night missions over Germany (USAF Museum)

Final flight

A Douglas A26 Invader light bomber was tasked for CHISEL, and a US Marine Sergeant called Fred Brunner was assigned as Kurt Gruber’s OSS jumpmaster. The rest of the crew were pilot Oliver Emmel, Navigator John Walch, and bombardier Edward Tresemer. They flew out of Harrington airfield, which had previously hosted Operation CARPETBAGGER, a series of successful supply missions to the aid of resistance fighters over occupied France in the prelude to D-Day. This is the story of what happened that night :

The drop date was set for 19 March. Lieutenant Commander Simpson was having trouble with the Air Corps, but his difficulties appeared to be waning. The problems with the Air Corps were largely those of coordination. The 492nd Bomb Group had thought it would be given a chance to fly regular bombing sorties after it had finished supporting the maquis in France. Agent dropping was both dangerous and unglamorous. Or so it seemed, until he learned that the plane scheduled to fly CHISEL was badly in need of repair and carried a faulty radio.

Usually OSS was placed in the position of asking the Air Corps to fly deep missions, but on this occasion the roles were reversed. Simpson wanted the flight scrubbed, but the Air Corps opted to “get it over with.” The aircraft was A-26 #524.. This plane had carried out the OSS HAMMER mission to Berlin some days earlier. Now it was sitting on the tarmac at Harrington with both engines torn down. Additionally, a storm was brewing and weather all the way to the target was forecast to be marginal.

The crew assigned to fly CHISEL had never worked together.

Lieutenant Emmel, the pilot, was not fully “checked-out” in the A-26. Nevertheless, a desk-bound colonel decreed that the mission would go.

At 2230 on the night of 19 March 1945, the glossy black bomber roared into the rainy sky and turned east. Its motors quickly droned into the blackness, and in a few moments, all that was left was the sweep of the wind and the splattering of rain drops on the oil-soaked parking stands. There were four crew members and the agent aboard. None was ever heard from again

Herringbone Cloak/GI Dagger: Marines of the OSS by USMC Major Robert E. Mattingly (1979)

Today we know that CHISEL went down in the early hours of the 20th of March 1945, after having encountered bad weather over Germany. The bomber crashed slightly NW of its indented target, somewhere in the marshes near the Westfalian town of Schwege, and just outside the farm of the Kruse family. Witnesses that have since passed away, reported that

the bomber hit the ground at a shallow angle around 1 o clock that morning, overturning several times until it hit a small stream. Five torn bodies were scattered near the wreck. The agent and a crew member were lying close to the hull, one body 50 meters away in a meadow, another was swimming in the water-soaked moorland. The fifth man must have been thrown away by the impact.

The crew of the plane that crashed wore military identification tags, while agent Gruber in civilian clothes carried a passport with him that identified him as Pavel Nowak with Czech nationality. Nowak had forged letters of recommendation and documents from the Hermann Göring works in Prague, which were supposed to take him to a factory in Mülheim.

After the crash, the police provided papers, templates, headphones and the microphone of a special miniature radio set, as well as 7000 Reichsmarks and a smaller amount in British pound notes. They turned the body over to the secret police.

Martin Frauenheim, German aviation expert an article by Westfälische Nachrichten, 09 Oct 2015
Missing Air Crew report of the CHISEL flight. Kurt Gruber is not listed among the missing in action…

Aftermath

The CHISEL flight never returned, and by 06.30 that day it was presumed Missing In Action with all crew and passengers. Kurt Gruber was never mentioned in the official MIA report.

Back in London, Jessie was not told about Kurt’s disappearance until after the end of the war, presumably due to the secrecy of his mission. Her daughter Catriona recalls her mother’s regret about how “deep sorrow and distress” at the news of the disappearance of her loved one made her suicidal, and depressed. Around VE Day, as the rest of the world celebrated the end of war in Europe, Jessie suffered the miscarriage of her child with Kurt Gruber.

In January 1946, the US War Department acted upon a previous recommendation of the (by that time, dismantled) Office of Strategic Services, awarding a posthumous Medal of Freedom to Kurt Gruber. There was no ceremony offered, and none required :

The last episode in her story with Kurt that my mum described to me was of being escorted by the OSS to a black car, blindfolded and driven to a gracious but stuffy room where the blindfold was removed and she was presented with Kurt’s American Medal of Freedom and a citation noting his bravery.

We no longer have them. My mum always said that Kurt would have handed it back

Catriona Joyce (Jessie Campbell Leith’s daughter from another marriage)

Special thanks

  • Michael Alexander of The Courier (Dundee) for Jessie’s story found in German anti-Nazi spy during the Second World War
  • Eduardo Da Costa for his amazing photos from the Ardennes American Cemetery
  • Jonathan S. Gould, son of Lt. Joseph Gould and author of German Anti-Nazi Espionage in the Second World War: The OSS and the Men of the TOOL Missions (Routlege 2018)

Some basic background information on ie Westfalia, the rise of the Nazi party, Trade Unionism in Scotland etc has been sourced on Wikipedia

Battle of Britain House and The Secret War

Battle of Britain House and the Secret War

Secret agent training, the TOOL Missions, and Cold War mistrust : The latest revelations about the Battle of Britain House in Ruislip Woods.

Abandoned signs of past existence always fascinated me. First the excitement of discovery, then the mystery, and ultimately the revelation that comes with meticulous research. Suddenly, out of a tiny part, comes an astonishing whole, and the past reveals itself to us in glorious detail. When I first happened upon the ruins of Battle of Britain House in 2018, it was just a pile of rubble in the woods. But today, it feels like a site of significant (if overlooked) historic importance, with a story whose fascinating details can be traced from our local Ruislip Woods to the last days of the 3rd Reich in Berlin, from Canadian internment camps to South Virginian top secret facilities, from cosmopolitan interwar Osaka to the glamour of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Wealthy heiresses, globetrotting playboys, Danish farmers, health & wellness pioneers, secret agents – the Battle of Britain House has truly seen it all.

Among those intertwining stories, perhaps the most fascinating narrative is the one about the role of Ruislip’s (then called) Franklin Mansion during the War. Requisitioned by the Ministry of Works at the outbreak of World War 2, the mansion would become a training centre where the tactical aspect of the new collaboration between the British Secret Intelligence Service and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (later CIA) would take place. Many aspects of this intelligence relationship still remain a mystery nearly 80 years on. The declassification of top secret files under Freedom of Information legislation is a gradual process. But each time a file, a photo or a record comes to light, a new aspect is revealed, and previously unheard stories emerge from the Fog of Time.

One of the earliest revelations of Ruilsip being used for the training of OSS agents came in Joseph E. Persico’s 1971 Piercing the Reich. It was one of the first books to describe the formative days of the OSS and the giant steps it took with the help of the SIS here, in London. Persico extracted rigorous detail from the available data and first person accounts, even revealing the daily lives and practices of the agents training for those seemingly impossible missions.

Battle of Britain House Ruislip Woods
London’s Area F (perhaps for Franklin) has since been identified by some authors to be the mansion known as the Battle of Britain House

As more and more records are revealed, researchers are enabled to access and evaluate the records , furthering our knowledge about what took place at the mansion in Ruislip Woods during the war. One of the most important breakthroughs happened in recent years with the publication of the memoir of Joseph Gould, an OSS officer who arrived to London shortly after the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. His orders were to recruit and train agents for top secret missions behind enemy lines, a need that became even more pressing after the massive German counterattack called the Battle of The Bulge in December 1944, when the Allies realised they were heading into Germany with little or no intelligence to support their operations. What was the actual strength of the Nazi Army, after all? What was the state of their industry? How was the German people’s morale and their will to carry on? Were rumours of a National Redoubt at the Bavarian mountains true, and did Hitler have more Wonder Weapons up his sleeve?

With the entire Allied effort at stake, Joseph Gould was sent incognito to London, tasked with locating and recruiting … Germans. Yes, London during the war had become a hotbed for German dissidents who had escaped Nazi Germany in the late 30s. Artists, homosexuals, trade unionists – many of those who didn’t fit Hitler’s terrible vision and had managed to escape via the so called Czechoslovak Corridor found refuge here, organising in societies such as London’s Free Germans. They were an assortment of secretive groups that met, discussed, and planned for Germany’s day after. It was among German Socialist workers that Gould found his cadre of recruits : ordinary, working class people with no prior military training. The daring plan devised by the OSS was for those men to parachute into Germany using false identities, mingle with the population, gather intelligence using the techniques learned at Franklin House, and report back via the cutting edge (for the time) technology provided to them.

Joseph Gould and TOOL agents in Rusilip, UK
Joseph Gould (Left) with TOOL mission trainees at Franklin House, Ruislip

The TOOL missions were codenamed after, well, tools : There was BUZZSAW, HAMMER, JIGSAW and so on. The Free Germans were to be paradropped into their hometowns in places like the Ruhr Valley, Leipzig, or Berlin, and report back with local intelligence. Many of them never made it through, neither the air crews that transported them. Some others were captured by the Soviets, their fate remaining unknown until after the Cold War ended in 1991. But some of them were successful, returning to a blacked-out, besieged Berlin like revenants one night in March 1945 after a decade of absence – to the disbelief of their relatives.

Sadly, the TOOL missions men who readily risked their lives to help the Allied effort didn’t fare very well after the end of the war. Being staunch Communists, they became unwelcome in Great Britain and other allied states as Cold War paranoia intensified. Most of them found their way to East Germany, where they were also treated with mistrust, having previously associated themselves with the OSS and SIS. Their effort and sacrifice remains largely unrecognised to this day. We are very lucky to know their story, including evidence of their presence in Rusilip, by virtue of the memoir of Joseph Gould named An OSS Officer’s Own WW II Story: Of His Seven German Agents and Their Five Labor Desk Missions into Warring Germany which was recently published by his son.

Gould’s memoir is a fantastic primary source, but there’s further testimony to the story of the Free Germans and their activity in the UK. Not least their extensive, and now declassified intelligence files, pieced together by reports from the Metropolitan Police and Secret Service who tracked their activities (along with those of all foreign nationals originating from enemy countries). Much of my expansive archive of the Battle of Britain House can be accessed and downloaded in the Members Area which is expanded & updated frequently.

Where’s Fischer? A declassified 1950 Home Office memo in reference to the whereabouts of Werner Fischer, one of the TOOL agents that paradropped into Germany. The Special Branch confirms they’ve lost track of him, and he’s presumed to be in the USA . The truth about Fischer’s whereabouts was very different, and was only revealed after the end of the Cold War in 1991.

It is said that the use of the mansion for military training may have have continued into the Cold War. There are claims (..which I cannot confirm or deny..) that secret allied technology training took place there around the early 60s. Maybe another story to write about after its declassified ! Until that time comes, I welcome you to join me for a deep dive into the astonishing history of the Battle of Britain House in Ruislip Woods by joining me on one of my regular walks, available to book on this page and/or join the Facebook Group dedicated to the history of the mansion.