Istanbul Intrigues » Chapter 6-The Front Line Comes to Istanbul
6 The Front Line Comes to Istanbul
The horse kicks, the donkey kicks, the mule gets kicked.
A single question dominated everyone’s mind in the spring of 1941: Where would Hitler move next–eastward against Turkey and the Middle East or westward against England? No one in Istanbul knew for certain. Cumhuriyet, Istanbul’s leading newspaper, editorialized: “One thing he will not do is stand still…. For Germany, along drawn-out war means defeat. Hitler’s real target is the British empire so he will not come toward Turkey.” British Ambassador Knatchbull-Hugessen was sure that Germany would be cautious in the Balkans because an offensive there “would inevitably bring Russo-German rivalry to a head.” But this was precisely Hitler’s plan: to secure the Balkans before attacking his Soviet ally.
Turkey’s state-owned radio optimistically announced that the government “has taken all defensive precautions.” The border with Bulgaria was “like a steel fortress. Whoever attacks it will be shattered.” More soberly, British intelligence estimated that a German offensive could take Istanbul in forty-eight hours. Even German-backed Cumhuriyet was starting to worry about a Nazi attack on Turkey, whining: “If Germany has a quarrel with England, let them go to England to settle it. England is not in the Balkans.”
With Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria all in the Axis camp, “the danger has reached our very borders,” commented the speaker of the Turkish parliament. The march of German troops into Bulgaria accelerated hoarding and air-raid drills in Istanbul. Every school was given an emergency evacuation plan; museum treasures were sent for safe-keeping to the countryside; and the government offered to pay the fare for any resident leaving Istanbul. Evacuees filled every bus, train, and boat east.
Turkish morale might have been even lower if people had taken more notice of a Cumhuriyet article on February 21, 1941, which revealed the world’s best-kept secret. It noted that both the Allies and the Axis powers “are hard at work on the uranium bomb. One bomb will level an entire city.” But Istanbul’s many wooden houses made it vulnerable enough to ordinary bombs. A single air raid could turn the whole city into an inferno. The British and U.S. embassies advised their citizens to leave the country altogether. More men were drafted into the army. The Greeks, Jews, and Armenians among them were assigned to unarmed road-building crews in the interior.
In response to the crisis, von Papen brought his son to Turkey so that he would not be drafted into the German army. He warned German residents against panic and forbade them to leave. They were instructed to send home food packages, circumventing a Turkish anti-famine law allowing only the export of vegetables. One German wrote a thank-you letter–which the British intercepted and gave to the Emniyet–to a relative in Istanbul: “I got your parcel with delight and thoroughly enjoyed the contents, only I do not understand why you wrote to ask if I enjoyed the peas when all the cans were filled with the most glorious lard, which to us was like rain in the Sahara.”
The Turks were neutral, but Germany’s proximity made them increasingly nervous. They invited British delegations to discuss joint defense and assured them that Turkey would fight if its own territory or Greece was attacked. When British Minister of State Anthony Eden visited Ankara, the usually undemonstrative Turks greeted him with a rare spontaneous demonstration. After meeting Turkish leaders, Eden was given a grand send-off at the Ankara station for his return to England through the Middle East. But after his train puffed slowly eastward for 15 miles, it halted at a little station until late at night. As the city slept, the locomotive pulled back onto the main line and headed west through
Ankara at top speed to Istanbul. Eden then made a secret trip to Athens, encouraging the Greeks by promising them British military aid in the event of a German attack.
With Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria already on his side, Hitler now demanded that Yugoslavia join the Axis. On March 25, the Yugoslav government agreed. Convinced that Yugoslavia’s fate was sealed, the journalists packed their bags for the next story; the British diplomats started burning documents and preparing suitcases for the next evacuation. But the atmosphere in Belgrade was passionately anti-German. Thousands of people sported British flag pins in their lapels. English speakers were stopped on the streets and praised for being enemies of the Nazis. Gypsy orchestras played “Tipperary” over and over as diners stood and sang at the top of their lungs. Then the bands played nationalist tunes.
In quiet corners of Belgrade and in their Istanbul headquarters, British intelligence men met Yugoslavs who opposed appeasement and planned a coup. Students staged sit-down strikes, tore up pictures of Hitler, and denounced their own rulers as traitors. The police refused to intervene against them. At 2:30 a.m. on March 27, army tanks and thousands of air force soldiers in blue uniforms surrounded the royal palace, ministers’ houses, and police stations. The patriotic officers installed a government that rejected the Axis pact.
For a few days, Belgrade rejoiced. The country was full of rumors that huge numbers of British soldiers were coming to its aid. Tens of thousands of proud, tough peasants, unfamiliar with the power of the German war machine against even courageous men, joined the army and bragged about defeating the Germans. Crowds gathered in the Terazia, Belgrade’s main square, to chant, “Bolye rat, nego pakt!” — “Better war than the pact.”
New York Times correspondent Ray Brock wrote that it was “the most…heartfelt demonstration of pure joy and thanksgiving” he had ever seen. “Up the street 30,000 voices rose in the war song. The song was taken up by a troop of cavalry starting its way through the multitude and the riders paused only to accept handfuls of mimosa from the crowds and tuck the bouquets into their bridles…. The rising and falling chorus of voices filled all Belgrade throughout the day and into the night as new thousands poured into the streets.”
This time, it was the German diplomats who were forced to board
trains leaving the country. A Yugoslav officer explained: “Perhaps what we have done is a great folly. Many of us will certainly have to die. But at least Serbia has kept her honor and has shown her teeth to the jackal.”
Hitler was determined to make Yugoslavia pay the price for resisting. At 4:30 a.m. on Easter Sunday, April 6, German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop made a ranting radio speech. Unable to hear clearly through the static, the American journalist Robert St. John, then in Belgrade, asked his assistant to translate. The man was so excited he could hardly speak. “War! War! War is here, St. John,” he yelled into the receiver. “War, I tell you. Hitler…tells his army to march against Yugoslavia. Against Greece…. My God it is awful!”
At that moment, the air-raid sirens went off. Most of Belgrade’s 300, 000 people were still sleeping, unaware of any declaration of war. Those awakening assumed it was merely a drill and did not get up. Rushing to file a story, St. John found a taxi. A Yugoslav air force officer was wildly gesturing in the middle of the street. “For God’s sake, for Serbia’s sake,” he shouted, “you must take me to headquarters.” He jumped into the cab and explained that thirty-two German bombers, taking off as von Ribbentrop was speaking, had just crossed the frontier.
Reaching the Serpski Kral Hotel, St. John looked out the window through field glasses. The roar of planes grew louder and louder. Puffs of ineffectual antiaircraft fire blossomed in the sky. German planes bombed government buildings as the ground shook and the hotel shuddered. Flying low, they bombed at will, and the noise of their dives mingled with the explosions. There were 200 to 300 bodies in Terazia Square alone; Kalamegdan Park was full of the dead. Ironically, the German embassy was among the buildings wrecked; St. John’s hotel slowly burned to the ground as the journalists evacuated it. Dazed people fled into the countryside. German planes hovered like vultures. The bombing continued until Thursday and wrecked a quarter of the city. As many as 20,000 civilians were killed.
Bulgaria and Hungary were now dragged into the war as German troops used them as a base for invading Yugoslavia and Greece. The collaborationist Bulgarian government seized territory from both victims. Hungarian Premier Pál Teleki committed suicide over his country’s dishonorable betrayal of Yugoslavia. People in Budapest,
bewildered by their country’s entry into the war, wept openly on the buses. A performance of Fidelio, Beethoven’s great opera condemning tyranny, was canceled at the Budapest opera house. Across the blue Danube drove German trucks, tanks, and armored cars rolling south-ward.
Yugoslav officials, foreign diplomats, refugees, and journalists fled Belgrade by car to escape the approaching Germans. Hundreds of people seeking gasoline and food would converge on a provincial town and then bolt at the cry “The Germans are coming!” Cars broke down on narrow mountain roads; friends and families became separated. German bombers roared overhead at treetop height. Rumors and Yugoslav radio propaganda spoke of victories by Yugoslav armies that no longer existed. When Yugoslavia surrendered on April 17, five British and American journalists, landlubbers all, escaped by sailing a tiny fishing boat down the coast to Greece, only to be chased by the Germans invading there.
Meanwhile, the Greeks, who had defeated the Italian invaders, were again fighting courageously against hopeless odds. A company of soldiers ordered to hold the strategic Rupel Heights at all costs revived the spirit of Thermopylae. They stopped a massive German attack for thirty-six hours, held mass, blew up their own escape routes, and fought until they were wiped out. A small British expeditionary force, made up of the few soldiers and pilots England could spare, arrived in Greece and was wildly cheered in the Athens streets, but it could not stem the tidal wave. Within three weeks, the swastika flag was raised over the Parthenon in Athens. From Bulgarian and Romanian ports German ships sailed past Istanbul carrying occupation troops to Greece’s islands, some only a few miles from the Turkish shore. Refugees poured into Turkey from Yugoslavia and Greece, often traveling the last few miles by rowboat.
“Speedy and great successes in the Balkans,” wrote an anti-Nazi German diplomat in his diary. “The army is an incredibly brilliant instrument with all the stronger characteristics of the German people, and filled with absolute self-confidence. It is tragic! With this magnificent instrument the destruction of Europe is being accomplished to perfection.”
The badly shaken Turks went back on their word. They had assured Britain they would go to war if Germany and Bulgaria attacked Yugoslavia
or Greece. Now Ankara did nothing. Almost all its neighbors were in German hands or had become German allies. Von Papen warned that if Turkey went to war against Germany, Hitler’s friend Stalin would attack it.
Istanbul was clearly threatened. German troops were only 40 miles from the approaches to the strait and controlled the sea routes north and south of the city. “We have been assured the Germans have no designs on us,” said one newspaper, but Berlin had said the same thing to Greece and Yugoslavia. A reporter wrote that Istanbul was the only European city that retained strong nerves. But they were stretched to the limit.
As Belgrade was being leveled and Greece was facing conquest, a British military attaché wrote home from Istanbul about the peaceful, prosperous atmosphere there: “Every garden has a red Judas tree in it, and it’s a wonderful sight: even across the Bosphorus the Asiatic side is a blaze of red silhouetted against the black cypress trees of the vast cemeteries.” He had just hosted a very successful cocktail party with mussels fried in batter, caviar, tiny lobster patties, and plenty to drink. Yet he thought this idyll would not last. Once the Germans rested a bit, he predicted, “a smashing attack will be staged on Turkey…. I think we have at least a month…. I listened to Churchill’s broadcast last night, which didn’t hold out much comfort. I don’t mean that I have the slightest doubt about the ultimate end, but it does look a hell of a way off.”
Cumhuriyet’s military correspondent asked the question on everyone’s mind: What would Germany do next? Unless Moscow entered the war on its side, Germany must attack the Soviet Union. Otherwise, the United States and the U.S.S.R. might join England, and all three could ally against Germany as they had done in World War I. To avoid this, Hitler had to strike at them separately.
In this spirit of divide and conquer, a smiling von Papen returned from Berlin to Istanbul. “I come as a dove of peace, bearing an olive branch,” he told everyone. “I assure you that you can all spend the summer pleasantly at the beaches.” Having already made nonaggression pacts with Moscow and London, Ankara now signed one with Berlin on June 18, 1941.
Three days later, von Papen was awakened in the middle of the
night by a message from Berlin. Hitler had turned east seeking still more conquests: he had launched a massive invasion of the U.S.S.R. The next day, Churchill proclaimed an alliance with the Soviets. Together they would fight against Hitler.
With the Germans to the west, war to the north, unstable neighbors to the south and east, and their ships under periodic attack on the Black Sea and Mediterranean, the Turks were surrounded by battle. Despite public bravado, they knew their army was thirty years out of date. It lacked armor and airplanes, antiaircraft guns and transport. Seeing the Balkans’ quick collapse, Turkish leaders congratulated themselves on having maintained neutrality and escaping a similar fate. Even so, Germany could now blockade Turkey’s Aegean coast and the Bosporus. Von Papen might demand that Turkey renounce its alliance with Britan.
On August I, Knatchbull-Hugessen wrote the Foreign Office: “My own very strong conviction…is that…the Turks can be counted on to resist–even, like the Greeks, to the point of national self-immolation–any head-on challenge to their independence and national integrity …but what I fear is the possibility of their buckling under some lateral strain such as the conviction or even the suspicion that their allies and friends (including ourselves) do not believe in them and might therefore let them down or at any rate give them less whole-hearted support than they are likely to need.”
The opening of a new front where the Germans might advance against insufficient Allied resources would only further demoralize the anti-Hitler forces. The Germans themselves had already explored the idea of striking east from Bulgaria and Greece into Turkey and Iran. This advance would allow flanking attacks on the U.S.S.R. from the south and on the Middle East from the north. Leverkuehn had already reconnoitered Iran and found a mountain road that could be used to attack from the rear and destroy the Baku oil fields. But the German high command knew it could not invade Turkey and the U.S.S.R. at the same time.
Yet if Hitler’s choice made the Turks safe from attack, at least unless the U.S.S.R. collapsed, Germany’s offensive against Russia made its intelligence work in Turkey all the more important. Canaris himself visited Istanbul in disguise to assess the possibilities. New agents arrived
daily and easily obtained good cover credentials. One day a leader of the Czech refugee community asked the U.S. ambassador to meet a recently arrived refugee. The man came to the embassy bearing a card, which read “Dr. Ivan Spitka, Doctor of Philosophy, Journalist-Correspondent of the Danzig Press Agency.” He had lost his papers, Spitka explained, but now had a passport from Czech Ambassador Hanak and was planning to go on to the Netherlands East Indies by way of Iraq and India. Would the American diplomat be so kind as to pen a letter to the U.S. consul in Bombay verifying his credentials? The ambassador agreed.
About three months later, Spitka was jailed in Bombay as a suspected German agent. This time, the American ambassador called Hanak directly. Hanak immediately told him that it “is properly suspected that Mr. Spitka is a German spy…. He never presented himself at my office in Istanbul to ask for a Czech passport.” The appalled American thanked Hanak and added, “It is something of a shock to me to realize that, although unwittingly, and seemingly with no actually tragic results, I contributed towards facilitating the movements of someone whom, on investigation, you consider to be an enemy agent.” Americans were still learning about the extent of duplicity in the world.
For the British, Istanbul became the crucial base for their Balkan intelligence operations. Retreating before the German tide, they set up or aided resistance groups in the occupied countries. Archibald Gibson, the mild-mannered London Times correspondent and Bucharest head of MI-6, Britain’s intelligence-gathering agency, joined his brother Harold, former head of MI-6’s Czech station, who was now running its Istanbul operations. Harold had first worked in the city for MI-6 during the 1920s. The Russian-born Gibsons had intermarried with old British Istanbul families like the Lefontaines and Whittalls. Harold Lefontaine was Harold Gibson’s predecessor as MI-6 station chief; a Whittall was MI-6 liaison with the “friends,” as Zionist intelligence was called. “There were so many Whittalls around,” said a British diplomat, “one could hardly go into the embassy corridor without tripping over one.” Gardyne de Chastelain, who had run sabotage operations in Romania, now headed the Istanbul office of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the British intelligence group responsible for conducting guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines.
Evacuated British officials worked to spark resistance by the Yugoslavs, Greeks, and Albanians. Wilfred Stirling, who fought with Lawrence of Arabia during World War I and later trained Albania’s gendarmerie, was the SOE man charged with organizing Albanian resistance. He formed a committee of Albanian politicians and organized partisan bands. One of their leaders was the illiterate populist chieftain Abas Agha Kupi. “Will you English fight on?” Kupi asked.
“I give you my word we will,” Stirling replied.
“Thank God,” Kupi smiled, and he added, “May your life be prolonged!”
The SOE’s Istanbul office was in a beautiful eighteenth-century house with a spacious garden. From his office window, Stirling could look down and see von Papen sitting in the German consulate’s garden. The British agent had a big safe for storing codes, telegrams, and the gold coins that were espionage’s medium of exchange. One agent called it “the stables” because the gold coins kept there, which carried a picture of Saint George on horseback, were popularly known as Britain’s “cavalry.”
While the SOE organized resistance and sabotage, MI-6’s task was to reach people behind German lines and to gather intelligence. The agency had radio contact with two opposition leaders in Romania and Greece, couriers traveling to Yugoslavia, and underground railroads established by the Czechs and Poles. But it was difficult to smuggle in more radio transmitters, since those available weighed 40 pounds and filled a big suitcase.
One of British intelligence’s main assets was the breaking of German codes. As always, though, it was analysis and not raw data that determined this work’s value. There was much material, for example, on the German buildup in the Balkans, but British intelligence assessments failed to predict the German attack on Greece and Yugoslavia. As the official history of British intelligence concluded, “In the warnings a few items were remarkably accurate anticipations of German plans, but they were accompanied by many exaggerated and conflicting rumors.”
From June 1941 on, the British decrypted Abwehr signals from Turkey and later both Abwehr and SD communications in the Balkans and North Africa. By 1942, they were reading 3000 messages a week despite the Germans’ improved ciphers and security. Still, these communications
were so filled with code names, obscure references, and garbled or indecipherable code groups that even “breaking” a code usually provided only hints as to what the Germans were doing.
Thus, for intelligence from occupied east and central Europe, the British were dependent on the Polish, Zionist, and Czech services in Istanbul. The Czechs were double refugees, first from their own homeland in 1939 and then in 1941 from posts in Poland and the Balkans, where they had been running underground activities. Forced to flee again from the Germans, the Czech military intelligence officers converged on Istanbul, traveling on British, Romanian, Polish, and Yugoslav passports. They lived in boardinghouses on Istiklal Boulevard and worked in the same building in which British intelligence had its offices. One Czech agent, a German staff captain, was London’s best source on enemy troop movements until he was arrested and executed by the Gestapo; another, recruited years earlier, was now Hungary’s intelligence chief.
But the most effective intelligence collectors were not high officials or diplomats but railroad workers. Riding throughout Europe, hauling military trains and passing all the munitions factories, they saw German troop movements and potential bombing targets. In addition to their own observations, engineers, conductors, and brakemen heard news from friends traveling other routes. They needed no bulky radios, because their jobs regularly took them to Istanbul. Sleeping-car porters worked for both sides, smuggling money, documents, and information across borders. Jewish refugees arriving in Istanbul were another important source of intelligence. New arrivals were interviewed by Czech and Zionist agents for news from the occupied countries. These contacts and data were passed on to the British.
Through such sources, the Czechs obtained one of the war’s greatest intelligence scoops when railwaymen reported the massive German buildup in eastern Poland that signaled an impending invasion of the U.S.S.R. Stalin foolishly ignored the warnings of the Czech government-in-exile, but the experience taught him to respect Czech intelligence.
The Czechs’ first operation had been helping their airmen and soldiers escape from the occupied homeland to reach their exile army in the Middle East. Thousands of men were sent through Poland before
the war closed that route and the Soviets imprisoned 1500 Czech soldiers caught in eastern Poland. After the Germans invaded Russia, the Czechs insisted that the Russians release these soldiers so that they could rejoin the common fight against Hitler.
The Soviets finally let the internees’ senior officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ludvík Svoboda, come to Istanbul and arrange to transport the rest of the men there. After sending several groups through Turkey, the Czech government-in-exile and Stalin agreed to organize a Czech army division in the U.S.S.R. In early 1942, Czech intelligence officers, accompanied by Svoboda, left Istanbul for Moscow to coordinate operations on the eastern front.
The NKVD, Stalin’s intelligence service, stole Svoboda’s diary containing embarrassing material and then pressured or bribed him into becoming a Soviet agent. After the war, he collaborated with the Russians and helped deliver his country to Moscow’s control. Years later, the U.S.S.R. made him president of a satellite Czechoslovakia. The same regime, however, accused the patriotic Czech intelligence officers, who had performed so heroically during the war, of having been British spies. They were imprisoned or driven into exile.
But during the war, the NKVD asked the Czechs in Istanbul to be their intermediaries with other Allied intelligence services and advisers on organizing anti-German sabotage. This channel was the basis for Moscow’s demand that the Czechs help assassinate von Papen. On other occasions, with permission from their government, the Czechs acted as intermediaries between the British and the Russians. Many clandestine meetings were held at mosques, where the Europeans could pose as tourists. Once, a British SOE man arrived at the Süleymaniye Mosque too early–just before his Soviet counterpart left their Czech go-between. Under orders to have no direct contact with his capitalistic ally, the Russian could only give a little bow in the SOE agent’s direction as a signal of comradeship.
Meanwhile, the Vatican remained neutral; Roncalli, its emissary in neutral Turkey, maintained links with both sides. “Here we are still out of the war,” he wrote from Istanbul to relatives assuring them of his safety. “What more can one ask?” But Roncalli’s pacifism did not mean passivity. Greece was under his jurisdiction, and he visited it eight times in 1941 alone with a visa from von Papen and a pass allowing him to
use German planes. His humanitarian mission there included relief work and visits to Italian troops, German wounded, and British prisoners of war.
“The signs of foreign domination are everywhere: from the Acropolis and from the best-known monuments flutter reminders of defeat and national humiliation,” Roncalli noted in Athens. The German requisition of food, the war damage, a British blockade to deny goods to the enemy, and the lost 1941 crop had produced a terrible famine. The usual colorful crowd filled Athens’ broad sunlit avenues, but the faces were those of people just returned from a funeral. Women fainted in the streets from hunger. Stores had no goods; factories lacking raw materials closed. Power plants shut down and people burned pinecones to stay warm. As hundreds died of starvation in Athens, a group of Greeks asked Roncalli for help. He made a quick dash to Rome to see the Pope, and the Vatican sent aid to Greece.
A man quite different from Roncalli was also involved in relief efforts: Saffet Tozan, a wealthy Turkish adventurer, information merchant, and arms smuggler. Tozan felt “sick to see the hunger [in Athens]–and he’s a pretty tough guy,” wrote an American friend. “It’s amazing how he manages to travel around so freely and stand in well (apparently) with both sides.”
Tozan had started public life as an idealist, and only in his disappointment did he become a colorful character on the shady side of the law. He had grown up in the Ottoman elite, whose tradition was defined by the motto “In the service of faith and state.” Its members trained for careers in the army, government bureaucracy, and the mosque. Trade and commerce was for the non-Islamic minorities; gentlemen’s wealth came from land. Ottoman aristocrats combined European sophistication with their own historic culture: the wives wore Paris fashions under Islamic garb; their houses were filled with heavy, ornate “Louis Farouk” furniture.
During the Ottoman empire’s last years before 1914, the decadent regime was clearly on the verge of collapse. Those seeking to save the empire were divided between the Young Turks, who favored a strong nationalist government, and the Decentralists, who wanted a constitutional monarchy. As a leader of the latter group, Tozan was imprisoned by the Ottomans and later by the victorious Young Turks. But in Ottoman times, money and family could accomplish anything. Complaining
about their quarters, Tozan and his friends were moved to a resort hotel. Still dissatisfied with the food, the inmates pooled their resources, bought the hotel, and hired a new chef.
The decentralizers thus enjoyed good cuisine, but they lost all the political battles. After the republic came to power in the 1920s, Tozan was still disgruntled. He entertained a stream of visitors in his Istanbul home with its big classical portico, beautiful rose garden, and fine view of the Bosporus. Yet he always feared that the government might take everything away from him. As a reminder, a photo of the prison where he had been jailed adorned the wall of his study, with an “x” marking his cell’s window. Short, portly, and gray-haired, Tozan had a light-hearted demeanor that hid his disappointment with a country and century in which he was an anachronism. He talked incessantly of the good old days, sometimes swinging a large battle mace he kept on his desk for exercise.
Defeated in politics, Tozan turned to money-making with a vengeance. Physically, he may have resembled a Sidney Greenstreet character, but psychologically Tozan was a cynical idealist, Casablanca’s Rick in Istanbul. He ran guns for the Spanish Republicans during the civil war. He did business with French and British intelligence and with the Germans as well. He had many Arab friends but also helped smuggle Jews from Romania to Palestine. No one knew his labyrinthine interests. Wartime Istanbul was the ideal environment for his operations. “I am not a man of honor,” he told a friend, but he made himself useful to everyone.
Whether for idealism or financial reward, Tozan accepted an assignment to be the first British agent sent into Hungary. He was caught in April 1943 and was sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment. Ironically, the regime that Tozan hated saved him: the Turkish government secretly demanded that he be released or they would stop all intelligence cooperation with Berlin. The Germans complied. He returned to Istanbul and went on to Syria to report to the British. So suspicious were the British about his sudden release–Ankara obviously could not reveal the real reason for it–that they assumed he had become a double agent. The British held Tozan in an internment camp for several months. After the war, they apologized by awarding Tozan the Order of the British Empire. The Greeks gave him a Cross of St. George.
While Tozan was a master conspirator, the Americans tried to avoid
being dragged into others’ plots. The Polish resistance had to cross a half-dozen borders to help the underground at home. In August 1941, the Poles tried to use the American Bucharest YMCA director, James Brown, as a link in this chain. Brown feared that the welfare and educational work of his organization would be compromised by any involvement in intelligence activities. He refused to accept delivery of a package brought by a Polish courier and insisted it be taken to the U.S. embassy. Suspicions were confirmed when the package was shown to contain letters to Polish and Romanian contacts, wads of dollars, cipher tables, and code groups and directions for using them.
If the Romanian police had found this material in Brown’s possession, he would have been in serious trouble. In fact, a few weeks later he was arrested and charged with espionage, but the embassy got him out within forty-eight hours. “These dispersed activities are exceedingly dangerous, amount to nothing anyway, and we desire to have nothing whatsoever to do with them,” wrote the U.S. ambassador to Romania with a diplomat’s typical distaste of espionage. America was also still a neutral country.
This was only the beginning of problems for the YMCA director. After twenty-one years in Romania, Brown reluctantly decided in November 1941 that he must leave, but he refused to go until he could find someone to take over his relief activities for the 3500 Polish refugees still there. The Chilean diplomat who represented Polish interests in Bucharest had just been caught embezzling relief funds. Friends in Romanian intelligence warned Brown that the Gestapo, which was suspicious about all Americans, had him under close surveillance. But Brown stayed at his post until some Romanians agreed to help the impoverished Poles.
Brown and his wife managed to get out of Bucharest on December 11, and they arrived in Sofia at 10 a.m. the next morning. The U.S. ambassador, George Earle, picked them up at the railroad station but conveyed bad news: Romania had just declared war on the United States, and Bulgaria’s parliament would meet in two hours to consider the same notion. “Take the noon train for Turkey,” Earle advised, since they would probably be allowed to cross the frontier no matter what happened. The train reached the border at 9:30 p.m. but the Browns had missed the evening bus and had to spend the night in a filthy room near the station. No bus left the next day. At 5 p.m., a well-dressed
German civilian came up to the American couple. He explained that the Browns’ passports were not in order and that James Brown was now Germany’s first American prisoner of the war.
Brown and his wife were held in a German hotel and then forced to return to Romania in German custody. Thus, five days after leaving, they were back in Bucharest. At the Splendid Park Hotel, they were questioned by a well-dressed Gestapo man, about 55 years old, with thin iron-gray hair and piercing blue eyes. Speaking fluent English in a bullying manner, he asked how they had left Romania without the Gestapo’s knowledge. Brown said their visas had come through proper Romanian channels. The secret policeman accused Brown of being a spy. The Gestapo, he emphasized, had “ways and means to extract information.”
For the next two and a half hours, two Romanian-speaking Gestapo officers searched each item in the Browns’ suitcases but found nothing compromising. A German officer then ordered that Mrs. Brown be placed in a run-down hotel and that Brown himself be taken “somewhere else.” Brown complained so vigorously that his wife was returned to their old home.
Brown was taken to a secret military prison on Bucharest’s outskirts; it was run by the Romanians but controlled by the Germans. For six days, he was kept in a small, dark cell with an iron bunk and a small table. He was given two daily meals of only black bread, water, and a little thin soup. A guard carrying a machine gun escorted him to the toilet twice a day.
At 10:30 p.m. on December 19, Brown was taken down along corridor to a small room. The Gestapo officer entered and told Brown that the Gestapo had been watching Brown for a long time and had enough evidence to convict him as a spy. Unless Brown confessed, the Germans would be compelled to resort to “other methods” to make him do so.
The first charge was that a Thanksgiving party at Brown’s home was really a political meeting. The Germans wanted to know the names of the Romanians and Americans present, their views on the war, and their plans to smuggle Romanian politicians out of the country. When Brown answered honestly that he knew nothing about such matters, he was called a liar.
The interrogator then inquired about one of Brown’s friends, an
Argentinian diplomat, of whom the Germans were suspicious. Brown replied, “He believes that the Nazis are a group of tyrannical, cruel and barbaric bastards and they will never win this war.”
“That’s what we want to hear,” said the German, “tell us more.” Asked his own view of the war, Brown replied that it was obvious since he was imprisoned in a German dungeon. “Your answer is not definite enough for me. Express yourself more specifically and in detail,” retorted the Gestapo man. Brown explained that he shared the Argentinian’s attitude.
The interrogation ended at 2:45 a.m. Since the Gestapo was not satisfied with the responses, Brown was taken by two Germans to another room. A thick iron bar was embedded in the cement walls near the ceiling, and attached to it were two strong ropes, each ending in a slipknot. From the side door, a man entered carrying a rubber truncheon. Brown was forced to stand on a stool, a noose was slipped over each wrist, and the stool was kicked out from under his feet. As Brown swung in the air, the man hit him with the bat on his back and kidneys; then the man twisted each arm as much as he could. After this treatment, Brown was forced to sit on a chair while his toenails were slowly pushed up, causing agonizing pain but leaving no marks. The interrogator seemed to enjoy the show.
Finally, at about 5 a. m., the Romanian guard returned Brown to his cell. The next morning he was again questioned for three hours about alleged contacts with British intelligence. Unbeknownst to him, influential Romanian friends were aware of the arrest and appealed to their government for Brown’s release. On Christmas eve, without a word of explanation, he was let go; several days later the Browns were allowed to leave Romania. Brown concluded, “We now appreciate more than ever before that freedom is the most priceless possession in the world.”
While the Browns were passing through Sofia again, the U.S. ambassador there, George Earle, had his hands full. A mob of 300 pro-German Bulgarians, protesting U.S. support for the Allies, attacked the U.S. embassy and shattered all its windows. Earle picked up his Winchester rifle and started for the front door, intending to fire at them. This time, the impetuous ambassador would have a real fight on his hands. One of his Bulgarian messengers, a man Earle’s size, tackled
him. They were rolling on the floor when a smaller servant ran in to escape the mob. The messenger told his colleague to hold Earle’s feet. The other man refused, insisting, “It is not allowed to hold an ambassador’s feet!”
“Then seize his hands! Hold his head! Just fall on him!” the messenger shouted. The two Bulgarians managed to pin down the enraged Earle to stop him from getting them all massacred. Mounted police finally arrived and dispersed the mob. At midnight, an embarrassed King Boris visited Earle. He pushed at the broken glass on the floor with his foot. “I want to offer my profound regrets and apologies,” said His Highness. “I am surprised, but I am relieved to see you are alive.” Boris continued in the same gloomy vein, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if the bombs don’t get us, the Gestapo must!”
Earle himself left Sofia at the end of 1941 but not before a final adventure. One night, Earle later recalled, he was in bed reading a book. “It was very quiet. I heard a noise at the door and…I saw the door handle move, then it stopped.”
A little later, it happened again. “Someone was trying to get in my room, and I remembered the King’s admonition to be very careful at night. I called out, ‘Who is it?’ and the handle quit moving.” Earle picked up his gun, went quietly to the door, and jerked it open. The hall was empty.
He returned to bed, but the door handle began to move a third time. “I put two bullets just above the lock,” Earle said. “And then I yanked the door open.” He still saw nothing. As Earle stood there, gun in hand, wondering what was happening, the handle shook again, the walls joined in, and plaster began falling from the ceiling. It was the beginning of Sofia’s worst earthquake in modern history.