Capturing History's Greatest Spy-catcher
TODAY, May 31, 1945, the Allies captured history's greatest spy-catcher, German secret police officer Sergeant Hugo Bleicher, in Amsterdam. The French, British, Canadians—even the Americans—all had files on him. The British had two sets: one under "Monsieur Jean," and one under "Colonel Henri"—Bleicher's favorite aliases.
From the day Paris was liberated, 25 August 1944, the British and French had set their sights on capturing this notorious but brilliant operative. And for good reason.
Bleicher had arrested and sent to prison more than one hundred British and French spies.
Part Sherlock Holmes and part Samuel Gerard (the U.S. Marshal played by Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive), Bleicher was born for the role. Intelligent, cunning, and relentless, he spoke French like a native and could muster up English with an American accent.
It all started in the fall of 1941 when he had been asked by the Abwehr (German military intelligence) to interrogate a suspected spy in Cherbourg, a coastal town on the Cotenin peninsula of Normandy. Hugo not only extracted a confession from the French Resistance operative, he convinced the man to work for him as a double agent. Using him as bait in Paris, Hugo then began to systematically dismantle the largest Allied circuit in France, Interallie. By late November, he had arrested some sixty agents, including all of Interallie's leaders.
So impressed was the Abwehr that they pulled rank and snatched Bleicher away from the secret police force and made him a one-man spy-catching operation. Whatever Hugo needed, Colonel Oscar Reile told him—assistants, back-up soldiers, money—he'd receive. Bleicher's first assignment, Reile said, was to arrest a Resistance leader coming to Paris for a meeting. The man's name was Marsac.
Bleicher went to work. After arresting Marsac, Hugo went to visit him daily in Fresnes prison and almost immediately recognized that Marsac would never betray his countrymen as a double agent. Seamlessly, Hugo moved to a different approach, convincing Marsac that he wanted to defect to England. Conjuring up an elaborate scheme, he told Marsac that they could escape together. Naturally, they'd need the assistance of the other Resistance agents, he said.
Hugo was a first-class actor and completely fooled Marsac, enticing him to expose one of SOE's (Special Operations Executive) top circuits, SPINDLE, which was run by a seasoned and savvy organizer, Captain Peter Churchill, and assisted by a courageous courier and Section F's best radioman.
What happened with SPINDLE, and how Bleicher was finally captured, is the subject of my next book, CODE NAME LISE: The True Story of the Spy Who Became World War II's Most Highly Decorated Woman (Gallery/Simon & Schuster, January 15, 2019).
Larry Loftis is the international bestselling author of INTO THE LION'S MOUTH: The True Story of Dusko Popov—World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond (Berkley-Caliber/Penguin Random House).