I Spy – the Mysterious Case of Fred Brandt

Fred Brandt (left) chats to Billy McLean and Julian Amery (National Archives)

Fred Brandt (left) chats to Billy McLean and Julian Amery (National Archives)

Some strange things happened in Albania during World War Two. Strangest, perhaps, is the mysterious tale of Fred Brandt, German soldier, spy, and butterfly collector (there’s surely a thesis to be written on the connection between espionage and lepidoptery).

Brandt gets a mention in Roderick Bailey’s The Wildest Province: SOE in the Land of the Eagle. The story goes that a lonesome British Liaison Officer in the north, Tony Neel, was told by a local, frankly inept, wannabe guerrilla leader, Nik Sokoli, that a German soldier was keen to desert. A meeting was arranged and on 11 April 1944, in Sokoli’s home, Neel was introduced to a tall, very Teutonic lance-corporal, Fred Brandt. After a fair amount of raki, it was decided that Brandt should return to his unit of Tajik soldiers and persuade them to desert en masse. Brandt’s main interest, he assured Neel, was collecting butterflies, of which Albania had (and still has) an abundance.

An unlikely friendship developed over the following weeks between the British officer and the German NCO; Neel even had Brandt round for tea to meet Billy McLean and Julian Amery, when they dropped into the country. SOE HQ, by then based in Bari, was more suspicious than Neel and did their due diligence. Years later Neel recalled

… one day my wireless operator… Corporal Button… came in and he said ‘Got a message for you, sir.’

I said, ‘What is it?’

He said, ‘This man Brandt, who you’ve contacted. Is he about five-foot-ten? Ginger-haired?’ and so on and so on. ‘Because if he is, he’s a colonel in the Abwehr [German military intelligence]…’

Tony Neel, not at his best (National Archives)

Tony Neel, not at his best (National Archives)

At their next meeting, Neel confronted Brandt with the message. Brandt agreed that the description did match his, and agreed to come to Bari for questioning. He was evacuated in October by boat (Corporal Button drowned when a dinghy overturned in heavy seas), and flown off to England, along with his butterfly specimens, for interrogation by MI5. He cheerfully admitted he’d been keeping his German bosses in the loop as to his progress (they were pressing him to round up a whole bunch of BLOs in one masterful stroke) and had had difficulty preventing his Tajik soldiers capturing Neel’s party when they had the chance.

After reading Brandt’s interrogation transcripts, the Albanian section’s intelligence officer, John Eyre, wrote ‘This account makes me shiver… our ALOs [Allied Liaison Officers] like sheep among wolves…’

Brandt wrote his own account of his experiences in the Seventies, and it’s available in English at this amazing website, Albanianhistory.net, a labour of love by writer and translator Robert Elsie.

Weirdest bit? This, probably –

That evening, at dinner, I spoke to Major Neel, explaining to him what needed to be done. After the withdrawal of German forces, a national Albanian government would have to be created and supported. He reacted with enthusiasm and promised to contact Bari about the idea straight away.

The reply came two days later – complete agreement! The northern Albanians would receive everything they needed, even weapons, and we were to inform British headquarters of what they required most urgently. The next morning, I took the good news to the Albanians in the forest glade. They were jubilant!

The next step was to choose a leader for the national resistance movement. The choice fell upon me. I was acceptable for all sides, and was neutral. The Catholics regarded me as one of theirs. The Muslims regarded me as a follower of Allah, and I was even a friend of the British, their commander, and indeed a “colonel.”

Brandt’s account has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Hasn’t it?

There’s a sad postscript. It seems that after the war the extraordinary Brandt was handed over to the Soviets. He spent eight years in the gulags, only returning to Germany in 1955, sick with tuberculosis and a variety of other nasty diseases. He died in 1995.

Did that really happen? Neel reflects on his close shave in Bari, October 1944 (National Archives)

Did that really happen? Neel reflects on his close shave in Bari, October 1944 (National Archives)

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