Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Peter Hahn,.... WW1 Spy caught at 201 Deptford High Streeet.

Quite early in the year it was discovered that some foreigner who could write fluent English was sending regular communications to one of these ad- dresses in a simple secret ink, and it was evident that he was the sort of person who would find out something which might at any time be of great use to the enemy. The letters were posted at various places in London, and there was no clue at all to the sender's address. Like all spies, he was continually demanding money, and it was hoped for some time that a remittance from Holland would disclose his identity, but in the end the denouement came about in quite another way. A letter was intercepted in the Censorship which disclosed secret writing. It was not in the usual hand, and the incriminatory words said that * C ' had gone to Newcastle, and that the writer was sending the communication ' from 20 1 ' instead. I remember very well the morning when this sentence was shown to me. The postmark was Deptford. ‘201 ' might or might not be the number of a house. We rang up Deptford Police Station and asked for a list of the streets in their area which ran to 201 houses. There was only one Deptford High Street and the occupant of that house had a German name, ' Peter Hahn, Baker and Confectioner No one was more surprised than the stout little baker when a taxi deposited a number of police officers at his door. He proved to be a British subject, and to have been resident in Deptford for some years. While he was being put into the cab a search was made of his premises, and in a back room the police found a complete outfit for secret writing neatly stowed away in a cardboard box. When seated in my armchair Hahn was not at all communicative. He professed to know nothing of * C,' and when further pressed he refused to answer any questions, but patient inquiry among his neighbours produced a witness who remembered that a tall Russian gentleman had been visiting Hahn at frequent intervals. His name was believed to be Muller, and his address a boarding-house in Bloomsbury. This limited the field of search. The register of every boarding-house was scrutinised, and within a few hours the police found the name of Muller; the landlady of the boarding-house confirmed the suggestion that he was a Russian, and said that he had lately gone to New-castle to see some friends. The search was then transferred to Newcastle, and within a few hours Muller was found, arrested, and brought to London. He was a tall, spare, worried-looking person, anxious only to have an opportunity of clearing himself. He had never seen Hahn; had never been in Germany, and could not even speak the language. For some time he adhered to the story that he was a Russian. An inquiry into his past showed that he was one of those cosmopolitan, roving Germans who are hotel-keepers in one place, commercial travellers in another. At some time they have all been motor-car agents and touts. He spoke English with scarcely any trace of a foreign accent. With his glib tongue he had gone through the usual spy routine of making love to impressionable young women, and winning acquaintance by the promise of partnership in profitable speculations. He had some claim for registering himself as a Russian, for he had been born in Libau and spoke Russian as well as Flemish, Dutch, French, German, and English. Hahn, on the other hand, was merely a tool. He had been born in Battersea, and was therefore a British subject. In 1913 he was a bankrupt with assets of 3 to meet liabilities of 1800. His object, no doubt, was purely mercenary. As a British subject he had the right to be tried by civil court, and therefore, as it was not desirable to have two trials, both he and Muller were indicted at the Old Bailey in May 1915. Both were found guilty of espionage. Muller was sentenced to death and Hahn to seven years' penal servitude on the ground that he had been acting under Miiller's influence. Muller appealed unsuccessfully against his sentence. On 22nd June 1915 in Upper Thames Street it was the luncheon hour, and a crowd formed immediately. A foreigner seated between two military policemen and going up the street towards the Tower was not lost on the crowd, which raised a cry of ' German spy! The cab broke down and ‘another taxi was quickly found, and the journey was resumed without further accident. The condemned man was highly strung, and he broke down on the night before his execution. On the following morning he pulled himself together, and insisted on passing gravely down the firing-party and shaking hands with each man. He was executed on June 23, 1915. The Germans did not hear of his death for some time, for letters containing remittances continued to be received.

Extract from the book "Queer People" by BASIL THOMSON