Alex Hall – German Spies and the Tower of London – 18 Oct 2022

Local man, Alex Hall, has spoken to the club before on the world wars and was invited back recently to give his overview of the period and personalities involved in the German espionage efforts during the early years of WW1. Alex is an expert on many aspects of those gruesome times, and this was evident in his very instructive and interesting talk.

Gustav Steinhauer was an officer of the Imperial German Navy who in 1901 became head of the British section of the German Admiralty’s intelligence service. He was responsible for the recruitment and creation of a network of German spies in Britain in the period immediately before the war. Steinhauer’s nemesis, and Head of MI5, Major General Sir Vernon Kell, claimed to have ordered the arrest of twenty-two of Steinhauer’s agent ring at the outset of war, leaving no significant German spies in Great Britain. Their replacements were an amateurish bunch of men with little professional experience, many recruited from some of the seedier areas of life in far-flung foreign countries. Between 1914 and 1916, eleven of them were captured and executed in the Tower of London. They were a courageous but poorly-trained and equipped group of unfortunate individuals whose activities were the stuff of Boys Own comics, such as using lemon juice as invisible ink to write their secret messages, and some of the evidence against them is that they were found with lemons and pen nibs that had been corroded by the acidic lemon juice. Under the rules of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), execution for military personnel was by firing squad, whilst hanging was the method for convicted civilians.

Alex then embarked on a fascinating account of these eleven poor souls who met their deaths in the Tower, acknowledging each by name along with little amusing anecdotes of their individual circumstances. Only the first man executed, Carl Lody, has his own gravestone. The others are all remembered in a joint memorial in Plaistow cemetery in Newham.

Louden McAndrew, in his vote of thanks to Alex, alluded to the various well-known attractions of the Tower of London but said “this was new”. Amusingly, he hoped that the current outbreak of avian flu would not see the collapse of the tower as the old story predicted would happen if the ravens ever left.