The Spy and the secret weapon

PUBLISHED: 17:24 27 May 2016 | UPDATED: 11:54 02 June 2016

Karel Richter directing military to where he had hidden his parachute and other equipment. (National Archives)

Karel Richter directing military to where he had hidden his parachute and other equipment. (National Archives)

National Archives

Out of black sky, a German agent parachuted into fields where days later the maiden flight of a top-secret RAF aircraft would take off. Seventy-five years on this month, Michael Long looks at the extraordinary case of the London Colney Spy

In the early hours of Monday May 12 1941, a camouflaged parachute floated to earth from a single plane flying over the east Hertfordshire countryside. The parachutist, German secret agent 3526 codenamed Artist, landed unnoticed in a field next to Whitehorse Lane in London Colney with a mission to spy and report back to his Abwehr handlers in Berlin. Unbeknown to the spy, real name Karel Richter, a few hundred yards from where he landed, that same day at Salisbury Hall, the final arrangements were being made for the first test flight of a new top-secret RAF plane, the Mosquito.

As a navy deserter and former prisoner, 29-year-old Richter was not an obvious choice as a spy and had never jumped from a plane before that night in May. Thinking he was in the vicinity of Cambridge, rather than 40 miles off-target in a Hertfordshire field, he went to work burying his parachute in a hedgerow bank to avoid detection. He then lay-up in nearby woods for the whole of Monday, Tuesday and much of Wednesday, until late on the 14th he made his way to the main road. There were no signs to help him guage his whereabouts, as these had been removed in 1940 with the threat of a German invasion. His hiding place backed on to the North Orbital Road and he decided to walk towards the London Colney roundabout.

Suspicions aroused

At 10.20pm that night, two lorry drivers were trying to locate the Great North Road; they saw Richter near a telephone box and stopped to ask directions. He told them he was a foreigner and couldn’t help.

The lorry drivers went on until they saw a police officer, constable Alec Scott. They asked directions of him and also mentioned the foreigner. Intrigued, Scott caught up with Richter and asked him where he was headed. Richter replied in broken English, that he was going to Cambridge. When asked for his papers Richter produced a forged card in the name of Fred Snyder, living at 14 Duckett Street in east London. Scott knew that one of the conditions of the card was that its owner had to be home after 11pm so enquired where Richter had come from and received the answer, ‘Ipswich’. Given the Suffolk town was some 70 miles away, Scott’s suspicions were raised further and he summoned the help of Sergeant Palmer from St Albans. Palmer questioned Richter on where he had been that day. ‘Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge’, was the response. Palmer decided to take the foreigner to St Albans Police Station.

The mission revealed

On inspection, Richter had a Czech passport but significantly no UK entry stamp, a ration book, a map of East Anglia and large sums of cash in dollars and sterling.

The Metropolitan Police had no record of a Fred Snyder entering the country; moreover, Duckett Street had been completely flattened by German bombing. Richter was taken to the Hatfield station where he admitted the identity card and ration books were forgeries but claimed he had bought them. He said that he had been sleeping rough in the woods as there were no hotel rooms available.

After hours of interrogation, Richter capitulated and agreed to cooperate. On the afternoon of Sunday May 18, Police took him back to the field in Whitehorse Lane where in the hedgerow they found the buried parachute, his pistol and transmitter. Richter was handed over to MI5 and admitted he was sent by German intelligence and that he was to hand over the cash to another German agent in London. However, the main part of his mission was to ascertain whether another agent, code-named Tate, had been turned and was working for the British, which was in fact the case.

Richter was charged under the Treason Act 1940. His trial was held in camera at the Old Bailey in October 1941 where he was found guilty of treachery and sentenced to death. His appeal was dismissed. MI5 argued that only execution of a captured agent would send a deterrent to the Germans. This was the line that was followed and Karel Richter was hung at Wandsworth prison on December 10, 1941.

The one that got away

On Thursday May 15, the day following Richter’s arrest, the prototype for the Mosquito, which would go on to be a key part of the RAF’s wartime effort as a fighter, bomber and recognaissance plane, made its maiden flight from a runway at Salisbury Hall close to the wood where Richter had hidden. It had been developed in upmost secrecy away from the de Havilland works at Hatfield. The Germans came to regard the Mosquito as a wonder-plane, never knowing how close one of their agents had come to gate-crashing its first flight.

Seventy five years on, the field in Whitehorse Lane looks unchanged from the night Richter landed. Coppice wood, where he hid is still there, thick enough to show how a German agent could go undetected for days.

Richter never actually did any spying; he was caught, by chance or by incompetence and his time as an agent in the field lasted less than three days. Case files in the National Archive indicate he never realised his precise location. Had he dropped near Cambridge or spotted the new plane that helped the Allied war effort, the outcome may have been very different, but for posterity he is The London Colney Spy.

Latest from the Hertfordshire Life