The story of an MI5 spy interned in Port Erin during the Second World War has come to light following a visit to the island of a Danish journalist who plans to write a book about Vera von Wedel, known as the ‘the beautiful spy’
Copenhagen based journalist Kirstine Kloster Andersen read a biography about Vera’s brother Christian Frederik Schalburg – an infamous Danish Nazi who died on the Eastern front in 1942 – and int it was a chapter about Vera von Wedel.
‘She also had quite a remarkable destiny before and after the war years,’ said Kirstine.
‘One early morning on September 30, 1940 she landed off the Scottish coast together with two German male spies. They rowed ashore in a rubber dinghy, but only a few hours later she was caught at the rail road station in the small Scottish coastal village of Portgordon together with one of the other spies. The third spy made it all the way to Edinburgh before he was caught. While the two male spies were hanged in August 1941, for some mysterious reason Vera Schalburg (her original name) wasn’t prosecuted.‘
Vera spent the rest of the war imprisoned/interned in the UK, and in spring 1942 she was transferred to the women’s camp in Port Erin and was with the last party of internees to leave the island on September 5, 1945.
Intrigued by why Vera was spared the noose, Kirstine decided to investigate her life story and her research so far has taken her to Scotland, Hamburg (where she met the grandchildren of the Abwehr spy master Hilmar Dierks – one of his cover names was ‘von Wedel’), London and the island.
She followed up a lead suggesting Vera had had two children while interned in Port Erin, that she left behind. ‘Of course it made me very interested in visiting the place, also since it might explain many of the unanswered questions about her life,’ said Kirstine.
Her trip didn’t unearth any offspring, but thanks to help from the Manx Museum, she did discover valuable information about Vera and internment.
Vera’s life was tragic. Her father, a Danish merchant, emigrated to Russia in 1902 where he met Vera’s mother, who was Russian. Vera was born in 1907 and grew up in Siberia in upper class tsarist society which unraveled in the Russian revolution of 1917. The family fled to Denmark and faced a life in poverty, but Vera was a talented dancer and she went to dance in Paris with famous Russian dancer Anna Pavlova.
In Paris, Vera met the man who introduced her to the world of spying. ‘The details are not clear, but he turned out to be a Russian spy, and somehow he forced her into spying for the communists,’ said Kirstine. ‘She tried to get out of it, but it wasn’t a job you could just quit, and now her life became one long series of threats ... She attempted suicide on several occasions.’
In 1938, her brother put her in touch with the German secret service who sent her to England as a German agent, where she was caught and interned.
Mystery and unanswered questions still hover around Vera’s story. The MI5 files on her were released in 1999 – but not all of them. ‘Why is MI5 still keeping things secret?’ asked Kirstine. ‘Just before being sent to the Isle of Man, she was taken out of prison and spent two weeks in the home of an MI5-agent called Klop Ustinov - father of the actor Peter Ustinov.’
Kirstine discovered a typed note from Ustinov that reads: ‘I asked her (Vera) to act, as if she was the only agent we had on the island. I think she is in good spirits and believe that she will do her best. She swore that my name will never pass her lips.’ Kirstine said: ‘This is clear documentation proving that Vera was given a mission by MI5 to act as an agent in the Isle of Man (probably she was told to spy on other internees).’
Kirstine visited the boarding house in Port Erin’s Athol Park (then called Birch Holme) where Vera was interned and also the building that housed the former Collinson’s cafe, where she worked. The commissioners’ office suggested she contact local historian John Qualtrough, who lives in Port St Mary. Kirstine called him and discovered John’s wife Barbara lived in Birch Holme as a very young girl while her family ran it as a boarding house when Vera was interned there. ‘My reaction was astonishment and as at that time I was rather frustrated at not being able to find anything new about her, my hope was renewed,’ said Kirstine.
Barbara was too young to remember Vera, but Kirstine would like to hear from anybody who has any stories relating to Vera, spying or MI5 in the island during World War Two.
‘After the war, Vera was handed over to Germany, instead of Denmark, which is rather strange,’ said Kirstine. ‘What happened to her after that is not definitely known, although I have an idea. Personally I think she died shortly after the war, I have certain traces indicating this. This also explains why her family never heard from her.’
Kirstine plans to do more research in Germany and Russia before writing a book. To contact her email firstname.lastname@example.org