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Beautiful Spies: A Tale of Two Veras

September 30, 2009
The other Vera: Not spy, but spymaster.

The other Vera: Not spy, but spymaster.

Sixty-nine years ago this morning, the Scottish village of Port Gordon, “on the Moray Firth in Banffshire,” earned its spot on the map of history when the local constable arrested two German spies, a man and a woman. A third, male, accomplice was apprehended soon after in Aberdeen. Both men were tried at the Old Bailey and executed within the year. The woman, though, mysteriously evaded prosecution and faded from public view. If not already working for MI5, the British secret service, when she was arrested, many surmise, she was soon after.

She is generally called Vera Schalburg, though, from 1937 to 1940, she used, “among others, the following aliases:  Chalbur, Chalburg, Shalberg, De Cottani, Erikson (also spelled Eriksen, and Erichsen), von Wedel, and Starizky,” according to English writer Phil Coldham, who is researching her story. (Thanks to @WWIIToday for the Tweet-tip.) As a Port Gordon website tells it, following a drop by seaplane offshore, the conspirators landed an inflatable dinghy below Port Gordon:

[T]he trio had been instructed (ludicrously) to cycle to London but due to the choppy seas the bicycles accompanying them had been swept overboard. Perhaps because of this the three decided to split up. …Vera Erikson appeared to be the leader of the operation and was apparently to assume the role of the long-lost niece of an elderly Italian Countess living in Kensington. The Germans thought this would be excellent cover for her to meet prominent people …

Art student Jane Barclay’s research into the operation recounts the Siberian-born Schalberg’s youth as a ballerina and cabaret dancer. She married a Russian and spied for multiple factions in the Soviet Union before offering her services to the Nazi regime and marrying a German, with whom she lived briefly in London, probably as spies. She is believed to have been impregnated by a British lover during that time, possibly an aristocrat, giving birth to a boy who would be about near 70, now.

When Vera and her spy partner arrived in Port Gordon in 1940, she was pregnant again, with his child. (She later miscarried.) But their mission was doomed. They rather stood out as they made their way with suitcases along the village high street to the train depot. Their colleague, meanwhile, had raised suspicions when he boarded a bus and tried to use a ten-shilling note to pay the one-penny fare.

In general, the spies’ wallets were too fat with cash for straitened wartime Britain. Other small signs likewise gave them away. Vera’s ankles were damp from the sea. They had to ask the train station’s name. Their identity papers lacked immigration stamps to support their claims to be refugees.

These were the sorts of details almost never overlooked by the other renowned Vera of WWII espionage, Vera Atkins, spymistress of Section F (for France) of the Special Operations Executive. Where  Schalberg was dramatic, “Miss Atkins” was dowdy. Where Schalberg mated serially, Atkins (born Rosenberg, in Romania) was a spinstress. The reputed inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny, Atkins in fact trained and dispatched some 400 operatives into the French countryside for exploits far more serious than any James Bond escapade.

More than a quarter of her charges, women and men, were captured, and most of those were killed. When the fighting was over and Europe still in chaos, Miss Atkins meticulously traced the fates of  the 118 who never returned. But she herself remained a woman of mystery for most of her 92 years, until similarly traced by Sarah Helm, whose excellent biography tells the story.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. dierks permalink
    March 2, 2013 1:48 pm

    Hallo, one the alias-names of Vera is “von Wedel”. Under this name she was married by my grandfather, who was using that name as a pseudonym too! I don’f know wether he was living with Vera in England, but I’m suspecting it.

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