Commentary

Excerpt from ‘The Princess Spy’

In 1941, Aline Griffith, born and raised in a quiet New York suburb, is a college graduate desperate to aid in the war effort as World War II rages across Europe. Although she studied Spanish and French, she has hardly left New York and doesn’t know where to begin as a bright-eyed young woman whose only career experience is modeling clothes.

Aline’s life changes when she meets a man named Frank Ryan and reveals her love of adventure and her desire to do her part for her country. Within a few weeks he recruits her to join the Office of Strategic Services—forerunner of the CIA. With a code name and expert training under her belt, she is sent to Spain to be a coder, but is soon given the additional assignment of infiltrating the upper echelons of society, mingling with high-ranking officials, diplomats, and titled Europeans, any of whom could be an enemy agent. Against this glamorous backdrop of galas and dinner parties, she recruits sub-agents and engages in deep-cover espionage to counter Nazi tactics in Madrid.

Even after falling in love with and marrying the Count of Romanones, one of the wealthiest men in Spain, Aline secretly continues her covert activities, taking special assignments when abroad that would benefit from her impeccable pedigree and social connections. Full of adventure and danger, “The Princess Spy” is the story of a woman who risked everything to serve her country.

Chapter 8

The second week of July, Gregory Thomas informed the staff that the office would be moving. Washington wanted additional security for the OSS operation and files, he said, and most everyone would be moving into Ambassador Carlton Hayes’ embassy residence.

The US embassy compound, located alongside the Paseo de la Castellana [Madrid’s equivalent of Paris’s Champs Élysées.] occupied an entire city block, running from Calle Eduardo Dato to Diego de León. The ambassador’s residence was a three-story baroque palace built by the Duke of Montellano, which the United States had leased since 1931. Aside from its central location in the best part of town, the site also contained one of the most beautiful gardens in all of Madrid, full of horse chestnut trees, pine trees, roses, and rhododendrons.

Most of the staff would work from fourteen rooms on the third floor of Hayes’ residence, Aline found out, while Thomas and his secretary would set up shop in a small office in the adjacent garage annex. Why Thomas wanted or needed to be in a separate location was anyone’s guess.

The coding room was set up in a corner office, and on their first day in the new space Robert Dunev called Aline to the window and pointed across the street to a magnificent building. He told her that it was the home of the Count of Romanones, the highly regarded former prime minister to King Alfonso XIII.

Aline admired the three-story palace, but the Romanones name meant nothing to her. For most Spaniards, though, it was a name that commanded great respect. Álvaro de Figueroa y Torres-Sotomayor, the first Count of Romanones, had served three times as the country’s prime minister, seventeen times as a cabinet member, and was one of Spain’s wealthiest men. He had been King Alfonso’s closest adviser, and the one who had advised him to leave the country and eventually abdicate the throne.

Aline went back to work and decoded an incoming cable from London:

TO ARGUS FROM CHESS STOP HIMMLER PROCEEDING TO ABSORB ABWEHR INTELLIGENCE INTO GESTAPO AFTER REMOVAL OF CANARIS STOP WALTER SCHELLENBERG NOW CONTROLS ALL GERMAN FOREIGN INTELLIGENCE STOP

The cable’s message wasn’t surprising. The Allies had suspected that the Abwehr chief, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, had been working against Hitler and the Nazis for years. What many people didn’t know was that some in the German military had vehemently opposed Hitler and his Nazi Party from the beginning.

In 1933 Colonel General Kurt Freiherr von Hammerstein, Commander in Chief of the Reichswehr [German army, later known as the Wehrmacht.] and Germany’s top military officer, together with Lieutenant General Erich Freiherr von dem BusscheIppenburg, head of the Reichswehr’s Personnel Office, met with President Paul Hindenburg on January 26 to dissuade Hindenburg from appointing Hitler as Reich Chancellor, counselling that Hitler was dangerous. During discussions Hindenburg assured them that he would never appoint the “Austrian corporal” as chancellor [Referring to Hitler’s nationality and top military rank.]. Four days later, however, the ailing Hindenburg did just that, and rumors circulated that the military would launch a putsch to prevent Hitler’s installation.

Soon thereafter General Hammerstein met with Dr. Heinrich Brüning, the former Reich Chancellor, to discuss how the Nazi government could be overthrown. The obstacle, they found, was Hitler’s appointment of Werner von Blomberg, a naive colonel general, as Reichswehr Minister. Blomberg failed to recognize Hitler’s fanaticism, and since Blomberg was now Hammerstein’s superior, the general felt that a coup could no longer be successful. He turned in his resignation and retired at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Hitler brought to power two paramilitary groups, the Sturm Abeilung (SA) and the Schutzstaffel (SS). On paper they were “auxiliary police,” but in reality they were Hitler’s private army. Unlike the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, and the Kriegsmarine, which were staffed and run by men with formal military training and decades of experience, these were Nazi Party political organizations, and composed of leaders like Ernst Röhm (SA), a belligerent Bavarian crook, and Heinrich Himmler (SS), who had almost no military experience. Tensions between the real German military and the Nazi Party’s paramilitary upstarts heightened when Hitler gave the Nazi Party its own intelligence agencies—the SD for foreign intelligence and counterespionage, the Gestapo for domestic intelligence. These agencies, generals knew, would compete with the Abwehr, the military’s well-respected and professional intelligence arm.

On February 1, 1934, Hitler chose General Werner Freiherr von Fritsch, a self-professed apolitical officer, to replace the retired Hammerstein. By the spring, however, concerned military leaders were plotting again on how to overthrow their head of state. Colonel General Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of the Second Army, Major General Erwin von Witzleben, commander of the Third Army, and Colonel General Fedor von Bock, commander of the Eighth Army, were prepared to use their forces against SA troops as part of a plan to force Hitler to resign. Due to the immense planning and secrecy required, though, the putsch never materialized.

Four years later, on February 4, 1938, Hitler began to purge the military, dismissing Blomberg and Fritsch from their posts for failing to support his plan for Lebensraum (territorial expansion). At the same time, Hitler declared that the Reichswehr would become known as the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), and that he would be its supreme commander. Succeeding Fritsch as commander in chief of the Wehrmacht was General Walther von Brauchitsch. Frustrated and appalled, a number of generals approached von Brauchitsch with their resignations. He succeeded in convincing them to remain in their posts, but the plots within the military to remove Hitler and key Nazi leaders continued.

Admiral Canaris, Lieutenant General Ludwig Beck, and Lieutenant Colonel Hans Oster again began conspiring as to how to eliminate Hitler [Beck was first Fritsch’s, and now von Brauschitsch’s, chief of staff; Oster was Canaris’s chief assistant.]. General Brauchitsch agreed to go along, so long as the coup was supported by a memorandum from the minister of justice. Generals von Rundstedt and Witzleben remained on board. Generals Wilhelm List, commander of the Fourth Army, and Günther von Kluge, commander of the Sixth Army, were added. Major General Paul von Hase, commander of the No. 50 Infantry Regiment, declared that his troops would fight against the Nazi Gestapo and SS in Berlin. Yet the conspirators were hamstrung by Brauchitsch’s passivity and the difficulty of secretly planning such a major event.

In August, upon hearing of Hitler’s intention to annex the Sudetenland [Areas of Czechoslovakia along the German border which were populated primarily by Germans.], Beck tendered his resignation and declared his retirement. Beck’s successor, General Franz Halder, immediately initiated plans for a coup. Halder made no secret among the conspirators of his animosity toward Hitler, describing him as a “bloodsucker and criminal.” So once more the generals were lined up: Canaris, Oster, von Witzleben, von Hase, von Bock, von Rundstedt, List, Kluge, and Major General Walter Graf von Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt, commander of the 23 (Potsdam) Division, and Lieutenant General Erich Hoepner, commander of the No. 1 Light Division. Lieutenant General Karl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, Army Deputy Chief of Staff, helped draw up plans and worked on timing. Major Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz, at Canaris’s direction and with arms and explosives supplied by Canaris, would direct the troops raiding the Reich Chancellery [Heinz had already decided, and passed word among his men, that Hitler would be shot during the raid]. The president of the Berlin police, Wolf Heinrich Graf von Helldorf, and the vice president, Fritz-Dietlof Graf von der Schulenburg, assured that their men would assist in countering the SS in Berlin.

The conspirators’ justification for the coup, they asserted, was Hitler’s unlawful intentions regarding territorial expansion, and the inevitable result that it would thrust Germany into another war. So long as they could show the German people and the common soldier that Hitler was taking their country headlong into an illegal war, they held the moral high ground. Since Hitler had agreed to give Halder a forty-eight-hour notice of his intention to invade Czechoslovakia, Halder would use that window to initiate the coup. If successful, the plan would yield two benefits: ousting Hitler and preventing Germany’s invasion of another country.

But hurdles to the planned coup were significant. By waiting until Hitler called for the mobilization of the army (thus proving his intention of war), the conspirators would have to countermand the order immediately, all while keeping the plot a secret. They also would have to control the post office and all lines of communication so that provincial leaders could be informed about which Nazi leaders to arrest.

And then there was the matter of governance after the coup. The conspirators agreed that martial law and a state of emergency would be needed for a short while, and then they would usher in new elections under the constitution of the old Weimar Republic. But who would be in charge in the meantime?

In the end, the coup was thwarted by a most unlikely player: the British. Since the Generals’ Plot (as it came to be known) all along rested on the charge that Hitler was thrusting Germany into war, any peace agreements with Britain or France would negate their justification for patriotic treason.

And that is precisely what happened. On September 15, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made a surprise visit, meeting Hitler in Berchtesgaden. The German conspirators were outraged. Chamberlain was paying homage to a gangster, they felt, and his visit no doubt led Hitler to believe the British were accepting his territorial aggression. The visit led to the Munich Conference, held September 29–30, and resulted in the Munich Agreement—Britain’s acceptance of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in exchange for his relinquishment of other territorial demands.

Upon hearing news of the Munich Agreement, General Halder collapsed over his desk. The one condition to the Generals’ Plot had failed, and he never signaled for the putsch. In perhaps the strangest sequence of events, the German military felt betrayed by the British. There would be other attempts by the military to kill the Führer, all without success. In 1943, for example, Beck and other officers twice tried to kill Hitler, but both plots failed.

And little did Aline or the OSS Madrid office know that only days after they received the cable about Canaris and Schellenberg, Beck and Oster, together with thousands of military officers, would try again on July 20, 1944, setting off a bomb at a meeting Hitler attended at his Wolf ‘s Lair at Rastenburg.* None other than Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had given the putsch his blessing, so long as Beck agreed to serve as head of state after Hitler was gone.** When the July 20 plot failed, the number of military officers implicated in the coup attempt was staggering. After countless plotters were tortured into confessions, and other names extracted, some five thousand military officers were executed or committed suicide, including sixteen of Germany’s top generals and three field marshals.*** Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt and Erich von Manstein declined to be involved in the putsch, but nevertheless passively acquiesced by not informing Hitler.

*Two other noteworthy events illustrate the direct and ongoing antagonism between the Wehrmacht—and the SS. First, when General von Stüpnalgel (now serving as the commander of forces in France) received word that the putsch was a go, he had his troops in Paris arrest and jail all 1,200 SS and SD soldiers and agents stationed in the city. A second confrontation between the Wehrmacht and SS occurred at the end of April 1945. On orders from Heinrich Himmler, a number of SS guards were transporting a group of prisoners near the Italy-Austria border. Along with captured British officers, the prisoners included two Wehrmacht officers who had fallen out of favor with Hitler: General Franz Halder, former chief of the OKW, and Colonel Bogislaw von Bonin, former chief of the operational branch of the army general staff. When the party reached Villabasa, von Bonin made a call to Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s Fourteenth Army headquarters in Italy. The colonel informed the staff officer answering the phone that he, General Halder, and others were being held by Himmler’s SS guards, and requested that a company of Wehrmacht’s finest be sent to rescue them. Kesselring’s soldiers were promised to arrive by 6:00 p.m. the following evening, and von Bonin suggested to the SS guards that they might want to disappear before the cavalry arrived. In short, there was going to be a shootout between two German groups: the Wehrmacht’s seasoned Fourteenth Army soldiers versus the Nazi’s SS guards. The SS guards wisely disappeared before Kesselring’s men arrived.

**Rommel’s desire, aligned with Beck’s, was for Hitler to be arrested and tried for crimes against the German people and occupied lands.

***Generals Ludwig Beck, Heinrich von Stüpnalgel, Henning von Tresckow, Erich Hoepner, Hellmuth Stief, Paul von Hase, Erich Fellgiebel, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Hans Oster, Friedrich Fromm, Fritz Lindemann, Friedrich Olbricht, Eduard Wagner, Fritz Thiele, Karl von Thuengen, and Otto Herfurth; field marshals Erwin Rommel, Günther von Kluge, and Erwin von Witzleben.

But the message of the Canaris-Schellenberg cable to the OSS Madrid office was clear enough: with Canaris gone, Schellenberg would be moving full force to exert as much pressure on Spain as possible.

That evening Aline prepared for a night out with Edmundo. They were going to drop in on a cocktail party hosted by Ralph Forte, the Associated Press correspondent, and then later swing by the La Reboite nightclub for another party. Edmundo was going to pick her up at ten, and she planned to wear a new red silk dress.

As she was applying her lipstick, she stopped. After a moment, she continued.

It was probably the wind.

Madrid was like Kansas, after all, gusts and swirls coming from nowhere at any hour. Besides, it would be impossible to get on the roof and—

There it was again.

From the other room? Impossible. How could—

And again. The balcony shutters.

No doubt this time. Shutters don’t creak like that from the wind.

Someone was prying them open.

Ever so quietly, Aline eased back the top drawer of her vanity and withdrew her pistol. On her tiptoes, she slipped into the shadows in the hall and flipped off the safety. All of those endless hours at The Farm came down to this. They had practiced in the dark, and inside houses. Two shots to the torso.

Heart pounding, she edged her way to the opening to the salon.

Could she do it?

There was another creak as moonlight filtered in and then she saw it.

“The Princess Spy” is available for purchase online.

Larry Loftis is the USA TODAY and bestselling author of the nonfiction spy thrillers “Code Name: Lise—The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy” and “Into the Lion’s Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov—World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond,” which have been published around the world in multiple languages. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Mr. Loftis was a corporate attorney and adjunct professor of law. He can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and at LarryLoftis.com.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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