Colonel Albert Bachmann: Swiss spymaster whose paranoid fantasies embarrassed his government

Colonel Albert Bachmann was Switzerland's colourful but controversial spymaster, who single-handedly made his country's intelligence service a laughing stock. Through his fantasies and paranoia he brought humiliation upon the Swiss government when he was exposed. Loyalists regarded him as a fearless visionary; others agreed with the intelligence agent who dismissed his former boss as "a glorified Boy Scout who saw evil everywhere and believed that he alone possessed the absolute truth about national defence."

Bachmann, who headed Switzerland's military intelligence force, the UNA, waged a one-man crusade against Communism and a possible Soviet-bloc invasion. He bought property in Ireland for use by a government in exile and set up a secret army, Projekt-26 (P-26) – 2,000 male and female fighters trained in guerrilla tactics, intended as a "stay-behind" army to repel Soviet forces.

Albert Bachmann, known as Bert, was born in a suburb of Zurich in 1929. He entered the printing trade and joined Freie Jugend, the youth organisation of the communist-leaning Swiss Party of Labour. But in 1948, following the Communist coup d'état in Prague, Bachmann renounced his left-wing sympathies, became staunchly pro-West and began national service with the grenadiers. Despite his lack of education and polish, he secured a place at officer training academy, where he specialised in intelligence gathering.

The 1968 Soviet taming of Czechoslovakia confirmed him as a Cold War hardliner. In 1969 he created a stir as the principal author of Civil Defence; 2.6 million copies were distributed. Its red cover, and its identification of leftists, pacifists and intellectuals as internal enemies, earned contempt-uous comparisons to Mao's Little Red Book.

In order to escape the fall-out, Bachmann went to Biafra, then struggling to secede from Nigeria. There, he operated undercover as an upper-class Englishman named Henry Peel, one of several code names he favoured. On his return in 1976 he was promoted to colonel and named as chief of Military Intelligence. This gave him control over three departments including Bureau Ha, an unofficial intelligence service created during the Second World War, and Special Service D, a resistance force trained to harass an occupying army. This inspired P-26.

Using government funds, Bachmann purchased Liss Ard, a 200-acre estate outside Skibbereen in Cork to serve as a refuge for the government-in-exile and a store for Swiss gold reserves. Neither this nor the secret anti-Soviet army had been officially sanctioned.

His career was only halted following an investigation into another operation, which deeply embarrassed Switzerland and Austria – friends with few, if any, secrets from one another.

In November 1979, 32,000 Austrian troops were on exercises on a stretch of the Danube valley in what was billed as the country's biggest military exercise since the Second World War. Although the Austrians invited Eastern bloc observers to watch the manoeuvres in St Pölten, they were surprised to see a middle-aged man in a rental car carrying the classic impedimenta of espionage: camera, binoculars, maps and a notebook. The police shadowed him for a few days before arresting him on charges of spying (for information freely available to all observers).

He was Kurt Schilling, a 57-year old Swiss time and motion expert, working, he insisted, in the interests of Swiss defence. At first the Austrians thought he was an Eastern bloc spy. Then Swiss officials discovered Bachmann had sent him. Austrians were astonished; the Vienna daily Die Presse described him as "the spy who came in from the Emmentaler," referring to the Swiss cheese. At Schilling's trial it emerged that his brief had been to gauge how long Austria could hold out in the event of a Soviet invasion. As Schilling was clearly inept, the judge was lenient and sentenced him to a suspended five-month sentence and deportation.

Bachmann was suspended; further investigation exposed P-26 and related initiatives. The Defence Minister, Georges-André Chevallaz, found the discoveries so outlandish that their architect was suspected of being a double agent. Bachmann resigned in 1980 and retired to Ireland, though the project continued under different names until the Swiss government dissolved it in 1990.

Albert Bachmann, intelligence official: born Zurich 26 November 1929; married; died Cork 12 April 2011.

Comments