Erich Vermehren

German defector to the British in 1944
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The Independent Online

Erich Vermehren was prevented in 1938 on the personal order of Adolf Hitler from taking up a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. He had refused to join the Nazi youth organisation at his school. Later, in 1944, as a young Abwehr (military intelligence) officer in Istanbul, his sensational and well-publicised defection to the British infuriated Hitler to such an extent that he dismissed the head of the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, so ensuring Germany's entire intelligence machinery faced the imminent Allied invasion of Normandy leaderless and demoralised.

Erich Vermehren, lawyer: born Lübeck, Germany 23 December 1919; married 1941 Countess Elisabeth Plettenberg (died 1998); died Bonn 28 April 2005.

Erich Vermehren was prevented in 1938 on the personal order of Adolf Hitler from taking up a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. He had refused to join the Nazi youth organisation at his school. Later, in 1944, as a young Abwehr (military intelligence) officer in Istanbul, his sensational and well-publicised defection to the British infuriated Hitler to such an extent that he dismissed the head of the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, so ensuring Germany's entire intelligence machinery faced the imminent Allied invasion of Normandy leaderless and demoralised.

Born in 1919 to a prominent Lübeck family of lawyers, Vermehren was the youngest of three children. When the Nazis came to power all the family were considered politically unreliable by the Gestapo and Erich's repeated refusal to join Hitler Youth marked him as unfit to "represent German youth" at Oxford; Hitler, on seeing Vermehren's name on the list of Germans offered a Rhodes Scholarship, insisted it be crossed off. Erich's sister, Isa, who later converted to Catholicism and became a nun, spent part of the Second World War as an inmate of Ravensbrück concentration camp.

Vermehren also converted to Catholicism when he married Countess Elisabeth Plettenberg, a member of the Catholic underground in Germany who had clandestinely distributed the banned anti-Nazi encyclical Mit Bennender Sorge of Pope Pius XI in 1937. Unsurprisingly, neither Plettenberg nor her husband was prepared openly to resist Hitler but both found themselves involved in the various German resistance circles, several of which centred on Vermehren's cousin Adam von Trott.

It became increasingly clear to von Trott that the Vermehrens were in danger in Germany. Together with Paul Leverkuehn of the Abwehr, he hatched a plan to get young Erich assigned to Canaris's organisation, which functioned as a refuge for anti-Nazi Germans including many Jews.

Canaris at that time late in 1943 was receiving peace overtures from the Americans in Istanbul, where another cousin of the Vermehrens, Franz von Papen, was German ambassador and had been asked to meet the American Archbishop (and future Cardinal) Francis Spellman. The cousinhood of good German families then, as now, dominant in the country's foreign service ensured Erich's transition from civilian life to the cloak-and-dagger world of the Abwehr. The young lawyer received two weeks' training in secret inks before being posted to Leverkuehn's Abwehr office in Istanbul.

He was prevented, however, by the Gestapo from bringing his wife, and she remained "hostage" in Germany. Then, returning to Berlin on leave, Erich agreed with his wife that they defect together to the British and that she should accompany him back to Istanbul.

On the train from Berlin to the Turkish capital their plan received a temporary setback when a high-ranking Gestapo officer was discovered to have taken the compartment in the wagon-lit next to the Vermehrens. Sure enough, at the Bulgarian frontier crossing, Frau Vermehren was arrested by Gestapo agents and taken to the German embassy in Sofia, while Erich continued alone to Istanbul. However, the Abwehr officer at the embassy together with the ambassador, who was a close family friend, managed to get her on to the diplomatic courier plane that touched down to pick up the diplomatic bag at Sofia en route from Berlin to Istanbul.

In Istanbul, meanwhile, Vermehren had made contact in early January 1944 with Nicholas Elliot, the SIS's counter-espionage man in the British embassy. Vermehren had gone to an address in the Pera district for tea; a secret sliding door revealed the bespectacled Elliot, who cheerfully extended his hand saying, "Erich Vermehren? Why, I believe you were coming up to Oxford."

Though the Vermehrens took no documents or ciphers, British propaganda understandably made the most of the defection, knowing that it would set the vipers' nest of Hitler's competing intelligence agencies at each others' throats just weeks before D Day.

On hearing news of the defection, Hitler was incensed and summoned Canaris for a final interview, accusing him of allowing the Abwehr to "fall to bits". Canaris quietly replied that it was "not surprising", given that Germany was losing the war. Hitler sacked him on the spot and the Abwehr was put under Heinrich Himmler's jurisdiction, causing hundreds of its officers to resign and take up positions elsewhere, even on the Eastern front, rather than serve the SS. The disintegration of the Abwehr took place just as the plans for D Day were being finalised, an unexpected but useful coup for the Allies.

The Vermehrens meanwhile were given a home in the South Kensington flat of Kim Philby's mother where, taken in by Philby's great charm, they supplied him with lists of the personalities in the Catholic underground in Germany. Unsurprisingly, when British intelligence tried to link up with them at the end of the war, they found most had been liquidated.

After the war Vermehrens lived in England for many years, moving to Switzerland in the 1960s, and Erich became a leading voice in the Una Voce movement of the Catholic Church. A close friend of the present Pope Benedict XVI, he devoted much of his spare time to helping advance the cause of the Church.

Richard Bassett

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