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Frank Foley: The mild-mannered British spy who defied Hitler and saved 10,000 Jews from the Nazis

Sixty years after dying in relative obscurity, the quiet hero has received the rarest of accolades: a public statement from the serving head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, acknowledging the life-saving work of one of its spies

Adam Lusher
Wednesday 31 January 2018 20:23 GMT
Frank Foley risked his life to help Jews in Nazi Germany
Frank Foley risked his life to help Jews in Nazi Germany (Wikimedia Commons)

To look at him, Frank Foley was no-one’s idea of a hero.

Small, slightly paunchy, with round glasses, he was less James Bond, more like the kind of functionary who could blend in with the backroom furniture while performing whatever humdrum task his superior set him.

Which is precisely what made him, to use the words of Sir Alex Younger, the current head of MI6, “a consummately effective intelligence officer".

So consummately effective, in fact, that while posing as a mild-mannered bureaucrat, Major Frank Foley – to give him his proper rank – became “the pimpernel of the Jews”, rescuing more than 10,000 men, women and children from under the noses of the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany.

Now, 60 years after his death, Frank Foley has received the rarest of accolades: a public statement from the serving head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, acknowledging the work of one of its spies.

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At a special ceremony in MI6’s London headquarters, Sir Alex told members of Foley's family and the Holocaust Educational Trust: “There is a mantra that surrounds MI6's history: 'Our successes are private, our failures are public'.

“[So] it is a wonderful thing for MI6 that one of its most distinguished members' successes are no longer private.

“While many condemned and criticised the Nazis' discriminative laws, Frank took action.

“He took a stance against evil. He knew the dire consequences were he to get caught. He saved the lives of many thousands of European Jews [and] ensured they could travel safely out of the clutches of Hitler's killers.”

It was an extraordinary tribute to an extraordinary spy.

Using his cover as passport officer in the British Consulate, Foley – actually our most senior agent in Berlin – bent or broke the rules to give Jews the visas they needed to escape the Reich, even entering Nazi concentration camps to extract them.

One former MI6 officer told the author Michael Smith that the work of Oskar Schindler, immortalised in the film Schindler’s List “pales into insignificance” compared to Foley’s success in rescuing Jews from the Nazis.

Perhaps tellingly, the ex-MI6 man added: “One of the most interesting things about Foley was that normally to be a case officer you have to be a bit of a s**t. But Foley managed to be a good case officer and a near saint.”

In fact, Foley wasn’t just a good case officer. His agent handling skills were so exceptional they were used as a model for training future generations of MI6 officers.

And it’s true he had nearly become a Catholic missionary.

Born in 1884 in relatively humble circumstances, the son of a Great Western Railway engine fitter, at the age of 14 Foley was sent by his devoutly Catholic mother to a Jesuit seminary in France.

Eventually though, the lure of student life proved stronger than the training to be a missionary, and Foley decided on a career as an academic.

When the First World War broke out, he found himself stranded in Hamburg, where he was studying philosophy.

Yet rather than submit to being interned, Foley had the chutzpah to borrow a military uniform and escape Germany by train, posing as a Prussian officer on his way to the front.

At first, British intelligence rejected him, on the grounds that such a fit young man was needed in the infantry.

Only after he had been shot in the lung on the Western Front was the young subaltern admitted into the ranks of the Secret Intelligence Service.

By the 1920s he was in Germany.

After Hitler came to power in January 1933, it didn’t take long for this quiet, thoughtful and highly effective spy to work out was going on.

In the spring of 1933 he took his wife Kay on a drive into some pinewoods looking for a picnic spot. Every possible place they came to was marked with signs saying “Forbidden to halt”. One of the first concentration camps was being built.

In his book Foley, the spy who saved 10,000 Jews, Michael Smith revealed for the first time the full extent of how Foley bent and broke the rules to grant Jews the visas they needed to get from Germany to Britain or British-controlled Palestine.

To begin with, when the rules insisted on £1,000 for a Palestine visa – a huge sum, especially for Jews with bank accounts frozen by the Nazis – Foley would accept payments of £10 on the grounds that £990 would somehow magically appear once the refugee disembarked in the port of Haifa.

When people said they had no money at all, he would gently hint that maybe someone could write them a letter promising them £1,000.

And when he found out about illegal Zionist operations to smuggle Jews from Germany to Palestine, he kept quiet, instead of telling his superiors as the (British) rules decreed.

Some British diplomats shared Foley’s sympathies and also did their bit to help Jews escape. John Carvell, Consul-General in Munich, issued certificates allowing 300 Jewish men to go from Dachau to Palestine.

But by no means all Britons were quite so welcoming of the immigrants now fleeing Nazi persecution.

In the Commons in 1933, the Conservative MP Edward Doran rose to ask the House: “Are we prepared in this country to allow aliens to come in here from every country while we have three million unemployed?”

Consular staff were told that while the current numbers of refugees entering Britain were acceptable “We most certainly don’t want numbers increased, and it is our policy to do nothing to encourage further immigration.”

A Cabinet committee formed the opinion that there was no room in Palestine “for any appreciable number of German refugees,” and in time the head of MI6 himself, Sir Hugh Sinclair, came to tell the Home Secretary he was “seriously concerned” about the influx of refugees to Britain.

“It was,” Sir Hugh declared, “A menace to our national interests.”

Yet if Foley was risking disciplinary action from his superiors, it was nothing compared to what the Nazis would have done to him had they realised exactly what he was up to. Foley could expect no diplomatic immunity: he was operating as a spy.

But he pressed on, going as far as helping Jews to obtain forged passports and visas, even hiding some of them in his own Berlin apartment.

Foley’s nephew, who visited in 1934, told Michael Smith how “There would be this knock on the door at two or three o’clock in the morning and we would hear Frank go downstairs to talk to them.”

At the same time, Foley was continuing his spying duties. His wife Kay recalled how the strain and the terrible stories of persecution he was hearing pushed him to the point where “he felt he could go on no longer”.

But by 1939 the British passport control office in the Consulate building on Tiergartenstrasse was attracting queues of 250-300 people at a time, some of them Jews who had come from as far away as Austria or Hungary.

Many never met the man who saved them. Many were never even expecting salvation.

One Sunday morning, recalled Werner Lachs, “Out of the blue, the post produced a letter from the British Passport Control Office”.

Young Werner, a 12-year-old in 1939, escaped to Britain and lived to become a 91-year-old great-grandfather-of-four. Like many others rescued by Foley, he spent decades thinking he owed his life to a curious administrative mix-up in the British passport office.

Others, though, got to meet the man who saved them, in the most extraordinary circumstances.

In 1939 Gunter Powitzer was in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, having been arrested for “race defilement” after getting his non-Jewish girlfriend pregnant.

One night, he returned late to his hut to find it empty. When he eventually found someone to ask why no-one else was in the hut, he was told: “They tried out a new machine-gun today”.

A few days later, he was surprised to be cleaned up, shaved and led by an SS man into the camp office.

“There,” Powitzer later told Michael Smith, “Sat a small man wearing glasses, who told me in English: ‘My name is Foley. I am from the British Consulate in Berlin’.”

Foley had started going into the concentration camps, convincing the Nazis that their Jewish prisoners had been granted a visa but been interned before they could receive it.

Foley didn’t just get Powitzer out. He got his infant son to Palestine too.

In late August, days before war broke out, Foley left the Berlin passport office for the last time, but not before he had summoned someone to collect visas for 80 young Jews.

Even after Foley left Germany, Jews were still escaping on papers signed by him. The last group, 300 men, got out on August 28 1939, four days before Hitler’s invasion of Poland started the Second World War.

After doing what he could to rescue as many Jews as possible, Foley took the fight to the Nazis.

He questioned Rudolf Hess after Hitler’s deputy flew to Scotland in 1941. He played his part in the Double Cross deception operation, helping to run a network of double agents and turned spies who were able to trick Hitler into thinking the D-Day landings would be in Pas-de-Calais, not Normandy.

And then, in 1949, this “most normal, pleasant man” – as one unsuspecting Consulate civil servant remembered him - retired from MI6 to enjoy a quiet retirement in Stourbridge with his wife.

There was little official recognition. The CMG awarded in January 1941 had been blandly listed as for “services rendered to the Foreign Office”.

To his Stourbridge neighbours, Foley was “a quiet, nondescript little man,” the kind you could easily miss in a crowd.

But in all likelihood he was quite content with what he did receive: letters sent by those who did know who had rescued him, a canned turkey sent every Christmas from New York, from a grateful Jewish doctor.

He also formed a firm friendship with someone living round the corner from him: Ernst Ruppel, who had been rescued from Buchenwald by Foley before settling in England.

In later years, Foley worried about the possibility of a third world war. He declared himself a pacifist “unless some tyrant gets busy trying to rob people of their mental and physical liberty”.

With more reason than most to know what he was talking about, he confided to his brother: “I hate war, and all the suffering it causes to the weak and innocent.”

His death aged 73, from a heart attack in May 1958, attracted little attention beyond a few appreciative letters in the Daily Telegraph.

The funeral was a simple one, for friends and family, at Stourbridge cemetery.

It would be 40 years before the true scale of Foley’s achievement was fully recognised.

Told about Foley by the former MI6 officer who regarded him as “a near saint”, the author Michael Smith began investigating. Finally, when Smith’s book was first published in 1999, the world realised what Foley had done.

Today, he is honoured at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as one of the Righteous Among Nations. The figure for how many he saved is normally put at “more than 10,000” – but it could be yet higher.

As one helped by the quiet spy put it, “It is impossible to say how many owe Frank Foley their lives”.

Now, there are public honours for Frank Foley, even where he once worked undetected.

On 24 November 2004, the 120th anniversary of Foley’s birth, a plaque was unveiled in his honour at the British Embassy in Berlin.

There, finally, at the age of 91, Elisheva Lernau, rescued by Foley aged 22, could offer her thanks.

“His name is written on my heart,” she said. “I owe my life to this man I never met: a man of humanity in a time of unparalleled inhumanity.”

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