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Britain’s spy agency protected top Nazi war criminal

Al Jazeera | May 20 2005

One of Hitler’s top intelligence officers, who ordered the murders of more than 100 British secret agents in concentration camps, was spared execution as a war criminal and selected to work for MI6.

Newly released papers contain the evidence which show that in the post-war scramble to secure information about Russian communists, British Intelligence “turned” Horst Kopkow over to their side, faked his death and used him to fight the Cold War.

It’s emerged that in the 1980s Britain had become a haven for suspected war criminals, but few actually believed that the British government had taken it one step further and put a man like Kopkow on its books. Details of how MI6 snatched Kopkow, 35, from war crimes investigators, inventing his fake death from “bronchopneumonia”, are revealed in private papers made public only now.

The papers belonged to Vera Atkins, a senior officer of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Britain’s secret wartime body. After the war she mounted a one-woman investigation into the fate of her agents behind enemy lines.

The Atkins documents have been corroborated by newly declassified secret papers in the British and American National Archives.

MI6 declined to comment on the Kopkow case.

But according to intelligence sources the secret service itself was shocked by the evidence. To date, Britain has denied that it engaged in the dark arts used by the Americans, whose employment of Nazis to catch Communists has been well-documented. British intelligence sources pointed out that Kopkow was not in the league of “the butcher of Lyons”, a reference to Klaus Barbie, the most notorious war criminal employed by the Americans.

What is chilling about the Kopkow case is that MI6 agents who spared him were collegues and “handlers” of those he ordered their deaths in the concentration camps. Among those whose torture and death Kopkow sanctioned were men and women of the SOE and MI6 agents.

Though Kopkow’s information may have been considered valuable, it was in fact useless. The head of MI6’s Russian desk when Kopkow was captured was Kim Philby, exposed as a Soviet spy more than 15 years later.

Precisely how long Kopkow was employed by British Intelligence remains unclear as German records state that he adopted the name Cordes and died in Gelsenkirchen in 1996.


• Set up in 1940 in London, the SOE grew to number 10,000 men and 3,000 women. Senior staff went to public school and Oxbridge, but agents included a former chef, an electrician and a car dealer’s daughter

• Life expectancy of a wireless operator in occupied France was six weeks

• Of 39 women agents sent to France, 13 were killed

• The Secret Intelligence Service chief called the SOE amateur, dangerous and bogus

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