Fascinating story of the platteland spies on both sides in World War 2


Review: Attie Hendriks

Hitler’s Spies, by Evert Kleynhans (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Evert Kleynhans, a military historian, has turned a work of excellent academic research into an engaging yarn about spies. 

Spies, like detectives, are enduring characters in fiction and parts of Kleynhans’s book often read like fiction, but it was all true and much of it happened on the South African platteland during World War 2.

At a time of great political conflict within the country, it is also a story about a police force that couldn’t be trusted, a suspect national intelligence agency, shadowy groups conspiring against the ruling party, and politicians consorting secretly with a foreign power. It sounds like South Africa today, yet this all happened when the country was fighting in a world war.

Other authors have touched on the subject of spies in South Africa during the war, but Kleynhans has found a startling new element. Giving it away here would spoil it for the reader. He has also found out much more about the spies because of deeper research – in MI5 files in London, largely hidden files in South Africa and some lucky breaks in his pursuit of the story. 

What emerges from his book is that espionage on both sides was a hectic  business in South Africa during the war. The agencies that operated on one side were the SAP, the state secret service, MI5 (because South Africa was still closely linked to Britain), MI6 in some of the neighbouring countries and even the American OSS (forerunner of the CIA). On the other side were a range of freelance informers, committed Nazis and a nest of spies across the border in what was still Lourenco Marques (now Maputo). Inevitably, the rivalries among those on the same side were intense and form an intriguing part of Kleynhans’s story.

Part of this involved the chief police investigator, Colonel Bill Coetzee, who was known to have Afrikaner Broederbond links and was outspokenly anti-British. Coetzee, who was largely responsible for arresting the Nazi fanatic Robey Leibbrandt, was not trusted by the Americans or the British. They blamed him for the lack of greater inter-service intelligence cooperation.

When Coetzee died in 1944, the chief of the OSS in South Africa, cabled Washington: “None of us were sorry to see him go.”

Coetzee is a peripheral character in the story. The main ones are a group of Germans, one of whom became a naturalised South Africa, who reported directly to Berlin. They were supported by the Ossewabrandwag (Ox-wagon sentinel), an allegedly cultural Afrikaner organisation that was committed to the overthrow of the Smuts government by violent means. If there was dissension in the ranks of the Allied spies, it had nothing to match that of Hitler’s spies in South Africa. They were a fractious bunch, and not very effective, in Kleynhans’s opinion.

Much of what Kleynhans has unearthed is new. This is not surprising because just three years after the end of the war, the party that came to power in South Africa was one that had hoped for a Hitler victory. The Nationalist Party of DF Malan was quick off the mark to bury much of the evidence linking elements of Afrikanerdom to the Nazi regime. Kleynhans has done much to uncover some of the evidence, but a lot remains hidden, or has just been lost.

There is a picture of a German submarine, U-36, on the cover of the book. It was German submarine warfare around South Africa’s coast that set Kleynhans off on his story about Hitler’s spies. That is one of the many fascinating themes of the book.


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