- The art of the Con
Interestingly enough, the Germans
were extremely successful in their stab at counterfeiting British and other
currencies during World War II, primarily because many of the Jewish prisoners
were master engravers and able to make the very complex plates. Moreover, the
wily Germans also had a ready-made source of distribution. The phony bills were
given to German spies to spend when on they were working on their assignments.
Collaborators were heavily paid in this funny money for their efforts on the
part of the Fatherland but they were never told that the money that they were
being given was home made. This put the turncoats at a double risk, which was
unlike Hessian thinking. It would appear that the Nazis believed that the collaborators
were highly expendable, but undermining the British monetary system of an order
of great importance. In addition, the Germans did not value their productions
very highly because they also took bales of the stuff, flew over English Possessions
and dumped bales of it out of low flying airplanes. While this operation received
little notice, it created massive havoc and almost achieved its goal.
Unbelievably, the Jews who fabricated
the British Notes were very well treated. Moreover, Major Bernhard Kruger, their
keeper, nominated many of his moneymakers for serious war decorations. In addition,
they were treated in first class fashion at Spechthausen, Germany, although
a concentration camp, for the most part, they were treated in far better fashion
and the Germans who were guarding them.
While the production of counterfeit
currency was the primary claim to fame by operation Bernard and its fearless
leader, Major Kruger, he put the forgers to work copying many different types
of currency and documents. In 1940 after a series of odd jobs that had little
to do with forgery, Kruger was assigned in September of 1940 to Department VI
of the Secret Service.
“He was to get U.S., British, and Canadian passports;
identity papers for American seamen, wireless operators, and stewards; and identity
cards for Canadian airmen. Department VI forged these superbly. He was also
charged with looking into the possibility of using the black market in occupied
France as a means of distributing the counterfeited pound notes when they would
be ready. Kruger lived in the Hotel de Paris on the Boulevard de la Madeleine.”
Early on though, copying the British
notes was not as easy a job that had been original thought. They had to have
perfect engraving and special paper, but most of the money problems were solved
by August of 1942 and mass production plans were put into gear. Sachasenhausen
concentration camp, which was located conveniently only 25 miles from Berlin,
was claimed by the Major for his base of operations and Barracks 19 in the camp
was to be used for the Jewish prisoners that were to do the final work. Furthermore,
Kruger told camp guards that the Jewish prisoners were to be treated “cordially”
and they were from that day forward to be considered co-workers in the triumphant
National Socialist march toward world domination.
You can imagine the astonishment that the guards must have felt on hearing that.
When the dust had cleared, thirty men had been brought to the camp to form the
original cadre from other interment camps throughout Nazi occupied Europe.
Kruger promised the captives more
food than they could eat, entertainment, cigarettes, newspapers, pin-pong, theatrical
performances and radios, many of these delights, even high-ranking officials
were not even getting. He continued; they would not be killed and that when
Germany won the war, they would be given their own place to live in peace with
other German citizens. These men, many of whom had already been put on the list
for execution at other facilities, having a new lease on life and finding that
the major seemed to be a man of his word, worked diligently for their masters.
Solomon Smolianoff who did not arrive in Barracks 19 until some time later was
the only profession counterfeiter in the group and yet they had put together
a world class team that would eventually get the job done.
When production was finally in full
bloom, Germany made the mistake at first of trying to pass the phony British
money off in countries under their domination. This had a terrible reverse effect
and started to undermine their own subjects and turned out to be about as helpful
to their cause as shooting yourself in the foot. Obviously this practice was
abandoned early on.
Fredrich Schwend, a German was put
in charge of marketing the British notes. He played the vacation and businessmanâ€™s
circuit by signing on the managers of all of the large hotels in the neutral
countries, Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, and Egypt. This allowed the
managers to make a little extra money with their bosses never being the wiser.
The agents that he hired were allowed to keep 25-percent of what they were able
to convert. With the counterfeiting distribution plan now being honed close
to perfection, these managers that worked for Schwend made marvelous living
during the war. Moreover, when Mussolini was captured in late 1943, the $250,000
in British notes that was used to finance his release was produced at Barracks
19 and delivered through Schwendâ€™s network.
In the unkindest cut of all, the weapons
that were sent in for the use by partisan groups fighting the Naziâ€™s were often
turned over to the Germanâ€™s in exchange for the counterfeited British pounds.
Interestingly enough, the Nazi sympathizers never knew that the German friends
had jabbed them in the back. However, before the counterfeiting operation had
gotten very far, the British Government caught wind of it and stopped printing
the ten-pound notes or higher that had become the pride of the barracks. Moreover,
the British Government systematically began withdrawing all of these notes from
circulation without informing the population in order to avoid a panic. Within
two-years, the British had recalled so many of the notes that they disavowed
the remainder. However, that only put a small crimp in the operation and by
1944, the number of people working in the Barracks had increased to 140 and
the inmates were now creating numerous forms of currency including German Marks
for use in areas where partisans working for the Nazis did not want British
pounds or American Dollars.
During this period, the prisoners
were kept well informed as to what was going on relative to the progress of
the war. For instance, they found out that France had been invaded and knew
first hand that Berlin was being decimated by allied bombing. The leaders of
the counterfeiting ring, for the first time now came to believe that their were
now two alternatives available for them to survive the war. They could either
be liberated by the allies or be freed by Kruger if Germany won. Decisions were
made that the forgers would opt for the first alternative and slow down their
work product in order to bring it about more quickly. Unbelievably, Kruger also
determined that his best interests were not much different than that of his
employees. Once they had completed an acceptable copy of the American currency,
Kruger believed that his men would no longer be needed and he would be sent
to the Russian Front, where he was convinced that he would become chopped liver.
In spite of delaying tactics, the
SS was pushing hard for the counterfeit currency as the Allied armies started
closing in. They were of the belief that the Americans would be far more susceptible
to the counterfeit money and it would distract them from their war effort. Eventually,
the notes had become just about perfect but by this time, Germany was in such
a state of chaos that the country no longer had either the production facilities
to manufacture them, the raw materials or the personnel that necessary to complete
American money was produced in some
quantity, which many of the counterfeiters believed was going to be used as
getaway funds for senior Nazi officials. Moreover, the men from barracks 17
were moved to Mauthausen where the Germans started their cover-up. They had
all of the equipment obliterated, the notes burned and the plates destroyed.
On April 23, 1945, Kruger appeared for the last time in front of his men. He
drove up to the camp in his elegant Mercedes Benz accompanied as usual by his
erstwhile mistress, Hilda Moeller. They carefully took packages of the American
counterfeit money, loaded it into their car that was already bulging with the
rest of their possessions and drove of into the sunset. Years later, he turned
up as poor shopkeeper in a store on the outskirts of Hanover.
However, the SS had now been given
orders to liquidate the counterfeiters but through a succession of near miracles,
they managed to survive. A large number of the bogus bills were dumped into
the local rivers by the retreating Germans in order to hide the evidence. However,
the bales were lighter than the water and the money started bobbing up all over
the countryside. Locals were aware that although the bills were almost perfect
duplicates of the real thing, they were phonies and in consideration of the
fact that toilet paper was in short supply in the area that became its first
and highest use. For the men that created the money with which Germany hoped
to win the war, the end was sweet. Almost all had survived and most found a