Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Eric Maschwitz had found it difficult to persuade the War Office to take him on. At 38 years old, Maschwitz had enjoyed a career as a song writer and editor of the magazine Radio Times. He had even been nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the big screen adaption of Goodbye, Mr Chips. He eventually landed a job in censorship before working for Section D, an MI6 offshoot which specialised in political warfare and sabotage. In 1940, he was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps before being sent to New York to work for the British Security Coordination (BSC) (Learn more about the BSC here). Here, he was given the job of running Station M.
Station M was a forgery factory in based Toronto, Canada housed beneath the mansion Casa Loma. Forged documents were made with the purpose of incriminating Nazi’s and their supporters in order to undermine their influence in the Americas and mobilise public opinion against the Axis. Maschwitz arrived at work each day disguised as a workman in order to keep Station M’s existence a secret. Inside the station there were chemists, expert graphologists and typewriter experts. Over the course of the war, Station M produced forgeries so convincing they passed forensic analysis. Here are some of stories behind the most significant of Station M’s forgeries.
The Belmonte Letter
Image used with kind permission of Heritage Curtis Brown
Knowing that proof of the Nazis interfering in South America would have had a big impact on American public opinion, the BSC was keen to expose any such attempt. Intelligence Corp member, Montgomery, Hyde was given the task of finding evidence of a rumoured Nazi sponsored coup in Bolivia. Although Hyde confirmed the rumours, he could not find any concrete evidence. He then proposed forging the evidence by creating a letter between a pro-Nazi Bolivian officer, major Elias Belmonte, and a German minister, Ernest Wendler.
This was no easy task for Eric and station M. First, they obtained a genuine letter by Belmonte from a British censorship station in Bermuda. From this they identified the right type of paper, format and typewriter. Station M had to create a custom typewriter constructed to replicate the one used by Major Belmonte. Two other members of the BSC successfully forged Belmonte’s signature which passed the test of several handwriting experts.
The BSC then had to create a story of how they had come into possession of the secret document, such a story was called a ‘paperclip’. The ‘paperclip’ they used sounds rather far-fetched: MI6 sources had ‘revealed’ that a German Courier, called Fritz Fenthol, had arrived in Brazil and was carrying documents related to a Nazi coup. His secretary was secretly a British agent and had discovered Fenthol had a secret letter he was taking to Buenos Aries, where another British agent stole the document in a crowded elevator.
For a long time it was assumed that the German courier, Fenthol, was a fictional character created by British Intelligence. However, recent academic research has shown that he was a real German agent operating in South America and that the BSC knew he was being watched by the FBI. Much of his entanglement in the operation is a mystery as great lengths were taken to cover it up. But it does seem that the BSC went as far as possible to ensure the ‘paperclip’ was convincing. Fenthol even spent 3 years interned in Brazil for his suspected involvement.
The forgery and story were believed by both the US and Bolivian governments. On 19 July 1941, the Bolivian Government declared a nationwide state of siege. Police rounded up Nazi sympathisers, and four pro-Nazi newspapers were suspended. The story was carried on hundreds of American newspapers. The BSC released images of the letter several days later to stir the pot further. The Nazi government accused Roosevelt of forging the document, further damaging U.S-German relations. Any evidence of British involvement was destroyed and the typewriter used was thrown over
Brooklyn Bridge. U.S officials realised it was forgery several weeks later, however, they chose to not to reveal this.
Hyde Montgomery would later claim in his Autobiography, The Secret Intelligence Agent, that he believed the forgery had helped prevent a real Nazi coup from taking place in Bolivia. Whilst this was possible, we will never know for sure. However, the letter did have its desired impact on American public opinion, U.S-German relations and Nazi influence in Bolivia and the wider South American continent.
The Secret Map
A member of the BSC, Ivar Bryce, came up with the idea of forging a map of what a Nazi dominated South America may have looked like, and then passing it off as a legitimate Nazi document. This idea was sent to Eric Maschwitz who oversaw its production over the course of 2 days. The map was made to appear travel stained with use and was produced with same inks the Nazis used. The document was then given to the FBI director who passed it onto President Roosevelt.
It is unclear if Roosevelt himself was tricked by this document. He did have reason to doubt its authenticity and he did know the BSC were suspected by the FBI of creating forgeries. However, he also had to reason to play along with the ruse as he was in favour of the United States joining the war. Either way, during his 1941 Navy Day address he referenced the document directly;
“Hitler has often protested that his plans for conquest do not extend across the Atlantic Ocean. I have in my possession a secret map, made in Germany by Hitler’s government – by the planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and a part of Central America as Hitler proposes to reorganize it,”
Tens of millions of Americans would have heard this statement, which was a major coup for the BSC. The map made headlines in newspapers across the country. Once again, Germany accused Roosevelt of creating the forgery, who replied by mocking his accusers. The map had successfully caused further damage to U.S-German relations.
The LATI Airline Letter
Image used with kind permission of Heritage Curis Brown
One of the other significant forgeries was a letter designed to convince the Brazilian government to shut down an airline which was being used to transport high value goods, agents and diplomatic bags. The Italian airline, LATI, operated as a service between Rome and Rio De Janeiro and had connections to the Brazilian government through the President’s son-in-law. This made it difficult for Britain or the United States to shut it down through official channels, therefore, the BSC was given the task of doing something about it.
Thanks to Eric Maschwitz and station M, the BSC constructed a forged letter that, like the Belmonte Letter, would pass forensic examination. The letter claimed to have come from LATI’s head office and was being sent to an executive of the company stationed in Brazil. The letter implied the company had connections to an anti-government fascist party and insulted the Brazilian President calling him the ‘fat little man’. The letter was ‘uncovered’ when the BSC arranged a robbery of the executive’s house, a British agent then gave the letter to an American associate in Brazil, passed it into the hands of the American embassy in Brazil. The U.S. Embassy then showed the letter to the President of Brazil and as a result LATI's operations in Brazil were terminated, and its personnel interned.
Forging documents in order to deceive allies and generate ‘fake news’ is almost always frowned upon. However, the BSC justified this practise because it had the ultimate purpose of helping Britain defeat Nazi Germany. Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, American public opinion had been moving slowly towards intervention in Europe. Despite Japan being responsible for the attack, Hitler’s declaration of war against America made its involvement in Europe inevitable. For Eric Maschwitz and Station M, the ends had justified the means.