The story of the WW2 spy, Karel Richter, is not one of James Bond heroics, or a triumph of cunning over insurmountable odds. In fact, the opposite is true, since Richter was captured just three days into his first mission, after landing 40 miles off course, and having spent his whole time in England holed up in thick woods with no shelter and nothing to eat.
In fairness to Richter, he had only reluctantly become a spy. He was actually a Czech citizen, born in 1912 in the Sudetenland, bordering the eastern edge of greater Germany. After training as a machinist, Richter spent several years working on ships travelling across the Atlantic between Hamburg and New York, until he was paid off or deserted in the summer of 1939.
Keen to return to America where he had a girlfriend and young son, Karel Richter crossed Poland and Lithuania late in 1939 and made his way to Sweden, only to be arrested and later deported back to Germany. After being held for a year in a Gestapo-run prison in Hamburg, in November 1940 Richter was offered his freedom if he became a spy, and after 6 months of training was sent on his first mission.
Richter, as agent 3526 and codenamed Artist, made his one and only parachute jump in the early hours of 12th May, 1941. He landed unnoticed in a field beside White Horse Lane in London Colney, still thinking that he was close to his intended landing site near Cambridge. He buried his parachute, and hid in nearby woods for the next 48 hours. Driven from his hiding place by cold and hunger, Richter found his way to the North Orbital Road and London Colney roundabout, but with all road signs removed to hinder the expected German invasion forces he still had no idea where he was.
Late in the evening of 14th May, Richter was asked for directions by two passing lorry drivers, but told them that he was a foreigner and could not help. The drivers were soon given directions by a local policeman, PC Alec Scott, and told him of the foreigner back along the road. Scott caught up with Richter and quickly became suspicious about the German’s answers to his questions. Richter was then handed over to his superior, Sergeant Palmer, and taken to Fleetville police station in St Albans for further questioning.
A search of Richter produced a Czech passport, though significantly without a UK entry stamp, as well as a map of East Anglia and large amounts of sterling and dollars. Ironically, the address where he claimed to live in east London had already been flattened in German bombing raids. After several hours of interrogation, Richter agreed to cooperate and took police back to the hedgerow on White Horse Lane where he had buried his parachute, pistol and transmitter. Once handed over to MI5, Richter told his interrogators of his mission to contact another German spy, code-named Tate, who was suspected of being a double-agent.
At his trial under the Treason Act in October 1941, Karel Richter was found guilty of spying and sentenced to death. Richter did not go quietly to the gallows at Wandsworth Prison and put up a considerable fight in the execution chamber, a sad end for a spy who never actually did any spying. He was finally hanged on 10th December , 1941, the sentence being carried out by Britain’s official executioner, Albert Pierrepoint.
Unknown to his German spymasters as well as himself, Richter might accidentally have become one of his country’s most valuable agents had events turned out differently. On 15th May, one day after Richter’s arrest, the prototype Mosquito aircraft made its maiden flight from a temporary runway at Salisbury Hall, barely a mile from Richter’s hiding place on White Horse Lane. Developed by de Havilland in utmost secrecy away from their main factory at Hatfield, the Mosquito went on to become one of the Allies’ most valuable weapons in World War Two for its role as a fighter, bomber and reconnaissance aeroplane, with a top speed un-matched by its German rivals. Had Richter been able to pass information on this new super-weapon back to Germany, the course of the war might have taken a very different course.
For more information on the de Havilland Mosquito and Salisbury Hall go to our previous article: A Royal Courtesan and a Flying Scotsman
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