Czech Mate - The Case of Erwin van Haarlem
On the evening of 2 April 1988, Special Branch detectives raided a third floor flat at 35 Silver Birch Court, Friern Barnet, North London. Inside they found Mr Erwin van Haarlem a 42-year-old "Dutch" art dealer receiving a coded CW message on a short-wave receiver. This was the end of one of the strangest spy cases in recent years and followed months of surveillance by MI5 on his home and daily movements.
The story started in 1944 when Mrs Joanna van Haarlem had a liaison with a German soldier in occupied Holland, and the product was a child later christened Erwin. The father died in the battle of
Caen, and the mother was shunned by her family due to her relationship with the German and the fact that she was Jewish. Unable to look after the child, she left him with the Red Cross in Prague who said that they would find him foster parents. She had no further contact with the child.
In May 1975 a man calling himself Erwin van Haarlem arrived in Britain on a Dutch passport to work at the Hilton hotel in Kensington. He was in fact an illegal undercover agent employed by either the Czech intelligence
(StB) or Czech military intelligence (SFGF) to spy in Britain.
It appears that he was sent to Britain to spy on Jewish dissident groups and collect information on companies participating in the "Star Wars" programme. The true nature of his work, though, may never be know as MIS admitted at his trial that they did not know what he was doing in the UK for 13 years, and indeed did not know who he really was. It appeared that a high quality illegal agent would not be solely used for this sort of open source collection duty and perhaps was a "sleeper", an illegal who would be activated in wartime. His cover was nearly blown in 1977 when the mother of the real van Haarlem came looking for him, and for a number of years she believed that this man was her son as he gave her heart-breaking stories about his early life. A DNA test following his arrest revealed that there was only a 1: 18,000 chance that he was her son. The fate of the real van Haarlem is unknown. One report said that he had died as a child in Prague.
Erwin continued working at the Hilton as the purchasing manager until 1985 when he set himself up as an art dealer specialising in miniatures. This presumably would give him more time to deal with his real job as he was self-employed and could spend much time travelling and working from home. It also meant that he could run his routines around his radio broadcasts. Nobody in the art world had heard of him. He also had thousands of pounds of unexplained income, £54,000 having been paid into 10 bank and building society accounts. In 2 years he deposited over £17,000 in his accounts, and an accountant found that pictures he said he had sold were still in his possession. The business was just a 'front" to conceal his real activities, and he produced bogus paperwork to make it look as though the business was running normally.
People who knew him described him as a "pleasant oddball", and the landlord of his flat in Alderney Street, Westminster noticed that he changed the locks to the doors and kept the keys to himself. In Friern Barnet, the neighbours noticed that he did not have visitors and rarely spoke to anyone. He was very interested in Jewish affairs and pretended to be Jewish, even twice visiting Russia with a protest group, as he could speak Russian. He spoke English with a mid-European accent. He visited the US to obtain information on Jewish affairs and on the National Task Force, as well as making 3 trips to Austria
It appears that Erwin was Czech and had probably joined the StB after military service. He was then trained for 3 years before being sent to Austria and then to England. In Austria he was engaged on "orientation" duties to adapt to the West before moving to the target country. He worked first as a waiter and then attended a catering college to build his cover.
"Mr Erwin van Haarlem aged 43, is accused of a breach of section seven of the 1920 Official Secrets Act by doing an act preparatory to the commission of an offence under the 1911 Official Secrets act on April 2. He is accused of recording enciphered information and being in possession of equipment to decipher that information for the benefit of a foreign power".
They arrive covertly with someone else's identity. They have no past intelligence background and have never been posted to an embassy in the West. MI5 has no way of knowing who the illegals are unless they make a mistake or are caught electronically - trapped by the sophisticated "ears" of GCHQ. Through its listening centres GCHQ had detected incoming high frequency Morse code signals from the Prague area for a long time. It was stated in court that van Haarlem was known to have received 200 coded signals in 13 years".
Little about his activities was revealed at his trial, but it is known that he was controlled by numbers in the form of Morse code sent from Prague. His radio was a popular SW receiver and was manually tuned. In 15 years he received 200 CW messages in 5 figure groups. These were decoded using one-time pads. Three unused pads were found hidden in bars of soap that had been hollowed out. Three other one-time pads were found hidden in his flat. It was one of these messages he was receiving when he was arrested, and several messages were read out in court. All the others remained impregnable. The messages read, "Prepare your report for hand over in Vienna, repeat Vienna. Indicate how you use the microfile-----------------------------". "Regarding immigration, use your initiative". A second message read "Send only news about intended actions against the Czech Socialist Republic". Magazines in the flat contained addresses in Czechoslovakia, and there were chemicals for writing secret messages. In a wallet was a slip of paper that contained lists of coded dead-letter-boxes for leaving information. One which was code-named "Marx" was at the "Minstrel Boy" public house in Colney Hatch in a broken wall. Another was by a line of poplar trees on the edge of a golf course.
Further information was found on how to obtain British nationality, Social Security help and birth certificates. It appeared that the only contact he would have with the Czech Embassy was via the illegal support officer, but everyone in the Embassy denied all knowledge of him. Upon his arrest he asked the police to inform the Czech Embassy that he had been arrested.
"A spokesman for the Czech embassy yesterday continued to deny having heard of him".
How he was caught was not revealed but it is believed that a Czech defector gave him away, and his second trip to Russia had drawn the attention of immigration and Special Branch. A surveillance operation was mounted, lasting many months. Finally, when M15 realised it had found its man; it launched an even bigger operation to gather evidence against him. A flat overlooking the back of his address was taken over by M15 in August 1987. They used binoculars, probe microphones and telephoto lens cameras to watch him. His phone was tapped and his flat bugged as well as him being followed constantly.
"Neighbours spoke of a mystery team of people who moved in to a flat overlooking van Haarlem's. The men were seen carrying electronic equipment. Then, two days before the swoop, a suspicious builder's van stayed parked outside the Czech's flat".
The team in the flat consisted of four men and a woman who so alarmed neighbours that they informed Special Branch! A strange loop aerial had been put up and people said they saw lots of equipment in the flat as well as dense net curtains, They made lots of noise and spent much time moving heavy equipment around. The battery-operated clocks in peoples' flats either stopped or went fast. People also found interference on their televisions with dots and dashes on the sound. Van Haarlem refused to tell investigators what information he had transmitted by Morse code to his "control" in Prague from his flat.
"Mrs Saint, 61 who co-ordinated the Neighbourhood Watch Scheme said she and her daughter had telephoned the police in November but were dismissed as nosy neighbours. She said that shortly after they moved in she heard strange noises and was perplexed by the "Morse code" interference, which affected her TV, set every night at 9.20. Mrs Saint's curiosity grew after she spotted her mysterious neighbours (M15/Special Branch) carrying what looked like a box of electronic equipment into the flat. At first she thought it might be a computer but began to have her doubts when each night she noticed the strange TV interference".
She added: "At one time there was a lot of banging about and when I went to complain they seemed very anxious to know whether we had been able to hear what they had been saying.
"The man who answered the door claimed it was being used by his engineering company as a temporary office. "When I replied I knew something about that because my father had been a bridge builder, he gulped and became very flustered. There were other odd things too. For example, every morning at 6 A.M. their telephone would ring and this was answered immediately. "At Christmas, I went to the flat and asked if they would like to join us for a drink. The man who answered the door, peeking through a crack, thanked me but never turned up." Three weeks after his arrest, the surveillance team moved out.
The authorities could not prove what he had passed on to his bosses or even that he passed any information on at all. What he was convicted of was the possession of the means to receive and transmit secret information and this earned him a ten-year sentence in Parkhurst prison. He only served a fraction of his sentence as he was deported in 1992, probably due to the good relations now existing between the UK and Czechoslovakia. Perhaps he sent MI 5 a postcard. Any additional information about Erwin van Haarlem past or present would be appreciated.
Stop press, from the minutes of the House of Commons:
Erwin Van Haarlem
Mr. Allason : To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department on what grounds Erwin Van Haarlem was released from prison and deported to Prague.
Mr. Charles Wardle : Mr. Van Haarlem was convicted on 3 March 1989 for an offence under Section 7 of the Official Secrets Act 1920, and was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, with a recommendation that he should be deported on his release. The then Home Secretary accepted this recommendation. Section 46 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 permits the early release of prisoners who are subject to deportation orders. Mr. Van Haarlem was released under this provision and deported to Prague on 5 April this year.