LONDON (Reuters) - British spies hired an astrologer during World War Two, although many thought he was a fraud, and even sent him to the United States on a propaganda mission, secret documents released on Tuesday revealed.
The documents — the latest in a trickle of British spy agency files being released over the past decade — provide both a cloak-and-dagger story worthy of a Hollywood script and serious insights into British World War Two spycraft, said the security service’s official historian, Christopher Andrew.
The files show that many British spy handlers had nothing but contempt for Louis de Wohl, a German-speaking novelist and astrologer who claimed to be descended from Hungarian nobility and called himself “The Modern Nostradamus.”
“I have never liked Louis de Wohl. He strikes me as a charlatan and an imposter,” one of his handlers wrote. “He at one time exercised some influence upon highly placed British intelligence officers through his star-gazing profession.”
Another handler called him a “complete scoundrel” and another a “dangerous charlatan and confidence-trick merchant.”
“He claims in his books to have traveled widely in the East in Arab disguise and to have often frequented cafés in Berlin in feminine attire,” wrote another. Several wrote that they thought he was a former Nazi.
Yet he managed to set himself up in a British government apartment in west London, which he called the Psychological Research Bureau.
There, he read horoscopes for wealthy clients including senior British officials, French resistance commanders and the Romanian ambassador, whom he claimed to have persuaded to resign and defect.
British spy bosses sent de Wohl on a propaganda tour of America in 1941, when Britain was at war with Germany but Washington was still officially neutral.
De Wohl gave U.S. newspapers a letter he claimed was from Hitler’s own astrologer predicting the Nazi leader would “disappear” within a year.
U.S. newspapers lapped up his lectures predicting doom for the Nazis, like one to the American Federation of Scientific Astrologers in Cleveland.
“His propaganda visit to America was considered highly successful,” one British spy handler wrote in his file, recommending de Wohl be given British nationality.
He was given the rank of captain in the British army, which seems to have annoyed many officials. One wrote: “He is not an ornament to His Majesty’s uniform.”
For the remainder of the war, the British spy agencies gave him scattered work and decided to keep a careful eye on him.
“Despite the fact that many people regard him as a charlatan, there are still a great many people eager to take his astrological advice. He has great gifts as a psychologist and excellent insight into the continental mind,” a handler wrote.
“In view of the fact that he is an extremely clever man with multifarious connections and a very singular background, and is guided no doubt solely by self interest, we should exercise as close a surveillance over him as possible.”
Editing by Caroline Drees