Nazis' bid to forge ties with Lord Baden-Powell and boy scouts rang government alarm bells
Cycling tours by Hitler Youth groups and Nazi attempts to establish close links with the Boy Scout movement caused a security panic in prewar Britain, according to MI5 files released today.
Police officers were alerted to monitor German students on bicycle holidays in the late 1930s as they stopped at schools, Rotary clubs, factories and church services.
An effusively amicable meeting between Lord Baden-Powell, head of the Scout movement, and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador, rang even louder alarm bells in Whitehall.
Fears that these "spyclists" were on clandestine reconnaissance rides first emerged in spring 1937, triggering concern at the highest levels of the security service as the arms race with Nazi Germany intensified.
Many of the letters requesting surveillance that have now been released to the National Archives at Kew are by Sir Vernon Kell, who was director-general of MI5 at the time.
Anxiety about the activities of the Hitler Youth movement coincided with the appearance in Britain of one of its most senior figures, Jochen Benemann, who had been sent to London in 1937, ostensibly to study English. His post was routinely opened and copied by British intelligence officers.
The term "spyclists" was initially coined in an excitable Daily Herald article. Delving into its source, intelligence officers discovered it came from an anti-fascist freelance writer in Prague who based his story on an item in the German Cyclist magazine.
"Impress on your memory the roads and paths, villages and towns, outstanding church towers and other landmarks so that you will not forget them," the magazine item suggested. "Make a note of the names of places, rivers, seas and mountains. Perhaps you should be able to utilise these sometime for the benefit of the Fatherland … Wade through fords so that you will be able to find them in the dark."
An MI5 officer described these as "alleged instructions to Nazi parties cycling in foreign countries". Requests went out to chief constables asking police officers to report on any German cycling parties.
One of Kell's letters, sent to Grimsby, said: "We have received information that a party of young Germans [are] due to arrive [and] are intending to bicycle to London by easy stages. Should they pass through your area we should be interested in any details you can let us have about the route they follow."
Police superintendent T Dawson informed the security service from Spalding, Lincolnshire, that: "At about 4pm on Friday the 16th July, I saw a party of seven young men cycling along the Boston to Spalding main road … These young men were dressed in shorts with jackets, each off them had what appeared to be a food can strapped on the carriers at the rear of their cycles. I feel confident they were German subjects. I did not speak to any of them."
A newspaper story from the Boston and Spalding Free Press, included in the MI5 files, recorded the party's reception at a Rotary club dinner. Other cycling parties were monitored.
The Home Office also informed MI5 it was worried about "Nazi youths foregathering with Boy Scouts". Kell wrote back that he had learned that "the Tamworth Boy Scout troup is to take part in a Hitler Jugend [Youth] camp near Hamburg".
There were reports of German students carrying cameras on visits to steelworks in Sheffield and singing German songs in a church in Dalston.
The arrival of Hartmann Lauterbacher, deputy leader of the Hitler Youth movement, in November 1937 raised the level of anxiety. Lauterbacher and Benemann were present when Baden-Powell was invited to the German embassy. The chief scout's gushing letter of thanks and a report to the Scout movement were handed to MI5 – presumably by another Scouting official – and are preserved in the files. Baden-Powell's letter to Ribbentrop said: "I sincerely hope that we shall be able to give expression to [co-operation] through the youth on both sides."
In his letter to Scouting colleagues, Baden-Powell revealed he had been invited to visit Hitler in Germany and added: "Both Lauterbacher and Benemann are most anxious that the Scouts should come into closer touch with the youth movement in Germany.
"I had a long talk with the ambassador who was very insistent that the true peace between the two nations will depend on the youth being brought up on friendly terms together in forgetfulness of past differences … Ribbentrop seemed very much in earnest and was a charming man to talk to. I knew his uncle in India who was head of the woods and forests there."
A ban on Scouts wearing uniforms on visits to Germany would be lifted, the chief scout added. It had been imposed because the "Socialist press" made difficulties about a scout troop being present at "a fascist demonstration in Germany".
Shortly afterwards Baden-Powell left to visit South Africa and an MI5 officer went to talk to the Scouting movement. He advised that they might want to "discuss the issues with someone in the government". Lord Cranborne, then a Dominions Office minister, subsequently discouraged the idea of closer links between the Hitler Youth and Boy Scout movements.
While in Britain Lauterbacher also toured Eton and the army school of physical training in Aldershot. Lieutenant Colonel TH Wand-Tetley, its commander, submitted a report to "Box 500", the old term for MI5.
"I piloted the party around the school myself and showed them our normal work and later gave them lunch at the officers' club," Wand‑Tetley said.
"They expressed no opinions in regard to youth movements but seemed very interested in the technique of our training. I noted that their party smoked and drank double whiskies and I wondered whether they did this with the Hitler Youth."

Brendan Behan
'Too drunken to be dangerous'

The bibulous Irish playwright Brendan Behan, banned from entering Britain for a solo IRA wartime bombing mission, was monitored by MI5 for several decades.
More than 45 years after his death from excessive drinking and burial with an IRA military salute over his grave, the security service's files, finally released, include a remark from 1956 that one "source considers that as an individual he is too unstable and too drunken to be particularly dangerous".
He had tried to blow up Liverpool Docks during an unauthorised raid, was caught and sent to prison for offences under the Explosive Substances Act.
In October 1941 he was deported back to Ireland and a notice circulated to passport offices that he should be refused entry. Back in Dublin, Behan was soon in trouble. After shooting at several Gardai officers, following a republican commemoration, he was arrested and sent to the city's Mountjoy Prison.
Correspondence with his stepbrother, Sean Furlong, who worked at the Royal Ordnance factory in Sellafield, was monitored by the intelligence services. "It's the futility of it all that's getting me down," Behan admitted from his cell in Mountjoy.
"Personally I think the Irish people are just about browned off with all this bloody game of private armies ... Sean, I am firmly convinced that republicanism (God almighty it's not even republicanism with the half of them) of this particular brand is defunct.
"So far as I can see the time has come when if anything is achieved it will be by political action. There is some sense in physical force if the people so loud in its praise and so anxious for its application would try a little of it. But they won't … I have come to believe that my sojourn here is doing neither the Irish people nor myself the slightest damn bit of good."
Behan was eventually freed, in 1946, by government amnesty. In November 1952 he was arrested in Newhaven, Sussex, on his way to France.
A police account reveals: "When told that he would be arrested for contravening the [expulsion] order, [Behan] said: 'I will explain everything but not now as I am suffering from a hangover'". He was fined £15 and put on a boat to Dieppe the next day.
One of the last entries in his MI5 file is the text of an intercepted call he made in 1957 to Barbara Niven at the Communist Party offices in London. Mistranscribed as "Brandon Behan", the Irish writer tried to arrange see her at '5pm in Soho'.
"Brandon said he was where he always was – he was not an Englishman, he was a communist," the report states. "He asked how he got to Barbara. [She] told him to take a bus. He said he was going in a cab - 'he was a working class man...'"
The listening intelligence officer noted: "I assumed from the above conversation that Brandon was either a little mad or a little drunk."
• This article was amended on 10 March 2010. The original referred to cycling along the Bolton to Spalding main road. This has been corrected.