Conman sent to watch British navy shipping was useless but ended up in America after playing British and Germans for fools
HIS suit was smart enough, a well-cut lounge suit with fancy silk lapels.
And he certainly appeared to have had the looks, perhaps more Sean Connery than blond, slimline and buff Daniel Craig.
By all accounts, his demeanour was – in the words of one who checked him out as he sat in court intently listening to what was being said about him – “perfectly cool”.
The ingredients were all there for Armgaard Karl Graves to be the secret agent who would squirrel his way into Edinburgh life and create a smokescreen for his illicit activities: spying on British interests in the run up to the First World War for the Kaiser and the Motherland.
Graves, however, seems to have been at more ‘blunderball’ than Thunderball and at best, more The Spy Who Wasn’t Too Fussed, than The Spy Who Loved Me.
The bizarre story of the seemingly hapless secret agent – whose almost every move was known to authorities from the moment he arrived – is now being told for the first time in a fascinating exhibition compiled by the National Records of Scotland and on show at General Register House in Princes Street.
In it, his secret agent’s spy kit, complete with code books, secret messages and intercepted letters share space with the fascinating story of how British M05 agents – forerunners to M15 – kept spies like him under surveillance.
Graves had been sent to Scotland in 1912, well before the outbreak of war but still at a time when British defences were of prime interest to the Germans.
His mission was to feed back information about activities at the new Rosyth Naval Dockyard, to monitor vessels in the Forth and the Cromarty Firth and around Invergordon.
But despite his attempts to pass what he hoped was super-sensitive information to his German spymasters from his lodgings in the heart of Morningside, Graves appears to have been of little real use. And far from being a master of concealment hidden behind a mask of mystery, he left a trail of clues that blew his cover.
“He was probably more Mr Bean than Mr Bond,” nods Tristram Clarke, archivist at the National Records of Scotland and curator of the exhibition, The Kaiser’s Spy in Scotland.
“The Secret Service were on to him pretty quickly. As was his landlady, Agnes McLeod.”
Indeed, the shrewd Morningside widow had the measure of her smooth-talking lodger almost straight away, quickly unravelling his story that he was a general practitioner who had arrived in Scotland from Australia to work and attend lectures at Edinburgh University. It wasn’t long before Graves was adopting another role: as star of Scotland’s first espionage trial. A shady character, Graves had already had several brushes with the law by the time he arrived in Edinburgh with his orders from Berlin. He is thought to have been born in Berlin in 1882 but his real name is mystery – he changed his name more than once.
At 16, he arrived in Australia but allegations of theft and harassment of a woman sent him fleeing back to his homeland. Within months, he had committed fraud but rather than serve his six-month sentence, Graves again went on the run. His slippery style caught the attention of German intelligence officers who spotted his spy potential and set about making him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“He seems to have been very smooth, a confidence trickster,” adds Mr Clarke. “This was a period before the First World War, when there was something of a naval arms race going on. Britain was building its Dreadnought battleships at quite a rate and there was a perception that Germany had Imperial ambitions for colonies abroad.
“Germany had started to develop her Navy too. And Britain was starting to climb to the top of the list as a rival power.”
Here, the perception of a German threat to Britain was being stoked by popular culture. Newspapers carried stories and letters warning of the risk of German invasion.
The British secret service was created and the Official Secrets Act was passed in 1911 to help protect national interests.
Graves struck a ‘get out of jail’ deal with the Kaiser’s naval spymaster Albert Tapken, known as ‘N’. Rather than serve his sentence, he would travel to Scotland to feed back vital information about the Royal Navy to the Admiralstab in Berlin.
Posing as a GP, he took lodgings at 25 Craiglea Drive, the home of Mrs McLeod and her son, William. The 37-year-old widow had lost her husband William, a bank agent, in 1905. With her son’s schooling at John Watson’s Institution to cover, her boarding house provided a good income.
But she quickly noticed her new lodger’s story didn’t quite add up.
“He said he was getting a job as a locum GP in Leith,” says Mr Clarke. “And he told her he was going to attend lectures at the university.
“But she was suspicious. And the other lodgers found it strange that he was openly discussing German naval issues with them.”
They also noticed he carried a handbook of the world’s navies and ships. It seemed obvious what he was up to.
“People realised he wasn’t who he said he was. It may have been that he was sent here very quickly and didn’t have time to perfect his cover story which was quite clumsy and not well thought out.
“Or perhaps he didn’t want to be doing it at all,” adds Mr Clarke.
Either way, Graves, who was paid £15 a month for his efforts, turned out to be a particularly hapless spy, at one point putting his cover at risk by lodging a complaint with the Royal Mail when he suspected his letters to and from his German spymasters were not being delivered.
In fact, they were being intercepted by the new Secret Service. The British agents monitored his activities for months, finally swooping in Glasgow where he’d gone to spy on a business which made guns for naval vessels.
He was found carrying a book giving the history of the Forth Bridge, a map of Rosyth naval dockyard and what appeared to be a doctor’s notebook. Inside two pages were stuck together, and when released revealed a set of German codes. Graves hadn’t sent his spymasters anything other than information readily available, but the new Official Secrets Act made it illegal just to possess codes that could be used by Britain’s enemies.
Graves was sentenced to 18 months in jail. However true to his slippery style, he was out in weeks after striking a deal with M15 to act as a double agent – his mission to return to Berlin to collect a list of German spies in Britain.
But even that failed, or, perhaps more accurately, was sabotaged by the self-serving Graves, who merely pumped his new British masters for cash and then disappeared to America.
There he set about creating a new, perhaps slightly cheeky, persona, that of ‘master spy’. His book of his exploits was published on the eve of the Great War, cashing in just as spy fears were at a peak and making him possibly the world’s most famous spy.
Later he returned to crime, at one point he was accused of burning a woman alive, later he served three years in prison for fraud. It is thought Graves died in the United States.
Mr Clarke added: “If anything, his story shows how important Scotland was in the pre-war build up and in naval strength. While he might have had some useful information to send, the fact he was very quickly being watched by the secret service meant he wasn’t very effective.
“I don’t think he was sophisticated enough.”
• The Kaiser’s Spy in Scotland: Naval espionage before the Great War’ is on show at General Register House, 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh, from 14 Nov until 31 Dec 2014, entry free.