A British spy, Adolf Hitler and German officers who spent time at Raikeswood prisoner of war camp. Historian Alan Roberts takes a look

The British spy was hiding in plain sight. German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was only too pleased to reveal his plans for the invasion of Russia. The year was 1934. When quizzed about how he would achieve this Hitler said that he would arrange a meeting with some of his top military experts.

Frederick Winterbotham cut an impressive figure and was remarkably well connected. The Germans knew he had been a fighter pilot in the First World War and that he worked at the Air Ministry. He readily adopted the persona of an English gentleman who was broadly sympathetic to the Nazis’ aims. Unbeknown to them he was also the head of the newly-created Air Section of MI6. Winterbotham had earlier entertained leading Nazi Alfred Rosenberg when he had visited Britain. Winterbotham was now receiving the full red-carpet treatment in Berlin and been granted that extended interview with Hitler.

The wartime exploits of just four German officers were recorded in their book ‘Kriegsgefangen in Skipton’. U-boat captain Ralph Wenninger represented the younger officers and was perhaps the one most likely to succeed in his later career. Just one sentence or 16 words summed up his achievements.

Fast forward fifteen years to Horcher’s, a small but prestigious restaurant which was very popular with the Nazi elite. Winterbotham has been invited for lunch with Rosenberg, General von Reichenau, who was planning Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics for the invasion of Russia, and two up-and-coming officers in the still clandestine German air force. These two officers were Kesselring and Wenninger. Frederick Winterbotham observed that the Germans were short of people of the right calibre for the new air force so they had taken some of the brightest officers from elsewhere. Wenninger had served with the navy and later transferred to the Luftwaffe.

Winterbotham listened with interest as the scar-faced von Reichenau by then quite animated and red in the face outlined his plans. Meanwhile Winterbotham was devouring a delicious cream cake, and was debating whether to ask von Reichenau for his portion. He seemed too busy to eat it himself.

Kesselring on the other side of the table did not say a word, but sat and scowled. Winterbotham considered him to be a rather tough unpleasant character. Wenninger was quite talkative, and could speak English. Had he learnt or improved his English in his seventeen months at Skipton? ‘He giggled a lot and he didn’t appear to have very much above the eyebrows.’ When they left Rosenberg asked Winterbotham which of the two would make the better air attaché in London.

Kesselring was too intelligent, so he chose Wenninger. Rosenberg said he was a nice man with a nice wife who would do well in England. Winterbotham threw a party for Wenninger when he arrived in London and was presented with an excellent bottle of raspberry brandy. Winterbotham’s credentials as a spy extended to a love of food, drink and fine tailoring. Wenninger was made welcome in London ‘which was a good thing, because he was too unintelligent to learn anything’.

Keeping abreast of the latest developments Wenninger attended a meeting of the Royal Aeronautical Society. The guests were listed in alphabetical order in The Times. Next on the list was Flight Lieutenant Frank Whittle. Today Whittle is well-known in Britain as the inventor of the jet engine, and the story returns to Craven where the development of the jet engine took place at Rover and later Rolls Royce at Barnoldswick. It is not known whether Wenninger was aware of Whittle’s work, or whether Winterbotham’s prediction was correct and Wenninger really did not find out anything about it.

The pages of The Times contain several accounts of events attended by Wenninger and his wife.

So what happened in the end? War broke out with Germany on September 3, 1939 when Wenninger was still attached to the German Embassy in London. Typically diplomatic staff would make their way home via a neutral country. Wenninger became a general in the Luftwaffe and the most senior German officer from Skipton to serve in the Second World War. He was killed in a plane crash in Italy in March 1945.

Kesselring was an extremely competent general during the Second World War. He was sentenced to death for ordering the murder of Italian civilians. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. An intense campaign saw him released from captivity. He died in 1960.

Rosenberg was an important Nazi theorist who was later placed in charge of the Occupied Eastern Territories. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity at his trial in Nuremburg and executed.

Horcher’s restaurant was forced to close as wartime conditions in Berlin deteriorated, only to reopen in Madrid where the restaurant is open to this day and still receiving favourable reviews.

And Winterbotham? Like all good spies he survived to tell the tale, and lived to be over 100 years old.