If you were to imagine Nazi spies, you would perhaps picture tall German men wearing overcoats and maybe a hat to conceal their faces, or maybe beautiful and charming German women who were taught of espionage.
But, in the summer of 1937, The UK has become a key target for espionage for the Germans who wanted to gather intelligence in the region. What they did not expect was that the spies they were looking for were a group of seemingly innocent teenage boys cycling around town.
Just Some Cyclists…
A declassified British intelligence revealed that the Hitler Youth cyclists in the UK caused alarm and fear when numerous reports poured into the local police claiming these youngsters were actually “spyclists” who were believed to be scouted by the Nazis to help plot invasion.
As the author of the official history of MI5, Christopher Andrew wrote,
The general image of fit young Germans with blond hair and leather shorts cycling through parts of England where nothing much had happened for years created quite a stir.
Apparently, these young men were recruited by the Hitler Youth program— a group that aimed to instill the racist and xenophobic ideas and beliefs of Nazism into young Germans through indoctrination, outdoor activities, and military-style training. Before World War II, the members of the program visited the UK and tried to develop closer ties with the Boy Scout organization. This is where the groundworks were assumed to have started.
Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts organization, had met with German Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop. It was reported by the Daily Herald, the paper that coined “Spyclists,” that the meetings aimed to find routes where the spyclists could transfer encrypted messages faster.
“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 paper wrote. “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.”
The news sparked more outrage for the supposed spy network. However, not everybody believed it was feasible to use spyclists as an intelligence asset for the Nazis.
Baden-Powell also defended his meetings with the Germans, saying it was his effort to provide a bridge that “would bring about a better understanding between our nations.”
Documents Open for Speculation
The young cyclists biked around England, Wales, and Scotland, and they were far from regular tourists who were just taking pictures and interviewing locals. The group was then seen having dinner with the Spaulding Rotary Club.
One of the memos sent by police Superintendent T. Dawson of Spalding had the title, “Party of young Germans en route for London” And the letter wrote:
I respectfully beg to inform you that a party of German youths arrived at Spalding on Friday the 30th of July 1937. They were entertained by the Spalding Rotary Club and camped for the night in Fulney Park, leaving the following morning and traveling south.
The letter was attached with a local newspaper clipping of Spalding Rotary Club members who invited some German youths to sausage and mashed potato supper while trying to seem like a casual gathering. Another document described how a Hitler Youth group was kept under observation when they arrived at the Liverpool Street station in London. The young boys were reportedly dressed in brown shirts, black shorts, backpacks, and Scout badges. However, the undercover agent also said nothing alarming or suspicious happened as the youth rode the subway.
As the MI5 saw more movement in the organization in 1944, they knew they had to take action. They created a handbook for Boy Scouts as a warning:
The Hitler Youth is not a Boy Scout or Girl Guide organization. It is a compulsory Nazi formation, which has consciously sought to breed hate, treachery, and cruelty into the minds and souls of every German child. It is in the true sense of the word, ‘education for death.’ Under no circumstances should the Hitler Youth be taken lightly.
The spyclists also toured around Belgium, the Netherlands, and Yugoslavia— nations that would, later on, become the victims of Nazi aggression—reportedly taking part in reconnoitering roads and bridges that helped the Germans plan out their invasion routes. As for the MI5 spy agency, their spidey sense still did not tingle, and they were not overly alarmed by the presence of the Hitler Youth, although they kept an eye on them in the years before The UK and Germany went to war in 1939.
These “spyclists” aged 13 to 17 at the time would end up joining the Wehrmacht and ending as one of its casualties.