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Dark Side Last Updated: Aug 12, 2019 - 3:09:24 PM

Tinker, tailer, sailor, spy: the naval commander who sank secrets
By JONATHAN ANCER, M&G, 11 August 2019
Aug 11, 2019 - 11:45:36 AM

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In this extract from his book 'Betrayal: The Secret Lives of Apartheid Spies', Jonathan Ancer tells how Dieter Felix Gerhardt and his wife Ruth were exposed for spying on the apartheid government for the Soviet Union



The sensational exposure of apartheid-era Soviet spy Dieter Felix Gerhardt rocked the South African Navy and the apartheid establishment to its core. 
Image: Illustration: Rudi Louw

Now that the CIA had a name they set a trap. Felix’s luck was about to run out. On January 8 1983 Gerhardt’s double life came to an end when agents from the CIA, FBI and MI5 burst through the door in a room at the Holiday Inn in New York.

This is how the journalist Mervyn Rees, at the time considered the “Gerhardt expert”, reported the arrest:

“It was a bitterly cold evening in New York. The snow was turning into black ice on the pavements of Ninth Avenue when Gerhardt arrived for an evening’s drinking at the Holiday Inn.

“His companion for the evening was a fellow student. Or so he thought. For unknown to Gerhardt, a Soviet defector had betrayed him to the West and the ‘student’ was, in fact, an undercover FBI agent.

“As the two men sat drinking Scotch on the rocks in a bedroom the door burst open … ”

Rees wrote that a small army waited outside in case Gerhardt was foolish enough to make a break, but he just sat in the armchair, “too numbed even to talk”.

Gerhardt already realised he had “stepped into a pile of shit” when he landed at JFK Airport a week earlier. Because he had been taught to read upside down, he was able to decipher the words “mala fide” which the customs official wrote next to his name.

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In the previous six months there had been some indications that things weren’t all right: radio signals had been jammed or superimposed, so he struggled to decode messages, and there had been a surprise visit by a senior CIA official to the dockyard, which was unusual.

He sensed the net was closing in, but what could he do? He couldn’t run just because he had “a feeling”.

So the words “mala fide” at the airport had set him on edge, but even then he couldn’t turn round and return to South Africa. Although he realised he’d stepped into “a pile of shit”, he didn’t know just how deep it was. He hoped the authorities were only suspicious of him and they hadn’t actually discovered his true identity.

He knew he was under surveillance in New York when he spotted two teams watching him. His strategy was to convince them that he was harmless, so he did things like leave the door to his hotel room unlocked. Days passed without anything happening and he thought, “Well, if they haven’t arrested me yet, perhaps they are not going to.”

He was wrong. Eight days after he’d landed at JFK and seen the custom official write “mala fide” next to his name, Gerhardt and Patrick, a “friend” he’d made, decided to meet for a drink in a hotel room. They had just sat down with a glass of whisky in their hands when the SWAT team burst through the door.

Gerhardt didn’t move. He took another sip of his drink: the thought flashed through his mind that this was probably the last drink he would ever have. The FBI agent in charge said, “Hello, Felix.” His heart sank. That’s when Gerhardt realised the information they had on him went back many years. He took another gulp of the whisky. “Hi,” he said.

Because he had been taught to read upside down, he was able to decipher the words ‘mala fide’ which the customs official wrote next to his name

He didn’t know what else to say.

The FBI agent hauled out a thick dossier from a briefcase, and told Gerhardt they had known about his activities for some time and indicated they were considering taking him up in their agency to use as a double against the Soviets — a classic “asset” grab.

The phrase “between a rock and a hard place” came to Gerhardt’s mind. The FBI wanted to know if he was in the US on a specific mission and who he was supposed to meet.

When he said he’d just come to study, they didn’t believe him. They searched his room and found a roll of special 35mm film containing his most recent report and some South African material.


Gerhardt was cuffed, put in a car and whisked away to a safe house, where his interrogation continued. He was given a polygraph test but he knew how to confuse the machine. The person administrating the lie detector flew into a rage, and accused him of being a liar.

Although they didn’t waterboard him, he has no memory of about three days during the eleven days he was held, and suspects the Americans might have drugged him.

In the meantime, back in South Africa his son Gregory had fallen off a desk and suffered a greenstick fracture on his right wrist. Ruth had gone for a surfing lesson and was sitting on the grass at Muizenberg beach when she was bitten by a tick and contracted tick bite fever.

Gerhardt hadn’t been in contact with them, which was not like him.

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When Ruth phoned the hotel where he was meant to be staying, the receptionist told her Gerhardt had moved hotels but said he had left the number of the place to which he had moved. Ruth phoned the number and the person who answered told her she had reached [a hotel] in New Orleans, but her husband wasn’t in his room.

She left a message for him. A few hours later — 2am in South Africa — the FBI forced Gerhardt to phone his wife back. “What the hell are you doing in New Orleans?” she asked.“Oh, is that where I am?” Gerhardt replied.

But Ruth didn’t grasp that anything was wrong. She told him about Gregory’s wrist and that she had developed tick bite fever. The FBI thought “tick bite fever” was code for something and immediately cut the call.

Holding onto a dead phone line, Ruth still didn’t realise her husband was in custody.

According to [Security Branch general Herman] Stadler, it was Gerhardt who offered to turn and spy for the Americans to feed the Russians false intelligence. Gerhardt, however, told the journalist Ronen Bergman that it was the Americans who tried to “double” him but he refused.

He said he could no longer continue with the game: it was too much. Gerhardt was in fact relieved at having been caught.

The weight of two decades of constantly looking over his shoulder, which had turned him into a bundle of nerves, was suddenly lifted. Gerhardt had been operational for so long that he wished to retire, even if his retirement was in a prison cell or at the wrong end of the hangman’s noose.

Ruth didn’t grasp that anything was wrong. She told him ... that she had developed tick bite fever. The FBI thought ‘tick bite fever’ was code for something and immediately cut the call

He knew he had to give them some information and revealed that after his stay in America he was to make contact with Vitaly Shlykov, codenamed Bob, at the Gates of Hell in Zürich. The Americans alerted the Swiss police.

Shlykov was examining the Gates of Hell when officers of the Swiss Federal Police arrested him. He was carrying $100,000 in cash, false passports and spy gadgets.

Shlykov refused to talk. One Swiss intelligence official said he wouldn’t even admit to the colour of the suit he was wearing.

He was charged with espionage in a Swiss court and given a three-year jail term. The Swiss police also searched Ruth’s mother’s home in Zürich and found microfilm and forged passports.

But after a week of cat and mouse the Americans weren’t satisfied with Gerhardt’s answers. He overheard one of the agents say, “Throw him back to the dogs.”

The American agents informed their South African counterparts that they had caught Gerhardt, and when a senior agent in South Africa’s counter-intelligence unit heard about “this South African spying for Russia”, he smiled.

Two years before Gerhardt was arrested, Alexei Kozlov, a KGB intelligence officer posing as a German businessman in South Africa, was captured by South African counter-intelligence. He had been tasked with collecting information about South Africa’s nuclear weapons.

He was held in prison for about eighteen months before he was exchanged for ten West German agents and a South African officer.

When Kozlov was arrested, the counter-intelligence agent warned his superiors that the next spy they caught was going to be a South African; a boer.

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“They skinned me alive,” the agent says, “and I almost lost my job, but then two years later we caught Mr Gerhardt — he was pretty close to being a boer. I didn’t say, ‘I told you so,’ but I wanted to. I wasn’t surprised he got away with it for so long. I always knew it was only a matter of time before we caught someone like that.”

The Americans handed Gerhardt to the South Africans, and he was flown home, where Stadler was waiting for him at the airport. In his case study to the spy academy recruits, Gerhardt described Stadler as “a formidable and respected adversary”. In other words, Stadler was Moriarty to his Sherlock (or, depending on the side you were on, Sherlock to his Moriarty).

While he was returning to South Africa, the security police arrived at Gerhardt’s home at the Simon’s Town Naval Dockyard. Gregory had just fallen asleep when Ruth opened the door.

“Good evening, Mrs Rosenberg,” Brigadier Piet Goosen greeted her, in a grim reference to Ethel Rosenberg, executed with her husband three decades earlier for spying for the Russians. Ruth collapsed. She and five-year-old Gregory were then taken to police headquarters where she was questioned.

Gerhardt had told her that if she was ever arrested, she must insist that she knew nothing. This is what she repeated over and over.

The next day, accompanied by Johann Coetzee, South Africa’s spymaster and head of the security police, Ruth was taken home to pack a bag.

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She saw that the authorities had turned the entire house upside down and even ripped up the yellowwood skirting searching for radio transmitters. Though they didn’t discover transmitters, they did find some deciphering material.

Gerhardt, who hadn’t shaved since he was arrested, had also been taken to the house. He had insisted that Ruth knew nothing about his spying.

Afterwards he was taken to Pretoria Central Prison where, in an act designed to thoroughly humiliate him, he was stripped naked and searched. After hours and hours of interrogation he was taken through a series of doors and gates to a dusty prison cell. Exhausted, he was grateful when he saw a mattress.

As he put his head down, suddenly a cacophony of noise started up. “Shit, here we go again,” he thought, believing his interrogators were using white noise to deprive him of sleep in a tried-and-tested form of torture. However, he then discovered that underneath the mattress there were a whole lot of crickets having their evening chirp.

The crickets didn’t last long.

For the next few weeks agents from French, British, German and Israeli intelligence services flew into South Africa and took turns interrogating him. The Israelis were worried and so were the British. MI5 panicked in the belief that, because of Gerhardt, Polaris was crawling with agents working for the Russians.

For the next few weeks agents from French, British, German and Israeli intelligence services flew into South Africa and took turns interrogating him

Two senior members of Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service, flew into South Africa on 3 February to assess the damage Gerhardt had caused to their country’s national security.

The journalist Bergman says the South African intelligence agents showed their Israeli counterparts a never-ending list of top-secret documents related to Israel which he had passed on.

The list included a six-volume compilation, of 200 pages a volume, containing a comprehensive survey of the Israeli Defence Forces and their most clandestine weapons development programmes.

“Gerhardt confirmed the worst to the heartsick Israelis: he had indeed conveyed the documents, originally prepared for the South African high command, to the Soviets.”

The news got worse. There was a seventh volume.

The endless interrogation sessions left Gerhardt feeling disoriented. He was sleep-deprived and possibly drugged though he wasn’t physically assaulted. The most successful interrogators don’t use torture or brutal methods: they do their homework. They lead you in a certain direction, and set traps … and the traps close.

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Gerhardt knew he had to give some information. So he gave his South African interrogators names to get them off his back. The people he named were not Soviet spies but were involved in corruption, fraud and embezzlement.

Gerhardt had been collecting information for twenty years and had stumbled upon dirt he could use as ammunition. The people were investigated and, although they were cleared of spying, their corrupt activities were laid bare.


A week later President PW Botha held a dramatic press conference at which he announced that the commander of the Simon’s Town naval base — the navy’s golden boy — and his wife had been arrested.

They were charged with the gravest of all political charges, high treason, a crime that carried the death sentence. It caused a sensation in South Africa, which was gripped by the fear of “total onslaught” and rooi gevaar.

The news of the Soviet spy also rocked the South African Navy to its core. Even the ANC, an ally of the Soviet Union, was caught off guard. The organisation had no idea the Russians had an agent who was a senior officer in the South African Navy and were astonished when Gerhardt was arrested.

They were charged with the gravest of all political charges, high treason, a crime that carried the death sentence. It caused a sensation in South Africa, which was gripped by the fear of ‘total onslaught’ and rooi gevaar

“We were very impressed with the Russians,” says Ronnie Kasrils, a senior member of the ANC and MK at the time of Gerhardt’s arrest. “We did not support him during his trial because we would not have wanted to compromise him.”

When ANC member Stephen Marais heard the security police had arrested a Russian spy, he was overjoyed, not at the arrest, but because “we had people right up there on our side which meant we would see freedom in our lifetime”.

He says it gave a tremendous boost to the confidence of ordinary people involved in the struggle for the country’s liberation.

Three years later, Marais would join Gerhardt in prison when he was sentenced to ten years for smuggling into South Africa the explosives that ANC guerrilla Marion Sparg then planted in police stations. According to General Stadler, Gerhardt was an extremely effective spy, who severely compromised the South African Defence Force and, in particular, the navy.

In addition to the sensitive nuclear evidence he passed on to Moscow, including a claim that South Africa had acquired eight Jericho II missiles with special warheads from Israel, he also fed the Russians information about Operation Savannah, the defence force’s secret cross-border operation into Angola in the mid-1970s.

Source:Ocnus.net 2019

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