LONDON — Just a week after the Locarno Treaties — a peace pact between Germany, Belgium, France, Great Britain, and Italy — were signed in London in 1925, the French secret police very publicly broke up a British espionage ring in the heart of Paris engaged in stealing French military secrets.
Among the uncovered spies was William “Wolf” Fisher. The details of his role in the espionage case have been secreted in British intelligence archives for nearly a century — until now. (Full disclosure: The author of this article is related to Fisher and was raised hearing tales about him.)
On December 8, 1925, the French secret police arrested three British citizens, John Leather, Oliver Phillips, and Fisher, along with two young French women. The Brits were accused of, and later convicted for, recruiting the two women to spy on various naval and aviation installations.
Publicly, the British government denied all knowledge of the ring; privately the British ambassador to France, Robert Crewe-Milnes, wrote that the evidence implicating the men as British spies was “absolutely damning.”
The espionage ring collapsed when one of the two French accomplices, Marthe Moreuil, was arrested and confessed to her role in stealing secrets on behalf of Great Britain.
Moreuil had infiltrated French air force and naval facilities, even qualifying as a parachutist to gain access. It also emerged in court that Moreuil was Fisher’s lover. The press referred to her as “Mademoiselle Foxtrot,” claiming that she secreted documents out of French bases in her corsets.
Moreuil’s arrest was reported by Britain’s Daily Express as being “the most sensational achievement of the French secret service since the capture of Mata Hari.”
All three Britons denied the charges with little success. Leather’s denial was ridiculed due to his rank and position in British intelligence having been published publicly in England the year he was arrested.
The New York Times had little doubt as to why the British would spy on the French, and published the following on November 14, 1926:
France has an air force of over 5,500 planes as opposed to Great Britain’s 1,000-odd fighting machines. Moreover, with the exception of some squadrons in Syria and Morocco, this French force is concentrated in France, where it can threaten England, while the British forces are not only scattered in Palestine, Transjordania, Egypt and Iraq, but those concentrated for home defense are divided between the army and navy. French aviation plans are, therefore, of considerable interest to the British.
British author Michael Smith, who is a visiting fellow at Oxford specializing in espionage, told The Times of Israel that France sought to make “as much of the situation as possible.”
The French goal, Smith said, was to embarrass the British by playing up the “sex angle, and the obvious stupidity of trying to pretend that a serving Intelligence Corps officer related to a key member of MI6 was not part of an intelligence operation.”
Smith writes in his book, “Six: The Real James Bonds,” that the British Foreign Office “made ‘a gentleman’s agreement’ with its French counterpart that neither country should spy on the other again.”
But, he said, “MI6 would have continued to collect intelligence on France if it was needed, [despite] whatever the Foreign Office said at the time to reassure the French.”
The affair was raised twice in the House of Commons after the men were sentenced to prison time in May 1926. Parliamentary transcripts provided to The Times of Israel showed MPs challenging the government’s denial of involvement with the three accused.
Labour MP Ernest Thurtle accused British foreign secretary Austen Chamberlain of perpetrating a “diplomatic falsehood” in his denial of British government involvement. Thurtle was forced to leave the debating chamber for using such language.
While Smith claims the attempted espionage was “entirely amateurish,” military historian Phil Tommaselli isn’t so sure. Tommaselli’s book, “How to Trace Your Secret Service Ancestors,” references the case.
“During the trial, the embassy feeds information back to the Foreign Office suggesting that it is a proper case, that there does appear to have been a genuine attempt — not just to subvert French officers, but to get information from French officers by use of honey traps and things like that,” Tommaselli told The Times of Israel.
For his role in the plot, Fisher was sentenced to two years in prison along with Oliver Phillips. John Leather, seen as their commander, received three years.
While official records show a great deal of correspondence between the Foreign Office and the families of Leather and Phillips, there is little on Fisher save handwritten notes on Foreign Office documents variously describing Fisher as “unpleasant” and a “blackguard,” even making the claim that “he was in treaty to pass information to the Germans.”
Fisher’s role — and much of his background — remains murky to this day.
Reporting on the situation, The Times of London referred to Fisher only as “a naturalised Polish Jew,” while the Daily Express called him “the mystery man of the affair” and claimed Moreuil “only knew him as monsieur Jean.”
A photo of the Lodz, Poland-born spy can be found in the British Jewry Roll of Honour, a book showcasing the achievements and sacrifices of British Jewry in World War I. It was taken of Fisher at the start of the war, while he was a private in the Middlesex Regiment.
Records in the British National Archive show he was awarded the Military Medal in June 1916 for “gallantry and devotion to duty when under fire in battle on land.”
Records obtained from the Intelligence Corps Museum show that Fisher served “with 1st, 3rd, 17th and 23rd Battalions of the Middlesex Regiment and first deployed to France on 2 May 1915.”
Military historian Helen Carter, who provided the Times of Israel with the documents, said that “he clearly did well to become Acting Sergeant, particularly as a recently arrived Pole. He was discharged from the Royal Fusiliers [Intelligence Corps] on April 30, 1922.”
In 1927 Fisher seems to disappear from the official record. The final document mentioning him details his release from prison along with Oliver Phillips. While it notes that Phillips was in Calais intending to return to the United Kingdom, the dispatch simply ends, “unable to ascertain the movements of Fischer [sic].”