Hitler's Man in Havana: German Espionage in the Caribbean

Hitler's Man in Havana: German Espionage in the Caribbean

Heinz Lüning, a reluctant spy for the Third Reich, served as inspiration for British writer Graham Greene.

Here's What You Need to Know: In the early years of World War II, Latin America became one of the most highly developed areas of German espionage.

In espionage fiction, there are three types of spies. The first is the suave, dapper James Bond, 007, license to kill, a hit with the ladies. The second is the serious, intelligent, complicated spies created by John Le Carre. Then there is Maxwell Smart, an ordinary kind of guy, not too bright, friendly enough, but not someone to be trusted to save the world.

During World War II, German Intelligence, the Abwehr, run by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, as shrewd a spymaster as there was, recruited a German of ordinary talent named Heinz Lüning as a spy and sent him to Havana, Cuba, as its agent in place. If Admiral Canaris had known what he was getting into when he sent the inexperienced Lüning to Cuba, he might have changed his mind. For Heinz Lüning, an imperfect spy if there ever was one, was not fit to be part of espionage, sometimes called the second oldest profession. He joined the Abwehr in order to get out of military service as well as to protect his family back in Germany. In the end, a tragic fate awaited Heinz Lüning—one that could have been avoided.

Lüning’s Life of Tragedy and Scandal

Lüning was born in Bremen, Germany, on March 28, 1911, to a German father and Italian mother. He was not a promising student and was not allowed to finish his classes in a secondary school that he needed to attend before being allowed to go to university. During these formative years, both his parents died, a blow that shook him badly.

Young Heinz was subsequently adopted by his uncle, Gustav, and his American wife, Olga. They lived in Hamburg where Heinz attended school before getting a job with Albert Schilling, an American businessman, at Clasen Berger & Co.

In 1936, Heinz was involved in a family scandal when he got his stepsister Helga pregnant. Heinz and Helga, now his fiancée, moved to New York City and were married on May 8, 1936. They lived with Olga’s brother, Philip Bartholomae, who wrote a number of Broadway plays from 1911 to 1926. Shortly after their marriage, Uncle Gustav, the owner of the Dominican Tobacco Company located in the Dominican Republic, sent young Heinz there ostensibly to learn Spanish and to bone up on his business skills. After their stay in Santo Domingo, Heinz and Helga returned to Hamburg where a son, Adolf Bartholomae, was born on November 16, 1936.

In the 1930s, just as the Nazis were beginning to take power, Heinz viewed Hitler and his National Socialists with contempt. He disliked the way Hitler was remaking Germany into a fascist state, and to that end, in 1937, he began citizenship status proceedings to return to the Dominican Republic to escape Hitler’s new Germany.

From 1937 to 1941, Heinz worked for his uncle, who was the owner of the B. Schoenfeld Company, a general merchandising firm, as a sales representative. While working at Schoenfeld, he was tutored in Spanish in the hope that he might be able to resume his old life in the Dominican Republic. His teacher was Lola Ardela de Tajar, a native of Guatemala who had moved to Germany. In time, they would become good friends.

Joining the Abwehr

By 1939, Heinz had decided he did not want to join the German Army and serve as cannon fodder. While he contemplated what to do, his tutor suggested that he join the Abwehr in order to avoid military service. But how would he do that? His Uncle Gustav knew a man named Hans Joachim Koelln who had Abwehr connections. Koelln and Heinz met, and in January 1941 Heinz was introduced to Alfred Hartmann who worked in the Propaganda and Information Office. During several meetings at the B. Schoenfeld office, Heinz revealed that he spoke several languages, including English, Italian, some Portuguese, and Spanish. Hartmann was impressed with Heinz and asked if he wanted to join the Abwehr and take on an overseas assignment. Heinz agreed and was given the cover name of Lumann.

Heinz was now about to begin a new phase of his life, that of a trainee in the Abwehr. He was sent to the Abwehr training school located at Klopstockstrasse 2-8 in Hamburg. Unknown to him, his decision to join the Abwehr would ultimately seal his fate.

The Abwehr that Heinz Lüning joined existed from 1921 until 1944 and was in the capable hands of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, one of Hitler’s most controversial military leaders. Canaris was not wholly in support of Hitler’s military endeavors and at one point in the war tried to make a separate peace with the Allies in the West. Canaris was able to run the Abwehr his own way, out of the reach of Hitler’s minions. Unfortunately, he eventually ran afoul of two of Hitler’s most trusted aides, SS senior commanders Reinhard Heydrich and Walter Schellenberg.

With these two top Nazis breathing down his neck, Canaris lived on borrowed time. When a group of German military officers tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Hitler in 1944, Canaris was identified as one of those responsible. He was removed from office and ultimately hanged.

Return to the Caribbean

At the beginning of his training, Heinz was told where his posting would be. He would be sent to Cuba, not too far from the Dominican Republic where he had spent many good days. He was happy to be returning to the Caribbean, away from the horror that his homeland had become. At the Abwehr academy, Heinz was separated from the rest of his class and given individual training. The training session lasted six weeks, and he learned the basics of the espionage craft—wireless radio transmission, writing in secret inks, and Morse code. He was assigned a number, agent A-3779, a designation referring to the fact that he was trained at the Hamburg AST facility.

Alfred Hartmann was his main instructor, and while Heinz did some work correctly, he was generally a rather mediocre student. He did not know how to properly assemble and disassemble a radio, and while he was in Cuba he often could not find the proper parts to service his radio. Things got so bad that he had to rely on other means to send his messages to Europe, mostly by courier to dead drops in Spain and other pro-German countries.

Days before leaving for Cuba, Hartmann gave Heinz his instructions. He was to find out as much as he could about Cuba and was further told not to associate with any people who were on the Allied side. He was given detailed instructions on how to write and send his secret messages. His original letters were to be in Spanish, and he would then write in English when sending his secret ink messages. He was instructed to sign his dispatches using first names that began with the letters M or R. To Hartmann’s chagrin, Heinz had trouble writing in secret ink. He never mastered the ancient art, and his weekly messages were difficult to decipher because of his lack of competence in drafting his letters.

By now, the Abwehr had done all it could in training Heinz. On September 10, 1941, Heinz made his own travel arrangements to Cuba aboard the Spanish ship Villa de Madrid, departing Barcelona for Havana. He arrived on September 29, ready to be the Abwher’s man in the Cuban capital.

Intercepted by British Intelligence

While living in Havana, Heinz went by the name of Enrique Augusto Lüning. He befriended a number of people whom he met on the ship, as well as an Abwehr officer named Ricardo Dotres. He moved into the Siboney Hotel, a cheap establishment whose only attribute was that it was located near the Wonder Bar, a boozy joint where he would spend a considerable amount of time, picking up women and getting drunk.

His cover in Havana was that of an expatriate Jew who had fled Europe. He had no contact with any other German agent in Havana. He worked alone, picking up conversations with anyone who would talk with him, be they sailors, barkeeps, acquaintances he would meet around the city, or prostitutes he hired for the night. He got most of his “intelligence” from reading the public press. It was information that could have been gathered by any freelance person the Abwehr might have hired off the street.

Since his radio rarely worked due to his lack of proficiency or dearth of available parts, Heinz sent most of his messages via air mail, which took a few weeks to reach Spain or Portugal. His cables were sent via Argentina, which had a large German exile community. Unknown to Lüning, as well as his German handlers, the British had an elaborate mail intercept station in Bermuda that read all letters en route to Europe. It was here that British intelligence agents were able to read and decipher Lüning’s messages.