Paul Borchardt, the Abwehr
and the W.J. Harding King Letters
This fascinating story emerged over a period of several years, initially from a book I have purchased on an online auction site, then following the trail in the halls of the National Archives in London. A most surprising ending was revealed only a few weeks ago from a previously unnoted detail in the book that was sitting on my bookshelf all this time.
Several years ago I have bought a nice copy of William Joseph Harding King's 'Mysteries of the Libyan Desert' on an online auction site. On receiving the book, I was rather surprised and pleased to find it was dedicated to Herr Paul Borchardt by the author. It did not take long to figure out that Paul Borchardt must have been the German geographer, who did some exploration in the north-eastern parts of the Libyan Desert prior to WWI, and later made some excavations in Tunis which he identified with the remains of Atlantis. He regularly published in Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, and was also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1929 he joined the Zerzura debate by publishing a short paper on the Oases of the South Libyan Desert in Petermanns.
When leafing through the book, I was even more surprised to find in the neat cloth map folder at the rear five hand written letters together with the maps issued with the book, plus a trimmed copy of Harding Kings 1913 Farafra article from the Georgaphical Journal glued to the rear endpaper. The letters were all addressed to Borchardt, three from W.J. Harding King, one from the Imperial German Diplomatic Agency for Egypt (as the Cairo Embassy was called at the time), and one from Lieutenant-Colonel Nowell Barnard de Lancy Forth.
Two of the Harding King letters date to 1913, and appear to be responses to letters written by Borchardt related to an ambitious (but somewhat naive) plan to traverse the Libyan Desert from North to South via Kufra (in a way foretelling Hassanein's journey):
28th Sept. 1913
I have not been in Egypt for two years and the position may have altered since I was there, but, if not, I think the journey you propose is a very difficult and dangerous one. I doubt very much if it be even possible at the present time.
Kufra - as you probably know - is or was till quite recently the headquarters of the Senussi Sect. They are always fanatical, and at present are especially so, owing to the conquest of Tripoli.
I do not know of any merchant who would let you join his Caravan to Borku. All the traders who use the route through Kufra must be either Senussis or friendly to the Sect, so I would not trust any of them on that journey.
I would certainly consult the government officials in Egypt before finally deciding on your route. You will find the Survey Dept. are the most reliable advisers.
I do not know how far the Government will be disposed to assist you, but I think that you will find that the most that they will do will be to give you some information and perhaps lend you instruments and (water) tanks etc.
If you find you have to abandon the journey through Kufra, there is still plenty of new ground to work on in the Libyan Desert and you might try to reach Wanjunga from the East, though you would probably find great difficulty in passing through Ennedi. From what little is known of this part it appears to be very interesting and the Bedayat tribe are practically unknown.
But I am afraid you will find great difficulty in getting in, or rather out of, any oases in the Libyan Desert beyond the Egyptian frontier. Most of the natives you would find in them, or that you can get as guides, will be under the influence of the Senussi and not to be trusted.
In choosing your men, I would take those who smoke. The Senussis are not allowed to do so.
I would tell your plans to as few people as possible in Egypt and would never talk about them before natives.
You will be seriously handicapped if you can not talk arabic.
I am sorry to have to write such a discouraging letter, but I thought it best to warn you of the difficulties you may have to meet in case you did not know of them. Of course these difficulties make the journey all the more worth doing, if you can manage it. It would be a magnificent piece of work if you succeeded in getting through to Sudan by the route you propose.
I am afraid I shall not be back till after you have started. Please do not hesitate to write if I can be of any assistance.
I enclose a note of introduction to Mr. Oric Bates - an american. If he is still in London, the R.G.S. will probably have his address, if not you will very likely meet him in Cairo as he is, I believe, on his way there. He has been to Siwa and could give you a lot of reliable information on the Libyan Desert. I am sure he will do all he can to help you.
In case I do not see you before you start, I wish you a most successful journey and the very best of luck. I shall be very interested to hear how you get on.
Yours very truly
W.J. Harding King
On the rear of the letter, a pencilled note with the address of Oric Bates:
The second letter is clearly the continuation of the same correspondence:
6th Oct. 1913
My dear Sir
I am very glad to hear you have met Mr. Bates. I much regret not having had the pleasure of meeting you myself.
Kufra, as you of course know, was visited by Rohlfs and from a geographical point of view it hardly seems worth the risk that would have to be run in order to resurvey his route. I think if you could get to Wanjunga by a route between Kufra and Tibesti your journey would be more valuable and might perhaps be easier.
No one I believe has been through this part and practically nothing is known of it, but I have heard that there is a fairly fertile country between Bardai and Kufra with a comparatively large population - probably mainly Tibbus belonging to the Senussi Sect.
Any ethnographical work on the Tibbus would be very valuable. They are I believe divided up into small tribes under chiefs and quarrel a good deal among themselves, so it might be possible to make use of their rivalries to work your way through from one chief to another.
When going into any oasis or district that is likely to be hostile, I think it would be advisable to get in communication as quietly as possible with the chief man, as he will probably protect you from the rest, so that the blame in case of your murder would not fall upon him in case of any enquiries. But there is a serious risk that, even after entertaining you hospitably, your hosts will send men after you, to attack you in the desert.
Poison was used by the Senussia in the case of Duveysier and the Flatters Expedition. It might be well to carry some hypodermic syringes and some apomorphine tabloids as emeties. I do not say these things will happen, but it is as well to be prepared for them if they do.
In a dangerous part it is I think best to travel quickly and change your plans and the direction of your route frequently.
Most of these natives are very good trackers so it is as well to remember that on pure sand (not "serir") tracks are very quickly covered up when a strong wind is blowing.
In Siwa you may find some natives who can give you information as to the routes. In this way a fairly accurate map can sometimes be made which you might find of great value if you afterwards went into the part you had mapped.
When it is possible it is best, I think, to collect the information in the form of routes joining two places whose positions have already been fixed e.g. Kufra to Bardai. The information can then be checked and adjusted.
As natives will sometimes invent routes of this kind, I found it a good plan to pretend to forget what they had said and question them again after as long an interval as possible.
Any information of this kind on the part between Kufra and Tibesti would I believe be very valuable.
You are trying one of the most difficult jobs in Africa and if I may say so, I much admire you for doing it, for it seems to me that even a failure in a determined attempt to do a piece of work like this is much more creditable than success in a small job that any one could do.
Yours very truly
W.J. Harding King
The letter from the Imperial German Diplomatic Agency for Egypt also dates to 1913 (transcript and translation kindly provided by Mr. Helmuth Orschiedt / Munich):
Sehr geehrter Herr Borchardt,
nachdem ich heute Scheich Raschid Rida gesehen habe, beeile ich mich, Ihnen mitzuteilen, dass ich ihm von Ihren Plänen erzählt und ihn gebeten habe, Ihnen, falls angängig, behilflich zu sein. Er wird Sie gern empfangen. Er wohnt Schari Masr el Qadime im ersten Haus hinter der Rodabrücke links von Kairo aus. Ich füge Ihnen noch eine Empfehlungskarte bei.
Mit bestem Gruss
Dr.Truser (Trufer ?)
[Dear Mr. Borchardt,
since I had seen Sheikh Rashid Rida today, I want to inform you immediately that I have told him about your plans and asked him, if possible, to be of help. He has no objection to receive you. He lives at Sharia Masr el Qadime in the first house behind the Rhoda-bridge on the left hand side if you come from Cairo. I add a card of recommendation for you to this writing.
With best regards, Yours]
The two remaining letters date to 1930 and deal with the Zarzura problem:
Dear Herr Borchardt
Very many thanks for the reprint of your paper from Petermann's, which I was very glad to receive. I have had it translated and have been studying it with great interest.
Your work on the Libyan Desert is very much appreciated in England and I know that Dr.John Ball - the Director of desert surveys in Egypt - thinks very highly of it. There have been several papers lately in the R. Geogr. Journal on this part, in which your papers have been mentioned.
In the January number 1930 there were three papers on "the Zerzura Problem". As you are a fellow of the R. Geogr. Soc'y, I suppose these papers have all been sent to you, but if you have not received them, please let me know and I shall be very glad to forward them to you.
I am very glad to hear that recent explorations have confirmed your information. It is very gratifying to find ones work being proved correct in this way.
I think you are probably right when you saythat my J. Namus is not reliable, though it is perhaps possible that it is the arabic name for J. Arkenu. I put it into my paper (R.G.S.J Sept-'13) but I omitted it from the geographical section of my book "Mysteries of the Libyan Desert". The man who gave me the information was very reliable but told me he had not seen the hill himself, so could not guarantee it.
I think there must be several undiscovered oases in the desert. Your "Zerzura or Owana" seems to be the same as my "olive oasis" and I think must exist.
It would be impossible for caravans, especially if they had slaves, to follow the road that goes for 600 kils. from Dakhla to Owenat unless there is a well, or oasis, upon it. Possibly Zerzura is the name of the oasis and Owana of the principle (sic) well it contains.
Hassanein told me that Owana was the diminutive of 'ain, but he and Ball only mention the name in the plural owenat i.e. "the little wells". I think your original position for Owana (in the oasis of Zerzura) is probably right. Owenat I was told, was the name of the whole district. But much of the geography of this part is still very uncertain, and possibly there is more than one place called Zerzura.
Your account of the oasis of Sobru is very interesting, but this seems to be a different place.
In the January "Journal" of the R.G.S. there is an account of some very good work by Col. Forth in the big dunes west of Dakhla. He made a journey of 640 kils. without a well, through this very bad sand. This I think is equal to Rohlfs great journey, or even longer. In another expedition he evidently was very close to an unknown oasis, but had not enough water to actually find it. This seems to be a place that I heard of, but of which I could not get the name. It lies, I ws told, three days along the road to Kufra from Iddaila and is perhaps used by the caravans from Kufra that go to Abu Mungar.
With renewed thanks for your very interesting paper.
W.J. Harding King
The Lancy Forth letter bears no year, but from the context it is clear that this too if from 1930, in response to a letter and the Petermann's article sent by Borchardt:
I received with very great interest your article on Zerzura and Problems in Libyan Desert.
I think there are most likely one or two oasis yet to be discovered there. Since I wrote my article I find that Sir Gardner Wilkinson in a book published in 1836, places Zerzura about five or six days West of the road between Baharia and Farafra, which would place it roughly where I was looking for it, where I believe it, or an oasis is, and will be found.
I do not think I was far from it in 1922-23. And regret I did not push on a day further which I certainly would have done, whatever the risk, if I had known that my time in Egypt was ending in 1924. (I have been laid up for 5 ½ years).
Harding King was on an old camel Mazrub in 1911 when he pushed out towards Owenat. I think any future traveller looking for an oasis in that area would be wise to follow this route as if the oasis lies in this area there is every likelyhood of this Mazrub leading to it.
If they would be any use to you I will let you have some snapshots of the country West of the Abu Mungar escarpment and the Sand Dunes on my return to England in April.
I have further evidence and detail which I did not go into in my article, as to the existence of water West of Abu Mungar. Some of which I picked up personally in my travels. Other evidence given to me personally by others.
But it is no easy task travelling in that country and one could pass a fair sized depression very closely without being aware of its existence.
Apologising for not being able to write to you except in English.
Yours Very Truly
N.B. de Lancy Forth
This was all fascinating, but with the Zarzura Problem having been settled by Bagnold, Clayton and Almásy soon after these last letters were written, I did not put much further thought to it until January 2009, when I have found among the newly released KV files (MI5 personnel files) in the National Archives in London the reference to one Paul Borchardt (KV2/2429 & KV2/2430).
Most amazingly, the file starts off with three letters from no other than Harding King. The first, dating to August 1927 informs the military intelligence authorities that Borchardt was a German agent before and during the War, and passes information that Borchardt re-established contact with Prince Kemal Ed Din.
A German - Paul Borchardt of Theresienstrasse 69-11-5 München 2.N.W.3. came out to Egypt before the war, as a secret service agent of the German Govt.
He had an introduction to Prince Kemmal Ed Din, whom he has recently - I cannot give the exact date - met again in Paris.
I do not know if this is of any consequence but thought you had better knoiw it. You can get fuller particulars as to his record from a letter I left with Commander Cogens Hardy during the war.
I reported him to the authorities in Egypt before he went out there, but I do not think he knows this, or that I am aware of his dealings with Prince Kemmal Ed Din.
I am at present corresponding with him on the Geography of the Libyan Desert - the exploration of which was his excuse for coming to Egypt. If there is any point upon which you require information, it is just possible that I may be able to get something from him without rousing his suspicions.
I am, Sir,
W.J. Harding King
At the bidding of the Officer in Charge, Room 427, War Ofice, the second letter is a much more detailed one, giving details of all information that Harding King had on Borchardt. There is much reference to their past correspondence, including a letter in which he introduced Borchardt to Oates - the very letter in my book.
The following is all I know of Paul Borchardt. He got somehow elected F.R.G.S. of London, and wrote to me, from London (I was in Germany) saying he was going to explore the Libyan Desert and enclosing an introduction from Dr. Kettie. As his letter made me suspicious, I gave him an introduction to Oric Bates (since dead), who was working at the R.Geog.Soc. at the time, and wrote to Bates asking him to find out what his plans were.
Bates - who was an American - by abusing the British, completely draw Borchardt and told me the result of his interview, which I sent on to the Serdar office in Cairo. Borchardt's record is as follows:-
He served his time in the Prussian Guards and then joined the air force, but had to resign in consequence of a crash. He then got into trouble with some Lady on the Berlin Stage, with the result that his father shipped him off on some kind of secret service job to W. Africa - I cannot remember the part he went to - but he made the place so hot for him that he had to leave.
He intended coming out to Egypt armed with an introduction from some German, who had been in the service of the Egyptian Government - I do not remember this German's name, but I think he had been made a Pasha. The introduction was to Prince Kamel ad Din, through whom he hoped to get in touch with the Senussia.
He planned to turn moslem and then go to Siwa oasis where he intended to marry "some wives" and settle for a time to stir up the natives against the British. He then proposed to work all down the W. frontier of Egypt via Jarabub & Kufra and to return via (I think) Tibesti, setting the natives against us wherever he went.
He turned moslem on reaching Egypt, put on a native dress etc, and camped for some time near the Pyramids to learn Arabic - which he picked up very quickly.
He then engaged a caravan to Siwa, but I heard that the government stepped in and put obstacles in the way of his journey, so he went to Baharia oasis instead.
On his return he put up at the same hotel I was staying in in Cairo and the following is the account he gave me - which may not be correct - of his journey. He tried several times to get in touch with the Senussi sheykhs in Baharia, but they refused to see him, or have anything to do with him, so he prepared to set out for Farafra oasis to interview the Sheykh in the Senussi Zawia at Qasr Farafra, but abandoned the journey as he was told that the Senussi were lying in wait for him on the road and intended to attack him and came back to Cairo instead.
We were together in the Hotel for about a week and I saw a great deal of him, but my attempt to pump him failed. He had found out that he was suspected by the authorities and was very much on his guard - also he was a teetotaler. We discussed the geography of the Libyan Desert a good deal and I think I managed to mislead him to some extent. He had very copious notes, mainly apparently of information on the desert that he had collected from natives. He read me a few extracts from them, but he kept them locked up, so I was unable to get hold of them. Just before he left, he had an interview by appointment with someone, whose name he would not give, that he said was very important. He came back from it very subdued and obviously immensely impressed. He left Cairo next day, I think for Europe. I was unable to find out whom he had seen, but the opinion of other fellows in the hotel, whom he had also told of the interview, was that he had been to see the Khedive, which was perhaps likely.
Borchardt is genuinely interested in Geography as a science, and I believe holds, or at any rate held a post such as Sec' to one of the German Geographical Societies - the R.G.S. would know about this - so his interview in Paris with Prince Kamel Ed Din may have been an innocent one at some big Geographical Conference.
If worth while, I suggest that the R.G.S. make some excuse for writing to the Prince, drag in Borchardt's name as being interested in the geography of the desert and casually ask if they have ever met. If anything suspicious is going on he would probably deny having even heard of him, as he would not be likely to suspect that his introduction to him in Egypt or their meeting recently in Paris were known. As Kamel ed Din must be in the running for a medal he would be sure to answer fully. I will write to Borchardt and will let you know if I get anything out of him - but I am not very hopeful.
The following is an extract from the letter I received from him, dated from Munich, 29-7-27:-
"I heared in Paris that you are going with an officer friend to look for Zerzurah" (There is no foundation for this W.J.HK) "It is not impossible that it really exist, because the report of El Bekri is very strange. Only we cannot do anything in concurence (? competition W.J.HK) with the caterpillars (i.e. cars W.J.HK) of Prince Kemmal ed Din whom I saw in Paris. He did certain fine work as he had the money to make it very easy.
[If I come over to England I hope to see you some day and tell you more interesting things which would interest very much our old friends Bolland and Claigton. But dont let any native know we are in correspondence. You can guess the reason.]"
Bolland was in the Sudan office in Cairo. "Claigton" I think must be meant for Gen. Clayton, whom I never met, but Borchardt made enquiries from all kinds of offices in cairo and may have come accross him. I do not quite understand the last part of the extract that I have put in square brackets, especially the last sentence, underlined by me - not in the original. It may be meant as a hint that he has somehow found out that I reported him. Until I received this letter from him, I had no communications with him after his leaving Cairo, but the R.G.S. can perhaps give you some information of his doings in the interval. I will let you know if I hear of his coming to England.
The remainder of the letter from which I have quoted was only about geography.
W.J. Harding King
The third letter was a brief follow-up on the results of continued correspondence with Borchardt.
I wrote to Paul Borchardt, trying to pump him as to his meeting with Prince Kamel ed Din, but in his reply he does not allude to this part of my letter and has given nothing away at all. I can continue the correspondence for a bit, without doing anything that would rouse is suspicions, and if I can get anything out of him, will let you know.
If his finger prints would be of any use, you could probably get them from his last letter, as I touched it with forceps.
W.J. Harding King
It is incredible that even at this early date desert exploration was closely linked with intelligence and espionage. In some ways it seems Saul Kelly was right after all...
The rest of the file tells a very interesting but rather sad story. Borchardt became the Director of the Military Geography Academy in Munich, but was forced to resign due to his jewish ancestry in 1933. However he apparently had several good contacts in the army, and was permitted to stay on and teach in an unofficial capacity till 1938. Then he was arrested and sent to Dachau, but after only two weeks his contacts managed to secure his release and even arranged a passport, and he was permitted to leave to Britain.
At the outbreak of the war he was repeatedly vetted by the British security services, and was finally accepted as a bona fide refugee despite his known past, and was permitted to stay in Britain without any restrictions (despite misgivings by some authorities). He even offered his services to the British military intelligence, but that was politely declined. In 1941 he was permitted to move on to the USA, supposedly to take up an academic position. His brother was already living in New York.
A year later, in one of the highly publicised intelligence swoops of the FBI, Borchardt and several others were arrested as a German spy ring. Borchardt was the analyst of the group, assessing the validity and relevance of information gathered by other agents before passing on to Berlin. (In fact very few of the information arrived, most were intercepted by vigilant censors in Bermuda). Throughout the trial Borchardt maintained that he arrived to the USA as a refugee, and only became involved after the US declared war on Germany following Pearl Harbor. He professed to be an anti-nazi but a German patriot who did his duty when Germany was at war. He refused to give the names of any of his prior military contacts in Germany. Probably influenced by his lack of cooperation, he received a 20 year sentence. He died in prison 10 years later.
Recently I opened the book to read parts of one of the Harding King letters, and I noticed a detail that I failed to see all the years the book was on my shelf. On the title page, near the binding, there are two very small and discrete owner's stamps. They are easy to overlook, only visible when the book is fully opened. The stamp explains or at least infers much of what Borchardt managed to conceal from the US interrogators.
Major Franz Seubert was responsible for Abwehr operations in the Middle East, and was the direct superior of Almásy during operation Salam (his messages appear frequently among the Salam transcripts, under the codename "Angelo"). It cannot be coincidence that he became the new owner of this book, which was very clearly Borchardt's personal copy. It was really a small world even in those days...