The world’s worst Nazi spy: The German agent caught by Canada in a matter of hours
The first clue was the weird banknotes the stranger used to pay for his hotel bill.
To staff at the Carlisle hotel in New Carlisle, QC he presented oversized $1 bills that had not been in regular circulation since the First World War; the modern equivalent of handing over a fistful of pre-loonie $1 bills.
He said his name was William Branton of 323 Danforth Avenue in Toronto — an address now occupied by a women’s wear boutique. Having arrived into New Carlisle by bus that morning, he said he wanted to stop in for a quick bath and breakfast before continuing on to Montreal.
But the first bus into New Carlisle would not arrive for another three hours.
“We knew that he was a foreigner, by the way he spoke… he had kind of a guttural speech in the back of his throat,” Marguerite, the daughter of the Carlisle’s owner, would later tell journalist Dean Beeby for the 1996 book Cargo of Lies, an account of the spy fiasco.
In reality, the stranger had arrived in Quebec via the relatively unorthodox mode of a U-Boat.
That morning, the submarine U-518 had performed the nail-biting task of surfacing just off the well-patrolled waters of the Quebec coast and rowing the man to shore in an inflatable dinghy.
It was November 9, 1942, the same day that Canada would break off diplomatic relations with Vichy France, the rump German puppet state carved out of southeastern France.
New Carlisle’s most famous son, future Quebec premier René Lévesque, had only recently moved to Quebec City for a radio job. In another couple years, Lévesque would be sailing to Europe as a war correspondent.
And now, New Carlisle was the first stop for Werner von Janowski, a German officer sent on a mission of espionage to Canada.
He had stepped onto Canadian soil in the trim, impressive uniform of a German naval officer, complete even with an Iron Cross pinned to his breast. This was standard procedure for German spies. That way, if they were caught, they could avoid execution as spies by saying that they had simply deserted from the German navy and swum to shore somehow.
But in the chilly pre-dawn hours, von Janowski swapped his gleaming uniform for a suit of civilian clothes, buried the uniform in the sand and began his new identity as a Parisian-born salesman who had immigrated to Canada in 1921.
He had a gun, $5,000 and identity papers suspected to have been seized from Canadian casualties of the August, 1942 Dieppe Raid.
The agent’s instructions were vague, but his goal was to go to Montreal and try and link up with some fascists, according to the book U-Boats Against Canada.
That is, if the Nazis’ contact for the Canadian Fascist Party was still current.
Throughout history, Canada has actually been pretty bad at spotting suspicious foreign characters in their midst.
Immediately after assassinating Martin Luther King Jr., the killer James Earl Ray lived unnoticed for weeks in Toronto, despite his picture being all over the T.V. news.
And from the Holocaust to the Rwandan Genocide, Canada has had the dubious distinction of being a relatively safe hideout for former genocidaires.
But that morning, the citizens of sleepy New Carlisle were really on the ball. The Battle of the Atlantic was in full swing and they knew their coast was crawling with German submarines.
After the war, this would even spawn alcohol-fuelled memories that Gaspé Peninsula pubs were occasionally visited by German submariners looking to stretch their legs.
Of course, it helped that von Janowski was dripping in clues.
The stranger lit his cigarettes with matches that were made in Belgium—which was strange considering that Belgium had been occupied by the Nazis for three years.
He wore clothes with a distinctly foreign cut. And he smelled awful; almost like someone who had been shut up inside the stale air of a sealed metal tube for several days.
Earle Annett Jr., the son of the Carlisle’s proprietor, alerted authorities as soon as von Janowski set off on foot for the New Carlisle train station.
After taking his seat aboard the Montreal-bound train, the German agent was soon greeted by a Quebec Provincial Police officer, who asked him for I.D. “I am caught. I am a German officer,” von Janowski replied.
It had only been 12 hours.
A press blackout would shield the historic capture from the wartime Canadian public. And soon, the RCMP would accede to von Janowski’s offer to act as a double agent for Canada.
But as Beeby would note in Cargo of Lies, the inexperienced Mounties were likely played by the captured German.
The would-be spy provided just enough misleading information to throw off the Royal Canadian Navy hunt for the U-Boat that had dropped his off. And as a double agent, he failed to feed the RCMP one iota of information about German sub movements.
A frustrated Canada ultimately packed von Janowski off to an English prison camp for the rest of the war.