The end of a career in espionage. Police photos from Geneva. It was from here that Edmond Hamel transmitted to Moscow.
The end of a career in espionage. Police photos from Geneva. It was from here that Edmond Hamel transmitted to Moscow. ETH Library, Archives of Contemporary History

Secret agents at Lake Geneva

The Soviets received vital information from Switzerland during World War II. The spies of the ‘Red Three’ knew exactly what Hitler was up to.

Gabriel Heim

Gabriel Heim

Gabriel Heim is a book and film author and exhibition organiser. He is principally concerned with research into topics of modern and contemporary history and lives in Basel.

Switzerland was one of the most important espionage hubs in Europe during World War II, if not the most important hub of all. The airwaves over Bern were humming – the diplomatic missions of every country were operating their own professionally equipped radio stations on the exterritorial terrain of their embassy buildings. The nations fighting in the war were particularly active, sometimes sending their best radio operators and decipherers here on diplomatic passports. But one country was unable to wage this ‘war of the airwaves’ under the smokescreen of its diplomatic immunity: the Soviet Union. Moscow did not yet have diplomatic relations with Switzerland and was therefore compelled, if it wished to make use of the profitable intelligence market in neutral Switzerland, to install concealed radio equipment and smuggle in its own trained personnel.

A chalet as spy headquarters

In 1938 Berlin-born Ursula Maria Kuczynski was dispatched from Moscow to Switzerland with precisely this assignment. Kuczynski, barely 30 years old, already had a number of adventures under her belt. In Shanghai she had come into contact with GRU master spy Richard Sorge, who had enlisted her for the Soviet secret service. In 1933, 22-year-old Ursula was recruited in Moscow by the GRU – the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet military intelligence service – where she learned the job of an agent and radio operator. After Kuczynski had successfully carried out her first assignment in Manchuria in the mid-1930s, she was dispatched to Switzerland under the name Ursula Schultz to set up an espionage network there and recruit resistance groups for deployment in Germany. Her cover address was a chalet in Caux, above Montreux. From 1940 onwards, she transmitted the first radio messages using a powerful shortwave transmitter. Her codename was Sonia.
Ursula Schultz used a chalet in tranquil Caux as a centre for espionage.
Ursula Schultz used a chalet in tranquil Caux as a centre for espionage. ETH Library Zurich
Richard Sorge in a 1940 photograph.
Richard Sorge in a 1940 photograph. Wikimedia
One of her first agents was Englishman Alexander Foote, an ex-Spanish Civil War fighter, whom she trained as a ‘pianist’. This is what the radio operators called themselves in their own jargon – like the virtuoso performers on the piano, they too had their individual rhythm, which the recipients of their Morse code signals were able to clearly identify. From 1938 onwards the Hungarian cartographer Sándor Radó, already an accomplished conspirator, was active in Geneva, where he operated under the cover of his agency Geopress as the head of the Soviet intelligence service in Switzerland. Sonia became his radio operator. Early in 1940 she succeeded in establishing the first stable connection with Moscow. She then left Switzerland and became one of the most successful agents in the service of the Soviet Union. Her successor in what became the famous ‘Red Three’ (Rote Drei) radio triangle on Lake Geneva was the ‘pianist’ Alexander Foote (codename Jim), who transmitted messages for the Radó (codename Dora) group. Polish-German resistance fighter Rachel Dübendorfer (codename Cissy) operated in a second group. Another cell of the Red Three bore the name of Swiss journalist Otto Pünter (codename Pakbo).
Otto Pünter in front of a microphoto system with which he transmitted secret information during World War II.
Otto Pünter in front of a microphoto system with which he transmitted secret information during World War II. ETH Library, Archives of Contemporary History
Of the three powerful shortwave transmitters, one was in Lausanne, operated by Alexander Foote, and other two were in Geneva, from where Swiss radio operators Edmond & Olga Hamel (codenames Eduard & Maud) and operative Margrit Bolli (codename Rosa), originally from Basel, transmitted encrypted messages to Moscow. Fresh material was supplied every day by German emigré Rudolf Rössler (codename Lucie), who lived in Lucerne. The sources of his extremely accurate information have never been identified. According to statements made by Rössler after the war, his informants were high-ranking members of the military brass who were recruited to work against the Nazis.
Rudolf Rössler was the head of the Red Three.
Rudolf Rössler was the head of the Red Three. Swiss Federal Archives
When the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, the Red Three were ready for action. Right from the beginning, their radio messages kept the Soviet general staff informed about the Wehrmacht’s conduct of battle. ‘Dora to Director, Dora to Director’ – almost non-stop, their reports and warnings flashed across the ether. Alexander Foote often sat at his device for more than five hours a night; he could barely cope with the mountains of paper.
Spy and author: Alexander Foote.
Spy and author: Alexander Foote. ETH Library, Archives of Contemporary History
In his memoir ‘Handbook for Spies’, Foote wrote in 1954: ‘The two main adversaries of our organisation were, naturally, the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence service, and the Swiss Federal Police: the former because the network’s activities were directed squarely against the Third Reich; the latter because this activity represented a violation of Swiss neutrality. The German Abwehr was of course particularly keen to penetrate and liquidate our organisation. The Swiss were poised to take action as soon as they had enough evidence. But they were not prepared to deviate from their usual procedural methods and break up an intelligence network as long as they believed it was working for the democracies.’ For more than two years, the shortwave transmitters of the Red Three remained undisturbed by the federal police and military authorities. Perhaps nothing would have been done if the German Abwehr had not stepped in, as the brisk radio traffic had long since attracted the attention of Swiss and foreign listening services. But pinpointing the location of the transmitters was Switzerland’s business.
The dispatches from Switzerland were very precise and are evidence of an efficient information network.
The dispatches from Switzerland were very precise and are evidence of an efficient information network. Swiss Federal Archives
To carry out the operation, the Swiss counterespionage service created a special radio squad. The group was given three vehicle-mounted devices that were appropriate for close-up direction-finding. In early October 1943, the Swiss radio operators took up position in a large triangle at several locations in the Geneva suburbs and set about detecting the unknown Morse code signals. The direction-finders immediately indicated the wavebands and the approximate directions to the illegal transmitters. Now it was a matter of determining the exact locations. The direction-finder vehicles moved slowly through the Geneva streets and converged from three sides on the point identified by the machines.
Edmond Hamel radioed his information to Moscow from this Geneva villa.
Edmond Hamel radioed his information to Moscow from this Geneva villa. ETH Library, Archives of Contemporary History
Two weeks later, they knew roughly where the Geneva transmitters were working: one in the vicinity of the Route de Florissant, the other in the densely populated centre of the city, probably in the Rue Henri Mussard. In a final step, soldiers in plain clothes were sent into the apartment buildings with a close-range radio direction-finder in a suitcase.  The ‘voice’ of the transmitter became clearer and clearer until, finally, the army radio operator stood in front of one specific apartment door. The same events unfolded a few weeks later in Lausanne: on the night of 19-20 November 1943, half an hour after midnight, Foote established the connection with Moscow. He transmitted a short message and then began to receive a long piece that the headquarters had for him. Three quarters of an hour later there was a splintering crash at the door of the apartment – the game was up. Nonetheless, in the three minutes or so that it took for the police to force their way into the apartment he managed to dismantle the transmitter and burn the few documents he had in a large ash holder specially provided for the purpose. With Foote’s arrest, the last connection between headquarters and Switzerland was broken.
Radio transmitter seized by the police.
Radio transmitter seized by the police. ETH Library, Archives of Contemporary History

What happened to the spies…

Alexander Foote fled to Paris after Radó’s group was shut down. He was ordered to return immediately to Moscow. There, Foote was subjected to intensive interrogation (torture) to determine his loyalty and to uncover any potential double agent activity. After surviving the questioning, he was given a new identity as Major Granatov. In Switzerland Sándor Radó was sentenced in absentia to three years’ imprisonment and 15 years’ expulsion from the country, in 1947. From his exile in Cairo Radó was taken by force to the Soviet Union, where he was promptly interned. Stalin later reprieved Radó, commuting his punishment to ten years in a labour camp. After serving this sentence, he was released in 1955 and returned to Budapest. Rachel Dübendorfer was briefly jailed in Switzerland in 1944. In October 1945 a Swiss military court sentenced her in absentia to two years in prison. She fled via Canada to the Soviet Union, where she was imprisoned until 1956 and then released into the GDR. Otto Pünter passed on important information to the Soviet Union via the Chinese legation in Bern before the Red Three group was terminated. After the Second World War, Pünter was President of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Bundeshausjournalisten (Association of Federal Parliament Journalists), and from 1956 to 1965 Head of Press and Information for the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SRG). Margrit Bolli was sentenced by a Swiss military tribunal (Division Court 1A) in 1947 to ten months’ imprisonment on probation and a fine of 500 Swiss francs for intelligence activities against foreign states. Otto Pünter paid bail for her, and the radio operator was released.

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