While travelling in Germany, we came across a fascinating story of war, espionage and ‘funny money’
Although the true crime tale of the biggest counterfeiting operation in history had been revealed many times in the past, it was new to us.
And, as far as gripping stories go, this one sure has it all.
While in Berlin, we decided to travel by train to the former Sachsenhausen concentration camp, in eastern Germany.
Unknown to us, this house of horrors – at the town of Oranienburg, in the Brandenburg region – was the centre of a Nazi plan aimed at bringing down the world’s financial system.
Along with ovens, gas chambers and mass graves, we heard of Block 19, where the Nazis carried out ‘Operation Bernhard’ a clandestine exercise to print hundreds of millions of British pounds.
The idea was to drop the counterfeit money by plane over English cities and towns, causing a loss of confidence in the British currency.
Major Bernhard Krueger apparently found forgers in Jewish death camps and set them to work at Sachsenhausen to copy British pounds – and some US dollar bills.
We were told that, from 1942 to 1945, a total of 132 million pound notes were forged at Sachsenhausen – more than the Bank of England held in its vaults.
Instead of using a fast-dwindling air force to distribute the money, the Nazis eventually used the fakes to finance their own espionage services.
So many counterfeit pounds swamped the black markets of Europe that suspicion was cast on real British currency, which then fell in value.
However, the British averted a financial collapse by hitting back with a blockade on bringing pounds into the country.
Not surprisingly, the story of Operation Bernhard and the Sachsenhausen forgery ring has made its way into several books – and even an award-winning film, ‘The Counterfeiters’.
It was an offbeat and far-reaching chapter of World War II – and one that kept us engrossed as we toured a chilling and sobering place.