The Secret Service, or to give it its official title, De Geheime Dienst, of the South African Republic, is one of the few political and military aspects of the stormy period between the Jameson Raid and the Anglo-Boer War which has not been the subject of serious study. It is perhaps relevant to explain why this is so.
Most obvious is the inborn tightlipped attitude of any secret service. Whatever shortcomings there might have been in the statecraft and military organization of the rural and unsophisticated Republic, there was no flippancy in security matters. In fact the measure of surprise with which the Jameson Raid was sprung, the presence of a large and hostile alien population in the very heart of the Republic, the gathering warclouds during the second half of the nineties and indications that there was outside infiltration into state departments directly concerned with the safety of the state, tended to turn security consciousness into a mania. Very little was entrusted to writing and the gathering of information and the dissemination of intelligence was, as a rule, done behind closed doors and by word of mouth. Also the destruction of the South African Republic in 1902 forestalled subsequent development and report.
A second, more or less contradictory reason, for the lack of research into De Geheime Dienst lies in the derision to which it was exposed in contemporary anti-republican lay and diplomatic writings. It would be the supreme compliment to testify that the Secret Service was so secret that its very existence had all along escaped the notice of researchers; but the opposite is nearer the truth. The actuality of it was so well known to contemporaries that it vied in Johannesburg pubs and clubs with the Jameson Raid, Uitlander franchise, the efficiency or otherwise of the Republican police and the building of forts in and around Johannesburg and Pretoria -- with all of which it was associated -- as the most popular topic of conversation. In British diplomatic correspondence comment on the Secret Service became a regular feature.
This was assumed familiarity breeding a malicious contempt which conjured up a most misleading picture of every side of the Secret Service -- as it did of most things Republican during the four years which spanned the Raid and the War. As part of the conditioning for the Anglo-Boer War it was presented to the British public as a menace to peaceful subjects of Her Majesty living under a tyranny worse than that of the Turks in Armenia or, more generously, as a farce with a cast of idiots. Either way it expended vast sums of money taxed from the Uitlanders on heaven knew what. Greene, the British diplomatic agent in Pretoria, Sir Alfred Milner, the High Commissioner in Cape Town, and the Secretary for the Colonies in Whitehall, Sir Joseph Chamberlain, went to some length to reassure each other that, though 'Africa swarmed with Boer spies', the Secret Service was a bluff to cover up the siphoning off of expenditure into dubious transactions which could not be otherwise accounted for. What little genuine activity there was, was, although 'ludicrous and treated as such', contributory 'not a little to the atmosphere of terrorization, repression and blackmail in which an unarmed alien population was forced to live'.
Whatever brows might have been raised after the War at such obviously biased judgements were cleared by two accounts written by an 'expert', Douglas Blackburn,(1) who corroborated what every Imperialist had all along been told or guessed about the Secret Service. Blackburn described it as a model of confusion, racked by internal strife, corruption, comic ineptitude and gullibility of which the sole aim was the recovery of the numerous caches of weapons which the government was led to believe abounded in Johannesburg and its mines -- the harebrained service of a harebrained Republic.
The credentials of Blackburn are illuminating. The only official reference made to him which could he traced, while proving his authenticity, discloses him as the very model of corruption and sham which he projects onto the Service as a whole. In a confidential missive from the Republic's Chief of Police to the Chief Clerk of the State Attorney, reference is made to Blackburn's discharge following a spurious report on a mission which was proven never to have been undertaken and subsequent black-mailing of British subjects in Krugerskorp under the guise of secret investigations.(2)
These three contemporary sources, that of Uitlander authors and British diplomacy speculating about the Service from a considerable distance, and that of a discredited agent whose authoritativeness can generally be disproved by other sources, appear to have been so universally accepted that no effort has been made to examine the point of view of the Traansvaal.
This brings us to the third and certainly the most valid reason for our ignorance of De Geheime Dienst. What limited documents are available are not where students of the Anglo-Boer War would expect to find their material: in the Archives of the Commandant-General, the Volksraad, the State Secretary and the Executive Council, but in that of the Chief Commissioner of Police and the State Attorney.
Though sparse the official material is sufficient to reveal other sides of the Secret Service than that imagined by the commentators of the time.
De Geheime Dienst established by the Jameson Raid
Although isolated references were made to money appropriated for unspecified 'confidential services' in the years immediately before 1895, they were the first signs of the approaching Raid and Reform Committee rising in Johannesburg which finally established De Geheime Dienst and determined its task.
The first permanent Secret Service agents were appointed by the end of 1894 when officials first became aware of a political crisis developing among the Johannesburg Uitlanders which indicated some, as yet unfathomed, connection with the Transvaal's western boundary. At first discreet enquiries were made by trusted members of the Detective Branch of the State Attorney's office into 'protests' against the republican government, but by the middle of 1895 investigations shifted definitely to the activities of the Transvaal National Union and arms shipments to the Robinson Deep Gold Mine. By September these had become the only lines of investigation. It was at this stage that a 'special confidential detective', George William Taylor, was appointed for the work which took him as far afield as Cape Town. Less than a week before the Raid a second agent was attached to the Pretoria Detective Branch to lounge about the railway station and pubs noting the movement of strangers and known Imperialists. The third of the secret agents, F. Brand, was dispatched to Mafeking in an effort to pick up the other end of the thread, but he arrived too late and with too little to go on to achieve the same measure of success which crowned Taylor's work in Johannesburg. Taylor made an accurate assessment of the shape if not of the date of the rising. Natural skill, perseverance and British descent were attributes which, for many years to come, enabled him to penetrate into the councils of Uitlander ring-leaders. On the eve of the insurrection his regular reports, submitted under the code name 'Joseph', contained accurate and vital information.
Still the Jameson Raid and the Johannesburg insurrection caught the government napping. The valid reasons that can be offered for this add to the atmosphere of fiction in which raids and secret service are naturally cast and must take us back to the birth of the Service and its begetter.
Ewald Esselen was, with the exception of Jan Smuts, the most talented of the long line of State Attorneys who served the Republic. Other similarities to Smuts lay in his concern for the safety of the State, his youth, his vigour and his insistence on departmental reform. He also felt the need for political change. It was the first attribute which gave birth to the Secret Service and the last which caused its first crisis and failure at the time of the disturbances during the Raid. It was Esselen, possibly in conjunction only with State Secretary W. J. Leyds who, through the routine duties of his office, first became aware of the need to investigate disturbing indications of clandestine activities in Johannesburg. But Esselen, like all heads of departments, was bound by a most inflexible budget. Not a penny could be spent, much less a new post created which had not been approved on the current expense-account and, when the budget was drawn up in January 1895, no thought was given to raids or secret service. The obstacle could not be overcome by allocating a member of the Detective Branch to the task of secret service investigation for here there was a chronic shortage of numbers as well as quality. Furthermore the Detective Department was in the throes of much needed reorganization which brooked no interference.
And so, for better or for worse, the first step was taken in the sequence of events which was to marry De Geheime Dienst to the Detective Department; Taylor was registered as a detective, albeit a 'special confidential' one. From the Budget Committee's point of view this would never be queried and, but for a knowing wink exchanged between Esselen and Leyds, no one need know any better. But shortly before the Raid Leyds left for Europe and Esselen resigned.
Esselen's resignation a mere three months before the balloon went up, was the outcome of suspicions that he was in league with the militant Uitlander movements and the government's startling realization at a time when there were strong indications of military preparations in Bechuanaland, that Andrew Trimble, the Chief Detective of Johannesburg, had been recruited by Esselen in Kimberley! This gave food for thought. Esselen, the outspoken political opponent of President Kruger, who was loudly praised for his progressive political speeches before the National Union, had 'borrowed' Trimble from the Griqualand West administration ostensibly to reorganize the illicit gold and liquor branches of the Detective Service. Wasn't it more likely that Trimble, who had direct access to Esselen, was acting as a liaison between Esselen's Uitlander friends and an invasion force from the West?
Kruger's suspicion that Uitlander leaders had earmarked Esselen for an important appointment in a revolutionary government which was to be established after a successful coup, was indeed correct. And so Esselen and Trimble became themselves the subjects of secret investigation which culminated in Trimble's discharge and Esselen's resignation. There is tragedy in this for neither Trimble nor Esselen had any part in subversive activities although Trimble's subsequent enrolment and significant part in the insurrection only added to Esselen's disgrace.
The shadow that had so unjustly been cast over Esselen had further important results. The Executive and the Volksraad, fearing a recurrence of such treasonable conduct and mindful of the incompetence of some previous State Attorneys, reviewed the responsibilities that could be entrusted to that office. The most obvious change indicated was to remove the Detective Service from the immediate supervision of the State Attorney and place it under G. J. van Niekerk, the Chief Commissioner of Police, whose staunch loyalty to the state had been proven. This was not only an invalid solution of the problem at hand but was in practice to lead to a period of stagnation for the Detective Department and almost to the death of the infant Secret Service. Angered, Esselen packed up and left the country, not bothering to explain to any one what Taylor was doing in Johannesburg. Thus Van Niekerk, glancing down the list of names of his new responsibility, came across that of 'special confidential detective Taylor' for whom the budget had not provided and of whom no one among the Johannesburg detectives had ever heard. So, on 3 December, less than a month before the rising, Taylor was informed of his discharge. It took a hurried visit to Pretoria by Public Prosecutor De Beer, Taylor's contact in Johannesburg and the only man in the Republic at the time who was aware of the nature of 'Joseph's' work, to make Van Niekerk see the light. Indeed he saw the light so well that he not only retained Taylor's services after carefully verifying his credentials, but pressed for the appointment of the other two agents already referred to.
But that was all Van Niekerk had time for. For the rest he was kept fully occupied adapting to the new responsibilities which supervision of the Detective Branch had imposed. The same applied to Esselen's successor, Coster, and the new Chief Detective, De Witt Tossel, formerly of the Krugersdorp uniformed police, both of whom had less than a month to orientate themselves before the blow fell. As if in final conspiracy against Taylor's efforts, the file containing his reports to Esselen had been mislaid. And so the three fledgling officials on whose shoulders rested the task of making an intelligent appraisal of the situation in Johannesburg, the State Attorney, the Chief of Police and the Chief Detective, concerned themselves with hanging pictures in their new offices and filling their inkwells while vital time was lost in Johannesburg.
It has been argued that one of the reasons for the failure of the Jameson Raid and Johannesburg insurrection was that they were started before preparations had been completed. It appears however that, in the light of the almost fatal break in the continuity of the assessment of information, a better moment, for surprise at least, could not have been chosen. Had it been sprung three months earlier or later the preparations would surely have leaked out to either Esselen or his successors. Yet it was exactly the large measure of surprise of the eventful first days of 1896 that was best calculated to have a wholesome effect on the future of the Secret Service. A thorough, if embarrassing, investigation of 'Joseph's' discoveries after the dust had settled revealed that he had reported fairly accurately on the aims, preparations and methods of the insurgents and had been pursuing a path which would eventually have led to the discovery of the leaders.
If it was the Raid and the insurrection which put the need for a Secret Service beyond any doubt, it was these revelations which proved its feasibility. Thus the Raid and its prologue settled conclusively both the function and the methods of De Geheime Dienst. Briefly stated two tasks were prescribed; the prevention of a second internal rising and the forewarning of a second and possibly larger raid or even war. This attitude was both obvious and justified. It was conjuring up both visions of the Anglo-Boer War and of the Transvaal's determination to be ready for it, an awareness which would not have developed if the new year had not opened with a revelation of how easy it was for a force of 500 men to penetrate to within 100 km of the Republic's capital before being checked, and if thousands of Uitlanders concentrated in the bosom of the Republic had not shown their hand. What was more the trial of Jameson and the Johannesburg leaders had revealed the closeness of the links between the invasion and the insurrection. It had in fact been a single, well co-ordinated military-political plot coming simultaneously through the front door and the back door. By the same token a single organization was required to counter its recurrence. This implied that no need existed for niceties of distinction between the political and the military Rinctions of the Secret Service, between internal and external operations, between espionage and counter-espionage. This does not imply a confusion of aims and methods but rather a clear understanding of the basic straightforwardness of the problem. Indeed no thought was given to establishing a separate department for the Secret Service or even for specialized leadership. Having originated as an appendix to the Detective Service, there it remained and, as such, under the supervision of the Commissioner of Police. The only addition it brought to his office was the appointment of an extra confidential clerk, Beukes, to assist him with the routine administration of the Service.
The area of operations was understood to be the Uitlander population on the Reef and British South Africa from the Cape to Rhodesia. To a lesser extent this would include Mozambique because of its vital rail link with the Transvaal and the access it afforded to Swaziland and Rhodesia. Railways and harbours would merit special attention. The task was to watch for renewed signs of unrest at home and whatever had a military bearing abroad, especially near the some 1 500 km of common border between the Transvaal and British territories.
Having thus defined the scope of the problem the next task was to get the wheels rolling. This entailed considerable difficulties. Firstly secret service is a job for professionals, and secondly careful security screening is essential in the selection of agents. The Transvaal could provide neither the men nor the facilities. So for a start competent and trustworthy foreigners would have to be recruited. For this the moment was more opportune. Leyds, we have seen, was in Europe at the time and less than two weeks after the Raid he was cabled to find three secret service men and offer them a salary only slightly less than that of the Commissioner himself. Leyds went to some trouble and finally secured the services of two highly commended Rotterdam customs officials who, after receiving advanced training in Paris and Berlin, reported for duty in Pretoria in May 1896. Their task was not described and no further reference is made to them in Secret Service reports until they were honourably discharged at the outbreak of the war.
Even before the arrival of these professionals Van Niekerk set about employing home-bred talent. The last shots had hardly died down at Doornkop where Jameson surrendered, when 'Joseph' was sent to retrace the invasion route and investigate the supply depots which had been set up beforehand. Once he reached the western border he was to join up with two other agents, Brand and Van der Berg, who were the first of the new generation of agents to be employed outside the Transvaal. Van der Berg, posing as a diamond prospector, was moving about Bechuanaland keeping a lookout for renewed military activities. On 6 February the first of many cryptographic telegrams from 'Van der Weff' was delivered to 'Mr Landman', Box 372, Pretoria, an address of the Commissioner of Police. The Geheime Dienst was launched.
By April at least six agents were active, some in Rhodesia near the establishments of the British South Africa Co., whose director, Cecil Rhodes, was known to have been a party to the Raid; some in Bechuanaland, and others assisting the Johannesburg detectives in their fruitless search for hidden arms. Six months later agents in the role of stevedores were active in all the harbours of Southern Africa, or reporting on the progress of military exercises in Natal, on developments in Swaziland and even shadowing suspects in the Orange Free State.
The first results were diverse. Appraisal of reports from Cape Town, Bechuanaland and Johannesburg led Van Niekerk to believe that a second rising directed this time at Pretoria was imminent. This information contributed in no small way to the decision to fortify Pretoria and Johannesburg. It is, therefore, interesting to note that the fort-building program was undertaken as much to protect the Republic from the inside as from the outside. Laughs were occasioned by hairy tales, originating among Bantu mine labourers or transmitted through outlying police posts, of tunnels being dug from the western border to Johannesburg or from Johannesburg to Pretoria for the purpose of springing the biggest surprise coup in history. But such fabrications had long since lost their credibility as the agents became more schooled, if only by dint of experience.
On the other hand De Geheime Dienst was unwittingly responsible for putting one over on the British intelligence service. This originated in the confusion caused in the Volksraad by certain items of expenditure published in the budget for 1897. Matters of a secret nature were understandably never discussed in the Raad or published. Under the heading 'Secret Service', therefore no details were given of the 5 000 UK Pounds appropriated. Neither was this done for the 30 000 UK Pounds under 'Confidential Expenditure'. Despite the Budget Committee's assurance that all expenditure was accountable, the frugal Raad remained convinced that it was being hoodwinked into approving sums for the employment of additional detectives for the Illicit Gold and Liquor Branch and scrapped the 5 000 Pounds. In fact the 30 000 Pounds was earmarked for fortifications and had no connection with the Commissioner of Police's budget, thus leaving the new Commissioner, D. E. Schutte, entirely without funds for the Secret Service. But the very opposite was believed in British diplomatic circles. This storm in the Volksraad was a put-up job, it was asserted, to cover up the fact that vast sums of up to 70 000 UK Pounds were employed for espionage alone. But if the British diplomats were hoodwinked, so were the members of the Raad and the executive, who were in the know, were obliged to provide Schutte with money unbeknown to the Volksraad, which, if it had leaked out, would have provided the very proof needed to vindicate British suspicions! Even so the British were to have the last laugh. As 1896 drew to a close De Geheime Dienst concluded that the second Uitlander rising, which it had been predicting since May, was planned to coincide with the Dingaan's Day Celebrations at Paardekraal. The police, detectives and State Artillery were alerted and feverish plans made for the safety of the government. But there was no more substance in this than in the many similar rumours which ran rife at a time when Jameson's ghost was still seen lurking behind every Western Transvaal bush and Johannesburg lamppost.
And so, although the first year after the Raid closed in an anticlimax, a start had been made with the functioning of De Geheime Dienst. The field had been reconnoitred, pitfalls marked, new agents initiated and a number of incompetent or untrustworthy ones exposed. A set of 'Rules and Regulations for the Secret Service of the South African Republic' had been compounded, but apart from outlining the main function of the Service, 'the discovery of secret plans aimed against the security of the State', it contained neither rules nor regulations and set no qualifications for applicants. Indeed finding suitable agents was ever the bane of the Service. The need for a broad education, fluent command of English and as many otherlanguages as possible, besides loyalty, were qualifications few burghers could aspire to. Temporary relief only was provided by regular detectives from the Detective Branch which also experienced a chronic staff shortage.
The first and largely amateur stage of the Service terminated with the calm which eventually settled over South Africa after the Raid. In 1897 a period of quiet followed and the Service fell into a routine watchfulness over the imperialist and militant S.A. League, the successor of the Transvaal National Union. At home rumours of impending sabotage and demonstrations were investigated and the Uitlander pulse felt in regular reports from Johannesburg. Abroad railway and harbour traffic still attracted the greatest interest due mostly to the Matabele War in Rhodesia.
The Secret Service under Smuts
It was during the last six months before the Anglo-Boer War that De Geheime Dienst assumed a level of competence which can be stamped as truly professional. This was due partly to the rumblings of the approaching war and partly to the efforts of its new chief Jan Smuts, who became State Attorney in 1898. He started off by pointing out the incongruity of placing the Detective Service under the control of the Commissioner of Police where it had fallen into stagnation. The prime function of the uniformed police, Smuts argued, was to prevent crime while the nature of its task required that the Detective Branch had the closest possible co-operation with, and access to, the State Attorney. Having persuaded the Volksraad to his view, Smuts regained control over the detectives by the middle of 1898 and so the Secret Service returned to its birth-place -- the office of the State Attorney. Because of his office, Smuts was a key figure in the Republic's diplomacy where he became acutely aware of the significance of espionage and counter-insurgency, a fact which could have influenced his insistence on regaining control of the Detective Branch. His first task was to sharpen his tools. While one can only surmise about the Secret Service, Smuts's 'cleansing of the Augean Stables of the Johannesburg Detective Branch', applauded by friend and foe alike, and commended in British diplomatic correspondence, was no secret, and due to the affinity between the two Services, can be seen as a reliable guide to what must have been going on in De Geheime Dienst. His sharp tongue lashings and unwavering insistence on only the best were major revitalizing factors. But Schutte had also been hard-working and hard on laggards. What set Smuts apart was the astuteness with which he combined professional knowledge of foreign affairs, and the British temperament, with inspiring control of the Secret Service. Schutte was a man for police work and could display much tact in handling rowdy Cornish miners with his Zarps, but he lacked feeling for diplomatic imponderables and competency in evaluating the scraps of information which his Secret Service agents harvested. What was a burden to Schutte was a delightful challenge to Smuts. Easily frightened by bold threats of war from British diplomats and never in doubt of what the outcome of a military clash with the British Empire would be, he throve on diplomatic skirmishes where combat could be on more equal terms.
Smuts's efforts to impress the government with the fact that the Secret Service was as important a factor as increased armament for the Republic's safety, resulted in more funds and agents and a marked increase in the volume, variety and quality of their activities. All efforts were still directed at ensuring an early warning of internal and external threats. To confound the opposition, agents invariably received their instructions orally and no clear picture of any pattern of operations or method of investigation emerges except for the rule that agents were moved as frequently as possible to avoid focusing too much attention on their doings. Some covers were, inevitably, blown, and a thrashing or tarring and feathering by outraged Uitlanders was sometimes narrowly escaped and there was more than one thrilling chase across the border from Natal with mounted riflemen in close attendance, but there is no evidence of fatalities.
Whenever possible, agents were expected to report personally to Smuts or one of his confidential clerks, one of whom was the State President's son, Tjaart. If, due to long distances or the urgency of preliminary reports, this was not feasible, local officials acted as go-betweens, or reports were posted disguised as routine correspondence. A special courier might be dispatched from Pretoria in the case of agents working abroad having to submit periodic reports.
Due to their training, selected detectives doubled as secret agents and for certain tasks officials from other departments were employed. Bantu Commissioners, traders, doctors, police, customs officials, postmasters and railway officials, whose special knowledge or authority could be used to assist with a specific line of inquiry in the course of their normal duties fell into this category. They could be asked to keep an eye on suspect activities on the Irene Estate near Pretoria, or to trace the origin and destination of mail posted to a non-existent address in Johannesburg, or watch the movements of strangers from Rhodesia in Bantu reserves, or be present when crates of unusual shape were delivered at a certain mine. On rare occasions they could even be asked to report on the movements of a colleague. It can also be assumed that there existed a body of sub-agents in neighbouring territories who by virtue of their residence or occupation could supply a steady and reliable flow of information on comings and goings in clubs, railway stations and harbours. There is also evidence of much useful work done by unsolicited informers. It is less clear how and to whom information was passed on from the State Attorney's office. Obviously military intelligence went to the Commandant-General's office, but Joubert's indifference to the subject caused Smuts and military minded police officers much concern and Smuts preferred to deal directly with the competent staff of the State Artillery. Where its own security was involved information was passed on to the Orange Free State which came to rely heavily on the Secret Service of the Transvaal for military intelligence. Counter-insurgency and counter-espionage
The close association which existed at all levels between the Secret Service and the Detective Branch was, by and large, a happy and convenient family affair. This was because of both the many similarities of training and function and the common shortage of personnel which mutual assistance could alleviate. Under Smuts, counter-intelligence kept the opposition quiet, though it did not notch up startling successes. Firstly it kept breathing down the necks of identified and active anti-republican organizations. Reports of all public and many private meetings of the S.A. League were on Smuts's desk within twenty-four hours. The moment they left the train at Park Station, visiting leaders of the League were shadowed, as were some prominent British politicians when they left the boat at Cape Town. The Secret Service also succeeded in keeping whatever insurgent tendencies there were to manageable proportions by the mere fact of its existence, if not by its real or imagined omnipresence. This was one of the effects produced by the celebrated 'Army Plot'.
The Army Plot Case was at the time, and has since been presented as the supreme example of Geheime Dienst bungling and rightly so, if one were to go purely by the court verdict which revealed, moreover, to shrewd observers something of the machinations in the Service, such as a measure of animosity among those at the top, which seemed to vindicate Milner's initial view that the accusations were 'a Pothouse conspiracy which (Boer) spies have carefully nursed', and 'further convincing evidence of the utterly vicious and depraved character of the Boer administration'.
But a deeper look than the verdict and Uitlander newspaper comment discloses a picture of deep concern for the safety of the state, of toiling agents with a sure knowledge of a plot, but handicapped by lack of conclusive legal evidence and confounded by the process of administrative reshuffling following Smuts's take-over of the Secret Service. It reveals Smuts's labouring under pressure from Kruger, diplomatic considerations and a sabre-rattling British High Commissioner; and uncertainty when to clamp down or how much to reveal of the Secret Service to secure in an open court a conviction of conspirators whom he knew to be guilty.
Following a lengthy and intensive investigation, a number of British subjects, of whom R. F. Nicholls and G. Patterson were the main accused, were arrested on charges of espionage and conspiracy. At the beginning of 1899, when the Secret Service was dangling halfway between Schutte and Smuts, there were strong indications that Patterson was recruiting Uitlanders in Johannesburg for an assault on the fort and mounted police barracks which were to be held until military aid from outside the Republic arrived. This was nothing but an unimaginative re-echoing of the aims and realities of the Jameson Raid and unfounded rumours of such plots had ever since been ten cents a dozen. Because of this, Patterson was initially subjected to no more than routine inquiry. However, it was soon apparent that Patterson's plotting was not limited to stoep talk, but was an active movement involving secret meetings, recruitment, fund-raising, attempts to obtain plans of the fort from disgruntled ex-police officers and at least a smattering of correspondence relating to couriers, arms and ammunition, and the dispatch of British army officers to take charge.
This information tallied with other counter-intelligence references to aliens and known British officers in disguise moving about the Transvaal with cameras and sketch books, asking questions about the establishments of police posts, the whereabouts of military stores and vital installations and appraising the lie of the land along the borders. Reports from the two Colonies on conversations with assignment to Kimberley and, in the course of the rest of the year, his duties took him to Lichtenburg and Zeerust. January of 1898 found him in Ladysmith and thereafter till August, consistent with the policy of not keeping an agent in one place for too long, he was moved regularly between Durban and Bulawayo. Memoranda on military manoeuvres in Zululand, photos and maps of the large army camp at Ladysmith and a remarkably accurate report on the British order of battle in Natal at the time were submitted to Schutte. During April and May 1899 he was once more either in Bulawayo or in Kimberley and his reports from there led Smuts to conclude that a British offensive from these parts was unlikely.
During the critical second half of 1899 Schroeder formed part of the concerted final effort of some twelve agents in Natal and the Cape at a time when the plan of joint operations of the two Republics was revolving around an offensive in these areas. With the exception of another brief excursion to Kimberley, Schroeder remained in Natal till the end of September and reported in detail on the morale of the British troops, the experience of officers and warrant-officers, the horsemanship of the mounted infantry, the seasoning of their mounts and even the state of muzzle wear of the field artillery. His last pre-war assignment was to the north-western Cape to shadow Colonel Baden-Powell, reports on whom indicated that an investment of Mafeking at an early stage in the war would be advisable.
From the information gathered in Natal it was apparent by the beginning of October that there were no British forces between the main body, which consisted of some 3 000 to 3 500 infantry, and five field batteries at Ladysmith and the Transvaal border. Their most probable opening move would have been to occupy the passes around Laingsnek and Van Reenen to await reinforcements still at sea. There can be little doubt that this assessment exerted much influence on fixing the middle of October as the date for the opening of the Republican campaign. While it is generally acknowledged that this date was well chosen, it is not realized that at least three agents affirmed that the second week of October would find British troops strung out along the Durban-Ladysmith railwayline, military preparations at Ladysmith uncompleted due to a shortage of certain supplies and the intended forward movement to occupy the passes delayed through unacclimatized troops suffering from the digestive upsets of the early South African summer. A week before the Kruger ultimatum, agent 'John', suggested that the best strategy would be for one thrust coming from the Transvaal border to meet up with another over the Van Reenen Pass at Ladysmith. But for the fact that this was what the joint Republican command had already decided on, 'John' might have written the directive for the opening campaign! As it was, the harvest of information from Natal was doubtless the main reason for Smuts, in a memorandum to the Executive Council, counselling an immediate thrust toward Pietermaritzburg.
A second type of assignment, which Smuts was later to put to good use, was the assessment of the political orientation of Afrikaners in Natal and the northern Cape Colony. In the event of a Boer offensive in these areas it would be vital to know where and how much support for the Republican cause could be expected. Detailed reports on areas as far as Stellenbosch were gathered in the course of 1899, and there is no doubt that the planning of routes for the incursions into the Colony by Smuts and other Boer generals at a later stage of the War, was greatly influenced by this information.
The third field of investigation -- gauging the attitude of the Bantu, resulted in sombre forebodings of lawlessness once a relaxation of effective policing among the tribes and on the borders would leave the way open for British agents to stir up anti-republican feelings among them. More encouraging was the indication that the Rhodesian authorities feared a Bantu rising of their own so that no military action would be possible against the Republic from the north.
The Secret Service during the Anglo-Boer War
De Geheime Dienst was to figure in one more act -- the War itself. It functioned in three areas; the home front, the battle front and behind enemy lines. A section of the Service was kept occupied in Pretoria and the Johannesburg area. Large numbers of British subjects were allowed to remain in the Republic because of the key positions they held in the commercial world and even in the public service. To ensure security among thousands of enemy subjects, who were concentrated in one area and whose movements were not subjected to efficient police control, was well nigh impossible. Despite watchfulness in Johannesburg and Pretoria which led to discoveries of caches of arms and explosives and 300 carrier pigeons for communication with the advancing British forces, all efforts in this field were foredoomed to failure. Every Britisher was inclined, and in a position, to undermine the Republican war effort and, in the absence of the Zarps who were employed in the front line and with the commandeering of detectives and many Secret Service agents for the commandos, there was ample opportunity for subversion. It was a well-known fact that the head of the Pretoria telegraph department, a British subject, was in a position to study confidential war telegrams before they reached the government! Still the only successful case of serious sabotage was the destruction of the Begbie munitions factory in Johannesburg. Other tasks included the screening of members of the many foreign corps established for military service for the Republic; the registration of officer prisoners of war and the transport of bullion.
In the military field espionage was continued in the course of the first six months of the war, while a semblance of a regular frontline remained and a central bureau still functioned to receive reports. At the outbreak of the war a new function arose when agents with first-hand local military and geographical knowledge were formed into a Field Intelligence Branch. These agents were many things rolled into one. From a purely military point of view they could be attached to the staff of senior commanders to function as receivers and interpreters of information. This was what Smuts had in mind when he appointed Schroeder to the staff of General J.H.M. Kock on the Natal front on the day of the outbreak of hostilities. Schroeder's staff had been spies until the previous day and were now waiting for him just across the border, ready to point out the British positions through which they had strolled less than forty-eight hours before in the guise of vendors.(3)
Another task of the Field Intelligence Branch was to ensure field security which involved censorship of frontline newspaper correspondents' dispatches and letters of burghers; countering sabotage of railways and war supplies; safeguarding telegraphic communications; investigating suspect actions of enemy civilians behind the frontlines in the Colony and Natal; recovering stolen military and civilian property and inspecting passes of train passengers. Schrader's headquarters were at Glencoe but sub-agencies were attached to units guarding communications at Newcastle, Modderspruit and Dundee.
On the Cape front a close liaison was maintained with the Detective Branch of the Orange Free State which was used in the same capacity under the command of A. Burchardt. A steady withdrawal of the Secret Service headquarters followed the collapse of the Natal and Cape fronts early in 1900. On the southern front the Field Intelligence was first established at Bloemfontein, then Kroonstad and finally Vereeniging. After the fall of Pretoria in May De Geheime Dienst disappeared as a unit and, perhaps with poetic justice, died as it was born, in obscurity.
De Geheime Dienst was deprived by the war of the opportunity of developing to a level comparable to that of the Secret Service of any European power and was for obvious reasons, such as lack of funds, numbers and experience, perhaps not as successful as its opposite number, the British Secret Service. But despite this and some miscarriages, the Service could look back on the five years of its existence with satisfaction. Internally it had, if largely only by virtue of its existence, smothered any prospect of a second Uitlander rising, while its efforts in the field of military intelligence left its mark on every successful or imaginative operation undertaken by the Republican forces on anything like a large scale. It was neither a tyranny nor a farce, but a well-conceived and justified undertaking and its performance was fully commensurate with what could reasonably have been expected of it and deserving of greater recognition among military historians.
1. Kruger's Secret Service, by one who was in it, (London) and Secret Service in South Africa, (W. Caddel, co-author, London, 1911) .
2. Public Archives, Pretoria. SP885, GCPM 159/99.
3. Smuts had a very high opinion of Schroeder as is demonstrated by his appointment as Smuts's Chief of Military Intelligence for the 1917 German East Africa Campaign in spite of offers of a British staff.
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