Swiss spymaster settled in Cork after his schemes earned notoriety

Sat, May 14, 2011, 01:00

ALBERT BACHMANN:COLONEL ALBERT Bachmann, who has died in Cork at the age of 81, was the James Bond of Switzerland.

He came to west Cork in 1963, fell in love with the area and bought property there. At the time he was rising through the ranks of Swiss military intelligence, though Switzerland is typically seen as the world’s most neutral state with few if any belligerent enemies.

He first came to prominence with what his detractors dubbed ironically the “Little Red Book” – a civil defence booklet which was sent to every Swiss household.

The volume hinted at the likelihood of invasion from the east, and also suggested that the Swiss should spy on each other.

Bachmann escaped the fuss caused by these views by going on a secret mission to Biafra, then trying to secede from Nigeria, where he implied mysteriously that he was involved in secret arms deals with the Shah of Iran. He passed himself off as an upper-crust Englishman called Henry Peel who smoked a pipe, though with his Germanic accent it is difficult to imagine this disguise was successful.

He was promoted to colonel in the intelligence and defence section of Switzerland’s Untergruppe Nachrichtendienst der Armee (UNA). This gave him authority over three units of secret Swiss military intelligence, including a special service set up to respond to any threat of Soviet invasion, which he felt very sure of.

He enlarged a resistance force which was to harass any occupying army and trained his special agents in the art of bomb-making, sharp-shooting, encryption and assassination, and there were specially trained guides to bring important officials across the Alps.

With Swiss military money he bought 200 acres of land and Liss Ard house outside Skibbereen. The property was a large, early Victorian house built by the O’Donovans. Though he claimed it was a hotel – and it was opened as such by Fine Gael TD Jim O’Keeffe – it was in fact planned as a hideaway for the Swiss government if it had to go into exile.

Known locally as “The Funk Hole of Europe”, it was equipped with all modern high-tech computer facilities long before such equipment was widespread in Ireland. The cellars were dug out and strengthened to store the massive Swiss gold reserves that the government would bring with them.

There was meticulous planning for this “Operation Edelweiss”. Even Swiss army buttons and other insignia were lodged in embassies – presumably so they could be sewn on to uniforms in the event of a counter-attack on the invaders.

Albert Bachmann, the son of a housepainter, was born in Albisrieden, now part of Zurich.He left school at 14 and worked in a printing firm. He joined the Freie Jugend, the youth wing of the Swiss Labour Party, whose politics were communist, but after the communist coup in 1948 in Prague he became resolutely right-wing and pro-West.

He did his national service with the Swiss Grenadiers and was accepted into the officer training academy, where he specialised in gathering military intelligence. He would often say he was the only general staff officer with a moustache and a forearm tattoo.

It was not until 1979 that there was any investigation into his initiatives – none of which had any official sanction.

In November that year, Austria, also a neutral state and friendly to Switzerland, held troop manoeuvres near the city of St Polten. They invited observers from all over the Eastern Bloc to watch the operation, but also watching from a parked car – wearing high rubber boots (presumably in order to follow the troops through a muddy stretch of the Danube River valley), was a time and motion expert called Kurt Schilling, one of Bachmann’s trainee undercover agents.

Schilling had with him espionage gear including maps, binoculars, a camera and notebook, but had already attracted suspicion by spending days nosing round the local barracks and command posts asking soldiers about their positions.

He was arrested on suspicion of being an Eastern Bloc spy, but to the Austrians’ astonishment and even more to that of the Swiss it turned out he had been sent by Bachmann to gather information that was in fact freely available.

Schilling, known as “the spy who came in from the Emmenthaler”, a reference to Switzerland’s most famous cheese, was given a suspended sentence and sent home.

It was deeply embarrassing for the Swiss government that they should be found to be spying on a friendly nation from whom they held few, if any, military secrets. Bachmann was suspended and for a short time was suspected of being a double agent. This was proved not to be true, but when his other unorthodox activities were investigated he had to resign.

From then on he spent much time in Cork, where he had holiday properties in Tragumna and Schull. He hunted with the West Carberry, where he was something of an embarrassment, having his own ideas about which fields he could gallop across without the permission of the owners.

He was always wary of being photographed in the pubs and restaurants he frequented, but said he did not regret the actions that had brought him notoriety. “I am not bitter. I accept the judgment of others, but have enough confidence in myself to know what I am capable of.”

Col Albert Bachmann: born November 26th, 1929; died April 12th, 2011