P is for Oreste Pinto

This is my contribution to Round Twelve of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.

Oreste PintoOnce dubbed by Dwight Eisenhower as the greatest living expert on security, Oreste Pinto was one of the colourful characters of World War II espionage and the original ‘Spycatcher’ who created his own myth.

Born in Amsterdam in 1889, Pinto was first recruited to the murky world of counter-intelligence while studying philology at the Sorbonne in 1911.

He was living in the student quarter of the Left Bank when he was approached by one of his fellow lodgers who was in fact an agent of the French Deuxieme Bureau.

Pinto’s chief qualification was his linguistic ability – he spoke Dutch, German, French and English fluently – but he also had the brains and the brawn being a skilled amateur boxer and an international standard bridge player.

At the outbreak of World War I Pinto was ordered to Germany under the guise of representing his brother’s tobacco business and for nine months he sent back reports on troop and warship movements until he was forced to flee after one of his contacts was arrested. He spent the rest of the war behind the lines interrogating prisoners.

Boys Book of SpiesBetween the wars Pinto turned his hand to business and established a translation bureau and a company dealing in exotic fruits, but like many other ‘spooks’, he wasn’t averse to breaking the law himself and he was convicted of embezzlement on several occasions.

And true to his colourful nature, Pinto also kept one of the largest private zoos in Europe, a collection of animals that he later donated to London Zoo.

Pinto had married his English wife, Annie Brookes, in 1914 after meeting her in Amsterdam and the couple lived in London. As a result, he had been contacted by MI5, but he wasn’t officially employed since he would not give up his Dutch citizenship.

Even so, Pinto adopted Frank Jackson as his nom de guerre at the outbreak of World War II when he led the unit responsible for vetting foreign nationals of Dutch origin for possible enemy spies.

It was as an interrogator that Pinto was to make his name. He preferred to use guile rather than physical intimidation and there are many stories of how he outwitted his opponents into giving themselves away.

In one instance he questioned a refugee named Emile Boulanger who claimed to be a Belgian farmer, but who Pinto was convinced was in fact a German spy.

Pinto’s first attempt to unmask him was to arrange for smoke to be blown under Boulanger’s door while he slept as the guards shouted ‘feuer’. Boulanger was woken by the noise but he ignored the cries of ‘feuer’ and only reacted when the soldiers began to shout ‘fire’ in French.

SpycatcherThis odd reaction only served to make Pinto even more suspicious and during a later interrogation he spoke to one of the soldiers in fluent German ordering the prisoner’s execution by firing squad, but still Boulanger showed no reaction to the words.

The next day Boulanger was brought before Pinto who handed him his release papers and told him that he was free to go. The relieved Boulanger thanked him and got up to leave until he realised that Pinto had been speaking to him in German.

It is the sort of story that has become the stuff of WWII spy movies, but in reality Pinto is credited with unmasking eight German spies, six of whom were hanged.

Throughout his work in England, Pinto refused to give up his nationality and worked for the Dutch security services and in 1944 he was posted to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in Brussels as head of Dutch counter-intelligence. It was here that he did his most important work in uncovering spies who attempted to infiltrate allied lines which led to the compliment from General Eisenhower.

Spycatcher 2After the war Pinto worked in Germany on behalf of the Dutch government investigating crimes committed during the occupation, but was dismissed after he was caught trying to smuggle stolen goods into the Netherlands.

Pinto settled in London and began to write his memoirs and the first volume was published in 1952 as Spy-Catcher and Friend or Foe soon followed. The books formed the basis on the BBC series, Spycatcher, which ran from 1959 to 1961 in which Pinto was played by Bernard Archard, and the Dutch De Fuik programme.

Pinto had been in poor health for some years while committing his story to print and he died in a London hospital in September 1961 aged 71.

4 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 1st May 2013

    Another PIECE of history new to me!
    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

    Reply
  • Supplementary Pudding 1st May 2013

    The Ford Pinto was produced from 1971 to 1980 and became a favoured vehicle for spies but even Oreste’s brother – the famous playwright Harold Pinto – purchased one in order to arrive at first night shows in style. His play “One for the Road” was based on a Pinto journey he once took to Wythenshawe – a shanty town on the edge of an obscure northern city – where he acquired a pinto foal called John Selwyn-Gummer – named after a particularly ineffectual Tory politician.

    Reply
  • ChrisJ 3rd May 2013

    Fascinating piece of history. Just the sort of books I like to read.

    Reply
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