An old mystery

Lt. Colonel Harold Hartney was a senior US air force officer. In fact he was one of the first, an ace of the First World War who commanded the 27th Aero Squadron and the US 1st Pursuit Group. In his memoirs he tells the following strange tale:
     “I had been home (in England) only three hours. Irene had just told me of a sweet girl who had been living in the same house with her and had married one of the non-coms in the mystery-secret camp close by. An amazing development had been going on there. The local people thought it was the construction of a tremendous new explosive which would blow up whole towns and areas. One day men came to the house and took the young bride away and she was shot at 5:40 in the morning before I arrived (this would have been September 10th 1916). The activity that had been going on was the first secret development of the first tanks and the charming German spy had been caught trying to transmit news of it to her fatherland. C’est la guerre. It’s a good thing she didn’t get through. Some claim she did.”
     An exciting tale. But, hang on, no female German spies were executed in the UK during the First World War, so what is Hartney going on about? Some sort of wartime urban myth?
     Well possibly. After all, if such an execution really did take place then there has been a massive effort to keep it out of all public records and if that is true how did Hartney know the exact time of the woman’s execution? Furthermore, this was an era when there was much speculation about “la femme fatale”. Mata Hari was not arrested until the following year, but Gabrielle Petit had been executed by the Germans in April of that year and Edith Cavell in October of the year before. There was also much speculation during the war about “Die Fraulein Doktor”, a female German secret service officer who was supposed to command a ring of female super-agents – although I’m not sure that these tales were current as early as 1916.
     On the other hand there are several rather unsettling aspects to this story: Hartney was not the sort of officer to repeat idle gossip and his wife said that the woman was “living in the same house with her” so this is not just the case of some story heard third-hand down the pub.
     Was Hartney simply trying to spice up his memoirs? Was his wife lying to him for some reason? Or was someone lying to her about the reason for the bride’s sudden disappearance? Any (sensible) suggestions gratefully accepted.


2 thoughts on “An old mystery

  1. gusonk17 Post author

    Curse you and your Ockham-like mind Sandra! 🙂 This would suggest that Mrs Hartney was helping the girl to cover her tracks with her tale of troops arriving at the house to cart the girl away, but I think you may well be on the right track. Claiming to have been shot as a spy as a way of escaping a failed marriage seems a bit extreme, but then again, I’ve known people who might have tried it…


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