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  • MI5 watched Mata Hari (1999)

    Mata Hari: beautiful exotic dancer turned espionage agent
    Mata Hari, the glamorous World War I spy shot by the French in 1917, was watched by MI5 for two years, according to the newly released secret government papers.
    The former wife of a Dutch army colonel, she was recruited by German intelligence while performing as a stripper in Berlin.

    Special Report: Wartime Spies The sultry spy, who was notorious in prewar Paris for her exotic dancing and libidinous lifestyle, was interrogated twice by the British secret service but they could not force her to reveal her activities.

    She later confessed all to French authorities and was executed. Her MI5 files note however that there was never any evidence that she passed on anything of military importance.

    ‘Unfavourable impression’

    Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands.

    She first attracted the suspicion of British officials in December 1915 and was arrested at the southern English port of Folkestone attempting to board a boat for France.

    Under interrogation, she admitted she was heading for The Hague to live near her lover, a Dutch colonel. But MI5 could not pin anything further on her.

    Her interrogator, Captain S S Dillon, noted at the time: “Although she had good answers to every question, she impressed me very unfavourably, but after having her very carefully searched and finding nothing, I considered I hadn’t enough grounds to refuse her embarkation.”

    The report also noted that she was “handsome, bold … well and fashionably dressed” in a costume with “raccoon fur trimming and hat to match”.


    Mata Hari
    MI5 decided to keep tabs
    MI5 continued to monitored her after she settled in The Hague, and soon an informant revealed she was being paid by the German Embassy.

    A February 1916 intelligence report noted that she was “in relation with highly placed people and during her sojourn in France she made the acquaintance of many French and Belgian officers”.

    “She is suspected of having been to France on important mission for the Germans,” the report said. The report concluded that the matter was being followed up.

    Wrongly suspected

    In November 1916, British authorities removed Mata Hari from a steamer at the port of Falmouth en route from Spain to Holland, believing she was another German spy, Clara Benedix.

    She was taken, along with her 10 travelling trunks, to be interviewed by MI5 and the police. She told them she had been recruited by a Belgian officer, to work for his country’s intelligence service.

    She also alleged that the French consul in Vigo, Spain, had asked her to spy on Russian forces in Austria.

    Death by firing squad

    Once again there was insufficient evidence to detain her and she was sent back to Spain.

    The following year she was arrested by the French authorities, court martialled and sentenced to death by firing squad.

    A French intelligence report shown to MI5 noted: “Mata Hari today confessed that she has been engaged by Consul Cremer of Amsterdam for the German Secret Service.”

    She admitted sending “general information of every kind procurable,” but mentioned no military secrets, it said.

    Tuesday, 26 January, 1999, 23:22 GMT

    Find this story at 26 January 1999

    © BBC