Several years ago, I was visiting my friends Rudi and Joan Kamper of the Western Reserve Section of Ohio MBCA. Rudi wanted to show me his beautifully restored 1937 Mercedes-Benz Typ 290 L Cabriolet B. e restoration was excellent, and it was clear Rudi was quite proud of the car. But what added to the visit was the story Rudi proceeded to share with me on the history of this particular classic.
The year was 1940, the main character was the German Consular to Iceland, Werner Gerlach, and the embassy car he drove, a 1937 290 Mercedes, was the center of this “spy story.”
That spring, it was a common site to see German U Boats and British and American convoy ships sharing the harbors in Iceland, refueling and taking on supplies at the same time. Then the Brits decided enough was enough! e invasion of Iceland, code-named “Operation Fork,” was a British Military Operation conducted by the Royal Navy and Marines. It began in the early morning of May 10, 1940, with British troops landing in Reykjavik, the capital of a neutral Iceland. Meeting no resistance, the troops moved quickly to disable communication networks, secure strategic locations, and arresting German citizens, of which Iceland had many. At the time, Germany had close ties to Iceland, and many of its professional citizens were educated in German universities.
The Government of Iceland issued a protest, charging that the neutrality of Iceland had been “flagrantly violated” and “its independence infringed” and noting that compensation would be expected for all damage done. e British promised compensation, favorable business agreements, non-interference in Icelandic a airs, and the withdrawal of all forces at the end of the war. Resigning themselves to the situation, the Icelandic authorities provided the invasion force with defacto cooperation, though formally maintaining a policy of neutrality.
During the invasion, Werner Gerlach was captured by the British and deported back to Germany. Ambassador Gerlach was a Brigadier General in the German Army and a member of the SS, and as his “cover,” German Consular to Iceland. His personal friend was Heinrich Himmler. Gerlach was a research physician by trade and is credited with patenting the use of spectrometers to identify human genes, the principle of determining DNA from blood samples. Dr. Gerlach continued medical research after the war until his death in Kempton Bavaria in 1961.
The Mercedes-Benz delivered to Ambassador Gerlach in 1939 was build at the Mannheim factory near Nuremberg, Germany. Production vehicles were manufactured in Sindelfingen; however, the Mannheim Werks built cars for government or military use. Gerlach used his position as Ambassador and specically this vehicle as a “spy car.” e M-B 290 was a perfect discrete moving transmitter to broadcast back to Germany the shipping convoy movements from England to the United States. Because the car was always moving, the British could not get a x on the transmission. e car changed hands several times before leaving Iceland for the US in the late 1960s. During the initial restoration, an extensive antenna network was discovered sewn between the soft-top canvas and headliner, and a radio transmitter was found in a hidden compartment behind the dashboard. Two 19-year Icelandic boys, Jon Hjorleifsson and Audunn Gunnarsson in the early ‘60s, completed the first restoration of the 290. they uncovered the sophisticated antenna network inside the headliner. Also found in the parting out process were several hidden compartments. The 290 had no serial number and was made that way for use by German military espionage agents in World War II.
Rudi recently sold this historical vehicle to a private car collector in Iceland. It is currently on display in a museum in Reykjavik depicting life in Iceland during World War II, where this car played a signi cant roll in the early part of the war. For more information the museum and the car, you can contact the curator, Orn Sigurdsson – firstname.lastname@example.org. His English is excellent. Recently, an additional footnote was added to this story. It seems that a young Icelandic boy in the spring of 1940 mustered up the courage to steal the ird Reich ag that was mounted on the right front fender. Once the car was displayed in 2009 in Reykjavik, an elderly man in his early 80s visited the museum and presented the ag back to the new owner. It seems the boy, now the elderly gentleman, saved the ag all these years.
My acknowledgement to Rudi, Joan, and son Dolf for providing the pictures and sharing the history of this restoration. Danke!