By Mabell, Dave on November 6, 2017.
A 20-pound note wouldn’t buy you a lot today in England
But as Remembrance Day nears, a Lethbridge man speculates on what impact millions of counterfeit 20s would have had on the British economy during the Second World War.
Albert Hing, who served with the Royal Australian Air Force during the war, has collected war medals, insignia and photos over many decades since. He’s donated some with local importance – like Brigadier General John Stewart’s mementoes – to the Royal Canadian Legion, the Galt Museum or the military museum at the Vimy Armoury.
More recently, Hing has come into possession of one of those bogus British notes, and learned the story behind it.
As Nazi forces swept over eastern Europe, he explains, they took prisoners from the nations they occupied. Undercover agents were able to find skilled graphics and printing technicians, and conscript them for a top-secret task.
Based on then-new 1937 Bank of England notes, they were to copy them and print literally millions. Then, as the German forces were turning their attention to Britain, the notes would be loaded onto aircraft and scattered over the major cities of England, Scotland and Wales.
“That would have created economic chaos,” Hing says, with few people able to tell the fake notes from real ones. How many shopkeepers would take that risk?
Nazi agents placed stockpiles of the counterfeit currency in strategic locations across the English Channel and North Sea, waiting for an order to launch the flights.
“It never happened,” he says – though he can’t say why.
The first phase, code-named Unternehmen (operation) Andreas was to begin in 1940. But Britain declared war in the fall of 1939, and by 1940 Britain and Germany were locked in the Battle of Britain. The Nazis launched a far more devastating weapon, the blitzkrieg.
And the counterfeiting operation took on a new name and purpose. As operation Bernhard, it produced British notes – reportedly totalling up to 300 million pounds – which were to be used by intelligence agents in obtaining wartime secrets from third-party sources, and to help free Italian leader Benito Mussolini during a raid in 1943.
Most of the bogus bills were later destroyed, Hing says, or dropped to the bottom of deep European lakes. But some remained in circulation after the war, forcing the Bank of England to release a new design.
Today, seven decades later, the 20-pound notes and smaller denominations are rarely found. It was a military collector friend in Toronto who let him know three had surfaced, Hing says.
It was also seven decades ago that Hing moved to Canada – first as a farm worker in Saskatchewan, later as an Agriculture Canada research staff member at Swift Current and then Lethbridge.
His first home here was at Kenyon Field, he explains, where food and accommodation were offered in facilities recently vacated by the Royal Canadian Air Force training school.
Canadian Pacific was the city’s biggest employer in those days, Hing says – and it paid better than the federal government. So he found a job with the railway, retiring 40 years later as yardmaster of the company’s industrial Churchill yard with its network of spurs and sidings on the city’s northside.
Hing never retired from collecting, though he’s sold some of his more valuable items. It still remains one of the most extensive military collections in Alberta. And at 93, he remains active in the Masonic Lodge, the Legion and Wing 702.
When interviewed, he wasn’t decided on his plans for this year’s Remembrance Day observances. But after enjoying extensive travels during his railway days and since, he’s already making plans for his next adventure.
“I’m going to take the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok ” he says. “And then I want to walk on the Great Wall of China.”
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