Operation Bernhard

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A £5 note (White fiver) forged by the Jewish Sachsenhausen concentration camp prisoners

Operation Bernhard was the codename of a secret Nazi plan devised during the Second World War by the RSHA and the SS to destabilise the British economy via economic warfare by flooding the global economy and the British Empire with forged Bank of England £5, £10, £20, and £50 notes. It was the largest counterfeiting operation in the history of economic warfare, and the first that employed the full technical/scientific and management expertise of a sovereign state to produce and deploy bogus currency with the aim of destabilising an enemy belligerent’s economic standing with its allies, as well as its acceptance by neutral powers.

Britain was especially vulnerable because its war effort was founded upon - and sustained by - its global and Imperial economy. That economy was built upon directly-ruled colonial possessions, self-governing Commonwealth Dominions and the Empire's currency zone, the Sterling Preference Area. These worked in commerce with neutral powers to acquire the manpower and material necessary to fight a global war. Each of these trading partners accepted the British currency for the exchange of goods and services and maintained their own reserves of it for transactions with, and within the Empire. Confidence in the integrity of this (then global) currency, both in and outside of the Sterling Preference Area, was essential to sustaining the vitality of the Empire, and through it, the war effort. The German operation to undermine the British currency has been dramatised in books, the BBC comedy-drama miniseries Private Schulz and a 2007 Oscar-winning Austrian film, The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher).


Origins of the plan[edit]

Arthur Nebe, the proposer of the idea that became Operation Bernhard, pictured in 1942

At a meeting on 18 September 1939 Arthur Nebe, the head of the Reichskriminalpolizeiamt—the central criminal investigation department of Nazi Germany—put forward a proposal to use known counterfeiters to counterfeit British paper currency. Nebe's superior officer, Reinhard Heydrich, liked the plan, but was unsure of using the police files to find the available individuals.[n 1] The main objection to the plan came from Walther Funk, the Reich Minister for Economic Affairs.[2]

British paper currency[edit]

The designs used on British paper currency at the beginning of the Second World War were introduced in 1855 and had altered only slightly over the intervening years.[3] According to John Keyworth, the curator of the Bank of England Museum, as the paper currency had never been successfully counterfeited, the Bank of England "was a little complacent about the design of its notes and the production of them".[4]

The notes were made from white rag paper with black printing on one side and a watermark across the middle. In the top left-hand corner was an engraving of Britannia by Daniel Maclise, RA.[3] The £5, also known as the White Fiver, measured 7 1116" x 4 1116" (195mm x 120mm);[5] while the £10, £20 and £50 notes measured 8 14" x 5 14" (211mm x 133mm).[6] The currency was described by Kenworthy as "technologically ... very simple".[7]


SS Major Bernhard Krüger, shown after his capture in 1946

The plan was directed by, and named after, Schutzstaffel Sturmbannführer (SS Major) Bernhard Krüger, who set up a team of 142 counterfeiters from inmates at Sachsenhausen concentration camp at first, and then from other camps, especially Auschwitz. Beginning in 1942 the work of engraving the complex printing plates, developing the appropriate rag-based paper with the correct watermarks, and breaking the code to generate valid serial numbers was extremely difficult, but by the time Sachsenhausen was evacuated in April 1945 the printing press had produced 8,965,080 banknotes with a total value of £134,610,810. The notes are considered among the most perfect counterfeits ever produced, being almost impossible to distinguish from the real currency.

The plan was to destabilise the British economy during the war by dropping the notes from aircraft, on the assumption that most Britons would collect the money and spend it, thus triggering inflation. This scheme was not put into effect: it was postulated that the Luftwaffe did not have enough aircraft to deliver the forgeries, and by that time the operation was in the hands of SS foreign intelligence. From late 1943 approximately one million notes per month were printed. Many were transferred from SS headquarters to a former hotel near Meran in South Tyrol, Northern Italy, from where they were laundered and used to pay for strategic imports and German secret agents operating in Allied countries. It has been rumoured that counterfeit currency was used to finance the rescue of Benito Mussolini in 1943.

The entrance to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where the forgers operated.

The Bank of England learned of a plot from a spy as early as 1939 and detected forged notes in 1943, which were called "the most dangerous ever seen". Clerks first recorded the counterfeits from a British bank in Tangiers. Every banknote issued by the Bank of England was recorded in large leather-bound ledgers, still in the Bank's archives and it was found that one of the notes had been recorded as having been paid off.[clarification needed] The counterfeiting team turned its attention to US currency, producing samples of one side of $100 bills on 22 February 1945, with production scheduled to start the next day but the Reich Security Head Office (RSHA) ordered the work halted and the press dismantled.

On the evacuation of Sachsenhausen, the counterfeiting team was transferred to Redl-Zipf in Austria, a subsidiary camp of Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. At the beginning of May 1945, the team was ordered to transfer to Ebensee subsidiary camp, where they were to be murdered.[8] Their SS guards had only one truck for the prisoners, so the transfer required three trips. The truck broke down during the third trip and the last batch of prisoners had to be marched to Ebensee, where they arrived on 4 May. The guards of the first two batches of prisoners fled when the prisoners at the Ebensee camp revolted and refused to be moved into tunnels, where they would have probably been blown up. The counterfeiters then dispersed among the prisoners at Ebensee. The order was that all the counterfeiters be liquidated together; the delayed arrival of the third batch therefore saved the lives of all of them.

The Ebensee camp was liberated by US forces on 6 May 1945.[9] One of the prisoners, the Jewish Slovak printer-turned-counterfeiter Adolf Burger, later contributed to the awareness of Operation Bernhard with several versions of his memoirs published in Central European languages and in Persian. An English version was published in 2009 as The Devil's Workshop.[10]

After the war, Major Krüger was detained by the British for two years, then turned over to the French for a year. He said they asked him to forge documents but that he refused. He was released in 1948 without charge. In the 1950s he went before a De-Nazification Court, where statements were produced from the forger-inmates whose lives he had been responsible for saving. He later worked for the company that had produced the special paper for the Operation Bernhard forgeries.

After the defeat of the Third Reich, large bundles of fake pounds ended up in the hands of the Jewish underground, which used the forged notes to buy equipment and to bring displaced persons to Palestine, among them Chaim Shurik, a Polish printer whose 20-page account of his counterfeiting days was written in Hebrew.[11]

It is believed that most of the notes produced ended up at the bottom of Lake Toplitz near Ebensee,[12] from where they were recovered by divers in 1959.[13] But examples turned up in circulation in Britain for many years, which caused the Bank of England to withdraw all notes larger than £5 from circulation. A new £5 banknote coloured blue was issued on 21 February 1957 and the other denominations were reintroduced on 21 February 1964 (£10), 9 July 1970 (£20) and 20 March 1981 (£50).[14]

German spy Elyesa Bazna (codename "Cicero") was paid with counterfeit notes, sued the German government after the war for outstanding pay and lost the case.

In fiction[edit]

Adolf Burger displaying a forged £5 note at the Paris première of Die Fälscher, January 2008

A fictional version of Operation Bernhard was the topic of a comedy drama serial, Private Schulz, starring Michael Elphick and Ian Richardson, produced by the BBC in 1980.

Operation Bernhard forms part of the backstory for the forger in the 1972 Frederick Forsyth novel, The Odessa File.

The 2007 Oscar-winning Austrian film, The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher), tells the story of Salomon Sorowitsch, loosely based on the lives of counterfeiter Salomon Smolianoff and Adolf Burger, a Jewish Slovak book printer who was put to work on Operation Bernhard in Sachsenhausen concentration camp and whose memoirs were turned into the screenplay.[15]

In the film 5 Fingers, based upon the life of the German spy Cicero, the final plot turn is the revelation that the British currency is counterfeit.

In the British comedy series Goodnight Sweetheart starring Nicholas Lyndhurst, the episode "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" involves the main characters catching a Nazi spy who was uttering notes, forged by Operation Bernhard, in local pubs and shops in London.

See also[edit]

  • Superdollars – high-quality counterfeit dollars suspected to come from a foreign power


  1. ^ Heydrich was also the head of the International Criminal Police Organisation (now known as INTERPOL), and was concerned that the use of the files of known criminals would discredit Germany's control over the organisation.[1]


  1. ^ Malkin 2008, p. 5.
  2. ^ Malkin 2008, pp. 3–6.
  3. ^ a b Security by Design, 2007, p. 4.
  4. ^ The Great Nazi Cash Swindle, 2004, Event occurs at 11:52–11:56.
  5. ^ Withdrawn Banknotes Reference Guide, p. 23.
  6. ^ Withdrawn Banknotes Reference Guide, pp. 29, 35, 43.
  7. ^ The Great Nazi Cash Swindle, 2004, Event occurs at 12:04–12:07.
  8. ^ Malkin 2008, p. 184.
  9. ^ Max Garcia, "Befreiung des KZ-Nebenlagers Ebensee: Neue historische Details." Zeitschrift des Zeitgeschichtemuseums Ebensee, 1998.
  10. ^ Adolf Burger, The Devil's Workshop. 2009. Frontline Books. ISBN 978-1-84832-523-4
  11. ^ Kalish, Jon (4 July 2008). "The Counterfeit Saga(s): What Really Happened at Sachsenhausen?". The Forward. Retrieved 2014-01-21. 
  12. ^ "Nazis Try To Raise Fortune From Seabed.". The Canberra Times. Canberra, ACT. 27 September 1963. p. 7. 
  13. ^ Counterf-Hitler: Examples from the £134million in dodgy bank notes Adolf hoped would ruin the British economy expected to fetch £2,000 at auction
  14. ^ "Bank of England: Withdrawn Banknotes Reference Guide" (PDF). Bankofengland.co.uk. 
  15. ^ Compare records of Smolianoff's 1946 debriefing, PRO MEPO 3/2766, from Lawrence Malkin's website



Internet and television media[edit]

Newspapers, journals and magazines[edit]

  • Feller, Steven A.; Hamilton, Charles E. (September 1985). "Operation Bernhard: The Ultimate Counterfeiting Scheme". The Numismatist. Colorado Springs, Co: American Numismatic Association: 1766–1772. 
  • Tiley, Marc (August 2007). "The Third Reich's Bank of England". History Today. 57 (8): 50–55. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Burke, Bryan (1987). Nazi Counterfeiting of British Currency during World War II: Operation Andrew and Operation Bernhard. San Bernardino, CA: Book Shop. ISBN 978-0-9618-2740-3. 
  • Delgado, Arturo R (2006). Counterfeit Reich: Hitler's Secret Swindle. Frederick, MD: PublishAmerica. ISBN 978-1-4241-0389-8.