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Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Left Hand Thumb by Sven Wickberg

The secret life of General Erik Wickberg in World War 2 as told by his son, Sven Wickberg.

Among my father's papers I found one with the title "COMMISSION", signed 6th June 1944 by Commissioner Karl Larsson, Territorial Commander (TC) of Sweden. This was at a critical time in World War 2. The document is in Swedish. The English translation reads (first part only):

On the basis of letters and telegrams by which the General of The Salvation Army, Geo.L.Carpenter, has authorized me, Commissioner Karl Larsson, on his behalf to uphold communications with those Salvation Army leaders who, due to the conditions of war, are not able to maintain any communication with the General and The Salvation Army's International Headquarters, and at the same time as far as it is practically feasible, make those decisions, which under normal circumstances would be decided by himself.
I, in my turn, commission - in consequence of my approaching trip to the United States - Brigadier Erik Wickberg that he during my absence deal with all relevant matters.
Karl Larsson Commissioner
Commissioner Karl Larsson's signature witnessed by:  Ivar Sörman

When I saw this paper I realized that this probably is the only existing written evidence of my father's most secret mission during WW2. He was then a Salvation Army officer, stationed in Stockholm (Sweden). Officially he was private secretary to Commissioner Karl Larsson. In reality he was "secret agent" to General George Carpenter in London

In August 1939 the highest leaders of the Salvation Army (SA) gathered in London (UK) to elect a new general to replace the retiring General, Evangeline Booth. Karl Larsson -- who should have retired as early as in 1938 at the age of 70 -- had for some reason been granted "a year of grace" (my father's expression) and was present at the High Council that elected George Carpenter to be the fifth General of the SA.  We do not know why Karl Larsson had not retired after his "year of grace". Perhaps there was no suitable replacement at the time, or perhaps Evangeline Booth wanted her successor to decide on this. What we do know, however, is that during the time of the High Council Karl Larsson was asked to prepare to act as an intermediary if the SA in Germany (after an outbreak of war) should be cut off from direct contact with International Headquarters (IHQ) in London.

At this time the international storm clouds were gathering over Europe. The Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had produced one crisis after the other in recent years. Although all of them seemed to have been settled by diplomatic means, this time it didn't look like diplomacy would work. Hitler had broken the München agreement. After having annexed Böhmen and Mähren from Czechoslovakia he had declared that he had "no further territorial claims in Europe". But shortly afterwards he occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. Now there was a threat of armed conflict over the so-called Polish Corridor. If war broke out not only Germany but all surrounding countries would be in the danger zone. The work of the SA would be made difficult. But there was hope that through mediation by neutral Sweden it would be possible to keep in touch.

Of course Karl Larsson declared his readiness to help. But he demanded the aid of someone who was well acquainted with the European field, who had good English and German to be able to do the correspondence and who also, hopefully, could pass as a Swede.

The choice of candidates to fit this description could easily be counted on the thumb of the left hand: there was only one, my father, Erik Wickberg.

Erik's readiness for this assignment had very old roots. Forty years earlier my grandmother, Betty Lundblad - then a 19 year old SA Cadet - accepted an order to go to Berlin. She had been taught German and French in school. In Germany the SA work had just begun and they urgently needed officers who knew the language.
This was in 1897. After five strenuous years she needed a rest and was called back to Sweden. In March 1903 she married my grandfather, David Wickberg, a SA officer she had met some years earlier. Their children Erik and Tott were born in 1904 and 1906.

In 1912 David Wickberg was ordered to take his family with him to Berlin to become Principal of the SA Training College. This order might seem peculiar since David did not know a word of German. Perhaps it was counted on that Betty would help him until he got going. And so she did.  This move was the reason why my father Erik as an eight year old attended school in Berlin and learnt to speak German like a "Berliner". This was to be very useful to him later.

At the outbreak of WW1 (1914) the German HQ was somewhat disorganized. The TC Commissioner MacAlonan and his Chief Secretary Colonel Haines were English and had to make a hasty departure from Germany when the war started. David Wickberg was ordered to accompany them to Sweden. In addition the German Training College had been dissolved because all Cadets had been mobilized and the building was requisitioned for military purposes. Betty was already in Sweden, with the children, at her mother's house in Leksand for summer vacation. David joined them.

Shortly after, David was appointed Educational Officer at the Training College in Stockholm. Later he had a long row of appointments at HQ in Stockholm. At this time it was unusual for SA officers to live at the same place for several years. This however did happen to the Wickberg family, and was why Erik could complete his junior high school education (Sw: "realskolexamen") and also graduate from a business school, where he learned shorthand and typewriting, before his father David's next appointment outside Stockholm.

In 1922 David was sent to Berne (Switzerland) as Principal of the Training College. The boys where only 18 and 16 and there was no choice other than to bring them along. The hard Bernese regulations for foreigners forced the SA in Bern to offer them some job at HQ. So Erik became secretary to the Field Secretary and learned a lot about SA administration before he himself entered the International Training College (ITC)  in London as a SA Cadet in the fall of 1924.  Already while he was in his training session, the Training College Principal in Berlin, Brigadier Max Gruner, applied to IHQ for help from an officer who knew German well, but also knew about the the training at ITC. The idea was to build up the Training College in Berlin with the London equivalent as a model.  There were not many candidates to fit that description. Actually they could be counted on the thumb of the left hand: Erik Wickberg. And thus, after a short term of field practice, Erik Wickberg to his amazement (at the age of 21) found himself as probationary Captain and Education Secretary at the Training College in Berlin (1925).

Ironically, this appointment meant that Erik was supposed to teach the Cadets parts of what he had just been taught in London, and to translate into German and correct the probationary officers' correspondence course that he himself was doing and sending back to London for marking.

Hardly had he accommodated himself to this situation when the next unexpected change occurred. In its wisdom the leadership at IHQ had appointed the Danish Colonel Julius Nielsen as new Chief Secretary (CS) in Berlin. The Colonel had served as Divisional Commander in Sweden and spoke a mixture of Swedish and Danish -- but he could not speak a word of German, and also his English was not very good. And this time there was no German speaking wife to help him out.

It was realized only shortly before the welcome meeting for Colonel Nielsen that an interpreter was badly needed, and quickly! Where to find someone to translate from Swedish-Danish into German? Well, the left thumb was there! Erik received the emergency order to attend the meeting and act as interpreter.

Although Danish and Swedish are very related languages, there are big differences, and it was no easy task for a young man with no former experience of this kind. But it seemed to work well enough, and immediately Erik was - despite furious protests from the Principal - taken from Training College and installed in the new CS's office as private secretary and interpretor. The poor Colonel couldn't even answer the telephone himself!

This appointment proved to be good training for young Erik. In a draft for his memoirs he has written about Julius Nielsen:

He showed an unlimited confidence in me and thereby laid an extremely good foundation for my future development. He was the only chief I can remember to go on his knees and pray with me before our cooperation started.

Erik was to stay on as private secretary for seven and a half years. Nielsen was succeeded in 1930 by Colonel Henry Bower and later Colonel Franz Stankuweit. Much travelling with these leaders gave him a very good knowledge of the territory. He was also in Berlin when Hitler came into power in January 1933 and witnessed for himself how the Germans, sometimes with brutal means, were forced to submit to the Nazi's new order for Germany.

In an unpublished manuscript ("Between the lines"), Dad relates the story of three leading officers at HQ who stepped into the office of the CS, Colonel Stankuweit, clothed in brown shirts and armlet, complete with the Nazi swastika.

With a 'Heil Hitler' (the greeting phrase ordered by the Nazis) they stepped into the CS's office and required that the SA should 'adjust' itself to the new regime. The English Commissioner Howard and the German CS Stankuweit met to take a stand... Stankuweit asked me (his secretary) what they ought to do. I did not hesitate: 'Dismiss these officers. If you do not, you will totally lose hold of the situation...'

They were dismissed, although one of them later apologized and was taken back.

It was with such experience and knowledge that Erik later (in 1934) was sent from Berlin to IHQ in London to be secretary to Commissioner Cunningham, who was the International Secretary for Europe. In autumn of the same year Evangeline Booth was elected to be the successor of General Higgins. She did not want four international secretaries, but was content with one: Commissioner Arthur Blowers. He had (according to Dad's manuscript) been many years in India, but he had no knowledge of Europe. Erik was appointed Assistant Under Secretary for Europe with the special task of travelling with Commissioner Blowers to the Continent, to keep him informed of "foreign letters" and if necessary to write letters in German or Swedish.

Dad writes:

"I travelled with Blowers to Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Denmark and Sweden. This was very useful to me."

Erik's ability with languages was also used by the Chief of the Staff Commissioner John McMillan from Canada. Erik was to accompany him and his wife to Berlin in 1937. [While in Berlin] I got a telegram from London that our youngest son Nils had been born.  Mrs MacMillan asked her husband if he had known that my wife was expecting the baby while we were away. Yes, he answered, but I needed this man. It is not always an advantage to be "the left thumb"!

Now we are back in 1939, when Karl Larsson asked for this help. On one of the last days of August Erik's chief, Commissioner Blowers, said to him: "Take your family to Stockholm for a fortnight and have an extra holiday while the storm blows over." This didn't sound so urgent, but Erik was less optimistic. He cleared his desk and ordered tickets. There was a long queue for the boat from London to Gothenborg in Sweden, but he managed to find accommodation with the Norwegian ship Vega that was leaving Newcastle in the North of England the next evening for Bergen in Norway. From there we went by train to Stockholm.

We had no telephone in those days, so Mother Margarete was taken completely unawares (and very shocked) when Dad came home late and told her we would be leaving in the morning. We were just to pack the most necessary items and leave -- husband, wife and three children ages 9, 6 and 2. And so we did. It turned out later that Vega was the last ship to leave England before the war. The German attack on Poland was announced on the radio the day after our arrival at Stockholm on September 1, 1939.

Thus it was that there was no "extra holiday". Dad reported to Karl Larsson, and soon it was not Berlin but London that turned out to be isolated. The victorious German armies quickly invaded and conquered Middle Europe, became allied with Italy and prepared for a strike on Russia. Only Sweden, Switzerland and Portugal were "outside" the conflict. But the mail to and from even these neutral countries was intercepted by the war-making parties and censored. The contacts with London had to go by telegram.

On April 9, 1940, we woke up to the news that the Germans had occupied Denmark and Norway. It became very clear that we had to take into account that even Sweden might be occupied. How would the occupying German armed forces react if they found an "English" Salvation Army, corresponding with the London Salvation Army and reporting on the situation in Europe?

After discussing this with his staff, Karl Larsson decided - on Erik Wickberg's recommendation - to tell General Carpenter that the war situation made it necessary for him to cease all communications with London. This was done and announced in Stridsropet (the SA weekly magazine in Sweden) on June 7, 1941. What was not announced was that Erik would not only continue to handle the correspondence with the affected parts of Europe but would also, on his own authority, take full responsibility to make those contacts with London that were deemed necessary. It was understood that he should not report on this. Karl Larsson should have the "deniability" of any collaboration with London and could use Erik as the scapegoat if the matter was found out.

General Carpenter never transferred Erik Wickberg to the Swedish territory. In theory he remained appointed to the IHQ in London, on special mission in Sweden. But he changed to Swedish SA uniform trimmings and was presented as "Secretary of Special Affairs" to Commissioner Karl Larsson.

In the Stridsropet (Swedish War Cry) of September 30, 1939, we were presented  like this:

Adjutant Erik Wickberg, stationed at International Headquarters in London, has on account of the disturbances of war arrived, together with his family, in Sweden which is the Adjutant's native country. He will take up a temporary assignment at Headquarters.

That would hardly scare the Nazis... But on June 22, 1940, Stridsropet announces (perhaps somewhat unwisely):

Adjutant Erik Wickberg from Overseas Dept. at IHQ, who at present is placed in Stockholm, has been promoted to the rank of Major.

Perhaps the Editor was warned not to do this again. At any rate, on February 6, 1943, Stridsropet only has the laconic comment:

Major Erik Wickberg has been promoted to the rank of Brigadier. We congratulate!

All these promotions came by telegram from IHQ directly to Erik. Many years later he told me that when  he showed this last one to Karl Larsson, the Commissioner  looked at it for a while and grunted: "Over there they must consider your work as very important!"

The Nazis never occupied Sweden before their fortunes of war turned. After their losses at El Alamein and Stalingrad it became more and more obvious that it was only a matter of time before the Nazis would be definitely defeated. But for a long time they would still be very powerful in Germany and the occupied territories.

The SA was treated in various ways in the different countries. In most places the work could be carried out, but at times there where prohibitions and hardships. It was difficult to get through with economic and practical assistance and to keep the pieces together while waiting for better times.

In another memorandum that I found in my father's files Karl Larsson states:

The sudden dissolution of The Salvation Army in Holland and the further steps in a similar direction, which we had cause to fear (in Elsass-Lothringen a similar prohibition had occurred)  called for swift action. Even though we have not been able to prove that our actions have saved the existence of our work in the different countries, it is nevertheless so that the work has been able to continue everywhere. In our archives we also have letters of gratitude, which the leaders in the different territories sent after the break with IHQ, and those leaders whom I personally have met, have all been in full agreement concerning the precautions which we have taken.

But in the beginning of 1944, General Carpenter found that the time had come for a change. Karl Larsson's "year of grace" had now gone on for six years and had to be terminated. He was now 76 years of age. The General reopened contacts with Sweden by requiring Karl Larsson to make an extensive tour of the Scandinavian Corps in the USA, which the General considered would be very helpful to them. This tour was later extended to South America.

The History of the Salvation Army, Volume Six, 1973, by General Frederick Coutts states: "The upshot was that in San Francisco on November 12th (1944) the Commissioner (Larsson) met Commissioner Charles Baugh, then the Chief of the Staff, and was able to give a faithful account of the faithful stewardship during those years when contact between International Headquarters and the continent of Europe had been broken.

Perhaps the General had intended to let Karl Larsson leave his commission at this point, but this did not suit the Swedish Commissioner who looked upon this journey as a temporary break.

So Karl Larsson prepared for his absence from the Swedish territory by issuing a number of memoranda and commissions to take care of the work during his absence. Among other things, he now had to put Erik's position into writing to make it possible for him to continue under a new leader.

But the circumstances were still very delicate and secrecy must be maintained. The Commission shown above was not typed out in the Commissioner's office but probably in our home on Erik's private typewriter. He had a second-hand Remington collapsable typewriter that he could bring with him on travels. I recognize the style. It had bigger type than usual ("Large Pica") and the left dot over the Swedish "ö" was missing. The Commission was signed by Karl Larsson and witnessed only by the Commissioner's "ordinary" private secretary, Ivar Sörman, who must have been informed of what was going on. As far as I understand, this was the only original and was to be kept by my father. No copies were allowed, and in case of emergency the document must be destroyed.

Dad once instructed me: "If something happens to me, take the contents of this box, shred them  into small pieces and flush them away in the toilet." I did not know nor did I ask (dangerous!) what the secrets might be; but then there was a war on and it felt quite natural to me (14 years old) that such precautions might have to be taken. 

Commissioner Karl Larsson put up some more documents, copies of which were also there in Dad's collection. He commissioned his Chief Secretary, Colonel Karl Jerrestam, to be his deputy "should no other regulations be made by the General".

But the General did make other regulations. He appointed my grandfather (Commissioner David Wickberg who had recently retired from service in Switzerland and was now, aged 74, living in Stockholm) to take command of the territory. Thus we have the reason why David Wickberg is recorded as TC for Sweden from 1944-45 while Karl Larsson is stated as 1935-45.
By the time Commisioner Larsson returned to Sweden the War was over. General Carpenter had chosen a successor, and Karl Larsson - willing or not - had to retire at last.  

The end of the War was also the end of Erik's secret mission. Because this had not been official in the first place there was no official ending. I think it grieved Dad a bit that he was not asked to give a report or thanked for his services. After all he had taken a very big personal risk. He probably was unaware of the above-mentioned San Fransisco talks; and outside the very small group of perhaps four or five initiated persons nobody knew about this potentially dangerous secret part of his work.

Perhaps I, unknowingly, was one of them. For my hobby of stamp collecting I received new stamps from all over Europe that the catalogues and the stamp dealers did not know about. I think the Nazi's regarded stamps as a state secret. My uncle Tott (Dad's brother) who managed to live in Berlin during the whole war, told me that the Germans were not allowed to buy stamps. "We have to hand over our letters, open, to the Post Office. They censor them and then put on the stamps, so I never know which stamps you get." (And I have already mentioned the story of destroying the contents in that secret box.)

However, good circumstances eased Dad's turnover to new assignments.

Karl Larsson had instructed him to start organizing a Post War Relief Service. When the war ended this plan was realized and kept Erik very busy. Then Erik's appointment was changed once again. General Carpenter made one of his few overseas visits by daring to go to Sweden in a rebuilt "Flying Fortress" (American bombing plane). It had to pass over Norwegian territory at a high altitude and with hostile enemy aircraft still around. But all went well and Erik met his highest Chief and acted as his aide and translator at his visit in Sweden and Norway. Carpenter told him during this visit that he now was to be officially transferred to the Swedish territory and become Divisional Commander in Uppsala

So father's service passed over into a more "normal" career. But that is another story.

Editors Note: we have attempted to establish contact with the copyright holder. If any reader can put us in touch, SAHPA would be grateful.

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