Even experts sometimes have a hard time telling genuine 1940’s Bank of England notes from the counterfeits produced during Germany’s legendary “Operation Bernhard.” The goal? Destabilize British currency by flooding the market with high-quality bank notes.
The original plan was even more audacious: the German masterminds were going to send the notes up in a plane and have them dropped over English cities and towns, assuming no one on wartime rations would want to turn down free cash. This proved impractical, and so the notes would be sent into the market via cash transactions.
One of the counterfeiters was Adolph Burger, a half-Jewish Slovakian printer; as the deportations of Jews in Slovakia increased, he forged baptismal certificates that allowed many Jews to escape deportation. When his work was uncovered by the Nazis, he and his wife were sent to Auschwitz, where she died a few months later. Burger was eventually moved from Auschwitz to the secret Operation Bernhard printing facility in the Sachsenhausen camp where one hundred and forty-two prisoners counterfeited four denominations of banknotes, as well as passports, IDs, and stamps. Nearly nine million notes were created, with a face value of over a hundred million pounds.
Towards the end of the war, just before Sachsenhausen was liberated, the forgers were moved to the Redl-Zipf camp in Austria, then to the Ebsensee camp. The Nazis intended to kill all the counterfeiters at Ebsensee, but they only had one truck to use for transferring the prisoners between camps. The truck suffered a mechanical failure on the third trip, delaying the last batch of prisoners. When the prisoners already at the camp were ordered into tunnels (presumably to be killed and buried by explosives), they revolted and the guards panicked and ran. The forgers then mixed freely among the other prisoners at Ebensee, and were rescued a few days later, when Allied forces arrived.
The Operation Bernhard banknotes are exquisite in their attention to detail. According to Coin World, “The Operation Bernhard notes are still considered among the most perfect counterfeits ever made, with properly engraved plates, rag paper, correct watermarks, and even valid serial numbers. Today, says Colorado specialist William M. Rosenblum, the fakes can be identified with 99 percent certainty based first on serial number ranges, and then by carefully looking for a minuscule anomaly: ‘ “Bank of England” is found in the watermark at the bottom of the note. There is a triangle at the base of the first “N” in England. On the counterfeits there is line that originates from the center of the base of the triangle while on the originals the line is off-center.’”
Adolph Burger survived his experience with Operation Bernhard, and it is from his memoir that most of the surviving information has been pieced together. Mr. Burger passed away on December 6, 2016, leaving Hans Walter, now 95 and living in Ohio, as the only surviving member of one of the greatest teams of forgers ever assembled.