Monday, 2 May 2016

A Death Dive over Dubious Dollars

After the War was over, the police in England and France and the FBI in America were searching for a gang who were forging US dollar bills. Several people had been arrested in England and Scotland for possession of counterfeit dollars, but they had all refused to talk about the source of the bills. On 29 August 1949 the International Criminal Police Commission (the forerunner of Interpol), met in Paris to look at information from Scotland Yard. Officers had searched Number 18 Sandwell Mansions, West End Lane, and made enquiries in the West End of London. Detective Chief Inspector Phillip Burney of the forgery department of Scotland Yard was in charge of the case, and he believed that the counterfeit dollars had not been printed in England but were from plates made by the Nazis during the War.

Sandwell Mansions today

Friedrich Oberndorfer in Sandwell Mansions
In 1949 Friedrich Oberndorfer was a 61 year old man, who had been born in Nuremburg. At the start of the War he was living in Sutherland Avenue, but he had moved to Number 18 Sandwell Mansions by 1945. His neighbours saw him as ‘a man of mystery’ who travelled frequently to Europe. They talked about a blonde woman and his son who occasionally visited the flat. Oberndorfer had become a naturalised British Citizen in 1947 and said that he was a free-lance journalist. In August 1949 he was arrested by the American Military Police in Vienna for selling $600 worth of forged $50 bills. Counterfeit notes with the same serial number had been seized in Paris. He handed over two of the bogus bills and gave the authorities some information about a ring of forgers which the Sunday Express called, ‘The biggest International forgers’ network ever known.’

On 26 August, after returning with his escorts to the Hotel Kranz, he was allowed to shave and pack his bag before returning to the police station. As they were leaving, Oberndorfer suddenly ran back into the room and jumped headfirst out of the fourth floor window. An American agent managed to grab his ankle but Oberndorfer slipped from his grasp and fell to his death.

Nazi Counterfeiting
In 2006 Lawrence Malkin, a New York journalist published a book called ‘Krueger’s Men’. This was the amazing story of how the Nazis had set up a counterfeiting factory inside Sachsenhausen concentration camp, near Berlin. From 1942 to 1944, Bernhard Krueger ran ‘Operation Bernard’ with 140 Jews who produced forged English pound notes in an attempt to de-stabilise the British economy. They produced about nine million £5 to £50 notes totalling £134,510,945 (worth about £5,290,000,000 today). They were of extremely high quality, and the Bank of England called them the most dangerous counterfeits ever seen. In May 1944 the forgers began an attempt to copy US dollar bills. But it proved to be technically very difficult, and the end of the War came before they were able to move into production.

In a recent email Lawrence Malkin told us:
We did two years of research on ‘Operation Bernhard’ and it is conclusive that this premier Nazi counterfeit operation did not produce any counterfeit dollar bills.  Naturally the US Treasury operatives and Scotland Yard’s counterfeit squad looked for the bills and especially the plates. Smolianoff the master counterfeiter was brought in to produce dollar bills late in the War and he worked directly on the plates, but apparently only one side was produced, mainly for lack of time and especially lack of paper.

Whether all the Smolianoff dollar plates - there would have been very few of them - were gathered up by the investigators is not clear from the extensive reports of the investigation, but I believe they were. This, however, does not include other freelance counterfeiters, who operated before, during and especially after the War; it was a cottage industry. So Oberndorfer might have been one of them, or perhaps the fence for a counterfeit shop somewhere in Central Europe.

With the pound shaky after the War, dollars were the favoured counterfeit currency, but they are much harder to counterfeit than pound notes because they are printed on special paper by intaglio, which makes them much harder to duplicate.  Nevertheless it was routine at that time to blame all manner of counterfeits on the Nazis, whereas the Bernhard shop only succeeded in printing pounds - but lots of them!

So here the matter must rest. Despite what the press said in 1949, it seems that Oberndorfer’s forged $50 bills did not come from the Nazi plates and we will never know why he committed suicide and what his role was in the counterfeit scheme.

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