Vera Eriksen lived from 10 December 1912 until an unknown date. She features on Undiscovered Scotland because she is best known as a German spy who, with two others, landed in a seaplane off Port Gordon in Moray in the early hours of 30 September 1940, and who was arrested at Port Gordon railway station later that morning with one of her colleagues. She then disappeared from history, probably because she was also a British double-agent. Her story is actually far more complex and far darker than even that implies, and "Vera Eriksen" is only one of many names she is known to have used at various times. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Vera Eriksen was born as Vera Staritzka at Barnaul in Siberia on 10th December 1912. It is thought her mother was Jewish, and that Vera was illegitimate. Vera was adopted as an infant by the Schalburg family, comprising an ex-patriot Danish father and a Polish-Ukrainian mother. In 1918, Vera's adoptive parents fled Russia during the revolution and purchased a farm in Jutland, in Denmark. When she was ten, Vera's older brother gained an appointment with the Danish Royal Guard. In 1924, when Vera was 11, her parents moved to Paris. In Paris she started attending the ballet school set up there by the exiled Russian ballet dancer, Vera Trefilova. She excelled, and toured Europe with Vera Trefilova's ballet company when she was 16. By the time she was 17 she was performing as a cabaret dancer in Paris.
In 1930, aged 17, she met Count Sergei Ignatieff, a member of an important Russian family, but one that had fallen on hard times since the Russian Revolution. She married him at the end of that year, when she had just turned 18. It subsequently emerged that Ignatieff was a White Russian double agent spying on communists in Paris, and a drug trafficker. Vera herself became a courier for him and a drug user. She left him after a year, but retained links, and in 1935 Ignatieff tried to kill Vera when she refused to spy on some communists for him.
By the time Vera was 20, she was dancing at the Folies Bergère and had worked with the Russian Ballet in Paris. It was at about this point, in 1932, that Vera was approached by the British Secret Intelligence Service. They wanted her to work for them and keep an eye on both the White Russians and the communists. In 1936 Vera was told that she was on a black list maintained by the Gestapo because of her Russian connections. She turned for help to her brother, who by this time was a leading Nazi sympathiser in Denmark. The result was an approach made to Vera on behalf of the Abwehr, the German intelligence service, by one of its senior officers, Hans Friedrich von Wedel. At about the same time Sergei Ignatieff was arrested in Russia and shot as a spy, leaving Vera a widow at 23.
Vera married Von Wedel in 1937, when she was 24 and he was not far short of 60. The Germans wanted her to spy for them on the Russians, just as the British had. Only now she could also be useful spying on the Germans for the British. In 1938, when Vera was 25, she accompanied Von Wedel to London. The aim of the trip was to cultivate German sympathisers in the higher reaches of British society, and report back to Berlin. And, of course, to report to the British Secret Intelligence Service and Security Service on what was being reported back to Berlin.
Von Wedel was killed in a car crash in 1940, leaving Vera, by now using the name Vera Eriksen, a widow for the second time at the age of 27. It was suggested to her by the Abwehr that she might become a full field agent for them, something which her minders in Secret Intelligence Service in London were apparently happy with. A period of training in Norway followed. Then, as part of what was known as "Operation Hummer Nord" Vera was sent to spy on Britain. The idea was to pave the way for the German invasion of Britain, known as Operation Sealion. Then the Abwehr agent running the operation in Norway, Hilmar Dierks, was killed in another car crash, the day before Vera and her two colleagues were due to depart. That delayed things by three weeks, and by the time they actually departed, Operation Sealion had already been shelved. Despite that, Vera flew with two male colleagues in a seaplane from Stavanger in Norway on the night of 29 September 1940. In the early hours of the following morning the aircraft landed just off the coast at Port Gordon on the Moray Firth. They then came ashore in a rubber dinghy.
Vera and one of her colleagues, Karl Drucke, were arrested at Port Gordon railway station at 7.30 the same morning. The third member of the team, Werner Walti, managed to make it by rail from Buckie to Aberdeen, and then on to Edinburgh. He was arrested when he got off a train at Waverley Station.
Karl Drucke and Werner Walti were executed as spies at Wandsworth Prison on 6 August 1941. Vera Eriksen simply disappeared. Her fate has been the subject of much speculation. One story suggests that during her time in London in 1938 she had an affair with a prominent member of British society and the result was a son. It is much more likely that, as a long-standing agent for the British Secret Intelligence Service, she had deliberately ensured the downfall of her own mission for the Abwehr and, afterwards, that she was simply given a completely new identity by the British, under which she could have lived for many decades after the war.