Denmark’s unlikely spy
Spy? Denmark?! Who would think that peaceful, non-confrontational Denmark would indulge in espionage? On the other hand, for a nation of passive-aggressive people who abhor confrontation of any kind, spying would seem to be the natural course of action during times of conflict. It was while tagging along on a guided tour of Copenhagen that my flat mate and I were introduced to the tale of Thomas Sneum by the young woman conducting the tour. She began the story about this unlikely spy as we approached the Hotel D’Angleterre. This was shortly after she had regaled us with tales of how Copenhagen had burned to the ground so many times that only parts of some of the original buildings remained. As she was speaking, I was horrified to see naked flames leaping from a copper brazier in the courtyard of a restaurant to my right, threatening to burn down one of the few surviving structures. Small wonder that Copenhagen burned to the ground given the Danes’ love of open flames. The tour, up to that point, had been less than inspiring with little of interest in the guide’s repertoire other than to hear that their national treasure, Hans Christian Andersen, had stalked a famous ballerina, been told to ‘cease and desist’ by the police, been declared a ‘boney bore’ and a ‘social blockhead’, by Charles Dickens’ daughter and had received a damning indictment from Dickens himself about the poor quality of his writing. Thus, when she mentioned a World War II spy, Thomas Sneum, our curiosity was aroused. I had not heard of this national hero before, so was looking forward to the story that was about to unfold. She told us how Thomas Sneum had hatched a plot to kill a high-ranking German officer (Hermann Göring as I recall), as he knew a group of them would be gathering at Hotel D’Angleterre for a conference within the week. He managed to find out in which room this high-ranking official would be staying and, as luck would have it, Sneum’s girlfriend had a flat in the block of flats across the road. So far so good. Sneum’s plan was to acquire a bow and arrow….yes, you heard me….a bow and arrow. The story goes that he spent some time carving the name of the German officer into the shaft of the arrow probably as some form of poetic justice. In preparation for the big event, he sent his girlfriend to stay in the countryside for the weekend. He then took up position in his girlfriend’s flat from where he could see the hotel room across the road that was to be used by the German officer. One just assumes that the officer would, at some point during his stay, open the window, rendering him vulnerable to an assassination attempt using bow and arrow.
Having built up the story to what she probably imagined was a point of unbearable tension, the tour guide announced that it was lunch time and that we would have to wait until after the break to find out what happened to Thomas Sneum and his assassination attempt. ‘Oh please!’, I thought to myself, ‘I can just Google the guy’s name and find out everything that happened to him….but I decided to let the tour guide have her moment of glory when we reconvened after lunch. A half hour later, we gathered again in a state of heightened expectation. Actually I think most of us had forgotten about Thomas Sneum during the break, having found MacDonalds burgers much more interesting.
“So what do you think happened to Thomas Sneum?” asked the tour guide. It was a rhetorical question, so I refrained from making a witty comment. “Nothing happened”, she said. “The high-ranking German officer developed a headache during the flight from Germany to Denmark, so the flight was diverted to another airfield in Germany and Thomas Sneum lost his chance to assassinate the Nazi officer.”
There was silence in the group as we stared at her in disbelief. I wanted to laugh out loud, but that wouldn’t have been polite. SERIOUSLY?!! That’s the end of the story?! And SUDDENLY……nothing happened…..but it happened very suddenly mind you! Such an anti-climax! Apparently the story of Thomas Sneum didn’t end there….although it probably should have ended there if only to save him from further humiliation. She continued with the story, telling us that Sneum had hit on the idea of escape from Denmark and planned to fly to England. The plan was to commandeer a small spy plane that a friend had stored in a hangar somewhere in Copenhagen and to fly the plane across Jutland to England. Since he had helped to establish the radar network across the Danish island of Jutland, he had first-hand knowledge of how it worked and how best to get through the radar undetected. It took a while to persuade his friend to give him the plane until eventually his friend capitulated and handed Sneum the keys to the hangar, moving his family out to the country to avoid prosecution should this be detected by the Nazis.
Sneum rounded up his associates and threw open the doors to the hangar, expecting to take off as soon as possible. What his friend forgot to mention was that the plane had had its wings removed so it could be stored in the hangar. There they lay neatly next to the plane and Sneum realised that he had his work cut out for him to get them reattached. Undaunted, he and his and his crew worked night and day to reattach the wings onto the plane. That task finally accomplished, they made ready to taxi onto the runway. What they failed to realise was that the plane, with wings on, was now too wide to exit past the hangar doors. They had no choice but to set to work on the hangar doors, cutting out large arcs of metal that would allow the plane to pass.
Running dangerously behind schedule, Sneum finally had the plane on the runway, fuelled and ready for takeoff. They managed to get into the air without being detected by the Germans and set a course west to Jutland and thence to England. It was while flying over Jutland that they saw they were running low on fuel and wouldn’t make it to England after all. Sneum had failed to notice that the plane, being a spy plane, was equipped with short-range fuel tanks. Did he give up in despair? Not this spy! The tour guide announced proudly that Thomas Sneum was the first man to invent refuelling in mid-air. We were all suitably impressed, imagining another plane flying alongside Sneum’s plane with some clever contraption that would transport the fuel from one plane to the other. Again we had given the man more credit than he deserved. Sneum grabbed a fuel can that they had had the foresight to take with them and clambered out onto the wing of the plane. He flipped off the fuel cap on the wing and, from a standing position, tried pouring the fuel into the hole at his feet. This didn’t work too well, as the air rushing over the wing of the plane splashed most of the fuel back in his face. It was then that he hit on the clever idea of kneeling down on the wing and pouring the fuel into the tank from a lower position. The tour guide told us this in all seriousness. We couldn’t decide whether to laugh out loud or applaud Sneum’s determination. Sneum’s strategy worked and they made it to England without further incident where they landed safely at an airfield. Unfortunately for Sneum, the British arrested him as he alighted onto British soil, accusing him of being a German spy. After some time interrogating him, they gave him a choice. He could be shot as a spy….or he could go back to Denmark where he would spy for the British! Poor fellow. After all his hard work. Needless to say, he chose to return to Denmark.
By this time the tour party had reached the end of the tour and we gathered around the guide beside one of the many tranquil waterways in Copenhagen. We expected her to end the tour and send us on our way, but it seemed that we hadn’t heard the last of Thomas Sneum. Having returned to Copehagen courtesy of the British army, Sneum hatched another plan to run away from his spy activities. This time he planned to cross the frozen sea channel between Denmark and Sweden to Malmö. He managed to convince two of his friends to accompany him and they set off, in the dead of winter, trudging across the snow-covered ice sheet in the Direction of Sweden. As they were crossing, they were met by one of the worst blizzards the area had experienced in years. Both his friends died, but Sneum managed to make it to Malmö. There he was captured by the Swedes and charged with being a Nazi spy!! Thankfully he managed to survive the war and lived to a ripe old age, passing away in 2007.
One can only marvel at this hapless individual and why the Danes would choose to regale the rest of the world with his sad, if not laughable story. I guess they do it for the same reason that they put forward a tiny bronze statue of a mermaid on a rock to the rest of the world as being the country’s national icon. When you play the game of Poker and you have a lousy hand….you bluff and pretend that you hold all the aces. It confuses the rest of the world into thinking that maybe there’s something worth seeing in your country. Rest in peace, Thomas Sneum.
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