When much of France fell under German control in the summer of 1940, a Nazi invasion of Britain suddenly became a much more genuine threat than it had been at any point in the course of the War so far. Just days after the Fall of Paris on June 14, the Channel Islands—a group of British dependencies in the southern English Channel—also fell under German control, becoming the only British territory occupied by German forces during the entire Second World War; the third largest island, Alderney, eventually housed four concentration camps just 60 miles from the English coast. With the situation becoming increasingly desperate, Britain was forced to consider practically every conceivable means of second-guessing Hitler’s wartime strategy—including the appointment of an eccentric German émigré as the official astrologer of MI5.
Louis de Wohl was born Lajos Theodor von Wohl in Berlin in 1903. Although he initially trained as a banker, it was as a writer and author that de Wohl first made a name for himself, and by the mid-1930s, 16 of his published works had already been adapted for German cinema. When the Nazi Party took control of Germany, however, de Wohl—whose family was of Hungarian-Jewish descent—fled to England, later explaining, “I cannot stay in a country whose laws I can no longer respect.”
He continued to write after settling in London in 1935, but his work steadily turned away from fiction and toward his lifelong interest in astrology. Over the years that followed, he published a series of astrological titles—I Follow My Stars (1937), The Secret Service of the Sky (1938), and Common Sense Astrology (1940)—and began charging as much as 30 guineas (more than $1200 and £800 today) for private, personalized horoscope readings, counting several high-profile figures among his clients.
Around the same time, de Wohl reportedly began using an array of aliases and fictitious life stories to further ingratiate himself into London’s high society. Always an eccentric and self-aggrandizing character, he variously claimed to be a distant relative of the Lord Mayor of London, the grandson of an investment tycoon, and the nephew of an Austrian classical conductor—none of which was true, but all of which apparently worked: In 1940 de Wohl found himself invited to a party at London’s Spanish Embassy, attended by some of wartime Britain’s most significant figures.
There, de Wohl happened to mention his interest astrology to a visiting duchess, and when she light-heartedly asked him what Hitler’s future might hold, their conversation attracted the attention of the British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Halifax. Within weeks, de Wohl had been seconded into the Special Operations Executive—a wartime intelligence agency established by Winston Churchill—and, under the honorary rank of captain, was commissioned to compile the horoscopes of all of the notable figures of the War.
The SOE promptly sent de Wohl on a propagandizing lecture tour of the United States in an attempt to rally support for American intervention in the war in Europe. Armed with all of his astrological charts and horoscopes of Hitler, de Wohl told all those in attendance that the stars showed Hitler could be defeated and “done away within a year,” with America’s help. The tour was seen as a great success and gained considerable publicity in America, but after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, de Wohl was brought back to England to continue working in London. Eventually, in November 1942, he delivered his magnum opus to the British War Office: a detailed astrological report, entitled A Survey of 1943, comprising the month-by-month horoscopes and fortunes of everyone from Hitler and Goering to Churchill and even King George VI.
It might seem odd that British intelligence should take such an unusual course of action at such a desperate time, but de Wohl’s input was not without precedent: Hitler’s own interest in astrology was well known, and he was even thought to have delayed the German invasion of Russia based on nothing more than the predictions of his own self-appointed astrological advisor, Karl Ernst Krafft (although now most historians believe that Hitler didn’t care for astrology, and that Krafft’s predictions were just a propaganda campaign). Ultimately, MI5 knew that if Hitler considered certain dates to be more favorable than others, then it would likely be on those that he would launch his severest campaigns—including any potential invasion of Britain. As de Wohl himself wrote in his report:
Since 1923, Hitler is advised by astrologers. The main object of such advice is to undertake major enterprises for which ‘luck’ is needed at times—in which one is ‘lucky’ according to planetary influences. By making exactly the same calculations, the astrologer is naturally in the position to find out what Hitler will be told by his advisers … It is entirely irrelevant whether we ourselves regard astrological advice as valuable and scientific or as useless nonsense. All that matters is that Hitler follows its rules.
However, MI5’s interest in astrology—and ultimately in de Wohl—soon dwindled. In part this was due to the skepticism of the organization’s highest-ranking officials, who were reluctant to base their increasingly important war efforts on the seemingly unfounded predictions of a single man. But it was also in part due to de Wohl’s eccentric and flamboyant character. Papers released to the British National Archives in 2008 showed that as de Wohl became more closely involved in British wartime intelligence, the intelligence services in turn put his movements under scrutiny and became ever more concerned (and ever less impressed) with what they found.
Memos were fired back and forth between officials at both MI5 and MI6 in which de Wohl was labeled a “bumptious seeker after notoriety,” a “dangerous charlatan,” and a “confidence-trick merchant,” who, they wrote, had been known “to have often frequented cafés in Berlin in feminine attire.” His habit of strutting around London in his new captain’s uniform raised eyebrows in the War Office, and despite his appointment at SOE being top secret, de Wohl didn’t exactly help his own cause by boasting about it to anyone he met. Even de Wohl’s personal handler and assistant, Major Gilbert Lennox, reported back to his bosses at MI5 that:
He [de Wohl] is an extraordinarily clever and astute man, and at the moment I am quite sure he is all out to help the British war effort. But he is also an exceedingly vain man, with the German’s love of uniform and rank.
The intelligence service’s opinion of de Wohl softened slightly after victory in Europe was assured in 1945, with one final memo supporting his request for British citizenship reading simply, “he has certainly done more for the Allied cause than a great many of his foreign brethren.” After the War, de Wohl returned to his writing and, having become increasingly interested in religion, he published the first of a long series of books dramatizing the lives of the saints in 1947. His final work, a vast history of the Catholic Church entitled Founded On A Rock, was completed shortly before his death on June 2, 1961. MI5’s short-lived interest in astrology died with him.