Operation Tango

Island of Pellworm, Germany, at 10:20 a.m. on December 12, 1934

The U-157 leaves the ultra-secret Pellworm base, on its way to the South Atlantic. The North Sea is bumpy, cresting white in every which way. The sky has been a heavy gray for the past two days. Commander Karl Albrecht comes down the observation tower and gives out orders for immediate submersion.

”Submerge! Submerge!”

Two blares of the dive alarm fill the heavy silence inside the ship. The ballast tanks are opened and the sea flows in, gently tilting down the U-157.

“Periscope depth,” requests the commander.

Karl knows it’s a long and exhausting trip, but there’s no risk involved, nor are they on the hunt for cargo ships. This time, the U-157 has a sole mission, which is to transport a single man: Hans Müller, a Nazi secret service agent.

The Shores of Magdalena, Argentina, at 2:50 a.m. on February 12, 1935

The red lights switch on inside the U-157, as the commander orders the periscope up.

“Bring to surface,” says Albrecht.

The sound of the alarm and of air being injected into the ballast tanks takes over the vessel. The crew moves with precision and purpose. The U-157 comes to surface, and stealthily approaches the coast of Argentina, toward the hamlet of Magdalena. On the deck, a number of sailors prepare a small inflatable boat to send to land. The small skiff will travel almost five miles to the beach. There are few clouds on the sky, and the sea is calm. On the boat, there are radio equipment, luggage and Hans Müller, an agent of Nazi Germany’s espionage service in South America. His mission, codename “Tango,” is to get a document that lists the 500 largest fortunes in Argentina, their worldwide branches and account codes which, according to the espionage service, is strongly guarded in a safe at the country’s central bank, SBA (Banking Society of Argentina.) Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the Nazi espionage, had apprised Adolf Hitler of the possibility of bringing in this substantial capital to finance the Third Reich. In a meeting with the intelligence service, Hitler orders the immediate activation of the plan and gives it highest priority; the document must be found, at any cost. It then becomes a priority for the German espionage service. As he rows to the beach, Müller mulls on the details of his orders. The mission involves not only getting the document, but also reaching out to the group of musicians of Carlos Gardel, the famed Argentinian singer. The goal is to covertly remove the document from the country, using someone who is above all suspicion.

Approaching the beach, Müller finds the best place to come ashore, helped by the moonlight that filters through the clouds at that exact moment.

Buenos Aires, Argentina, at 9:45 a.m. on February 13, 1935

Müller arrives in Buenos Aires 24 hours after debarking. It was a beautiful morning, the weather was pleasant and, just like the other times he’d been there, the Argentinian capital emanated a European atmosphere from its architecture, avenues and elegant people.

“Good morning, Herr Smith,” greeted the doorman of the Samberg Hotel, recognizing Müller. “It has been a while since we last saw you here, sir!”

“Good morning, Flores, how have you been?” answered Müller, whose passport identified him as Hans Smith, from Zurich, Switzerland.

“It is always a pleasure to have you here at our hotel. Did you have a pleasant trip?”

“Yes, I was in Montevideo, at a sales convention; I came by ferry. I have some business in Buenos Aires.”

“Welcome back, Herr Smith. Here’s the key. It is your favorite room, as always. Have a pleasant stay in our town. I’ll have your luggage sent to the room.”

“Gracias, Flores, but there’s no need,” answered Müller, going up the stairs. “I’ll carry it myself, not to worry.”

The room was strategically located on the second floor of the hotel, facing 9 de Julio Avenue, with a convenient emergency exit in the back leading to Suipacha Street. After a bath and a good rest, Müller leaves the hotel for dinner. He has a light meal at Café Tortoni and returns to the hotel to plan his next steps. The following morning, he goes to the Banking Society of Argentina, where he’d scheduled an interview 25 days earlier. The job opening for contact supervisor had been published in the La Nueva República newspaper on the first Sunday of January and found by the Nazi espionage service. It was the perfect cover for the true purpose of his mission.

Müller had the perfect resume for the job: he was fluent in German, English, Portuguese and Spanish, had a good appearance and substantial knowledge about the South American way of life. His mother was Brazilian; she’d been born in Leblon, a neighborhood in the city of Rio de Janeiro, the capital of Brazil. His father, a German immigrant, arrived in Brazil around 1900. He was born in Munich, where he’d been a chemistry teacher. His mother had been an employee of the Foreigner Service at the port of Rio de Janeiro. It had been love at first sight. Dietrich never returned to Germany. Müller had inherited his father’s brains and his mother’s looks. Dark hair, pale skin, deep blue eyes and a great passion for Germany, where his paternal uncles, cousins and grandparents lived, and where he was sent to study when he was only twelve. There, the leadership of the incipient Nazi Party soon noticed his mental superiority and dexterity acquired from his time in Rio. They were especially impressed when, in 1920, he won the Great Prize of Germany jumping tournament in Berlin. Müller loved horses.

Magdalena Shores, Argentina, at 3:10 a.m. on February 12, 1935.

A few rays of moonlight shone here and there on the long extension of the beach of Magdalena. It was a pleasant night and Luis decided to leave his hut near the beach to smoke his pipe sitting on the sand. He couldn’t sleep. He wanted to think about his future and the sale of his fishing boat. What Luis really wanted was to change his life. He was tired of nets, boats, of the smell of fish on everything.

He was about to light his pipe once more when he noticed, from afar, a small boat approaching the beach.

At that moment, the clouds parted and the beautiful moonlight shone on the beach and the sea. It was enough light for him to notice, far away, the large and dark silhouette of a submarine. Luis retreated, hiding behind a shrub on the beach. He was not afraid. He just didn’t want to get involved in something that smelled like mystery. From where he was, he watched a person jumping out of the boat and pulling it out of the surf. When the boat was well secured, the person bent down and took something out of the boat. Luis could see it was a man, and he was changing his clothes. Then, he took his belongings from the boat and, all of a sudden, scanned through the beach with something that seemed like a pair of binoculars. Luis retreated even further when the man stared at his direction for a few moments. The person stood up and dragged the boat to a small thicket to his left. When he returned, he picked up his luggage, and always watchful of his surroundings, took the path that led to the small coastal city. Luis remained at his hiding place for another twenty minutes. He stared at the trail that led to Magdalena, made sure the man had left the beach, and walked to the thicket in search of the boat. It didn’t take long. It was upside down, tied to a tree, and camouflaged with branches and leaves. When he turned it around, Luis saw on the side the emblem of the German Navy and the name of the submarine it had come from, the U-157.

Buenos Aires, Argentina, on the afternoon of February 15, 1935

Müller genially strolls around Corrientes Avenue. He’d been hired for the job at SBA and would work on the management floor. Now, all he had to do was get close to Carlos Gardel’s group of friends and musicians. To be honest, though, he didn’t really like that genre, the tango. He found the dance obscene.

It was Sunday morning and Müller was leafing through the sports page of a newspaper, when he read that a friend had gifted Gardel with a racehorse. It was a huge coincidence. The story described him as a lover of turf racing, and mentioned his friendship with Irineo Leguisano, the famous Uruguayan jockey known as “el Maestro.” Based on this info, Müller starts patronizing places where horseracing aficionados meet in Buenos Aires, especially the Sport Bar at the Palermo racecourse. An expert in the art of charm, with a frank, open smile, not to mention a pocket full of money, Müller becomes friends with Francisco Maschio, a famous horse trainer of the time. And through him, he meets Leguisano. As the three speak the same turf language, their friendship grows stronger in afternoons of amusing anecdotes, champagne, prizes and horses. One afternoon, the three were yet again at the Sport Bar, when they notice a small crowd approaching, walking beside a very well dressed man, with a bright, charming smile. It was Gardel. And he was coming to their table. Müller couldn’t believe the magnetism and charisma that radiated from that face. After effusive greetings, Gardel is introduced to Müller, and their conversation turns to horseracing, women and tango until the late hours. Gardel was beaming and delighted. He had decided to tour Central America and the Caribbean and, that same afternoon, he’d given his horse the name of Lunático, which amused them all, especially Leguisano. It was done. Müller had just finished part two of his job. Now, all he needed was to put his hands on the document.

London, Little St James’ Street, England, at 9:20 a.m. on February 14, 1935

Richard White leaves the Clarence Hotel. He was going to take a cab, but changed his mind. It was a beautiful morning in London for this time of the year, and even though it was cold, walking to the headquarters of MI6 would be reinvigorating. Even better, it would give him a moment of reflection before he met his boss, Sir Hugh Sinclair. He turned left on Stable Yard, and slowly walked to St. James Park. It was a good walk all the way to Broadway Street. White was 42 years old. Although he used a discreet cane due to war injuries, he was in perfect physical shape, thanks to a true passion for exercise. It was actually a way to counterbalance his bureaucratic job as a coordinator and operation analyst for South America, which required he spend good part of his day, sometimes even of the night, closed in his cabinet or in endless meetings. Crossing St James Park, White recalled the intriguing report he had received the previous afternoon, sent by his colleague Albert Stewart, an employee of the British Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In it, Stewart reported he was at a café-restaurant in La Plata, after returning from a mission on Argentina’s south coast, when he heard, from the table next to him, the story of a fisherman who’d seen late at night a German skiff arriving at Magdalena beach, coming from a huge submarine. Stewart made a point of reproducing the conversation in its entirety:

“So, after he removed his luggage, he took the boat to a thicket to his left and hid it there. I waited a while, and when I was sure he was well on his way to town, I went looking for the boat and I found it. It was an inflatable, all black boat, and on its side, it said U-157 and had the German Navy’s insignia.”

On that same afternoon, White sent his report to Sir Hugh.

“White, we received reliable information that a U-boat, the U-157, left Pellworm base on a secret mission. We hadn’t known where it was headed until we received your report. Now, we’re certain it is connected to a secret operation named “Tango,” that intends to get a list with numbers and account codes of the largest Argentinian fortunes, especially those in Switzerland. From what we know from our credible sources, Hitler himself gave top priority to this mission and assigned it to Canaris.”

“Indeed, Sir Hugh, I confess I had no knowledge of this plan.”

“If they get the list, it can mean a considerable injection of money for German rearming.”

“I can see why Hitler is so determined to get it,” said White.

“I’ve been doing all in my power to alert the government of the German military growth and the dangers of Nazism,” said Sir Hugh. “But few listen. Many still believe in their good intentions, and there are even sympathizers to their cause, imagine that!”

“Are there no exceptions, Sir Hugh?”

“By God, yes. When I told the prime minister how important this list is, and what it might mean, Churchill assigned it top priority and demanded immediate action, posthaste!”

“This means...”

“It means that, if they already found, or are searching for this document, they have to keep it a secret. On the other hand, we know Hans Müller is the agent that works in that area. Müller is one of the best agents of the Nazi spy service and shall not be reckless enough to send it through diplomatic mail or walk about town with this information.”

“Well, he can make the document reach Germany through other means, or even other people,” surmised White.

“This is precisely what I believe,” said Sir Hugh. “I want you to tell your team in Buenos Aires to find Müller and follow him. I want to know it all, who he is seeing, what he is doing, where he lives, even what he is wearing. 24/7 vigilance. If Müller as much as sneezes, I want to know,” said Sir Hugh.

Argentinian Banking Society, at 8:30 a.m. on February 25, 1935

The SBA lobby bustles with people walking to their floors and offices to start another workday. Müller is already used to this. His office is next door to the management, on the top floor. On his meetings with the CEO, he already located the large, moss green safe at the end of the room, on the right side. Opposite, on the back of the building, are windows with a view to Lavalle Street. During lunch hour, when everyone leaves the building, Müller finds the exit to the roof and opens the door with a picklock. He had planned on going through the garage of a neighboring warehouse on Lavelle, then climbing to nearby roofs, and from there, jumping to a suspended garden on the fourth floor of the SBA building. This was the easiest part of the plan for him. He’d climbed several mountains when he was at school in Germany, and knew everything he’d need. All he had to do was learn about the building’s security system. Müller spent almost two weeks researching most security equipment sold in Argentina, to reach a solution that didn’t risk his mission or leave behind any trace of it. As for the safe, it wasn’t an issue. He was familiar with most models, including the one at SBA. One of the tasks every Nazi spy agent was required to know was how to open a safe in only 15 minutes. His work should be undetectable. Everything must be put back in its proper place: papers, documents, and money, that is, all that would be inside the safe.

Buenos Aires, Argentina, on February 16, 1935

Stewart could have never known his report about the fishermen’s conversation would turn out to be so important. It was a direct order from Sir Hugh: find, and follow Agent Müller 24 hours a day. He had immediately thought of Müller when he overheard the Magdalena fishermen talking. It could only have been Müller. But the surprises didn’t stop there. On the first day of his close watch, Stewart found out Müller was working as public relations at SBA. On a “visit” to his hotel room, he found a small, still unused photography lab, with no signs of copies or film, which led him to assume that Müller was probably carrying the film that had to be sent to Germany. Müller knew he was being followed. His room had been searched, so he gave up the idea of developing the film or even making security copies. But the odds of being able to leave the country with the film were small. And he couldn’t possibly involve the German Embassy; it could cause a serious international crisis if the purloining of the document were to be discovered, not to mention, it would render the plan moot. The passwords would be instantly changed and the money would again disappear in the twisted paths of world finance. The idea of sending the film through the musicians of Carlos Gardel’s band, believed to be above suspicion, had also failed. Gardel was shooting a new movie in the United States and would then do several shows in Central America and the Caribbean. It all had to remain in the down low. The order was to keep up his daily routine, including his job at SBA, and wait for an opportunity.

Gran Café Tortoni, Buenos Aires, at 9:40 p.m. on Saturday, March 6, 1935

The Café was crowded. Its small auditorium had been sold out for a week. While that happened whenever a famous tango singer performed there, when it came to Ignácio Corsini, the house and the audience went hysterical. Müller greets everyone he knows there and franticly waves to the waiters that were working that night, to whom he was an excellent tipper. He wants to be noticed. As soon as the show starts, Müller quietly slips away, and immediately takes a cab to Lavalle. He hops out of the car a block away from the building, and hurriedly goes to the back of the SBA building (18 minutes.) With help from the tools and gear he’d hidden a day earlier in the lining of the warehouse’s ceiling, and wearing a rock climber jumpsuit, Müller climbs the rooftops near the SBA building. He can’t be careful enough. He nimbly reaches the winter garden of the Banking Society (38 minutes.) With a small flashlight, he searches for the fuse box and disconnects the alarm to the door that leads to the garden from the top floor (43 minutes.) He enters the building. Another obstacle. The alarm connected to the central circuit. Müller opens its door, and with his tools, figures out which are the important wires and disconnects them without cutting (48 minutes.) Quickly, he walks into the CEO’s office and goes to the safe. It’s a two-door Fichet that weighs almost two tons. Müller deftly discovers the combination. A metallic sound comes from the safe, and the doors open (56 minutes.) There’s a lot of money and jewelry inside. Carefully, he checks every document, and then puts them back in their places. Under a paper pile, Müller finds a leather file and inside it is the most precious list in Argentina. He removes the document from the file and photographs it page by page with a high-sensitivity camera. Then, the file is returned to its exact place. He checks to see if everything has been correctly placed inside the safe and slowly closes the doors (66 minutes.) On his way out, he reconnects the alarm wires, closes the door that leads to the garden, and reconnects its alarm wires. He goes down by the rooftops to the warehouse, changes out of the jumpsuit, erases all evidence of his presence and walks out to Lavalle, then to Talcahuano, where he flags down a cab. The whole operation took 84 minutes. The cab turns at Bartolomé Mitre and makes a right on Tacuarí, where Müller gets out and disposes of the bag, throwing away its contents into several trashcans, all the way to de Mayo Avenue. Nobody notices he has returned the Café. Even those who couldn’t get inside the auditorium and are crowding the Tortoni have their hearts and minds fixated on listening to the voice that, at the moment, performs Caminito, the last song of the night. At this exact moment, Müller leaves the bathroom and joins in the chorus of voices and applause.

Palermo Racetrack, Buenos Aires, Gala Night, at 11:45 p.m. on Saturday, June 22, 1935

A chance to get the film to Germany comes up when Müller meets two employees of the German company SCADTA at a gala in the ballrooms of the Palermo racetrack. Hans Ulrich Thom and William Furst, both members of the Nazi Party, are pilot and co-pilot of the Manizales, a Ford tri-motor parked at the Buenos Aires Airfield. Müller tells them his patent, but not the goal of the mission, and of his urgent need to get a package from Argentina to Canari’s hands.

“We might be able to help,” says Thom. “The problem is that the Manizales takes the postal bag from here to Santiago, in Chile, and then, to Medellin and Bogotá. The it goes to Panama and we end our journey in Havana.”

“Great,” replies Müller, cheerfully, “Better than I expected. This itinerary won’t arouse suspicion. I’ll contact our agent in Havana and tell him to look for it as soon as the plane lands. His codename is Victor. On this day and the next, there will be a U-boat waiting for the package, between 10 at night and 3 in the morning. I cannot thank you enough.”

They part with a discreet Nazi salute: “Heil Hitler!”

Buenos Aires, Argentina, on the morning of June 23, 1935

Stewart thinks it’s suspicious that a messenger left as soon as Müller arrived at SBA. Purely by instinct, he decides to follow him. When the cab stops in front of the Airfield’s entrance, his suspicions are confirmed. Stewart quickly leaves his cab and enters through the side door of the airport in time to see a messenger delivering a box to the counter of SCADTA and it being taken immediately to the office. Stewart loses no time. Checking the list of upcoming flights, he sees that the C31 Manizales from SCADTA will leave at 9:30, on its way to Santiago, Medellin, Bogota, Panama and Havana. There was no doubt that this package was the reason for Müller’s mission in Buenos Aires, and it was about to fly to Germany. The resourceful Nazi spy had found a way to remove the film from Argentina without arousing suspicion, he thought. He left the airport in a rush and took a cab to the English Embassy. From there, he sent a coded message to White, in London, reporting the latest events. The response comes quickly, and drains Stewart’s face of color. “Destroy the package at all costs.” It is a severe order that demands urgent action. Immediately, he tries to contact an old friend, Ernesto Samper Mendoza, of the Colombian Air Service, to ask for help, but is told that Samper is flying the airplane that’s taking Carlos Gardel and his entourage from Bogota to Havana, in Cuba. Stewart insists on knowing the exact location of the airplane at that moment, and hears it already left Bogota and is on its way to Medellin, where it will stop to refuel. As he leaves the Embassy, Stewart prays that Valdero, the flight supervisor of Olaya Herrera Airport in Medellin does the job they agreed on well and safely.

Olaya Herrera Airport, Medellin, Colombia, at 10:30 a.m. on June 24, 1935

The C-31 Manizales from SCADTA is being refueled in its hangar for flight 062 from Medellin to Bogota. Hans and William, pilot and co-pilot, respectively, have coffee with the passengers at SCADTA’s office. They’re talking about the route and their plans for the two days off they’ll have in Havana.

“Did you check the whole aircraft?” remembers Hans, finishing his coffee.

“Yes, of course. Everything is ok, everything is in place,” answers William.

“Great. We’ll be leaving soon.”

Jorge Valdero has been the Olaya Herrera flight supervisor for 14 years, and has links to MI6. At this moment, he’s inspecting the internal condition and checking the flight hours of the Manizales at the SCADTA hangar. The C-31 is empty. Passengers and crew are at the company’s office. It’s almost noon, and the time of departure for flight 062 is approaching. Valdero is in the cargo compartment. He has express orders to search for a small box on its way to Berlin, in Germany. Hurriedly, he goes through the postal bags trying to find something that looks like a small package. He can’t find anything. However, when he glances at the mail shelf, he finds what he’s looking for. He quickly checks the receiving address, and puts it in his bag. Valdero leaves the plane at the exact moment when the crew is arriving. He wishes Hans and William a good flight.

Olaya Herrera Airport, Medellin, Colombia, at 2 p.m. on June 24, 1935

The F-31 from SACO (Colombian Air Service), flown by Ernesto Samper Mendoza is landing at the Medellin Airport. It’s a pleasant afternoon, and they all leave the plane for a small snack at SACO’s office, while the F-31 is refueled. Among them are Carlos Gardel, Le Pera and their musicians. They’re all happy and making plans for their arrival in Cali. They’re offered sandwiches, coffee and milk. Samper excuses himself, as he’s being called to the phone. On his way to the cabin, he meets Valdero, who hands him the package retrieved from the SCADTA plane, and relays the MI6 order to hand it to a port agent named Felipe Ryan, who will look for him as soon as they land in Havana. Ernesto Samper Mendoza is the president of SACO and an old friend of Stewart’s. Samper is also an archrival of SCADTA, which is financed by the German Nazi government and is its main publicity weapon in Latin America. Valdero reaffirms the importance of keeping the operation secret, and parts with Samper. Once he returns to the office, the president of SACO finds his passengers ready to board. They all head to the F-31. Samper holds the small box under his arm.

The F-31 tanks are refueled and passengers and crew take their seats to start the Medellin-Cali flight. On the other side of the runway, the C-31 Manizales of SCADTA, with five passengers, leaves the hangar. As Hans taxies the plane on the auxiliary runway, waiting for the F-31 from SACO to leave, William checks if the doors are closed and the luggage and postal bags are safely stored in cargo. When he glances at the mail shelf, he notices the package to Berlin disappeared.

“Hans, stop the plane,” cries out the co-pilot.

Hans puts the brakes on the C-31, which skids to the side at the end of the main runway.

“The Berlin package is gone!”

The passengers are startled and don’t understand what’s happening. William opens the door of the C-31 and runs to the hangar. His remembers Valero exiting the plane holding a bag. He was the only person to enter the plane while it was at the hangar, he recalls.

William takes Valdero by surprise in his office, then proceeds to pistol-whip him several times and demand answers. Valdero can’t endure the attack and admits he handed the package to Samper. William pulls the trigger and Valdero’s brains are scattered all over the office. Without losing a second, William runs back to the Manizales. When he learns of what happened, Hans tells William to stop the F-31 from SACO.

At this very moment, the SACO plane leaves the threshold and rolls down the runway for take off. William runs to the center of the runway and points his gun, to intimidate them. When he realizes the F-31 will not stop and is coming his way, he shoots toward the airplane cabin. The bullet goes through the fuselage and hits Samper’s head, going in through his jaw, the moment the plane is starting to climb. Directionless, the F-31 inclines dangerously and violently hits the parked Manizales C-31. There’s a huge explosion on the Olaya Herrera runway.

Carlos Gardel, Le Pera, and their entourage all die instantly, carbonized. Only two passengers escape death. The package never reached its destination. Without the financial help from Argentinian fortunes, Hitler begins to persecute the Jewish people and extort their assets as a final solution for the Third Reich.

The world loses the king of tango. And gains a new war.

DAVID FERRETTI was born in Amparo, in the state of São Paulo, on September 11, 1951. He’s an adman, marketing professional, economic journalist, writer (short stories, children’s literature, etc.) and lyricist. 

He is a History and Logistics major (with a minor in Anthropology.) He is also the creative director at DFA Propaganda, David’s Creative Services, MarcaBank and viaStartUP. 

He began as a journalist, until he discovered Advertising, in which he has been working for 40 years. 

After knocking around the world for quite some time, he now lives with his wife and two daughters in his hometown.

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