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World War II, Allied Counter Espionage in Chile, a Personal View

Updated on October 15, 2012

Valparaiso a very important Chilean port

The Commercisl Port of Valparaiso, where the British General Consulate is established
The Commercisl Port of Valparaiso, where the British General Consulate is established | Source

A Britisher's Life in Chile at the Start of World War II

The Britisher in question was my father, Edward Robertson, known as “Ted”, and he came originally from Liverpool, arriving in Chile in the early months of 1931, when he was 21 years old. He served for a period in the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, known as P.S.N.C, I think basically at a commercial shore job in Valparaiso.

At some undetermined date he joined the staff of the British General Consulate in Valparaiso, where he worked until a few months after his marriage in February 1938 to Gladys Wrigley, my mother.

In June, 1938 he signed a contract with the COMPAÑIA SUD-AMERICANA DE EXPLOSIVOS(Explosives), a company with strong links to Dupont Chemicals in the USA. He and my patient mother moved to the Atacama Desert where the Explosives Company operated, in relatively close proximity to the copper mines, especially the huge mine in Chuquicamata, run by the Anaconda Mining Company at that time.

The Loa River from Start to Finish

The Loa River showing its long trajectory through the Atacama Desert
The Loa River showing its long trajectory through the Atacama Desert | Source

The Loa River seen through a Stone Window

Th Loa River struggles to survive in this grim scenery.
Th Loa River struggles to survive in this grim scenery. | Source

Company Life in the Atacama Desert

My parents went to live in one of the company houses built at the “oasis” of Rio Loa, in the middle of nowhere. The “oasis” was named as such because there were some small, straggly cactus plants growing there, that looked vaguely green in color. This exceptional landscape had its origin in the fact that the Loa River, an extremely long river that is the only really important one in the mining areas of the north of Chile, spends part of its time running underground, causing these small “oasis” to appear on the surface. If you are imagining an area with palm trees, camels and tents, forget it, the whole area including the “oasis” is barren. According to NASA, the Atacama Desert is the driest in the world.

As a young adult, I visited this place, called the “Rio Loa Camp”: a semi-circle of about eight one story houses, with some swings and seesaws for children strategically placed near them. That was it, no street, no sidewalk, no plants, no trees, no shade, just desert on all sides. In 1938 the higher level executive staff lived there, all of them English speakers, either American or British nationals, with a few Chileans with strong foreign personal contacts added in.

The explosives plant was near enough to be easily accessed by the personnel, but at the same time far enough away to protect the homes in case of an explosion in the plant.

The nearby mining town of Chuquicamata boasted a few shops, basically butchers and bakers as well as a Company Hospital run by American personnel. There was no maternity ward in this hospital, but staff from the explosives company could receive attention there if necessary.

(This mining town is now a ghost town and the Hospital no longer exists).


The Chuquicamata copper mine

The largest open work mine in the world.
The largest open work mine in the world. | Source

The Atacama Desert at San Pedro

This is the driest desert in the world. A really terrible place for the unwary.
This is the driest desert in the world. A really terrible place for the unwary. | Source

Family Life at the Rio Loa Camp

I was born in the Chuquicamata Anaconda Mining Company Hospital, on the 26th of August, 1939. World War Two started just a few days later!

I have no recollections of my life at the Rio Loa Camp and according to my mother, I didn't really miss anything. Life was hard in that place; even the activity of putting a baby to sleep had its special techniques, due to the static electricity generated by the geographic and climatic conditions of the area. For a mother to carry a baby close to her body, she first had to place a cloth made of natural silk between the baby and her, so as to avoid the small shocks caused by the static friction, as these would certainly keep the baby awake!

Another problem was the relatively simple task of making bread, as the yeast that was normally added to the mixture would not rise. The ladies at the Camp had a secret mix they used successfully, and which was passed on to all newbie housewives as a welcoming gesture when they arrived in the Camp for the first time. The new arrival was visited and ceremoniously offered a small portion of the “starter”. This was quite traumatic for my mother, who had never baked bread in her life!

Another domestic problem was the drinking water. This was brought from Andean mountain streams and carried in small barrels on the backs of donkeys. Groups of these animals, lead by the men in charge, visited the camp periodically and sold their barrels of precious water. It was necessary to be the owner of an empty barrel so as to exchange it for a full one, otherwise there was no deal!

Donkeys on the Atacama Desert

Wild donkeys on the Atacama Desert
Wild donkeys on the Atacama Desert | Source

A Majestic View of the Atacama Valley

The Atacama Valley in all its incredible majesty.
The Atacama Valley in all its incredible majesty. | Source

World War 2 a dramatic view of the Blitz.

The great London Blitz, with St. Paul's Cathedral in the background.
The great London Blitz, with St. Paul's Cathedral in the background. | Source

World War 2 enters the Scene

As I developed through my early babyhood and childhood stages, World War II started to make itself heard, even in far off Chile. As time wore on, the news from Great Britain and the United States filtered through to the Camp and the Explosives Plant. France fell, the Battle of Britain raged, the Liverpool Blitz proceeded in all its horror, the United States entered the war after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Atlantic hit both fighting ships and merchant ships very severely with a great loss of life, Singapore fell.

On a more personal note, family news slowly began to arrive.

  • My grandmother in Liverpool had to be evacuated due to the bombing.
  • Dad’s eldest brother was killed on the Liverpool Docks during the Liverpool Blitz.
  • A younger brother went missing in the Atlantic after his merchant ship was torpedoed.
  • A brother-in-law was a Prisoner of War after Singapore was captured by the Japanese.
  • A small branch of the Robertson family was wiped out entirely when the air raid shelter they were in received a direct hit.
  • A couple of his sisters suffered severe bomb damage in Liverpool.
  • And so on.

There came a point where my Dad could take no more, so he resigned from the Explosives Plant, packed up his wife and child (me), and traveled to Santiago, where my maternal grandmother was working in a British school. His plans were to apply to the British Embassy for repatriation to Great Britain to join the armed forces, preferably the RAF, and to leave his small family in Santiago, with my grandmother. My mother was devastated, but there really wasn't much she could do about it.

Well, the British Embassy had other ideas on the issue. They were in need of an able-bodied British subject that could comply with a certain physical profile, i.e., he must NOT be a blue-eyed, fair-haired Anglo-Saxon type! And my father was just what they were looking for.

World War 2 makes itself felt in Liverpool!

Liverpool during the Blitz.
Liverpool during the Blitz. | Source

A Short Digression here

Due to some vagaries attributed to Mendel’s laws of inheritance, my father’s looks can only be described as Eastern Mediterranean. His father (my Robertson grandfather) was a standard British Isles type, not too fair and not too dark, with blue eyes and medium brown hair. Dad’s mother was brown-eyed, with a middling colored complexion, dark brown hair and a very prominent Mediterranean type nose! It seems that his mother’s coloring and features were predominant, as all his brothers and sisters inherited THE NOSE. I have no photos, but if you call to mind photos and movies that show inhabitants of some of the Greek islands, you would be about right, nose and all!

My Granny Robertson, the originator of this characteristic nose, was of Spanish descent, born in Chiloe, Chile, and we have very little information about her forebears, due to the fact that the Civil Registration Office where her birth certificate was annotated, burnt down, and there were no copies available.

In an era that did not abound in nose-fixing interventions, my mother was very relieved to observe that I did not have THE NOSE, and in fact none of my generation got it. I should think it is possible that the generation that came after my cousins and me, did get this spectacularly shaped appendage, but I have no information about this.

St Luke's at Liverpool, open to the sky after WW2

The skeleton of St Luke's at Liverpool. Trees grow within the walls.
The skeleton of St Luke's at Liverpool. Trees grow within the walls. | Source

Back to the Dispositions of the British Embassy in Santiago

After studying my father’s various attributes and experience, it was decided that he was perfect for their needs:

  • He was physically fit, with the right kind of features.
  • He spoke Spanish competently, albeit with an accent, which was all to the good.
  • He had work experience in merchant shipping.
  • He had work experience in consular responsibilities.
  • He knew about explosives.
  • He was a certified life-boat expert.
  • He had experience in sailing boats, having been brought up in Liverpool, where his father had owned a sailing boat.
  • He was already in Chile!

Santiago in the Early 1940s.

Santiago in the early 1940s.
Santiago in the early 1940s. | Source

Downtown Santiago during the years of WW2.

Downtown Santiago, classic building
Downtown Santiago, classic building | Source

Edward "Ted" Robertson signs up for Counter Espionage

Dad’s contract with the British Embassy in Santiago started on August 10th, 1942 and ended on April 30th, 1946.

During this period he was active in counter-espionage tasks, which at times was pure routine and at times involved a high quota of personal risk.

The information I have is all mostly informal, obtained in snippets from both my father and my mother over the years, plus a few first hand memories of my own.

In the first place, Dad’s place of work was the Embassy itself, where he officially held some obscure diplomatic post, such as being responsible for protocol, accompanying the Lady Ambassadress to official functions, doing paperwork for British merchant ships that arrived and left from Valparaiso, rescuing British sailors from jail when they had got into drunken brawls and other similar everyday activities.

One of his duties was to handle the codes for the Allied shipping. This meant that when a coded message arrived, at any time of the day or night, Dad was supposed to be at the ready to decode the contents.

These messages frequently referred to nothing more mundane than a request for fresh produce for a certain ship either arriving or leaving Valparaiso. However, this was an important feature of counter-espionage, as these messages provided clues as to shipping dates, and therefore could alert the Axis spy rings and then in turn the U-boats that were always ready to pounce on their victims.


Downtown Santiago, the Union Club

A classic building in downtown Santiago, many important decisions were taken here.
A classic building in downtown Santiago, many important decisions were taken here. | Source

"Teddy" Acquires Numerous "Secretaries"

The Embassy facilities boasted an attic high up under the roof, and that's where Dad spent most of his days. In diplomatic circles and for those in the know, this was known as the "Pigeon Loft".

My Dad was by no means alone up there, as there was a numerous female staff working with him, 22 ladies at one count, all of them Canadian. I remember these ladies, all of them very jolly, always laughing and joking. They made a great pet of me, and as they had access to the diplomatic pouch, frequently provided me with the most wonderful toys, especially at Christmas time, when they would descend on our house and celebrate with my family. At the time I was a small child, about 4 years old, and I did not find it strange that Dad had so many “secretaries”.

Years later I discovered their real function: they were language experts, fluent in German and Japanese. The Allies had tapped the telephone lines of both the German and the Japanese Embassies, and other important offices of these nationals, and these ladies sat in the Pigeon Loft and listened in to these communications, which they transcribed on special writing machines, similar to typewriters, but much more technically developed.

Dad explained that each shift listened in for no more than two hours, as the ladies could not work under such pressure for a more extended time. Dad also described them as being positively brilliant.

How the Allies managed to tap the lines within a “neutral” country, and how all those numerous “secretaries” were justified to the eyes of interested outsiders, I have never been able to find out.

This knowledge, combined with my memories of these gallant ladies, has been my motivation for doing research in relation to spy rings and counter-espionage in South America, which in turn enabled me to write my previous article in this series referring to spy rings in Latin America.

Furthermore, through my researches I have discovered the existence of a Canadian organization known as the Wartime Examination Unit (WEU) which was an electronic eavesdropping agency that collected intelligence of use to Canada’s British and American allies. This would explain why my favorite ladies were all Canadian.

The Santa Lucia Hill, a classic view of Santiago.

The Santa Lucia Hill, a classic landmark in Santiago.
The Santa Lucia Hill, a classic landmark in Santiago. | Source

British Policy with Reference to the Axis Secret Codes.

All through the War, the Axis leaders were convinced that their wonderful coding machine, the Enigma, was invincible, but the British teams at Bletchley Park that worked at secret code breaking activities, managed to decipher the Enigma codes. The British policy was to maintain a very low profile about any success, so as not to induce the Axis to introduce changes, which in turn would merely provide more work for the teams that were already hard pressed to offer desperate solutions in the critical years of the War.

This also had an effect on counter espionage activities in far off Chile: the British were in a position to keep track of the activities of the German spy rings that operated in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, as has been described in my previous article about spy rings.

This made up an important part of the counter espionage effort, in which my Dad was so involved. The British Embassy in Santiago contributed strongly to this effort, and these activities were also interrelated to the Axis spy rings in Argentine and Brazil.

The Enigma Machine, WW 2. (Axis Encoding Machine)

The Axis leaders' proudest achievement: The Enigma Machine.
The Axis leaders' proudest achievement: The Enigma Machine. | Source

A Conclusion.

All in all, an interesting stage in the British diplomatic activities in Chile.

I am currently editing the second part of this counter espionage adventure, so don’t forget to visit once again!

© 2012 joanveronica (Joan Robertson)

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    • joanveronica profile image
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      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Mike, thanks for the visit and the comment! I'm so glad you liked this Hub, it's one of my favorites. Please do read the second part, it's very good too. Have a nice day!

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 4 years ago from London

      Fascinating account, really! I love all of the mythology surrounding espionage in those days, after reading John Le Carre's books of course! Thanks so much for sharing with us this story! I go now read the second part!

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi jcressler! Your visit and comment just made my day! To have a real live counter-intelligence operative provide an opinion, well wow! I was very small, but I was able to absorb many details, I wish I could have collected more information of this period. There is another Hub of mine on the same topic, which I think is quite amusing. I still find it kind of incredible! Thanks again, and have a good day!

    • jcressler profile image

      James E Cressler 4 years ago from Orlando, Florida

      Joan, this is a wonderful story that I found very interesting. American WWII history focuses on Europe and the Pacific and usually leaves out what happened further South. Fascinating information and so well presented with imagery. As I was a counter-intelligence sergeant in Operation Desert Shield/Storm, I could visualize that upper room and everyone cracking codes and encrypting! Thanks

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Irish, welcome back once again! After reading your comment, words sort of fail to come freely, I really don't know what to say, except that I'm so glad I actually stuck it out and wrote the whole article! I'm still basically a teacher, so I do enjoy readers who discover something new or interesting or worth reading about in my writings! I do hope you will read the whole series, there are quite a lot of them by now, and I have really enjoyed writing them. Now, if only I had lots of readers with reactions like yours, I would be floating on clouds of happiness! Thanks once again for the visit and the wonderful comment, and have a good day!

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      This is FASCINATING!!! Edward "Ted" Robertson was contected to ENIGMA!!!! I just finished reading about ENIGMA and I didn't stop until I reached the end of the book. I also am so amazed at the intricate deceptions such as Operation Fortitude as well as other tactical deceptions such as when the movie industries art departments were hired to create realistic inflatable tanks and trucks.

      I am probably going to use the word fascinating too many times, so forgive me in advance.

      Your family history, though tragic is FASCINATING! I recently sat down with my sister-in-laws step-mother who was a nurse in Brittain during the war. She described the terrible conditions some of your family members endured and perished in.

      It's also fascinating and rare to glimpse the other side of the war in other countries- such as your young Mothers experience. So fascinating to read about the need for silk between the baby and mother, what was involved for simple water as well as the secret to bread making. Another example of why they are "The Greatest Generation." I can not tell you how much I enjoy your articles on WWII. I am in the process of devouring the rest that I sorely missed during my brief absence. I only wish others from my generation took an interest in what sacrifices and bravery was required so that I may sit at this laptop and communicate freely to the rest of the globe.

      Thanks so much. I just can't say it enough - THANK YOU!

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Susana, you do come up with the most exotic divergent thinking! Nice to hear from you!

    • profile image

      Susana 5 years ago

      It reminded me of an old Chilean soap-opera filmed in the North of the country.

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi tillsontitan, your visit and comment are greatly appreciated! You are right, my life has been full of "adventures", brought about mainly, I think, because of my parents' profiles. We must always consider that WW2 was just that: a World War, that covered the entire planet in some way or another, no country was exempt. So you can expect to find unexpected happenings all over the place, it's just a question of getting the right information. I have some more aspects to write about, coming up soon!

      By the way, congrats on you avatar nomination, that was one of my votes! Have a good day!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      Not only were your parents extraordinary people but you have had an interesting and I would say out of the ordinary life! This "personal view" of what was going on in Chile during WWII is very interesting. We never hear about things like this having so much more to learn about WWII and the US and Great Britain. Thank you for sharing this wonderul, interesting information.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Gypsy, your visit is a good way to start my day! Thanks for the comment and the share, and I will be finishing the next part very soon. I'm so glad you liked it!

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      WOW Thanks for sharing a part of your life and this fascinating and interesting piece of history. Loved the pics. Passing this on. Looking forward to more.

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, UH, your comment made me laugh! I really don't know what my mother thought of all the secretaries, I was too small to observe such details, but I do know they were in and out of our house constantly, very often sitting on the floor playing with me. They must have been homesick too, I should think, and their work was very demanding, so my home was an opprtunity for some home care! My mother often spoke about these ladies years after the war was over, and she was very natural about it all, so I supose she took it in her stride! Both my parents were really extraordinary people!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      What a fascinating story, joan. Your mother must have been a very strong woman. Did she suffer much from homesickness? I know mine did with an ocean between her and her family. Your father sounds like a no-nonsense sort who took the bull by the horns. Amazing. Voted up and awesome! P.S. What did your mother think of all those secretaries?

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi Pavlo, nice to hear from you again! Thank you for your comment, I'm glad you found the article interesting. I will be writing more soon. Have a good day!

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi ribertoo, about your question, it was difficult to go into details about the place my family lived in, because that was not the focus of the article, I will probably do something more specific about the Desert in the future. The locations are three in all, the Rio Loa Camp, where we lived, the mining town of Chuquicamata, where I was born in the Mining Company hospital, and the town of Calama. They are all relatively close, forming a sort of triangle.

      The Rio Loa Camp was just that, some houses in the middle of empty space. It seems to have been absorbed by the expansion of the explosives plant, I can't find any trace of it on Google maps.

      Chuquicamata was officially closed in 2007, and the inhabitants were relocated to Calama. It is now a ghost town, or will be until the mining works bury it as part of the slag heap! This is the only real estate that could be named a UNESCO heritage, and I don't know if that will be possible.

      I hope this answers your question? Have a good day!

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      I never read such an information before. Interesting! Alas, I did not visit Latin America but the photos are great!

    • rlbert00 profile image

      rlbert00 5 years ago from USA

      I just adore Chile and love to learn new things about it. I am curious, the company town that your family lived in, were they similar to the saltpeter works of Humberstone and Santa Laura that I wrote about? If so, why have they not received the same UNESCO designation that the others have? I hope that you can enlighten me on this issue. Again, I enjoyed this article immensely.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Fascinating Joan! You are a wealth of knowledge and you have had a remarkable life. Thank you for furthering my education.

    • joanveronica profile image
      Author

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi, ribertoo, nice to have you back! Your comment made my evening, I'm so glad you liked it. Coming from you, the writer of all those wonderful hubs I've been following, it's praise indeed! Thanks for the visit and the comment, more coming up soon!

    • rlbert00 profile image

      rlbert00 5 years ago from USA

      I must say there was considerable information in this article that I was not aware of previously. From the fact that Anaconda owned many of the copper mines in Chile, Anaconda also features prominently just north of here, to the fact that there was this type of activity taking place in Chile at the time. I really enjoyed this article and the photos, Cerro Santa Lucia is one of my favorite places in Santiago along with Cerro San Cristobal. I look forward to the next installment.