Part James Bond, part Austin Powers, Swiss spymaster Albert Bachmann once sent an agent to spy on Austrian military maneuvers even though Vienna had invited Switzerland to observe the war games.
The agent was arrested and dubbed ‘the spy who came in from the Emmentaler’ - a reference to Swiss cheese. He was sent home with a suspended prison sentence and a few chuckles.
It was no laughing matter for Bachmann, however. The Swiss intelligence agency suspended its bespeckled, tattooed, mustachioed chief in 1979.
An investigation into cheese-gate uncovered several of Bachmann’s astonishing covert operations - none government approved - including Projekt-26’s secret militia, plans to set up a Swiss government in Ireland should the Soviets invade, and the purchase of a secluded Irish country house on 200 acres with basement vaults to stash Swiss gold.
Was Bachmann Bern’s most paranoid spymaster? An eccentric genius? Or a loose cannon with a talent for creating internal havoc that could bring down the UNA, Switzerland's military intelligence force? The answer, and Bachmann’s life, proved to be as complex as it was colorful.
Zurich-born Albert Bachmann left school at 14, trained as a printer, and dabbled with communism but decided on a career in military intelligence after the 1948 Czechoslovak coup. By 1968 he was a household name after co-authoring the notorious Défense civile - known as ‘The Little Red Book’ - which encouraged Swiss nationals to spy on each other during wartime.
The pamphlet stirred national debate and furore, but by that time Bachmann was on an undercover mission in the Republic of Biafra, which was struggling to secede from Nigeria. Bachmann assumed the identity of pipe-smoking Henry Peel, an upper-class English gentleman who dropped hints about secret arms deals with the Shah of Iran.
On his return to Switzerland, Bachmann was promoted to colonel and controlled Buero Ha, the unofficial Swiss intelligence service, and Special Service D, a resistance force trained to harass an occupying army. He also trained sharpshooters, code breakers, and mountain guides employed to escort Swiss nationals over the Alps in the case of a military occupation.
The Irish safe house
Dipping into government funds, Bachmann splashed out on the 200-acre Liss Ard Estate in Cork, Ireland, deeming the town of Skibbereen to be an ideal location for a Swiss government in exile should there be a nuclear war or invasion.
“It’s Georgian manor houses were among the first properties in Ireland to be fitted with hi-tech computer equipment, when most Irish homes possessed, at best, black-and-white televisions,” according to Harry Quetteville’s book Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer. “Furthermore, the basement of one was designated as a secret depository for Switzerland's massive gold reserves.”
Projekt-26 and the golden war chest
Projekt-26 was an illegal paramilitary program, a guerrilla-style force born under Bachmann’s command in 1979 and exposed in 1990. Schweizer Illustrierte magazine described the militants as: “The secret army of the EMD spies: 2,000 men and women, trained in planting bombs and silent killing. People like you and me: the sinister special forces of the EMD spies.”
EMD stood for Eidgenössisches Militärdepartement - the federal military department - and the Swiss Parliament soon set up a commission which confirmed P-26’s existence. Run by Efrem ‘Rico’ Cattelan, members were trained in pistol shooting, setting up dead letterboxes, and shaking off pursuers. Radio operators were introduced to encrypted message transmission, the engineering corps practiced using explosives, and a specialist group worked on the safe transport of people, material, and messages.
The plan was for the secret militia to remain in Switzerland to form a resistance during wartime. P-26 operated across 40 regions, with a sleeper region on the sidelines as a backup. Each region had several small groups, and members only knew who was in their specific group. While some agents have gone public, the P-26 membership list is to remain sealed until 2041.
Bachmann spent $60m of Swiss government money running P-26 and he built up a healthy war chest for the future - gold valued at $6.5m - which was donated to the Red Cross when it was discovered. Bachmann always maintained that the gold served a vital function, but journalists who chased him down never discovered what that might be.
A Swiss investigation into P-26 concluded that it had intense ties to British agents: “It is alarming that the British services knew more about P-26 than the Swiss government did," investigators wrote at the time. Since then, Swiss archive records about P-26 have vanished.
Retired but not forgotten
Bachmann was forced to retire in 1980 but does a spymaster ever really stop spying? He moved to Ireland, bought a home, ran a horse riding school, and operated The Skibbereen Eagle pub. He also let out holiday cottages and was a regular in the bars and restaurants of west Cork, near the Georgian manor he’d once paid for with Swiss government money.
“He hunted with the West Carbery, where he was something of an embarrassment, having his own ideas about which fields he could gallop across without the permission of the owners,” the Irish Times recalled in its 2011 obituary of the spymaster. Bachmann died at age 81.
A former Swiss spy once described Bachmann as "a glorified Boy Scout who saw evil everywhere and believed that he alone possessed the absolute truth about national defense".
Bachmann never apologized or admitted any wrongdoing, however.
"I am not bitter," Bachmann said. "I accept the judgment of others, but have enough confidence in myself to know what I am capable of."