Raider of the lost archive

My publisher seemed perfectly happy with my idea for a new, comprehensive, one-volume history of the second world war, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of its outbreak. He had only one instruction: find out something new.

Yet what genuinely new material could be discovered about an event that has been investigated so closely and written about so often? In 20 years of writing about the war, I had visited scores of archives, mined hundreds of books, interviewed any number of survivors and read dozens of learned articles. But the quest for brand new, never-before-published revelations seemed an impossible one. It was true that I’d been incredibly lucky during the writing of my last book, Masters and Commanders (Penguin, 2008), when I had uncovered the verbatim reports of Winston Churchill’s war cabinet, but such archival lightning bolts rarely strike twice. And then I met Ian Sayer.

Three years ago, David Wills, a mutual friend and fellow member of Brooks’s Club in St James’s, London, organised a lunch there to introduce me to the man responsible for establishing the Sayer Archive. It was, Wills told me, one of the world’s largest collections of second world war-related original documentation in private hands, with more than 100,000 items in all. Furthermore, said Wills, no historian had ever been allowed access. I admit that my first instinct was the ignoble one of hoping that none would be, at least until I had published my book.

We got on well and, a few days later, I entered the vast library attached to Sayer’s house in Berkshire and immediately felt awed and very excited. There were shelves upon shelves of letters, memos, reports, diaries, maps, photos and telegraphic correspondence, as well as more than 20,000 books relating to the second world war. I have since returned many times and have never failed to feel a sense of wonderment at what Sayer has achieved over a lifetime of collecting.

Ian Sayer was born in Norwich in October 1945, only a month after V-J Day, and raised in Feltham, west London. He recalls: “In the late 1940s and 1950s, there were still scenes of wartime devastation everywhere. For the first postwar baby boomers like me, bomb sites meant fun and adventure playgrounds, even though there was still a fair amount of unexploded ordnance around.” He remembers once having to leave a Lyons Tea House in Richmond in a hurry with his mother when builders found a large unexploded bomb.

Sayer had relatives, teachers, friends and, later on, colleagues who had served during the war, and he hung on their stories. He was particularly fascinated by the fact that, in 1900, Queen Victoria had made a personal award of £3, together with a scroll, to commemorate the unique distinction of having six of Sayer’s grandmother’s brothers simultaneously serving under the Queen’s colours in various parts of the empire.

From an early age he was a collector. “I got started with stamps, then moved up to collecting bus, steam locomotive, naval craft and finally aircraft serial and registration numbers,” he recalls. He would cycle up to 70 miles a day just to note a number in his book.

When he was 15, Sayer started to buy aircraft books and then sell them by advertising in the magazines read by the spotters. “By the time I was 17 this little business allowed me to buy a new car, throw away my anorak and discover girls.” In 1965 he became a junior export clerk in an air freight firm. By the following year, aged just 20, he had established his own transport company, based at Heathrow, and within four years Sayer Transport Group had pioneered the concept of overnight express delivery in the UK. By 1974 it had become one of the most profitable transport companies in Britain. In 1983, Sayer began a period of consultancy, by which time he was ready to spend more time with his already burgeoning archive.

The origins of the current Sayer Archive go back more than 30 years. In 1974, Sayer had become fascinated by a mystery described in The Guinness Book of Records as the “world’s greatest robbery”. Just before the end of the war, the Nazi Reichsbank’s gold and foreign currency reserves had been sent out of Berlin to the safer climes of Bavaria. Large sections of this treasure remained unaccounted for, even 30 years after the war had ended.

In all, millions of dollars worth of missing gold and currency had been smuggled out of Bavaria by an informal consortium of serving US officers, black marketeers, former German army and SS officers. Sayer decided to follow the trail of one lot of gold and currency, missing since 1945, and requested official assistance from the US authorities in locating it. The US Department of State eventually agreed to launch an investigation, lasting 14 years, which culminated in Sayer becoming the only private citizen to have been responsible for the recovery of any misappropriated Nazi gold. In 1984, nearly 10 years after he began his investigation, he co-wrote with Douglas Botting a bestseller entitled Nazi Gold, about the Reichsbank thefts. The day he was photographed in the Bank of England vaults holding two ingots of the missing gold that he had tracked down – complete with swastikas engraved on them – remains one of the proudest of his life.

Researching this story in British, German and American archives, Sayer became increasingly fascinated by second world war documents, and he decided to try to collect the original signatures of people who had played an important role in the war. In January 1976 he bought a signed photograph of Mussolini for £75 from an autograph dealer, and began to look through auction catalogues. “There was quite a lot of second world war material around at the time,” he recalls, “but interest had not yet focused on it, so it was fairly easy to acquire. This was particularly true in the US where batches of unresearched letters and photos were invariably grouped together in fairly large collections and sold as one lot, usually without any serious effort having been made to identify the signatories.”

In the early 1980s Sayer met Sir Kenneth Strong, who had been General Eisenhower’s chief of intelligence during the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944 and the Battle of the Bulge in the French Ardennes in December 1944. Strong owned some of the 20th century’s most evocative historical documentation. In 1945 he had taken part in the negotiations to end the war in Europe, talking to Hitler’s successor, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz. During 48 hours of tense negotiations between Eisenhower’s HQ in Rheims and Doenitz’s HQ in Flensburg on May 6 and 7 1945 there had been an exchange of messages transmitted in code by radio. Strong had kept the original written documents used in these transmissions, and sold them to Sayer, but it was many months before Sayer became aware of just how important some of them were, for they open a new page in history.

Doenitz’s most senior emissary to the Rheims surrender negotiations was Colonel-General Alfred Jodl (later hanged at Nuremberg). The Germans were playing for time as they wanted to bring as many Germans as possible home through American and British lines before the Russians sealed this path. In order to create a delay, Jodl told Strong he was only empowered to begin the discussions for a capitulation and did not have authority to terminate them. This meant a delay while messages were sent between Rheims and Flensburg, on the assumption that a surrender could not be signed until Doenitz agreed.

In reality, Jodl was actually carrying a second letter which gave him full authority to conclude the surrender himself. One letter is now in the Permanently Valuable Records Depository of the United States Archive, but the other is held by the Sayer Archive. Had Jodl been searched when he arrived at the Allied HQ from Flensburg there would have been no need for further discussions with Doenitz – and nearly 1.6m more Germans may have found themselves in captivity in Russia for at least 10 years.

From time to time Sayer has come across various pieces of paper which initially meant very little to him, such as a number of tiny coloured drawings, usually of cherubs, which he later discovered were drawn by Hitler and handed out as souvenirs to intimates. (The Sayer Archive contains 60 letters and photographs signed by the Führer, from 1920 to just before his death in the Berlin bunker in April 1945.)

Another innocuous-looking note proved to be a document so important that it actually changed the course of the 20th century. On August 2 1934 Hitler assumed his new position as supreme commander of the German Armed Forces, or Wehrmacht. Some weeks earlier he had destroyed the potential challenge from one of his own paramilitary organisations – the SA, or Brownshirts – by executing their senior commanders during The Night of the Long Knives. The executions were carried out by the Führer’s smaller unit, the SS, but he needed to ensure that the German army did not interfere with his plans, as it was the only body capable of ousting him or, alternatively, sustaining him in power. To this end, he had made a secret agreement with the head of the army, General Werner von Blomberg, in April 1934, by which the army would support Hitler in his taking the presidency of Germany once the incumbent Paul von Hindenburg died (which he duly did, on August 2).

A week later, on August 9, Blomberg sent a note just one sentence long, saying, somewhat menacingly: “My leader, I would like to remind you of your statement to the Wehrmacht. Blomberg.” The general had, in standing by as Hitler crushed the Brownshirts and then took the presidency, effectively allowed him to become dictator of Germany. Now he wanted his reward. It was not long in coming. On August 20 Hitler issued a public proclamation which accorded the German army the sole power to bear arms on behalf of Germany. Blomberg’s note, such a key document, is not to be found among the Bundesarchiv material in Berlin but in the Sayer Archive.

As the collection grew, so did Sayer’s expertise. When the Hitler Diaries fiasco – in which the Sunday Times published extracts from Hitler’s supposed personal journals, which turned out to be forged – blew up in 1983 he demonstrated how the diaries were forged.

In 1988, Sayer tracked down the SS war criminal General Wilhelm Mohnke, who had been responsible for killing a group of British soldiers in retreat to Dunkirk in 1940 and for two other massacres in 1944. The Mohnke case developed into an international “cause célèbre”. The West German authorities grudgingly initiated an investigation which lasted several years before concluding in 1994 there was insufficient evidence to bring Mohnke to trial. He died in a nursing home in Germany in 2001.

One of the star documents in the Sayer Archive is the last letter Hitler wrote apart from his last will and political testament. On April 23 1945, Field Marshal Ferdinand Schoerner sent a radio message to Hitler exhorting him to leave Berlin as the Russians approached, and carry on the war from southern Germany. Hitler wrote out his response, which was radioed to Schoerner. Asking him to push his group northwards, he wrote “every effort must be made to win the struggle for Berlin”.

With the forces available to him, Schoerner was unable to break through the tightening Russian encirclement but was nonetheless promoted to commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht on April 29, the day before Hitler committed suicide. In this last letter Hitler stated: “I shall remain in Berlin, so as to take part, in honourable fashion, in the decisive battle for Germany, and to set a good example to all the rest.” Instead he shot himself.

Sayer passed his collection over to his children in the mid-1990s and now acts as the archive’s honorary curator. He continues to look for nuggets of history within it. He is also a consultant to auction house International Autograph Auctions.

To those historians who despair at the thought of ever trying to find anything “new” about the second world war, I offer the thought that there might – perhaps – be other Ian Sayer out there, men whose quiet expertise and dedication can, even seven decades on, shed new light on the story of the greatest cataclysm ever to engulf mankind.

Andrew Roberts’ ‘The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War’ is published by Allen Lane on August 6. Available through the FT Bookshop at £20 plus p&p (RRP £25). Tel: +44 0870 429 5884

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.

More on this topic

Suggestions below based on FT Magazine

Twelve days in west Africa

Exhilaration, frustration and promise: Lionel Barber’s personal journey from Nigeria to Ghana allows him a glimpse of the region’s future