Operation Bernhard: Counterfeiting During World War II

Posted on 3/19/2019

Economic warfare can fuel counterfeiting.

There are many reasons why someone would want to counterfeit a banknote. In this case, the reason was economic warfare.

The year was 1942 and production of British "White Notes" was about to start, but not in Britain. Rather, they would be made behind the gates of Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

The Germans decided to begin counterfeiting British banknotes to artificially cause inflation of the British pound, leading to the economic collapse of the competition, while simultaneously funding some of their own projects. These tactics weren’t regarded as acceptable by the German soldiers themselves, as they were considered sneaky and unprofessional. However, soon after World War II, it became common practice for different countries to counterfeit the currency of their opposition in times of war.

(Genuine)
Great Britain, Bank of England 1934-38 £50
Click image to enlarge.

Friederich Walter Bernhard Krueger was placed in charge of Germany’s second attempt at counterfeiting British notes. The first attempt, known as Operation Andrew, failed because of disagreements between top brass inside of the Nazi Party. The second operation’s codename was Bernhard because that is what Krueger was called.

Bernhard assembled a team of about 140 men (although some accounts mention as many as 300.) These men were told they would receive better treatment (radio, newspapers, warm barracks — small comforts of that nature) if they participated in the operation. What did the men have to lose? All they had to do was counterfeit 400,000 British banknotes a month.

(Counterfeit)
"WWII German Counterfeit" "Operation Bernhard" £50
Click image to enlarge.

Fast forward a year, and the prisoners finally successfully counterfeited the British White Note. By 1945, conservative estimates figure 70,000,000 notes were printed by the inmates — a cache worth upwards of £100,000,000. In order to complete this herculean task, the team of counterfeiters studied vast quantities of authentic White Notes. They broke this massive task up into seven smaller tasks, each one seemingly more difficult than the last. These tasks included:

  • Discovering secret security marks
  • Engraving the vignette
  • Perfecting the paper
  • Creating identical ink
  • Solving the serial numbering system
  • Re-creating the signatures, dates and places of origin, and
  • Printing the notes

The men found no fewer than 150 different security marks hidden on the White Notes. There were intentional minor defects and flaws that the Bank of England incorporated as anti-counterfeiting devices. To make things even harder, these security devices were different for each denomination. Nonetheless, in short order, the counterfeit team produced a plate for each denomination: £5, £10 £20 and £50.

Bryan Burke, author of the book Nazi Counterfeiting of British Currency During World War II, has recorded 28 differences between the genuine British White Notes and an Operation Bernhard note. Here we are only going to talk about one. The characteristic is inside of the vignette of Britannia at the top left of the note (see below for a close up of the vignette).

Full face seated Britannia with spear
Click image to enlarge.

Pay close attention to the leaf bulb at around the 5 o’clock position. It’s this small piece that was never quite duplicated to perfection. The counterfeits stop abruptly, while the genuine smoothly continues along. See the next two pictures for a comparison.

(Genuine)

The genuine note will always have sharper details than the Operation Bernhard counterfeits. Can you find the other 27 differences?

Another tool we use to determine whether the note is genuine or Bernhard is the serial number prefix ranges known. However, it is important to point out that just because a note falls within this range doesn’t mean that it’s automatically a counterfeit note. It needs to have the identifying characteristics of a counterfeit, too. Known serial number ranges are listed below:

£5

  • A/128-275 A/281-314 A/317-398
  • B/105-131  B/134-182  B/186-237 B/256-279
  • J/373-377

£10

  • K/102-184 K/187-199 
  • L/100-107
  • V/105-153  V/163-170

£20

  • M/43-55

£50

  • N/42-62

For a more in-depth look at known serial numbers, please visit Pam West’s website, which goes into great detail.

PMG identifies and grades Operation Bernhard notes. They can be submitted under any qualifying tier. These are truly amazing pieces of history and the stories behind them are fascinating. Please take some time to dig around through the links above and familiarize yourself with some of the best counterfeits in paper money history.

Identifying an alteration can be difficult to the untrained eye. Here at PMG, we have experienced graders and equipment to catch alterations. Collectors can be assured that any note encapsulated by PMG is backed by the PMG Guarantee of grade and authenticity.

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