The Hidden History of Herr Hoven

The great Ulster intellectual Emyr Estyn Evans (1905-1989), in his article on the Celtic Racialist and Nazi Spymaster in Dublin before the Second World War, Adolph Mahr, wrote of another of his aquaintance: “Suspicion fell too on another German, a certain Herr Hoven, then living in Belfast, though officially domiciled across the border. He often called to see me, and I once asked him when he hoped to return to Germany. His unguarded reply, ‘Not until early September’, seems to have been prophetic, for war was declared on 3 September 1939. I should add that neither Mahr nor Hoven, to the best of my knowledge, was ever charged with spying, for legally they were residents in a neutral country.”

So it was that throughout these years two young Germans were in and out of the company of the leaders of the I.R.A. Both were students who came from the neighbourhood of Aachen and who knew Ireland through educational trips and longish stays in the country. Indeed, the two Abwehr agents Dr. Jupp Hoven and Helmut Clissmann were ostensibly products of the Young Prussian League and ranked as representatives of political thought which was generally denounced as “Nationalbolschevist”.

Dr Hoven, who was studying anthropology in Ireland, was tasked to become friendly with Frank Ryan, the former editor of the I.R.A. weekly paper An Phoblacht, who was a student of “Celtic” philology and archaeology. It was Ryan who in 1934 took over leadership of the splintered left-wing Congress Group and fought on the side of Republican Spain in the Spanish Civil War. When the Second World War broke out, Dr Hoven should have been classified as not “suitable for service” and therefore not enlisted, being adjudged to the outside world as “politically unreliable”.

Yet as an associate of Captain Dr. von Hippel, the Commanding Officer of Special Duty Construction Demonstration Company 800, of the subsequently famous Brandenburg Division, he was able to don the field-grey uniform as a member of Admiral Canaris’s Abwehr (German military intelligence) organisation. In Brandenburg circles Hoven was a well-informed expert on matters concerning the I.R.A. And at the secret headquarters of Admiral Canaris on the Berlin Tirpitzufer, it eventually fell to Dr Hoven to play an important part in the Abwehr’s Irish operation and the destruction of Belfast.

In 1930 Helmut Clissmann – then also outwardly a member of the Young Prussian League – made his first trip to Dublin as a student. He also made friends among leaders of the I.R.A. and got to know Sean Russell best of all. In 1933 Clissmann, who was continuing his studies in Germany, was able to return as an exchange student to Trinity College, Dublin. For him, Ireland was to be a land of opportunity. Not only did he establish branches of the Spy Unit, the German Academic Exchange Service, in Dublin, Cork and later Galway, but he became the director responsible for these branches.

In late 1936 Frank Ryan had travelled to Spain with about 80 men he had succeeded in recruiting to fight in the International Brigades on the Republican side. Ryan’s men are sometimes referred to as the “Connolly Column”. He served in the Lincoln-Washington Brigade, rising to the rank of Brigadier. He was attached to the staff of the 15th International Brigade in charge of publicity – writing, broadcasting and visiting the front line to see conditions first-hand. He fought in a number of engagements – at the Battle of Jarama (February 1937) he took over command of the British Battalion (the Irish were split between this and the Lincoln Battalion) after it suffered heavy losses.

He was seriously wounded in March 1937, and returned to Ireland to recover. He took advantage of the opportunity of his return to launch another left-republican newspaper, entitled The Irish Democrat. On his return to Spain, he again served in the war until he was captured by Italian troops fighting for the Nationalists in March 1938. He was accused of murder, court-martialled, and sentenced to death before being committed to Burgos Prison in 1938. He was under the death sentence for 16 months. During this time he expressed his disagreement with the IRA bombing campaign in England. His sentence was later commuted to thirty years hard labour in January 1940.

In October 1938 Ryan was visited in Burgos Prison by the Irish ambassador in Madrid, Leopold Kerney. Kerney hired a lawyer for Ryan, (Jaime Michel de Champourcin, one of the best lawyers to be found in Spain, paid for by the Irish government), but in spite of all his efforts, and the pleadings of de Valera, he could not secure Ryan’s release. It was not through de Champourcin’s contacts nor even Abwehr chief Wilhelm Canaris, that saw Ryan released into Abwehr hands as an “Agent of Abwehr ll” on 14th or 15th July 1940 but due to his friend Dr Jupp Hoven of the “Brandenburgers”.
The handover took place on the Spanish border at Irun-Hendaye, but a cover story that Ryan had “escaped” was released at the time. Ryan was taken to the Spanish border by Madrid-based Abwehr agent Wolfgang Blaum and handed over to Sonderführer Kurt Haller. From the border, Ryan was first taken to the resort town of Biarritz then on to Paris where he received several days hospitality courtesy of the Abwehr. He was then transported to Berlin, and met up with Seán Russell on 4 August 1940.

On his arrival in Berlin, Ryan was introduced to SS Colonel Dr. Edmund Veesenmayer. As part of his roving SS and German Foreign Ministry brief, Veesenmayer was intimately involved in the planning of all Abwehr operations in Ireland during 1940 – 1943, particularly those involving Russell and Ryan. The day after arriving, Ryan was asked by Russell to accompany him to Ireland as part of Operation Dove (“Unternehmen Taube” ) Although Ryan had not been involved in the training or preparation for Dove both he and Russell departed aboard U-65 on 8 August 1940. When Russell became ill and died during the journey (of a perforated ulcer), Ryan asked the Captain of U-65, Hans-Jerrit von Stockhausen, to cable Germany and ask for fresh instructions before proceeding. The mission was subsequently aborted and Ryan returned to Germany via Bordeaux. After the failure of Operation Dove, Ryan remained in Berlin.

The Abwehr felt that Ryan might have other uses and that was to persuade Irish Prisoners-of-War to work for the Germans. According to Clissmann: “All Irishmen in prisoner-of-war camps were therefore invited to give their names with a view to going to a special camp which offered better conditions.” There were naturally no illusions on the German side that among the applicants for special treatment would be Irishmen who had only now discovered their Irish national consciousness on the strength of their Irish names. It was also recognised that from among the English prisoners some stool-pigeons would be deputed to apply for the special camp in order to establish what really went on there.

The special camp for the Irish was established close to the village of Altdamm near Friesack in Brandenburg Rhin-Luch. Helmut Clissmann, Dr. Jupp Hoven and Frank Ryan were among those who had to undertake the thankless task of finding useful volunteers in this camp. Their selection was not large: when Dr Hoven made his first visit to the camp in the spring of 1941, he found about eighty Irishmen there. Helmut Clissmann recalls that later on there were collected in Friesack “not more than a hundred men who described themselves as Irishmen”. According to Dr Hoven the number of officers was less than would be counted on the fingers of one hand.

To quote Clissmann: “In order to obtain suitable people for the Abwehr’s special tasks Ryan and I visited the camp dressed as civilians. We were both very sceptical as to whether our mission could have any possible success. As a matter of fact Frank Ryan was immediately recognised by several of the prisoners and greeted with a friendly ‘Hallo Frank’.” However, Dr Hoven flatly contradicts this: “Ryan was called Francis Richards in Germany and no one greeted him with his own name.”
Dr Hoven’s recollections about his task at Friesack are not happy: “It produced nothing but irritation and annoyance.” There were certainly a variety of ways these Irish could be employed: as road guides for German troops in the event of an invasion of Great Britain; as saboteurs or agents in Ulster and England; as guerrillas in the event of Anglo-American occupation of Southern Ireland. But with each of them a personal reservation had to be taken into account from the very beginning. For example, the few Irish officers involved made it clear that they could only be counted on in the event of an invasion of Ireland by British troops.

So, in the Second World War, the “Irish Brigade” consisted, after careful weeding out, of a derisory ten men. In order to keep their employment on Germany’s behalf secret from their comrades, the subterfuge of an attempted break-out was staged, and succeeded as planned. The ten Irishmen ear-marked for special tasks were all taken to Berlin and accommodated in a house there – they all wore civilian clothes. “Then,” Dr. Hoven tells us, “they were given instruction, at the Abwehr training establishment on the Quenzgut, in the improvised manufacture and use of explosives, incendiaries and such like. Also, in the district of a troop training area in western Germany, they were instructed in Abwehr radio procedure.”

In the early summer of 1942 Dr. Hoven, who was tired of his thankless task, left the Abwehr service and went to a parachute unit. About the Irishmen selected, he said: “As a result of ‘unsatisfactory circumstances’ they were without exception never employed.” But the information he had supplied about Belfast had already caused enormous damage in the Blitz of April and May 1941.

The first deliberate raid took place on the night of 7 April. (Some authors count this as the second raid of four). It targeted the docks but neighbouring residential areas were also hit. William Joyce (known as “Lord Haw-Haw”), whose links with Francis Stuart have been fully documented, announced in radio broadcasts from Hamburg that there would be “Easter eggs for Belfast”. Stuart and Joyce  came from similar backgrounds as “Anglo-Irishmen”, from Protestant or at least non-Catholic backgrounds, who had attended school in England. In 1920 Stuart became a Roman Catholic and married Iseult Gonne, Maud Gonne’s daughter. Seven years older than Stuart, Iseult had had a romantic but unsettled life. Maud Gonne’s estranged husband John Mc Bride was executed in 1916 for taking part in the Easter Rebellion.  In Germany, Stuart served an apprenticeship to prove his usefulness to the Germans by inter alia writing scripts for Lord Haw-Haw’s broadcasts. Finally, in August 1941, the Germans gave Stuart a broadcasting slot for himself, with the broadcasts aimed at Ireland whereas those of Lord Haw-Haw’s had been directed at Britain.
On Easter Tuesday, 15 April 1941, the first attack was against the city’s waterworks, which had been attacked in the previous raid. High explosives were dropped. Initially it was thought that the Germans had mistaken this reservoir for the harbour and shipyards, where many ships, including HMS Ark Royal were being repaired. However this attack was not an error, although the myth that it was persists today. When incendiaries were dropped and the city burned, the water pressure was too low for firefighting. Wholesale destruction of the civilian population by terror tactics was a Nazi objective, and destruction of the water supply an essential preliminary.

By 6am, within two hours of the request for assistance to Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, 71 firemen with 13 fire tenders from Dundalk, Drogheda, Dublin, and Dún Laoghaire were on their way to cross the Irish border to assist their Belfast colleagues. In each station volunteers were asked for, as it was beyond their normal duties. In every instance, all volunteered. They remained for three days, until they were sent back by the Northern Ireland government. By then 250 fire men from Clydeside had arrived.

De Valera formally protested to Berlin. He followed up with his “they are our people” speech, made in Castlebar, County Mayo, on Sunday 20th April 1941 (Quoted in the Dundalk Democrat dated Saturday April 26 1941): “In the past, and probably in the present, too, a number of them did not see eye to eye with us politically, but they are our people – we are one and the same people – and their sorrows in the present instance are also our sorrows; and I want to say to them that any help we can give to them in the present time we will give to them whole-heartedly, believing that were the circumstances reversed they would also give us their help whole-heartedly”

Initial German radio broadcasts celebrated the raid. A Luftwaffe pilot gave this description “We were in exceptional good humour knowing that we were going for a new target, one of England’s last hiding places. Wherever Churchill is hiding his war material we will go … Belfast is as worthy a target as Coventry, Birmingham, Bristol or Glasgow.” William Joyce “Lord Haw-Haw” announced that “The Führer will give you time to bury your dead before the next attack … Tuesday was only a sample.”

However Belfast was not mentioned again by the Nazis. After the war, instructions from Joseph Goebbels ordering it not to be mentioned were discovered. It would appear that Adolf Hitler, in view of de Valera’s negative reaction, was concerned that de Valera, and the Irish American politicians he controlled, might encourage the United States to enter the war.

Among the people of Northern Ireland, reactions tended to blame the mediocre Ulster Unionist government for inadequate precautions. Tommy Henderson, the great Shankill working-class hero, an Independent Unionist MP in the House of Commons of Northern Ireland, summed up their feelings when he invited the Minister of Home Affairs to Hannahstown and the Falls Road, saying “The Catholics and the Protestants are going up there mixed and they are talking to one another. They are sleeping in the same sheugh (ditch), below the same tree or in the same barn. They all say the same thing, that the government is no good.”

Another claim was that the Roman Catholic population in general and the IRA in particular guided the bombers. Dr Barton, an expert on the Belfast Blitz, has written: “the Catholic population was much more strongly opposed to conscription, was inclined to sympathise with Germany”, “…there were suspicions that the Germans were assisted in identifying targets held by the Unionist population.” This view was probably influenced by the decision of the IRA Army Council to support Germany. As we have seen, however, German Intelligence had been very active both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, with both the Abwehr (the German military intelligence service) through the German Academic Exchange at Queen’s University, Belfast, as well as the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence service of the SS) sending agents there. Yet this fact is generally ignored by the whole Irish Academic Establishment in books on the Belfast Blitz to cover up the complicity of their predecessors.

There was a later raid on Belfast on 4 May; it was confined to the docks and shipyards. Again the Southern Irish emergency services crossed the border, this time without waiting for an invitation. On 31 May 1941 German bombers bombed neutral Dublin.  German intelligence operations effectively ended in September 1941 when An Garda Síochána made arrests on the basis of surveillance carried out on the key diplomatic legations in Ireland, including the United States. I think this was a result of the Blitzing first of Belfast and the realisation that Hitler’s intentions in the South were not so benign as de Valera had first thought. During the First World War the German objective was to roll back the borders of the Latins and return to those of a more ancient Greater Germany. Protestant Britain was to become a German colony, Roman Catholic Ireland an Austrian one. For Hitler the Second World War was merely an attempt to clear up the unfinished business of the First.

Whilst the invasion armies of the Allies were massing in the United Kingdom, particularly in a Northern Ireland and Queen’s University in particular, now cleared of German spies, the German front was losing ground to the Russians and Germany was being subjected to night and day bombing attack: at this time the life of Frank Ryan, whom his associates must perforce know as Francis Richards, was drawing to its close.

Details about the tragic death of this brave but deluded man, former editor of An Phoblacht, the anti-Franco combatant in the Spanish Civil War, have been given by two people who were in close touch with him in his last years: Frau Elizabeth Clissmann and the Irish author and scholar Francis Stuart, who at the time was working as a Nazi collaborator journalist in Berlin.

Stuart published his recollections of his unusual countryman in the November and December 1950 numbers of the Dublin monthly magazine The Bell. Although those parts touching secret activities are unreliable, the details about Frank Ryan’s circumstances and his last illness are more precise.

Francis Stuart claims that Ryan never discussed his relations with those who had freed him in Spain. In 1942 he lived in a large house in Berlin with Helmut Clissmann. At that time he had several good German friends. He was on particularly good terms with Captain Nissen, who was his last hope for returning to Ireland.

Herr Hoven and Helmut Clissmann were both Brandenburgers,  members of the Brandenburg German Special Forces unit, Germany’s Elite Warrior Spies during World War II. Units of Brandenburgers operated in almost all fronts – the invasion of Poland, Denmark and Norway, in the Battle of France, in Operation Barbarossa, in Finland, Greece and the invasion of Crete, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Some units were sent to infiltrate India, Afghanistan, Middle East countries and South Africa. They also trained for Operation Felix (the planned seizure of Gibraltar), and Operation Sea Lion (the planned invasion of Great Britain), and, of course, Ireland.

The unit had stunning successes early in the war acting as advance units that captured strategic bridges, tunnels and rail yards in Poland and the Netherlands.The unit was the brainchild of Hauptmann (Captain) Theodor von Hippel who, after having his idea rejected by the traditionalist Reichswehr, approached Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, commander of the German Intelligence Service, the Abwehr. Canaris gave Hippel the go-ahead to create an Abwehr controlled unit along the lines of the Ebbinghaus Battalion. Basing the new formation on many of the former Ebbinghausers, Hippel formed the original regiment, Lehr und Bau Kompanie z.b.V. 800 (or Training and Construction Company No. 800) on 25 October 1939.

During World War I, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, Commander of the East African theatre, conducted a brilliant guerrilla war against the Allied colonial troops. At the same time in the Middle East, T. E. Lawrence was enjoying great success using Arab hit-and-run tactics against the Turks. Hauptmann Theodor von Hippel had served under Lettow-Vorbeck in Africa, and after the war became a strong advocate of the tactics pioneered by his former commander and Lawrence of Arabia.

Hippel’s vision was reminiscent of that of David Stirling, founder of the British SAS. Hippel proposed that small, élite units, highly trained in sabotage and fluent in foreign languages, could operate behind enemy lines and wreak havoc with the enemy’s command, communication and logistical tails. When Hippel approached the Reichswehr, his idea was rebuffed. The traditionalist Prussian officers saw this clandestine form of warfare would be an affront to the rules of war, and claimed that men who fought that way would not deserve to be called soldiers.

This was identical to the regular British Army’s treatment of the SAS under the great Ulster warrior Blair Mayne of Newtownards, who led them with great distinction through the final campaigns of the war in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Norway, often campaigning alongside local resistance fighters including the French Maquis.

Recruitment for the Brandenburgers was also almost directly contrary to those of Heinrich Himmler’s SS. Rather than recruiting only those who embodied the Aryan ideal of the übermensch, Hippel scoured the Reich to find Slavs, Poles and other ethnics willing to fight for Germany. Every recruit had to be fluent in at least one foreign language. However, many recruits were fluent in several. The recruits were also schooled in the customs and traditions of their specific region. Knowing every habit and mannerism in their area of operations would enable the men to blend in and operate as effective saboteurs.

Regiment Brandenburg evolved out of the Abwehr’s 2nd Department (Abwehr II), and was used as a commando unit during the first years of the war. Initially the unit consisted mainly of former German expatriates fluent in other languages. Until 1944 it was an OKH (Oberkommando des Heeres) High Command unit rather than a unit of the regular army (Heer). The unit steadily expanded until it was reallocated to the Großdeutschland Panzer Korps to be used as a frontline combat unit.

Yet, from the beginning, Admiral Canaris and the Abwehr had been watched closely by Himmler’s SS and in particular by Walter Schellenberg, Chief of Amt VI, Ausland-SD which made up the foreign intelligence branch of the SD (Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers-SS).

The anti-Nazi hierarchy views of the Abwehr, constantly simmering, came to a head in July 1944, when several high ranking Abwehr officials, including Canaris himself, were implicated in the July 20 plot to kill Hitler. Control of the Brandenburg division was passed to the SD, but in September 1944 it was decided that special operations units were no longer necessary. The Brandenburg Division became Infanterie-Division Brandenburg (mot) , was equipped as a motorised infantry division and transferred to the Eastern front.

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was hanged by the SS on 9th April, 1945, along with the magnificent Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Major General Hans Oster, Judge Advocate General Carl Sack, and Captain Ludwig Gehre, just before the War ended.

On 15 January, 1943, Frank Ryan was laid low by an apoplectic fit. Francis Stuart visited him in the Charite and found him with his eyes half closed and his right arm paralysed. Ryan recovered, but one complication followed another. “He went to various hospitals. It was a bad time to be ill. All hospitals were crammed full with wounded. Food was poor and scarce and air attacks heavier and heavier.”

Life in Berlin was now a complete nightmare for the dying man. Ryan’s German friends had left the capital. Dr Hoven was now a parachute officer at the front. As one of General Ramcke’s staff officers he was finally captured in the garrison at Brest.

Ryan died in June 1944 at a hospital in Loschwitz in Dresden. His funeral in Dresden was attended by Elizabeth Clissmann and Francis Stuart. Clissmann eventually forwarded details of Ryan’s fate to Leopold Kerney in Madrid. According to Stuart and Clissmann, the cause of death was pleurisy and pneumonia.

In 1963, historian Enno Stephan located Ryan’s grave in Dresden, German Democratic Republic. Three volunteers of the International Brigades, Frank Edwards, Peter O’Connor and Michael O’Riordan travelled to East Germany as a guard of honour to repatriate Ryan’s remains in 1979. On 21 June his remains arrived in Whitefriar St. church – his local church when he was in Dublin. The church was packed with all shades of Republican and left-wing opinion, as well as those from his past such as the anti-Semites Francis Stuart and the Clissmanns, as well as Peadar O’Donnell (who spoke at the service), George Gilmore, and ex-comrades and sympathizers from all over the world.

The cortege on its way to Glasnevin Cemetery halted at the GPO in memory of the dead of 1916. His coffin was borne to the grave in Glasnevin Cemetery by Irish veterans of the Spanish Civil War, Frank Edwards, Peter O’Connor, Michael O’Riordan and Terry Flanagan. Con Lehane delivered the funeral oration while a piper played “Limerick’s Lamentation”.

So ended the Hidden History of Herr Hoven himself. But of Francis Stuart and his admirers there is still much to tell, even until this day..And for the 1,000 civilians, men, women and children, who lost their lives due to the Nazi bombing of Belfast 75 years ago following the activities of the Abwehr, there has been no oration…and no Lament. 

And what of Francis Stuart?. Stuart died on 2nd February 2000, but he still has admirers of his undoubted literary genius among the Irish Academic Establishment. Francis Stuart: face to face , by Anne Mc Cartney was the first complete “critical” study of his work, published in 2000 by the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University, Belfast, which portrayed him as “one of Ireland’s foremost twentieth-century writers who has tended to be analysed more in relation to his controversial life than for his work. The book depicts him as a writer, sensitive to the way in which the creative spirit moves, and committed to his craft. By focusing on Stuart’s writing, its underlying philosophy and its provocative approach, much is revealed about the man and his beliefs which provide answers to his critics.” They go on to say that, “This study responds to Stuart’s own contention that his work requires a different form of criticism, one that mirrors his method of delving below the surface and coming face-to-face with himself in the most profound way possible.”

Anne McCartney tells us that the book was the outcome of prolonged and sustained research into Stuart’s works and as a result many among the Irish Academic Establishment provided help, support and encouragement. She says that the acquisition of the Francis Stuart Collection for the University of Ulster “not only made her task much easier, it created a unique resource in Ireland for Stuart’s work.” McCartney was a British Academy Joint Institutional Fellow in the History of the Irish Book at the Centre for Irish Literature and Bibliography, University of Ulster and Queen’s University, Belfast and was editor of the fourth volume which covered the nineteenth century. She obtained her D.Phil on Francis Stuart from the University of Ulster where some of his manuscripts and notebooks are located in the Francis Stuart Collection.

Publication of the book was made possible, in part, by grants from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the research committee of the University of Ulster. McCartney also thanked the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University, Belfast for support and the book was completed while she enjoyed the facilities if a Visiting Scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford. She maintained that up to his death Stuart continued to make himself ‘unforgiveable’ in the eyes of ‘conventional’ society. But the decision of the Arts Council of Ireland to elect Stuart to the position of Saoi of Aosdána, the highest literary honour available in Ireland, was the subject of much controversy in the press. Most particularly, in the Irish Times Kevin Myers expressed, what was for many, the main objection to the honour, namely Stuart’s wartime broadcasts in Berlin.

“To have volunteered to serve that enemy of civilisation and art is not just a mistake on a par with life’s other little blunders. It is a cosmic error from which no full escape is possible. That is the inevitable consequence of aligning oneself with the greatest enemies ever known, though the resulting experiences provided wonderful material for a writer as indisputably fine as Francis Stuart is. He has told us that he went to Germany because he sought life on the fringe, on the very margins, in a land inhabited by martyrs and mystics. Fine. And untrue. He went to Germany not in the hour of Germany’s defeat, but at the moment of victory, as Poland lay in ruins. More conquest, more subjugation followed, all of it commanded from Berlin, where he had made his home and from where he broadcast. He was at the centre of things.”

Yet writers such as Fintan O’Toole, Dermot Bolger and Eileen Battersby came to Stuart’s defence, Battersby noting that “Francis Stuart has often fulfilled the public role of icon of hatred: he makes his critics feel righteous.” But that is just not good enough. The victims of Nazi Germany, including those 1,000 poor souls who died in the Belfast Blitz, expect no less than complete opprobrium for Stuart from us as their descendents and friends. Furthermore, significantly, Helmut Clissman is described in McCartney’s book merely as “Head of the German Academic Exchange Service”. Surely McCartney knows who Clissman really was. Nor could I find a single mention of his colleague, Herr Hoven, the superlative Warrior Spy and one of Stuart’s closest friends in Berlin, who lived in Belfast before the War under the Invisibility Cloak of Southern Irish neutrality, and helped plan its destruction.

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