WW2 espionage...Alan Turing? That’s just the beginning.

Posted on 16th September 2015 by Max Hastings
When it comes to WW2 espionage, everyone nods and says, Oh yeah, Alan Turing. They may mention Bletchley Park too. And think that’s the end of it. But - as Max Hastings shows - that is only a fraction of the whole...

It is still surprising to realise that World War Two wasn’t only fought on blood-stained, muddy battlefields. It was fought quietly too, in little offices, and in dark doorways, in strange, whispered meetings and lucky instances of being in the right place at the right time – all over the world.

In The Secret War you will meet a myriad cast of astonishing characters that span the entire globe – from the operatives at German’s answer to Bletchley Park, to America’s covert agents at the Office of Strategic Services - to Russia’s pervasive network of spies in Germany, Britain and Japan.

Hastings also looks into the mystery of why Stalin largely ignored the accurate intelligence gleaned by his agents, despite their position, deep inside Allied territory.

You will also meet Ronald Seth – largely unknown and unknowable too. A true enigma.

It’s mind-blowing, the lengths each nation went to – just to destabilise their enemies. And the extent to which their clandestine work changed outcomes in the last Great War.

Prepare to be intrigued.

Can’t wait? Read an exclusive extract below:



Before the Deluge


The secret war started long before the shooting one did. One day in March 1937, a letter dropped onto the desk of Colonel František Moravec, addressed to ‘the chief of the Czechoslovak Intelligence Service’ – which was himself. It began: ‘I offer you my services. First of all I shall state what my possibilities are: 1. The build-up of the German army. (a) the infantry ...’ and so on for three closely-typed pages. The Czechs, knowing themselves to be prospective prey of Hitler, conducted espionage with an intensity still absent elsewhere among Europe’s democracies. They initially responded to this approach with scepticism, assuming a Nazi ruse, of which there had been plenty. Eventually, however, Moravec decided to risk a response. After protracted correspondence, the letter-writer whom Prague designated as agent A-54 agreed a rendezvous in the Sudeten town of Kraslice. This was almost wrecked by a gunshot: one of Moravec’s aides was so nervous that he fired the revolver in his pocket, putting a bullet through the colonel’s trouser leg. Tranquillity was fortunately restored before the German visitor arrived, to be hurried to a nearby safe house. He brought with him sheaves of secret documents, which he had blithely carted through the frontier posts in a suitcase. Among the material was a copy of Czechoslovakia’s defence plan which revealed to Moravec a traitor in his own ranks, subsequently hanged. A-54 departed from Kraslice still nameless, but richer by 100,000 Reichsmarks. He promised to call again, and indeed provided high-grade information for the ensuing three years. Only much later was he identified as Paul Thummel, a thirty-four-year-old officer of the Abwehr intelligence service.

Such an episode was almost everyday fare for Moravec. He was a passionate, fiercely energetic figure of middling height. A keen gameplayer, especially of chess, he spoke six languages fluently, and could read some Latin and Greek. In 1914 he was an eighteen-year-old student at Prague University, with aspirations to become a philosopher. Conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army, like most Czechs he was unwilling to die for the Hapsburgs, and once at the front seized the first opportunity to desert to the Russians. He was wounded under their flag in Bulgaria, and finished the war with a Czech volunteer force on the Italian front. When Czechoslovakia became an independent state he gratefully cast off these tangled loyalties, to become an officer in its new army. He joined the intelligence branch in 1934, and took over as its chief three years later. Moravec learned the trade mostly from spy stories bought off bookstalls, and soon discovered that many real-life intelligence officers traffic in fiction: his predecessor’s supposed informants proved to have been figments of the man’s imagination, a cloak for embezzlement.

The colonel devoted much of his service’s resources to talent-spotting in Germany for informants, each network painstakingly ring-fenced. He set up a payday loan company inside the Reich, targeted at military and civil service clients. Within a year ninety of the bank’s representatives were roaming Germany, most bona fide employees, but some of them intelligence personnel who identified borrowers with access to information, vulnerable to bribery or blackmail. The Czechs also pioneered new technology – microdot photography, ultra-violet rays, secret writing and state-of-the-art wirelesses. Moravec was plentifully funded, a recognition of his role in his nation’s front line, and was thus able to pay a Luftwaffe major named Salm 5,000 Reichsmarks – about £500 – as a retainer, and afterwards the huge sum of a million Czech crowns – £7,500 – for Göring’s air force order of battle. Salm, however, flaunted his new-found wealth, and found himself arrested, tried and beheaded. Meanwhile other people’s spies were not idle in Czechoslovakia: Prague’s security officers arrested 2,900 suspects in 1936 alone, most of them allegedly acting for Germany or Hungary.

Every major nation probed the secrets of others in the same fashion, using both overt and covert means. After Russia’s Marshal Tukhachevksy visited Britain in April 1934, he conveyed personally to Stalin a GRU agent’s description of the RAF’s new Handley Page Hampden bomber, detailing its Bristol and Rolls-Royce engine variants and attaching a sketch showing its armament:

The Abwehr somehow laid hands on the 1935 fixture list of an ICI plant’s football team, which in the course of the season played at most of the company’s other British factories; Berlin thus triumphantly pinpointed several chemical installations the Luftwaffe had hitherto been unaware of. The Australian aviator Sidney Cotton conducted some pioneering aerial photography over Germany at the behest of MI6’s Wing-Commander Fred Winterbotham. The summer roads of Europe teemed with young couples on touring holidays, some of whom were funded by their respective intelligence services, and displayed an unromantic interest in airfields. MI6 sent an RAF officer, designated as Agent 479, together with a secretary to assist his cover, on a three-week spin around Germany, somewhat hampered by the facts that Luftwaffe station perimeters seldom adjoined autobahns, and neither visitor spoke German. The airman had originally planned to take his sister, who was fluent, but her husband refused consent.

In the Nazis’ interests, in August 1935 Dr Hermann Görtz spent some weeks touring Suffolk and Kent on a Zündapp motorbike, pinpointing RAF bases with pretty young Marianne Emig riding in his sidecar. But Emig tired of the assignment, or lost her nerve, and Görtz, a forty-five-year-old lawyer from Lübeck who had learned English from his governess, felt obliged to escort her back to Germany. He then returned to collect a camera and other possessions – including plans of RAF Manston – that the couple had left behind in a rented Broadstairs bungalow. Unluckily for the aspiring masterspy, the police had already secured these incriminating items, following a tip from the spy-conscious landlord. Görtz found himself arrested at Harwich and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. He was released and deported in February 1939; more will be heard of Hermann Görtz.

For probing neighbours’ secrets, every nation’s skirmishers were its service officers posted to embassies abroad. Prominent among Berlin military attachés was Britain’s Colonel Noel Mason-MacFarlane. ‘Mason-Mac’ was shrewd but bombastic. One day in 1938, he startled an English visitor to his flat by pointing out of the window to the spot where Hitler would next day view the Wehrmacht’s birthday parade. ‘Easy rifle shot,’ said the colonel laconically. ‘I could pick the bastard off from here as easy as winking, and what’s more I’m thinking of doing it ... With that lunatic out of the way we might be able to get some sense into things.’ Mason-MacFarlane did nothing of the sort, of course. In his temperate moments he forged close friendships with German officers, and transmitted to London a stream of warnings about Nazi intentions. But the vignette provides an illustration of the role played by fantasy in the lives of intelligence officers, tottering on a tightrope between high purpose and low comedy.

The US government was said by scornful critics to possess no intelligence arm. In a narrow sense, this was so – it did not deploy secret agents abroad. At home, J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation was responsible for America’s internal security. For all the FBI’s trumpeted successes against gangsters and intensive surveillance of the US Communist Party and trades unions, it knew little of the army of Soviet spies roaming America, and did nothing to dissuade hi-tech corporations from booming their achievements. German military attaché Gen. Friedrich von Bötticher observed boisterously about his years of service in Washington: ‘It was so easy, the Americans are so broad-minded, they print everything. You don’t need any intelligence service. You have only to be industrious, to see the newspapers!’ In 1936 Bötticher was able to forward to Berlin detailed reports on US rocket experiments. An American traitor sold the Germans blueprints of one of his country’s most cherished technological achievements, the Norden bombsight. The general urged the Abwehr not to bother to deploy secret agents in the US, to preserve his hosts’ faith in Nazi goodwill.

Intelligence agencies overvalue information gained from spies. One of the many academics conscripted into Britain’s wartime secret service observed disdainfully: ‘[MI6] values information in proportion to its secrecy, not its accuracy. They would attach more value ... to a scrap of third-rate and tendentious misinformation smuggled out of Sofia in the fly-buttons of a vagabond Rumanian pimp than to any intelligence deduced from a prudent reading of the foreign press.’ American foreign correspondents and diplomats abroad provided Washington with a vision of the world no less plausible than that generated by Europe’s spies. Major Truman Smith, the long-serving US military attaché in Berlin and a warm admirer of Hitler, formed a more accurate picture of the Wehrmacht’s order of battle than did MI6.

America’s naval attachés focused on Japan, their most likely foe, though they were often reduced to photographing its warships from passing passenger liners and swapping gossip in the Tokyo attachés’ club. As secretary of state in 1929, Henry Stimson had closed down his department’s ‘Black Chamber’ codebreaking operation, reasoning like many of his fellow-countrymen that a nation which faced no external threat could forgo such sordid instruments. Nonetheless both the army and navy, in isolation and fierce competition, sustained small codebreaking teams which exerted themselves mightily. The achievement of William Friedman, born in Russia in 1891 and educated as an agriculturalist, whose army Signals Intelligence Service team led by former mathematics teacher Frank Rowlett replicated the advanced Japanese ‘Purple’ diplomatic cipher machine and broke its key in September 1940, was all the more remarkable because America’s crypt-analysts had shoestring resources. They made little attempt to crack German ciphers, because they lacked means to do so.

The Japanese spied energetically in China, the US and the European South-East Asian empires, which they viewed as prospective booty. Their agents were nothing if not committed: in 1935 when police in Singapore arrested a local Japanese expatriate on suspicion of espionage, such was the man’s anxiety to avoid causing embarrassment to Tokyo that he followed the E. Phillips Oppenheim tradition and swallowed prussic acid in his cell. The Chinese Nationalists headed by Chiang Kai-shek sustained an effective counter-intelligence service to protect his dictatorship from domestic critics, but across Asia Japanese spies were able to gather information almost unhindered. The British were more interested in countering internal communist agitation than in combating prospective foreign invaders. They found it impossible to take seriously ‘the Wops of the East’, as Churchill called the Japanese, or ‘the little yellow dwarf slaves’, in the words of the head of the Foreign Office.

Britain’s diplomats were elaborately careless about protecting their secrets, adhering to the conventions of Victorian gentlemen. Robert Cecil, who was one of them, wrote: ‘An embassy was an ambassador’s house party; it was unthinkable that one of the guests could be spying on the others.’ As early as 1933 the Foreign Office received a wake-up call, albeit unheeded: after one of its staff put his head in a gas oven, he was revealed to have been selling British ciphers to Moscow. Next a clerk, Captain John King, was found to have been funding an American mistress by peddling secrets. In 1937 a local employee in Britain’s Rome embassy, Francesco Constantini, was able to rifle his employer’s papers for the benefit of the Italian secret service, because the ambassador assumed that one could trust one’s servants. At that period also, Mussolini’s men read some British codes: not all Italians were the buffoons their enemies supposed. In 1939, when Japanese intelligence wanted the codebooks of the British consulate in Taipei, its officers easily arranged for a Japanese employee to become night-duty man. During the ensuing six months Tokyo’s agents repeatedly accessed the consulate safe, its files and codebooks.

Yet nowhere in the world was intelligence wisely managed and assessed. Though technological secrets were always useful to rival nations, it is unlikely that much of the fevered secret political and military surveillance told governments more than they might have gleaned from a careful reading of the press. Endemic rivalries injured or crippled collaboration between intelligence agencies. In Germany and Russia, Hitler and Stalin diffused power among their secret policemen, the better to concentrate mastery in their own hands. Germany’s main agency was the Abwehr, its title literally meaning ‘security’, though it was responsible for both intelligence-gathering abroad and counter-espionage at home. A branch of the armed forces, it was directed by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. When Guy Liddell, counter-espionage director of MI5 and one of its ablest officers, later strove to explain the Abwehr’s incompetence, he expressed a sincere belief that Canaris was in the pay of the Russians.

The Nazis also had their own security machine, the Reichssicherheitshauptamt or RSHA, directed by Ernst Kaltenbrunner within the empire of Himmler. This embraced the Gestapo secret police and its sister counter-intelligence branch the Sicherheitdienst or SD, which overlapped the Abwehr’s activities in many areas. A key figure was Walter Schellenberg, Reinhard Heydrich’s aide: Schellenberg later took over the RSHA’s foreign intelligence-gathering service, which subsumed the Abwehr in 1944. High Command and diplomatic codebreaking activities were conducted by the Chiffrierabteilung, colloquially known as OKW/ Chi, and the army had a large radio intelligence branch that eventually became OKH/GdNA. Göring’s Air Ministry had its own cryptographic operation, as did the Kriegsmarine. Economic intelligence was collected by the WiRuAmt, and Ribbentrop’s Foreign Ministry gathered reports from embassies abroad. Guy Liddell wrote crossly: ‘Under our system of government there was nothing to stop the Germans from getting any information they required.’ But the elaborate Nazi intelligence and counter-espionage machines were far more effective in suppressing domestic opposition than in exploiting foreign sources, even when they heard something useful from them.

France’s intelligence departments enjoyed a lowly status and correspondingly meagre budgets. Pessimism overlaid upon ignorance caused them consistently to overstate German military strength by at least 20 per cent. František Moravec believed that politics crippled French security policy as war loomed: ‘Their desire to “know” seemed to decrease proportionately as the Nazi danger increased.’ Moravec the Czech found his French counterparts half-hearted colleagues, though he returned from one inter-Allied conference with a present from a famous French criminologist, Professor Locarde of Lyons: a chemical developer which proved useful for exposing secret writing.

Since the beginning of time, governments had been able to intercept each other’s communications only when spies or accidents of war physically diverted messages into their hands. Now, however, everything was different. Wireless communication was a science slightly older than the twentieth century, but thirty years elapsed before it became a universal phenomenon. Then, during the 1930s, technological breakthroughs prompted a global explosion of transmissions. The ether hummed, whined and crackled as messages private, commercial, military, naval, diplomatic traversed nations and oceans. It became indispensable for governments and their generals and admirals to communicate operational orders and information by radio, to every subordinate, ship and formation beyond reach of a landline. Making such exchanges secure demanded nice judgements. There was a trade-off between the speed at which a signal could be dispatched and received, and the subtlety of its encryption. It was impracticable to provide front-line army units with ciphering machines, and thus instead they employed so-called hand-or field-ciphers, of varying sophistication – the German army used a British-derived system called Double Playfair.

For the most secret messages, the only almost unbreakable code was that based upon a ‘one-time pad’, a name that reflected its designation: the sender employed a unique combination of letters and/or numbers which became intelligible only to a recipient pre-supplied with the identical formula. The Soviets especially favoured this method, though their clerks sometimes compromised it by using a one-time pad more than once, as the Germans found to their advantage. From the 1920s onwards, some of the major nations started to employ ciphers which were deemed impregnable if correctly used, because messages were processed through electrically-powered keyboard machines which scrambled them into multi-millions of combinations. The magnitude of the technological challenge posed by an enemy’s machine-encrypted signals did not deter any nation from striving to read them. This became the most important intelligence objective of the Second World War.

The brightest star of the Deuxième Bureau, France’s intelligence service, was Capitaine Gustave Bertrand, head of the cryptanalytical branch in the army’s Section des Examens, who had risen from the ranks to occupy a post that no ambitious career officer wanted. One of his contacts was a Paris businessman named Rodolphe Lemoine, born Rudolf Stallman, son of a rich Berlin jeweller. In 1918 Stallman adopted French nationality; simply because he loved espionage as a game in its own right, he began to work for the Deuxième. In October 1931 he forwarded to Paris an offer from one Hans-Thilo Schmidt, brother of a German general, to sell France information about Enigma in order to dig himself out of a financial hole. Bertrand accepted, and in return for cash Schmidt delivered copious material about the machine, together with its key settings for October and November 1932. Thereafter he remained on the French payroll until 1938. Since the French knew that the Poles were also seeking to crack Enigma, the two nations agreed a collaboration: Polish cryptanalysts focused on the technology, while their French counterparts addressed enciphered texts. Bertrand also approached the British, but at the outset they showed no interest.

Britain’s codebreakers had acquired an early-model commercial Enigma as early as 1927, and examined it with respect. Since then, they knew that it had been rendered much more sophisticated by the inclusion of a complex wiring pattern known as a Steckerbrett, or plugboard. It now offered a range of possible positions for a single letter of 159 million million million. That which human ingenuity had devised, it was at least theoretically possible that human ingenuity might penetrate. In 1939, however, no one for a moment imagined that six years later intelligence snatched from the airwaves would have proved more precious to the victors, more disastrous for the losers, than every report made by all the spies of the warring nations. 


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