How I discovered World War II’s Greatest Spy


Kahn’s latest book, How I Discovered World War II’s Greatest Spy and Other Stories of Intelligence and Code, provides insights into the dark realm of intelligence and code that will fascinate cryptologists, intelligence personnel, and the millions interested in military history, espionage, and global affairs. It opens with Kahn telling how he discovered the identity of the man who sold key information about Germany’s Enigma machine during World War II that enabled Polish and then British codebreakers to read secret messages.

Next Kahn addresses the question often asked about Pearl Harbor: since we were breaking Japan’s codes, did President Roosevelt know that Japan was going to attack and let it happen to bring a reluctant nation into the war? Kahn looks into why Nazi Germany’s totalitarian intelligence was so poor, offers a theory of intelligence, explicates what Clausewitz said about intelligence, tells—on the basis of an interview with a head of Soviet codebreaking—something about Soviet Comint in the Cold War, and reveals how the Allies suppressed the second greatest secret of WWII.

Providing an inside look into the efforts to gather and exploit intelligence during the past century, this book presents powerful ideas that can help guide present and future intelligence efforts. Though stories of WWII spying and codebreaking may seem worlds apart from social media security, computer viruses, and Internet surveillance, this book offers timeless lessons that may help today’s leaders avoid making the same mistakes that have helped bring at least one global power to its knees.

Amongst a series of stories that will intrigue students of World War II is the inside track on how Irwin Rommel kept himself informed about British movements in the desert war of North Africa. Long before they entered the war the USA was being given privileged access to all of Britain’s military intelligence. Everything was shared with the US Military Attache in Cairo, Colonel Bonner Frank Fellers:

Washington, 4000 miles away, needed to know what was happening on the Allied (then almost exclusively British) side of the North African theater. Fellers was the man on the ground. Working from an office in the American legation decorated with maps and photographs he dictated his reports in what one visitor called his “colorful, downright way.” Fellers and his assistants sent back volumes of reports— two, three, sometimes five a day by the middle of 1941.

They dealt with the greatest variety of topics: daily operational summaries, German plywood gasoline tanks, British tropical uniforms, one man explosives-carrying boats, the defense of a British troopship while at sea, supply and administrative lessons from the operations of the British 7th Armored Division in the Libyan campaign, maps of the El Katrit Station and of Port Fouad, the technique Germans used in aviation attacks, the contents of captured documents. He kept this up – he could hardly have intensified it – after the United States entered the war.

[The Germans had little difficulty cracking into these messages, which were enciphered using the ‘Black Code’.]

The Black Code resisted their efforts but weakly. Its system of enciphered code was antiquated; it had been widely used in the 1920s, and was easily solved even then.

Moreover, the volume of American military attaché messages worldwide eased the cryptanalysts’ task. They got their raw material – the intercepts they sought to solve – from radio listening posts scattered across Europe.

On January 19, 1942, Berlin ordered: “As complete as possible interception of messages between Cairo and Washington and vice versa is extremely important…. Primarily of interest: Cairo—Washington with addresses AGWAR [Adjutant General War Department] Washington and MILID [Military Intelligence Division] Washington; Washington—Cairo MILATTACHE Amlegation S.N.”

The post that captured many of Fellers’ radiograms lay in a broad field in the lovely medieval town of Lauf—an—der—Pegnitz near Nuremberg. Here 150 radiomen in low, tree—shaded stucco buildings encircled by six radio towers tuned their receivers to the foreign transmitters that they could pick up best: Italy, the Vatican, Argentina, the United States, and Egypt, among others.

The post at Treuenbrietzen, near Berlin, backed up Lauf. As the dots and dashes raced over- head, the radiomen copied the enciphered Black Code gibberish. The intercepts were teleprinted to Chi in Berlin. Here the cryptanalysts stripped Fellers’ encipherment off and rapidly converted the under- lying code groups into the original English.

Translators then turned that into German. Specialists at Foreign Armies West, the intelligence branch of the OKW, edited the reports into dispatches giving their essence.The reports disguised their cryptanalytic origin by saying that they came from a “reliable source” or a “good source.” Cipher clerks enciphered them on the Enigma cipher machine, and radiomen trans— mitted the mumbo jumbo into Morse code and spewed it into the ether.

The whole process sometimes took less than two hours. They sent the messages to North Africa, to the man who could use them best: General Erwin Rommel.

Fellers was so excellent, so energetic an observer and reporter that, inadvertently, his information helped not only those he intended to aid but also his enemies. As Rommel was rebounding across the desert early in 1942, throwing the British back three hundred miles in seventeen days, he was getting information like this from the Fellers intercepts:

January 23: Two hundred seventy airplanes and a quantity of antiaircraft artillery being Withdrawn from North Africa to reinforce British forces in the Far East.

January 29: Complete rundown of British armor, including number in working order, number damaged, number available and their locations; location and efficiency ratings of armored and motorized units at the front.

February 6: Location and efliciency of the 4th Indian Division and the 1st Armored Division; iteration of British plans to dig in along the Acroma — Bir Hacheim line.

February 7: British units stabilized along the Ain el Gazala — Bir Hacheim line.


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