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German Intelligence during the second World War
October 13, 2012 8:43 AM   Subscribe

If true, why did German Intelligence pale so much in comparison to the British and Russians during WWII?
posted by mousepad to Law & Government (24 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because the British were running an amazing network of double agents that more or less flummoxed the Germans on a constant basis; Canaris (over the Abwher, which I cannot spell) was probably pretty complicit, along with others in German intel, in ignoring a lot of false information and presenting it as accurate, because he hated Hitler. Additionally, the Brits cracked the Enigma code and were constantly decoding German radio traffic.

I'm a little obsessed w/ WWII espionage stories; Ben McIntyre has been writing a lot of great, accessible books about this subject, including Agent Zigzag; Operation Mincemeat; and Doublecross, all of which I've read and enjoyed.

Additionally, one of my favorites from a few years ago: Christine: SOE Agent & Churchill's Favorite Spy
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:02 AM on October 13, 2012 [20 favorites]


Additionally, the Russians were running double agents inside Britain, and pretty much could have blown the lid off of a lot of this if they'd chosen to do so, but did not.
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:03 AM on October 13, 2012


Medieval Maven, I think that's what the OP is asking about. Why didn't Germany have an equivalent amazing network of double agents, etc.? Was there an underlying political/philosophical reason for this failure?
posted by dmd at 9:15 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


My guess is that it was twofold. First of all, the Germans thought they were ubermen, so there was no reason the Allies could have cracked their codes. Second, the Nazis were on top, they were winning, they had no reason to worry. The Allies were fighting for their lives, and they had plenty of reason to pour on all the effort that they could muster up.
posted by Slinga at 9:21 AM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


it's a complex topic for an askme answer, hence the reading suggestions. In short:

1. Corruption. Plenty of guys who were upper level officers in intelligence were not really Nazis, they were just trying to survive, make money, or ride out the war.

2. Hatred of Nazis/Hitler - again, guys who had been nobility or otherwise just were not going to be Nazis, but who wanted to not get killed, like Canaris, ended up in the Abwher and pretty much looked the other way or according to some people actively knew that there was a lot of misinformation and just let it go on by as accurate.

3. Once the Enigma was decoded, radio traffic was basically totally open to the British; even if somehow the Germans had decoded British traffic, the brits would have known and could have changed codes.

4. The double agent network provided lots of information back to MI5/6 including even more decoding information.

5. For whatever reason, the "spies" sent to Britain were uniformly so bad they got caught and or already wanted to be double agents.

It's a really fascinating topic, and it's so, so Bond-esqe.
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:24 AM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


5. For whatever reason, the "spies" sent to Britain were uniformly so bad they got caught and or already wanted to be double agents.

This is the part that I think needs further explanation. Some of the books I've read assert that ALL spies sent to England were either turned or shot. The record of successful massive deceptions pulled off by British intelligence suggest that they must have almost completely controlled the flow of information from England. I can't believe that that could have been done without having someone highly placed in German intelligence working for the British.
posted by rdr at 9:40 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Germans did have some successes. For one thing, they totally penetrated the Dutch underground.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:43 AM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Good answers here. The other responders make good points which I won't repeat except to agree with them. But in addition to what has already been written, for me, it comes down to four more factors:

1. The Germans did have very good intelligence networks in some countries-- Spain and Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland-- "neutral" nations all more or less actively sympathetic to the Nazi cause that supported the Germans as much as they could and often more-- the Spanish Coast Guard was essentially an auxiliary arm of the German Navy, Swedish industrial concerns poured money, goods and men into the Wehrmacht at a truly prodigious rate that modern Swedes would very much like the civilized world to forget, etc.
2. The Abwehr was a very effective military and technical intelligence organization, which are less glamorous than "sexy" spies, but really important.
3. Many talented officers who might otherwise have been engaged in intelligence gathering were instead diverted into counter-intelligence (i.e. internal security duties) inside occupied territories. There are only a limited number of people who have the talent and ability to recruit agents and run a network, and when they get diverted to Poland or the Ukraine or Yugoslavia to hunt partisans and conduct reprisals, well then those people aren't available to take action against the UK and her allies. That charismatic intelligence officer who got such fantastic results from the Paris Police (surely one of the most enthusiastic collaborator organizations of the entire war) was not available to run operations designed to get into Bletchley park.
4. The idea that German intelligence wasn't very good is kind of a misdirection that modern intelligence agencies began shortly after the war. One of the big reasons is the spy masters in both the USSR and the UK and USA incorporated many of those assets into their own organizations. Thriller author Len Deighton (who was in intelligence at that time and so presumably would know) makes a comment in one of his novels that many of the German intelligence networks more or less transitioned directly after the war to working for the allies without any noticeable disruption of service or (more importantly) interruption of their money. Admiral Canaris was more or less directly complicit in this-- he always took care of his officers and their agents. An example of this that everyone would know-- Werner Von Braun. The same thing happened to "humint" sources as well.
posted by seasparrow at 9:43 AM on October 13, 2012 [14 favorites]


I don't know anything about this topic, but it seems relevant to cite the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an example of an Abwehr agent whose intelligence activities were entirely a cover for active work against the Nazis (approaching foreign governments on behalf of the German resistance; helping German Jews escape to Switzerland).
posted by thesmallmachine at 9:47 AM on October 13, 2012


@seasparrow - you make great points. Anyone that was any good was pretty much not aimed at the UK, which is weird, but seems to have happened. When the Abwehr was absorbed into the RSHA/SS, it seems like there was a good bit of panic because those guys were actually pretty good, and the UK didn't want to lose the advantage of having these cartoonishly self-interested guys in charge of their doubles on the other side.
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:57 AM on October 13, 2012


There were many germans wanting Germany to fail, but not many british wanting Britain to fail?
posted by Tom-B at 9:57 AM on October 13, 2012


(Bonhoeffer, a founder of a schismatic church that arose in opposition to the Nazi domination of mainstream German Protestantism, was a known anti-Nazi who had been banned from Berlin and forbidden to publish or speak in public. His similarly subversive brother-in-law still brought him successfully into the Abwehr, which probably says something.)
posted by thesmallmachine at 10:00 AM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Interestingly, by WWII Soviet intelligence was already past its glory days; see Anne Applebaum, "In the New World of Spies" (NYRB, October 25, 2012).
posted by languagehat at 11:04 AM on October 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have a copy of Nigel West's The Sigint Secrets around here somewhere,* and he makes a few of interesting points:

* There is at least some indication that Germany had placed a network of spies in Great Britain prior to WWII and that they were communicating via radio. And we know that Germans had the so-called Duquesne Spy Ring operating in the U.S. in the late 1930s and through about 1941. But--West writes that the UK intelligence services kept an extensive list of potential German collaborators and once hostilities broke out they simply rounded up and imprisoned everyone on the list. They undoubtedly rounded up a lot of innocent people but they also rounded up pretty much all possible German spies at the same time, and so put any potential German spy rings in the UK out of business before they had a chance to get started.

Note that they didn't do the same with their 'Soviet list'--since the Soviets were allies--and that's one reason the Soviets had a large intelligence presence in the UK while the Germans had nothing to speak of.

* West maintains that the typical movie-plot scenario, where super-spymasters in the UK train agents, teach them the local language (or recruit native speakers), drop them and a super-secret spy radio into Germany or occupied territory, and the "parachute master spy" then assembles and runs a large & destructive in-country spy network, actually never happened at all.

The Allies did drop such people, but they were all rather instantly rounded up and either imprisoned or (worse) turned or operated by German intelligence as fake/double agents. In fact basically all of the 'successes' that the Allied intelligence people thought they were having at certain points were actually spies who had been captured and run by the Germans--and of course used to completely decimate any local existing resistance networks. Example.

So to a great degree--and pretty much 100% for WWII Germany--the 'heroic spy dropped behind enemy lines and running a large resistance cell' is a myth fueled in part because UK intelligence thought they were running such spies for a large portion of WWII, but in fact they were not.

* Now the existence of local resistance cells as well as folks like Bonhoeffer who were ill-disposed towards the Nazis and inclined to work against the regime or even as double agents, is another matter. Those existed in German-occupied territory but also in German itself. But I think that points out one reason you're seeing the UK & Soviets as being more successful on this front than the Nazis. When the Nazis conquered foreign territory it created a large, local, existing network of opposition that had every incentive to work with the Allies to fight the Nazis. If, for example, the UK had invaded and conquered France, you might have seen a large resistance movement form within France that would have been happy to cooperate with the Nazis to drive out the British invaders. But history ran in the opposite direction.

And some of the myth comes about because at a time when Britain was losing the war rather badly, the only successes there were, were 'intelligence' successes. So they were trumpeted loud and long. The reality at that point was that Germany had occupied numerous countries in force while resistance forces had blown up a couple things and a killed a few people. But if you're on the side of the resistance forces you talk up those small victories for morale reasons.

* West also points out that Germany (and in fact every nation) made extensive use of signals intelligence in every part of WWII. We most often hear of the breaking of the Enigma machine as the great breakthrough but there is a lot of intelligence service spin in that story. For starters, there is tons of intelligence to be gathered from signals analysis even if you can't break encrypted messages--and the Germans were doing that, just as the UK, US, and others did. And on top of that, the Enigma never was completely broken. It's more that certain lax practices in its use allowed routine cracking of some, but not all, codes.

The Germans were quite certainly doing the same kind of signals analysis and getting lots of info out of it--including in cases where encoding wasn't used in a secure manner or things are simply sent plaintext. In fact one of the deceptive feints in preparation for the Normandy invasion was the creation of a large number of fake radio signals in other areas which the Allies knew the Germans would intercept and draw conclusions from.

* As pointed out by posters above, the victors get to write history and this is doubly true in the case of intelligence, where the vast majority of what happened never becomes public knowledge, leaving intelligence agencies with a lot of room to maneuver and spin. Furthermore the intel agencies have a lot of incentive to spin results, partly out of national and agency pride, but even more so because knowledge of intelligence methods affects current and future opponent's ability to counter those methods.

Just for example, immediately after WWII the cracking of Enigma was kept strictly secret--because Allied governments were selling Enigma units to countries across the globe. Why sell a compromised encryption system? So that you (but no one else!) can read it, of course. The whole scheme would have fallen through if it were public knowledge that the Enigma was broken. So, the whole Enigma story was secret.

And with the 'real' reason a secret, how to we explain the massive intelligence advantage the Allies had? Well, a whole story is invented about the heroic operative, the in-country intelligence network, and all the rest. Is there some degree of truth in it? Maybe--because the best cover story is always built on a kernel of truth--but it's a cover story specifically designed to or significantly distort the whole story.

As long as everyone, including the Germans, believed that 'intelligence operatives' was the source of the Allies highly accurate intelligence--and a belief that was confirmed on the German side by the occasional capture of the Allied spied parachuted in with radio--that provided a convenient explanation for the Allied intelligence successes.

The Germans naturally assumed that if they were catching a few of these 'parachute radio spies' every now and then, there must be even more that they were missing. They never imagined that they were catching quite literally every one of them.

Of course the Allied intelligence successes were actually due largely to signals intelligence, and particulary Enigma decrypts--but that valuable intelligence would have dried up in a day if the Nazis had realized the true source. So keeping those alternate/false explanations viable was a big part of the Allied intelligence strategy.

Some years after the war, when the story of breaking the Enigma codes finally came out, that story immediately became the intelligence agencies preferred narrative. At that point, agencies and companies dropped the Enigma like a hot potato. And now intelligence agencies had a different priority: To encourage countries and agencies to focus on the security of their encryption schemes when the real treasure trove of signals intelligence lies in who is communicating with whom, how often, at what length, and other info can be gathered regardless of encryption.

One conclusion you can draw from all this is that if the official story is that intelligence method X was the reason for our great and glorious victory, then in reality there is some other intelligence method Y that was actually far more important but they would rather you didn't know about it--so that they can continue using method Y in the future.

* I can't put my hand on the copy of The Sigint Secrets right now and it's been a while since I read it, so add appropriate grains of salt. Also my comment about spin by intelligence agencies applies to West as well--not sure what his particularly spin is, but I'm sure he has one. Any 'revelation' of intelligence methods is a bit like the magician who 'reveals' the trick as part of the act--almost certainly just a subterfuge on a different level.
posted by flug at 12:01 PM on October 13, 2012 [21 favorites]


You might enjoy Donal O'Sullivan's "Dealing With The Devil" (Amazon). Professor O'Sullivan is astute, and fluent in both Russian and German. He has spent many years in research on this topic, and his research was based mostly on personnel records and other prime sources (including interviews).

I'm not really sure the Germans really were very ineffective at the spy-game. While the Nazis certainly kept great records of, well, almost everything, subsequent history of successor states strongly suggests that a lot of things were (and probably still are) hidden even from the Allies, or perhaps with their consent. Most such people probably kept their jobs and later attained positions of power.

Also, speaking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it's fair to mention the role of his relationship with Hans von Dohnányi (father of German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi).
posted by Hylas at 12:37 PM on October 13, 2012


* West maintains that the typical movie-plot scenario, where super-spymasters in the UK train agents, teach them the local language (or recruit native speakers), drop them and a super-secret spy radio into Germany or occupied territory, and the "parachute master spy" then assembles and runs a large & destructive in-country spy network, actually never happened at all.

That was the job of the British Special Operations Executive

The Allies did drop such people, but they were all rather instantly rounded up and either imprisoned or (worse) turned or operated by German intelligence as fake/double agents. In fact basically all of the 'successes' that the Allied intelligence people thought they were having at certain points were actually spies who had been captured and run by the Germans--and of course used to completely decimate any local existing resistance networks.


As a counterexample, there was the Norwegian Heavy Water Sabotage

You may want to read the account of the SOE's cryptographer: Between Silk and Cyanide.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:20 PM on October 13, 2012


The SOE was completely ineffective in the Netherlands. "Come parachute in, I'll meet you and get you sorted out with the rest of the network. I haven't already been captured by the Nazis at all, promise. (Why isn't anyone paying attention to the 'Have you been captured by the Nazis (Y/N)?' flag in my personal code?) "
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:46 PM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


flug:
And on top of that, the Enigma never was completely broken. It's more that certain lax practices in its use allowed routine cracking of some, but not all, codes.
I don't see any evidence that Engima was not truly broken. Yes, it was a brute force attack on Enigma's daily settings, but the brute force attack was executed and generally successfully completed within hours. How is that not "fully broken" as far as what was essentially a one-time pad algorithm goes? I definitely agree with you that it was sloppy operating procedures that allowed it to be broken, but the Polish and British basically managed to reconstruct exactly the devices using only some stolen settings and lots and lots of cryptanalysis of traffic. That's broken.
posted by SpecialK at 2:24 PM on October 13, 2012


The Germans made better rockets, tanks, explosives, bombs, bullets, airplanes, soldiers, rifles, machine guns, pistols. The also made worse hand grenades, had logistic issues, and used one helluva lot of horses. They didn't have the equivalent of the Norden bombsight, were well behind in radio, radar, and remote detection. Their selection of R&D topics reflected a "we need a home run" mentality, while the Allies chose "we can win by building more crappy weapons than they can" and "we have more kids' bodies to spend on the effort".

They spent a lot of time on other things, too, like controlling their population, killing various under groups, etc. They made some bad decisions because no one makes all good decisions and when you have ONE person making MANY of the decisions, a few are going to be serious strategic mistakes. Prejudice played a part in Hitler's decision space, too, and if you look at how his priorities appear, in some cases he seemed to know what he was doing was extremely risky, but he was a risk taker and in fact, it paid off big time.

Some say that had the man simply stopped at unifying those regions with ethnic Germans (e.g., Austria, Czechoslovakia, etc.) we would be talking about him as one of the greatest of German leaders instead of the icon of evil.

The point is... if not spies and espionage, it would have been some other critical area. He was a politician, not a great military strategist. He was pretty good, too, and his accomplishments are a continuing source of concern to me as I survey what has/might/could happen with a similar combination of factors in our so-called 'civilized' world. Scary.

I can appreciate such a question, but I think it's somewhat self-evident that in a regime that came to power with much less than a majority of the population supporting it, there were lots and lots of potential enemies sprinkled throughout Germany who took no pains to enhance and probably took every chance to undermine what was an obviously evil regime even when viewed from the inside. At the same time, the Allies were under huge pressure as the underdog and would try anything for an edge. Often, the experiments were failures and a lot of people died trying. There's an analogy used in quality control that I heard years ago...."If you filter muddy water, what you end up with is LESS muddy water", meaning that something always gets through. If you throw 1000 spies at a problem, it's unlikely all 1000 will be caught. When you have no choice, then this is the cold calculation inherent in war. People die.
posted by FauxScot at 2:41 PM on October 13, 2012


sebastienbailard: "The SOE was completely ineffective in the Netherlands."

There is an alternative argument that the British deliberately sacrificed agents for disinformation purposes: I made a post on the Englandspiel some time ago that has a bit more background.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:52 PM on October 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't see any evidence that Engima was not truly broken. Yes, it was a brute force attack on Enigma's daily settings, but the brute force attack was executed and generally successfully completed within hours.

Ah, see one of the stories they'd just as soon people believe is it was just a "brute force attack" because that puts you in in the mindset that 'we'll just get a better technological solution for this that can't be brute-forced, and problem solved!'

But in reality it was always the operational details and other human factors of the Enigma operation that gave the cribs and other openings needed to break messages, particularly early on but even later after a particular cipher was routinely broken.

Just for example (and if memory serves), the typical way to break the Enigma ciphers on a cipher that was 'cracked' was to run all the possible rotor combinations etc against an intercepted ciphertext and check for a short, predictable, known bit of text that appeared near the beginning of each message. Without this predictable bit of known plaintext, the cracks would have been much, much harder.

So little operation details like that, as well as known often-repeated words, phrases, or even whole messages (weather reports and the like), operators who got frustrated with the Enigma operation and repeated messages in plaintext, stolen or recovered rotors, machines, and codebooks--all those contributed to giving the codebreakers the hints and cribs they needed to start to figure out how to routinely crack the codes.

In many if not all cases, absolute adherence to secure operating procedures, physical protection of codebooks, machines, and rotors, replacement of codebook at any suspicion of loss, more frequent changes of code, avoidance of predictable and repetitive messages, and all the other things that the security folks running the Enigma system quite well knew about, but didn't really believe were quite necessary--or found to simply be too onerous to implement in practice--would have slowed down Allied codebreaking efforts by months or years, or in some cases even prevented the code being broken at all until it was far too late.

Even once a particular Enigma cipher was broken, a few simple changes--say changing the rotor settings 4X per day rather than once--would have made the Allied codebreaking work much, much harder.

This page gives a pretty decent overview of how some of the Enigma naval ciphers were cracked and some of the hints and cribs the codebreakers were able to exploit to make progress in cracking the various ciphers.

And this page lists the various naval ciphers and the progress that was made in cracking them over the course of the war.

Barracuda was the one I was thinking of that never was broken--and as I recall it consisted of high-value naval communications, so some considerable effort was put into breaking it. It was used from May 1941 on and never was broken.

Thetis was never broken, either--though perhaps because it was considered lower priority and not given as much effort.

The four-rotor version of Shark remained unbroken from its introduction in February 1942 to December 1942 (except for three days) and from December 1942-August 1943 it was broken only very slowly/retrospectively--ie, too slowly to be of much operational use. Only after September 1943 was Shark broken routinely and within 24 hours.

In general, Allied codebreakers knew well that if the Germans had become aware of the routine cracking of their communications, they could have taken steps to turn off the information flow immediately and completely--and it wouldn't even require deploying new machines, just new and better procedures.

This put a rather severe crimp in the way the Allies disseminated and used the Enigma decrypts--because one of the conundrums of intelligence is that information unused is useless but sharing and acting on the information always risks compromising the information source.
posted by flug at 8:30 PM on October 13, 2012


Hey flug, great explanation, but you left out the best example-- on many enigma machines, one of the primary or initial rotor combinations was a six digit alphabet-letter combination (two groups of three next to each other). A large number of operators turned those first dials to spell "HIT" and "LER" and never, ever bothered to change them again. Seriously, this is the Nazi equivalent of making your password "1234". One of the first brute force combos that the girls at Bletchley would try would be the Hitler set-up. It worked a surprisingly large number of times. Many signals were decrypted just on this one little bit of human nature/social engineering. So let that be a lesson to you-- change your passwords. Years pass, codes come and go, but stupid people will always be with us.
posted by seasparrow at 9:45 PM on October 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


My grandfather was an SOE operative - neither he nor his predessesor were caught, and they managed to get a lot done on the job. So all countries is probably exaggerated.
And his stories about that training camp were great fun when we were kids...
posted by mumimor at 3:05 AM on October 14, 2012


My grandfather was an SOE operative - neither he nor his predessesor were caught, and they managed to get a lot done on the job. So all countries is probably exaggerated.

Yes, I should say that I haven't yet put my hand on my copy of The Sigint Secrets yet and though I'm sure he made the general point about the relative ineffectiveness of secret agents against the Germans during WWII, or more precisely, what he considered a tendency to exaggerate their effectiveness as compared with other intelligence methods, I can't remember the exact particulars or caveats he added to that statement--which, obviously, could be fairly important.

Also, the book is about signals intelligence and codebreaking, so he could reflecting some of the attitudes of the GC&CS folks he knew and interviewed or--knowingly or knowingly--getting involved in some of the internicine warfare and credit-claiming issues between various department of the intelligence services. The signals people tend to be dismissive of the work of the human intelligence people and vice-versa.

Just FYI, some of the successful partisan/sabotage operations against the Germans during WWII include the Norwegian Heavy Water Plant (previously mentioned upthread), Operation Albumen against German airfields on Crete, Operation Harling that blew up a viaduct in Greece, Operation Woodlark against a railway bridge in Norway, and the Thamshavn Line sabotage, a series of actions against a Norwegian railroad line--and, I'm sure, a lot more that I don't happen to know anything about.
posted by flug at 8:48 PM on October 14, 2012


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