By Brian Haig
Military intelligence, it is often said, is an oxymoron, an implausible contradiction of terms, the marriage of two words that have no business coexisting in the same universe, much less the same sentence. But a look at some of the more remarkable intelligence successes of the Second World War reveals a very different, and fascinating, story.
The greatest tale of all concerned the breaking of the German codes, dependent on two encoding programs. One called Enigma, an electro-mechanical encoding machine was used by tactical units in all the German military services, and the other, code-named FISH, was a more sophisticated encoding device used by higher-echelon German commanders.
It’s a story that begins long before the war, in 1932, when German intelligence sent an Enigma machine, by mail, to its embassy in Warsaw. Sending the device by mail was a blunder, one the Germans immediately recognized, then compounded by sending multiple missives to the Polish postal authorities to track down the device. The postal authorities alerted Polish military intelligence of the curious interest, and the package was secretly intercepted, opened, and inspected. Polish intelligence figured they could delay the package no more than 24 hours before the Germans became suspicious. The smart thing to do, they decided, was to examine the machine and make a replica. Nobody the wiser, they then repackaged the device, and the mail service delivered the Enigma to the German embassy.
Several of Poland’s most talented mathematicians–encrypting and decrypting are based in mathematics–then went to work deciphering how the machine performed its dark arts. In the summer of 1939, only weeks before World War II broke out, Polish intelligence officials met with several of their Allied counterparts in British intelligence and handed over a prototype of the German machine with instructions on how the system operated.
British intelligence then assembled a small pool of brilliant mathematicians, technicians, and intelligence professionals at Bletchley–a pool that by war’s end would grow to 10,000. Fortuitously, the Germans were just then experimenting with a second encryption system, nicknamed FISH, a more sophisticated system, but one that relied on similar methods, for use by its highest-level commanders. The boys at Bletchley intercepted the radio transmissions and, by exploiting errors by the operators, were able to deconstruct the encoding procedures and, in effect, had a window into both the tactical communications of the German military and the broader thinking of its most senior commanders.
But having such a rich vein of intelligence created its own problem. And that problem was how to prevent the Germans from realizing that Allied intelligence was listening to and interpreting the supposedly impregnable encoding systems. It was a paradox; as long as the Germans believed their existing encoding systems were secure and reliable, they wouldn’t be. The first big test of this dilemma occurred during the German U-Boat campaigns of 1939 and 1940, which threatened to knock Britain out of the war. As Churchill later confessed, only the U-Boats ever really made him fearful about ultimate victory. Early in the war, via the boys at Bletchley, it was learned that German submariners were using Enigma to update the German admiralty on their location and plans. Thus, the British knew where the German U-Boats were lurking, and it was decided to use this precise knowledge in a limited fashion, simply by routing British convoys to avoid them. Only later, after America entered the war, and the Battle of the Atlantic turned into a U-Boat feast, did the Allies decide to go a step further–to use the fruits gained by Enigma to hunt down and destroy the feared U-Boat packs.
But a carefully prepared ruse was needed first. The pilots of British and American aircraft, who were often shot down and captured, were briefed to tell German interrogators that the sudden success of the Allied navies in hunting down U-Boats was the result of a miraculous new radar that allowed Allied aircraft and ships to see thousands of feet beneath the waves. No such radar existed, but the Germans bought the ruse even as their U-Boat losses turned catastrophic.
By late 1941, the British wanted to spread the nuggets of this intelligence goldmine, but they couldn’t afford to have it compromised. They created a new security umbrella they called Ultra, a classification level even higher than the then-highest level of Most Secret.
Select high-level commanders and officials, both British and American, were indoctrinated in this cell, and liaison officers were designated to carry the highly classified intercepts for its use in military campaigns. The battle for North Africa, which was as well a battle for the Mediterranean, was a prime opportunity. Field Marshall Montgomery was read in to Ultra. He was up against the German Army’s most feared commander, General Erwin Rommel. Rommel and his legendary Afrika Corps, were pushing toward Egypt, the loss of which would have been crushing for the Allied war effort. But Rommel had an Achilles heel: his supply lines from Germany stretched across the Mediterranean, and via the decoders at Bletchley, the British were able to learn when the German supply ships left port and their locations as they reported in. The British could have sunk all the ships, but that would raise too many suspicions. Instead, they devised a cover by sending out three hunter aircraft in advance of every strike, two to search empty seas, and one to strike gold and call in the location of the German supply ships. They deliberately limited the overall destruction to 60 percent of German shipping, enough to decisively strangle Rommel, but not so alarming as to confirm that German communications had been compromised. Montgomery was also provided with intercepts that showed Rommel’s intentions before the Battle of El Alamein, regarded as a key Allied victory in the war. As it was, Germany’s Italian ally told the Germans the evidence suggested that Enigma had been compromised. But the Germans bought into the Allied ruses and attributed their ballooning naval losses to a vast enlargement of Britain’s naval search aircraft. In reality, Britain had only three aircraft stationed at Malta.
The fruits of Enigma were also critical to the Normandy Invasion in June 1944. From the decoding insights the Allies were aware that the Germans were about to develop a new generation of miracle weapons, including the V-1 rockets, vastly improved submarines, and jet aircraft that would have ruled the skies. Had the invasion of Europe been pushed back another year or two, not only would the Germans have finished construction of their Atlantic Wall coastal fortifications, but the new German weapons would’ve made a cross-channel invasion a far more dicey, and vastly more costly, operation.
As it was, the Allies attempted another ambitious intelligence gambit in advance of the invasion, constructing a ghost invasion force to be held in reserve in England. The intent was to mislead Hitler and his generals into believing the Normandy Invasion was a feint, one designed to draw German reserves away from northern France, prior to the “real” main attack at Pas de Calais. It was an elaborate scheme involving the construction of empty barracks, thousands of tanks and trucks constructed of balsawood, painted and situated to be seen by German agents and aircraft. Even communications centers were situated to give German signal intelligence the impression that the phony barracks were manned by hundreds of thousands of soldiers who did not, in fact, exist. At stake were a number of German Panzer and infantry divisions held in reserve, that, if dispatched to the Cotentin Peninsula, where the Normandy beachhead was established, might well have defeated the invasion.
And here again, the boys at Bletchley proved invaluable. Through their FISH intercepts, they were able to inform Eisenhower that the Germans bought the phony army story, hook, line, and sinker. Having this knowledge in advance of the invasion greatly increased Eisenhower’s confidence that the gamble at Normandy might succeed.
An entertaining new book, entitled Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, details yet another brilliant Allied intelligence scheme that worked wonders. An eclectic group of British intelligence operatives, including Ian Fleming, later the creator of James Bond, conceived a particularly morbid plan–to plant a corpse in Spanish waters that would wash ashore in a British uniform carrying sensitive planning documents in an attempt to mislead the Germans into believing that the Allies planned to launch their assault on southern Europe through Greece or Sardinia, rather than Sicily, where the real invasion was planned. It sounds harebrained, but it worked. The German army forces were deployed and waited to combat assaults against Greece and Sardinia. When the actual invasion was launched against Sicily, it was too late to respond. For the price of water-logging one corpse, it is estimated that thousands of lives were saved during the actual invasion of Sicily.
But intelligence successes were not limited just to the big picture. The first Allied prisoners of war were captured in 1939, the year the war broke out. By the end of the war, German camps held some 232,000 British, American, and Canadian prisoners. Those captured in the initial battles of the war would endure five years in the camps, five years of boredom, privation, occasional mistreatment, and stifling confinement.
The code of conduct stipulated that it was a service man’s duty to attempt escape. In fact, some of the greatest tales of the war involve the creativity, ingenuity, and raw valor of prisoners who tried; tales that were later re-enacted in movies like The Great Escape and the wildly popular comedy TV series Hogan’s Heroes. It became a cat-and-mouse game between the incarcerated and their jailors–the jailors had all the physical advantages, but the prisoners had ingenuity, hope, and conviction.
Escape, however, was a difficult proposition at best. Mostly, the camps were located in Germany or Italy, the heart of an enemy nation or close to its eastern boundaries. Even if an escapee made it outside the wire, the odds were nearly insurmountable, just as they were intended to be. He had to find his way, on foot, through an enemy population, then through occupied territory to a neutral nation, such as Switzerland or Portugal, or to a link-up with a partisan band in Yugoslavia, Italy, or France.
In 1941, some ingenious soul in Britain’s MI-5, the English equivalent of America’s Office of Strategic Services, found a way to make it easier. The prisoners needed maps, and in the best of all worlds the maps would be constructed of silk, rather than paper which was noisy to unfold and could easily be ruined by the elements. In researching further, MI-5 discovered that one of the country’s masters of printing on silks was John Waddington, LTD, a company that among other things, happened to be the United Kingdom’s licensee for the fashionable board game, Monopoly. MI-5 explained its idea to the John Waddington Company–to print the maps on silk, then fold them up, and hide them in Monopoly game pieces.
As is so often the case, one good idea quickly bred another. Among the few items allowed to be shipped in care packages to Allied prisoners of war was a category called “Games and Pastimes.” The rations in the German camps were notoriously skimpy, and as the war dragged on, and the German economy strained just to support the war effort, the rationing became worse. The care packages sent to the camps became a major source of sustenance and enjoyment for the prisoners.
With this idea in mind, MI-5 and the employees of John Waddington put their heads together. The employees, being patriotic chaps, naturally wanted to do whatever they could to help their country’s war effort, and MI-5 naturally wanted to find ways to help the escapees make their way to freedom. So why only offer maps? What else could be disguised insides the games to give an escapee a higher chance of success? Well, a compass would certainly be nice. So a way was engineered to hide a tiny compass in one of the game’s playing tokens. And why not that classic device of all prison break-outs, the file? So one was constructed into two game pieces that could be screwed together. But what about money? Foreign currency would enable an escapee to buy provisions or to bribe his way out of a fix. This one was almost too easy. High denomination German, French, and Italian currency were tucked in among the “play money.”
So now they had the perfect Trojan Horse, but they needed a way to get it inside the camps, and a method for those on the receiving end to know what they were getting. The idea that the POWs would wile away the rest of the war playing Monopoly without realizing they had their hands on such nifty escape kits would be an intolerable irony. The easiest solution was to ship the games through the Red Cross. But there was a big pitfall. If the trick was discovered, the Red Cross would be discredited as a neutral organization, and all the invaluable good it did for the prisoners–including the precious aid packages that were the lifeblood of POW morale–would be at risk. So the Monopoly games would be included in aid packages from other independent organizations as well.
But that still didn’t resolve the problem of how the POWs would know what interesting treasures were hidden in the games, and which games contained the invaluable escape tools. The solution was almost as hilarious as it was clever. A small red dot was printed in the upper corner of the Free Parking square, a dot that looked to the unknowing eye like a printing error–but the British and American pilots about to go on their first missions were briefed on the identifying hallmark of those games that had been jerry-rigged into escape packages.
A special cell, in a guarded facility was formed on the grounds of John Waddington, LTD, and select workers, all sworn to secrecy, began mass-producing the games which were shipped to the POW camps. Each included a map compressed within a game piece, each map tailored to the specific region where the camp was located.
It is estimated that some 35,000 Allied POWs escaped during the course of the war. Nobody knows how many of these escaped POWs used the kits, because all those “in the know” were sworn to secrecy so the gambit could be preserved for the future. Not until 2007 did the British government decide to remove the cloak of secrecy in a ceremony to honor the venerable workers of John Waddington LTD, whose ingenuity and handicraft had contributed so much to the war effort.
Truly, it gives whole new meaning to the Get Out of Jail Free card.
Nobody argues that these intelligence successes won the war, because the overall balance of power between Germany versus the alliance of Britain, America, and the Soviet Union was such that victory was probably inevitable. But there is no question that these intelligence triumphs brought the war to a much quicker conclusion, possibly two or three years earlier, and saved thousands of lives.
So, it would seem, the words military and intelligence do indeed go together quite well.
-Army Lt. Colonel Brian Haig (Ret.) is a New York Times best-selling author. He is a West Point graduate and served in the U.S. Army, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.