German officers attending an OKW signals intelligence course in Jüterbog, near Berlin, in October 1944. Left to right: Oberwachtmeister Suenkel; behind the tutor, Hauptmann Russ, of the Fenast post at Treuenbrietzen; the tutor, Major Philiptitsch, also of the Fenast post at Treuenbrietzen; Major Wend, commanding the Fenast at Lauf; Regierungsrat Wilhelm Flicke in glasses; and, next to Flicke, Inspecktor Pokojewski. The Allies had liberated Paris in August and were advancing to the German border. Flicke was tutoring Nachrichtenhelferinnen (female operators) at Jüterbog to replace soldiers drafted into fighting units of the German Army.
The High Command of the Wehrmacht (OKW) were not good at accepting intelligence evaluations that they disagreed with. Nowhere was this more obvious than during the Russian campaign. The papers of Colonel Randeweg, who was commanding the German intercept units in southern Russia before Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, showed a clear picture of the Red Army and Air Force order of battle. Intelligence from the Abwehr reported the Soviet Air Force would be able to field 10,000 aircraft in the event of war and also that the Russian aviation industry was capable of a high production of planes. The Luftwaffe’s general staff discounted this figure and decided that the number of operational machines was in the order of 3,000 and losses would not be easily replaced. They were much encouraged when a captain of the Soviet Air Force was captured and gave up the Russian key to the air code so Luftwaffe fighter squadrons were able to shoot down over 100 Russian aeroplanes in two weeks in air battles over Minsk. The code was changed within a couple of weeks but the damage to the Soviet Air Force was done. Within a month of launching Barbarossa, more than 3,000 aircraft had been shot down, and yet they still were able to show a strong presence in the air. The figures were, therefore, distrusted by the High Command who decided to do an audit and count the number of crashed aircraft. They came to the surprising conclusion that the claim of 3,000 shot down was a considerable underestimate. A revision was then made by the High Command in July, which enabled the OKW to claim that 6,233 Russian aircraft had been destroyed. This was an indication of the attitude of the German High Command to the often incisive intelligence that the Abwehr was able to gather.
The intelligence community was regarded by Hitler as being anti-Nazi and, although all would profess to be German patriots, he was right to some extent, which put them in a difficult and sometimes dangerous position. Chief among the suspects was Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the Director of the Abwehr and spymaster to the German Wehrmacht, and among others was Wilhelm Flicke, senior cryptologist in German signals intelligence. Flicke’s constant references in his papers to the glaringly obvious shortcomings of the German High Command in its direction of the war were almost treasonable. The almost perverse and dismissive misreading of intelligence evaluations created a situation which made not only his, but also his colleagues’ attitudes clear. The unease of the German public about the invasion of Russia was palpable, although it was not evident in the German media which was strongly controlled by the Ministry of Propaganda. The advance of 3 million men of the Wehrmacht, almost half of Hitler’s armed forces’ strength, into the Russian hinterland started with the support of her allies. There were eighteen divisions of Finns (they had a score to settle), sixteen divisions of Romanians, three of Italians and another three of Slovaks, as well as a scattering of Croatians and Hungarians. This vast juggernaut of men and machines was launched against a Red Army whose officers were well aware of the German threat. Stalin refused to recognise it, however, even after Churchill, with the aid of Ultra, warned him of the preparations for Operation Barbarossa.
Almost 200 divisions of the Red Army that were stationed near to their borders were thrown back or overwhelmed in the first onslaught of the attack. Soviet signal communications were thrown into chaos as they reeled before the assault, causing the security of radio messages to become so lax that the German Army intercept units were able to get a clear reading of the order of battle of their opponents. By the end of September, the Red Army communications system began to improve as the army got over the initial shock, although they had lost many experienced radio operators in the first offensive. The Russians had also lost a vast quantity of equipment, but it was mostly out of date and about to be replaced. As war began, Russian industry set about enacting the miracle of production that would churn out enough supplies and equipment to enable the Red Army to later turn the tide in their favour. Also, as the shock of the invasion by the Panzers was absorbed, security disciplines began to return to Soviet radio communications. It was not so in German signals communications, however, as the demand for radio operators and particularly evaluators of the intelligence data had increased by a factor of ten. Experienced personnel were spread more and more thinly to satisfy a rapidly expanding intercept service and this led to fatal mistakes in evaluations sent to the OKW. A communiqué was issued saying that no unified command structure of the Red Army could now be recognised, implying that it was breaking down into isolated groups. The reverse was true; the Russian front was strengthening, but the symptoms were not being recognised by the newly recruited cryptographers in German intercept stations. Their stations intercepted what they thought was the Red Army’s chaos in radio communications, but it was actually resorting to the norm. When security practices returned to Russian operations, fewer transmissions were received and from fewer locations, hence the conclusion was drawn that the organisation of the army was falling to pieces. It was not. Hitler always assumed in his crusade against Bolshevism that the people and the army’s resistance would collapse as anti-Communist forces came to their aid. This was not true as the Russian people saw the German Army as the invaders that they were, resisted very strongly and began to fight what was called the Patriotic War.
It was assumed that the resistance of the Russian soldiers was being maintained by political commissars who were behind them with weapons to keep the men in place in the frontline. As a result, intelligence reports that the Red Army was crumbling were welcomed and in a speech to the German nation he said, ‘The enemy is broken and will never rise again’. This was followed by a statement that:
We have been so forehanded that in this mighty war of materiel I can now cut back production in many lines because I know there is no longer any opponent whom we cannot overcome with the stock of ammunition on hand.
Production lines were substantially cut and the supplies to the front were later greatly curtailed; as a result, German soldiers suffered severely from lack of ammunition on the Russian front. This was self-deception on a grand scale, but there was worse to come as the German media reported that the Russian Marshals Voroshilov, Timoshenko and Budyonny had been relieved of their commands and turned over to the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) in a brutal purge. The German newspaper headlines shouted, ‘They are Silent in Moscow’ – and so they were. The three experienced commanders had, in fact, gone beyond the Urals to train the many new divisions released from duty on the Japanese frontier.
Wilhelm Flicke’s intercept station at Lauf had, meanwhile, been intercepting much radio traffic from the region east of Moscow and come to some disturbing conclusions. In October Flicke’s superior, Colonel Kettler, reported forty new Red Army formations of the size and nature of a division being trained and put into an army reserve of formidable size. Kettler was able to report the nature of each division, such as tank or infantry units, either motorised or cavalry, their composition and strength in men and machines, their equipment and ammunition states and command structure. Flicke then helped him compose a report of his findings in great detail to send to his commander, General E. Fellgiebel. Flicke then added in his papers that this general was later murdered by Hitler following the bomb plot in July 1944. The report was then sent to the OKW for the attention of Hitler where its findings were met with an immediate rejection. A note to Fellgiebel on its cover from Colonel General Jodl said that Kettler should be put out of business. It was countersigned by SS Superior Group Leader Fegelein who noted that this was also the opinion of the Führer. Fegelein was shot on Hitler’s order just before the end of the war. By November there was increasingly stiff resistance from the Russians in front of Moscow as reinforcements to the Russian line began to arrive in total radio silence, a great achievement in radio operations given a movement of that size. A stirring moment in the war is brought to life in the newsreels of Stalin taking the salute at a parade in Red Square in Moscow as battalions of Russian soldiers marched past him and straight on in to the trenches just outside Moscow to hold back the German Army.
German Army commanders eventually began to see the light and General Halder, the Chief of Staff, wrote in his diary that it was becoming ever clearer that they had underestimated the Russian colossus. The High Command had not wanted to get bogged down in a positional war of entrenchment. They had expected 200 enemy divisions to oppose them but so far they had counted 350 and, although they were not always properly equipped or led, they were always there. Whenever a dozen of these divisions were destroyed or captured, another dozen would immediately replace them. In addition, the Germans’ long line of supplies was being increasingly disrupted by Russian partisans while the Red Army were close to its source of supply. The Germans found themselves in front of Moscow with little or no winter clothing in -30°C: their skin froze on to the metal of their guns as they touched them and tore off their hands if they tried to pull them away; the oil froze and the tanks could not function or the guns fire; and the radio sets would not work as the batteries froze, so the German generals had the dilemma of withdrawing and leaving their equipment or staying put to be overrun as their weapons did not work. Then to the amazement of the Germans, the Russians attacked them in early December with forty divisions of fresh, well-equipped reinforcements from Siberia, who considered the Moscow weather to be relatively warm. They fell upon the German troops like wolves and the whole of the German Army Centre Group retired in disarray to a line 90 miles distant from Moscow.
German intelligence had failed Hitler once again after a complete lack of warning of the Torch landings and now an underestimation of the strength of the Red Army by almost half as much again. Russian production achievements had massively exceeded the Abwehr estimate and their T-34 tanks were beginning to appear on the battlefield in their thousands.
American aid was also coming to their new allies through the Middle East. Hitler berated Canaris for the failure of his organisation in public and the Admiral knew that he would pay a high price for the failure in a way that would only help Himmler’s SS who were building a separate intelligence organisation of their own. The intelligence service, or rather services, were in conflict and the results would be disastrous, but the Abwehr knew it had to pull off a coup to get Hitler’s approval. Meanwhile, in Russia things were going from bad to worse as the German Army reached its high water mark in their advances into Russia and then the tide began to recede.
In September 1942 the long crucifixion of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad began as they advanced to the banks of the Volga. By November the Russians’ pincer movement had been launched and the two arms met at Kalach behind the German Army. Russian troops encircled the Sixth Army, although the Luftwaffe was able to lift 50,000 men out of the trap. A final surrender in February of the following year had cost the German Army almost a quarter of a million men as casualties or prisoners. This great public humiliation for Hitler and his army convinced the world that the Wehrmacht was not invincible. The last message from General Paulus, commanding the doomed Sixth Army, was intercepted by the Lauf listening station and Wilhelm Flicke recounted how the message brought in by a duty officer read, ‘My Führer, in future follow more the advice of your Generals!’ The document was passed from one adjutant to another until it landed on the desk of Field Marshal Keitel. He ordered that it be taken into the office of the chief of the supreme command of the armed forces of the Third Reich immediately. The author himself knows how impressive and overbearing the entrance to Hitler’s office was, as he visited the bombed and ruined Reich Chancellery just after the war. The double doors were 30ft and each was 6ft wide with heavy sculptured bronze images depicting German myths of the past. None of those brave soldiers in attendance on the Führer ventured to volunteer to pass through those doors to take the document to him – Nazi Germany occasionally copied the Greek practice and killed the messenger bearing bad news. Finally the paper was placed in a portfolio with others and laid on Hitler’s desk in a casual manner, and then a small but apprehensive group waited outside.
The silence did not last long, from behind the massive double doors came the sound of breaking vases and chairs being overturned. Hitler tore the telegram into smaller and smaller pieces and ranted and raged at everything and everybody but himself. Keitel was summoned and listened to the strident demands for the degrading of Paulus from his rank of field marshal, confirmed for him the day before. It was too late as the announcement had already gone to the press so Keitel stood, stony faced and took the tirade of bitterness and frustration. In the ruins of Stalingrad the new Field Marshal Paulus marched what was left of his army through the snow into a long captivity from which only 5,000 would return. Flicke made a surprising assertion in his papers about another battle at Kharkov further south, which was regarded as a masterpiece of manoeuvre by one of Hitler’s best generals, von Manstein. He persuaded the Führer that a positional war such as Hitler had experienced in the First World War needed to give way to one of movement. The general was allowed to manoeuvre the Red Army into a trap as exhausted Russian troops ploughed on to the extreme of their supply chain before the German Panzers struck. The world saw von Manstein’s victory as a model of defensive mechanised warfare but Wilhelm Flicke, whose listening station measured the action blow by blow, did not.
Flicke compared Kharkov with Napoleon’s ‘victory’ at the Battle of Borodino where the Imperial Russian Army was defeated but Napoleon’s army was so damaged in the battle that its ultimate fate was decided. Flicke thought that the way that German forces were weakened at Kharkov enabled the Red Army to prevent the Germans from taking Stalingrad or the oil fields in the Caucasus. The real decision in Russia, Flicke asserts, did not take place at Stalingrad but earlier at Kharkov when the Red Army inflicted such severe losses on the Germans that the timetable of the depleted German divisions was upset as they moved on to the Kuban area, the Caucasus and the Volga. The Russians sustained terrible losses in men and materiel but were able to replace them, while the Germans not only lost men but also time.
Soviet espionage activities both within German-occupied Russia and also in the German homeland were well known to the Abwehr. Flicke tells how detailed German operational plans for the 1942 spring offensive were known to the Russians as was the plan to advance across the Volga and into the oil fields of the Caucasus. Areas of assembly of German Army formations designated to carry out these operations and their order of battle, with the numerical strength of the army and their allies, were all known to the Russians in detail. Units from battalion size upwards had been identified with even the names of unit commanders and the numbers of tanks, guns and planes available and those not available but under repair for the coming campaigns. The attack plans for the coming summer offensive of the three German Army groups in Russia had been established and the Rote Kapelle, or Red Orchestra (the Soviet spy ring), had reported them to their Moscow control. In short, the Russian Intelligence services knew as much about the German Army and its order of battle and future plans as Bletchley Park did, although probably by different means.
Intelligence services of all beligerent countries had planted networks of radio agents around Europe, notably the Russians. From the 1930s she was the first country to develop espionage networks with an international dimension. The Soviet Union gradually set up networks of shortwave radios reporting to a control station in Moscow and other lesser control stations in other European countries. Wilhelm Flicke’s intercept service recognised and reported these stations to the OKW who assumed they were a propaganda network for Communist International purposes aimed at spreading the word of Communism across Europe. There was little indication of the network’s size as most of the stations kept a discreet radio silence, nor any indication of their nature as those transmissions that were received were in a code that remained unbroken and only made infrequent transmissions. The network was, in fact, the radio communication system for the Russian intelligence service designed to collect and transmit intelligence gathered by Communist sympathisers across Europe acting as agents. There were many such people before the war who were told to observe and report on all aspects of armed forces activity in their country. In addition they were ordered to report on industrial strengths and weaknesses of the economy in European countries, particularly Germany. Agents were expected to assess the production capabilities of their country and its technology, including the searching of patents. Members of the network were also tasked with monitoring political events and identifying politicians that might have an effect on the wellbeing of the Soviet Union. Soon after the outbreak of war in 1941, the German state security police estimated that there were 120,000 agents and fellow travellers serving the network, who all kept a low profile as they reported their findings through embassies. The long-term investment in establishing this huge intelligence operation was about to pay off in a big way.