The Wings of the Abwehr: The Dawn of Secret Missions

Theodor Rowehl

The secret activities of the talented organizer of secret missions Theodor Rowehl left a significant mark on the history of the Luftwaffe, German military intelligence and the Third Reich. However, before going into Rowehl’s career, a brief overview of the recovery of German military intelligence after defeat in the First World War is necessary.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, all German intelligence services were dissolved, apart from the internal security service. However, the militaristic aspirations of the German armed forces survived even after the shame of defeat in the war. Moreover, many ex-officers of the Imperial Army, who remained in the service of the Weimar Republic, were convinced that Germany was surrounded by enemies. All these circumstances made sure that German intelligence agents would not be unemployed for long.

In 1921, the German government formed a body within the Ministry of Defence, which was entrusted with the functions of collecting open military information abroad and military counterintelligence in the Reichswehr. It was given a vague name – ‘Department of Foreign Information and Defence’ (Mat Auslandnachrichten und Abwehr). This intelligence service, which soon became known simply as the Abwehr, was headed by Major Gempp. In the first years of its existence, it was exclusively concerned with counterintelligence. In its small organization there were only two groups – ‘Ost’ and ‘West’. For direct work in the regions, Abwehr ‘points’ (Abwehrstellen) were created in each military district.

However, gradually the ‘collection of open information’ abroad became a fully-fledged active intelligence service with all the usual clandestine attributes. In the central office of the Abwehr the relevant departments were formed. A branch office was established in Königsberg and satellite offices in Marienburg, Allenstein and Gumbinnen. The task of the latter was to organize intelligence operations against Poland and the Soviet Union.

During the 1920s and 1930s, the organizational structure of the Abwehr was constantly changing and improving. In 1938 it was reorganized into the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence of the High Command of the Wehrmacht. Its chiefs also changed. In 1928 Major Gempp was replaced by Oberst Schwantess who as early as 1 June 1929 handed the business to Oberst Ferdinand von Bredow. After that only naval officers were at the head of Abwehr: Conrad Patzig (from 6 June 1932), then Wilhelm Canaris.

Finally, by the autumn of 1939 the structure of Abwehr was formed which with minor changes remained until its dissolution in the autumn of 1944. The headquarters was located in Berlin, at No. 74 on the Tirpitz Embankment, next to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW – Armed Forces High Command) complex on the Bendlerstrasse. The internal layout of the central office of Abwehr was well suited for such an organization. It was a maze of chaotically interconnected rooms and halls, winding corridors, and stairs that went up and down. It was difficult even for the permanent staff to navigate. First-time visitors could get lost. Therefore, the headquarters of the Abwehr was nicknamed the ‘Fox’s Earth’.

The Abwehr was divided into three departments (Abteilung). The First Department (Abwehr-I – Abt.I) was engaged in the collection and evaluation of intelligence information. Its main customer and consumer was the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW – Armed Forces High Command). Therefore, the information collected was of a purely military nature. On 31 December 1936, the Abwehr and the Nazi Party’s security service, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD – Secret Security Service) signed a treaty ‘on the division of spheres of influence’, which some employees called ‘the Ten commandments’. As a result of the agreement the SD engaged exclusively in political intelligence work. But in practice, there were no clear ‘limits of responsibility’. The Abwehr and the SD often invaded each other’s sphere of interest, leading to constant conflict and rivalry.

Abwehr-I consisted of five sections: IX Fremde Heer (Foreign Army), IM Fremde Marine (Foreign Navy), IL Fremde Luft (Foreign Aircraft), IBI Fremde Wirtschaft (Foreign industry) and IILB Technik-Luft (Aircraft intelligence). Each of them was engaged in the collection of intelligence in their field. In addition, Abwehr-I had five subgroups, divided on a geographical basis. The largest subgroup ‘Hamburg’ (Mat Hamburg) was responsible for the gathering of military intelligence in Great Britain. The suborganizations and subgroups were further divided into sections.

Hans Piekenbrock

In 1936, the 43-year-old Major Hans Piekenbrock, who had begun working in military intelligence in 1921 was appointed head of Abwehr-I. Thanks to his abilities, he became the second most influential figure in the Abwehr after Canaris. Piekenbrock performed delicate missions for the Nazi leadership and for Hitler personally. He travelled all over Europe, and visited the Middle East and the Soviet Union. At the same time, he always remained ‘in the shadows’ and skilfully covered his tracks.

The Second Department (Abwehr-II – Abt.II), was established on the personal initiative of Canaris in the mid-1930s. Its task was to organize subversive activities and sabotage in enemy territory. It consisted of five sub-departments divided into fifteen independent sections. On 10 November 1938 the 41-year-old Major Erwin von Lahousen-Vivremont, a career officer of the old Austrian military intelligence who began his service during the First World War, became chief of Abwehr-II.

Abwehr-II had three major centres for the training of saboteurs and agents at its disposal. One was in Tegele, near Berlin, the second in Kwinzsee, near Brandenburg, and the third in Himsee. All of these centres were carefully camouflaged and hidden from prying eyes. Training was conducted in conditions as close to actual combat as possible. On the exercise field in Kwinzsee there were bridges of various designs, sections of railway tracks and other objects for the practice of sabotage techniques.

The Third Department (Abwehr-III – Abt.III) was engaged in counterintelligence. On 1 March 1939, it was headed by 42-year-old Major Franz-Eccard von Bentivegni, a career artilleryman who had served in the Abwehr since 1936. The main functions of the Department were to prevent the penetration of foreign agents in Wehrmacht, protection of state secrets, protection of documents of special importance and people who had access to them. Abwehr-III had a branch structure, including ten sub-departments. Each of them consisted of a set of subgroups and sections in its areas of work. It also had a special unit – the ‘security service’, which monitored the employees of the Abwehr themselves.

There is no official data on the number of personnel in the central office of Abwehr. At the end of the war, almost all documents of German military intelligence, which existed only as single copies, were destroyed. From the remaining fragmentary data it is known that, in March 1943 there were 140 employees in the three main headquarters departments (in Abwehr-1 sixty-three, in Abwehr-II thirty-four and in Abwehr-III forty-three). For operational work in each military district, army group, and naval base Abwehrstellen (‘points’) were created, of which there were only thirty-three. During the war, ‘points’ were also created in the occupied territories. Their strength varied widely, for example, at the Abwehr point in the French port of Cherbourg there were only three staff members but in the Paris point there were 382. Most of the ‘points’ had approximately 150 staff.

According to Canaris’ instructions, each Abwehr ‘point’ in an army group or field army was required to have an intelligence network of at least twenty-five agents. Some of them were intended for operations in the combat zone (at a distance of 30km from the front line), while the rest were to be thrown into the deep rear of the enemy.

What role did Theodor Rowehl play in all this? He was born on 9 February 1894 in the town of Barschlute, located on the left bank of the River Weser (near Bremen). On 28 July 1914 Austria-Hungary began military operations against Serbia. This served as a trigger for the start of a terrible bloodbath, which then went down in history as the Great War (the First World War). On 1 August, Germany declared war first on Russia and then on 3 August on France. The next day Britain declared war on Germany as a result of the violation of the neutrality of Belgium.

For millions of young Germans, this meant a radical change in their lives. On 28 August the 20-year-old Rowehl was drafted into the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet and sent for training as an officer. After initial training, he served until March 1915 on the battleship Westfalen and then on the old battleship Kaiser Karl der Grosse, a floating barracks and training ship in Wilhelmshaven. At the beginning of 1916 Rowehl was transferred to naval aviation and in March sent to I.Seeflieger Abteilung (1st Marine Aviation Division), base at Norderney at the western end of the island of the same name in the East Frisian Islands. On 10 June 1916 he received the rank of Lieutenant and on 21 October qualified as an observer.

In the same month Rowehl was transferred to Torpedo Staffel III, then based in Flensburg. Later he was transferred again to the Torpedo Staffel I and by 4 September 1917 had arrived with his unit at the naval air base at Zeebrugge in Belgium.

At 13.10 on 9 September 1917 three torpedo bombers, serial numbers ‘T995’, ‘T1211’ and ‘T1213’, took off. The crew of the last aircraft consisted of pilot Lieutenant Hubrich and observer Lieutenant Rowehl. Accompanied by three Hansa-Brandenburg S. 1 fighters, they went to search for British ships in the North Sea. About 14.50 the German pilots found six fishing vessels, which were accompanied by a destroyer, heading for the mouth of the Thames. The torpedo bombers attacked the last ship in the line, the 440 BRT Storm of Guernsey. One of the torpedoes missed, but the other two hit the target: one in the area of the boiler room, and the second in the aft hold. As a result, the ship sank immediately, and all the planes, despite the fire from the destroyer, suffered no damage and safely returned to base.

On 17 September, T-Staffel I moved to the Baltic and on the 24th arrived at the port of Vindau (now Ventspils in Latvia). It was to take part in Operation ‘Albion’, the beginning of which was scheduled for 29 September. The aim of the Germans was the capture of the islands of the Moonsund archipelago and the destruction of the Russian fleet in the Gulf of Riga, creating the conditions for a subsequent breakthrough into the Gulf of Finland and on to Petrograd (St. Petersburg).

Vice Admiral Erich Schmidt’s fleet included ten battleships, one battlecruiser, eight light cruisers, forty-seven destroyers, eleven torpedo boats, six submarines and ninety minesweepers. The landing force consisted of 24,600 men, 40 guns, 85 mortars and 225 machine guns. Air support was provided by nine airships and ninety-four aircraft. The Russian fleet opposing them consisted of two old battleships Slava and Grazdanin, three cruisers, thirty-six destroyers and torpedo boat, three gunboats, five minesweepers and three submarines. The garrison of the Moonsund Islands consisted of about 12,000 men, 64 field guns and 118 machine guns. The passages through the Straits were defended by minefields and sixteen shore batteries – a total of fifty-four guns ranging in calibre from 75mm to 305mm.

On 29 September, after the suppression of the shore batteries, the German fleet landed troops in the Bay of Tagalaht on Ösel (now Saaremaa, Estonia), the largest island of the Moonsund archipelago. On the same day German ships entered the Gulf of Riga. The Russians did not take any measures to strengthen the defence of the islands, and some admirals fled at the beginning of the German operation. The defence was actually led by the Bolshevik organizations in the Baltic fleet, elected by the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Committee.

On 3 October, German troops occupied Ösel, the island of Moon (now Muhu, Estonia) two days later and the next day the island of Dago (now Hiiumaa, Estonia). During the fierce fighting, the Russians sank ten German destroyers and six minesweepers, and damaged three battleships, thirteen destroyers and torpedo boats. The German command refused to break into the Gulf of Finland and on 7 October withdrew its ships from the Gulf of Riga. The Russian Navy had lost the battleship Slava and one destroyer, and the battleship Grazdanin, one cruiser, three destroyers and two gunboats had been damaged. After the end of Operation ‘Albion’, T-Staffel I stayed in Libau for a month. It then set off back to Flanders and arrived at its former base in Zeebrugge on 12 November.

At 10.50 on 27 November 1917 Lieutenant Rowehl with his friend Lieutenant Hubrich as pilot took to the air in Brandenburg C W. Nr. 1015 on a routine training flight. But twenty minutes after take-off the plane suddenly crashed. Hubrich was not hurt, but Rowehl was seriously injured and was sent to hospital. According to the official report, Hubrich was responsible for the crash, having ‘dangerously piloted the plane and performed a prohibited manoeuvre’.

After his recovery, Lieutenant Rowehl returned to T-Staffel I. Then he commanded Seeflugstation Flandern III (3rd Naval Air Station Flanders) for some time, and then on August 16, 1918 he was appointed instructor at the aviation school for observers, located in the city of Putzig, on the shore of Danzig Bay.

The Great War ended with the defeat of Germany and its allies – Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. On the night of 4 October 1918, the German government announced its readiness to sign the surrender. Then a revolution broke out in the country exhausted by war, which began on 3 November with the rebellion of the sailors of the Kaiser’s fleet in Kiel. The incompetent Wilhelm II fled to Holland, a fierce struggle for power began. Lieutenant Rowehl officially retired from military service on 31 December 1918.

What he did during the following years is unknown. But by the 1930s, Theodor Rowehl was already a Flugkäpitan in the Hansa-Luftbild airline. This was an innovator in new methods of aerial photography, as well as in the commercial use of photogrammetry. Its predecessor – Aero Lloyd Luftbild GmbH – was founded in 1923 as a branch of the transport airline ‘Deutsche Aero Lloyd’. Then it merged with the transport airline ‘Junkers Luftverkehr AG’, resulting in the formation of the airline Deutsche Lufthansa. After that, Aero Lloyd Luftbild GmbH was renamed Hansa-Luftbild. Its director was Wilhelm Gessner, who held the post until his death in 1945.

After learning that Poland was building new defences on the border with Germany, Rowehl carried out several flights over the border area. It is not known exactly who ordered him to perform this task. In the 1920s, large German business concerns, such as Siemens, created their own intelligence services. Industrialist and ‘newspaper king’ Alfred Hugenberg funded ‘Germans for overseas service’, and a few steel enterprises – organization ‘Nunzia’. All of them were mainly engaged in industrial espionage abroad, but had secret connections with the Abwehr. It is possible to assume that Hansa-Luftbild was somehow connected with ‘Nunzia’.

Photos of Polish fortifications taken by Rowehl ‘miraculously’ reached the head of Abwehr Oberst von Bredow. He appreciated the possibilities of aerial photography, realizing that it was the most advanced method of technical intelligence. Von Bredow hired Rowehl to work in his organization.

Officially, Rowehl remained a pilot with Hansa-Luftbild, but he actually worked for German military intelligence. The Abwehr financed the continuation of reconnaissance flights over Polish territory. Rowehl was provided with a Ju W34be/b3e aircraft, number D-1119, which was specially equipped for high-altitude flights and fitted with a British Bristol Jupiter VII engine. In this plane, on 26 May 1929 the test pilot Wilhelm Neuenhofen (later famous for the first flight of the prototype Ju 87V1 on 17 September 1935) rose to a height of 12,739m (41,795ft), setting a world altitude record. It was officially registered by the International Aviation Federation. Now this record-breaking plane was to be used for secret missions.

Soon Rowehl was joined by several other pilots from Hansa-Luftbild. A suspiciously sharp increase in the number of incidents, when usually efficient German pilots ‘got lost’ and ‘accidentally’ found themselves in Polish airspace, caused Polish counterintelligence to suspect that these ‘civilian’ aircraft were actually engaged in espionage. But they had no proof.

After the coming to power of the Nazis, who dreamed of revenge for the defeat in the Great War of 1914–18, the work of German intelligence was given fresh impetus. Already by the end of 1933, Theodor Rowehl had officially returned to military service and been appointed head of the photographic department of the headquarters of Luftkries VI (6th Air District). His office was in Kiel. The ostensibly ‘civil’ airline Hansa-Luftbild began to expand its areas of operation. Reconnaissance aircraft in civilian livery began flying over Czechoslovakia, France and Belgium. In 1934, Rowehl carried out several flights over the Soviet Union, photographing the naval bases at Kronstadt, Leningrad, Pskov and Minsk. This information allowed the Germans to obtain accurate information about the composition of the Russian fleet in the Baltic and the implementation of the programme of construction of new ships and submarines.

In the autumn of 1934 there was a clash between the head of the Reichswehr General Werner von Blomberg and the chief of the Abwehr Konrad Patzig. Blomberg learned about the secret air reconnaissance missions and accused Patzig of ‘provoking war’ and threatening the Führer’s ‘peaceful intentions’. Patzig was on bad terms with the Nazis’ secret police (Geheime Staatpolizei – Gestapo), and it seems that the Gestapo provided information to Blomberg about the ‘provocative’ work of the Abwehr. Patzig was fired, and on 2 January 1935 Wilhelm Canaris was made the chief of the Abwehr.

Canaris was very much interested in the continuation of the secret missions, and he decided to enlist the support of the Reich Minister of Aviation Hermann Göring. The chief of the Abwehr showed the narcissistic and vain companion of Hitler the results of Hansa-Luftbild’s flights (photos of fortifications in France, Poland and Russia). Göring liked this opportunity to become a provider of strategic intelligence to the Führer. On 1 March 1935 Germany announced the creation of the air force – the Luftwaffe. On the same day Theodor Rowehl was enrolled in it at the rank of Hauptmann. Göring personally instructed him to create the first squadron for secret missions – Fliegerstaffel z.b.V. It was formed at the Staaken airfield near Berlin. The squadron was composed of five planes with crews from Deutsche Lufthansa. The deputy commander of the squadron was an experienced navigator, Siegfried Knemeyer, whom Rowehl had personally appointed. Fliegerstaffel z.b.V. received its orders from the 5th Department of the Luftwaffe General Staff and Abwehr-I. Photos taken during missions were first studied by representatives of military intelligence, then they were sent to Luftwaffe Intelligence HQ in Zossen.

Secret missions were carried out under the cover of Deutsche Lufthansa. Disguised as airliners, Fliegerstaffel z.b.V planes ‘accidentally’ strayed from their routes and performed their secret missions. In 1936–7 the squadron was given three passenger He 111s. They were the prototype He 111V2 W. Nr. 715 ‘D-ALIX’ ‘Rostock’, He 111V4 W. Nr. 1968 ‘D-AHAO’ ‘Dresden’ and He 111C-03 W. Nr. 1830 ‘D-AXAV’ ‘Köln’. They wore Deutsche Lufthansa livery and carried concealed cameras on board. In 1937 the Abwehr carried out such a secret mission over Great Britain. For most of this time there was only one serious incident that could have lead to the disclosure of the programme. He 111V2 W. Nr. 715 ‘D-ALIX’ crashed in Soviet territory during a flight to the Caucasus. The Russians studied the wreckage and guessed the true purpose of the aircraft, but did not protest too much.

During the Sudetenland crisis, information obtained during secret missions was employed by the Germans for the first time. There were 3.3 million ethnic Germans in the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia who complained of harassment and discrimination by the Czech government. In February 1938, the Führer delivered a speech in the Reichstag, during which he called upon the world ‘to pay attention to the terrible living conditions of our German brothers in Czechoslovakia’. Fooled by the German Chancellor, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French President Edward Daladier made concessions. They naively hoped that the Czech territories would ‘pacify’ Germany and help to avoid a new war in Europe. A meeting of Hitler, Mussolini, Daladier and Chamberlain in Munich on 29 September reached an agreement on the dismemberment of the territory of Czechoslovakia. On the night of 30 September, the British and French actually forced the Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš to accept a German ultimatum.

The next day, the text of the Munich agreement was signed. Between 1 and 10 October 1938 the Sudetenland was transferred to Germany. The Wehrmacht already had a plan to invade Czechoslovakia. At the disposal of the German staff were detailed maps of the Czech border fortifications, airfields, bridges and armaments factories.

The leadership of the Luftwaffe and Abwehr praised the activities of Rowehl. In November 1938 he was promoted to Oberstleutnant. In January 1939, the Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe (Commander-in-Chief Luftwaffe) formed Aufklaerergruppe Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe (Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L.), which was informally known as ‘Group Rowehl’. It was based at Werder airport near Potsdam.

Initially the group consisted of two squadrons, equipped with He 111s, Do 17s and Bf 110s. Among them were seven machines specially built for the Rowehl Group. Four Do 17Rs (R-l – R-4) were upgraded versions of the Do 17M, and three Do 17S (SYS 3) were upgraded versions of the Do 17Z, all equipped with DB 601 engines. During 1939 Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L. tested prototypes of various aircraft, which were supposed to be used for aerial reconnaissance. Among them were several Do 215s and one Do 217A-0.

In August 1939 at Oranienburg airport the Versuchsstelle fur Hohenfluge (VfH – Experimental Station for High-Altitude Flights) was formed, which was also subordinated to Oberstleutnant Rowehl. Personnel were recruited from the Hansa-Luftbild state airline. This company became part of the Luftwaffe, but at the same time formally remained a civil enterprise.

The VfH was composed of three staffel. Only the 1st was directly engaged in research into high-altitude flights and aerial reconnaissance. The 2nd carried out comprehensive tests on foreign aircraft, while the 3rd was responsible for secret flights to insert agents, singly or in groups, into other countries.

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