Operation Mars II

The fourth item of evidence is in the memoirs of Army General A.I. Gribkov, who as a captain on the General Staff took part in ‘Mars’. The corps he was attached to (Solomatin’s) fought for several days in encirclement, and after the remnants of it had managed to break through to the Soviet lines on 15 December, he and the corps commander were immediately taken to Zhukov, who conceded that the corps had suffered heavy losses, but said it had ‘fulfilled its task. The Germans did not venture to remove the tank divisions from your front and send them to Stalingrad.’ Here Zhukov may have been making the best of a bad job, but the view he expressed then is consistent both with what he had told Galitskiy before ‘Mars’ began, and, of course, with what actually happened.

The fifth item relates again to the differing contexts of ‘Mars’ and ‘Uranus’. It occurs in the preface Isayev provided to the Russian translation of Dr Glantz’s book, published in 2007. While not taking issue with the main theme of the book, he cites criticisms of ‘Mars’ in the memoirs of General A.I. Radzievsky, who served in it as Chief of Staff of the 2nd Guards Cavalry Corps, and who wrote:

The concept of ‘Mars’ consisted of fragmenting the defence in the Rzhev salient area by eight blows of Western and four blows of Kalinin Front, destroying the forces defending it, then emerging into the Smolensk area. Simultaneously Kalinin Front undertook an offensive at Velikiye Luki and Novosokolniki with the forces of 3rd Shock Army. Because overall thirteen shock groupings were created, most of them … were small, three–four divisions with a mechanised or tank corps. The multiplicity of blows, more than half of which were for pinning-down, led to dispersion of firepower. Although the artillery density of some groupings reached 70–85 or even 100 guns and mortars per kilometre on the breakthrough-sector, half of them were mortars, which could fire only on the forward positions.

Isayev went on to support Radzievsky’s criticism, noting that the strongest blow at Stalingrad was dealt by a group of mobile forces comprising two tank corps and a cavalry corps, supported by 632 field guns, 297 anti-tank guns and 1,609 mortars, whereas the assault force of the 20th Army in ‘Mars’ comprised only one tank and one cavalry corps, supported by 525 field guns, 175 anti-tank guns and 1,546 mortars. The two points made here are, first there were many blows but none was very strong, and secondly that despite the availability of larger forces the strongest attack mounted in ‘Mars’ was not nearly as strong as its counter part at Stalingrad. Both Radzievsky and Isayev implicitly assume that this resulted from bad planning; apparently neither asked himself why Zhukov and Vasilevsky, who conceived both operations, and who directed their detailed planning, and Stalin, whose approval they received for both, devised such different plans for two operations to be conducted within the same time frame. They opted for ‘Uranus’ to open with three very heavy blows and to seek very quick results. For the first phase five tank corps (1st, 4th and 26th from the north, 4th and 13th from the south) were employed to achieve the encirclement, while elements of six armies (from north to south the 21st, 65th, 24th, 66th, 62nd and 64th) maintained pressure along the existing front line to prevent the Germans disengaging. Encirclement was achieved in four days and extended westwards for another seven, so that by 30 November the new German front line was at minimum about 65 and at maximum 110 kilometres (42–70 miles) from the trapped forces. These major results were achieved in a mere twelve days, but when Galitskiy put forward a plan to achieve a much more modest result in a similar time-period, Zhukov flatly rejected it, and told Galitskiy his main task was not to capture the objective but to pin down enemy forces so that they could not be sent south.

As Radzievsky noted, ‘Mars’ opened with thirteen blows smaller than any in ‘Uranus’, and Isayev confirmed this. However, neither they nor Glantz considered why the same three men who masterminded and controlled both operations planned them so differently. In Isayev’s foreword to Glantz’s book he compared ‘Mars’ with Brusilov’s offensive of 1916, which achieved initial success by ignoring convention and attacking everywhere, then stated that ‘what worked in a limited way against the Austrians in 1916 was completely ineffective against the German Army of 1942; the difference was that the German reserves at Rzhev were motorised or received vehicular transport for transfers from one sector of the front to another…’183 Isayev then argued that ‘Zhukov strongly overestimated the possibilities of the Kalinin and Western fronts’ forces in proposing to carry out after ‘Mars’ a large-scale encirclement of Army Group Centre.’ Two points arise here. First, there is no evidence that any such follow-up to ‘Mars’ ever existed. Secondly, overestimating one’s own forces involves underestimating those of the enemy. Zhukov, preparing his third offensive against the Rzhev salient in eleven months, would hardly be likely to underestimate an enemy against whom both his previous offensives had achieved only limited and costly success. Is it not more likely, especially given what he told Galitskiy, that the conduct of ‘Mars’ as thirteen limited-strength operations was precisely calculated to keep the Germans too busy everywhere to disengage and thereby free forces for the south, but not so overwhelmed anywhere as to compel them to consider abandoning the salient – as noted above, they eventually did so, but too late to affect the situation at Stalingrad. That Soviet casualties in ‘Mars’ were so heavy was mainly due to the deliberate advance warning conveyed via Agent Max, about which Zhukov was not told. Sudoplatov did not say who authorised such an important leak, but in military matters the only higher authority than Zhukov was Stalin himself. Isayev mentions Max not at all, Glantz only briefly, and neither appears to have seen Sudoplatov’s disclosures about Max’s double-agent role and the purpose served by his 4 November message.

Isayev’s comparison of ‘Mars’ with Brusilov’s offensive of 1916 seems strained. There is nothing to suggest that Soviet planning was influenced by it, and if any lesson was drawn from it, it would surely be that too-early success can lead to disaster. Brusilov’s initial successes, achieved in June–August 1916, tempted Romania into declaring war on 27 August and seizing Transylvania from Austria-Hungary. That brought about an instant German riposte, which saw Romania defeated and almost totally occupied by the end of the year, and Russia’s strategic position far worse after than before Brusilov’s successes.

However, Isayev does give some attention to what might have happened if ‘Mars’ had not taken place. He noted that Manstein’s relief attempt was spearheaded by three panzer divisions, the full-strength 6th, transferred from France, and the much under-strength 17th and 23rd. If not ‘tied up’ by ‘Mars’, three more panzer divisions, the 12th, 19th and 20th, could have been added, and with six panzer divisions instead of three, the relief force might have got through. He also noted that postponement of Operation ‘Citadel’ from May to July (usually ascribed mainly to Hitler’s desire to have as many as possible of the new Tiger and Panther tanks) was also due to the time Model needed to restore the combat strength of divisions that had fought in ‘Mars’, and that not all of them could be restored by then. For example, the 1st Panzer Division did not return to the line until the autumn of 1943, the 20th Panzer Division had a combat strength of only 2,837 men on 4 July, the 6th Infantry Division only 3,121 on 2 July,184 both less than half the acceptable minimum for divisions about to fight a major battle.

A few other points in the argument about ‘Mars’ versus ‘Uranus’ merit attention. One is that during the 69 days between Zhukov’s and Vasilevsky’s first formulation of the Stalingrad counter-offensive plan on 12 September and its launching on 19 November, Zhukov spent 43 days in the Stalingrad area, versus only 18 days in Moscow (12–13 September, 3–6, 12–20, 26 and 29–30 October), eight (21–25 and 27–29 October) at the Kalinin Front,185 one of the two allocated to ‘Mars’, and none at all specifically at the other, the Western Front. As noted above, its HQ was close enough to visit from Moscow, but even if he spent half his Moscow days there, the total of 17 ‘Mars’-associated versus 52 ‘Uranus’-associated days still points to ‘Uranus’ as the more important of the two.

Because losses in ‘Mars’ were heavy and the stated objectives not achieved, most Soviet-era accounts, like Zhukov’s own, said little or nothing about it, and the study Grif Sekretnosti Snyat (‘Secret Stamp Removed’, hereafter GSS), an otherwise comprehensive listing of most major Soviet operations, defensive or offensive, with numbers of troops engaged and details of the losses incurred, did not even mention it. Generals who took part in ‘Mars’, such as Getman and Solomatin, truthfully described their difficulties and failures in their memoirs, but, as Dr Glantz rightly pointed out, Soviet-era censorship prevented the full story being told. However, Sudoplatov’s disclosure that the Germans were warned of ‘Mars’ in advance surely means the ‘full story’ would have been withheld even if the operation had been a complete success, for fear of incidentally disclosing the fact that the many thousands killed in it had been deliberately sacrificed to ensure the success of ‘Uranus’. Zhukov’s counterfactual references probably reflected his chagrin at its relative failure, contrasted with the successes achieved by his lower-profile colleague Vasilevsky and his former superior Rokossovsky at Stalingrad. However, none of this justifies contending either that ‘Mars’ was the winter’s main operation, or that it was of equal status with ‘Uranus’, or that this was subsequently concealed merely because ‘Uranus’ succeeded and ‘Mars’ did not.

The argument also rests on some other factors susceptible to explanations different from those offered. It is true that the 1.89 million troops, 3,375 tanks and huge numbers of guns and aircraft of the Kalinin and Western Fronts were much more than the 1.14 million men and 1,463 tanks available to the three Fronts (Don, Stalingrad and South-West) conducting ‘Uranus’, but it would surely be surprising if it were not so. Behind the Kalinin and Western Fronts was Moscow, the most important target in the country, and in front of them was Army Group Centre, the most powerful of the invading forces. The totals cited also included the manpower and weapons of the Moscow Defence Zone, which took no part in ‘Mars’, and suffered only 376 combat deaths in the whole of 1942.

Though the German offensive plan for 1942 did not even mention Moscow, the Soviet General Staff’s assessment of tasks for that summer (presumably influenced by the German deception campaign) defined four axes as under threat, and defence of the Moscow axis as the most important task. So if Zhukov believed the key to victory must be the destruction of Army Group Centre, he was not alone. Deception campaigns by both sides also played their part. In 1942 the Germans for long prevented Soviet reserves from being sent south by conducting Operation ‘Kremlin’, suggesting Moscow was their real target, and the Soviets, through Max, leaked information on ‘Mars’, including the fact that Zhukov would be in command. The German defeats at his hands at Leningrad and Moscow, the narrow margin by which they had survived his second offensive at Rzhev, in July–August 1942, and Stalin’s appointment of him as Deputy Supreme Commander in August would all naturally induce them to view, as the Soviet planners meant them to, any operation he headed as more important than one conducted by the far less prominent Vasilevsky.

It would also seem axiomatic that when a disinformation campaign mentions four out of five planned offensives, the one it does not mention must be the most important. There are also three problems with Glantz’s table that allocates 56 infantry divisions to ‘Mars’ and the hypothetical follow-up operation, ‘Jupiter’, versus 52 to ‘Uranus/Saturn’. The first problem is that since ‘Saturn’ (modified as ‘Little Saturn’) took place but ‘Jupiter’ did not (there is no positive evidence that it even existed, as Dr Glantz admitted),188 the 19 divisions and 5 tank corps claimed as allocated to it should be deducted, leaving the total involved in ‘Mars’ at 37 divisions and 6 tank corps – not much more than the 30 German divisions manning the Rzhev salient. The second problem is that although the 66th and 2nd Guards Armies are mentioned as supporting ‘Uranus’, they are not included in the totals of forces allocated to it. Each had six divisions, and the 66th Army was in action from the very first day of ‘Uranus’, while the 2nd Guards was sent from reserve in early December and dispatched to the Myshkova river to repel Manstein’s attempt to relieve Stalingrad. It is hard to see why twelve divisions that saw a great deal of action in ‘Uranus/Saturn’ are excluded from the totals for it, while nineteen divisions that saw no action at all are included in those for ‘Mars/Jupiter’. The third problem is that Grif Sekretnosti Snyat189 lists the Stalingrad offensive operation as involving not 52 divisions but 74, far more than the 56 allegedly allocated to ‘Mars and Jupiter’, and double the 37 listed as specifically allotted to ‘Mars’.

Dr Glantz also assessed Soviet casualties in ‘Mars’ as about 335,000 (100,000 killed, captured or missing, 235,000 wounded). However, to his credit he also included figures given by General Krivosheyev, the chief editor of Grif Sekretnosti Snyat, in a letter to a western publisher, of 215,674 casualties (70,374 dead/missing, 145,300 wounded). Even these lower figures confirm that ‘Mars’ was extremely costly; of the 43 major Soviet operations tabulated in Grif Sekretnosti Snyat, only eight had higher daily average losses than ‘Mars’, and its average of 8,295 compares badly with the 6,392 a day of the highly successful offensives at Stalingrad. However, operations there lasted 76 days, three times as long as ‘Mars’, so actual losses, 485,777 (154,885 dead/missing, 330,892 wounded) were over double those of ‘Mars’. The figures also indirectly confirm Isayev’s contention that the sacrifices in ‘Mars’ did contribute to the success of ‘Uranus’ and ‘Little Saturn’. If Hitler had yielded to Zeitzler’s urging at the beginning of December instead of the end of January, a large proportion of the 22 divisions freed by abandoning the Rzhev salient could have been sent south, some to reinforce Manstein’s relief attempt, others to ‘corset’ the Italians and Hungarians against ‘Little Saturn’.

Army General Mahmut Gareyev, in 1942 a junior officer in ‘Mars’, wrote that throughout the operation he and his colleagues cursed the Supreme Command for the disparity between the objectives set and the resources provided. Many unit diaries and reports cited in studies of ‘Mars’ confirm this complaint by mentioning shortages or complete lack of ammunition, food, fuel and forage. Also the postulation of the existence of Operation ‘Jupiter’ is based solely on reports of a major build-up of forces in the Soviet 5th and 33rd Army sectors during October – November. If ‘Mars’ was really the main offensive, it would seem logical for Zhukov to have committed some or all of those forces when it was seen to be faltering, as he had done at Leningrad and Moscow in the previous year. There are only two possible explanations for his abstention: either that he wanted to use them but Stalin overruled him, or that he never intended to use them. Neither is consistent with the argument that ‘Mars’ was the main or equal-main operation and ‘Jupiter’ meant to follow it, and that he never intended to use them seems more likely from a passage in his memoirs. He wrote that when the Western Front’s attacks failed to achieve their objectives, Stalin sent him to Konev’s headquarters, and there he concluded ‘to repeat the operation was pointless. The enemy had guessed our intention and was able to bring substantial forces into the area from other sectors.’ That supports Sudoplatov’s statement that Zhukov was never told of the deliberate leaks that had been made through Max.

‘Mars’ was terminated on 20 December, either because it was a costly failure, or because it was no longer needed, or a combination of both. All three cases are tenable, but on balance the last seems most justifiable. Manstein’s attempt to have Hoth break through to Stalingrad, begun on 12 December, was stalled for three days at Verkhne-Kumsky, and when it reached the Myshkova river, the 2nd Guards Army was already taking up blocking positions on the north bank. Further west Operation ‘Little Saturn’, launched on 16 December, had ripped through the Italian 8th Army in two days. By the 19th Soviet forces had captured the main bases and supply dumps at Kantemirovka, and were about to take the airfields at Tatsinskaya and Morozovskaya, the western termini of the air supply route to Stalingrad. By then Soviet Intelligence must have worked out, from the observed frequency of flights and known maximum payloads of the aircraft, that the airlift was proving totally inadequate to meet even the minimal requirements of 22 divisions and that the need to use airfields further west would reduce its capacity even more. ‘Mars’ could be called off because by 20 December it was proving both costly and unnecessary. That equates to partial, but by no means total, failure.

A further point concerns objectives. Certainly German losses in ‘Mars’ were far fewer than the Soviets’, but Germany was much less able to replace them. Galitskiy’s capture of Velikiye Luki and Novosokolniki in late January created a new threat to the Demyansk and Rzhev salients that Army Groups North and Centre obviously lacked the resources to eliminate. As noted above, during February–March 1943 they abandoned both salients, thereby shortening the front line by at least 250 miles. This reduced Stavka’s and Stalin’s concern about threats to Moscow and Leningrad, and also shortened the Soviet front line by the same amount, enabling some divisions to be moved to reinforce weak sectors and others to be withdrawn to recuperate, replace battle losses and train for the summer offensive. The Red Army may even have benefited as much from the move as the Germans did. Incidentally, when in the previous year the two army group commanders-in-chief had sought permission to abandon both salients, Hitler had refused on the grounds that the withdrawals would also shorten the Soviets’ front line and release reserves. So if ‘Mars’ was a diversion, it was a success, though an expensive one; if in tended as more, it was a partial failure, but the balance of evidence does not support the view that it was meant to be either equal to or more important than ‘Uranus’. Marginal to the argument, but perhaps a pointer to Stalin’s assessment of success and failure, is that on 18 January 1943 he promoted Zhukov to (5-star) marshal, and Vasilevsky to (4-star) army general. Then in March, after the Germans completed their withdrawal from the salients, he had the rank of marshal conferred on himself. This was purely symbolic; he already had all the power he needed, as head of the Party and government and Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, but the timing was significant, marking the final removal of the most direct potential threat to Moscow, though not of residual fear for its safety, which, as will be seen, even affected planning for Kursk, and identifying himself with the success achieved by the hitherto distrusted military professionals.

There remains, of course, a possibility that Zhukov covertly hoped to make ‘Mars’ more than a diversion, and that his cavalier and misleading treatment of it in his memoirs reflects his chagrin at its outcome.

It is unlikely that Zhukov would readily play second-fiddle to Vasilevsky, whatever the official status of ‘Mars’ relative to ‘Uranus’. It was in his nature to drive at and for maximum intensity. However, that makes his remarks to Galitskiy, and his organisation of ‘Mars’ as a large number of small blows rather than a small number of large ones, out of character, and explainable only, as suggested above, by his perceiving a need to avoid, at least in the early stages, pressing the Germans to the point where they would abandon either or both salients. That Stalin did not consider Zhukov’s conduct of ‘Mars’ a failure was evident not only from his promoting him, but from where he sent him after it was called off. From 2 to 9 January Zhukov was at Voronezh Front, then on 10 January he was sent to Leningrad, and stayed there until the 24th, overseeing Operation ‘Iskra’ (‘Spark’), which restored the city’s connection to the ‘mainland’ along the south shore of Lake Ladoga. After two weeks in Moscow his next assignment was to the North-West Front, from 6 February to 16 March, overseeing the unsuccessful ‘Polar Star’ and the liquidation of the Demyansk salient, before Stalin sent him to solve the problems Manstein’s successful offensive had created for the Voronezh Front. So for almost all the first three months of 1943 he was busy overseeing operations against Army Groups North and South. These activities are not consistent with Dr Glantz’s contention that throughout January and February Zhukov was arguing about the decisive importance of beating Army Group Centre.

At worst Zhukov can be said to have pushed ‘Mars’ harder and longer than a diversion required, and incurred larger than necessary losses partly because he did so, but, more importantly, because, unknown to him, the Germans had been deliberately forewarned. Stalin set the limits to what Zhukov could achieve, deciding not only where to send him, but also what reserves and reinforcements to give him, and Stalin decided the fate of ‘Mars’ well before it was mounted, basically on the grounds that more Germans killing Soviet troops at Rzhev meant fewer killing them at Stalingrad. That cold-blooded pragmatic judgement was soon to be confirmed by events.

As a result of the Stalingrad debacle the Germans and their Axis allies lost fifty divisions and suffered 1.5 million casualties. By early 1943 the Wehrmacht had been driven back to the positions they had started from when they launched Operation Blau in June 1942. The Red Army’s losses were even higher, with 2.5 million casualties sustained during the course of the Stalingrad campaign. As a follow-up to Stalingrad, Stavka attempted another full-scale winter offensive. Voronezh was recaptured in January 1943 and Kharkov in February, but the Red Army was unable to hold the latter when the Germans counterattacked. By this time Soviet operations along the front were grinding to a halt as the spring Rasputitsa set in.

Signals Intelligence – Western Front – 1914

Capt. Georges Ladoux: The head of French counter-espionage during World War I, and Mata Hari’s faux spy-master

The Miracle of the Marne

On the Western Front, a German attack was made through Belgium as part of the Schlieffen Plan, which was designed to sweep onward through northern France to crush the French Army. This theatre of war became one of rapid movement, but signals intercepts were going to decide much of the battle’s outcome as well. The French Deuxième Bureau on the Western Front was well prepared for the signals war and were determined that they were going to defeat the German Army’s attack, even though they did not have the benefit of the plain text messages that Hindenburg enjoyed reading during his campaign in the east. However, they were able to decipher the German messages quite easily. The Miracle of the Marne was not the miracle it was made out to be as it was primarily due to the French practising their skills in intercepting and deciphering enemy signals well before war began. The German High Command had planned their army’s advance through Belgium with a great sweep east around Paris to surround the French Army and destroy it. On their right wing, the First Army was commanded by General von Kluck. His subordinate, General von der Marwitz, commanded a cavalry corps that made good use of their radio equipment in the German fast-moving advance. Von Kluck’s rapid advance through Belgium and then into France used radio extensively to co-ordinate the units of his army according to plan. However, German radio operators had little training in signals operations and their skills in the new discipline were slim. They sent transmissions correctly in cipher to begin with, but as the heat of battle increased, messages were sometimes sent in plain text and security procedures began to flag. The French intercept service began monitoring the German Army’s radio traffic even before they began to cross the Belgian border, and this enabled them to track regularly and with increasing detail the positions and movements of their advancing enemy.

The Cabinet Noir was the cryptographic department of the Deuxième Bureau and intercepted over 350 radiograms transmitted by the German cavalry corps over a two-week period during the campaign. The Bureau called their interceptions the ‘Marwitz Telegrams’ as the German wireless operators disguised their call-signs less and less effectively, as the stress of battle made them more lax in their wireless security disciplines. Messages were hurriedly enciphered (or otherwise) by the radio station officers, who often had little understanding of the reasons for them. Radio station staff had no clear instruction on wireless security so the call-signs of each station in the army invariably started with the same letter and remained unchanged as their advance progressed, nor was there any change in wavelength of the broadcasts. The French were able to establish the wireless stations of every German Army division by their individual call-signs. Cavalry units were the worst offenders, probably due to stress of their fast-moving formations, although some infantry divisions and even corps developed bad security habits as well. Each German cavalry control station, for instance, had an identifying letter: ‘S’ was the designation of units in Belgium, ‘G’ in Luxembourg, ‘L’ in the Woëvre and ‘D’ in Lorraine. Confirmation from some messages came in plain text and could even be clearly signed by the sender with their rank and name. After a few intercepts, it became known that General von der Marwitz commanded the corps using the ‘S’ letter in Belgium and General Richthofen commanded the corps using the letter ‘G’ in Luxembourg. A clear message with a call-sign ‘L’ stated that two cavalry divisions had forced their way into the Woëvre Valley and were moving towards Verdun via Malavillers and Xivry-Circourt. This kind of information was extremely valuable to the French general directing his battle. After a few days of these interceptions, the Deuxième Bureau were able to describe to the French General Staff the operational structure of the enemy forces they were facing in detail. The Bureau followed the movements of von Kluck’s First Army as it advanced through Belgium and from this were also able to extrapolate and deduct the structure and strength of Second Army under General Otto von Bulow. These two armies were unable to keep in touch with each other as they wheeled in a great arc across France and a widening gap began to appear between them.

Von der Marwitz’s cavalry were ordered by radio to provide a thin screen of lancers to cover the widening gap between First and Second armies. The French identified this as a weak spot in the German front that began to stretch for miles as the two armies advanced at an uneven pace. Using signals intelligence gleaned by the Deuxième Bureau on 8 September, the French general struck at the critical point between the two German armies’ line of advance. They soon began to threaten the German First Army with encirclement and outflank von Bulow’s Second Army in the process, causing both German armies to retreat. The German High Command was blamed for ordering the retirement when the Battle of the Marne was ‘almost’ won in the minds of the German public. Frontline French soldiers were surprised by the change; the German Army retreating in the face of a desperate French resistance became known as ‘The Miracle’ in public parlance. The French High Command and the Deuxième Bureau, however, knew better.

The Race to the Sea

The British had formed an Army Signal Service in 1912 as part of the Royal Engineers at a time when there was little money or resources available from the War Office. They did not envisage the size or complexity of the conflict that was to come, so wireless communications were not a priority and were rarely used by staff officers who probably did not fully understand, and even mistrusted, the new-fangled codes and ciphers. The intercept services of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France were, therefore, under-used in the war’s opening stages so operators had time to listen to enemy transmissions in a similar way that the German operators had done in Thorn Fortress on the Eastern Front. Operators began to intercept enemy transmissions and gauge the intentions of the enemy, so transmissions were restricted or being sent by the more traditional means of runners or riders to keep the airwaves clear. It is unlikely that they used Hindenburg’s innovation of sending despatches by aeroplane, but one novelty that the BEF did have was a ‘wireless compass’ device which was issued to them in 1914. This was a direction-finding receiver made by Marconi and further developed by Professor Sir John Fleming (who coined the word ‘electronic’). The newly instituted Direction Finding Service started using its new equipment in locating enemy transmitters for the BEF, and this was later taken up with good effect by the Royal Navy. Radio stations were invariably attached to the headquarters of an army formation and it was possible to locate German formations by ‘wireless compass’ as the message was being transmitted. The ability to spot the source of enemy transmissions and thus piece together their order of battle became increasingly important during the course of the war.

General von Kluck found himself checkmated at the River Marne, north of Paris, so he switched his attack further west to outflank the French, British and some Belgian forces that were positioned nearer to the French coast. The Germans probed the French and British line of defence in the direction of the Channel in a deadly dance of men and guns while trying to find a vulnerable flank. Massive German troop movements were constantly monitored by the Deuxième Bureau and the less experienced intercept service of the BEF as the opposing armies manoeuvred around each other.

The previous experience of British military intelligence had been formed during the Boer War some fifteen years earlier. Even at that time they had realised that the gathering, analysis and use of intelligence information needed method and had developed a three-tier reporting structure: intelligence officers collected information from frontline troops; this was sent on to staff officers to be collated; and the results were then analysed by a Field Intelligence Department to assess the enemy’s strength and intentions. This proved quite successful in action, but the little signals experience that British Army operators had of SIGINT was when the Boers captured some of their few radio transmitters: the main lesson learned was not to leave your wireless sets lying about when the enemy are near. As the war in South Africa ended, the memory of the intelligence structure the army had worked out for itself began to fade. The experience would have been entirely lost but for a manual written in 1904 entitled Field Intelligence: Its Principles and Practice by Lieutenant Colonel David Henderson. This document proved invaluable to the War Office in its sudden and unexpected mobilisation in 1914 as they realised that an intelligence system was needed by the BEF within its command structure. This was the new intelligence handling system into which the signals intelligence operators began to feed their intercepts, in addition to those of the Deuxième Bureau, to provide British staff officers with a clear picture on the strong German forces in front of the BEF.

After the war, an analysis of German signals intercepts by Colonel Cavel of the French Deuxième Bureau, correlating intelligence evaluations with movements of Allied forces, showed that counter-measures and effective actions taken in the 1914 battles of movement were almost all due to signals intelligence. Another of the colonel’s findings was how quickly the French and British operators learned to use the skills of electronic warfare to counter the enemy in the early months of the war. The same could not be said of the German signals intelligence, who took almost a year to develop an effective intercept and decryption service. By 1916, however, both sides on the Western Front had developed comparably efficient signals intelligence services as the levels of wireless traffic increased and skills in decryption and security improved. The German Army had learned a lesson about signals security at Tannenberg on the Eastern Front, but the victors were slow to apply that lesson to the security in signals transmissions in the west. The German General Staff showed a lack of awareness of the wireless security faults that had betrayed the Imperial Russian Army and this would now act as a weak point in their own conduct of the war for over a year. The war of movement gave way to a war of entrenched positions along a 350-mile-long front by 1915. A fundamental change in the nature of the signals intelligence war began to evolve as the conflict went into its second year. Trenches and barbed wire entanglements now extended from the Belgian coast, across the fields of France and to the borders of Switzerland. No major change in those emplacements would occur in the years to come until the war of movement began again in 1918.

Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung [HVA] Defection

Werner Stiller

On 16 August 1951 HVA was given the cover name Institut für wirtschaftliche Forschung (IWF), meaning Institute for Scientific Research. The first head of this new enterprise was Anton Ackermann, another of the returnees who had spent the war in Moscow and returned early to have a career in GDR politics that ended after he unwisely disagreed with SED policy. His Soviet ‘adviser’ Andreij Grauer was so dictatorial, ruthless and unpopular that his own staff nicknamed him ‘Little Beria’. He got on so badly with Ackermann that he was withdrawn by Moscow in the following year. In September 1953 Markus Wolf – perhaps the most famous spymaster of the Cold War – took command of HVA. Known as ‘the man without a face’ because he was only identified – and that by chance – in 1978, Wolf had also spent the war years in the USSR – in his case, working in the Comintern before returning to Germany posing as a journalist covering the Nuremburg trials.

From 1945 until the building of the Wall in 1961 a steady stream of refugees crossed into West Berlin and the Bundesrepublik. Although low-level security checks were run on them while in the reception camps, it was impossible to catch every HVA-trained agent, who travelled in the stream to take up life as a sleeper or active spy, mainly in Western Germany and the USA. If ever an intelligence service had an easy way of infiltrating spies and sleepers, this was it.

One such agent was Harald Gottfried. Code-named ‘Gärtner’, and trained in the use of invisible inks, mini-cameras, codes and radio transmitters, he was inserted in the stream of refugees as a ‘future agent’ in 1956, but produced no results until 1968 because his target area was nuclear research and establishing his bona fides as a loyal West German took several years.

The sheer numbers of Stasi agents in the flood of refugees had, perversely, an inbuilt problem. For obvious reasons, there are no statistics, but there was always a risk when sending agents and sleepers into the West that they would come to like the much more comfortable life, to enjoy the political and physical freedom and, of course, to enter relationships and beget children who would hardly want to return to the greyness and perpetual fear of ‘socialist’ Eastern Europe. In the course of writing this book, the author has interviewed one false refugee from Poland and one Czech who decided never to ‘go back’. Although knowing that there would be no prosecution now for admitting their past, they are still so buttoned-up after decades of clandestine life that they gave little detail as to how and why they came to the West during the Cold War. Secrecy gets to be a habit, as it did for some British friends of the author who were employed on secret work during the Second World War and yet never told their spouses about it during sixty subsequent years of happily married life.

The most successful agent to arrive in the Bundesrepublik as a refugee was without doubt Günter Guillaume. Despite the French surname, he was picked up by the Stasi and approved by the KGB while working as a labourer, living in East Berlin, but employed in West Berlin. Marcus Wolf personally groomed Guillaume, who had the correct anti-Western political views, for his mission. He also had a war-wounded father reputed to have tended the wounds of Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt during the war. In 1956, Günter and his wife, Christel, emigrated to West Germany as pretended refugees. Whether or not the story is true that his father wrote to Brandt asking him to assist his son’s career, Günter rose steadily through the hierarchy of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, to become a personal assistant to the West German chancellor. From then on, his slavish devotion to work on Brandt’s staff earned him access to everything that passed through the Chancellor’s office – all of which he passed to East Berlin.

In 1974 the devoted PA was outed by the BfV, triggering a scandal that could not be hushed up and caused Brandt to resign the chancellorship. Guillaume was sentenced to thirteen years in prison for espionage; for acting as his courier, Christel received a sentence of eight years, but the couple was released in a spy swap in 1981. Sources in the Stasi said that Brandt’s political ruin was not intended, but collateral damage – he had advocated rapprochement with the GDR and would have been more useful in office than in disgrace.

When 32-year-old Werner Stiller, the highest-ranking HVA officer to defect, came over to West Germany on 18 January 1979 his SED credentials were impeccable. Active in the Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ) – the Communist successor to the Hitler Youth – since the age of 14, he was a physics graduate trained to seek out nuclear research secrets. His final exam paper was on the subject of electron spin resonance spectroscopy research into the behaviour of free radicals. Together with his Hungarian wife, Erzsebet, he settled in East Berlin, supplementing his salary from a day job as a physicist with nightly training by Stasi officers in techniques like surveillance avoidance and the use of dead letter boxes. In 1972 he was given the rank of full-time MfS Oberleutnant in the Sektor Wissenschaft und Technik, with glowing reports from his instructors as a politically active and ideologically sound young man who got on well with colleagues. The only black mark against him was his impulsive nature. With his academic background, it was inevitable that he would be used in the acquisition of nuclear research.

His work was more than a desk job, involving contacts in cafes and safe houses, using money and ideological motivation to run three HVA agents, three West German sources in the Bundesrepublik and thirty IMs in the GDR, particularly targeting the nuclear research facility in Karlsruhe and the data processing programs of IBM in Stuttgart and Siemens in West Berlin that had military implications for the East German Nazionale Volksarmee (NVA). He also travelled to meet his West German agents in Prague, Budapest and other cities where they could go without exciting suspicion. The Stasi actually had a permanent office at Lake Balaton in Hungary because it was a tourist resort that could be visited by people from both the satellite countries and the West. In Vienna Stiller set up a network with connections to Silicon Valley that was able to acquire commercially some strategic items that were embargoed for sale to the GDR. Stiller’s high security clearance was obvious in one or two trips he also made under false identity into the Bundesrepublik itself – normally a no-go area for any officer knowing all the secrets he did.

In January 1978 Stiller was on the way to meet an agent on the inner-German border, and stopped for a nightcap at a hotel in the winter sport resort of Oberhof, where he chatted up the pretty waitress named Helga, who made no secret of what she felt after being refused a visa to attend her brother’s wedding in the West. Was she genuine or a Stasi provocatrice? Stiller had to know, so he visited the district Stasi office and found she was genuine. After waiting a few weeks, he paid her another visit and showed her his Stasi ID, to which the universal reaction was fear and loathing. Helga took one look and told him to get out, so he confessed that he was looking for someone to help him make contact with a Western agency. One week later, she telephoned to say she would help. They were both taking a colossal risk, not least because, as Stiller well knew, the West German agencies had many double agents and moles planted by the Stasi and KGB, who might betray their approach. The relationship was complicated by them both falling in love after he explained to her that her known political attitude gave her no future in the GDR, so she ought to flee with him.

He did not tell Helga that he was married, but his domestic life was also complicated, with his wife giving birth to their second child. On the ride back from the hospital with mother and child, Stiller told her that he was leaving her for another woman. She knew enough about the Stasi’s moral code to threaten to tell his boss he was having an affair. Things got even worse for Stiller when his immediate superior Horst Vogel saw Stiller and Helga together in Oberhof and called him into the office, to ask who was his lady friend. Four weeks went by and Stiller was given an explicit warning to sort out his marriage, or else. Although his boss knew instinctively that the liaison with Helga was serious, Stiller still was not sure.

At this point – it was now the end of April – Helga’s brother Herbert paid a visit from the West, with his new wife, and Stiller gave him a briefcase with a secret compartment containing a letter offering to work for the BND. Herbert, however, misunderstood and handed the briefcase and letter to the West German frontier post on his return journey. The letter apparently reached its destination because Herbert was twice visited by a BND officer who said his name was Ritter, in the hope of clarifying whether Stiller’s offer was genuine. Deciding that it was, he sent an oral message to Stiller via Helga on Herbert’s next visit to his sister, when Stiller was on holiday in Hungary with his wife and children.

He must have given Helga some form of code to use on the telephone, since all calls into or from the GDR were monitored. After learning that she had received a message from the BND, Stiller went with her to a dead letter drop under a pile of leaves in a Berlin park. Hidden in a false log, they found everything necessary for their flight across the border, including a letter of welcome from his BND case officer. In Stiller’s safe house, where he had been hiding files and microfilms in a hole in the ceiling since February, they broke open the log and used the list of frequencies to listen to a coded message that evening, decoding this with the key supplied.

A busy exchange of information began in July 1978, with Helga encoding the replies and sending them, written in invisible ink, and some of the microfilms in envelopes directed to cover addresses in the Bundesrepublik. In these letters were the damning betrayals of Stiller’s agents in the West, which he had to give to prove that he was not a Stasi plant. But in betraying his agents, Stiller was taking the greatest risk so far. If the BND had them arrested, the Stasi would arrest him. In fact, on 28 August its mail interception department forwarded a suspicious letter, whose return address did not exist, to the operational-technical section. The coded message of blocks of five digits, written in invisible ink, was swiftly revealed with chemicals and an intensive hunt was launched to track down the spy concerned.

By then, both Stiller and Helga were taking more and more risks. On 7 December she secreted a despatch of material for the BND in a toilet aboard an inter-zonal train, which she left while it was still in the GDR. Her coded telegram informing the BND where to find it was intercepted by the Stasi, whose searchers spent the following forty-eight hours taking eleven coaches apart and checking out the twenty-two toilet compartments without finding anything.

BND ‘Agent 688’ – i.e. Stiller – had received 1,841 five-digit code blocks in the last six months.

For the BND, the microfilms were the most important proof that Stiller was genuine. The first escape plan in mid-December foundered because Stiller’s false passport supplied by BND described his eyes as blue instead of brown. At the same time, Helga made a serious error in despatching her collection of crystal glass to her brother in Coburg, showing her real address in case it went astray. The handwriting on the parcel was recognised by a graphologist in the postal department as being that of the person who had sent the incriminating telegrams. An IM was sent to Oberhof to check Helga’s identity but he failed to find her. After learning only that she had a boyfriend in Berlin, he travelled back there. It was the most amazing piece of luck for the two spies, and gave them much-needed breathing space. The new escape plan was for Stiller to travel on an inter-zonal train to Hannover using another false passport, while Helga and her son were to go to Warsaw, where a BND courier would bring them their new identity papers.

By this stage, the Stasi’s postal department had checked 462,500 letters and filmed everyone who posted a letter in East Berlin. Their colleagues in the radio intercept department were also busy recording fifteen transmissions totalling 1,841 five-figure groups that BND had sent to ‘Agent 688’. Stiller at this point had a crisis of conscience and wrote his wife a farewell letter, enclosing 10,000 Ostmarks, to tide her over what was obviously going to be severe punishment for his betrayal:

When you read this, the worst lies behind me. Since we first met I have been working for the other side. At the beginning of last year I made the mistake of telling you about Helga. Then Vogel saw us together in Oberhof … It would make no sense to take you with me because you have lived too long in [the GDR]. The children will be safe here. There are so many things I cannot understand.

That evening – it was 19 January 1979 – after most of the staff had left the HQ on the Normannenstrasse, Stiller collected all the material he could lay hands on. He failed to force open Vogel’s safe, but did succeed in finding in the secretary’s safe the pass which he and his colleagues used at the Friedrichstrasse U-Bahn station when they wanted to leave messages for agents in West Berlin. Some instinct made him wary of the BND’s plan, so he decided on the spur of the moment to use the pass and make his own way independently across the sector boundary. There was, however, one flaw in this plan: the secretary would normally have added a date stamp to the pass. This being missing, Stiller had an uneasy moment at the pass gate in the Friedrichstrasse station before the duty officer accepted his argument that his mission was urgent and let him through anyway. On the platform, waiting for the next train into West Berlin he spent what he called ‘the longest six minutes of my life’ while doing his best to avoid the closed-circuit cameras in case he was identified by some eagle-eyed colleague watching the screens.

Leaving the train at the first possibility, he took a taxi to Tegel airport in the French sector and there identified himself to an immigration officer. How right he had been to make his own way across was discovered long afterwards in the Stasi’s files at the BStU: a flurry of activity at the BND had been picked up by Stasi agents in the West and triggered a special watch on the train he should have taken, which would probably have ended his adventure before he ever reached the West – after which he would have been sentenced to life in jail or shot. First on the scene at Tegel airport was an officer of the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionage (SDECE), which was then France’s most important intelligence service. As the office filled with representatives of West German and other intelligence agencies, Stiller handed the French officer the file on a Stasi agent working undercover in France, and placed on the table a in high pile of microfilms – and about DM 14,000 in cash, explaining that he had brought it with him in case he was not paid enough for his betrayal, because he needed capital to start a business!

By the skin of his teeth, Stiller had pulled off his escape, having timed it carefully to fall in the winter holiday season, so that it was not immediately obvious which member of staff had broken into the secretary’s safe and taken the pass. That same evening, orders were given to search Helga’s apartment and intensify the monitoring of her telephone calls. The following morning, Neues Deutschland published her photograph as a person wanted by the Stasi. She and her son were, however, safely in Poland, while Stiller was giving his debriefing officers information on the Stasi agents to be arrested. From there he was taken to Cologne, making the headlines across the Atlantic, where his escape was hailed as an intelligence triumph in the New York Times. Broadcasting the news, West German television added the spurious detail that a woman and a child had travelled with him – this to protect Helga, who was still in Poland.

The news was the worst present for HVA spymaster Marcus Wolf, whose birthday it was. He was furious, but his reaction paled into insignificance when compared with Mielke’s. When Wolf called, to give the news, Mielke screamed, ‘You load of shit! You might as well invite the enemy [sic] to our meetings and be done with it. You all make me sick!’

At the Normannenstrasse HQ a vast damage limitation operation was immediately launched, with agents recalled from the West and a list compiled of compromising material that was missing. Officers visited Stiller’s wife, and when told the news, she fainted with the baby in her arms and a doctor was called. When she came to, Erzsebet told them all she knew – about Stiller’s increasing drinking, nervousness and irritability that led to bitter arguments and also about his sexual preferences and the time he came home with scratches from Helga’s nails on his back. As to his letter for her with the 10,000 Ostmarks, it was intercepted before being delivered. All she did get was an order to change her address and her job – and never again to speak of her husband or what had happened. Next, all Stiller’s IMs were hauled in for questioning, from which a profile was built up of their absent case officer as a man who had been giving warning signs for six months that he was under severe tension.

Stiller was by this juncture in an ultra-secure BND safe house in Munich, Bavaria, guarded by twenty men round the clock. When Helga arrived the following day, the reunion was, to put it mildly, a great disappointment for her as he announced that the affair was all over and she was now just a friend to him. His debriefing, which covered not just his own work, but every aspect of the HVA, was interrupted at weekends, when he went climbing in the Bavarian Alps accompanied by armed BND bodyguards. He identified photographs of, among other, Markus Wolf – who was no longer ‘the man without a face’ when it was published in a March 1979 edition of Der Spiegel. Stiller’s debriefing also resulted in 100 trials of Stasi agents and fifteen others were expelled from the Bundesrepublik. More to the point, his debriefing let the BfV know that the MfS main targets for espionage in Western Germany were industrial and scientific intelligence – and also just how widely these key areas in the Bundesrepublik were infiltrated by Stasi agents.

For all this information, he was awarded DM 400,000. Mielke’s rage at Stiller’s escape did not subside. After having him condemned to death in absentia, he gave orders that the turncoat should be tracked down and brought back ‘dead or alive’. His actual words were, ‘I want him brought back and, if that can’t be done, rendered harmless’.7 Several agents trained to carry out Smersh-type assassinations were placed on standby, but the security screen around Stiller was apparently impenetrable, despite a number of Stasi deep-penetration agents inside the BND and BfV. The claustrophobic high security around Stiller made Helga feel as though she was in prison. When Stiller was allowed to go windsurfing on Lake Garda under guard, to give him a break, she was not included in the party. While there, he picked up a pretty Italian girl for a brief affair, telling her his true identity before the BND bodyguards could haul him back to Munich.

This made his continued presence in Europe insecure, so he was shipped off to the USA for another three-month interrogation by the CIA, followed by a term in a secure language school to improve his English. To set him up in his new identity as Hans-Peter Fischer, he was also given a social security number, credit cards and a quarter-million dollars – which he proceeded to lose in its entirety by gambling on the Stock Exchange, whose workings fascinated him. Perhaps because of this he either chose, or was advised by his handlers, to take a master’s course in business studies. St Louis in the state of Missouri was selected because it was in an area thought not to be covered by any Stasi agents or sleepers. There, he developed an amazing talent for understanding the money markets. His athletic lifestyle and blond good looks impressed younger female students, so he enjoyed every minute of his new life.

Life in what James Jesus Angleton, sometime head of CIA counter-espionage, called ‘the wilderness of mirrors’ is never straightforward. There are indications that the BND courier who serviced Stiller before his flight was a double agent but, for reasons unknown, did not betray Stiller. When this became known in the Normannenstrasse, he was trapped and sentenced to imprisonment for life, but released after four years, presumably in return for cooperating during his debriefing.

Peter Fischer finished his retraining at the age of 34 and was employed by the subsequently infamous investment bank of Goldman Sachs in New York; he also married a much younger American woman said to have connections with the Mafia without telling her that he already had a wife and two children in the GDR. When this came out, she was horrified – and would have been more so had she known that Erzsebet ended up cleaning toilets for a living because her husband was a traitor. After moving to Goldman Sachs’ London office, Fischer specialised in advising the firm’s German clients, living a life of luxury in a fashionable loft apartment with a holiday house on the Côte d’Azur. Of this time, he said, ‘There is great similarity between spying and banking. In each, you work with personal contacts. [In New York and London], I influenced my clients and they … wanted to betray me.’

After the reunification of Germany, he moved to the Lehman Brothers branch in Frankfurt, where his luck eventually ran out. After a series of bad investments, he ‘was let go’, which did not stop him talking his way into setting up a real estate business in Leipzig and continuing his high-life existence and multiple love affairs – and taking part in a film about his double life, as well as writing a book about it and being featured in three articles in the mass-circulation news magazine Der Spiegel in 1992.

He might have done better to keep a lower profile. As in many divorces accorded in New York State, he was taken for a fortune by his American wife and also received many death threats from former Stasi colleagues who understandably resented his riches while they lived in poverty after the fall of the Wall. Even his wives, who had every reason to hate him, agreed that he had a golden tongue, which enabled Fischer to talk his way back into a job at Goldman Sachs in Frankfurt, where he was again fired – this time for sexual harassment, which he denied, and for the undesirable publicity he attracted. After marrying another younger woman, a Hungarian, his last known address was in a high-rise apartment in the suburbs of Budapest, where he may also have a real estate firm.

When Kristie Macrakis interviewed Horst Vogel, who had been Stiller’s section leader at the time of his defection – and whose career must have suffered severely on that account – he turned, in her words, ‘red with rage’. After he had calmed down, he told her, ‘People love [the idea of] betrayal, but no one loves a traitor.’ Markus Wolf, when he was interviewed by Macrakis, confined himself to saying of Stiller/Fischer, ‘He’s no friend of mine.’

The motivations of traitors vary from ideological persuasion to hatred of a father-figure to lust for a better lifestyle – the dream of a house in California or Florida with two cars and a private swimming pool incited many KGB and other East European intelligence officers to defect at great risk to their lives. In the case of Stiller/Fischer, the most important factor in his defection was his compulsive womanising, which was unacceptable in the paradoxically puritan MfS, and in the GDR generally, obliging him to seek a society where promiscuity was condoned behaviour in a successful man.

As a sad footnote to the whole affair, there is a book entitled Verratene Kinder – The Children they Betrayed – written jointly by Edina Stiller, the daughter Stiller left behind in the GDR in 1979, and Nicole Glocke, a daughter of one of Stiller’s agents in the Bundesrepublik, whom he betrayed to the BfV after his defection. The title says it all. If things do not work out for defectors, they have only themselves to blame, but very often their families are also punished – in their case, for something they have not done.

Nicole Glocke’s father, Karl-Heinz, was 44 at the time of Stiller’s defection, employed as chief economist in the strategically important Rheinisch-Westfälischen Elektrizitätswerken company. Aged 9 at the time, Nicole was at least able to console herself later with the thought that her father had spied through genuine ideological motivation and been betrayed by a traitor. An attractive brunette living in Berlin, she grew up to be a successful journalist and scientific rapporteur for the German Parliament. Edina Stiller, aged only 7 at the time of her father’s defection, grew up in uncomfortable accommodation with her underpaid mother in an ugly industrial town, to which they had been forcibly reallocated as punishment and where they were shunned by all previous friends. She had to swallow an additional bitter pill when she later learned that her father had betrayed his country for the basest of all motives – sex and money. Worse, he had chosen to abandon his wife and two children, leaving with them the reflected stigma of treachery as their sole emotional legacy. It is not surprising that she was unable to trust any man or keep any relationship for long. She grew up to be rather haunted-looking, employed as telephone and telex operator for the Nazionale Volksarmee, dropped by her friends when she became an alcoholic, hiding the empty bottles and other evidence from her mother, with whom she still lived.

She did not see her father for two decades after the awful morning when his colleagues knocked on the door in Berlin with the awful news. Having tracked him down, living in some luxury in Budapest with yet another young partner, she found him devoid of any apparent guilt, but he did help her to make contact with Nicole Glocke, who had already traced him during a visit he made to Berlin. Possibly for reasons of journalistic curiosity, Nicole wrote to Edina in April 2002, saying that she would like to discuss the effect on her life of Stiller’s defection. Edina was amazed that the daughter of one of her father’s victims should apparently feel no hatred for the man who had put her own father in prison and ruined his career. Having got to know each other, the two young women collaborated on the book, which proved a useful therapy for Edina. After the end of the GDR she retrained as a lawyer and notary in the reunited Germany.

Wilhelm Stieber I

Having provided us with Clausewitz, Germany supplied an antidote in the guise of Wilhelm Stieber (1818–92). Not from Prussia himself, Stieber was born in Merseburg, Saxony, and had an English mother named Daisy who claimed descent from Oliver Cromwell. In 1820 the family moved to Berlin where his father held a position in the church. Naturally enough, Stieber was also expected to enter the church and so his father paid for him to study theology at Berlin University. While there he became interested in the case of a young Swedish janitor who had been accused of burglary. In those days anyone could defend an accused person in court. So, believing him innocent, Stieber took up the case and won the Swede’s acquittal.

This first taste of legal process opened Stieber to the possibility of a future outside the church. While his father continued to subsidize his studies, Stieber secretly began taking courses in law, public finance and administration. When Stieber eventually revealed his preference for a career in law, his father all but disowned him. Stieber was thrown out of the family home and his funds were cut off. This was a pivotal moment in the young man’s career. To continue with his studies, Stieber needed an income.

This necessity led him to work as a secretary to the criminal court and Berlin Police Department. Through this vocation Stieber was introduced to the work of Berlin police inspectors, who occasionally took him on arrests. He was immediately hooked on criminal investigation, so, after graduating as a junior barrister in 1844, Stieber applied for and was granted a place as a Berlin police inspector. He was quickly given a chance to impress. The Minister of the Interior asked for Stieber to be sent undercover into Silesia to conduct an investigation into an alleged ‘workers’ conspiracy’. Posing as a landscape artist named Schmidt, he quickly identified the ringleaders of the so-called ‘Silesian Weavers’ Uprising’ (4–6 June 1844) and under orders from Berlin had them rounded up and arrested.

However, it was during the riots of 1848 – the year of revolutions – when Stieber really came to the fore. With Berlin on the verge of rebellion, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV (ruled 1840–61) rode out onto the streets of the capital in an attempt to calm his subjects. He was quickly surrounded by an unruly mob and appeared in danger of being pushed from his mount. There are many different versions of what happened next, but Stieber’s memoirs recall how he seized a banner from one of the protestors and stood in front of the king’s horse, making a path through the crowd for him to pass. Shouting ‘The King is on your side – Make way for your King!’ Stieber managed to get the king back to the palace gates where the guards carried him to safety. In some accounts Stieber is said to have arranged the whole thing as a stunt to gain popularity with the king. Stieber claims the man he saved was in fact an actor posing as the Prussian monarch. Whatever the truth, the event certainly brought Stieber into the spotlight. When in November 1850 the notorious revolutionary Gottfried Kinkel was sprung from jail, a section known as the ‘Criminal Police’ was formed with cross-district jurisdiction – Stieber was its commander.

More significant was the king’s approval of Stieber’s assignment to monitor German communists attending the international industrial exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace in October 1851. Stieber travelled to London again using the alias of Schmidt, but this time posing as a newspaper editor covering the exhibition. Enjoying the right to freedom of speech and assembly in the liberal British capital, a German newspaper editor named Karl Marx had been organizing an ‘International Communist League’. Stieber went to visit Marx, claiming to be carrying family news to a fictitious colleague, Friedrich Herzog, who was believed to be a member of the Communist League. Unsurprisingly, Marx had never heard of Herzog and unwisely told Stieber to consult with a German named Dietz who held records of the communist movement.

Before Stieber went looking for Dietz he chatted to Marx for a while. Talking of his own background, he told Marx he had studied medicine and was editor of a Berlin medical publication. On learning he had a medical background, Marx asked Stieber if he knew a good cure for haemorrhoids. He went on to say that it would be impossible for him to sit and write except for a medication made up by Dietz, himself a former apothecary. Confirming this was the same Dietz holding the League’s records, a plan hatched in Stieber’s mind. Bidding farewell to Marx he went to Dietz’s address, but not before forging Marx’s signature on a note reading: ‘Please bring me some medication and the files at once.’ Posing as a physician named Dr Schmidt, Stieber duped Dietz into handing over four volumes of information on the Communist League’s activities across the globe.

From London Stieber travelled to Paris where the communists appeared strongest and best organized. A few days after arriving, a man turned up in his apartment calling himself Cherval. He was a communist and had been sent to retrieve the stolen records. When Stieber refused to hand them over, Cherval drew a dagger and attacked him. Knocking his assailant unconscious with a chair, Stieber handcuffed him and interrogated him. Cherval was in fact a German who had adopted a French name on arriving in the country. Stieber promised to drop the charges relating to his attack if Cherval would spill the beans on his co-conspirators. The communist obliged and a number of significant arrests were made.

Returning to Germany, Stieber’s information led to yet more members of the Communist League being arrested. In reward for his efforts, in January 1853 Stieber was made director of the Security Division at Berlin. Thereafter he embarked on a number of police-related cases which are outside the scope of this study except in one respect. Through his investigations he became fascinated with the world of high-class prostitutes and their rich clientele, who were often high-ranking officers and members of government. He quickly realized that these men would be extremely vulnerable if the prostitutes were agents of a foreign power:

To my amazement, I discovered that among the prostitutes who frequented these brothels, there were actually many who had acquired a certain amount of education through their constant association with their highly-placed visitors, so they could recite lines by Virgil and Horace and often commanded an entire catalogue of legal and military concepts; and to my horror, found among them women who appeared to have been predestined to become spies… Some of them had already made a regular business out of enticing intimate, compromising information out of married men in the highest reaches of society and then extorting large sums of money from them by threatening to reveal these secrets to their wives.

Thinking it best to have these women on his side, to win them over Stieber helped establish a ‘Prostitutes Recovery Fund’. The whole vice trade became much more regulated and in return for his favour, prostitutes began to supply Stieber’s officers with information relating to crimes. Before long they had became the best police spies in the city.

Everything was going well for Stieber until 1857, when the king was declared insane after suffering a brain tumour. The throne passed to a regent, the king’s liberal-minded brother Wilhelm. With his royal protector out of the picture, Stieber’s many enemies had him imprisoned and ransacked his apartments looking for documents that might compromise their own positions. Unfortunately for them Stieber escaped from his cell and rescued the documents, which he knew would save his neck. Arguing his case in public through the newspapers, Stieber claimed that to accuse him of wrongdoing was to accuse the king himself. His accusers quickly drew a line under the business and Stieber was largely exonerated, albeit left without an appointment and put on half pay.

Continuing his work against communists and anarchists, Stieber went to St Petersburg. With him he took his dossiers on Russian revolutionaries working abroad in London and Paris. Arriving at a time when the Russian secret services were at an embryonic stage, Stieber was asked for advice on dealing with radicals living abroad. Stieber’s solution was to track down ex-pat Russian criminals, forgers and blackmailers and, in return for immunity from prosecution, these would be paid to spy on the radicals.

But Prussia was never far from Stieber’s mind. His rehabilitation came when in 1863 he uncovered a plot to assassinate the newly appointed Prussian prime minister, Otto von Bismarck (1815–98). He was introduced to Bismarck by August Brass, founder of the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, who recommended him despite his unpopularity. The plot may have been a ruse on Stieber’s part, but Bismarck took it seriously enough. An assassination attempt was indeed attempted by a Russian revolutionary named Bakunin, but with the benefit of hindsight it does appear a somewhat stage-managed affair. Bakunin ended up shooting a dummy of Bismarck, and Stieber’s men were miraculously right on hand to arrest him. Charges were not pressed against the Russian, who was quietly slipped out of Prussia never to return. Stunt or not, Bismarck was impressed and from that moment, Stieber became his chief problem-solver.

Bismarck set a special mission for Stieber, one far more important than any he had thus far attempted. Bismarck’s greatest legacy would be the unification of the independent German states into a single political entity – Germany. However, at the time these independent German states looked to Austria for leadership rather than Prussia. Before any unification could take place, there would have to be a showdown with Austria. Bismarck wanted Stieber to observe and report upon Austria’s military preparedness.

The most commonly told story about Stieber is that, following Bismarck’s request, he went into Austria disguised as a harmless pedlar. By day he rode from village to village selling religious statuettes; at night he frequented inns, discretely selling pornographic cartoons to drinkers. Months later, having toured the country and built up maps of the military defences and stores, he returned to Berlin to make his report. So accurate were his findings that Bismarck and General von Moltke were able to confidently plan a lightning campaign which saw Austria defeated in seven weeks.

The story is a good yarn and is perhaps based on some elements of truth. However, it grossly over simplifies the true scale of Stieber’s operations and downplays his true genius, which was the organization of intelligence gathering. After asking him to spy on Austria, Bismarck gave Stieber ten days to formulate a plan for establishing a network of spies there. Undaunted by the scale of the task, Stieber applied the same patient methodology common in police detective work to military espionage.

Through analyzing past methods, Stieber realized that traditional methods of espionage had produced only limited results. Amateur spies did not have the technical knowledge to collect intelligence of real relevance. Also, in previous wars only small numbers of spies had been employed, making it easier for enemy counter-espionage services to concentrate their resources and pick them up or to feed them false intelligence. Stieber wanted to flood Austria with an ‘army’ of observers, draining police resources to the point where surveillance became unfeasible. If a single agent was caught they would know almost nothing about the other spies and even if several were caught they would have so little idea of the grand scheme of things that the damage would be negligible.

Austria would be divided into districts, each with a ‘home base’ set up and controlled by a ‘resident spy’. To avoid suspicion, ‘resident spies’ would not be foreigners, but natives of the district. Their districts would also be quite small so they would not have to make any unusual travel which might be noticed. Their first duty would be to recruit a network of informers throughout their assigned district and collect their reports. These reports would be sent to a central headquarters in Prussia where they would be assessed. Always kept up to date, the processed data would be passed on to the appropriate political or military authorities, enabling them to respond accordingly. However, when very important information came in from the resident spies, special agents would be sent into Austria to investigate it further. With the groundwork already done by resident spies, the job of these special agents would be much easier.

Wherever possible Stieber wanted the ‘resident spies’ to be recruited from among local journalists. If this was not possible, then the resident spy was to attempt to at least use journalists among his informants. While generals in the Crimean and American Civil Wars had been frustrated by the interference of the press, Stieber had recognized how powerful journalists were becoming and how they had a right to ask questions without causing suspicion. Through their profession they would have already made contacts in government and military circles – contacts that were like a tap waiting to be turned on. But why would normally reputable journalists spy for Prussia? Stieber knew that the weak point of most journalists was that they were always short of cash.

Bismarck approved of the plan and went one step further, allowing Stieber to form a Press Bureau. The king had already expressed concern how the London-based Reuter’s Telegraph Company had a monopoly on the news and as such controlled public opinion. He wanted a Prussian news service and so Stieber entered the perhaps yet murkier world of news management.

The observation service began in Austria under cover of ‘press activities’. One immediate problem was in funding the rapidly growing network of spies. In solving this issue, Bismarck proved himself as wily as Stieber, telling him to recruit captured forgers and counterfeiters from Berlin prisons. They were careful not to print so much Austrian money the economy would be destabilized, but just enough for funding never to be a problem.

With Austrian counter-espionage duties handed over to inept, retired police officers, Stieber’s agents were able to uncover a great deal of important facts, namely:

•     Austria also desired a united Germany, with a federation of states and them at the head. They believed this was achievable partly because most of the independent German states were, like them, Catholic, while Prussia was largely Protestant.

•     Austria did not expect a war and was totally unprepared for one.

•     The Austrian people were against war.

•     Austria would take two weeks longer than Prussia to mobilize its armies.

•     Austrian weapons were outdated and no match for the new Prussian ‘needle guns’.

Armed with these facts, Bismarck asked Stieber to stir up the Austrian population by spreading false stories in the Austrian press. The idea was to make the Austrian government so unpopular at home that it provoked them into declaring war on Prussia. At the same time, Bismarck asked Stieber to stir up trouble among the many different ethnic groups in the Austrian empire. Stieber hired 800 agitators from among Czech and Slovak dissidents who would start uprisings in Hungary, Dalmatia and Moravia should war be declared. He also made plans for a ‘Hungarian Freedom Legion’ made up of Austrian army deserters who would attempt to break Hungary away from Austria.

Wilhelm Stieber II

With war looming, Bismarck ordered Stieber to shut down his intelligence service in Austria so that there would be no clues that Prussia had spied on Austria in peacetime.5 Stieber’s concluding report to Bismarck included the allegation that Austrian emperor Franz Joseph had begun using a double on public occasions because of his fear of assassination. Additionally, two of the emperor’s closest advisors were highly paid Prussian agents and his wife was in love with an 18-year-old stable groom, while many members of his court had become opium addicts.

On 23 June 1866, ten days before the outbreak of the war, Stieber was placed in charge of protecting the king, Bismarck and the supreme Prussian headquarters on campaign, ensuring its safe movement through occupied terrain. To this end he formed a ‘Secret Field Police’ which accompanied headquarters through the war.

Although Stieber’s intelligence went a good way to deciding to go ahead with the war, it perhaps proved less effective during the actual conflict. The Austrians, Stieber noted, showed unexpected resolve and the Hungarian uprising was quickly quashed. If anything, the victory over the Austrians at the battle of Sadowa on 3 July 1866 was more due to the superiority and rapid-fire of the new Prussian rifles than any great intelligence coup. At the end of the war, although Stieber was officially appointed a ‘privy councillor’, his failure to raise a Hungarian rebellion greatly rankled him.

The bitter tinge left after failure in Hungary would not fester for long, as Stieber was given even greater scope to build on his successes and failures during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). After defeating Austria, Bismarck decided upon the need for war against France and asked Stieber to spy on the country, primarily to warn of any French first strike. Bismarck told Stieber that money would be no object this time, as he had secretly confiscated funds from the Kingdom of Hanover, one of a number of smaller states incorporated into Prussia’s German empire, or Reich. Euphemistically dubbed the ‘funds of the Central News Bureau’, the use of the Hanoverian money meant that the costs of Stieber’s operations would not appear on the official Prussian defence budget and therefore his entire operation would remain secret from everyone.

In November 1869 Bismarck sent Stieber to Paris and had him investigate the new French Chassepot rifle and the much-dreaded mitrailleuse – an early form of machine gun. Stieber quickly learned the Chassepot rifle worked on the same principles as the Prussian needle gun and did not constitute as much a leap in technology as the French were boasting. The same applied to the mitrailleuse, which appeared to have been based on existing models dating back several decades. The mitrailleuse, Stieber reported, required a crew of three who could attain a rate of fire in the region of 1,000 rounds in three minutes with 66 per cent accuracy at 1,000 paces. However, the gun was prone to jamming and there was a high rate of misfire with its cartridges. Stieber also had serious doubts about its effectiveness against moving targets. His report concluded that the Prussians should fear it less than had previously been supposed.

While in Paris, this time posing as a journalist named Schmidt, Stieber began setting up a network of spies across France. Helping him with this task were several of the best agents from the war with Austria. Although Stieber knew that the easiest way to recruit spies was through the use of blackmail, he found this type of spy to be the least reliable. Instead he targeted officers and officials who needed large sums of money to pay off gambling debts and those who had been passed over for promotion, dismissed or otherwise disgraced. By making a systematic investigation into the finances of people with access to sensitive information, Stieber was able to draw up a list of those most in need of cash. He then arranged for them to receive a loan through a Hanoverian banking house with irresistible terms of credit. Once they accepted the terms of the loan agreement, they were well and truly in Stieber’s pocket.

Through these means, perhaps the most important piece of intelligence Stieber gained was that French troops were scattered round the globe defending the colonies or protecting the Papal States from the Italians. If France went to war, it would take time to recall these soldiers. Stieber predicted it would take France two full weeks to mobilize just 100,000 men against Germany. Bismarck told Stieber his information represented an ‘invitation to the German soldier’s boot.’

Stieber returned to Berlin, where his records office received thousands of dossiers on Frenchmen who might, with the right inducements, betray their homeland. Investigating other prominent people, Stieber began to build up detailed pictures of their lives, colleagues, wives, mistresses, secretaries, friends, house servants, recruiting as many as possible as spies. Stieber’s agents in Berlin also pored over lists of military and civil service promotions, always on the alert for those passed over time and time again. Once a potentially disgruntled candidate was identified, Stieber would send one of his undercover agents to recruit him.

Several of the major espionage coups were performed by an agent Stieber identified only by the initials ‘FM’. This agent reputedly made contact with and recruited a group of elite spies, all high-ranking opponents of the reign of French emperor Napoleon III. Stieber gave FM a free hand in running these spies and was rewarded with faith in the agent’s abilities when FM gained a copy of the French army’s deployment plans in the event of a war with Prussia. Having learned the location of these plans, FM obtained them by posing as a decorator and bluffing his way into the War Ministry with a ladder and a tin of paint. Once in the room, FM set up his tools and made a copy of plans in between decorating the walls.

The infiltration of agents into France proved much easier than with Austria. The operation was so successful even Stieber was surprised how many Frenchmen appeared willing to pass secrets to Prussia. He realized that these Frenchmen did not view their actions as treasonous, but saw themselves as liberators speeding up the end of an unpopular imperial regime. He boasted that even with agents in every significant military and political office in France, not a single one was discovered.

When hostilities commenced on 17 July 1870 Stieber took a very active role in the war and was given greater authority and more resources than during the Austro-Prussian War – including French-speaking officers. Bismarck again asked him to create a ‘field security police force’ to protect the king and his advisors. Added to this would be his duty to provide the German army with information on the enemy, to counteract the threat of enemy spies and to supervise what we might now call ‘embedded reporters’ – journalists travelling with the army. Stieber was also responsible for the supervision of postal traffic, which gave him a means to practise censorship.

A typical day for Stieber would begin with the arrival of couriers with reports and questions for him to answer. He could not neglect the news management of the war – press publications had to be supervised and foreign journalists provided with stories portraying the Prussian cause in a sympathetic light. Letters had to be checked and censored so as not to spread alarm at home, and all personally addressed mail arriving for the king, Bismarck and others had to be opened, looking for bombs or poison. During the night, or very early in the morning, reports from secret agents in the field would arrive, forcing Stieber to survive on an average of just two hours’ sleep a night with whatever he could snatch during the day. Twice a week he met with the king who asked for a summary of reports from agents in enemy territory. These reports were usually evaluated by comparing them with reports in the French press – other agents sending the French newspapers for Stieber’s scrutiny. Lastly, as suspected enemy spies were picked up, Stieber would interrogate them.

As the Prussian military juggernaut rolled into France, something of Stieber’s ruthless character is revealed in a letter to his ‘dear good wife’ dated 18 August 1870. In it he explained how French partisans were dealt with by the Prussian army:

Yesterday a French peasant fired on a wagon carrying Prussian wounded. But the joker was unsuccessful: two of the wounded still had good legs; they rushed into the house from where the shot had come and took the lad. They hung him from a rope suspended under his arms and slowly fired 34 times until he was dead. He was left there the whole day as an example.

Stieber began to use his spies to observe enemy troop movements. French soldiers, the spies reported, were extremely confident and expected a swift victory, so much so that their generals had not issued them with French maps, only ones of Germany. Spies were established in Paris, Bordeaux, Lyons and Orléans, with others kept nearby so that Stieber could send them to where they were most required.

Stieber had a spy on Marshal MacMahon’s staff, who reported the French move to raise the siege of Metz. This information allowed Prussians under von Moltke to set a trap, which when sprung saw the French shut up in the fortress of Sedan. Here Stieber’s agents related the incredible news that Emperor Napoleon III was trapped inside the fortress with his soldiers. The French emperor was forced to surrender on 2 September along with 104,000 men. While Napoleon III went into exile in Britain, the Prussian king headed for Versailles to await the surrender of Paris, which was put under siege on 19 September.

Arriving at Versailles on 5 October a large crowd of ‘idle folk’ came out to meet the Prussian king, having been rounded up by Stieber. Among the onlookers were several curious foreigners, but the majority were Prussian secret police agents. From that time on, Prussian agents multiplied in the town with extraordinary abundance. Bismarck’s quarters were placed under strict guard, with police agents patrolling the street night and day. Stieber oversaw the surveillance of the town and began arbitrary and brutal arrests using the secret police. His officers and spies were notorious, searching and maltreating even the most upstanding of Versailles’ citizens.

On 13 and 14 October Stieber made detailed enquiries into the organization of the French police. His intention was to incorporate French police sergeants into the Prussian police with their wearing an armband in Prussian colours. Although the police sergeants did collaborate, they insisted on wearing armbands in the French tricolour for identification. Better assistance came from the local prostitutes Stieber protected in return for information. Stieber asked the prostitutes to inform on Prussian soldiers as much as on their French clientele.

Throughout their stay in Versailles the abuses continued. One of Stieber’s most trusted men, Lieutenant Zernicki, caused a scene when he asked the mayor of Versailles for 11lb (5kg) of candles to be taken to Stieber’s quarters at 3 Boulevard du Roi. When the candles did not arrive, Zernicki went to the town hall and threatened to put the mayor and the rest of the municipal council in prison. When one of the councillors asked Zernicki who he thought he was, the Prussian drew his sabre and called in some guards. Two of the councillors were seized and dragged off and were only saved when the local French commander went directly to Bismarck. Although Zernicki was told to keep clear of the town hall in future, he was soon promoted to captain for his activities in Versailles.

During the siege of Paris, Stieber faced and thwarted French attempts at aerial espionage. French balloons leaving the city had to be stopped because they were carrying messages to unoccupied parts of the country. For example, one balloon, the Galilée, was brought down by troopers of the Prussian 14th Hussars. Onboard were found 924lb (420kg) of letters and newspapers from the besieged city. The balloon’s aeronautes were taken to prison and then sent to Prussia to face a court martial. Because the balloons traversed the Prussian forward posts, the occupants were deemed technically to be spies and thus faced the death penalty. When dealing with balloons, Stieber found the newly invented Krupp anti-balloon cannon a double-edged sword. The guns proved so effective the balloonists were now almost always killed and were thus unavailable for interrogation. Later, when carrier pigeons replaced the balloons, the Germans sent hunting hawks after them and many messages were retrieved from round the necks of dead birds.

More decisive was Stieber’s investigation on secret communications between Versailles and Paris. His spies tracked down an extensive system of underground passages, which were being used to supply Paris with food. Every night up to 300 wagons passed through these tunnels with their wheels wrapped in cloth to prevent them making a noise. This discovery explained spy reports from inside the city that Paris had ample provisions for a siege. Stieber reported his findings to Bismarck, also pointing out that morale at home was plummeting because of the stalemate. With no end to the siege in sight, the order was given to open fire and bombard Paris. Until then the Prussians had refrained from indiscriminate firing on the city, but when they did results were almost instantaneous. After 5 January Prussian heavy-calibre artillery fired 10,000 shells into the city, destroying over 200 buildings. Stieber’s spies in the city reported that the storehouses had burned and people were killing cats and dogs for meat – they even reported the establishment of a rat market.

On the night of 23/24 January, Stieber’s agents inside Paris reported that a high-ranking person was coming out to negotiate. Stieber galloped back to his quarters and made arrangements to host the expected negotiations. After disguising his agents in civilian clothes, he prepared overnight lodgings for the French. ‘We lit a good fire,’ he wrote, ‘prepared two beds and, as the French believed that, like Versailles, we were dying of hunger, I did everything possible to procure some good food, desserts, pastries and so on.’ When the vice-president, Jules Favre, arrived at Stieber’s lodgings to spend the night, he had his agents watch him through the night, spying on Favre through a hole in the wall.

On 26 January an armistice was signed with very stiff conditions for the Parisians. Their forces had to disarm, abandon their fortifications and make a payment of 200 million francs within two weeks. When the Prussians entered the city, Stieber took French hostages whom he made walk ahead of the soldiers as ‘human shields’. Worse was to follow for France. On 1 March the treaty of Bordeaux was ratified, with France agreeing to pay a levy of 5 billion francs, and giving Alsace and parts of Lorraine to Germany. It was a disastrous conclusion to the war, which ultimately paved the way for further conflicts in the 20th century.

On 6 March the business was over. Stieber handed police matters back over to the French authorities and set out for home. For his much underrated part in the campaign Stieber received the Iron Cross. Schulmeister would have understood his pride in receiving it. On 17 March Stieber arrived in Berlin with the emperor and continued to manage the ‘Central News Bureau’. Although his attention was primarily fixed on the Social Democrat movement, he nonetheless expanded his espionage networks at home and abroad. As word of Stieber’s activities began to come to light after the Franco-Prussian War, so began the popular fear of ‘the German spy menace’.

The German secret service leading up to and during WWI was described by one of the most successful Allied spies during the war – a Netherlands-based businessman named Charles Lucieto. He considered the espionage system established by Germany as ‘gigantic’. Based in the Thiergarten in Berlin, the service consisted of three separate branches: political, naval and military.

The political branch was directly attached to the kaiser’s cabinet and was broken down into sections, each dealing with a single country. As its name implies, the function of the political branch was to gather intelligence on the political world that might be used to the profit of the Reich. The directors of this service had direct access to the kaiser, who maintained a lively interest in affairs of espionage. Its agents were the elite, usually drawn from the military and naval branches. Although it included members of the nobility, agents originated from all classes and sometimes even the criminal world. Agents were expected to obey selflessly and punctually and if for any reason the agent was ‘scorched’ – that is to say exposed – he could count on no official protection or acknowledgement. Because of this, such agents were paid extremely well from a ‘Black Chest’ for which the directors of the service were never called to account.

The intelligence arm of the Imperial German Navy was composed of four separate sections, including an Intelligence Branch, which was responsible for running agents and making reconnaissances. It also contained a Military-Political Branch, a Foreign Navies Branch and an Observation and Cryptanalytic Service, which, as the importance of radio interception became realized in the run-up to the First World War, grew into a large 458-man organization based in Neumünster.

The military branch of the secret service came under the direct supervision of the secretary of war and was responsible for supplying all military intelligence required by the German general staff. The service was divided into sub-divisions, each possessing both civilian and military agents. The agents were themselves divided into three classes.

The ‘Directors of Operations in foreign lands’ were the highest type of spy. Often retired officers, these were able to speak several languages fluently and were educated in technical and military matters, including topography, fortification and strategy. The Directors of Operations were expected to go after key enemy personnel, using blackmail to obtain the secrets desired by the general staff. In addition they were to supervise ‘Resident Agents’, corroborating and evaluating their reports, and maintaining contact through messenger spies, who ferried questionnaires and responses to and from the directors.

Separate from them were the ‘agents charged with special missions’. On entering the secret service, these agents were given a crash course of technical and engineering training by officers of the general staff. Once they had passed a stringent examination the agents were given posts in German embassies abroad. Independent from other spies, they were given great freedom to carry out their mission as they saw fit. The information they collected was encoded and sent to Berlin either with the diplomatic mail or by the embassy’s military attaché.

The ‘Resident Agents’ were the most numerous type of secret agent employed by the Germans. They were German nationals placed at the head of businesses or were self-employed and thus free to go off without attracting the attention either of friends or employers. Their commercial enterprises served as ‘cloaks’ for their espionage operations. Their businesses were often subsidized by the German secret service, which, by means of bogus business deals, was able to make payments to the spy. Although the intelligence they brought in was generally of low-grade importance, the sheer scale of it ensured the German military was kept informed of troop movements, fortification building and so on.

After the Franco-Prussian War, Stieber is said to have flooded France with such resident spies, with at least 15,000 operating there before the outbreak of WWI in 1914. The first wave came in the guise of farm hands who began purchasing land and setting themselves up as farmers in their own right, by preference situated in the regions along the German border. More spies arrived as domestic servants, school teachers, professors and travelling salesmen. With money provided by the general staff, Stieber bought into the hotel industry, ensuring the largest and most prestigious international hotels were in German hands. Attracting a clientele of politicians, diplomats, generals and other members from the cream of society, German agents posing as hotel workers or prostitutes were in a prime position to overhear, steal or copy their secrets.

Stieber was behind the much publicized disgrace of the four-times French Minister of War, General de Cissey (1810–82). The general had been captured during the Franco-Prussian War and taken to Hamburg, where, although a prisoner of war, he enjoyed considerable day-to-day freedom. While captive, de Cissey took a German lover, the Baroness de Kaulla. After being repatriated at the end of the war, de Cissey became minister of war. A short time later Mademoiselle de Kaulla arrived in Paris to reignite the love affair. Unknown to the general, the baroness was working for and receiving funds from Stieber, who was very interested in de Cissey’s plans for restructuring the French army.

The matter came to a head in 1880 when the radical newspaper Le Petit Parisien accused de Cissey – now a senator – of communicating information to the Germans through his mistress, who they exposed as a spy. Although the editors were convicted of criminal libel and charges of treason could not be proved, it was shown that de Cissey had misappropriated the secret funds of his ministry and he was forced to resign. The great irony in this affair was that de Cissey had been the prime mover in creating a special section to counter German espionage and prevent a surprise attack.

One of Stieber’s most notorious achievements was the ‘Green House’, a high-class bordello in Berlin. Stieber staffed the ‘resort’ with police agents who monitored their patrons, drawn as they were only from ‘people of consequence’. Pandering to every imaginable vice, depravity and perversion, patrons were only admitted by invitation. However, these gratifications came at a price. Stieber would keep a file on each patron and when a favour was required, he would blackmail them by threatening to reveal their indiscretions.

A rare blip came late in Stieber’s remarkable career and involved a journalist. It concerned the news management of the Congress of Berlin in 1878 – a conference set up to agree the balance of power in the Balkans. The topics of debate were delicate and Bismarck wanted to keep them out of the newspapers. Not to be thwarted, the editor of The Times, John Delane, sent his Paris correspondent, Henri de Blowitz, to cover the story. Despite the presence of Stieber’s agents, who kept everyone under surveillance, a series of detailed ‘scoops’ began appearing in The Times. They began with the first day’s agenda and finished when a full copy of the agreement (the Treaty of Berlin) was published in The Times, almost as it was being signed.

Although Blowitz was suspected from the start, the secret police could not find any evidence of him meeting with anyone present at the debate. The truth did not come out until Blowitz’s memoirs were published in 1903. Before the conference opened, the journalist made an arrangement with one of the clerical staff. This ‘mole’ would write reports of the day’s proceedings and conceal them in the lining of his hat. He was then to hang the hat on a hat rack in the Kaiserhof Hotel. Blowitz – wearing an identical hat – would simply walk in, hang up his hat, dine and afterwards pick up the other hat on leaving.

Having succeeded where Pinkerton failed, by making the shift from police detective to military intelligence gatherer, Stieber must be viewed as one of the great spymasters in history. However, like so many other practitioners of the secret services, Stieber has been to a large degree demonized both at home and abroad. Despite his successes and although he was decorated many times, Stieber was an embarrassment to the Prussian military establishment. As early as 1867 von Moltke had established a rival intelligence bureau of his own. Many recognize in him the beginnings of the Nazi police state and more still have compared him to the propagandist Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945). He is routinely portrayed as a deviant and proverbial Bogeyman. The distaste he routinely inspires led one author to describe his rise to prominence as being ‘like some mushroom growth, up the backstairs of fashionable Berlin.’ When Stieber died, stricken by arthritis in 1892, his funeral, they say, was very well attended – not from well-wishers, but by people who wanted to make sure he was really dead.


The Science Museum’s Difference Engine No. 2, built from Babbage’s design

The first design for a computer was, of course, a mechanical device with gears and levers designed by the British mathematician Charles Babbage. He first wrote down the idea in a letter to Sir Humphrey Davy in 1822. His design could not be manufactured at the time (machining tolerances were not sufficiently advanced) but in 1991 a version was manufactured and was shown to work at the Science Museum, London. Babbage envisaged using a mechanical computer to calculate the odds on a horse race, since he was an inveterate gambler.

Zuse Z1 replica in the German Museum of Technology in Berlin

Germany, 1938

The first person actually to construct an electromechanical computer was a German aircraft technician and amateur enthusiast, Konrad Zuse. He used punched paper tape to input data and developed the first programming language, Plankalkül (plan calculus). His first machine, the Z1, was able to use binary floating point numbers, which allows for large calculations, and a form of programming based on the work on the Victorian English mathematician George Boole. Boole derived the form of analysis that combines terms (using ‘and’) or splits them into alternatives (‘or’) and Boolean logic, as we now call it, is essential in writing software. This early computer had no relays and a single electrical unit to give a clock speed of 1Hz. The Z1 could be programmed using punched tape and a tape reader. Zuse built it with his own (and his family’s) money between 1936 and 1938, using part of the family living-room as his laboratory. This pioneering computer embodied most of the components we would recognize in a present-day machine, including a control unit and simple computer memory. He went on later to construct more advanced prototypes and hoped to make them commercially available. However, although he made several attempts to interest the German military in the possibilities offered by his computer, no-one there was interested. All his machines, and the documentation, were destroyed during the Allied bombing raids on Berlin in December 1943.

Colossus Mark 2

England, 1944

The first programmable electronic computer was named Colossus, and was produced specifically to crack the Lorenz codes used by the German High Command, since these codes were more complex than those generated by Enigma. Colossus was designed and built by a team led by Harold Thomas Flowers who began working on the idea in the late 1930s. As a young engineer, Tommy Flowers had the idea of using thermionic radio valves, or vacuum tubes, as programmable switches. He fed data in using punched tape, like a ticker-tape machine. His original idea was to automate the British telephone exchanges, but as the war took hold news reached him of the need to decode German messages that were being intercepted by the intelligence service as part of the Ultra project. Tommy Flowers began work in 1941 and took just six months to demonstrate a prototype machine, and – unlike Zuse – he found the British authorities were becoming interested in what his computer could do.

In February 1943 construction work on the revolutionary computer began at the Post Office Research Station in Dollis Hill, North-West London. The computer was running successfully by December that same year, so it was disassembled and driven to Bletchley Park on 18 January 1944. It was fitted together again and worked perfectly, and was given its first message to decode on 5 February 1944. This Mark 1 Colossus was such a success that a further nine of the giant computers were ordered. The design and specifications were improved, and in June 1944 the Mark 2 went into full production. Colossus Mark 1 contained an astonishing 1,500 electronic tubes developed for radios, whilst the Mark 2 was fitted with 2,400 of these valves making it both simpler to use and five times faster. These Colossus computers could process nearly 10,000 characters per second, but the paper tape soon became shredded. The punched paper tape could pass safely through the readers at a maximum speed of 27.3mph (12.2m/s) so they settled on 5,000 characters per second as the optimum rate of operation. Trials were also held where two Colossus computers were used simultaneously on the same problem, thus proving the value of parallel computing.

It was the use of the Colossus machines by the War Department in London that allowed the British to considerably reduce the ability of German Admiral Karl Dönitz to make unexpected raids upon the convoys crossing the North Atlantic, and thousands of lives must have been saved. These Allied victories turned the course of the war.

After the war

The Americans stationed at Bletchley Park were highly impressed, and encouraged John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert to press ahead with the design of a more advanced version at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania. Their design and development was code named Project PX and their prototype machine, ENIAC, was unveiled after World War II was over, on 14 February 1946. It had cost some $500,000 to build, worth $6 million today, a huge sum of money for such a project. This state-of-the-art computer was intended to make artillery calculations, but was soon being utilized for work on the development of the first hydrogen bomb.

Meanwhile, in Britain, even the very existence of Colossus was covered by the Official Secrets Act and it all remained a state secret well into the 1970s. The British authorities have always been sensitive about classified information, and the staff at Bletchley Park refused to talk about their work even into the 1990s. Although all of the ten Colossus computers survived into the 1980s, they were broken up and their records destroyed. The teams remained silent.

Reclaiming history

The historical importance of the early Zuse computers became increasingly apparent in the post-war years, and in 1986 Konrad Zuse resolved to rebuild his original Z1 computer. It remains an important historical device for it embodies all the essential components we recognize in present-day computers. The task took him three years, and it was shipped to the Deutsches Technik Museum in Berlin-Kreuzberg where it is on display, in full working order, to this day.

Turing’s name has been widely celebrated in the decades that have elapsed since his untimely death. There are institutes, buildings, prizes, award schemes and mathematical principles all devoted to his name. Breaking the Code was a play about Turing’s life by Hugh Whitemore that was first performed in 1986, and was a success both in London’s West End and on Broadway, where it received three Tony Award nominations. Another successful drama about Turing’s life was screened by BBC television in 1996, and Turing’s story featured in a television documentary, Dangerous Knowledge, in 2008. There are commemorative plaques at his birthplace in London and his former home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, and in March 2000 a set of stamps with his portrait was issued in the Caribbean. In 2001 a statue of Turing was unveiled in Manchester and three years later a bronze statue by John Mills was unveiled at the University of Surrey, Guildford, to mark the 50th anniversary of his suicide. Another statue was unveiled in 2007 at Bletchley Park. The costs were paid by Sidney Frank, an American philanthropist.

By 1994 it was realized in Britain what a priceless piece of scientific history had been lost by the destruction of the Colossus machines, so the (by now) Sir Harold Thomas Flowers with a team of fellow-enthusiasts unearthed the original drawings for the prototypes and discovered that large parts of the computers had been hidden away by enthusiasts from Bletchley Park. They set to work to rebuild a working Colossus computer, and now that Bletchley Park has become a museum, the computer is on permanent display there, a testimony to the vital role it played in the Allied victory.

And what of the Bomba Kryptologiczna, the all-important Bombe? The remaining components were found at Bletchley and a replica was reconstructed by a team of enthusiasts led by John Harper. This complete and working replica was built at the Bletchley Park museum and was officially switched on by the Duke of Kent, patron of the British Computer Society on 17 July 2008.

When the 50th anniversary of the commissioning of ENIAC loomed in 1996, the University of Pennsylvania and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC marked the event with special publications and a huge exhibition involving senior American statesmen. Although ENIAC was designed to be physically rewired to change programming, it remains an inspiring step in the slow but steady progress of computers from Charles Babbage’s imagined machine, to the massive mainframe computers of the present day.


In today’s world, computers are everywhere. We need to recognize that – although the components were available – it took the urgency of war and the need to defeat a highly organized foe that gave the impetus to the design of Colossus and ENIAC. When you contemplate your desktop computer, just reflect: it would certainly have arisen anyway in the fullness of time – but, as it is, even your computer is a legacy of the secret science of World War II. Be cured by antibiotics; write with a ballpoint pen; travel in a jet plane; watch space rockets on television … and just reflect that it was World War II that brought them to reality. In our modern era, everything takes so much time to change and bureaucracy weighs us down. It was very different then, when survival depended on science and time was of the essence. In my view, we could usefully embrace some of those enthusiasms in facing our present-day problems, which (like global pollution and climate change, starvation and water shortage, political expediency and scientific illiteracy) affect everyone in the world. If ever we needed to learn the lessons of that wartime sense of dynamism and purpose, it is now.


‘I pray you, though, tell your folk and home, lest hence ye fare suspect to wander your way as spies in Danish land. Now, dwellers afar, ocean-travellers, take from me simple advice: the sooner the better I hear of the country whence ye came.’

Passage from the oldest English epic, ‘Beowulf’, composed in the 8th century by an unknown Northumbrian bard.

The history of the British Isles is underpinned with a rich heritage of espionage operations and secret service actions. A fiercely independent island race, Britons are proud of their traditions of fair play, tolerance and freedom of speech. It is a paradox, then, to find among these same people, such a virulent penchant for ‘dirty tricks’.

Probably the greatest modern ‘conspiracy theory’ outside the existence of extraterrestrial life concerns the death of Princess Diana in August 1997. Accident or not, such was her celebrity that many people cannot accept Diana died because she was not wearing a seatbelt. It has been alleged by businessman Mohammad Al Fayed that Diana and his son Dodi were victims of a plot by the British secret service – it has furthermore been claimed that driver Henri Paul had links with the same organization. Former MI6 agent Richard Tomlinson, who was imprisoned in 1997 for breaching the Official Secrets Act by publishing a book on his time with the secret service, claims Mr Paul was regularly paid for supplying information about guests at the Paris Ritz. Also central to the conspiracy is a note written in October 1996, given by Diana to her butler, Paul Burrell, in which she seemingly predicted her death in a car crash.3 Burrell also claimed that Queen Elizabeth II cryptically warned him from being too close to the Princess – ‘Be careful Paul… There are powers at work in this country, about which we have no knowledge.’

The story of these ‘powers at work’ in Britain begins in 55 BC, when Julius Caesar brought the British Isles into recorded history for the first time. Waging a campaign to bring Gaul under Roman rule, Caesar made two expeditions against Britain. Before setting off on what he called ‘The First Invasion’, Caesar found almost nothing was known about the island. The Gallic traders he interviewed could report only on those parts of the coast facing Gaul and even then their knowledge was, from the military strategist’s point of view, utterly incomplete. Writing in the third person, Caesar commented:

And so, although he interviewed traders from all parts, he could not ascertain anything about the size of the island, the character and strength of the tribes which inhabited it, their manner of fighting and customs, or the harbours capable of accommodating a large fleet of big ships.

Faced with this lack of basic intelligence, Caesar sent a warship under the command of Volusenus to make a general reconnaissance as quickly as possible. The mission lasted four days but at no time did Volusenus dare put himself ashore for risk of capture by the natives. He made his report to Caesar who continued with his preparations to sail with two legions in 80 transports protected by a screen of warships.

While Caesar had little idea of what to expect on the other side of the Channel, he admitted that the Britons knew he was coming. Although he tells us that a number of envoys were sent by British tribes, offering hostages and submission to Rome, the reception Caesar received on the island’s beaches suggests an element of propaganda in his prose. An absence of proof does not mean the ambassadors sent to offer the hostages were not secretly spying on his build-up. Suitably forewarned of the Roman expedition, the Britons were able to muster their forces on the coast in time to dispute Caesar’s landing. The Romans landed in full view of their enemy and met fierce resistance, which was only overcome with great difficulty.

Caesar soon left Britain, returning again the following year for a second unsuccessful attempt. In fact, Britain would remain unconquered until Emperor Claudius’ expedition landed almost a century later in AD 43. Caesar had experienced the problems faced by every would-be conqueror of Britain over the next two millennia. Apart from the obvious problems of crossing a turbulent and unpredictable stretch of sea, the need to assemble a great number of ships made it impossible to keep invasion plans a secret. It also proved very difficult to infiltrate the island with spies.

In AD 410, the last Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain and Emperor Honorius informed the Romano-Britons that they should look to their own defence against the Saxon raiders. Thus began a period of strife known as the Dark Ages, which lasted until punctuated by the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066. From what evidence survives we can deduce that this turbulent age proved fertile ground for spies and associated plotters. From the 5th-century rule of Kentish king Vortigen, who urged King Constans to hire Pictish spies to head off rebellion in the north, to the reign of King Canute (ruled 1016–35), who maintained spies in the Norwegian and Swedish armies, espionage was no stranger to British shores.

Although perhaps dismissible as legend, perhaps even myth, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth spies also had a hand to play in the death of Uther, the father of King Arthur. While Uther was at St Albans, spies disguised as beggars entered the city working for the Saxon king Colgrim. Establishing that Uther was ill and required a particular type of water from a certain spring, the spies laced the well with a lethal dose of poison. Legend or not, the story gives us an example of how spies were employed at the time.

More probable, although still in the realms of popular legend, is the story of the king who was his own spy. In 878 England faced a great Danish invasion led by Guthrum. In opposition was Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (ruled 871–899), who, it is said, dared not trust anyone but himself when it came to counting the size of the Danish forces. Legend has it that Alfred assumed the garb of a minstrel and visited the Danish camp where he played a harp and sang Saxon ballads. Impressed with his talent, Guthrum is supposed to have invited Alfred into his tent to entertain him with his harp playing.

Alfred spent a week in the Danish camp learning everything about the size and preparedness of their forces. Realizing that the Danes relied on small-scale raids to provision their men, Alfred focused on attacking these raiding parties to good effect. Suitably weakened, the Danes lost the battle of Edington and Guthrum was captured. On meeting Alfred and learning he was the minstrel, Guthrum was so stunned he converted to Christianity and consented to the division of England into two kingdoms – Wessex and Danelaw.

It is clear in the run up to the battle of Hastings in 1066 that King Harold (c.1022–66) used spies to find the strength of William of Normandy’s invasion army. From Norman sources there is a story that William caught an English spy watching his troops in Normandy and sent him back to Harold with a message that Harold should not waste money on spies because he, William, would be bringing his army to England by the end of the year and Harold would be able to see its strength for himself.

Before the battle, Harold is said to have stopped 7 miles (11km) short of the Norman encampment and sent French-speaking spies to ascertain the size of William’s army. The spies, however, did not realize that the Norman knights were soldiers on account of their being clean shaven and having short hair. Consequently they reported back to Harold that there were more priests in William’s camp than there were fighting men in Harold’s. Fortunately the Saxon king knew the Norman custom and corrected his spies.

After Hastings, with England under Norman rule, a series of dynastic struggles commenced, which were made all the more crucial by a simultaneous jockeying for position between church and state. As the centuries rolled by, events were further complicated by England’s quest for domination over the entire British Isles, bringing conflicts with Wales, Scotland, Ireland, always France and then increasingly Spain. In this blizzard of intrigue, conflict and persecution, the use of spies eventually developed into what many consider the first modern secret service.

The first of the dynastic disputes involved King Henry I (ruled 1100–35) who succeeded to the throne in 1100 largely because his brother, William Rufus, had died without an heir and his elder brother, Robert, Duke of Normandy, had not yet returned from the Crusades. Henry quickly made peace with his elder brother and, through marriage, also with Scotland. But he continued to feel his throne was vulnerable because of the powerful and reputedly sadistic Robert de Belême, Earl of Shrewsbury.

According to the historian Ordericus Vitalis, Henry used ‘private spies’ to watch Robert and prepare a list of indictments against him. Based on the spies’ reports Henry I summoned Robert to his court and accused him of committing 45 offences ‘in deed or word’ against him and his brother, the Duke of Normandy. Robert stalled and asked for time before responding to the charges, then fled. An irate Henry I finally cornered Robert at Shrewsbury Castle before banishing him to Normandy.

Perhaps more fundamental was the later clash between Henry II (ruled 1154–89) and his former chancellor, Thomas à Becket. This clash of ideas was the first of a series of conflicts that would see England ultimately reject the power of the Roman church. Henry II had made Becket Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. In a nutshell, Henry II believed he ruled in the name of God, not in the name of the pope – Becket disagreed. To resolve the matter, in October 1164 the archbishop was summoned to Northampton to stand trial for misappropriating funds while he was chancellor. Beckett claimed the council had no right to try him and after a stormy exchange he fled the country to avoid Henry II’s spies. During six years of exile Becket kept up a secret correspondence, intriguing with supporters in England against the king. Reconciliation was attempted in 1170, but, ultimately inflexible, Becket was brutally murdered by supporters of the king in Canterbury Cathedral.

It comes as no surprise to see the Plantagenet king Edward I11 (ruled 1272–1307) use a spy to finally apprehend his implacable Scottish enemy, William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace. The identity of the spy who betrayed Wallace has long been a bone of contention, for it was never recorded to whom the ‘40 Marks’ of blood-money were paid. Many suspect that the culprit was Jack Short, Wallace’s servant who betrayed him to Sir John Menteith, a Scottish baron who recognized Edward’s reign. Menteith certainly appears to have supervised the actual capture in 1305, receiving £151 and a grant of land for his troubles – with a further 100 marks divided between those who made the arrest. In the Hollywood version, Wallace’s betrayer is none other than the father of Scottish legend Robert the Bruce. This appears unlikely as the Bruce’s father died in Palestine on crusade 15 months before Wallace’s arrest.

Aside from bludgeoning England’s Celtic neighbours, Edward Plantagenet is notable for introducing the ‘Ward and Watch’ system. This was something akin to the Persian ‘eyes and ears of the king’ and provided a system of surveillance, which served as a form of counter-espionage service. In 1283 Edward had proclaimed that the City of London was to have a night watch – then in 1285 expanded the watch throughout the kingdom. The watch was to be kept at the gates from dusk ’til dawn. All strangers were to be detained and delivered to the local sheriff the next morning. If necessary, watchmen could summon help by sounding the ‘hue and cry’ after which all freemen between the ages of 15 and 60 were required to band together in pursuit of a suspect, or, to use the parlance of the American West, form a posse. This means of surveillance, which was still in use in the 19th century, was further solidified in 1434 by Cardinal Beaufort who introduced the institution of state informer.

In other examples, during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) between England and France there was a huge increase in the number of spies employed in Europe. Records show that the French heroine Jeanne d’Arc was betrayed by a paid agent of the English, Bishop Pierre Cauchon de Beauvais. During the Wars of the Roses (1455–85) it was said that the espials of Richard III ‘ranged and searched in every quarter’ and had ‘the eyes of a Lynx, and open ears like Midas’.

In the later medieval period there was a marked escalation in the employment of ambassadors sent to spy on foreign courts. Previously, foreign ambassadors were received very quickly and sent packing before they had much chance to see anything of real value. However, during the Middle Ages, the practice of sending ‘resident ambassadors’ changed intelligence gathering dramatically. Although out of politeness this new breed of ambassador was not meant to behave as a spy, most did. They had been placed abroad with the sole intention of gathering intelligence, which they did by setting up their own networks of informers and agents.

Curiously, the English were slow on the uptake of placing resident ambassadors abroad. With the exception of two at the Papal Court, the first resident ambassador was not sent abroad until 1505. Instead the English relied on old-fashioned espionage for intelligence and were greatly assisted by their possession of the French port of Calais. This foothold on the European mainland allowed agents to be safely infiltrated and a special boat service was used to bring news quickly across the Channel to Dover. Calais proved a valuable watching post for French military build-ups and came into its own during wartime, when spies were sent out on reconnaissance missions. Under the reign of both Henry VII (ruled 1489–1509) and Henry VIII (ruled 1509–47) the Calais intelligence service was run by an Italian ‘professional diplomat’ named Thomas Spinelly.

Spies were mostly itinerants – people whose professions allowed them to travel without raising suspicion. These included merchants, priests and musicians (minstrels). Other spies adopted the costumes of monks, pilgrims and hermits as cover. The best spies were those who were personal servants, grooms, ushers and the like. These could either be planted in the service of an opponent or be found among existing staff and tempted with bribes to spy on their masters and mistresses.

Although the rewards could be good for a successful spy, with fixed, regular monthly payments a common perk, the punishments meted out to captured spies were particularly brutal, even by medieval standards. Execution was certain, but only after the application of various degrees of torture, which had been authorized as a legal means of interrogation by Edward IV. An agent of Catherine d’Anjou found himself locked in the Tower of London and was interrogated by having hot irons applied to the soles of his feet – under such torture most victims would confess to anything put before them, no matter how trumped-up the charge. Edward IV and Henry VII often led the interrogations personally.

Espionage continued under Henry VIII but took a back seat to the most important issue of the day – Henry’s bloody quest for a male heir. When Pope Clement VII would not permit Henry to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, Henry broke off from Rome and declared himself head of the English church. In 1534 this was confirmed by an ‘Act of Supremacy’, swiftly followed by a new, severe ‘Act of Treason’, which outlawed any opposition to the break with Rome.

In 1535, as supreme head of the church, Henry appointed Thomas Cromwell as his Principal Commissary in ecclesiastical matters. In short, Cromwell’s mission was to coerce or batter the clergy into submission. A royal commission was set up, the agents of which were sent to visit monasteries and report on their condition. This mission began in Oxford in September 1535 and resulted in the closure of 376 monasteries and the seizure of riches from religious shrines. In the process, England became a police state and Henry a brutal despot.

One of the commissioners’ most sickening abuses was the execution of the 84-year-old abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting. Although the abbot had in fact accepted the supremacy of the king, one night while he slept, the commissioners searched his study and claimed to find a manuscript arguing against the divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. It appears that the manuscript was a forgery planted by Cromwell’s spies. Nevertheless, Whiting was chained to a cart and taken to London to stand trial for treason. In a sign of the times, Whiting, who was both deaf and sick, was allowed no counsel and was found guilty. His body was quartered, with a piece each sent to Wells, Bath, Chester and Bridgewater. The abbot’s head was hung from the gate of Glastonbury abbey.

So far did royal spies infiltrate the kingdom that people stopped writing, gossiping, going to confession or even sending presents to one another. Everyone knew that the slightest slip of the tongue would see the finger of suspicion pointed at them. It was, many felt, ‘as if a scorpion lay sleeping under every stone’.

There was poetic justice behind Cromwell’s demise. Enjoying his new-found importance, Cromwell advised Henry VIII to marry Anne of Cleves. When this marriage proved a disaster like the rest, Cromwell’s head was on the block – literally. In an ironic twist of fate he was arrested on charges of heresy and treason. Secret agents working for his rival, the Duke of Norfolk, planted incriminating letters in Cromwell’s home confirming the charges. Cromwell was executed outside the Tower of London on 28 July 1540.

Many consider the reign of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603), the Golden Age of England. Whatever her merits may have been, hers was a reign oozing with the blood of her enemies. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn and only came to the throne through the misfortune of others. When Henry VIII died in 1547, the throne passed to Elizabeth’s nine-year-old half-brother, Edward VI. Smallpox and tuberculosis caused Edward’s death at the age of 15 (1553), so, according to Henry VIII’s wishes, the throne should have passed to Elizabeth’s elder half-sister, Mary Tudor. However, because Mary was a devout Catholic, the English Protestants offered the throne instead to Lady Jane Grey, the granddaughter of Henry VII. Unfortunately for Lady Jane, her succession was deemed to contravene an Act of Parliament and was annulled nine days later. As Henry VIII had intended, the throne passed to Mary, who instantly set upon a course of reconciliation with Rome. In achieving this joyful harmony, the queen gained the disturbing soubriquet ‘Bloody Mary’. First to the block was Lady Jane. Mary then unleashed her own version of the Spanish Inquisition, burning heretics at the stake in droves. It was lucky for English Protestantism that Mary’s reign was but short lived. After just five years on the throne, in 1558 she died and the throne passed to Elizabeth.

Crowned on 15 January 1559, Elizabeth re-established the Protestant church and in so doing opened a whole new conflict with Rome and Catholicism. First Elizabeth was excommunicated. Then the pope strongly hinted that anyone assassinating her was guaranteed to go straight to heaven. The Catholics even had a replacement waiting in the wings – Mary Queen of Scots. All they needed was Elizabeth dead.

With plot after plot to foil, most authorities claim that the Elizabethan era marks the true beginning of the British secret services. But is this claim justified? The chief spymaster of Elizabeth’s reign was Sir Francis Walsingham (c.1530–90), her First Minister and member of her Privy Council. Certainly Walsingham was head of a formidable network of spies, but it was a network built around him, not the state. With only occasional exceptions, this service was not state-funded. Generally speaking, Walsingham paid his spies from his own purse and died with enormous debts because of it. Most importantly, when Walsingham died, so did the service – there was no official framework in place to ensure it survived him intact.

Walsingham was a commoner by birth, but of a good enough family to study at King’s College, Cambridge. He did not take his degree, but instead went abroad to ‘places unknown’ in 1550 to broaden his horizons through travel. He returned in 1552 and went to study law at Gray’s Inn, one of four ‘Inns of Court’ around the Royal Courts of Justice in London. The Inns were fashionable places for the sons of noblemen and country gentlemen, with only a handful of members ever actually becoming barristers.

As a Protestant of strong conviction, Walsingham left England during the reign of Bloody Mary and resumed his foreign travels in order to avoid persecution. He went to the Italian city of Padua where he enrolled in its university to study law. The university was one of Europe’s great centres of learning and by December 1555 Walsingham was appointed consularius – the official representative of all resident English students. In the Tudor period, Padua was a magnet for English scholars, eager to learn and feed off the energy of the Italian Renaissance – this was, after all, the era of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Michelangelo (1475–1564) and Machiavelli (1469–1527).


Niccolò Machiavelli

Machiavellian is a word often used in context with Walsingham and it is believed he came into contact with the Italian’s writings while in Italy. The Florentine Niccolò Machiavelli was responsible for a number of important works, including the notorious Il Principe (The Prince), which was partly based on the exploits of Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI. Similar in nature to Kautilya’s manual on statecraft, Il Principe also drew on the experiences of historical figures, in particular those recorded by the Roman historian Livy. By way of an example, a typical piece of ‘Machiavellian’ advice is found in Chapter 18 of Il Principe: ‘… men are so simple, and yeeld so much to the present necessities, that he who hath a mind to deceive, shall alwaies find another that will be deceivd.’

Under the heading of the ‘Secrete conveing of letters’ Machiavelli discusses the diverse means of communication used by those under siege. He introduces the reader to the world of cipher writing, explaining messages were not sent ‘by mouth’. As a further precaution, the enciphered messages were hidden in a variety of ways: within the scabbard of a sword, or placed in an unbaked loaf, which was then cooked and given to the messenger. Some spies were known to hide messages ‘in the most secret place of their bodies’ while others hid them in the collar of a pet dog. Machiavelli also revealed how others disguised their secret messages by use of secret ink, writing in between the lines of an ordinary letter. This way the sender did not have to trust the carrier with their secrets.

In Renaissance Italy cryptography became an everyday tool of machinating diplomats. In turn, intercepted ciphers required experts to crack them. Foremost among these was Giovanni Soro, cipher breaker-in-chief to Venice from 1506. Even the Vatican would send him messages to test their impenetrability. While in Italy Walsingham picked up what was considered the manual on code breaking by Leon Battista Alberti, the inventor of the cipher disk. Alberti’s main contribution to the world of secret codes was to switch between two cipher alphabets in the same message in order to baffle attempts at frequency analysis.

Other advances in cryptography that Walsingham would have been aware of included the insertion of blanks into numeric ciphers. In this case each letter of the alphabet could be issued a value – for instance ‘A’ might become ‘23’, while ‘86’ might represent ‘B’ and so on. To confuse frequency analysts, other numbers would be inserted that had no value whatsoever. Some numbers would indicate that the letter preceding it should be repeated – an ingeniously simple way of avoiding writing the same letter twice in a row. As the ciphers became more sophisticated, some numbers or symbols were a shorthand code for key words or names. In this case ‘43’ might indicate a commonly used word such as ‘the’ while the number ‘76’ could mean ‘the Queen’ or a place name, like ‘Rome’ for instance. The variations were endless – but not impregnable.

Although his stay in Padua must have been a great influence on the future spymaster, he did not remain there long. At the time he was being made consularius, the ‘Dudley Plot’ to depose Bloody Mary failed. As a Protestant, Walsingham got out of Italy, spending much of his time in Switzerland. His self-imposed exile continued until Queen Mary died. Returning to England Walsingham came under the patronage of William Cecil, later Lord Burghley (1521–98), who had been responsible for all matters of secret intelligence. However, as he went on to lead Elizabeth’s government, Burghley began farming out much of the intelligence work to Walsingham.

After a period as ambassador to France, Walsingham became Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, a post he would retain until his death in 1590. As Secretary of State, Walsingham’s prime concern and his major achievement was quite simply keeping Elizabeth alive.

There had already been several attempts to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots. The Ridolfi Plot of 1571, involving Philip II of Spain and Pope Pius V, led to the execution of the Duke of Norfolk in June 1572. Then in 1583, Walsingham’s agents had arrested Francis Throckmorton, who, under torture, revealed a Catholic conspiracy to place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. On both occasions, Parliament had called for Mary to be executed, but Elizabeth had overruled them. Walsingham agreed with the parliamentarian view that the only way to stop Catholic plots against Elizabeth was to get rid of Mary. The trouble was in convincing Elizabeth to recognize this and getting her to act. Although Mary was under effective house arrest from 1568, Elizabeth did not want blood on her hands. What Walsingham needed was implicit proof that Mary was involved in a plot to kill Elizabeth.

Such an opportunity presented itself in December 1585, when a Catholic named Gilbert Gifford arrived at the port of Rye. It is unclear if he was acting from conscience, avarice or fear, but Gifford went to Walsingham and revealed he was acting as a messenger between Mary and her supporters on the Continent. He offered to work as a double agent and demonstrated all the right credentials, telling Walsingham: ‘I have heard of the work you do and I want to serve you. I have no scruples and no fear of danger. Whatever you order me to do I will accomplish.’ Walsingham sent Gifford to his code-breaking expert, Thomas Phelippes, who took hold of the secret correspondence and set to work deciphering it.

Walsingham’s plan was quite simple. Gifford was sent to the French ambassador, Baron de Châteauneuf, to reveal a means of delivering messages to Mary in secret. He had bribed a sympathetic brewer who would conceal letters in beer barrels being delivered to Chartley, where Mary was being held. Because of his time on the Continent and the contacts he had made there, Gifford was able to convince Châteauneuf he could be trusted. However, before Châteauneuf’s messages were delivered to Mary, Phelippes saw them first. After he copied them, another of Walsingham’s men, Arthur Gregory, expertly resealed the envelopes with counterfeit wax seals. They were then taken to the brewer who had them put in a watertight bag and inserted into the bung of the beer barrel. Mary’s replies followed in reverse. When Phelippes quickly broke Mary’s cipher, Walsingham was privy to her secrets. All he needed was a conspiracy to pounce on.

There were plenty of English Catholics who were unhappy, but to find one actually prepared to murder the queen was another thing entirely. Fortune must have been smiling on Walsingham then, for in March 1586 at the Plough Inn, London, a plot was formed, led by the outlaw priest John Ballard (or to use his alias – ‘Captain Fortesque’, gentleman soldier) and Anthony Babington, an impulsive 24-year-old law student at Lincoln’s Inn. With Ballard was his companion, Bernard Maude, who had obtained passports for them to travel to Paris. There in the French capital they planned to meet Mary’s supporters and the Spanish ambassador, Don Bernardino de Mendoza. The first item on their agenda was the Catholic invasion of England. Poor Ballard had no idea his dependable Maude was an English government spy.

Towards the end of May 1586, Ballard and Maude returned from France and excitedly told Babington the news. By September at the latest, a force of 60,000 French, Italian and Spanish troops would be landing in England. But before they could land, certain undertakings had to be fulfilled. Ballard said that he and Maude would travel to Scotland and raise a rebellion there, while Babington led an uprising of English Catholics. Thirdly, someone would have to assassinate Elizabeth – only then would the continental troops come ashore.

The person nominated for the regicide was John Savage, who while studying at Rheims had taken a vow to kill Elizabeth. From his time on the Continent Gilbert Gifford already knew of Savage’s vow. So, with the interception of Mary’s mail fully in swing, Gifford was sent to shadow Savage and incriminate him in the plot.

With Savage and Ballard under close surveillance by double agents, only Babington was still relatively unknown to Walsingham. The opportunity to place an agent with him arose in June when Babington tried to obtain a passport. There are several theories why Babington was planning a trip abroad at this juncture, even that the whole passport application was a red herring to throw Walsingham off his scent. The most plausible explanation is that his friend, Thomas Salusbury, realized that Ballard was nothing but trouble and was trying to get Babington as far away from the priest as possible. Their first attempt to secure a passport failed, but then Salusbury used a friend named Tindell to contact Robert Poley, a man reputed to have connections with Walsingham, who held ultimate sway over passport applications. In fact Poley was a fully fledged Walsingham stooge.

Poley heard Babington’s request for a passport and agreed to help, for a sum. Told by Walsingham to ingratiate himself with Babington, Poley offered to go abroad with Babington as a companion-servant. Babington appears to have been totally taken in by Poley, who by the end of June had arranged for Babington to meet Walsingham to discuss his passport request. During this, the first of three meetings, Walsingham appeared to be sounding Babington out to become an informer for him while abroad. This was all very normal – all loyal Englishmen travelling abroad were expected to pick up little snippets of intelligence in return for a passport. In truth Walsingham had no intention of letting Babington anywhere near the Continent. He either wanted Babington to turn Queen’s evidence, betray his fellow conspirators and implicate Mary, or be arrested as a conspirator himself.

A second meeting was held on 3 July at Walsingham’s house, when the spymaster pressed Babington over what sort of services he was prepared to perform in return for the passport, hoping he might inform on Jesuit missionaries. The meeting concluded with Walsingham convinced that Babington was of no use to him. Instead he would be set up as the fall guy. Gilbert Gifford had recently returned from a mission to Paris and Walsingham sent him to Babington to reveal the Catholic invasion was still very much on schedule. Gifford told Babington to communicate to Mary the details of what was being planned, using of course his ‘secure’ means of communication – the beer barrel express.

On 6 July Babington sent a letter that proved to be his death warrant. He named Ballard as the bringer of news from abroad, but no others. As for the details of the plot, Babington informed Mary that he with ten gentlemen and a hundred of their followers would come to rescue her. For the murder of Elizabeth – ‘the usurper’ he called her – he claimed to have six ‘noble gentlemen’ all of whom were his private friends. This of course was not strictly true, as Savage was the only one committed to the deed thus far. Most importantly, Babington asked for Mary’s approval and her recommendations concerning the arrangements he had made. If Mary said ‘yes’ to the plot, Walsingham’s elaborate snare would be sprung.

Mary’s reply came out of Chartley on the night of Sunday 17 July. She had already sent two letters in May that strongly incriminated her – one to the Spanish ambassador, Mendoza, giving her support to an invasion of England, and the other to a supporter, Charles Paget, asking him to remind Philip of Spain of the urgency for invasion. Both letters had reached Walsingham, but neither implicated her in the way the letter to Babington did. In it Mary wholeheartedly endorsed Babington’s plan and even gave advice on how best to proceed. When referring to the assassination of Elizabeth, Mary stressed the importance of her being quickly rescued lest her keeper learned of the plot and took measures to prevent her rescue.

After it was decoded by Phelippes, the letter was taken by Walsingham to Elizabeth. Not satisfied with it, Elizabeth asked that a postscript be added that might reveal the identity of the six would-be assassins. Walsingham had Phelippes copy out the whole message again, this time inserting the appropriate pieces.26 The postscript read:

I would be glad to know the names and quelityes of the sixe gentlemen which are to accomplish the dessignement, for that it may be I shall be able uppon knowledge of the parties to give you some further advise necessarye to be followed therein … as also from time to time particularlye how you proceede and as soon as you may for the same purpose who bee alredye and how farr every one privye hereunto.

On 29 July the letter finally arrived with Babington, who slowly began to decipher it. The following day, a message from Walsingham arrived requesting another meeting. The spy Robert Poley began hinting to Babington that he should tell Walsingham everything about the plot. Realizing that their plan to raise England and Scotland in rebellion was a fantasy, Babington, Savage and Ballard agreed that they should tell Walsingham everything, but try to shift all the blame onto Maude and Gifford. Poley was sent to arrange the meeting.

Walsingham, meanwhile, had been playing a waiting game. He wanted to see how Babington would reply to Mary’s letter, but he was beginning to fear the plotters might be about to flee. On 4 August he finally struck, arresting Ballard as he went to visit Babington.28 When Babington learned of Ballard’s capture he was at a complete loss and turned to Poley for advice. Babington asked if he should turn himself in and blame Ballard, or go on the run. Poley advised him to do neither, but to remain where he was. He would go and petition Walsingham for Ballard’s release.

When Poley did not return that evening, Babington wrote him a farewell note and prepared to flee. However, Walsingham had sent another agent, John Scudamore, to keep track of Babington. The two went to dinner together and towards the end of the meal a note arrived for Scudamore. A glimpse of the handwriting told Babington all he needed to know – the message was from Walsingham. Babington calmly stood up and, leaving his sword and cloak at the table, he went off to pay for the food. Once out of sight, he ran for his life.

Warned by Babington as he stopped to change clothes, the conspirators went their separate ways in order to avoid arrest. Babington held out in St John’s Wood with several companions. They reached a Catholic family by the name of Bellamy, where they received food and attempted to disguise themselves as labourers by cutting their hair and staining their skin. However, by 14 August they had been spotted and were arrested then returned to London. So pleased was Elizabeth, she ordered the church bells rung in celebration, with bonfires lit and psalms sung in thanksgiving.

Before being brought to trial on 13 September 1586 facing charges of high treason, the conspirators had the ordeal of interrogation to face. As a Catholic priest, Ballard could expect every device and means of torture to be placed at the hands of his tormentors. His interrogation began on 8 August and by the time of the trial he could no longer walk and had to be carried into the Westminster courtroom. One of the accused had died during the interrogation, or, to use the improbable official verdict, had strangled himself. All bore the marks of torture, but Babington and Savage were treated less harshly. In return Babington provided two long confessions, no doubt with Walsingham aiding his recollection of events. All must have been sickened to realize how they had been set up and played by Walsingham.

The trial was of course a mere formality. All were condemned to die and, as a deterrent against further plots, Elizabeth asked if some crueller than usual punishment might be devised for them. When Lord Burghley assured her that the existing methods were quite sufficient, he was making the understatement of the millennium. On 20 September Babington, Ballard, Savage and four others were tied face down onto hurdles at the Tower of London and dragged by horses through the streets of London to the place of execution. A disturbingly graphic, probably first-hand account of the execution was given by William Camden in his Annales:

The 20th of the same month, a gallous and a scaffold being set up for the purpose in St. Giles his fieldes where they were wont to meete, the first 7 were hanged thereon, cut downe, their privities cut off, bowelled alive and seeing, and quartered, not without some note of cruelty. Ballard the Arch-plotter of this treason craved pardon of God and of the Queene with a condition if he had sinned against her. Babington (who undauntedly beheld Ballard’s execution, while the rest turning away their faces, fell to prayers upon their knees) ingenuously acknowledged his offences; being taken downe from the gallous, and ready to bee cut up, hee cried aloud in Latin sundry times, Parce mihi Domine Iesu, that is, Spare me Lord Jesus. Savage brake the rope and fell downe from the gallous, and was presently seized on by the executioner, his privities cut off, and he bowelled alive. Barnwell extenuated his crime under colour of Religion and Conscience. Tichburne with all humility acknowledged his fault, and moved great pitty among the multitude towards him. As in like manner did Tilney, a man of a modest spirit and goodlie personage. Abbington, being a man of a turbulent spirit, cast forth threates and terrors of blood to be spilt ere long in England.

The carnage unleashed upon these seven men stretched the public’s desire for justice to the limit. Apparently, when the executioner plunged his hand into Babington’s body to pull out the heart, the plotter still appeared conscious and was seen to murmur, causing the crowd to gasp. So violent were their ends that the Queen ordered the other seven men be hanged until dead before the ritual disembowelling began. Their sentence was carried out the following day.

With incontrovertible proof and the confessions of the Babington plotters, Walsingham now turned to his real prize, the trial of Mary. Despite Walsingham’s proof, Elizabeth was still reluctant to take action against her. A trial was eventually held at Fotheringhay Castle on 14 October 1586. The prosecution began with a discourse on the Babington conspiracy, concluding that Mary ‘knew of it, approved it and had promised her assistance’. Mary began her defence courageously, denying she knew Babington, that she had never received any letters from him, nor written to him, nor plotted against the Queen. If there was written evidence in her own hand contrary to her statement, she demanded it be produced. She did admit some English Catholics were unhappy, but pointed out that shut up in her virtual prison, she could neither know nor hinder what was being attempted in her name.

The prosecution revealed Babington’s confession of a correspondence with Mary. When copies of Babington’s letters to Mary were read out, she admitted Babington may well have written them, but could the council prove she had received them? They could. Proof came when more of Babington’s confession was read out, in which he confessed that Mary had written back to him. Mary burst into tears, but claimed her cipher had been used by others to forge the letters – something which was partially true.

The confessions of Savage and Ballard were then read out. They had confessed that Babington had told them of certain letters he had received from the Queen of Scots. Mary continued with the line that it was easy to counterfeit ciphers. She then turned her guns on Walsingham, who found himself ‘taxed’ by her words. As a lawyer, he was prepared for this sort of argument and he protested his mind was free from all thoughts of malice:

I call God to record that as a private person I have done nothing unbeseeming an honest man, nor as I bear the place of a public person have I done anything unworthy my place. I confess that being very careful for the safety of the Queen and Realm, I have curiously searched out the practises against the same.

Mary continued on the attack and told Walsingham that she was only reporting what she had heard said of him. To discredit Walsingham’s evidence she declared spies were ‘men of doubtful credit, which dissemble one thing and speak another’. Flooding with tears she begged Walsingham not to believe those who declared she had consented to Elizabeth’s destruction. Through the tears she said: ‘I would never make a shipwreck of my soul by conspiring the destruction of my dearest sister.’ It was the performance of her life, but it was all in vain.

After much deliberation, it was decided that Queen Elizabeth’s safety could not be guaranteed so long as Mary Queen of Scots survived. Her execution took place on 8 February 1587 in the Great Hall at Fotheringhay. She dressed as if on a festival day and was led to the scaffold, upon which were a chair, a cushion and a block, all draped in black cloth. After prayers, Mary laid her head at the block and remained very still, repeating to herself, ‘In manus tuas, Domine.’

While one of the executioners held her steady, the other struck, but missed the neck. Struck in the back of the head, Mary was heard to whisper ‘Sweet Jesus’ before the second blow fell. Even this blow did not sever the head completely. A third blow was required before the head rolled completely free. The incident proceeded further into farce when one of the inept executioners went to lift up the head to acclaim the words ‘God save the Queen’ – he lifted it by the hair, only to find Mary had been wearing a wig. Her head fell to the floor with a thud and according to one witness, Robert Wynkfielde, Mary’s lips continued to move up and down for a quarter of an hour after the execution. Then Mary’s pet dog appeared from hiding under her petticoat and began lapping up the blood.