Espionage During the Napoleonic Wars


Charles Schulmeister

The Napoleonic wars pitted France, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, against a number of countries in Europe from 1797 through 1815. At different times during this period, Great Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, Denmark, Sweden, and the Neapolitan Kingdom all waged war against France in various coalitions. The main rivals in this struggle were Great Britain and France. During this time, the methods of intelligence gathering, espionage, and counterespionage did not differ so much from modern methods, apart from the differences in technological progress. Compared to other periods, however, espionage was a much more intense activity during the Napoleonic wars. This rise in espionage activity resulted mainly from revolutionary events in France and the following French emigration, which was in turn, used by Britain to achieve their own goals.

France had one unsurpassed master of intrigue in the famous person of Joseph Fouché, who spied rampantly on his social and professional contacts alike. Fouché remained as permanent minister of police during four consecutive regimes: directory, consulate, empire, and the restored monarchy.

During this period, Switzerland became a place of intensive intelligence activity by Britain, mostly against France. In 1794 the new charge d’affaire of Great Britain was the newly arrived William Wickham (1761-1840), for whom his diplomatic work in Bern was a cover. Wickham’s main activity was to collect information about France and to lead various royalist organizations, which acted inside France as well as abroad. In particular, Wickham organized invasions of royalist armies into France, one of which was the Quiberon Bay invasion of 1795; the effort failed within one month. Both Wickham’s agents and those of the royalist organizations actively participated for almost three years in different conspiracies against France, but in 1797, many of those involved were arrested. Wickham was forced to leave Switzerland in 1798, but the successive charge d’affaire continued the same activity.

British espionage against the Italian Army of France was also well organized. Here, the main figures were Count d’Antreg, one of the organizers of the royalist underground, and the British diplomat Francis Drake. D’Antreg received information from the generals of the French army, such as key information about the Egyptian expedition of Bonaparte. D’Antreg was arrested in 1797 by the French in Venice and was scheduled for extradition to France, but was first granted an audience with Napoleon. After gaining Napoleon’s favor, d’Antreg was released on his word of honor. He was then quickly aided in an escape to Switzerland.

British intelligence agents pursued Napoleon and his army during the Egypt expedition, and even attempted to organize the general’s assassination. One well-known attempt was organized by one of the top officers of the British intelligence service. A fellow officer named Foure was married to one of Napoleon’s mistresses; the plan called for Madame Foure to carry out the assassination during one of her dalliances with Napoleon. Foure eventually refused his mission, and the plan was not executed.

Another attempt to assassinate Napoleon was made on December 24, 1800. The First Consul Napoleon was required to be present at a performance in the Paris Grande Opera. When Napoleon’s carriage rushed along Saint Nicolas Street, an explosion resounded. Napoleon did not suffer; his carriage was driving too quickly, but the power of the explosion was such that almost 50 people were killed or wounded and 46 neighboring houses were damaged. The source was a barrel of gunpowder laced with shrapnel that was hidden in a harnessed wagon at the roadside. At first, the Jacobins were accused of the attempt, and some were executed. But those who headed the investigation quickly determined that it was the work of royalists through whom was apparent “the hand of London.”

Yet another attempt on Napoleon was undertaken by royalists (again supported from London) in 1803 to 1804, but it was stopped by Fouche’s police. Fouche identified the plotters using his “Chouan’s Geography,” an elementary data base (card-index) compiled in his ministry containing detailed information about 1000 active royalists. The French word chouan is associated with royalty, or in this case, royalists.

Britain also actively collected all possible information about France during the Napoleonic period. For this purpose they used (in addition to traditional methods) various royalist organizations (in particular the “Correspondence,” which mainly collected intelligence data). Smugglers, and fishers, and the inhabitants of Jersey Island were also actively recruited, especially during the continental blockade, for contact between Britain and the continent, as well as for espionage. One of these Jersey inhabitants, a British agent, was able to make 184 spying trips from Jersey to France before he was eventually captured by the French and executed in 1808.

Led by Fouche, the French used counterespionage and organized the assassinations of unwelcome persons, or at the least, discredited them. One example is the brilliantly executed operation directed against the British diplomat Francis Drake. The French agent Mehde de la Touch was sent to London, where with great difficulty he was able to gain the confidence of top British authorities. De la Touch was able to persuade them that he represented a Jacobin committee that wanted to overthrow Napoleon. De la Touch was put in contact with Drake, at that time the ambassador in Munich, Bavaria, and using Drake, the phony committee was able to swindle large amounts of money from the British government. After a long period of such activity, the French published this information in the French press, Drake was discredited, and was forced to flee from Munich.

Napoleon himself was also actively interested in espionage. Among Napoleon’s secret agents, the most successful was the Alsatian Charles Schulmeister, a trader from Strasbourg. Schulmeister brilliantly infiltrated the Austrian army, including its intelligence service, and by collecting vital information from and disseminating misinformation to the Austrian military commanders, ensured Napoleon’s victory in Austria.

The year 1805 marked the beginning of Napoleon’s war with Austria and Russia. Schulmeister was sent to Vienna with the mission to discern the character and plans of General Karl von Mack, commander of the Austrian Army on the Danube. Schulmeister gained the confidence of those in the aristocratic circles of Vienna and was soon introduced to General Mack. Schulmeister then persuaded Mack that he represented a royalist opposition, showing him secret data about the French army, given to him according to Napoleon’s order, and false documents about his own Hungarian aristocratic origin. Soon Schulmeister was completely trusted by Mack and, incredibly, was designated chief of intelligence in General Mack’s army. Schulmeister immediately informed Napoleon about Mack’s plans, and Napoleon, in turn, ordered the printing of false newspapers and letters detailing the unrest in the French army. Mack swallowed the bait. He assumed that France was close to an uprising, and believed the information that Napoleon’s troops were retreating from the front line on the Rhine River. He began to pursue the French. Most likely Mack was surprised when he collided with the “retreated” corps of French General Ney, and then discovered French troops at his flanks and back. The army of the gullible general was surrounded in Uhlm, and all that was left to do was to surrender. Napoleon then gained one of his most famous victories at the battle of Austerlitz, captured Vienna, and installed Schulmeister as its chief of police.

Napoleon soon required the further services of Schulmeister in Germany, where the operative set up an effective spy cluster that provided Napoleon, for a while, with valuable information from adversaries to the East. Schulmeister was awarded wealth for his efforts, but longed for the Legion of Honor, which Napoleon never bestowed, claiming, “gold is the only suitable reward for spies.” After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and subsequent exile, Schulmeister was arrested, and bought his freedom with his fortune. Years later and nearly penniless, Schulmeister sold tobacco at a stand in Strasbourg and regaled customers with stories of espionage during the Napoleonic wars.

BOOKS: Dallas, Gregor. The Final Act: The Roads to Waterloo. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2001. Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Age of Napoleon. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.


Room 40 at the Admiralty

The First Bletchley Park: This incredible image taken in June 1919 shows World War One codebreakers – including Major Malcolm Hay (back left) in their secret office in London. The organisation, known as Room 40, had a pivotal role in bringing the Great War to an end

From 1914 the conflict at sea fell into two, almost distinct, parts: the surface engagements of the bigger ships, sometimes in line ahead, pounding each other with their heavy guns; and that of a secret U-boat war of sudden and unexpected torpedo attacks. This last part had political as well as economic effects. The Royal Navy’s strategy was to use their big guns to enforce a total economic blockade of ships supplying Germany and her allies. The North Sea was to be a war zone and boarding parties from the Royal Navy ships made stringent checks on neutral shipping for any goods meant for a German port. It was a brutal, effective and probably illegal weapon, in response to which Norway, Sweden, the USA, as well as other countries, made loud protests about the contravention of international law. The British did not acknowledge their protest so the Royal Navy maintained a very effective blockade with a relatively small number of warships because of the good intelligence from wireless intercepts about German shipping movements. In response, German U-boats were ordered to sink any ships found in British waters in an act of unrestricted warfare. A savage battle was fought in the First World War, as well as the Second World War, as the two opponents tried to strangle each other to death. The stakes were that the population of the loser would starve. The Royal Navy was well equipped to combat surface ships, but was woefully unprepared for the U-boat threat; however, signals intelligence was going to play a crucial part in the great sea battle that lay ahead.

The Admiralty had fitted wireless telegraphy in all its major vessels by the beginning of the First World War, but was still unprepared for the signals intelligence battle in which they were about to become engaged. They had some hints of what part wireless telegraphy might play from their experience in observing the use of wireless telegraphy in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese War. An ageing coal-fired Imperial Russian Fleet left their base at St Petersburg to undertake a mammoth trip through the Suez Canal and into South East Asian waters to finally arrive in the Sea of Japan to engage the Imperial Japanese Navy. The British, and indeed the world, watched the slow progress of Russia’s fleet by monitoring its wireless communications during the course of their long journey. The W/T specialists on board the Royal Navy ship HMS Diana, which shadowed the fleet, commented on the poor standard of transmission and encoding of messages coming from the cumbersome Russian fleet as it chugged halfway around the world to confront the Japanese. The Russian Imperial Fleet engaged the Japanese battleships and was almost totally destroyed, distress calls transmitted by sinking battleships filling the airwaves. Russia’s defeat was reported back by wireless to the Admiralty in London, but the lessons of the extended exercise in the use or misuse of wireless telegraphy were ignored. The British Admiralty had no signals intercept service or plan to create one in 1914 as war started, but luck was on their side.

Within days of the declaration of war in August 1914, the Admiralty’s recently appointed Director of Intelligence Rear Admiral Henry Oliver was being given copies of intercepted German wireless transmissions in code that he was unable to read. Winston Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty, and the soon to be appointed First Sea Lord Admiral John (Jackie) Fisher, asked Oliver to set up a wireless intercept service. The Admiralty allocated Room 40 in their Old Building to house this new service. Room 40 would be the title of a signals intelligence bureau that would achieve extraordinary things, first for Britain’s war at sea and later as an intelligence centre of wider dimensions. Oliver needed a director for the embryonic intercept service so he turned to his old friend Sir Alfred Ewing, who was Director of Naval Education, and over lunch at the United Services Club, now the Institute of Directors, he offered him the job. Ewing had been a great success at educating navy personnel and had received a knighthood; in addition, Oliver knew that he had an academic interest in codes and ciphers. Ewing, immaculately dressed and conscious of his position and dignity, was an inspired choice for the job with more than his share of luck in its success. Ewing’s first move was to review what there was in coding and ciphering expertise in the archives of The British Library, the General Post Office, Lloyds and other repositories of literature and experience on the subject. His conclusion was that he needed a multi-talented team to help him in the task whose shape was beginning to emerge.

German wireless transmission intercepts were coming in thick and fast from radio listening stations, or ‘Y’ stations as they came to be known, that began to be installed all along England and Scotland’s east coasts. Piles of German transmissions in code and a few in plain text from new ‘Y’ stations were gathering at the Admiralty, in addition to other contributions from radio amateurs who began to play their part in intercepting German messages. Ewing’s ever-increasing supply of messages in cipher needed code breakers to work on them, but also people who could understand the purport of a message in naval terms and practice. The intercepts were all in German, too, so the team that Ewing needed to recruit had to contain talented cryptanalysts, naval officers and translators to create a bureau that would help to shape the war to come.

In the early days, Room 40 in the Admiralty Buildings in Whitehall began co-operation with the Army at the War Office just across the road. The army did not have the flying start in putting together a decryption team that the navy was enjoying, but progress with interception was shared. Some decryptions of German coded messages began to emerge as Ewing’s small but growing team began to bed down in their task. This co-operation did not last long, however, as Room 40 began to prove itself the better bureau of the two and was rather pleased to show it. In Germany at the same time there was no initiative to create an intercept service and, when a German signals intelligence team was finally inaugurated, it proved trivial compared to the British effort. Even Room 40 was not without its shortcomings, however. Intelligence has several aspects to it, each of which needs to work in balance with the others. The accurate interception of a coded transmission was the first stage. Decoding it was next; a translation was needed, which required a knowledge of German marine terminology and practice to make sense of the message. From those fragments of information, and maybe others collected earlier, an evaluator’s skill was needed to build a coherent summary of intelligence for the field commander. These evaluations could support and guide life and death decisions for those directing the ships or ground forces in the face of the enemy.

The directors of intelligence had to decide to whom they should show this precious knowledge of the enemy. Cast the distribution list too narrowly, as Hitler did, and you limit the use of valuable intelligence, but cast it too widely and the risk of a disaster in the shape of a leak could betray your sources to the enemy who would promptly close them down. It was a difficult balance between too open-handed a distribution of your intelligence and paranoia about the enemy’s spies that are always a risk to your secret sources and plans. Room 40 as a bureau had limited its effectiveness by restricting its agenda to acting largely as an interception and decoding role rather than a wider intelligence centre into which it would evolve later in the war. Oliver and Ewing had built up an extraordinarily effective decoding facility, but would play what intelligence cards they had very close to their chests. This meant that any useful intelligence their cryptanalysts had generated had a more limited effect than it could have done. Later in the war, Room 40’s capability came into its own as a fully effective, intelligence-gathering, evaluation and exploitation organisation under the inspired leadership of Admiral ‘Blinker’ Hall. He was not only a superb spymaster but a great judge of men; one of his many lieutenants, Commander Alastair Denniston RN, served his signals intelligence apprenticeship under Hall and was to make his mark in intelligence later on.

To meet the need of the unsolved coded intercepts the Admiralty began by recruiting bright young men and their tutors from the universities for cryptanalysis and linguistic work in the Room 40 team. The foundation of Britain’s signals intelligence bureau and their cryptanalysis skills was being laid by Ewing’s growing team; its effectiveness would last for half a century or more. Sadly, a damaging quarrel between the War Office, or MI 1B as it was designated, and the Admiralty across the road in Whitehall was not resolved until 1915. Such squabbles are not an unknown phenomenon among security services of virtually all nations, even up to the present day. The ‘spat’ limited the development of the army’s military code breaking unit in the precious months during the opening phases of the war. The main reason for the row seemed to be that the ‘Y’ stations intercepting enemy signals were gathering a mix of messages of both naval and military interest, so the War Office and the Admiralty agreed to a guarded co-operation. This arrangement broke down as a result of what seems an immature competition between the two services, probably because Room 40 at the Admiralty was making better progress in decoding intercepted messages than the War Office – and flaunted it. The Admiralty was preparing to go it alone in their signals intelligence war.

Wireless telegraphy was a fairly recent invention in 1914, but it had been made a standard installation in all major Royal Navy ships, as well as those of the fast expanding Imperial German Navy. Telegraphy was widely accepted and practiced by sea goers as it could act as a lifeline, helping them to survive the dangers of the sea, but it was just about to become an effective weapon of offence as well.

Germany was loath to risk her navy against a larger British fleet in a major action, so they decided on a strategy of attrition by trying to catch smaller detachments of the British warships in short, sharp actions. Penetration of German naval codes and ciphers by the British using the new technology helped them to counter this strategy. Deception in signals transmissions became a widely used practice by both the British and German navies, often in innovative ways. One aspect of signals security for ships at sea was to disguise the recipient of a radio message, so a common ruse among German transmitters was to direct a message from one coastal station to another rather than to the ship at sea for which it was really intended. The vessel would ‘overhear’ the message and act upon it; this was the beginning of a wireless-based game of hide and seek played by intercept services to help win or lose the war at sea.

Ewing needed cryptographers urgently so the first place that he looked was within the Royal Navy itself, with staff members of the colleges at Dartmouth and Osborne the first to be interviewed. One candidate was Alastair Denniston, who was teaching German at Osborne. He was offered an appointment which was assumed by all to be a short-term one during the school holidays that he was then enjoying. No one envisaged that the war would last for several years and that cryptology would prove a life-long career for Alastair. He became a major figure in Britain’s long chronicle of cryptology and intelligence spanning almost half a century and two world wars. Ewing recruited a disparate team of characters who came from many walks of life, creating a mixed bag of extraordinarily cerebral linguists and naval experts in his team. Room 40 would prove far too small for the fast growing band of decoders, but it did have the advantage of being situated in the Admiralty Building within a few moments’ walk of Churchill’s and Fisher’s offices. Churchill decided that there should be some ground rules for the staff, and his directions, written on a single page of Admiralty notepaper and dated 8 November 1914, is still in Britain’s archives. It is headed ‘Exclusively Secret’ and addressed to COS (Chief of Staff, Admiral Oliver) and D of Educt- (Director of Education, which is a position Sir Alfred Ewing still retained) and read:

An officer of the War Staff, preferably from the ID (Intelligence Division) should be selected to study all the decoded intercepts, not only current but past, to compare them continually with what actually took place in order to penetrate the German mind and movements and make reports. All these intercepts are to be written in a locked book with their decoded, and all other copies are to be collected and burnt. All new messages are to be entered in the book, and the book is only to be handled under the direction of the COS.

The officer selected is for the present to do no other work.

I shall be obliged if Sir Alfred Ewing will associate himself continuously with this work.

The order has the initial WSC in red ink, the date 8/11 and the counter-signature of Admiral Fisher which was an F in green ink.

Paranoia was working fine in the Admiralty.

Early Cold War Reconnaissance Flights

F-6D & F-6K
A total of 163 P-51Ks were completed as F-6K photo-reconnaissance aircraft. 126 Inglewood-built P-51Ds from blocks 20, 25, and 30 were converted after completion as F-6Ds. A few others were similarly converted near the end of the war. All of these photographic Mustangs carried two cameras in the rear fuselage, usually a K17 and a K22, one looking out almost horizontally off to the left and the other one down below looking out at at an oblique angle. Most F-6Ds and Ks carried a direction- finding receiver, serviced by a rotating loop antenna mounted just ahead of the dorsal fin. Most F-6Ds and Ks retained their armament.

In January 1940, the Luftwaffe tested the prototype Ju 86P with a longer wingspan, pressurized cabin, Jumo 207A1 turbocharged diesel engines, and a two-man crew. The Ju 86P could fly at heights of 12,000 m (39,000 ft) and higher on occasion, where it was felt to be safe from Allied fighters. The British Westland Welkin and Soviet Yakovlev Yak-9PD were developed specifically to counter this threat.
Satisfied with the trials of the new Ju 86P prototype, the Luftwaffe ordered that some 40 older-model bombers be converted to Ju 86 P-1 high-altitude bombers and Ju 86 P-2 photo reconnaissance aircraft. Those operated successfully for some years over Britain, the Soviet Union and North Africa. In August 1942, a modified Spitfire V shot one down over Egypt at some 14,500 m (49,000 ft); when two more were lost, Ju 86Ps were withdrawn from service in 1943.
Junkers developed the Ju 86R for the Luftwaffe, using larger wings and new engines capable of even higher altitudes – up to 16,000 m (52,500 ft) – but production was limited to prototypes.

In May 1945 British and US units overran a number of Luftwaffe intelligence centres in the heart of the German Reich. They recovered a remarkable imagery collection covering the western part of the Soviet Union that had been assembled by the Luftwaffe. For the next two decades this photography was a vital part of British and American targeting intelligence. They gathered together this huge photographic collection, under Operations Dick Tracy and GX, from a number of dispersed locations. These ranged from a barn near Reichenhall, through partially burned photography found in barges, with some of the best said to be from Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden and yet more from Vienna and Oslo. Totalling over 1 million prints it required nearly 200 officers to manage the collection. In October 1945 the duplication effort moved from Pinetree in Essex to RAF Medmenham in Oxfordshire. Work on piecing the material together continued beyond 1949. More photography was purchased from two unidentified ‘gentlemen of Europe’ in 1958 and Dino Brugioni mentions the discovery, of hitherto unknown material, moved from Berlin to a Dresden basement at the end of the war, which was found in 1993. The combined collection provided a detailed photographic record of Soviet Russia as far as the Ural Mountains and had begun to be amassed well before the Nazi invasion in 1941. Significant updating and replacement of this imagery was not possible until the advent of satellite imagery after 1960. This collection was the basis of the continuous Anglo-American photographic intelligence exchanges throughout the Cold War but was not restricted to just Soviet-focused material.

The US airborne intelligence collection effort in Europe was huge. Between 1945 and 1990, USAFE flew around 10,000 flights in the Berlin Corridors and BCZ – an average of a flight every one and a half days, which dwarfed British and French efforts. USAFE also conducted ‘non-corridor’ ‘peripheral flights’, from Federal Germany, as far afield as the Baltic Sea in the north, along the IGB and Czech-German border and south to the Adriatic, the Mediterranean and Black and Caspian seas. It also managed early penetration overflights over Eastern Europe before the arrival of the U-2. This extensive programme was conducted in conjunction with the discreet, passive and active support of other governments, including Denmark, West Germany, Greece, Norway, Sweden, Turkey and others.

European operations not only involved USAFE, but also other USAF commands, the US Navy, US Army and CIA. Most programmes were highly compartmentalised; a considerable number were very short-term and often overlapped with each other. They frequently used the same, or very similar aircraft, operating from the same bases, using crews and missions often mounted against the same ‘targets’. These many operations were often interrelated and significantly impinged on Corridor and BCZ flights. The majority of the missions were launched from Wiesbaden and Rhein-Main (Frankfurt-am-Main International Airport) Air Bases. The Americans’ efforts to disguise many of these operations made them even more impenetrable to outside observers – as they were meant to be.

Early Post-Second World War Operations
In 1945, the Allies started a joint US–UK imagery collection programme over their respective occupation zones in Germany to update mapping, to help assess the needs of economic reconstruction and as a contingency against possible future military hostilities. Aware that post-war relations with the Soviets were going to be difficult, both were concerned that they lacked the necessary detailed targeting information about Europe that might be required in the event of a future global conflict.

In November 1945, the US 45 RS based at Fürth AB, near Nürnberg began to use its P-51D Mustangs and F-6Ks (the photographic reconnaissance version of the P-51 Mustang) to collect photographs over Germany. Details of these sorties are sparse, but by summer 1946 the squadron’s ‘Flight X’ had flown a small number of camera-equipped A-26 Invaders on occasional covert Corridor reconnaissance missions. Former USAF major Roger Rhodarmer, then a captain, and an experienced A-26 pilot, was sent to Germany to join 10 RG for photographic reconnaissance duties, of which he had no experience. Once there he was shown a modified A-26 that had a carefully concealed, forward-facing oblique K-18 camera with a 24in lens installed in the nose for Corridor flights. Most of the two units’ photographic reconnaissance tasks were not Corridor related, but involved flying between eighty and ninety hours a month on Project Birdseye, to photograph industrial and infrastructure ‘targets’ all over Europe at low level. The project was terminated in late 1946. In March 1947, 45 RS moved to Fürstenfeldbruck AB. It was not just the A-26s that flew such missions. In June 1946 a handful of camera-equipped RB-17s of 10 PCS based at Fürth AB started flying Project Casey Jones flights. This was a series of photo-survey sorties to update maps covering significant areas all over Europe.

In 1947, Detachment ‘A’ of 10 PCS took on an ELINT collection role, following serious incidents in the Austrian–Yugoslav border areas. On 9 August 1946 a USAAF C-47 Skytrain had departed Tulln Airfield in Austria bound for Rome, via Venice, on a routine scheduled courier flight. It encountered adverse weather and unwittingly strayed into Yugoslav airspace where it was intercepted and shot down by Yugoslavian Yak-3 fighters.

Fortunately all on board survived the subsequent crash-landing and were eventually released after being briefly interned. This sparked a series of sharp diplomatic exchanges between the US and Yugoslavian governments. Ten days later another C-47 was brought down in the same area by Yugoslav fighters. This time there were no survivors.

At HQ USAFE in Wiesbaden the question was – how could the Yugoslavs intercept the C-47s so effectively, especially in bad weather? The belief was that they possessed some form of radar fighter control capability, but hard evidence was lacking. To find the answer, two RB-17s were quickly fitted with intercept receivers and direction-finding antennae to equip them as ‘ferret’ or ELINT aircraft. On the first flight, along the Austrian–Yugoslav border, close to where the C-47s had been intercepted, transmissions from a familiar Second World War vintage German ‘Würzburg’ radar were detected, emanating from the site of a former German wartime radar school. The mission’s success encouraged USAFE to undertake further ‘ferret’ flights close to Soviet-occupied territory.


In 1940 the War Office established the Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham Castle in Surrey. It was the preserve of a mixed bag of individuals including Hugh Cott, a distinguished Cambridge zoologist who applied the coloration found on animal skins to guns and tanks. From the art world there was the Surrealist artist and friend of Picasso, Roland Penrose, who wrote the Home Guard Manual of Camouflage. Penrose’s party trick was successfully to hide his lover, the acclaimed American model, photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller, in a garden, naked, camouflaged from prying eyes with body paint and netting. He reasoned that if he could hide a naked woman in a garden full of people, anything could be hidden.

Perhaps the most famous of the British camoufleurs was the popular stage magician Jasper Maskelyne. Following the publication of his memoirs in 1949, Maskelyne has long been seen as the leading light in the deception world. However, the truth about the ‘war magician’ appears somewhat less fantastic under scrutiny. Maskelyne arrived in Cairo on 10 March 1941 as part of a detachment of 12 camouflage officers sent to work with Barkas. He spent much of his time performing magic shows for entertainment purposes and later went on to work for the escape and evasion department MI9, where he helped in devising concealed escape devices for POWs.

Maskelyne’s actual involvement in military deception appears to have been a bit of a sham. Curiously enough, people appeared much more confident with the dummy vehicles when they were told they had been devised by a well-known illusionist. It also appears that Dudley Clarke encouraged Maskelyne’s boasting to some extent, because it diverted attention away from A Force and himself. Somewhat ironically, then, Maskelyne’s main contribution to deception may have been to provide a cloak behind which others could work in secret.

Maskelyne’s more limited role is also suggested by the artist Julian Trevelyan, a fellow graduate from Farnham. An interesting character in his own right, Trevelyan was a member of the British Surrealist movement and before the war had experimented with injections of hallucinogenic synthetic Mescalin crystals, an experience which led him to exclaim: ‘I have been given the key of the universe.’ His feet firmly back on the ground, Trevelyan was sent from the United Kingdom on a fact-finding mission to the Middle East to witness the deceptions being carried out there by Barkas’s department.

In March 1942 Trevelyan visited Tobruk and then went to Barkas’s Camouflage Training and Development Centre at Helwan near Cairo. He was generally impressed with what he saw, except perhaps with a dummy railhead complete with dummy rolling stock and station, which he claimed that the Germans complimented by dropping a wooden bomb on. Having witnessed the hand of Barkas at work, the artist remarked: ‘It is thanks to Barkas, principally, that the formidable technique of deception has been elaborated. You cannot hide anything in the desert; all you can do is to disguise it as something else. Thus tanks become trucks overnight, and of course trucks become tanks, and the enemy is left guessing at our real strength and intentions.’

Returning to the situation at El Alamein, Barkas followed Auchinleck’s orders to congregate his dummies behind the main lines and was overjoyed that he, for the first time, received the magic words ‘operational priority’ to assist him. Operation Sentinel saw the land between El Alamein and Cairo become dotted with camps, complete with smoke rising from cookhouses and incinerators. Canteens were set up with dummy vehicles parked outside while their imaginary drivers were inside enjoying an equally notional ‘brew’. To thicken the defensive positions, the craftsmen at Barkas’s school at Helwan developed a wide range of decoys, including batteries of field guns that could be stowed inside a single truck. Within three weeks of starting the build up Barkas was simulating enough activity to indicate the presence of two fresh motorized divisions in close reserve to the main line.

After his failure to break through the Alamein line Rommel was forced onto the defensive. With an impatient Prime Minister anxiously watching proceedings, the British made their preparations for a counter-attack scheduled for 23 October. To cover this attack, two cover plans were developed, Operations Treatment and Bertram.

Shortly after Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army on 13 August he held his first meeting with Colonel Dudley Clarke and was given an appraisal of his command’s activities, which centred on maintaining a notional threat against Crete. Montgomery did not disapprove of Dudley Clarke’s tactics; in fact he endorsed them. When planning the counter-offensive, in addition to the notional threat against Crete, Montgomery wanted A Force to use its intelligence channels to make the Germans believe the start date, or D-Day, for the forthcoming Allied desert counter-offensive would be 6 November, two weeks later than actually planned. This A Force ruse was codenamed Treatment.

At the time, Dudley Clarke was heavily involved with the planning for Operation Torch. In October he was called to attend a meeting with the London Controlling Section, which was set up to ensure Anglo-American cooperation in deception once the US forces began operating in North Africa. As he would be away from Egypt at the crucial time, Clarke handed over management of Treatment to his deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Noël Wild.
Having been acquainted with him for some time before the war, in April 1942 Clarke had poached Wild from his job as a staff officer at GHQ Cairo. The circumstances of his recruitment were somewhat irregular. One evening Major Wild went to a Cairo hotel to cash a cheque and was ambushed by the A Force chief, who bought him drinks to celebrate Wild’s promotion to lieutenant colonel as Clarke’s deputy. When Wild enquired what the promotion entailed, and what exactly Clarke did, he was met with evasive replies. The only certainty was that Clarke wanted someone he knew and trusted in the post.

After a night’s sleep Wild accepted the position and was indoctrinated into the weird and wonderful world of A Force. By the time of Treatment, Wild was well enough versed in its techniques to use the A Force channels to hint that there were no plans to commit to a major offensive against Rommel. As long as German forces continued to advance into the Caucasus through the Soviet Union, the British were said to be apprehensive about their rear. Instead, Montgomery’s sole purpose was to use the lull in the fighting to train and test his troops for future operations. According to information sent out by the Cheese network, if there was going to be any major British attack it would be against Crete. This information was taken so seriously that Hitler ordered the island’s garrison to be strengthened on 23 September. He reiterated this order on 21 October, just two days before the British offensive was due to open.

To divert attention away from the last week of October, a conference was scheduled in Tehran. In attendance would be the British Commanders-in-Chief Middle East, PAIFORCE (Persia and Iraq) and India. This conference was scheduled for 26 October, three days after D-Day. In Egypt the last week of October was left open for officers to take leave and many had hotel rooms booked in their names.

The tactical counterpart to Treatment was codenamed Bertram and was given to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Richardson to devise and implement. An engineer by training, Richardson had only recently joined the planning staff of Eighth Army HQ after having spent a year with SOE in Cairo. Privately he was dismissive of the dummy tanks Auchinleck had used in Sentinel as a ‘pathetic last resort’. Richardson was sceptical about the chances of fooling the Germans, in particular the Luftwaffe and its photo-reconnaissance interpreters.

Richardson was summoned by Montgomery’s chief of staff, Freddie de Guingand, and received the outline of the British plan, which was a direct assault along the coastal road, on the right of the British position. He was then told to go away and come up with a suitable cover plan that would conceal the intention of the offensive for as long as possible, and when that was no longer possible, to mislead the enemy over the date and sector in which the attack was to be made.

For this purpose Montgomery wanted a plan that advertised false moves in the south, while concealing his real moves in the north of the sector. Pondering the situation from Rommel’s point of view, Richardson thought that the German field marshal might ‘buy’ the suggestion of a British attack from the south, as it was the sort of tactic he might resort to himself. The other thing Richardson had to consider was how to persuade Rommel the attack was not going to be delivered on 23 October, as was the case. The preparations for the battle were so vast that Richardson supposed they could only stall the enemy’s thinking by about ten days. The way he proposed to do this was ingenious. His idea was to construct a dummy pipeline bringing water to the southern flank. German reconnaissance would no doubt spot this pipeline and, by gauging the speed with which it was being constructed, they would be able to project the date on which the British would be ready to begin their operations. This date would be set at ten days after D-Day. Richardson took the plans to de Guingand, who approved them, and passed them on to Monty for his final endorsement.

With official approval granted, Richardson needed someone actually to implement the plans. Richardson was aware of A Force’s existence, probably through de Guingand, who had until recently been the Director of Military Intelligence in GHQ Cairo. However, Richardson was reluctant to use A Force because he believed Clarke’s work was so ‘stratospheric and secret’ it was best to keep well out of it. Instead Richardson used GHQ’s Camouflage Department under Barkas.

On 17 September Barkas and his deputy, Major Tony Ayrton, were invited to de Guingand’s caravan and warned that what they were about to hear was top secret. The Chief Engineer of the Eighth Army was about to make a number of bulldozed tracks running from an assembly area codenamed Martello towards the front line, running parallel with the coast road and railway. Shortly afterwards large concentrations of vehicles and tanks would begin concentrating at Martello along with vast quantities of stores and munitions. Beyond Martello, but about five miles behind the front line, a great number of field guns would be marshalled at an area codenamed Cannibal 1. These would then be moved closer to the front line to deliver an opening barrage from positions directly behind the front line codenamed Cannibal 2. De Guingand wanted to know if the Camouflage Department was able to assist with the following objectives:
1.   To conceal the preparations in the north.
2.   To suggest that an attack was to be mounted in the south.
3.   When the preparations in the north could not be concealed, to minimize their scale.
4.   To make the rate of build up appear slower than it actually was, so that the enemy would believe there were still two or three days before the attack commenced.

Although sobered when told he had about a month to achieve all this, Barkas was inwardly jubilant that at last Camouflage was about to make a ‘campaign swaying’ contribution.
Barkas and Ayrton left the caravan to formulate their plan and took a stroll along the beach where their voices were drowned out from prying ears by the waves breaking on the shore. Two hours later, having typed up an appreciation and report on the subject, they went back to de Guingand, offering to suggest

For this purpose Montgomery wanted a plan that advertised false moves in the south, while concealing his real moves in the north of the sector. Pondering that two armoured brigade groups were concentrating to the south. When Montgomery’s reply was delivered a few days later, Barkas was told to make provision for an entire phantom armoured corps in the south.

This entailed making 400 dummy Grant tanks and at least 1,750 transport vehicles and guns. Barkas was given ample resources, including three complete pioneer companies, a transport company and a POW unit. While he masterminded production of the material and devices, Barkas charged Ayrton and his colleague, the former Punch illustrator Brian Robb, with the actual deception work on the battlefield.



The deception scheme was composed of a number of separate plans, their component parts coming together to form a veritable symphony of deceit. The first problem was the approach tracks that were bulldozed from Martello to the front line. Although there was absolutely no hope of hiding their existence from the Luftwaffe, their purpose could be concealed. Ayrton went up in an aircraft to enact the role of a German reconnaissance pilot taking photographs. Ayrton’s solution to the problem of the tracks was ingenious. He called in at the Chief Engineer’s with annotated aerial photographs and suggested that rather than starting at Martello and driving directly to the front, the bulldozers should complete only patches of the track and join them together only much closer to D-Day.

More solutions were found to disguise the stores. Over 3,000 tons of stores had to be hidden at El Alamein train station, about five miles behind the front line. This included 600 tons of supplies, 2,000 tons of petrol, oil and lubricants and 420 tons of engineer stores. A similar amount required concealment at a second station about 15 miles to the east. In the forward area the most pressing problem was finding suitable storage for the cans of petrol. Ayrton and Robb found that there were about a hundred sections of slit-trenches in the area, all of which were lined with masonry. Supposing that these trenches were already well known to Germans from reconnaissance photographs, it was decided to line the trenches with a single course of petrol cans on each side. This slight reduction in the width of the trenches did not appear to change the shadows cast by the trenches, so 2,000 tons of fuel was successfully stored overnight. Confirmation of their success came when British air observers were sent out to locate the new fuel dumps and failed.

The food supplies arrived at the dumping ground in trucks by night. The trucks were met by guides and led to pre-arranged unloading sites in the open, featureless piece of terrain. As they were unloaded, the stores were stacked in such a way that they resembled three-ton trucks covered by camouflage netting. Further stores were stacked under the apron of the net, with the remaining boxes stacked and hidden under soldiers’ tents. To complete the illusion of a park of thin-skinned vehicles, a small unit of soldiers was moved into the area to animate it and real trucks were diverted to drive through it to create tracks and demonstrate the sort of activities associated with a vehicle park. Similar arrangements were made for the concealment of ammunition and other military stores close to the rail stations at El Alamein and also further back.

The British offensive was to be opened by an enormous barrage of around 400 25-pounder field guns. These guns had to be hidden at their assembly point and then again at their barrage positions. It was not simply a case of hiding the guns, but also their limbers and the distinctively shaped quad tractors used to transport them. It was found that by backing the limber up to the gun and rigging a canvas dummy vehicle over the top with the limber and gun’s wheels protruding, the effect was to produce a convincing three-ton truck. In turn the quads had a rectangular tent put over the back of them to make them also appear as trucks. Each gun crew was then trained in making the transformation from assembly area (Cannibal 1) to the barrage point (Cannibal 2) – the codename Cannibal deriving from the way the dummy ‘swallowed’ the thing it was protecting. When the time came to move the guns into position, the transition occurred at night and the gun crews had their tents and covers in place before the sun came up.

As for the Martello staging area, the problem was collecting hundreds of armoured vehicles in an area just 12 x 8 miles (19 x 13km). Since there was no way of hiding such an assembly, it was decided to fill up the Martello area with as many thin-skinned vehicles and dummies as quickly as possible. The Germans would no doubt notice this concentration area, but because nothing appeared to be happening there, they would come to ignore it.

Meanwhile, each tank that was destined to arrive at Martello was assigned a special point where it would be concealed. Each tank was provided with a ‘sunshield’, an invention that Barkas attributed to Wavell, who had earlier shown him a sketch of a tank with a canopy over it. The idea was that each tank would have a quickly detachable cover to make it look like a truck. In all, 772 ‘sunshields’ were issued before El Alamein. The tank crews were trained how to use them and then taken up to Martello and shown their hiding place in advance. On the night of 20–21 October Xth Armoured Corps began moving from its staging area to Martello. On arrival the crews had their ‘sunshields’ rigged before first light. Back at the staging area, the track marks were obliterated, the empty fuel cans were collected and a dummy tank was erected where the real tank had previously stood. From the point of view of German photo-reconnaissance, nothing had changed since the previous day, except the arrival of more trucks in an already busy assembly area behind the British lines.

The main focus of the build up in the south, where Montgomery wanted Rommel to think the attack was coming from, began on 26 September with the start of the dummy water pipeline codenamed Diamond. A five-mile-long section of trench was dug and a ‘pipeline’ laid parallel to it. The actual ‘pipeline’ was constructed from crushed, empty petrol cans laid along the ground in a line. Overnight the trench would be filled in and the ‘pipeline’ gathered up to be reused in the next section of trench. Dummy pump houses were built at three points along the line, complete with overhead tanks and can filling stations. To add further credence to the illusion, these areas were populated by dummy vehicles and mannequins of soldiers.

To the east of Diamond, an area codenamed Brian (after Brian Robb) was set aside for the build up of dummy stores. Despite a sandstorm and the unexpected arrival of a horde of British tanks on field manoeuvres, two days before D-Day Barkas’s men had created what appeared to be a huge stockpile of stores.

With the real artillery hidden to the north dummy batteries were set up at the eastern end of what was codenamed the Munassib Depression. This area was chosen for the site of a series of dummy gun batteries, which were set up on 15 October. They were camouflaged exactly the same way a genuine battery would be hidden, but after a few days the camouflage was allowed to lapse so that the Germans would realize the guns were dummies. Shortly after D-Day, the dummy field guns in Munassib were replaced with the genuine items, much to the surprise of a column of German armour which decided to probe against what it thought was a harmless decoy position.

Last, but by no means least, at the opening of the battle a non-existent amphibious landing was staged behind German lines between El Daba and Sidi Abd el Rahman. This operation saw the use of sonic deception – where battle sounds were played over loudspeakers mounted on fast motor torpedo boats operating just off shore. This technique was still in its early stages, but had been pioneered by GSI(d) almost a year earlier. Barkas was not overly impressed with sonic deception, complaining that the recordings of gunfire sounded like dustbins being struck. However, better amplification was being developed by movie companies in the United States and so the ruse would be used again later in the war.

The night of 23 October was clear and brightly illuminated by a full moon. At 9.40pm, the calm was ruptured by the detonation of hundreds of British field guns. For 15 minutes, just short of a thousand British guns pounded the German batteries in front of them. There was a five-minute pause before the barrage recommenced at 10pm, this time targeting German forward positions. Behind the barrage Allied infantry began advancing through the Axis minefields.

At the opening of the battle Rommel was not in Egypt. He had been in poor health since August and had returned to Germany in September on leave. On 3 October he was presented with his field marshal’s baton in Berlin and declared that he was at the gateway to Egypt and had no intention of being flung back.

His understudy was General Georg Stumme. On the night of 23 October Stumme and his chief signals officer went forward on a reconnaissance towards the British lines. It was an ill-chosen adventure moments before the opening of the British attack. In the opening barrage the signals officer was killed by machine-gun fire and Stumme suffered a heart attack. He was unused to the climate in North Africa and had been overworking: the shock of the barrage and the close proximity of the signals officer’s death finished him off. It was some time before he was missed and the body recovered. Meanwhile in Berlin it was a full 24 hours before the seriousness of the situation was realized and Hitler ordered Rommel to return and resume command.

With the charismatic field marshal missing for the first 48 hours of the battle and overwhelming Allied superiority, the end result of El Alamein was never really in doubt. The Axis troops fought hard but were gradually worn down in a battle of attrition. When a renewed offensive began on 2 November Rommel realized the game was up. Despite being told to stand and fight by Hitler, by 4 November the Afrika Korps began to retreat to the west. Four days later the Torch landings began.

The victory at El Alamein is often described as the turning point of the war against the Nazis, or, as Churchill put it, ‘the end of the beginning’. Along with the surrender of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad on 31 January 1943, El Alamein marked a point in the war when the balance swayed in favour of the Allies, and one on which all future successes were built.

Although one might speculate that the German defeat was down to a lack of air superiority, a lack of operational intelligence, the inferiority of their numbers and the disruption of their supplies, the success of Treatment and Bertram cannot be overlooked. Barkas modestly and rightly noted that none of his colleagues was ‘so foolish’ as to think that El Alamein had been won ‘by conjuring tricks, with stick, string and canvas’ and attributed the success to the bravery of the fighting men. However, in a speech in the House of Commons on 11 November Churchill acknowledged the importance of ‘surprise and strategy’ in the battle:

By a marvellous system of camouflage, complete tactical surprise was achieved in the desert. The enemy suspected – indeed, knew – that an attack was impending, but when and where and how it was coming was hidden from him. The Xth Corps, which he had seen from the air exercising fifty miles in the rear, moved silently away in the night, but leaving an exact simulacrum of its tanks where it had been, and proceeded to its points of attack. The enemy suspected that the attack was impending, but did not know how, when or where, and above all he had no idea of the scale upon which he was to be assaulted.

For the first time on a large scale, the planning of a cover for an operation involving camouflage, decoys, bogus signals traffic and double agents, had been successfully achieved. With varying degrees of success, this same recipe would now be applied to every major Allied operation in the build up to the Normandy invasion in 1944.

OSS In the European Theater I

Before parachuting into occupied France, an OSS Jedburgh team is briefed on numerous topics. Agent John K. Singlaub is shown second from the right.

OSS operatives interrogate a German prisoner recently captured by French partisans known as Maquis. John Singlaub is at the left with his hand on his hip.

In the European Theater, Office of Strategic Services [OSS] special operations forces began in the same manner as the rest of the OSS in Europe, as a caboose hitched onto the long train of British secret activities. Winston Churchill had created the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the summer of 1940 with an injunction to its chief to “set Europe ablaze.” In its first years, though, the SOE had set only a few brushfires, most of which were stomped out by the black boots of fascism. Efforts to support French resistance fighters had run up against French resentment stemming from the Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940 and the Royal Navy’s annihilation of French ships at Oran the following month, as well as the effectiveness of German and Vichy authorities in hunting down subversives. German intelligence smashed the main French resistance network in 1942 after one of its members fell asleep on a train with a briefcase containing the names of the network’s 250 leading members. A German Abwehr agent swiped the briefcase and passed it on to his superiors, who tracked the 250 individuals for several months before rounding them up in one fell swoop.

Donovan wanted to parachute OSS commandos into France right away, but he was rebuffed by the British, who feared that inexperienced Americans would, in their overconfident and overeager manner, inadvertently tear through the fine webs of espionage and resistance that the Special Operations Executive had been spinning across France. Donovan’s first effort to support anti-Nazi resistance would take place in French North Africa, where anti-British sentiment made US involvement a more attractive option. During the run-up to the Operation Torch landings, the OSS did not yet have any military forces aside from Detachment 101, so Donovan assigned the task of resistance support to his intelligence chief for the region, William Eddy.

Born in Syria to American missionaries, Eddy had lost a leg in World War I as a Marine, then had joined the English Department at the American University in Cairo, where he distinguished himself by introducing the sport of basketball to the Egyptian people. To find Frenchmen willing to risk their hides in support of the Allied invasion, Eddy maneuvered among French exiles and Vichy French officers in North African bistros and bordellos. Securing promises from a variety of senior French leaders, he became convinced that French military officers in Algeria and Morocco would turn against the Germans en masse on the eve of Torch. Eddy assured Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the invasion, that these turncoats would allow US forces to seize much of French North Africa unopposed.

When the Allied invasion forces came ashore on November 8, 1942, most of the expected antifascist resistance failed to materialize. Pro-Allied Frenchmen seized only two facilities, a military headquarters and a communications complex in Algiers, and both were quickly retaken by Vichy French officers loyal to the Germans. As news of Eddy’s failure filtered in from North Africa, Donovan attempted to stave off defeatism among the headquarters staff by pointing to times in US history when even more severe setbacks had not precluded ultimate success. At daily staff meetings, he read aloud from a history of the War of 1812, ending each recitation by shutting the book and pronouncing, “They haven’t burned the White House yet.”

After Torch, Donovan shifted his attention to southern Europe. Using 1,100 newly acquired Army personnel, he formed a small number of commando-type forces, which he named Operational Groups. Composed of four officers and thirty noncommissioned officers who were fluent in European languages, the groups received training in parachuting, sabotage, and guerrilla warfare. Donovan planned to insert an Operational Group into Sicily to organize an antifascist uprising ahead of the Allied invasion, but invasion commanders aborted his plan as the invasion date neared out of concern that it would tip off the enemy about the main invasion. The only OSS man to land in Sicily on the invasion date was Donovan himself, who managed to scrounge a ride on a landing craft that took him to Gela just a few hours after Darby’s Rangers had stormed the mine-strewn beach. Donovan convinced General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. of the 1st Army Division to order a staff officer to drive him toward the front, and then Donovan talked that officer into approaching Italian forces, upon whom he could fire the jeep’s machine guns. “Donovan got behind the machine gun and had a field day,” the officer recalled. “He was happy as a clam when we got back.”

Donovan’s efforts to put an Operational Group ashore ahead of the Salerno landings likewise fell victim to the caution of four-star generals, but he was able to land a twenty-man group at Salerno on the first day of the invasion. To the dismay of Donovan, who again found his way onto the beach on opening day, the OSS team evidenced more concern about requisitioning fancy cars and other luxury items than organizing resistance fighters. The group leader commandeered the finest hotel in the area and compelled the wait staff to serve him seven-course dinners in black tie. One OSS veteran attributed the problems to the presence of “too many prima donnas who were driven by ambition without the sterner stuff which is a prerequisite for success.” The Operational Groups redeemed themselves to a degree in subsequent raiding operations on Italian islands and the Italian coast, blowing up rail-track and machine-gun emplacements to draw German troops away from the Winter Line.

When Donovan was read in on the plans for the invasion of France, he beseeched high authorities for permission to insert OSS special operators into Normandy in support of the conventional forces. The Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force consented to the use of the Operational Groups and the Jedburghs, the latter a joint venture between the OSS and SOE, in helping the French resistance blow up bridges and railroads and otherwise discombobulate German efforts to reinforce the Normandy defenses. Resistance operations were one of three delaying instruments that the Allied high command would employ, the other two being deception and aerial bombardment. By Allied estimates, the Germans had thirty-one divisions that could reach Normandy by the twenty-fifth day of the offensive. They could throw the invasion force back into the sea if they could get just fifteen of those divisions to Normandy by the sixtieth day.

Of the hundreds of OSS operators whom destiny was to toss into occupied France, none would be more significant to the history of special operations than Aaron Bank. One day in the spring of 1943, as a young railroad training officer at Camp Polk, Louisiana, Bank was strolling by the adjutant’s tent when a recruiting notice on the bulletin board caught his attention. His pulse quickened as he read that volunteers with foreign language skills were needed for special missions. Bank had been looking for a chance to escape Camp Polk and the Louisiana swamplands, having been subjected daily to wet heat, oversized mosquitos, snakes that slithered into sleeping bags, and a boring job. He knew German from speaking with his grandfather, and French from conversing with his mother, whose wealthy Russian family had sent her to high school in France before their emigration to the United States. During the 1930s, he had spent time in France as a lifeguard and swimming instructor at one of the private beaches of Biarritz. While presiding over aquatic recreation on the Bay of Biscay, he had practiced his languages with wealthy tourists, both French and German.

Bank contacted the recruiting office at once. The captain who interviewed him began by testing his fluency in French. It became clear immediately to both men that Bank’s French was superior to the captain’s, so they quickly dispensed with that part of the interview. The captain then asked, “Would you volunteer to operate behind the lines in uniform or civilian clothes?”

So nervous was Bank that he blurted out an answer before thinking the question over. Yes, he said, he would be willing to volunteer for those operations.

That was it. The captain told Bank that he would receive reassignment orders within the week. Bank recollected that upon hearing the news, “I was in a state of euphoria, floating on a cloud, eagerly awaiting my release from an unpleasant assignment.”

Bank received orders to report to Washington, DC, in civilian attire. When he arrived in the nation’s capital, an OSS duty officer directed him to the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. Depleted of members by the Depression, the club had come to such dire financial straits that its board had decided to lease the club’s 406 acres and facilities to the OSS for the modest sum of $4,000 per month. The fairways of the golf course had been converted into obstacle courses and rifle ranges, the sand traps into demolition beds. In the early-Italian clubhouse, the ballroom now served as a hall for lectures on the arts and sciences of modern war. The dining room, once the place for Maryland’s well-heeled to take their families for a prime rib dinner or a Sunday brunch, was now a military mess hall where cooks dished up mass-produced meats and starches.

Bank and the other volunteers began with a battery of physical and mental tests aimed at weeding out those unfit for the highly dangerous and unusual missions that lay ahead. Instructors ran them for hours on the obstacle course and cross-country trails to measure their stamina. Under the observation of clipboard-toting psychologists, sleep-deprived candidates took part in guerrilla exercises that subjected them to high stress levels and compelled them to essay impossible tasks. As a means of assessing resourcefulness and creativity, they were required to solve difficult problems, such as moving a large object that was too heavy for a man to carry.

Those who passed these tests underwent a training regimen similar to that of the British Commandos. They learned raiding and ambushing, and they practiced the destruction of bridges, culverts, railroads, canal locks, and electric transformer stations. To hone their physiques, they climbed ropes, performed pushups with packs on their backs, and punched out five-mile runs.

From the Congressional Country Club, the recruits were taken to Area B, a secret training site in the Catoctin Mountain Park. Chestnut, hickory, and black birch trees shaded the site’s log cabins, which were only one ridge away from the airy presidential retreat that Franklin Roosevelt called Shangri-La, later renamed Camp David by Dwight Eisenhower. At Area B, the trainees learned hand-to-hand combat from William Ewart Fairbairn, a thirty-year veteran of the Shanghai police. Fairbairn demonstrated how to strike a man’s nerve centers and pressure points with fists, elbows, and knees, and how to break a man’s bones with a rapid strike from the side of the hand. During knife exercises, he trained them in the severing of arteries and the piercing of vital organs.

Bank was one of the trainees deemed worthy of participation in the Jedburgh program. He and the other selectees traveled to Britain for advanced training at a series of specialized schools, culminating in final exercises at a site that in classified correspondence was called Area D or ME-65. Located in the flatlands of Peterborough ninety miles north of London, it was an Elizabethan manor whose real name was Milton Hall. The manor’s massive gray castle, built of stone walls measuring three feet in thickness, was surrounded by a 500-acre park of gardens, terraces, and fields, and beyond lay 20,000 acres of forests and pastures.

The Jedburgh candidates were housed among the castle’s fifty rooms, whose oak-beamed ceilings overlooked collections of Cromwellian armor and swords. In the sunken gardens and rose-bordered terraces, the Jedburghs practiced wrestling and martial arts, while the snapping of small arms fire could be heard from the croquet court. A climbing wall, built onto a corner of the castle, served as the training ground for scaling operations. Instructors taught the trainees how to dress like Frenchmen, and required them to memorize the multitudinous uniforms of German and French military and police forces. Bank filed every facet of the experience into his memory, where all of this knowledge was to remain until, nearly a decade later, he would draw upon it in forming a new organization on the Jedburgh pattern, the US Army Special Forces.

Despite the rather comfortable conditions of Milton Hall, morale sagged during Bank’s first weeks. The British commanding officer was a strict disciplinarian, better suited to whipping teenaged enlisted men into shape than cultivating maverick officers in their twenties and thirties. When no other activities were scheduled, the martinet refused to let the aspiring Jedburghs leave Milton Hall, instead forcing them to participate in inane drills and roll calls, or subjecting them to long and boring monologues about his own service in India years ago.

American and French trainees groused about the British food. The Americans found the British to be snobbish and the French to be petulant, while the Europeans bemoaned the crudeness of the Americans. After an inebriated American spouted off in the presence of foreign officers, the British lodged an official complaint against the offender for “violently insulting and abusing the British people, their army, and their part in our mutual war effort.”

By February 1944, the atmosphere had become so toxic that Bank and another officer went to the London headquarters of the OSS to plead for intervention. The Americans at Milton Hall, they reported, were on the verge of mutiny. The OSS leadership took the matter up with the Special Operations Executive, which acted promptly to rectify the situation. Jedburgh trainees were given weekend passes to London, where they could drink pints of strong English ale at the pubs of Covent Garden or dance with English girls at the Palladium Ballroom. Frenchmen were ushered into Milton Hall’s kitchen to add flair to the cuisine. The trainees were assigned batmen, who tended to all of their laundry, ironing, boot shining, housekeeping, and gear cleaning. Soon, men of all nationalities were gathering together at the castle’s drawing room for evenings of song, drink, and good cheer.

The planners for Operation Overlord decided that the Jedburgh teams would consist of three men, with one French officer, one American or British officer who spoke French, and one enlisted radio operator. Because the Yanks and Brits heavily outnumbered the Frenchmen, the French officers were allowed to pick the members of their teams. Like suitors seeking the hands of the princesses with the largest family fortunes, American and British officers courted the Frenchmen who seemed the most likely to stay alive in occupied France. Bank went after a small French lieutenant, Henri Denis, paying for extravagant weekends in London’s finest hotels and restaurants to seal the deal.

Bank’s team, and most of the other Jedburgh teams, would not parachute into France until well after D-Day. As with the Italian landings, Allied leaders worried that inserting large numbers of special operators ahead of the invasion would put the enemy on alert that something large was afoot. Allied planners also anticipated, correctly as it turned out, that few French civilians would assume the risks of backing the resistance until the Allied invasion force had firmly established a foothold on the continent and begun to roll the Germans back.

Most of the OSS men to enter France, like most who had entered Italy, would arrive long after their organization’s leader. General Marshall and Navy Secretary James Forrestal had notified the invasion commanders that under no circumstances was Bill Donovan to be permitted ashore at Normandy. They had not been amused by Donovan’s appearances in Italy, which had posed a grave security risk, since Donovan had knowledge of the Allies’ most vital secrets. The wily Donovan nonetheless wormed his way aboard the flagship of one of Overlord’s top naval commanders, who happened to be an old friend. The admiral had the good sense to prevent Donovan from disembarking until the second day of the invasion, after large sections of the Norman shoreline had been secured. Donovan hitched a ride to the shore on a Duck amphibious truck, taking with him the head of the OSS London station, David Kirkpatrick Este Bruce, a former state legislator who was married to the daughter of banker Andrew W. Mellon.

Once on land, Donovan led Bruce toward the sound of the guns. They reached an American antiaircraft battery, whose commanding officer was astonished by the appearance at the front lines of an old man wearing the Congressional Medal of Honor. Before them lay a large open field in which three French peasants were digging up vegetables. Intent on getting even closer to the fighting, Donovan gave the battery commander the preposterous story that the peasants were his French agents. They were expecting him, Donovan continued, so he needed to move forward without delay to glean vital information. The artillery captain warned Donovan against stepping any farther, stating ominously that Germans lay not far ahead. Paying him no heed, Donovan proceeded toward the French peasants.

The peasants disappeared when they saw Donovan and Bruce approaching. The two American spy chiefs then headed to a hedgerow at the edge of the field. German machine guns opened fire, forcing them to dive into the nearest shrubs.

Turning to Bruce, Donovan intoned, “David, we mustn’t be captured. We know too much.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Bruce.

“Have you your pill?” Donovan inquired. He was referring to the suicide pill that OSS officers carried in case they fell into enemy hands.

Bruce admitted that he was not carrying the pill. He had not expected to be anywhere near German forces.

“Never mind,” Donovan grunted, “I have two of them.” Donovan dug into his pockets to retrieve the pills, but he could not feel them. In frustration, he began to empty the pockets. Out came several hotel keys, a passport, newspaper clippings, travel orders, photographs of grandchildren, and currencies from various countries. The pills were nowhere to be found.

“We can do without them,” Donovan said finally, with the resignation of a miner who has dug in every direction without finding quarry. “But if we get out of here,” the OSS boss continued, “you must send a message to Gibbs, the Hall Porter at Claridge’s in London, telling him on no account to allow the servants in the hotel to touch some dangerous medicines in my bathroom.”

The German machine-gun fire continued. Donovan whispered to Bruce, “I must shoot first.”

“Yes, sir,” Bruce responded, “but can we do much against machine guns with our pistols?”

“Oh, you don’t understand,” Donovan said. “I mean if we are about to be captured I’ll shoot you first. After all, I am your commanding officer.”

Fortunately for the two men, Allied forces arrived and put an end to the German gunfire. Donovan and Bruce were able to return safely to the beach later in the day, and by evening, they were back on a US warship, enjoying a hot meal.


OSS In the European Theater II

Aaron Bank’s team parachuted into occupied France at the end of July. They were met at the drop site by a motley group of Frenchmen toting Sten submachine guns, which had been smuggled in previously by the British. After the Jedburghs provided a secret password to confirm their identity, the greeting party loaded them and their equipment bundle onto a charcoal-fueled truck that emerged from its camouflaged position beneath a cluster of trees. Driving to a local farmhouse, the resistance men delivered Bank, Denis, and their radio operator to a local chief of the Maquis, as the resistance was known.

The Maquis leader, who referred to himself as Commandant Raymond, briefed the Jedburghs on the local situation. His nationalist resistance forces had not yet attacked the Germans, he explained, because they first wanted to receive more Allied weaponry and an explicit authorization from the Allied high command to commence guerrilla warfare. Raymond also filled them in on the activities of the French Communists in the area, who were running a separate resistance organization. The Communists were hijacking his supply trains, and they had stolen supply drops intended for his forces.

Bank and Denis wanted to work behind the scenes and keep their presence hidden from the local population, which was certain to contain enemy informants. They insisted that their parachutes be buried, as otherwise the Maquis would give the fabric to their wives or girlfriends, who would spin it into garments of such striking composition as to arouse suspicions. Their efforts to maintain a low profile were quickly sabotaged when some of the resistance members leaked word of their presence to local villagers. With a mixture of delight and dread, the Jedburghs were feted in village after village with champagne toasts and chants of “Vive les Américains!”

The nationalist resistance fighters in Bank’s area of operations had all served in the French Army and thus already possessed basic military skills. Bank nevertheless insisted that they receive training in guerrilla tactics, explosives, and firearms before guerrilla warfare commenced. “I explained to Commandant Raymond that the organization should be trained properly and achieve reasonable strength before we started needling the enemy,” Bank recalled. Bank and Denis trained the resistance leaders, who then gave the training to their rank and file while the Jedburghs went on to the next group.

By the time these resistance forces were ready, the Germans had abandoned hope of retaining Normandy and were retreating eastward toward their homeland. Resistance forces therefore sought to trip up the Germans and help advancing Allies smash them before they could get away. Raymond’s fighters began with several hit-and-run attacks, including an ambush of a twenty-vehicle German convoy. The Germans responded with counterinsurgency tactics that would have garnered plaudits from Genghis Khan. Descending upon the town nearest to the guerrilla attack, they hauled out a dozen men and executed them on the spot.

In the interest of protecting innocent men from reprisals, several mayors urged the resistance to stop ambushing the Germans. Denis notified the mayors that “sacrifices had to be made if they wanted France liberated.” The resistance fighters “would be considerate,” Denis maintained, but “we would not reduce the activities we consider necessary.”

Commandant Raymond was apparently more sympathetic to the views of the mayors, for he reduced guerrilla activities for a time. The resistance stepped up its attacks when German forces began a full-scale evacuation of the area in the face of the advancing US Seventh Army. Rebels ambushed German convoys, built roadblocks across avenues of retreat, and hunted down German stragglers. Traveling to see friends and relatives near the front lines, they obtained information on German troop dispositions and passed it on to Bank and other Allied officers. Their efforts did little, however, to impede the departure of the main German force in the area, the 11th Panzer Division.

Once the Germans had completed their withdrawal from Bank’s operational area, the usefulness of the French resistance forces fell sharply. With no Germans left to bother, resistance groups busied themselves fighting one another. The nationalists clashed with the Communists, who had proven more intent on seizing towns abandoned by the Nazis than on harassing the withdrawing German forces.

The life-span of resistance operations was similarly short in most of the other areas of France where the Allies sent men and materiel. Still, even a few weeks of interference with German movements could contribute meaningfully to the Allied campaign, and many of the Jedburghs and Operational Groups did help the Maquis reach that level of achievement. General Eisenhower, now the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, was sufficiently impressed with the results attained by the OSS in supporting the resistance that he decided, in late summer, to give the OSS more personnel, aircraft, and supplies for the mission.

Casualties among the Jedburgh teams and Operational Groups were surprisingly light. A significant minority of teams, however, fell into German hands, a misfortune that usually involved torture and ended in death. Several groups landed in the wrong place. Others were betrayed by French collaborators. One French spy notified the Germans when Marine Operational Group Union II entered the village of Montgirod in the company of French guerrillas. The Germans killed several of the guerrillas, along with a number of residents of the village, but the OSS men managed to escape. On their way back to the limestone plateau where the local Maquis were based, they ran into a German column of two hundred soldiers. The Germans chased the OSS team to a nearby village, encircling the community after the Americans took refuge in its houses. Residents begged the Americans to surrender in order to spare the village from annihilation by the Germans, whose reputation for draconian punishments had preceded them. Surrounded and outmanned, the Americans laid down their weapons. Their surrender may have contributed to the fact that the Germans sent them to POW camps instead of putting them to death.

The Jedburghs and Operational Groups were also constrained in their effectiveness by the small size of the two programs. Only 9 Jedburgh teams dropped into France during the first 19 days of the Normandy invasion. Between June 25 and the end of July, another 15 teams entered France, and 50 more arrived during August and early September, bringing the total number of Jedburghs to 222. A total of 20 Operational Groups, with roughly 640 men, dropped behind German lines. By comparison, the British Special Air Service, a unilateral British special operations force, inserted 1,574 personnel into occupied France during the same period.

The Allied resistance support effort, of which the OSS contribution was only a small fraction, was itself but a small fraction of the Allied disruption of the German reinforcement of Normandy. Although the Maquis caused some delay to German force movements by sabotaging rail lines and miring German forces in counterinsurgency operations, the other two tools for keeping German divisions away from Normandy—deception and bombing—figured far larger. Operation Bodyguard, an extraordinary deception plan involving dummy aircraft, ghost armies, and false disclosures to double agents, convinced Hitler to keep several dozen divisions in north-central France and Norway to contend with invasions that never materialized. American and British bombing of logistical targets in France did much more than the Maquis to slow the transit of German reinforcements toward Normandy, a point conceded even by the greatest OSS advocate, Donovan. The impact of Maquis depredations on the subsequent German retreat from France was similarly modest. Resistance forces accounted for the liberation of only 2 percent of France’s 212 urban centers.

As the end of the war approached, with Allied thoughts turning from the defeat of the Axis powers to the future political landscape, the Jedburghs and other OSS special operators found themselves enmeshed in a multitude of struggles between nationalist and communist resistance movements for control of the postwar world. The OSS men seldom had the knowledge or the experience to influence events to the advantage of the United States. As one British officer lamented, the OSS demonstrated a “capacity for blundering into delicate European situations about which they understand little,” not to mention a “permanent hankering after playing cowboys and red Indians.”

In Yugoslavia, OSS Major Louis Huot threw American support behind Josip Broz Tito after concluding, quite erroneously, that “Tito was planning no Communist revolution for his country” and was instead “working out the pattern of a new and democratic popular front movement which would embrace all the elements in his community.” In Italy, the OSS unwittingly abetted Communist guerrillas through the indiscriminate distribution of weapons to resistance groups. The OSS men handed out firearms to all Italian factions equally on the presumption that they would use the weapons solely to dislodge the Nazis, when in actuality the Communists used their weapons more against nationalist rivals than against the Germans.

The British, who were considerably more attuned than the Americans to the perils of communist resistance organizations, choked off assistance to communists and bolstered nationalists in key European countries during the war’s last months. This foresight may ultimately have saved France, Italy, and Greece from falling into Moscow’s orbit after the war. The British were unable, however, to prevent OSS bungling from facilitating communist subversion in parts of the Far East. The most serious consequences were to be felt in French Indochina.

Like Major Huot in Yugoslavia, the OSS men who parachuted into Indochina in July 1945 took at face value Vietnamese Communist professions commitment to an inclusive postwar government. Communist leader Ho Chi Minh assured the young OSS officers that his Viet Minh guerrillas needed American weapons only to defeat the Japanese. Yet the Viet Minh made little use of the duly provided weapons until the Japanese surrender, at which time Viet Minh troops brandished them in seizing Hanoi ahead of Vietnamese nationalists and the French. That seizure made possible Ho Chi Minh’s establishment of a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship in northern Vietnam, leading to a prolonged war between France and the Viet Minh, and an ensuing war between the United States and North Vietnam.

As the death knells began to toll for the Axis powers, William Donovan embarked on a campaign to write the OSS into the federal government in permanent ink. Even in times of peace, he argued to Roosevelt, and after Roosevelt’s death to Harry Truman, the nation would need a strategic intelligence agency and an arm for covert and clandestine operations. Donovan convinced friends in the media to write positive stories about the OSS, in some cases leaking classified documents on sensitive operations to showcase the organization’s triumphs. A number of heavyweights weighed in on the side of the OSS, the heaviest being Eisenhower, who declared that in Europe the value of the OSS “has been so great that there should be no thought of its elimination.”

Other men of influence, however, lobbied for the abolition of the OSS. Principal among them were individuals whom Donovan and his lieutenants had antagonized in recent years, mainly through intrusions into their perceived bureaucratic territory. J. Edgar Hoover and John Grombach of Army intelligence deluged President Truman and the press with allegations of incompetence and scandal within the OSS, sprinkling a good bit of fiction in with the incriminating facts. Truman received a scathing report on the OSS written by Colonel Richard Park, who had served as Roosevelt’s military aide, in which it was alleged that “poor organization, lack of training and selection of many incompetent personnel has resulted in many badly conceived, overlapping and unauthorized activities with resulting embarrassment to the State Department and interference with other secret intelligence agencies of this government.”

At war’s end, Truman decided to close the OSS down. He transferred select pieces of the OSS to the State Department and War Department, but most, including the special operations forces, were buried in toto in the OSS graveyard. The influence of the harsh critiques on the decision remains something of a mystery. Truman had other reasons to shutter the agency, foremost among them the tide of demobilization that was sweeping away most of America’s machinery of war.