SOE: The Trojan Horse

Henri Déricourt after arrest in 1946.

After the Second World War the interrogation of German officials provided evidence that Déricourt was guilty of providing information to Abwehr and the Gestapo that led to the arrest and execution of several agents including Noor Inayat Khan, Vera Leigh, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, Diana Rowden, Gilbert Norman, Jack Agazarian and Francis Suttill.

In November 1946, Déricourt was arrested by the French authorities but did not appear in court until June 1948. At the trial Nicholas Bodington testified that he had been in charge of all Déricourt’s work in the field. He admitted that he was aware that Déricourt was in contact with the Germans but that no important information had been revealed.

During the trial the defence council argued that although the prosecution could bring plenty of suspicious indirect evidence against Déricourt, they could not actually pin any definite act of treachery on him. Largely on the evidence provided by Nicholas Bodington, Déricourt was acquitted.

When Jean Overton Fuller interviewed Déricourt for her book, Double Agent, he told her that leaders of the Special Operations Executive knew the organization had been penetrated by the Gestapo and that men and women were deliberately sacrificed in order to distract their attention from the planned landings in Sicily and Normandy.

Henri Déricourt was reported to have been killed in an air crash while flying over Laos on 20th November, 1962. His body was never found and some writers have claimed that his death was faked in order to allow him to begin a new life under another name.


The autumn and winter months of 1942–3 were unexpectedly lonely for Léon Doulet, the Air France pilot who had travelled to Britain with Déricourt. In September, after a week in a scruffy hotel near Victoria Station, he and Déricourt were separated from each other. Doulet was moved to an even scruffier bed-and-breakfast establishment, where he lived on his own in the strange city for the next four months. He had no idea of Déricourt’s whereabouts. Doulet had presumed they were both under the authority of the Air Ministry, but neither they nor anyone else could or would tell him anything about Déricourt. Doulet found British indifference very depressing. Having come all this way to fly he couldn’t fathom why he was being ignored. On three occasions, twice in October and again in November, Déricourt contacted Doulet by telephone and arranged a rendezvous at Piccadilly Circus. At their first meeting they had a drink at a nearby pub and Doulet railed about his abandoned state. Déricourt listened to him sympathetically but there was nothing he could do. In contrast to Doulet, Déricourt seemed to have found some occupation, though he wouldn’t reveal what that was or where he was staying. Finally, when Doulet pressed him on this, Déricourt hinted that he was staying with an ex-girlfriend. There was, of course, no girlfriend and Doulet knew it, but he left it at that. He mentioned that no one at BOAC seemed to know anything about Déricourt, but Henri made no comment.

It was remarkable that Déricourt was able to walk the streets with impunity, when everything that was known about him at the time should have been sufficient to ensure he was interned for the duration. He was a known black-marketeer with associates in the so-called Corsican mafia (Doulet at least knew that, as did the Americans in Marseilles); MI5 received reports by the end of the year that Déricourt had been seen in the company of Germans in the occupied zone (this too would have come to Dansey’s attention); and, as Dansey knew himself after his own enquiries, Déricourt was not the person he claimed to be, and was in fact a most accomplished liar. To put it simply, he had all the hallmarks of the kind of person the Germans would have slipped onto the Pat Line for espionage purposes. (It has been speculated that this was actually the case. But German archives contradict that view.) Far from being interned, however, Déricourt was already gainfully employed.

The next time Doulet met Déricourt, Henri led him to a luxurious flat that was shared by the two Belgians with whom they had sailed on board the Tarana. They were joined by ‘an English intelligence officer called FRANCIS, who was very brilliant’. FRANCIS asked Doulet if he had ever been up to Paris since the occupation. ‘Of course,’ he replied, ‘many times.’ He was then asked if he was prepared to do some secret work. Doulet declined. He had come to Britain to fly and that was all he wanted to do. The meeting ended amicably and Doulet departed. It was immediately obvious to him that Déricourt was somehow involved with ‘British intelligence’, and was probably going to return to France. They met on one other occasion, at which Déricourt warned him to keep silent about the meeting with FRANCIS and his return to France.

Déricourt had been working with MI6 for nearly a month. Once he had emerged from the Royal Patriotic School and been separated from Doulet, he was taken to MI6 Section IV – the Air Intelligence branch, where he answered questions about the aircraft he’d flown as a test pilot in Marseilles, gave what information he knew concerning the French aircraft industry’s involvement with German manufactures, made detailed lists of the names of French pilots and their current employment (Déricourt had been a minor official of the French airline pilots’ union), and described the intelligence he had passed to the Americans during the summer. Déricourt also repeated the somewhat startling revelation that he was acquainted with a high-ranking officer in German intelligence, based in Paris.

That kind of information was of little interest to Section IV, but it was something that interested Dansey. Once again, this important piece of intelligence was not communicated to MI5. Déricourt had been put up at a secret address in London, known only to Dansey or one of his contacts, and kept there in isolation until the right opportunity arose to use him.

Everything that Dansey did was cloaked in impenetrable secrecy, the whys and the wherefores often unfathomable at the time, but later revealing a cold logic. As the Deputy Head of MI6, he had the freedom to run his own private operations, answering to no one but Stewart Menzies, and then not always with complete frankness. His manner, both charming and terrifyingly vitriolic, ensured there were no prying enquiries into the precise nature of his work. He garnered new agents at an alarming rate and was reputed in the more mundane levels of the service to be running his own private army – at least, judging by his legendary expenses claims. Dansey enjoyed a singularly close relationship with all his agents, which was another thing that set him apart from his colleagues. ‘Uncle Claude’ made his agents feel that they belonged to an extremely exclusive community, which was deeply appreciative of their invaluable work. Dansey had a deep and genuine affection for his agents.

He was not enamoured of the more technical forms of intelligence-gathering like aerial photography. He preferred the man on the spot, the agent, the human operative – with all the attendant virtues and vices. For many younger men in the service this obsession with the ‘agent’ seemed positively archaic, but it took a lot to convince him that there was a better way of doing things.

It must be remembered that Claude Dansey was a man of 66, who had seen service in the last of the colonial wars, had worked in both MI5 and MI6 during the Great War and who had founded the Z Organization. He had seen it all and knew it backwards – and there were few who would contradict him. Certainly not his chief. Dansey had a talent for attracting the very best, the most unsavoury and often the downright criminal into his world of espionage, and also for extracting absolute loyalty from those he employed.

He also possessed a gift for having the right man in the right spot, someone whose unique position could be exploited with the very minimum of manipulation. He had a particular interest in people who were well known to the enemy. Individuals who had worked for the foe or were currently working for them were an extremely valuable commodity, Dansey recognizing that someone who had already established his credentials had far more value back in the system than locked away and at the mercies of the Special Branch. Déricourt had precisely those qualifications, with the added distinction that his contacts were with the ubiquitous Nazi spectre, the Sicherheitsdienst.

At the end of 1941 the British codebreakers at the Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS) had broken the Abwehr ENIGMA codes, the German military intelligence secret codes. Since then they had been successfully reading the Abwehr’s signals communications, a far greater prize than anything Dansey’s agents could deliver. The British had also broken the German Army, Air Force and Navy ENIGMA codes. The information that was extracted from ENIGMA codes, known as ULTRA, was the single most important British intelligence advantage of the war. Perhaps the most valuable ULTRA material concerned German intelligence operations in Britain and counter-intelligence operations against British agents in Europe – not just MI6 agents, but any British agent. But this intelligence, invaluable though it was, only concerned operations conducted by the Abwehr. The one and only ENIGMA code used by German intelligence that defied Britain’s de-crypters throughout the war was that used by the Sicherheitsdienst – Key TGD, known, somewhat misleadingly, as the ‘Gestapo Enigma’. This ruthless and extraordinarily successful Nazi intelligence organization had defied all British attempts at penetration – its dark internal workings were a complete mystery. Déricourt, if he was exploited carefully, could be a key to unlock some of the SD’s secrets.

It’s worth digressing for a moment to reflect on the price of ULTRA. British intelligence chiefs quickly appreciated how invaluable ULTRA would be to the British war effort, and for that reason great efforts were made to protect that advantage. No operation was ever undertaken that might have signalled to the enemy that his communications were being monitored. Consequently the manipulation of ULTRA was very critical; access to it was highly restricted and virtually at the discretion of ‘C’. SOE’s access to ULTRA material was, like any other operational organization’s, strictly on its ‘need to know’. The question one might ask is: whose needs were greater – SOE’s or MI6’s?

But in the autumn months of 1942, SOE’s access to ULTRA was the least of their problems. Their major preoccupation was their relationship with the RAF. The transport of agents in and out of occupied Europe was most successfully achieved by aircraft, and for this purpose the RAF had established the ‘Special Duties’ squadrons. In 1940 a single flight (419) had been established for MI6’s purposes. Then in 1941 this was reformed into 161 Squadron and later joined by 138 Squadron. They were equipped with Hudsons, Halifaxes, Oxfords, the occasional Beaufighter and of course the remarkable Lysander. The Hudson and the Lysander were designed to land on short rough strips, usually a meadow in some foreign field, where agents could be put down and others collected and returned safely home. MI6 had always expressed a preference for the Lysander pick-up where SOE preferred drops. However, by 1942, SOE had come round to the idea of the pick-up, even though the operation was far more involved.

It was necessary to have someone with knowledge of the right kind of fields for these aircraft to land, to communicate the correct map co-ordinates to London, to organize and transport the homeward-bound agents to the field, to correctly lay out a flare path safe from trees and bogs, and then to get the incoming agents away.

As SOE were expanding in northern France they pressured the RAF for more flights. But as the number of failed operations mounted, the strain began to show in the RAF’s sarcastic memos.

It is most unfortunate that attempts by the pilots of No. 138 Squadron to carry out this operation have been frustrated by the absence of a reception committee. The operation was asked for in all good faith in the belief that the committee would be waiting to receive personnel and stores….

…it is hoped that [in future] the Air Ministry and the officer commanding RAF Station Tempsford will have sufficient confidence in the organization [SOE] to believe that if we are putting the operation on there is a reasonable chance of the reception committee playing its part.

The RAF threatened, and not for the last time, to cancel all flights for SOE. And then, with miraculously good timing, the solution to SOE’s problems in France came to hand.

During the third week of November, the name Henri Déricourt was brought to their attention. By the end of the week, it had been sent to Maurice Buckmaster, head of SOE’s French Section. Buckmaster liked the look of what he saw on paper and put a trace out to MI5, whose reply was received on 23 November. In the meantime, Déricourt was invited to the Northumberland Hotel to be interviewed by Selwyn Jepson, one of F Section’s recruitment officers. Déricourt had the most fabulous qualifications: he had good first-hand knowledge of aircraft similar to the Lysander and had landed them countless times on very rudimentary country strips; he knew the countryside around the Loire well; and he knew Paris extremely well. But Jepson was there to learn about the individual’s character as well as his qualifications, and there was an arrogance about Déricourt that was somewhat disquieting. When Buckmaster received the MI5 file on Déricourt it was a great disappointment – not what he wanted to see at all. It stated that although the RPS had given him a clean bill of health, they (MI5) would not recommend him.

Although MI5 were still under the false impression that he had been an Air France pilot in Syria – a story he maintained even long after the war – their suspicions were based on the assumption that Déricourt had passed through France before coming to Britain, and that fact alone made him a doubtful risk. For if the Germans knew he was bound for Britain, ‘[Déricourt] would have been a likely subject for German attention … [and therefore] … we do not feel [he] can be cleared from a security point of view’.

There is no doubt that if MI5 had learnt what Dansey already knew, that his entire story was a complete fabrication, then Déricourt’s name would not have got anywhere near SOE. As it was, they already felt he was untrustworthy. Was Dansey simply being derelict in not passing on what he knew about the Frenchman, or was there some other reason for his silence?

Then someone spoke up on Déricourt’s behalf. Nicholas Bodington had learnt that his old Paris friend was being considered for work within his section. He immediately declared that he knew the man personally and wouldn’t hesitate to employ him. ‘Déricourt is first class material!’ Bodington’s extremely timely recommendation went a long way towards suppressing any qualms.

But Déricourt’s qualifications were in fact so irresistible that there hadn’t really been any serious doubt about employing him. Buckmaster and his senior colleagues, Gerry Morel, Bourne Patterson and of course Bodington, were of one mind – Déricourt was the answer to their prayers. However, those feelings were not by any means universal. Vera Atkins, whose opinion was always greatly valued, was asked to go and see Déricourt and then report.

When I saw him, my heart sank because I felt that he wasn’t a man that I could trust. Why I had that impression I don’t know, but I suppose one does sum up people in one’s own way. Possibly it was his slightly mocking attitude, perhaps it was that he didn’t seem to look one very straight in the face; but I came back and said that I didn’t like him, and that I wouldn’t trust him.

Unfortunately on this occasion Atkins’s ‘instincts’ were disregarded. Déricourt joined the SOE on 1 December and began an extremely specific and condensed training programme.

Déricourt’s arrival at SOE was, however, far more involved than appears from the account above – in fact there is a great deal of opacity in the official record concerning his recruitment. It was generally held that the individual who brought Déricourt’s name to SOE’s attention was ‘…probably André Simon’. Simon was a logical guess, since he was responsible for liaison between SOE’s F Section and the branch of Air Intelligence concerned with organizing flights of the Special Duties squadrons. Déricourt encouraged this view by later claiming that he’d been in the RAF, flying with the Special Duties squadron when he was ‘talent spotted’ by Simon. Déricourt even fabricated his flight log to support that story. In France, a pilot who deliberately made false entries in his flight log faced a strong risk of losing his licence. Clearly, Déricourt felt it was a risk worth taking. When he left Marseilles in August, the Vichy authorities had just certified his log, which stood at 3658 hours daylight flying and 94.5 hours night flying. Then, a page or two later, commencing on 6 November 1942, Déricourt filled twenty pages of his log adding no less than 150 day-time flights, a total of 1243 hours, and sixty-eight night flights totalling 192 hours; all apparently with the RAF’s 161 Squadron. Not one of those flights actually took place. It was an invention of staggering proportions.

In fact, Déricourt was officially in the RAF. On 1 December, the day he was enlisted with the SOE, he was given an honorary commission as a Flying Officer in the Admin and Special Duties Branch of the RAF Volunteer Reserves. It was a technical requirement of the SOE that all its officers had to have an official rank in some other British service. But Déricourt never flew a single mission for the RAF, and André Simòn was not the man who brought him to the attention of the SOE. Despite what the SOE archives state, senior SOE officers recall that Déricourt’s name arrived at Baker Street at a much higher level.

In mid-November, Air Commodore Archie Boyle handed a slim file to his immediate superior (by then Major General) Colin Gubbins, with the briefest summary of Déricourt’s details. Once Gubbins had read it, he passed it to his deputy, Harry Sporborg, who let it gravitate down to F Section. Who, one might ask, brought Déricourt’s name to Archie Boyle’s attention in the first place?

Air Commodore Boyle’s background was Air Intelligence. After the outbreak of war, he became associated with MI5’s B Division, the section responsible for all counter-espionage work in the United Kingdom. By the end of 1939, B Division had succeeded in ‘turning’ a number of Abwehr agents and making them work for Britain. To operate double agents successfully, B Division needed a good supply of secret or highly confidential information that the ‘turned’ agent could affordably pass to the enemy, along with bogus or misleading material, so that he was not suspected. This genuine material had to be of a pretty high quality and would have to withstand the probability of being checked. Boyle became fascinated with the work of B Division and volunteered, without any official authority, a selection of genuine intelligence from his domain at the Air Ministry.

By 1940 the work of running double agents had grown more complicated. Not only were there more agents to run, but a number of these were operating abroad and foreign operations were technically the responsibility of MI6. It became necessary to establish a new section that would co-ordinate operations between MI5 and MI6 and provide a proper control over the material that was being passed to the enemy. In July 1940 the Wireless Board was created, a lofty panel of senior intelligence officers which consisted of Guy Liddell from MI5 (who was also the Director of B Division), Stewart Menzies (and sometimes Claude Dansey) from MI6, John Godfrey the Director of Naval Intelligence, the Director of Military Intelligence, and Archie Boyle. During this period, Boyle got on very close terms with Menzies and Dansey and although he never cared for ‘Uncle Claude’, he nonetheless admired his acumen.

In June 1941, Boyle became the SOE’s Director of Intelligence and Security and was a magnificent asset to the organization in that role. He used his good relations within the intelligence community to effect a high level of liaison with MI6 and the Security Service. It was from MI6 that Boyle received the name Déricourt.

Boyle was a shrewd and extremely intelligent man, but there is no evidence that he would have given a potentially unsuitable candidate like Déricourt his recommendation, unless, like MI5, he too had been misled. There were no more than three officers inside MI6 who even knew of Déricourt’s existence; one was in Gibraltar, another was Kenneth Cohen and the other was, of course, Claude Dansey. Dansey not only succeeded in slipping Déricourt into SOE, but in doing so he also managed to disguise his own hand.

Before he came anywhere near SOE, Déricourt was told that he would be sent to a section of MI6 that specialized in sabotage operations, called ‘special operations’. In a sworn statement to the DST in 1946, Déricourt wrote:

I was transferred to SOE, a unit specially concerned with sabotage. This service, like all Allied services at the time, was controlled by SIS (MI6). I entered into an additional commitment, through André Simon, about the secrecy of my work.

In a revised version of this statement, made in 1947, he circumspectly removed the reference to MI6.

It would seem, from other evidence too, that André Simon was aware of Déricourt’s links with MI6. Although his name sounds French, Simon was utterly English and, indeed, spoke French very badly. He was the son of the famous wine merchant and had a fairly comfortable lifestyle, with a place in the country where his wife lived and a flat in town where he tended to be for twelve months of the year. Sharing the flat with him was another woman whom he kept secret from his wife, but apparently not from his colleagues at SOE.

During the weeks before Henri was sent to France, he and Simon became good friends. In fact there was a trio of bon-viveurs who would congregate at Simon’s flat in Harley Street to sample his excellent collection of pre-war vintages, the other member being Nicholas Bodington. Bodington, better than anyone, knew about Déricourt’s connection with German intelligence, since he was the man who had introduced him to Boemelburg in the first place. In conversation, Déricourt and Bodington always referred to Boemelburg not by name but by the sobriquet ‘notre ami’. Bodington was also privy to Déricourt’s secret connection with MI6 – and he was the only one to suffer for it.

There was someone else in SOE who suspected a relationship with MI6. Gubbins’s deputy, Harry Sporborg, had been a solicitor with the city firm of Slaughter and May and had initially been involved with SOE’s operations in Scandinavia. He later became head of SOE’s London Group, the directorate responsible for all operations in northern Europe, and he was also the principal private secretary for SOE’s affairs to the Minister. Sporborg was Gubbins’s deputy while he was Head of Operations and then later when he became Head of SOE. The initial details about Déricourt that Boyle brought into Gubbins’s office were of no immediate concern. However, when Sporborg read a transcript of one of Déricourt’s initial interviews he heard the very first faint ring of alarm bells. Déricourt, under the impression that he was talking to another MI6 officer, once again declared his contacts in German intelligence. According to Sporborg,

It emerged during the initial questioning before he was engaged. I think he’d put it forward as an advantage, as something he could contribute, as a plus-point, you see. That he’d be able to get information for us whereas others couldn’t. That was knocked on the head and he was told that he would not be expected to do anything of that sort.

At first Sporborg simply doubted the suitability of the man for a sensitive role such as F Section had in mind. Later, however, his doubts were replaced with a dark suspicion that Déricourt had other allegiances. Sporborg’s account of Déricourt’s declaration has consistently been denied by those who hold the records.

These declarations of Déricourt’s would seem to indicate that he was not as self-assured as reports have made him appear. At least, not in the company of very senior officers. He repeated this detail about his German contacts on at least three occasions (upon his arrival, to Air Intelligence, and then to SOE), assuming, as so many Frenchmen did, that there was simply one great amorphous conglomerate called ‘British Intelligence’. (It never occurred to either the French or the Germans that SOE and MI6 were separate entities.) When he arrived in Britain, Déricourt knew he faced probable internment (no doubt Dansey even threatened him with it), but he also knew that a personal acquaintanceship with figures in German intelligence was currency he could bargain with. Being passed from one senior British officer to another, Déricourt never knew to whom he was talking at any one time. Eventually, he would learn to be more circumspect.

Claude Dansey had plucked Déricourt out of the stream of unsavoury life that inevitably washed up on Britain’s shores during times of war. He then disguised the truth of the man’s origins from MI5 and proffered his services to an organization that he knew was too naive and trusting to spot a ‘wrong ’un’ when it saw one, but at the same time was not so naive that it wouldn’t have been suspicious of a gift from Dansey. Consequently, and with Déricourt’s connivance, he carefully disguised his own hand in the transaction.

Why was there so much deception between the British secret services? Why had F Section officers like Bodington and Simon not reported to their superiors in SOE what they knew about Déricourt? Did they feel responsible to some higher authority?

Vera Atkins was the only F Section officer who expressed any reservations about Déricourt and, just to add grist to her mill, Déricourt made the irregular request to be given a few diamonds to supplement his planned operations in France. Diamonds, he assured her, were currently at a premium in occupied Paris. Atkins realized this was the bare-faced try-on of a hardened black-marketeer. When she protested to Buckmaster and company her objections were overruled and Déricourt got his diamonds. F Section just couldn’t wait to get him in the field.

On 5 December he was driven down to RAF Tempsford to be introduced to some of the pilots who would be flying operations out to him in France. One of these was the young Hugh Verity. He had just been transferred from Fighter Command HQ to 161 Squadron and was himself learning about the Lysander. In time Verity would become Squadron Leader and, later, Group Captain, but during that very damp December he was still a 24-year-old Flight Lieutenant, Oxford graduate, fluent in Spanish and French, with a few weeks’ training in Lysanders. He and Déricourt immediately hit it off. For Déricourt, RAF Tempsford was like a home away from home. The society of pilots, dozens of strange new aircraft to explore, even the scent of aviation fuel made a welcome change from all the pressures in London. Déricourt began to relax and a little of his old congenial charm resurfaced. For Verity, Déricourt was a figure of some fascination. He was ten years older than himself and clearly an extremely experienced pilot. But as well as his obvious experience, there was also an air of intrigue about him.

Déricourt told Verity some pretty tall stories. For instance, that he used to earn £300 a week as a stunt pilot with an aerobatic team, whereas in fact in the days of the flying circus he barely ever had enough money to pay for fuel. He claimed to have a flat in Paris, which he did not; that he was the mayor of a small town in France; and that he had escaped from France by trekking across the Pyrenees. Well, the lads in 161 Squadron certainly took to him. He wasn’t one of your typical ‘joes’ (the term they used for agents), he was really one of them, someone who had a genuine appreciation of the dangers involved in their work. His taciturn humour belied a sense of careful responsibility and dependability. Tales of the flying circus, or of his ‘adventures’ in the Spanish Civil War, regularly earned him drinks in the officers’ mess – hallowed ground to an outsider.

Déricourt quickly learnt the routine for laying out flare paths for the Lysanders and Hudsons, the rudiments of parachuting at Ringway airbase, and basic security procedures at one of the SOE’s training centres. On the night of 22 December, barely three weeks after joining, he was kitted out in a suit of French clothes, given a set of false papers for a Maurice Fabre (the new persona he was expected to adopt in France), the codename GILBERT, and a parting gift of a pair of gold cufflinks from Buckmaster. He sat and waited to be driven out to the Hudson, but by midnight the weather had closed in and the operation was aborted. Depressingly, the weather settled into a pattern for the rest of the week and the mission was cancelled until the next moon period, in January. Déricourt did not get home for Christmas.

He had about a month to kill before the next moon and spent some of that time back in London. On 11 January, Verity took him up in an Oxford bomber and gave him dual instruction. The same afternoon he was allowed to take a Lysander up and do a couple of circuits of the field; and that was the sum total of the flying he ever did for the RAF. At 10.30 p.m. on 22 January 1943, Operation OCTO took Déricourt and another SOE agent named Jean Worms in a Halifax across the Channel into occupied France. Worms jumped first, to a reception prepared by Andrée Borrel and Francis Suttill in a field near Chartres. Worms was the leader of an all-Jewish ‘reseaux’ (network) called ROBIN that would establish itself in the Marne district and become another sub-circuit of the PROSPER network. Déricourt preferred to be dropped ‘blind’, coming down twenty minutes later in a large field north of the Orléans Canal, near Pithiviers.


SOE: The Rules of the Game

UNSPECIFIED – circa 1944: Headquarters of french Gestapo ensured complete arrest of the group;;1er rang – 1st row : Fritz Bittner (1), Karl Doring (2), Sattler (3), Boemelburg (4), Hans Kieffer (5), Reiser (6), Fritz Mohr (7), Arthur Katzemich (8);;2e rang – 2nd row : Roeding (1), Hans Hoppen (2), Joachim Kleist (3), Hans Damelo (4), Adolf Tippner (5), Hans Hofmann (7), Grenzmeier (9), Richard Becke (11), Hans Knittel (12), Herbert Richter (13), Paul Thummel (14), Vogt (15), Willy Muller (16), Georg Froitzheim (17);;3e rang – 3rd row : Willi Netzer (1), Richard Baldeweg (2), Joseph Daumelang (3), Willi Meissner (4), Ludolf Kroenke (5), Karl Braun (6), Hans Oppelt (7), Konrad Metscher (8), Richard Hamann (9), Heinrich Einfeld 10), Alfred Saalberg (11), Grunewald (15);;4e rang – 4th row : Lackert (1), Noehring (3), Richard Schroeter (4), Otto Schwab (5) (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

Karl Bömelburg

During the early morning hours, Déricourt walked across the frozen open fields towards the little spur line that runs out of Orléans to Poitiers. He caught one of the early morning milk trains that rolled slowly into Gare d’Orsay around mid-morning. His first priority was to get warm and get some sleep. He turned up at JuJu’s flat near the Place des Ternes, knocked but got no reply. His old flame, Julienne Aisner, had become quite serious about the young lawyer Charles Besnard. Besnard’s own flat was not far, in the Avenue Malakoff, but Déricourt decided not to disturb them. He took the Metro to the Gare de l’Est and bought a ticket for Reims.

Sometime that afternoon he arrived at the little village of Coulognes-en-Tardenois. He waited in the small bar until his mother returned home from work before knocking on the door. He slept most of the day and woke about ten that night to talk. His mother knew from experience not to believe much of what her son told her; his father said nothing to him at all. Sitting by the fire in the large armchair, the even larger frame of Alfred Déricourt seemed to his son to expand with every breath. Henri, on departing, left his mother a large wad of notes from the cash the SOE had given him.

By midday on the following day he was outside Juju’s flat again in the Place des Ternes. When she opened the door she had to catch her breath. After another of his characteristic disappearances there he was, as large as life. She would never get used to his unpredictability. He explained crudely that he was working for the British, which of course she didn’t believe, and that he was going down to Marseilles to collect his wife and bring her up to Paris. Could she find them somewhere to stay? JuJu said she’d try. He then left her some of his SOE cash and took the train to Marseilles.

Rémy Clément had been stood down from Air France when that company was forced to cancel its few remaining routes. He got employment in the office of the La Bourne company in Marseilles and was sitting at his desk, his mind a long way from his work, when the phone rang. It was Jeannot. She was nearly incoherent with joy, but the gist of her message was that Rémy should come round to her flat on his way home that evening. She said nothing else, but Rémy was in no doubt, Henri was back. Déricourt opened the door and ushered Rémy into the small room at 50 Rue Curiol. There was much embracing and nods and winks as Déricourt began to reveal his purpose. He wanted Rémy to come up to Paris with him, to help in a secret operation for the British. Secret agents were flown in and out of France late at night and they needed someone to organize the flights, discover the right fields, lay out flight paths – gradually Déricourt went into the whole operation for the SOE in great detail. Rémy was extremely tempted but at the same time very wary. Déricourt was such an outrageous adventurer.

I had a good job, but it had no future. I felt up against a wall and with the occupation I felt trapped. He was offering me something I was craving for. To be involved with flying again.

Against this Rémy had to weigh up two things. He didn’t like the idea of having anything to do with secret agents, and he was terrified of being caught by the Germans. He asked for some time to think it over. Déricourt explained that he and Jeannot were taking the first train in the morning. He would have to know Rémy’s answer before they left.

At five-thirty the next morning Clément slowly climbed the steep hill of Boulevard d’Athenes to the Gare St Charles. At the station he told Déricourt he would come but needed some time. He was not restrained by doubt but by bureaucracy. In a few weeks he would be due his holiday pay and didn’t want to forfeit the cash. In three weeks he and his wife should be in Paris. His only condition was that he would never be expected to have anything to do with agents. Déricourt didn’t have much choice; he agreed. Sometime during the journey to Paris, Déricourt decided to dispose of the bogus identity papers SOE had given him. He was too well known, he could never pass himself off as ‘Maurice Fabre’, so he sensibly remained Henri Déricourt.

In Paris he and Jeannot stayed the first few nights with JuJu, sleeping on the bare boards. His wife knew all about Henri’s relationship with the other woman, but seemed to cope with the temporary discomfort with no complaints. However, it was clear the arrangement could not last.

Sometime within the first three days, Déricourt contacted Sturmbannfuhrer Karl Boemelburg. He was collected somewhere in the Bois de Boulogne by a black Citroën and driven around the maze of small roads that weave through the Bois. Naturally, there is no transcript of the conversation that took place, but it has come down through ‘Gestapo folklore’ (absurd but true) that Déricourt managed to convince Boemelburg of his strong political feelings. The conversation went on the following lines.

Déricourt described, in minute detail, the process by which he’d been transported out of France via the Pat Line, to Gibraltar. This satisfied Boemelburg that the black-marketeer probably had been in touch with ‘British intelligence’. Then Déricourt embarked on a vivid description of a Britain on the verge of mass revolt, where the government was riddled with Socialists and Communists, and where the ordinary Briton felt no sympathy for Churchill’s warlike policies. Because of his own special qualifications, Déricourt had been recruited to organize the transport of secret agents in and out of France. However, sickened by the sight of rampant Bolshevism, he had determined to offer his services to the only people who knew who the real enemy was and how to fight it – the Nazis.

Whether or not Boemelburg believed Déricourt doesn’t come down with the rest of the story. The old Nazi was a highly suspicious man and would have required a great deal more than mere tokens of political empathy to convince him. One thing that would have impressed him, indeed always did impress him, was Déricourt’s remarkable calm and self-assurance. There was something about his quiet, careful speech that radiated confidence, and it was Boemelburg’s confidence he wanted. They arranged to meet again before the end of the day. At that second meeting Déricourt emerged with a valuable envelope in his coat pocket. Henri’s and Jeannot’s accommodation problems had been solved.

On their third day in Paris, Jeannot and Henri packed up their belongings and strolled down the Rue du Fauborg St Honoré, to the Hotel Bristol, where he presented the man on the desk with Boemelburg’s letter of authorization. The Hotel Bristol was a German-controlled hotel. It was not occupied by Germans but by their guests, civilians mostly; Vichy officials, bankers and industrialists. It was a discreet and convenient meeting-place where private enterprise could meet and be entertained by the Nazi authorities. It was almost the most expensive and certainly the most exclusive hotel in Paris. Highly polished marble floors reflected jet-black jack-boots and the glittering lights of the crystal chandeliers. For Jeannot it was an experience she never forgot. Having lived in Marseilles and away from the more obvious manifestations of the occupation, the sight of so many German uniforms absolutely terrified her. She couldn’t bear to eat in the restaurant because the sight of so much black and grey made her uncontrollably nervous. She had no idea of the significance of the place and knew nothing of her husband’s arrangements with the Germans. All she knew was that she didn’t like it. Henri, on the other hand, revelled in it.

Of course, living at the Bristol was an extraordinary risk to take, if only because he might have been seen by a future contact from PROSPER’s network. There was a convenient back door to the hotel which opened onto a small lane that led to the Rue de Penthièvre. Henri and Jeannot would slip out to eat at a small black-market rendezvous they called La Conte where they met up with JuJu and others. JuJu hadn’t told Besnard about Henri for fear the respectable lawyer might disapprove of the black-marketeering pilot. He would certainly have disapproved of her having anything to do with the Resistance. Déricourt convinced JuJu that his work in Paris was serious and that he needed someone else to work with him, to be his courier. She was at first incredulous, but was eventually intrigued by the prospect and agreed to help. JuJu never found out where Henri and Jeannot were staying – nor, of course, about his contacts with Boemelburg.

The arrangement at the Bristol couldn’t last. Three weeks later, JuJu mentioned to Déricourt that his black-market contact Bladier had a flat for sale in the 16th Arrondissement, not far from the Avenue Foch. The simple two-room apartment on the third floor of 58 Rue Pergolese suited them perfectly, but there was a great deal of work to be done before it would be habitable. Meanwhile Henri and Jeannot moved into a room at a hotel in the Avenue Colonel Moll until the accommodation in the Rue Pergolese was ready. Déricourt was absolutely tickled at the prospect of owning an apartment in that area. There was a small black-market restaurant 100 metres from his door and less than ten minutes away, around the corner, was Boemelburg’s headquarters at 82–84 Avenue Foch.

Towards the end of February, Rémy Clément and his wife arrived and settled into a wonderful artist’s studio flat in Montmartre, with a view of Sacre Coeur from the window. Déricourt’s little group was now gathered. It was codenamed FARRIER. They were contacted by some PROSPER people; Andrée Borrel, who would share courier duties with JuJu, and Jack Agazarian, who would provide radio communications with London. Déricourt and Clément created a simple telephone bell code. Two rings: meet me at La Conte; three rings: meet at Chez Tutulle; one ring and then two: news from abroad, and so on. Almost immediately Rémy was despatched down to the Vienne to make a survey of possible fields to use as landing strips. But before these arrangements had been made, Déricourt had already entered into his understanding with the SD. There were a great many lives at stake already, and the game hadn’t even started.

During the last week of February he was contacted by Lise de Baissac, who wanted help to get some people back to London. One of these was her brother Claude, the organizer of another extensive network that stretched along the Atlantic coast, called SCIENTIST. The SCIENTIST and PROSPER networks were linked both geographically and strategically, Lise de Baissac being the conduit through which most information flowed between Claude de Baissac in Bordeaux and Francis Suttill in Paris. These two great men had a great deal in common, but the most critical element they shared, along with innumerable other networks in France, was their reliance on the SOE’s Air Movements Officer, Déricourt.

Déricourt’s first operation, which they called TRAINER, was planned for the next full moon in mid-March. It would be a double Lysander; two aircraft landing, one after the other. The Lysander could carry three adults in the rear cockpit – or, at a pinch, two adults and two children. It was a single-crew operation, no navigator or gunner. With his maps spread out across his lap, the pilot would fly out to the given co-ordinates and then, by the light of the moon, be guided by the rivers or railways to the field where the reception committee was waiting.

On 17 March, four men bought tickets for Poitiers at the Gare d’Orsay and, having made visual contact with Déricourt, boarded the train and sat themselves at intervals along its length. At Poitiers they all went separate ways, having arranged to rendezvous after curfew at a spot on the outskirts of the town, where Déricourt waited with half a dozen bicycles. They pedalled in single file, Déricourt – with the only lamp – in the lead. He was taking them to a field SOE had given him in London. Already tried and tested, it had been coded B/19.

Throughout France over eighty such fields had been identified as being suitable for clandestine use. Those used for MI6 operations were classified RED and carefully segregated from SOE fields, which were classified BLUE. Officially pilots were not supposed to know either the identity of the people they carried or the service for which they were working, but by noting whether he was flying out to R/12 or B/31 a pilot could deduce whether it was an MI6 operation or one for SOE. When the coded references were translated into soil and trees, one begins to appreciate the extraordinary courage of the men who brought aircraft down into the French countryside in the dead of night.

Déricourt left his passengers in a small gully shrouded by trees at the top end of the field and ran off to lay out the flare path. It was vital that the pilot had a clear approach to the field, so that he knew he could descend comfortably without fear of clipping the top of a tree or electricity cables. The precise direction of the strip depended on the direction of the wind, which was faintly from the northeast that night. A hard frost had created a firm crust on the soil – in theory, it should go well. The entire field had to be at least half a kilometre long, within which the flare path, some 150 metres long and 50 metres wide, was marked out with torches in the shape of an inverted L. The top end of the inverted L gave the pilot the width of his strip; two, sometimes three lights set into the wind gave him the length.

Back in the gully, sweating and breathing great plumes of steam, Déricourt rejoined his passengers. With an hour or so before the aircraft would be due, they took out some coffee and bread and tried to keep warm. Amongst the four passengers were three important SOE officers. The SCIENTIST organizer Claude de Baissac had been in France since June 1942, and was returning to London for a rest and re-briefing. With him was France Anthelme, the organizer of the parallel but much smaller circuit to Suttill’s, called BRICKLAYER. Come D-Day, BRICKLAYER would be responsible for creating secret supply lines of food and finance for the invading army. He too was closely associated with Suttill. With him was a wireless operator, not identified. The fourth, Raymond Flower, was the organizer of the MONKEYPUZZLE circuit, based around Tours. He had been in France since June the year before, but his little group had never got off the ground and he was returning to London, although he didn’t know it at that stage, to take up a liaison post.

Soon after midnight, the sound of the Bristol Mercury engine could be heard drifting in and out of the wind. Déricourt told them to stay hidden until his signal and then made a dash to the torches, turning each one on and then standing at the command point with his own torch in hand. As he made visual contact he would flash in Morse the identification letter ‘D’. The Lysander would respond with the same letter. Flying Officer ‘Bunny’ Rymills banked his aircraft and descended to about 300 feet, flying over the row of lights, re-orientated, and made another approach. Then, coming down quite low, he made another pass, getting the feel of the wind. His final approach was perfect and he put the aircraft down at 12.30 a.m.

Déricourt flashed the signal to the men in the trees, who scrambled up the slope and across to the Lysander. Out of the rear cockpit, where a gunner used to be positioned, three men gingerly made their way down the ladder. He picked out three of his four passengers to go on the first aircraft and ordered the newcomers to help them on board with their luggage. Seven minutes later, Rymills pulled the throttle back, released the brakes and let the plane roll down the bumpy strip until she gained enough velocity to be lifted, almost vertically, into the air. Meanwhile Déricourt and the three newcomers plus Anthelme walked back to the gully to wait. Normally on a ‘double’, the second aircraft was just a couple of minutes away. On that occasion he was nearly half an hour behind his leader. As the new arrivals waited, the rush of adrenalin had begun to dilute and the first anxieties about being dropped into enemy-occupied territory were diminishing. Déricourt always kept a flask of cognac to loosen up the tenseness.

At about ten to one, the sound of Vaughan-Fowler’s Lysander drifted slowly into earshot, and Déricourt clapped Anthelme on the back, as if to say, you aren’t going to be left behind after all. Vaughan-Fowler’s pick-up didn’t run quite as smoothly as that of Rymills. The ground was particularly bumpy, which shook the Lysander badly and caused the engine to ignite. He taxied to a halt with flames licking the engine cowling. Déricourt climbed up the wing struts until his face was virtually inside the cockpit, where there followed a brief conversation, conducted at the top of their lungs. Out of the rear cockpit clambered Madame Agazarian, the radio operator’s wife. Once she was down, Déricourt leapt up the ladder, grabbed a spare Mae West (an inflatable life-preserver) and stuffed it into the engine exhaust, which had the effect of suffocating the flames. Meanwhile Anthelme, terrified that the whole aircraft would blow up, stood motionless at the foot of the ladder. Déricourt made a swift jerk with his thumb and Anthelme scrambled on board. A signal to Vaughan-Fowler and the engine was throttled up. He was off the ground by 1 a.m.

Back in the gully with his torches, Déricourt began to sort out the new arrivals. The first few hours that incoming agents spent in France were often the most gruelling. Having flown through a freezing black night into a foreign field, they needed that first contact with a friend in hostile territory. They were also hungry for news, for an assessment of their situation, any trivial little thing that they might need to know which London had neglected to pass on. Déricourt abandoned his usual mute efficiency and chatted to the agents, apparently just to put them at their ease. But in the cold light of the morning after, many of these agents reflected on Déricourt’s inquisitiveness. He made it his business to learn as much as he possibly could about everyone who passed through his hands. He had a prodigious memory and soon built up a mental record of who worked with whom. Apart from Madame Agazarian, who had come to work beside her husband, there was John Goldsmith, who had had a brief and unprofitable career with CARTE in the south but was now working with the Paris-based networks; Henri Lejeune, who was with the Gaullist section (RF) but who seemed to have links with F Section networks; and Roland Dowlen, a radio operator for a small network in Paris, separate from but in communication with PROSPER, called CHESTNUT. Hardly key figures at the centre of the northern networks, yet all with one single common factor; all had links with PROSPER. This in itself was of no great significance, but it did impress upon Déricourt that apart from a common link, there may also be a common purpose. At that stage he knew very little about PROSPER’s stategic significance, but he did know that it could not be long before he met the man at the centre of the great network.

The party pedalled in single file down the pitch-black lanes towards Poitiers. Their security procedures had been well rehearsed in London. Each had his own cover story, false identity papers, the return stubs of pre-purchased train tickets and so on. At Poitiers they separated, filling in the hours until dawn, when they converged on the railway station. On the platform, where they waited for the train for Paris, they mingled inconspicuously with the early morning crowds, avoiding the impulse to glance at each other. Though their paths would doubtless cross again, for the moment they were on their own.

Déricourt had to remain to deal with the bicycles and took a later train that got him into Paris after lunch. From his point of view, Operation TRAINER had been a success.b He found the agents were on the whole fairly at ease with him. His professionalism seemed to create a sense of confidence and in that mood many of them were very talkative. In fact the whole operation had been quite exhilarating. It seemed as though the business might have its moments. Back at the ‘Coll Moll’, the hotel in Avenue Colonel Moll, Déricourt collapsed on his bed and slept through until the following morning.

Within days of the March operation, there was another meeting with Boemelburg – a kind of re-appraisal, with a view to formalizing the situation. At that meeting Déricourt provided Boemelburg with a detailed description of everyone who had travelled in on the Lysanders. Boemelburg asked him if he knew anything about PROSPER, to which Déricourt replied that he had heard it had something to do with the invasion.

The relationship that developed between these two men was one of the great partnerships of the secret war. From the beginning it had all the hallmarks of something that would endure, and it was significant not for what it involved but for what it did not involve. It was the experience of most senior officers at the Avenue Foch, and Boemelburg especially, that coercion was not an enduring basis for any intelligence contract. It built up resentment and threatened the security of everyone involved. Coercion was fine for the short term when immediate results were the essence of the contract, but it did not hold any promise for the future. Money had traditionally been essential to these arrangements and it was well known that the SD had almost unlimited resources. But here, too, Boemelburg was remarkably circumspect. He did not trust anyone whose motives were purely profit. Like Dansey in London, he knew not only the value of money but also its worth. If every man had his price, then it was extremely unwise to base an understanding on the vagaries of the free market. On the other hand, the SD were also extraordinarily correct and they would have been equally suspicious of anyone who would not accept any money at all. SD archives reveal that, unlike most of their informers, Déricourt did not receive a regular salary, though of course he did accept the odd bit of largesse that came his way. (There is a massive archive of signed receipts which the SD extracted from all their informers, which now rests in the vaults of the French DST in Rue Saussier. It is guarded as though it were a national secret – which it probably is.)

Déricourt was officially identified as BOE/48 – Boemelburg’s 48th agent. Soon after that meeting, Boemelburg introduced the name GILBERT (synonymous with BOE/48) to a few of his colleagues at Avenue Foch, most notably to his immediate subordinate, Josef Kieffer. Boemelburg had already placed GILBERT within the larger context of the expanding phenomenon known as PROSPER. Déricourt’s confirmation of PROSPER’s strategic position guaranteed the relationship would proceed from first stages. But here lay a fundamental flaw in the way the Germans operated their double agents. The man who made the initial contact always became the controller – it was a matter of some personal pride. But it was also a critical error, for the controller then lacked the objectivity to run his agent wisely and his judgement was often biased when analysing the intelligence he received. In Britain, it had long been appreciated that ‘doubles’ were a volatile species and were passed on by those who had made the first contact to professional controllers who were more dispassionate. In Déricourt’s case there was the prospect, for Boemelburg, of information that would be immediately verifiable. So upon that basis their mutual trust grew.

What, then, was Déricourt’s role? Why was he there and what was he doing? German and French archives confirm that he entered into an arrangement with the Sicherheitsdienst in February 1943. Before examining motives, it is worth making one small point here about the issue of money. British authorities have always claimed that Déricourt did what he did for financial reward. He was paid by SOE to organize Lysander operations and was paid again by the Germans for delivering intelligence on those operations. Of course he was a ‘Déricourist’, as his friend Clément once described him, but if he went into the arrangement with the SD just for money, then he didn’t do particularly well by it. Taken over the course of his entire mission, the money Déricourt earned from the SD didn’t amount to much more than any typical black-marketeer earned during the course of the war. In fact, it was a matter of some resentment with Déricourt that he didn’t do a good deal better.

Whatever Déricourt’s private motives may have been, his approach to the SD was, in fact, carried out on instructions from Claude Dansey. Karl Boemelburg was the highest-ranking SD officer in France. (Above him was the SS officer Standartenfuhrer Dr Helmut Knochen, who reported directly to Himmler.) Boemelburg reported directly to the head of counter-espionage and counter-sabotage at the RSHA in Berlin, Horst Kopkow. Boemelburg was the most important counter-espionage officer in France. If it were possible to win the hearts and minds of the SD in Paris, then it would be a tremendous advantage to Dansey’s own intelligence operations. If Déricourt could get an insight into the SD’s operations, it would be a coup comparable to deciphering their ENIGMA codes.

But how would Déricourt get any information out of Boemelburg? Surely the SD weren’t going to sit down with Déricourt and discuss their operations. Of course not. The basis for Déricourt’s operation rested upon the old maxim that questions are far more revealing than answers. Dansey’s real objective was to discover what Boemelburg wanted to know. It was a classic double-agent operation. First a British agent approaches the Germans and offers to pass them information about British operations, and then gives them material that could be quickly verified and evaluated. Once that had occurred, their expectations would begin to rise. ‘If he can deliver information about X, perhaps he may know something about Y.’ As their confidence grows, coupled with their appetite for information, their questions become more expansive, more greedy – more direct: ‘Have you heard anything about a wireless operator who was travelling down to the Jura?’ ‘Do you know anything about a group up near Compiègne?’ ‘Can you find out something about a certain doctor in Toulouse?’ ‘Do you know of any contacts of the Abbé in Tulle?’

Like the French, the Germans never imagined SOE and MI6 to be two separate organizations. They were simply seen as different departments of something called ‘British Intelligence’. Boemelburg’s pre-eminence in the SD’s counter-espionage operations meant that his enquiries covered a wide range of networks, some of them Dansey’s. Déricourt would make a careful note of all Boemelburg’s questions and send it to one of Dansey’s contacts. In London, a patient process of listing, collating and cross-referencing those questions would gradually reveal what the enemy already knew, what he needed to know, what were his preoccupations and, most importantly, what were his priorities.

A steady stream of this material would enable London to create an extremely clear picture of the SD’s operations in France. Of course there was a price for this information. Just as with ULTRA, Dansey’s freedom to act on this intelligence was restricted by the risk that such action might compromise its source. For example, an enquiry about a group near Rennes would reveal that an operation was being conducted against the SOE’s PARSON reseaux. Whether Dansey alerted SOE to that fact depended upon the result of his weighing up the value of saving PARSON against the risk of compromising his source. For if Boemelburg decided to arrest PARSON and found they were no longer there, he would naturally conclude there had been a leak and eventually Déricourt would no longer be trusted. The same calculation would also have to be made if the intelligence concerned one of Dansey’s own groups. Intelligence about the enemy’s counter-espionage operations always presents the dilemma of how to use it. Do you take evasive action – or somehow exploit the situation? There was of course another price to pay for this operation: Déricourt’s answers. The more Boemelburg’s expectations rose, the more answers BOE/48 would have to deliver. Some of these answers could be deceptions, others would have to be verifiable.

How did Déricourt communicate with Dansey? There were at least two routes. The first was through a particular bank teller at a branch of the Credit Lyonnaise in the Rue Caumartin. He was a ‘mail drop’ left over from the Z Organization. The second was through PAUL, the barman at the Bar Lorraine in the Place des Ternes, who came on the scene in 1942.

But was it really possible that a senior British intelligence officer would feel it was worthwhile jeopardizing the lives of other British officers for the sake of an intelligence advantage? Harry Sporborg, the deputy head of SOE, was in no doubt: ‘Make no mistake about it, MI6 would never have hesitated to use us or our agencies to advance their schemes, even if that meant the sacrifice of some of our people.’ It was common practice in war for a commander to sacrifice some of his men to gain some strategic advantage. At Dunkirk the British Army took over 68,000 casualties in rearguard actions while nearly 340,000 men made it safely off the beaches. However, Dansey’s game actually threatened an entire operation. Would that have been worth the sacrifice?

Trying to make sense of a personality as complex as Dansey’s is all the more difficult because he entrusted so little to paper. At the beginning of 1943 it probably made sense to his vindictive way of thinking that it was worth giving a little SOE information away in return for some insight into the SD’s operations in France. The problem was, and Dansey must have been aware of it, how to restrict that information when Déricourt was operating on his own over 150 miles from London. There is good evidence from the German side that for some time the information Déricourt gave away was pretty insubstantial and that it was the promise of what he might give that made him so attractive. It is the modus operandi of all double agents to provide thin material to begin with, coupled with an undertaking to deliver the earth tomorrow.

But that was the problem with this operation. It was Boemelburg who was asking the questions and it would be he who effectively set the stakes. On the other hand, Dansey had no qualms about exploiting an organization he absolutely despised. If Déricourt was going to be any good to Dansey, then he needed to win Boemelburg’s absolute confidence. That would be bought with first-rate, verifiable information – and the only information Déricourt had that was worth anything was what he knew about SOE operations.

As far as MI6 were concerned, this particular operation was one of Dansey’s private enterprises, probably known to no more than two of his most trusted associates. But despite his obsession with secrecy, a thin trickle of information about his activities would occasionally leak out and inevitably appal the new breed of young intellectuals that hovered about the dingy corridors at Broadway. One of those wartime recruits from the academic world, Hugh Trevor Roper, now Lord Dacre, described Claude Dansey as ‘an utter shit; corrupt, incompetent, but with a certain low cunning’. Malcolm Muggeridge, equally damning of him, added, however: ‘He was the only true professional in MI6. The others at the top were all second-rate minds.’

Unfortunately for SOE, they had few friends at court. Most MI6 officers still considered them a bunch of undisciplined amateurs who were more a danger to themselves than to the enemy. Added to which, everyone was terrified of Dansey and would never have dared blowing one of his operations. Now that the fuse was lit, they would just have to wait and see.


General Heinz Guderian with an Enigma machine in a half-track being used as a mobile command center during the Battle of France, 1940

The main German cipher machine, derived from a Dutch invention that failed in several commercial models in the late 1920s. Various models of increasing complexity were used by the Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, and in diplomatic traffic. It was also used by the Reichsbahn (German railways). The Italian Navy used a derivative machine, the C38M. Polish intelligence partially broke Enigma ciphers in 1932. By 1939 the Poles had a foothold understanding of the original Dutch machine and therefore were able to rig replicas of its German descendants. The French also made headway from 1938. Polish intelligence Enigma replicas, and dearly acquired knowledge of German ciphers, were supplied by the Poles to the Western Allies in July 1939. The French and Poles passed additional information to the British in 1940. The British broke the naval code for the Italian C38M in September 1940, a year before that cipher was withdrawn. That greatly aided the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean naval campaign in 1940-1941. Naval Enigma rotors were recovered from a sunken minelayer U-boat off Scotland in February 1940. That told British intelligence that all German ships and U-boats carried them. Thereafter high priority was assigned to capture of U-boats and other enemy craft. German trawlers off Norway proved especially vulnerable: capture of Enigma code books or rotors from two trawlers led to breaking of the Kriegsmarine code. In May 1941, U-110’s Enigma machine was captured intact along with all code books. That and such capture or recovery successes were kept at the highest level of secrecy, including by deceit of captured U-boat crews or separate incarceration from other German prisoners.

The British built “bombes”-machines that mimicked and thus helped work out Enigma’s rotor sequences. There were never enough bombes to meet the demand of the code breakers at Bletchley Park, plus all the armed services and Britain’s clamoring allies. If the British had been more willing to provide technical information to the Americans-which they did not for mostly valid security reasons-it is conceivable that many more bombes would have been made much earlier. That was certainly Admiral Ernest King’s firm view, but in fairness King was not the most cooperative ally either. U. S. intelligence decided to make their own bombes in September 1942, with the first poor quality models available in May 1943. By the end of the year, 75 better quality bombes had been manufactured in the United States, greatly increasing code breaking capacity. It was still an infernal problem to decode: the two inner settings of the German naval cipher were set by officers only every two days, while naval cipher clerks changed the two outer settings every 24 hours. Enigma operators then chose three of the machine’s eight rotors, each of which had 26 point positions. All that provided 160 trillion potential combinations. On the receiving end, each U-boat had two nets of six frequencies each (“Diana” and “Hubertus”). And yet, Bletchley Park broke into the cipher.

The Kriegsmarine added a fourth rotor to its ciphers in January 1942, creating a prolonged “information blackout” that reduced enemy ability to detect wolf packs and divert convoys around them. The British made it a top priority to capture another machine from a U-boat or weather ship. U-559 was forced to the surface on October 30, 1942, by a sustained depth charge attack by five destroyers and destroyer escorts. Its documents were recovered, but the machine went down with the scuttled submarine. Still, it became clear that German operators were not fully utilizing the fourth rotor. An American ASW Support Group captured U-505 off Cape Verde in June 1944. The haul of Enigma material was enormous. It was also current and forward looking to new naval codes. Deciphering signals was greatly aided by COLOSSUS I, the first electronic computer put together by the brilliance of Alan Turing and engineers at Bletchley Park and elsewhere. It made processing and reading German ciphers faster than ever, often close to “real time.” COLOSSUS II came online in June 1944. A measure of how Enigma proved vulnerable to stiff-minded German overconfidence is the remarkable fact that the source of most intercepted signals, Admiral Karl Dönitz, went to his deathbed in 1980 convinced that no enemy ever read his Enigma ciphers.


“Secret writing machine.” Siemens & Halske T52 A German cipher machine that turned patterned holes in paper ribbons into transmittable radio pulses, or back into readable messages. Its 10-rotor system made the code-breaking task of British intelligence at Bletchley Park extremely difficult. The British did not break the Geheimschreiber until they developed the COLOSSUS I and II mechanical computers by mid-1944. When the Western Allies did break the code, they gleaned much information of high value, for the Wehrmacht used Geheimschreiber machines for its top-level headquarters’ communications.


“Station X.” The site of, and usual shorthand reference for, the British Code and Cypher School founded in 1919 and located about 80 miles north of London. During World War II it housed the critical code-breaking operation run by MI6. It employed some of the most brilliant British minds of the century-notably Alan Turing, inventor of the fi rst computer-as well as cryptanalysis specialists from Allied countries such as France, Poland, and the United States. The Americans actually took a long time to arrive and longer to be fully integrated: the first U. S. team did not reach Bletchley Park until April 25, 1943. Work at Bletchley Park was compartmentalized by “hut,” with groups in different huts listening to various of the hundreds of Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, or Wehrmacht codes. Signals were passed to code translators in Hut Three, which accepted its first Americans only in January 1944. There were over 10,000 people working on or otherwise supporting the extraordinarily complex and crucial work done at Bletchley Park by 1945. All their extraordinary work was kept secret for several decades after the war. Outposts of cryptanalysis tied to Bletchley Park were also maintained overseas, such as the “Combined Bureau, Middle East” in Cairo.


U.S. code for intercepts of Japanese diplomatic messages, and some military communications. This body of information is sometimes referred to as “the other ULTRA.” Cryptanalysis of the U.S. Army’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) broke Japanese “PURPLE” machine encryptions before the start of the Pacific War. The intercepts allowed American intelligence officers to read exchanges between Tokyo and the Japanese Embassy in Washington. While providing important insight into Japanese political and foreign policy thinking and relations, MAGIC did not provide operational or other “actionable” intelligence-mainly because Japanese diplomats were not told about Army or Navy operations in advance. MAGIC thus did not provide advance warning of the attacks on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), the Philippines, or Hong Kong. MAGIC traffic from Japanese Embassy officials in Berlin and European neutral capitals provided indirect intelligence on German plans, including the build-up for BARBAROSSA in mid-1941. Useful information was gleaned from 1943 to 1944 about some secret Wehrmacht weapons research and about planned strategy and dispositions along the Atlantic Wall.


U.S. code name for the Japanese electronic cipher machine that encrypted diplomatic messages. That cipher traffic was broken and read by U. S. Army intelligence agents of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) by late September 1940. The intercepts that resulted were code named MAGIC. The U. S. gave a copy of their PURPLE decoder machine to the British, who then also read Japanese diplomatic ciphers. The Japanese never knew that their diplomatic traffic was read by the enemy. They revealed much of military value as a result.


“Very Special Intelligence.” Code name for the initially British system of interception and decryption of German signals intelligence from 1940. ULTRA also intercepted and decrypted Italian signals. Its intelligence was shared by the major Western Allies by formal agreement from mid-1943. Although the relationship was uneasy at first, it proved one of the major successes of the Anglo-American alliance by war’s end. The code term “ULTRA” was later applied to Allied interception of Japanese signals intelligence, though not to diplomatic or political intercepts. Vast amounts of German signals were spewed out by Enigma machines and Geheimschreiber machines used by a variety of German military, diplomatic, police, and intelligence sources. ULTRA understanding of some intercepts-the Germans used nearly 200 code ciphers during the war, many of which were never penetrated-was greatly aided by widespread and often sloppy enemy tradecraft, especially within the Luftwaffe. For instance, Luftwaffe and other German operators often repeated signals on the same topic at the same time, permitting content analysis to identify certain key terms or coded locations, which provided clues to penetrate deeper into the cipher. There was also much real heroism and risk taken by Allied agents, and sheer mental sharpness and perseverance by code breakers starting with Polish and French intelligence before the war.

Winston Churchill was a key supporter of British signals breaking. He read ULTRA reports daily. British ULTRA decrypts aided defense during the Battle of Britain in 1940, helped RAF Bomber Command carry out its extended bomber offensive, and significantly aided British 8th Army win the desert campaigns (1940-1943): intercepts revealed German logistics problems and allowed the Royal Navy and RAF to further cripple supply. Probably the single most critical contribution of ULTRA was to support Allied victory over the U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic (1939-1945). German historian Jürgen Rohwer estimates that ULTRA intercepts reduced Allied shipping losses by 65 percent as early as the end of 1941. ULTRA intelligence was also key to understanding to what degree deception operations succeeded or failed in land campaigns, up to the level of directly influencing the operational and strategic thinking of Adolf Hitler. Notable confirmation of deception success came in the BARCLAY and related MINCEMEAT operations, and for a series of critical deceptions called COCKADE. Unknown to the Western Allies, John Cairncross was a Soviet double agent in place inside Bletchley Park and MI6. He fed Moscow ULTRA intercepts that contributed directly to the Red Army’s success at Kursk.

Such important successes made ULTRA one of the top secrets of the war. ULTRA was so crucial that some operations that might have been undertaken were not, out of fear of revealing to the Germans that Enigma codes were compromised: ULTRA was just too strategically important to risk for any one tactical or operational gain. ULTRA not only aided operations, it helped shape Allied strategy at the highest levels of leadership. The secret of ULTRA was kept by at least 20,000 people for over 30 years. It was not until the 1970s that the first quasi-official accounts were authorized, and not until 1988 that the British official history astonished the historiographical world with rich detail that illuminated and altered understanding of many key events of the war.

Suggested Reading: David Khan, Seizing the Enigma (1995). R. Lewin, The American Magic (1982). Ralph Bennett, Behind the Battle (1994); F. H. Hinsley, British Intelligence in the Second World War (1979-1990); Simon Singh, The Code Book (1999).

50 Books on World War II Recommended by John Keegan


When news of this first Soviet missile test site on the Volga in the Ukraine, southeast of Moscow, filtered out in 1952 following reports from returning German rocket technicians and prisoners of war interviewed in the WRINGER program, a modified Royal Air Force Canberra B-2 from 540 Squadron at Wyton photographed it on a flight from Giebelstadt in West Germany, which overflew Soviet territory in 1953 as Operation ROBIN and landed in Iran. The plane apparently sustained some damage from Soviet air defenses. Kapustin Yar, constructed in 1951 with German labor, remained the Soviet Union’s principal IRBM development facility throughout the Cold War, and was a priority target for overflights. Telemetry from the range was monitored from a National Security Agency intercept station located across the Black Sea, at Sinop in Turkey.


A small village outside the Turkish Black Sea resort of Samsun was the location of a large American radar station that became operational in 1955 to monitor Soviet missile tests at Kapustin Yar. In May 1957, Diyarbakur detected the first Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile launch, the same month as the Jupiter IRBM was successfully fired in the United States.


One area of RAF Canberra photographic-reconnaissance history that still remains shrouded in uncertainty and conjecture is the aircraft’s rumoured operations over the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s.

The USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) was placed under the command of the charismatic General Curtis LeMay in October 1948; high on his agenda was the desire to get radar photographic coverage of as much of the USSR as possible, in order for SAC bombardiers to recognize potential target areas. Of course, at this time a significant amount of mutual suspicion existed between the NATO powers and the Soviets, in what was known as the Cold War. Consequently, LeMay’s ideas of setting up SAC reconnaissance flights over the USSR were officially flatly vetoed by the White House, so that the Soviet Union should have no excuse to carry out military action against NATO.

However, aircrews did experience ‘errors in navigational equipment’ and aircraft did ‘stray’ over Eastern areas of the Soviet Bloc during the Korean War. Also, in April 1950, a US Navy Consolidated PB4Y-2, engaged on an electronic intelligence (Elint) flight over the Baltic Sea, was shot down by Lavochkin La-11s; their pilots said it was a B-29.

The RB-45C variant, also served with the RAF (35 and 115 Squadrons), as part of Opertation Jiu Jitsu. As the USAF was forbidden by the US President from overflying the Soviet Union, but the British Government had no such problems. Therefore, 4 RB-45C aircraft were operated to fly reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union. This lasted till 1954, when the RB-45C was withdrawn from Soviet Union flyovers, when one was nearly shot down. Stuart Fowle

In view of Washington’s official reluctance, discussions between the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of Britain and the USA, worked out a deal. RAF aircrews would fly American aircraft from bases within the UK, as the Canberra’s electronics were, at that time, still being developed. Radar target plots obtained would be shared between the air forces of the two countries. The aircraft selected for these missions was the four-engined North American RB-45C and, in the autumn of 1951, a small party of RAF aircrew, under the leadership of former No. 617 ‘Dambuster’ Squadron member Sqn Ldr ‘Micky’ Martin DSO, DFC, AFC, was established. Martin failed the preliminary medical for high-altitude flying and his place was taken by Sqn Ldr John Crampton, the Commanding Officer of No.101 Squadron, with its Canberra B. 2s.

The party was detached to Barksdale Air Force Base (AFB) in Louisiana for the necessary training programme, which was continued at Langley AFB in Ohio, until December. Then, the party transferred to Sculthorpe in Norfolk, from where the US F 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing operated the 322nd Reconnaissance Squadron, one of three RB-45C squadrons stationed around the world. Four aircraft at Sculthorpe were painted up with RAF roundels and large, non-standard fin flashes, but were not allocated serial numbers. Three of the RB-45Cs were flown on the first missions, in the early summer of 1952, on courses set over north, central and southern areas of the Soviet Union. After the flights, the aircraft were returned to the USA and the RAF aircrews rejoined their respective units. Early in 1954, Sqn Ldr Crampton was put in charge of another mission and his navigator was again Sqn Ldr Rex Saunders. This time, their brief was to penetrate further into Soviet airspace than they had in 1952. Crampton and Saunders took radar photographs of over thirty different targets during a flight that covered more than 1,000 miles (1,600km). Again, following the missions, aircraft and aircrews returned to their squadrons and nothing has officially been released about these episodes.

Coupled with these known RB-45C flights, rumours have referred to Canberras taking part in an Operation Robin. What is known for fact is that, in 1951, the Soviets set up a missile production plant in the Kapustin Yar area of the USSR, and ATO was extremely anxious to find out just what type of missiles were involved. It is also a known fact that No.13 Squadron, which had moved to Fayid with its Mosquito PR. 34s on 5 February 1947, had a detachment deployed to Habbaniya, in Iraq, at the end of 1948, in order to carry out intelIigence-gathering flights over southern areas of the USSR.

No. 540 Squadron had started receiving Canberra PR. 3s in December 1952, while still operating with B. 2s. Its records show that, on 27 and 28 August 1953, various crews flew long-range missions connected with Operation Robin. B. 2 WH726 and PR. 3 WH800 were used, with Wg Cdr Ball, Sqn Ldr Kenyon, Fit Lt Gartside, together with Fit Sgts Brown and Wigglesworth listed as taking part. Another of the squadron’s PR. 3s, WE 142, participated in the New Zealand Air Race as ‘No. 2’ and is confirmed as having ‘strayed off course a little’ on 8 October during the race. This ‘straying’ went over Communist territory. Furthermore, the aircraft was ‘delayed’ at Basrah and took third place in the race results. Whether anything can be deduced from these facts depends on an interpretation of semantics.

During 1953, the squadron was loaned an American camera, fitted with a 100in (250cm) focal length lens; it is known that B. 2 WH726 was converted to accept this massive piece of optics. When the camera was being tested, locations in London were photographed while the aircraft was flying over the English Channel. With a camera having that type of performance on board, it is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that WH726 took part in a Kapustin Yar overflight. There was such a flight and this has been confirmed by no less an organization than USSR intelligence.

Soviet records state that Lt Mikhail Shulga, flying an undisclosed type of MiG fighter, was vectored by ground control on to an aircraft in the Kapustin Yar area, recognized as a Canberra. At about 50,000ft (15,200m) and still below the Canberra, the Red Air Force aircraft was at the stall and Shulga’s intended interception had to be aborted. Whether the Canberra in this event was WH726 has never been confirmed, but what has is the fact that this aircraft was something of a special B. 2, which was also operated from Wyton by No. 5 Squadron. A Fit Lt Gingell of that squadron flew WH726 to the USA in March 1954, for a series of joint RAF and USAF trials, quoted as Project Robin and American records cite the aircraft as being a ‘modified Canberra B. 2’. The trials occupied six weeks, after which the aircraft returned to the UK and is confirmed as being on Wyton’s strength on 10 April 1954.

Later in the same month, an Operation Robin mission was flown, followed by two more on 8 and 11 May. On 26 August and on 30 August, further Operation Robin sorties are known to have been carried out, with all being accepted at Wyton – but officially unconfirmed – as reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union. Perhaps the correlation between the red-breasted bird and the national colour of the USSR reflects a typically British sense of humour.

Predictably, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) refuses, on the grounds of ‘international sensitivity’, to release files relating to Operation Robin, even in the current atmosphere of improved relations between the west and the former USSR. However, surely the simple fact that Whitehall holds these files is some proof that all is not conjecture.

Operation Jiu-Jitsu

Junkers Ju 86 high-altitude reconnaissance/bomber

The Junkers Ju 86 was a twin-engine medium bomber. Six military variants were produced by Junkers Flugzeug und Motorenwerke AG: the Ju 86 D, E, G, and K bomber series and the Ju 86 P-2 and Ju 86 R-1 reconnaissance variants.

The aircraft was originally designed as a high-speed, ten-passenger civilian plane and medium bomber with a four-man crew based on Luftwaffe specifications. It was in competition for Luftwaffe contracts with the Dornier Do 17 and Heinkel He 111; all three received contracts, but Heinkel dominated the industry with He 111 production ultimately reaching 6,556 aircraft while Junkers built 910 Ju 86s.


Engineers for Junkers Flugzeugwerke AG designed a bomber similar in construction to those built by the company’s competitors and characterized by all-metal construction; a broad, rounded fuselage tapering toward the rear and ending at a twin-stabilizer-and-rudder system; and a low-wing design featuring double flap and aileron configuration. The series went through several cockpit configurations in size, shape, and glazing. The early Ju 86 A and D variants were powered by Junkers Jumo 205C diesel engines; later variants were fitted with BMW 132N radial engines.

Two Ju 86 D airframes were converted in 1939 as prototypes for the Ju 86 P-2 Höhenbomber (high-altitude bomber) and the Ju 86 P-1 Aufklärer (reconnaissance) aircraft. Structural modifications to the Ju 86 P-2 included a smaller two-man pressurized cockpit that reduced overall length by three feet. Three vertical cameras were installed in the bomb bay. Defense armament consisted of a single fixed, rear-firing MG 17 machine gun. The P-2 was powered by two 1,000-horsepower turbocharged Junkers Jumo 207A-1 diesel engines providing a maximum speed of 224 miles per hour (420 kilometers per hour). Approximately 40 P-1s and P-2s were built.

The unarmed Ju 86 R-1 followed with four-bladed propellers powered by 1,100-horsepower 207B-3/V diesel engines with nitrous oxide injection boosters for the superchargers. Wingspan was nearly 21 feet (6.4 meters) longer than that of the P-2. Conflicting information confuses the record on specific performance data of the reconnaissance variants, especially the R-1’s maximum service ceiling; some sources cite the aircraft as capable of reaching more than 49,000 feet (14,935 meters), some 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) higher than the P-2’s rated ceiling.

Combat in the Stratosphere


The Ju 86’s service life as a frontline bomber was rather brief, as it was outperformed by the He 111B, which was approximately 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) faster. In addition, the diesel engines of the A and D were difficult to maintain in the field. Most Ju 86 bomber variants were taken out of frontline service during 1939. However, demand for high-altitude bombers and recon aircraft remained strong, and the Luftwaffe requested that between 37 and 40 Ju 86 Ds be converted to the Ju 86 P bomber and Ju 86 P-1 photo intelligence platform. The Ju 86 P-2 prototype (W.Nr. 0421) first flew in February 1940. Luftwaffe units equipped with the aircraft began reconnaissance operations that summer. The P-2’s rated service ceiling was 39,300 feet (11,980 meters), but there were instances in which 42,000 feet (12,800 meters) was obtained, an altitude that was beyond the capacity of conventional enemy fighters for some two years. Approximately 16 Ju 86 Ps were upgraded to the Ju 86 R-1 recon variant, with W.Nr. 5132 becoming the first of that type delivered to the Luftwaffe in early 1942.

Aufklärungsgruppe (Aufkl. Gruppe; reconnaissance group) (F)/Ob.d.L. was equipped with the Ju 86 P-2. Some of these aircraft bore Lufthansa markings and began unmolested flights over Britain in the summer of 1940, followed by missions over Soviet territory during the winter of 1940 and 1941 from bases in Poland and Hungary. On 15 April 1941, a Ju 86 P2 suffered engine failure and was intercepted by a Soviet fighter near Rovno, Poland. The Russian plane opened fire, damaging the port engine and forcing the German pilot to make a crash landing. The pilot and observer were caught by Soviet authorities but later escaped and joined advancing German forces at the opening of Operation Barbarossa. Between 1942 and 1943, 1./Versuchsverband Ob.d.L. (Experimental Unit) conducted recon flights over Soviet territory with the Ju 86 P-2; Aufkl. Gruppe (F)/Ob.d.L overflew the Middle East with the Ju 86 R-1.

When Aufkl. Gruppe Ob.d.L. was disbanded, four R-2s were transferred to Crete in June 1942, followed by one more in August, for operations with 2(F)/123. To counter the German reconnaissance plane, the British and Soviets modified Spitfire V fighters by removing most nonessential equipment, including all but one wing gun. According to British records, the first successful interception took place north of Cairo on 24 August 1942, when a Spitfire of No. 103 Maintenance Unit (MU) brought down a Ju 86 from Aufkl. Gruppe 2(F)/123. However, German records show the Ju 86 R-1 returned to base safely, though damaged. One more reconnaissance variant was lost to the RAF on 6 September and one Ju 86 R-1 was recorded by 2(F)/123 as lost due to engine failure on 29 August. Encounters with the high-altitude RAF Spitfires led to the field installation of one rear-firing M 17 machine gun in recon Ju 86s. Still, two more aircraft became operational losses during November and December 1942. The group was down to one Ju 86 R-1 by October 1943 when it completed conversion to the Ju 88 recon variant.


Retired. The Ju 86 P-2 was withdrawn from frontline service by mid-1943; the Ju 86 R-1 was withdrawn in July 1944, as within months of acceptance by Luftwaffe units, it, too, could be intercepted by aircraft such as the Spitfire IX. Junkers exported the Ju 86 K bomber to several countries but none of the reconnaissance variants were sent abroad. The only known survivor is a Ju 86K in the Swedish Air Force Museum.

Specifications (Ju 86 R-2)

General characteristics

    Crew: 2 (pilot and radio operator)

    Length: 16.46 m (54 ft)

    Wingspan: 32 m (105 ft)

    Height: 4.7 m (15 ft 5 in)

    Wing area: 97.5 m² (1,049 ft²)

    Empty weight: 6,758 kg (14,900 lb)

    Max. takeoff weight: 11,530 kg (25,420 lb)

    Powerplant: 2 × Junkers Jumo 207B-3 diesel engines, 746 kW (1,000 hp) each


    Maximum speed: 420 km/h (261 mph) above 9,000 m (29,527 ft)

    Range: 1,580 km (980 mi)

    Service ceiling: 14,400 m (47,244 ft)

    Rate of climb: 4.67 m/s (920 ft/min)



        1 x 7.92 mm (0.31 in) MG 17 machine gun remotely controlled in rear fuselage, firing aft

    Bombs: Up to 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lb) of ordnance in four internal ESAC 250 bays rated at 250 kg (550 lb) each

        4 × 250 kg (551 lb) (1,000 kg/2,204 lb total)

        16 × 50 kg (110 lb) (800 kg/1,764 lb total)

        64 × 10 kg (22 lb) (640 kg/1,410 lb total)


Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

Developed under the code name Senior Crown, the SR-71 Blackbird became the ultimate Archangel, the capstone in the lineage that began with the first A-12. The SR-71 has the distinction of having served for more than three decades, while the A-12 was in combat for barely a year. No other aircraft has ever had the distinction of being the fastest operational aircraft in the world from the day it entered service until the day it was retired three decades later. No other aircraft has ever set a world speed record on its retirement flight.

In 1983, in a flightline conversation at Beale AFB, an SR-71 pilot told this author that the Blackbird represented “high nineties technology that we were lucky to have in the sixties.” Today the nineties have come and gone, but there has yet to be anything else quite like the extraordinary Blackbird.

“The Blackbird was a wild stallion of an airplane,” Ben Rich, the program manager, recalled in his memoirs. “Everything about it was daunting and hard to tame—building it, flying it, selling it. It was an airplane so advanced and awesome that it easily intimidated anyone who dared to come close. Those cleared to see the airplane roar into the sky would remember it as an experience both exhilarating and terrifying as the world shook loose … with the roar of an oncoming tornado and the ground shaking under [one’s] feet like an eight-point earthquake, as the engines spouted blinding diamond-shaped shock waves.”

One of those “cleared to see” the SR-71 was CIA Director Richard Helms.

“I was so shaken, that I invented my own name for the Blackbird,” Helms later told Ben Rich about watching a nighttime launch at Groom Lake. “I called it the Hammers of Hell.”

Five feet longer but largely similar to the single-seat A-12, the tandem seat SR-71 evolved out of Kelly Johnson’s suggestion that the US Air Force should consider a reconnaissance aircraft like the CIA’s Archangel. While the A-12 and YF-12A aircraft were originally delivered mainly in a natural metal finish, SR-71s were coated entirely in a dark blue-black paint, earning them the Blackbird name.

The first SR-71A (tail number 61-7950) made its debut flight at Palmdale, California, near Edwards AFB, on December 22, 1964. Lockheed test pilot Bob Gilliland, a veteran of the A-12 program, was at the controls. The second and third Blackbirds made their first flights during March 1965.

A total of thirty-one Blackbirds rolled out of final assembly at Palmdale between August 1964 and May 1967. These included twenty-nine SR-71As and two SR-71Bs, the latter designed as trainers with an elevated rear seat in a fashion similar to that of the A-12B Titanium Goose. In the SR-71A, unlike the A-12B and the SR-71B, the rear seat, accommodating the reconnaissance systems officer (RSO), was not elevated.

In addition to the A and B variants, a thirty-second Blackbird was designated as SR-71C, which was completed in 1969 using the salvaged rear section of a YF-12A.

In January 1965, as a home for the incoming Blackbirds, the US Air Force activated the 4200th SRW at Beale AFB as a component of SAC. The subsidiary 4200th Support Squadron (later 4200th Test Wing) was the umbrella organization for the D-21 program at Groom Lake. In October 1965, the 4200th SRW was redesignated as the 9th SRW, assuming the lineage of the 9th Bombardment Group, which dated back to before World War II. This wing was comprised of two strategic reconnaissance squadrons (SRS), the 1st SRS and 99th SRS. In July 1976, in a strategic reconnaissance consolidation, the U-2s of the 100th SRW were reassigned to the 9th SRW.

Aerial refueling support was initially provided to the 9th SRW by KC-135Q tankers operated by the 9th and 903rd Aerial Refueling Squadrons (ARS) of the 456th Bombardment Wing. After 1975, the squadrons were reassigned directly to the 9th SRW.

The first Blackbird to arrive at Beale AFB was an SR-71B trainer that came in on January 7, 1966. The first operational SR-71A reconnaissance bird arrived on April 4. The first overseas deployment came two years later, by which time all of the SR-71As and SR-71Bs had been delivered.

Even before the aircraft had much of a chance to prove themselves, the Nixon administration counterintuitively decided that there should not be more Blackbirds—ever. They went so far as to demand that Lockheed literally break the mold. Aside from the single SR-71C hybrid, no more Blackbirds were built.

“One of the most depressing moments in the history of the Skunk Works occurred on February 5, 1970, when we received a telegram from the Pentagon ordering us to destroy all the tooling for the Blackbird,” Ben Rich recalls sadly. “All the molds, jigs, and forty thousand detail tools were cut up for scrap and sold off at seven cents a pound. Not only didn’t the government want to pay storage costs on the tooling, but it wanted to ensure that the Blackbird never would be built again. I thought at the time that this cost-cutting decision would be deeply regretted over the years by those responsible for the national security. That decision stopped production on the whole series of Mach 3 aircraft for the remainder of [the twentieth] century. It was just plain dumb.”

Indeed, the fascinating career of the Blackbird had barely begun.

Beginning on March 8, 1968, the 9th SRW formed a detachment of Blackbirds at Kadena AB on Okinawa, where they operated alongside the CIA A-12 detachment until May 8. Nicknamed “Habu” after a pit viper indigenous to Okinawa, the SR-71s would remain at Kadena for more than two decades until early 1990. During most of this time, they were known as Detachment 1, although they were originally called OL-8 (for Operating Location 8, numbered in sequence with previous SAC U-2 detachments).

Another SR-71 nickname that came into use was the term “Sled,” which was widely used by Blackbird pilots, who referred to themselves as “Sled Drivers.”

The Kadena detachment’s first mission on March 21, 1968, was followed by 167 more through the end of the year. The numerous wartime missions through the next few years included key battlefield surveillance missions, including those that helped planners assess air support for major battles, including the siege of Khe Sanh.

Other missions were conducted over North Korea and the periphery of both Chinese and Soviet air space—the latter including surveillance of the Soviet naval facilities around Vladivostok. Detachment 1 also conducted long-range missions over the Middle East during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

Detachment 4 of the 9th SRW was established at RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom in 1976, hosting short duration SR-71 and U-2 deployments until 1984, after which it became a permanent fixture through 1990. Missions included routine surveillance of East Germany, Poland, the Baltic Sea, and Soviet bases on the Kola Peninsula. In April 1986, Detachment 4 Blackbirds conducted pre- and poststrike reconnaissance of Libyan targets that were attacked during Operation El Dorado Canyon.

The 9th SRW also operated SR-71 missions directly from the United States. In 1973, they conducted overflights of the Middle East during the Yom Kippur War, staging from Beale by way of Griffis AFB in New York and Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina.

Under operational code names including Giant Plate and Clipper, the 9th SRW conducted routine overflights of Cuba through the 1970s. Unlike the more vulnerable U-2s, the fast, high-flying SR-71s were essentially impervious to any form of air defenses that could be brought to bear over Cuba.

During the 1970s, the US Air Force authorized the SR-71 to come out of the shadows long enough to give the world a sense of its capabilities. On September 1, 1974, Major James Sullivan and Major Noel Widdifield set the speed over a recognized course record while flying 3,508 miles from New York to London in just under two hours at an average speed of 1,435.6 mph.

On July 27 and 28, 1976, three SR-71s were used to set three separate absolute world records. Captain Robert Helt and Major Larry Elliott set the record for absolute altitude in horizontal flight (by an aircraft taking off under its own power) of 85,069 feet. Major Adolphus Bledsoe and Major John Fuller set an absolute closed course speed record of 2,092.3 mph. Finally, Captain Eldon Joersz and Major George Morgan set an absolute straight course speed record of 2,193.2 mph that still stood in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

The Blackbird’s full potential of speeds in excess of Mach 3.3 and operations above 100,000 feet has been repeatedly rumored but never made part of any official record.

The actual top speed of the SR-71 is still classified. Some people say that it was far beyond Mach 3.3. Others have said that it was never reached, that the Blackbird never was accelerated to its full potential maximum speed. An SR-71 pilot once told this author that if any other aircraft ever took away the Sled’s absolute speed record, one of the 9th SRW pilots would just go up the next day and “step down a little harder on the accelerator.”

The record still stands.

In another conversation, this author was speaking with a former ground radar operator who tracked an aircraft, not a missile, flying at Mach 6, and he nearly panicked. If there was ever a case of a truly unidentified UFO, this was it. The man reported this bogey to the officer in charge, who glanced at the scope and assured him, “Don’t worry, it’s one of ours.”

In his book, Sled Driver, SR-71 pilot Brian Shul recalled a radio exchange that occurred as he was over Southern California at 68,000 feet. Monitoring various radio transmissions from other aircraft, he heard a Cessna ask for a readout of its groundspeed.

“Ninety knots,” replied Los Angeles Center.

A Twin Beech asked for the same and was given a faster speed of 120 knots.

At that moment a cocky Navy F/A-18 pilot came on.

“Center, Dusty 52 requests groundspeed readout.”

The response came, “525 knots on the ground, Dusty.”

Unable to resist, Shul and his RSO clicked their radios simultaneously.

“It was at that precise moment I realized Walt and I had become a real crew,” Shul recalls. “We were both thinking in unison.

“Center, Aspen 20,” Shul said, addressing Los Angeles Center. “You got a ground speed readout for us?”

“Aspen,” the controller replied after a long pause. “I show 1,742 knots.”

Shul notes that “no further inquiries were heard on that frequency.”

Though the SR-71 was probably never seriously threatened by enemy countermeasures, its ultimate undoing was, ironically, another Lockheed product, which was not an airplane.

As Lockheed’s Skunk Works was building spyplanes for the CIA, Lockheed Space Systems was developing spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). During the Cold War, if there was anything blacker in the metaphorical sense than the CIA and the black jets of Area 51, it was the NRO and its satellites. These were operated under the cover name “Discoverer,” but were known in the black world as “Keyhole” after their Itek high-definition cameras. Indeed the NRO itself, and the work it was doing in the 1960s and 1970s, was not declassified until the 1990s. Information about the work it is doing today is not something for which one should hold one’s breath.

The NRO was formed in suburban Washington, DC, in 1961 specifically to centralize work being done by the CIA and DOD to develop reconnaissance satellites. The NRO was separate from the CIA, although there would be extensive interaction, and many former CIA and black world spyplane hands, such as Ozzie Ritland and Richard Bissell, played a role in NRO’s early days.

Lockheed Space Systems and the Lockheed Missile Division, which were later combined to form the Lockheed Missiles & Space Company (LMSC), were created in Southern California but moved north in the late 1950s to what later became Silicon Valley, finally settling in Sunnyvale. It was responsible for the Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident submarine-launched missiles, as well the NRO spy satellites.

The Discoverer/Keyhole series included the KH-1 through KH-3 satellites, which were part of a program code named Corona. Also coming under the NRO mandate were the KH-4 Mural, KH-5 Argon, and KH-6 Lanyard. Operational through the 1960s and into the 1970s, the early Keyholes were “film-return” systems in which photographic film was dropped back into the atmosphere from outer space, retrieved by specially modified aircraft, and processed. Through 1972, the KH-1 through KH-6 spacecraft exposed 2.1 million feet of film and took 800,000 pictures.

In many ways, the early Keyholes were operationally inferior to the SR-71 and its fellow Archangels. While the resolution of the cameras was the best that money could buy, the satellites orbited 75 to 100 miles above their subjects, while Blackbirds flew less than 18 miles above. Aircraft could also be sent over a specific target at a specific time, while satellites were confined to specific orbits. Finally, the process of retrieving the film capsules was complicated, difficult, and not always certain, despite techniques having been honed to a fine art by those doing the retrieving.

All this began to change late in 1976, as the NRO deployed the first of its KH-11 satellites, which now used electro-optical digital imaging. As the KH-11 satellites matured, and as at least a half dozen were launched during the 1980s, photoreconnaissance changed completely. No longer did film have to be retrieved, and no longer did decision makers have to wait days to see their coveted secret pictures. They could now see them instantaneously.

Despite the retrofitting of digital systems and communications links aboard the SR-71s, which allowed them to deliver imagery in near “real time,” the US Air Force itself recommended the retirement of the Blackbirds.

“General Larry Welch, the Air Force chief of staff, staged a one-man campaign on Capitol Hill to kill the program entirely,” Ben Rich wrote in his memoirs. “General Welch thought sophisticated spy satellites made the SR-71 a disposable luxury. Welch had headed the Strategic Air Command and was partial to its priorities. He wanted to use SR-71 refurbishment funding for development of the B-2 bomber. He was quoted by columnist Rowland Evans as saying, ‘The Blackbird can’t fire a gun and doesn’t carry a bomb, and I don’t want it.’ Then the general went on the Hill and claimed to certain powerful committee chairmen that he could operate a wing of fifteen to twenty [F-15E] fighter-bombers with what it cost him to fly a single SR-71. That claim was bogus. So were claims by SAC generals that the SR-71 cost $400 million annually to run. The actual cost was about $260 million.”

Both Welch and SAC commander General John Chain testified before Congress that the SR-71 should go, and so it did.

As Rich so aptly reflected, “a general would always prefer commanding a large fleet of conventional fighters or bombers that provides high visibility and glory. By contrast, buying into Blackbird would mean deep secrecy, small numbers, and no limelight.”

Blackbird operations, except training flights, were officially terminated in November 1989, having been eliminated from the FY1990 Defense Department budget.

On March 6, 1990, one Blackbird famously set a series of world speed records on its “retirement flight.” The SR-71 with tail number 64-17972 was flown from California to the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (NASM) Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, where it would eventually go on display. In the process, it set the official National Aeronautic Association coast-to-coast speed record of 2,086 miles in one hour and seven minutes, averaging 2,124.5 mph. It made the 311-mile St. Louis-to-Cincinnati leg in less than nine minutes, averaging 2,176.08 mph.

Within a few months of this much-publicized flight, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army had occupied Kuwait and the United States was involved in the Desert Shield buildup that culminated in Operation Desert Storm in January and February 1991. During that conflict, many operational commanders, including General Norman Schwarzkopf, lamented the absence of expedited reconnaissance that the SR-71 might have contributed.

Mounting concerns about the situations in world trouble spots from the Middle East to North Korea led Congress to reconsider the reactivation of the SR-71. In 1993, Admiral Richard Macke, director of the joint staff for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that “from the operator’s perspective, what I need is something that will not give me just a spot in time but will give me a track of what is happening. When we are trying to find out if the Serbs are taking arms, moving tanks or artillery into Bosnia, we can get a picture of them stacked up on the Serbian side of the bridge. We do not know whether they then went on to move across that bridge. We need the [reconnaissance information] that a tactical, an SR-71, a U-2, or an unmanned vehicle of some sort, will give us, in addition to, not in replacement of, the ability of the satellites to go around and check not only that spot but a lot of other spots around the world for us. It is the integration of strategic and tactical.”

In its FY1994 appropriations, Congress authorized a reinstatement of funding to permit a revival of part of the SR-71 fleet. By that time, many of the twenty surviving SR-71s were being prepped for museum displays, but at least a half dozen were in storage at Palmdale or flying research missions with NASA.

The US Air Force moved too slowly on the path to SR-71 reactivation, and in October 1997, using a line-item veto, President Bill Clinton deleted the funding. The Blackbird was permanently grounded by the US Air Force in 1998, leaving just two at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB.

One of the last NASA missions for the SR-71 was the Linear Aerospike SR-71 Experiment (LASRE) series conducted in 1997 and 1998. The object was to study aerodynamic performance of lifting bodies combined with aerospike engines such as would have been used in the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works X-33, the demonstrator for the conceptual VentureStar single-stage-to-orbit reusable spaceplane. The latter program was abandoned by NASA in 2001 but pursued by Lockheed Martin thereafter.

In signing off any discussion of the Blackbird’s demise, Americans are left with the words that Senator John Glenn spoke on the floor of the US Senate on the day after the 1990 “retirement flight.”

Said the former astronaut, “The termination of the SR-71 was a grave mistake and could place our nation at a serious disadvantage in the event of a future crisis. Yesterday’s historic transcontinental flight was a sad memorial to our short-sighted policy in strategic aerial reconnaissance.”


Bill Weaver climbs into an SR-71 at Palmdale.

The NASA SR-71B Blackbird in flight over the Sierra Nevada in 1994.

During the course of the A-12 program, the Air Force had been exceedingly helpful to the CIA. It provided financial support, conducted the refueling program, provided operational facilities at Kadena, and airlifted A-12 personnel and supplies to Kadena for operations over Vietnam and North Korea. Through it all, the Air Force remained frustrated that a strategic reconnaissance mission had been given to another government agency.

On July 24, 1964, at 3:30 p. m., president Lyndon Johnson held a news conference at the State Department Auditorium revealing to the world the existence of Lockheed’s Mach 3-capable reconnaissance aircraft:

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to announce the successful development of a major new strategic aircraft system, which will be employed by the Strategic Air Command. This system employs the new SR-71 aircraft and provides long-range, advanced strategic reconnaissance plane for military use, capable of worldwide reconnaissance for military operations.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, when reviewing the RS-70, emphasized the importance of the strategic reconnaissance mission. The SR-71 aircraft reconnaissance system is the most advanced in the world. The aircraft will fly at more than three times the speed of sound. It will operate at altitudes in excess of eighty thousand feet. It will use the most advanced observation equipment of all kinds in the world. The aircraft will provide the strategic forces of the United States with an outstanding long-range reconnaissance capability. The system will be used during periods of military hostilities and in other situations in which the United States military forces may be confronting foreign military forces.

The SR-71 uses the same J58 engine as the experimental interceptor previously announced, but it is substantially heavier and it has a longer range. The considerably heavier gross weight permits it to accommodate the multiple reconnaissance sensors needed by the Strategic Air Command to accomplish their strategic reconnaissance mission in a military environment.

This billion-dollar program was initiated in February of 1963. The first operational aircraft will begin flight testing in early 1965. Deployment of production units to the Strategic Air Command will begin shortly thereafter.

Appropriate members of Congress have been kept fully informed on the nature of and the progress in this aircraft program. Further information on this major advanced aircraft system will be released from time to time at the appropriate military secret classification levels.

Although President Johnson’s announcement had no impact on the status of the program, the Air Force was now under great pressure to get the first aircraft completed and shipped to Lockheed’s Palmdale facility by October. Difficulties with vendors continued to plague the program. Finally, on October 29, 1964, the first SR-71 was surreptitiously delivered by truck convoy from Burbank to Palmdale for final assembly and preflight preparations. Engine runs were initiated on December 18, 1964. Three days later, the first taxi tests were undertaken. In his journal, Kelly Johnson wrote, “A large number of SAC people were here to see taxi test of aircraft 950. They were very much impressed with the smooth operation. I delayed the flight of the aircraft one day, due to unfavorable weather and to get it in better shape to fly.”

The next day, December 22, 1964, the first SR-71, with Skunk Works test pilot Bob Gilliland at the controls, flew aircraft 950 for the first time. Departing from Lockheed’s Air Force Plant 42 facility at Palmdale, it remained airborne for just over an hour and reached a speed in excess of one thousand miles per hour. Although the first SR-71 flight had been completed with few difficulties, ongoing flight testing of the aircraft had not been problem free.

During April 1965, fuel and hydraulic difficulties led to numerous test flight cancellations. Johnson noted, “We have gone through very extensive reworks of the electrical system and tank sealing on the SR-71s. Category 1 tests are way behind schedule, but so are Category 2 tests. The Air Force are very understanding. Our major problem now has to do with the range, where we are about 25% short. We have made our speed, altitude, and are getting good results with the sensor packages.”


The SR-71 flight test program, conducted at Palmdale, was not without its accidents. The first accident involved aircraft 952. On January 25, 1966, Skunk Works test pilot Bill Weaver and his back seater, Jim Zwayer, were to evaluate procedures for improving high Mach cruise performance by reducing trim drag. Although not a true ejection out of the SR-71, the following story told by Weaver is priceless in conveying the experience of departing a Blackbird at an altitude of fifteen miles and speed of Mach 3.2:

Among professional aviators, there’s a well-worn saying: Flying is simply hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. But I don’t recall too many periods of boredom during my thirty-year career with Lockheed, most of which was spent as a test pilot.

By far, the most memorable flight occurred on January 25, 1966. Jim Zwayer, a Lockheed flight-test specialist, and I were evaluating systems on an SR-71 Blackbird test from Edwards Air Force Base. We also were investigating procedures designed to reduce trim drag and improve high- Mach cruise performance. The latter involved flying with the center of gravity located further aft than normal, reducing the Blackbird’s longitudinal stability.

We took off from Edwards at 11:20 a. m. and completed the mission’s first leg without incident. After refueling from a KC-135 tanker, we turned eastbound, accelerated to Mach 3.2 cruise speed, and climbed to seventy-eight thousand feet, our initial cruise-climb altitude.

Several minutes into the cruise, the right engine inlet’s automatic control system malfunctioned, requiring a switch to manual control. The SR-71’s inlet configuration was automatically adjusted during supersonic flight to decelerate airflow in the duct, slowing it to subsonic speed before reaching the engine’s face. This was accomplished by the inlet’s center-body spike translating aft and modulating the inlet’s forward bypass doors.

Normally, these actions were scheduled automatically as a function of Mach number, positioning the normal shock wave (where air flow becomes subsonic) inside the inlet to ensure optimum engine performance. Without proper scheduling, disturbances inside the inlet could result in the shock wave being expelled forward-a phenomenon known as an “inlet unstart.”

That causes an instantaneous loss of engine thrust, explosive banging noises, and violent yawing of the aircraft-like being in a train wreck. Unstarts were not uncommon at that time in the SR-71’s development, but a properly functioning system would recapture the shock wave and restore normal operation.

On the planned test profile, we entered a programmed 35-degree bank turn to the right. An immediate unstart occurred on the right engine, forcing the aircraft to roll further right and start to pitch up. I jammed the control stick as far left and forward as it would go.

No response. I instantly knew we were in for a wild ride.

I attempted to tell Jim what was happening and to stay with the airplane until we reached a lower speed and altitude. I didn’t think the chances of surviving an ejection at Mach 3.18 and 78,800 feet were very good. However, g-forces built up so rapidly that my words came out garbled and unintelligible, as confirmed later by the cockpit voice recorder.

The cumulative effects of system malfunctions, reduced longitudinal stability, increased angle of attack in the turn, supersonic speed, high altitude, and other factors imposed forces on the airframe that exceeded flight control authority and the Stability Augmentation System’s ability to restore control.

Everything seemed to unfold in slow motion. I learned later the time from event onset to catastrophic departure from controlled flight was only two to three seconds. Still, trying to communicate with Jim, I blacked out, succumbing to extremely high g-forces.

Then the SR-71 literally disintegrated around us.

From that point, I was just along for the ride. And my next recollection was a hazy thought that I was having a bad dream-Maybe I’ll wake up and get out of this mess, I mused. Gradually regaining consciousness, I realized this was no dream; it had really happened. That also was disturbing, because I could not have survived what had just happened.

I must be dead. Since I didn’t feel bad-just a detached sense of euphoria-I decided being dead wasn’t so bad after all. As full awareness took hold, I realized I was not dead. But somehow I had separated from the airplane.

I had no idea how this could have happened; I hadn’t initiated an ejection. The sound of rushing air and what sounded like straps flapping in the wind confirmed I was falling, but I couldn’t see anything. My pressure suit’s faceplate had frozen over, and I was staring at a layer of ice.

The pressure suit was inflated, so I knew an emergency oxygen cylinder in the seat kit attached to my parachute harness was functioning. It not only supplied breathing oxygen but also pressurized the suit, preventing my blood from boiling at extremely high altitudes. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but the suit’s pressurization had also provided physical protection from intense buffeting and g-forces. That inflated suit had become my own escape capsule.

My next concern was about stability and tumbling. Air density at high altitude is insufficient to resist a body’s tumbling motions, and centrifugal forces high enough to cause physical injury could develop quickly. For that reason, the SR-71’s parachute system was designed to automatically deploy a small-diameter stabilizing chute shortly after ejection and seat separation. Since I had not intentionally activated the ejection sequence, it occurred to me the stabilizing chute may not have deployed.

However, I quickly determined I was falling vertically and not tumbling. The little chute must have deployed and was doing its job. Next concern: the main parachute, which was designed to open automatically at fifteen thousand feet. Again, I had no assurance the automatic-opening function would work.

I couldn’t ascertain my altitude because I still couldn’t see through the iced-up faceplate. There was no way to know how long I had been blacked out or how far I had fallen. I felt for the manual activation D-ring on my chute harness, but with the suit inflated and my hands numbed by cold, I couldn’t locate it. I decided I’d better open the faceplate, try to estimate my height above the ground, then locate that “D” ring.

Just as I reached for the faceplate, I felt the reassuring sudden deceleration of main-chute deployment.

I raised the frozen faceplate and discovered its uplatch was broken. Using one hand to hold that plate up, I saw I was descending through a clear winter sky with unlimited visibility. I was greatly relieved to see Jim’s parachute coming down about a quarter of a mile away. I didn’t think either of us could have survived the aircraft’s breakup, so seeing Jim had also escaped lifted my spirits incredibly.

I could also see burning wreckage on the ground a few miles from where we would land. The terrain didn’t look at all inviting-a desolate, high plateau dotted with patches of snow and no signs of habitation.

I tried to rotate the parachute and look in other directions. But with one hand devoted to keeping the faceplate up and both hands numb from high-altitude, subfreezing temperatures, I couldn’t manipulate the risers enough to turn. Before the breakup, we’d started a turn in the New Mexico-Colorado-Oklahoma-Texas border region. The SR-71 had a turning radius of about one hundred miles at that speed and altitude, so I wasn’t even sure what state we were going to land in. But, because it was about 3:00 p. m., I was certain we would be spending the night out here.

At about three hundred feet above the ground, I yanked the seat kit’s release handle and made sure it was still tied to me by a long lanyard. Releasing the heavy kit ensured I wouldn’t land with it attached to my derriere, which could break a leg or cause other injuries. I then tried to recall what survival items were in that kit as well as techniques I had been taught in survival school.

Looking down, I was startled to see a fairly large animal-perhaps an antelope-directly under me. Evidently, it was just as startled as I was, because it literally took off in a cloud of dust.

My first-ever parachute landing was pretty smooth. I landed on fairly soft ground, managing to avoid rocks, cacti, and antelopes. My chute was still billowing in the wind, though. I struggled to collapse it with one hand, holding the still-frozen faceplate up with the other.

“Can I help you?” a voice said.

Was I hearing things? I must be hallucinating. Then I looked up and saw a guy walking toward me, wearing a cowboy hat. A helicopter was idling a short distance behind him. If I had been at Edwards and told the search-and rescue unit that I was going to bail out over the Rogers Dry Lake at a particular time of day, a crew couldn’t have gotten to me as fast as that cowboy-pilot did.

The gentleman was Albert Mitchell Jr., owner of a huge cattle ranch in northeastern New Mexico. I had landed about 1.5 miles from his ranch house-and from a hangar for his two-place Hughes helicopter. Amazed to see him, I replied I was having a little trouble with my chute. He walked over and collapsed the canopy, anchoring it with several rocks. He had seen Jim and I floating down and had radioed the New Mexico Highway Patrol, the Air Force, and the nearest hospital.

Extracting myself from the parachute harness, I discovered the source of those flapping-strap noises heard on the way down. My seat belt and shoulder harness were still draped around me, attached and latched. The lap belt had been shredded on each side of my hips, where the straps had fed through knurled adjustment rollers. The shoulder harness had shredded in a similar manner across my back. The ejection seat had never left the airplane! I had been ripped out of it by the extreme forces, seat belt and shoulder harness still fastened.

I also noted that one of the two lines that supplied oxygen to my pressure suit had come loose, and the other was barely hanging on. If that second line had become detached at high altitude, the deflated pressure suit wouldn’t have provided any protection. I knew an oxygen supply was critical for breathing and suit pressurization but didn’t appreciate how much physical protection an inflated pressure suit could provide.

That the suit could withstand forces sufficient to disintegrate an airplane and shred heavy nylon seat belts yet leave me with only a few bruises and minor whiplash, was impressive. I truly appreciated having my own little escape capsule. After helping me with the chute, Mitchell said he’d check on Jim. He climbed into his helicopter, flew a short distance away, and returned about ten minutes later with devastating news. Jim was dead. Apparently, he had suffered a broken neck during the aircraft’s disintegration and was killed instantly.

Mitchell said his ranch foreman would soon arrive to watch over Jim’s body until the authorities arrived. I asked to see Jim and, after verifying there was nothing more that could be done, agreed to let Mitchell fly me to the Tucumcari hospital, about sixty miles to the south.

I have vivid memories of that helicopter flight as well. I didn’t know much about rotorcraft, but I knew a lot about “red lines,” and Mitchell kept the airspeed at or above red line all the way. The little helicopter vibrated and shook a lot more than I thought it should have. I tried to reassure the cowboy pilot I was feeling OK; there was no need to rush. But since he’d notified the hospital staff that we were inbound, he insisted we get there as soon as possible. I couldn’t help but think how ironic it would be to have survived one disaster only to be done in by the helicopter that had come to my rescue.

SR-71A Cutaway drawing

1. Pitot head

2. Alpha/beta probe, incidence and yaw measurement

3. RF isolation segment

4. RWR antennae

5. VOR antennae

6. Interchangeable nose mission equipment bay

7. Loral CAPRE side-looking ground-mapping radar antenna

8. Antenna mounting and drive mechanism

9. Detachable nose bay mounting bulkhead

10. Cockpit front pressure bulkhead

11. Fuselage chine section framing

12. Rudder pedals and control column, Digital Automatic Flight and Inlet Control System (DAFICS)

13. Pilot’s instrument panel

14. Windscreen panels, port only with electrical de-icing

15. Heat dispersion fairing

16. Upward hinging cockpit canopy

17. Ejection seat headrest

18. Canopy actuator and hinge point

19. Pilot’s ‘zero-zero’ ejection seat

20. Side console panel with engine throttle levers

21. Canopy external release

22. Retractable ventral UHF antenna

23. Liquid oxygen bottles (3)

24. Rear cockpit side console with ECM equipment controls

25. Reconnaissance Systems Officer’s (RSO) instrument console and viewsight display

26. SR-71B dual control variant, nose section profile

27. Conversion Pilot’s cockpit

28. Elevated Instructor’s cockpit enclosure

29. RSO’s upward hinging cockpit canopy

30. RSO’s ejection seat

31. Cockpit sloping rear pressure bulkhead

32. Canopy hinge point

33. Honeycomb composite chine skin paneling

34. Astro-navigation star tracker aperture

35. Platform computer

36. Air conditioning equipment bay, port and starboard

37. Avionics equipment, port and starboard, access via nose undercarriage wheel bay

38. ELINT equipment package, port and starboard

39. Twin-wheel nose undercarriage, forward retracting

40. Hydraulic retraction jack

41. Infra-red unit

42. IFF transceiver

43. Flight refueling receptacle, open

44. Recording equipment bay

45. Starboard sensor equipment bays

46. Fuselage upper main longeron

47. Close-pitched fuselage frame structure

48. Forward fuselage fuel tankage, total internal capacity 12,219 US gal of JP-7 (80,280 lb)

49. Tactical Objective Camera (TEOC), port and starboard

50. Operational Objective Camera (OOC), port and starboard

51. Camera-mounting pallets/access hatches

52. Quartz glass viewing apertures

53. Stability Augmentation System (SAS) gyros

54. Forward/center fuselage joint ring frame

55. Center fuselage integral fuel tankage

56. Beta B.120 titanium skin paneling

57. Corrugated wing skin paneling

58. Starboard main undercarriage, stowed position

59. Intake center-body bleed air spill louvers

60. Bypass suction relief louvers

61. Starboard engine air intake

62. Movable conical intake center-body (spike)

63. Spike-retracted (high-speed) position

64. Boundary layer bleed air perforations

65. DIFACS air data probe

66. Diffuser chamber

67. Spike hydraulic actuator

68. Engine inlet guide vanes

69. Pratt & Whitney J58 afterburning turbojet engine

70. Nacelle bypass duct

71. Bypass duct suction relief doors

72. Split nacelle and integral outer wing panel hinged to vertical for engine access/removal

73. Starboard outer wing panel

74. Starboard outboard elevon

75. All-moving starboard fin

76. Fixed fin root segment

77. Afterburner duct

78. Afterburner nozzle

79. Tertiary air doors

80. Exhaust nozzle ejector flaps

81. Variable area exhaust nozzle

82. Starboard inboard elevon

83. Inboard elevon hydraulic actuators (6)

84. Inboard elevon servo

85. Starboard wing integral fuel tank bay

86. Corrugated titanium skin paneling

87. Brake parachute housing

88. Parachute doors

89. Parachute, drogue and release linkage

90. Skin doubler

91. Center fuselage frame structure

92. Aft fuselage integral fuel tankage

93. Inboard elevon servo input linkage and mixer

94. Roll and pitch trim actuators

95. Fuel jettison

96. Port all-moving fin

97. Fin rib structure

98. Torque shaft hinge mounting

99. Rudder hydraulic actuator

100. Rudder servo and yaw trim actuator

101. Fixed fin root rib structure

102. Port engine exhaust nozzle

103. Ejector flaps

104. Port outboard elevon

105. Elevon titanium alloy rib structure

106. Honeycomb composite RAM trailing edge segments

107. Outer wing panel cambered leading edge

108. Leading edge RAM segments

109. Outer wing panel titanium rib and spar structure

110. Outboard elevon hydraulic actuators (14)

111. Outboard elevon servo

112. Engine bay tertiary air intakes

113. Engine nacelle/outer wing panel integral structure

114. Nacelle/outer wing panel hinge axis

115. Port nacelle ring frame structure

116. Inboard wing panel integral fuel tank bays

117. Multi-spar titanium alloy wing panel structure

118. Main undercarriage wheel bay

119. Wheel bay thermal lining

120. Hydraulic retraction jack

121. Mainwheel leg pivot mounting

122. Main undercarriage leg strut

123. Torque scissor links

124. Intake duct framing

125. Outer wing panel/nacelle chine structure

126. Three-wheel main undercarriage bogie

127. Port Pratt & Whitney J58 afterburning engine

128. Afterburner nozzle

129. Afterburner fuel manifold, continuous cruise operation

130. Compressor bypass ducts (6)

131. Engine accessory equipment

132. Inlet guide vanes

133. Port air intake

134. Movable center-body (spike)

135. Spike honeycomb composite skin

136. Spike frame structure

137. Inboard leading edge RAM wedges

138. Leading edge spar

139. Inner wing panel leading edge integral fuel tankage

140. Wing root/fuselage attachment root rib

141. Close pitched fuselage frames

142. Wing/fuselage chine blended fairing panels

“Stalin Has Been Deceiving Me All Along”

Zentralbild/Heilig 11.8.1954 Dr. Otto John sprach vor der Internationalen Presse Am Mittwochvormittag, dem 11. August 1954, legte der ehemalige Präsident des Bundesamtes für Verfassungsschutz, Dr. Otto John, vor den Pressevertretern des In- und Auslandes die Gründe dar, aus denen er mit der Politik der Adenauer-Regierung gebrochen hat. UBz: Dr. Otto John bei seinen Ausführungen.

Otto John (19 March 1909 – 26 March 1997) was the first head of West Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, from 1950 to 1954. He is best known for his controversial move to East Germany in 1954, which has been interpreted as treason or an abduction.

Initially, the only information available to the Allies on the failed twentieth of July attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life had been what the Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, chose to tell the German people and the world, a story of almost divine salvation of the Führer. A narrow window into the plot opened two months afterward. Otto John, a lawyer with Lufthansa, the German passenger airline, who worked undercover for the Abwehr and who was a member of the conspiracy, provided an eyewitness account. Previously, while moving between Berlin and Lisbon, John had delivered intelligence to the Allies on German atomic research and on rocket and missile testing conducted at Peenemünde. He had managed to escape to Madrid four days after the coup collapsed. There he told his story to the OSS chief in Spain, an account subsequently relayed to FDR.

John described how he had arrived in Berlin on July 19, 1944, to play his part in the overthrow of the Nazis. The next day, at 6 P.M., he went to the Bendlerstrasse, the German General Staff headquarters. There he saw Lieutenant Colonel Count Klaus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, who, five and a half hours before, had planted the bomb to kill Hitler at the Wolfsschanze, the Führer’s military headquarters in East Prussia. After Stauffenberg had returned to the Bendlerstrasse, he announced confidently that the Führer had been killed. “I myself saw Hitler being carried out dead,” he said, which was not true. But thereafter his authority was accepted unquestioningly by far senior officers. John was struck by Stauffenberg’s cool self-possession as he reeled off orders and made phone calls to set in motion a strategy to seize the levers of government. John was especially surprised to hear Stauffenberg take a call from Albert Speer, the Reich’s armaments czar and Hitler favorite. In an organization chart that the conspirators had drawn up for their new government, Speer’s name appeared in a box marked “Armaments.” If Speer was coming over to them, the plotters reasoned, that would spell success.

They had, however, already committed fatal blunders. Despite Stauffenberg’s assurances, Hitler was not dead, not even seriously hurt. Secondly, the plotters failed to cut communications between the Wolfsschanze and Berlin. Consequently, Stauffenberg’s orders were countermanded almost instantly by Hitler’s chief military aide, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. Sensing that the plot was unraveling, John slipped out of the Bendlerstrasse. Upon his arrival home, as he recounted, “I heard the radio announce a message by Hitler. I could not believe my ears and was convinced that the Nazis were using a double.” They were not. The conspirators had also failed to seize control of Berlin’s radio stations, and Goebbels quickly exploited the blunder by putting the Führer on the air.

Upon telling his story to the OSS in Madrid, John turned over a list of the plotters and their sympathizers, adding a fervent plea: “The following information must not be used as propaganda. It must be placed only at the disposal of such persons who will promise that the names followed by X will remain secret, as the fate of these persons is still uncertain, and they would run the risk of being exposed to reprisal action by the Nazi terror if their names were to be linked in a general way with the attempt against Hitler.”

John’s and Ambassador Oshima’s were the only insider accounts available to Roosevelt until Allen Dulles obtained a report from Hans Bernd Gisevius. The hulking, half-blind Abwehr agent and conspirator assigned to the German consulate in Zurich had, without a word to Dulles, suddenly disappeared back into Germany on July 12. Three weeks after the failure, a German undercover courier arrived at Herrengasse 23 with a message for Dulles from Gisevius. The American was happily surprised. He had assumed that the man had perished in the massacre the Gestapo was conducting against the plotters. Yes, the coup had failed, Gisevius wrote, but conditions within Germany were still unstable. “… [I]t is only necessary for the Allies to strike hard and the entire German structure will collapse,” he claimed. When five more months passed and nothing further was heard, Dulles again concluded that Gisevius had been caught and executed. Just days after the thwarted coup, Dulles had cabled Washington, “The blood purge will be ruthless.” The Gestapo had indeed continued its remorseless manhunt, arresting anyone however distantly connectable to the plot while the Nazi People’s Courts dispensed drumhead justice. The vendetta ultimately cost the lives of 4,980 officers and civilians, with Count von Stauffenberg and Otto John’s brother among the earliest victims. In the end, all that the twentieth of July plot achieved was to enable the Gestapo to solidify its grip on the German populace.

The courier from Berlin returned again, and Dulles was amazed to learn that Gisevius was still alive, hiding in the apartment of his girlfriend, Gerda. The Bern spy chief notified the OSS mission in London, which set a rescue strategy in motion. The plan demonstrated how far OSS technical sophistication had advanced in just two and a half years. Since Gisevius had once been an early member of the Gestapo, the London station forged papers to cast him again as an agent of that organization. The first obstacle was to locate a photograph. Gisevius’s face could be found only in a group shot. The London counterfeiting section managed to enlarge the image of his head to passport size. Stationery seized from Gestapo headquarters in liberated areas was rushed to London and used to produce phony orders. The thorniest challenge was to replicate the Gestapo’s Silver Warrant Identity Disk, a gray medallion of unknown alloys, and serially numbered. Possession of the medallion provided the bearer with unlimited access anywhere and the power to arrest.

On January 20, 1945, the six-month anniversary of the failed plot, Gisevius heard the bell ring in Gerda’s apartment. He opened the door a crack and spotted a package on the doorstep. In it he found the medallion, Gestapo ID, a German passport, and orders to proceed from Berlin to Switzerland as Dr. Hoffmann of the secret police. Thus armed, the huge and imperious Gisevius managed to bully his way through several checkpoints, and by January 22, he was at Herrengasse 23 giving Allen Dulles the fullest firsthand account yet of what had happened at the Bendlerstrasse. Five days later, the conspirator’s report was on the President’s desk. Gisevius explained that the July 20 attempt on Hitler’s life had been the third that month. An earlier bomb had been set to go off during the Führer’s visit to Munich on July 6, but an Allied air raid upset this plot. Ten days later, General Helmuth Stieff brought a concealed explosive into the Wolfsschanze, but at the last minute lost his nerve and left. Four days later, Stauffenberg carried out the attempt that Hitler miraculously survived. Gisevius confirmed Otto John’s identification of the fatal flaws in the coup, particularly the failure “to destroy Central Information office including all communications installations of East Prussian Headquarters to prevent any communication. So that even if Hitler was not killed, he would not be able to make this known until plotters had control of the situation.”

Gisevius’s most startling revelation was contained in another report Donovan relayed to FDR on January 27, five days after the German’s escape. It dealt not with the mechanics of the plot, but with its politics. Until now, the assumption in the White House had been that anti-Nazi conspirators were interested only in making peace with the Western Allies in order to keep the Russians out of Germany. But Gisevius revealed that Count von Stauffenberg intended to conclude a peace with the Soviets if the putsch were successful, and proposed to announce the establishment of a “workers and peasants” regime in Germany. “The present situation on the Eastern Front and the general trend of the situation in Germany,” Gisevius concluded, “indicate that an eastern solution of the war may be more attractive to Germany.” He claimed further that Stauffenberg had been in secret contact with the Seydlitz Committee, led by General Walter von Seydlitz, who was captured at Stalingrad and had gone over to the Russians. Seydlitz had assured Stauffenberg that the Soviet Union would accept fair peace terms and not demand that the Wehrmacht disarm completely. The Seydlitz conditions could have been extended only with Moscow’s approval and made one thing clear: for all of FDR’s scrupulous determination never to give even the appearance of abandoning the Soviet Union, Stalin was evidently willing to consider a separate peace that would leave Britain and America to fight on alone.

Donovan urged the President to change course. FDR’s insistence on unconditional surrender, the general argued, could drive Germany into the Russians’ arms. He suggested “a subtle psychological approach” to turn anti-Nazi Germans toward the West while still sticking to unconditional surrender. Under Donovan’s formula, if the German officer class would give up a hopeless struggle and end further bloodshed, “Wehrmacht officers who contribute to such a constructive policy… would be treated with the consideration due their rank and according to the services which they render in the liquidation of the Nazi regime… . “ Roosevelt disregarded Donovan’s recommendation to soften unconditional surrender by so much as a word, just as he had rejected every other suggestion that might conceivably trigger Stalin’s distrust.


The fact that Hitler had utterly crushed his opponents after the conspiracy became manifest five months later when he was able to mobilize the Wehrmacht for its stunning offensive through the Ardennes. Even before the Battle of the Bulge, OSS Bern had produced troubling evidence of Hitler’s intention to fight to the death. The Germans were reportedly building a “National Redoubt” centered in the Salzkammergut, rugged and inaccessible mountain terrain in western Austria and bordering southern Germany. There, according to Bern, “vast underground factories, invulnerable in their rocky depths,” were being hewn from the mountainsides. Preparations were said to be under way to enable Nazi leaders to withdraw into this impenetrable fastness where elite troops, sustained by huge, buried stores of food, fuel, arms, and ammunition, would carry on the struggle. Bern predicted that subjugation of the Redoubt could extend the war from six months to two years and exact more casualties than all the previous fighting on the western front.

The superheated rhetoric of an Alpine rampart “defended by nature and by the most efficient secret weapons yet invented” had the ring of thriller fiction. General Eisenhower, however, did not dismiss the threat. “If the German was permitted to establish the Redoubt, he might possibly force us to engage in a long, drawn-out guerrilla type of warfare, or a costly siege,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Thus, he could keep alive his desperate hope that through disagreement among the Allies, he might yet be able to secure terms more favorable than those of unconditional surrender.” Eisenhower concluded: “The evidence was clear that the Nazi intended to make the attempt… .”

Oddly, the signals of a last-ditch Nazi stand were contradicted by intelligence also coming out of OSS Bern. “This whole project seems fantastic,” Dulles cabled Washington. He had become more interested, not in a Nazi scheme to prolong the war, but with an opportunity presented to him to hasten its end. He had word that the commander of German forces in northern Italy, the former Luftwaffe star tactician, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, might consider a secret surrender. The struggle up the Italian boot had been long and bloody with Kesselring conducting a brilliant withdrawal and giving up every mile grudgingly at a steep price to the Allies. If such a surrender could be arranged, it would remove one of the most stubborn German forces from the field, and, coincidentally, represent a major coup for the OSS.

The possibility of a secret surrender on the Italian front, so seemingly desirable at first blush, was to initiate a particularly acrimonious chapter in the long saga of East-West distrust. A split among the Allies remained the dying Nazi’s last hope against obliteration. That objective became apparent in a long Ultra intercept picked up between Berlin and Dublin and relayed to the White House in February 1945. Hitler’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had prepared a policy directive to be transmitted in the Enigma code to all German embassies in neutral countries. Each chief of mission was to attempt a high-level contact from among enemy representatives. As Ribbentrop instructed, “… [R]estrict yourself to one particularly important English and American channel through a secret agent.” This go-between was to leak Berlin’s current thinking, which ran: “The new and greatest fact that this war has brought out is the military power of the Soviet Union. Stalin has subjected [sic: subjugated] all of Eastern Europe and the Balkans (Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Serbia, Hungary)… . Russia has no intention of ever releasing them again… . it intends to make these countries finally communistic states as part of the Soviet Union… . The offensive against Germany, however, shows that Stalin is pursuing a much greater objective even beyond that: he wishes to conquer and occupy Germany and thus complete the conquest of Europe.” Ribbentrop further directed his ambassadors to tell their Allied targets that “Germany is today the only power still fighting the Soviet Union… . If Stalin should succeed in overcoming German resistance on the East Front, the BOLSHEVIZATION of Germany, and consequently of all Europe, would be once and for all an irrefutable fact.” Lest the British and Americans think they would be spared, Ribbentrop told his emissaries to make clear that “Stalin hates England. After the conquest of Europe, therefore, the destruction of the English Island by the Soviets would only be a question of time… . The Bolshevization of the U.S.A. itself would then only be a question of time. The only political and spiritual counterpoise against the undoubtedly strong doctrine of Communism is National Socialism, therefore just the factor which the English and Americans want to exterminate. The English Crown, the English Conservative Party and the American governing class should therefore have only the wish that nothing should happen to Adolf Hitler.” The Nazi foreign minister directed his representatives to express dismay at the pigheadedness of Western leaders. They were to say to their contacts, “One marvels in Berlin that in London and Washington no one is willing to see this and that the present policy of the English and American governments must lead not to securing a long period of peace, but quite to the contrary, to producing a state of perpetual war.” Ribbentrop anticipated that any agent peddling this line would be asked about the fate of the Jews. “The question of the Jews,” they were to answer, “is a German domestic affair which, if Germany doesn’t want to fall to Communism, must be solved in Germany. The Jewish question in other countries does not interest Germany.” He neatly sidestepped the fact that millions of non-German Jews from all over occupied Europe had already perished in Nazi extermination camps.

While the foreign minister’s instructions were to make his arguments known through high-level Britons and Americans, his message reached the most prominent American of all within days. The Ultra cable delivered to FDR by the British comprised a remarkable stew of lies, truth, and prophecy. Ribbentrop’s forecast of the postwar fate of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, then being overrun by the Red Army, and the emergence of “perpetual war” between East and West, at least a cold war, proved remarkably on target.

Roosevelt has left no indication of his reaction to Ribbentrop’s intercepted stratagem. However, its existence made not a dent in his determination to stick by the Soviet Union, a resolve that was tested just days later by the latest news out of OSS Bern. Two months had gone by since the first hint that Field Marshal Kesselring might be receptive to a separate German surrender in Italy. Then, on February 25, Dulles learned through Baron Luigi Parilli, an Italian industrialist, that Karl Wolff, an SS general associated with Kesselring, wanted to meet with him secretly. According to Parilli, General Wolff claimed that the Germans in Italy were demoralized by their remorseless retreat up the Italian peninsula. They wanted to quit.

Dulles put Wolff to the test. The Germans had captured two leading Italian resistance fighters, Ferruccio Parri and Antonio Usmiani, the latter also an OSS spy in Milan. Dulles would talk to Wolff only if he released the two men. Three days later, he received word to present himself at a hospital in Zurich. On his arrival, he was taken to a room where he met the unshaven, unkempt, but beaming Parri and Usmiani. They had been blindfolded and driven over the Italian-Swiss border on Wolff’s orders the very day that they were condemned to be shot. In giving up the two Italians, the SS officer believed he had proved his good faith. He next sent Dulles a message from Italy suggesting they meet in Switzerland to start discussing a surrender.

Within days, Dulles found himself in a country inn outside Zurich where a tall, thin man, with a knife-edge profile and self-important air, rose to greet him. Karl Wolff, dressed in civilian clothes, first engaged Dulles in small talk, boasting of how he had managed to relieve the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel, of his coin collection. Dulles, nevertheless, knew that he was dealing with no Nazi bon vivant. Ultra intercepts suggested that Wolff was a key participant in sending Italian Jews to their death at Auschwitz. Finally, the SS general got down to business. Germany had lost the war, he admitted to Dulles. He believed that his superior, Field Marshal Kesselring, an independent spirit and no Hitler sycophant, would not only be willing to take his forces out of the fight, but would do so unconditionally. After the two men parted, Dulles returned to Bern and informed Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, commander of Allied forces in Italy, of his conversation with Wolff.

And then Wolff’s hopes seemed to be dashed. Hitler’s personal plane unexpectedly arrived at Kesselring’s headquarters and whisked the field marshal away to become the Wehrmacht commander on the western front. Kesselring’s replacement was to be General Heinrich von Vietinghof, an unknown quantity as far as his attitude toward surrendering his troops. Wolff managed to get a message through to Dulles that he would need a couple of weeks to work on Vietinghof. There the matter hung while General Donovan briefed FDR on what could be the OSS’s greatest triumph of the war.

The threat of a National Redoubt was tied closely to what happened on the Italian battlefront. If the Germans in Italy fought on, they would provide a shield behind which the reported fortress in the Alps could be built. If they surrendered, the Redoubt would be exposed on its southern flank. Churchill, ever the geopolitician, saw that determining the truth or falsity of the Redoubt was crucial. Diverting troops to conquer it could reduce the Western Allies’ chances of taking Berlin and would leave the city to the Russians. Who occupied the German capital, Churchill believed, would decisively influence who dominated postwar Germany. But the reality of the Redoubt remained confused. Just as Churchill was preparing to leave London for a mid-March trip to the western front, the Americans provided him with a Magic decrypt in which the Japanese ambassador to Bern informed Tokyo that the Germans were indeed turning the Alps into an impregnable stronghold. Dulles’s operation, however, continued to send mixed signals. On March 6, FDR received a dispatch radio-telephoned from Bern reporting the publication in Swiss newspapers of maps showing the borders of the Redoubt and descriptions of vast stores piling up in underground bunkers. Another OSS assessment reported, “It is believed that eventually the Redoubt will hold 15–25 divisions composed of SS Storm Troop detachments, Hitler Jugend [Youth], and the special OKW Führer Reserve created for service in the Redoubt.” Yet the same Bern operation concluded, “Much of this is probably fiction… . Talk of building in the mountains great new underground factories is nonsense. It would take years.” Allen Dulles cabled Washington, “I do not believe … that months of elaborate preparation have been devoted to fortifying, arming, and stocking a great German reduit.”

Sharing this skepticism, Churchill showered Roosevelt and Eisenhower with pleas not to abandon Berlin to the Soviets. On April 1 he sent the President a “Most Secret” message questioning Eisenhower’s shifting of armies southward. “I say quite frankly that Berlin remains of high strategic importance. Nothing will exert a psychological effect of despair upon all German forces of resistance equal to that of the fall of Berlin. It will be the supreme signal of defeat to the German people… . The Russian armies will no doubt overrun all Austria and enter Vienna,” he told Roosevelt. “If they also take Berlin, will not their impression that they have been the overwhelming contribution to our common victory be unduly imprinted in their minds, and may this not lead them into a mood which will raise grave and formidable difficulties in the future?” He advised FDR, “… [F]rom a political standpoint we should march as far east as we can into Germany as possible and that should Berlin be in our grasp, we should certainly take it.” But Eisenhower was nevertheless diverting forces southward should the Redoubt prove real.


Bill Donovan’s fortunes continued to gyrate. The OSS might succeed in arranging the early surrender in Italy of a tough, stubborn foe. Yet Vessel had been blown the day before Donovan gave FDR his first report on General Wolff’s overtures for an Italian surrender. And then, not long after the Trohan stories had painted him as a potential American Gestapo chief, another potential disaster arose.

The OSS’s employment of Communists had proved a tangled affair. On a simplistic level, it seemed obvious that no one should be employed by the United States whose allegiance was to a party favoring the overthrow of the government. But a world at war created ambiguities. Donovan, staunch Catholic, Wall Street Republican, thoroughgoing establishment figure, was using Communists knowing that they were virulent anti-Nazis. He had once remarked, “I’d put Stalin on the OSS payroll if I thought it would help defeat Hitler.” Since the fall of the previous year, Donovan, in his determination to penetrate the Reich itself, had allowed his officers to recruit refugee labor leaders, including Socialists and Communists. In a remote corner of liberated France, the OSS ersatz German infantry company, the Iron Cross mission under Captain Aaron Bank, was continuing to train to parachute into southern Germany and capture high-ranking Nazis expected to flee into the Redoubt.

Still, FDR’s journalistic nemesis, the McCormick-Patterson chain, was not about to let any Roosevelt vulnerability go unexploited. That March, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald published the names of ten Army officers alleged to be Communists or to have close Communist ties. Four of the ten belonged to the OSS. A subcommittee of the House Military Affairs Committee summoned Donovan to explain the presence of Reds on his payroll. In preparation, Wild Bill had Otto Doering, another alumnus of his New York law firm, now an OSS aide, check federal law on the hiring of Communists. Doering briefed his boss the day before the general was to testify and told him that he stood on solid legal ground. The War Department had issued instructions saying, “[M]ember-ship in the Communist Party will not affect the status of Army personnel if it is established that their loyalty to this country is greater than any other loyalty.” Furthermore, Doering could point out that the Supreme Court had recently stated it had not yet decided whether or not the Communist Party actually advocated the overthrow of the government by force.

On March 13 an Army sedan flying the two-starred flag of a major general halted under the Capitol portico. For the first time since the creation of the OSS, Donovan faced congressional interrogation. He well knew the prejudices he confronted. The OSS had a reputation as the place where the well-connected could play at war. With its personnel recruited from the old-boy network, prestigious law firms, old-line banks, the academic elite, those who had been educated abroad, and friends of friends of these people, the agency’s image as an enclave of privilege was inevitable. Far preferable for a draft-age American with influence to wrangle an OSS commission and comment mysteriously at Georgetown dinner parties, “I’m simply not in a position to discuss what I do,” than to crouch in a foxhole at Anzio. To its enemies, the OSS was a preposterous fraternity of tycoons, scholars, football stars, scientists, financiers, playboys, pickpockets, counterfeiters, and safecrackers. Rumor even had it that the OSS sprang useful criminals from jail. The truth was rather less colorful. As for imprisoned counterfeiters, the OSS chief of document forgery observed, “These people were a bunch of dilettantes, amateurs. If they were any good, they wouldn’t have been caught. We wanted professionals.” In a probably accurate assessment of Donovan’s personnel, one OSS veteran concluded, “In half of my comrades, I knew the bravest, finest men I would ever meet. The rest were phonies.”

Taking this elite organization down a peg or two appealed enormously to anti–New Deal Republicans on the House Military Affairs subcommittee. But once in the hearing room, Bill Donovan, fixing his interrogators with cool blue eyes, speaking with the quiet authority that had become his trademark, stood by his people. “These four men I’ve been in trenches with,” he testified, “I’ve been in the muck with, and I’d measure them up with any men. I did not find that they were Communists. I found that they were not.” The hearings ended without any action taken against the ten officers, including the four from the OSS. Still, the anti-Roosevelt members of the subcommittee achieved a marginal victory. They had fresh ammunition for their old accusation, however denied, that the Roosevelt administration was riddled with Reds.

The general’s protégé Duncan Lee, placed initially in the OSS front office and by now chief of the Japanese section, was not among the four allegedly Communist OSS officers named in the original newspaper story. By the time Donovan appeared before Congress, Lee had broken off his contacts with Communists. While Donovan knew the four officers against whom the charges had been lodged, he doubtless would have been staggered to learn that a member of his law firm whom he personally had brought into the OSS was reported to have spied for the Soviets.

Though he had come out of the congressional investigation with only flesh wounds, Donovan thereafter became more cautious in the use of Reds. Parachuting 175 well-armed German Communists into the Reich just as the country teetered on the rim of collapse might prove difficult to justify. The Iron Cross mission was scrubbed. Far better to display OSS’s mettle by achieving the surrender of whole German armies in northern Italy than snagging a few Nazis on the run in the Alps. The former possibility grew when Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, the Allied commander in the Mediterranean, agreed that the pursuit of a separate peace in the Italian theater could go forward. On March 12 he notified the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington, who represented all Allied forces, that he was prepared to negotiate. An encouraged Allen Dulles gave the enterprise a code name, Operation Sunrise. The Combined Chiefs, however, notified Alexander to hold off until the Russians could be informed. FDR thereafter instructed Averell Harriman, his ambassador in Moscow, to alert the Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, that peace negotiations on the Italian front were imminent. Molotov replied that Russia would immediately dispatch three Red Army officers to join the talks. The Americans rejected this move out of hand, as did Field Marshal Alexander. The Combined Chiefs of Staff concurred, suggesting that with the Soviets involved, something that might take “four hours would take four months.” Harriman was instructed to advise Moscow that, at this preliminary stage, no point would be served by direct Soviet participation. Russians could attend, but only as observers. Molotov shot back that, under those conditions, they chose not to send anyone.

Operation Sunrise began to provoke an extraordinary exchange between the leaders of two presumed allies. Molotov, besides rejecting Soviet officers as mere observers, was now demanding that the talks be called off completely if the Russians could not take part. On March 24, FDR sent a “Top Secret” cable to placate Stalin. In it, he was not above dissembling. He told Stalin, “The facts are as follows: some few days ago unconfirmed information was received in Switzerland that some German officers were considering the possibility of arranging for the surrender of German troops… in Italy.” He reminded Stalin that the Soviet government had immediately been informed of this development. Ignored in this message was the fact that two of Field Marshal Alexander’s high-level officers had already been dispatched incognito to Switzerland to meet with General Wolff. FDR also maintained that if an enemy facing American troops appeared willing to surrender, his generals were bound to pursue the opportunity. “It would be completely unreasonable for me to take any other attitude or to permit any delay which must cause additional and avoidable loss of life in the American forces.” He appealed to Stalin “as a military man” to understand his reasoning. FDR reminded the Soviet leader that his position was no different than Stalin’s upon the recent entrapment of German troops by the Red Army at Koenigsberg and Danzig, a Russian matter in which FDR had no reason to involve the United States. Secretary of War Stimson put it more bluntly to the President. The surrender of German armies in Italy was, he said, “a matter in which Russia has no more business than the United States would have at Stalingrad.”

Stalin’s response was swift and the harshness of tone shocking. “I agree to negotiations with the enemy,” he cabled Roosevelt, “only in the case where these negotiations will not make the situation easier for the enemy, if there will be excluded a possibility of the Germans to maneuver and to use these negotiations for shifting their troops… to the Soviet front… . I have to tell you,” Stalin went on, “that the Germans have already used these negotiations… in shifting three divisions from Northern Italy to the Soviet front.” As for Roosevelt’s analogy of Koenigsberg and Danzig, Stalin curtly dismissed it. The Germans in these sectors were surrounded, he said, and “if they surrender, they will do it in order to avoid annihilation. They could not be shifted elsewhere.” As for the Italian front, Stalin could not understand “why representatives of the Soviet command were refused participation in these negotiations and in what way could they cause inconvenience to the representatives of the Allied Command.” Stalin’s reaction was not entirely paranoid. The Soviet leader understood that if the German army did surrender in Italy, every soldier, gun, and tank not immediately penned in by the Allies could be expected to be thrown against the Russians.

The shrillness of Stalin’s message alarmed Roosevelt. He fired back, “I must repeat that the meeting in Bern was for the single purpose of arranging contact with competent German military officers and not for negotiations of any kind.” He intended to set Stalin straight on one further point: “I feel that your information about the time of the movements of German troops from Italy is in error.” He acknowledged that three German divisions had indeed been shifted from Italy to the Russian front. But “the last division of the three started moving about February 25, more than two weeks before anybody heard any possibility of surrender” in Italy. Roosevelt was so taken aback by Stalin’s hostility that he asked Harriman to find out if the words represented the Soviet leader’s thinking or merely that Stalin had signed a draft originating in the Kremlin bureaucracy. Harriman reported back that both the words and the sentiments were Stalin’s. The President, who believed he could woo and win anybody and who had invested so much capital in charm and persuasion to establish mutual trust with the Soviet dictator, now began having second thoughts. His fear, he confided to an associate, was that “Stalin has been deceiving me all along.”

The Soviet leader was not yet finished. On April 3 he fired an even more brutal salvo. He cabled FDR regarding the peace maneuvering in Italy: “You insist there have been no negotiations yet. It may be assumed that you have not been fully informed.” Not only had negotiations been held, Stalin insisted, but the German commander on the western front “has agreed to open the front and permit Anglo-American troops to advance to the East, and the Anglo-Americans have promised in return to ease for the Germans the peace terms.” This was not the first time that Stalin’s deep-dyed distrust had surfaced. In March the American 9th Armored Division had been astonished to find the Ludendorff railroad bridge across the Rhine near the town of Remagen intact and had poured troops across it. The Russians did not regard this breakthrough as an American military triumph. German thoroughness and efficiency were legendary. How was it possible, the Russians reasoned, that the enemy had not blown a bridge pointing straight into Germany’s heartland, unless they wanted the Americans to cross it? Stalin regarded the bridge’s capture as further proof, as he put it to FDR, that “the Germans on the Western front have in fact ceased the war against England and the United States. At the same time they continue the war against Russia.” The fact that Hitler had had four officers responsible for the loss of the bridge shot and that the Luftwaffe had bombed it into the Rhine were merely inconvenient facts interfering with Stalin’s preconceptions.

An angered FDR called in Admiral Leahy and General Marshall to help him draft his reply to Stalin’s cable of April 3. “I have received with astonishment your message,” the response began, “containing an allegation that arrangements which were made between Field Marshal Alexander and Kesselring, ’permitted the Anglo-American troops to advance to the East and the Anglo-Americans promised in return to ease for the Germans the peace terms!’ “Roosevelt repeated his argument that thus far no actual negotiations had taken place. “… [Y]our information,” FDR went on, “must have come from German sources which have made persistent efforts to create dissention between us… . If that was Wolff’s purpose in Bern your message proves that he has had some success. Frankly,” Roosevelt concluded, “I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment toward your informers, whoever they are, for such vile misrepresentations of my actions or those of my trusted subordinates.”

Stalin now held out a slim olive branch. Three days after the President’s retort, he cabled back, “I have never doubted your honesty and dependability… .” But he was still not done pressing his major premise, that Russia was being abandoned to carry on alone. The Germans, he noted, “continue to fight savagely with the Russians for some unknown junction, Zemlianitsa in Czechoslovakia, which they need as much as a dead man needs poultices, but surrender without any resistance such important towns in central Germany as Osnabrück, Mannheim, Kassel. Don’t you agree that such a behavior of the Germans is more than strange and incomprehensible.” He had one more charge to unload. Back in February, he claimed, General Marshall had tipped off the Red Army staff to expect major German attacks at two points, in Pomerania and at Maravska Ostrava. Instead, the Germans struck in a completely different sector southwest of Budapest, “one of the most serious blows in the course of the war… .” Here Stalin was accusing the chief of the American Army not simply of bad faith but of treachery. These exchanges marked the nadir in the three and a half years of wary alliance and threatened to create the only outcome that could give Hitler any hope of salvation, a rupture between the East and the West.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945

FDR still faced the threat that Hitler would hole up in the Alps for a fanatic Armageddon. In the midst of the Roosevelt-Stalin countercharges over Operation Sunrise, General Marshall sent the President an estimate on April 2 that the “will to fight of these [German] troops will depend largely on whether Hitler and his subordinate Nazi leaders, or the German High Command will have transferred their headquarters into the ’redoubt’ area. If Hitler does so, a fairly formidable military task requiring a considerable number of divisions may still confront the Allies… .” Now was hardly the time to risk the alliance, especially since the Russians had made their first installment on their promise at Yalta to enter the war against Japan. On April 5 they broke their peace pact with the Japanese. Through a Magic decrypt it was as if FDR were in the room in Moscow when the Soviet foreign minister, Molotov, delivered the blow to the Japanese ambassador, Naotake Sato. Sato answered, hopefully, “The Japanese government expects that even after the abrogation of the treaty by the Russian government there will be no change in the peace in the Far East from what it has been in the past.” Molotov gave a chilling answer: “At the time when this treaty was concluded Russia was not yet at war with Germany… . After that Japan began war with England and America which are allies of Russia.” And, as Molotov well knew, the Americans, pursuing Project Hula, were already well along in turning over ships and training Soviet seamen to enter the war in the Pacific.