Space Diamond: Almaz

In late 1963 the American government scrapped its military spaceplane but, as a consolation to the USAF, the politicians decided to proceed with a small manned orbital reconnaissance platform called MOL. This led to a rapid appraisal of American strategy in Moscow and an upsurge of interest in a small military space station under development by Chelomei’s OKB-52. This project was proceeding well and a full-sized mock-up of the space station had been completed by March 1964. It was broadly similar to the USAF’s MOL and would be used for optical and radar reconnaissance missions. During September 1964 the project was formalised into an outline of proposals for consideration by the Ministry of Defence, and on 12th October OKB-52 was authorised to proceed with full development. The programme was called the Orbital Piloted Station (OPS), it received the reference 11F71 and the codename Almaz (Diamond).

Securing a formal agreement to proceed with Almaz on this date was fortunate, because two days later Khrushchev was deposed and Vladimir Chelomei would rapidly fall from favour through his friendship with the former chairman. In its initial form Almaz was a 20 ton (18 tonne) spacecraft. There were a number of similarities to MOL and it would be launched into orbit carrying a three-seat re-entry capsule called Vozvrashaemiy Apparat (Return Apparatus – VA). VA would utilise a hatch cut into the capsule’s heat shield to allow easy access to the space station, rather like the system designed for the American Gemini B. To begin with VA was seen as a good idea, but the plan was finally dropped and it was felt that better use could be made of the space station by ferrying crews to and from orbit in separate vehicles, with Almaz remaining in service for at least two years. A new partly re-usable manned vehicle would be responsible for servicing Almaz space stations and this was also under development by OKB-52. But the time required for development meant that Soyuz spacecraft would initially handle this function.

The Almaz space station would have a maximum length of 47ft 9in (14.55m), a maximum diameter of 13ft 6in (4.15m) and a launch mass of 41,8001b (18,960kg). Electrical power would be generated by two large solar panels with a span of 75ft 5in (23m) and a collecting area of 560ft2 (52m2). This would produce just over 3kW. There would also be two small rocket engines to allow orbital correction manoeuvres. The most important item of equipment carried by the space station was a very large telescope using a catadioptric optical system mounted into the wall of the space station. Identified as Agat-1, this high-quality hand-built instrument had an aperture of one metre and was capable of imaging surface detail at an equivalent level to the US CORONA spy satellites. Details would be captured on 50cm square film, which is said to have provided a resolution of 100LPM, and the telescope could be made to lock onto a specific area of interest using a spotting scope. A separate optical unit called Volga was also carried for recording surface detail in infrared, although the resolution was much lower than the visible light system.

Once photographs had been taken the film could be returned to Earth using a small Information Return Capsule (KS1). This tiny vehicle had a mass of approximately 7931b (360kg) and a diameter of 2ft 9in (838mm). It was equipped with a miniature solid-fuel de-orbit motor and a heat shield that was jettisoned when the parachute was released. An inflatable airbag was deployed to reduce landing impact and a tracking device was fitted. Alternatively, the film could be processed on the space station, scanned and transmitted to a ground station via a fairly secure downlink. This was probably quite slow as the technology available at that time was relatively crude. As a reminder that Almaz was a military platform undertaking highly classified operations, the vehicle carried a defensive 23mm recoilless cannon in the forward section and the station was equipped with a self-destruct system for last resort use.

Progress with the project was slow because resources were being directed towards the lunar programme, but by 1970 a number of Almaz vehicles had been built for ground tests and two operational Almaz spacecraft were nearing completion at the OKB-52 plant at Krunichev. Chelomei was now instructed to pass the full Almaz specification to the Korolev Design Bureau to facilitate systems integration into its rival DOS project, which would fly as Salyut 1 in 1971. Chelomei’s enemies within the State system never missed an opportunity to remind him of past events and this transfer of information to OKB-1 is said to have delayed the Almaz programme by two years. Had Chelomei not occupied such an important role within the country’s military-industrial structure, it is fairly clear that Dimitry Ustinov would have swiftly removed him from his directorship of OKB-52.

But Chelomei continued to receive support from the Air Force and during 1970 a team of twenty-two cosmonauts headed by Pavel Popovich began training for Almaz operations. Further modifications were made to the Almaz design and there were plans to install side-looking radar, but these were shelved. The first Almaz space station (OPS-1) was finally launched on 3rd April 1973, although it was designated Salyut-2 to conceal the fact that there were two separate space station programmes and this was the military version. But the vehicle was damaged after the upper stage of the Proton rocket suffered a fuel tank explosion and debris punctured the wall of the space station, leading to loss of air pressure. No Soyuz missions were flown to the station and, officially, Salyut-2 completed a series of prearranged tests and was successfully de-orbited on 28th May 1973. The true details of what had taken place would remain secret for several decades.

The second Almaz launch took place at Baikonur on 24th June 1974 as Salyut-3. The first team of cosmonauts arrived at the Almaz space station (designated OPS-2) on 4th July and carried out a variety of survey operations. It is believed that this was a specific military mission and the main areas of interest were in China. In 1969 there had almost been a nuclear exchange between Russia and China following a series of border clashes over disputed territory. An uneasy stalemate followed that remained unresolved until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A second Soyuz crew lifted-off for Almaz on 26th August 1974 but their rendezvous system failed and they were forced to return, making a difficult landing in the dark. A film capsule is believed to have been automatically ejected from OSP-2 on 23rd September 1974, but no further manned missions were undertaken and Almaz was de-orbited over the Pacific on 24th January 1975.

The third and final Almaz space station (OPS-3), using the cover Salyut-5, was launched on 22nd June 1976. During its period in orbit there were three separate Soyuz missions to Almaz (OPS-3), but the second Soyuz flight failed to dock with the space station. After de-orbit this spacecraft made an unplanned night landing in the semi-frozen Tengiz Lake during a snow blizzard, which prompted a major rescue operation. Almaz OPS-3 finally re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on 8th August 1977 and was destroyed.

Almaz OPS-4 was completed and was fully prepared for the next mission. The optical system was no longer a feature of this spacecraft and had been replaced with radar and ELINT equipment. Amongst the changes was a new docking unit capable of accommodating a TKS spacecraft and a Soyuz spacecraft. It is also reported that the defensive cannon was replaced by small unguided missiles. But this Almaz mission never took place and by the start of 1978 there was little enthusiasm for further manned orbital reconnaissance operations. No money was available for such endeavours with the Buran programme eating up funds.

Designed as an alternative to Soyuz by OKB-52, the TKS spacecraft was specifically produced to support the Almaz military space station.

On 28th June 1978 the manned Almaz programme was officially closed. However, it was decided that the three existing space craft, which were in various stages of completion, would be converted into unmanned Almaz-T satellites Fitted with the Mech-K (Sword) side-looking radar developed by NPO Vega-M. The first launch was planned for 1981 but was cancelled on the grounds of cost. The three spacecraft were then placed in storage until 1985 when Chelomei’s successor Gerbert Efremov managed to have the Almaz-T programme re-started. The spacecraft were now modified by removing the unnecessary docking system and the first Almaz-T was launched from Baikonur on 29th October 1986, but the second stage of the Proton rocket failed to separate and the vehicle was destroyed

On 27th July 1987 the second Almaz-T was successfully launched into a high inclination 71.92° orbit. Identified as Cosmos-1870, it stayed in orbit until 30th July 1989. The third Almaz-T was launched on 31st March 1991 using the name Almaz-1. There were a number of technical problems but it is believed that the satellite managed to return useful data before it was de-orbited on 17th October 1992. A follow-on Almaz-2 was planned with more advanced electronics and a radar system capable of resolving detail as small as 16ft (5m). However, the Soviet Union was no longer in existence and the country was in financial chaos, so the programme was abandoned.


On Satellites

The complete list of U.S. Reconnaissance Satellite from 1960 to current days


Along with the all-important communications and GPS navigation satellites, there are four other types of military reconnaissance satellites.

1. Optical-imaging satellites that have light sensors in the visible light, infra-red and ultra violet spectrum that can ‘photograph’ objects and weapon systems down to the size of a tennis ball. They can identify targets, make maps and also spot dangerous events like enemy missile launches.

2. Radar-imaging satellites aimed at the same targets that can observe the Earth using different radar wavelengths, even through cloud cover, to cover targets invisible to visible light, infra-red and ultra violet spectrum imagery.

3. Signals-intelligence, or ELINT-ferret, satellites to collect the radio, microwave and electronic transmissions emitted from any country on Earth.

4. Relay satellites that speed military satellite communications around the globe by transmitting data from spy satellites to ground stations on Earth. Most military satellites can now transmit intelligence in real time.

All these satellites can be launched into a regular movable orbit, or can be positioned to hover above a single target on the globe’s surface in what is known as a geosynchronous (geostationary) orbit

As early as 1946, more than eleven years before Sputnik 1, history’s first artificial space satellite, went into orbit the US Project RAND released a remarkably prescient report: Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship (SM-11827).

Although it was the US Navy that first mooted the idea of space satellites, the then Major General Curtis E. LeMay USAF insisted that space operations were just an extension of air operations and tasked Project RAND to undertake a wider feasibility study. The resulting reports noted:

Since mastery of the elements is a reliable index of material progress, the nation which first makes significant achievements in space travel will be acknowledged as the world leader in both military and scientific techniques . . . A satellite vehicle with appropriate instrumentation can be expected to be one of the most potent scientific tools of the twentieth century. The achievement of a satellite craft would produce repercussions comparable to the explosion of the atomic bomb . . .

Thus the space race was born.

Little could the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, often quoted as having come up with the concept of the communications satellite, have realised that his 1945 article titled ‘Extra-terrestrial Relays’ in the British magazine Wireless World would spawn a revolution in global communications, intelligence, and mapping. Clarke’s article described the fundamentals behind the deployment of artificial satellites in geostationary orbits to relay radio signals.

Despite the optimistic RAND report little progress was made in the following decade. For a long time the USAF did not believe that the satellite could be a military weapon. They only saw its potential as a tool for communications, and science. In 1954, the US Secretary of Defense stated publicly, ‘I know of no American satellite program.’

It was only in 1955, as part of American plans for the International Geophysical Year 1957–58 that the White House publicly announced that the US intended to launch satellites by the spring of 1958. This became known as Project Vanguard. Shortly afterwards the Soviet Union countered by announcing that they intended to launch a satellite by the autumn of 1957.

After that the pace of satellite development accelerated. In early 1956 President Eisenhower established an Intelligence Advisory Board, who urged the development of a reconnaissance satellite. The Air Force’s WS-117L project showed promise as it offered multipurpose technical reconnaissance capabilities. The planned satellite included a SIGINT payload, an imagery intelligence (IMINT) payload in which film from onboard cameras could be scanned and transmitted to ground stations, and a hard-copy camera system by which film would be returned to earth via a re-entry capsule. Hardcopy photographs were important because their resolution would be pin-sharp, unlike the fuzzy electronically transmitted images, which were comparable to 425-line black-and-white television at best.

The Advisory Board was, however, concerned about the pace of the satellite programme, which they believed was too slow to meet the threat presented by the Soviets. They directed that priority be given to the USAF WS-117L project and concentrated on the technology of hard-copy film recovery.

The Americans were right to be worried about the Soviets’ progress. On 4 October 1957, to the world’s amazement, the USSR launched a football-sized satellite called Sputnik 1 into orbit. The global propaganda impact was enormous as the 22-inch diametre sphere, weighing 190.5 pounds, passed overhead making electronic beeping noises. The Soviets followed up their scientific triumph when, a month later,TASS, the Russian news agency announced the launch of Sputnik 2.

This second satellite was a 507 kg, 1.2 metres-long cone. In addition to the scientific measuring instruments, it carried a live dog called Laika inside a pressurised cabin. Laika was the first animal to reach the upper layers of the atmosphere. The message was clear; if a dog could do it, then so could a man. Sadly, the good-natured mongrel bitch only made a one-way journey. Her planned launch was never designed to be followed by a recovery from orbit.

However, the launch of Sputnik and its display of Soviet technical power caused serious concern in the United States. Any rocket capable of launching such a payload into earth orbit was equally capable of carrying a nuclear weapon and acting as an ICBM. America was shocked by the sudden turn of events, and the Cold War ratcheted up another notch.

Desperate to catch up, the United States managed to launch their first satellite, Explorer 1, on 31 January 1958. The programme was driven by the need to be able to detect any Soviet nuclear build-up and, more important still, to give any warning of a Soviet missile launch.

The First IMINT Satellite started under the name Discoverer as part of the follow-on work on the USAF’s 1956 WS-117L satellite reconnaissance and protection programme, soon to be renamed Corona.

The Discoverer/Corona programme carried out thirty-eight public launches and achieved many technological breakthroughs. Discoverer 1, launched in February 1959, was the world’s first polar-orbiting satellite. The first mission returned with 3,000 feet of film (more than the entire U-2 program up to then), covering 1.65 million square miles of Soviet territory. Discoverer II, launched in April of 1959, was the first satellite able to be:

Stabilised in orbit in all three axes

Manoeuvered on command from the earth

Separate a re-entry vehicle on command

Send its re-entry vehicle back to earth

These characteristics meant that the US now had the potential for a new technical intelligence collection source, parked overhead in space. Discoverer 8, launched in August of 1960, ejected a capsule that was subsequently recovered from the Pacific Ocean, the first successful recovery of a man-made object ejected from an orbiting satellite. It was Discoverer 9 that inaugurated the age of satellite reconnaissance when its discharged film capsule was recovered in the air over the Pacific by a specially-modified JC-130 aircraft, making it the first successful aerial recovery of an object returned from orbit. Satellite reconnaissance was now filling a crucial strategic intelligence gap because, after the Gary Powers U-2 debacle, President Eisenhower had suspended all overflights of the USSR.

The Corona programme continued in secret until 1972 (the date of the last film recovery), with 144 launches. The growing importance of the satellite reconnaissance and intelligence was recognised in 1961 when the White House ordered that all satellite reconnaissance programmes would come under a new intelligence agency, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The NRO operated several different versions of Corona during the program’s lifetime, introducing different camera systems and making improvements. Eventually these so-called ‘Keyhole’ (KH) missions could produce imagery with 5–7-foot resolution. It was Keyhole imagery from the Corona series that showed that the Soviets had far fewer strategic missiles and bombers than had been originally thought. For the remainder of the Cold War, technical intelligence from satellite IMINT, combined with SIGINT, consistently gave US officials accurate estimates of how many missiles, bombers, and submarines the Soviet Union really had.

The second satellite programme to evolve from WS 117L was called SAMOS, and was intended to carry a heavier reconnaissance payload. Four of the eleven SAMOS launches failed and the image quality was poor. As a result, the programme was stopped in 1962. SAMOS was accompanied by MIDAS early warning surveillance satellites stationed in geosynchronous orbit over Soviet missile sites. However by 1974 the Department of Defense had developed a new system called GAMBIT, with a ‘77-inch focal length camera for providing specific information on scientific and technical capabilities that threatened the nation’, according to the NRO.

Later GAMBITs carried a state-of-the-art reconnaissance pack, including a 175-inch focal length camera with a resolution of less than two feet, and the ability to process, transmit, and receive electronic signals while on mission, thus allowing dissemination of near realtime digital imagery for targeting and strategic threat.

As the Cold War turned even more dangerous in the mid 1960s, American planners conceived a new and highly advanced satellite codenamed ‘Hexagon’. Hexagon was an extraordinarily ambitious project to place a huge spy satellite into space to look into the very backyards of the Soviet Union and Communist China. At the time (1967), it was the most classified project in America. It was also the most unlikely. Joseph Prusak, who had worked as an engineer on earlier civilian space projects, spent six months waiting for his security clearance, working in what the hirees called the ‘Mushroom Tank’ (because they were kept in the dark about what their new jobs were to be). When he was finally cleared and briefed on Hexagon, Prusak wondered if he had made the biggest mistake of his life.

The massive KH-9 Hexagon spy satellite was the largest satellite up to that time. ‘I thought they were crazy,’ Prusak said. ‘They envisaged a satellite that was 60-foot (18-metres) long and 30,000 pounds (13,600 kilograms) and supplying film at speeds of 200 inches (500 centimetres) per second. The precision and complexity blew my mind.’ Not for nothing was the Hexagon dubbed, ‘Big Bird’. The plan to fire something weighing fifteen tons and the length of two busses into space was, in 1970, almost beyond belief. The project suffered a serious setback on its first launch when the delivery rocket blew up on the pan. Undaunted, the American intelligence agencies persisted. They knew that, potentially, they had a game changer on their hands.

Earlier space spy satellites such as Corona and Gambit were at least a whole generation – if not two – behind the plans for Hexagon. But neither offered the resolution nor sophistication of Hexagon, which was intended to take thousands of high-resolution pictures of Soviet missiles, submarine pens and air bases, even of individual bombers, missile silos and army units on exercise.

Later launches were more successful. Early Hexagons could stay up for 124 days but, as the satellites became more sophisticated, follow-on missions were extended to last for up to five months in space. The key to the missions’ success was the satellites’ revolutionary imagery package. The so-called ‘Key Hole’ system was built around a suite of new cameras with a panoramic ‘optical bar’ designed by Phil Pressel. Much later, Pressel explained his motivation to work on the Hexagon. ‘I never wanted to work on an offensive weapon system, something that would kill people. I am happy that I always worked on reconnaissance or intelligence projects, projects that secured our country.’ The result of his lifelong secret, one of the United States’ most closely guarded intelligence assets, was a behemoth larger than a London bus: the now declassified KH 9 spy satellite.

One of his revolutionary rotating cameras looked forward of the long thin satellite as the other looked aft, thus capturing detailed imagery in stereo, with a declared resolution of about two to three feet. (Insiders hinted that it could spot and photograph much smaller objects.) The Hexagon’s twin optical-bar panoramic-mirror cameras rotated as they swept back and forth while the satellite flew over earth, a process that intelligence officials referred to as ‘mowing the lawn’. The results were astonishing. According to the National Reconnaissance Office, one single Hexagon frame could cover a swathe of 370 nautical miles (680 kilometres) – about the distance from London to Koln, or Washington to Cincinnati.

The film was recovered by dropping film return-capsules for recovery. A specially equipped aircraft would try and catch the return capsule in mid-air by snagging its parachute as it floated to earth after the film canister’s re-entry. However, the very first recovery of the ‘film bucket’ from a KH-9 Hexagon in spring 1972 went badly wrong. The Air Force recovery aircraft failed to snag the parachute and the capsule, with its vital load of high-resolution photographs of the Soviet Union’s submarine bases and missile silos, plunged into the sea to sink to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

The Americans were undaunted by the failure. In a remarkable feat of Cold War clandestine ingenuity, the US Navy’s deep submergence vehicle Trieste II managed to locate and recover the film bucket and its priceless cargo at a depth of nearly 16,000 feet.

After that the Keyhole success rate increased and the KH Series satellites became a vital part of the US intelligence effort, as the Cold War went into its increasingly expensive end game and America ratcheted up the price of staying in the fight. The Soviets were increasingly falling behind in the race for eyes in the sky. By the early 1980s they were unable to invest enough to keep up with burgeoning American technology, especially as the NRO developed the Keyhole programme to operate the KH-8 Gambit 3 and KH-9 Hexagon in tandem, teaming up to photograph areas of military significance in both the Soviet Union and China. The KH-9 would make the first pass, imaging a wide swathe of terrain, to be scrutinised by imagery intelligence analysts on the ground looking for so-called ‘targets of opportunity’. Once these potential targets were identified, a KH-8 would then be manoeuvred over the target to photograph the precise location in much higher resolution.

The Hexagon’s final launch in April 1986 met with disaster just like the very first launch, as the spy satellite’s Titan 34D booster erupted into a massive fireball just seconds after lift-off, crippling the NRO’s orbital reconnaissance capabilities for many months. However, by then, the Hexagon satellites’ early warning job was nearly over as the USSR slid into economic and eventually political ruin.

NASA’s Rob Landis was unequivocal about the contribution satellites made to US and Allied intelligence during the Cold War: ‘You have to give credit to leaders like President Eisenhower who had the vision to initiate reconnaissance spacecraft, beginning with the Corona and Discoverer programs,’ Landis said. ‘He was of the generation who wanted no more surprises, no more Pearl Harbors. Frankly, I think that Gambit and Hexagon helped prevent World War Three.’

Few would disagree. The 1970s programme of Rhyolite/Aquacade satellites were designed specifically to intercept Soviet and Chinese microwave relay signals traffic, much of which missed the receiving dish and, because of the curvature of the Earth, carried on into space. By placing a satellite in a geosynchronous orbit at a position in the sky where it could intercept and catch the beam, the US government was able to listen in on Soviet telephone calls and telex cables during the Cold War. Even the Kremlin’s car-phone system was vulnerable.

It was not just SIGINT. Jimmy Carter was astonished, on coming into the White House in 1977, to be presented by the CIA with a series of pin-sharp photographs of the movement of tanks in Poland in real time. The images had been taken by the latest KH 11 satellite. Carter was delighted at the intelligence that satellites could now provide to him as Commander-in-Chief. From then on the US satellite budget has always been safe.

In 1991, the role of intelligence was revolutionised by the Gulf War. Satellite intelligence was used to provide warning of Scud attacks, to target Patriot anti-missile rockets, to provide weather data, aid with land navigation and aerial bombardment, and serve as a communication channel. The growing struggle against Islamic jihadi terrorists has also seen a heavy reliance upon satellite imagery and electronic intelligence in efforts to trace the movements of key terrorist leaders and identify targets.

This switch from strategic to tactical intelligence has brought with it enhanced capabilities for reconnaissance satellites. For example, the US government’s hunt for, and elimination of, the al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden could only have been accomplished with real-time satellite surveillance.

And where the US led, other countries have followed; every nation with the technical prowess and financial resources now has satellites in space, from communications satellites to GPS navigation systems, as well as the numerous intelligence platforms. Foremost among them is Israel, which, unwilling to rely on the US for its satellite images, launched its first reconnaissance satellite in April 1995. Japan has also acted on its own regional security concerns and launched reconnaissance satellites; its first launch was in 2003, specifically to keep an eye on China and North Korea. Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, and Pakistan have all become owners of the most expensive intelligence-collection assets in history.

Inevitably, much of the work and technology of the satellite intelligence programmes has been highly classified and we can only guess at the very latest intelligence collection systems. One satellite intelligence programme, however, has been well aired in the world’s press: the US-controlled ECHELON system.

ECHELON first made the news in 1988 when a Lockheed employee, Margaret Newsham, admitted to a US Congressman that the telephone calls of a US senator were being collected by the NSA. Congressional investigators determined that ‘targeting of U.S. political figures would not occur by accident, but was designed into the system from the start’. Later that year, British investigative journalist Duncan Campbell wrote an article for the New Statesman called ‘Somebody’s listening’, outlining the signals intelligence gathering activities of ECHELON. By 1996 the cat was truly out of the bag. Nick Hager, a New Zealand journalist provided specific details about the ECHELON satellite surveillance system, claiming that it was a joint UK-US-Canadian-Australian system that could eavesdrop on any telephonic communication.

In 2000 a former Director of the CIA confirmed that US intelligence uses interception systems and keyword searches to monitor European businesses. This prompted the European Parliament to investigate the ECHELON surveillance network. The US refused to meet the members of a European investigating committee, and the BBC reported that, ‘The US Government still refuses to admit that Echelon even exists.’

According to the whistle blowers – or traitors, depending on your point of view – ECHELON and its follow-on systems such as PRISM, DISHFIRE, TURBULENCE and MYSTIC still exist, now with enhanced capabilities to monitor, intercept, and record telephonic and email transmissions, as well as any other communications in the electronic sphere. If ECHELON’S intelligence collection capabilities in 2001 were described as ‘awesome’, then there is hard evidence that that Big Brother’s electronic ear is today even more powerful: a conclusion that raises serious questions for the citizen’s right to privacy, democratic politicians and lawyers.

That the post-ECHELON systems exist is not in doubt. In 2012 a Royal Canadian Navy intelligence officer, Sub Lieutenant Jeffrey Delisle, was sentenced to twenty years after pleading guilty to having downloaded and sold information from the Codeword (the security level above top secret) STONEGHOST communications interception system to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.

The digital age and modern communications systems have taken satellite and intelligence collection to new heights, in every sense. Until its retirement in 2011, modern intelligence satellites were intercepted and refuelled in space using the Space Shuttle, whose design was specifically tailored to include a cargo bay big enough to recover and repair America’s intelligence collectors in space. Intelligence agencies and decision makers now rely almost entirely on satellites for their technical intelligence.

Today’s satellites still have five major roles as intelligence collection sources: early warning, to provide warning of an attack by detecting ballistic missile launches; detecting nuclear explosions on the ground and in space; photo surveillance, (IMINT) to provide images from space using a variety of sensors that can see through cloud using synthetic aperture radar and millimetric radar as well as spectral imaging; intercepting electronic-reconnaissance radio waves across all frequencies (SIGINT); and radar imaging to identify and measure any particular equipment or systems of interest, (MASINT).

Inevitably, the market place has recognised the potential profitability of satellites. Literally thousands of commercial satellites now surround the earth, competing for commercial reconnaissance as well as communications. This broader role for reconnaissance satellites was recognised in 2005 when America’s National Geospatial Intelligence Agency used information from US government satellites, commercial satellites, and airborne reconnaissance platforms to support hurricane-relief efforts and provide information to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

With the end of the Cold War, private companies even began to sell declassified imagery as the distinction between government military satellites and commercial satellites disappeared. Since the 1990s, commercial vendors have entered the market and their modern, relatively high-resolution imagery from satellites offer an invaluable tool to commercial enterprises such as oil prospecting, geologists, weather forecasting, or crop production, as well as many other applications. And, since the advent of ‘Google Earth’ in 2005, we can now all gain access to free satellite imagery. Google’s systems are capable of excellent resolution — down to less than half a metre; and even that is rumoured to be limited only by US government restrictions to prevent the image quality from getting too good.

Today the NRO and its fellow intelligence agencies operate ground stations around the world that collect and distribute intelligence gathered from reconnaissance satellites, both imagery and electronic. Along with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), with its primary mission of collecting, analysing, and distributing geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) in support of national security requirements, US hi-tech satellite intelligence has reached a new level, providing comprehensive GEOINT for US military and intelligence efforts, as well as assistance during natural and man-made disasters, and even security planning for major events such as the Olympic Games. It was the NGA that was credited by the White House and Pentagon with providing critical intelligence for Operation Neptune’s Spear in 2011, when United States SEALS raided a secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama Bin Laden.

However, just as satellites seemed poised to take over the role of image collectors entirely, there was a significant development in the field of reconnaissance aircraft. In the last twenty years new Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been developed for imagery and signals intelligence. These drones are significant because they give the decision maker and the battlefield commander an ‘eye in the sky’ without, crucially, risking an expensive and vulnerable pilot. Moreover, modern UAVs are relatively cheap, they are flexible, they can stay aloft for hours and they provide a remarkable cost-effective force multiplier for commanders at all levels.

For example, at the time of writing (2015) the USAF’s RQ-4A Global Hawk is a high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aerial reconnaissance system which can give field commanders high resolution, near real-time imagery of large geographic areas from thousands of miles away. It can carry out reconnaissance missions in support of all types of operations. With its 14,000 nautical-mile range and forty-two-hour endurance, combined with satellite and line-of-sight communication links to ground forces, the Global Hawk can operate anywhere in the world. High-resolution sensors, including visible and infrared electro-optical systems and synthetic aperture radar, will conduct surveillance over an area of 40,000 square nautical miles to an altitude of 65,000 feet in twenty-four hours.

Global Hawk is high-tech, big and expensive; but it is still a great deal cheaper and more flexible than rocket-launched satellites. Its smaller cousins are much cheaper still, and these smaller UAVs have the added advantage of being very hard to detect, and even more difficult to shoot down. Some are even expendable, designed to be abandoned once the mission is completed; others are small enough to be shaped like birds. But all have the capability of relaying intelligence images in real time to a commander at any level from a reconnaissance patrol to defence ministers.

Even Britain’s cash strapped austerity MoD has confirmed that the most cost-effective way ahead for aerial reconnaissance is the UAV, announcing at the end of 2014 that Britain was adding extra Reaper remotely-piloted aircraft to its forces deployed to fight Islamic State militants.

In the twenty-first century, IMINT has come to dominate our lives and the battlefield, from space and from drones, whether we like it or not. Unless it is undercover, tucked away in a hangar, or out of sight, nowadays nothing is secret from the eye in the sky that is aerial reconnaissance.


We name the ‘secret part’ everything relating to espionage. Nothing is more important in an army than the organization of this service.

General Paul Thiébault, 1813

From the battlefield to the bedroom, almost every facet of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life and career has been trawled over by battalions of historians. However, in matters of secret service Napoleon’s activities, although often alluded to, have rarely been exposed. While he is remembered as the greatest general of his age, perhaps he should also be proclaimed its spymaster supreme. For like the kings of ancient Persia, Napoleon the autocrat was served by a myriad of agents, informers, plotters and spies at every level, home and abroad.

Napoleon first demonstrated his understanding of military espionage during the Italian campaigns of 1796–97. Before his arrival, Italy was already a hotbed of intrigue, revolution and secret societies. Since 1789 French diplomats posted to Italy had encouraged the formation of revolutionary clubs along Masonic lines. Their most active disciples were from the liberal professions – doctors, lawyers, merchants, ‘enlightened’ nobles, soldiers and priests with leanings towards Jansenism. These clubs appeared most along the border with France, in the country of Piedmont, then ruled by the King of Sardinia, Victor Amadeus (ruled 1773–97). Calling themselves ‘Patriots’, the Piedmontese revolutionaries wanted the French to help them establish a sister republic. Taking advantage of these sentiments, the French chargé d’affaires at Genoa, Tilly, established contact with three Patriot clubs in Turin. Although these formed the hub of revolutionary activity in Piedmont, secret meetings were also held in Alba, Asti, Vercelli and Novara.

At the beginning of 1794, the French advanced into Liguria, the narrow coastal strip between Genoa and Nice. Under Tilly’s direction, the Turin Patriots conspired to raise Piedmont in revolt. Unfortunately, on 24 May the chairman of one Turin club, Dr Barolo, betrayed the conspiracy and denounced his fellow Patriots. A crackdown ensued, which saw the arrest of around 40 Patriots, some of whom were sentenced to death. The survivors fled and in the most part joined an already large number of Italians gathering around Nice or in the city of Oneille.

There they found fellow political exiles including Filippo Buonarroti (1761–1837), a sort of unofficial ambassador of Italian revolutionaries to France. Buonarroti’s long-term objective was to create a ‘Republic of Turin’. Key to his plans was the creation of a provisional government, thus avoiding the need for French military occupation. Despite the failure of the 1794 uprising, Buonarroti wanted to stage another coinciding with a French invasion – a plan supported by French general Pierre Augereau (1757–1816).

From the French point of view, this influx of active, politically astute Italians gave them a ready pool of agents. This was realized by General Scherer, who by the beginning of 1795 had built an impressive intelligence service in preparation for the invasion. His ‘secret correspondence’ was overseen by a committed Piedmontese revolutionary, Adjudant-Général Rusca. Operating from an advanced position at Savona, Rusca was seconded by a number of skilful men, including the exiled Turin lawyer Angelo Pico, a member of the treacherous Dr Barolo’s Turin club who had managed to escape after arrest. Between them, Rusca and Pico assembled a network of agents in southern Piedmont. Both were assisted by another of Dr Barolo’s former club mates, Felice Antonio Campana, who acted as their linkman in Nice, fulfilling the functions of secretary. Scherer also had an agent in Genoa named Régis running a separate network up through the Bochetta Pass into the region between Alessandria and Tortona. In addition to the army general staff’s headquarters intelligence service, Scherer had each of his major-generals form their own intelligence networks covering their immediate fronts. When Napoleon took over command of Scherer’s army on 27 March 1796 he inherited this spy network ready built and very active.

As Bonaparte was young and relatively inexperienced, the French government thought he might benefit from two experienced ‘chaperones’. The first of these was a political representative, Antoine-Christophe Salicetti (1757–1809), a lawyer-turned-politician and fellow Corsican. The other was an experienced staff officer, General Alexandre Berthier (1753–1815), who had been drawn from the Army of the Alps. Prior to 1796, Berthier had worked on developing a system for running an efficient army staff. When it came to intelligence gathering – or more specifically, what was called the ‘secret part’ – Berthier suggested keeping a register dedicated to all secret matters. This register would normally be maintained by an adjudant-général, a staff officer equivalent in rank to a colonel. Unfortunately Berthier did not stipulate what this register should contain and none of his registers appear to have survived – presumably each was destroyed at the termination of a campaign.

This secret register contained the instructions given to spies, their reports, information obtained by questioning local inhabitants, the reports of officers sent on reconnaissance and the topographic reports provided by engineer officers or other specialists. In addition, it contained information gleaned from the interrogation of travellers, prisoners of war, enemy deserters and from reading intercepted mail. Finally it would contain the secret correspondence with diplomatic agents working in foreign cities who organized their own spy networks. It was, in short, a central record of all intelligence.

More is known on the affairs of the ‘secret part’ from the works of General Paul Thiébault (1769–1846), who published a service manual for general and divisional staffs in 1813. This was an expansion of his Manual des Adjudans généraux (1800) in which he discussed the functions of the ‘secret part’ at great length. What makes his work so important is that we know it came from first-hand experience: Thiébault had dealt with the ‘secret part’ while serving on the staff of General Massena in 1796. According to Thiébault, one officer on the general staff was responsible for the register. He would maintain an ‘active correspondence’ with the chiefs of staff at divisional level, who were responsible for local intelligence gathering and espionage – especially in the case of the advance-guard divisions spearheading the army. Each morning the head of ‘the secret part’ would receive reports from the divisional chiefs of staff and then make a report to the chief of the general staff who would, in turn, present an intelligence summary to the commander-in-chief.

Explaining the need for spies, Thiébault wrote: ‘To achieve the goal, which is always to mislead the enemy on what he wants to know and to learn what he has an interest in hiding, one can only use spies.’5 Writing on the nature of spies and their employment, Thiébault suggested using the largest number of spies possible, ensuring that they were given the clearest, most concise and complete instructions and that a record was made of all their declarations.

On the different types of spy, Thiébault identified five classes of them. The first class were those with a complaint about the opposing government. These spies were usually educated and in a position to make accurate judgments. Thiébault stressed nothing should be neglected to discover them, and to give them all the guarantees they required.

In contrast, the second class included those who became spies out of a sense of duty to better serve their country. In spite of the obvious risks they faced, these spies would find some pretext for crossing over to the enemy, usually employing a means of disguise. Thiébault maintained these spies should be well rewarded, but more with honours than money.

The third class, which Thiébault described as ‘always the most numerous’, could contain people of any nationality or sex. Potential agents could be found from among:

monks and priests; conniving, gallant, or even impassioned women; people who have some favour to obtain from the government; people who made bad deals, or who, corrupt in their opinion, do not have any other honest means to exist in the world; officers of the enemy army, who having debts, or who enjoy gambling or ostentation, do not have the means of supporting their lifestyle, to fulfil their engagements, or to satisfy their tastes: … the majority of these people without principles, that is to say, without honour, will sacrifice their country to their debauchery, just as they sacrificed themselves: Their greed will triumph over all; they will always go to the highest bidder and one will usually need only gold to learn from them everything that is in their capacity to discover.

As an afterthought, Thiébault recommended using women and priests in Catholic countries to gain useful information. He reasoned these two groups had ways of gaining information ‘like no others’ and that in general, people would not be wary of confiding in them.

The fourth class of spy were those individuals who were professional spies and who, to double their pay would, Thiébault bemoaned, ‘serve both armies and tell everything they have learned from one [side] to the other’. Such men ought to inspire much caution and Thiébault warned his men ‘to prevent spies of this species unnecessarily remaining with the General Staff, circulating round the army, or building up relations, meeting each other or conferring’ and also to ‘observe all those with whom they communicate’. They should always be questioned separately and in secrecy where they might be engaged in an elaborate game of bluff, the aim of which was to deceive the enemy commander. When discussing matters of importance, the interrogator was warned to appear distracted, as if disinterested. Instead he was to dwell on ‘futile things’, trying to put false ideas into the spy’s mind. Hopefully the spy would be duped and report his false observations back to the enemy commander. Thiébault thought these spies should only be used at the most vital moments, but warned that the enemy had probably filled the spy with false information of his own. ‘In this respect,’ concluded Thiébault, ‘success goes to the most skilful.’

The fifth and last species of spy were those who spied out of fear. These were easily recruited, but because they were mostly taken from the poorly educated classes, they would be limited to shedding light only on ‘material things’. It was important to remember that these spies would never report anything other than what they believed would guarantee their safety – i.e. what the interrogator wanted to hear. They included peasants whose loyalty could be guaranteed by arresting their families or seizing their property, and who were sent into enemy territory under the pretext of selling their produce. Merchants or foreigners who, while going about their business had passed though enemy-occupied territory, were also to be quizzed. Accurate intelligence could be obtained by arresting them, confiscating their goods and by retaining them until their declarations could be checked. Also worth attention were ‘the principal inhabitants of occupied enemy towns and villages’. These were to be threatened and forced to reveal everything they had seen or heard. Enemy deserters were also to be questioned with a great deal of attention, but prisoners of war were considered less reliable. However, even these could still be used to confirm facts and information already received from other sources.

Thiébault offered advice on substantiating intelligence reports. He rarely relied on the opinion of a single spy, feeling it necessary to check the depositions of one spy against the other and to only count on the pieces of information reported by coincidence between spies who did not know one another. If a single spy had to be relied upon, one should warn him that he would be detained until his report was checked and that his life depended on its veracity.

There is a strong stress put on the questions spies should be answering. Thiébault lists 11 topics, which, if properly ascertained, would give intelligence on the location, strength, condition, morale and probable intentions of the enemy army. The 11 most important subjects for spies to report on were:

  1. The headquarters of the enemy commander-in-chief and divisional generals.
  2. The location, names and characters of the enemy generals.
  3. The location and strength of the artillery parks and cavalry reserve.
  4. The names and strength of each corps, its nationality and the number of guns.
  5. If the enemy is concentrating or dividing its troops.
  6. The measures taken for provisions, transportation and for hospitals.
  7. How their troops are nourished, clothed, paid; their morale; how many are sick; the prevalent diseases; the mortality rate, etc.
  8. If the enemy moves his troops by day or night; by masses, corps or in detachments.
  9. The reinforcements the enemy expects.
  10. If military reviews are inspections or field manoeuvres.
  11. Are fortifications are being built and how many workmen are involved?

Finally from Thiébault are what might be considered some general maxims on the employment of spies. In treating with spies a central theme had been their payment, something Thiébault did not neglect:

As for the manner of acting with the spies, it must always be the same. One will undoubtedly proportion the reward to the service, but one must always give to them what has been promised to them and above all one will not treat them less well than the enemy does. Thus one will be always liberal and on occasions one might be prodigal.

Like Sun Tzû, Thiébault suggested the greatest wisdom be employed when using spies to the maximum advantage, profiting from everyday human failings to gain an advantage in war.

Such are the means that the nature of things and events can offer. The manner of discovering them and of employing them with the most utility cannot be taught; art develops talent, guides it, but it does not create it… One conceives … how much natural tact and knowledge of men and things are necessary in the conduct of everything relating to this service, to employ the ambitious, to intimidate or interest apprehensive or covetous people and finally, to benefit from every weaknesses one can discover.

Returning to Italy in the spring of 1796, the spy Angelo Pico was hard at work, expertly using disguises and the cover of gypsy caravans to move about Piedmont unnoticed. When Napoleon attacked, Pico’s network helped guide the French columns forward and reported on Austrian troop build-ups. At the same time – just as Buonarroti had planned – rebellion broke out in Piedmont. Following the French forces, two Patriots – Ranza and the exiled Turin clubbist Bonafous – proclaimed a revolutionary municipality in the city of Alba. Together they put out a call for Piedmontese and Lombard soldiers to desert their regiments and form revolutionary legions. Further uprisings occurred in Cuneo and Verceilli, but just as the hopes of Piedmontese radicals were on the verge of being realized, their hopes were dashed in what must have seemed to them the most unexpected manner.

What the Italian patriots had failed to grasp was that France was in Italy not to liberate Italians but to attack the Austrian army and take pressure off the French armies along the Rhine. The whole operation was intended as a diversion, not a crusade, and neither Paris nor Bonaparte wanted the chaos of another revolution on their hands.

Just 18 days into the war, on 28 April 1796 Bonaparte signed an armistice with King Victor Amadeus at Cherasco. In return for peace, Napoleon received three fortresses, Cuneo, Tortona and Alessandria, the guarantee of safe passage for his soldiers through Piedmont and the passage of the River Po at Valenza. For his part Victor Amadeus was allowed to keep his throne – there would be no ‘Republic of Turin’. After the armistice came the backlash: the city of Alba was retaken by royal troops who went on to put down all signs of insurrection. Bonaparte pushed on and took Milan.

After the seizure of Milan on 16 May 1796, Bonaparte made some positive steps to streamline his secret intelligence service, which was unchanged since Scherer’s time. Napoleon placed cavalry officer Jean Landrieux in charge of the ‘secret part’, which became known officially as the bureau secret. Operating under the title ‘commander of the cavalry depots’, Landrieux’s real mission was clearly defined from the outset. In Milan he was given the equivalent of 10,000 francs to found a bureau of secret affairs and set up the means to place agents not only in the enemy army but within the French army too. Furthermore he was to infiltrate Naples, Rome, Florence, Turin, Venice, Vienna and even the French government in Paris. The bureau was not to have any political agenda or affiliations, either with royalists or republican factions, and Landrieux was to report to Bonaparte directly, although Berthier appears to have been privy to the information. The extent of the operation is clear from Landrieux’s description:

All the Kings, all the conquerors, all the generals, since the beginning of the world, have used more or less the means that Bonaparte ordered me to employ. I had put myself without scruple to the job and this work, which often gave several reports per day with which the commander-in-chief occupied himself a great deal and which, without the knowledge of almost all his headquarters, had become immense.

For practical reasons Landrieux divided the secret bureau’s work into two departments. One would deal with general military affairs while the other was for purely political matters, including the surveillance of the occupied territories and the repression of popular movements. This ‘political wing’ was presided over by Salicetti who was greatly assisted by an agent named Galdi who procured him informants and spies from all walks of life, including prostitutes. Landrieux described it as a council of ‘high police’ and gave it the sinister appellation l’assemblée nocturne. Sessions were held late at night outside the Milan opera house because, Landrieux tells us, the generals were freed up from their duties at this late hour.

They were as active spying on the intentions of the government in Paris as anywhere else. Through its informants, Bonaparte was able to find out which officers and politicians posted to Italy were government spies. Once informed that a government stooge was en route, Bonaparte would arrange for him to be reassigned to a different army or better still, ‘buy’ him and his services, as happened with General Clarke. Using Berthier as a mouthpiece, Bonaparte was free to more or less dictate the secret reports Clarke sent to Paris, portraying him in a positive light.

When it came to military intelligence, however, like most soldiers Landrieux was against the idea of involving civilian police:

Can an army do without a secret bureau? Which good General did not have one? Is it necessary to surround oneself with civilian policemen? They would understand almost nothing… A soldier must be in charge of this part, and he must, as much as possible, employ only soldiers.

Although most of the secret bureau’s exploits are now forgotten, Landrieux gives enough examples for us to understand its work. For example, Landrieux explained how he taught officers seconded to him to deliberately allow themselves to be captured. Once behind the enemy lines, the captured officer would be on the look out for useful information. At the time, captured officers were usually exchanged quickly between warring armies, but Landrieux would only make exchanges when a captured subordinate mentioned a pre-arranged codeword in his correspondence. When the officer told Landrieux ‘not to forget the cartel’ the secret service chief knew that the captured officer had something important to communicate. Landrieux would then arrange for him to be swapped with a captured Austrian officer.

Landrieux also explained an operation against Austrian agents. To make good their army’s military loses, Austrian spies kept boats on the lakes north of Milan, which were used to transport escaped prisoners of war to Valteline. From there the prisoners were given money and escorted through the Grisons country back to the Tyrol where they could rejoin their regiments. The system was so effective that Landrieux estimated that barely a quarter of the prisoners announced in the bulletins actually arrived in France – although he admitted part of the problem was that the bulletins lied about the number of prisoners in the first place.

Landrieux sent a cavalry officer named Etrée to Bergamo to find proof against an Austrian agent named Andréo who was working on the escape route. From the papers discovered on his person, it was established that Andréo was a spy and he was shot on his arrival in Milan. Not realizing Andréo had been executed, a number of people came to speak on his behalf the following day. Landrieux made a careful note of their names, suspecting that many of them might also be Austrian spies. He was very suspicious of a certain Foscarini, a Venetian official sent on a mission to Milan in order to secure Venice’s neutrality in the war between France and Austria. In truth Foscarini was a spy, successfully reporting on French agents sent into Venetian territory.

Important as Landrieux was, French historian Jean Savant perhaps overstated things when he described Landrieux as ‘the man who knew everything’. He probably knew about Bonaparte’s contacts with French diplomats, including Tilly in Genoa, Lallement in Venice and Théobald Bacher, a diplomat stationed in Switzerland since 1792 with a vast network of spies stretching from northern Italy up through the German States. However, it is unclear how much Landrieux knew about Napoleon’s most secret operations.

Using special agents who were paid directly by Berthier, Napoleon secretly negotiated with some of his Austrian opponents, using agents to deliver huge bribes to ‘throw’ the fate of battles or to ensure some troops were ‘delayed’ in arriving. Savant describes two such bribes that went to Austrian generals: 100,000 francs to Argenteau and 50,000 to Lauer. Apart from these ‘grand traitors’, Bonaparte is said to have paid even more to the Venetian official Giovanelli to set up what became the Verona uprising of 1797.

On 6 March 1797, while Landrieux and General Charles Kilmaine (1751–99) were at dinner in Milan, Berthier paid them an unexpected visit. He revealed that as part of their ongoing secret discussions, Austrian agents had put forward a proposal to help end the war. If the French were ‘masters to dispose of the Venetian States’ the Austrians – who had long coveted Venice – might be able to come to an arrangement over Lombardy, Mantua and at the same time Belgium.

Although the French already had small garrisons in the major mainland cities, the idea of selling out the world’s oldest republic to the Austrians was unpalatable to say the least. Therefore Bonaparte needed an excuse to depose of the Venetian government, after which he could do with the territory as he liked. Needless to say, Landrieux’s bureau was put to work on the matter straight away. In fact, Landrieux had to a degree anticipated this move and had already sent agents to Bergamo, Brescia, Salo, Verona, Vincence and Padua to seek out opponents of the Venetian government.

As with Piedmont, the French would utilize Italian revolutionaries to raise rebellion in each of Venice’s 14 mainland provinces. Landrieux began at Bergamo, which had long experienced revolutionary tensions. The Venetian governor there, Count Ottolini, had learned that revolutionaries were planning an uprising in his city by Milan-based Venetian spies such as Foscarni. This had been confirmed on the night of 12 January 1797, when Bergamo’s Riccardi theatre was burned down – apparently by revolutionary freemasons. Subsequent to this an increasingly jittery Ottolini had brought in 450 extra guards and doubled their patrols.

Landrieux began his search for an agent provocateur who was audacious or mad enough to enter the town and begin inciting rebellion. Although Landrieux had never been short of spies, none volunteered for this particular mission. They told him: ‘A spy is not accustomed to serving except with his eyes and ears.’ The former French commander at Bergamo, Adjudant-Général Couthard, suggested a man to Landrieux. Lhermite was by all accounts a brigand who fled France after being condemned to the prison galleys for theft. It was his very criminality that made Lhermite so perfect for the job Landrieux had in mind. For the past several years Lhermite had eked out a living by trafficking fake gems and knew pretty much every crook and thug in Bergamo. Landrieux accepted the recommendation, but had a poor opinion of the man, recalling: ‘my field observers or mouchards [Fr. slang for ‘informants’] … could be considered men of rare probity when compared to Lhermite. What a labyrinth is the human head!’

Lhermite set to work and on 11 March, 700 people signed a petition calling for the removal of Ottolini. Another of Landrieux’s agents, Marchesi, described the mob as being armed to the teeth to defend themselves because Ottolini had sent out couriers to raise the provincial militia. During the night the Venetian standard was lowered from the castle and next morning troops from the French garrison began to secure strategic points around the city. Realizing that the game was up, Ottolini fled to Venice.

Landrieux soon regretted hiring Lhermite altogether. After the coup the agent was instrumental in setting up the municipal government, causing acute embarrassment by having it offer Landrieux and Kilmaine 5,000,000 francs to share in gratitude. This offer directly implicated Landrieux and the French as being behind the affair. ‘Have you seen anything more imbecilic than that spy of Couthard’s?’ Landrieux wrote to Kilmaine, ‘… he has a reputation as a swindler … The people of Bergamo must have the greatest confidence in me and we cannot be associated with a scamp.’ Matters became worse when it was revealed that Lhermite had somehow found time to pull off a major jewel heist while masterminding the coup: he was now a wanted man by the Bergamese authorities. Lhermite vanished, then turned up in Milan, lodged with an unwitting supply officer. On his arrival he had extorted 30,000 francs from the committee of police for his espionage services. When an arrest warrant was issued he took refuge in Spain.

Things went more smoothly when Landrieux turned his attentions to raising Brescia. Again, a great deal of preparation had gone into the operation. Writing to Bonaparte on 21 January 1797, Landrieux revealed that he had sent agent Venturi to Brescia some time after the battle of Castiglione (5 August 1796). From Venturi, Landrieux learned that Venetian spies were being sent to Milan to monitor those Patriots corresponding with citizens of Brescia. More ominous still was the warning that four Frenchmen had been assassinated. In retaliation Landrieux sent more ‘trusted people’, but on 23 January he regrettably informed Bonaparte that one of his best spies, Lavocato, had been stabbed to death the day before. With its streets and cafés filled with hostile spies, Bresica was no longer safe. The people of Brescia, who were generally well disposed towards the French, were scared of going out into the street lest they were suspected of spying for the French and sent to the Inquisition at Venice. In response Bonaparte ordered Landrieux to expel all Venetian citizens from Milan – Foscarini included.

Brescia rose up on 17 March. Landrieux’s chief agent in Brescia was one of the Lecchi brothers – five of whom were in French service, while his sister was mistress to French general Joachim Murat (1767–1815). Another of his agents operating in Brescia, Nicoloni, also pulled off a stunning coup, serving up Crema to the French. Posing as a messenger from Venice, Nicoloni conned a hapless sentry into lowering the city drawbridge one night. With the gates opened, 500 French grenadiers charged in and secured the city while the garrison slept on blissfully unaware.

While Landrieux had been working on Bergamo and Brescia, the spy Pico had been ordered to raise a revolt in Verona ‘at any cost’. Landrieux appears to have known what Pico was up to as he mentioned corresponding with him around this time. In what was by then a well-developed routine, Pico – now a captain on Berthier’s general staff – planned to use Italian Jacobins to kick off a revolt and throw out the Venetian governors. Unfortunately the plot was discovered and Pico, along with almost all his Jacobin accomplices, found himself thrown into prison.

With time at a premium Bonaparte resorted to bribery, paying off an unsavoury Venetian official named Giovanelli to stage an uprising against the French garrison in Verona. The exact arrangement is unknown, but the payoff was huge – something in the region of the tens of millions of dollars in today’s prices. In making the deal it is improbable that Bonaparte realized just how much trouble he would get for his money. On Easter Monday, 17 April 1797, the people of Verona attacked the French. Instead of the loud riot Bonaparte expected, there was a massacre. Although it was later estimated that 400 had been killed, the first hurried estimates reported up to 3,000 French casualties, including many sick and wounded murdered in their hospital beds. It was exactly what Napoleon needed and within a month, on 12 May, Venice was in his hands.

Landrieux first heard of the uprising from one of his spies, a certain Countess Pellegrini. She put the blame squarely on Landrieux, whom she had warned to expect trouble eight days before the massacre. However, Landrieux had indeed passed on the warning to the garrison commander, General Balland, and could not understand why he had not taken preventative steps. He began to smell a rat and the scent led to Giovanelli.

Landrieux wrote to Kilmaine:

Giovanelli betrayed Venice. The Senate is not composed of imbeciles, and they well know that two thousand Frenchmen are not all of the French, and that those remaining will hunt them down without mercy. The Senate did not order this. This crime has been committed only to render the name of Venice odious to the rest of the universe… But who could have employed Giovanelli to have done it? It is neither you nor me. Who is it then?

The unpalatable truth began to surface when Landrieux learned that General Balland had been accused of treachery by his colleague General Lahoz – an accusation which led to the two men drawing swords on one another. In his defence, Balland said he had seen a letter from Bonaparte, signed by Berthier, in Giovanelli’s hands. Lahoz refused to believe that Bonaparte or Berthier would have any dealings with Giovanelli, a known ‘brigand,’ a ‘maniac’ and sworn enemy of the French. Landrieux believed Balland’s version of events and suspected Giovanelli was an agent of Bonaparte.

It was a serious charge – did Bonaparte plan the massacre of his own troops or not? Landrieux suspected not because Giovanelli fled once the rioters in Verona eventually capitulated to the French army. He concluded that Bonaparte had wanted a disturbance that would provoke Balland’s garrison, not one that would lead to the murder of French troops. However, strangely enough, once Bonaparte overthrew the Venetian Senate and imposed his own puppet government, Giovanelli was made part of it. Later, under the empire, Giovanelli became one of the top dignitaries in the Kingdom of Italy. Perhaps Bonaparte knew more than he let on? The truth may never be known, but from then on Landrieux’s relationship with Bonaparte soured considerably. The head of the secret bureau began to suspect that Bonaparte harboured plans of becoming sovereign of Italy.

Not long after Verona, in May 1797 there was a popular uprising in Genoa. A delegation of protestors came to Milan to ask Bonaparte for assistance against the aristocratic government there. The French government was against regime change in Genoa and so Napoleon brusquely refused them, giving them 24 hours to get out of Lombard territory – or else. Instead the delegation went to Landrieux who agreed to help them. He nearly came unstuck when allied troops from the Lombard Legion entered Genoa on the side of the protestors. If the Genoese government survived and complained to Paris, then Landrieux would be in a very sticky position. He feared having gone behind Napoleon’s back and saw no other option but to flee and take refuge in Austria. He went as far as putting his wife and four-month-old baby into Kilmaine’s care, then plundered the secret expenditure chest to fund his retirement. Fortunately for Landrieux, the rebellion succeeded and, let off the hook, he was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

The strain of secret operations had finally begun to tell on Landrieux and he asked for a period of leave, which Napoleon eventually granted. He was replaced by Adjudant-Général Boyer (1772–1851) who took over the secret service chest. Soon after leaving, a piece appeared in a Milan journal claiming to be written by Landrieux. The piece was lengthy and outlined French secret operations in relation to Venice. In his memoirs Landrieux denied writing the piece, but did not deny its veracity. The only other people who knew about these things were Berthier and Bonaparte. Had they leaked the information to frame him? Landrieux never held an official position again.


Anne Jean Marie René Savary

One of the little-known stories of the Napoleonic Wars is of a spy who went by the name of Francesco Toli. Like Angelo Pico, Toli appears to have been one of the Turin ‘Patriots’ – a young barrister who idealistically embraced their cause but was forced to flee during the crackdowns. Toli claimed to have procured himself an appointment with the French army’s staff where, because he was a native-speaking Italian, he was employed with spies, probably translating reports before going on missions himself.30 With his name first appearing around the time of the battle of Bassano (8 September 1796), Toli is credited with providing information that allowed Napoleon to get reserves to the battle of Rivoli (14 January 1797), affording him a complete victory.

After securing a treaty with Austria in 1797, Napoleon went to Egypt in 1798. Before his return in 1799, an Austro-Russian army invaded Italy and pushed the French back to a small enclave around Genoa. During this reversal of fortunes, Toli switched sides. He threw himself at the mercy of the Austrian chief of staff, General Zach, who was at that time about to lay siege to the French garrison at the fortress of Cuneo. He agreed to take false orders into Cuneo, instructing the garrison commander to seek the best terms possible as there was no chance of relief. In fact the relief column was just a matter of days away – its guns could be heard in the distance as the Cuneo garrison marched off into captivity.

When the Austrians learned that the recently returned Napoleon was going to attack Italy in the spring of 1800, Toli was employed by them in scouting out the strength and location of the French Army of the Reserve. Although Zach had guessed Napoleon would attack in May when the snow on the mountain passes cleared, he did not know the exact route Napoleon intended to follow, there being a number of major passes through which he could debouch.

When it became increasingly likely that the French would use the Great St Bernard Pass, Toli was sent to explore the area. Unknown to him, on 14 May the French advance guard had already begun its advance up to the mountain pass. Toli – disguised as a priest heading for a monastery on the summit – was spotted and fired on by a French patrol. Finding the way ahead blocked, Toli took another route and, in what must have been an epic ordeal, took 60 hours to cross over the icebound peaks. Exhausted and injured, he climbed down the rocks towards the Etremont valley, before taking the path to Bagnes. At Mauvoisin he encountered a picket of 30 soldiers guarding the bridge, but was able to crawl past them unnoticed at daybreak. When in sight of the town of Osières, his luck ran out when a French cavalry patrol intercepted him. Toli pleaded to be taken before Napoleon.

The First Consul was sitting down to dinner when Toli was brought before him. After examining the spy, he said to him in Italian: ‘François Toli, you served me at Mantua and Rivoli. You then took the pay of Wurmser as well as mine. What did you come to find in Switzerland?’ ‘General, Moreau did not think to employ me and Massena is closed in [Genoa]. I sold myself to Vukassovich,’ replied the spy, before continuing: ‘One must live well.’ ‘How much does the Austrian General pay you?’ quizzed Bonaparte, to which Toli only lowered his head. ‘Speak and I will reward you. But if you stay mute, the French will shoot you in ten minutes.’ Toli remained silent, prompting Bonaparte to call to one of his aides: ‘Here is a spy. Ready the firing squad.’ At this the Italian’s resistance broke: ‘Vukassovich was committed to Milan three weeks ago and paid one hundred Florins in advance for information on the strength of the republican battalions massing in Switzerland.’

Napoleon looked down at a map. ‘How did you get here? The passes are guarded.’ ‘You well know, General, that I know my craft,’ Toli replied. He then explained his ordeal, upon which the First Consul congratulated him on his courage. ‘Do you want one thousand Francs a month to serve me? Serve me as faithfully as you did in 1796?’ Toli nodded. ‘Yes, you accept,’ exclaimed Napoleon triumphantly. ‘Then I will let you know the news.’ The First Consul explained the situation of the army and listened to Toli’s reports. He then asked Toli to find out the latest news from Melas’ headquarters and to meet him in Milan.

On 4 June, Bonaparte received Toli in the Lombard capital at 11 o’clock. According to Napoleon’s secretary, Bourienne, Toli hinted he was looking for a way out of the spy game:

‘General, when the war recommenced, I entered the service of Austria because you were far from Europe: I attach myself to the fortunate; I have always found my account in so doing: but I am tired of my profession; I wish to leave this business, make up my little fortune and live in tranquillity. Sent into your lines by General Melas, I have it in my power to render you important service. But I must report to my employer. You are sufficiently strong to communicate to me some real information, which I may impart to him.’

Clearly there was risk that Toli was playing a double game for Melas. Heeding the advice of Frederick the Great and others, to cement his loyalty Bonaparte offered Toli the huge sum of 1,000 louis, which he would pay only after Toli had done ‘good service’. Bourienne recorded the subsequent transaction of information:

I then wrote, from the mouth of the spy, the names of the Austrian corps, their force, their position, the names of their Generals, etc. The First Consul marked with pins, upon a map, all the disclosures made, relative to localities. The spy afterwards added Alessandria was not yet provisioned, and Melas was far from expecting a siege; that there were many wounded in the place and medicines wanting. Berthier, in return, received the authority to give him a note, pretty nearly correct on our position.

Leaving Milan, Toli reported back to Zach, who realized that Napoleon was attempting to cut the Austrians off from their lines of communication with Vienna. In response he diverted two divisions from the siege of Genoa and sent them to help defend Piacenza. However, they were delayed in leaving and ran into a strong French force at the battle of Montebello on 10 June. After this the Austrians were forced back on Alessandria. Zach decided his last hope was to trick Napoleon by using Toli to deliver false news to the French headquarters indicating the Austrians were awaiting the arrival of more troops from Genoa before attempting a break out to the north across the River Po. Toli delivered this information to Napoleon on 13 June.

The French commander compared the information with other intelligence and was not convinced. Napoleon had sent cavalry patrols north of the Austrian position and they had not reported any Austrian movement – if the Austrians were about to cross the Po they would have their cavalry patrols up there scouting the terrain. Perhaps Napoleon suspected that the Austrians had fed Toli false information? However, if the spy was to be believed, there would be Austrian troops to the south in the direction of Novi by the end of the day. He ordered General Desaix to take an infantry division south to intercept them; meanwhile the rest of the French army would probe forwards into the centre of the plain between Alessandria and Tortona.

On 14 June, the Austrians attacked the French forward positions at Marengo. Napoleon was taken off guard by the ferocity of the Austrian attack and spent the day slowly retiring on his reserves. Fortunately for the French, Desaix’s division had been recalled from its false errand in time. In the evening Desaix launched a powerful counter-attack against the heavily depleted Austrian centre. By nightfall the French had reoccupied all the lost ground. Next day the Austrians agreed to an armistice, which confirmed Napoleon’s victory and opened the way for him to be crowned emperor four years later.

Before disappearing into obscurity with bulging saddlebags, Toli paid one last visit to the French headquarters. Bourienne provides the epitaph to the story:

The 1000 Louis were paid after the battle of Marengo, for the information had proved exact and important. The spy afterwards informed me that Melas, enchanted with his manner of serving the Austrians, had also handsomely rewarded him. ‘I am now,’ he added, ‘able to bid adieu to my villainous trade.’ This little event the First Consul regarding among the favours of his good fortune.

After Marengo, both as First Consul of the Republic, then after December 1804 as Emperor of France, Napoleon needed to broaden his intelligence services considerably. In effect he used the same system he set up with Landrieux. Although on a much larger scale, the roll of the ‘secret part’ was much the same as before and entrusted to Savary, later the Duke of Rovigo. Matters of ‘high police’ on the other hand were left in the hands of the infamous Joseph Fouché, Duke of Otranto.

General Anne Jean Marie René Savary (1774–1833) was born into a military family. During the Revolutionary Wars he was an aide to General Desaix and served on the Rhine, in Egypt and at Marengo. When Desaix was killed at Marengo, Napoleon took Savary into his service and was rewarded by unswerving loyalty. As one of Napoleon’s chief ‘fixers’ a black cloud lingers over Savary’s reputation. He played a leading role in several unsavoury affairs, including the illegal capture and execution of the Bourbon Duc d’Enghien in 1804 and the underhand acquisition of the Spanish throne at the conference of Bayonne in 1808. However, he was principally employed as head of intelligence in Napoleon’s Grand Headquarters and it was in that capacity that he ran one of the best-known spies in history – Karl Ludwig Schulmeister (1770–1853), known more simply as ‘Monsieur Charles’ by the French.

The son of a pastor, Schulmeister spent most of the Revolutionary War supplementing his income as an ironmonger by smuggling. Living on the border of France and Germany, ample opportunities came his way to ferry contraband across the Rhine. Schulmeister proved an intelligent and ruthless gang leader, killing a customs officer who came to arrest him. Of course, his illegal activities on the German side of the river made him the perfect spy for French commanders. In 1794 he first teamed up with Savary, who was then serving in General Desaix’s advance guard division. In 1798 business was so good that he bought a house in Strasbourg, running a grocery store and tobacconist’s as a front for his operations. He also worked as an informer for Fouché at this time, monitoring French émigrés moving in and out of Switzerland.

In 1805 Napoleon began planning to campaign in Germany for the first time. As his previous European campaigns had been limited to Italy, he needed to maximize his knowledge of the terrain and the enemy army ranged against him. In his capacity as head of intelligence, Savary went to Strasbourg and held what amounted to an open day for all the spies in French pay. Legend has it that Schulmeister turned up and so dazzled Savary that he was taken to meet Napoleon in Strasbourg on 1 October 1805. There are several popular stories about what happened next. According to one, Savary presented the spy, saying: ‘Here, Sire, is a man all brains and no heart.’ In another account, Bonaparte asked: ‘What are your references?’ ‘None, I recommend myself alone’ replied the spy confidently. ‘Then, I cannot employ you,’ retorted Napoleon tersely and withdrew behind a folding screen. Unperturbed, Schulmeister disguised himself and went before the Emperor a second time. ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’ quizzed Napoleon. ‘I am Schulmeister.’ A suitably impressed emperor agreed to employ him.

Although perhaps less colourful, the truth behind Schulmeister’s appointment probably had more to do with his role in the arrest of Duc d’Enghien. It is alleged that Savary co-opted Schulmeister into the operation and through him sent d’Enghien a forged letter purportedly from a young woman from Strasbourg he was attached to. This letter told d’Enghien she had been arrested and was being held in a house in Belfort near the frontier. When d’Enghien took the bait and went to rescue the girl, he would have to pass into French territory – and therein lay the trap. As a member of the deposed Bourbon monarchy, the duke would be liable to face the death penalty on his return to native soil. In fact the plan was superfluous, as the duke was simply kidnapped from neutral territory, tried without defence and shot at the Château de Vincennes.

At the beginning of the 1805 campaign, Napoleon was faced with a coalition of Austrian and Russian field armies. While the Russians were still a month’s march away, an Austrian army under General Mack was located in the Bavarian city of Ulm. Wanting to defeat the Austrians before the Russians arrived, Napoleon developed a plan to encircle Mack at Ulm. It was imperative, therefore, that Mack remained where he was and was unaware of the French columns moving across his line of retreat. Achieving this deception would be the task given to Schulmeister.

Posing as a noble of Hungarian descent, Schulmeister travelled to Vienna, claiming Napoleon had expelled him for his pro-Hapsburg views. In September he had in fact been expelled from the Department of the Lower Rhine by the local prefect, but it is unclear if this was related to his smuggling operations, or to provide him with an alibi with the Austrians. In any case, his next move was to ingratiate himself with Mack, which he did by presenting letters purportedly from Berthier’s staff. The French spy gained the total confidence of Captain Wend, the commander of the Austrian army’s intelligence services. Through conversation with Wend, Schulmeister was able to give Napoleon in-depth appraisals of Mack’s intentions. Dishing up lie after lie, Schulmeister deceived Mack entirely. His first concoction was that the French would march eastwards through the Black Forest and then advance along the Rhine towards the Danube. Having fixed Mack’s gaze in the wrong direction, Schulmeister further muddled his vision with false reports on the size of the French army.

When Mack at last decided to advance out of Ulm on 11 October, he unexpectedly ran into French opposition in the guise of General Dupont’s division. Schulmeister quit Ulm and went to Stuttgart, from where he began sending Mack messages of the most urgent nature. He told Mack that Napoleon’s army was in retreat, claiming a revolution had broken out in Paris and that the English had landed an army in northern France – it was all lies. In short, despite all the better advice, Schulmeister convinced Mack that he should return to Ulm and await events. Like Zach in the Marengo campaign before him, Mack trusted the spy, complied and unwittingly allowed the French to complete their encirclement. On 20 October, with his army encircled, Mack capitulated in disgrace. His forces, including 33,000 men, 18 generals and 60 guns, defiled past a jubilant Napoleon. It was one of the greatest triumphs of deception in military history.

The day after the surrender, Schulmeister returned to Savary looking for a new assignment. He told the intelligence chief that he had friends in Vienna, including an inspector of police and one employed on the Austrian war council. He also had planted an agent – a man named Bendel – with Archduke Ferdinand, who had escaped from Ulm and was now being hotly pursued. On 23 October Schulmeister set out from Ulm for the Austrian camp at Muldorf. Once there a friend of his named Lieutenant Rulzki introduced him to a number of Austrian generals and staff officers including Kienmayer, Werneck and Merveldt. Through his discussions with these men Schulmeister was able to advise Napoleon that the Russian commander, General Mikhail Kutusov (1745–1813), would not accept battle before he had concentrated all his corps.

At this point Schulmeister’s luck finally ran out. Until then everyone in Austria had considered Mack the architect of disaster at Ulm, but people now began to suspect that Schulmeister – now prancing round in an Austrian uniform – may have had a hand in it. He was arrested and sent to Vienna, whereupon his famed good fortune returned. The French arrived in the city on 13 November just in the nick of time to save him from almost certain execution. To rub salt into Austrian wounds, Schulmeister was appointed commissioner general of police in the Austrian capital. He remained there until 12 January 1806, when he returned to Strasbourg, his previous expulsion order having been smoothed over by Savary. Having been paid by both Napoleon and Mack, Schulmeister’s earnings had been considerable. He treated himself to a fabulous château with ornamental gardens featuring a giant statue of Napoleon.

In 1806 when Napoleon went to war against Prussia, Savary again employed Schulmeister. In a similar arrangement to Pico and Toli, Schulmeister – now known simply as Monsieur Charles – held the rank of captain and served on Savary’s staff. In addition to the usual intelligence operations, Schulmeister exhibited bravery in the field, capturing the town of Wismar at the head of just 13 troopers. The following year he gained a nasty scar when hit on the forehead by a musket ball at the battle of Friedland (14 June 1807). The former smuggler was then made responsible for the protection of Napoleon and Tsar Alexander at a conference in Erfurt held in 1808.

A recurring theme for spies is their desire for recognition. Like a master criminal having pulled off the crime of the century, simply living peacefully in retirement on ill-gotten gains is never enough. Such people want the world to know of their brilliance, their cunning and audacity. Unfortunately in the case of spies, their ambitions are normally quashed by the ego of the general they serve. Successful generals want their victories to be attributed to their own brilliance, cunning and audacity and have almost always downplayed what was owed to ‘the secret part’. This is because of the reputation that spies have traditionally held in Western culture. They are abhorred – like Judas. Schulmeister was no different in this regard. Although a millionaire several times over, he coveted the cross of the Legion of Honour in recognition for his actions. Napoleon, however, was adamant that money was the only reward for a spy.

After the end of the Napoleonic empire in 1815, Schulmeister and Savary were left unemployed and mistrusted. Loyal to the end, Savary wanted to follow his master into exile on Saint Helena. Refused, he took refuge in England, returning to France three years after Napoleon’s death in 1821. He eventually reconciled himself with the new regime and returned to military service, dying in 1833. Schulmeister was reduced to near poverty after the Austrians flattened his estate, apparently using an entire artillery regiment to destroy his mansion. He set himself up as a tobacconist in Strasbourg where he lived until death came in 1853. Although he had never received the Legion of Honour, he did enjoy one final moment of recognition. In 1850 Prince Louis Napoleon, nephew of the former emperor, paid Schulmeister an impromptu visit while visiting Strasbourg. None of his neighbours had any idea why.


A CIA U-2 pilot identified as Francis Gary Powers poses in his high altitude flight suit with an early U-2B, one of several such aircraft fitted with the ventral antenna fairing atop the fuselage.


To commemorate the shoot-down of Powers’ U-2, this Fakel 13D missile on its SM-63 launcher was placed outside the Sverdlovsk military museum, where the remains of the U-2 are on display.

The first success of the S-75 [SA-2 GUIDELINE SAM] system took place under mysterious circumstances. The Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) had been staging reconnaissance missions over the People’s Republic of China using RF-101 Voodoo aircraft and, in early 1959, the US Air Force transferred three RB-57D high-altitude spyplanes to RoCAF for deep overflights. In 1958 the Soviet Union delivered five SA-75 Dvina batteries, along with a training battery and 62 missiles, to China. Soviet PVO-Strany troops helped man the launch sites, which included three around Beijing and the others around major missile and nuclear weapons test sites. On October 7, 1959, one of the Taiwanese RB-57Ds was struck at an altitude of 65,600ft (20km) by a salvo of three V-750 missiles. It was the first time in history that an aircraft was shot down by a SAM, although at the time the feat was attributed to Chinese fighters due to the secrecy of the Chinese S-75 battalions. The first kill in Soviet airspace was claimed on November 16 1959 when an SA-75 battery near Volgograd was credited with shooting down a US WS-416L reconnaissance balloon, although this incident remains unverified.

Due to growing political controversy over the Soviet strategic missile program, Eisenhower reluctantly agreed to a resumption of U-2 flights in 1960. The U-2 mission on April 10, 1960, flew near the Tyuratam missile range and passed a number of S-75 batteries that had not been alerted in time. A number of senior Soviet commanders were cashiered when Khrushchev learned of the failure. The next U-2 flight on May Day 1960 became the most infamous. Operation Grand Slam was piloted by Francis Gary Powers and flew from Pakistan towards Tyuratam and the Sary-shagan anti-ballistic missile proving ground. The PVO-Strany managed to track the U-2 almost continuously from the Soviet-Afghan border, and more than a dozen fighter aircraft were sent up to intercept it, including one attempt to ram it using a new Su-9 interceptor. The CIA had a very incomplete picture of the density of air defenses in the Urals, and the Sverdlovsk area had a heavy concentration of missile defenses since it was the center of the Soviet nuclear weapons industry. The new production line at the Kalinnin plant in the city had recently begun to deliver the new 13D missile to local SAM batteries. In the vicinity of Sverdlovsk, a PVO-Strany regiment newly equipped with the latest S-75N Desna engaged the U-2 from two of its batteries. A 13D missile from the battery, commanded by Maj Mikhail Voronov, scored a near miss behind the U-2 at around around 67,000ft (20.5km) at 0853 hours, which shattered the control surfaces of the U-2 and caused it to spiral out of control. Powers managed to escape the doomed aircraft by parachute, and shortly afterwards the U-2 was hit by another missile, which broke it apart. The shoot-down of the U-2 and capture of Powers was a major embarrassment for the Eisenhower administration and led Eisenhower to forbid any further flights over the Soviet Union by the U-2, a ban which was later extended to its supersonic follow-on, the SR-71. However, overflights did continue in other regions including China, North Korea, and the Middle East. By this time, new sources of overhead photography of the USSR were becoming available, the Corona spy satellites, which reduced the need for provocative overflights.

In 1956, as flying saucers were appearing regularly on the covers of pulp magazines, the US Air Force and the CIA were preparing to deploy U-2s overseas for operational missions.

Meanwhile, Project Genetrix had come to an end after only two months. Nearly fifty cameras and film capsules had been recovered, but most of the balloons had not successfully drifted across the entire breadth of the Soviet Union. Ironically one of the most useful results from having reconnaissance balloons masquerading as weather balloons was the weather data that was gathered. A great deal was learned from high altitudes winds over the Soviet Union that would be vital in planning the U-2 missions.

Meanwhile the cameras that had been developed for the U-2 were, like the airplane itself, breaking new ground technologically. They had to. Existing aerial cameras had good resolution when taking pictures from 30,000 feet, but the U-2 would be flying twice that far from the subjects of its cameras. The Connecticut-based Perkin-Elmer company, an existing maker of aerial cameras, had developed high-acuity K-38 cameras, but they needed to scale it down to meet the U-2’s 450-pound payload limit. The result was the A-1 system that consisted of a pair of K-38s with a K-17 as a back-up camera.

Of course, in the context of Cold War geopolitics, the notion of overflying the Soviet Union involved more dimensions than cameras, altitude, and weather. Even as he approved Project Aquatone at each step, President Eisenhower was well aware of the politics of violating the air space of another superpower. He voiced this opinion directly to CIA Director Allen Dulles and Richard Bissell, as well as through his Defense Liaison Officer Colonel Andrew Jackson Goodpaster.

Back on July 21, 1955, less than a week before the Angel went airborne for the first time, Eisenhower had made his famous Open Skies proposal to the Soviet Union in which he offered to allow the Soviets to overfly American facilities if they would reciprocate. Eisenhower had considered their rejection of this proposal as a rationale for continuing the Aquatone program, but a year later, he hesitated, fearing the reaction that would come if the Soviets detected a U-2, or even worse, if one of the aircraft crashed or was shot down.

The CIA, especially Dulles, insisted that this was unlikely and that it was worth the risk when balanced against the vital intelligence that was likely to be gained by the overflights.

Goodpaster, who served as Eisenhower’s point of contact with the CIA with regard to overhead reconnaissance and who sat in on the president’s meetings on the subject, recalled Dulles’s almost nonchalant attitude on the subject. In the early 1980s, he told Smithsonian historian Michael Bechloss that “Allen’s approach was that we were unlikely to lose one.

If we did lose one, the pilot would not survive.… We were told—and it was part of our understanding of the situation—that it was almost certain that the plane would disintegrate and that we could take it as a certainty that no pilot would survive and that although they would know where the plane came from, it would be difficult to prove it in any convincing way.”

Just as Genetrix operated under the weather balloon cover story, the CIA U-2s operated under the cover story of being weather reconnaissance aircraft ordered by National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which explains why the early ones bore NACA markings. These aircraft were assigned to the US Air Force 1st Weather Squadron, Provisional, with the latter qualification added because “provisional” squadrons could exist outside a routine command structure.

The pilots, meanwhile, were fighter pilots who held reserve, rather than regular, commissions. They resigned these commissions in order to be hired as civilians by the CIA and then masqueraded as US Air Force pilots flying with the newly created provisional squadron.

Detachment A of the 1st Weather Squadron began deploying overseas to England in April 1956 but was redeployed to the US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) base at Wiesbaden in West Germany in June. According to Pedlow and Welzenbach, this move was to “avoid arousing further [public] reaction [to the U-2’s arrival] in the United Kingdom.” They were quickly moved to another location near the East German border whose name is redacted in the copy of the Pedlow-Welzenbach document available to the author. Here the aircraft were reengined with more powerful J57-P-31 engines and were redesignated as U-2Cs.

While waiting for Eisenhower’s final go-ahead for flights over the Soviet Union, the first U-2 missions, over East Germany and Poland, were flown on June 20. At the CIA, Richard Bissell and General Charles Cabell, now the agency’s deputy director of central intelligence (DDCI), were eager to begin flights over Soviet territory, but Eisenhower insisted on a face-to-face briefing for German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The two men flew to Bonn personally.

On July 4, less than one year after the U-2’s debut flight, the aircraft was flying an operational mission over the naval shipyards at Leningrad on its first Soviet Union mission. The following day, a U-2 overflew Moscow itself for the first and only time, then flew 125 miles farther east, looking down at the facility at the Zhukovsky Airfield at Ramenskoye where the Myasishchev M-4 Bison bombers were tested.

In a later conversation with Donald Welzenbach, Richard Bissell recalled briefing Dulles about Leningrad and Moscow having been overflown in the first twenty-four hours of the surveillance program. If Dulles was nonchalant, Bissell was almost cavalier.

“Oh my Lord,” Dulles said. “Do you think it was wise the first time?”

“Allen,” replied Bissell. “The first time is the safest.”

In turn, Dulles and Bissell met with Goodpaster to discuss the president’s concerns about whether the first overflights had been tracked on Soviet radar. In his July 5, 1956, memorandum for the record, Goodpaster noted that the CIA was authorized to continue the overflights “at the maximum rates until the first evidence of [radar] tracking was received.”

In a July 1987 interview, Goodpaster told Donald Welzenbach that Eisenhower was prepared to immediately halt the overflights if the U-2s were detected.

As the mission folders in the files of the CIA Office of Special Activities (OSA) show, the Soviets did detect the U-2 but were unable to track it consistently. Indeed, their radar coverage was so spotty that they did not know the aircraft had been over Moscow or Leningrad.

Elsewhere, MiG-15s and MiG-17s were captured by the K-38 cameras as they attempted to reach the Angel. However, the fighters were unable to reach the U-2 at its altitude. Just as the gleaming bare metal belly had made American airliner pilots mistake it for a flying saucer, the same glare made the Angel easy for Soviet pilots to see, even if they could not touch it.

Naturally, the Soviets protested about the overflights—privately, of course, because to admit being overflown would have been embarrassing.

Eisenhower then told Dulles to halt the flights—after eight missions behind the Iron Curtain, including five over the Soviet Union itself—and to tell no one about the U-2 missions who did not already know. The president met with Dulles on July 19, where he told him, according to Goodpaster, that he had “lost enthusiasm” for U-2 overflights of Soviet territory, although he did agree for them to continue over Eastern Europe. In an October 3 conversation with Goodpaster, a nervous Eisenhower grumbled that the U-2 operations were “provocative and unjustified.”

Despite all of the apparent failures, the U-2 had already achieved an unexpected intelligence coup. Analysts were able to ascertain that not nearly as many Bison bombers were being rolled out as previously feared. Indeed, there was no “bomber gap.”

In the fall of 1956, even as the overflights of the Soviet Union were suspended, the attention of the Eisenhower administration and the CIA shifted to the Middle East. Egypt had seized the Suez Canal, then owned and operated by Britain and France. The crisis devolved into open warfare as Israel attacked Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula, and Britain and France attempted to seize the canal by force. The United States remained on the sidelines with Eisenhower demanding a halt to hostilities.

Meanwhile, as Detachment A in West Germany was closed down, the CIA had made arrangements with Turkey, a fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, to base U-2 Detachment B there for possible future overflights of the Soviet Union. When the Suez Crisis began, the U-2s were able to supply Eisenhower with timely information about unfolding events. Later in 1956, after the Soviets intervened in Hungary to crush a rebellion against their dominance of Eastern Europe, Eisenhower agreed to a resumption of limited overhead reconnaissance by Detachment B of Eastern Europe, but not of the western Soviet Union.

As it was now obvious that Soviet radar could track the U-2s, the CIA initiated Project Rainbow, an effort to develop means of reducing the U-2’s radar cross section (RCS). These developments were early steps toward the basket of technologies known as “stealth,” which emerged into prominence a quarter century later.

One of the firms that emerged as a major player in this process was Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier (EG&G), a technical consulting firm founded in 1931 by MIT professor Harold Edgerton, a pioneer of high-speed photography. During World War II, EG&G had the imaging technology for Manhattan Project implosion tests, and in the 1950s, they were one of the key support organizations for the nuclear testing program at the NTS.

Over the coming decades, EG&G gradually expanded the scope of their work from engineering to facilities management at secure government locations, especially within the Nellis Range. As Area 51 mythology unfolded late in the century, EG&G was often singled out in various “black airplane” conspiracy theories. For Project Rainbow, their role was that of monitoring the proto-stealth experiments developed by others.

The early radar deception experiments conducted at Groom Lake involved radar-absorbing beads on wires strung around the periphery of the U-2 or gluing radar-absorbing “wallpaper” panels to its fuselage. Aircraft this encumbered were called “dirty birds,” an appellation readily accepted by Kelly Johnson, who did not like these additions because they interfered with the aerodynamics of his airplane.

This came to a head on April 2, 1957, when a dirty bird, coincidentally Article 341, the U-2 prototype, piloted by top Lockheed test pilot Robert Seiker (sometimes seen spelled as Sieker) crashed in a remote part of the Nellis AFB Range. It was not found for several days. The deadly mishap was traced to overheating caused by wallpaper, which resulted in a stall.

Ultimately, and sadly, given that they had claimed a life, the dirty bird modifications were proven ineffective.

Later RCS testing would be conducted with aircraft held aloft by a crane, or positioned atop a pole or pylon.

Soviet radar notwithstanding, overflights of parts of the Soviet Union east of the heavily populated areas had resumed and were proving extremely useful. During August 1957, under a series of missions conducted under the code name Soft Touch, U-2s brought back significant images of the ICBM test—and future space launch—facilities at Semipalatinsk and Tyuratam in Soviet Kazakhstan.

Russian Colonel Alexander Orlov told a CIA/CSI public symposium in September 1998 that “between March and October [of 1957], Soviet air defense radar picked up five U-2 overflights … at altitudes of 19 to 21 kilometers [about 62,000 to 69,000 feet], they were beyond the reach of the Soviet Air Defense Forces’ fighter planes and antiaircraft artillery.”

A short time later, the U-2s of Detachment C, flying out of Eilsen AFB in Alaska, photographed the nuclear weapons and missile facilities at Klyuchi on Kamchatka Island in the Soviet Far East.

In the span of a few days, Charles Cabell and Richard Bissell were able to put photos on President Eisenhower’s desk that showed him the Soviet equivalents of the NTS and Cape Canaveral. If all three men were as amazed to see the launch site at Tyuratam, they were astonished two months later on October 4 when the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 from here.

Also at Tyuratam, the Soviets built the Baikonur Cosmodrome, their manned space launch center, and in April 1961, Yuri Gagarin went aloft to become the first human to orbit the Earth in outer space. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, numerous American astronauts have traveled into space from Baikonur.

Despite the success of Soft Touch, Eisenhower’s reticence in the face of Soviet protests—and attempts to shoot down U-2s in international air space of the Black Sea—led to a winding down of deep-penetration overhead reconnaissance missions. On March 7, 1958, the president told Goodpaster to tell Cabell and Bissell to halt the U-2 surveillance flights completely, initiating a ban that would last sixteen months.

Goodpaster sent Dulles and Bissell a memo conveying the president’s demand that “every cent that has been available for any project involving crossing the Iron Curtain is to be impounded and no further expenditures are to be made.”



IN THE MONTHS AFTER President Eisenhower ordered CIA Director Dulles to pull the plug on overflights of the Soviet Union, a great many things happened that would affect the future of the U-2. On the operational side, the aircraft were again flying useful missions in the Middle East, this time watching over American troops who intervened in the 1958 Lebanon Crisis and monitoring Soviet ships and submarines in the Mediterranean. A secret deal to base the planes at Peshawar in Pakistan had been concluded, although no aircraft had yet been deployed there.

Meanwhile Detachment C, now based in Japan, had conducted overflights of the Peoples’ Republic of China, notably during 1958, when there were fears that the “Red” Chinese might attempt to invade Taiwan (the Republic of China). Later in the same year, the U-2s were also used—reverting to their original cover story—to monitor the progress of Typhoon Winnie as it came over Taiwan. The United States later transferred some U-2s to Taiwan’s Republic of China Air Force. These were operated by the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) 35th “Black Cat” Squadron, mainly over mainland China, between 1960 and 1974. The ROCAF was the only non-US air force to officially operate the U-2.

On the technical side, the CIA and US Air Force fleets of U-2As and two-seat U-2Bs were being upgraded. They were retrofitted with larger intakes, reengined with the new Pratt & Whitney J75-P-13 turbojet engines, and redesignated as U-2Cs. The J75’s 17,000 pounds of thrust permitted a more rapid climb into the troposphere and a stated operational altitude of 74,600 feet.

Meanwhile some earlier model U-2s were upgraded to U-2D standard, capable of carrying additional reconnaissance gear or a second crewmember. Later other aircraft were modified to be capable of being aerially refueled—although the endurance limitations of the aircraft did not rest with the fuel load but with pilot fatigue. Ten hours was shown to be the maximum length of time that a pilot could function at optimum performance. Aircraft with J57 engines retrofitted for aerial refueling were reportedly redesignated as U-2Es, while J75-powered aircraft became U-2Fs. The U-2G designation went to three U-2As, which were modified with arrestor hooks and other equipment for use aboard US Navy aircraft carriers.

Because of fears that the Soviets might soon deploy an interceptor that could threaten the U-2, the pilots wanted something done about that gleaming bare metal belly that made them feel like sitting ducks against the dark sky. Kelly Johnson’s engineers had resisted painting the U-2 because the weight of the paint would cost them altitude. With a more powerful engine installed, though, Johnson relented and the aircraft were painted a very dark blue-black.

On the geopolitical side, the Cold War arms race had heated up again. Just as there had once been a “bomber gap,” now there were cries in the media of a “missile gap,” as the Soviet Union was reportedly piling up ICBMs at a rapid rate. With nothing to refute these reports, and with mounting pressure from Congress to do something, Dwight Eisenhower was compelled to rethink his overflight ban.

One flight was made over Tyuratam on July 9, 1959, but further missions were complicated by an apparent thaw in relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. Vice President Richard Nixon visited the Soviet Union later in July, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev returned the favor with a thirteen-day visit to the United States. Khrushchev was well received during his trip, which included coast-to-coast stops that were widely covered in the media and culminated in a meeting with President Eisenhower at Camp David. In turn, the two men made plans for another summit conference to be held in the spring of 1960.

Behind the scenes, however, the Soviet Union was working overtime to develop U-2 countermeasures. These included a high-altitude variant of the Yakovlev Yak-25 interceptor (NATO code name Flashlight) that was designated Yak-25RV (NATO code name Mandrake), as well as the high-altitude V-750VN variant of the S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missile (SAM), which was known to NATO as the SA-2 Guideline.

Ominously, considering later events, Colonel William Burke of the CIA’s Development Projects Division (DPD) wrote to Richard Bissell on March 14, 1960, that ATIC’s “present evaluation is that the SAM (Guideline) has a high probability of successful intercept at 70,000 feet providing that [radar] detection is made in sufficient time to alert the [SAM launch] site.”

Meanwhile the Soviet counterpart to the CIA, the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or Committee for State Security), was also pulling out all the stops to get their hands on information about the U-2. Their agents and stringers haunted the periphery of bases from Turkey to Japan, where U-2s were based. If they had known about the secret world at Groom Lake, they would have had agents climbing the hills of the Pahranagat Range to have a peek, just as later-generation black airplane buffs would be doing.

With regard to intelligence about the U-2, conspiracy theorists often make mention of a former US Marine who had worked as a radar operator at Atsugi in Japan and who defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959. His name, which would enter the annals of infamy in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, was Lee Harvey Oswald. In fact, the future assassin of John F. Kennedy had been no closer to the U-2 than his radar scope, and the Soviets showed no immediate interest in debriefing him.

By the spring of 1960, the CIA had developed an ambitious plan to utilize their U-2 launch site in Pakistan. They would fly 3,700 miles, cross the breadth of the Soviet Union, photograph ICBM facilities at Plesetsk and Sverdlovsk, and land in Norway. One mission, designated as Square Deal, had taken place on April 10, and another, designated as Grand Slam, was scheduled for May 1.

In retrospect, it seems counterintuitive, especially considering Eisenhower’s cautiousness about U-2 flights, that a mission would be scheduled for May Day. It was a major Soviet holiday, and it came just two weeks before the president was scheduled to sit down in Paris with Nikita Khrushchev on May 16 for their summit conference.

On the morning of May 1, Francis Gary “Frank” Powers, a veteran of 27 U-2 missions, climbed into a U-2C, Article 360, tail number 56-6693. He took off from Peshawar and flew north into the Soviet Union. He crossed Kazakhstan, photographed Tyuratam, entered Russia, and was 70,500 feet over the town of Degtyarsk, about 42 miles west of Sverdlovsk, when he was hit by a V-750VN missile. Powers bailed out and was captured by the Soviets, who made no immediate public mention of the incident.

When Powers did not arrive in Norway as planned, a preplanned cover story was released to the media through NASA on May 2 that a weather reconnaissance aircraft was missing on a flight over Turkey. On May 5, Khrushchev went public with a widely reported announcement that an American “spyplane” had been shot down.

For two days, he made no mention of the pilot having survived, but when he did, he announced that Powers had admitted to being a spy. Then the largely intact camera system was shown to the media in Moscow. The CIA, the US Air Force, and the Eisenhower administration were humiliated by their own bogus cover story—not to mention the embarrassment to NASA, who provided the cover story.

In the official CIA history of the U-2, Gregory Pedlow and Donald Welzenbach write that “Richard Bissell and the Development Projects Division had become overconfident and were not prepared for the ‘worst case’ scenario that actually occurred in May 1960.”

Pedlow and Welzenbach paint a picture of the CIA having come to believe its own unrealistic assurances about how long the U-2 could remain invulnerable to Soviet air defenses. They write that as early as 1956, the agency assumed the aircraft would have a useful service life of eighteen to twenty-five months, with Richard Bissell believing that it would become vulnerable before the end of 1957.

Now, however, here it was 1960, and the CIA had still never developed a worst case contingency.

In one ray of light, Kelly Johnson successfully cajoled the Soviets into displaying the entire crashed U-2 publicly.

“Hell, no,” he told the media when they displayed the wreckage of a Soviet aircraft, possibly a MiG that was accidentally shot down by a SAM trying to hit Powers. “That’s no U-2.”

It wasn’t, and the Soviets promptly dragged out the real wreckage, which was photographed in great detail. The widely published images allowed the Skunk Works team a close look.

The summit conference in Paris in mid-May, which also involved the British and French, turned sour when Eisenhower refused to apologize for the “U-2 incident.” Khrushchev walked out in a huff.

The show trial of Powers was a media circus that added insult to injury and cast a cloud over Eisenhower’s final months in office. Powers was convicted and sentenced to ten years, but he was released in a February 1962 prisoner swap with Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.

After seeing the wreckage on television, and especially after debriefing Powers in 1962, Johnson determined what exactly had happened. “Both wings failed because of down-bending, not penetration of critical structure by shrapnel from a missile,” he wrote in his memoirs. “None of the pictures showed a horizontal tail. And the right section of the stabilizer was missing. While this damage is conceivable from a crash landing, it was improbable because of the relatively undamaged condition of the vertical tail itself.

“The design of the U-2 wing is so very highly cambered that without a tail surface to balance the very high pitching moment, the aircraft immediately goes over on its back; and in severe cases the wings have broken off in down-bending. This occurred once in early testing when the pilot inadvertently extended wing flaps at high cruise speed, resulting in horizontal tail failure. This takes place in a few seconds, at great acceleration and with the fuselage generally spinning inverted. When Powers was exchanged in February 1962 for a Russian spy, I met and talked with him as soon as possible. His statements matched our conclusions.”

Between what the Skunk Works had deduced and what Powers could add, it appeared that the missile had knocked off the right stabilizer at cruising altitude. As Johnson explains, “The airplane then, predictably, immediately went over on its back at high speed and the wings broke off in downbending.… With the airplane spinning badly and hanging onto the windshield for support, he tried to reach the destruct button to destroy the airplane [the CIA states that it would only have destroyed the camera]. It was timed to go off about ten seconds after pilot ejection. But he could not reach the switch. We simulated the situation and it just was not possible with the forces on his body. He had to let go.”

Johnson later hired Powers at the Skunk Works. Dismissed by Lockheed after the publication of his 1971 book Operation Overflight, Powers went to work as a traffic reporter for radio station KGIL in Los Angeles. When he was killed in a 1977 helicopter crash while on the job, the incident spawned a round of conspiracy theories.

In the immediate aftermath of the May 1960 incident, new procedural changes required the National Security Council (NSC) to approve all CIA U-2 overflights of sensitive territory, though no more would be sanctioned of the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe.

Detachment B was closed, and all the U-2s but one were crated up and sent to the United States. Meanwhile, the Japanese government, sensitive about the “spyplanes” of Detachment C, asked that they be removed, and they were. The CIA fleet was then consolidated into Detachment G at Edwards AFB in California.

In 1961, Detachment G U-2s were twice redeployed to the Pacific, specifically to the Philippines, for some of their first operations over Laos and North Vietnam. In September 1961, during the crisis over the building of the Berlin Wall, John F. Kennedy came close to ordering a resumption, but he did not.

Meanwhile, the Joint Chiefs of Staff established the Joint Reconnaissance Center (JRC) to coordinate the separate CIA and US Air Force U-2 operations. According to Pedlow and Welzenbach, 500 missions were still being flown monthly in 1961. The targets included China, North Vietnam, and Cuba—especially before and during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.


Warning is an integral part of air defense, but for the purposes of this study it has been separated from its air defense matrix. Our concern with warning in this study of command and control is in terms of its passive detection role. We do not deal with any of the combat aspects of air defense systems.


While the Army Air Forces established the Air Defense Command (ADC) at Mitchell Field, N.Y., on 27 March 1946, the prevailing attitude toward air defense in this early postwar era was one of extreme ambivalence. Air defense was regarded within the air forces as necessary in theory but not in terms of resource allocation. Not surprisingly, therefore, planning for air defense in any practical and coordinated sense got under way late. This resulted also from the unsettled nature of roles and missions before mid-1948, the indeterminate status of Air Force programs and organization, and the cost of attempting to build both air defense and offensive forces.

By the end of 1946 and early 1947, however, world developments had led to some public concern, primarily over the deliberate reliance by the ADC on Air National Guard (ANG) and Reserve personnel to man the few resources it possessed. The first major air defense debate thus began over the issue of whether the United States required an “in-being” air defense system or whether one based on the Air National Guard and Reserve would be adequate.

When the ADC was activated, there was not a single search radar in operation within the United States. General Spaatz, the commanding general, Army Air Forces, revealed before a congressional committee in May 1946 that he had no intention of allocating a substantial proportion of regular AAF strength to air defense, and he declared his intention to rely principally for air defense manning on the ANG and Reserve. He did, however, ask at this time for funds to operate certain radar sites on a 24-hour basis.

The issue that lay behind Spaatz’ attitude was the one that underlay the whole air defense problem and was probably the crucial one in determining the course of events. This was the issue of resource allocation. Most of the AAF/USAF leadership was deeply committed to a concentration of resources on the development and expansion of US strategic striking power. Their view was that this course was dictated not only by the scarcity of funds, but by the absence for some time to come of any real airborne threat from the Soviet Union. Experimenting with air defense seemed a costly and unnecessary enterprise. With the sharply reduced budgets of the late 1940s, the new Air Force would choose to apply its resources to the development of nuclear attack forces, which would be a concrete asset, rather than to the air defense field, which was so dominated by uncertainties.

An issue derivative from the above was whether to postpone the development of an air defense system for several years, both until the threat became more real and by which time newer equipment would be available, or to start now on a system using rapidly obsolescing World War II equipment.

All through 1946 and into 1947, discussion of the real mission of the ADC continued, numerous views being expressed within the Army Air Forces, the other services, and the Congress. One overriding consideration did control the debate. In May 1947, Spaatz directed the ADC not to rock the boat over the matter until the unification of the air forces and budget issues were settled. It must be stressed that, a dominant concern of Army Air Force leaders in 1946-47 was the establishment and organization of an independent US Air Force. The ramifications of this concern were such that, while the issue of resource allocation between strategic offensive forces and air defense continued to be fundamental, in actual fact the United States would have little of either for several years, in good part because of the preoccupation of the Air Force leadership with the creation of the USAF.

Accordingly, steps toward the creation of even a token warning system were halting. In May 1947, operational search radars were set up in Arlington, Wash., and Half Moon Bay, Calif., but they were operated on a part-time basis and were mostly for training purposes. No real action was taken on any of the ADC’s plans until after the establishment of the USAF in July 1947. On 12 November 1947, the Secretary of Defense announced that planning for a nationwide radar early warning system was under way. This was an Air Force plan named SUPREMACY, which was designed to remedy the most fundamental lack in US air defense—an air control and warning (AC&W) system that would cover a very large part of the approaches to the United States. SUPREMACY was to provide a framework for such a system; it called for 223 basic radar stations and 14 control centers within the United States, and 37 basic radars and 4 control centers in Alaska. The plan, however, was too ambitious for the political and budgetary climate and it died when Congress failed to appropriate funds for it.

SUPREMACY did serve the function of raising key issues about air defense and warning. An exchange of memorandums between Secretary Forrestal and the JCS pointed up major issues that ..were to continue for years. The Bureau of the Budget, in May 1948, had sent the Secretary a memorandum that raised questions concerning SUPREMACY. The Bureau wanted to know the relative priority of the program, the extent to which USN picket ships would be used, and how the strength of the -services and the National Guard would be integrated.

A month later Forrestal turned to the JCS for advice. He pointed out the admitted inadequacies of the proposed radar fence against even World War II aircraft and reported that the Research and Development Board thought; that the United States could not expect to obtain more adequate equipment from current development programs for about five years. The Air Force, he said, planned an orderly replacement of older type equipment, at as reasonable a cost as possible, when new types became available. Forrestal continued:

Therefore, a fine question of judgment is involved. On the one hand there are considerations of economy involved in spending a substantial amount of money on radar which is now not completely effective and which will probably be obsolete in a few years, and on the other hand there is the obvious fact that the use of the present types of radar would give us at least some protection against a surprise attack during the years in which superior types are being developed.

The JCS reply came almost four months later, which perhaps indicates something of the priority they placed on air defense. They explained that the Soviets possessed aircraft capable of one-way strikes to any vital target in the United States and that Alaska and the Pacific Northwest were within radius of those aircraft from their present bases. As of September 1948, the Soviets had 210 long-range bombers with this capability, and it was estimated that their force of improved bombers would reach 1,600 by 1952. Furthermore, Soviet development of an aerial-refueling capability was possible. It could be assumed that until 1952 the Soviets would not have the atomic bomb in sufficient quantity to wage atomic war against the United States of such magnitude as to be decisive.

However, by 1953 it was possible that the Soviets might have 20-50 bombs. Until 1953, the JCS felt, the Soviets would have to rely upon-high-explosives, chemical, or bacteriological attacks, which would imply a series of sporadic, harassing attacks.

The JCS pointed out that the present 12 radar control and warning stations had almost negligible value. They recognized that present equipment was only reasonably effective now and would have only limited effectiveness against anticipated Soviet air capabilities in 1953. They therefore recommended the implementation of a modified air defense system that would (a) provide a basic capability; (b) be an operational proving ground for integration and improvement of methods, equipment, and training, both for defensive and offensive purposes; (c) be a deterrent to enemy attack; (d) provide means for the formulation of doctrine and ultimate requirements for joint and civilian participation; and (e) serve as a deterrent to the pressure of public opinion to divert military forces from offensive missions in case of attack. In regard to the Secretary’s query as to priority, the JCS said it was low compared with programs for the offensive, but that the priority would rise progressively with Soviet strategic capabilities.

Nevertheless, the pressures of growing tension in Europe had provoked some action. In March 1958, the Air Force had ordered the Arlington, Wash., radar station on to a 24-hour basis and activated four other radars in the area to cover the Hanford, Wash., nuclear facility. This was probably the initial step in a serious warning system.

A much reduced version of SUPREMACY, called the Interim Plan, was approved by the JCS and the Secretary of Defense in late 1948. This plan was to be completed in 26 months and would include the 5 basic radar stations and 2 control centers currently in operation. With equipment that was in storage or. on order added to the existing facilities, a total of 61 basic radar stations and 10 control centers in the United States and 10 basic radar stations and 1 control center in Alaska would be operational. In addition, 15 more basic radars were scheduled for eventual activation. The Interim Plan system was recognized as being far from ideal, but it did represent what could be accomplished by 1952 with restricted funds. What is significant about it is that by the end of 1948 a token “in-being” air defense system had finally begun to take shape.

The Interim Plan system was approved by Congress in March 1949. However, by this time the need for more immediate protection was recognized, and to fill the gap until the completion of the Interim Plan system, the ADC was directed to establish a temporary AC&W system, to be named LASHUP. This system would consist of 44 stations using World War II radars. Work got under way in late 1948. By the spring of 1949, 18 radars had been deployed to the northeast United States, but LASHUP was not completed until mid-1950.

Although the first plan (SUPREMACY) was submitted to it in late 1947, Congress did not act on a permanent radar system until the fall of 1949, after the first Soviet atomic explosion. During the first half of 1950, however, the Air Force continued to stress the construction of the Interim Plan system, and it was hoped by summer that the system, originally scheduled for completion in 1952, might be operational by mid-1951. By this time the Interim Plan system had merged into the so-called permanent system, so future reference shall be made the later term.


The outbreak of the Korean war, coupled with the Soviet nuclear explosion, provided tremendous stimulus to the development of a comprehensive warning system. The issuance .of NSC 68 added further impetus. Appearing in early 1950, NSC 68 had concluded that by 1954 the Soviets would have the capability to launch a devastating attack on the United States. One recommendation of the report was to build an active air defense that would provide warning of an attack and a means of defeating a bomber attack without resorting to nuclear retaliation initially. The suggested system would include a successive line of trans-Canada radar early warning stations, dispersed interceptor groups, deployment of antiaircraft missiles, an airborne-alert portion of the bomber force, and a hardened and sheltered command and control system to ensure communications. While no immediate action followed, the points made were all prophetic of future developments.

After June 1950, money ceased to be a problem, at least temporarily. The problems now lay not in budgetary constraints but in the slowness of project completion. Deadlines began slipping steadily. Completion date for the permanent system slipped from a firm November 1951 to May 1952.

There was also an increasing realization in the Air Force in 1951 that, despite the sense of accomplishment in that both the administration and the Congress had accepted the requirement of an in-being air defense system and were pouring massive funding into it, the system under development was based upon obsolescent World War II equipment and techniques. In order for the system to be effective for a respectable lifespan, considerable improvement would be needed.

There was also some concern that the public had been oversold or had oversold itself on the capabilities of the air defense of the near future. Official DoD views had been cautious. The Secretary of the Air Force, in his January-June 1950 report, had stated:

Completion of this aircraft early warning system will be an important step forward in the air defense of the US. However, it is only a start and will fall far short of the ultimate goal of a complete radar coverage. Additional stations must be built both in the US and in the North and great technical developments must be made in our scientific centers and labs in perfecting equipment and methods used for detection of aircraft.

These cautions were “too often forgotten. Estimates by authorities in early 1951 that the permanent system would stop only 5-10 percent of an attacking force led DoD to request the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to undertake Project Charles.

The Project Charles report on 1 August 1951 offered no unusual solutions to the dilemmas of air defense. It strongly recommended that the current system be updated by increasing the extent of the radar coverage and also by increasing the speed by which data acquired by radar could be analyzed and acted upon. The report further recommended use of picket ships and airborne radar to provide a measure of offshore coverage. The Ground Observer Corps (see below) could be used to cover low altitudes.

The report said that no new spectacular improvements in radar could be expected, but that great possibilities existed in the use of data automation to improve air defense systems. The scientific personnel who authored the report were convinced that automation was the only means by which speed in radar-data handling could be measurably increased. They called for new computers specially designed for an air defense function. (At this time, automation was just beginning to come into use in industry and its potential was not well understood.)

The Air Force accepted the recommendations in September 1951 and established the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT to continue research in the field.


A civilian support force for warning made its first appearance in September 1949, when personnel from the Office of Civil Defense were used in air defense tests. By December of that year, the USAF was considering a permanent Ground Observer Corps (GOC). Progress in developing a GOC was slow, however, through 1951, and the system itself proved faulty. The reporting and analyzing of data were generally too slow for the sightings. A much more rapid system, along the line of the Project Charles recommendation, was clearly needed. Yet, until a low-altitude radar could be developed, the GOC was the only capability for low-altitude coverage.

Another weakness of the GOC lay in its volunteer nature, which meant that it was not immediately available . It would require three hours’ notice before it was ready to begin to function. An effort in 1951 to get a 24-hour manning for the northeast portion of the United States during the summer months (estimated by Intelligence to be the period of greatest danger) failed. The GOC was finally placed on a 24-hour operational basis in 27 states in July 1952. This was achieved, it should be added, only after a shaky, politics-riven start as a result of the clashing of state and local jurisdictions with the DoD. The system was now given the code name of Operation Skywatch.


Despite progress, there was a certain confusion and lack of decision apparent in warning and air defense planning by 1952 over the issues of the scope and nature of a proper air defense of the United States. It will be apparent that the issues were the same ones that had appeared in 1946-47—how much should be devoted to air defense and what should be expected from it. A 75-station permanent radar system and new radar and aircraft were being produced to replace the older equipment. All had been authorized in 1951, or earlier. The question that came to the fore in 1952 was whether the basic air defense system under construction should be further expanded and improved—at very considerable cost. Discussion was brought into focus by the Lincoln Laboratory Summer Study Group, which recommended construction of a distant early warning (DEW) line across Canada and integrated and fully automated communications for control of the air defense systems, all this at a cost of several billions of dollars.

The DEW line had early antecedents. In 1946, a similar scheme had been proposed by AAF planners but died for economy reasons. In 1947-48, when the USAF was proposing SUPREMACY, the ADC had objected that the plan omitted a line of land-based radars along the farthest reaches of North America, a system the ADC called essential since the Soviets were then capable of a B-29-type aircraft assault across the North Pole. A distant early warning line could provide three-six hours of extra warning. The ADC’s efforts in 1948-49 failed, because no real threat was yet perceived in view of the US nuclear monopoly.

Some intermediate efforts were made to piece together AC&W programs in Canada and Alaska. One control center and 10 radar stations were planned for completion in 1952, but these ultimately became operational under the Alaskan Air Command only in early 1954. While US-Canada discussions dated to 1940, serious joint consideration of air defense did not begin until April 1949. A US-Canada agreement was signed in 1951, under which a total of 33 AC&W stations would be built in Canada, 22 by the United States and 11 by Canada. Eighteen would be manned by USAF personnel and 15 by Canadians. Of the US sites, 8 were assigned to the ADC and were operational by mld-1954. The other 10 US sites, deployed along northwest Canada from Baffin Island across Labrador to Newfoundland, were assigned to the Northeast Air Command. In addition, 10 permanent radars were to be erected in Greenland and Iceland to extend coverage eastward.

By the end of 1951, however, only five air defense radar stations were operational in Canada with Canadian manning. The Canadians were using World War II equipment and operating only eight hours a day; the Canadians said they could not begin full-time manning until sometime in 1952.

The patched-together system thus created provided some measure of protection against B-29-type bombers, but it-was obviously going to be inadequate against the threat expected in the 1956-60 period. Production of Soviet Jet aircraft similar to the B-47 was predicted for the late 1950s, with even faster models to come. The increased speed of Soviet aircraft dictated the need to push a detection .line farther out in order to make up for the increment of lost time. Consequently, a joint US-Canadian military study in 1953 agreed to a 1950 Canadian plan to set a line of radars across Canada at 54° or 55° N, to be called the Mid-Canada Line, with an operational date of 1957.

A very distant early warning line concept had been resurrected by Project Charles in August 1951, which concluded that a few hours extra warning would be invaluable. The Lincoln Laboratory Summer Study Group in August 1952 had suggested a line of radars along 70° N, connecting Alaskan radars with those of the Northeast Air Command. Locked onto the ends of this line would be a series of over-water stations flown by AEW&C patrols. Neither DoD nor the Air Force was enthusiastic and the report was not immediately approved. Both were concerned primarily over costs. The USAF opposed the Summer Study Group recommendation, essentially on the basis that the strategy of deterrence did not require such an enormous allocation of resources to air defense systems. The Air Force argued that available equipment did not possess the very high standards of technological excellence that were demanded by such a harsh environment as in the Far North. Furthermore, a DEW line concept was disparaged as potentially creating a Maginot Line mentality that could create a false sense of security. With these views, the Secretary of Defense tended to agree.

Opposition to the distant early warning line came from varied sources. The Commander of the ADC, General Chidlaw, favored, prophetically, concentration of resources on a ballistic missile defense system. A RAND study of the DEW Line concept in November 1952 also opposed it. Such a huge undertaking would necessarily be contingent upon a great increase in air defense funds sufficient to activate other air defense steps-first, such as development of a low-altitude radar screen for the United States, establishment of AEW&C and picket-ship coverage off either coast, and major improvement in the permanent warning system. Also, a very crucial point was that no such great commitment of resources to the Arctic should be made until communications between the United States and the Arctic could be thoroughly tested and proved. The Air Force declined to recommend the Summer Study report to the National Security Council, but in September 1952 the chairman of the National Security Resources Board took it to the NSC. The Air Force concern was the old one, that NSC consideration could end by compelling the Air Force to spend heavily on defense systems at the expense of the deterrent forces.

The NSC took no concrete action, except to request further study of the report. However, the findings of the Summer Study Group were leaked to the press and became the subject of a public debate in which advocates of concentration of resources on the deterrent forces were depicted as being too cavalier with the safety of the United States. This was an unfortunate interpretation of the issue, which was really one of competition for funds and a matter of proper timing for such major undertakings.

Late in 1952, the President decided to issue a policy statement on a warning system. The services and the JCS unanimously opposed what was first expected to be a public statement. The flurry that was created led to some very specific statements of the fundamental inhibition felt by most Defense official’s, military and civilian, over air defense programs. The Secretary of the Air Force, for example, cautioned the Secretary of Defense that “we must give full weight to the deterrent as well as to the air defense function in any considerations. There must be no withdrawal from or diminution of established national policy which holds that a strong offensive capability is the greatest single deterrent to war.”

The Secretary of the Air Force also suggested that a presidential statement on warning might result in accentuating early warning to the detriment of other known defense measures, as well as offensive striking power. If so, the buildup of “known quantities would be impaired in favor of what thus far is still a pig in a poke.” He also cautioned about announcing completion dates or estimates of cost. He stated that “we must have as effective an early warning system as American ingenuity can provide, but, in the national interests, this project must be viewed in proper perspective.”

The President and NSC took account of the solid front against any public statement and revised the policy statement accordingly. It appeared as NSC 139 on 31 December 1952, a top secret document. It stated that the estimated time scale on which the Soviet Union would possess sufficient atomic weapons to deliver a heavy attack on the United States indicated that the United States should plan to have an effective system of air, sea, and land measures ready no later than 31 December 1955 – An early warning system that would provide three-six hours warning was desired, and as much of the system as possible should be completed by 31 December 1954 and the full system completed by 31 December 1955.

The episode illustrated well the perpetual issue that overhung all warning and air defense developments, that of offense versus defense. Up until this point, the proponents of heavy emphasis on offensive measures and capabilities had been dominant.

In the meantime, despite the lack of any decision on an improved air defense and warning system in 1952, the existing permanent system was extended. Forty-four mobile radar stations were approved and in July the ADC requested 35 more. At the end of the year, the ADC was operating 81 radar stations within the United States. Of these, 75 were part of the permanent network and 6 were LASHUP radars of the earlier system. Nine stations were operational in Canada, 2 from the approved 33-station Canadian extension of the permanent system, and 7 of the LASHUP type.

Thus a basic “in-being” air defense was operational, although mostly of World War II type. The radar stations of the permanent system and the GOC in 27 states were sending data to 11 control centers. Thirty-nine Interceptor squadrons backed up the system. One-third of these were early model all-weather jets (F-89B/C and F-9WB), while 15 squadrons had fighters capable of daylight operations only (F-80, F-84, and F-86). Eleven squadrons still had World War II piston-engine fighters (F-47 and F-51).

The DEW Line controversy carried over into the new Eisenhower administration. The hearings on the last Truman budget began in early March 1953 and immediately bogged down over the air defense issue. General Vandenberg, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, stressed that the goal suggested by the Summer Study Group of a 25 percent attrition of an attacking force was gilding the lily and did not represent a reasonable objective. The issue posed a dilemma for the new Eisenhower administration, which had been elected on an economy-in-government campaign and now faced major outlays for air defense, outlays over which there was no general agreement. The administration and the NSC tended to divide over the issue.

The Kelly Committee, appointed in late 1952 to examine overall US defenses, reported in May 1953 that, while the principal element of American defense was the strategic striking force, a better air defense system, especially an early warning system, was needed. The report could thus be used by both opponents and proponents of the Summer Study Group recommendations. However, the Committee did play down the need for haste in continental defense and rejected the idea of a rush program.

With the administration still undecided, Secretary of Defense Wilson appointed another committee, under Maj. General Bull’s chairmanship, to study the air defense issue. Bull’s group reported to the NSC in July 1953 that existing air defense plans were entirely inadequate and estimated that needed improvements might cost $18-$25 billion. The report was not acted on by the NSC.

The JCS position on expenditures of this magnitude reflected the position of those who stressed offensive deterrent power. In a memorandum to the Secretary of Defense on the matter of continental defense, the JCS summed up their philosophy. Decrying the “inadequacy of intelligence” and calling for better intelligence on Soviet capabilities as a basis for threat projections, the JCS stated:

In weighing the effectiveness of defensive measures against the costs involved, the JCS feel that substantial improvement is possible at a modest cost. Yet there comes a point where a comparatively small increase in effectiveness becomes increasingly expensive until it reaches a point where even great expenditures fail to raise significantly the effectiveness of defenses. An aggressor nation will be far more deterred by evidence that we have the offensive potential and the mobility capable of dealing it decisive blows than by the excellence of our defenses.

The Summer Study Group, however, seemed vindicated in its criticism of the inadequacy of the warning and air defense system by Exercise TAILWIND in July 1953. The Strategic Air Command sent 94 bombers against the air defense system, employing all the techniques available to it—night attack, surprise; diversionary attacks, electronic countermeasures, saturation attack, and so on. Only 7 attackers were successfully intercepted. The following day, against daylight attacks, the air defense intercepted 29 out of 38 SAC task forces. Yet obviously, a real attack would come by night. The exercise pointed up the need for better early warning, solid radar coverage from 0 to 50,000 feet, and some automatic means of tying together data and displaying them to the battle commanders.

What finally broke the back of opposition to a DEW Line was the first Soviet thermonuclear explosion in August 1953. The JCS soon after identified continental air defense and massive retaliation as the two principal military problems facing the country, while on 26 August, Admiral Radford, the new Chairman of the JCS, in his first press conference declared that the Soviet thermonuclear development would compel the United States to review and to strengthen its air defenses. The questions of US thermonuclear development had been debuted earlier in the year, with leading members of the scientific community linking their opposition to development with the air defense issue. Their position was that with a sufficiently tight air defense there would be no need for massive offensive operations that would require thermonuclear weapons. In the debate, supporters of thermonuclear weapon development and of the primacy of the deterrent mission were again portrayed as the villains.

On 6 October 1953, the NSC approved NSC Paper 162, which included most of the Summer Study Group’s findings, of which a DEW Line and automation were the most significant. The NSC was apparently convinced that the large expenditures necessary to make automation in air defense a reality should be spent, notwithstanding the fact that automation was a new thing and nobody was certain what obstacles lay in the way of such large-scale applications of automation.

In late 1953, the Air Force, reflecting the NSC action, approved FY55 funding for 29 more mobile radars (Phase III of the Mobile Radar Program), 5 Texas towers for offshore radars, a Canadian radar line along the 55th parallel, and 323 small gap-filler radars for low-altitude coverage. Inclusion of the 55° line indicated the continued reluctance of the Air Force to build a DEW Line farther north.

The small gap-filler radars were meant to remedy deficiencies in existing radars, and would be unattended stations. Eventually they would replace the GOC, until then the only means of low-level coverage, which was proving to be a weak reed. Only about 11 percent of the personnel the ADC felt were needed were active, public apathy having taken its toll.

Intelligence in the Era of the Sun King Part I

John Wallis had been close to the Parliamentarian party, perhaps as a result of his exposure to Holbeach at Felsted School. He rendered them great practical assistance in deciphering Royalist dispatches. The quality of cryptography at that time was mixed; despite the individual successes of mathematicians such as François Viète, the principles underlying cipher design and analysis were very poorly understood. Most ciphers were ad hoc methods relying on a secret algorithm, as opposed to systems based on a variable key. Wallis realised that the latter were far more secure – even describing them as “unbreakable”, though he was not confident enough in this assertion to encourage revealing cryptographic algorithms. He was also concerned about the use of ciphers by foreign powers, refusing, for example, Gottfried Leibniz’s request of 1697 to teach Hanoverian students about cryptography.[

Louis XIV is far better remembered for self-glorification than for secret intelligence. When moving his court to the Palace of Versailles in 1682, he confined God to the chapel. The rest of the largest and grandest palace in European history was devoted to the cult of the Sun King, Louis’s favourite image of himself. By the end of his reign the resident devotees numbered about 10,000 nobles, soldiers, priests, officials, tradesmen and servants. Versailles was second only to the army as France’s largest employer. But Louis also regarded secrecy as essential to his royal authority. A medal struck to commemorate the beginning of his personal rule after the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661 had a portrait of the King on the front and, on the reverse, Harpocrates, the Greek god of silence and secrecy, raising a finger to his lips. A painting on the ceiling of the Versailles Hall of Mirrors, the most magnificent room in the palace, shows Louis ordering a simultaneous attack on four Dutch strongholds. By his side is an allegorical figure also holding a finger to his lips. Another figure puts his hand over his mouth as the King prepares to take the city of Ghent.

Louis XIV paid some interest to intelligence collection as well as official secrecy. He took a personal interest in the work of the cabinet noir. Like his father, Louis XIII, he honoured Antoine Rossignol, France’s leading codebreaker until his death in 1682, by visiting his château at Juvisy. Neither of the two great seventeenth-century English codebreakers, Thomas Phelippes and John Wallis, received any sign of royal appreciation from the Stuart kings. Lord Hollis, the English ambassador in Paris, complained in 1665 that his despatches were always opened and read before he received them. His successor, Ralph Montagu, made the same complaint in 1669. Their awareness, like that of some French courtiers, that their correspondence was intercepted must have diminished the value of the intelligence obtained from it by the cabinet noir. The celebrated letter-writer Madame de Sévigné sometimes made personal appeals in her correspondence to those who opened it during the second half of the seventeenth century: ‘Alas! I beseech those who take this trouble to consider the little pleasure which they gain from reading it and the sorrow they cause to us. Messieurs, at least take the trouble to put [the letters] back in their envelopes so that, sooner or later, they reach their destination.’

Louis’s first direct involvement in an intelligence operation, crucial to the establishment of his personal rule in 1661, was the plot to overthrow Mazarin’s superintendent of finance, Nicolas Fouquet, marquis de Belle-Île and vicomte de Melun et Vaux, who hoped to step into Mazarin’s shoes. Fouquet was a classic example of an overmighty subject whose power and prestige threatened royal authority. At his magnificent château at Vaux-le-Vicomte, he lived in greater opulence than the King. On the island of Belle-Île off the coast of Brittany, with the assistance of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the foremost military engineer of his age, he sought to construct an impregnable private fortress with its own garrison.

Fouquet’s nemesis was the shrewder and less ostentatious Jean-Baptiste Colbert, whose chilly exterior led Madame de Sévigné to give him the sobriquet le nord (‘the north’). Colbert came from a family of Rheims merchant bankers, trained as an accountant, and helped Mazarin amass the greatest private fortune in the history of the Ancien Régime. On his deathbed Mazarin recommended Colbert to Louis XIV. It was not long before Colbert succeeded in involving Louis in a plot against Fouquet, which, because of Fouquet’s numerous informants in the court and administration, had to be conducted in great secrecy. One of the first steps was to send a spy, disguised as a fisherman, to reconnoitre Fouquet’s Belle-Île fortress. The spy returned with a map of the fortress and details of its 200-man garrison, 400 cannon and the fortifications being built by 1,500 labourers to Vauban’s design. Colbert’s agents also reported that Fouquet had plans to take over the Caribbean island of Martinique and export its produce to Belle-Île. ‘In short, Fouquet was building a miniature kingdom and a small empire.’

Colbert devised a secret plan, approved by the King, for Fouquet to be arrested without warning after a meeting of the provincial Estates in Nantes, well away from his strongholds of Vaux-le-Vicomte and Belle-Île. Louis went out of his way to allay Fouquet’s suspicions by giving him repeated signs of royal favour before his sudden arrest in Nantes immediately after a meeting with the King on 5 September 1661. Since the commander of the royal bodyguard, the Garde du Corps, was an informant of Fouquet, he was arrested instead by Charles d’Artagnan, leader of the musketeers who accompanied the King on his travels. The fictional d’Artagnan in Alexandre Dumas’s celebrated mid-nineteenth-century novel The Three Musketeers, famous for the cry ‘All for one, one for all!’, has become far better known than the elusive and less romantic figure of the real musketeer. There is some evidence that the real d’Artagnan had carried out espionage missions for Mazarin and thus had the experience required for the secret operation which culminated in his arrest of Fouquet.

Colbert arranged for the simultaneous seizure of Fouquet’s files, chief among them the Cassette, a massive folio volume hidden behind a large armoire in his office containing financial secrets, evidence of corruption, and details of his agents, informers and mistresses. After a controversial three-year trial, Fouquet was sentenced to life imprisonment. Louis was proud of his own role in the sophisticated intelligence operation orchestrated by Colbert. The King later claimed that ‘the whole of France’, as well as approving the overthrow of Fouquet, ‘particularly praised’ his success in keeping secret the plan to arrest him for three or four months, despite the fact that Fouquet’s informers were all around him. Colbert’s critics said privately that his family crest of a climbing snake had proved highly appropriate.

From 1665 until his death in 1683 Colbert was Controller-General of Finance and First Minister in all but name. He regarded the royal account books, financial reports and all other state financial information as classified intelligence for official use only, believing that all ministers and government officials should take oaths of secrecy and lose their jobs if they broke them. Colbert’s ultimate aim was to assemble a classified audit of all the local resources and administrative systems of the French kingdom, sending officials to obtain information on population numbers, land holdings, economic activity, local regulations, laws and important individuals. He expanded the audit to include neighbouring states, drawing much of his inspiration from the sixteenth-century trading and banking empire of the Augsburg Fugger family, whose sophisticated filing system included regular reports from a far-flung network of correspondents. Colbert told his son (whom he hoped would succeed him) before sending him on a mission to Italy in 1671:

In each state, look at . . . its situation, its military forces, the size of its population, the greatness of the state, the number and size of cities, towns, and villages . . . ; the form of State government, and if it is aristocratic . . . the names and status of noble families that have taken or will take part in governing the Republic; their different functions; their general and particular councils; who represents the State, in whom the sovereign power lies and who resolves peace and war, who makes laws; etc . . . the results of elections; the particular councils for the militia, the admiralty, justice, for the city and for the rest of the State; the laws and the customs . . . Visit the public works, maritime and on land, all the palaces, public buildings, and generally all that is remarkable.

Faced with this demanding agenda, Colbert’s son had more than once to apologize to his father for failing to live up to his high expectations.

Colbert, concludes a recent study of him, aimed to construct a ‘secret state intelligence system’. Though only fragmentary evidence of Colbert’s use of the cabinet noir survives, his intelligence system involved the interception (and, where necessary, decryption) of correspondence. Colbert wrote to the Intendant of Toulouse in 1682 that letters from Flanders to Toulouse had revealed the existence of an important plot (possibly involving the spread of Jansenist heresy) which it was ‘very important to clarify’. Other intercepted correspondence to and from Toulouse revealed (unspecified) commercial ventures in Rome, which Colbert declared ‘prejudicial to the service of the King’.

Apart from its ambitiousness, a major obstacle to the development of Colbert’s state intelligence system was his rivalry with the marquis de Louvois, Secretary of State for War from 1662 until his death in 1691.† From 1668, Louvois was also superintendent of the posts, a position which brought him an income of about a million livres a year, as well as giving him greater authority than Colbert over the operations of the cabinet noir, which he used for military as well as political intelligence.‡ In 1668, at the request of the French military commander, the prince de Condé (‘le grand Condé’), who was in Dijon, preparing for the invasion of Franche-Comté, Louvois postponed the delivery of the post to Dijon until the invasion had begun, to prevent correspondents in Paris giving advance warning of it.

Louvois attached more importance to intelligence than any other European War Minister of his time. The growth in the size of armies in the age of Louis XIV, as well as of the munitions and rations they required, combined with the immense improvements in fortifications pioneered by Vauban to increase the importance of military intelligence. In the forty years after 1667, Vauban directed the construction of thirty-seven new fortresses and fortified harbours, as well as upgrading the fortifications of about 300 cities in France and the Low Countries. Before beginning his victorious advance along the River Meuse at the start of the Franco-Dutch War in 1672, Condé sent a fortifications expert to reconnoitre enemy fortresses. This reconnaissance probably contributed to the rapid conquest of four fortresses on the Rhine, for which Louis XIV claimed personal credit: ‘I hope no one complains that I disappointed public expectations.’ In 1673 the King’s army, after a siege conducted by Vauban, also took the Dutch fortress of Maastricht. French victories and Vauban’s fortifications increased the priority of military intelligence among France’s opponents. French military archives in the château de Vincennes contain an intelligence questionnaire given by his superiors to a military engineer in the Rhine army of the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I who was also working as a French agent. He was asked to collect intelligence on French fortifications from both their designers and builders. In addition to identifying French military units and their commanders (later known as battle-order intelligence), the engineer was also asked for details of their stocks of munitions and rations, as well as information on their finances and how recently their troops had been paid. Even at the beginning of the seventeenth century such an attempt to collect this kind of military intelligence would have been very unusual.

Improved military intelligence contributed to the superiority of French armies over their foreign opponents in the 1660s and 1670s, though the fact that, thanks largely to Louvois, Louis XIV had both the largest European army of the era (possibly the largest since the fall of the Roman Empire) and the greatest generals – Condé, the vicomte de Turenne and the duc de Luxembourg – contributed far more. Louvois acted as his own intelligence chief. In dealing with Louis XIV, however, he had to face the classic problem of ‘telling truth to power’. This problem presented itself in an acute form in the autumn of 1673, when, following a Dutch and Habsburg offensive, combined with declarations of war on France by Spain and Brandenburg–Prussia, Louvois favoured a strategic withdrawal by French forces from some conquered territory. Louis, however, regarded retreat as incompatible with gloire. ‘In the King’s present mood’, wrote Louvois gloomily, ‘he would rather give up Paris or Versailles than Maastricht.’ French forces were thus pinned down defending conquests of the previous year while Dutch and Habsburg forces advanced to the Rhine.

Over the next decade Louis XIV lost both his greatest generals and his leading intelligence experts. Turenne died in battle in 1675. Soon afterwards the 64-year-old Condé, worn out by the exertions of his long military career and tortured by gout, retired. In 1682 the death of Rossignol, regarded by Colbert as one of the ‘most illustrious Frenchmen’ of the century, deprived France of the greatest codebreaker of the French Ancien Régime. With Colbert’s sudden death (probably from a kidney stone) in 1683, his still unfinished project to create a classified database was abandoned. Louis XIV gave up the attempt to centralize official information and dispersed responsibility for its collection and management to ministries and officials who lacked the accountancy skills required to conduct serious audits. Claude Le Peletier, who became Controller-General of Finance on Colbert’s death, complained to Louis XIV that he was unable to understand the state’s financial workings, for Colbert had kept them secret – ‘enclosed in his very self’.

After Colbert’s death, Louis XIV also lost interest in state finance and gave up the attempt to balance the books. He retained an active interest, however, in the operations of the cabinet noir. Louvois wrote to the French military commander in Alsace, Baron Joseph de Montclar, during the formation in 1685 of the anti-French League of Augsburg: ‘The King has been informed that in a few days’ time a courier of the Emperor [Leopold I] is due to return from Spain [through Alsace]. H[is] M[ajesty] judges it important in present circumstances to seize the courier’s valise and take possession of the despatches.’ On royal instructions, the attack on the imperial courier was to be disguised as a robbery: ‘Make sure that those whom you instruct to seize the courier’s valise do not fail to take all his money in order to strengthen the belief that they are robbers . . .’ Louis XIV also took a personal interest in what the cabinet noir revealed about gossip at court. The main topic for gossip in the mid-1680s and beyond was the King’s morganatic marriage to his mistress, Madame de Main-tenon. The marriage remained so secret that its exact date (possibly in October 1683) will probably never be known. Three young members of leading noble families were banished from Versailles in 1685 after their intercepted letters were found to contain satirical references comparing the royal couple to a decrepit provincial noble and his ageing mistress. Maintenon, who was fifty in 1685 (slightly older than Louis) and sensitive about her age, was outraged by ‘the very great irreverence’ of such gossip, which she denounced as an ‘abominable vice’.

The expulsions from Versailles in 1685 and other sanctions against ‘irreverent’ gossip must have inspired greater prudence in courtiers’ correspondence. Among those at court who were indignant about the invasion of their personal privacy by the cabinet noir was Louis XIV’s sister-in-law the Princess Palatine, who regularly corresponded with her German relatives. In one letter to a female relative, intended to shame those who opened it, she described how, while answering an urgent call of nature, the earthenware chamber pot on which she was sitting had broken. But for the fact that she clung on to a nearby table, she believed that the jagged fragments of the broken pot would have lacerated her derrière. This ‘fine story’, the princess added for the benefit of the letter-openers, would no doubt be considered ‘worthy of the attention of the Secretary of State [for foreign affairs] and I am sure that M. de Torcy will make a report on it to the King’.

Thanks chiefly to Charles II and his successor, James II, Louis XIV’s best foreign intelligence came from Britain. Charles II concealed the Treaty of Dover, secretly negotiated with Louis in 1670, from all but two of his ministers. The French ambassador in London from 1677 to 1688, Paul Barillon, marquis de Branges, reported that Charles was ‘so secret and impenetrable that even the most skillful observers are misled’. Barillon found James II, who succeeded his elder brother in 1685, much easier to deal with. James had received military training in the French army, was converted to Catholicism by a French Jesuit, and was strongly influenced by Louis XIV in his choice of the Catholic Mary of Modena as his second wife. Sir William Trumbull, James’s ambassador in Paris, later recalled that ‘all matters of moment were to be transacted by Barillon’, who was in close contact with Louvois as well as communicating directly with Louis XIV. James, Trumbull believed, ‘no doubt communicated to Barillon all that he knew’. Louis XIV’s special envoy, Usson de Bonrepaus, was also taken into James’s confidence. But James’s often expressed hopes to Barillon and Usson de Bonrepaus of returning England to the Catholic faith proved hopelessly optimistic. Given the difficulty of telling truth to power at the court of the Sun King, it is highly unlikely that any of Louis’s advisers dared tell him, even if they realized it, that James’s impossible project of a Catholic England risked putting his throne in jeopardy.

The English ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 was, in part, an anti-Catholic revolution. James II was overthrown by an invasion led by the Dutch Stadholder and Protestant hero William of Orange. Until 1688 William’s wife, Princess Mary, the Protestant daughter of James II by his Protestant first wife, Anne Hyde, had been James’s heir. On 10 June, however, Mary of Modena gave birth to a son and heir, James Francis Edward, thus threatening the Protestant succession. William sent his close friend William Nassau van Zuylestein (later 1st Earl of Rochford) to London, ostensibly to convey his congratulations to James and Mary of Modena on the birth of their son. Zuylestein’s real mission, however, was to continue secret talks with James’s leading opponents which he and others had begun in the previous year. He also reported to William a widespread belief that James’s alleged son was a baby who had been secretly smuggled into the Queen’s bedchamber in a warming pan. On 30 June, at William’s private request, seven of James’s opponents, later known as the ‘Immortal Seven’, sent a letter assuring him that, if he landed in England to protect English liberties, his forces would receive widespread support.

The timing of William’s landing was influenced by top-secret intelligence (‘secretum secretorum’) which he received from the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, Leopold I. William kept the identity of his informant in Vienna so secret that he refused to reveal it even to the leading Dutch supporters of his invasion of England. Recent research shows that the informant was the Emperor himself. Leopold warned William that Louis XIV was planning an attack on the Dutch United Provinces and other Protestant states, and was trying to persuade him to join an alliance against them. Though Catholic, Leopold had hitherto been an ally of the Protestant Dutch, but he now informed William that, if Louis XIV defeated the United Provinces and James II crushed English opposition to his rule, he would be obliged to change sides. The Protestant nightmare, shared by William, of a Roman Catholic grand alliance of Bourbon France, Habsburg Austria and Stuart England would become a reality. We now know that Leopold’s claims that the French were offering him the cession of Alsace and other inducements to form an alliance were fraudulent – part of his successful campaign to win Dutch support against Louis XIV. William, however, was completely taken in by the false intelligence he received from Vienna, and used it repeatedly from July 1688 to demonstrate the urgency of intervention in England.

Though William had good intelligence from England while planning his invasion, James II had virtually none from the Dutch Republic. Deceived by disinformation from Dutch envoys, he was so confident that William’s military preparations were for war with France rather than the invasion of England that, when Louis XIV offered to place the French Atlantic fleet at his disposal, James assured him it would not be needed. By the time he discovered his mistake in September, it was too late; the fleet had been deployed elsewhere. It also took some weeks for James to discover that William had printed 60,000 copies of a declaration intended to justify his invasion for distribution in England. William declared that his purpose was ‘to preserve and maintain the liberties, laws and customs of England’. Despite the fact that he had earlier congratulated James on the birth of his son and heir, he also declared the need to investigate the circumstances of the birth, thus appearing to give credence to the conspiracy theory that the baby had arrived in the Queen’s bedchamber in a warming pan.

Obtaining intelligence on where William’s forces intended to land was impossibly difficult. When the invasion fleet first set off in mid-October, storms drove it back to port. Driven west by a ‘Protestant wind’ at the second attempt, William decided at the last minute to land at Torbay in Devon on 5 November.32 Most support for James II quickly melted away. ‘The reason we have so little intelligence’ from the West Country, complained his Secretary of State, Charles Middleton, was that ‘none of the gentry of this or adjacent counties come near the court and the common [folk] are spies to the enemy’. Government spies continued to take Stuart money only to transfer their allegiance to William’s forces at the first opportunity. Among those who changed sides was James’s ablest general, John Churchill (later Duke of Marlborough). Even his younger daughter, the future Queen Anne, deserted him.

William could not have predicted that, with a larger army than his own, James would give up without a fight. On 11 December James threw the Great Seal of England into the Thames (hoping thus to prevent the passing of legislation in his absence) and travelled in heavy disguise to the Kent coast, where a small ship was waiting to take him to France. Before he could escape, however, he was caught by fishermen looking for fleeing Catholic priests, and suffered the humiliation of becoming the only British monarch ever to be strip-searched. Not until James had been frog-marched to the nearest town (another unique experience for an English monarch) was he recognized as the King. A crucifix stolen from him by the fishermen was given back. After briefly returning to London, James made a second attempt to flee, which William allowed to succeed. James’s flight to France, where he arrived on Christmas Day 1688, enabled his opponents to claim that he had abdicated and left the throne vacant. In February 1689 William and Mary were declared joint rulers.

William became simultaneously King William III of England and Ireland, William II of Scotland and Stadholder of the Dutch Republic. He immediately embroiled England as well as the Dutch Republic in the Nine Years War (1688–97) between Louis XIV (who continued to recognize James II as King of England and Ireland, and as James VII of Scotland) and a Grand Alliance dominated by William which also included the Austrian Habsburgs, princes of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and Savoy. Among William’s main wartime intelligence assets, little noticed by historians, was John Wallis, by now in his early seventies and in fragile health but still active as an Oxford mathematician and theologian as well as Britain’s chief cryptanalyst. Though Wallis had been distrusted by James II, probably in part because he was an Anglican priest, William was quick to recognize his talents. His correspondence with the leading Dutch statesman Anthonie Heinsius shows his admiration for Wallis as the greatest codebreaker of the era. The King’s personal interest in Wallis was in striking contrast with the distance he kept from most other British officials. He spent much of his time with foreign advisers in Hampton Court and Kensington, away from the great palace of Whitehall, the main seat of Stuart government. Unlike his sociable wife, Queen Mary, William was one of the most reserved and reclusive monarchs in British history. Mary’s death from smallpox in 1694 made the monarchy even more remote from most of its subjects.

Some of the first important decrypts produced by Wallis during William and Mary’s reign followed James II’s landing in Ireland in March 1689 with Jacobite and French forces, who began a siege of the Protestant stronghold of Londonderry (Derry) a month later. The relief of the 105-day siege, which, despite heavy loss of life, failed to starve the defenders into submission, is still celebrated by Unionists every August with the firing of a cannon to commemorate the apprentice boys who shut the city gates against James’s advancing armies. Wallis wrote to the Earl of Nottingham, one of the King’s two Secretaries of State, when sending him a decrypted despatch from an unidentified French commander soon after the relief of Londonderry: ‘I have met with better success than at first I could promise your lordship or myself and with more expedition than I could hope for.’ The decrypt gave William III welcome intelligence on dissension between Jacobite and French forces. The French commander complained that arms suppliers chosen by James II’s staff to provide munitions for his forces during the siege had defrauded him:

Orders were given for a supply of cannon and ammunition for our use, but they took care that, of the two cannon sent, only one would take the cannon balls supplied and the fuses were nearly worn out. Nothing I could do could then remedy these defects. I have made the [Jacobite] general officers understand the state of affairs so that they may inform the King, their master, of it, who I am sure will deal with those who are guilty in a fitting manner. The mistake cannot have been committed in ignorance, because, in my despatch, on which they acted, I particularly directed that the shot was to be tried, to see if it fitted the cannon and the fuses that they fitted the touch holes. If like faults are committed with impunity one cannot feel the same ardour for King [James’s] service. Shame will be acquired and reputation lost, if the public simply hear that supplies have been sent to the [French] camp without being also told that those supplies were useless. It will be thought that nothing was done, because the [French] officers were incapable. I am on my mettle, not being willing to be overcome by their malice.

As well as revealing dissension between French and Jacobite officers, increased by the failure of the Londonderry siege, the decrypted despatches of the French commander also reported disputes within James’s own high command. The Earl of Tyrconnell, commander-in-chief of his Irish army, was said to have faced ‘almost insurmountable resistance’ by James and, it was believed, his Secretary of State, Lord Melfort, to authorizing essential expenditure: ‘I am assured that Lord Tyrconnell’s discontent, as much as his indisposition, has contributed to his retirement to a country house.’ Wallis noted that one of the intercepted French despatches sent to him was in very poor condition: ‘Nor know I how it becomes so rotten and discoloured in so short a time: Unless possibly it may have been thrown overboard into salt water & recovered from thence.’ This was a distinct possibility, since some French despatches were intercepted at sea.

When sending Nottingham the decrypt from a French commander in Ireland, Wallis reported that another intercepted despatch, addressed to Louis XIV, ‘was in a hard cipher . . . I cannot yet see my way to break it.’42 Within a fortnight, however, he had begun to decrypt highly sensitive correspondence between Louis XIV and his ambassador in Warsaw:

I am almost ashamed to tell yo[u]r Lordship how much time & pains on that very perplexed cypher in the Letter from Poland, & have not yet dispatched it. But by what I have done all ready, I find two things (which seem to me) of moment. One is a Treaty (or entreaty rather) of the French King with the King of Poland presently to make a war on Prussia. The other, about a marriage of the Princess of Hanover with the Prince of Poland, promoted by the French King. How far it may be of concernment to us to know it, I am no competent Judge. But I thought it did become me to give this timely notice of it (lest there might be a prejudice by delay) while I am preparing to give a fuller account of that letter . . .

William immediately saw the opportunity to provoke a political crisis between France and Poland by revealing the contents of the decrypted French despatches. Wallis was quick to claim much of the credit: ‘The deciphering some of those letters . . . quite broke off all the French King’s measures in Poland . . . & caused his Ambassadors to be thence thrust out with disgrace. Which one thing was of much greater advantage to his Ma[jes]ty & his Allies than I am like to receive on that account.’ Contrary to his initial expectation, Wallis was given by Nottingham ‘a Present (from the King, I suppose) of Fifty pound. Which I looked upon as a handsome gratuity for the service then done and as a testimon[y] of his Ma[jes]ty’s acceptance (which I valued) and returned my acknowledgements.’ Wallis was anxious, however, that future French decrypts be kept secret in order not to lead France to change its ciphers.

Wallis’s success in revealing Louis XIV’s plans to provoke war between Poland and Prussia so impressed Frederick I, Duke (later King) of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg, that he asked Wallis to decrypt further (probably French) despatches for him. Having done so, Wallis was told that Frederick was sending him ‘a rich medal with an honourable inscription, & a gold chain of a great value’. Two years later, Wallis had still received neither and complained to the English ambassador in Berlin of being ‘treated like a child, as if I were to be wheedled on to difficult services by a few fair words, & a promise of a few sugar-plums, which should in the issue signify nothing’. The ‘rich medal’ and gold chain did, however, eventually arrive. Both appear on a small table by Wallis’s side in a portrait of him by the leading court painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller, presented to Oxford University by Wallis’s friend and admirer Samuel Pepys. Wallis was the first, and so far the only, British codebreaker to receive an award from a foreign ruler.

By the end of 1689, Wallis had succeeded in breaking a series of French diplomatic and military ciphers used by, among others, Louis XIV’s Foreign Minister, Colbert de Croissy, as well as by Louis himself.48 When sending the Earl of Nottingham the decrypt of a despatch to Croissy in December, Wallis added:

I am very ready to serve his Majesty the best I can, gratis, and to lay [aside] all my own affairs, as I have done this half year, to attend this service. I have been indisposed as to my health all this winter, my eyesight fails me so that I must be forced to quit this service. I have had assistance from my son who with some directions from me could pretty well perform it. I have lost the sight of one eye in the service already this winter.

Nottingham replied:

I . . . am very sorry this service has so much prejudiced your health. I have acquainted the King with it, who is very sensible of your zeal and good affection, and will, I believe, in a short time give you some mark of his favour, wherein my endeavours shall not be wanting to serve you. If I have occasion, hereafter, to send you any more of these letters, I will not press you to despatch them in so much haste as formerly, but leave it to you to do them more at leisure.

In fact, despite his fragile health, Wallis continued breaking ciphers for the remainder of the reign of William III, and outlived him by nearly two years. Wallis, however, continued to resent the fact that he received no regular salary as royal codebreaker and depended on irregular payments. Anxious to provide for his family, he told Nottingham he would be grateful for ‘any kindness’ in finding employment for his son and son-in-law, both struggling lawyers. Despite his age and infirmity, Wallis also declared himself ‘capable of any promotion Ecclesiastical’. Despite complimenting Wallis on his work, Nottingham failed to respond to his requests. As Wallis complained:

. . . Having (for my Lord Nottingham) condescended to do clarks[clerk’s]-work: I might at least expect clarks-wages (without being thought mercenary or ungentle). And I presume there is never a clark his Lo[rdshi]p keeps, but is (one way or other) better payd, for the work he doth, than I am.

He may say perhaps, This is (not his, but) the King’s service. Very true. And so is all the service his Lo[rdshi]p doth as Secretary. Yet he is well payd for it. And, so well, that he may (out of his allowance) afford to gratify those that work under him.

William III’s main military priority in 1690 was to drive James II and his forces from Ireland. Convinced that ‘nothing worthwhile would be done’ to end James’s rule in Ireland unless he took personal charge of the campaign, William crossed the Irish Sea in June 1690. The intelligence provided by Wallis’s decrypts was of great importance. Had Louis XIV sent further forces to add to the French regiments already in Ireland, James’s prospect of victory would have been much greater. Though the French fleet was stronger than those of the British and Dutch combined, William knew from intelligence reports (probably including decrypts) that the French fleet had no soldiers on board, and therefore that no French reinforcements were on the way to Ireland. At the Battle of the Boyne, north of Dublin, on 1 July 1690, William won a crushing victory over James II, who left Ireland never to return, angrily blaming his poorly led Irish troops for having ‘basely fled the field’. His Irish forces conferred on James the nickname Seamus an Chaca (‘James the Shithead’). The victory of the French fleet over the British and Dutch at the Battle of Beachy Head on 10 July did nothing to restore his fortunes.