The Dragon – U-28A Draco Special Ops Aircraft

This toned-down camouflage laden PC-12 turboprop is not used to fly business executives around and about. This is a U-28A operated by Air Force Special Operations Command. Two U-28As were present at Nellis during Class 19A WSINT flying missions from the super base to desert strips in the Nevada Test and Training Range

The U-28A is a manned, tactical ISR and targeting platform based on the Pilatus PC-12. It is employed worldwide in support of special operations ground forces, humanitarian efforts, and search and rescue. Mods include advanced radio-comms suite, survivability equipment, EO sensors, and advanced navigation systems. The USSOCOM-owned aircraft are operated by AFSOC as a nonstandard fleet. AFSOC first employed the aircraft during Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraqi Freedom. The fleet includes 28 operational and eight training aircraft. Two aircraft were lost to fatal mishaps in Djibouti in 2012 and at Cannon in 2017. Ongoing upgrades include sensor, self-defense, remote SIGINT, and navigation mods to enable ops in GPS-degraded environments and comply with Federal Aviation Administration airspace mandates. Multispectral Targeting System installation includes FMV, EO-IR, IR real-time video, and co-aligned laser designator. New Advanced Threat Warning (ATW) includes missile, hostile fire, and laser warning. Urgent infrared suppression mods are ongoing, and Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning will prevent flight-into-terrain accidents. FY20 funds additional U-28 EQ+ mods to enable deployment of four additional high-definition, FMV-equipped aircraft for extended stand-off “find, fix, finish” capabilities in support of counter-ISIS ops. AFSOC officially dubbed the type “Draco” in May 2019, but announced plans to replace the fleet with 75 “armed overwatch” aircraft capable of tactical ISR and light CAS.

The U-28A provides tactical airborne intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (AISR) and targeting in support of theater special operations forces (SOF). The non-standard aircraft is based on the single-engine Pilatus PC-12/45. US Special Operations Command acquired an initial batch of six PC-12s from commercial sources in 2005 and they were modified for use in support of Operations `Enduring Freedom’ and `Iraqi Freedom’. The U-28A ‑ fleet is assigned to AFSOC’s light tactical ­ fixed-wing ‑ fleet. It includes 34 U-28As that comprise 28 operational aircraft and eight tasked as training assets. The aircraft are operated by ­ five special operations squadrons at Hurlburt Field, Florida, and Cannon AFB, New Mexico. The U-28A crew is comprised of two pilots, a combat systems officer (CSO) and a tactical systems officer (TSO). Since entering service the platform has ‑ own more than 500,000 hours.

Special operation forces prefer to operate at night for the tactical advantage of executing the mission with speed and surprise before detection by the enemy.

In a recent Operation Coyote mission, 20 units, nearly 30 aircraft and approximately 160 personnel assigned to various commands were vital for the mission to succeed.

Undergraduates assigned to the 14th WPS serve with the various branches of US Special Operations Command who, during WSINT missions get the opportunity to rehearse, for example, the precise, detailed planning required to design and execute an air mission supporting a hostage rescue.

During Class WSINT 19A types involved were HC-130J Combat King IIs, MC-130H Combat Talons, MH-47G Chinooks, HH-60G Pave Hawks and MH-60M Black Hawks.

In addition, two U-28As flew a series of missions during WSINT most likely in support of Operation Coyote. This modified Pilatus PC-12 turboprop is used by Air Force Special Operations Command to provide search and rescue, tactical airborne ISR to humanitarian operations, conventional and special operation missions. The aircraft is fitted with a military radio communication suite with full-motion video and secure voice communications data link capability, advanced navigation systems and electrooptical sensors.

Of the 35 missions staged throughout a WSINT, the 14th WPS participates in approximately one third of them, those that require special operation forces integration to ensure success.

Contractor: Pilatus Aircraft Ltd.

First Flight: May 31, 1991 (PC-12).

Delivered: 2006-N/A.

IOC: June 2006.

Production: 36.

Inventory: 28 (USSOCOM-owned).

Operator: AFSOC, AFRC.

Aircraft Location: Cannon AFB, N.M.; Hurlburt Field, Fla.

Active Variant: U-28A. Special operations variant of the civilian Pilatus PC-12.

Dimensions: Span 53.3 ft, length 47.3 ft, height 14 ft.

Weight: Max T-O 10,935 lb.

Power Plant: Single Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67B, 1,200 shp.

Performance: Speed 253 mph, range 1,725 miles.

Ceiling: 30,000 ft.

Accommodation: Two pilots, CSO, tactical systems officer.


The major USAAF effort to supply the Resistance movements and secret armies in Europe began in the summer of 1943 under the codename ‘Carpetbagger’, which someone had lifted from the annals of the American Civil War. At first the Americans had been as unprepared for Resistance support as the British had been in 1940. OSS was introduced to supplement SOE operations and by 1942 was functioning very effectively under the dynamic leadership of Colonel (later General) William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan. In September 1942 the joint Anglo-American SOE-SO was formed and the Americans began participating in the planning of operations in many northwest European countries.

Eventually, OSS consisted of five major categories: Secret Intelligence (SI), responsible for intelligence gathering; Secret Operations (SO), the parachuting of agents into occupied countries; Morale Operations (MO), which involved propaganda broadcasts to the enemy to undermine his morale; and ‘X–2’, the counter-intelligence service. A Research and Analysis (R and A) Branch provided analysis of bomb damage and its repercussions on the German economy.

Unlike SOE, which came under the aegis of the British Government, authority for the Carpetbagger Project came from the American Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was they who directed that OSS would be the US Agency charged with sabotage and with the ‘Organization and Conduct of Guerilla Warfare’. In a cable dated 26 August 1943, from the Commanding General ETOUSA (European Theater of Operations USA), to the War Department, these directives were approved and three days later in a letter to Donovan the OSS was directed to work out with G–2 and G–3, ETOUSA, ‘the composition of Staffs for Army and Army group HO and to proceed with the organization and training of Jedburgh teams for the purpose of coordinating activities behind the enemy lines.’

Hundreds of Jedburgh teams were to be dropped into France just prior to and after the Allied invasion of Normandy. These teams consisted of three members, usually English, French and American. Most Jedburgh teams were dropped into areas well in advance of the allied invasion forces in order to provide a general staff for the local Resistance wherever they landed. They also organized sabotage and the disruption of enemy supplies and harried the retreat of enemy troops. Jedburgh teams usually remained in the field until overrun by the advancing Allied forces.

At first, Carpetbagger operations would be mounted from the English Midlands. Later in the war, missions were extended to include Scandinavia when a team headed by Bernt Balchen, the famous arctic explorer, mounted operations from Leuchars in Scotland. First, the ‘Sonnie’ project, as it was called, was so successful that ultimately, 3,016 passengers were evacuated, including 965 American internees. In July 1944 Carpetbagger crews were involved in the ‘Ball Project’ (so named because of the removal of the ball turret from the B–24), and carried out supply drops to the Norwegian underground.

Initially, personnel for the Carpetbagger unit were drawn from the 4th and 22nd Squadrons of the 479th Anti-Submarine Group, which had been disbanded in August 1943. They were selected because of their experience in long navigational patrols at night. For almost three months, operating from an aerodrome at Dunkeswell, Devon, these two squadrons, flying Consolidated B–24D Liberator aircraft, had carried out anti-submarine sweeps over the Bay of Biscay, flying lone patrols of between ten and twelve hours’ duration, looking for German U-boats. Their record was a good one. On one occasion they had taken on formations of twelve Ju–88s and had won through. They had even been fired upon by anti-aircraft batteries along the Spanish coast.

In October 1943 Anti-Submarine Command was disbanded and the task of keeping the Atlantic sealanes free of U-boats passed exclusively to the US Navy and RAF Coastal Command. On 26 October the ground section of the 22nd Anti-Submarine Squadron left Dunkeswell by motor convoy for Alconbury. They overnighted at Yettingdon and arrived at Station 102 the next morning. Meanwhile, the air echelon had flown north from Devon but bad weather prevented them from landing at the Huntingdonshire base. They were forced to land at other airfields over a wide area and many were fogged in for a week. Ground crews in the 4th Anti-Submarine Squadron had better luck, leaving Dunkeswell on 1 November by train and road. At Alconbury the 4th and 22nd joined the men and machines of the 482nd (Pathfinder) Group.

At first the ex-anti-submarine group crews did not know what their new role would be, although the later change in squadron designation from ‘anti-submarine’ to ‘bombardment’ made them draw the wrong conclusions. Existing squadrons in the 482nd were carrying out pathfinder missions but the two new squadrons took on a curious demeanour when their B–24D Liberators were painted black. It was an appropriate choice of colour because the new commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Clifford J. Heflin, was still in the dark.

Not until 24 October 1943 did Heflin learn what the new duties of his former 22nd Anti-submarine Squadron and of the 4th would be. On this date Heflin, his deputy, Major Robert W. Fish and Lieutenants Robert D. Sullivan and Akers, were summoned to attend a meeting at Bovingdon. They were met by Colonel Williamson, A–3 of VIII Bomber Command, Group Captain (later Air Vice-Marshal) E.H. ‘Mouse’ Fielden from RAF Tempsford, Colonel Oliver of 8th Air Force and Colonel Joseph F. Haskell and Major Brooks of OSS, London. While the Americans were new to the sabotage game, Fielden and the RAF Special Duty squadrons in complete contrast, were old hands. Fielden was a former Captain of the King’s Flight and had taken command of No. 138 Squadron in August 1941. RAF clandestine air operations on behalf of SOE had begun in August 1940 and by mid-1941 was operating with a handful of Lysander single-engined army co-operation aircraft and Whitley bombers. The Lysanders and later Hudsons, were used in the dangerous task of flying out SOE agents who had finished their spell of duty in France, or who were on the run from the Gestapo. Escaping RAF airmen were also plucked to safety on occasions. Altogether, the Lysanders delivered 304 agents to France and exfiltrated 410 to Britain for the loss of thirteen aircraft and six pilots.

War-weary Whitley and Wellington bombers and later Halifax, Stirling and Hudson aircraft, were used for long-range parachute operations. By February 1942 138 Squadron had been joined in special duty operations by No. 161 Squadron and both squadrons began operations from Tempsford in the spring of 1942. Their hard-won experience and techniques were made available to the USAAF.

Williamson explained that the former anti-submarine squadrons had been assigned duties as ‘Sabotage’ squadrons. Amazed at this development, Heflin and his junior officers listened attentively as they were briefed in turn by the OSS officers and the British Group Captain about their involvement in a new operation with the cover name ‘Carpetbagger Project’. For the most part, Heflin’s squadrons would come under Special Operations. OSS would direct operations and arrange details of reception grounds (working in close co-operation with SOE who would specify the contents of the containers and packages to be delivered).

SO-SOE anticipated that the strength of Resistance groups on D–Day would be about 160,000. The continual problem that this posed to the Allied high command was their leadership, communications and supplies. The Resistance forces had to be organized into well-disciplined units, controlled by an effective system of communications and be capable of carrying out military operations such as attacks on enemy installations, disruption of enemy road and rail systems and hindering the deployment of enemy troop and tank movements.

In France this aim was a commander’s nightmare. The Free French operated under a command network of no fewer than a dozen délégués militaires régionaux (DMRs) who were able to request arms drops, via radio contact with SOE, from the Allied air forces. The Resistance movements were also divided between the Front National and the Communist-directed Franc-tireurs et Partisans (FTP).

The situation was made even more intriguing by political infighting between the Allies. In London General Charles de Gaulle claimed to represent France and therefore argued that all operations in his country should come under his direction. Initially, the British and American governments opposed this on political grounds. They also mistrusted the apparent lack of security, justifiably on occasions, at Free French Headquarters. All this led SOE to establish an ‘independent French’ (or ‘F’) section headed by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster (which by June 1944 was operating 50 réseaux in France). Understandably, de Gaulle was unhappy about this arrangement, which persisted until 1944 when in preparation for D-Day, he formed the FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur).

It was proposed that the SO (Special Operations) Branch of the OSS undertake the delivery of supplies to Resistance groups in a plan coordinated with the SOE. Heflin’s crews would air drop the Jedburgh teams, supplies and small arms, light automatic weapons, munitions, explosives, demolition and incendiary equipment. Generally speaking, pinpoints suitable for dropping a certain number of containers or packages would be proposed by SO. It was envisaged that no more than three squadrons of aircraft would be needed to supply the Resistance groups in occupied Europe.

At first approval was given only for supplying Resistance groups on a limited scale, for previous British experience had shown that considerable time would be needed to train crews for this type of operation. Lieutenant Wilmer L. Stapel, pilot of one of the original twelve B–24Ds commanded by Colonel Heflin that arrived at Dunkeswell in early August 1943, recalls:

After numerous briefings and stern warnings about ever discussing our clandestine operation, with a constant threat of court martial, if we ever disclosed anything at any time, one more prerequisite remained to be done before our crews would be turned loose over the continent of Europe. Each pilot, navigator and bombardier had to fly two combat missions each, with a combat ready crew. Since the USAAF had none, we were sent to the RAF squadrons at Tempsford to fly with their crews.

As has already been mentioned, both Nos. 138 and 161 Squadrons were stationed at the airfield, located just to the north of Sandy in Bedfordshire. To maintain security, Tempsford was known simply as ‘Gibraltar Farm’ to civilians and servicemen alike. Seemingly, its only link with civilization was with the main London to Edinburgh railway which runs parallel to the base and which is bounded on the west side by the Great North Road. The Special Duty squadrons at Tempsford had amassed a wealth of experience on varied cloak-and-dagger missions to the Low Countries and France and as far afield as Austria, Norway, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The assassination of SS–Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, was carried out on 27 May 1942 by Czech agents who had taken off from Tempsford. Heydrich was mortally wounded and died on 4 June 1942.

MI6 and SOE agents departing from and arriving at Tempsford were held at staging areas at Tempsford and Hasells Halls, and at Farm Hall, an unimposing mansion on West Street in Godmanchester. In 1942-3 Farm Hall (Special Training School No. 61) was used by six members of the Gunnerside team, whose mission was to destroy the German heavy water plant at Vermork in Norway, near the region of Telemark close to the electricity-generating area and nitrate plant at Rjukan. It was known that German scientists were working towards developing an atomic bomb and it was crucial therefore towards developing an atomic bomb and it was crucial therefore to deprive them of heavy water, which was needed to slow down the process of atomic fission. Thirty-four commandos of the First Airborne Division had taken off from Scotland on 19 November 1942 in two gliders to sabotage the plant but the attempt had ended in disaster when one of the towing aircraft crashed into a mountainside in Norway and both gliders crashed. All the surviving commandos were captured and shot.

For three months the Gunnerside team trained at Farm Hall, practising the demolition of simulated heavy water concentration cells. One member of the team, Knut Haukelid, described the Hall thus:

It was a station for people who were going to Europe on secret errands and who had to wait for planes. The place was very closely guarded. A number of servicewomen kept the house in order, cooked the meals and gave the boys some social life … But if we asked the FANYs [First Air Nursing Yeomanry] about our comrades who had gone out before us, they became dumb and knew nothing.

According to Arnold Kramish in his book The Griffin:

Farm Hall was not just a staging area for agents going out; it was an interrogation centre for agents and their captives coming in. Every room in the house, and some of the garden trees, was wired with microphones and there was a listening post in an isolated room.

In the early 1990s, floorboards were removed and revealed underfloor bugging devices in ‘finely crafted containers, like pencil boxes, with wires in them … Loyalties were automatically questioned, and the wiring gave information sometimes not elicited through interrogation’. Kramish states that the bugging devices had been put there on the orders of Lieutenant Commander Eric Welsh, a Royal Navy intelligence officer in SOE. Professor R.V. Jones, in his book Most Secret War, says that he asked for microphones to be placed there in 1945 before the arrival of ten German nuclear physicists.

On 16 February 1943 the Gunner side team, led by Lieutenant Joachim Rönneberg, took off from Tempsford and parachuted into Norway where they rendezvoused with four men of the Rype (Grouse) advance scouting party which had been dropped on 18 October 1942 to reconnoitre the area. The sabotage team made its way to Rjukan and during the night of 27/28 February blew up the heavy water concentration cells without any casualties. In the event, the Germans were able to repair the damage and make the plant operational again but production of heavy water was denied them for a critical few months and a stock of about 350 kilograms of heavy water was lost.

Tempsford, therefore, provided an ideal training school for the eager young American aircrews. The Special Duty Squadrons’ ability to exfiltrate secret agents and escaping aircrews from Occupied Europe did not go unnoticed either. During 1943 no fewer than 157 pick-up operations,† of which 111 were successful, were attempted by Lysander pilots of 161 Squadron. During operations from Tempsford and the forward base at Tangmere 138 Squadron made over 2,500 sorties and dropped almost 1,000 agents in occupied Europe for the loss of seventy aircraft.


Jedburgh teams suit up in England prior to boarding a ‘Carpetbagger’ B-24.

The crew of the 406th Bomb Squadron standing in front of the Liberator B-24 “Brer Rabbit” which dropped the “VIS” Team during the night from 1st to 2 June 1944.

Standing up (left to right): Clinton Rabbit (Pilot) – Ernest Asbury (Co-pilot) – Floyd Olson (Navigator) – Donald Leinhauser (Bomber) – Art Bogusz (Mechanic)

In crouching position (left to right): Nick Rasnak (Dispatcher) – Steve Sianis (Radio) – Mike Tauger (Tail gunner)

The first Americans to arrive at the Tempsford ‘academy’ were Robert W. Fish (now Lieutenant-Colonel), Robert D. Sullivan (now Captain) and the Group Intelligence Officer and one crew, captained by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert L. Boone of the 406th Squadron. Altogether, the party of American officers spent two months at the top secret Bedfordshire airfield. The American officers and crews found the training routine very demanding and completely different to anything they had been used to. In order that accurate drops could be made, pilots would have to get down to within 400–600 ft off the ground and reduce their flying speed to 130 mph or less. The low speed reduced the chances of damage to parachutes, as the shock is much less at the slower speed. The pilots, navigators and bombardiers each made two operational flights with RAF crews in the Halifax. The first flight involving an American trainee was made on 3/4 November but it ended disastrously when the 138 Squadron Halifax in which Captain James E. Estes was flying struck high ground in fog at Marcoles-les-Eaux. Only the tail gunner survived the crash. By 7 November, numerous training flights had been made and only the lack of suitably modified Liberators was preventing American crews from flying their own missions.

Converting to nocturnal special duty specification from daylight long-range bomber configuration was enough to tax even the most hardened of ground crew personnel. Ball turrets had to be removed and replaced with cargo hatches, nicknamed ‘Joe Holes’, through which the secret agents or ‘Joes’ dropped. A static line was installed for them and to facilitate bale outs, the hole had a metal shroud inside the opening. If the Liberator did not have a ball turret, a hole was made there. Plywood was used to cover the floors and blackout curtains graced the waist windows and navigator’s compartment, while blister side windows had to be installed to give the pilots greater visibility. Later models had their nose turrets removed. A ‘greenhouse’ was fashioned instead to allow the bombardier a good view of the drop zone and to enable him to carry out pilotage for the navigator. Suppressors or flame dampers were fitted to the engine exhausts to stifle the tell-tale blue exhaust flames. Machine-guns located on both sides of the waist were removed, leaving only the top and rear turrets for protection. In flight the entire aircraft would be blacked out except for a small light in the navigator’s compartment.

Oxygen equipment would not be needed at the low levels flown and was removed. A variety of special navigational equipment and radar aids had to be installed. The air crews learned that during the non-moon period, flights at night would be made with the use of Rebecca and an absolute radio altimeter. By means of all this equipment, the percentage of accuracy on a drop could be even greater than with ordinary visual pilotage.

Rebecca was a British radar directional, air to ground device which was originally fitted to aircraft in the RAF Special Duties squadrons. It was used to record impulses or ‘blips’ on a grid and directed the navigator to the ground operator. By varying the intensity or frequency of the blip, the ground operator (whose set was known as Eureka O) could transmit a signal letter to the aircraft. These signals could be activated from up to seventy miles away to enable the aircraft crew to pin-point its drop zone. Eureka sets, which weighed up to 100 lb, were parachuted in to Resistance groups. However, many Joes and Resistance radio-operators, not wishing to lug the set, which was heavy, or run the risk of being caught with it in their possession, refused to use it.

While training flights continued Sullivan made a study of Intelligence techniques and Fish surveyed the entire operational procedure. On 9 November King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Tempsford. Six American crews were among those who were introduced to the royal party and the following day Major Joyce, the 8th Air Force Security Officer, and Captain Stearns of the OSS arrived to obtain information and to assess progress made thus far. On 11 November Lieutenant Cross, a bombardier, failed to return when the Halifax in which he was flying was lost on a sortie to France.

These early training flights in which the Americans flew with their brother officers and men of the RAF squadrons were proving quite an education, in more than one sense of the word, as Wilmer Stapel recalls:

My first introduction flight was with a Flight Sergeant and his crew on the night of 15 November in a Halifax bomber. I rode the co-pilot position. The mission consisted of cargo and ‘Joes’ that we were to drop somewhere east of Paris. The weather was not favourable and although we reached the drop area, we were unable to complete the drop. On our way homeward we arrived at an area where we were in and out of cloud. Before the navigator could pinpoint our position, the enemy did.

We were showered with a barrage of flak before the pilot could take evasive action. No. 3 engine was hit and put out of commission. The cockpit lights were put out by the intense firing from the ground and several anti-aircraft shells burst on my side of the plane directly behind my seat. Fragments of shrapnel scattered throughout the cockpit, striking the pilot, flight engineer and radio operator.

The pilot skilfully manoeuvred the aircraft out of ack-ack range and an assessment was made of the damage and injured. While the pilot and other crew members were given first aid treatment for their wounds (none were real serious), I was asked to fly the aircraft: my one and only experience in flying a Halifax. The pilot returned to the cockpit and managed to fly the plane back to Tempsford without further incident. During all of the action I had remained unscathed. Only after landing and at the crew debriefing was it noted that some of the shrapnel had torn a couple of holes in the back of my flight jacket.

I went to bed and tried to sleep. The RAF sergeant’s crew were sent on recuperation leave while the aircraft went to the hangar to have the battle damage repaired. The sergeant and his crew were lost on the very next mission after returning from leave.

On 22 November Heflin and Fish attended a meeting in London, where it was decided to use the air echelon of the 22nd Anti-submarine Squadron and the ground echelon of the 4th Anti-submarine Squadron to form two new squadrons, the 36th and 406th Bomb Squadrons, commanded by Fish and Heflin respectively. The two men learned that as of 11 November the two squadrons had been assigned to the First Bomb Division (equipped with B–17s!) although their activation would not officially be published until 4 December. Though the Liberators were still not ready for night operations it was decided that for the next operational moon period (December), the squadrons would again operate from Tempsford but would use their own aircraft.

Six new crews were brought in from the States. One of them was led by the pilot, Lieutenant William G. McKee. Charles D. Fairbanks, the crew’s original ball turret gunner, recalls:

Our crew of ten were put on two B–17s (five on each) and flown by Ferry Command to England via Bangor and Newfoundland at night. I crawled up in a cargo hold in the forward bomb bay and tried to sleep. Even in our sheepskin coats it was cold. We were also on oxygen. When it got daylight I discovered that the cargo rack I was sleeping in was retained by one bomb shackle. One little malfunction and I could have been dropped into the north Atlantic!

We arrived at Nutts Corner in Northern Ireland. It was difficult to find because the runway had been painted to blend in with the countryside. In Belfast we boarded a steamer and sailed to Liverpool. We were fed and driven in trucks to the Combat Crew Replacement Centre at Stone after dark. None of us were familiar with the blackout and we had to hold hands to make sure we found our way from the barracks to the mess hall. Next morning we could not find the mess hall because we did not know where we had been the night before!

We were processed and several days later we were taken to Alconbury where we and five other crews were assigned to the 36th and 406th Squadrons. Our ten-man crew was trimmed down to four officers and four enlisted men. Two of them, Pasvantis and Dickenson, were sent to other outfits. I was the ball gunner but since the Carpetbaggers had no ball turret, they moved me back to the tail. Later we learned that Dickenson had been killed. He had been standing in the bomb bay with his arm wrapped around a bomb when the bombs were salvoed. He went out the bomb bay doors without a parachute.

At Alconbury we were assigned ‘C’ for Charlie, a B–24D Liberator painted dull matt black. The ‘C’ and the serial number were about the only markings on it. There were no large emblems on the wings. Later, about halfway through our tour we were given B–24Js with the nose and ball turrets out. They were painted a real glossy black. It was said that when the searchlights hit them at night the people on the ground could not see them as well as the matt black.

McKee’s crew went through indoctrination procedures at Harrington and prepared for their training flights from Tempsford. Wilmer Stapel, meanwhile, flew his second mission from the Bedfordshire airfield on the night of 10 December:

The aircraft was very sluggish and slow on take-off. We barely got airborne before the end of the runway. The climb-out was just as bad and at about 1,000 ft the RAF pilot decided to abort the flight and return for a landing. He ordered us all into our crash positions. I found out that mine was directly behind the cockpit bulkhead.

I couldn’t see what was going on but from the sound of the engines winding up, it sounded as if he had temporarily lost control of the aircraft. We began a tight spiral and proceeded down. The next thing we heard was the thumping of this heavy aircraft as it bounced on the ground. We bumped a couple of times and then the aircraft stopped. The crew immediately disembarked and I followed them. We were on the airfield but off the runway. End of mission!

On 14 December Lieutenant-Colonel Heflin relinquished command of the 406th to Captain Robert Boone and was assigned to the parent 482nd Group as Air Executive – Special Project. Major Fish became Operations Officer and command of the 36th Squadron passed to Captain Rodman St. Clair, who since 5 December had been in charge of the latest group of American trainees seconded to Tempsford. There, training missions had continued with the odd hiccup. On 17 December Lieutenant Glenn C. Nesbitt and his crew had to bale out of their Liberator in bad weather over England after a mission with the RAF over France. The bad weather grew worse and three days later the American crews returned to Alconbury without completing any further missions.

The 36th and 406th Squadrons spent their first Christmas at Alconbury playing host to a group of English children, giving them candy and gum rations that the officers and enlisted men had contributed to for several weeks. For children living under wartime austerity conditions for four years, the Yuletide festivities were a time of great excitement. For the men it was a welcome break from the perils and stress of Carpetbagger flying. It was amazing to see hard-bitten crew-chiefs handling the little children, catering for their every whim. One of the First Sergeants was even seen riding a little blond boy around on the handlebars of his GI bicycle. When the icecreams were served, many of the little ones were very excited as only some of the older ones had ever seen ice-cream before.

Two days later the festive spirit had truly disappeared with the sobering reality of the first loss of a complete crew. The Liberator, flown by Captain Robert L. Williams, Operations Officer of the 36th Squadron, ran into very bad weather during a cross-country navigational training flight and crashed into the side of a hill on the south coast with the loss of all eight crew.

Wilmer Stapel, meanwhile, was anxiously anticipating his second mandatory mission with the RAF after the original one had been aborted on the night of 10 December:

After two harrowing experiences with my RAF cohorts and another mission to go before my crew was declared combat ready, I strongly suggested to Colonel Heflin that I preferred to do the piloting myself. If I was destined to ‘buy the farm’ I’d prefer that it be at my hands if I had to go. Colonel Heflin said he would use my crew and I could be the co-pilot on the next mission. This is how it happened that Colonel Heflin, with my crew, flew the first combat mission on the night of 4 January 1944. The flight was into France and was successful. The total flight time was seven hours and no enemy was engaged.

Despite the veil of secrecy surrounding the new unit there was still little to be secretive about at Alconbury, since few men knew very many details about the Carpetbagger Project. The newspapers gave hints, if one knew which articles to read, and could read between the lines. The Daily Express of Saturday, 15 January 1944, carried an inconspicuous item datelined Geneva. Under the headline, ‘Patriots Wreck Railways’, it was reported:

French patriots last night attacked the German-held Annecy railway depot and blew up several locomotives. At Romilly, in Savoy, patriots stopped a train, forced the passengers to alight, then sent the train rushing uncontrolled along the line until it overturned.

In Belgium, patriots complying with directions given to them by the Allied Command, carried out forty-two acts of sabotage in one week on the railway tracks in the province of Hainault. They stopped trains and started them without drivers, placed bombs on the tracks, unbolted rails, destroyed signal boxes and put pumping stations out of action.

The following day, the Sunday Graphic, in a brief item, referred cryptically to ‘“Secret Airmen” whose work is a close secret and will make amazing reading after the war’.

The Germans already knew of course. Don Fairbanks recalls:

One night we really got a shock. We would listen to music coming from Germany. One night ‘Lord Haw Haw’ welcomed us to Europe. He named our squadron CO and read out our squadron numbers and said the Luftwaffe was waiting for us to come over to the mainland. We were green troops and this really got to us. We were really concerned about our safety and security on the base and all those things you think of when you’re a nineteen-year-old.

At Alconbury the flight line was becoming overcrowded with Carpetbagger aircraft trying to operate alongside the Pathfinder aircraft of the 482nd and vice versa. Fresh moves and promotions were put into effect in late January and early February 1944 which were designed to increase operational efficiency. A new base at Harrington, just west of Kettering and only 35 miles from the packing and storage depot at Holme in Huntingdonshire, was under consideration. Until it was ready for occupation it was decided to transfer several of the Carpetbagger aircraft eastwards to RAF Watton in Norfolk, where the 328th Service Group would provide an administrative headquarters.

On 7 February movement of some of the Liberators and their crews to Watton began. The Norfolk base was thought to be, in some ways, an ideal location for a month’s winter sojourn until Harrington was ready for American occupancy. The 3rd SAD (Strategic Air Depot) was already based at Watton and its role of Liberator repair and modification would greatly assist the Carpetbagger outfit. The 406th Bomb Squadron began the movement while seven crews and six Liberators were left behind to continue operations with the 36th Squadron. Skeleton ground sections and some combat crew also remained behind at Alconbury. In the midst of all this operational upheaval, on 10 February, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Alconbury. During their tour of the base they took time to inspect one of the Pathfinder aircraft and also Captain Wagstad’s crew standing beside their black-painted B–24. Sadly, Wagsted and his crew would die one month later on 3 March, when their B–24, together with another in the 36th Bomb Squadron, was lost on a Carpetbagger sortie.

By 17 February the move to Watton was complete. However, the Norfolk base was not matching up to early expectations. Watton had been constructed before the war as a permanent RAF base with purpose-built hangars, mess halls and barracks. However, no room could be found for the Carpetbagger contingent so they had to put up with life on the mud-flats on which tented accommodation had been erected.

Out of nowhere, clothes racks, shelves and packing box entrances sprang into existence. Each tent had a supply of firewood (scrounged from the local area) to last a long, cold winter. Don Fairbanks recalls:

Each tent was set up for six men. In my tent there were four men from one crew and two of us from our crew. We walked into the tent after one mission and there were six guys in it we had never seen before. We went to the First Sergeant and told him our belongings had gone. We were told that a crew had been shot down and our stuff had gone into storage with their stuff. He said we could draw our stuff from supply and go back and explain to the guys in the tent but we weren’t to upset them. It turned out that these guys in our tent were all cooks and bakers and this was why the First Sergeant didn’t want us to upset them! They were worth more to us as friends then enemies! Two did leave and we got to know the rest very well. After this we all ate like kings living off steaks and real eggs instead of powdered.

During the time the squadrons spent there, a few air raid alerts sounded. It was during one of these that in one of the Ordnance Sections, the order went out to sleep with helmets on! All in all, the men made the best of it in the short stay in the Watton mud-flats. The hiking to the main road with boots and hiding them in the bushes, putting on another pair carried along. The most difficult part of it all was finding the right bush in the dark, with a belly full of beer.

The big problem at Watton was that only grass runways with pierced steel planking (PSP) were available. These proved totally unsuitable, as Don Fairbanks recalls:

We could not operate loaded B–24s so we TDY’ed back to Alconbury for our missions during the full moon, then back to Watton. At Alconbury the four EM from our crew bunked in an abandoned mess hall. It was better than the tents at Watton. Prior to our arrival one crew had made up their bunks, went on a mission and had got shot down. Another crew was brought in to replace them. They made up their bunks, went out that night and also got shot down. We came in with two other crews and on hearing the story nobody would sleep in those four ‘unlucky’ beds. People slept on the floor first.

Although the Project was now scattered hither and thither, on paper at least, the Carpetbaggers existed as a functional unit. On 27 February the group was officially relieved of its assignment to the 482nd and the 1st Bomb Division. Headquarters, 328th Service Group, was designated as the acting Group HQ following a message signed by General James E. Doolittle. Higher headquarters passed to VIII Air Force Composite Command, based at Cheddington.

Germany under Pressure 1943 Part II

Hitler had already summoned the leaders of Hungary, Romania and Slovakia to meetings to pull them into line, and Bluecher demanded that President Ryti, re-elected on 15 February 1943, make the same journey, but Ryti refused. Germany showed its displeasure by temporarily recalling Bluecher, then, from the beginning of June, stopping all deliveries of food to Finland and halving deliveries of fuel and lubricants. However, Germany could not risk antagonising its only ally with proven ability to fight the Red Army successfully (and with a record at that better in some respects than Germany’s own). So the restrictions were lifted at the end of June, even though Finland had still made no concessions.

Most Finnish political and military leaders resisted even the thought of a lost war until at least the end of 1942, but Mannerheim had recognised the possibility much earlier, and throughout the year the Finnish Army not only undertook no offensives of its own but also refused to participate in German ones, such as the attempt to cut the railway along which about a quarter of Allied Lend-Lease supplies were transported from Murmansk and Archangelsk to central Russia.

The Finnish government periodically sounded public opinion by surveys, the results of which were published only after the war.249 The differences in results of two surveys, one in September 1942, the other in January 1943, indicated how public opinion shifted in response to the Soviet victory at Stalingrad and, on Finland’s own doorstep, to the success of Operation ‘Iskra’ in partially lifting the blockade of Leningrad. The surveys asked simply ‘Do you believe Germany will win?’ The results, in percentages, were as follows:

Finland had been stressed by its war effort to the extent of calling up 45-year-olds, and continued throughout 1943 to explore, quietly, so as not to arouse German suspicions, the possibilities for negotiating a way out of the war. In July the Soviet embassy in Stockholm conveyed a message through the Belgian ambassador, indicating willingness to negotiate, provided the initiative came from the Finnish side, but that approach was not followed up. Unlike the UK, the USA had not yet declared war on Finland, so during the summer of 1943 the Finnish government made a desperate attempt to secure American rather than Soviet or German occupation by notifying the State Department, via the US embassy in Lisbon, that if American forces landed in northern Norway and invaded Finland from there, the Finnish army would not resist them. However, the United States military had no interest in such a diversion, so nothing came of this. Finland did not in fact leave the war until September 1944, but that its leaders began seeking a way out on the very day of the final surrender at Stalingrad was evidence of that event’s impact on Germany’s allies, even on one that had no forces involved in the disaster.

To add to the Germans’ problems, the outcome at Stalingrad had important effects on the population of German-occupied Soviet territory. The Wehrmacht’s inability to achieve the anticipated lightning victory, and the behaviour of German occupation forces, had already considerably cooled the enthusiasm with which many, particularly in the Baltic states, former Polish or Romanian territory and Ukraine, had initially greeted the invaders; support or at least acceptance of their presence was widespread as long as they appeared to be winning. However, the debacle at Stalingrad alerted the inhabitants of occupied areas, whether pro- or anti-Soviet, to the likelihood that ultimately Soviet rule would return, then those who had resisted the invaders would be rewarded, any who had not would be severely punished, and any who had actively assisted them could expect a rope or a bullet.

The consequence was a great increase during the first half of 1943 in the numbers joining partisan units behind the German lines – according to one account numbers doubled, so that by March there were up to 100,000 in 1,047 detachments, and by the opening of ‘Citadel’ the numbers had risen to 142,000. With so many men available, increasingly controlled and supplied by the regular Fronts, large-scale partisan operations became possible for the first time; on the night of 22/23 June, for example, the rail system in Bryansk province was attacked. It was claimed that 4,100 rails were blown up, but that is undoubtedly an exaggeration, as the same account described the main line along which German reinforcements and supplies came in as blocked only ‘for three whole days’. However, an indication of the extent of partisan activity is that these attacks took place only three weeks after the conclusion of a major anti-partisan operation, ‘Zigeunerbaron’ (‘Gypsy Baron’), in precisely that area.

Partisan activity, small-scale and sporadic in 1941, had grown until guerrilla raids became too large and frequent to be countered solely by Einsatzkommandos, police battalions and (mostly Ukrainian) auxiliaries. It became necessary to use army units as well, and this diverted large numbers of German and allied troops from their front-line duties. Operation ‘Zigeunerbaron’ was a classic example. While preparations for ‘Citadel’ were in full swing, the entire 18th Panzer Division and other units, including Hungarian troops and Soviet ‘volunteers’, had to spend two weeks ‘purging’ the forest areas south of Bryansk of partisan forces estimated at 3,000–3,500 strong. The 18th Panzer Division alone claimed to have destroyed 207 ‘camps’ and 2,930 ‘combat positions’, killed or captured 700 partisans, killed 1,584 unspecified ‘others’, taken 1,568 prisoners and received 869 Red Army deserters, evacuated 15,812 civilians and burned down all villages in the area, thereby seemingly denuding it both of partisans and of all sources of support for them. Yet the partisans were able to mount substantial and coordinated attacks on the rail system only three weeks after ‘Zigeunerbaron’ ended.

For ‘Citadel’ Army Group Centre had available three panzer (41st, 46th and 47th) and two infantry (20th, 23th) corps, totalling 6 panzer, 1 panzer-grenadier (motorised infantry) and 14 infantry divisions, with over 900 tanks, supported by 730 aircraft. At Army Group South Hoth had three corps (52nd, 48th Panzer, 2nd SS Panzer) and so had Kempf (3rd Panzer, 42nd and Corps Raus), totalling between them 6 panzer, 5 panzer-grenadier and 11 infantry divisions, with about 1,000 tanks and 150 assault guns, and 1,100 aircraft. In reserve Army Group Centre had two panzer and one panzer-grenadier divisions, Army Group South one of each. The seven infantry divisions of the 2nd Army, on the salient’s west face, were to form the west side of the encirclement that the mobile forces were expected to create, and until that happened were to do just enough to prevent the enemy moving troops to other sectors. The forces available for ‘Citadel’ therefore totalled 55 divisions (15 panzer, 8 panzergrenadier and 32 infantry). All 23 mobile and 15 of the infantry divisions were at or near full strength, and they totalled about 900,000 men.

Even after the Directive was issued, there was still disagreement among the generals about the form ‘Citadel’ should take. On 4 May Hitler held a meeting in Munich with Kluge, Manstein, Guderian and Zeitzler, at which a letter from Model was considered, raising objections to the operation as planned because he still contended the resources allocated to him were inadequate. Possible alternatives discussed included simply attacking the west face of the salient, or allowing the Soviets to attack first, weakening them in a defensive battle, and then mounting a counteroffensive; Hitler rejected the first as necessitating too complex redeployments, and the second as ‘too passive’.

Had Hitler but known it, the defensive option he then disdained was the very one that Stalin had already chosen three weeks earlier, on Zhukov’s recommendation. Apart from one day (25 March) in Moscow, Zhukov was with the Voronezh and Central Fronts from 17 March to 11 April, and Vasilevsky joined him on 1 April. On 8 April Zhukov sent a telegram to Stalin, in which he stated categorically that the Germans’ summer offensive would be against the Kursk salient, that there were two options, to disrupt their preparations by attacking first, or to wear them out in a defensive battle then launch a counter-offensive, and that he favoured the latter course. This meant temporarily surrendering the initiative, something generals normally prefer to avoid unless absolutely sure they know what the enemy intends to do. Yet Zhukov, an anything but ‘passive’ commander, proposed to build the entire Soviet strategy around what he expected the Germans to do, only a few weeks after February’s major Intelligence failure to foresee Manstein’s offensive, and a full week before Hitler even issued the Directive for ‘Citadel’. Why were he and Stalin so sure that they knew what the Germans would do?

Neither Zhukov nor Vasilevsky ever explained the reasons for their certainty. Zhukov said only that ‘by agreement’ with Vasilevsky and the Front commanders a ‘careful reconnaissance’ of the enemy facing the Central, Voronezh and South-West Fronts was conducted in late March and early April, using Intelligence Directorate and partisan resources to establish ‘presence and deployment of enemy reserves in depth…the course of regrouping and concentration of forces redeployed from France, Germany and other countries’. The main problem with this statement is that in ‘late March and early April’ there were few ‘enemy reserves’ for Intelligence to find anywhere at all, let alone deployed in positions that could be positively equated with an intended future attack on the Kursk salient. As already mentioned, Manstein’s hopes of mounting an offensive against it in April had been thwarted by lack of reserves. Some would have become available after the abandonment of the Demyansk salient at the end of February. However, when Hitler issued Operations Order no. 5 his assignments of additional forces for ‘Citadel’ did not mention Demyansk at all, but specifically allocated troops from the 4th and 9th Armies that would become available by withdrawal from the much larger Rzhev-Vyazma salient. When he issued the Order, on 13 March, that withdrawal was still in progress. It was completed on the next day, reducing the length of the front line in that sector from 550 to 200 kilometres (from about 344 to 125 miles), and freeing 20 divisions, 15 of which were redeployed to block the offensive by the Bryansk and Central Fronts in the Orel area. However, by 8 April, the day Zhukov sent his message to Stalin, few of the units in question could yet have moved to locations identifiable by local Soviet reconnaissance as associated with anything beyond the local defensive battles in which they were engaged till the last days of March. In fact 27 March was the first day for several months on which the daily Sovinformburo bulletin announced ‘no significant changes’ in the front line.

As for ‘regrouping and concentration of forces redeployed from France, Germany and other countries’, movements involving more than routine replacement of casualties for units already on the Eastern Front would not be undertaken until that same Operations Order no. 5 was issued, so would not even begin until the second half of March, and only air force units could undertake them quickly (as mentioned below, Bletchley’s first indications of German intentions related to Kursk came from Luftwaffe messages decrypted during the third week of March).

Vasilevsky was scarcely more forthcoming, commenting,

although we didn’t know everything about the German plans we foresaw much, and deduced much, relying both on information from the Intelligence organs and on analysis of current events. Documents in our possession fully reveal the mechanism of the German army’s preparation for a new offensive…Despite all the contradictions and disputes, the German command’s plans amounted to decisively weakening the striking force of the offensive by Soviet troops that they expected in summer, after that develop a victorious offensive in the east, snatch the strategic initiative from the hands of the Soviet command and achieve a breakthrough in the war to their advantage.

This passage is remarkable for two things. First, his use of the present tense ‘reveal’ may be a ‘historic present’ (somewhat more common in Russian usage than in English), meaning that the General Staff had the documents before the battle, or it may mean that they came into ‘our possession’ only after it, at some unspecified time before he wrote his memoirs. Secondly, his summary of the German plans as comprising a defensive battle followed by a counter-offensive is completely wrong. As noted above, Hitler had rejected that as ‘too passive’. Furthermore, Vasilevsky contradicted himself in the very next paragraph, which correctly cited Operations Order no. 5 of 13 March as ‘setting the task of pre-empting the Soviet forces on various sectors of the front after the spring thaw’. But here too he did not say whether the Order’s contents were or were not known before the battle. So neither of the two main architects of the Soviet victory at Kursk shed much light on the question of where they got their information. There may therefore be some point in looking at possible sources that are known to have existed, but that neither would mention for security reasons.

The two principal Soviet Intelligence organisations, the GRU (Military) and NKVD (political), maintained large networks of agents abroad; before the invasion these had provided numerous warnings that it would happen, and some information about planning, but nothing precise enough to shake Stalin’s erroneous beliefs that Hitler would not invade at all, or if he did, that his main purpose would be to secure resources for a long war. Up to and including the Stalingrad campaign, gaps in Intelligence continued to create problems for Stavka. As previously mentioned, one in particular, the failure to discover that the capture of Moscow was no longer on the German agenda, led it into serious errors, when von Bock’s persistence in efforts to take Voronezh during July 1942 was misread as portending a subsequent northward drive to outflank Moscow, leading to retention in its vicinity of large reserves that, if sent south earlier, could have helped prevent the Germans reaching the Volga, Stalingrad and the Caucasus. It will be seen below that a persistent belief in the long-discarded German aspirations to capture Moscow continued to affect Soviet planning up to and including that for the defensive battle of Kursk in July, even though the Germans had abandoned the likeliest launching point for it, the Rzhev-Vyazma salient, during March.

Both the counter-offensives at Stalingrad (Operations ‘Uranus’ and ‘Saturn’) had to be extensively modified during their execution because of gaps in Intelligence information. The forces encircled proved over three times as large as expected, necessitating the temporary suspension of ‘Uranus’ and the modification of ‘Saturn’ into ‘Little Saturn’, keeping far more forces than originally planned in the Stalingrad area, and hence so much reducing those intended to cut off Army Group A in the Caucasus that that objective had to be abandoned. Another gap was closed only by chance. A German relief attempt was expected, but Intelligence could not discover where it would start. The answer was found only on 28 November when reconnaissance patrols of the 4th Cavalry Corps found the 6th Panzer Division, just transferred from France, detraining at Kotelnikovo, one of the two likely starting points that Zhukov had identified in the assessment he sent to Stalin at that time. Then in February 1943 Soviet Intelligence completely failed to detect the build-up for Manstein’s counter-offensive that recaptured Kharkov, and forced the Voronezh, South-West and Bryansk Fronts to retreat to the Seversky Donets river, abandoning most of the just-reconquered Donbass.

Vasilevsky attributed this last failure to ‘incorrect assessment of the strategic situation’ by the three Front commands, especially a misreading of Manstein’s regrouping of his forces in early February. These involved westward movements from the Kharkov area, to Krasnograd by the SS Panzer Corps and to Krasnoarmeiskoe by the 40th and 48th Panzer Corps, and these were wishfully misinterpreted as the first moves in a major retreat to the Dnepr river line. Vasilevsky also admitted that Stavka and the General Staff compounded the error by setting over-ambitious tasks in pursuit of an enemy whom they wrongly believed so thoroughly beaten as to be incapable of mounting a counter offensive. His explanation of his and Zhukov’s confidence about German intentions at Kursk mentioned no sources of information higher than those available to the ‘Fronts’, i.e. prisoners, documentation at divisional or lower level, or reports of unit movements detected by partisans, cavalry patrols or reconnaissance aircraft. Otherwise he mentioned only unspecified ‘information from the Intelligence organs’, and ‘analysis of current events’, without specifying what information, or what ‘current events’ indicative of future German intentions could have been available as early as the first week of April.

An account provided by Anastas Mikoyan indicates that Stalin’s mind was made up even before the end of March.259 When the dictator summoned him to a meeting, at 2 a.m. on 27 March, he told him that Intelligence information indicated the Germans were concentrating large forces for an offensive in the Kursk salient area: ‘Seemingly they are trying to gain the strategic initiative having a long-range aim at Moscow.’ He was wrong on that latter point, and on the first there cannot have been very large movements by 27 March. Withdrawal from the Rzhev-Vyazma salient had been completed only on 14 March, and not many of the units from there intended for the ‘Citadel’ offensive were likely to have moved in only 13 days, especially since the spring thaw was in full spate. It could be that Soviet Intelligence had gained some information about Operations Order no. 5 of 13 March, but no source so far has disclosed if or how they obtained it; and even if they had, it does not mention Moscow, so Stalin’s reference to it must have derived simply from his reluctance to shed the belief that it must inevitably be the Germans’ prime target.

On 8 April, a mere seven weeks after the complete Intelligence failure over Manstein’s counter-offensive, Zhukov sought and obtained Stalin’s approval for a plan based entirely on what the Germans were expected to do. Granted the salient stuck out as an obvious place to attack, but victory in war frequently rests on an ability to avoid the obvious, and German generals had often displayed considerable talent in that direction. Besides, a case could be made for other objectives. Operation ‘Don’, carried out by the Transcaucasus, North Caucasus and South Fronts from 1 January to 4 February, had forced Army Group A to withdraw to the Taman peninsula but had not evicted it from the Caucasus, and a German attempt to use the peninsula as a launch-point for a renewed attempt to retake the nearest oilfields, at Maikop, was not beyond the bounds of possibility. Nor was another assault at Leningrad, at least to close off the narrow corridor between the city and the rest of the country.

To discard all possible alternatives and identify the Kursk salient as the sole target for the German summer offensive of 1943 required more than inspired guesswork; so did the decision to fight a defensive battle rather than disrupt the German preparations by attacking first. Granted, the three previous major victories conducted or masterminded by Zhukov, in Mongolia, at Moscow and Stalingrad, had all involved a defensive battle followed by a counter-offensive, but in all three that sequence had been dictated by enemy offensives, whereas his proposal to follow the same pattern at Kursk was entirely voluntary. Completely reliable information about German intentions would have to be involved, and it is therefore reasonable to consider where he could have acquired it.

Germany under Pressure 1943 Part IV

Whatever the means that secured them, the improvements in Soviet Intelligence enabled Stavka’s planning for the summer to proceed more or less in parallel with the German. However, the planners were soon confronted by the disconcerting discovery that the new German Tiger I heavy tank was far superior to their prized KVs and T-34s because of its thicker armour, superior binocular sights and much longer-range and greater-calibre 88mm gun. Tempting fate, the Germans in late 1942 had sent a small pre-production batch of the new Henschel Tiger Is to the Leningrad front, where one became bogged in marshland and was captured. However, the Red Army’s tank and artillery specialists were preoccupied at that time with the situation around Stalingrad, so the encounter then attracted little attention. In December a battalion of Tigers was included in Hoth’s force that attempted to lift the siege of Stalingrad, then in early April 1943 some damaged Tigers were captured near Belgorod.

Tests conducted on 25–30 April, using various calibre anti-tank, field, tank and anti-aircraft guns, showed that armour-piercing shells from the 76.2mm F-34 gun then standard on the T-34-76 and KV-1 could not pierce even the side armour of a Tiger at more than 200 metres, while the Tiger’s 88mm shells could penetrate 110mm of armour at up to 2 kilo metres (1.25 miles). The thickest frontal armour on Soviet tanks was 100mm on the KV1 and 45–60mm on the T-34-76; therefore all would be vulnerable for the time it took them to get within killing distance of a Tiger. Even if they could cover the 1.8 kilometres (about 1.1 miles) at full speed, it would take them over two minutes; a Tiger could fire several rounds in that time, with a good prospect that one of them would score a direct hit.

Nor was the Tiger the only threat to Soviet tanks. The Ferdinand assault gun had an even more powerful 88mm gun than the Tiger, and thicker frontal armour, while the new medium Mark V Panther tank and newer examples of the older Mark IV mounted a long-barrelled 75mm gun, shells from which could penetrate the frontal armour of a KV at 1 kilometre (0.62 miles) and of a T-34 at 1.5 kilometres (0.93 miles). In addition the late G and H models of the Mark IV had been fitted with extra sheets of armour-plate at the front and over the tracks, and even many of the obsolescent Mk III tanks had been retrofitted with a long-barrelled 50mm gun, shells from which could also penetrate the armour of a T-34 at over a kilometre. Furthermore, the Zeiss binocular sights fitted in the new and up-gunned older tanks ensured more accurate fire than Soviet tank crews could achieve.

The Soviet position was further eroded by the fact that only their commanders’ tanks had radio transmitters. The rest had only receivers or nothing at all, so that if a commander’s tank was knocked out, his entire unit became leaderless. Their German counterparts mostly operated from ‘command tanks’ equipped with a wooden dummy gun, with the liberated space in the turret used to mount superior radio equipment; tank crews subordinate to them could receive and transmit, enabling the second-in-command to take over if the command tank was knocked out, and crews to inform their superiors quickly of any changes in the local situation. Soviet accounts noted that the Germans were well aware of the Soviet lack of transmitters, and tended to concentrate their fire on any tank seen to have a transmitting antenna.

Stalin had further muddied the waters; in an attempt to exploit the superior speed and manoeuvrability of the T-34 he had issued a directive on 19 September 1942 ordering tank units to begin engagements by a storm of fire from their main armament and machine guns while on the move, carrying additional shells and bullets for that purpose, and enhancing mobility by mounting extra fuel tanks on their rear decks. Tank gun stabilisers had not yet been invented, so firing on the move was inaccurate and wasteful, while the additional ammunition created storage problems in the cramped turret, and the unprotected fuel tanks were a serious fire hazard.

Although the claim that the T-34 was the best tank of the war in any army has cascaded from one post-war publication to another, that claim is tenable after mid-1943 only partially (once its mechanical problems were resolved, the Panther became a strong contender for the title) and in respect of the later version, the T-34–85, which did not start to arrive in units till March 1944. Apart from the inadequacy of its gun against the Tiger, Panther, Ferdinand or upgunned Mks III and IV, the T-34–76 as first manufactured had a number of other shortcomings, to which Timoshenko, when People’s Commissar for Defence, had drawn attention well before the war. In a letter to Voroshilov (then Chairman of the Defence Committee of the Council of People’s Commissars), dated 6 November 1940, he had recommended an increase in the crew from 4 to 5 to incorporate a gunner. The cramped nature of the turret meant the tank commander had also to be the gunlayer, and this distracted him from his command duties, creating serious problems, especially if he had to control other tanks beside his own (the Soviets did not follow the German use of ‘command tanks’ until well into 1944). Timoshenko also sought improvements to the view, especially from the turret, and to the communications system, and changes to the transmission and gearbox. Manufacture was temporarily suspended, while work began on a modified T-34M, due to begin deliveries on 1 January 1942, but the outbreak of war and the need to evacuate much of the production base and work force to the Urals or Central Asia delayed most of these improvements until they materialised in the shape of the T-34–85, seven months after Kursk, with an improved gun, a larger turret with room for an additional crew member, and frontal armour doubled in thickness.

Of all the shortcomings, the greatest in 1943 was the inadequacy of the 76.2mm gun, standard in the T-34-76 and KV-1, compared to those carried in the new and updated older German tanks. Clearly, all Soviet tanks would be completely outclassed unless more powerful guns could be provided. The most successful in the April tests was the 1939-pattern 52K 85mm anti-aircraft gun, shells from which penetrated the Tiger’s frontal armour at a distance of 1 kilometre, so Stalin ordered development of a new tank gun based on this (similar to the German experience – their 88mm tank gun was based on the 88mm anti-aircraft gun that had proved exceedingly effective against ground targets) and four design groups began work in May. There was, however, no possibility that any of them could do more than produce testable prototypes before the German summer offensive, which would inevitably be spearheaded by the new tanks. To counter those would need a combination of measures, and closer than hitherto co-ordination between infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft – in fact copying the German methods as closely as possible.

Stalin’s initial reaction to Zhukov’s proposal for a defensive battle at Kursk was to ask if he was sure that Soviet troops could withstand a German summer offensive – a reasonable question, since they had singularly failed to do so in the two previous summers. Zhukov assured him that they could, but he sought the views of the two Front commanders in the salient. Rokossovsky, commanding the Central Front on the north face, considered that the Germans would be unable to mount an offensive before the end of the spring thaw and floods, in the second half of May, and argued for a pre-emptive attack by the Central Front and the two Fronts north of it, Western and Bryansk, provided additional air and anti-tank regiments could be made available for support. Vatutin, commanding the Voronezh Front further south, where the thaw would be over somewhat earlier, expected the Germans would be ready for an offensive ‘not before 20 April, but most likely in the first days of May’, but unlike Rokossovsky, he did not express a clear preference between pre-emptive attack and premeditated defence. One post-Soviet source claims that both Vatutin and Malinovsky (commanding the Southern Front, due to mount a counter-offensive in August) favoured preemption; this, however, appears to have been not in April but in June, when the successive postponements of ‘Citadel’ raised doubts among some Soviet generals over whether it was going to happen at all. In his April report, Vatutin also suggested that the German options might include a northward push to outflank Moscow, reflecting his past experience as Deputy Chief of General Staff, where, as previously noted, Stalin’s preoccupation with possible threats to the capital persisted long after they had vanished from the German agenda. References in his report to identification by ‘radio intelligence’ of locations to which the headquarters of two divisions had moved, may have come from the de ciphering of messages, but were more likely based on direction-finding and intercepted operator chatter – orders to observe radio silence were easier to issue than to enforce. The references nevertheless show that interception of enemy radio traffic had now become an important tool of Soviet Intelligence, perhaps aided by the 35,000 radio transceivers and large quantities of cable supplied by the USA under Lend-Lease.

On the evening of 12 April, after receiving the views of Rokossovsky and Vatutin, and three days before Hitler issued the Order for Operation ‘Citadel’, Stalin held a meeting with Zhukov, Vasilevsky and Deputy Chief of General Staff Antonov. They agreed that ‘the most probable aim of a German summer offensive would be to encircle and destroy the main forces of Central and Voronezh Fronts in the Kursk salient’, but did not exclude the possibility that success in that area would be followed by thrusts in east and north-east directions, including towards Moscow. Shtemenko noted that ‘on this matter Stalin displayed particular uneasiness’. However, he accepted Zhukov’s plan, and ordered both Fronts to prepare solid defences. The troops were to dig themselves in; no fewer than eight defence lines, one behind the other, were to be constructed, and an entire army group (first entitled Reserve Front, then Steppe Military District, and finally Steppe Front), with seven armies and eight tank or mechanised corps, would be positioned behind the two Fronts in the salient, to be used in the counter-offensive if the defensive battle went well, or to block any German advance if it did not.

Intriguing evidence suggesting Stalin knew about German intentions even earlier than mid-April is provided in the memoirs of Anastas Mikoyan, who was as much Stalin’s ace troubleshooter on supplying the army as Zhukov was on using it to fight, and to whom he entrusted the establishment of this huge new force. When he sent for Mikoyan he told him ‘according to data from our Intelligence the Hitlerites are concentrating major forces in the area of the Kursk salient’, and ‘a strong Reserve Front must be established urgently, capable of being brought into combat at the most acute and decisive moment of the battle, and for further transition to the counter-offensive’. It was to be formed of units that had fought in recent battles and were now in reserve for making up to strength in manpower and equipment. ‘You…must take on the organising of this Reserve Front yourself, because all the material resources are concentrated in your hands. The General Staff will engage as usual in choosing the commanders, but everything else is up to you.’

The intriguing element in Stalin’s remarks is that Mikoyan says the meeting at which he made them took place at 2 a.m. on 27 March, and, unlike with some other memoirists’ recollections of dates of long-past events, there is substantial confirmation that Mikoyan’s were correct. The task involved concentrating, equipping and supplying the largest reserve force Russia or the Soviet Union had ever yet put into the field and he set to work at once. First, on 29 March he met Colonel-General Shchadenko, head of the General Staff Directorate responsible for forming and manning units, and secured his agreement to constituting the new Front from units based in Moscow Military District. In those days it covered a large part of the European USSR and the conscripts it provided, one-third of the USSR’s total, had mostly received good general or technical education, which made them especially suitable for service in the mechanised forces that would bulk large in the new Front. Then Mikoyan directed every armed service chief to submit plans for providing the armies of the new Front with all they would need, and timetables for delivering everything on time to eight principal locations. An example of the pace he imposed is that only six days after Stalin had first set him his task, he received the first report from an arm of service on 1 April, when Major-General Kalyagin, head of Engineer Troops, reported that three-quarters of the Reserve Front’s needs for engineer equipment could be met from central resources, and the rest issued after deployment, from stocks held locally in Front or army depots.

Mikoyan decreed that the reinforcement and supply of the new Front’s armies were to be completed between 15 April and 10 May. On 30 March he met the arm of service heads: Khrulyov (logistics), Karponosov (organisation), Yakovlev (artillery), Fedorenko (tank and mechanised forces), Peresypkin (signals), and Drachev (chief quartermaster). Transport presented particular problems, since much of the new Front’s deployment area had been occupied until recently by the Germans, who had destroyed as much as they could of the rail and road infrastructure before leaving. In consequence transport of troops and equipment on the hastily and sketchily restored railways was frequently interrupted, and road transport could not be substituted for it because of the state of the roads and shortages of vehicles. Mikoyan dealt with this by frequent telephone calls to People’s Commissar for Railways Kaganovich, the heads of the two most involved railways, local military commanders and Communist Party officials. Despite the difficulties the timetable was fulfilled; between 1 April and 24 May the railways shifted 2,640 trainloads, totalling 178,900 wagons, to the Kursk area, half of them carrying reinforcements and supplies for units of the Central and Voronezh Fronts already deployed in the salient, the other half bringing the new Reserve Front’s forces and equipment to their positions directly behind it.

While well-educated young Muscovites were being trained to operate complex equipment in the Reserve Front, the mainly peasant infantrymen and civilian populations within the Kursk salient were preoccupied with the simpler but no less important task of digging. This was a mammoth undertaking in itself. Realisation of the superiority of the German tanks, while for the time being ending disputes between tankers and gunners as to whether the best antidote to a tank is another tank or an anti-tank gun, and concluding both would be needed, had brought on an acute awareness that success in the oncoming conflict would need maximum coordination between tanks, aircraft, artillery, engineers and infantry, and best use of terrain, exploiting natural and creating artificial obstacles. The new tanks were the main threat, so anti-tank defence must be the focus of the entire system. This must use guns, mortars, tanks, obstacles artificial (ditches and minefields) and natural (gullies, ravines, rivers, hills), and air support, all linked by a fire control and communications system capable of switching guns and aircraft quickly between different sectors. Trenches must be deep enough for troops to move without being exposed to enemy machine-gunners or snipers, machine-gun and artillery positions camouflaged to prevent the enemy picking them off by aimed fire or bombing, and anti-tank ditches be dug so wide and deep that no tank falling into one could climb out under its own unaided power. The combination of defensive measures would include infantry in foxholes, armed with anti-tank rifles to fire at tank tracks, bottles of explosive mixture (‘Molotov cocktails’) to throw onto the rear deck over the engine compartment, and anti-tank mines to be pushed under immobilised tanks and set off by throwing hand grenades at them.

Nor were the ‘osobisty’ (Special Sections of SMERSH, ‘Death to Spies’, of the NKVD) idle. Although morale had been raised by the winter’s victories, it was still by no means unshakeable; desertion and defection to the German side were still problems. At the end of June, when battle was known to be imminent, orders were issued to remove all Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians from combat units and send them to the rear. A few days later similar orders were issued concerning soldiers who had been prisoners until liberated by the winter counter-offensive. They were regarded with suspicion; it was well known that large numbers of captured soldiers were willingly serving in German units, and all liberated ones were suspected of having been indoctrinated while in captivity to serve as saboteurs or at least to infect their comrades with defeatism. An example of the action taken was an order issued by the headquarters of the 5th Guards Army of the Steppe Front on 8 July. The men affected, 824 in all, were awakened and removed during the night of 9/10 July, immediately before the 5th Guards Army began moving to the salient.

Head of Red Army Artillery Voronov insisted that the barrage of gunfire against oncoming tanks must start early and maintain high rates of fire, but his attempt to include tank guns in the barrage was vetoed, officially not only as wasting ammunition but because it would create excessive wear on the gun barrels, and hence reduce accuracy. The real reason was, of course, the discovery in April that the tanks’ guns could penetrate the armour of the new German tanks only at close range, but to tell the crews that was not likely to improve their morale.

As to how these lines were to be manned and held, future Marshal of Artillery Kazakov wrote that ‘one day’ Voronov ordered his staff to do some hard thinking. He told them that the four SS motorised infantry divisions (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Das Reich, Totenkopf and Wiking) were being converted into panzer divisions, each including a battalion of 45 Tigers, that the elite Grossdeutschland army division had also received a battalion of Tigers, and that all these formations, plus the 10th Panzer Brigade, equipped with Panthers, were being concentrated against the south face of the Kursk salient. The outcome of the deliberations was that the 6th Guards Army, on the expected main line of attack, was reinforced by 14 anti-tank artillery regiments, and reserves were deployed so as to be able to reinforce threatened sectors quickly to a density of at least 20 anti-tank guns per kilometre of front.

Guderian’s reservations about the premature use of the new tanks would be proved right as regards the Panther – some formations equipped with them did not get into action at all, because every one broke down en route. The mechanical faults would be corrected, making it one of the war’s best tanks, but that all took time, and the only time available in 1943 was the few weeks of postponement decreed by Hitler. However, Guderian’s strictures on the Ferdinand as ‘unsuitable for close combat’ because it did not have a machine gun and was therefore vulnerable to the Soviet infantry are not borne out by combat evidence. At Kursk Ferdinands were used only against the Central Front, and about 90 of them saw combat. Examination by Soviet artillery specialists on 15 July of 21 knocked-out Ferdinands showed 11 disabled by mines, 8 by gunfire, 1 by an aerial bomb, and only 1 by an infantry weapon – and that not an anti-tank rifle or grenade but a ‘Molotov cocktail’.

The Red Army used the weeks of postponement at least as well as the Germans, constructing defence systems that took advantage of the experience of two years’ fighting to combine the various arms of service more closely than before, behind minefields both larger and more densely sown with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines than previously possible. Increases in the two sides’ deployments between 10 April and 5 July were as shown below in the table of strength in men and weapons on both dates. The Soviet data are for the Central and Voronezh Fronts for both dates, and for 5 July also the Steppe Front. The German figures are Soviet estimates for Army Groups Centre and South.

German and Soviet build-ups for ‘Citadel’, 1 April–5 July 1943

As the table shows, the Soviets already outnumbered the Germans in all but aircraft before mid-April, then up to the launch date of Citadel their troop numbers more than doubled, guns and aircraft almost trebled, and tanks quadrupled. The German increases were far smaller, so that by the time ‘Citadel’ was launched the Soviets outnumbered the Germans by over 2 to 1 in manpower, 3 to 1 in guns, almost 2 to 1 in tanks, and 1.6 to 1 in aircraft. The disparities became even greater as the battle progressed; between 5 July and 23 August, i.e. in the period covering the defensive battle and the two counter-offensives (Operations ‘Kutuzov’ and ‘Rumyantsev’), additions from reserve totalled on the Soviet side 38 division-equivalents, with 658,000 troops, 18,200 guns, 3,300 tanks and 563 aircraft, while German reinforcements comprised only 2 panzer and 1 mechanised corps, totalling 55,000 men, 550 guns, about 200 tanks and 300 aircraft.

For the Soviets to outnumber the Germans in weaponry was no novelty, but it had previously proved no guarantee of success. As mentioned earlier, in 1941 they had had numerical superiority of 3 to 1 in tanks, 2 to 1 in combat aircraft and about 5 to 4 in guns and mortars, but nevertheless suffered a series of disasters on a scale unparallelled in the previous history of warfare. The difference in 1943 was that the weapons-users and the generals who directed them had learned from the defeats, and had begun to match or even outdo the Germans in how they used their assets. On the most important sectors the five main and three intermediate defence lines in the salient stretched back to 190 kilometres (almost 120 miles) behind the front. During April–June troops and local civilians in the Central Front’s area alone dug 5,000 kilometres (about 3,125 miles) of trenches, laid 400,000 mines and over 200 kilometres (125 miles) of barbed wire, a few kilometres of it even electrified. These extensive preparations could not be concealed from the Germans, but the General Staff and NKVD utilised Agent Max and operatives sent to him who had been captured and ‘turned’, to inform the Abwehr that the Red Army intended to fight only a defensive battle, and credibility was added by making day and night rail deliveries of large quantities of cement, barbed wire, wood and metal beams on open flat trucks, while weapons and ammunition were moved in only at night and in covered wagons.

Against the 55 German divisions deployed in ‘Citadel’, the Central and Voronezh Fronts had between them 77 infantry divisions, 9 tank or mechanised corps, 14 brigades and 3 ‘fortified zones’ (garrison troops in fixed defences), the corps and brigades raising the total to about 110 division-equivalents, with 1,272,700 combat troops. The Steppe Front, behind both, had one tank army (5th Guards), plus six tank and two mechanised corps, and six armies of infantry. It was meant as a reserve for the counter offensive, but when the Germans appeared on the verge of breaking through the Voronezh Front, Stavka representative Vasilevsky on 9 July commandeered two of its armies (5th Guards and 5th Guards Tank) and parts of three others, totalling 19 divisions and one brigade of infantry, five tank and one mechanised corps. Manpower figures for them are not given, but they amounted to at least 30 additional division-equivalents, bringing the total to about 140, and the total Soviet manpower in the defensive battle to over 1.5 million. Granted that Soviet formations were smaller than their German counterparts, and that many of them were under strength, the defenders outnumbered the attackers in manpower by about 1.7 to 1. In equipment, numbers favoured the Soviet side even more, by 1.8 to 1 in guns and mortars, 2.3 to 1 in combat aircraft, and 1.6 to 1 in tanks and self-propelled guns. Compared to the defensive campaign at Stalingrad (37 divisions, 3 tank corps, 22 brigades, 547,000 men), the manpower and resources defending the Kursk salient had considerably more than doubled. Germany’s manpower, on the other hand, had fallen, and the contribution from its allies had dropped almost to nothing. The winter campaign of 1942/43 had involved Romanian, Hungarian and Italian as well as German armies, but at Kursk only German units saw action, though a Soviet listing of forces present included the two Hungarian divisions. Clearly the strategic balance had tilted substantially away from Germany even in the few months since Manstein’s February counter-offensive. Whether the tilt was decisive was still to be seen.

Both Zhukov and Vasilevsky later wrote that they (correctly) regarded the threat posed to the Voronezh Front as greater than that facing the Central Front, but the distribution of forces suggests the opposite; the Central Front had 738,000 troops, versus the Voronezh Front’s 534,000. This meant that for each mile of front line on the sectors where the main German thrusts were expected, the Central Front had 7,200 men, 72 tanks and 166 guns, the Voronezh Front only 4,000 men, 67 tanks and 94 guns. The discrepancy was never explained; it was partly due to Rokossovsky’s being more successful in identifying the main German lines of attack and concentrating his forces there by stripping less threatened sectors, whereas Vatutin had to distribute them more evenly; but the principal reason for giving Rokossovsky substantially more resources in the first place must have been the continued preoccupation with possible threats to Moscow mentioned in Vatutin’s April report and the ‘particular uneasiness’ in respect of it that Shtemenko mentioned Stalin as displaying at the meeting on the 12th. If such a threat were posed, it would obviously be posed by Army Group Centre, after destroying the Central Front on the salient’s northern face, not by the much more distant Army Group South.

The scene was now set for the biggest trial of strength yet seen.

Operation Mars II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signals Intelligence – Western Front – 1914

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

The Miracle of the Marne

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

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

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

The Race to the Sea

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

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

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

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

Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung [HVA] Defection

Werner Stiller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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