American Civil War Spying II

Allan Pinkerton, far left, foiled a plot to kill Lincoln.

Lewis tried to play it cool, insisting he was a friend of Webster calling in to see how he was doing. After the senator’s son gave a positive ID on the two Pinkertons – whose names were already known to the Confederates – Lewis tried to escape on the night of 16 March, having filed the bars on the prison windows. Unfortunately Lewis was picked up 20 miles (32km) from Richmond on the Fredericksburg road. He was returned to jail and clapped in irons.

On 1 April, Scully and Lewis were found guilty of spying and sentenced to be hanged four days later. Lewis had one last card to play. The Confederacy was trying to gain recognition from Britain and he and Scully were still subjects of Queen Victoria. Lewis gave the prison chaplain a letter for the British consul, asking for the Crown’s protection. Although the consul arrived and promised to help, Scully was near breaking point. Dissolving into tears, Scully admitted he had written to Winder and, if pardoned, would reveal everything he knew. This course of action was confirmed when the guards removed Lewis from the cell so that Scully would not be influenced by him.

Not long after, Lewis saw a carriage arrive at the prison and was horrified to see Webster and Lawton being led out as captives. Scully had betrayed them. Expecting to be executed at 11.00am on the morning of 4 April, Lewis was told that President Davis had delayed the execution for two weeks. This was to allow for a trial, with both Scully and Lewis called as witnesses against Webster. The Confederates were furious they had allowed themselves to be duped by Webster and wanted swift revenge. While Scully spilled the beans, Lewis tried his best to protect Webster. The trial was a foregone conclusion. The increasingly frail Webster was sentenced to death with all haste, lest Webster died of his illness first. Lawton was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment as his accomplice, while Scully and Pryce Lewis were spared the gallows as British subjects.

When Pinkerton learned of the trial from a Southern newspaper he was beside himself with anguish. The matter went as far as Lincoln, who wrote to President Davies pointing out that Confederate spies had not been executed in the North. With this came the obvious threat – if Webster was executed, Southern spies could expect the same treatment. The pleas went unheard and Webster was given a public execution. With no proper executioner, it took two attempts to hang him. On the first attempt the noose was too loose and ended up round Webster’s waist and on the second attempt, it was so tight it almost throttled him before the trapdoor was released.

The loss of Webster seemed to mark the beginning of the end for Pinkerton as secret service chief. As a general, McClellan was heavily criticized for being over cautious. One of the main reasons given for this caution was Pinkerton’s mistakes in reporting the Confederate order of battle, which he constantly over-exaggerated. In March 1862, McClellan advanced with 85,000 troops against Richmond. Encountering resistance at Yorktown, McClellan quickly halted and settled down for a month-long siege. Against him were no more than 17,000 troops, but Pinkerton’s intelligence was faulty. During the course of the siege the Confederates received reinforcements, bringing their strength up to 60,000 men. At the same time McClellan’s forces grew to 112,000 strong, but he still believed the Confederates to have twice as many troops as was the case. When McClellan finally broke through and resumed his advance on Richmond, the Confederate army was reinforced by General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. Its actual strength was in the region of 80,000 men: Pinkerton reported it to be 200,000 and McClellan decided to retreat.

On 5 November, Lincoln replaced McClellan and in so doing ended Pinkerton’s active involvement with the war. The detective’s fault was not in an inability to gather intelligence, but in his appreciation of it. As Landrieux had written of his time in Italy, the head of a military secret service had to be a soldier because a civilian policeman would ‘understand almost nothing’. Pinkerton was living proof of this. He had been successful at counter-espionage, which was above all, police work, but it was commonly agreed that Pinkerton was an abject failure with military intelligence. This failure also proved in the long run, very bad for business. Washington disclaimed any responsibility for Pinkerton’s expenses, arguing that he was the private employee of General McClellan. He was replaced by a Secret Service Bureau under Lafayette Baker (1826–68) who was appointed by Secretary for War Stanton.

Previous to this assignment, like Webster, Lafayette Baker had been working as a spy behind enemy lines. His modus operandi was to pose as an itinerant photographer, which he did with aplomb, despite his camera being broken and without film. On his travels he met Jefferson Davies and interviewed General Beauregard. Finally he was rumbled at Fredericksburg when one inquisitive spark wondered why he was the only photographer never to have any photographs with him. The jig was up and Baker escaped back to Union lines.

Perhaps the most significant example of military espionage in the war came during the build-up to the battle of Gettysburg (1–3 July 1863), the largest battle ever fought on American soil. In brief, the Confederate general Robert E. Lee had invaded the Union with the 75,000-strong Army of Northern Virginia. While advancing along the Shenandoah Valley towards Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Lee was reliant on a cavalry screen to protect his march. Under the command of General J. E. B. Stuart, the Confederate cavalry went raiding instead, leaving Lee and the entire army blind. While Lee waited vainly for news from Stuart, the commander of I Corps, General James Longstreet, sent a spy to accomplish what Stuart had not.

This spy was identified by Longstreet in his memoirs as a scout named only as ‘Harrisson’. It was not until the 1980s that he was finally identified as Henry Thomas Harrison (1832–1923), a native of Nashville, Tennessee. In 1861, Harrison joined the Mississippi State Militia as a private and was often employed as a scout. In February 1863 he came to the notice of the CSA Secretary of War, James Seddon, who brought him to Richmond and employed him as a spy. In March Seddon sent Harrison and several others dressed as civilians to General Longstreet, recommending he use them as scouts. To test them, Longstreet sent them on missions, including finding a passage through the swamps in the direction of Norfolk. Of those sent, Harrison was marked out as ‘an active, intelligent and enterprising scout’ and was retained in Longstreet’s service.

It is worth noting here that although Longstreet politely refers to Harrison as a ‘scout’ he was dressed as a civilian, thus making him in the eyes of the law a spy. As is so common in the story of espionage, spies were distrusted and thought to be double traitors, giving away as much information to the enemy as they received back from them. Even Longstreet was cautious when dealing with Harrison lest he was betrayed. When he sent Harrison to go to Washington and to glean as much intelligence as possible he would not answer Harrison’s query about where he should report to after the mission was accomplished. In one version of the conversation, Longstreet told Harrison the headquarters of I Corps were large enough for any intelligent man to find. Another version, given by Longstreet’s chief of staff, Gilbert Moxley Sorrel, has the general saying: ‘With the Army; I shall be sure to be with it.’ Wryly, Sorrel noted such a precaution was unnecessary as Harrison ‘knew pretty much everything that was going on’.

According to Sorrel, Harrison’s instructions were to proceed into the enemy’s lines and to remain there until the end of June, bringing back as much information as he could. He returned on the night of 28 June, finding Longstreet’s headquarters at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. ‘Travel-worn and dirty’, he had been arrested while trying to cross back through the Confederate picket lines and was taken to Longstreet’s camp by the provost guard. Sorrel recognized him and debriefed him immediately. Harrison’s report was long and, as events would prove, completely accurate. He explained how the Union Army of the Potomac had quit Virginia and started in pursuit of Lee in great numbers. Two Federal corps had been identified around 50 miles (80km) away at Frederick and George Meade had recently been placed in command of the army, in place of General Hooker. Recognizing the importance of the report, Sorrel took Harrison to Longstreet and woke him up. Hearing the news, Longstreet lost no time in sending Harrison directly to General Lee’s camp with one of his staff officers, Major John W. Fairfax.

Arriving at Lee’s tent, Fairfax entered and announced that one of Longstreet’s scouts had arrived with information that the Union army had crossed the Potomac and was marching north. Lee had spent the day fretting over Stuart’s lack of communication and Fairfax’s report appears to have startled him. ‘What do you think of Harrison?’ asked Lee. ‘General Lee,’ replied Fairfax, ‘I do not think much of any scout, but General Longstreet thinks a good deal of Harrison.’ ‘I do not know what to do,’ came Lee’s blunt reply after a moment’s reflection. ‘I cannot hear from General Stuart, the eye of the Army. You can take Harrison back.’

Later that night, after absorbing the shock that he was in severe danger from an unknown force, Lee sent for Harrison. In what must have been a lengthy interview, Lee patiently listened to Harrison’s entire report: how he had left Longstreet at Culpeper and had gone to the Union capital, Washington, where he had picked up gossip in saloons. Hearing the Union army had crossed the Potomac in pursuit of Lee, Harrison recalled how he set out for Frederick, mixing with soldiers during the day and moving on foot by night. At Frederick he had identified two infantry corps and had heard of a third nearby, which he had been unable to locate. Learning that Lee’s army was at Chambersburg, he found a horse and hurried back to reveal the position of the Union army. On the way there, he learned that at least another two corps were in the vicinity and that General Meade had taken control of the army.

With no other option but to believe Harrison, Lee gave the orders to concentrate in the direction of Gettysburg. Many applaud Harrison for saving the Confederate army from being attacked in the rear, but ironically, in so doing, he also led it to disaster. Against Longstreet’s advice, after unexpectedly encountering lead elements of the Federal army at Gettysburg, Lee attacked Meade for three days of confused and bitter fighting. The battle was a heavy defeat for the Confederacy, losing men and commanders it could ill afford to replace. At the end of it Lee was forced to retreat back across the Potomac.

Later in the year Harrison obtained permission to return to Richmond. Before leaving headquarters he told Sorrel he was appearing on stage in the role of Cassio, in Shakespeare’s Othello. When Sorrel asked Harrison if he was an actor, the spy explained he was not, but he was doing the performance to win a $50 wager. Sorrel saw the performance – Cassio was unmistakably Harrison – and noted that the entire cast seemed quite drunk. Although perhaps just harmless fun, Sorrel decided to investigate Harrison’s indulgencies more closely. When he found Harrison had a reputation for heavy drinking and gambling, Sorrel concluded he was not safe to be employed as a spy. Harrison was dismissed from Longstreet’s service in September and sent back to the Secretary of War.

The American Civil War was notable for the number of female agents on both sides. Already we have seen Rose Greenhow, Kate Warne and Carrie Lawton. To these must be added ‘la belle rebelle’ Belle Boyd (1844–1900) who at 17 shot an overly exuberant Federal soldier on her doorstep when he tried to raise the Union flag over her Virginia home. During the Shenadoah Valley campaign of 1862, Boyd famously ran across a battlefield to deliver vital intelligence to ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. He was so impressed with her exploits, he made Boyd captain and honorary aide-de-camp on his staff. Boyd later travelled to Britain where her autobiography became a bestseller.

Sarah Emma Edmonds (1842–98) enlisted in the Union army under the name Frank Thompson. Volunteering for a mission behind enemy lines at Yorktown, Edmonds gained entrance to Confederate camps near Yorktown, Virginia, disguised as an African-American slave, having bought a wig of ‘negro wool’ and stained her skin with silver nitrate.

She was assigned to work on construction of the Confederate ramparts opposite McClellan’s position and noted how logs were being painted black to look like guns. Unfortunately, the heavy work took its toll on Edmonds’ disguise. As she began to sweat, the silver nitrate began to fade. Popular legend has it that a slave noticed Edmonds’ skin was becoming paler and pointed this out. Edmonds coolly replied that she always expected to become white one day, as her mother was a white woman. This excuse was apparently accepted. On the second day of her mission, Edmonds was sent out to the Confederate picket line to replace a dead soldier. From there she made her escape to Union lines.

Pauline Cushman (1833–93) also merits an honourable mention. An actress from New Orleans, Cushman followed the Confederate army ‘looking for her brother’, but in reality spying for the North. She was captured and sentenced to be hanged, but was rescued by Union troops in the nick of time. President Lincoln made her an honorary major. Also of great service was the freed slave Mary Touvestre, who was housekeeper to a Confederate engineer in Norfolk, Virginia. She stole a set of plans for the first Confederate ironclad warship and took them safely to Washington.

But of all the female agents – Greenhow included – the connoisseur’s choice must be ‘Crazy Bet’ Elizabeth Van Lew (1818–1900). From a Northern family settled in Richmond, Van Lew did not hold with the Southern way of living. When her father died, she used her inheritance to free the family slaves, an act which gained her a reputation among polite, Southern society as something of an eccentric.

After the arrival in Richmond of Union soldiers taken prisoner at Bull Run, Van Lew obtained a pass from General Winder to visit them. While providing them with food, medicine and clothing, Van Lew began collecting messages from the prisoners, which she had smuggled to their homes. This simple act of generosity soon developed into an espionage network, known as the Richmond Underground. This comprised of an elaborate network of spies, messengers and escape routes for prisoners she helped break out of prison. By way of an example, in 1864 Van Lew was responsible for the escape of 109 prisoners, half of whom she quartered at home while waiting to be smuggled back north. Of course, Winder was not entirely unaware of Van Lew’s activities. From 1862 he had her under surveillance, but without success. Aware she was being watched, Van Lew began to act very strangely, confirming suspicions she was unbalanced, if not actually insane.

Van Lew’s spy ring was centred on one of her former family slaves, Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Early in the war, Van Lew obtained Bowser employment as a servant in the home of the Confederate president. As an African-American female servant, she was ignored by the president’s guests who did not suspect Bowser was carefully eavesdropping on their conversations, or reading documents on Jefferson’s desk while going about her chores. To collect reports from Bowser, Van Lew recruited a local baker who made deliveries to the Confederate ‘White House’. The baker collected the messages for Van Lew, who enciphered them and passed them to an old man – another former slave – who took them to the Union’s General Grant, hidden in his shoes. Again, because the man was seen as a slave, he passed unnoticed under the auspices of carrying flowers.

In 1864 Winder made another attempt to catch Van Lew red-handed. He ordered her property searched by troops, who found nothing, despite there being prisoners hidden in a secret room on the third floor. After the raid, Van Lew went into an apoplectic spasm in Winder’s office, declaring him not a gentleman and forcing an apology from him. A few short months later the war was over and General Grant made a special point of visiting Van Lew, thanking her for the excellent intelligence he had received from Richmond. Unsurprisingly, Van Lew’s neighbours were less than pleased to learn the full extent of her treachery. ‘Crazy Bet’ spent the next 35 years of her life despised as an outcast and a traitor.


It had been set up on 16 September 1946 to establish a reciprocal exchange of liaison missions between British and Soviet Forces in Germany during the occupation. The French and Americans had similar organizations, and the Russian equivalent was called ‘SOXMIS’. This situation continued until 2 October 1990 when all the missions were de-activated.

BRIXMIS became known as the Cold War’s ‘Great Game’, in which each side did its utmost to learn anything it could about the other’s military secrets, while overtly carrying out purely liaison duties. The British players had to learn Russian of course, and also become skilled in equipment recognition, photography, reconnaissance, bluff and what was termed ‘touring tradecraft’. They then travelled round the Soviet sector trying to shake off the inevitable Soviet ‘tails’ and at the same time pick up any useful information they could, preferably without getting caught. It was challenging and exciting work, and was carried out by Regular officers and NCOs seconded to BRIXMIS for around three years.

One of the top players on our side was acknowledged to be Captain Peter Williams of the Coldstream Guards, who did two tours, 1981–1983 and 1987–1989. He enjoyed it and also excelled at it, so much so that his performance was respectfully recognized by the Russians themselves. Indeed on one occasion when the British team were entertaining their Soviet opposite numbers at a party, the British Commander suggested that the Russians might like to watch the latest James Bond film. To which his counterpart replied, with a smile, “Thank you, Brigadier, but no. We have enough of your own James Bond, Captain Williams.”

The abbreviation for “British Commander-in-Chief’s Military Mission to the Soviet Forces.” Brixmis consisted of three-man teams of soldiers who patrolled the Soviet zone of Germany under the terms of the Quadripartite Agreement, which allowed the four armies of occupation to reconnoiter each others’ sectors, until it was dissolved in December 1990. The teams, based at a headquarters located at the Olympic Stadium compound, were drawn from 30 men who served in the unit on secondment, supported by about 200 other personnel, among them technicians, photographic processors, and weapons analysts. The Brixmis teams underwent training at the Templer Barracks, Ashford, and were required to be proficient in the recognition of nearly a thousand Warsaw Pact weapons, ranging from the latest model of the AK-37 assault rifle to the Soviet-made T-82 tank. Deployed in vehicles equipped with cameras but not radios, they were allowed to visit anywhere in the Soviet zone apart from preagreed permanent exclusion areas.

In Europe, throughout the forty-four years of the Cold War, a team unconnected with the wartime freemasonry founded by Gubbins and Stirling operated across the front line alongside the agent-running arm of SIS. It was known as Brixmis, or the British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany. It answered to the intelligence secretariat of the Ministry of Defence and unlike the Foreign Office (vide Philby) or CIA (vide Aldrich Ames) it was never penetrated by the KGB. Its intelligence product was sent to Washington, sometimes before it reached London.

The key role for these military personnel at the time was patrolling the other side’s territory as part of a bilateral liaison system that was designed to provide mutual reassurance. Such activities kept a lid on tensions but were not without risk, as former members of the British Commander-in-Chief’s Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany – Brixmis for short. “They were our eyes and ears about what the Russians were up to and that helped keep a level playing field,” the Iain MacGregor continued. “These guys were going out and feeding back information on weaponry and new technology so we could adapt and make sure we were a match. “But what they did was incredibly dangerous. The method the Stasi had of letting you know they were there was to try and kill you via a `road accident’ – that happened several times. “That’s why the Brixmis vehicles were so heavily armoured – in case they got cornered and had to smash their way out and escape.

From 1947 two similar, smaller missions worked alongside Brixmis. These were the U.S. Military Liaison Mission, which included Major Arthur Nicholson, and the French MLM.

Major Arthur D. (“Nick”) Nicholson

At around 1600 hrs on 24 March 1985, Major Arthur D. (“Nick”) Nicholson, Jr., a U.S. Army intelligence officer, became the last professional, regular soldier to die in the “bloodless” conflict known as the Cold War, an affair that was anything but bloodless on surrogate battlegrounds around much of Africa and Asia. What made Nicholson’s case unique was that his death occurred on the well-prepared battlefield of postwar Germany, where massive tank and artillery divisions confronted one another for forty years, preparing for a nuclear Armageddon.

The manner of Nicholson’s death and its political consequences are a textbook illustration of the inherent instability of Special Forces operations as well as their intrinsic importance. Uncertainty about the outcome, indeed, is a staple element of SF warfare, in which the most important decisions are usually taken on the hoof, without a fallback position if the worst happens.

Nicholson was no cowboy. Aged 37, happily married with a nine-year-old daughter, he held a degree in philosophy and a master’s in Soviet studies. He spoke fluent Russian. After service in Korea he had worked in military intelligence on friendly territory in Frankfurt and Munich. At the time of his death he had made more than a hundred trips into hostile Communist East Germany.

He was one of a 14-strong espionage team implausibly identified—perhaps “moustached” or “barbouzed” would be more appropriate—as a military liaison mission to the Group of Soviet Forces, Germany. The organization, following an earlier, larger U.K. group known as Brixmis, emerged from the ashes of 1945. Its ostensible purpose in life was diplomatic, representing the wartime allies at commemorations of what the Russians styled “The Great Patriotic War” in spite of their earlier alliance with Hitler and shared invasion of Poland in 1939. There were also mundane, bread-and-butter matters such as the treatment of deserters from East to West or sometimes in the other direction.

In practice, both British and U.S. missions, often traveling off-road in specially equipped vehicles, stalked the Red Army on maneuvers, logged the movement of Soviet supplies, and, occasionally, pulled off an espionage coup. On May Day 1981, for example, Captain Hugh McLeod, a British officer, insinuated himself into Russia’s latest tank (a T-64) using a forged turret key and spent an hour photographing and drawing diagrams of the interior. (The key was the work of British intelligence based on a photograph of the tank turret taken at a Red Army Day parade in Moscow.) The Soviet regiment that owned this beast was preoccupied with serious drinking on this, its public holiday. At one point in his exploration, McLeod dropped his distinctive British army flashlight. It clattered deep into the tank’s interior. Haunted by the thought that the flashlight would be discovered during a routine maintenance check in Omsk, he spent another nightmarish half-hour recovering the device as his sergeant impatiently kept watch. As McLeod emerged, the sergeant wiped his boot marks from the hull of the T-64.

Some of the missions’ research methods were not for the squeamish. As each phase of an exercise ended, the Russians, being provident, peasant folk, converted secret instructions into toilet paper. The missions, suitably protected, came along afterward, dug up the debris, and carried it back to West Berlin, where one wing of their headquarters (formerly part of the 1936 Hitler Olympics building, memorable for Jesse Owens’s victories) was used to sanitize the documents. The system, known to the British as Tamarisk operations, yielded vital intelligence. The trick was later reinvented by the Vietcong.

Neither the Russians nor their East German clients accepted that the West was playing within the rules of cricket, or baseball, or Ivan’s equivalent code of ethics. Mission vehicles, identified by U.S. and U.K. symbols “accidentally” camouflaged by good German mud, were regularly driven off the road by heavy Soviet trucks causing injury and death, events that were officially designated as accidents. The Russians often declared a formerly open exercise area out of bounds, regardless of their own published advice, and arrested mission teams for 24 hours or more. Mission vehicles, unless they were locked, were ransacked. At other times they were pursued at breakneck speed by the East German secret police, the Stasi. Some Western crews, in turn, took steps to ensure that Stasi vehicles crashed during such encounters, particularly after dark. One of the mission’s favorite tricks was to disconnect brake-stop lights on their vehicles, enhancing the likelihood of a Stasi road crash. If this was not a hot war, it got uncomfortably warm at times. In the surreal world of diplomacy, the mission crews, nursing their bruises, were sometimes hosted by their Russian adversaries at parties where the toasts were to Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, and the same film—The Sound of Music—was screened yet again.

Four years after Hugh McLeod’s illegal entry into a T-64, Nicholson went hunting the next generation of Moscow’s armor, the 46-ton T-80. A classified official U.S. Army report makes the unlikely claim that Nicholson, with his driver, Staff Sergeant Jesse Schatz, was merely following fresh tank tracks in a training area known as Ludwigslust 475 without anything special in mind. The team approached the target—a shed where tanks were laagered—cautiously. Satisfied that all was well, Nicholson moved stealthily forward on foot, avoiding dried twigs or any other trap, to take photographs of training aids posted on a board alongside the shed. It was now late afternoon in the woods of Ludwigslust, but the light was good enough for Nicholson’s Nikon L35 autofocus camera…and for the iron gunsight on an AK-47 brought to bear on the Americans by a young Soviet sergeant identified as Aleksandr Ryabtsev in a watch tower a mere 75 meters away.

Schatz, Nicholson’s lookout, standing on the driver’s seat, head and shoulders above the open sun roof, spotted Ryabtsev and shouted to his officer, “Sir! Get in the car!” Too late. The first round missed Schatz’s head by inches. He “felt the whizzing of a bullet passing close to his head.” Nicholson ran toward their jeep, a Mercedes Geländewagen. Schatz, back in the driver’s seat, revved the engine and reversed toward Nicholson, unlocking the passenger door as he did so for the officer to make a getaway. Again, too late. A second shot brought Nicholson down. “As Schatz rolled his window down, Major Nicholson looked up at him and said, ‘Jesse, I’ve been shot’.” Another bullet hit Nicholson. “He then dropped his head into the dirt and twitched convulsively.”

What followed was a sinister reminder of the lingering deaths of East Germans who were unwise enough to try to escape to West Berlin across the shooting gallery that separated the two parts of the city at that time. Schatz, carrying a first aid bag, exited the vehicle to aid his stricken officer. By now, Ryabtsev had closed to within a few feet and waved Schatz away. As Schatz hesitated, Ryabtsev brought his rifle up to his shoulder, pointed it at Schatz’s head and curled his finger round the trigger. Schatz retreated. Nicholson died some time later from multiple abdominal wounds.

A diplomatic rumpus ensued, but there were larger stakes involved for Washington and Moscow than the killing—described by the Pentagon as murder—of a single Special Forces officer. A new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was steering his country toward a rapprochement with the West. A few months after Nicholson’s death, Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan met in Geneva and established a working relationship. One commentator suggested: “The Reagan administration’s response to this crime has been to treat it like a traffic accident covered by no-fault insurance.” When Reagan himself was baited by a reporter about the incident, he replied: “Lack of outrage? You can’t print what I am thinking.”

Yet Nicholson’s death was not an empty sacrifice in a boys’ own game of cowboys and Indians. Special Forces operations are supremely about strategic impact achieved by a small elite, or they are nothing. As the Cold War finally spluttered to its close, a veteran of the U.K.’s Brixmis mission revealed: “Preserving the peace in Europe in the 20th century was sometimes a damned close-run thing. It happened sometimes that all our nine Indicators of Hostilities”—intelligence measures by which the West would predict a preemptive Soviet attack—“read positive. We checked the situation on the ground, looked down their gun barrels, made sure there could be no surprise attack, no war by accident. That was our major contribution.” It was, essentially, a victory so low-profile, so discreet as to be invisible, but nonetheless real. In that, it resembled many successful non-violent Green Beret operations in Vietnam. It prevented Armageddon more than once, thanks to the magical substance provided by SF teams known to the intelligence community as “ground truth.”

Tony Geraghty: BRIXMIS—The Untold Exploits of Britain’s Most Daring Cold War Spy Mission—HarperCollins London 1996.


Latin quote attributed to Juvenal, literally ‘but who guards the guards?’ In a modern context, it might be interpreted as ‘who watches over the security services?’

he cases of espionage and other secret operations encountered so far are by no means exhaustive, but form a summary of the most important or colourful episodes in history. The more open minded might also like to consider the frontier of ESPionage – where secret service merges with the paranormal. There are many claims that the United States used psychic spies or ‘remote viewers’ to mentally scan buildings in the search for Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. In addition there are a whole series of related topics, which fall into the category of ‘Black Ops’, including the quest to create psychic soldiers – as seen with the strange-but-seemingly-true Project Jedi.

From the supernatural to the sinister, we have the ‘real Dr Strangelove’ – the CIA’s Dr Sidney Gottlieb (1918–99). An expert in poison, Gottlieb joined the chemical division of the CIA’s Technical Services Staff in 1951. Two years later he headed Project MKUltra which investigated the possible military uses of psycho-active drugs, including LSD. Research on CIA agents led Chemical Corps Major-General William Creasey to suggest dropping LSD into an enemy city’s water supply as a humane alternative to the use of nuclear weapons. Another colleague of Gottlieb’s was Dr Frank Olson. When given LSD without his knowledge, Olson suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent by the CIA to a New York City psychiatrist. Once in the Big Apple, Olson fell 13 storeys out of a hotel window. Although the incident was officially blamed on the side-effects of a ‘bad trip’, Olson’s son maintains his father was thrown from the window after threatening to go public about the programme.

Less far fetched has been the long-running conflict between Irish Republicans and the British government. Of all the espionage stories relating to ‘the Troubles’, perhaps the most startling was that of a ‘mole’ codenamed Stakeknife. Recruited by the intelligence services in 1978 as a low-ranking IRA volunteer, Stakeknife became head of the IRA’s internal security unit, the so-called ‘nutting squad’. His handlers were the FRU (Force Research Unit), an undercover British military intelligence unit, which mounted covert operations against IRA and Loyalist terrorists. In return for his services, Stakeknife was paid via a Gibraltar-based bank account to the tune of £80,000 a year – then comparable to a cabinet minister’s salary.

As head of the nutting squad, Stakeknife would have been in charge of vetting IRA recruits and seeking out moles working for the British and Irish governments. It is believed that Stakeknife had a hand in the murders of up to 40 suspected informers. It is also believed that to protect Stakeknife’s identity, his FRU handlers authorized him to kill three FRU agents. It is also alleged that Stakeknife supplied the information leading to the ambush of three IRA volunteers in Gibraltar on 6 March 1988. In February 1989 Belfast estate agent Joseph Fenton was murdered, apparently on Stakeknife’s orders. Fenton supplied safe houses for the IRA but also acted as a police informant. When Loyalist paramilitaries began to go after Stakeknife, it is alleged that the FRU protected their man by fitting up Francisco Notarantonio with false documents and persuading the Loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) that he was Stakeknife. That British intelligence could have been privy to so many murders proved somewhat unpalatable to say the least.

Another spy of note is former MI5 agent William Carlin. A soldier in the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, Carlin was approached by MI5 in 1974 and asked to return to his native Derry and become involved in the political side of the Republican movement. Over a number of years, Carlin began to work his way into Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, reporting back to his handlers on the activities of activist Martin McGuinness.

In 1980 Carlin became disillusioned with the behaviour of the army and security services in Northern Ireland and quit MI5. However, he found it much harder to disengage himself from his political work with Sinn Fein. In 1981 Carlin re-established contact with the security services after the murder of census-collector Joanne Mathers. Rather than being handled directly by MI5, Carlin was run by the FRU, although he did not know this at the time. Carlin rose through the ranks of Sinn Fein, all the while providing his handlers with detailed information on McGuinness and other political intelligence. Carlin’s cover was then blown by one of his former MI5 handlers.

Michael Bettaney was recruited to MI5 in 1982. His erratic behaviour was perhaps best summed up by one MP in a House of Commons debate:

‘He was an alcoholic, a misfit, a fantasist, a curious wild and way-out character, whose fatal weakness was alcohol in a big way. He used to be so drunk among his Security Service colleagues that he could not stand up. On one occasion, he even set fire to himself. He had two convictions for criminal dishonesty. At social occasions in the MI5 mess he used to say things such as, “Come and see me in my dacha when I retire”. “I am sure the East Germans would look after me better.” “I am working for the wrong side.”’

Another popular Bettaney story is that having not paid for a rail journey, he was chased through the carriages by a ticket inspector and police, shouting ‘You can’t arrest me, I’m a spy!’ The amazing thing was that Bettaney really was working for the Soviets, copying secret documents and passing them on to the KGB. His treachery was eventually exposed by KGB mole Oleg Gordievsky. Bettaney was arrested and put on remand in Wandsworth prison. There he met Patrick Magee, an IRA member charged with bombing the 1984 Tory Party conference in the Grand Hotel, Brighton. Bettaney is believed to have told Magee that the British had a spy close to McGuinness. Magee passed this news on to the Republicans who began an investigation. Other informants within the IRA warned that Carlin’s cover had been blown and so, on 3 March 1985, Carlin’s handler telephoned him at midnight and told him it was time to leave. He was taken with his family to a secret location in Britain.

In an unexpected twist to the case, Carlin gave evidence in support of McGuinness in an investigation into the deaths of 14 civilians at the ‘Bloody Sunday’ civil rights protest in 1972. At the time it was claimed that British soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators after shots were fired at them. It was alleged that Martin McGuinness, then second-in-command of the Provisional IRA in Londonderry, had opened fire on the British troops. According to Carlin, the accusation against McGuinness was based on a conversation reported by him, but which was being used out of context and wrongly in his opinion.

Dirty tricks are by no means the sole preserve of Anglo-Saxon agencies. In 1985 France grabbed the headlines by sinking the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior. In the 1980s France had been testing new nuclear devices on Mururoa Atoll in the Pacific. Greenpeace planned to go to the atoll and disrupt these tests. To prevent this occurring, plans were drawn up for France’s intelligence and covert action bureau (DGSE) to sink the Greenpeace ship. Codenamed Operation Satanic, three DGSE teams were dispatched to New Zealand where the ship was moored in Auckland Harbour. On the night of 10 July, two small explosions tore into the hull of Rainbow Warrior. Four minutes later the ship had sunk. Although the French saboteurs had planted the explosions so as not to harm any of the crew, photographer Fernando Pereira drowned trying to rescue his equipment.

France initially denied any involvement in the attack, but New Zealand’s police force arrested two agents, Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur, who were each found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. Both agents were later transferred into French ‘custody’ in 1986 and were both freed in 1988. It is believed the other saboteurs were picked up by a French nuclear submarine. A story in The Sunday Times claimed President Mitterrand knew of the plan and in the subsequent scandal, France’s Defence Minister, Charles Hernu, resigned, while Admiral Pierre Lacoste, director of the DGSE, was sacked. Twenty years after the operation, Le Monde published a report written by Admiral Lacoste, revealing that President Mitterrand had in fact given him his personal authorization for the operation.

Although the days of the KGB are behind us, their heirs are still at work. Witness the case of the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who was apparently poisoned during the controversial Ukrainian elections of 2004. On 5 September 2004, Yushchenko attended a dinner hosted by Volodymyr Satsiuk – deputy head of the SBU, Ukraine’s secret service. Shortly afterwards Yushchenko was taken ill with severe abdominal and back pains. His face then became unusually bloated and pock-marked, a characteristic symptom of dioxin poisoning. It was subsequently alleged that a Russian political scientist, Gleb Pavlovsky, came up with the idea of giving Yushchenko ‘the mark of the beast’ by disfiguring him and that the poison was administered during the dinner with Satsiuk. Despite these and other ‘dirty tricks’, Yushchenko was inaugurated President of Ukraine on 23 January 2005.

Another agency no stranger to ‘active measures’ is Israel’s ‘Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations’ – better known as Mossad. As an active participant in the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict many of Mossad’s operations have yet to be declassified. Although a number of high-profile cases are currently in the public domain – that is to say, published on the internet – there is little hard evidence available.

When the State of Israel was declared in 1948 it immediately came under attack by its Arab neighbours. Recognizing that the first line of defence was intelligence, Israel’s government formed Mossad on 13 December 1949. The organization is responsible for a wide range of covert activities, from espionage to secretly aiding Jewish refugees reach Israel, the movement of Ethiopian Jews to avoid the famine of 1984 being a good example of this.

Widely recognized as the top spy in Israeli history, Eli Cohen (1924–65) infiltrated the Syrian government in 1962 under the alias ‘Kamel Amin Tsa’abet’. To establish his cover, Cohen posed as a Syrian returning from Argentina. One of his more notable achievements was to suggest that the Syrian military should plant trees in front of its outposts facing Israel, to guard them from view. In reality the reverse was true: everywhere the Israeli military saw a group of eucalyptus trees they knew where to find Syrians. In 1965 Cohen was caught sending a radio message. Found guilty of espionage, he was publicly hanged in Damascus on 18 May 1965.

That same year, Mossad lost its top spy in Egypt, Wolfgang Lotz (1921–93). Posing as a West German war veteran recently returned from Australia, Lotz was sent to Egypt to collect information on Soviet arms being supplied to President Nasser’s government, including MiG warplanes and SAM missiles. Lotz also provided Mossad with the names of the German scientists working on a missile programme for Egypt. Mossad was then able to intimidate many of the scientists into quitting the project. Unluckily, Lotz was arrested in a Soviet-inspired clamp down on West Germans in Egypt. Wrongly believing the Egyptians had discovered he was a spy, Lotz confessed to everything. He fell back on a cover story of being a German pressed into service by Mossad against his will and was believed. Sentenced to life imprisonment, Lotz was exchanged with other Israeli spies after the 1967 war.

Mossad operatives have also been linked to a number of assassination missions carried out against members of the Palestinian group Black September in retaliation for the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In many respects, the Munich killings were to Israel what 9/11 was to the United States. In both cases – whether officially admitted or not – the gloves came off in respect to the government’s dealing with the issue of terrorism. The Israeli response was to take the fight to the terrorists in a series of revenge attacks dubbed Operation Wrath of God by the media.

The members of the ‘Avner’ Wrath of God group were reportedly told to resign from Mossad in order to cut any trace of Israeli government involvement. They were provided with unlimited money in a Swiss account and a list of 11 targets they were to assassinate. Their first ‘hit’ was in Rome against Wael Zwaiter, the cousin of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chief Yasser Arafat. Two Israeli agents shot Zwaiter in the lobby of his apartment. Before opening fire the agents were careful to identify Zwaiter properly – their instructions were only to kill when absolutely certain they had the right man and never to risk injuring a third party. This rule led to problems with the next hit, as the suspect had his family living with him. Mahmoud Hamshari was the PLO’s official representative in Paris. The assassins broke into Hamshari’s apartment dressed as telecom engineers and placed a small bomb inside his telephone. On the morning of 8 December 1972, after the suspect’s wife and daughter had left the apartment, one of the agents telephoned Hamshari under the pretext of conducting an interview. Once Hamshari confirmed his identity, the agent detonated the telephone bomb by remote control. Hamshari was mortally wounded by the explosion and died a month later.

The group went on to perform four more successful missions, including one against Zaid Muchassi, who had not been on the original list but had replaced Abad al-Chir as the PLO contact with the KGB. While killing Muchassi the group also shot the PLO man’s KGB contact who was waiting outside the building and appeared to be drawing a gun as the group made their escape. In March 1973 Mossad learned that three targets from the original list were meeting in Beirut. These were Mahmoud Yussuf Najjer, Kamal Nasser and Kemal Adwan. An operation to get these three men was launched and codenamed Spring of Youth. On 10 April 1973, approximately 40 Israeli commandos landed on a Beirut beach and were met by an advance party of Mossad agents. Together they tracked down and killed the three targets.

Completely independent from the Avner group, another team was sent after Israel’s principal assassination target, Ali Hassan Salameh, believed to be the organizer of the Munich operation. On 21 July 1973 this team accidentally shot dead an innocent man in Lillehammer, Norway, whom they believed was Salameh. The actual victim was Ahmed Bouchiki, a Moroccan waiter walking home from the cinema with his pregnant wife. Norwegian police arrested six of the Israeli agents and recovered documents linking them to Mossad. They also passed details of a safe house in Paris to the French authorities who uncovered more evidence linking the Israeli government to the murder of Palestinians. Undeterred by such embarrassing setbacks, Mossad made several more attempts against Salameh, finally killing him in Beirut with a remote-controlled car bomb on 22 January 1979.

Mossad is also believed to have been behind the 1988 assassination of senior PLO figure Abu Jihad in Tunis and is one of several suspects behind the murder of Gerald Bull, a Canadian aerospace engineer. Bull was the designer behind Project Babylon, better known as the Iraq ‘Supergun’, and also worked on a project to build a multi-stage missile for Iraq. In March 1990, as he returned to his Brussels apartment, he was shot five times in the back of the head. Other suspected parties include the secret services of Iran and Iraq itself.

It is widely believed that Mossad kidnapped Mordechai Vanunu, a former nuclear technician who revealed details of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme to the British newspaper The Sunday Times in 1986. Following this disclosure, an American Mossad agent calling herself Cindy began an affair with Vanunu in London and persuaded him to go to Rome with her. It was the oldest trick in the book. Once in Italy, Vanunu claims he was drugged and returned to Israel where he faced treason charges. In 1988 he was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment. He was released in 2004 under heavy restrictions.

In 1991 the American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s book The Samson Option accused Nicholas Davies, the foreign editor of the Daily Mirror, of tipping off the Israeli embassy that Vanunu was giving his story to The Sunday Times and had tried to pass it to the Sunday Mirror, a title owned by Czech-born media tycoon Robert Maxwell, who was thought to have contacts with Israeli intelligence. These allegations were not exactly new. Hersh’s principal source, Ari Ben-Menashe, had made these allegations before, but no British newspaper would publish them for fear of legal action. Even when repeated in Hersh’s book, no one would run the story.

In order to circumvent the threat of legal action, on 21 October 1991, MP Rupert Allason raised the issue in the House of Commons, which enabled newspapers to report the allegations. Allason’s early-day motion expressed concern that the Daily Mirror and Maxwell had maintained a close relationship with Mossad and that in 1983 Nicholas Davies had gone into partnership with Ari Ben-Menashe and ‘negotiated the sale of 4,000 TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran in contravention of the United Nations arms embargo then in force in 1987’. Allason’s motion also alleged that Davies had conspired to supply information on Vanunu’s whereabouts to the Israeli embassy. Allason asked if the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry would investigate the alleged export of weapons and suspend confidential and Foreign and Commonwealth Office briefings to Mirror Group personnel until an investigation was completed. The following day, Allason asked the Leader of the House, John MacGregor: ‘Will he ask the Prime Minister, as head of the security and intelligence services, to order an immediate inquiry into the alleged relationship between the Israeli intelligence service and Robert Maxwell and especially Mr. Nicholas Davies, the news editor of the Daily Mirror?’

British newspapers began publishing the allegations, and although Maxwell denied the claims, he sacked Davies soon after. The media tycoon then had Hersh and his publishers, Faber and Faber, issued with a writ for libel. However, on the night of 5/6 November 1991, Robert Maxwell died when he fell off his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine, while cruising off the Canary Islands. The official verdict was accidental drowning, but, it is fair to say, there are plenty of theories to suggest otherwise, if one cares to look for them.

By now it should be clear how much of world history has been shaped by unseen hands. In nations of democratic tradition the work of secret services is reprehensible to many, but there is no reason to think such things will go away overnight – nor even in the long term. Few people can really be so naive as to believe that elected governments will never again authorize illegal acts in the national interest. However, a balance must be maintained. Elected politicians must always hold ultimate veto over the actions of the secret services, as politicians can then be held accountable through the ballot box. To allow secret services complete freedom to do as they see fit is a recipe for disaster. However, at the same time, they need to be robust enough to make a difference. It is all a question of balance. As Tolstoy declared in War and Peace ‘the wolves should be fed and the sheep kept safe’.

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.