Why were the Germans so bad at espionage?

Discussion in 'WWII' started by Big J, Apr 26, 2018.

  1. Big J

    Big J Call Me a Cab

    Messages:
    2,970
    Location:
    Japan
    A friend gave me some Ben Macintyre books about British Intelligence during WWII. Highly entertaining reads, I recommend them. But I don't understand why the Germans were so bad at espionage.
    Apparently;
    Every German agent that was sent to Britain was killed, captured, or turned themselves in almost immediately.
    The Germans never suspected that flipped agents were turned.
    When the British sent back obviously fake information in the name of a captured German agent who refused to turn (in order that the Germans would spot the fake, and conclude he had been turned, making the information from the flipped agents seem more credible) the Germans failed to spot the glaring falsehoods.

    They were literally appalling at the whole thing, apparently. How could this have come about?
     
  2. Edward

    Edward Bartender

    Messages:
    21,320
    Location:
    London, UK
    Interesting question. Were there better ones the Brits just didn't spot? ;)
    Or was Hitler so convinced of military victory by the Aryan Supermen that he just didn't value espionage? I men, he managed to build an airforce under the nose of those who banned a Luftwaffe at Versailles, so the idea that the capability to produce good spies was missing seems flimsy, somehow.
     
    Big J likes this.
  3. HanauMan

    HanauMan Practically Family

    Messages:
    809
    Location:
    Inverness, Scotland
    The German Abwehr weren't all that bad and they, in turn, used captured Allied trained agents to pass false information to London and compromising the actions of the French, and especially, the Dutch underground. In the Dutch case the captured agent even sent clues in his messages to London to state that he was in German hands but which the British didn't pick up on.

    One major reason the British operations were so good was that they used many non British agents (ie French, Dutch, Norwegians etc) within the occupied territories.The Germans were pretty much dependent on Germans and a few Quislings. Much easier to use an agent who is actually from the country she / he is working in than try to pass yourself off as a native.

    The main problem with the Abwehr, I believe, was its leadership (never committed Nazis) and the fact that it became a force used by anti - Hitler elements of the military towards the end of the war.
     
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2018
    rocketeer, Big J and Edward like this.
  4. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom One Too Many

    Messages:
    1,749
    Location:
    Vienna, Austria
    I am certainly no expert on this topic, but I can’t help but think that “the winners write the history” syndrome probably influences our perceptions.
     
    p51, Big J, Edward and 1 other person like this.
  5. AmateisGal

    AmateisGal I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
    5,849
    Location:
    Nebraska
    The German agents in America were pretty awful, too.
     
    Big J likes this.
  6. Big J

    Big J Call Me a Cab

    Messages:
    2,970
    Location:
    Japan
    Thanks for your replies! I've been thinking it over and seeing what else I could learn. I'm still a total novice, but I'll throw out some ideas and impressions I have, let me know if you think I'm way off the mark.

    @Tiki Tom, yes, winners do write the history, so that may be a huge factor. After all, with the end of the war in sight, the Nazi bureaucracy started throwing incriminating documents of bonfires, so as @Edward suggests, there may have been successful German spies they very existence of which we will never know of, since all evidence has been destroyed. For this to stand up though, we would have to explain why Bletchley Park never intercepted any communications relating to them. MI5 was infiltrated at the highest level by The Cambridge Spies on behalf of the Soviets, which the U.K. government doesn't seek to conceal, so we would also have to ask why it would even now seek to conceal details of German penetration.

    @HannauMan, I think I may have to disagree with you about the efficacy of the Abwehr. The few books I've read suggest that the spy handlers and recruiters they sent out were largely work-shy good time playboys, who spent their time lining their own pockets with department funds in order to fuel their lavish occupation lifestyles away from Germany in occupied Europe. This compromised their professionalism since they were unable to turn-in suspected double-agents since they were making such a good living by taking a slice of the expenses. They did indeed seek to recruit third party nationals to work on their behalf, but all of these were double-agents (AFAIK).
    It seems that rivalry between the SS and the Germany Army for control of intelligence operations was mutually counter-beneficial to doing their jobs. I suspect that this came in part on the Army side from anti-Hitler aristocratic snobbery, and on the SS side by having staffed their organization with corrupt bullies of limited intellectual capacity, who being true believers above all else, didn't take the significance of their responsibilities to heart believing that Aryan force of arms would be sufficient (as @Edward suggests).

    @AmateisGal, the U.S. was extremely fortunate it seems. Hoover's attention whoring leading him to parade captured 'German agents' around publicly prevented the U.S. from ever developing it's own network of double agents, even when German agents were carrying questionnaires about the defenses at Pearl Harbor two months before the attack in micro-dot form. The FBI seems to have displayed an appalling lack of sophistication in their understanding of the way the world of espionage works, they were lucky that skilled spies didn't go to America.

    And why didn't they? I think that a large part of that may be ideological. If you're a smart educated bu-cultural/bi-lingual person, you're not in the Nazi's demographic. Nazi ideology limited the pool of potentially useful agents to almost zero. Additionally, there were those in pre-war U.K. and America who ideologically sympathized with the Nazis, so perhaps there was a feeling that they could rely on these foreigners to help them 'from within'? As a note, I did read that Wallis Simpson was reading all of her abdicated husband's highly classified intelligence briefings and relating the contents to her Nazi friends throughout the war. This may or may not be true, but she held an immense grudge against the U.K., the Royal Family, the whole country pretty much, for not letting her be 'queen'. This would be exactly the kind of thing that if true, Bletchley Park would have intercepted, and also to this day conceal to protect the U.K. monarchy. If true, the Nazis may have felt no real need to have agents in the field in light of having access to former King Edward VIII's briefings.
     
  7. Edward

    Edward Bartender

    Messages:
    21,320
    Location:
    London, UK
    The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were married and settled in the South of France in 1937, but moved to Lisbon after the Nazi invasion in the North. In July 1940, he was appointed Governor of the Bahamas in order to keep them pout of Europe for the very specific reason of their tendency to gossip to their Nazi chums.
     
    Big J likes this.
  8. Trenchfriend

    Trenchfriend I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
    9,250
    Location:
    Germany
    Germans are the worst "actors" until today, that's all... ;)
     
    Big J likes this.
  9. Big J

    Big J Call Me a Cab

    Messages:
    2,970
    Location:
    Japan
    @Edward, interesting post. I'd assumed that was always just gossip/myth/rumor but is it actually a known fact in the the U.K.?

    @Trenchfriend, lol! But there were some great German actors and glamorous actresses before today!
    Dietrich, Prochnow, Petersen, von Stroheim, Kier, Kinski(!), Kruger, Knef, Sommer, Bruhl, Kahler, Carsten, Jurgens, Frobe, there must be many more I can't remember.
     
  10. GHT

    GHT I'll Lock Up

    Messages:
    7,050
    Location:
    New Forest
    Winston Churchill wanted “to destroy all traces” of telegrams revealing a Nazi plot to reinstate the former King Edward VIII to the British throne in return for his support during the second world war, according to released cabinet papers it has been revealed.

    The telegrams document Nazi plans to kidnap the Duke of Windsor – the title granted to Edward following his abdication in 1936 – and his wife, Wallis Simpson, when they reached Portugal after fleeing their Paris home when France fell to German forces in 1940.

    The Cabinet Office file published by the National Archives reveals how Churchill appealled to the US president, Dwight Eisenhower, and the French government to prevent publication of the intercepted German telegrams for “at least 10 or 20 years”.

    Churchill, the UK prime minister at the time, said the captured German telegrams offering Edward the British throne in the event of a Nazi invasion of Britain were “tendentious and unreliable” and likely to leave the misleading impression that the duke “was in close touch with German agents and was listening to suggestions that were disloyal”.

    Churchill made his appeal to Eisenhower after learning that a microfilm copy of the telegrams, which were found in German archives at the end of the war, had been sent to the US State Department and were being considered for inclusion in the official US history of the conflict.

    Eisenhower told Churchill on 2 July 1953 that US intelligence shared his assessment that the communications were “obviously concocted with some idea of promoting German propaganda and weakening western resistance” and were “totally unfair” to the duke.

    Churchill told the US president that fears for the duke’s safety had led to his appointment as governor of the Bahamas, part of “strenuous efforts to get him away from Europe beyond the reach of the enemy”.

    To clarify, cabinet papers means the minutes taken at cabinet meetings. The Cabinet is the group of senior ministers and chaired by the prime minister. As it's now in the public arena you can access the information via the UK National Archives.
    http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk
     
    Edward likes this.
  11. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom One Too Many

    Messages:
    1,749
    Location:
    Vienna, Austria
    There was the very successful German spy, code named “Cicero”, who spied on the British embassy in Turkey. On the other hand, he was so successful that the German upper brass didn’t fully trust him and chose to ignore some of the stuff he got his hands on.
     
  12. I particularly liked Curt Juergens as Otto von Bismarck in Fall of Eagles.

     
  13. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec One Too Many

    Messages:
    1,055
    Location:
    Los Angeles
    I suspect that there's a number of subtler distinctions to be made here. The early CIA relied heavily on the Gehlen Org after the war in order to spy on the Soviets. This suggests that some German spies were pretty good, or Gehlen pulled the wool over the eyes of the CIA possibly to further his own agenda (indicating that some German spies were pretty good), or that the Germans were pretty good on the eastern front but not the west. They did do a pretty serious head fake on Stalin before the war, ratcheting up his paranoia and getting a lot of Soviet military men gulaged.

    I'm guessing that 1) Germany had a tight foreign policy/military cooperation game prior to the the invasion of Russia. Then it all dissolved. Arrogance and over-ambition on the part of Hitler and others certainly was the cause of a lot of it's decline but also consider that Germany was over stressed when it came to personnel. Those people may have been all promoted East where there was the most to gain and the most to lose. The big was was always in the East. 2) Germany was penetrable from many directions but England had a moat. 3) Germany pissed a lot of smart people off and they were within it's empire. In the British Isles there was no similar population except, to a minor extent, some Irish. 4) England had been playing international intrigue for a LOT longer than Germany had been a country. They were experts at it. While they weren't used to tracking down too many spies at home they were good at counter espionage in the colonies, especially those bordering Russia. 4) Germany may have had far better analysis teams than it had field assets. There were certainly a lot of Germans who understood England, France and to a lesser extent the US, but I suspect they were pretty well known ... given the economic issues in Wiemar Germany it was really only the wealthy had traveled in the previous decade. Celebrity types. Spies could have been added to the population of fleeing Jews but, I'm just thinking about it now, these people really knew who was one of them and who was not. You have to be an expert in Judaism to pretend to be a Jew among Jews in those days.

    The Germans were bad at spying on Britain probably for the same reasons the were bad at invading Britain: they didn't really know what they wanted to do and so they never made an intelligent plan or bothered to allocate the resources.
     
  14. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom One Too Many

    Messages:
    1,749
    Location:
    Vienna, Austria
    I recently read the John LeCarre memoir and he talks about how, after the war, the US teamed up with the remnants of German intelligence to help them with the nascent anti-Soviet enterprise (mainly through the Gehlen org). And how that laid the groundwork for the modern German intelligence service, the BND. Obviously, neither side was eager to publicize the partnership or its roots.
     
  15. Just Jim

    Just Jim One of the Regulars

    I had the pleasure (?) of knowing a few people who had been involved in early post-war espionage in Europe. The American said "we were all bastards: the Germans who worked with us deserved to be shot and knew it". The Germans said they had the advantage of knowing "where the bodies were buried" and were basically able to blackmail the nationals of other countries who helped bury them.
     
    Trenchfriend likes this.
  16. Guttersnipe

    Guttersnipe One Too Many

    Messages:
    1,942
    Location:
    San Francisco, CA
    From everything I've read, German intelligence suffered due to a highly decentralized structure that, when combined with inter-organizational rivalry and distrust, created gross inefficacy. The Abwehr was competent, but focused heavily on pure military intelligence at the expense of broader geopolitical matters, and also suffered from organizationally-rooted aristocratic snobbishness. The SD and Gestapo both fell under the umbrella of the SS, but were distrustful of each other and loathed the Abwehr. The SD was fanatically loyal to the the regime, but was comprised of amateurs, and spent a lot of time and energy on ideologically motivated intelligence activities. The Gestapo on the other hand was made up in large part of experienced police officers. Its role, at which it excelled, was limited mostly to counterintelligence work in Germany and occupied countries. However, the Gestapo was likewise tasked with lots of ideologically motivated counterintelligence work that was not a productive use of its time.
     
    Last edited: May 2, 2018
  17. Otter

    Otter One Too Many

    I suspect that a form of institutional paranoia may take over in Intelligence circles, has our source been turned ? "I know we are paranoid, but are we paranoid enough".
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 29, 2018
  18. Haversack

    Haversack One Too Many

    Messages:
    1,092
    Location:
    Clipperton Island
    MikeKardec wrote: "England had been playing international intrigue for a LOT longer than Germany had been a country. They were experts at it. While they weren't used to tracking down too many spies at home they were good at counter espionage in the colonies, especially those bordering Russia."

    An example of this involving Germany, albeit during the First World War, can be seen in the extensive covert activities that took place between the British and Imperial German consulates in San Francisco. One major activity by the Germans involved the shipment of arms from the West Coast to Indian revolutionaries with the aid of Irish Republicans. The British were eventually able to derail this operation and further exploit it by publicly exposing German violations of US neutrality.
     
  19. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom One Too Many

    Messages:
    1,749
    Location:
    Vienna, Austria
    “Those who know, don’t tell. Those who tell, don’t know.” (I always loved that quote. Don’t know who said it.)
     
  20. avedwards

    avedwards Call Me a Cab

    Messages:
    2,425
    Location:
    London and Midlands, UK
    This is a fascinating discussion and I would like to share two very different historical sources that might add some insight.

    1. According to the official history of MI5 (written by historian Christopher Andrew, who was given complete access to MI5’s records) senior MI5 officer Guy Liddell travelled to Germany in late March 1933 “to establish contact with the German Political Police”. Liddell’s hosts were very welcoming and showed him records they had seized from the German Communist Party headquarters following the Reichstag fire. They also told him that Communism was a movement controlled by the Jews and showed him a map that purported to show that “International Jewry” was controlled from London. This suggests to me that German intelligence activities were led by ideology and conspiracy theories more than facts, which can only have impaired their effectiveness.

    2. According to Peter Wright (from his controversial book Spycatcher), a postwar counterintelligence officer at MI5, Vladimir Von Petrov, a Russian émigré living in Paris, was used as a source by both the Abwehr and the Russian GRU (unbeknownst to the Abwehr). Von Petrov was also used as a source by MI6 but managed to blackmail his handler, an officer called Charles Ellis, into divulging sensitive British intelligence. According to Wright, Ellis confessed to this in the 1960s (by which time he had retired). No action was taken against Ellis to avoid further scandal or embarrassment for MI6.

    So if Wright’s account is to be believed (some historians consider him an unreliable source) it appears that Nazi German intelligence did manage to recruit an agent in British intelligence during the war.


    As a more general issue I think that Hitler and the Nazi Party didn’t view intelligence as a priority, as it didn’t fit in with the grandiose view of warfare that they had. Even when the Nazis did secure a victory on the allied intelligence services in the “Venlo Incident” they did so by brute force rather than superior intelligence abilities.
     
    Bugguy likes this.

Share This Page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.