Yes, Intelligence Matters

Yes, Intelligence Matters

by Frank Ellis

Robert Hutchinson, German Foreign Intelligence from Hitler’s War to the Cold War: Flawed Assumptions and Faulty Analysis, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence Kansas, 2019, notes, bibliography, index, pp. vii-x + pp.1-247, ISBN 978-0-7006-2757-8

According to Hutchinson, ‘the most significant fatal flaw in the German intelligence services’ reporting during the war was a protracted inability to see the world as it actually was’.[1] This is an enduring philosophical problem in its own right but in practical assessment terms one that was hardly confined to the German intelligence services. Consider the following examples. Between 1918 and May 1940 the Germans pioneered a technological and doctrinal revolution in military affairs. The British and French failure to grasp what the German had achieved  – there was no shortage of evidence – constituted a monumental intelligence failure and pointed to the fact that the British and French Armies were institutionally mismanaged and unprepared for modern war. Anglo-French diplomacy was almost as bad, caught out by the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in August 1939. In May 1940, Anglo-French forces were taken by surprise when the Germans sent massed armoured formations through the Ardennes (and did it again in 1944). The French compounded this intelligence failure by refusing to take seriously air reconnaissance reports showing that the Germans were massing in the south (on the Maas). Obsessed by the north, and that this had to be the German Schwerpunkt, French commanders ignored reports to the contrary because they did not fit in with their preconceptions about how the Germans would deploy their forces.

In the Far East, the British  showed themselves to be just as wilfully indifferent to possibilities other than those they envisaged by taking no account of the possibility that the Japanese would use the route that they did to attack Singapore. The Abwehr enjoyed considerable success with the so-called Englandspiel in which British agents were captured and executed in the German-occupied Netherlands. The disaster of Operation Market-Garden, the Allied airborne landings in September 1944, underscores, once again, the danger of senior officers and politicians ignoring evidence. When the intelligence officer at British 1 Airborne Corps, Major Brian Urquhart, informed his superiors that air reconnaissance flights had identified German armoured formations in the area of Arnhem – not what General Browning 1 Airborne Corps commander wanted to hear – he was sent on medical leave. And what of the total surprise achieved by the Japanese carrier-based strike force at Pearl Harbour?

If, according to Hutchinson, obsessions with race corrupted German intelligence assessments, then notions that belonging to a certain privileged caste conferred moral superiority and trustworthiness exposed the British intelligence services to devastating infiltration by Soviet-recruited agents, making it possible for the Soviet Union to achieve one of the greatest intelligence successes of the twentieth century. At the very moment when the Joint Intelligence Committee report, Some Weaknesses in German Strategy and Organisation, was submitted to the chiefs of staff and cabinet, in which it was smugly noted that decisions in Germany were the preserve  ‘of a group of ignorant maniacs’[2], messrs Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, comfortably ensconced in the heart of the British intelligence establishment – all jolly decent chaps by the way – were happily betraying Britain. Embedded in the Manhattan Project, Klaus Fuchs was another Soviet success story.

Telling leaders what they want to hear was also responsible for the greatest intelligence disaster of the twentieth century – 22nd June 1941 – a direct consequence of Stalin’s refusal to see the obvious. After 1945, the French and then US leaders all saw what they wanted to see in Vietnam, hence the rage and fury directed at Daniel Ellsberg who leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers. Joseph Hovey, a CIA analyst, concluded that a general uprising was imminent (the Tet offensive) but his analysis was ignored because it did not fit in with the assessment of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). The invasion of Iraq also shows that when it suits them leaders (or should we call them managers?) will suppress inconvenient intelligence information in order to justify illegal wars. Having invaded Iraq, the US-led coalition made no provision for the insurgency that followed, another serious intelligence blunder.

U.S. Marines with Iraqi Prisoners, March 21 2003

The German intelligence services, Hutchinson concedes, were not alone in making blunders but then he maintains that ‘to posit that the German intelligence services had little or no significance for either Hitler’s strategic assumptions or his major decisions in the early phases of the war is simply incorrect’.[3] This is something of a straw man fallacy: who exactly is positing that the German intelligence services played no part in Hitler’s deliberations? The absence of any study carried out by Germany’s Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt (MGFA) – highlighted by Hutchinson – may or may not be significant but the absence of any study does not imply that the position of the MGFA is that the German intelligence services played no part. Another problem is that Hutchinson has earlier cited the JIC report in which we are told that ‘all decisions of policy and interpretation of facts, became increasingly dependent on the arbitrary whims of a group of ignorant maniacs’[4] which is inconsistent with any meaningful role played by the German intelligence services. Maybe that is why the MGFA, having read the JIC report, has so far not bothered.

The Germans, Hutchinson maintains, misunderstood the British, underestimated the Soviet Union and, in his words, counted out the United States. But the British were easily misunderstood. Throughout the 1930s, they had stood idly by as Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland, carried out the Anschluß, devoured Czechoslovakia and played a central role in assisting Franco. Given the British policy of appeasement throughout the 1930s, the Germans could quite reasonably conclude that Britain would not go to war. British defence guarantees to Poland were interpreted as a bluff, a view reinforced by the British and French failure to mount any relief operation in support of the Poles in the West after 1st September 1939. Anglo-French dithering and inconsistency, and even duplicity, were further on display when, having declared war on Germany (3rd September 1939) for violating Polish sovereignty, they looked the other way when the Red Army invaded eastern Poland on 17th September 1939.

The problem for Germany in assessing the USA was one of time: could Germany achieve her goals in Europe before the USA was able decisively to intervene? To a far greater extent than their assessments of Britain, the German intelligence services were obsessed with the influence of Jews in the USA. The German view was one of an American establishment totally penetrated by Jews and their anti-German plotting. Theodore Kaufmann’s Germany Must Perish (1941) inflamed German suspicions about a master plan to eradicate all Germans (exactly what the Germans were planning to inflict on Jews).  Regardless of obsessions with Jews, the German intelligence services ‘were able to extensively document just how “unneutral” Roosevelt’s government was’[5], and Fremde Heere West (FHW) had a very good idea of US war production. So not exactly a complete failure. Hutchinson cites a number of reports submitted to Berlin by the German chargé d’affaires in Washington, Hans Thomsen. In the English translations, Thomsen refers to Germany and allies as ‘the totalitarian powers’.[6]  It seems unlikely that Thomsen would use such language about Germany, never mind in his official dispatches. So did Thomsen actually use the word ‘totalitarian’ (totalitär) in his German-language dispatches or is this an improvised and unfortunate translation? Later, Hutchinson classifies the DDR as ‘authoritarian’[7], where totalitarian is most certainly required.

The starting point in any assessment of overall German performance in the invasion of the Soviet Union, including the German intelligence agencies, is to ask, yet again, one very simple question: if German assessments of the Soviet Union’s capacity to wage war were so hopelessly distorted by National-Socialist race ideology and racial stereotypes how did the German army manage to stand firm at Moscow in that first dreadful winter, 1941-1942, on Hitler’s orders and against the advice of his generals, recover and then fight its way to the Volga (Stalingrad) and the Terek (Caucasus)? Another point to highlight about Fall Blau, the summer campaign of 1942, is that the plans, by way of one of those freak accidents that occur in war, fell into the hands of the Red Army but were not taken seriously. The Soviet intelligence assessment of German intentions for the summer of 1942 was a renewed assault on Moscow, so plans indicating that the main German blow would fall in the south with the aim of seizing the Baku oil plants were not accorded due weight (sounds familiar).

Battle of Stalingrad

German planning for Barbarossa was based on a number of assumptions about the Soviet state and, in particular, about the ability of the Red Army to wage modern, all-arms war.  Although the totalitarian nature of the Soviet state made it extremely difficult for German agencies to gather intelligence from human sources, the way that Stalin’s regime treated its people was hardly a state secret. In order to force through the collectivization of agriculture, Stalin’s terror agencies had broken the rural way of life and implemented genocide (Holodomor). Industrialization had brought further upheavals and Stalin’s Great Terror attacked the party and Red Army. Even though Soviet forces eventually prevailed against the Finns in the 1939-1940 Winter War, the Red Army had been humiliated, revealing a series of tactical and operational failings. That German intelligence perceived political, economic and military weakness was entirely reasonable: the Germans knew of the genocide in Ukraine, the Great Terror and the squalor and shortages and that Stalin ruled by terror and the NKVD. The assumption that an invasion would expose internal weaknesses – it did – was not an intelligence failure. Nor did Stalin and his inner circle have any confidence that they could withstand the invasion, which is why secret police terror, deportations and executions were used. The critical German failure in the period immediately after the start of Barbarossa was the failure to exploit the weaknesses of the Soviet regime.

Hutchinson highlights what he sees as the German reliance on stereotypes of Russians, derived from the nineteenth century. Attacking stereotypes is a familiar line in so many areas of history but Hutchinson fails to investigate the origin of stereotypes and why they arise in the first place: stereotypes do not just appear ex nihilo. Another point is that the use of “Russian” and “Soviet” as if they were the same terms is not necessarily evidence that German intelligence officials accepted the continuity of the nineteenth century. The Germans referred to the British as “die Engländer” (cf. das Englandspiel) because the English were the largest and the dominant group comprising Britain. Modern Russian tends to refer to England (Angliia) instead of UK. However, dismissing the possibility that characteristics and traits observed among Russians by historians, diplomats and travellers in the nineteenth century and earlier can have any relevance for the mid-twentieth century implies acceptance of Soviet ideological claims that some new Soviet man (homo sovieticus) has been created. In fact, German assessments of Russians are not that far removed from what we find in the works of Russians themselves. If some nineteenth-century writers tended to idealise peasant life, others highlighted the qualities identified by the Germans: passivity, lack of initiative and extreme insularity. The very nature of the Tsarist autocracy served to crush any initiative, and in the Soviet period where conditions were even more oppressive, leading to the world’s first totalitarian state, initiative was seen as something dangerous.

Fear of initiative and accepting responsibility had far-reaching consequences for the Red Army in WWII, a problem exacerbated by the fact that the Red Army, as the full and formal title suggests, Raboche-Krest’ianskoi Krasnoi Armii (The Workers-Peasant Red Army), largely comprised recruits from the strata of Tsarist and Soviet societies that were not accustomed to showing initiative. In one of his last works, Vse techet (Everything Flows, 1970), Vasilii Grossman contrasted the evolution of freedom in the West with the evolution of slavery in Russia and the Soviet Union, characterising Russia as a thousand-year old slave. Polish women who were deported to the Soviet east by the NKVD in 1940 described Russians and non-Russians in less than flattering terms. Concerning Kazakhs, one Polish deportee remarked: ‘we looked with repugnance at these ugly, slant-eyed, flat-nosed people, so horribly dirty, breeding lice in their rags at the crotch’. One Polish woman described a Kalmyk’s face as ‘inhuman’, filling her with horror. Another remembers a Russian ‘with a dreary face, resembling something between an orangutan and a chimpanzee’. The general perception of Russian women formed by Poles of both sexes was that ‘Such females [Russian] are not only not European, but they are closer to animals, just like the nondescript women of Central Asia’.[8]  In short, National-Socialist ideologues were not alone in harbouring a sense of racial and cultural superiority. Nor, incidentally, do we find much evidence of any Pan-Slavic brotherhood among the Poles.

Commenting on the Fremde Heere Ost (FHO) assessment of the Soviet invasion of Poland on 17th September 1939, the author cites it without clarifying whether it was true or an accurate statement of what ensued. So one needs to be quite clear: Sovietization did occur, estates were plundered, people were arrested and deported, and Polish prisoners of war were interned and in the spring of 1940, 21,857 were murdered by the NKVD. Hutchinson makes no mention of Katyn. An important question here is whether the Germans knew, or had good grounds to believe, that the NKVD had executed Polish prisoners of war. Hutchinson is also silent on the cooperation that it is known to have taken place between the German intelligence agencies and the NKVD. Given his theme, this is a serious omission. The Soviet state made much of the fact that it was a multi-ethnic union, yet ethnic diversity in the Red Army was also a weakness, as events were to prove. Wipert von Blücher, the German ambassador to Finland, noted in one of his reports (18th December 1939), cited by Hutchinson, that the Red Army was not properly equipped with camouflaged winter clothing and that at night Soviet troops gathered round fires which made them vulnerable to attack from the ground and air. Once again, given his predilection for seeing German assessments of the Red Army in terms of stereotypes,  Hutchinson should make clear whether he accepts that the ambassadorial dispatch is accurate, and if not explain why.

The tactically careless behaviour identified by von Blücher, and many other shortcomings, were also identified in two Soviet reports which were declassified only after the end of the Cold War. Hutchinson is obviously unaware of these reports which generally support the FHO assessments of the Red Army. The first was compiled by General Voronov (later Marshal) and is dated 1st April 1940 and the second report was compiled by Marshal Voroshilov and Marshal Timoshenko and dated 7th December 1940. The picture of the Red Army that emerges from Voronov’s report is of an army that is tactically and operationally inept and poorly led. One of the more striking findings was that that Red Army infantry were unable to operate in trackless forest in winter: junior commanders were unable to use map and compass, and there was a fear of forest wilderness. As a consequence, Red Army units stayed on tracks where they were easily ambushed by small highly mobile Finnish patrols. The main finding of the December 1940 report, a year after the start of the war, is that many of the failings indentified in the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the Finnish campaign have still not been removed. In other words, German assessments of Red Army performance in the Winter War were far from being corrupted by race ideology, were accurate and, if anything, may actually have understated the problems afflicting the Red Army. Thus, the extract from Franz Halder’s diary (5th December 1940) – used by Hutchinson as an epigraph for his second chapter and intended to show that Halder’s assessment of the Red Army was mistaken (Halder assesses the quality of Soviet military leadership as poor and one that has failed to make use of the most recent experiences) in actual fact turns out to be in line with what very senior Soviet figures themselves thought about the Red Army, and almost simultaneously (Halder, 5th December 1940, Voroshilov & Timoshenko, 7th December 1940).

In assessing Red Army performance in the Winter War, and in spite of its very losses relative to the Finns, Hutchinson prefers to see the glass as half full rather than almost empty: an equally plausible lesson to draw from the Red Army’s experiences in the Winter War of 1939-1940, then, was appreciation for the Soviet Union’s ability to suffer crippling losses and tactical failures only to regroup and prevail due to both the demanding inflexibility of the Soviet political classes, which would not accept defeat, and the tenacity of the Russian (sic) soldier in the field in both offensive and defensive operations[9]

Dead Russian soldier in the Winter War

The crippling losses suffered by the Red Army arose from the low levels of competence among Soviet commanders at all levels. Even by May 1945, these shortcomings had not been completely eliminated. Stalin and his generals squandered men’s lives because they had men’s lives to waste. What Hutchinson categorizes as ‘the demanding inflexibility of the Soviet political classes’ is a euphemism for the extreme brutality and ruthlessness of the Soviet terror apparatus which was turned against the Red Army and which functioned throughout the war with Germany. Further measures were introduced after 22nd June 1941: the reintroduction of the institution of military commissars (16th July 1941) and Stalin’s infamous Order № 270 (16th August 1941).

Given that German intelligence officers and senior army officers were well aware of Soviet profligacy with the lives of Soviet citizens and the terror-enforcement role played by the NKVD and military commissars, it would have been entirely conceivable to German intelligence officers and army commanders that Stalin would go to any lengths to avoid defeat. The FHO view that Red Army armoured units lacked coordination with other units and that the Red Army soldier was passive and too obedient is also entirely consistent with what was repeatedly observed on the Eastern front.

For its part, the German army placed a premium on Auftragstaktik, mission-led command, which demanded that leaders at all levels show initiative and not just wait for orders, whereas the Red Army stressed rigid adherence to the implementation of orders regardless of changed circumstances. Red Army commanders, with memories of the way the Red Army had been mutilated in the 1930s, were for the most part institutionally unprepared and psychologically incapable of acting  independently, an appalling handicap when operating against an enemy which valued and inculcated aggressive initiative and independent command. Military commissars breathing  down their necks just made things worse for Red Army commanders. If, however, one accepts the Hutchinson position that Eberhard Kinzel, the head of FHO (later replaced by Gehlen) and Ernst Köstring, the German military attaché in Moscow, were incorrect to argue that the general disarray and backwardness of the Red Army meant that it would be many years before the Soviet Union would be a threat to Germany, then it would be reasonable to deduce that the Soviet Union constituted a threat to Germany in May-June 1941, so justifying a pre-emptive strike.

After the start of Barbarossa, German agents reported that Jews were being evacuated by the Soviet administration and given preferential treatment. Hutchinson cites this as yet another example of the Nazis’ conflating Jews with the Bolshevik regime. However, in Dvesti let vmeste (Two Hundred Years Together, 2002), Solzhenitsyn points out that after the German invasion a major effort was made by the Soviet bureaucracy to evacuate as  many Jews as possible, and there were very good reasons why the Soviet regime allowed nothing to be published in the press. Firstly, after the conclusion of the Non-Aggression Pact in 1939, there was complete official silence in the Soviet Union about Hitler’s policy towards Jews, and this meant that the bulk of the Soviet population was not aware of the deadly threat posed to Jews by the German invasion. Secondly, German propaganda had repeatedly highlighted “the Judeo-Bolshevik” threat and that had the Soviet state let it be known that Jews were to be given priority for evacuation this would have played straight into the hands of Goebbels.

Hutchinson also criticizes FHO for not consulting the 1939 Soviet census as a way of assessing Soviet manpower reserves, unaware that it was heavily censored so as to mask the consequences of the genocide in Ukraine. The 1939 census was another example of telling Stalin what he demanded to hear. Those who compiled the 1937 census were shot because their figures indicated population decline. Their successor-demographers who compiled the 1939 census drew certain conclusions from the fate of their colleagues and gave Comrade Stalin the census he required. Stalin’s demands that the world be presented to him as he saw it, not as it was – the weakness of which Hutchinson accuses the German intelligence services – had almost catastrophic consequences two years later.

That the various branches of the German intelligence services played a role in expediting the Endlösung is not in dispute yet it is not the case, as Hutchinson claims, that Walter Rauff, the head of the technical agencies of the RSHA, and his subordinates ‘pioneered the science of mobile gassing units, designing specialised vans with redirected carbon monoxide exhaust, testing them on Soviet prisoners, and assigning them to Einsatzkommandos’.[10] Documents declassified and published in the Soviet Union in 1990 (Komsomol’skaia Pravda, 28th October 1990) show that the use of mobile gassing vans – always highlighted as yet another example of unique Nazi malevolence – was, in fact, pioneered by the Soviet NKVD not the National-Socialist RSHA. In 1937, at the height of the Great Terror the NKVD executioners in Moscow were unable to cope with the mass of executions. The head of the NKVD administrative section in the Moscow Directorate of the NKVD, one Isai Davidovich Berg, proposed mass gassing to accelerate the execution process. Prisoners would be stripped naked, their mouths stuffed with rags, their arms pinioned and they would be laid in the rear of a van.  Camouflaged as a bread delivery van, this mobile gassing machine would set off to burial pits dug in advance. En route, exhaust fumes would be fed into the rear and by the time the van reached its final destination the prisoners would all be dead from gassing. In the unlikely event that any prisoners survived this ordeal, they could be dispatched with a bullet in the neck. Berg himself was shot in 1939 on a charge of having participated in some conspiracy, and rehabilitated in 1956. I somehow cannot imagine that the German government will be in any hurry to rehabilitate Walter Rauff. Given that these revelations about the pioneering role of the NKVD in the techniques and technology of mobile gassing were first made public in 1990, nearly thirty years ago, it is pertinent to ask why the NS-regime is still held responsible for inventing this method of execution. Intelligence failure or not wanting to know?

Reinhard Gehlen replaced Kinzel as head of FHO in 1942, so beginning his extraordinary career in which he progressed from Hitler’s spymaster-in-chief on the Eastern front until the end of the war, whereupon with American support he set up the Gehlen Organisation, eventually becoming the head of Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) until his retirement in 1968. The essential problem with Gehlen, as far as Hutchinson is concerned, is that he and senior German officers who were enlisted in the US Army’s Historical Division, brought the same prejudices and ideological assumptions to their postwar work that, according to Hutchinson, had undermined their wartime assessments of the Soviet Union and the Red Army.

In assessing Gehlen’s post-war work, Hutchinson acknowledges that reporting on the crises in Poland and Hungary was good, and an accurate picture of Soviet troop movements in Eastern Europe was provided. One obvious weakness was hiring former members of the SS and former members of other such units some of whom could be suborned by Soviet handlers. Gehlen deserves credit, which Hutchinson denies him, for his unflinching concentration on the very real threat to the West posed by the Soviet Union and its instrument, the Warsaw Pact. Gehlen’s views on the Soviet state may well have grated on the nerves of those who believed  – or wanted to believe – that the post-Stalin Soviet Union was less of a threat but the evidence after 1953 supports Gehlen. The Soviet Union sought to manipulate Western politics through front organisations, a continuation of Comintern methods. Gehlen was also entirely correct to see Western communist parties as a threat, and there is no doubt that Soviet promotion of what it called ‘peaceful coexistence’ and detente were also ruses to undermine the West. The deployment of Cuban forces to Africa in 1975 and the DDR’s support for West German terrorist groups confirm the Gehlen position. Detente was finally exposed as the sham it always was six months after Gehlen’s death when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan (December 1979). Attempts by the Soviet Union to exploit so-called “peace movements” and “friends of peace” in the early 1980s, with the aim of preventing the NATO deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles, were precisely the sort of threat foreseen by Gehlen. His fears were justified and have been fully corroborated since the end of the Cold War.

Between 1945 and 1956, the US Army’s Historical Division sought to derive as much information and insight as possible into the Red Army (now the Soviet Army) and Soviet state from former senior Wehrmacht officers, a thoroughly worthy undertaking, even if German revelations came with biases. To quote Hutchinson: ‘In their analysis of Soviet combat and intelligence-gathering capabilities, politics, state structure, or specific battle outcomes, many of the German authors found innately “Russian” characteristics decisive’.[11] Why should this be a problem? Hutchinson refers to a study carried out by General Lothar Rendulic, The Fighting Qualities of the Russian Soldier (1947). Given Rendulic’s impressive military record, he knew a thing or two about the Red Army and has to be taken seriously.

General Lothar Rendulic

According to Rendulic, in order to assess the fighting capabilities of the Russian soldier it was necessary to consider national character. Since it was only logical that an enemy army would change over time, adapting to past experience in terms of technology, tactics, and organisation, “the national characteristics of the fighting men which are based on the national character of the people, and the doctrine of leadership as far as it was influenced by this character”, would not change, and were thus of central importance”.[12]

The Rendulic view makes perfect sense and is fully in line with the views of the British general, Sir John Hackett: ‘What a society gets in its armed services is exactly what it asks for, no more and no less. What it asks for tends to be a reflection of what it is. When a country looks at its fighting forces it is looking in a mirror; the mirror is a true one and the face that it sees will be its own’.[13] The mass rape of German women at the end of, and after, WWII, about which Hutchinson is silent, must also have nurtured implacable German hostility to anything Soviet/Russian, justifying a view of irredeemable savagery, and a determination to make sure that it never happened again. They proceeded from the assumption that their American captors, to begin with, then their colleagues and allies, needed to be informed about the Soviet threat to Western Europe.

Rendulic argued that ‘Russian infantry operations were successful only when provided with overwhelming superiority in numbers in troops, tanks, and artillery along an entire front’.[14] The infantry, tanks, artillery, mortars and planes available to Soviet commanders at Kursk (July 1943) support Rendulic: total men available to Red Army commanders on 5th July 1943 were: 1,987,463 (German 625,271), Red Army tanks 8,200 (German 2,699), Red Army artillery pieces 47,416 (German 9,467) and Red Army aircraft 5,965 (German 1,372). By the time the Red Army launched Operation Bagration (June 1944) against Heeresgruppe Mitte, the disparities in forces between the two sides were grotesque. In the first phase which was launched on 22nd June 1944, 3 of the four armies of Heeresgruppe Mitte were attacked by 1,254,300 troops, supported by 24,383 guns, heavy mortars and rocket launchers, 4,070 tanks and assault guns, with 6,334 aircraft deployed.[15]

Assessing German foreign intelligence before and during WWII requires some baseline, some set of criteria so that one may judge its performance – its assumptions and analyses – in relation to other foreign intelligence services and the degree to which, if any, their leaders heard what they wanted to hear and ignored what they did not. Absent such a baseline, the view that emerges is that the failings of the German foreign intelligence services were not found in the intelligence services of the other belligerent nations, which is not the case. This failure to establish a set of criteria for judging the performance of an intelligence service – what makes a good intelligence officer for example – is one of a number of weaknesses of German Foreign Intelligence. From December 1941, now in a war with Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union, the German intelligence services had to direct their intelligence-gathering operations against three enemies, whereas in the European theatre the three Allies were able to focus their efforts exclusively on Germany. The intelligence resources and assets that the three Allies could deploy against Germany were formidable – ULTRA, SOE, OSS, NKVD, NKGB, SMERSH, highly effective air reconnaissance flights and support for various resistance movements, along with Blunt and his gang – which placed intolerable strains on the German counter-intelligence effort.

It is all very well to highlight the conclusions of the British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) on the ineffectiveness of the German intelligence service but not to ignore the fact that the Wehrmacht fought so successfully for so long against the combined resources of the USA, the British Empire and Soviet Union. Soviet agents, among them, John Cairncross, provided Stalin and his planners with valuable, almost priceless intelligence about German plans for Operation Citadel, yet use of these data was thwarted by German leadership and tactical superiority, on the ground and in the air. The spectacular American victory at Midway in 1942 was based on the success of code breakers but would have come to nothing without the daring, bravery and skill of US naval aviators. All intelligence services and intelligence assessments are prone to error – that is inherent in the very nature of the enterprise – and with regard to the German intelligence services Hutchinson offers no evidence that German failures were uniquely erroneous and disastrous. That ‘honour’ belongs to Stalin.


[1] Hutchinson, p.2
[2] Ibid., p.2
[3] Ibid., p.6
[4] Ibid., p.2
[5] Ibid.,, p.10
[6] Ibid., p.89 & p.98
[7] Hutchinson, p.19[8] Katherine R. Jolluck, Exile and Identity: Polish Women in the Soviet Union during World War II, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2002, pp.224-225, p.236, p.252 & p.257
[9] Hutchinson, p.66
[10] Ibid., p.147
[11]  Ibid., p.220
[12] Ibid., p.220
[13] General Sir John Hackett, The Profession of Arms, Sidgwick and Jackson, London, 1983, p.15
[14] Hutchinson, p.221
[15] See the relevant sections of Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 8

 © Frank Ellis 2019, all rights reserved

Dr Frank Ellis is a military historian and the author of The Stalingrad CauldronBarbarossa 1941

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1 Response to Yes, Intelligence Matters

  1. David Ashton says:

    Some atrocity stories in wartime, or in pre-war propaganda, must be treated with some scepticism, not because of their cruelty or scale so much as impracticable or incredibly grotesque features; for example, Saddam Hussein’s people-shredder. The Sachsenhausen murder-machine which despatched hundreds of prisoners with a pedal-operated hammer that bashed them on the head, one-by-one, sounded more like something knocked together in a Siberian garage than a model invention of Germanic engineering.

    Both the Soviet and Nazi gas-vans seem to me short of conclusive evidence. Dr Ellis is fluent in Russian and he may have access to the rehabilitation documents on I D Berg and the critique from A A Milchakov. As for the Nazi gas-vans there is the study by Santiago Alvarez and Pierre Marais. More credible in another way are the execution vans reportedly used by our new industrial benefactors known as the Communist Party of China.

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