The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 6)

Virginia Hall of SOE & OSS operating, with Edmond Lebrat pedalling a generator, in July 1944 (by Jeff Bass)

The previous chapter of this story concluded by describing the state of events in the autumn of 1942. It had been a difficult year for the Allies, but the tide of the war had begun to turn in their favour. The five-month battle of Stalingrad, which represented the Soviet Union’s critical effort to repel the Wehrmacht, began in October, and the USA’s arsenal was beginning to have an effect in the rest of the world. Nazi Germany accordingly intensified its efforts to eliminate subversive threats, and by this time had rounded up the sections of the Red Orchestra operating on German soil, executing many of its members in December. The Allied landings in North Africa (November) prompted Germany to occupy Vichy France, which removed a safer base of operations for espionage and sabotage work originating in Britain. Meanwhile, Churchill had ended his opposition to the Overlord invasion plan in a deal over sharing of atomic research and technology with the USA. Colonel Bevan had thus been appointed to reinvigorate the important London Controlling Section, responsible for strategic military deception, in August 1942, and serious plans for the invasion of Europe were underway. Yet Bevan had a large amount of preparatory work to do, and circulated his draft deception plan for the broader theatre of war, Bodyguard, only at the beginning of October 1943. It was approved later that month, with refinements still being made in December. All domestic intelligence agencies would be affected by the objectives for the segment describing the European landings, named Fortitude.

This (penultimate?) chapter takes the story of wireless interception up to the end of 1943, and again concentrates on the territories occupied by the Nazis in Central Western Europe – the Low Countries and France, with a diversion into Switzerland, as well as the domestic scene in Great Britain. Roosevelt had founded the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services, roughly equivalent to MI6 and SOE) in June 1942, and thus Britain’s dominant role in European resistance began to fade. The rather haphazard approach to sabotage that had characterized SOE’s work up till then began to evolve into a more considered strategy to support the invasion. It was placed under closer military control in March 1943. The uncertain role of Britain’s Double-Cross agents received a much sharper focus in preparations for a campaign of disinformation to deceive the Germans about the location of the landings. The RSS started to concentrate more on the challenge of locating ‘stay-behind’ agents in Europe than on the detection of illicit domestic transmissions in the United Kingdom. Yet issues of post-war administrations began to surface and introduce new tensions: as the Red Army began to move West, Churchill and Eden started to have misgivings about the nature of some nationalist movements, SOE’s associations with communists, and Stalin’s intentions. Moreover, Roosevelt’s OSS was much more critical of Britain’s ‘imperialism’ than it was of Stalin’s ‘communist democracy’, which also affected the climate with the various governments-in-exile in London.

The Reality of German Direction- and Location-Finding

Whereas the missions of the various German interception services had previously been focused on the illogical basis of the political motivations of the offenders, in 1943 a split based on geography was initiated. The WNV/FU assumed control for Northern France, Belgium and South Holland, the Balkans, Italy, and part of the Eastern Front, while the Orpo (Ordnungspolizei) was given responsibility for Southern France, the rest of Holland, Norway, Germany and the rest of the Eastern Front. This may have led to differences in operational policy, and equipment used: little intelligence-sharing went on, however, because of political rivalries. In the previous chapter I had suggested that the scope and effectiveness of the German direction- and location-finding machine had been exaggerated by the Gestapo as a method of deterrence, and that, in reality, infiltrated wireless operators were betrayed more by shoddy practices and informers. I now examine this phenomenon in more detail.

A popular reference work on espionage (Dobson and Payne, 1997) describes the operation as follows:

“German direction-finding operations in France were centered on Gestapo headquarters in the Avenue Foch in Paris. Relays of 30 clerks monitoring up to 300 cathode-ray tubes kept up a continuous watch on every conceivable frequency between 10 kilocycles and 30 megacycles. When a new set opened up it showed at once as a luminous spot on one of the tubes. Alerted by telephone, large goniometric stations at Brest, Augsburg and Nuremburg started to take cross-bearings. Within 15 minutes they were able to establish a triangle with sides about 16 km (10 miles) across into which detector vans from a mobile regional base could be moved to pinpoint more precisely the area of transmission.

Typically, a mobile regional base would be equipped with two front-wheel-drive Citroen 11ight vans, each crewed by four civilians carrying machine guns, and two four-seater Mercedes-Benz convertibles with fake French licence plates. If the transmission had ended the vehicles would move to the intersection points of the triangle and wait in the hope that the unknown station would acknowledge a reply to its message. An acknowledgment of a mere three to four seconds would allow an experienced team to reduce the sides of the triangle to no more than 800 m (0.5 mile). If the transmission were longer, the operator would almost immediately be compromised.”

I see several problems with this account. First of all, it contains no dates, no sense of gradual establishment. I have not discovered any images of the CRT equipment claimed to be deployed. If a transmitting set were to be detected without high-powered interception stations working in harness first, it would have to be via ground-wave, which would be restricted to a distance of about ten miles. That limitation would not justify the huge expense required in the centre of Paris, since most illicit transmissions occurred in the provinces. In any case, the assumed illicit signals would have to be discriminated from all the other police, military and industrial activity going on at the same time. The number of personnel, vehicles and equipment to cover the whole of France would be astronomically high, and, especially at this advanced stage of the war, Germany did not have an available competent and dedicated labour force to deploy successfully in such a project. How many ‘mobile regional bases’ were there? It would have been a colossal waste of resources to deploy this infrastructure on the assumption that occasional illicit transmissions could be promptly identified and eliminated.

This dubious reference attempts to shed light on the process by means of an imaginative diagram:

German Direction-Finding

The text for this entry is echoed almost verbatim in Jean-Louis Perquin’s The Clandestine Radio Operators (2011), a work that boasts a serious bibliography and set of sources. Here a few additional details are supplied by the author. The German unit is identified as the Kurzwellenüberwachung [Short-Wave Observation], or KWU, with a codename for the operation of DONAR. (I cannot find any other reference to a such-named unit – a true hapax legomenon?)  “A total of one hundred and six men, seven mobile goniometers mounted either on trucks or on one of the service’s 35 cars was made available”. The author adds that protection was provided by the French Sureté Nationale. Yet the mechanisms are vague. “A control station equipped with over 300 (ultra-modern) receivers continuously monitored over thirty thousand frequencies  . . .”  The principle behind the scheme was that any unregistered frequency used was ‘highly likely to signal a covert radio-operator’. Then a telephone message was immediately sent to the three direction-finding centres in Brest, Augsburg and Nuremberg, which would quickly be able to determine an equilateral triangle of 20 kilometre sides in which the operator was transmitting. Thereafter, the trucks were sent in to the tip of the triangle, sometimes supported by a team of pedestrian monitors using sensitive magnetometers on their wrists. In that way, they would quickly identify the building where the transmission was occurring, and arrest the agent before he or she committed suicide.

The operation was claimed to be very efficient.  “This was the procedure used in 1943. If the clandestine transmitter was located in the same city as a mobile goniometer base, the location of the transmitter could be identified within a 200-metres radius in less than a quarter of an hour.” Further: “As an example, the German DF could be within sight of a transmitter half an hour after it sent its very first signal. It is likely that, by the spring of 1944, the Germans were using a fully automated, car-mounted DF system using a cathodic screen monitor.” The official historian of SOE, M. R. D. Foot, may be the originator of this particular histoire, writing, in 1984: “The Germans, like the British, kept a constant watch on every wireless wavelength, and it took only twenty or thirty minutes for a team of their armed direction-finders to get within a few yards of an operator who was fool enough to remain on the air so long. Relays of thirty clerks with cathode-ray tubes in the Gestapo’s headquarters in the Avenue Foch in Paris, for example, kept up a continuous watch on every conceivable frequency. When a new set opened up, it was bound to show up on a tube; the frequency could be read off at once. In a couple of minutes, alerted by telephone, direction-finders at Brest, Augsburg and Nuremberg were starting to take cross-bearings; within a quarter of an hour, detector vans would be closing in on the triangle a few miles across that the cross-bearings had indicated.”

It seems as if these accounts were also received by the RSS, which at the end of the war compiled a report on the Funkabwehr (available at HW 34/2 at the National Archives).  The writer lists the claims made by captured German officers, and ‘various sources’, illustrating them with such dramatic detail as: “Within a period of two minutes each new suspect signal was observed and reported by line to a large scale system of D/F networks which could obtain bearings with an error of less than half a degree and so plot the position of any station to an area within a radius variously estimated at from 4 to ten kilometres. This process required a further seven minutes, after which five further minutes were necessary to bring a very strong mobile unit organisation into action and for them to proceed by short-range D/F and shifting to locate the transmitter.” The report then casts serious doubts on the reliability of these statements, which appear to be the work of German propaganda, sent out by various media, in an attempt to discourage Allied wireless use.

The RSS report includes some details about mobile unit operations: that the 1942 Operation Donar in the Unoccupied Zone was largely ineffective, as few French-speaking persons took part, and it was very obvious; that a single mobile unit roamed around Southern France in 1943, ‘principally Marseilles and Lyons, until it settled in Lyons’ (which does not suggest dense coverage); that the communications between interception and the D/F stations in the OKW were poor, certainly not as good as the Orpo’s; that effectiveness was hindered by personnel transfer; that local and atmospheric conditions greatly hindered accurate readings; that many cases were recorded where the mobile units were totally unable to locate the groundwave. In certain cases, mostly in urban areas, a very focused operation could produce results, especially when the famous ‘guertel’ snifter (the Gürtel Kleinpeiler für Bodenwelle) was introduced in 1943, but, overall, location-finding was a very haphazard affair, and nothing like the streamlined operation that the authorities liked to represent.

There is no reliable evidence of the number or names of clandestine operators who were caught by this method. It should be concluded that there must be a large amount of propagandizing in this scenario, with no reliable source provided. As previous incidents have shown, there is no dependable way of identifying the physical source of a ‘new’ message stream over the ether unless something is known about the data sent – the callsign, for instance, which may have been revealed through torture or collaboration. Only when triangulation occurs could the rough proximity of the transmission zone be determined. And the operator would have to continue transmitting for an inordinate amount of time for the detectors still be able to sense him or her when they eventually turned up in their vans. Moreover, part of agent practice was to employ ‘watchers’ who would look out for the tell-tale features of the DF vehicles, and agents were taught to stay on the air for only a few minutes at a time before signing off and moving location.

Inside a Gestapo DF Truck

The whole process is belied by some of the autobiographical accounts that were published after the war. Jacques Doneux’s They Arrived By Moonlight is considered one of the most reliable descriptions of the life of a clandestine radio operator – this time in Belgium. He explains how he managed to evade the direction-finding vans, by transmitting at different times of the day, by varying the location, by staying on the air for no more than half an hour, and by using a protection team to warn him of approaching vans. Significantly, one of the statements he makes runs as follows (p 105): “We went to a place called La Hulpe which was a short way out of Brussels and fairly safe from direction-finding; this meant that we could have a good long sked with little fear of interruption.” This suggests that urban detection capabilities were based on ground-waves, and that the mechanisms for intercepting and trapping illicit broadcasters were much less sophisticated than has frequently been claimed. (I return to Doneux when discussing SOE later in this piece.) Another technique used with some success by the territorial guardians, however, was the deployment of radio-detecting planes. Doneux reports that ‘a Fieseler-Storch, flying low, often appeared about ten minutes after an operator had started to transmit’. This very visible and obvious mechanism clearly encouraged radio operators to be brief. The RSS Report on the Funkabwehr claims, however, that the Fiesler-Storch was equipped to operate where mobile units could not go, namely the Russian Front and the Balkans.

Perquin presents a more down-to-earth analysis at the end of his article, where he breaks down the record of SOE’s F Section. “For ten arrested radio operators, at least five fell victims to carelessness of breaches of basic security rules; another two arrest [sic] could have been avoided had the transmissions not been sent from cities where German DF teams had regional branches. Many radio operators like other members of resistance networks were compromised because of careless talk, gossip, indiscretion, police investigations or sheer bad luck in the form of a routine police check. On the other end, the fact that ten radio operators were captured should not hide the extraordinary usefulness and effectiveness of the remaining ninety if one is to mention only F section. ‘Kleber’, belonging to the French intelligence branch and not to the SOE, never had a single incident when it used its eight transmitters to send signals to Algiers from the immediate vicinity of Pau (SW France). By 1944, the average duration of a transmission was less than three minutes per frequency.”

In summary, the existence of location-finding teams is not in doubt, but they were certainly far fewer in number than claimed by some expansive reports. They may have picked up some random operators. Yet, rather than a comprehensive mechanism for picking up previously unknown operators, it is much more likely that the system was deployed to try to mop up remaining members of a network whose predecessors had already been betrayed by some source or behaviour, when the general neighbourhood in which they were working was already known. Promoting the mythology of a powerful and ruthless machine may however have acted as a useful deterrent for the Nazi security organs, and ascribing failure to it may have served to absolve leaders and remote directors of resistance groups of lapses in security procedures.

The Red Orchestra

A more reliable model for how the Gestapo worked is provided by the successful efforts to close down the section of the Red Orchestra that operated out of neutral Switzerland. As I explained in the previous episode, the units of the Red Orchestra in Germany and France had been largely mopped up by the end of 1942, primarily because of atrociously lax inattention to security procedures by the Communist agents. (The executions at Plötzensee carried on until December 1943.)

Developing an accurate account of the operation of the ‘Rote Drei’ (as the main three wireless operators in Switzerland, Foote, Radó and Bölli, were known) is notoriously difficult. The memoirs of Foote – which were ghosted – as well as those of Radó, are highly unreliable, and the source of much of the strategic intelligence, probably gained from Ultra decrypts, is still hotly contested. The authoritative-sounding analysis emanating from the CIA is also riddled with disinformation. For a refresher on the background, I refer readers to ‘Sonia’s Radio’, especially

German Intelligence had been intercepting the messages of the Soviet agents in Switzerland since November 1941, but apparently no headway had been made on decrypting them. Then, as the German network was being closed down, the volume of messages from across the border increased. According to V. E. Tarrant, in The Red Orchestra: “During the latter half of 1942 the German long-range radio monitoring stations in Dresden and Prague reported heavy radio traffic from three short-wave transmitters operating in neutral Switzerland. Through cross-bearings two were tracked to Geneva, close to the Franco-Swiss border, and the third to Lausanne on the northern shore of Lake Geneva.”

In January 1943, with the German network rounded up and executed, attention thus switched to group in Switzerland, and the pressure mounted for making sense of the transmissions, and determining how vital and accurate they were. OKW/Chi (Chiffrier Abteilung) was charged, on February 23, with attacking the messages, and, perhaps surprisingly, made swift progress, an achievement which suggest, perhaps, that some work had been undertaken in a more dilatory fashion before then. Tarrant again: “When the intercepts of these transmissions were sent to the radio traffic analysts in the Funkabwehr offices on the Matthaïkirchplatz they concluded that the cipher employed by the Swiss operators was of an identical format to the one-time pad that had been used by the Grand Chef’s [Trepper’s] pianists.” Tarrant suggests that the agent ‘Kent’, who was in the custody of the Gestapo, helped in the deciphering process. In any case, the CIA reported that Chi had gathered all the extant traffic by the end of March, and in a few days had discovered the main principle of the encryption technique. By April 22, sixteen messages had been broken.

The first reaction by German Intelligence was to conclude that the information was of the highest quality, and continued dissemination could seriously damage the war effort. Yet the organs found it very difficult to identify a Berlin-based source responsible for the information, or the medium by which the information could have been passing. (I shall not re-explain here the claim that ‘Lucy’, the enigmatic Rudolf Rössler, was in fact receiving his intelligence from the United Kingdom, itself deriving form Ultra decrypts.) Instead, they resolved to track down the suspects in Switzerland. Their location-finding techniques could identify the cities from which the transmissions were being made, but Switzerland was of course neutral territory.

Radó’s network took a fairly relaxed attitude towards security. The Swiss Government was reasonably tolerant of foreign intelligence activity, so long as it was not directed against Switzerland itself. The unit considered itself free from the observations and threats of the Gestapo, and was under enough pressure from Moscow Centre, in the latter’s persistent requests for identifying sources, and the torrents of questions that they presented to Radó and his team. Thus the Germans had to use a combination of traditional espionage and political pressure to help them track and close down the dangerous wireless trio.

In 1941 (or, according to some accounts, 1942), Walter Schellenberg had been appointed by Himmler to head Section VI, the RSHA’s foreign intelligence branch. Indeed, he had already had clandestine meetings with the Swiss intelligence chief, Roger Masson, in the summer and autumn of 1942, after Masson had heard rumours that the Germans were planning an invasion of the country. Yet Schellenberg’s intentions in setting up the meeting may have been to persuade Masson to cooperate in prosecuting the Rote Drei. Max Hastings, in The Secret War, informs us that Schellenberg told Masson then that Berlin had already decrypted two of the ring’s messages, and was seeking help. The threat of invasion, which was always a real threat to the Swiss, because of its German-speaking population, and Hitler’s designs on the ‘Südmark’, was a not-so-gentle incentive for Masson to ‘help with the RSHA’s inquiries’. The two met again, early in 1943. It appears that Germany had made serious demands that Switzerland maintain its neutrality, under threat of invasion, and Masson did indeed crumble, and deploy his native counter-intelligence experts to mop up the illicit wireless network.

The Gestapo had also tried inserting agents to subvert and betray the network, but these were mostly clumsy efforts that Alexander Foote was able to deflect. The mopping-up operation did not take long, however. In September 1943, the Swiss Bundespolizei (BUPO) began the operation to silence the transmitters. They used the traditional goniometric techniques to locate the equipment more accurately, starting with Geneva. Since the agents were not accustomed to moving premises, or having to restrict the length of their transmissions (Foote recorded being on the air for hours owing to the volume of work), there was no rush. Tarrant even reports that ‘it took a few weeks for Lt. Treyer’s direction-finder vans to pin-point the actual locations . . . ‘. That luxury would not have been available in the pressure-cooked environment of Belgium or France. The BUFO also used the famous method of turning off the power to houses individually in order to notice when transmission stopped. And the frailties of war-time romance took their effect, as well. Margrit Bölli, one of the wireless operators, took a lover, Peters, who was in fact a German agent and stole her cipher key. She ignored instructions, and moved to his apartment, where BUFO agents tracked her. The Hamels were arrested on the night of October 13/14, and just about a month after that Foote himself was arrested.

Radó escaped into hiding, and some abortive attempts to resuscitate the network were made, but they fell short – primarily because of funding. Ironically, BUFO tried to carry on a ‘Funkspiel’ (along the lines of what the Germans performed in the Netherlands) with the Soviets. Foote had owned a powerful wireless set, capable of reaching Moscow, obviously, but also the Americas, and Treyer, in possession of Radó’s code, initiated messages in German on Foote’s set, using that code. Yet, as David Dallin inform us in Soviet Espionage, ‘Foote’s previous messages, always in English, had usually been transmitted in his own code’. (The Soviets deployed techniques for alerting Moscow Centre of code-switches to be deployed in a following suite of messages.) The Soviets saw through the ruse very quickly.

Because of the sympathetic role that the spies had been playing in support of Switzerland’s resistance to Nazism, they were all treated relatively well. Yet an important source of intelligence was closed down. By then the Battle of Kursk (to the success of which the Lucy Ring had substantially contributed) was over, the Wehrmacht had been mortally damaged, and the war was as good as won. From the standpoint of illicit wireless interception, however, the story has multiple lessons. It reinforces the fact that remote direction-finding, across hundreds of miles, could be an effective tool in locating transmissions at the city-level. It shows that suborned and tortured agents, with knowledge of callsigns, schedules, ciphers and codes, could provide a much quicker breakthrough to decryption than laborious ‘blind’ brainwork. It stresses the importance of solid tradecraft and security techniques for agents to avoid successfully those in pursuit of them (although, in a small country like Switzerland, where their activities were suspected anyway, it would have been impossible for the Rote Drei to have held out for long). It emphasizes the role that simple security techniques could play in avoiding the successful ‘turning’ of networks. One other consequence of the operation was that Moscow stopped relying so much on the illicit transmissions of mainly ‘illegal’ agents, and switched its focus on using couriers and equipment in the Soviet Embassies to manage the traffic that their spies were still accumulating.

Exploits of SOE & SIS

I have earlier drawn attention to the renowned actions taken by General Gubbins in tightening up SOE security in 1943, and how they need to be questioned. Not only were these initiatives very late, the claims about their success are not really borne out by the evidence. Much has been written about the careful psychological screening of potential SOE agents, and their wireless operators, and even more has been written about their lengthy training in all manner of tradecraft as a foreign agent, from practice at parachute-jumping to secure methods of wireless transmission. Yet the experiences in France and the Low Countries, as recounted by M. R. D. Foot, tell of a parade of broken backs, legs and ankles resulting from clumsy parachute landings, of wireless sets that broke on impact, were lost, or simply did not work. It seems quite extraordinary that so much would be invested in preparatory training, only to be wasted in the minutes following the dropping of the parachutists. (Several of these highly trained wireless operators were killed in plane crashes.) SOE did not have the luxury of a rich labour pool from which to select the most suitable candidates, and the pressures on it to deliver were immense. Yet, despite the attention given to training, it was clearly deficient in many areas.

Moreover, procedures regarding wireless security were still inconsistently applied. Foot again: “It did not take long [sic] for Gubbins, as head of operations, to spot what was wrong, or for the signals training school at Thame Park to start to impress on operators – as Beaulieu explained to organisers – that mortal danger lay in trying to send long messages by wireless.” Yet the order that no transmission was to last more than five minutes did not go out until the winter of 1943-44. In September 1943 (when Gubbins replaced Hambro as head of SOE), more flexible and unpredictable ‘skeds’ (transmission schedules – a critical part of the software, since they had to take into consideration such factors as atmospheric disturbance) were introduced: irregular hours and switching of frequencies made detection more difficult.

What became necessary was a keen sense of how active the organs were in a particular area. Foot relates how, in May 1943, an agent named Beckers was able to stay at his set ‘for two hours without any trouble, and only once heard of a D/F car in the neighbourhood’. Another, Léon Bar, was quickly arrested after starting to address a backlog of messages, and tried to shoot his way out of trouble. He was tortured, and then killed, but it is not clear whether direction-finding or betrayal caused his demise. Wendelen escaped surveillance because he had an informer in the Vichy police, who warned him of all direction-finding efforts in the Indre département. Yolande Beekman successfully transmitted from same spot at the same hour on the same three days of the week for months on end during 1943 and 1944. It is somewhat shocking to read, however, that, in the summer of 1943, Wendelen returned to England, and had to make some fundamental suggestions for better tradecraft, such as water-proofing the containers, and requiring at least one look-out man during every schedule. Why did it take so long to learn and apply these lessons?

Yet some of the practices were not repeatable. Scheyven never transmitted from the same house twice, and remained undetected. Goffin learned from predecessors: “He kept his sets buried in large boxes in gardens; kept codes and crystals hidden in a different address; never carried his set himself. His case can stand for an example of how sensible SOE agents were able to benefit from the more foolish mistakes of others.” Agents on the run, with no variety of safe houses to choose from, could not afford such luxuries, and local residents became increasingly petrified at being found out by the Gestapo harbouring an illicit wireless operator. They knew the penalty. The operational pressures were imperfectly understood by the controllers in London.

Jacques Doneux’s memoir seems to be a more reliable guide to the psychological stress. He provocatively wrote that the locals, who had been working on subversive work much longer than any agent, were frequently dismissive of strict security procedures, preferring to rely on their own wits, and sense for danger. Doneux was certainly aware of detector vans, but always used a squad of look-out men, and paid solid attention to location and transmission-times. He was one who considered that Nazi claims of radio-detection efficiency were inflated (viz. his comment about moving to La Hulpe), but it did not take much for the transmission to be interrupted, and the carefully prepared sked ruined. Extra controls deployed by the Gestapo made walking around with a wireless transmitter even more perilous, so mobility caused fresh challenges.

Lastly must be considered the advances in equipment, especially when SOE set up its own workshop in 1942 on being freed from dependence upon SIS. One of its first breakthroughs was the S-Phone, which was designed to be worn on an agent’s chest, whereby he could make contact with an allied aircraft by voice, up to a distance of thirty miles, and to a height of 10,000 feet. This technology had the advantage of using UHF, and was not detectable by conventional D/F techniques owing to the highly focused antenna, and the low power consumption. The S-Phone was used primarily to guide arriving planes on drop areas or landing-sites, but was also used to convey brief instructions and information between the two parties. Articles published elsewhere indicate that the S-Phone had been deployed as early as 1941, which suggests that SOE was very early in its lifetime carrying on secret research while nominally still under the control of SIS.  William Mackenzie’s Secret History states, however, that ‘one of the very early uses of the S-Phone’ occurred only on July 22, 1943, when Lieutenant-Colonel Starr had been deprived of any regular wireless contact since November 1942, and had up till then had to rely on couriers through Switzerland and Spain. In any case, Gambier-Parry of Section VIII got to hear about the development.

The SOE’s S-Phone

Certainly, by 1943, smaller transmitters were being used for regular short-wave communication. Doneux refers to his carrying round his set under his overcoat. Foot describes the first innovations by F. W. Nicholls as follows: a Mark II in action by October 1942, 20lb in weight, which sent at 5 watts on 3-9 mc/s. Its successor, the B2 (technically, the 3 Mark II) was even more popular: it required 30 watts, and needed only two valves. It could transit between 3 and 16 mc/s, and could also receive. “None of the SOE’s sets suffered from a tiresome disadvantage of the paraset, which when switched to receive would upset any other wireless set in use for a hundred yards around: a severe brake on action in built-up areas where civilians were still allowed their own receiving sets.” The B2 weighed 32 lb., which sounds a bit bulky to be slipped under an overcoat, however. It was for longer ranges. Doneux may have been using the Mark III, which weighed only five and a half pounds, and fitted with its accessories into a tiny suitcase. Its 5-watt output could reach up to 500 miles.

In Western Europe, electric current was usually available, which meant that generating capabilities were seldom required. Matters were much tougher in other areas, such as Yugoslavia and Albania. During the same period, authors such as Deakin record the treks involved in lugging 48-lb transmitters and chargers driven by bicycle-type pedalling mechanisms across mountainous country. (A famous example with the OSS in France can be seen in the painting of Virginia Hall that I selected as the frontispiece to this article.) Mules were required to carry such a load, and in one memorable passage Deakin describes such a mule toppling into a crevasse, taking the equipment with him. For purposes nearer to home, successful miniaturization was slow to take hold: later in the war, when the Jedburgh teams were set up, a new small ‘Jedset’ was developed, but its fragility and size meant that it was frequently broken on landing. Not enough attention had been paid to insulating it from hard contact with the ground.

The SIS appeared to have greater success in 1943, although its mission of intelligence-gathering was subject to consistent interference from the sabotage objectives of SOE. With the invasion plans starting to be made, the demands made on SIS branches for information about German defences, installations, and troop movements, and research on potential landing-sites for the invasion, and the like, became more intense – and more immediate. Couriers were slow, which switched pressure to wireless communications.

The volume of information that was successfully passed back to London suggests that dozens, or even hundreds, of wireless operators managed to evade surveillance, and send their reports successfully across the airwaves. Keith Jeffery, in his authorised history of SIS, praises ‘Section VIII’s outstanding achievement in developing and refining radio transmitters and receivers’, which ‘made an indispensable contribution’. The author adds, however, that ‘at the sharp end it was up to individual men and women to operate the equipment in often very hazardous circumstances’. As an example, he cites the experiences of ‘Magpie’ in March 1943, who, pursuing loyally the strategy of trying to keep mobile, had to walk nine miles to his next safe house, during which journey the handle of the set broke twice, as it was not strong enough. Perhaps not such an outstanding job of design, after all. The answer was – more sets, a requirement to which Kenneth Cohen in London complied.

In Belgium, at the end of 1942, SIS also experimented with specialised ground-to-air communications, which allowed agents to communicate directly (and without the lengthy process of Morse codification) using the so-called ‘Ascension’ sets developed by Gambier-Parry’s team. (These were presumably similar to the technologies used by SOE. Indeed, an article in Cloak and Dagger suggest that the sets were an enhancement of the SOE invention: see ) Jeffery writes that ‘the Ascension sets were used with some success in Belgium and elsewhere, but the system was not very useful for long messages which still had to be smuggled out by courier across long and precarious land routes’.  That statement implies that long messages could not be trusted to conventional short-wave radio connections, because of the requirement to be on air for hours at a time, and the real or imagined threat of radio-detection techniques. Jeffery suggests soon afterwards that a lag of three or four months was occurring between information-gathering and receipt, and that the results were therefore valueless. By May 1943 even the courier supply lines had broken down.

Whether that problem was restricted to Belgium is not clear (remember the ‘elsewhere’). Certainly in France the networks were overall much more productive, despite a new set of challenges. A continual danger of a network’s having been suborned existed, but this threat was complemented by the onset of ideological disagreements between the various resistance groups, who, as the day of liberation became more real, each promoted their own view on what the political shape of the country should be after the war. For a while, the Gestapo appeared to use propaganda rather than competent feet on the ground, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the organisation was having trouble providing enough sharp and well-trained officers and men to control the noisy underworld. It frequently resorted to denouncers to make up for its deficiencies.

Yet, by the end of 1943, Madame Fourcade’s ‘Alliance’ organisation was almost completely destroyed – not by super-efficient surveillance techniques, but by Nazi infiltration of the groups. As Jeffery reports: “  . . . by the late autumn of 1943 most of the Alliance groups in north-west France and the Rhone valley had ceased to function”. Overall, communications out of France were considered to be inadequate, and the main channel for passing information was with a French diplomat in Madrid. Jeffery rather puzzlingly states that this person (named ‘Alibi’) ‘managed to establish wireless communications with networks in France’. This is one of the many enigmatic, vague and incomplete observations in the authorised history: no date is given, and the statement poses many questions. How were skeds set up? How many staff were on hand to receive messages, at what hours? And what did they do with them? Moreover, if a link could be made between networks in France and Madrid, how was it that the sources could not communicate with London directly?

The Evolution of the RSS

“James Johnston recalled in letters to me that he and his colleagues had intercepted messages from an illegal transmitter in the Oxford area, which he later believed to be Sonia’s, and had submitted them to MI6 or MI5. ‘Our logs recorded her traffic, but they were returned with the reference NFA [No Further Action] or NFU [No Further Use].’ According to Morton Evans, it was Hollis and Philby who decided that the logs should be returned to the RSS marked ‘NFA’ or ‘NFU”. This meant that the RSS was not required to send out its mobile detector vans. No such action was ever taken against Sonia during the whole duration of her illegal transmissions. ‘Her station continued to work, off and on,’ Johnston recalled. ‘It must be a mystery as to why she was not arrested.’’ (from Chapman Pincher’s Treachery, p 141)

This now famous passage by Chapman Pincher is extremely controversial, suggesting that the identity of Sonia was known to the authorities who monitored and instructed the interception plans of the squad of Voluntary Interceptors who scanned the airwaves. In this latest manifestation, it even identifies the senior RSS officer making the claim to Pincher, Kenneth Morton Evans, who, in a letter to Pincher, reportedly stated that gave ‘full details to Hollis in MI5 and Philby in MI6’, and implied that those two intelligence officers were unable to decrypt the messages.

That latter assertion is absurd, as neither Philby nor Hollis, had they indeed been passed the original texts, would have possessed the skills or authority to start trying to decrypt them. Yet it is the suggestion that the order to send out the mobile vans was withheld that is even more provocative. Earlier, Pincher had written: ‘The RSS had responsibility for locating any illicit transmitters. Detector vans with direction-finding equipment could be sent in the area to track down the precise position of a transmitter with police on hand to arrest the culprit. As a former operator James Johnston told me, ‘Our direction-finding equipment was so refined that we were able to locate any wayward transmitter’.”

Thus the objective observer, perhaps now familiar with the urgent security rules impressed upon SOE agents in Europe, has to accept the following scenario: Possibly illicit Soviet signals are detected emanating from the area of Oxford in the UK, perhaps identifiable by their callsigns. These are sent to the RSS discrimination unit, which studies them, and passes them to officers in MI5 and MI6. After these gentlemen get around to inspecting them (and perhaps attempting to decode them), it is their responsibility to say whether or not the transmitter should be located. If so, the vans are sent into action (perhaps a few days later), in the hope that the transmitter will still be obligingly cooperating by transmitting from the same place.

It is not the purpose of this analysis to determine whether the RSS was negligent over Sonia. This reader is convinced that she was left in place so that her transmissions could be surveilled. (Remember, on January 23, 1943, the Oxford police had visited Sonia’s residence, and reported to MI5 the discovery of a wireless set on the premises.) What needs to be established is how reliable is the testimony (if it truly exists) of Kenneth Morton Evans, a senior and capable wireless professional. From 1941 to 1945 he was the officer in charge at Arkley, the RSS facility that gathered and processed all the messages received by the Voluntary Interceptors. (In 1951, as an MI5 officer, he wrote a letter to the Guardian claiming that The National Association for Civil Liberties was a Communist front: see ) How was it that Morton Evans expected an illicit agent to hang around in the same location for several days? Was his understanding of the readiness and efficacy of the mobile vans accurate? Or was he also a party to the cover-up over surveillance of Sonia, contributing to the convenient story that Hollis had successfully protected her? And how did his account overall undermine the pretence that Nazi agents were able to work undetected in England for years?

The facts about the mobile detection apparatus are elusive. I have started to examine some of the historical records at the National Archives. [But not all: I am still waiting to receive photographs of many critical files, such as the WO 208/5099-5102 series. This section may thus require a later update. This analysis is based on WO/208/5096-5098, HW 34/18, KW 43/6, CAB 301//77, ADM 223/793 and FO 1093/484.]

Soon after the outbreak of war, Colonel Burke of MI8c (the forerunner of RSS) listed the equipment then in service, and made requests for expansion. His deposition ran as follows:

Direction Finding Stations      6 + 4

                                    Listening Stations                   4 + 2

                                    Mobile Vans                           10 + 14

                                    G.P.O. Detection Vans           88 (up to 200 available)

                                    Amateur Listening Posts        27

                                    Local D.F. systems for regional centres 1 + 16

                                    Transmitters for beacons        0 + 20

He added that ‘only one of the mobile vans is now fully equipped’, but that ‘the remaining vans should be ready in two to three weeks’. It is not clear what the distinction is between ‘mobile vans’ and ‘G,P.O. detection vans’. It could not be solely one of ownership: an earlier memorandum noted that the GPO provided the six fixed and ten mobile stations. It may have been one of designed function: a paper written in January 1941 records that ‘mobile vans (which were normally used to assist listeners in the detection and suppression of radio interference from industrial and domestic equipment) had been lent by PO to deal with the problem of detecting illicit radio beacons.’ Meanwhile the notion of ‘beacons’ (devices to assist arriving bombers to find their targets) had evolved to one of illicit transmissions. The Post Office was seen by military men as an unreliable, slow and bureaucratic organisation, unsuitable for holding responsibility for such critical tasks.

The official SIGINT history reinforces a rather casual approach to the use of mobile units: “Fixed interception stations would search the ether . . .  In the event of signals being intercepted, they would pass to the direction-finding stations the callsign, wavelength and text of the message. Supplementing this would be the widespread corps of voluntary interceptors whose function it would be to listen to the amateurs working in their area, observe their habits and report anything unusual. Mobile units were to perform the function of determining the exact location of the illicit transmitter. After the fixed D/F stations had located the general area of the transmitter, the mobile direction-finding units would proceed there, await further signals, obtain more accurate bearings and so narrow down the area of search.” And it indicates that, when the transmitter was located, the responsibility for what happened next would be MI5’s: the service might want to monitor it rather than close it down. (In that case, why sending out mobile vans, which might frighten the transgressor, and cause him to stop broadcasting, is not explained.)

But what happened to the expansion programme? It probably never occurred. As I have described before, by 1940 the interception mission of RSS was almost focused on overseas traffic. The History suggests a somewhat desultory approach could have been taken to what was then considered a non-problem. At some stage, a Mobile Units Group, under Major Elmes, centred in Barnet, controlled also the bases in Gateshead, Bristol and Gilnakirk, the establishment of which I described in the previous chapter. Fixed stations would then locate a general area of about 400 square miles. A report would be given to MI5, and the Mobile Unit organisation set in motion. At least three mobile vans were posted on the perimeter of this area, in contact with the Police Station in neighbourhood, a headquarters to which an MI5 officer would be attached. When the transmitter was heard, simultaneous bearings were taken by the Mobile Units and reported to HQ, where they were plotted on a map. The units then moved closer, and took fresh bearings ‘until definite action was possible on the part of the MI5 officer present’. But MI5 had no powers of arrest, and it is not clear what judgments the MI5 officer would be able to make on the spot in the event that a transmitter was caught red-handed. The narrative sounds like a good deal of wish-fulfilment, and post facto puffery for the historians.

Mobile vans definitely did exist, as Guy Liddell makes occasional reference to them in his Diaries. Yet, in 1943, as RSS started to consider the security needs for the invasion of Europe, it encountered fresh challenges. The History again informs us: “‘During this period RSS had accepted a further extension of its commitments without, however, affecting the vital features of its programme. This was the monitoring, by mobile units, of certain classes of signal made by our own stations, to prevent the inadvertent passage of information likely, if intercepted, to be of use to the enemy. the possibility of such leakage had been recognized and dealt with in the early days of the war by the cancellation of amateur transmitting licences and the impounding of transmitters, and the vetting of MI5 of firms requiring licenses for experimental or testing purposes. With GPO collaboration such action was easy to take, since licences were granted by that body. As the GPO did not necessarily license other Government departments however, it was found that there was a number of organisations using radio transmitters of which the Security Service had no official knowledge, as for example, experimental establishments of the Ministry of Supply, the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the Railways, the GPO stations themselves and Cable and Wireless stations. In addition the Police and the Fire Service possessed their own transmitters.” The organisation was under stress, and memoranda attest to the fact that its original mandate was being ignored.

A budgetary memorandum from 1941 indicated that capital expenditures for two Intercept Stations, at £25,000, and for Vehicles & Equipment, at £3,500, were requested. Annual Expenditures for P.O. Agency Services (D/F & Mobile Unit [sic!]) were estimated at £78,000. Yet, after some disturbing gaps in the record, the Estimates for RSS in the Budget Year of April 1942 to March 1943 include very little on mobile units, with Special Apparatus given as £10,000, and expenses of Mobile Unit Operations a mere £8000. This is not the high-powered, swift-moving organisation reportedly described to Chapman Pincher by Andrew Johnston and Kenneth Morton Evans, but a service apparently being rapidly wound down. (Were radio-detection vans perhaps later requisitioned and repurposed as transmitting vehicles to roam around issuing bogus signals of a phantom army? And an intriguing minute from D. I. Wilson of B1A in MI5, dated February 24, 1943, recommends that, if phantom armies were to be created, bogus wireless traffic needed to be realized as well, to support the false information to be passed on by the agents. Was Wilson perhaps the originator of one of the more spectacularly successful aspects of the whole OVERLORD operation?) Other memoranda written at this time indicate that the resources of RSS, including the reconstruction and repositioning of receiving stations at Hanslope, Cornwall and Forfarshire, and the installation of rhombic aerials, were being increasingly focused on mainland European needs.

Meanwhile RSS struggled to resolve its political problems in 1943, caused mostly by the over-secretive Cowgill, the highly-opinionated Trevor-Roper, the arrogant Gambier-Parry, and the manipulative Malcolm Frost. Frost left MI5 in November 1943 to return to the BBC, and some of the organisational issues were addressed by splitting the RSS committee into two, one for high-level policy, and the other for detailed intelligence. Guy Liddell continued to be frustrated that Gambier-Parry was not performing his mission regarding illicit wireless interception. In his diary on February 18, he recorded that RSS was not doing its job, as two German agents had been detected. One might interpret this discovery as a sign that RSS had indeed been doing its job, but maybe the agents – whoever they were, and whose existence was an alarming fact since T.A. Robertson had already reported that all agents had been mopped up – were not detected through electronic means. The same month he recorded that one Jean Jefferson had left the CPGB to operate a radio as an illegal, but she is not heard of again. On March 11, Liddell noted that Gambier-Parry had refused to accept responsibility for signals security. On April 1, he wrote that Frost had informed him that the Post Office had ‘bumped into’ an unknown 75-watt transmitter in Bloomsbury. It may have been SOE’s, but it all went to show (as indicated earlier in this piece) that a large amount of authorised radio transmission was carrying on of which MI5 had not been informed. And on June 3, not yet licit transmissions were detected coming from the Soviet Embassy.

The problem certainly got worse, with multiple foreign embassies now starting to transmit from the privacy of their premises, and the British government unwilling to intervene because of possible reciprocal moves. A major meeting occurred on September 10, 1943, at which (as Liddell noted) Colonel Valentine Vivian seemed ‘unaware of RSS’s charter for detecting illicit wireless communications from UK’. Liddell went on to write: “As regards the diplomatic communications of the allies there appears to be no real supervision. It was felt that to monitor and break these communications would impose too great a task on GC & CS, who were already overburdened with operational work. It was agreed that we should have a permanent representative on the Reid Committee, that we should continue to look after the security of non-service bodies, but that the results of the monitoring of the communications of non-service Govt. Depts. should be sent by RSS to the Reid Committee and not to ourselves.” Gambier-Parry’s apparent disdain for interception is shown in a record of October 13, where the head of Section VIII is shown to be a lone voice, thinking that ‘mobile units should not be taken across the Channel until RSS have detected an illicit transmitter’. The issues of quick mobility and transmission habits were obviously lost on him. (I have written more about this matter, and especially the illicit broadcasts of the Soviet spy Oliver Green, at .

Several reports written at the end of the war, in the summer of 1945 (inspectable at HW 34/18), suggest that deploying mobile units to track down illicit transmitters was a laborious and often futile exercise. (Of course, operations may have been scaled back by then, as the obvious threat had diminished, but the experiences are still informative.) In March 1945, a team of four mobile units were sent to Cheshire, and after several days managed to apprehend a GPO employee, a Volunteer Interceptor in Warrington. Another case in Birmingham was abandoned after five days. When unidentified transmissions were found to be emanating from the area of Kinross in Scotland, a troop of mobile vans was ordered from Barnet (about 400 miles away – hardly a rapid-response force) to investigate. The vans eventually discovered a Polish Military Signals Training Unit, which had conveniently and innocently continued with its traffic. Repeated interception of signals in London led back several times to the Soviet Embassy, where a ‘prototype model of a wide band DAG-1 D/F receiver’, which could track rapid changes in wavelengths used, was successfully utilised.  Such cases confirm that RSS worked under a serious lack of intelligence about potential transmitters, and it had no mechanisms for adding to the portfolio of sources of radio-waves listed above. Why was no register, with geographical co-ordinates, maintained? Moreover, the mobile force the RSS deployed was scattered so broadly as to be almost completely ineffective for trapping careful illicit operators.

The Ellipse in Kinross (from HW 34/18)

One last aspect of the interception wars is that MI5 had a respectful admiration for the Germans, believing that they were as efficient as RSS was in intercepting and interpreting traffic emanating from domestic control stations. In his diary entry for May 23, 1942, Guy Liddell describes how the Nazis were able to concentrate on Whaddon Hall (the nerve-centre for SIS, which was also handling SOE traffic, at the time), and quickly pick up the changes in frequency adopted by the British when they were communicating with agents in Europe. He concluded by writing: “It seems that the Germans have made a very close study of the form of Whaddon operators and can recognize them very easily. Their Direction-Finding apparatus is considered to be extremely good and accurate. They must think ours is very bad in view of the fact that TATE and company have got away with it for so long.” Indeed. Yet Liddell and his troops did not appear to conclude that that observation represented a considerable exposure, or that the Germans might have expected them to address this loophole as the plans for the invasion of Europe solidified.

There is no doubt more to be told of this period, but the evidence already points to a strong contrast in perceptions about illicit wireless transmission in mainland Europe and Great Britain in this period. In Nazi-occupied Europe, the organs of security moved aggressively and cruelly to eliminate any dangerous wireless traffic, although admittedly with propaganda about mechanized forces that clearly did not exist, with agents feverishly trying to escape capture by keeping transmissions short and moving around to other safe houses. In Britain, the problem was not seen to exist, but if it did, agents were able to move around unmolested in what should have been an openly hostile climate, with no safe places to withdraw to, or believed to sit at their same stations waiting conveniently for the mobile vans to turn up in a few days at the appointed time, when they would start transmitting again – and then the vans and the nervous MI5 officer might do nothing at all. Yet that is not what the RSS officers said after the war. The judgment of Hinsley and Simkins, on page 181 of Volume 4 of the History of British Intelligence in the Second world War (“In all its activities the RSS achieved a high and continuingly increasing degree of efficiency”) merits some re-inspection. The mission from Barnet to Kinross particularly epitomizes the poor use of intelligence and resources.

The Double-Cross System

After the invasion of Britain was called off by Hitler towards the end of 1940 (but kept alive for propaganda purposes until well into 1941), the role of the captured and turned wireless spies as an instrument for influencing Nazi policies was debated at length. All through 1941, and the beginning of 1942, officers of MI5 had discussed among themselves, and sometimes with outsiders, such as those in Military Intelligence proper, what the role of the information passed on to the Abwehr should be. Should it be veiled propaganda? Should it overstate or understate Britain’s military capabilities? Dick White recommended to his boss, Guy Liddell, in April 1942 that the Committee managing double agents should change ‘from that of a body of censors to that of a body of planners’, adding that ‘the difference is that we are now asking questions of the Germans while previously we were answering questions from them’.  Yet it needed a lead. It was not until July 1942, after John Bevan had replaced Oliver Stanley as head of the London Controlling Section, that operational plans were able to take on more solidity. The XX Committee, under Masterman’s chairmanship, and MI5’s B1A could start to think about serious deception strategies. (Volume 4 of the authorized History, by Hinsley and Simkins, covers this period very well. KV 4/213 at the National Archives is useful. Ben Macintyre’s breezy but uneven Double Cross is also generally recommended as a contemporary study of the project.)

Meanwhile, the Committee had to convince the Abwehr that its remaining agents were safe, and ready for action, but not over-exuberantly so. After all, the Abwehr was supposed to be in control. Long discussions took place over the necessity of passing facts on via the agents, in order to maintain credibility, but also allowing for occasional mistakes. Yet one critical aspect of the whole double-cross operation was the extent that the undeniable primary contributors to the successful deception project (BRUTUS, TREASURE, GARBO and TRICYCLE) were mostly very late arrivals to the scene. What is even more important to state, moreover, is that none of these was a classical ‘double agent’. They were all Allied sympathisers who had inveigled themselves into the Nazi apparatus under the pretence of wanting to help the Axis cause, but who then betrayed their recruiters by disclosing their true allegiance when they arrived in Britain (or spoke to British officials in Lisbon.) Admittedly, they might have been lying (and agent ZIGZAG fell into this highly complex netherworld), but MI5 strenuously tried to verify stories. TATE was the only true double agent, who had been turned after he had been captured, convinced of the necessity of his role as a tool of British intelligence, mostly out of the fear for his life, but who then gradually came to appreciate the benefits of his democratic host country. As I explained in the last chapter, TATE’s value as a contributor to the deception over FORTITUDE was diminished because the necessity for him to find a modus vivendi and occupation to survive in Britain forced him to be a more reclusive and less mobile observer of invasion preparations.

For a short while in April, 1942, moreover, the Double-Cross Committee had considered the implications of running double-agents overseas, and taking over the transmitters that SIS maintained at Whaddon Hall. This was because the SOE agent VICTOIRE, Mathilde Carré, who claimed she had escaped from her German captors, had convinced her interrogators that she was genuine. Masterman and Marriott in B14 thus started to plan how messages could be sent back to members of the Interalliée as a method for deception, since MI5 and SIS knew that the agents had been turned by the Germans, but the Germans were assumed not to know this. The task presented fresh challenges as to how lies and truth should be managed without detriment to the real war effort. Before this task became reality, however, VICTOIRE was unmasked by one of the officers she had betrayed, agent BRUTUS (see below), and she was incarcerated for the remainder of the war.

In any case the official accounts need to be treated carefully. John Masterman’s Double Cross System contains an Appendix that claims that there were at least 120 double agents managed by the XX System, and it lists thirty-nine of ‘the more interesting cases that were operated from this country’. Yet this list includes such dubious characters as SNOW (who was dropped as early as March 1941 since he was probably a triple agent), the enigmatic GANDER (who may never have been turned, and disappeared mysteriously from the scene in November 1940), and the turncoat SUMMER (who tried to escape in January 1941, and whose fate remains controversial). It also includes such figures as BALLOON, who was recruited by TRICYCLE, which hardly puts him in the class of ‘double agent’: the term sometimes used in the authorised history by Hinsley et al., ‘double-cross agent’, is more suitable. (Masterman omits to mention a figure named BRISTLE, the cryptonym appearing in KV 4/214 at the National Archives, an oversight that suggests there may be a yet undiscovered tier of ‘less interesting’ agents whose names MI5 would prefer to forget.) As Hinsley and Simkins more accurately represent the state of the game in late 1943: “The newly acquired double agents [sic!] off-set the loss of Zigzag, Rainbow, Father, Dragonfly, Balloon and Mutt and Jeff, whose operations were now closed down or suspended.”

This account necessarily focuses on agents who successfully contributed to deception through wireless communications, which was a complex issue in its own right. Because of MI5’s desire to have information passed quickly to the Abwehr, agents who had hitherto used secret ink or microphotography requested wireless apparatus from their controllers. Indeed, GARBO exploited a delayed, but highly accurate, message about TORCH landings, which conveniently arrived after the event, to encourage a move to wireless usage. This may have prompted the Germans to accelerate the use of wireless communications with GARBO. That would, of course, allow the British to get disinformation in the hands of their adversaries in a much more timely fashion, but it would also eliminate the convenience of delivering highly accurate information with a built-in delay, thus increasing the risk of injurious retaliatory action. The adoption of radio did necessitate the delivery of codes, however, which was mightily useful for GC&CS in extending the range of intercepted signals that could be decrypted.

So how did these vital agents fare in the use of radio? The final 1942 entry in the files of TATE [Wulf Schmidt] at Kew expresses confidence that the enemy trusts him, and that his story about transmitting early in the morning, before the farm hands go to work, has been accepted. Yet 1943 appeared not to be so successful, and his handlers voiced concern about his viability.  (It was impossible to verify what the Abwehr thought of him, as messages from Hamburg to Berlin were sent by land-line.) During the period March-September he received only fourteen messages from the enemy, most of them very routine, as if it could not expect much valuable information from an agent fully engaged in agricultural work. An added complication arose because of the repatriation of a Nazi in November 1943. It was feared that this officer might have picked up rumours inside the camp where he was being held to the effect that MUTT, JEFF, SUMMER and TATE were all under control of the British.  That encouraged MI5 to put TATE on ice for a while. A report in early January 1944 also lamented the fact that he had only one transmitting frequency (4603 kcs), which made communication as far as Hamburg difficult outside daylight hours. TATE thus made a request to have a small portable apparatus workable off the mains, and the minor role he was able to play in OVERLORD will be described in the next episode.


BRUTUS [Roman Czerniawski], a former Polish fighter Pilot, experienced a comparatively short career as a double-cross agent. After the Germans arrested him in late 1941 in France, where he had built up an intelligence network, he manufactured a deal whereby he traded the safety of his family for a role spying in Britain. Before he left Paris, he was given quartzes to take with him for the purpose of building a transmitter with the help of his Polish friends, although BRUTUS asserted that it would be difficult finding a wireless operator. After an ‘escape’ via the Pyrenees, he arrived in England on October 2, 1942. Certain necessary checks with Poles in exile complicated his adoption, but he was approved, and established contact in December 1942, with an apparatus constructed for him by MI5. (The archive does not indicate how he suddenly acquired operating skills.) He was then instructed to build his own radio set in early January 1943. Masterman was cautious, telling Bevan he wanted to run BRUTUS giving information, not as a deception medium.

The year 1943 turned out to be problematic, as BRUTUS stumbled into hot water with the other Poles over the Katyn massacre, and his overexuberant politicking. (The Germans had discovered the site of the massacres in April, but the Soviets had denied any responsibility, thus causing a rift in Allied circles. On April 25, the Soviet Union broke off relations with the Polish government-in-exile.) Moreover, there was a security problem, as the Poles had access to BRUTUS’s codes (and thus might learn about the deception plan for OVERLORD). Harmer also reported to Robertson on May 6 that White and Liddell were concerned lest the Russians intercept and decode the BRUTUS traffic and use it ‘as a basis for their allegations that the Polish Government are maintaining contact with the Germans’. Reed assured Harmer that the range for BRUTUS’s transmitter was only 400 miles, so there was no danger of interception, but the episode showed the tangled politics that were starting to affect counter-espionage exercises. BRUTUS successfully reported on the arrest of CARELESS in May 1943, and Ultra decrypts showed that his reports were being taken seriously. However, BRUTUS’s arrest in the fracas over Katyn caused an awkward interruption. MI5 found him a notional ‘operator’ (purportedly in Reading, actually working in Richmond, thus apparently breaking the rules observed in other cases to protect against German direction-finding) so that he would not have to operate the wireless himself. Intercepts indicated that he was not fully trusted, and by the end of the year, Harmer was suggesting that he be used solely as a courier. On the last day of the year, however, BRUTUS informed his handlers that he needed a new transmitter.


The career of TREASURE [Lily Sergueiev], a journalist of Russian extraction, was very short, and she was not even activated as a wireless agent until January 1944. Yet her association with German Intelligence went back as far as 1937, when she had declined to work for a contact in Berlin, one Felix Dassel. After the fall of France, when in Paris, she had recontacted Dassel, and agreed to work for the Abwehr. She had been introduced to her handler, Emile Kliemann, in June 1941, and soon started receiving training on operating wireless equipment. This was somewhat unusual, as the Abwehr seemed keener at this time to have their agents use couriers, secret writing and microdots. By February 1942, she had started practicing, transmitting and receiving on a proper set, but for reasons primarily to do with Kliemann’s rather erratic behavior and complicated love life, the practice was neglected. Indeed, as late as May 18, she was taught how to use invisible ink, and it was not until July 17, 1943 that she appeared at the British consular office in Madrid declaring that she intended to travel to England to spy, but wanted to switch her allegiance.

After researching her background, MI5 concluded that her intentions were genuine. But she still had to wait for the distracted Kliemann to get organised, and it was not until a few months later (her MI5 handler, Mary Scherer, said November 11; Ben Macintyre states October 7) that she was able to fly from Gibraltar to Bristol. Kliemann had promised her that she would be given a wireless set to be disguised as a phonograph, but he let her down, unable to procure one for her, instead promising that she would be passed one after she arrived in Britain. She boarded the plane without it – also without her beloved dog, an incident that would later cause deep rifts between her and those in MI5 she trusted. Her activity as a spy was then further delayed owing to her becoming seriously ill in December, and being hospitalised. Thus it was not until January 11, 1944 that MI5 started conceiving plans for putting TREASURE in possession of a wireless set. She was able to write to Kliemann informing him that she had now bought an American Halicrafter radio (actually supplied by MI5), even though possession of an unlicensed wireless transmitter was still a civil offence.


For most of his career TRICYCLE [Dusko Popov] was not a wireless agent, and he never used such equipment himself. He had managed to convince the Germans as of his bona fides, while remaining free to travel because of his import/export business, but had declared himself to the British back in 1940. Yet he had been sent by the German to the USA in October 1942, and spent most of 1943 in what turned out to be a fruitless (and expensive) sojourn. Even before his spell in the USA, the British had deciphered messages that indicated that the Germans had suspicions about him, but TRICYCLE bravely walked back into the lions’ den in Lisbon, and managed to brazen out his interrogators, who were anxious to believe that they still had a valuable resource under their control. On September 14, 1943, TRICYCLE flew back to Britain, carrying with him various espionage material and money, and also a wireless transmitter. So who was to operate it?

TRICYCLE had ingeniously convinced the Abwehr of a scheme to infiltrate supposed Yugoslavian Nazi sympathisers into Britain, disguised as refugees. Through his brother, Ivo Popov, TRICYCLE arranged for a naval officer called Frano de Bona to be recruited by the Abwehr and trained as a wireless operator. TRICYCLE returned to Lisbon and Madrid in his role as a Yugoslav diplomatic courier in November 1943, and there negotiated de Bona’s [FREAK’s] passage via Gibraltar to London, where he would operate TRICYCLE’s equipment. On December 8, Guy Liddell recorded his fear that the whole TRICYCLE set-up might collapse at any moment, but later that month FREAK started his work as a wireless operator. He would transmit regularly (his location not apparently revealed) for five months until being necessarily closed down because of a scare.


The most famous of the double-cross agents, and the one who contributed most to the deception exercise of FORTITUDE, was the Spaniard Juan García Pujol (GARBO). Again, his career went back a long way, and it was not until late in the war that his ‘network’ was supported by wireless transmission. He had originally presented himself to the British Embassy in Madrid in January 1941, but was turned away. Inventing information for the Abwehr, his reports were picked up by SIS, and he was eventually interviewed again in November 1941. He was smuggled out of Lisbon to Gibraltar, and hence to London, where he arrived on April 24, 1942. After interrogation, GARBO was transferred to the control of B1A in MI5. Over the next few years he would craft hundreds of letters written in secret ink, which mysteriously managed to reach the Germans in Spain and Portugal. As Ben Macintyre writes: “The information they theoretically supplied was written up in secret ink and dispatched inside innocuous letters that the Germans believed were either brought by courier or sent by airmail to various cover addresses in neutral Spain and Portugal. In fact they were transported in MI6’s diplomatic bags.”

Yet this was not going to be a swift enough medium for the purposes of FORTITUDE. In August 1942, GARBO had in principle gained permission to use wireless. The Abwehr had encouraged GARBO to make his ‘notional’ agents use secret ink to communicate directly, which would have made the control and distribution of disinformation very difficult. Thus GARBO, having fortuitously ‘discovered’ a radio technician employed on the outskirts of London who was a friend of his ‘Agent No 4’, suggested that wireless should now be attempted for communications. When GARBO reported, in November 1942, on convoy departures for the TORCH landings, and the information arrived too late for the Germans to act upon it, it was a timely signal for them to adopt a newer technology, and they wrote to him on November 26 more warmly accepting his recommendation. In the words of Hinsley and Simkins: “To begin with a large volume of material continued to pass by air mail and courier. From the end of August [1943], however, almost all his [GARBO’s] messages were sent on his radio link. This followed from the need, in support of Allied deception plans, to force the Germans’ correspondence with him on to the air and receive it with greater speed, and also from the fact that, to give verisimilitude to his network by indicating to the Germans that MI5 was aware of its existence but could not track it down, steps were being taken to show them that its air mail letters were being intercepted.”

The first transmission was scheduled to take place on March 6, 1943, and Guy Liddell reported that GARBO did in fact establish radio contact with Madrid on March 12, with the MI5 operator resident at 55 Elliot Road, Hendon. The provision of a new cipher by the Abwehr was highly valuable: Liddell further commented, on June 5, that GC&CS regarded the results of interception as ‘outstanding’. Yet wireless procedures were outstandingly undisciplined. Despite instructions to their new operator to keep messages as short as possible (‘No transmission should exceed fifty groups for safety sake’), and warnings about direction-finders, even referring to the use of aeroplanes (which was a technique the Abwehr was domestically familiar with), GARBO’s operator was shown to be on the air for two hours at a time in June 1943, owing to the prolix and flowery reports that he and Tomás Harris, his minder, compiled. By the end of August, nearly all GARBO’s messages were sent by the wireless link, and after one or two hiccups due to the Abwehr’s concerns about British censorship of the mails, and possible exposure of the wireless-led network, communications flourished for the remainder of the year.

As an interesting sidenote on the efficiency of RSS, Hinsley and Simkins report that the service was able to detect GARBO’s station. It was clearly closely involved with tracking the transmissions of the agents. What had happened was that GARBO had been given a transmitting plan that required the station to adopt military procedures for callsigns and introductions, with the result that the signals would be confused with a swelter of other military traffic, making connection with Madrid difficult for a while. “  . . . in fact GARBO’s transmissions were temporarily lost by the operators who had been intercepting them for the RSS from places as far apart as Scotland, Gibraltar and Canada. . . “, the historians wrote. “It was a tribute to the efficiency of the RSS’s intercept network that after a few weeks it again reported Garbo’s transmitter as a suspect station.”


As the preparatory period for the long-awaited invasion of Europe started, a strange, asymmetrical confrontation of wireless intelligence had developed. From the German side, the notion of a powerful direction- and location-finding apparatus had been created in response to a pervasive and potentially dangerous threat. Yet it was hard to implement. Its menace was used more as a deterrent than an enforcement mechanism, the security organs struggling with the practical limitations of such techniques, and having to rely more on informers and infiltration to subvert and destroy the enemy’s networks. In Britain, a similar powerful detection capability kept a close ear on the airwaves. The authorities, however, confident that no genuine hostile agents were operating on native soil, owing to the RSS’s interception, and GC&CS’s decryption, of Abwehr traffic, maintained a surprisingly casual stance towards illicit transmissions and their origin. Both German and British Intelligence were justified in thinking that the capabilities of their foe were at least as advanced as their own. After the war, the British boasted of their capabilities in a manner similar to that of the Germans. Yet MI5, in managing its Double-Cross System, was woefully careless in supervising the transmission schedules of its agents, and the Abwehr deluded itself in thinking that its agents could survive undetected in a small, hostile island.

New Commonplace entries can be found here.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Politics, Technology

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *