Dr. Alan F. Wilt
Books on intelligence during World War II have long fascinated a variety of readers. But in 1974, interest reached new heights with the publication of F. W. Winterbotham's The Ultra Secret. Anthony Cave Brown's Bodyguard of Lies and William Stevenson's A Man Called Intrepid followed in quick succession and also moved onto the best seller list. Now less spectacular but more substantial works have begun to appear. In the latter category are three important works written by David Kahn, Patrick Beesly, and General Vernon A. "Dick" Walters.
David Kahn, well-known for his earlier work, The Codebreakers, has once again made a major contribution to the intelligence field. This time he focuses on Hitler's intelligence network and how the Führer used it for military purposes.* The author begins with a brief history of intelligence and its place with in the German military system before turning his attention to intelligence during the Third Reich, which he covers in the traditional manner of looking first at the collection of information and then at the evaluation processes. The latter portion of the book is an analysis from an intelligence standpoint of three important operations: the German invasion of Russia, the Allied assault against Northwest Africa, and the Normandy campaign. Kahn rounds off his study with some interesting conclusions as to why Nazi intelligence ultimately failed.
*David Kahn, Hitler's Spies: German Military Intelligence in World War II (New York: Macmillan, 1978, $19.95), 671 pages.
The book abounds with new information and insights. The layout of wartime Berlin, the organization of German Air Force intelligence, and other details add color and depth to the narrative. Not only does he include excellent thumbnail sketches of familiar German military leaders, such as Keitel, Halder, Guderian, Canaris, and Reinhard Gehlen (whose worth Kahn thinks is overestimated), he also discusses a number of less familiar figures. As a result, individuals such as interrogator Major Heinz Ju nge, cryptologist Lieutenant Fritz Neeb, and spies Fritz Kauders (code named Max) and Elyesa Bazna (Cicero) emerge as significant persons in their own right.
In spite of Kahn's wide-ranging knowledge of the subject, his insights are seldom overstated and should fascinate both the initiated and uninitiated in intelligence matters. For example, he examines in detail the many sources the Nazis used for gathering intelligence, from business and industrial contacts outside the Reich to the more traditional enemy interrogations and aerial reconnaissance (whose effectiveness deteriorated as the war went on) to the more sensational cracking of codes and spies on foreign soil. Yet, he never loses sight of the fact that even though intelligence often plays a vital role in military operations-especially during the twentieth century-it is not the dominant force. The irony of this maxim is that while some German field commanders underestimated the possibilities of intelligence during the war, a number of writers in recent years have tended to overestimate its importance, thus making it seem at times as if intelligence actually won World War II.
In addition to the myriad of documentary and interview sources that Kahn utilizes, his discussion of the organization and functioning of Hitler's intelligence community will probably be the most valuable part of the book to historians. But the most enjoyable portions are those that deal with the efforts and methods employed by Nazi spies to gain information and Kahn's examination of the Barbarossa, Torch, and Overlord operations. He uses all of these instances to illustrate one of his major themes, namely, that German intelligence on the whole failed to give a clear picture of the enemy and his intentions.
Although one is reluctant to criticize a book of such magnitude, there are certain aspects of Kahn's account that one might legitimately question. This is especially true of his description of the three operations. For instance, his analysis of the 1941 offensive against the Soviet Union, which generally follows the work of historian Andreas Hillgruber, is sound enough, but he continues to accept the notion that Hitler's Balkan diversion that spring cost him the war, a point convincingly refuted by Martin van Crefeld some years ago. Kahn also argues that the Germans considered the Normandy invasion to be a diversion, which was to be followed by a second landing in the Pas de Calais area. While this is true, the Wehrmacht commanders did not conceive of the 6 June assault as merely a feint or diversion but rather as a major attack to be followed by another, equally strong attack later on. Nevertheless, it is difficult to disagree with Kahn's contention that Barbarossa represents Hitler's "greatest mistake," Torch his "biggest surprise," and Overlord his "ultimate failure," and that a lack of accurate intelligence helped contribute to Germany's defeat. One might also disagree with one or several of Kahn's five conclusions as to why" Hitler's intelligence system failed (by contrast, he gives the Anglo-Americans relatively higher marks); but his reasons are well worth pondering, for they go beyond the mistakes attributed to the German military intelligence effort. One reason, according to Kahn, is the familiar notion of Germany's unjustified arrogance, which was the result of its gradual movement away from the Western humanistic tradition. The second reason he notes is that Hitler's offensive-mindedness led to a neglect of intelligence, for offensive thinking tends not to emphasize intelligence as much as a defensive orientation. Third, the German officer corps by training and temperament looked on intelligence as something unclean and as something one should honorably ignore rather than use as a means for achieving victory. Fourth, the Führer's method of exercising authority allowed for too much infighting among the various intelligence branches, and this led to a fragmented effort. Finally, Hitler's belief in Jewish and Slavic inferiority, communist weakness, and other misperceptions caused him, and the German people as well, to delude themselves about the world in which they lived. In the end, as Kahn states, "reality overwhelmed Hitler."
BEESLY'S book, Very Special Intelligence,* on British naval intelligence during the war, though less than half the length of Kahn's, is of no less importance. The title may be puzzling until one realizes that "very special intelligence" is what the British called their decrypted enemy signals.
*Patrick Beesly, Very Special Intelligence (New York: Doubleday, 1978, $10.00), 282 pages.
Beesley is well qualified to write on the subject, for he served in the Admiralty's Operational Intelligence Centre throughout the conflict. While his emphasis is on the Atlantic and not the Mediterranean and Asian phases of the maritime war, this does not detract from the significance of the book. In fact, in terms of sources, interpretations, and factual content, it is a model in every way.
His use of sources is indeed exemplary, for they include his own recollections and those of his former colleagues in naval intelligence and at Bletchley Park, the main center for cryptanalysis northwest of London. These are supported by documentary materials from the Public Records Office (PRO). He also utilizes the American edition of records released in late 1977 by the PRO, which were not available when the British edition was published a year earlier.
Beesly is also very careful in his appraisal of the German side of the naval war. He bases his account on the work of historian Jürgen Rohwer, who knows more about the Battle of the Atlantic than anyone else, as well as key German naval personnel who are still living. (This contrasts with a criticism of Winterbotham's otherwise valuable work, The Ultra Secret, in which he uses the facts and figures compiled by British intelligence rather than the more accurate and readily available German records.)
Beesly approaches his information and sets forth his interpretations in a straightforward rather than a sensational manner; but they are interesting, nonetheless. He charts the course of British naval intelligence throughout the war and relates how the problems of the early years were eventually overcome (helped in part as more and more enemy ciphers were broken). He makes it clear that German wireless traffic was not the only intelligence source used by the Royal Navy and that photoreconnaissance, direction-finding devices, agents' reports, and other sources also added to the picture of Axis shipping. And he describes the means for tracking the various enemy craft with which the Allies had to contend, including merchant raiders, battleships, heavy cruisers, and other surface vessels.
The most menacing feature of the naval war, of course, was the U -boat (which Churchill would not allow the dignity of being called a submarine) and the resulting Battle of the Atlantic. As Beesly points out, the U-boat war was taxing on the Germans as well as the Allies. Of 39,000 personnel in their submarine force during the war, 28,000 were killed. It was doubly' difficult because both sides were reading the other's signals, a situation that the Allies eventually rectified, but one which the Germans, secure in the belief that their ciphers could not be broken, did nothing to correct. Even when the battle was won and Dönitz called off his wolf packs in late May 1943, this did not mean it might not reappear at another time and place. It is little wonder, then, that the Western Allies considered it to be the top priority for 1943, for only if the Atlantic were relatively secure could a cross-channel invasion be undertaken. Beesly, like Kahn, has his array of impressive heroes, including Vice Admiral Sir Norman Denning, father of the Operational Intelligence Centre; Captain Rodger Winn, head of the tracking room, who anticipated the movement of Donitz's U-boats with uncanny accuracy; and Captain Kenneth Knowles, Winn's American counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic. Just as important were the many individuals who served in the depths of the Admiralty and at Bletchley Park, persons who were constantly overworked, periodically sick, and seldom recognized. One concludes that even with the appearance of parts of historian and wartime cryptologist F. H. Hinsley's official history, Beesly's work still stands as a pathbreaking effort.
A DIFFERENT type of book is General Walters's recollections of his 35-year military career, which spans the period from before America's entrance into the war in 1941 to his retirement as Deputy Director of the CIA in 1976.*
*Vernon A. Walters, Silent Missions (New York: Doubleday, 1978, $12.95), 635 pages.
Walters has an interesting story to tell. His first assignment in the military was as a truck driver, but because of his linguistic ability, he was soon transferred to intelligence. He participated in the Torch operation and then served in the United States and the Mediterranean theater as a liaison officer with Portuguese and Brazilian soldiers (whose language at first he did not speak, but soon mastered). His flair for languages led military and political leaders to use him increasingly as an interpreter, and this, in turn, resulted in his coming into contact with many of the great and near-great figures during the postwar years. These contacts somewhat overshadow the other aspect of his career-his work as a military attaché, in which he was also quite competent. In fact, anyone aspiring to become an attaché would do well to follow Walters's example.
The author relates little about himself, but he obviously enjoyed his work and many of the individuals he was privileged to meet. He particularly liked, among others, Marshall, Eisenhower, Truman, Averell Harriman, and Castelo Branco, the President of Brazil from 1962 to 1967. He is also somewhat sympathetic toward de Gaulle (especially for an American) and Mohammed Mossadegh, the Iranian nationalist leader in the early 1950s, in spite of Mossadegh's idiosyncracies. His view of ex-President Nixon is more ambivalent. He admired Nixon's courage during his 1958 Latin American trip as vice president but does not condone his conduct during the Watergate scandal, an affair in which Walters played a role because of his CIA position.
Although the book is interesting and has an anecdotal flavor, it is still marred by several defects. For one thing, while the catalogue of people whom Walters knew is amazing, he seldom gets beneath the surface in his descriptions of them. One gains some insights into Harriman, and the sketch of Henry Kissinger is well drawn. But what kind of person was Ike? What is Walters's assessment of General Gruenther? How would he characterize Giulio Andreotti, the important Italian leader? One wishes he had told us more about these individuals. Second, the 630-page narrative should have been edited more closely. The chapters on de Gaulle and relations with the Chinese are repetitive. The sections dealing with Vietnam and Watergate could have been effectively shortened. Moreover, at times the chronology is unclear and therefore not as easy to follow as it might be. Nevertheless, the positive features outweigh the negative ones. Walters's account possesses substantial merit and makes for enjoyable reading. It should be of interest to the soldier, diplomat, and general public alike.
Overall, comparison of these three works with the more sensational books on intelligence that appeared in the mid-1970s makes it obvious that these books by Kahn, Beesly, and Walters are more solidly researched, better written, and more significant contributions than their predecessors. Together, these works add a great deal to our understanding of World War II and the intelligence community as a whole. They represent a considerable achievement.
Iowa State University
Alan F. Wilt(B.A., DePauw University; M.A., Ph.D., University of Michigan) is Associate Professor of History at Iowa State University. Some of his professional writing includes " 'Shark' and 'Harpoon': German Cover Plan Against Great Britain in 1941," Military Affairs (1974), and The Atlantic Wall: Hitler's Defenses in the West, 1941-44 (Iowa State University Press, 1975).
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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