“Hitler’s Trojan Horse” – Nazi Intelligence with Nigel West
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Nigel West: This was a completely different sort of concept in military strategy, but it was also completely dependent on really good intelligence. So when you look back at 1940 and you see that Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France were occupied in an astonishing speed - so the Germans were ruthless. They had really good intelligence on all the bridges. They knew exactly what had to be captured in advance.
Andrew Hammond: Nigel West has been called the expert's expert on intelligence history. He is the author of dozens of books on the subject, including a recent two-part history of the Abwehr, the German military-intelligence service that enabled and then plotted against the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. Nigel West is the pen name of Rupert Allason, a former member of Parliament in the United Kingdom between 1987 and 1997. In the rest of this episode, Nigel and I discuss who's who in German intelligence during World War II, how Nazi were the respective agencies, how well the German intelligence performed during the war, the 20 of July plot and Operation Valkyrie, and the extent of British involvement in that plot to assassinate the Fuhrer.
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Andrew Hammond: Well, as I mentioned before we've been on-air, I'm really excited to speak to you, Nigel, and I'm really interested in your two books. So one came out last year on the period of the Abwehr up until 1943, and then the second volume is '43 to '45. So I think just to take it back to the beginning for listeners that are not up to speed with us, can you just give them a pen portrait of the Abwehr?
Nigel West: The German intelligence service started in strange circumstances in 1932 as a clandestine organization because it was banned by the Treaty of Versailles. The Abwehr was unlike any other intelligence agency in the world because it was based on the 24 or 25 military districts in Germany, so it was a secret branch of the regular army in Germany. And because they were not collecting domestic intelligence and they were concentrating, obviously, on overseas targets, particular military districts concentrated on particular targets. So for example, Hamburg - being a port city and being the destination, the terminus, if you like, for trans-Atlantic voyages to the United States and voyages to London - concentrated the Abwehrstelle, which was, like, the station base in Hamburg, took over Bremen not as another stellen, but as a nest - as a sub-base organization. And they recruited seamen. And the idea was that in the event of war, they would not only have created networks in the United States and the United Kingdom, but in order not to be reliant on wireless, they had a network of couriers.
Nigel West: And so all of the couriers were tradespeople on the ships - members of the crew, hairdressers particularly, waiters - and so these were people who were doing double duties. They were members of the crew of some of the big German trans-Atlantic companies, but the ships also provided an opportunity for the Abwehr to communicate with their networks overseas, and that's how they developed. So Wiesbaden would concentrate on France, and another military district would concentrate on Belgium and Holland and Denmark and so on. And so this was a very unusual way to construct an intelligence agency, so that made them remarkable. And we in the West, the Western allies, had very little knowledge of the Abwehr or its structure or its personalities, really, until about 1941, which is really strange. So the Germans knew a great deal about American intelligence, the FBI, British intelligence - knew some of the personalities - but we knew absolutely nothing. In fact, we weren't entirely certain about who Admiral Canaris was, who, of course, was the chief - the second chief of the Abwehr.
Andrew Hammond: And clarify for me when the Abwehr comes into being. Is it in the '20s - 1921? Or is it in the '30s, in 1932?
Nigel West: Well, it was really in the 1930s that it got underway entirely. There was an earlier organization, but, of course, being banned by the Treaty of Versailles, it had no opportunity for funding, no opportunity for agents. And it really wasn't until about 1933 that the West started to see evidence of German espionage, particularly in the target countries of France, Belgium, Holland and the United Kingdom. Those were the principal target countries for the Abwehr at that time.
Andrew Hammond: So it's really, really interesting the way that, organically, different intelligence services come into being. And then, as you said, if you were to start from scratch, maybe it would look very different. But by that point, there's lots of institutions and structures and processes. For our listeners, can you just give them a sense of the intelligence landscape in Germany?
Nigel West: I think that the Wehrmacht had embarked upon this new policy of instant, very fast war. So rather than repeat the static confrontation of the First World War, the Wehrmacht in the mid-1930s had developed this new strategy of moving armor very fast ahead, coordinated with ground attack, aircraft, infantry being mechanized. And then the other dimension to it, of course, was communications, very fast radio communications between air and ground and infantry. And what made all of this very different was that the strategy was to race ahead and to capture key objectives. And if there were any strong points that were going to be resistant, instead of waiting to deal with them, mop them up, they would just bypass them, leave them isolated in the rear and allow them to be dealt with at a later stage. This was a completely different sort of concept in military strategy, but it was also completely dependent on really good intelligence.
Nigel West: So when you look back at 1940 and you see that Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France were occupied in an astonishing speed - I mean, really breathtaking what took place, especially considering that some of those countries, Holland and Belgium, were neutral. So the Germans were ruthless. They had really good intelligence on all the bridges. They knew exactly what had to be captured in advance. The bridges would then be held so as to allow the tanks over, and the tanks wouldn't wait to attack strong points; they would just go directly ahead in order to get - achieve their objectives. And this being dependent on intelligence meant that the Abwehr did an enormous amount of work in 1938, 1939 and 1940, collecting information that was of direct relevance and advantage to the troops on the ground. And again, this was revolutionary.
Nigel West: And within Germany, there was great admiration and understanding and acceptance that blitzkrieg could only work with good intelligence. And therefore, the Abwehr had a status far beyond the other organizations. The Sicherheitsdienst, which was, in effect, the Nazi Party's intelligence organization, which was very effective in its own field and part of the overall Nazi political structure, was, of course, the feared Gestapo. I don't want to say that the Germans have had a bad press in relation to intelligence operations in the Second World War, but they were very effective. And when you look at the staffing of the Gestapo in particular, they were mainly professional policemen who had been recruited into the Gestapo for the war. The Gestapo was a very small organization prior to the war. And of course, we now know about the concentration camps, and we know about the death camps. But at that time, we had very little understanding of that.
Nigel West: And there was friction between the Sicherheitsdienst and their political status and the Abwehr, which was more straightforward intelligence divided into Abwehr I, which was intelligence collection, Abwehr II, which was sabotage, and Abwehr III, which was counterespionage. And the Abwehr was a very large organization. You're talking about 60,000 staff who operated in circumstances that were really unknown in the U.K. or the U.S. And that's what intrigued me because I found all these post-war reports of the structure and the work - the operations of the Abwehr. And this had not really been appreciated until about 1941, when we got our first defector. And at that stage, our understanding of the Abwehr was almost entirely based on signals intelligence.
Andrew Hammond: Just when you were talking there about the change to the warfare for the Second World War - whenever I think of that, I always think of two things. One is a bit more refined, and one is a bit more prosaic. But the first thing that I think about is Guderian's quote - not a drizzle, but a downpour. Don't spread the tanks out. Keep them all concentrated. And then the second thing that I think of is "Dad's Army," the TV show back in the U.K. where they say to Captain Mainwaring, the Germans are in France, and Captain Mainwaring says, don't worry. They'll never get through the Maginot Line. And the response is, well, they went around it. And Captain Mainwaring is saying, you see what we're up against? Germans with their damn dirty tricks. You know, they're not playing by the rules.
Andrew Hammond: So you mentioned the numbers there. So tell me if I'm wrong here. I got around, like, a dozen people in 1921 in the proto-Abwehr organization, and then going into the war or approaching the war, it's 150 people. But then in the war, it goes up to 60,000. Could you correct me on the figures there? What's the growth of the Abwehr like? When does it begin to pick up, and when does it go up through the roof?
Nigel West: Well, there was no planning for the expansion of the Abwehr. I think that the German success in 1940 took the Germans by as much surprise as anybody else. And there is a huge amount of evidence for that. For example, the Germans had no long-range submarines, no long-range U-boats in 1939 and 1940 because they had no prospect of running U-boat operations outside of the Baltic, which is shallow water. So they were not oceangoing. They were small diesel-electrics that they depended upon. In 1940, to their amazement, the French collapse. And they suddenly find themselves with four U-boat bases on the west coast of France at Lorient and so on. And this opens up the opportunity for the Kriegsmarine to run U-boat - which they had never anticipated, never planned for - U-boat operations into the Atlantic. And as a consequence of that, they had to redesign or create new U-boats which were oceangoing. And those oceangoing U-boats became the backbone of the Kriegsmarine submarine fleet. But it demonstrates that, in terms of strategy, the Germans never anticipated having ports on the west coast of France, on the Atlantic coast.
Andrew Hammond: And help us understand. So the Abwehr - it's a human intelligence organization, is that correct?
Nigel West: It's a human intelligence organization, but it depended quite largely on signals intelligence. So in the military sphere, in retrospect, we can say that the Germans relied primarily on signals intelligence, which was extremely good. And we know now from, for example, the TICOM declassified files, the scale of German success. They were very good at visiting wrecks. So in the first months of the war, when three submarines were sunk in the Heligo Bight, they were visited by divers, and Royal Naval crypto equipment was recovered from the submarines. Crypto equipment was recovered from destroyers that had been sunk in the Norwegian campaign. So they had very good understanding of cipher systems that were used by the Royal Navy, and subsequently, they were able to collect cipher equipment relating to Anglo-American naval operations in the North Atlantic, and they exploited that very successfully.
Nigel West: And the structure of the Abwehr was primarily intelligence analysis, so that was Group One. But that was dependent on building intelligence on a signals intelligence matrix. And then Abwehr II was sabotage, and Abwehr III was counterespionage. And in all of those fields, they were really very successful. Abwehr II, for instance, collected hundreds of tons of Allied material, explosives, time pencils, other equipment, to be used partly because the quality was better than the German equivalent, but also because they wanted to be able to run false-flag operations, and if they were to use sabotage equipment in, particularly, the Iberian Peninsula, it would be the Allies that would get the blame for it because it was their kit that was being used. And then the third area of intelligence operations conducted by the Abwehr is counterespionage, where they were sensationally successful.
Nigel West: So they virtually ran, for 2 1/2 years, the French resistance in France. They were in control of the air movements. They ran - between 1941 and 1943, they ran virtually all the SOE networks. The same for, to some extent, the SIS networks, intelligence collection networks, in western France. They were all compromised and penetrated by Abwehr III. So that was the Abwehr in France. The Abwehr in Belgium, France and Switzerland was hugely successful against the GRU, against the Soviet network that was there that came to be called the Rote Kapelle, the Red Chapel. And that was an investigation conducted jointly by the Sicherheitsdienst and the Abwehr together. And that totally destroyed the GRU organization that had some of its tentacles in Germany. And that was completely wound up by the Abwehr, a very impressive operation that, to this day, is the basis of Anglo American anti-Soviet and anti-Russian counterespionage operations.
Andrew Hammond: Nigel mentions INTs a few times in this episode. That's the plural of INT, I-N-T, which is short for intelligence. So what are they, and why do they matter? Close your eyes, ideally not when you're driving, and think about what's around you - sights, sounds and smells, solids, liquids and gases, atoms, hadrons and quarks - in a word, phenomena. A lot of phenomena in the world around us - or let's just call it stuff - can help intelligence agencies build up a picture of the world.
Andrew Hammond: Think of the recent Chinese balloon, for example, as an intelligence platform. It would be able to see stuff - landscapes, military sites, critical infrastructure or what is called IMINT, for imagery intelligence. It would be able to hear stuff. This could be communications between people and text and speech, or it could be electronic signals such as radio waves or electromagnetic pulses. This is called SIGINT for signals intelligence. It could also sense or smell stuff. This could be radiation, chemical or biological signatures, how hot or cold something is. This is called MASINT, or measurements and signature intelligence. IMINT, SIGINT and MASINT may also be able to see, hear and sense things that we cannot see, hear or sense, things that are simply beyond the human sensory experience. For example, human beings can only see a tiny 0.0035% of the electromagnetic spectrum. They can't see things, for example, like X-rays or microwaves.
Andrew Hammond: These are only a few of the INTs. James Bond, for example, is an example of HUMINT, or human intelligence, because he gathers information by means of interpersonal contact. I am simplifying here, of course, but essentially, the INTs are a way to categorize and analyze the phenomena or stuff that is all around us. OK, you can open your eyes again.
Andrew Hammond: What I picked up was it's quite astonishing, this worldwide logistics network that they had and then - and the occupied countries as well had extremely effective operations in place. And I think it's just interesting because so much of what people think about the Abwehr as the victors view of their vanquished foes - in a lot of intelligence history, it's the Germans. They were good at some things, and they could invent machines.
Nigel West: View from conventional wartime historians - really, from David Kahn to the present day - is that the Germans, the German intelligence services were incompetent, that they were - it was nepotism, that they were corrupt, that they didn't recognize double agents, which is really very far from the truth. The organizations were very impressive, particularly run from Istanbul. And when you consider that the Axis did have some pretty significant disadvantages when the Allies controlled the Suez Canal and had an empire global reach, the Germans had no such advantages when they started off. And so they were dependent on the Kriegs organization in Istanbul to cover the whole of the Near East and the Middle East, a huge territory stretching to Afghanistan. And you've just got in Europe, the Kriegs organizations in Lisbon and Madrid. And yet they achieved so much from that. And I think that it's a big mistake that historians hitherto have made in denigrating the professionalism of these officers.
Nigel West: And it doesn't matter where you look. In every area, we have been misled. The proposition that we ran all the German agents in England through the Double-Cross system is somewhat exaggerated. We now know that there were German spies who operated in the United Kingdom that were not caught - were never even detected. I mean, one of them, a Dutch exotic animal dealer, operated in the United Kingdom, was - came - visited backwards and forwards - was never even a suspect. And after the war, he was prosecuted in his native Holland and was acquitted, incidentally.
Nigel West: So the officers who were handling some of the agents who they recognized were dodgy and turned out to be double agents - they were very aware. They were conscious of the danger of double agents, and they were also very aware of the potential compromise of their communications. And I often hear historians saying, of course, the allies had this huge advantage 'cause they broke Enigma. But the truth is that if you look at TICOM reports developed at the - right at the end of the war and after the war, the Germans recognized that Enigma was vulnerable. They broke the Enigma keys being used by the Swiss Army, so they were very aware of the shortcomings. But it was so convenient that they continued to use Enigma, mainly because they believed that it would take years to concentrate the resources required to break certain keys. Whereas in reality, we were able to read, certainly, the hand-cipher traffic in Spain very quickly. And then the machine-cipher traffic followed it later in 1940. And that gave us an enormous advantage.
Andrew Hammond: Why do you think that this has been the case? Why have the narratives always been self-congratulatory or triumphalist or denigrating the Germans? Is it just because historians lean into where they think books are going to be sold? If you - say maybe you weren't that smart, it's maybe not a good way to shift books, or are people just not doing enough research in the German archives? Or...
Nigel West: The information wasn't available.
Andrew Hammond: It wasn't available?
Nigel West: The Abwehr archives and records were largely destroyed. The Germans were pretty efficient at destroying things, and they eliminated a very large amount of their own records. German Foreign Ministry records, we discovered buried in a forest. Some of the post-Normandy Western Front Intelligence daily reports and war diaries were recovered from one of the historians who had been drafting the daily reports. He buried all of this material at the bottom of his garden in Remagen and then surrendered them to the Americans, who promptly classified it all, took it to America - never allowed anybody to see it. And it's really only been in the last five years that we've been able to look at the records. And that involves about 6,500 files that MI5 has released to the National Archives at Kew. That is a consequence of two directors-general of the Security Service having been Cambridge history graduates. Rather than burn their files, they understood the value of declassifying them, maybe redacting some of them - but putting them through a declassification process and making them available at Kew, so that has been a gift.
Nigel West: The other thing is that MI5 in particular was in a state of perpetual surprise about the Abwehr. It wasn't until November 1941 that we got our first defector. And he was a defector, really, in the sense that he was captured in - on the Tunisian frontier in November 1941. And while he was a prisoner, he indicated his willingness, first of all, to disclose his identity and, secondly, to cooperate with the Allies. And so it wasn't until, actually, January 1942 that he was debriefed in England. His code name was Harlequin, and his real name was Richard Wurmann. You won't find Richard Wurmann's name in any of the conventional histories of the Second World War, but he was enormously important - why? - because he was able to confirm the intercepts that had been monitored by the British of German communications. He was able to reveal the true names, the cover names and the code names of the personalities in that wireless traffic that had been intercepted by the British.
Nigel West: So the British had this huge resource of intercepts, but the intercepts were protected by these cover names and code names. And you needed an insider to explain who these people were, and Richard Wurmann was the first person to do that. And so MI5 began to realize that they had a foundation, an intelligence foundation, on which they could build a complete order of battle, a grasp and a wiring diagram of their principal adversary, the Abwehr. And from that moment when MI5 got the confidence to run double agents more aggressively, to get more information about Abwehr personalities, they then, of course, naturally, attracted more defectors.
Andrew Hammond: It's quite interesting the way that you build up the picture in the book using radio traffic, interrogation reports, defectors, captured documents. It's very interesting the way that you build the picture up.
Nigel West: These are all pieces of the intelligence jigsaw that fit together. And where they overlap, you've got this source validation, which is so valuable. But our primary source, really, was what we code-named ISK and ISOS, which were the machine and hand ciphers of the Abwehr. And that was the first traffic to be broken. Long before the Luftwaffe or the Kriegsmarine traffic was read, it was the Abwehr traffic that was so vulnerable.
Nigel West: And MI5 - once they got the confidence, towards the end of 1944, that they had a real understanding and grasp of the radio network and all the personalities involved, they then moved on to starting writing reports to try and take control of these organizations, and that became evident at the end of the war. And it's only now that we're - being able to read those post-hostilities reports of - taken on the basis of interrogations and interviews conducted by selected personalities from each Abwehrstellen and Kriegs organization. And those were conducted either by the Counter Intelligence Corps in U.S. Army areas or special units that were created by MI5 and SIS in the 21st Army Group areas in northwest Europe. And none of this material has been available, really, for free and online until COVID.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. Just very briefly for our listeners - you mentioned code names and cover names - can you tell them the difference?
Nigel West: Yes. Code names will be either operations or individuals. And cover names will be applied to particular personalities, and they will only be temporary. So Richard Wurmann revealed to us that somebody called Jack will - six months later, he will have become Ervin, whereas his real name would have been Herman. And so - and he may have had an operational code name for whatever enterprise he was engaged in. So if you are the monitor, if you are following the Abwehr traffic, you will see particular messages relating to all of those names. And the important thing is to try and - once you realize that they're all the same person, to get the three code names, cover names and real names together. And then you can identify who they are and where they've been. And it was Wurmann who explained, from the inside, how that system worked. And there were cryptographers and cryptanalysts on the Allied side that suspected that that was the case. And once they had the confirmation from the defector, HARLEQUIN, they were then able to conduct their interrogations far more effectively.
Andrew Hammond: So I want to get on to some of the personalities, the operations and the 20 July plot. But it might be interesting just now just to give us your assessment of the relative performances of the intelligence services of Germany and the Allies because we've heard so much of everything that the Allies done right - Double-Cross, the D-Day deception, cracking Enigma, of course. And you're correcting the record, trying to readjust the scores, if you want to put it like that.
Nigel West: Everything changed in 1941. And prior to 1941, the British had the huge advantage of being an island. But they had a very significant disadvantage which had manifested itself all the way through the 1930s, and that was an inability to run double agents. So if you're going to run a double agent case, there are two things that you've got to do. Firstly, you've got to supply real information to the double agent so that he retains the interest of his employers and, secondly, that his information is good enough to persuade his employers not to send a replacement agent to the United Kingdom.
Nigel West: So a double agent has these two requirements, and that requirement is always a problem for the intelligence community to go to the armed services and to say, give us genuine secrets that you don't mind us passing to the adversary. Well, of course, that's just not going to happen. But it did in 1940 when the Double-Cross committee was established in the United Kingdom. And this was a liaison relationship at a very senior level, at directors of intelligence level, where double agents could be cleared to receive quite sensitive information selectively and to be allowed to pass that to the enemy. And the most successful double agent at that time, the earliest, was, of course, Renato Levi, who was codenamed Cheese, who was an Italian Jew but a British passport holder who worked as a spy for the French, the Germans and the Italians.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Nigel West: Now, Cheese was a terrific character, and he was the very first effective double agent because he was sent by the Germans to rebuild Abwehr networks in Egypt during the early part of the Second World War. And when he was there, the task that was given to him by the Allied commander in chief was to exaggerate and to promote Allied strength right across the Middle East. So Cheese was on the radio very quickly, as soon as he arrived in Cairo, and was describing what he saw and exaggerated the strengths of the Allies right across the Middle East and provided the Germans with an entire order of battle, which they accepted. And that became the very first evidence of strategic deception in the Second World War. And it showed that a double agent could materially interfere with and affect the enemy's assessment of the order of battle right across the Middle East.
Nigel West: And Renato Levi was the longest-running double agent during the Second World War. But what made him so effective was that the Germans always believed him, and that became the basis of strategic deception that was then exploited for the Normandy landings in 1944. And it was the head of deception in the Middle East who had invented the concept of Cheese and manipulated Renato Levi, who was invited to go to London in 1943 to supervise Fortitude, which was the deception campaign which we all know about that was so successful for the D-Day landings.
Andrew Hammond: I'm just being playful here, but let's just say that Abwehr, the mark that was giving - the history that has been written was a C-minus or something like that. Where would you put it at now based on all the documentation that you found?
Nigel West: Oh...
Andrew Hammond: What's the reassessment like?
Nigel West: I think that the Abwehr would get B-plus-plus. I think that, to be fair to the security service, you would give them A-plus-plus because a very small number of case officers and a very small number of analysts were able, effectively, to control all of these double agents. The problem was that the Germans took account of some of their double agents, but they were quite discriminating because they believed them to be genuine agents. But quite a few of them they thought were a bit dodgy and did not give them the credit that MI5 thought that they had during the war. So when Sir John Masterman wrote his draft account of the double agent operations in 1945, there is an element of exaggeration about saying that the British took total control over the German intelligence service. We didn't. But in terms of agent operations, we were pretty successful. And we also were very good at deception campaigns, which the Abwehr had no real capacity for. In Abwehr Group III, there was - 3D was a deception unit, but it was very much on a tactical level that would respond to the requirements of the German high command.
Andrew Hammond: So just to summarize where we are just now, so we have the Abwehr, B-plus-plus, very underrated, traditionally, but a lot of new documentation has come out that is allowing us - or you, specifically - to reappraise it. It was HUMINT, but there were other INTs built into that enterprise, and it was part of the Oberkommando Wehrmacht, so it was German military intelligence, whereas the SD was Nazi party - a Nazi party intelligence apparatus. So I just want to talk about the evolution of this as we go into the war. So one of the things that I was thinking when I was reading your book was you know you have this argument, Omer Bartov, "Hitler's Army," or it's - the other side is made by Guderian in his books. We were just the German army. We just followed orders. And Omer Bartov says that's BS, for want of a better term. This was Hitler's army. It wasn't separated off.
Andrew Hammond: So it almost seems a little bit like, with the Abwehr - some sources that I've read are, you know, anti-Nazi, but they were still trying to help Germany win the war, and then other sources I've read have said that they were anti-Nazi, but they were actually helping the Allies so that Germany would lose the war. So you know more about this than, probably, all of those sources. So what's going on with the Abwehr here? How much were they helping the allies, if at all? How much of this was based on anti-Nazism? How much were they just a traditional, German military instrument? How Nazified were they - which I think I know the answer already. But just help our listeners understand a little bit more about the Abwehr as the war goes on, and the Army begins to lose, and the Nazi elements of the regime take on more power and responsibility. So just sketch out a picture of that for our listeners.
Nigel West: I think the conventional view is that the Abwehr was wholly anti-Nazi, anti-regime, pro-Allies, and that's not what emerges from the documents that I've seen. The interrogation reports at the end of the war showed that, when the tide of war changed in 1942, 1943, that it became evident to the Abwehr, more than to anybody else, that the war could not be won. And I saw very little evidence of any kind of collaboration between the Abwehr and the Allies, except in two areas. The first was the relatively famous story now of Halina Szymanska. She was Canaris' mistress. She was - she'd been married to the Polish military attache in Berlin before the war. And they had developed a relationship. And he, Canaris, established her in Bern, in Switzerland, with her four beautiful daughters. And he would visit her or arrange a rendezvous with her in Italy.
Nigel West: I interviewed Halina Szymanska, and it was very clear that Canaris knew that she was in touch with the Allies, that she was run by - principally by the Polish intelligence service in Switzerland during the war. But actually, they were acting as surrogates for the Secret Intelligence Service. And she had an SIS handler, Andrew King, who I also interviewed. And so that link was a conduit where Canaris passed information to Halina Szymanska knowing that that was going straight to the Allies. There was no direct link. She acted as a sort of cutout, an intermediary, and that is isolated and relatively limited. He, for example, passed information about Barbarossa, warned the allies of an - of German plans to attack the Soviet Union.
Nigel West: The second area, which I think is much more interesting, is the direct connection between the Abwehr and the 20 of July plot and the Allies. How much did the Allies know? What was the British involvement in the 20 of July plot, and what is the evidence for any of this? And this is really, I think, the nub of the issue. And it turns out that Georg Hansen, who was Canaris' deputy, was the principal plotter and that he sent three emissaries to Stockholm, Madrid and to Bern to make contact with the Allies in order to reach an accommodation. And the deal was going to be removal of Hitler, replacement of the Nazi regime with a monarchist constitution based on the British system and then coming to some kind of arrangement or accommodation with dealing with the Soviets.
Nigel West: But the really interesting connection is Otto John, who was an Abwehr officer and agent - so Abwehr asset. And more significantly, he was the Lufthansa lawyer who was responsible for, in modern parlance, negotiating landing slots for civilian aircraft across Western Europe and, in particular, the Lufthansa regular civilian flights into Madrid. And that gave Otto John contact with the West, acting as a surrogate for Georg Hansen. Now, why is this important? Because Otto John played a key role in the 20 of July plot, survived the aftermath. He hid in his apartment for three days. His brother was arrested by the Gestapo and executed. He managed to get himself out to Madrid and then was - made contact with SIS, for whom he had acted as an agent for the past two years. And then SIS exfiltrated him to Lisbon and then took him back to London.
Nigel West: Now, how do we know all of this? When he arrived in London, the convention - the protocol is that SIS agents have to be screened by MI5. And I've got and read the 16-page report written by MI5 based on their screening and interviews with Otto John when SIS delivered him to London, and it is very clear that he is an SIS asset. It says explicitly that he has been an SIS agent for the past two years, having been recruited in Madrid in 1942. And why should we believe this document? The answer is that the MI5 officer who wrote it was a man called Herbert Hart - better known to graduates of Oxford, subsequently, as Professor H. L. A. Hart, who was professor of jurisprudence at Oxford University for more than 25 years. So he wasn't some run-of-the-mill minor MI5 officer who exaggerated for the reports. This was H. L. A. Hart, who was assigned the task of investigating Otto John. And he sets out very clearly that Otto John was the key conspirator.
Nigel West: So Georg Hansen, of course, perished in the aftermath of the 20 of July plot, but his son survived, and I interviewed him at length. So you might well say, why don't we know about Otto John? If he played this key role and if SIS was demonstrably involved in the 20 of July plot, why didn't we know this before? Why isn't it in the official history of MI6? And the answer is that Otto John remained in the United Kingdom - at the end of the war, went back to Germany where he was not exactly greeted as a hero, even though he had been anti-Nazi. And in - this is the really important point. In 1950, when the Allies were asked to nominate personnel for the new German federal security service in Cologne, the new chief recommended by the British was - guess who? - Otto John. We - Secret Intelligence Service has a long history of not disclosing or compromising the identities of its agents, and that's why Otto John's name appears nowhere in the official history.
Nigel West: So Otto John was involved in the 20 of July plot, Georg Hansen was involved in the 20 of July plot, and most of the other Abwehr officers were quickly identified as being involved in the plot. Why? Because the Abwehr headquarters had been bombed out in the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin in 1942 and had moved to a secret site at Zossen, which is south of Berlin in - concealed in underground bunkers. But that site, codenamed ZEPPELIN, appeared in a lot of the Allied wiring diagrams of their communications network across Western Europe. And Zossen, obviously, was ZEPPELIN, and they were - the Allies were able to identify that. Peter Schagen was another Abwehr defector who had visited Zossen, and he gave a diagram, which I reproduce in the book, of the ZEPPELIN structure, and that was bombed by the RAF.
Nigel West: So the Abwehr then moved again. Very few people knew this, but they moved to another site not far from ZEPPELIN which they codenamed BELINDE. And BELINDE was a mystery site. We could listen to the traffic from BELINDE. But this is where the Abwehr plotted the 20 of July plot, and it turns out to be the Schloss Baruth. And the Schloss Baruth was a large estate, 40,000 acres, south of Berlin with its own railway station on the estate, owned by a Prussian nobleman called Prince Friedrich Solms-Baruth. And he arranged the meetings prior to the 20 of July plot. Claus von Stauffenberg, who you will recall was the potential assassin to kill Hitler, was his cousin. And it was Prince Friedrich who arranged for the plan to be given to the Allies of a restoration of the monarchy in Germany. And of course, all of that fell apart when the Abwehr officers at the Schloss Baruth took over the entire complex on the 20 of July.
Nigel West: But at midnight, Hitler broadcast that he was still alive, and the Sicherheitsdienst officers who were also on the site, who had been disarmed by the Abwehr, then took control of the Schloss Baruth. And the rest, as they say, is history. Prince Frederick lost. The entire estate was confiscated. He escaped with his life and that of his family. And I'm in touch with his grandson. But this is a dimension to Valkyrie, this is a dimension to the 20 of July plot that nobody has ever really been able to uncover before.
Andrew Hammond: Nigel was responsible for uncovering the identity of one of the most famous spies of World War II, codenamed Garbo. Juan Pujol offered his services to the British to, quote, "do something for the good of humanity," close quotes. He acquired a loathing of extremism during the civil war in his native Spain, but the British turned him down. Undeterred, he offered his services to the Germans, and the Abwehr gave him some training in the tradecraft of espionage. His mission - go to London and recruit a spy ring to serve the Reich. What did Pujol do? He moved to Lisbon, Portugal, and used the public library and newsreel reports to imaginatively create intelligence reports coming from London. He invented a fictitious network of spies across Britain, giving each an imaginary character and personality, misleading the Germans all over the place.
Andrew Hammond: He occasionally erred, since he had never been there, however. For example, he said that Glaswegians would do anything for a liter of wine, clearly ignorant of 1940s drinking culture in my home city. Plus, Britain didn't adopt the metric system - liters - until 1965. Nevertheless, he's been called one of the most successful double agents of World War II. And Nigel found out that he had faked his own death in Angola before moving to Venezuela, where he lived a quiet life as a bookseller. One of the things I love about spy stories is that they are more fantastical than fiction.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. I want to dig into that a little bit more because it's so consequential, and it's such a bombshell, I guess. But just before I get there, Otto John is a very interesting figure. So he goes back to Germany, West Germany. He becomes the head of the domestic intelligence agency. And then, as I understand it, on the 10th anniversary of the 20 of July plot, he goes missing. He turns up a couple of days later, I think, in East Berlin, talking about the disgrace that former Nazis, like Gehlen, have been given positions of high office. He's interrogated by the KGB for several months. Then he mysteriously pops up again in West Germany. You couldn't make this up. What's your take on that? Did the KGB abduct him, like he said, because he spent the rest of his life trying to exonerate himself, but what's your take on this? Do you think that he had a breakdown? I mean, it seems a bit of a coincidence that it's the 10th anniversary of the plot that he goes missing.
Nigel West: I have not investigated the post-war activities of Otto John. They're very complicated. I think the issues of his motivation, of what he did, why he did it, are very complex. And he was imprisoned when he came back to the Federal Republic, served his prison sentence and, yes, tried to clear his name and never succeeded in doing so.
Andrew Hammond: So the Abwehr - you mentioned that they plotted the 20 of July attempt to kill Hitler at Belinde. So I'm just wondering how much were the Abwehr driving the plot? I guess my...
Nigel West: Completely.
Andrew Hammond: I guess my assumption was that it was all the other names that you hear of - Stauffenberg, Olbricht, Beck. Were they marching to the beat of the Abwehr's drum or what?
Nigel West: Yes.
Andrew Hammond: Like, what was the relationship like between the...
Nigel West: They were all personal friends of Prince Frederick. The meetings to plot the nitty-gritty details of the assassination were conducted on horseback. They - so the Abwehr took over the Schloss Baruth and used the radio call sign BELINDE, which we were able to listen to. Although we didn't know where BELINDE was at that time, we could do - we could take direction-finding analysis. And we knew that it was south of Berlin, but nobody actually knew that it was the Schloss Baruth. So the Goerdeler, Beck and other plotters were all known to Prince Frederick. He was the common denominator. And they would go riding on the estate. So the plotters would have their meeting on horseback and - with no - so a huge estate to ride around in. And the - Prince Frederick's children were the cover, three children who were also attending these meetings but 100 yards back behind the plotters. So they were out of earshot. They couldn't hear what was being said. But more to the point, nor could anybody else. There weren't any microphones in the forest, and there was no chance of the Sicherheitsdienst or anybody loyal to the regime in the Abwehr eavesdropping on the conversations. So this was perfect. It was - the estate was close to Berlin. There was a daily bus service for the Abwehr to go into the center of Berlin. The railway station was on the site. And the Regensdorf airfield, where Claus von Stauffenberg flew to the Fuhrer's...
Andrew Hammond: The Wolf's Lair.
Nigel West: ...Wolf's Lair in Poland was, again, close by. I mean, really, sadly, one of the tragedies of life in England at the moment is that the British Secret Intelligence Service will not willingly declassify or release any file ever, at all. And their proud boast - and there is an operational reason for this. It's good for business to be able to say to an agent, we have never disclosed the identity of an agent. We will never declassify and release information that would compromise you, your children or your grandchildren. And in some parts of the world, that counts for a great deal. So there are no SIS files. The Otto John file I would love to see. And I've spoken to the current chief of SIS, Richard Moore, and asked him to declassify it. And he is an advocate of greater openness in today's world where we need the support of the public in a counterterrorism role. He is going to consider a submission to allow in certain important historical cases for files to be released.
Nigel West: So all we can rely on is the MI5 side of the story. And that's why - that's all that I could do - was to go to the Hart report, Herbert Hart's analysis - 16-page report, which was based on interviews with Otto John in order to clear him to be able to settle in the United Kingdom in October 1944. And that's the best we can do.
Andrew Hammond: One other person I just wanted to touch on was Oster, the deputy head of the Abwehr. He's a really fascinating figure as well. Can you tell us a little bit more about him?
Nigel West: Yes. Hans Oster was a very interesting character and, I think we can reasonably say, was the principal organizer of the 20 of July plot along with Georg Hansen. It's very difficult to see the area where - or the moment that he sort of switched from being a loyal intelligence officer supporting the Abwehr's objectives. And most of the people involved in the plot had fine military careers, particularly in the success on the Western Front in 1940 and in Poland. But obviously, something changed. And Hans Oster is one of those people who appears - from the interrogation reports of his subordinates, appears to have been a highly efficient officer.
Andrew Hammond: And Oster and Canaris were executed just before the end of the war.
Nigel West: Yes, most of the plotters were executed. A few got away with it.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. Wow. Well, thank you so much. We could talk for another two hours, but this has been so much fun, and I really appreciate speaking to you.
Nigel West: Thank you, Andrew. It's a delight to be interviewed by somebody who knows the business.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Please follow us on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. If you go to our page at thecyberwire.com/podcasts/spycast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. Coming up on next week's show...
Unidentified Person: I was there between 2001 and 2006. But I'll tell you something. In Israel, once you serve in this position, that's how you are going to be remembered for the rest of your life. I did all kinds of things since then, but whenever I appear on television or on the radio and when I'm interviewed, they always refer to me, the former head of the Research and Analysis Division.
Andrew Hammond: I'm your host Andrew Hammond, the museum's historian and curator. My podcast content partner is Erin Dietrick. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Jo Zhu, Emily Coletta, Afua Anokwa, Elliott Peltzman, Tre Hester and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence- and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum.