Military history


The Spy Who Baked Cakes

THE ABWEHR’S AGENTS and informants in Spain came not as single spies but in battalions, and Spanish collaboration with the Germans, as one MI5 officer put it, was “ubiquitous.”1 Of the 391 people employed in the German embassy in Madrid, 220 were Abwehr officers, divided into sections for espionage, sabotage, and counterespionage, deploying some 1,500 agents throughout Spain, many of them German émigrés. These, in turn, recruited their own subagents in a vast and sprawling network: “All classes were represented2 from Cabinet Ministers to un-named stewards of cargo ships,” according to a wartime intelligence assessment. “In the higher ranks there3 was undoubtedly a genuine ideological sympathy but at a lower level the transaction was mainly financial and in a country where so many live at starvation level, recruiting was fairly easy.” The quantity of intelligence pouring into the Abwehr’s Madrid headquarters, which adjoined the embassy, was so enormous that it required thirty-four radio operators and ten secretaries (including Adolf Clauss’s cousin, Elsa) and maintained a direct teletype link with Berlin via Paris.

Thanks to one of his agents, a senior officer in the Dirección General de Seguridad, the Spanish security service, Alan Hillgarth knew the name, rank, role, and in most cases the code name of virtually every Abwehr agent of importance. At Hillgarth’s behest, this agent had set up a special section to monitor German espionage. Ostensibly, this was to ensure that the Spanish Ministry of the Interior was kept informed of covert German activities. “Indeed, the reports went4 to the Ministry of the Interior,” wrote Hillgarth, “but they also came to us.” This same informer provided Hillgarth with a complete list of Abwehr personnel in Spain, with “particulars on each.”5 Menzies, the head of MI6, authorized Hillgarth to buy the list “for a very large sum.”6 Back in London, Philby carped that the price paid by “Armada” to this “precious source”7 was “very high indeed”8: “I had to fight to get an extra £59 a month for agents who produced regular, if less spectacular, intelligence!” he complained. But it was worth every peseta, providing British intelligence with a detailed picture of the Abwehr power structure in Spain: know thine enemy, and then work out how to deceive him.

At the head of the Abwehr station in Spain stood Wilhelm Leissner, honorary attaché at the German embassy, who used the code names “Heidelberg” and “Juan.” A small, soft-voiced figure and Condor Legion veteran, Leissner had stayed on in Spain, where he ran an import-export firm under the pseudonym Gustav Lenz. Beneath Leissner were Hans Gude, in charge of naval intelligence, Fritz Knappe-Ratey, an agent runner code-named “Federico,” and George Helmut Lang, known as “Emilio.” Since the autumn of 1942, the Abwehr’s ranks in Spain had also included Major Fritz Baumann, a former policeman seconded by the German army to the sabotage branch of the Abwehr. Baumann was in charge of coordinating attacks on Allied shipping, but he was also an experienced pathologist who had studied forensic medicine at Hamburg Police Academy before the war. An expert in determining “the cause of death10 and the extent of injuries,” Baumann had “examined hundreds of corpses”11 both before and during the war.

But the Abwehr officer who most intrigued Hillgarth was Major Karl-Erich Kühlenthal. The MI5 file on this man is three inches thick, and more was known about him than about any other German spy in Spain. Kühlenthal’s father had been a distinguished soldier, rising to the rank of general and serving as Germany’s military attaché in Paris and Madrid. The Kühlenthal family was wealthy and well connected. Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the Abwehr chief, was a relative, which helped to explain Kühlenthal’s rapid rise through the ranks of the intelligence service. Like Clauss, Kühlenthal had served in the Condor Legion, as secretary to Joachim Rohleder, the unit’s chief of intelligence. After the civil war, he returned to Germany for a while, working for an uncle in the wine trade and then for his father-in-law in the Dienz clothing firm. He traveled to London, Paris, and Barcelona; he spoke good English and perfect Spanish. By 1938, he was back in Spain, ostensibly running a radio business while continuing his undercover work. At the outbreak of war, he was appointed adjutant general to Leissner, but he soon distinguished himself by his raw ambition and drive.

In 1943, at the age of thirty-seven, Kühlenthal was head of the Abwehr’s espionage section in Madrid, coordinating political and military intelligence and operating under the code name “Carlos” or, more usually, “Felipe.” In the bars and cafés of Madrid, he was known as “Don Pablo.” Kühlenthal’s spy network extended to every corner of the country, but his specialty was recruiting agents in neutral Spain to work overseas, in North Africa, Portugal, Gibraltar, and, most important, Britain and America. In Britain alone, the “Felipe network” included dozens of undercover agents sending back huge volumes of top-grade information. “Nothing happened in the Abwehr station12 without him knowing about it,” said a fellow officer. Kühlenthal cut a dandyish figure in the streets of Madrid. Tall and aristocratic, he wore his hair swept back and had “fleshy, boneless cheeks,”13 a “curved hawk-like”14 nose, and “blue piercing eyes.”15 He wore elegant double-breasted suits and drove “a dark brown French four-seater16 coupé, using different number plates.” His fingernails were always “carefully manicured.”17 He played tennis beautifully. MI5 assessed him as “a very efficient, ambitious18 and dangerous man with an enormous capacity for work.” He was promoted, was awarded the War Service Cross, and gradually “contrived to push Leissner19 out of all positions of authority” until the nominal head of the Abwehr “became a mere figurehead.”20 By 1943, Kühlenthal was in charge: “He was an extremely able man21 and carried in his head all that went on in the office and became so essential that he became virtually the head of the office.” Inevitably, his Abwehr colleagues were envious of “the esteem and reputation22which Kühlenthal seems to enjoy with the High Chiefs.” As the protégé of Canaris, he could do no wrong. A confidential file from 1943 described him as “by far the best man in Group I23 [espionage] in Spain and very reliable from the political point of view.” Himmler himself “sent a personal message24 of appreciation to Felipe in Madrid for the work achieved by his network in England.” In the eyes of the German high command, Kühlenthal was the golden boy of the Madrid Abwehr.

The reality was rather different. So far from being a master spy, Kühlenthal was a one-man espionage disaster area who had already fallen victim to one of the most elaborate hoaxes ever mounted. Instead of winning the spy war, Kühlenthal was helping Germany to lose it in the most dramatic fashion.

In May 1941, a Spaniard named Juan Pujol García presented himself to the Abwehr in Madrid and explained that he intended to travel to Britain and wished to spy for the Germans when he got there. Kühlenthal was initially unenthusiastic, telling Pujol he was “extremely busy and that his visit25 was inconvenient.” Pujol was bald, bearded, shortsighted, and distinctly odd. But the Spaniard seemed to nurse a genuine hatred of the British and a profound admiration for Hitler. He told Kühlenthal he had good contacts within the Spanish security service and foreign office. Eventually, Kühlenthal agreed to take him on. Pujol was instructed on writing in secret ink and told to forward information through the Spanish military attaché in London. The Spaniard was sent off with a wad of English money, a number of cover addresses in Britain, and some advice from Kühlenthal, who told his new recruit to be “careful not to underestimate26 the British as they were a formidable enemy.” Pujol could expect to stay in Britain indefinitely, since this, Kühlenthal predicted, “would be a very long war.”27

On July 19, Kühlenthal received a letter from Pujol, written in the secret ink, informing him that he had arrived safely in England and had recruited a courier working for a civilian airline, who had agreed to carry his letters at one pound per delivery and post them in Lisbon, thus circumventing the British censor.

In fact, Pujol had not reached Britain and was still in Portugal: this was the first of a long and fantastic stream of lies he would feed to Kühlenthal. Pujol was no Nazi sympathizer. Born in 1912 to a liberal middle-class Catalan family, he had somehow contrived to fight for both sides in the Spanish civil war, though he never fired a gun, deserted, and emerged with a ferocious hatred of fascism. By 1941, he had resolved to fight the war in his own way. Three times he approached the British authorities in Madrid, offering to spy for Britain. Repeatedly rejected, he had offered himself instead to the Abwehr, intent on betraying them.

From Lisbon, Pujol began sending fictitious reports to the Germans, pretending to be in Britain. His information was culled from guidebooks and magazines borrowed at the public library, an old map of Britain, newsreels, a Portuguese publication entitled The British Fleet, and a vocabulary of English military terms. Pujol had never set foot in Britain, and it showed. His reports were full of elementary mistakes. He could never get his head around the predecimal currency. He confidently asserted: “There are people in Glasgow28 who will do anything for a litre of wine,” whereas most Glaswegians, at the time, would never have consented to drink wine, even if it had been served in liters.

Kühlenthal, however, believed every word.

Meanwhile, Pujol’s messages were being deciphered by Britain’s code breakers, to the consternation of MI5. Who was this German agent, operating undetected in Britain, who seemed to know nothing about the place?

Finally, early in 1942, after Pujol’s wife approached the U.S. legation in Lisbon, the self-made spy was identified and Allied intelligence realized, belatedly, that it had an espionage gem in its hands. Pujol was whisked to Britain, installed in a safe house in North London, and put to work as a double agent. His first code name, “Bovril,” was soon changed to the more respectful “Garbo,” in recognition of his astonishing acting talents.

Over the next three years, Agent Garbo sent 1,399 messages and 423 letters to his handlers in Spain. Three full-time MI5 case officers were needed to handle his traffic and the twenty-seven fictional characters in the Garbo network. Garbo’s subagents were British, Greek, American, South African, Portuguese, Venezuelan, and Spanish; some were officials, such as his mole in the Spanish Ministry of Information, some were disgruntled soldiers or pilots, and at least five were seamen recruited from different ports around the UK. Other recruits included a commercial traveler, housewives, waiters, office workers, a wireless mechanic, and an Indian poet named Rags who was part of a strange Aryan organization operating in Wales. Garbo’s agents had nothing in common except for the fact that they did not exist. The information they sent to Madrid was a careful concoction of nondangerous truths, half-truths, and untruths, and Kühlenthal happily passed it all on to Berlin, never once suspecting that he was being duped. “We have absolute trust in you,”29 he told his star spy, massaging the ego of the agent whose success was ensuring his own rapid promotion: “Your last efforts are all magnificent.”

Pujol’s messages to his Nazi handler were flights of pompous poetry. He never used one word where eight very long ones would do, and he showered Kühlenthal with a combination of flattery and Nazi bombast. “My dear friend and comrade,”30 Pujol wrote in a typical effusion, “we are two friends who share the same ideals and are fighting for the same ends. I have always had a very strong feeling of respect and admiration for your advice, full of good sense and calm. … I must be frank and open up my heart to you. These things can only be dealt with between men of spirit and tenacity, and by people who follow a doctrine, by fighting men and bold combatants. The unfolding of confidences can only be made between comrades. … Thus the great Germany has become what it is. Thus it has been able to deposit such great confidence in the man who governs it, knowing that he is not a democratic despot but a man of low birth who has only followed an ideal. … I feel more than ever a sensation of hatred, more than death, for our enemy and an ever increasing irresistible urge to destroy his entire existence.” For page after page, Garbo railed against “the democratic-Jewish-Masonic31 ideology,” urged the Germans to attack Britain (“England must be taken by arms,32 she must be fallen upon, destroyed, dominated”), and peppered his letters with Nazi jingoism: “With a raised arm I end this letter33 with a pious remembrance for all our dead.”

Kühlenthal swallowed the lot. “His characteristic German lack34 of sense of humour, in such serious circumstances as these, blinded him to the absurdities of the story we were unfolding,” wrote Garbo’s MI5 handler. The Abwehr officer openly boasted of his talented spy, code-named “Arabel,” who was sending top secret information from the heart of Britain. When Canaris, the Abwehr chief, visited Spain, Kühlenthal was “the star turn”35 and amused his boss with one story in particular. In March 1943, Agent Arabel had obtained a valuable handbook on RAF planes, which he had wrapped inside greaseproof paper and baked into a cake. On the top, in chocolate icing, he had inscribed “With good wishes to Odette.”36 Enclosed with the cake was a letter to make it seem that the gift came from a British seaman to a girlfriend in Lisbon. Kühlenthal explained to Canaris that the cake had been dropped off at a safe house in Lisbon, along with a covering note from Pujol, which he read to his delighted audience: “I did the lettering myself.37 I had to use several rationed products which I have given in a good cause. … Good Appetite.” Kühlenthal ended his performance with a lumbering joke, pointing out that although his agent “made cakes which were unpleasant38 in taste, their contents were excellent.” Canaris was impressed. Kühlenthal’s reputation went up another notch. (The cake, in fact, had been baked by Garbo’s wife, sent to Lisbon by diplomatic bag, and dropped off by an MI6 agent. The RAF pamphlet was out of date, and British intelligence knew the Abwehr had it already.)

By 1943, Karl-Erich Kühlenthal, the star of the Madrid Abwehr, was eating out of Garbo’s hand and voracious for more. A separate office was set up to handle the “vast information”39 coming in, and running the “Felipe network” had become Kühlenthal’s principal job: “As a keen and efficient officer40 he did everything in his power to supply Garbo with ciphers, secret inks, and addresses of the highest grade to ensure his greater security. He was also forthcoming with considerable funds.” Through radio interceptions, the British watched with pleasure as Kühlenthal grew steadily more dependent on Garbo and his stock rose in Berlin. “We had the satisfaction of knowing41 through MSS [Most Secret Sources, or Ultra] that all GARBO material was being given priority and that every military report which reached Madrid from the GARBO network was immediately retransmitted to Berlin.” Garbo’s British handlers were amazed at how readily Kühlenthal believed “the many incredible things we ask42 them to believe.” Indeed, “the more sensational the reports,43 the more certain could we be of Madrid retransmitting them to headquarters.” Sometimes Kühlenthal seemed to pass on Garbo’s information without even reading it, let alone questioning it. “In some cases where messages44 appeared to be of extreme urgency they were retransmitted to Berlin with approximately one hour’s delay in Madrid.” Through Garbo and Kühlenthal, British intelligence was speaking directly to Berlin: “Felipe had become our mouthpiece.”45 Here, then, was “an invaluable channel46 through which we would be able to deceive the enemy.”

As they combed through Kühlenthal’s messages to Berlin, the British code breakers noticed something rather odd. Garbo’s intelligence was already sensational enough, but Kühlenthal was spicing it up still further, to lend extra weight. He was not above inventing his own subagents and adding them to the pot. Many of his elaborations were either wrong or meaningless. He also made some hilarious mistakes, including his “conviction that the Isle of Man47 is in the North of Ireland.” The added extras, MI5 concluded, were “invented by Felipe himself.”48 Kühlenthal was deceiving his Abwehr bosses by passing on invented intelligence along with the information he fervently believed to be true. “The information provided49 by his organisation up to date has been either untrue, useless, or provided by MI5 through the double agents under its control.” Guy Liddell of MI5 considered Kühlenthal to be “one of the people who make up50 most of their information.” He may also have been embezzling. Some within the Abwehr certainly thought so. According to one intercepted message, Kühlenthal was said to be running a very expensive agent in London, a Yugoslav diplomat, who had cost the Abwehr four hundred pounds over two years. “There are officers in Spain51 who are convinced that K is making half-part business i.e. splitting the monthly allowances between his and the Diplomat’s pocket.”

There was one other factor that made Garbo’s German spymaster ideally suited to receive the Mincemeat hoax: Karl-Erich Kühlenthal was Jewish.

The Abwehr officer had a Jewish grandmother. Kühlenthal did not consider himself Jewish. Marriage to a half-Jewish woman had not impeded his father’s military career. But that was before the rise of the Nazis. Under Hitler’s brutal racial policies, the one quarter of Jewish blood in Kühlenthal was enough to mark him out for discrimination, persecution, or worse. Kühlenthal would later claim that anti-Semitism had forced him to flee Germany, “leaving a good job as manager52 of a large champagne and wine cellar owned by his uncle.” His brother, an army officer, had left Germany for the same reason, winding up in Chile. It was Canaris who had intervened on behalf of his relative (the Abwehr chief had a record of helping Jews) and arranged for him to take up the post in Spain, since “he could not serve in the Army53 being half-blood Jew.” In Madrid, he was farther from Gestapo persecution, though hardly safe. In 1941, Canaris had his protégé “Aryanized”54 and formally declared to be of good German stock. Leissner, the chief of the Abwehr station, confirmed that Kühlenthal was now officially racially pure. In the minds of hard-line Nazis, however, either a person had Jewish blood, and was thereby corrupt and dangerous, or he did not. The attempt to tinker with Hitler’s race laws provoked a rebuke from Berlin: “He has been created an Aryan55 at the instigation of his station. A formulation of this nature is out of touch of all reality. Can JUAN [Leissner] state the legal foundation for such acts of state?” The Spanish branch of the SD, the SS intelligence organization, also questioned how Kühlenthal could simply be declared Aryan, “since there appeared to be no56 authority for such an act.” Canaris again intervened, and the SD in Madrid was instructed “to let the matter drop.”57 Kühlenthal’s colleagues in Spain knew of his Jewish ancestry and the attempt to expunge it. For some, this was prima facie evidence of treachery. Major Helm, the head of counterespionage in Spain, sent a confidential report to Canaris accusing Kühlenthal of being “in the pay of the British Secret Service.”58 The Abwehr chief “refused to take the report seriously.”59 Helm was transferred to another Abwehr station.

The British spies tracking Kühlenthal had noted that he seemed “cold and reserved”60 but also deeply uneasy: “Appearance61: nervous, uncertain. Peculiarity: shifty eyes,” read one surveillance report. Kühlenthal had every reason to be anxious. His stock in Berlin was high, thanks to Pujol and the Felipe network, but if Canaris should fall from power or cease to defend him, or if something went wrong with his organization, his anti-Semitic enemies would pounce. Kühlenthal was deeply, and understandably, paranoid. Failure might well prove fatal. As one informer told British intelligence: “Kühlenthal is trembling to keep62 his position so as not to have to return to Germany and he is doing his utmost to please his superiors.”

Kühlenthal had already fallen for the elaborate con that was Agent Garbo. He was the ideal target for Operation Mincemeat: deeply gullible but admired and trusted by his bosses, including Himmler and Canaris; ambitious and determined but also frantically eager to please, ready to pass on anything that might consolidate his reputation and save him from the fate suffered by others of Jewish blood; he was also vain, possibly corrupt, and prepared to deceive those of higher rank to enhance his own standing. Kühlenthal perfectly exemplified the qualities that John Godfrey had identified as the two most dangerous flaws in a spy: “wishfulness” and “yesmanship.” He would believe anything he was fed, and he would do whatever he could to suck up to the boss and preserve his own skin.

To succeed, Operation Mincemeat needed to reach Hitler himself. The best way of doing that, Alan Hillgarth knew, was to get the information to Adolf Clauss in Huelva, from whom it was certain to pass into the hands of Karl-Erich Kühlenthal and then, with the blessing of that favored but gullible officer, up the German chain of command. Clauss was the perfect recipient because he was such an efficient spy. Kühlenthal was the ideal spy to pass the information on because he was worse than useless.

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