Military history

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Kühlenthal’s Coup

BRITISH INTELLIGENCE would not discover the name of the man who had handed over the Mincemeat papers to the Germans for another two years. In April 1945, as the Nazis retreated, a group of British Naval Intelligence commandos, a unit set up by none other than Ian Fleming, captured the entire German admiralty archives at Tambach Castle near Coburg. Fleming himself traveled to Germany to supervise the unit he referred to as his “Red Indians”1 and ensure the safe return of the German files to Britain. Among the documents were several relating to Operation Mincemeat, including one revealing the identity of the officer on the Spanish General Staff who had presented the documents to the Abwehr: this was one Lieutenant Colonel Ramón Pardo Suárez, described by the Germans as “a Spanish Staff Officer2 with well established connections” and an informant “with whom we have been in contact3 for many years.” Years later, Wilhelm Leissner was still covering up Pardo’s identity, describing him merely as “my Spanish agent in the General Staff.”4 Pardo’s brother, José, was civil governor of Zaragoza and Madrid, and a senior figure in the Franco regime. Ramón Pardo would go on to become a general, governor of the Spanish Sahara, and, finally, general director of the Spanish Department of Health.

Ramón Pardo was not acting alone, and German documents clearly indicate he was under instructions from a higher authority and may even have been assigned as “case officer”5 to liaise between the General Staff and the Germans. Agent Andros indicates, though he does not state explicitly, that pressure from the security chief, Colonel Barrón, brought about the decision to pass over the documents. It may well have been agents of Barrón’s security service who successfully extracted the letters from their envelopes and then replaced them, leaving barely a trace.

The British later worked out exactly how the Spanish had performed this delicate and difficult task. The letters had been stuck down with gum and then secured with oval wax seals. “Those seals held the envelopes6 closed as all the gum had washed off.” By pressing on the top and bottom of the envelope, the lower flap of the envelope, which was larger than the top one, could be bent open. Inserting a thin metal double prong with a blunt metal hook into the gap, the Spanish spies snagged the bottom edge of the letter, wound the still-damp paper tightly around the probe into a cylindrical shape, and then pulled it out through the hole in the bottom half. Even the British, normally so dismissive of the espionage efforts of others, were impressed by the Spaniards’ ingenuity: “It was possible to extract7 all the letters through the envelopes by twisting them out [leaving] the seals intact and untampered with.”

The letters were then carefully dried with a heat lamp. No one, needless to say, noticed a microscopic eyelash falling out of the unfolded sheet of notepaper. The letters were then almost certainly copied by the Spanish officials, although no copies have ever come to light. “The Spaniards had, very intelligently,8 not bothered to supply photographs of the letter to Eisenhower, which only dealt with the pamphlet on Combined Operations, and was mere padding.” The two other letters, however, were clearly very significant indeed.

These letters were taken by Lieutenant Colonel Pardo of the General Staff to the German embassy and handed, in person, to Leissner, the Abwehr chief in Spain, who was told he had one hour to do whatever he wanted with them. Leissner understood English, while Kühlenthal spoke and read the language fluently. The Germans immediately realized that they had stumbled on something explosive, an impression doubtless compounded by the difficulties they had encountered in obtaining the documents. “They seemed to me to be9 of the highest importance,” Leissner later recalled. The letters not only indicated an imminent Allied landing in Greece, and possibly Sardinia too, but specifically identified Sicily as a decoy target.

“A short white-haired man10 with a birdlike brightness of eye,” Leissner “gave more the impression of a diplomat than an intelligence officer.” By 1943, he had been all but supplanted by the energetic Kühlenthal, but he was no fool. Even on this first, swift reading, something about the documents struck him as odd: “These letters mentioned11 the operational name ‘Husky.’ That stuck in my memory, because it seemed to me a dangerous thing to name the code-word in the same document as discussed the possible destinations.” He was also cautious about drawing firm conclusions from a single letter and considered “the strategic considerations12 not definite enough to suggest an already fixed target on the North Mediterranean coast. … The final choice seemed to be left to General Alexander.” Kühlenthal, by contrast, with the mixture of eagerness and gullibility that defined him, seems to have entertained no such doubts. Just as he had run the Garbo network for years without once questioning its veracity, so he believed the Mincemeat letters, instantly and unquestioningly.

The German spies moved quickly, knowing that the documents must be returned within the hour. “I took them to the basement13 of the German Embassy,” Leissner later recalled, “and had my photographer photo-copy them there. I even stood over him while he worked, so that he could not read the documents.” Leissner informed Dieckhoff, the German ambassador to Spain, of the discovery and described the contents of the letters to him.

The original documents were now returned to Lieutenant Colonel Pardo, who took them back to the offices of the General Staff, accompanied by Kühlenthal. The German spy observed as the Spanish technicians reinserted the letters into the envelopes, reversing the method used to extract them. It is hard enough to remove a damp letter from an envelope this way, but harder still to get one back in without creasing the paper, leaving telltale marks, or breaking the seals. The Spanish spy responsible must have been astonishingly dextrous, for to the naked eye “there was no trace whatever”14 to show that the letters had left their envelopes. The letters were then placed in salt water and soaked for twenty-four hours to return them to their damp condition. Finally, the envelopes and book proofs were replaced in the attaché case, which was relocked and then passed back to the Spanish Navy Ministry, along with Major Martin’s wallet and other personal property. The entire process—opening the letters, transferring them to the Germans, the copying, resealing, and restitution—was completed in less than two days. But even before the documents were back in Spanish hands, the copies were winging their way to Berlin.

The letters had been handed over to Leissner, as head of the Abwehr in Spain, but it was Karl-Erich Kühlenthal who bore them back in triumph to Germany. The copied documents were far too secret and significant to be sent by wireless or telegram. As Leissner later observed, the decision to send Kühlenthal in person was a measure of “the importance attached to them.”15 It appears that Berlin may already have been informed that the documents had been intercepted and summoned the wunderkind of the Madrid station to bring them by hand. He, and only he, should present this new intelligence coup to the high command, and, since it came from Kühlenthal, it was far more likely to be believed. From the British point of view, this was ideal. The credibility of intelligence often depends less on its intrinsic value than on who finds it and who passes it on. Presentation is critical, and, from the British point of view, Major Martin’s documents were now in the hands of the ideal courier. Lieutenant Colonel Pardo of the Spanish General Staff was interviewed once more, in order to obtain more details about how and when the body and its hoard of secrets had been found. This information, written up sometime later, would go into a long report entitled “Drowned English Courier picked up at Huelva”:

On the 10th May, 1943, a further conversation with the case officer clarified the following questions:

1. The courier carried, clutched in his hand, an ordinary briefcase which contained the following documents:

a) An ordinary white paper as a cover for the letters addressed to General Alexander and Admiral Cunningham. This white paper carried no address.

The letters were contained each in its own envelope with the usual superscription and addressed personally to the recipients, and apparently sealed with the private seal of the sender (signet ring). The seals were intact.

The letters themselves, which I have already had replaced in their original envelopes, are in good condition. For the purposes of reproduction they were dried by artificial heat by the Spaniards, and thereafter were again placed for some 24 hours in salt water, without which their condition would undoubtedly have been altered.

b) In the portfolio there were also the proofs of the pamphlet on the functions of Combined Operations Command referred to by Mountbatten in his letter of the 22nd April, 1943, as also the photographs mentioned in the letter. The proofs are in excellent condition, but the photographs are completely ruined.

2. In addition the courier carried in his breast pocket a letter-case containing personal papers, among them his military papers with photographs. (These papers connect up with Mountbatten’s reference to Major Martin in his letter of 22nd April). There were, too, a letter to Major Martin from his fiancée and another from his Father, also a London night-club bill dated 27th April. Therefore Major Martin left London on the forenoon of the 28th April and during the afternoon of the same day the aircraft met with an accident in the neighbourhood of Huelva.

3. The British Consul was present at the discovery and knows all about it. On the pretext that anything found on the corpse, including all documents, must be made available to competent Spanish authorities, we anticipated representations which the British Consul would probably have made for the immediate delivery of the documents. All the documents were, after reproduction, replaced in their original condition in such a way that even I would have been convinced, and definitely give the impression that they have not been opened. In the course of the next few days they will be handed back to the British by the Spanish Foreign Office.

Enquiries regarding the remains of the pilot of the aircraft, presumably wounded in the crash, and interrogation of the same concerning other passengers, are already being put in hand by the Spanish General Staff.

The report was unsigned, but the phrase “even I would have been convinced” was typical of Kühlenthal’s braggadocio. Equally characteristic were the mistakes and exaggerations, the overstatement that was his Achilles’ heel. He implied that a pilot had been found and was being interrogated; he claimed to have overseen the reinsertion of the letters, a process at which he was merely an observer; he described the seals as personal signet ring seals, when they were standard military seals; he made no mention of the chain attaching the briefcase to the body, but instead added the melodramatic (and inaccurate) detail that the corpse had been found clutching the briefcase. Describing the theater tickets as nightclub receipts was an easy mistake to make, but getting the date wrong was not. The date on these was April 22, not April 27. The body was discovered on April 30. According to Kühlenthal’s report, the body had been immersed for less than three days when it was picked up, a time line flatly contradicted by the state of decomposition and the autopsy, which estimated that death had occurred at least eight days earlier.

Bletchley Park intercepted a message indicating that Kühlenthal “left Madrid hurriedly for Berlin16 in order to consult at the latter’s request with Oblt von Dewitz, the evaluator of KO [Abwehr] Spain’s reports at the Luftwaffenführungsstab.” Kühlenthal was booked into the Adlon Hotel in Berlin but apparently traveled directly to Abwehr headquarters, south of the city. On May 9, he presented his delighted bosses with the greatest intelligence feat of his career.

Oddly, the significance of Kühlenthal’s rushing to Berlin does not seem to have been picked up at the time. The intercept may have been accidentally backdated or decoded too late to be of use, and the dates in Kühlenthal’s MI5 files are contradictory. Montagu and Cholmondeley remained unaware that Kühlenthal had flown to Germany in a hurry: as far as they knew, the documents were still marooned somewhere in the byzantine Spanish bureaucracy.

On May 11, Admiral Alfonso Arriago Adam, the Spanish chief of Naval Staff, arrived at the British embassy carrying a black briefcase and a buff envelope and asked to see the naval attaché, Alan Hillgarth. The Spanish officer explained that the Spanish Navy minister, Rear Admiral Moreno, was currently away in Valencia but had given him instructions to hand over to Hillgarth in person “all the effects and papers”17 found on the body of the British officer. “They are all there,”18 said Admiral Arriago, with a knowing look. The key, removed from Major Martin’s key ring, was in the briefcase lock, and the case was unlocked. “From his manner it was obvious19 Chief of Naval Staff knew something [of the] contents,” wrote Hillgarth. “While expressing gratitude I showed both relief and concern. Neither [the] secretary nor I showed any wish to discuss [the] matter further.” Having handed over the envelope containing the wallet and other items, the Spanish admiral saluted crisply and departed.

Locking his office door, Hillgarth gingerly opened the case and peered inside. This was his first glimpse of the hard evidence he had worked so strenuously to pass to the Germans. He was under strict instructions not to open the letters or rearrange the contents in any way, since these would need to be microscopically studied back in London. The Spaniards did not disguise that the case had been opened. “It is obvious [that the] contents of [the] bag20 have been examined though some of the documents appear to be stuck together by sea water,” Hillgarth reported to London. He wrapped the case and other effects in paper, addressed the parcel to Ewen Montagu, Naval Intelligence Department, Whitehall, and sent a telegram explaining that the package would be included in the sealed diplomatic bag on the first flight to London, leaving Madrid on May 14. Hillgarth was convinced that the Spanish chief of Naval Staff knew what was in the case but added: “While I do not believe21 he will divulge his knowledge to the enemy it is clear [a] number of other people are in [on the] secret. It is to say the least extremely probable that it has been communicated to [the] enemy. In any case notes or copies have certainly been made.” Hillgarth also requested permission to ask the SIS head of station to try to find out through whose hands the documents had passed. “If you concur I will ask22 23000 to discover through his channels whether Germans have got them as he can do if they get to Combined General Staff (which they almost certainly will).” In fact, of course, the letters had come back to the naval authorities from the General Staff.

Hillgarth’s telegram was the first solidly good news since the body had come ashore, yet it did not amount to hard evidence that the Germans had obtained the documents, and still less that they believed the contents.

Unbeknownst to anyone on the British side, by the time the letters were back in British hands, the Germans had been poring over them for at least forty-eight hours. On May 9, 1943, the Abwehr forwarded the letters to the German high command, with an accompanying message stating that “the genuineness of the report23 is held as possible”—though that note of caution would swiftly evaporate. The task of authenticating the letters would fall to the intelligence branch of the German army’s high command, Fremde Heere West (Foreign Armies West), or FHW: the linchpin of German military intelligence. At its headquarters in a two-story bunker in Zossen, south of Berlin, FHW received and evaluated all intelligence connected to the Allied war effort. The unit was run by professional officers from the General Staff but also staffed by reserve personnel, journalists, businessmen, and bankers with the ability to think beyond structured military ideas. At FHW, every scrap of intelligence was subjected to scrutiny and analysis: Abwehr reports, communications intercepts, prisoner interrogations, reconnaissance data, and captured documents. FHW issued long-range assessments of enemy planning and, every two weeks, a detailed survey of the Allied armies and their dispositions, the order of battle. These top secret documents were distributed not only to Hitler and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, under Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, but also to German commanders in the field. Daily situation reports assessing Allied strength and intentions were sent directly to the Führer himself, together with information on troop movements, enemy activity, and any newly discovered intelligence. The FHW reports represented the cream of German intelligence and the most direct access route into Hitler’s mind.

The Führer was in need of some good news. In four months, Hitler had lost one eighth of his fighting men on the battlefields of North Africa and the eastern front. Fleets of bombers were tearing German cities and industries to shreds. Germany was now losing the underwater war: forty-seven U-boats were sunk in May, triple the number sunk in March, thanks to the code breakers’ pinpointing the “wolf pack.” Hitler blamed his military leaders. “He is absolutely sick of the generals,”24 Joseph Goebbels noted in his diary. “All generals lie. All generals are disloyal.” Hitler needed to be told something he could believe in, to counter the lies of his generals, to bolster the mad myth of his own invincibility. The German intelligence service would now oblige.

Presiding over FHW was Lieutenant Colonel Alexis Baron von Roenne. A small, bespectacled aristocrat whose family had once ruled swaths of Baltic Germany, von Roenne was a former banker and still looked like one; he was meticulous, pedantic, snobbish, intensely Christian, and glintingly intelligent. “Behind his rimless spectacles25 and compressed lips there worked a brain as clear as glass,” wrote one historian. Von Roenne had volunteered to fight on the eastern front, suffered a serious wound, and been transferred back to military intelligence, where he ascended rapidly, developing his own intelligence technique, which involved piecing together a picture of the enemy, a Feinbild, from tiny fragments of information. As a result, he enjoyed an almost mystical reputation for divining and predicting Allied intentions. The myth of von Roenne’s infallibility was largely undeserved, but, critically, it was believed by Hitler, who held von Roenne in the highest regard: when the command of FHW fell vacant in the spring of 1943, the Führer personally ordered the appointment of the small, clever, Latvian-born aristocrat. Von Roenne had been in control of the western intelligence arm of the German army for just two months when the Mincemeat letters landed on his desk at Zossen.

Montagu had rightly predicted that the Germans would examine such a trove of information with profound suspicion and extreme caution. The Spaniards had handed over the two crucial letters, but the Germans had also obtained a full inventory and description of every item in the briefcase, wallet, and pockets of the dead man: “The Germans studied each phrase26 of the material letters with great care and also were fully informed about the documentary build-up of Major Martin’s personality.”

The first full German intelligence assessment of the documents was written on May 11 and signed by Baron von Roenne himself. It was addressed to the OKW Operations Staff, or Wehrmachtführungsstab, headed by General Alfred Jodl, and entitled, portentously, “Discovery of the English Courier.”27 It began: “On the corpse of an English courier28 which was found on the Spanish coast, were three letters from senior British Officers to high Allied Officers in North Africa. … They give information concerning the decisions taken on the 23rd April, 1943, regarding Anglo-American strategy for the conduct of the war in the Mediterranean after the conclusion of the Tunisian campaign.” Major Martin is described as “an experienced specialist29 in amphibious operations.”

Von Roenne went on to lay out, point by point, the misinformation prepared by Cholmondeley and Montagu. “Large scale amphibious operations30 in both the Western and Eastern Mediterranean are intended. The proposed operation in the eastern Mediterranean, under the command of General Wilson, is to be made on the coast round Kalamata, and the section of the coast south of Cape Araxos. The code name for the landings on the Peloponnesus is ‘Husky.’ … The operation to be conducted in the Western Mediterranean by General Alexander was mentioned, but without naming any objective.” Von Roenne, however, had picked up on the reference to sardines. “A jocular remark in this letter31 refers to Sardinia,” he wrote. “The code name for this operation is ‘Brimstone.’” The attack on Sardinia, he surmised, must be “a minor ‘commando type’ since Mountbatten had requested the return of Major Martin after the operation. This indication points to the invasion of an island rather than of a major undertaking. … This is another point in favour of Sardinia.”

Just as important, Von Roenne relayed the news that Sicily was not a real target for the Allies, but a decoy: “The proposed cover operation32 for ‘Brimstone’ is Sicily.” That lie would sit, immovably, at the center of German strategic thinking over the coming months: the attacks would come in the east, in Greece, and in the west, most probably in Sardinia; evidence of any planned assault on Sicily could safely be dismissed as a hoax. The only uncertainty, von Roenne warned, was that of timing. If the two divisions identified in Nye’s letter—the Fifty-sixth Infantry attacking Kalamata and the Fifth Infantry Division aimed at Cape Araxos—were deployed at less than full strength, then the “operation could be mounted33 immediately” and the offensive might start at any time. However, the Fifty-sixth Division, von Roenne noted, had two brigades “still in action”34at Enfidaville. If the entire division was to be used in the assault, these troops “must first be rested35 and then embarked. This possibility, which necessitates a certain time lag before the launching of the operation, is, judging by the form of the letters, the most likely.” In von Roenne’s mature estimation, Germany still had “at least two or three weeks”36 to reinforce the Greek coast before the attack.

That was also enough time for the British to change their plans, which they might well do if they knew the information had reached the Germans. Von Roenne now turned to this important consideration. “It is known to the British Staff37 that the courier’s despatches to [sic] Major Martin fell into Spanish hands,” he wrote, but “it is not perhaps known to the British General Staff that these letters came to our notice, since an English Consul was present at the examination of the letters by Spanish officials.” The letters had been reinserted in the envelopes and returned to the British, and a senior officer of the Madrid Abwehr station had personally inspected the resealed envelopes before they were returned to Alan Hillgarth. The British might suspect but would have no proof that the letters had been read, let alone passed to the Germans and copied. “It is, therefore, to be hoped38 that the British General Staff will continue with these projected operations and thereby make possible a resounding Abwehr success.” In order to convince the British that their secrets were still safe, von Roenne suggested that the Germans mount their own deception: they should give no indication that they feared simultaneous attacks in the eastern and western Mediterranean and instead “initiate a misleading plan39 of action which will deceive the enemy by painting a picture of growing Axis concern regarding Sicily.” The Germans should pretend to reinforce Sicily, while doing nothing of the sort.

Von Roenne ended with a security warning. “News of this discovery will40 be treated with the greatest secrecy, and knowledge of it confined to as few as possible.” The baron’s assessment was remarkable in many ways: it hauled on board every single aspect of the deception and even launched a corresponding deception plan to reinforce it. But perhaps most astonishing of all was the ringing endorsement that accompanied the appraisal: “The circumstances of the discovery,41 together with the form and contents of the despatches, are absolutely convincing proof of the reliability of the letters.” The army’s chief intelligence analyst, from the outset, utterly dismissed the possibility of a plant.

This was, to say the least, strange. The analysts of FHW usually distrusted uncorroborated information emanating directly from the Abwehr, knowing the inefficiency and corruption of that organization, and tended to be skeptical of Abwehr revelations “unless these were clearly42corroborated by more tangible evidence.” Von Roenne’s natural caution seems to have deserted him. He knew only what the Madrid Abwehr station had told him about the discovery of the body, which was secondhand information derived through Adolf Clauss. The report detailing the results of the second meeting with Pardo on May 10 had not yet reached Berlin. No additional checks had been made, the body had not been examined, and the original documents had remained in German hands for only one hour, far too short a time for forensic testing. And yet he chose to describe the documents as incontrovertibly genuine.

Deception is a sort of seduction. In love and war, adultery and espionage, deceit can only succeed if the deceived party is willing, in some way, to be deceived. The betrayed lover sees only the signs of love and blocks out the evidence of faithlessness, however glaring. This unconscious willingness to see the lie as truth—“wishfulness”43 was Admiral Godfrey’s word for it—comes in many forms: Adolf Clauss in Huelva wanted to believe the false documents because his reputation depended on believing them; for Karl-Erich Kühlenthal, any intelligence breakthrough to his credit, no matter how fantastic, made him safer, a Jew among anti-Semitic killers. Von Roenne, however, may have chosen to believe in the fake documents for an entirely different reason: because he loathed Hitler, wanted to undermine the Nazi war effort, and was intent on passing false information to the high command in the certain knowledge that it was wholly false and extremely damaging.

It is quite possible that Lieutenant Colonel Alexis Baron von Roenne did not believe the Mincemeat deception for an instant.

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