A Brief History
On July 10, 1942, a US pilot spotted a downed Japanese A6M Zero fighter plane on Akutan Island, Alaska. The relatively intact fighter was recovered by US forces, made airworthy, and extensively tested, providing valuable intelligence about the Zero that had been terrorizing American pilots. Last year we used this incident to list 10 of the greatest “enemy” fighter planes, and this time we list 10 of the greatest (sometimes more interesting or famous than important) intelligence coups of World War II. Some of these coups can be times when preventing the enemy from learning something is an intelligence victory. (Note: The surprise German invasion of the Soviet Union was not a Soviet intelligence failure, it was well perceived and predicted by Soviet intelligence. Stalin refused to believe it.)
10. The Battle of the Bulge, 1944-45.
Despite the Allies having an extensive resistance organization on the ground in Europe and complete mastery of the skies, Germany managed to organize enormous forces (over 300,000 men and over 1000 tracked vehicles) to attack British and American armies in the Ardennes in an offensive the Allies did not see coming. Some Allied analysts did warn of the possible attack, but were ignored by senior intelligence officers and commanders. German radio discipline and use of the cover of night and camouflage was masterful.
9. Operation Mincemeat, 1943.
An absolute gem of deception, the British fooled the Germans and Italians about Allied aims in the Mediterranean theater by convincing the Axis forces that the Allies would be invading Greece and Sardinia instead of the real targets of Sicily. The centerpiece of this deception was preparing a corpse with false documents to wash up on a Spanish beach, where hopefully Spain would examine the documents and pass along the false information to the Germans. It worked. The story was told (fictionalized a bit) in the 1956 film, The Man Who Never Was.
8. Kursk, 1943.
The last really good chance for the Germans to win the war against the Soviets was going to be in the German attack against the Kursk salient. Massive forces were organized and equipped for the attack, including new Panther tanks and Ferdinand assault guns. Unfortunately for the Germans, Soviet intelligence was well aware of the Nazi plans and appropriate countermeasures were taken to completely foil the German attack and provide the Soviets with the impetus for their own offensive. As German troops and artillery units prepared to kick off the attack, Soviet guns opened a massive preemptive strike on German artillery and gathering points. For much of the war in the East, it has been said Soviet commanders were provided with German plans before German commanders had even received them. If numbers were not enough of an edge for the Soviets, intelligence gathering was.
7. Admiral Canaris, Allied Mole, 1935-1944.
William Canaris was head of the German secret intelligence organization known as Abwehr. The impact of having such a highly placed officer working against his own government is hard to calculate. Canaris plotted to kill Hitler, and undermined all sorts of Nazi efforts throughout his career as intelligence chief. He was meeting with British agents when he visited Spain during the war, and conducted operations specifically with an eye toward undermining the Nazi regime. Canaris also foiled a Nazi plot to kidnap the Pope, but such shenanigans could not go undetected forever. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, got wind of Canaris’ duplicity and the Admiral was executed in early 1945.
6. Capture of FW-190, 1942.
When a disoriented German pilot accidentally landed at a British airbase after shooting down a Spitfire, his completely intact state of the art Focke-Wolfe 190 fighter plane was captured, the only capture of an intact German fighter during the war (others captured were bombers and fighter-bombers). British intelligence quickly examined the latest German fighter both structurally and in aerial maneuvers, learning much from the experience that could not otherwise have been learned, with tactics for defeating this fighter type taught to British and American fighter pilots and lessons learned applied to design of new Allied fighters, especially the Hawker Tempest Mk II. Incredibly, the pilot of the captured FW-190 convinced his captors that he was epileptic, and was repatriated to Germany where he promptly resumed flying against the Allies!
5. Capture of Intact A6M Zero, 1942.
As described above, the capture of this airplane allowed US aircraft designers to design and build a fighter plane specifically to defeat the Zero, which they did. The result was the Grumman F6F Hellcat, a naval (carrier borne) fighter that totally dominated the Zero, making a major contribution to turning the tide in the Pacific.
4. German Codebreaking, 1935-1945.
Before and early in the War, German code breakers were able to keep track of all British ships and American ships at first. While British and Americans were smugly congratulating themselves on defeating Enigma, their own codes were being broken by the Germans. The lack of careful integration of various German code breaking organizations and consolidation of analysis failed to result in battlefield success as often or as thoroughly as Allied efforts. Still, the effort was impressive. Even a trans-Atlantic telephone call between Churchill and Roosevelt was intercepted and de-scrambled by German intelligence.
3. Recreating Enigma machines and breaking the German Codes, 1932-1945.
Originally deciphered by Polish code breakers and shared with British and French decoders in 1939, the British went on a full scale maximum effort to keep up with German improvements in their Enigma coding machines, later joined by the Americans in the effort. The Enigma had 159 quintillion different possible settings, making the Germans think the machine was unbeatable. Capturing a pair of machines on U-505 (along with code books) by the US Navy certainly helped, as did Allied development of the first modern computers, specifically for the purpose of defeating Enigma. British capture of U-110 (1940) and other German submarines also contributed a major blow to German secrecy.
2. Breaking Japanese Codes, 1941-45.
The ability of American code breakers to read encrypted Japanese communications most notably allowed for the tremendous American victory at Midway, often referred to as the turning point in the Pacific War. It also enabled American planners to engineer the assassination of Admiral Yammamoto, which clued in the incredulous Japanese that their codes had probably been broken.
1. Tricking Germany About D-Day Beach Sites, 1944.
An absolute masterpiece of work, the Allies used inflatable tanks and trucks, dummy radio transmissions, the decoy posting of General Patton to a non-existent command, and general disinformation to make the German High Command believe the invasion of France would take place at the Pas de Calais instead of Normandy. The plan was ridiculously successful
Question for students (and subscribers): Which incidents would you include? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Barreveld, Dirk Jan. Cushing’s Coup: The True Story of How Lt. Col. James Cushing and His Filipino Guerrillas Captured Japan’s Plan Z and Changed the Course of the Pacific War. Casemate Publishers, 2015.
Edwards, Duval A. Spy Catchers of the U.S. Army in the War With Japan (The Unfinished Story of the Counter Intelligence Corps). Red Apple Pub, 1994.