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FRONTLINE INTELLIGENCE IN WW2:

(I) GERMAN INTELLIGENCE COLLECTION


By Keith Ellison

In WW2 the Germans created Abwehr Kommando units (AKs) to accompany the
invading German armies and collect tactical and strategic intelligence in the form of documents,
material and captured enemy agents from occupied territory. AKs were used in Poland,
Denmark, Yugoslavia, Greece, France and the Soviet Union in order to complete special
intelligence collection tasks performed alongside - or even ahead of - their front-line troops.

POLAND

The first units were deployed in September-October 1939 in the Polish campaign.
Abwher officer Paul Leverkuehn described in his book German Military Intelligence how this
occurred: From the very start of the Polish campaign Abwehr Section III organized Abwehr
Commandos and platoons, to advance together with the front-line units in order to protect
German troops from the activities of the enemy Intelligence service, to be on the spot to acquire
any material which might be of Intelligence value and to seek out and capture enemy agents.
Section III was the Counter-Intelligence/Security branch of the Abwehr. These Abwehr-
Truppen consisted of 12-15 men, under command of Section III officers. Their creation was the
result of the experiences of Major Schmalschlaeger, an experienced Counter-Intelligence officer.
He had participated in the occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, and had failed to
capture members of the Czech and British spy services working from Prague because the
Germans had failed to capture the airport in time.1

Abwehr-Truppen under command of Capt Bulang managed to secure files from the
Polish secret service, which proved useful in uncovering and arresting spies and traitors within
the German establishment. Most of the Polish Intelligence (Section II of the General Staff)
command managed to escape to Romania and then to Britain and France. When the Germans
occupied the offices of the Polish Intelligence Service (Section II) in Pilsudskego Square on 1
October 1939 they found over a hundred locked safes which all proved practically empty when
opened. However, the Central Military Archive was located shortly afterwards, by accident, in
Fort Legionov:

a German officer going one day for a stroll past one of the old fortsFort Legionov, a relic
of the Czarist epoch, now devoid of any importance as a military installationobserved that the door
was ajar and went in. He found himself in a species of a strong-room, filled with filing cabinets and a
great number of bulky packages. On examination they were found to contain not only the complete
files of the reports from the Polish Military Attaches in Tokio, Rome and Paris, but also a
mass of incriminating and gravely compromising material. 2

According to Abwehr Officer Oskar Reile, the officer concerned was none other than
Capt Bulang! The Germans required six trucks to remove the records, the examination of which
resulted in the arrest of more than a hundred Polish agents.3
DENMARK

The Abwehr-Kommando (AK) units next operated during the occupation of Denmark.
According to Leverkuehn, an IO of the Abwehrs Hamburg station was ordered in February 1940
to prepare a precise military reconnaissance of Denmark for Kommando zbV 31. He did this
by activating a number of sleeper agents in Denmark, as well as dispatching agents into Denmark
to cover various military districts. Finally, during the April 1940 invasion of Denmark he
assigned IOs from the Hamburg station to assist this Special Duty formation, which had troops
with each of the two invading columns. This was therefore using Abwehr Section I (Intelligence)
assets in the front line. The Abwehr officer in command reported This was the first occasion on
which a service of this nature was rendered by the Intelligence Service to the fighting forces.
The formation, a little later on, of front line Intelligence Commandos in all army groups is the
best proof of the importance of the services rendered.4

HOLLAND

The Abwehr III Kommandos from the Polish campaign were redeployed to form part of
the invading force which entered Holland on 10 May, operating with a Naval AK from Koeln
lead by Lt Comdr Kilwen. Their orders were to accompany the invasion units assigned to capture
ports and coastal towns, and there to seize all intelligence material, examine it, sort it and
forward as quickly as possible any intelligence of immediate tactical value to the military HQ
directing operations. The rest of the material was to be flown back to Abwehr HQ in Berlin. The
AK was reinforced by a motorized platoon of GFP (Secret Field Police security units
equivalent to British Field Security Sections, or FSS) and a wireless operator equipped with an
agents wireless set. During the advance they received orders to set up in each important port a
detachment to act as a Secret Intelligence Report group.

The AK entered Rotterdam on 13 May, where they captured examples of degaussing


apparatus for neutralizing German magnetic mines. A set of construction plans was acquired as
well as working examples. Abwehrtruppen were then sent to occupy Den Helder and Antwerp:

In both these places secret intelligence report groups were set up, as ordered. The Commando
was then attached to the Fourth Army, to the headquarters of which it proceeded via Brussels and
Maubeuge, whence it accompanied von Kleist's army in its advance on the Channel ports.

For some astonishing reason the French defenders destroyed neither their archives nor
even the various papers in the military vehicles stranded in the shallow water near the beaches,
and in Boulogne and other ports a mass of most valuable material was captured. In a British
R.A.F. station the cipher in use between the British and French armies, complete with the key
for May and June 1940, fell into German hands.

The further advance led first to Calais and Dunkirk, then south-westwards to Le Treport,
Dieppe, St. Valery, Le Havre and Rouen, and finally to Brest and as far south as Rochefort. In
the meanwhile the archives of the French Ministry of Marine in Paris had fallen into German
hands.5
LUXEMBOURG, BELGIUM and FRANCE

Admiral Canaris decided to increase the number of such Kommandos for the French
campaign, to operate immediately behind the front line. These were organized by Abwehr
Section I (Intelligence) and Abwehr III F (Counter Espionage). They were given several tasks: to
prevent espionage and sabotage and protect rail links and equipment (first priority); to obtain
from occupied territory information on enemy forces, especially those opposing the German
armies; and to gain information on hostile intelligence services. This last was to be done initially
through the capture and analysis of secret material.6

According to Oskar Reile, an Abwehr I officer involved in the Abwehrs French


campaign, the Abwehr units were controlled through the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (the
German Military High Command), so they were designated as Abwehrkommando OKW I, II etc.
The largest of these AKs was OKW IV, with a staff of 33 including interpreters, Abwehr
specialists, and GFP officials. With other troops the AK totalled 165 officers and men. There
were only 3 professional Abwehr officers in the unit.

Oskar Reile, commander of this AK, prepared an operations manual for the unit,
detailing known and suspected representatives and agents of the western intelligence services in
Luxembourg and France; locations of buildings known or suspected to hold classified
information; and names and personal details of Abwehr agents held by the French and
Luxembourg authorities. Reile was able to provide some basic training to the personnel and to
brief the officers and GFP personnel on their specific tasks ahead of actual operations.

The Duchy of Luxembourg was occupied on 10 May 1940. The most valuable
information collected by the unit was found by an Abwehrtrupp commanded by a Capt Brunner
on 10 or 11 May. The documents recovered proved the co-operation between the French and
Luxembourg authorities and detailed their plans for the destruction of the Luxembourg-Trier rail
link in numerous locations. Brunner even obtained the key to access the bunkers containing the
explosives which were built under the railway. The German 16th Army was therefore able to
neutralise this potential sabotage.

The French Service Speciaux (under Col Rivet) had worked with the Luxembourg
authorities to infiltrate agents into Germany, and returning agents were debriefed in
Luxembourg. Reile found that the French intelligence service officers based in Luxembourg had
fled before the German arrival but his unit located seven Abwehr agents captured in Luxembourg
since September 1938. Two of them had been controlled directly by Reile in Trier.

Leaving behind part of the unit to form a Captured Material Section to pass back
important documents to the Abwehr in Wiesbaden, OKW IV advanced to Sedan. They were able
to determine from studying uniforms and questioning POW the units opposing the advancing
German forces, and that these corresponded with the information gathered by Abwehr I
(Intelligence) agents prior to the campaign, useful tactical information for the advancing German
army.

On 20 May Col Rohleder, head of counter espionage (CE) in Abwehr III, ordered Reiles
unit to recover by any means a number of German agents who had been moved by the Belgians
from Brussels to Abbeville. Arriving on 21 May in Abbeville, Reile found no sign of the agents,
but did locate cabinets so full of documents his unit was compelled to select only the most
important documents to take back to the units base at Hirson. Information of importance to 16th
Army was issued immediately in reports, the rest was sent back to Luxembourg for dispatch to
Wiesbaden. Meanwhile the unit was busy locating much classified French information from the
occupied area.

After a short rest the unit was reassembled and re-tasked on 4 June 1940 to move towards
Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne and Lille and collect abandoned British documents. They found so
much information, relating to military, secret service and political matters, that they were unable
to transport it back until they received additional help from Germany.

After the occupation of Paris, Reiles first job was to collect and study all captured
documents in Paris. He was given the help of several AKs for this operation, and a staff of 20
officers, 12 female clerks and 25-30 soldiers. The study of the material was assisted by the
dispatch from Berlin of several teams. Captured material included the files of the French GHQ,
those of the Deuxieme Bureau, and the complete files of the Surete Nationale.7 This material
was later captured in Germany by the invading Soviet forces and was not returned to the French
until a few years ago.

The BALKANS and GREECE

In the Spring of 1941 the head of the Abwehrs Hamburg Station was given permission to
form two naval Kommandos (Marine Einsatz Kommando - MARES) on similar lines to those
formed for the invasion of Norway, one to assist the Africa Corps and the other to accompany the
frontline troops invading Greece, in order to provide forward reconnaissance and securing intact
any installations of strategic importance. The main achievement of the Africa Corps AK was to
use its wireless operators on long-range reconnaissance flights from H.Q. Africa Corps as far as
the Middle Nile and deep into the Sahara desert.8

The Balkans AK departed Hamburg in March 1941.9 It was administered by Abwehr II


and had personnel allocated from Lehr Regiment Brandenburg.

These troops were especially successful in the Balkans under the command of a Naval
officer called Kapitan Leutnent Obladen. They kept up with the front line, linked with agents
and fifth columnists, guided, directed and acted as communications links for the advancing
German forces.10 They were reported to have captured the entire staff of the Yugoslav NW
Command, with all their papers.

The AK was present with the vanguard when German forces entered Athens. The AKs
first task was to secure the Ministry of Marine and other installations of importance in continuing
the campaign. They did this successfully.11

A Top Secret report by the US Armed Forces Security Agency noted:

According to the German account of their experiences in the Balkans campaign, the
Greek and Yugoslav Governments had obviously issued orders for the destruction of all secret
documents, yet the amount of captured material was so enormous that it had to be shipped in
barges up the Danube to Vienna and from there to Berlin in freight cars and nearly two years
elapsed before a systematic evaluation of these documents was finally concluded by the Central
Evaluation Section in Berlin.12

The British were impressed with the speed and accuracy of the units reporting, especially
in Athens and the Greek ports. Using ULTRA, the British were keeping close watch on such
units, as they proved an early indicator of possible German operations through their formation
and training. From such Sigint the British had advance notice of the invasions of Yugoslavia,
Greece, Crete and the Caucasus.13 Although the British had known of the invasion, they refused
to pass clear ULTRA material to Gen Bernard Freyberg in Crete. They chose instead to disguise
the information as coming from an SIS agent in the German HQ in Athens. When the Germans
captured Crete, they found documents pointing to this phantom agent.14

USSR and OPERATION BARBAROSSA

Abwehr Kommandos were of even more importance in the invasion of Russia due to the
almost complete lack of strategic intelligence held by the Abwehr and the OKH (German Army
High Command). This was in part because Hitler had refused permission for espionage
operations in Russia to avoid antagonizing Stalin. Canaris, probably realising that his
organisations reputation and continuing existence depended upon the acquisition of good
intelligence on the Soviet forces, began looking at the Soviet forces again once the Germans had
occupied Poland.15 By this time, however, it was too late to acquire high-level agents with access
to the top decision makers. The OKH was also assuming that tactical intelligence would suffice,
instructing the Abwehr to observe changes on the frontier only, as the OKH regarded the war as
virtually already won.16 As a result the Germans concentrated on using line crossers for short-
term missions, and the OKH rated an accuracy rate of 20% on reporting as successful. The
success of the collection efforts of the AKs at the start of the campaign therefore proved even
more essential than in previous campaigns. According to Leverkuehn: For the Russian campaign
the organization originally set up by the Abwehr for previous campaigns was enlarged, and one or
more Reconnaissance Commandos were attached to each Army Group.17

'Front Duties'Intelligence duties, that is, at the front itself and in the immediate support
areaswere directed by the Army Group or Army concerned. For the execution of these duties the
Abwehr Commandos (I, II and III) were placed under the command of the Ics, the General Staff
Officers at Army Group or Army, as the case might be, who were responsible for Intelligence work at
the front; and when required, units of the Brandenburg Division were also similarly attached.18

During the initial push into the Soviet Union, the AKs mainly focused on collecting
documents by searching important government, Party, and Soviet intelligence service offices, as
well as military command posts and buildings.with the aid of former Latvian and Estonian
intelligence officers, [they] captured large amounts of material on the Soviet intelligence
services in the Baltics.19

While few Soviet agents were taken, the Abwehr captured so much material that the
evaluation of it was not completed until shortly before the end of the war. Walli III [the
controlling staff for counterintelligence on the Eastern Front under the German Army High
Command], which received only the most important documents, registered more than 3,000
documents. In the autumn of 1941 they also seized the complete files of the Soviet Nineteenth
Army.20 The AKs were said to have been very productive in the exploitation of Kharkov after the
first occupation in October 1941, and in the September 1941 Battle of Kiev.

The Abwehr Kommandos operated under the command of Stab Walli I and III (ie
performing Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence functions), moving forward with, and even
ahead of the forward tank units. They worked in detachments of 25-60 men at Army Group level
or as squads of 12 men at army level. They reported by radio to Stab Walli I/III, as well as more
locally to the Abwehr officers working in the Army Group intelligence departments. In newly-
occupied cities the AKs doing intelligence work searched for military information while the AK
doing CI looked for NKVD documents. In June 1941 at the Belorussian city of Brest-Litovsk,
near the Polish border, they found a large cache of documents in NKVD headquarters, which
they sent to Stab Walli in cars and trucks. In the same month at Minsk, capital of the
Belorussian SSR, they found 29 safes filled with secret documents giving details, including
addresses, of soviet officials and their families.21

The documents captured in 1941 provided the Abwehr with a reasonably accurate
picture of the Soviet intelligence services and played an important role in how Abwehr III
operated on the Eastern Front.22 However, July 1942 the Military Intelligence Department of
the OKH, Foreign Armies East (FHO), took control of Stab Walli I/III. It appears that the FHO
was unimpressed by the information they received from the Abwehr on Russia, with one officer
claiming All we got from Canaris was rubbish.23 The AKs under Walli III were redirected to
combat Soviet agents and partisans working behind German lines, as there were no mobile units
dedicated to that role; and in 1944 the Captured Documents Section of Walli III (renamed
Leitstelle III Ost) was also closed for lack of material24 (however, FHOs Russian department did
have its own section for handling captured documents).

The AKs under WALLI I were involved in running agents, line crossers and other deeper
penetration operations. Later in the war the designations of the AKs were changed to Front-
Aufklaerung Kommandos and Truppen (FAKs and FATs), and similar units operated in Italy and
NW Europe.

The Abwehrkommandos received assistance from other types of collection unit. The
"Sonderkommando Knsberg" (Special Unit Knsberg) was one such, which systematically and
on a large scale looted cultural treasures from the USSR in World War II. Commanded by
Eberhard Freiherr von Knsberg on behalf of the Foreign Ministry under the foreign minister of
the Third Reich, this unit was absorbed by the Waffen SS in August 1942. A command given
on June 11th, 1941 officially limited the Sonderkommando explicitly to the confiscation of
records of embassies and legations, but the unit went far beyond the OKH order, accepting
special requests for artwork, libraries, and other cultural treasures.

The Headquarters of the Wehrmacht (OKW) and the "Sicherheitsdienst", (SD) received
from the Knsberg unit maps they had retrieved from the occupied areas as well as other regional
geographic information. The Foreign Ministry alone received 69,135 maps and 75,608 volumes
of geographical literature. Originally Knsberg's Sonderkommando was ordered to secure
buildings of enemy and neutral diplomatic representatives during the invasion of Poland. Before
this action in the Soviet Union the unit was also active in Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium,
France, in the Balkans, and in Greece.25 For the work of the "Geheime Feldpolizei" (G.F.P) in
the West, the Knsberg Kommando was classified by the OKW as indispensable.
The Abwehr Kommandos also received assistance from the SS Einsatzgruppen used to
eradicate partisan resistance and to eliminate Jews, communists and intelligentsia from occupied
areas. As part of their duties they also searched for CP and NKVD documents. The
Einsatzgruppen were in turn helped by the Abwehr III field units vetting Soviet PoWs. They
used the lists prepared by Abwehr III officers to identify Jews, gypsies and Soviet commissars
among PoWs for execution.26

CONCLUSIONS

It would appear that the Abwehr suffered a lack of linguists to quickly translate and
analyse the captured material from Greece, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. How much effect
this had on their operations and those of the German military is impossible to judge. In one
area, during Operation Barbarossa, the many captured documents were not processed in time to
change the false impressions the OKH had from the lack of pre-war intelligence on the strength
of the Soviet forces. As a result they were unprepared for the size of the counteroffensive against
Army Group Centre in December 1941 and suffered losses of almost 376,000 men that winter.

The creation of the Abwehr Kommando introduced a new tool for the military
intelligence officer, an organized force dedicated to the rapid collection and processing of
captured documents and material from the front lines. However, perhaps the most important
result of this innovation was the realization by the British that a similar organisation was required
by Allied forces. The first such unit, designated S Force, was used in the occupation of Tunis and
Bizerta in 1943, and the development of such organisations by the Allies is covered in
subsequent articles.

ENDNOTES
1
Oskar Reile, Der Deutsche Geheimdienst im II. Weltkrieg, Ostfront (Wiener Verlag, Himberg bei Wien, 1990), 286-287.
2
Paul Leverkuehn, German Military Intelligence (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson), 33 and 77-78.
3
Oskar Reile, Der Deutsche Geheimdienst im II. Weltkrieg, Ostfront (Wiener Verlag, Himberg bei Wien, 1990), 288-289.
4
Paul Leverkuehn, German Military Intelligence, (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson), 84.
5
Paul Leverkuehn, German Military Intelligence (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson), 101-102.
6
Oskar Reile, Der Deutsche Geheimdienst im II. Weltkrieg, Westfront (Wiener Verlag, Himberg bei Wien, 1990), 16.
7
Oskar Reile, Der Deutsche Geheimdienst im II. Weltkrieg, Westfront (Wiener Verlag, Himberg bei Wien, 1990), 50-51.
8
Paul Leverkuehn, German Military Intelligence, (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson), 141
9
Paul Leverkuehn, German Military Intelligence, (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson), 140
10
Ewan Montagu, Beyond Top Secret U, (Transworld Publishers Ltd, 1979), 92.
11
Paul Leverkuehn, German Military Intelligence, (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson), 140.
12
Russian Cryptology During World War II, 19-20, Armed Forces Security Agency, undated [ca.1951] [Excerpt], ref
S/UQO-Z.
13
Ewan Montagu, Beyond Top Secret U, (Transworld Publishers Ltd, 1979), 92.
14
Anthony Cave Brown, C, the Secret Life of Sir Stewart Menzies (Sphere books Ltd, London 1989), 340.
15
Oskar Reile, Der Deutsche Geheimdienst im II. Weltkrieg, Ostfront (Wiener Verlag, Himberg bei Wien, 1990), 292-294.
16
Robert W Stephan, Stalins Secret War (University Press of Kansas, 2004), 82.
17
Paul Leverkuehn, German Military Intelligence, (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson), 157.
18
Paul Leverkuehn, German Military Intelligence, (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson), 161.
19
Robert W Stephan, Stalins Secret War (University Press of Kansas, 2004), 137.
20
Robert W Stephan, Stalins Secret War (University Press of Kansas, 2004), 73.
21
Vadim J Birstein, SMERSH, Stalins Secret Weapon, (Biteback Publishing Ltd 2011), 149-50.
22
Robert W Stephan, Stalins Secret War (University Press of Kansas, 2004), 137-138.

23
Vadim J Birstein, SMERSH, Stalins Secret Weapon, (Biteback Publishing Ltd 2011), 153.
24
Robert W Stephan, Stalins Secret War (University Press of Kansas, 2004), 53.
25
Ulrike Hartung , The "Sonderkommando Knsberg" Looting Of Cultural Treasures In The USSR, in Spoils of War
International Newsletter No 2, (1996), Research Institute Eastern Europe, University of Bremen .

26
Vadim J Birstein, SMERSH, Stalins Secret Weapon, (Biteback Publishing Ltd 2011), 167-168.