SPIES OF OPERATION CITADEL
British intelligence efforts revealed every detail of Hitler’s plan of attack
By 1943 the prognosis for the rejuvenated Red Army was good. This was despite friction between Churchill and Roosevelt on the one hand, and Stalin on the other over intelligence-sharing and the delivery of weapon supplies. The British Joint Intelligence Committee now doubted Hitler’s chances of victory, assessing that “the prospect of a German defeat of Russia has receded to vanishing point”. It also held the view that Hitler had passed the point where he could hope to reach a peace settlement with Stalin. Churchill was in agreement and wrote, “The Russians, both on land and in the air, had now the upper hand, and the Germans can have had few hopes of ultimate victory.”
Thanks to the decoders at Britain’s topsecret Bletchley Park, Churchill was forewarned that a battle was looming at Kursk that summer. Not only had Bletchley cracked Enigma, used by the German armed forces, but also the Lorenz system used by German High Command. He resolved to inform Stalin but was at pains to conceal the true source of this information. Captain Jerry Roberts, working at Bletchley, explained, “We were able to warn them what army groups were going to be used. And most important, what tank units were going to be used... We had to wrap it all up and say it was from spies, that we had wonderful teams of spies, and other sources of information.”
It has been speculated that Bletchley intelligence was also deliberately passed through Rudolf Roessler and his ‘Lucy’ spy network in Switzerland, but there is no evidence to support this. Churchill’s warning was simply sent via diplomatic channels on 30 April 1943 to Moscow. Stalin did not altogether trust Churchill and it is doubtful he took much heed of Britain’s efforts. After all, these simply confirmed what he already knew. Although Soviet military intelligence was aware of Bletchley Park, which they called ‘Krurort’, they were unaware of the exact nature or indeed the scale of the work being conducted there.
Stalin was convinced that Churchill’s help came with an agenda. In 1941 he had largely ignored Churchill’s warnings about Hitler’s impending invasion. His main concern was that if the Germans had broken the Soviet cypher system then the British had as well. However, Stalin had a spy right in the heart of Bletchley – Captain John Cairncross, known as ‘Liszt,’ who was passing large quantities of decrypts to the Soviet Embassy in London. He worked at Bletchley from 1942 until the summer of 1943, when he transferred to MI6.
Cairncross could not believe just how lax security was at Bletchley. Its boffins were daily intercepting and decrypting German, Italian and Japanese coded signals, yet the place leaked like a sieve. In contrast, bizarrely, when it came to petty pilfering of the cafeteria crockery and the length of tea breaks, the authorities were positively draconian.
Stalin did not really need Churchill’s official or Caincross’s unofficial help, as his own military intelligence was already well aware of Hitler’s build-up around the Kursk salient. Ironically, the intelligence provided by Cairncross helped convince Stalin that the ‘Lucy’ spy ring was part of a deliberate German deception operation because some of their information matched. It seems that Stalin could not accept or appreciate that Bletchley Park and his Swiss spies were actually drawing on the same sources within the German High Command.
Cairncross had decided that Churchill’s government was not doing enough to help Stalin, so he had taken matters into his own hands. He was of the opinion that Bletchley ought to share its intelligence with all its allies, not just the Americans. A Scottish Marxist, Captain Cairncross, known as ‘The Fiery Cross’ at Trinity college, had been recruited by Soviet intelligence in the late 1930s. He preferred to believe that the Soviet Union was a workers’ utopia rather than a brutal totalitarian state. His early career in the Foreign Office and then
“STALIN HAD A SPY RIGHT IN THE HEART OF BLETCHLEY – JOHN CAIRNCROSS… WHO WAS PASSING DECRYPTS TO THE SOVIET EMBASSY”
the Treasury had made him a valuable source of information.
At Bletchley Cairncross worked in Hut 3 and he regularly scooped the processed decrypts from the floor. Adding them to his own translations, he then hid them in his trousers. Curiously, Cairncross was never patted down by Bletchley’s guards, nor did he seem particularly surprised that he always managed to find useful information on the floor, which would be of help to his foreign friends. Once at the local railway station he put the decrypts in a bag and travelled to London to meet ‘Henry’, his Soviet handler, whose real name was Anatoli Gorsky.
In particular he gained valuable information that showed Hitler was planning to pinch off the Kursk salient. What he did not know was that Leo Long, a military intelligence officer working in the War Office, was also leaking Bletchley intelligence on Kursk. He was doing so via Soviet mole Anthony Blunt, who worked for MI5. Despite initial fears that it might be part of a deliberate British deception plan, Soviet military intelligence deemed it to be ‘very valuable’.
The Swiss network
Operating from Geneva, Sándor Radó, codename ‘Dora’, and Englishman Allan Foote developed a contact in Lucerne known as ‘Lucy’ via German émigré Christian Schneider. ‘Lucy’ was a German exile by the name of Rudolf Roessler, who was a committed anti-nazi with some extremely well-placed sympathisers within the German High Command and military intelligence.
By profession Roessler was a journalist and publisher who in the early 1930s had incurred the displeasure of the Nazis. He lived in fear of being handed over to Hitler’s henchmen. By way of insurance he was also working for Swiss intelligence. Radó,
Foote and Schneider, meanwhile, were spies working for Soviet military intelligence. Radó and his network knew secrecy was everything. For security purposes Schneider, codename ‘Taylor’, was Roessler’s only point of contact. Although Switzerland was neutral, should the authorities discover them operating on Swiss soil they would arrest everyone.
Every time General Zeitzler, chief of the Army General Staff, asked for situation reports from the German armies around the Kursk salient it went through General Erich Fellgiebel. He was head of communications for both the armed forces and Army High Command. Along with his deputy, Lieutenant General Fritz Thiele, he was an ardent anti-nazi. To some they were patriots trying to undermine Hitler, to others they were dangerous traitors intent on Germany’s downfall. Every step Zeitzler took to formulate Operation Citadel was relayed by Fellgiebel to ‘Lucy’ in Lucerne and on to Moscow.
The German General Staff and the Abwehr intelligence organisation had come to the conclusion that someone high up was aiding Stalin. Colonel Reinhard Gehlen, who was in charge of intelligence-gathering on the Eastern Front, noted, “Admiral Canaris [head of Abwehr] came to my headquarters at Anderburg one day and told me in the course of a lengthy conversation whom he suspected to be the traitor, though I believe that he knew more than he was prepared to tell me.” Both were looking in completely the wrong direction. They convinced themselves, wrongly, that the traitor was Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann.
Having been contacted by Schneider, Radó had instructed Foote to radio Moscow to say, “Major German offensive at Kursk imminent.” Schneider reassured him that more intelligence would be forthcoming regarding German troop deployments and timetables. If Hitler thought he was going to take the initiative he had another thing coming. If he tried anything at Kursk he would reap a bitter harvest.
“EVERY STEP ZEITZLER TOOK TO FORMULATE OPERATION CITADEL WAS RELAYED BY FELLGIEBEL TO ‘LUCY’ IN LUCERNE AND ON TO MOSCOW”
The materiel link
During the beginning of 1943, under the cover of perpetual Arctic darkness, Churchill had pushed two supply convoys through to Russia, but with the return of the daylight he reluctantly postponed the March convoy. Then, under advice from the Royal Navy, he agreed that supplies by this route would stop until the return of darkness in the autumn. “This decision was taken with deep regret,” Churchill wrote later, “because of the tremendous battles on the Russian front which distinguished the campaign of 1943.”
Stalin was livid, as this would delay the delivery of 660 fighter aircraft. Only much later did Nikita Khrushchev acknowledge, “The English helped us tenaciously and at great peril to themselves. They shipped cargo to Murmansk and suffered huge losses. German submarines lurked all along the way.” Stalin cared little that the Americans and British were fighting a desperate convoy war in the Atlantic in order to supply their forces in North Africa and as part of the build-up for the second front.
Remarkably, in response to the American convoys bound for North Africa, Britain and the Soviet Union, the Abwehr established a sizeable spy network in Brazil. Washington used the country as a hub for air ferrying services and as a central location on the convoy routes. Brazil had a population of almost 1 million Germans, making it a fertile ground for espionage. Although this network suffered a collapse in 1942, the intelligence collected was clearly quite important, as the Abwehr attempted to set up two more groups in 1943.
Despite Hitler’s best efforts, a lot of equipment was still reaching the Soviet Union. The Luftwaffe issued a secret intelligence report on 4 April 1943, assessing that around 1.2 million tons of supplies had come through the Arctic route compared to just half a million via the Persian Gulf and the Far East. It reported, “Besides raw materials, victuals and mineral oil, it included 1,880 aircraft, 2,350 tanks, 8,300 lorries, 6,400 other vehicles and 2,250 guns.” These inevitably had an impact on the fighting on the Eastern Front.
Although the Red Army viewed its Lend-lease vehicles as a blessing and a curse in equal measure, there was no getting away from them. By 1943 20 per cent of Stalin’s tank brigades had Lend-lease vehicles, while around ten per cent were completely equipped with them. Of greatest value to the Red Army were the trucks and lorries, which greatly aided the Red Army’s mobility. War correspondent Alexander Werth wrote, “From my personal observation I can say that, from 1943 on, the Red Army unquestionably appreciated the help from the West – whether in the form of Airacobras, Kittyhawks, Dodges, jeeps, spam, army boots, or medicines. The motor vehicles were particularly admired and valued.”
Aside from Churchill and Roosevelt, Stalin was particularly angry with US Ambassador Admiral William H. Standley. He, along with the American correspondents in Moscow, made it known that they felt the Soviet press and indeed the Soviet government was not showing enough gratitude for American and British help. Stalin was moved to write to Henry Cassidy of the Associated Press, saying rather tartly, “As compared with the aid which the Soviet Union is giving the Allies by drawing upon itself the main forces of the German Fascist armies, the aid of the Allies to the Soviet Union has so far been
little effective.” When this letter was published an affronted Standley flew to Washington to clarify exactly what had been sent and how much of it had been successfully delivered.
On his return to Moscow in January 1943 he made it his mission to get the Soviets to show some appreciation. None was forthcoming – not even from Foreign Minister Molotov. Two months later at a press conference Standley dropped a diplomatic bombshell, saying that the Russian people had no idea of the help they were getting, which would not encourage Congress to renew aid if it was not appreciated.
Soviet censors were enraged but were authorised by Stalin to issue Standley’s statement on 9 March 1943. Stalin appreciated that a public relations war was going on and that for the sake of the bigger picture he needed to give ground. The chief censor, Kozhemiako, was furious, as his mother had died of starvation in Leningrad. One of his colleagues cursed, “We’ve lost millions of people, and they want us to crawl on our knees because they send us spam. And has the ‘warmhearted’ Congress ever done anything that wasn’t in its interests? Don’t tell me that Lend-lease is charity.” No one, though, was going to defy Stalin and the following day the Soviet press began to report on the generous aid sent by their allies.
Despite the disparaging remarks about spam, like everything else it played its role in Stalin’s war effort. “There were many jokes going around in the army, some of them off-colour, about American spam,” recalled Khrushchev. “It tasted good nonetheless. Without spam we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army. We had lost our most fertile lands – the Ukraine and the northern Caucasus.” What he did not mention was that some of the canned pork was also sent to feed Gulag inmates.
It was very evident to Alexander Werth from his contacts that the USA’S gifts were going to have an impact on the impending fighting at Kursk. He wrote, “On 11 June I recorded a conversation with a Russian correspondent who had just been to Kursk. He said the Russian equipment there was truly stupendous; he had never seen anything like it. What was also going to make a big difference this summer was the enormous number of American trucks; these were going to increase Russian mobility to a fantastic degree. The Russian soldiers were finding them excellent.”
“STALIN, PUBLICLY AT LEAST, DESPISED SPIES AND DISPARAGED THEIR INFORMATION. HE SAW THEIR ACTIONS AS PURELY POLITICALLY MOTIVATED”
It is also possible that intelligence on
Hitler’s panzers was passed to Stalin by John Cairncross. His decrypts allegedly encouraged the Soviets to develop more powerful shells in response to German armament reports. It is likely that Bletchley was well aware of Hitler’s constant demands for updates on his brand new Panther tank and Ferdinand tank destroyer. Certainly Churchill was alerted to what he called “the new ‘Tiger’ tanks”. In light of the Tiger I appearing in the summer of 1942, it was hardly new by the summer of 1943 so he must have been referring to the Ferdinand.
Stalin was aware of the problems Hitler was suffering with Panther production thanks to the ‘Lucy’ spy ring and the wealth of classified intelligence it was providing. On 15 April
1943 Radó transmitted to Moscow Hitler’s complete order of battle for Citadel. Just two days later he helpfully listed the creation of new panzer and infantry units. Then on 28
June Radó provided a summary of Panther manufacture, meaning Stalin knew that Hitler had just three or four battalions. Stalin, publicly at least, despised spies and disparaged their information. He saw their actions as purely politically motivated or based on financial gain: they could not be trusted. Nonetheless, what ‘Dora’ was saying was corroborated by intelligence from Soviet partisans behind German lines and by Red Air Force reconnaissance flights.
Even in Germany the preparation of these new weapons for Operation Citadel seemed to be common knowledge. Jewish academic Victor Klemperer, living in the city of Dresden, jotted down in his diary in early July, “We are now producing whole series of ‘Tiger’ tanks; and all of it, arms and men, is going east on a massive scale, a train every fifteen minutes! Our offensive is sure to start in the next few weeks." Armed with such information, Stalin already had a low-tech solution to Hitler’s panzers. “Because the Germans had much better quality equipment and super-tanks like the Tiger,” said Captain Jerry Roberts,
“the Russians needed greater quantities of armoured vehicles in order to compete.”
Also on 28 June, courtesy of the ‘Lucy’ network, Stalin received the Luftwaffe’s order of battle for Citadel. This meant the Red Air Force knew exactly what it was up against. John Cairncross claimed he played a role in Stalin’s surprise pre-emptive air strike at Kursk. He said that the German language intelligence “I supplied was genuine, giving full details of German units and locations, thus enabling the Russians to pinpoint their targets and take the enemy by surprise”. In the event, though, things did not go to plan in the air.
Churchill and Roosevelt, who had enough on their hands planning the Mediterranean campaign and the war in the Far East and Pacific, found Stalin’s ingratitude perplexing. On 10 June Stalin wrote to Roosevelt with an air of petulance, saying, “You and Churchill have decided to postpone the Anglo-american invasion of Western Europe till the spring of 1944. Now again we’ve got to go on fighting almost single handed.” He then tried bullying Churchill by warning, “The preservation of our confidence in the Allies is being subjected to severe stress.”
This was the final straw for Churchill, who on 27 June 1943 pointed out that England had fought alone until June 1941. Then, bizarrely,
and contrary to Bletchley intelligence, he said, “You may not even be heavily attacked by the Germans this summer. This would vindicate decisively what you once called the ‘military correctness’ of our Mediterranean strategy.” Quite what Stalin made of this message is anyone’s guess.
In Switzerland the ‘Lucy’ spy ring’s days were numbered. By June 1943 Foote was aware that he was being watched by the local police. Three months earlier the Abwehr had placed Radó and most of his co-conspirators under surveillance. He had not helped matters by having an affair with one of his female wireless operators, who was half his age. The women concerned was also seeing an Abwehr agent. Foote had wanted to reduce the rate of his transmissions but Moscow refused. Germany was now putting diplomatic pressure on the Swiss to arrest them, and it was becoming increasingly difficult for the authorities to turn a blind eye. In terms of Kursk, though, their work was more than done.
An intelligence victory?
Just how much value did Stalin gain from his spies in Britain and Switzerland? While their espionage work was exciting and dangerous, the answer is very little. By the time decrypted intelligence reached Moscow it was often days if not weeks out of date. John Cairncross, Leo Long and Anthony Blunt liked to think they were instrumental in changing the course of the war. This was a deluded view. Sándor Radó and Rudolf Roessler were fed information direct from the German High Command, but whether this was better than the intelligence gained from the Lorenz decrypts at Bletchley is unknown. Stalin had numerous sources of intelligence and his spies were just one small part of the Soviets’ vast information-gathering operation.
Churchill’s understandable reluctance to reveal the source of his intelligence inevitably did little to enhance its credibility in the eyes of the Kremlin. Furthermore, by the time intercepts had been decrypted, units were often long gone, having been redeployed elsewhere. Stalin got much better intelligence from his partisans behind enemy lines monitoring German-controlled airfields, railways and roads. Likewise, the Red Army ran its own radio intercept operations and the Red Air Force conducted regular photographic reconnaissance flights.
Nonetheless, the role of Enigma and Lorenzderived intelligence passed to Stalin officially or unofficially should not be completely dismissed. If Moscow was never ready to acknowledge the part played by Lend-lease equipment, then it was certainly never going to accept it won the war because of British and American-supplied intelligence and information.
Codebreaker Captain Jerry Reynolds was in little doubt that information supplied by Bletchley Park played a vital part in shortening the war and hastening Hitler’s final defeat. He pointed out that Churchill “gave the Russians full details of the plans three months before the battle took place and allowed them to deploy the maximum number of tanks and win the Battle of Kursk.”
Until his dying day Reynolds championed the unsung heroes of Bletchley: “Most people in Britain are unaware of the Kursk story and its enormous significance, and of the major contribution made by the Lorenz decrypts to its successful outcome. I wonder whether the Russian authorities ever realised the importance of the help that Britain had given.”
It is very notable that Russian generals Khrushchev and Zhukov said that they were tipped off that Citadel was about to commence against both the Central and Voronezh Fronts by prisoners captured just hours before. It is highly improbable that lowly privates from the German army and the Waffen-ss would be privy to such information. Even if they were, it seems a convenient coincidence that the two fronts received the same warning at about the same time from the same type of source.
It may be that Khrushchev and Zhukov wanted a plausible reason for opening fire before Hitler attacked. Could it be that Stalin and his commanders already knew the exact day and hour that Operation Citadel was due to commence? This is more than likely.
Was this knowledge derived from Bletchley’s intelligence? It is impossible to tell. Besides, Stalin would never have acknowledged such timely assistance.
Ultimately the battle had been brewing for months, and for the Red Army it was just a case of sitting tight until such time as Hitler chose to attack. Certainly a man with secret documents stuffed down his trousers was not really going to have much bearing on such decisive events.
Cracking the uncrackable Lorenz machine meant that Churchill was able to provide Stalin with every detail of Hitler’s preparations for Kursk
In early 1943 Churchill supplied Stalin with weapons and vital intelligence. The Soviet dictator was not grateful and suspected Churchill of skulduggery
By 1943 Bletchley Park’s codebreakers had not only cracked Enigma, employed by the German armed forces, but also the German High Command’s Lorenz codes Admiral William H. Standley, US Ambassador to Moscow, caused an almighty row with Stalin on the eve of Kursk
Rudolf Roessler, above, operating in Switzerland, was fed intelligence by anti-nazi sympathisers in the German High Command General Erich Fellgiebel passed intelligence to agents ‘Lucy’ and ‘Dora’ in Switzerland
Former British spy John Cairncross, who worked for Soviet military intelligence, claimed his actions helped shorten the war
The ‘Big Three’ of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at the Tehran Conference, 1943. Despite the conferences between the powers, there was significant mutual suspicion and tension A four-rotor German Enigma machine. The Enigma was considered unbreakable, but Allied intelligence was able to crack its code and intercept messages
Hitler, alongside Evan Braun, appears exhausted from the strains of leadership
The code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park gave the Allies unprecedented access to German communiqués
Captain Jerry Roberts said that Bletchley Park’s work was crucial in stopping Hitler at Kursk