Istanbul Intrigues » Chapter 9-American Ignorance and Intelligence
9 American Ignorance and Intelligence
I’m involved in a dangerous game
Every other day I change my name
The face is different but the body’s the same
Boo, boo, baby, I’m a spy.
–U.S. embassy songbook
The Park Hotel was a drab stucco building set back from Istanbul’s broad Ayas Pasha Boulevard. One morning early in 1943, an old taxi swung into the hotel’s circular driveway from a traffic jam of American, German, and French cars. The forlorn flower beds looked brighter than usual as the sun beamed down from the cloudless sky, but the taxi’s occupant did not notice.
Since the Park Hotel was across the street from the German consulate, it had become the favorite residence for Axis agents and sympathizers. Yet if there was one man who would not hesitate to march double-time into the jaws of lions–much less enemy spies–that man was George V. Earle III. The large, handsome millionaire with wavy hair and cold blue eyes had already shown himself, as U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, to possess great pugnacity and appalling judgment.
Earle had enjoyed highly publicized adventures since leaving Bulgaria when it declared war on the United States in December 1941. Visiting Casablanca, Morocco, just after U.S. forces liberated it in December 1942, Earle had lunched with General George Patton. Afterward, he took a walk toward the town’s outskirts, absentmindedly passing beyond American lines. Suddenly, a bullet struck the muddy
pavement near him, followed by another which hit a nearby wall. Earle left quickly. Although Earle. swore that he told no one outside his immediate family about the incident, dramatic articles soon began appearing in American newspapers recounting his alleged heroism and narrow escape from a sniper. The White House staff was frustrated with Earle’s penchant for publicity and trouble, but the president thought him a splendidly entertaining fellow.
On returning to Washington, Earle went to see President Roosevelt at the White House and asked to be sent to Istanbul. There, Earle promised Roosevelt, he would gather intelligence using his great knowledge of the Balkans and his excellent connections in Europe. Of course, Earle continued, he would always act with the approval of Ambassador Steinhardt (“a personal friend of mine”). Roosevelt agreed. It seemed a small enough request from a man who might have asked for a lot more.
Now Earle arrived at his new post. As he registered in the Park’s ornate lobby, loiterers and bellboys paid by various governments to report ! on such comings and goings took note. Earle was not disappointed with : the large, luxurious, high-ceilinged suite. The view was magnificent. His balcony looked out over a web of winding, narrow streets to the Bosporus and the Asian shore beyond. On bright days he could see the sun sparkling on the Sea of Marmara to the south. The Park’s man- agement took Ea.rle’s eccentricities in stride. Few other hotels would have let Eatle keep a parrot and Great Dane in his room. Earle did not even wear out his welcome when he demonstrated the virtues of his new gun by firing it out the window.
This was an impressive arrangement for a man whose official rank was only assistant naval attache. Although Earle saw himself as Amer- ica’s master spy and the president’s personal representative, he was too flamboyant even by Istanbul standards and too credulous to be suc- cessful. Nevertheless, his style had certain advantages: the Germans, convinced that Earle was up to some extraordinary caper, expended much of their resources in watching him. They believed that such an important American political figure-President Roosevelt’s personal friend and a former ambassador-must be on a very secret mission. German intelligence was intensely frustrated at the mystery until it finally concluded that Earle was, indeed, head of all U.S. intelligence operations in the Balkans.
A woman confessed to an American diplomat that she had been working for the Germans but wished to change sides. The Abwehr had hired her to seduce a Polish underground courier based in Istanbul, she explained, to discover his travel plans to occupied Warsaw. The next time he crossed the border into Bulgaria, the Gestapo arrested, tortured, and shot him. Qualms of conscience, she continued, made her refuse the next assignment: to seduce Earle and pry secrets from him. Earle was not worth all this trouble. The ass had wisely decided he was too unreliable to be given access to its codes, safes, and intelligence. This in no way stopped him from having a wonderful time spreading rumors, drinking and flirting in Taksim’s cafes, and tirelessly sending Roosevelt gifts picked up in the bazaar and flattering letters hinting at his availability for a Senate seat. “Undisturbed by American political maneuvering and a press willing to sacrifice everything for sensationalism, I am able to have a clearer outlook on things,” he wrote the president. In fact, Earle was a sucker for phony intelligence merchants, passed on German disinformation, and distorted whatever useful information he came across. Hearing rumors about the V -I pilotless bomb-plane and the V -2 rocket being developed in Germany, for example, Earle reported in September 1943 that Hitler was developing “stratospheric bombers [that] can reach America in 7Vz hours. …Those to be used against England [will be] largely operated by wireless robots [and be ] completely devastating.” The ass described Earle’s source as a Turk who was considered completely unreliable and was fired by the British for having suspicious contacts with a female German agent. The ass and the British gave no credence to any such German projects. Although there were kernels of truth in Earle’s story, he typically so inflated it that he destroyed his credibility . Some of his stories were even wilder: vast reservoirs of “the most virulent cholera bacteria” were stored “underground in the forests near Berlin.” “Chances strongly favor above being pure propaganda,” he added, “but because of Germany’s desperation making anything possible I cannot conscientiously refrain from sending it. ” Yet Earle sometimes had real insight, as when he wrote the president: The “most important and most difficult problem you will have to face in post-war Europe will be Russia. This country, today probably the most popular in America and England, thirty days after the cessation
of hostilities will be the most unpopular, due not to [Communism] but to Russian imperialism.”
If most of the operatives of the newly formed OSS were more reliable than Earle, most of them were also amateurs. British help was indispensable in learning the intelligence business. A June 1942 Anglo-American agreement reached in Cairo gave the OSS direct access to British intelligence on the Middle East and Balkans. The British side insisted this accord be kept secret from other U.S. agencies lest it provoke bureaucratic jealousies. Since the OSS had only four agents in this whole area, these reports were its main source of information and, as an OSS officer put it, “represented an extreme venture in faith that OSS would eventually produce something of value in turn.”
In exchange for all this help, London received a major U.S. concession. The Cairo accord provided that all “special operations [in the region] operate under the direction and control of the British.” This British supervision over the OSS was hard to achieve in practice. “The one inviolable principle which [we] fought, bled and stood firmly for was that of independent American operations,” concluded a postwar OSS study. To achieve this, the OSS men sometimes pretended “apparent frankness” toward their British allies while circumventing them in practice.
The OSS tried the same technique of outward obedience and actual autonomy on the U.S. Army, to which it was supposedly subordinate. The OSS wanted to establish a regional headquarters in Cairo to avoid the time-consuming, inevitably confusing procedure of having Washington clear all reports and decisions. It took almost four months to convince the Joint Chiefs of Staff to approve an office in Cairo with jurisdiction over activities in the Balkans and Middle East. OSS-Cairo opened with two rooms in December 1942 and soon expanded into a villa at 8 Rustum Pasha Street near the British SOE offices. There was a standing joke that taxi drivers who were asked to go to Rustum Street would respond, “Oh, you want the secret intelligence headquarters!”
Working on intelligence in Cairo was a surrealistic experience. Far from the battlefields, officers spent their time handling papers and engaging in endless bureaucratic skirmishes. Christopher Sykes, a British intelligence officer in Cairo, wrote: “Here was the civilized world rent by the most terrible of all its conflicts, and here were we close to great
events, in daily communication with men whose names will be remembered in history for a thousand years at least, and yet we never seemed to discuss anything but questions of precedence, procedure, and trifling matters of organization. The center of the storm of war [seemed] composed of Committees.” Hugh Seton-Watson of SOE-Istanbul designed an SOE coat of arms: an arrangement of tennis equipment entitled “Rackets and Balls.”
A British officer, assigned to parachute into occupied Greece, reported to the SOE headquarters’ fifth floor only to be told, “We don’t work here between 12:30 and 5.” While awaiting his coming ordeal, he played squash at the Gezira Club, which also offered tennis, golf, thrice-weekly polo matches, and abundant dinner parties. “The lotus-eating existence of Cairo would have sapped anyone’s morale if allowed to go on for too long,” he wrote.
The combination of the Cairo intelligence lifestyle and the attendant bureaucratic knife fighting set off psychological conflicts for conscientious officers. Sykes wrote: “One lived in a kaleidoscope of emotions….Hope would rise, sink, rise and sink again….How I hated being well informed. How I envied people who only read the papers. The Intelligence Officer’s life is an extremely depressing one. He knows much more about the enemy’s preparations than about our own…. He inevitably becomes a pessimist….He feels guilty that he is not in the battle line. He can’t go there. He is suspected of cowardice; he suspects himself. He has a double share in the anxiety, none in the danger and heroism.”
Yet much vital work was also done. In its charter, “A Plan for Special Operations in the Middle East,” OSS-Cairo was authorized to gather information and conduct counterintelligence in the whole area and to begin clandestine operations in Albania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania, and the Greek islands. The OSS would now expand its small nucleus of American volunteers in Istanbul into a secret base of operations. Given the Balkans’ complexities, the problems of coordination with the British and the U.S. State Department, and the Germans’ proximity, a very able man was needed to run the OSS station in Turkey. The unanimous choice was a Chicago banker, Lanning “Packy” Macfarland. He was a Harvard graduate and a volunteer ambulance driver in the Balkans during World War I. When the United States entered
the fighting in 1917, he became an army captain and stayed on after the armistice to run U.S. relief operations in the new state of Yugoslavia. He learned a bit of the language, received two medals from the government, and made many friends.
After World War I, he joined a Chicago bank and rose to be its vice president. But his old wartime adventures exercised a powerful pull. In early 1941, as the Germans were closing in on Yugoslavia, Macfarland visited Washington at his own expense to tell the State Department he was firmly convinced that the Yugoslavs would resist and that the United States should support them. Macfarland offered to participate in such a mission “because of my many close contacts there (even though dusty with age now).”
No action was taken at the time, but someone remembered the exchange and Macfarland’s experience in the area. He was asked to join the OSS in October 1942. A few days later, while Ambassador Steinhardt was visiting Washington, the OSS director, Bill Donovan, introduced the two men and told Macfarland that the OSS must always respect the ambassador’s authority and keep him informed of operations. This was music to Steinhardt’s ears. Donovan approved establishing an OSS station in Istanbul and asked Secretary of State Cordell Hull to give Macfarland cover and cooperation. Hull wrote Steinhardt on December 21, “The Office of Strategic Services is anxious to send Mr. Lanning MacFarland to Turkey for a period of perhaps three or four months, for the purpose of obtaining information concerning the Balkans.” Steinhardt quickly agreed, and Macfarland was made a nominal member of the U.S. Lend-Lease aid mission, a natural cover job for a banker.
Macfarland arrived in Cairo in March 1943 to meet with the OSS and British intelligence offices. Then he went on to Turkey and worked out arrangements with Steinhardt and the British. On May 4, 1943, he sent out his first cable. OSS-Istanbul was in business.
During these months of preparation, the State Department continued to take prime responsibility for information gathering and secret contacts with the Balkans. The State Department’s Balkan Reporting Unit in Istanbul, under Consul General Burton Berry, was a talented group. One of its stalwarts was Floyd Black. Born on a midwest farm in 1888, Black graduated from a local college in 1911 and, shortly thereafter, answered an ad seeking English teachers for Robert College,
the American missionary-run school in Istanbul. He left Illinois for the first time in his life; in Istanbul, the insular young American learned about a whole range of countries and cultures of which he previously knew nothing.
In 1926, Black became head of the new American College in Bulgaria. Over the next fifteen years he built it into the country’s most respected educational institution; its graduates played important roles in Bulgaria’s political and cultural life. Breaking with that country’s traditional style of education, which stressed memorization, Black introduced American methods that sought to encourage independent thought.
As Bulgaria moved into the German orbit, the student body was riven with debate. Some opposed fascism; others demanded discrimination against Jewish students. Black maintained academic freedom. Even after Bulgaria declared war on the United States, the school continued until the government took it over in mid-1942. Shortly thereafter, Black and his American colleagues were expelled and left Sofia on the Istanbul train. It was a bitter moment for those who had devoted so much of their lives to the country. Amidst such reflections, the train made a brief stop at a suburban Sofia station. Suddenly, the Americans heard a chorus singing in English from the platform, and the surprised passengers looked out the windows. Through a crowd of German troops marched a delegation of graduates who had come to serenade their departing teachers and bid them an emotional farewell.
Black wanted to return to the United States, but he was persuaded that he could better serve the war effort in Istanbul as the State Department’s intelligence specialist on Bulgaria. He worked long hours in the U.S. consulate building, reading the Bulgarian press, interviewing travelers and Jewish refugees, and briefing journalists. Later, when Bulgaria sought to negotiate a secret surrender to the Allies, Black was an intermediary. Many of the political leaders involved were parents of his pupils.
The Balkan Reporting Unit obtained lists of military objectives in Bulgaria, maps of Romania’s Ploesti oil fields, and detailed charts of the railroad system in Hungary. A constant stream of reports poured out of Istanbul on the location and use of ports, roads, and factories in all these countries as potential bombing targets. Although hard work
and research produced much of this material, good luck was also a factor. One day a short, chubby man in his forties came to the office of Walter Birge of the Balkan Reporting Unit. He inquired in a thick Viennese accent, “Are you the American consul?”
Birge nodded and asked, “What can I do for you?”
“I am here to do something for you,” the visitor replied. He was an Austrian refugee now teaching in Istanbul. Was there some mission he could perform?
Well, Birge replied, he would certainly like a nice railroad map of Austria. He expected nothing would happen, but a few days later, the man returned with a huge, accurate map showing every track and bridge around Vienna.
Among the unit’s most valuable finds were similar maps and detailed information on Romania’s Ploesti oil fields obtained from refugees and business executives. Britain’s failure to sabotage the oil fields in 1941 had meant 3 million tons of petroleum yearly for the German war machine. The refineries, pipelines, storage tanks, pumping stations, railroad lines, and bridges around the fields were high-priority targets for American bombers.
U.S. air raids on Ploesti provided American diplomats in Turkey with a unique problem and an amusing solution. After the first attack, on the morning of June 12, 1942, three off-course B-24 Liberator bombers, including Little Eva and the Blue Goose, landed at neutral Ankara airport. The Turkish ground crew received the Americans hospitably and gave them breakfast. Steinhardt rushed to the scene. Turkish officials politely turned their backs so that he could speak privately with the officers. A fourth bomber from the fourteen-plane raid landed elsewhere in Turkey. Two more B-24s, though losing altitude rapidly, made it across the border to British-occupied Syria.
As neutrals, the Turks were obliged to intern soldiers who strayed onto their soil, but the Turkish government promised that the fliers would be treated like guests if they gave their word not to escape. The aircrews were housed in barracks near Ankara. Suddenly released from daily military discipline and the strain of flying combat missions, they had a wild time. Occasional bar brawls caused headaches for the embassy, and the airmen’s fraternization with Hungarian “artistes” at nightclubs forced Steinhardt to call a meeting and issue a warning: No more sleeping with enemy citizens.
Steinhardt negotiated a secret agreement with the Turkish government to allow the men to “get away” gradually in exchange for giving the interned warplanes to Turkey. Some of the aircrews were moved to a training field to teach the Turks how to fly the B-24s.
On December 19, unaware of Steinhardt’s agreement and thinking they would be heroes for escaping, eight of the twenty-eight men took off in a B-24 with just enough gas to make Syria. New York Times correspondent Ray Brock exulted in his dispatch, “I say more power to them and strength to their good right arms on bomb releases.” But the Turkish government was angry about the publicity and the broken promise that the fliers would escape only with its permission. Steinhardt cabled Washington, “It will henceforth be difficult to arrange the escape of any more American internees…until the B-24 has been returned or replaced.” Interned German Biers, he noted, had not been allowed to escape and those caught in the attempt were confined. Fortunately, the Turks were satisfied when twelve more damaged or off-course planes arrived in the following months. These bombers were duly interned and then quietly handed over to the Turkish air force.
On August 1, 1943, the Americans staged an all-out, 177-plane raid on Ploesti from bases in Libya. A German air force unit in Greece detected them en route and alerted the defenses. As scores of bombers roared in at low altitude, they were met by heavy antiaircraft fire. Almost one-third of them were shot down. The oil installations were not seriously damaged.
Over Ploesti, the plane piloted by First Lieutenant Willard Hines dived to treetop level to escape German fighters and engaged in a desperate fight for survival. The plane lost one engine, and the fuselage was like a sieve from German shells and bullets. Dodging its pursuers, the plane was soon alone in peaceful skies. As it crossed the Black Sea to Turkey, however, a second engine conked out. That evening, Hines’s bomber and three other B-24s approached Izmir, Turkey, flying low and unmolested over the offshore German-held Greek islands. A Turkish fighter plane was quickly sent up to guide them to the airport. One of the planes, its pilot dead at the controls from a shrapnel burst three hours earlier, was brought to a perfect landing by the copilot. Hines’s plane and another B-24 came in smoothly at a nearby field. The fourth tried to reach British-ruled Cyprus but crashed into the sea; the Turkish Coast guard rescued the survivors.
Hines and two comrades decided to escape internment and return to active duty as soon as possible. One night several weeks later, they came back to their quarters from a nightclub. In order to fulfill their promise not to escape while out on official permission, they signed the registry in their barracks and then left without signing out. Telling guards they were returning to the club, the three Americans instead took a taxi to the train station. They entered the U.S. diplomatic courier’s compartment just as the Taurus Express was pulling out for Syria. Their host bribed the conductor to look the other way. When they reached the border, Turkish frontier guards boarded the train. One of the Americans successfully hid behind an overcoat in the corner and went unnoticed. Hines and the other pilot were caught hiding under a bunk; they were pulled off the train, charged for the fare, and put in jail.
The rules of the game were simple: the Turks would let the Americans get away if the escape could be made to look genuine. So the next morning the guards left the cell door open, and the two airmen sneaked away, hiking four and a half hours into the hills toward the border. But not all the Turkish military knew of the secret escape agreement. Just as the Americans, weak from lack of sleep and food, came to within sight of the frontier, they were again caught by a mounted Turkish police patrol. The prisoners were forced to walk back alongside the horses, and one soldier hit Hines with his rifle butt. When the Americans were too exhausted to continue, however, their captors let them ride double. The two pilots were again jailed and were put on the next train to Ankara.
The guards in the capital were under orders to give them a third opportunity. The two Americans walked to the car of Major Robert Brown, the U.S. air attaché, who hid them in his apartment until he put them on a train moments before departure. This time, no chances were taken. Brown stayed with the men until they safely boarded a British boat to Cyprus. By such methods, Brown and other embassy officials returned dozens of badly needed fliers to duty.
The arrival of American planes in Balkan skies was a signal to Germany’s allies of how badly the war was going. There was no shortage of other signs. In November 1942, Rommel’s North Africa army was trapped between the U.S. forces landing in Morocco and Algeria and the British army in Egypt. By the time the last Axis forces there surrendered
in May 1943, Hitler had sacrificed 150,000 fresh troops in the losing battle. The Russians surrounded the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in November 1942 and destroyed it. Romanian and Hungarian armies suffered devastating losses on the Russian front. In July 1943, Anglo-American forces crossed into Sicily and then onto the Italian mainland.
The attempt to convince Germany’s allies Bulgaria, Romania, and particularly Hungary to desert the Axis and cooperate with the Allies was one of the most important OSS assignments in Istanbul. Donovan, the agency’s director, noted in a memo: “The anticipated collapse of Italy intensifies the fears of the Balkan ruling classes that the Axis will be defeated and that Soviet Russia will dominate Eastern Europe. We propose to capitalize on these fears, and in agreement with Great Britain and the USSR to bring to bear upon Bulgaria, Rumania and Hungary certain subversive pressures which may induce those countries to withdraw from the war, or at least to cause difficulties for the Axis.”
Hungary was an ally but not a puppet of Germany. In contrast to the situation in Romania and Bulgaria, there were few German troops in the country. Many Hungarians had mixed feelings about their country’s alignment with the Germans, and a number of government officials were against it. The British were already working to take advantage of this situation. George Paloczi-Horvath, the journalist who escaped the Germans on the last train out of Hungary in March 1941 and then on the last plane out of Yugoslavia, now did anti-fascist radio broadcasts from Haifa. “I imagined that most of Hungary was listening and being infected with my enthusiasm, convinced by my convictions, fired by my emotions.”
The handsome Paloczi-Horvath, now known by the more prosaic cover name of “George Howard,” had flourished in the sparkling atmosphere of prewar Budapest with its rich artistic life and the brilliant conversation of the late-night cafés. He was both a bohemian, cosmopolitan advocate of cultural modernism and a liberal shocked at the near-feudal treatment of the peasants and urban poor. As with many others of his generation, these attitudes pushed him toward the political left and the conviction that the anti-Nazi battle must be followed by building a new society when the homeland was liberated.
British intelligence reassigned him from Haifa to Istanbul as a contact
with Hungarians who sought to extricate their country from the Axis. “You know, of course,” he was told in Cairo, “that British officials cannot talk directly to enemy representatives. They can get in touch…only in case the enemy offers unconditional surrender. Our task is to bring negotiations to that stage. Until that stage is reached…nothing you say or do can mean any commitment on our part.”
With the new year of 1943, Hungarian emissaries, like migratory birds, began to arrive in Istanbul. Each of them and those they represented back in Budapest hoped to circumvent the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender. If the British took a tougher line, perhaps the Americans would prove more flexible; if Paloczi-Horvath, because of his leftist views, seemed unsympathetic, someone else might be more understanding. “If a bookkeeper at the American Embassy in Lisbon met a Hungarian courier in some night-club and listened with kind interest to a fervent description of Hungary’s difficulties,” wrote Paloczi-Horvath, “the courier promptly reported home that ‘the American attitude is far less stiff than that of the British.’ …Any American represented for them ‘the Americans,’ any Englishman ‘the British’….They believed everything they wanted to believe instead of seeing the simple and plain truth: Hitler was going to lose the war, and if they didn’t do something instantly they would lead Hungary into a catastrophic situation.”
The main movers behind the secret Hungarian peace effort–men like Count István Bethlen, the former prime minister; Miklós Kállay, the foreign minister; and Antal Ullein-Reviczky, the Press Bureau director–knew they were playing for their lives, people’s future, and country’s independence. These men were trying to avoid both the immediate danger of Nazi domination and the future likelihood of Soviet occupation when Germany lost the war. As the Russian army approached from the east, the moderate Hungarian leaders hoped to expel the Germans, hold off the Russians, and permit an Anglo-American occupation.
Yet these courageous Hungarians faced great difficulties in implementing any deal with the Allies. Their country was still independent, but the Gestapo’s spies were everywhere. There were pro-German Hungarians in the government and army who had to be kept in the dark. And the Allies were still far away in 1943, when, as SOE operative
Basil Davidson noted, Hungary was “locked and barred behind five hundred miles of Nazi-occupied territory.”
Washington and London knew that Hungary wanted to cooperate with the United States and Britain but not with the U.S.S.R. They also understood that Budapest wanted a deal guaranteeing that no Soviet troops would enter Hungary. Roosevelt and Churchill were unwilling, however, to jeopardize their alliance with Moscow for Hungary’s sake. At the same time, however, if Hungary left the Axis, it would undermine Hitler’s empire and divert German forces away from the Allied landings in Italy in 1943 and the invasion of France planned for 1944.
Realizing that Germany was doomed, Hungarian leaders began exploring the idea of a separate peace with the Allies as early as December 1942. A Hungarian diplomat returned to Istanbul from Budapest and met with a trusted Greek colleague. Influential Hungarians were eager to get in touch with the United States and Britain, he said, and if a meeting was arranged, they would send a responsible official to discuss the details.
In response to Allied encouragement, no fewer than four Hungarian emissaries reached Istanbul in February 1944, including Albert Szent-Györgyi, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work with vitamin C, and Ferenc Vali, who was a respected legal scholar. None of them knew of the others’ existence, but each carried a similar message: the Hungarian government and military would not fight British or American troops and, as soon as they approached, would join them in battling the Germans.
Vali’s cover story was that he was going to give a lecture at Istanbul University. As his train jolted to a stop at the Croatian republic’s border, Vali awoke to see three executed anti-German guerrillas hanging from a tree beside the tracks. The train rolled on through Belgrade, still largely wrecked from the German bombing two years earlier. On February 15, he arrived in Istanbul and, not expecting to stay long, went sightseeing. Having asked in Budapest about a good Istanbul hotel, Vali was told that the Park was frequented by the Axis and the Pera Palace was the Allies’ favorite. Vali cautiously chose the Tokatliyan, which had enough pro-Axis guests to make him seem loyal to Germany but not so many as to subject him to excessive scrutiny.
The next morning, Vali went to see one of the German anti-Nazi
refugee professors. Vali shook off the Abwehr man following him by leaving the hotel on foot and hopping on a streetcar. At the professor’s house he was invited to meet the “Canadian-Hungarian” George Howard, whom he immediately recognized as Paloczi-Horvath. Paloczi-Horvath passed on Vali’s message to British and American intelligence.
The most urgent question the OSS and SOE asked Szent-Györgyi and Vali was whether the peace forces controlled the military and whether the army would fight the Germans. “Perhaps,” Vali replied honestly, but he added that many officers were mesmerized by German victories and might not cooperate.
The British insisted Budapest must prove its good faith through concrete actions. Hungary SOE agent Basil Davidson wrote Vali, “can’t behave like Germany’s closest ally for three years…and expect to be treated any different from the way we are going to treat Germany.”
On March 18, the whole secret operation was endangered by a major leak. The Czech government-in-exile in London broadcast a statement that Hungarian professors were contacting the Allies in a neutral country. Budapest issued a public denial and privately urged Vali to return home. Fearing arrest, he stayed in Istanbul.
The Germans were paying close attention to these activities. Hitler invited Hungary’s ruler, Admiral Horthy, to Germany and asked him about these stories. “Malicious gossip,” Horthy replied, declaring that Hungary was Germany’s oldest and most faithful friend. At any rate, the German embassy in Hungary thought the Budapest regime was loyal. Still, to be on the safe side, Germany instructed its ambassador in Budapest not to trust either Kállay or Ullein-Reviczky. The latter was soon sent to Stockholm as a sop to the Germans, but Kállay stayed at his post.
German intelligence also laid some traps to discover the truth. One of its Hungarian agents, a Colonel Almassy, called the American diplomat Walter Birge one day and asked for a meeting. They met in busy Taksim Square. The Hungarian followed twenty paces behind Birge. When they arrived at Birge’s apartment, Almassy said: “I’ve got an idea for you. Why don’t you come to Budapest with me? I can arrange it for you. I think there’s a chance we can get Hungary out of the war.”
Birge laughed. “Do you think I’d get on a train, cross the border, and be arrested? Good try.”
“Oh, it wouldn’t be so difficult,” Almassy answered. He had been Hungarian liaison officer with Rommel in North Africa, he explained in flawless English. “One day he wanted me to go to Cairo and find out about British plans. I asked, ‘Do you think I want to be shot as a spy?’ ‘Wear your uniform,’ Rommel replied. ‘We’ll drop you outside the city and you can take a train and stay at a safe house. With so many uniforms and armies in the city, no one will recognize a Hungarian one.’” And that was precisely what happened, Almassy claimed. Birge still rejected the man’s offer, rightfully suspecting that he was a German agent.
The Hungarian government, realizing it was making no progress on negotiations with the Allies with unofficial envoys, sent a junior Foreign Ministry official, Laszlo Veress, to Istanbul in August 1943, ostensibly to supervise the Hungarian exhibit at the Izmir trade fair. Veress understood that there was no way to get around the Allies’ requirement that the Axis powers surrender unconditionally. Over black coffee in Paloczi-Horvath’s apartment, Veress broached the idea of a secret unconditional surrender. Allied leaders–the Soviets were informed as well–agreed.
On the evening of September 9, Veress was taken by motorboat to Knatchbull-Hugessen’s yacht in a suitably empty corner of the Sea of Marmara. The British ambassador read an agreement for Hungary’s unconditional surrender to the Allies, which would be kept secret until it could be implemented. Budapest would reduce military and economic cooperation with Germany while withdrawing its troops from the U.S.S.R. The Hungarian high command would be reorganized to eliminate pro-German officers.
As the meeting was taking place, there was a coup in Italy. A group of officers overthrew Benito Mussolini and surrendered to the Allies. The event thrilled the Hungarians. If the Allies quickly took over northern Italy, they might be in Hungary sooner than anyone expected. In addition, Italy’s rapid transformation–from a member of the Axis in August, to a surrendering nation in September, to a full partner of the Allies at war with Germany in October–seemed a promising precedent for Hungary. Veress returned to Budapest with high hopes and a British-supplied wireless transmitter. Using two trusted detectives from the political police as operators, the Hungarian Foreign Office kept in daily touch with the British in Istanbul.
But the SOE and OSS were still uncertain of their interlocutors’ power and the all-important question of the Hungarian army’s loyalty. Moreover, the Budapest transmitter was supplying no useful military intelligence. Rectification of this situation would require a direct link to the Hungarian general staff. In August 1943, the OSS suggested that Lieutenant Colonel Otto Hatz, Hungarian military attaché in Sofia, would be the best man for this purpose. No one then knew that this obscure officer would prove to be a quadruple agent who would play a central role in determining the war’s course, Hungary’s fate, and the downfall of OSS-Istanbul.
During the autumn of 1943, Romanian and Bulgarian emissaries also arrived in Istanbul with word that their governments wanted to explore the possibility of changing sides in the war. When Bulgaria’s King Boris died under mysterious circumstances in August, there were rumors–encouraged by British intelligence–that the Germans had murdered him because he planned to break with Berlin.
While the Hungarians desperately tried to escape the war, the Turks strove to keep from being dragged into it. The Turkish government suspended the newspaper Vatan for ninety days for publishing a front-page picture of Charlie Chaplin imitating Hitler. “Don’t you know,” an official asked the editor, “that Hitler is mad? Is it right to provoke a madman when he has large armed forces close to our frontier?” Equally, when the Germans tried to sneak some destroyers and submarines through the Bosporus to deploy against the Soviets on the Black Sea, the Turks refused them passage and informed the British and Russians.
Turkey’s neutrality was on display at the state’s twentieth anniversary celebration on October 29, 1943. Burton Berry, the U.S. consul general in Istanbul, went to Ankara for the occasion. The clothes he had bought in New York a year earlier had still not arrived. He had to scramble to find even an aged, out-of-fashion collar. Berry borrowed a vest from one acquaintance, a hat from another, and an overcoat from a third; he fit into his own old pants only “by a good deal of tugging and pulling and taking a firm resolution never to sit down.” His colleagues were in even worse sartorial shape.
The rest of the diplomatic corps gathered at the reception in their best ceremonial clothes, with Allies, Axis, and neutrals in one large room. Berry wrote his mother: “Some of the new arrivals didn’t know
who could be spoken to and who should be ignored. I fear that some shook hands with people that they shouldn’t and others failed to shake hands with those they should.”
Each ambassador was to enter a room to congratulate the foreign minister as the previous visitor was ushered out another door. Knatchbull-Hugessen arrived a little late, almost colliding with von Papen. During the buffet brunch afterward, the British naval attaché’s wife found herself anchored by a dress hook back-to-back with another lady. She soon discovered her Siamese twin was Mrs. von Papen. A blushing Turkish official spent ten minutes disentangling them.
Despite such meticulous neutrality, the Turks were willing to help the Allies quietly, as they had done in the case of the interned pilots. Italy’s surrender and the beginning of the Balkans’ collapse opened opportunities for guerrilla warfare, espionage, and the rescue of Jewish refugees that could be carried out only through Istanbul. From Turkey’s shores, the British and Americans were already launching a new, secret war front on the Greek coast and the Aegean Sea.