Istanbul Intrigues » Chapter 14-Germany's Defective Intelligence
14 Germany’s Defective Intelligence
An Istanbul man trained his cat so well it carried a candy tray to guests. A friend, tired of his boasts, brought a mouse in his pocket. The cat entered with the tray; the guest put the mouse on the floor. The cat dropped the tray and chased the mouse. “Ah, well,” the Turkish gentleman told his abashed host, “a cat is always a cat.”
— anecdote recounted by Burton Berry, 1943
The inevitability of Berlin’s defeat and a distaste for Hitler’s regime led six German intelligence operatives to defect from Istanbul in early 1944. The results were explosive: the Abwehr’s destruction and the ruin of Germany’s most productive spy.
Paul Leverkuehn, head of Abwehr-Istanbul, had helped von Moltke and the anti-Hitler underground while conscientiously performing his own espionage work. Like many other Germans, Leverkuehn’s sense of duty to the fatherland was powerful enough to overcome his distaste for the dictatorial, criminal Nazi regime that ruled it.
It was a paradoxical situation for those who simultaneously risked their lives to oppose Hitler while refusing to shirk professional responsibilities. After an all-night discussion with two of his subordinates about ways to overthrow the regime, Leverkuehn told them, “You have my support, but I cannot do anything to break my officer’s oath.” In that case, one of them pointed out, the oath required “that you take your pistol and shoot us as traitors.”
Leverkuehn was an able intelligence officer. His men analyzed Turkish forces on the Bulgarian border, tried to pry secrets from Allied personnel, and closely monitored Turkey’s intentions toward the war. The Abwehr’s minions, wrote the OSS’s Cedric Seager, “have as many aliases as a rainbow has colors….The city is riddled with their agents; one’s movements are frequently watched and occasionally followed.”
The Abwehr used a variety of techniques. A female Nazi agent seduced a Swiss diplomat; the Turks expelled both on discovering the man had become a spy for the Germans. An Abwehr officer elicited information from a Greek diplomat by keeping him supplied with liquor. Hildegard Reilly, the German wife of a former English official, worked at the Taksim Casino’s bar, where she specialized in making Britons and Americans more talkative. An OSS investigation discovered that a Hungarian bar hostess, expelled by the Turks as a German agent, had successive affairs with a half-dozen Americans. Elli’s Bar was financed by the Abwehr as both a rendezvous for Axis agents and a place whose Allied patrons could be systematically plied for data.
One of Leverkuehn’s agents with a particularly colorful background was a Russian-born Spanish diplomat whose career had begun as a czarist officer. He took refuge in Istanbul after the Bolshevik revolution and worked as a croupier in open and clandestine gambling houses. Expelled from the country in 1933, he moved to Yugoslavia and then France to become a spy in several governments’ service until the French police threw him out in 1936. As a virulent anti-Communist, he fought for the victorious Fascist side in the Spanish civil war. Taking Spanish citizenship, the man joined Madrid’s diplomatic corps and became press attaché to Paris until the police dug out the old dossier and demanded his recall. After being transferred to Istanbul, he ran a ring of Russian émigré agents for the Abwehr.
Leverkuehn’s Abwehr also tried to foment subversion in the Middle East, despite its earlier failures there, and in the Soviet Union. One of its most ambitious plans was to build an underground revolutionary and espionage group in Iraq called the National Liberation Column. The movement began with remnants from the pro-German revolt, which the British had put down in 1941. Its leader was a Baghdad doctor whose henchmen–including high-ranking government officials–met in a pharmacy next to the physician’s office to exchange information as they waited for “prescriptions.” A full-time liaison man was sent to Istanbul to make contact with the Germans and obtain aid from the Abwehr.
British intelligence quickly realized that the Germans were up to something in Iraq and put the Arab group under surveillance for over eight months to uncover its plans. In fact, the Iraqis were so amateurish–losing one German-supplied wireless radio and being unable to operate its replacement–that the British wondered if the whole affair was a diversion. They were forced to take the plot more seriously, however, after capturing three German agents parachuted into Iraq in July 1943. Leverkuehn planned to send reinforcements to start a revolt among the Kurdish tribes.
The British were determined to infiltrate the Abwehr’s network through an Iraqi undercover agent, code-named “Zulu,” who arrived in Istanbul on August 3. He went to a cafe on Istiklal Boulevard, gave a secret password, and was taken to the house of the movement’s Istanbul representative. Zulu was shocked to realize that he had once met this man in Baghdad in the course of his police work. Fortunately, the revolutionary did not recognize him. When Zulu again gave the secret password, the blasé agent replied, “Such formalities are unnecessary.”
Thus cleared, Zulu was accepted by the Abwehr too. Posing as a delegate from the Baghdad underground, Zulu requested supplies from the Abwehr. The Germans demanded intelligence in exchange and brought models of British military vehicles to teach him how to interpret their unit markings.
On the night of September 3, a Mercedes car picked up Zulu for a talk with Leverkuehn himself. The two men drove to an isolated spot and sat in darkness. The future of the Arab cause, Leverkuehn told him, depended on German victory, which, in turn, required intelligence about British oil refineries and forces in Iraq. Unaware that his three agents had been captured, Leverkuehn asked about them. Zulu replied they were doing well. Leverkuehn gave him $2000 for expenses and an English book with a radio code skillfully sewn into its back cover.
At this moment, British intelligence heard that the Iraqi movement’s treasurer was coming to Istanbul. Worried that he might uncover Zulu’s true identity, the British arrested the entire pro-German ring in Baghdad. The Abwehr, not realizing that the British had outwitted it, thought the arrests were routine.” After all,” one German told Zulu, “this is a dangerous game.”
During 1942 and 1943, the Abwehr shifted its attention from the Middle East to the Soviet front. It recruited dozens of Soviet Moslem émigrés in Istanbul–some of whom reported everything to the NKVD–and contacted purported antigovernment groups in Soviet Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan. The Armenian nationalist Dashnak party worked closely with the Germans (though Soviet intelligence also penetrated Armenian communities throughout the Middle East). Leverkuehn subsidized these movements and tried to smuggle their operatives from Turkey into their home areas in the U.S.S.R.
Since the Turks feared the U.S.S.R. and its intentions more than any other country, Turkey’s foreign minister and the Emniyet regularly exchanged data with the Germans about the Soviet Union. The Turks permitted a small Abwehr radio and supply base near the Turkish-Soviet frontier, but they drew the line at allowing direct sabotage from their territory. German intelligence officers who tried to sneak into the U.S.S.R. were detained, and the Emniyet arrested two Azerbaijanis caught smuggling machine guns, radio sets, and explosives across the border.
Ankara also feared that rightist Turkish nationalist groups, which the Germans aided, might make trouble at home or try to stir up Turks across the border in the U.S.S.R. When it became clear that Germany was losing the war, the Emniyet banned such clubs and arrested their leaders. There was, however, little support for these organizations. “Had German fortunes in Russia not deteriorated so rapidly,” an exaggerated British intelligence report claimed in December 1943, pro-German Turkish groups in the southern U.S.S.R. “might have proved a most efficacious and possibly decisive aid to the German forces in their planned advance…to Persia and the Middle East.” Unfortunately for the Crimean Tatars and thousands of other Soviet Turks, Stalin deported them as a precaution and most were never allowed to return home.
But German fortunes were now clearly in retreat, and the Turks were increasingly cooperating with the Americans and British. This development made it harder for the Abwehr to operate in Istanbul. The liaison man between the OSS and the Emniyet was Cedric Seager, an American who had grown up in Istanbul. The Turks kept him informed of the Abwehr’s every move. He knew, for example, that four German agents equipped with radios and sabotage material were living at a house belonging to Paula Koch, one of Leverkuehn’s most energetic agents. Since the Emniyet was watching them closely, however, it was better to follow them and discover their contacts than to take them into custody. “Paula Koch is more valuable to us free than under arrest,” Seager concluded.
Two members of Leverkuehn’s Istanbul-based sabotage group, a Persian and a Turk, offered to sell Seager even more information, one of them demanding a $700 down payment. “He thinks,” quipped Seager, “he is a dollar-a-word man.” Instead of paying him, the American told the man that the Emniyet would no longer tolerate German agents. He could either talk or be “entirely at their mercy.” The Turks cooperated by seizing his passport for “routine inspection.” As a result, reported Seager, “the names of the Azerbaijanis, Persians and Caucasians who work for [German intelligence] are now known to me, and therefore to the British. Where they congregate of an evening, where they work and what they look like.”
While it was increasingly difficult for German intelligence to operate in Istanbul, German defeats were making it even more vital to do so. The new top-priority issues were the timing and location of the next Allied offensives and Turkey’s intention as to entering the war.
Meanwhile, some Germans were battling with their consciences over whether to continue serving Hitler, while others were merely eager to join the winning side. Eric Vermehren and his wife, Countess Elisabeth Plettenberg, were in the former camp; some defectors were of a more opportunistic type.
Eric Vermehren had won a Rhodes Scholarship in 1938 to attend Oxford University, but German officials suspicious of his political views held up his passport. By the time they relented, the war had begun. Unfit for regular military service because of an accidental gunshot wound as a child, Vermehren worked in German prisoner-of-war camps. Needing an aide he could trust, Leverkuehn recruited this 24-year-old son of an old friend and brought him to Turkey in Apri11943. Both Vermehren’s mother and P1ettenberg’s fervently Catholic parents had links with anti-Hitler groups. An exiled German resistance leader later questioned the sincerity of Vermehren’s anti-Nazi feelings. Would anyone not entirely reliable, he asked, ever have been given an intelligence job? The answer was that Canaris and his lieutenants had welcomed many anti-Nazis into their organization. From Hitler’s standpoint the Abwehr had more unreliable people than any other German institution.
When Vermehren went home to see his wife, she insisted that they break with the government and defect. This step, however, was made more difficult by a new Gestapo regulation prohibiting citizens from leaving the Reich. Diplomats’ relatives were virtual hostages to discourage defections. Through influential friends, the countess arranged her own Foreign Office assignment in Istanbul. She divided her bank accounts among younger brothers and sisters and set off to join her husband in Turkey. Leverkuehn worried about such an open violation of the Gestapo’s rule and had her stopped at the Bulgarian border. But the strong-willed countess again used her connections to obtain a seat on the courier flight to Istanbul. When she arrived on December 24, 1943, Leverkuehn ordered Vermehren to submit a report dissociating himself from his wife’s trip.
But matters were even more complex than Leverkuehn knew. A few days later, Vermehren contacted Nicholas Elliott of British intelligence. Vermehren went to dinner at Elliott’s apartment at 7 p.m. and the men talked through the night. He did not want to see his beloved fatherland ruined by the Nazis, Vermehren explained, but he also feared appearing to be a traitor to Germany or a dishonorable rascal in his friends’ eyes. Therefore, he did not want to defect openly or join the British war effort. Elliott agreed to these conditions.
To prepare for escape, the Vermehrens moved to a new apartment and told Leverkuehn they did not yet have a telephone. On January 27, 1944, the couple attended a neutral embassy’s cocktail party. As they left, two men pushed them into a passing car to persuade any witnesses that the Vermehrens had been kidnapped. When Vermehren did not show up for work the next morning, Leverkuehn sent a search party which became lost trying to follow Vermehren’s deliberately inaccurate directions to his new home.
When the Germans realized what was happening, von Papen sped back from a skiing vacation, but the Vermehrens were already en route to Cairo. They were intensively debriefed for a month. Vermehren made a radio broadcast attacking Hitler. As a new, junior officer, he knew few major secrets, but he did tell about German-Turkish intelligence exchanges regarding the U.S.S.R. The British passed this information to Moscow, and a Soviet protest led Turkey to stop this practice. When the Vermehrens went to London, a British counterintelligence officer named Kim Philby loaned them his mother’s apartment. Perhaps the Soviets’ gratitude explains Philby’s hospitality to the couple. Philby was, after all, the NKVD’s top mole in British intelligence.
The defections had an explosive effect in Berlin, where the Abwehr’s old rivals–Heinrich Himmler’s Security Ministry and von Ribbentrop’s Foreign Ministry–pounced on a chance to discredit Admiral Canaris and his intelligence organization. Canaris’s enemies, ignorant of British success in this area, claimed Vermehren might reveal the workings of German codes. Von Papen insisted Vermehren had no such information. The OSS had so many good sources in the Abwehr that it followed the process closely. On February 24, 1944, Dulles cabled Washington: “659’s [Canaris’s] position and his whole outfit has been seriously jeopardized by the…V[ermehren] affair in Turkey. Abwehr will probably be taken over by Himmler….It is unlikely that 659 [Canaris] will offer a strong protest since he is somewhat of a Buddha….It may be wise to encourage certain Abwehr men in important jobs to decline to go back to Germany, if as appears probable, they will lose all value for our purpose.”
Himmler’s men were determined to destroy the hated competitor who had dominated foreign intelligence gathering. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Himmler’s intelligence chief, wrote Hitler on February 7 that the Abwehr’s Istanbul operation was a traitors’ nest. Vermehren’s flight “has gravely prejudiced the activities not only of Abwehr-Istanbul but of our other military agencies in Turkey. The entire work of the Abwehr station has been exposed and its continuation seems impracticable.”
Five days later, Hitler abolished the Abwehr, ordering: “A unified German espionage service is to be created. I entrust the Reichsfiihrer SS [Himmler] with the command.” Canaris was fired and placed under surveillance; Leverkuehn was sent home. In addition to demanding Leverkuehn’s firing, Kaltenbrunner had named as enemy spies a number of Abwehr agents, including Willi Hamburger and Karl Kleczkowski, a 43-year-old journalist who, with his wife’s help, gathered political gossip and spread German propaganda around Istanbul.
The twenty-five-year-old Hamburger was the best-known Abwehr officer in Istanbul. His grandfather was founder of Austria’s paper industry; his father was a prominent Viennese industrialist and Nazi party member. Hamburger had grown up amid great wealth; on coming of age, each child in the family had received a paper mill. Hamburger had attended the same school as Kurt Waldheim, and he was active in a fascist student group to which the future UN secretary-general belonged. After earning a doctorate in Middle East studies, he was recruited into the Abwehr and sent to Istanbul under cover as a buyer of hemp and flax–items about which he knew nothing. Most nights he could be seen with his entourage at the Park Hotel or an Istanbul nightclub. This group’s philosophy was that if one could not have a good time with the espionage business and the lavish expense accounts, it was not worth being a spy at all. One of Hamburger’s colleagues, a German officer who had won an equestrian medal at the 1936 Olympics, unharnessed a carriage horse and led it into the Park’s dining room. When a local informant proposed that Hamburger meet him in a graveyard at midnight, the Abwehr officer replied, “Are you crazy? Let’s have dinner on the Park Hotel’s terrace.”
Hamburger’s main work for the Abwehr was to smuggle goods through the Allied blockade on Germany and to gather intelligence on Middle East political and military developments. It was like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle in which the smallest piece might prove the most critical. He found American and Middle East magazines good sources of information. Reports of military sporting events, officers’ marriage announcements, and other items helped the Abwehr locate Allied units.
But Hamburger was also an Austrian patriot and a stubborn individualist. The confident young man talked freely with Leverkuehn about his discontent. Hamburger and the Austrian-born Kleczkowski had contacted the Americans to offer cooperation even before Vermehren decided to defect. When Kleczkowski told Italian friends that he hoped Austria would soon regain its independence from Germany, they thought him an agent provocateur. Through a Turkish contact, however, Kleczkowski met the flamboyant George Earle in October 1943 and began giving him fairly unreliable information, including a purported plan for a German-Bulgarian attack on Istanbul should Turkey enter the war.
Hamburger’s encounter with Earle was more dramatic. Earle’s great love in Bulgaria had been a Hungarian singer named Adrian Molnar. She was a breathtakingly beautiful woman who resembled the young Ingrid Bergman. After Earle left Bulgaria, she returned to Hungary, having refused to go with him to Turkey. Earle insisted that he was going to bring Molnar to Istanbul even if he had to go into Axis Budapest himself to fetch her, and his behavior was erratic enough to convince some people he might be serious. Earle once tried to hire the Dogwood courier Gyorgy to bring him a prize bulldog from Hungary.
To accommodate Earle or to spy on him, Leverkuehn and Hamburger arranged for Molnar to come to Istanbul. She was hired to sing at the Taksim Casino, but she had a falling out with Earle just before her debut. Hamburger was in the audience that night, and he asked the manager why Molnar did not begin her performance. She was crying in her dressing room, the man told Hamburger. The Abwehr officer went backstage to see what was wrong. She was upset after having an argument with Earle. Hamburger and Molnar met for the first time and quickly fell in love.
Earle soon heard about this romance and decided to meet Hamburger to take the measure of his rival. Either through fickleness or through willingness to acknowledge defeat, Earle told Hamburger that he was giving Molnar up. The two men began to talk about politics. When Hamburger maintained that he was loyal to the Austrian resistance, Earle made him kneel down to swear allegiance to a free Austria. The Abwehr officer was willing to propitiate the eccentric American who, after all, seemed to offer a direct line to President Roosevelt. But Earle proved a poor conduit: he had little credibility in the White House and garbled all the information he was given.
Earle also had a poor sense of security. One of his minions, a well- known American agent, once brought Hamburger a message at his little bungalow next door to von Papen’s summer house. Hamburger saw the motor launch sailing up the Bosporus with the American carrying a briefcase and standing conspicuously in the back. The boat tied up at a pier in front of his house, and the man marched blithely up to his, front door. It is not surprising that pro-Berlin Germans became suspicious. From its office near the furnace in the consulate basement, the SD watched the Abwehr’s activities and plotted revenge.
When Hamburger, Kleczkowski, and the other Abwehr men accused of working with the Allies were ordered back to Berlin, the Kleczkowskis resolved to bolt. Hamburger thought he could talk his way out of any charges by using his family’s connections with several German generals. Unbeknownst to him, however, the Kleczkowskis had gone into hiding in Istanbul and the Abwehr panicked, ordering the arrest of the other suspects. Hamburger was awakened at dawn on February 12 by two Abwehr men pounding on his door. “You are under arrest,” they proclaimed, “and will be put on the next train to Germany.”
Hamburger promised to cooperate but asked to telephone his chief Turkish agent lest his disappearance provoke controversy. The security men let Hamburger do so. “I am going to Berlin for a week and will be back,” he explained. “Tell our friends to ‘Tell it to the Marines.’“ The last phrase was the contemporary American slang for calling something nonsense. Understanding this simple code, the Turk sought help from the British.
Meanwhile, Hamburger stalled by selling the security men his radio and packing his bags slowly. Then the telephone rang. It was his Turkish agent. “Everything will be all right,” he told Hamburger. “A car is waiting in front of your door.” Hamburger casually put down the phone, raced outside, and jumped into the auto before the guards could stop him. The driver took him to the British consulate, where he was given breakfast and a new identity. On the way to the airport, an Abwehr officer passed within a few feet of Hamburger without noticing him. The OSS and the British successfully evacuated all three Austrians to Cairo. Despite von Papen’s demands, the Turks did nothing to find them.
The Americans and British exulted. “Cairo bade fair to be swamped by an invasion of evaders and turncoats,” cheered an OSS report. Hamburger did radio broadcasts and psychological warfare work in Cairo for the Americans and British. His papers identified him as an American lieutenant from Seattle. Hamburger’s confessions blew the cover of twenty German agents in the Middle East who had been working for him. But interrogators found the Kleczkowskis less helpful. The couple was taken to New York under armed guard and incarcerated as “dangerous enemy aliens.” They were deported in 1947 to Colombia, where they prospered in business.
Istanbul’s German community was in a panic. No one knew who might next make a break; everyone was frightened of being arrested and sent back to Germany to face a firing squad. Suspicious officials paid unannounced “visits” to each other, almost surprised to still find colleagues at their desks. Von Papen sent his deputy to Berlin for a Gestapo hearing on these events. The meeting was interrupted by an air-raid alert and never reconvened. On a street in the capital, the aide picked up leaflets dropped by the Allied planes announcing the defections and claiming the German embassy in Turkey was in chaos.
Hans Fritzsche, deputy propaganda minister and a talented orator, soon arrived to shore up German morale in Istanbul. “Due to the fact that you are always exposed to the full impact of virulent propaganda, you are deserving of sympathy,” he told an audience of 200 at the Teutonia Club. “You are also deserving of congratulations,” he added sarcastically, “for your escape from the hardships of wartime and from bombings.”
He reassured them that Germany would still win the war. “There is no need to worry about the Eastern front,” he claimed. “Instead remember that the armies of Germany are still far from Germany and on foreign soil.” Germany was working on secret weapons, but it did not yet have something which would “sweep Britain off the face of the earth in five minutes, after which twenty minutes will be all that is needed to blast America to hell.” Nevertheless, Germany’s triumph and revenge were inevitable. “We must await the day when victory is ours. It will come with a vengeance when that day arrives.”
If the Germans were receiving any indication about what the future really held, however, that news was coming from a most peculiar source, the German agent code-named “Cicero.” His occupation: valet of the British ambassador to Turkey.