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Espionage in the Second World War – fighting with the help of Travel Guides

Smart French men seducing secretaries in the Gestapo-headquarter in Paris, German agents infiltrating the Pentagon, Russian spies gathering information in bars in Lisbon – imaginations like these usually come to our minds when we think of espionage in WW II. Authors like Robert Littell and Hal Vaughan [1] have written fascinating novels about this inspiring topic and the number of movies about it is close to uncountable.

With these pictures in my head, I went to the federal German military archive as part of my PhD research this year. I was hoping to find information about the Institute for World Economy, a leading think tank in northern Germany which worked closely together with the German Supreme Command of the Armed Forces during WW II. I knew that my imaginations about espionage were heavily influenced by the romanticising western popular culture which tends to depict the German military as super efficient and Anglo-American spies as ingenious. Still, I was deeply surprised to find out how the German Supreme Command and its department for economics and armament were gathering information about the arms industry and military of their enemies.

Newspaper clips, statistical yearbooks and economic journals like The Economist are among the main sources of information of the German military about their enemies. I found tons of boxes with information about every part of the world, information derived from periodicals and official government reports. You might be inclined to be sceptical and demand an example, well here is one:

On 21 February 1940, Hitler gave General von Falkenhorst [2] the order to prepare an invasion of Norway within six weeks. Knowing nothing about Norway, the first thing this General did was going into a book shop and buying a travel guide. In order to find out which companies existed in Norway that were worth occupying first, his staff used telephone directories. It also invited tourists who recently spend time in Norway to tell them about the country.
A unit which was deployed to occupy the city of Trondheim spent hours looking for a fort which had been already demolished years ago. The unit an its commander Sonnemann [4] did not know this, because all they had was a travel guide written in 1912!

Of course, the Germans also used interrogations of prisoners of war and sent real spies, but the above mentioned sources constituted a big chunk of German espionage activity. And do not think this amateurish stuff did not work, because it is proven that it did. As preparation for the landing of the allied troops on the shores of Normandy, the allied planning staff put great attention to postcards and holiday pictures of beaches, made by ordinary tourists, in order to gather information about the quality of sand and whether it would carry the light tanks which proved so important on D-Day.

If you are disgusted by today’s CIA, NSA and their thousands of geeks spying on your facebook account and observing your skype-calls, remind yourself of how ridiculous they are. As criminals, they stand not only in the traditions of criminals, but also of amateurish idiots. History makes it clear that espionage never changed world history and its most positive role lies in providing interesting plots for novels and movies.

[1] Littell: The Company ; Hal Vaughan: Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War.

[2] By the way: What a name for a German General: von Falkenhorst. It can be translated as “of the falcon eyrie”. [3]


[3] There are currently rumours that the former keeper of the German national football team (Tim Wiese, also former keeper of my favourite team Werder Bremen) has an offer from the WWE, the US – World Wrestling Entertainment. If he becomes a wrestler, he has to choose a battle name and from my point of view, “von Falkenhorst” would be an excellent choice.

[4] Sonnemann can be translated as “sun man”, a name I would rather not recommend as a battle name for a wrestler.

Gunnar Take

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