Monday, May 7, 2012

Russian Spies in Inspectorate 7

For an intelligence service there is no target that can provide more high level information than the enemy’s codebreaking agency.

However all the people in those agencies are carefully vetted and constantly kept under watch. With all those security measures one would assume that cases of espionage in signal intelligence agencies would be very limited.
Still it seems that the Soviet intelligence service was very good at putting its people inside the enemy cryptanalytic centers. During WWII John Cairncross managed to get himself assigned to Bletchley Park and he passed on Ultra intelligence to the Russians.

In the USA William Weisband infiltrated the Signal Security Agency and fatally compromised their Soviet program.
Did the Russians have similar success against the German codebreaking agencies? In fact they did manage to get one of their sympathizers in a position where he could do great work for the Soviet Union. Unfortunately for him his first mistake cost him his life and brought down the Berlin network of the Rote Kapelle.

Let’s take a look at this very peculiar case.
From the 1920’s the Soviet Union financed and organized the creation of spy networks throughout Europe. These penetrated military, economic, political and diplomatic circles. Many of the agents were devoted communists who thought they were working for the creation of a better world.

Germany was a major target of the Soviet spies, especially after power was seized by the NSDAP party.
Inside Germany there were three main spy networks in Berlin. The ‘SENIOR’ network under Luftwaffe officer Harro Schulze-Boysen , the ‘CORSICAN’ network under economist Arvid Harnack and the ‘OLD MAN’ network under writer Adam Kuckhoff.

These groups were well placed to provide important intelligence to Moscow. Harnack had a high ranking position in the economics ministry and Schulze-Boysen was assigned to the liaison staff of the Luftwaffe Chiefs of Staff.
From Harnack came information on the German economy such as investments abroad, foreign debt, secret trade agreements with other countries, currency deals etc. His network also controlled an Abwehr officer assigned at OKW headquarters and a lieutenant in German naval intelligence.

Boysen’s position gave him access to classified reports prepared for the Luftwaffe high command.
After the German attack on the Soviet Union in summer 1941 the closure of the Soviet embassies meant that the Rote Kapelle networks could not communicate with Moscow directly.

This forced them to rely only on radio and considering their few radio stations they overloaded them with messages.
The German radio security service Funkabwehr did not fail to notice this rise in radio transmissions from Rote Kapelle centers. One such radio center was raided on 12 December 1941 in Brussels. With the aid of captured cipher material messages were decoded and names were identified. This was the beginning of the end for the Soviet spy networks in Western Europe.

In 1942 more cipher documents were retrieved by the Germans and the names of members of the Berlin Rote Kapelle decoded.
During this critical period the Russians were able to place two of their people inside the German army’s codebreaking agency OKH/Inspectorate 7/VI. These persons were Horst Heilmann and Alfred Traxl. Heilmann was actually assigned to the section dealing with agent’s codes. Quite the coincidence!

At the time (August ’42) that the Germans were closing in on the Berlin networks Schulze-Boysen gave Heilmann the assignment to search the OKH/in 7/VI agents section records to find out what the German authorities knew about the Rote Kapelle.

Within 48 hours Heilmann was able to find the relevant documents. After seeing that this information incriminated his friends he tried to warn them.
It seems that in his haste to contact Boysen he went to the office next door, which was used by  Dr Vauck (head of the agents section), to use the telephone! From there he called the Schulze-Boysen residence but did not find Harro and left a message!!

When Harro came back home he called this number and Dr Vauck who happened to be around picked it up!!! A brief conversation ensued as Boysen tried to find out who had called him.
Of course Dr Vauck immediately notified his superiors about this unbelievable event and the German security agencies decided to act quickly and arrest everyone since the security of the operation had been compromised. Schulze-Boysen and Arvid Harnack were arrested, on 31 August and 7 September ’42 respectively, along with many of their agents.

Overall in 1942 130 members of the Berlin Rote Kapelle networks were arrested and 49 of them executed. One of these was Heilmann. Not many details are known about Traxl. He too was arrested and according to KV3/350 he was sent to a concentration camp in Poland.
After this disaster the Russians tried to establish new networks and reactivate agents that had escaped capture but met with limited success.

Sources: ‘War Secrets in the Ether’, ‘Deadly illusions’, KV 3/349-50The case of the Rote Kapelle’, CSDIC-CMF-SD 80 'First Detailed Interrogation Report on LENTZ, Waldemar, and KURFESS, Hans’, Wikipedia, Der Spiegel.


  1. The USSR also got a quite good number of spies in post-WWII US cryptologic services :
    - William Weisband (ASA)
    - Bernon Mitchell & William Martin (NSA, defectors)
    - Jack Dunlap (NSA)
    - Victor Norris Hamilton (NSA, defector)
    - Robert Lipka (NSA)
    - John Walker and his spy ring (Navy codes)
    - Christopher John Boyce (TRW employee)
    - Geoffrey Prime (GCHQ)
    - Ronald Pelton (NSA)
    - Sgt James Hall (INSCOM)
    - Jeffrey Martin Carney (Air Force Intelligence)
    - David Sheldon Boone (Army Intelligence)

  2. Dear Christos, which archive actually keeps the CSDIC file on Lentz and Kurfess?

    1. UK National archives HW 40/190 ’ Radio support to counter-espionage, provided by the Wehrmachtsnachrichtenverbindungsstab (WNV) Funk (FU) and Abteilung III/Funk of the Abwehr’

    2. Thank you so much!