Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A look into the reliability of the TICOM reports

The reports I’ve used to write about Axis signals intelligence in WWII are mainly those prepared under the TICOM program.

A few days ago Frode Weierud pointed out that ‘A more serious problem is the lack of good, verifiable sources. Good scientific and historical research mandates that one try to use multiple sources, but with cryptology one is often happy to have just one single written source. The TICOM documents fall into this category. A single document does not always tell the full story and sometimes the information is incomplete and sometimes even wrong. The TICOM documents should be looked upon more as research notes than final research reports.

Now I agree with Frode that information from a single source cannot be thought to be 100% correct without further verification. However the TICOM reports seem to me to be both accurate and verifiable since different people, from different agencies, interrogated years apart give the same answers when asked about specific crypto systems. In many cases their reports can be crosschecked by using the captured German archives, decrypted German messages solved by Bletchley Park, Foreign Military Studies and/or various books and articles.

For example let’s have a look at some interesting cases:

1). Soviet 5-figure code. This was a codebook used at the highest level by the Soviet military. Its exploitation is mentioned by several people including Mettig, Huettenhain, Lingen, Dettman. All these people were high ranking officials and knew what they were talking about. Their reports range from 1945 to 1952, yet the details are the same.

TICOM reports DF-292 and DF-112 have a detailed overview of the operation and they give us the same story of significant success in 1941-42 but limited exploitation in 1943-45 due to the use of one time pad. The last two reports were written by Alexis Dettmann, head of cryptanalysis at the Army’s Intercept Control Station East and Edwin von Lingen, head of the Eastern cryptanalysis department of the Luftwaffe’s signal intelligence agency. These were the people in charge so I don’t see how their testimony could be discounted!

If someone is still not convinced there are statistics from the Finnish archives on their exploitation of the 5-figure code that show exactly the same picture (for example 36% success rate in June 1942 but roughly 1% in the period 1943-44). 

2). Soviet partisans. From summer 1943 the Germans were able to decode a part of the Soviet Partisan traffic. This was such an important task that an entire signals regiment (KONA 6) was assigned to handle this traffic.

The details we have come from reports written by several people such as Mettig (head of the Army’s signal intelligence agency in the period 1941-43), Schubert (head of the Russian section of the Army’s signal intelligence agency from 1943 onwards), Friedrichsohn (member of KONA 6). All three were part of this program and they give similar information even though their reports were written years apart (two in 1945 and one in 1947).

In addition we have a report by Abwehr personnel written in 1946 that points to considerable success by KONA 6: ‘Most successful in monitoring and decoding was Kdr der Nachrichten Aufklaerung 6, who furnished FAK III daily with decoded transcriptions of a major part of the W/T traffic between partisan and NKGB stations.’

3). Polish intelligence-Berne station. In 1943 the Germans were able to solve the traffic of the Polish military attaché in Berne that concerned intelligence operations in Europe. This is mentioned in EASI vol2 but the relevant TICOM reports (I-31 and I-118) are still classified. Still this incident is also mentioned in the book ‘War Secrets in the Ether’ by Wilhelm Flicke.

Flicke was a member of OKW/Chi (the agency that solved this traffic) and his book is based on the reports he wrote for the Americans after the end of the war (TICOM DF-116 to DF-116AL). He mentions the Polish attaché and the solution of his code in summer 1943 and in another page says that his name was Choynacki.

This information can be verified from two British sources. The recently published ‘MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949’ by Keith Jeffery mentions Major Szczesny Choynacki Polish deputy consul in Berne, whose radio traffic was compromised in summer 1943. This isn’t just another book on British intelligence but actually an authorized history, which means that the author had access to secret archives. The other document that fills the last piece of the puzzle is report DS/24/1556 which can be found in HW 40/222 ‘Poland: reports and correspondence relating to the security of Polish communications’. This report is a summary of the Polish decodes found in captured archives of OKW/Chi and reveals that some decodes were on the link London-Berne on a system identified as military attaché cypher Poldi 4. The report says ‘The Berne military attache traffic mostly dates back to June 1943..

So by all accounts Flicke and reports I-31 and I-118 seem to be very accurate!

The real culprit

The main problem, as I see it, isn’t with the actual reports but with summaries such as the ‘European Axis Signal Intelligence in World War II’ volumes. These suffer from a number of flaws:

1). They were written in 1945-46 with the material that was available at that time. This means that they did not have access to files and personnel that were located at a later date. For example important reports by people like Dettmann, Luzius, Marquart, Fenner, Flicke, de Bary, Kroeger, Praun, Lingen and others were not available.

2). The people who wrote them do not seem to have had a well rounded understanding of Allied, Axis and Neutral cryptologic systems and their evolution during the war.

3). There is no volume for the B-Dienst.

4). The information on the Forschungsamt is very limited.

5). The EASI volumes are not thorough. Important cases such as the compromise of the A-3 speech scrambler, the diplomatic M-138-A, the OSS strip and others are not examined in detail. If I had to guess I’d say that the authors considered that these systems were ‘civilian’ and thus the responsibility of their parent organization.

These problems can be circumvented by reading the original reports (those that are publicly available) but here the researcher faces the problem of time. There are probably close to 200 TICOM reports available online plus several other files that also deal with Axis sigint. Some of these files are quite large with hundreds of pages. Obviously if someone wants to read them all it will take some time!

Misunderstandings and confusion

Then there is the question of understanding the information. Just reading the reports doesn’t give all the details. For example if you learn that the Germans solved the US TELWA code what can you infer from that? What was TELWA? Was it an important system? In order to learn more you’ll need to check several reports that mention it and discover that it was the ‘US Telegraph code’.  With more digging you’ll finally identify it as the US War Department Telegraph Code 1942 edition. This was used in administrative traffic so it wasn’t top level but still it was an important system. There are similar problems in all the reports.

Many authors who have written about WWII signals intelligence do not have a solid understanding of what crypto systems were used by each country and at what level. Instead they just refer to the Enigma cipher machine and if there is a comparison with Allied equivalents it is with cipher machines such as SIGABA and Typex.

That is a grievous error. The Enigma was built in huge numbers and used by the German armed forces as their main cipher system. This was not true for the Allies.

The Americans used a small number of SIGABA machines in the period 1941-43. According to the official history ‘The Achievements of the Signal Security Agency (SSA) in World War II’, p41 in late 1941 75 M-134/M-134-A and 45 M-134-C had been distributed to the Army. Another report SRH-360 ‘History of Invention and Development of the Mark II ECM’ says that in October 1943 4.550 machines had been delivered (3.370 for the Navy and 1.180 for the Army).

The British used the Typex for top level communications but never had a large number of these. At the start of WWII less than 300 were in service and by May 1944 5.016 had been produced.

The Germans in comparison had more than 10.000 Enigmas at the start of WWII and built about 30.000 more. So if an author wants to compare apples to apples he’ll have to read up on the British book cyphers and the US Strip ciphers, not just their cipher machines!


My conclusion is that the TICOM reports are reliable provided that all of them are examined and especially the ones written by high ranking personnel. However in order for the information contained in them to be fully understood it is important that the reader is acquainted with the main cipher systems used by the major participants and their operational use and security.

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