Hitler's Spy Chief: The Wilhelm Canaris Mysteryby Richard Bassett
Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was appointed by Hitler to head the Abwehr (the German secret service) eighteen months after the Nazis came to power. But Canaris turned/b>/b>
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A remarkable tale of espionage and intrigue—the true story of Wilhelm Canaris, Hitler’s intelligence chief, and his role in the conspiracy to assassinate the Führer
Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was appointed by Hitler to head the Abwehr (the German secret service) eighteen months after the Nazis came to power. But Canaris turned against the Fu¨hrer and the Nazi regime, believing that Hitler would start a war Germany could not win. In 1938 he was involved in an attempted coup, undermined by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. In 1940 he sabotaged the German plan to invade England, and fed General Franco vital information that helped him keep Spain out of the war. For years he played a dangerous double game, desperately trying to keep one step ahead of the Gestapo. The SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, became suspicious of Canaris and by 1944, when Abwehr personnel were involved in the attempted assassination of Hitler, he had the evidence to arrest Canaris himself. Canaris was executed a few weeks before the end of the war. In a riveting true story of intrigue and espionage, Richard Bassett reveals how Admiral Canaris’s secret work against the German leadership changed the course of World War II.
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Hitler's Spy Chief
By Richard Bassett
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Richard Bassett
All rights reserved.
A NAVAL TRADITION
I wish to record my admiration of the very gallant and determined manner in which the Imperial German Navy fought. The courage and discipline of officers and men who put up such a good fight is unquestionable.
CAPTAIN J.D. ALLEN, HMS KENT, REPORT ON THE BATTLE OF THE FALKLAND ISLANDS 1914
The guns of the British cruiser opened fire. With the cool, almost nonchalant, delivery of a battle-hardened veteran, the fire control officer gave the range and watched for the fall of shot as the grey projectiles hurtled through the air towards their prey.
The German ship, lying icily calm in the sharp cold light, showed no sign of movement. Its profile cast a shadow on the rocks of the Chilean inlet that had afforded a welcome, if temporary, refuge from the vengeful determination of the most powerful navy in the world.
On the morning of 14 March 1915, the captain of HMS Glasgow could be forgiven for allowing himself a grim smile. As the precipitous bleak cliffs of Más-a-Tierra came into view, Captain Luce could make out the four funnels of the German light cruiser Dresden which he and many others had wasted months searching for, since the Battle of the Falkland Islands the previous December had sealed the fate of the rest of the German battle squadron in the South Atlantic.
As Glasgow's fire straddled the Dresden, the fact that the ship was in neutral Chilean waters offered no refuge; such legal niceties could, in Luce's memorable phrase, be 'left to the diplomats'. Here was, if not the closing of an important chapter in British naval history, at least a very long overdue removal of an irksome footnote.
And yet here, half a world away from the life-and-death struggle between Germany's and England's armies, this footnote had inflamed the tempers of politicians and admirals, including Winston Churchill. This drama, involving as it did a disproportionate amount of senior naval officer and political time, had, like a large stone cast into a calm pond, ripple effects that went far beyond events in the South Atlantic.
The Dresden had eluded the Royal Navy thanks to the brilliance of its intelligence officer. It was he who outfoxed his ship's pursuers and it was he who would, that crisp March day, deprive Luce of his prize. Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris, later head of Hitler's intelligence organisation, young and fair-haired but otherwise untypically German, was about to make his debut as a formidable opponent of British interests.
But to understand how such a seemingly insignificant event could be invested with such resonant echoes, it is important to delve a little more deeply into Canaris' background and the tradition that nurtured him – the Imperial German navy – and above all that force's duel with the Royal Navy in the South Atlantic.
It is one of the great ironies of the beginning of the twentieth century that the Anglo-German naval race, so often correctly described as one of the celebrated 'causes' of the First World War, actually contributed, at one level, to a tremendous mutual esteem between the two countries.
Notwithstanding the huge difference in traditions, pitting one service with five hundred years of virtually unbroken victory against a parvenu arm of barely a generation, the formal relationship between veteran and upstart was always cordial and respectful.
Nevertheless, elements of both sides saw a showdown as inevitable, especially after 1903 when plans drawn up in secret for the German navy to bombard Manhattan and land forces in New York failed to tempt London into any close alliance.* London chose to develop ties with Russia and France and to encircle Germany, preferring to deal with the nearer threat to her imperial interests. As an American officer remarked to a Royal Naval officer at the time: 'Make no mistake, we shall be fighting Germany in the next war.' But even those officers who were convinced that the next war would be between England and Germany found themselves united by the brotherhood of the sea and naval tradition. The Royal Navy set the ton for all navies of the world but especially for a service as ambitious as the new Imperial German navy.
A certain chivalry was an essential feature of the relationship and was never far from the surface, even when both navies fought each other as determined opponents from the first weeks of the war.
The opening sequence of events saw the tremendous engagements of the Coronel and the Falklands Islands: the first a devastating blow to the Royal Navy's pride, the second, a swift and decisive revenge. At the Coronel, a German squadron had destroyed a British force under Admiral Cradock in a humiliating action, all the more painful for it being so unexpected. At the Falklands, six weeks later, the Royal Navy pursued her revenge, sinking all but one of the German ships.
Both battles were, however, punctuated by fulsome respect on the part of both sides for their opponents' courage. These were, after all, old style engagements between worthy foes where gunfire and seamanship, unaided by aircraft, unencumbered by civilians, counted for everything in waters still free at that stage from mines and submarines. In these battles, effective gunnery killed hundreds in seconds. Broadsides fired at close range played havoc among crowded groups of men as they were mown down in heaps by shell splinters. Those who might have contemplated jumping overboard knew the water would numb them in seconds. Only the strongest mixture imaginable of courage, discipline and skill could enable such embattled humanity to fight on. Yet time and again the officers and men of a navy that had barely existed thirty years earlier showed that they were as capable of 'fighting and dying like Englishmen' as their opponents.
The reports of the engagement by British officers repeatedly testify to the courage of the enemy, while the Germans were no less chivalrous in their turn.
Thus, after Graf von Spee's squadron had destroyed Admiral Cradock's cruiser squadron at the Coronel, with the deaths of several hundred sailors including Cradock himself, a German consul who proposed a toast to 'the damnation of the British Navy' found himself suddenly frozen by the glare of his German naval guests.
Von Spee's response cut the cheerful victory celebration atmosphere with the skill of the surgeon's knife. 'I drink', he said, 'to the memory of a gallant and honourable foe.' Von Spee had known Cradock well before the war and both men enjoyed each other's company. Coincidentally, both men had premonitions of their deaths: Cradock, talking to the Governor at the Falklands, Von Spee*accepting a bouquet at Valparaiso. It should not be forgotten that both navies had cooperated on a number of occasions in the run-up to 1914, especially in South American waters when gunboats and showing the flag were an essential part of the old powers' economic and political influence in the new world. As Commander Pochhammer, the senior surviving German officer after the Falklands battle, wrote to Admiral Sturdee: 'We regret, as you do, the course of the war, as we have personally learned to know well during peacetime the English navy and her officers.'
Sturdee replied to Pochhammer: 'We so much admire the good gunnery of your ships. Unfortunately the two countries are at war; the officers of both navies who can count friends in the other navy, have to carry out their country's duties which your Admiral, Captain and officers worthily maintained to the end.'
In his official report, which was censored, as the face of the foe in wartime must show no humanity, Sturdee went even further: referring to the battered and blazing Gneisenau which though under a hail of fire from three ships on different bearings continued firing with what armament was still in action, even scoring a last hit on Sturdee's flagship Invincible as Sturdee gave orders to his ships to cease fire. He wrote: 'They fought magnificently and their discipline must have been superb ... we were all good friends after the fight and both agreed we did not want to fight at all but had to.'
These remarks alone testify to an intimacy and mutual admiration between German and British naval officers that transcended the variables of conflict and underline the strength of an already well-established relationship which had no counterpart at a military level between the two countries.
From the carnage of the Falkland Islands, one German ship, however, had made its escape: the cruiser Dresden, pursued doggedly but ineffectively by HMS Glasgow. Aided by darkness, mist and above all speed, this light cruiser managed by her survival to just take a bit of the icing off Admiral Sturdee's victory. For the next four months the Dresden was to become the focus of tremendous Royal Naval activity. It was to be many weeks before the full victory of the Falkland Islands could be enjoyed by any of its protagonists, whose mutual jealousies the Dresden seemed destined to exacerbate at every turn.
The chase that followed saw rather less generous exchanges of views between the Admiralty and Sturdee than those reserved for a gallant enemy. Rarely had such a search resulted in such a fraying of tempers at all levels of the Admiralty executive.
Captain Luce, commanding HMS Glasgow, had correctly noted that only the 'swiftest of actions could wipe the stain of dishonour from the Royal Navy's record' which the Coronel had inflicted. But there was more to it than that. Cradock's orders from the Admiralty, whose First Lord was Winston Churchill, had been so ineptly worded that the defeat of his inferior force by Admiral Graf von Spee was as much the result of a breakdown in Royal Naval staff machinery as superior German gunnery.
Churchill, who as First Lord left little conduct of naval operations to the First Sea Lord, is to this day largely held to blame.* The naval staff set up by him and Battenberg in 1913 had broken down miserably in the opening weeks of the campaign. Cradock was so ambivalently instructed that he felt compelled to give action even though his forces were unequal to achieving any decisive success. The subsequent victory at the Falkland Islands, six weeks later, only partly washed away the memory of this disastrous miscalculation.
Churchill's reputation had suffered. At an only slightly less exalted level, Admiral 'Jackie' Fisher, First Sea Lord, was also under tremendous pressure. The successful action of the Falklands did little to ease this. The sudden glory of his rival, Vice Admiral Sturdee, and his brilliant seamanship at the Falklands, threw Fisher's earlier staff ineptitude into sharp relief.
The escape of the Dresden from the Falklands engagement was thus a thorny issue. For Churchill, as long as the Dresden survived there was an ugly reminder of the defeat at the Coronel and an untidy blemish on the victory of the Falklands. For Fisher these considerations were mixed however with a degree of vindictive schadenfreude towards Sturdee, whose failure to find the Dresden could be used untiringly to detract from his earlier success. As long as Fisher could play up Sturdee's lack of success in finding the Dresden, the greater the chance that his own earlier technical shortcomings would not be explored in further detail.
As a result, an unusual amount of traffic, much of it heated, was generated by the failure – for more than three months – of the Royal Navy to track down the Dresden. Thus Fisher could signal Jellicoe, commander of the main batde fleet, of Sturdee: 'His criminal ineptitude in not sending a vessel to Punta Arenas has disastrously kept from you light cruisers now hunting the Dresden.'
This tone was reinforced in Fisher's signals to Sturdee, which kept up a veritable barrage of complaints about the failure to find the Dresden. Yet Sturdee gave as good as he got. Long explanations of his movements, justifying his failure to find the quarry, were signalled to the Admiralty, culminating in a memorably impertinent signal from a subordinate to a superior officer which even the usual terseness of encrypted correspondence failed to disguise:
'l submit.' signalled Sturdee, 'my being called upon in three separate telegrams to give reasons for my subsequent action is unexpected.'
Fisher responded with equal brevity: 'The last paragraph of your signal is improper and such observations must not be repeated.' Nor did Sturdee's difficulties with Fisher end with his re-posting to England. On his return to London, Fisher kept him waiting for two hours and then saw the 'hero of the Falklands' for a mere five minutes, during which he made no mention of the battle but dwelt only on the failure to catch the Dresden. Upon hearing later that day that Sturdee had been invited to Buckingham Palace by the King to give an account of the batde, Fisher promptly ordered Sturdee to depart for Scapa Flow immediately with the clear intention of preventing the audience. Regrettably of such bitter and ungenerous rivalries are great sea lords sometimes made.
Whether Captain Luce on the Glasgow was aware of this unedifying exchange is not known. He had his own reasons for setding scores with the Dresden. At the Coronel, Luce had had to flee from von Spee and during the subsequent Falklands battle, he had been detailed to pursue the Dresden when she broke off the engagement, but had lost her. He had thus been involved in every part of the humiliating saga.
It had been this failure which had tied up ships desperately needed elsewhere, because the Dresden, through a series of brilliant deceptions and counter deceptions, had always managed to outwit the Royal Navy. As Fisher acidly noted: 'If the Dresden gets to the Bay of Bengal, we shall owe a lot to Sturdee.'
In a sequence of dazzling false trails, the intelligence officer of the Dresden had not only refuelled and resupplied his ship, he had drawn off significant enemy forces, including HMS Inflexible, Glasgow and Bristol, all needed by the Grand Fleet in the North Sea. Moreover, he had bamboozled Royal Naval intelligence officers throughout Latin America and led a clutch of British agents, informers and consular officers a merry paper dance which had only served to highlight the shortcomings of naval intelligence as conducted by the Admiralty in London and its ships in the South Atlantic.
The intelligence officer on the Dresden responsible for this, from the Royal Navy's point of view, increasingly humiliating game of hide and seek, was barely into his twenties. Lieutenant Canaris was gifted linguistically – fluent in six languages – and comfortable in the ways of Spanish America, where he had served in the years before 1914 on the completion of his training as a cadet at Kiel in 1911.
Bribing local officials one day, sending false signals the next, Canaris was already making his first, admittedly cameo, but irritating appearance in the sights of the Royal Navy even before Luce's HMS Glasgow found the long sought-after silhouette of the Dresden that chilly March day in Cumberland Bay. Canaris' feints and counter-feints had already left a score of misleading and inaccurate signals referring to the movements of the Dresden.
Following the defeat at the Falklands, Berlin had suggested the Dresden try to return to Europe via the Atlantic, an option which her captain, Lüdecke, understandably saw as tantamount to suicide. Briefed by Canaris, however, Captain Lüdecke decided instead to put a different plan into action, which involved setting course in a northerly direction 200 miles off the Chilean coast. The Dresden would intercept what enemy merchantmen she could before finding refuge in the neutral waters of Chile.
Canaris' immediate need was coal, but the German supply ships would not answer his signals. By 12 December the light cruiser had reached Punta Arenas. Here Canaris was able to persuade the local authorities to allow her to remain for as long as it took to fill her empty bunkers. By a happy chance, the signal of the Chilean government which, under British pressure, denied the Dresden the right of coaling at all did not reach the authorities at Punta Arenas until the following day; not the last stroke of luck to assist Canaris.
In any event, Canaris was not keen to stay any longer than absolutely necessary. He knew that the ship's presence would be reported by the British consul, Captain Milward, and indeed it was: no fewer than five warships were sent to trap her.
As soon as the Admiralty learnt of Lüdecke's escape from Punta Arenas, Sturdee was signalled to 'Press your chase' and, should Sturdee have entertained any other alternatives to finding and sinking the Dresden, the signal noted that the 'Object is destruction not internment.'
But while the Royal Navy searched up and down the waters off Patagonia, the Dresden sought refuge in the lonely Hewett Bay and then the even more remote Christmas Bay. In Punta Arenas the intrepid Milward received news of the German ship's presence but his signal was discounted by both the Admiralty and Stoddart, who had taken over from Sturdee on the latter's return to England. In both cases Canaris had, by planting false information on local British agents, 'persuaded' his pursuers that he was somewhere else.
Excerpted from Hitler's Spy Chief by Richard Bassett. Copyright © 2011 Richard Bassett. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Richard Bassett has worked in the City for the last fifteen years advising several of Europe’s largest companies. Previously he worked in Central Europe for many years, first as a professional horn player and then as a staff correspondent of the London Times in Vienna, Rome, and Warsaw, where his dispatches covered the end of the Cold War and gave early warnings of the impending disintegration of Yugoslavia. He divides his time between London and the Continent.
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