On September 1, 1939 World War II began when Germany invaded Poland. While Poland was completely defeated within a month, the one advantage Poland had was intelligence. Until 1938 Poland was able to read almost all of Germany’s military radio traffic, and even at the outbreak of the war Polish agents were able to read about 10% of German Army and Luftwaffe (air force) traffic. This was because Polish mathematicians had managed to break German military codes from the supposedly unbreakable Enigma encoding machines.
This fact would help the Allies eventually defeat Germany, and highlights the importance of military intelligence.
While the Treaty of Versailles prohibited Germany from establishing an intelligence organization, the Abwehr was set up as the military intelligence service for the Reichswehr in the 1920s, and later served the Wehrmacht. It was expanded under the Nazis, and the Abwehr proved efficient in the early stages of the war, collecting information on Danish and Norwegian ports and determining the size and strength of each nation’s military forces prior to the German invasions.
The success of the Abwehr was limited by one human factor: Its chief, German Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, hand-picked a staff more loyal to him than to the actual German government.
As the war progressed, German intelligence gathering efforts became a serious problem. The estimates of troop strength of the Soviet’s Red Army were low, while intelligence gathering in the North African campaign was a paramount failure. By the middle of the war the Allies had were successfully reading German codes – including those from the more advanced Enigma machines.
By comparison the Allies – notably the British and Americans – used military intelligence to great success. The American military was able to break the Japanese Imperial Navy’s codes, and the British seemed a step ahead of the Germans in Europe. Yet even the Allies had notable shortcomings.
Levels of Intelligence
One big misconception about intelligence in World War II was that the information that was read by the Allies actually made a difference to the troops doing the fighting. In many ways the high level chatter really didn’t have an impact on the average infantrymen or tank commander.
“We have to understand the difference between strategic intelligence and tactical intelligence in wartime,” explained military history consultant Captain Dale Dye, USMC (Retired).
“Strategic intelligence is breaking the Enigma code or the Japanese Navy’s codes, and this is where the high level decision making comes into play,” Dye told ClearanceJobs. “We were very good at breaking the codes. The problem was that the information didn’t often enough get translated into tactical intelligence that could be employed on the battlefield. We just weren’t that good.”
Where intelligence was good was in determining enemy strength, but this didn’t translate to the guys doing the fighting on the ground, added Dye. “One problem was that even in World War II intelligence was questioned, in general. There has long been paranoia in the intelligence community.”
Much of this has to do with the evolution of intelligence during World War II. While deception has long been part of strategy, and scouts were used to track the movement of the enemy – actual intelligence gathering by specific units is a rather new part of the military.
“Most services, including the United States Army, didn’t have an actual branch of intelligence during the war,” said Elizabeth Coble, program and education specialist at the National Museum of the U.S. Army.
“They were guys that were doing something else and they got pulled into intelligence,” she told ClearanceJobs. “What made it worse was that you had folks who didn’t think this was part of the career path, so you had infantry officers pulled into intelligence, and then they could be pulled back to infantry. It certainly wasn’t a career path the way intelligence can be today.”
Then there was the issue that many times those in intelligence didn’t hold a rank to make their voice have the necessary weight required to change minds, especially in wartime.
“What we saw were intelligence officers on the division staff that were three grades below the division commander, and on the brigade it is three grades below and on the corps level it could be four grades below,” explained Coble. “You had rank vs. knowledge vs. experience come into play – and you had professional experience vs. training that also came into play.”
There was the issue that the soldiers who served at the front lines often thought they “knew” the enemy better than those collecting the intelligence. “Combat arms side didn’t trust what the intel guys gathered,” Coble noted. “This is made worse by the fact that captains, majors and lieutenant colonels had to make (generals with) two stars and three stars, and in some cases four stars, understand and act on the intelligence. Even if you can make an airtight case, the senior person always gets the win.”
Operation Market Garden 1944
One battle 75 years ago this month, however, has cast a shadow on the Allies’ military intelligence gathering, and how even the best intelligence is useless if the leadership fails to act on it. This was Operation Market Garden, the campaign into the Netherlands in late September 1944 – an event highlighted in the film A Bridge Too Far.
As the movie title notes, the Allies’ plan – which called for American, British and Polish paratroopers to drop behind German lines to capture and hold a series of bridges while an armored column advanced up a narrow road – failed because the last and most significant bridge wasn’t captured. Nearly 17,000 Allied soldiers were wounded or killed, and while much of the southern Netherlands was liberated, the objectives weren’t met and it ended as an operational failure.
“It wasn’t an intelligence failure; it was a failure of leadership,” said Coble, who has studied Operation Market Garden throughout most of her professional career.
She noted that there are five steps that constitute the intelligence cycle: planning and direction; collection; processing; all source analysis and production; and dissemination. The Allied command, notably Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, choose to ignore the analysis when planning the operation.
Some authors in recent years have suggested that the British didn’t trust the reports from the Dutch resistance networks – arguably for the reasons that these had been compromised earlier in 1944. Despite that fact, American leadership took Dutch intelligence into consideration during Operation Market Garden.
“The Americans felt the Dutch resistance was among the best at providing intelligence,” explained Coble. “But the British had to explain why Market Garden ended in failure, and the Dutch resistance was an excuse piece. Was the intelligence perfect? Of course not, but we must remember that the intelligence is only as good as it is considered by leadership and acted upon. The British threw out the baby with the bathwater, and not trusting the intelligence was an excuse of convenience.”
But even if the British had relied on the intelligence it might not have impacted the outcome of the battle – once the mission was a go there were other failures (many not addressed in the movie’s telling of the battle, which unfortunately has been the “go-to” for many armchair historians).
“The best laid plans don’t survive the first round down range,” said Dye, who served three tours of duty in Vietnam, including as a combat correspondent. “That goes back as far as military history goes, and we have tended to be inflexible, and that is not a brilliant way to go. No matter how much intelligence you have, the enemy still gets a vote! And that is where even the best intelligence won’t win a battle.”