Questions And Answers From World War 2

November 30, 2017 | No Comments » | Topics: main

How did the British manage to turn all the German spies in WWII? 

Once the British/Polish/French/allies had broken Enigma they knew of every single spy that landed in the UK. This allowed them to ‘meet’ them as they landed. The entire operation was called Operation Double Cross and was probably the most successful counterintelligence operations ever undertaken. There were 138 German spies sent to the UK and of them 40 (ish) were successfully recruited by the British as double agents. Most were taken to Camp 020 where they were given a choice: be a double agent or die. However, not all of them were executed, only those deemed useful and who refused. The rest were imprisoned.

There are a number of reasons why it was successful: Canaris had previously been prohibited from sending agents in to the UK but as soon as Operation Sea Lion was developed Hitler wanted a maximum effort put in to espionage in the UK. This left Canaris with little choice but to recruit from wherever he could. A lot of the agents were not necessarily loyal to Germany and definitely not to Hitler. Many were profiteers, adventurers, etc. None of them had much more than a basic course in espionage.

So, you have a bunch of people with little to no experience, and little to no loyalties, who are met at their landing points by people who knew everything about them (code names, objectives, etc), and who were skilled in turning agents. They were offered money and relative safety and all they had to do (simplified of course) was transmit cooked information to the Germans. Seems like a pretty good deal!

One of the most famous of these agents was TATE. He was the most successful of the German double agents and spent the war sending cooked information. The Germans thought he was a valuable asset and had no idea what was going on. Getting TATE turned also helped with learning the landing points of newer spies being flown in as most of them went through him seeing as Germany believed they had a solid spy ring sitting in the UK. Other agents included: BRUTUS (Polish), TREASURE (a French woman who was probably in it for the adventure), GARBO (Spanish entrepreneur), and TRICYCLE (Ukranian).

It really was a brilliant course of action but it could not have been done so successfully had it not been for a few blunders on the part of the Germans (to be honest, the Abwehr, for all of their work, were pretty keystone cop when it came to espionage): lax training, not being picky about who they sent over to spy for them, and, of course, their refusal to even entertain the idea that anyone could break Enigma. That really was their downfall. On the other side we have the skill of the British at turning agents, the promise of safety and a pretty good life considering that these turned spies were given well above and beyond basic UK rations and were wined and dined to keep them keen.

Sources and further reading:

Crowdy, T (2011) Deceiving Hitler: Double Cross and Deception in World War II

Jonason, T. and Olsson, S., (2012) Agent TATE: The Wartime Story of Harry Williamson

MacIntyre, B. (2012) Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

McKay, S. (2010) The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park

Shulsky, A (2002), Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence

Talty, S. (2012) Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day

Volkman, E., (1996) Espionage: The Greatest Spy Operations of the Twentieth Century.

Volkman, E., (1994) Spies: The Secret Agents Who Changed the Course of History




Was there a universal code of conduct in ww2 regarding firing upon medics?

No, not particularly. In some situations they were protected, but hardly enough to call it a “universal code”. I will note that there are numerous fronts and participants in the war, and I only concentrate on two here, so plenty to expand on, but yeah, the general answer is that respect was mixed at best. Even on the Western Front, where there was some degree of respect for the role that medics played, there was far from a guarantee of safety. In situations where medical personnel were clearly marked, and not impeding fields of fire, there was often a cessation of fire in their direction, and occasional ceasefires to allow for personnel from both sides to see to wounded men caught between the lines. Nevertheless though, putting aside the effects of impersonnel weaponry such as artillery, it was a very dangerous job, and when running out to tend to a wounded man, there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t be joining them as well. Looking at the American campaign from ’44-45, initially identification as a medic was by a brassard on the upper-arm with the ubiquitous Red Cross, but hard to see, and also easily dirtied, this mean that identification by the enemy was often dependent on simple recognition of what a soldier was going about doing, rather than more blatant visual cues. It wasn’t until November of ’44 that marking on the helmet became official – many personnel had already begun to do so informally – and the improved visuals did have a noticeable effect on the casualties suffered by the medical personnel themselves, indicating the general respect accorded by the Germans.

Still though, the ‘Red Cross’ painted on the helmet of the American medic and stretcher-bearers was by no means bullet-proof, and at least in some cases, it was reported that the markings only made them more tempting targets. Whether or not rumors were true that is was generally the Waffen-SS – who had a reputation for particular ruthlessness within American circles – that were doing so, every time a dead or wounded medic was found who had been shot in their marked helmet, it helped to fuel the rumor mills of targeting medical personnel.That said, the fears of targeting never reached a crescendo, and medical personnel for the most part continued to remain unarmed while in the field in respect of the strictures of their role, although some did deign to carry a pistol with their kit, although they seem to have been a minority. In any case, it is hard to be sure of the intentions of a bullet, and one that might have been a close miss recalled by a diarist – or a direct hit observed by a compatriot – could have been intentional, or it could have been accidental. It is hard to see just how many incidents go one way or the other, but certainly safe to say that even in the experience of the Americans, were many recollections do point to respect of medic’s inviolability, it wasn’t universal respect.

If anything though, this degree of respect – and it should be understood as a degree, not total – was something of the anomaly. Looking to the Eastern Front, there was a general lack of respect for what protections were meant to be afforded medical personnel, both by treaty and convention. Hospitals, ambulances, and other marked locations were often subject to shelling or bombing, and medical personnel on the frontlines similarly expected little in the way of respect. Expecting no quarter anyways, frontline medics (women, it should be added), thus would often arm themselves with pistols or submachine guns, and although fighting was not their primary role at the front, they nevertheless gave up whatever protections they otherwise would have been accorded as non-combatants by doing so. More than a few of the female medics also recalled after the war having stepped into combat positions briefly when another was felled. Valentina Zhdanova, for instance, related an occasion where a machine-gunner next to her had his hand shot off, and exhorted her to take over, which she did.

Likewise, for the Americans serving in the Pacific had an experience more akin to that of the Soviets than their compatriots in Europe. Ray Duffee recalled on during the battle for Tarawa, for instance, an attempt by a Japanese soldier to infiltrate American lines in a captured USMC uniform, caught by a sentry while making his way towards the medical aid on the beach station with a grenade. And while in Europe medics suspected Red Cross markings were sometimes a target more than a “Don’t Shoot”, medics and corpsmen in the Pacific were much more sure of that fact. Many would simply dispense with it, but their medical pouches still marked them, and stretcher-bearers would sometimes decide who had to up to the front, and certain danger, by drawing straws. Even the wounded found that when close to the front, their bandages made them targets to Japanese snipers, resulting in the need to dye bandages to blend into the surroundings better.

American medical personnel in the Pacific were also more likely to be armed, as the choice was a somewhat simpler one to make when there was a general lack of respect for their role from the enemy (although not all of course did so, as the recent “Hacksaw Ridge” illustrated). During Alaskan operations on Attu, for instance, many picked up arms from the dead and wounded to join the fray, with mixed results, resulting in the recommendation from the command that “that medical troops operating against Japs be armed with a carbine and given adequate instruction in its use and in the use of hand grenades” to better deal with the situation in the future. When landings were conducted on Kiska, most medics were armed and had undergone basic firearms training – for naught, since Kiska had already been evacuated by the Japanese.

So anyways, to again sum it all up, there was certainly no universal code respected with regards to the safety of medics and medical personnel. Some fronts saw them better respected than others, but there was no where in the conflict that it was done with a punctilious correctness.

Sources and further reading:

“The Medical Department: Medical Service in the War Against Japan” by Mary Ellen Condon-Rall

“Infantry Combat Medics in Europe, 1944-45” by Tracy Shilcutt

“Medic!: How I Fought World War II with Morphine, Sulfa, and Iodine Swabs” by Robert Joseph Franklin

“Battlefield Angels” by Scott McGaugh

“Soviet Women on the Frontline in the Second World War by Roger D. Marwick




Was it ever possible for Germany to win World War II?


In fact, in the 1939-40 war against the original allies of France, Poland and Great Britain, Germany did win

Today, we see these victories as inevitabilities. To the world in 1940, they were nothing short of unimaginable. These victories are not just tactical:
-Poland ceases to exist; 
-France’s Third Republic is replaced by the Nazi collaborationist Vichy government; 
-Great Britain’s forces are pushed off the continent, barely clinging to survival. 

By the summer of 1940, Hitler’s stage-by-stage plan (‘Stufenplan’) as dreamed in the 1920’s is coming to fruition:
 – Austria, Bohemia and Poland are now part of Greater Germany.
 – France and the Treaty of Versailles are neutralized.
 – The British, Hitler believes, are finished and will soon negotiate.

But the British don’t act as he thinks they should. They don’t negotiate after Dunkirk. While many of Great Britain’s leaders seek a negotiated agreement–actually, almost all of them— Prime Minister Churchill fights on.*
So, it is within this environment in Summer 1940 that Hitler orders the invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler orders plans for a lightning quick assault, much like the invasions of France and Poland. Besides, according to Hitler: “you only have to knock down the door [to the Soviet Union] and the whole rotten edifice will come crashing down.”

Hitler long had dreams of colonizing Eastern Europe and providing living space for the German people. But there are greater geopolitical considerations contributing to his decision:

1 – Hitler hopes the USSR’s defeat will force Britain to the negotiating table.  

2 – Hitler’s fear (as expressed in his Zweites Buch) is the threat posed by the ‘American Union’. In multiple table talks, Hitler alludes to the potential danger of a US-UK-USSR coalition. He knows Germany will lose such a fight (even though he fails to realize America’s industrial ability.) 

By speedily defeating the USSR in a surprise attack, Hitler hopes he can negotiate with Britain then rally his new Europe for the long-term battle against America (the final step of his unwritten ‘Stufenplan’). He may consider the “Judeo-Bolshevik” Soviet Union his most pressing enemy, but he considers America to be Germany’s greatest long-term threat.

But Hitler’s plans are botched because:

1. Hitler wastes time saving Mussolini’s failed campaigns in North Africa and South Europe. Instead of Spring 1941, Barbarossa is launched in late June. Precious time and resources are wasted in what amount to distractions. 

2. Hitler fails to consult the Japanese on the invasion of Russia. The million-man, highly regarded Kwantung Army does nothing in support of Operation Barbarossa. Hitler fails to consult the Japanese, even though Japan has a long history of territorial ambitions in Siberia; even though Japan needs natural resources which Siberia has in abundance; and even though Hitler later declares war on the United States in hope that Japan will return the favor by attacking Russia. 

3. Hitler never solidifies Operation Barbarossa’s strategy for success. Originally, Barbarossa’s central plan is defeating the Red Army. Then, it is the capture of Leningrad. Then, the capture of Moscow. Constantly Hitler’s personal interference foils the Wehrmacht’s operational abilities. Without a real strategy, the military wastes precious time transferring units from one front to another based solely on Hitler’s personal anxiety.

And in 1943, FDR, Churchill and Stalin meet in Tehran. Stalin toasts the occasion: “To American production, without which this war would have been lost”.