JULY 2009 — The Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942 is celebrated as the beginning of the long march that ultimately ended the war in Europe. After the Operation Torch landings, Maj. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. made his first contact with the enemy, the U.S. Army got its first taste of battle against the Germans, and Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrikakorps was pushed back, for the first time, all the way to Sicily.
It’s possible, though, that all this came within a hair’s breadth of not happening. According to a newly declassified MI5 file released this spring by the British National Archives, a German spy operating from a Portuguese fishing boat was only days away from discovering the fleet en route to the Operation Torch landing sites before he was pulled from his ship and sent to a British prison camp.
British intelligence had been on the trail of Gastao de Freitas Ferraz, a Portuguese radio operator, for months. According to the documents, British spies had spent much of the summer of 1942 observing the ostensibly neutral Portuguese cod-fishing fleet, noting that some of the ships were sending out coded messages using sophisticated communications equipment. Decrypts of those messages revealed that Ferraz, serving aboard a ship called the Gil Eannes, was reporting on Allied shipping movements.
The British tried to detain him in October 1942 when his ship was docked in Newfoundland, but by the time they arrived the ship was already on its way back to Portugal—on a course that would take it straight into the Allied invasion force.
On October 28, only 11 days before the landings were scheduled to begin, the British sprang into action. “We have now obtained from the most secret sources, information which not only proves our suspicions but actually identifies the man concerned,” one MI5 official wrote to his superiors. “You will of course appreciate that if any action is to be taken, it must be taken forthwith.”
After some discussion about how the navy could board a neutral vessel in international waters, it was decided the stakes were too high not to act, and a British destroyer was dispatched to intercept the Gil Eannes. Ferraz was taken to Camp 020, a British interrogation center, where he confessed to spying and spent the rest of the war in custody.
If he had been able to alert the Germans to the size and direction of the Allied invasion force, there might well have been far-reaching consequences. German intelligence was convinced at the time that the Allies were headed for Malta or Dakar, says Christopher Andrew, a Cambridge University historian who is writing a history of MI5. When Allied troops began landing on the beaches in Morocco, the German military was caught completely by surprise. “If Gastao de Freitas Ferraz had not been captured…[he] would have told the Germans where they were really going,” Andrew says. “[That] could have affected the outcome of the whole war.”