The intercepted communications of an American in Cairo provided a secret ear for the Desert Fox.
By Wil Deac
During the 1941-1942 tug of war for North Africa, the British benefited from radio-intercept-derived Ultra information. Despite that Allied advantage, however, for six months and 11 days the Germans enjoyed an even speedier, more across-the-board intelligence source. It was what Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the legendary Desert Fox, called die gute Quelle (the good source). It also was known as “the little fellows” or “the little fellers,” a play on the name of its unwitting provider, Brevet Colonel Bonner Frank Fellers. Fellers, a 1918 West Point graduate who previously had served in America’s embassy in Madrid, Spain, was the U.S. military attaché in the Egyptian capital of Cairo.
General Cesare Amè, head of the Servizio Informazione Militari (SIM, Italy’s military intelligence), approved a break-in of the still neutral American embassy in Rome in September 1941. Since Amè had keys to all the embassies in Rome, except for the Russian, it was a simple matter to gain entry at night. The burglary team consisted of two Carabinieri (national paramilitary police) specialists and two Italians employed by the embassy. One of the latter, messenger Loris Gherardi, opened the safe in the military attaché’s office.
Among the items inside were the Black Code (named after the color of its binding) and its super-encipherment tables. The material, used by U.S. military attachés and ambassadors worldwide, was taken to SIM headquarters, photographed and returned. The Italians now could read everything that the U.S. Ambassador telegraphed. Although they were allied with Germany, the Italians only gave their Axis partner sanitized versions of the American messages, not the code.
While the Nazis appreciated the Italian largess, they did not tell their ally that they had cracked the Black Code in the meantime. By the fall of 1941, the German Chiffrierabteilung (military cipher branch) intercept stations were snatching the dots and dashes of the Black Code from the airwaves. The intercept station specifically assigned to cover Egypt (Britain’s North African headquarters) and the United States, among others, was situated in medieval Lauf, just northeast of the Bavarian city of Nuremburg. There, on a 24-hour basis, 150 radiomen tuned receivers linked to six tall towers. The Lauf facility was backed up by a listening post near Berlin. Since the Mediterranean theater was then the war’s most active battleground, it was only natural that Lauf concentrated on Cairo. It was just as natural that attention focused on the American military attaché there. His reports were the most thorough.
Fellers was as dedicated as he was ambitious. Although it soon became apparent that he disliked the British, they needed American support and went out of their way to give Fellers what he wanted. As Fellers said, he knew that “if I was going to be a good observer and write good reports I’d better report what I saw myself.” He talked to British military and civilian headquarters officials, read documents and visited the battlefront, where “it wasn’t difficult to learn a great deal.”
Fellers composed long, usually pessimistic radiograms describing virtually everything he learned, encoded them and filed them with the Egyptian Telegraph Company for transmission across the Atlantic to Washington. Within an hour of their transmission from Cairo, the colonel’s Black Code messages found their way to German cryptanalysts’ desks. Another hour or two and they would be broken into readable text, ready to be retransmitted in a German code. Thus, a few hours after Fellers’ messages were sent, the data would be in Rommel’s hands. Chiffrierabteilung archivist Dr. Herbert Schaedel said that military headquarters “went crazy…to get all the telegrams from Cairo.” He pointed out that the most revealing, Fellers’ reports, were easily pulled from the hundreds of coded intercepts received daily. They were flagged MILID WASH (Military Intelligence Division, Washington) or AGWAR WASH (Adjutant General, War Department, Washington), and signed FELLERS. Schaedel recalled that the Desert Fox “each day at lunch, knew exactly where the Allied troops were standing the evening before.”
On December 7, 1941, Rommel’s Panzergruppe Afrika followed initial successes with a long retreat from near Tobruk west and south across Libya’s Cyrenaica to Tripolitania. There, the German and Italian units regrouped. There, also, beginning on December 18, the Desert Fox studied Fellers’ detailed reports, along with local intercepts. The latter came from his second secret ear in the enemy’s communications, his own 621st Signals Battalion mobile monitoring element commanded by Hauptmann Alfred Seeböhm. The British not only failed to frequently change their codes during this period but also displayed an unbelievable lack of battlefield radio discipline. According to Rommel’s chief of staff, they “were quite broad-minded in making speeches during combat, and we had the possibility of making important conclusions from their speeches.” On January 21, 1942, aided by intercepts telling him he had temporary front-line armored superiority, the Desert Fox launched an offensive–advancing an impressive 300 miles in just 17 days.
Die gute Quelle kept pace with the advance of Rommel’s forces, now elevated to Panzerarmee status, along Libya’s northeastern shore. On January 29, for example, Rommel received a full summary of British armored strength. Then he learned that more effective American-made M3 medium tanks would enter combat after mid-February. On February 6 the intercepts detailed, in addition to unit locations, the establishment of a heavily mined British defense line stretching from Gazala on the sea to the oasis at Bir Hacheim. From that line, the British intended to launch a decisive counteroffensive. With his 560 tanks (including 240 obsolete Italian ones) against his opponent’s 700, Rommel pre-empted the Allies by unleashing a daring assault on May 26. His main force swept south parallel to the defense line, swung east around its Free Frenchheld anchor at Bir Hacheim and then pivoted back north against the British positions.
Axis momentum slowed as supplies dwindled, due mainly to an overextended and inadequate logistical system. The key to British success in interdicting the Axis’ Mediterranean convoys was the island of Malta, situated just west of the principal Axis sea lane. German and Italian aircraft pounded the little island, dropping some 9,000 tons of bombs during a two-month period. Fellers’ cables made only too clear the island’s perilous position and predicted its surrender if the bombardment continued and supply convoys failed to reach it.
In June, the British decided to sail two convoys simultaneously from Alexandria in the east and Gibraltar in the west, respectively code-named Vigorious and Harpoon, in a full-scale attempt to relieve Malta. A vital part of the operation was the neutralization of Axis ships and aircraft. Toward this end, air raids were scheduled against key enemy bases. In addition, numerous airfields would be attacked by parachute and ground elements to destroy bombers before they could be flown against the convoys. Fellers efficiently reported this. His cable, No. 11119 dated June 11, was intercepted in both Rome and Lauf. It read, in part: “NIGHTS OF JUNE 12TH JUNE 13TH BRITISH SABOTAGE UNITS PLAN SIMULTANEOUS STICKER BOMB ATTACKS AGAINST AIRCRAFT ON 9 AXIS AIRDROMES. PLANS TO REACH OBJECTIVES BY PARACHUTES AND LONG RANGE DESERT PATROL.” British and Free French raiders went into action behind the lines in Libya and on the island of Crete. At most bases, they were slaughtered. There was success only where Fellers’ unwitting early warning was not received, was ignored or was ineptly handled.
Operation Harpoon’s six merchantmen and their escorts were continually beset by Axis air and surface attacks between June 14 and 16. Only two cargo ships reached Malta. Vigorous, the larger eastern convoy, including 11 merchant ships, incurred serious losses before turning back to Egypt.
On land, meanwhile, superior leadership, communication and use of intelligence enabled Rommel’s Afrika Korps to drive the British Eighth Army out of Libya into Egypt. By the end of June, Rommel’s juggernaut was about 90 miles from Alexandria. Just beyond lay Cairo, the Suez Canal and Palestine.
The opposing war machines, like boxers pausing for a breath, stopped to face each other along parallel lines running southwestward just outside the town of El Alamein. Adolf Hitler, optimistically discussing the expected capture of Alexandria, said, “It is only to be hoped that the American [Fellers] in Cairo continues to inform us so well over the English military planning through his badly enciphered cables.”
Inevitably, the British came to realize that sensitive information was leaking to the enemy. The Afrika Korps was still blitzkrieging the Cyrenaican coastline when security officers approached Fellers to, in his words, “see my security measures for the [Black] code.” Fellers, however, apparently allayed any suspicions the British might have had about his being the source of the suspected leaks because they directed their investigation elsewhere. At least five suspicious-looking Axis signals had been picked up by Allied stations beginning on January 25. One actually cited “a source in Egypt.”
Then, on June 26, a German radio station broadcast an evening drama offering “scenes from the British or American information bureau.” Nazis listened aghast as the radio play featured an actor portraying the U.S. military attaché in Cairo and described his gathering of information to relay to Washington. Thirty-six hours later, on June 29, Rommel lost his “gute Quelle.”
Whether or not the incredible radio broadcast alone had allowed the Allies to pinpoint the cause of the leak, Colonel Fellers left Cairo in July after a tour of nearly 21 months. Assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Washington, he was, recalled a colleague, “the most violent Anglophobe I have encountered.” Fellers was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the citation recognizing his reports as “models of clarity and accuracy.” Given the temporary rank of brigadier general, he next was assigned to the Southwest Pacific theater. After V-J Day, Fellers became military secretary to General Douglas MacArthur, with whom he had been friends since serving under him in the prewar Philippines. Fellers died of a heart attack in Washington, D.C., in 1973 at the age of 77.
Fellers’ successor at the Cairo embassy encoded reports to Washington in the M-138 strip cipher, which Axis cryptanalysts had not broken. Rommel nevertheless could take heart from one of Fellers’ last radiograms. It described “considerable British panic” in Cairo because of the Axis presence at the capital’s doorstep. On July 10, however, with Rommel’s main forces lured well inland in the ninth day of a new offensive, the Australian 9th Division charged his Tel el Eisa salient overlooking the sea.The defending Italian Sabratha Division was mauled in the attack, and the 621st Signal Battalion’s tents, radio vans and antennas were overrun.
Seeböhm was mortally wounded in the fighting. The papers in his camp told the Allies just how much tactical information they had lost due to poor radio security since early 1941. Captured documents also confirmed the part played by Fellers’ reports in the Axis strategy.
As a sidebar to the North African intelligence war, controversy still exists over whether or not intercepted communications resulted in the death of the officer Winston Churchill selected to head the Eighth Army’s forthcoming counteroffensive against Rommel. On August 7, Lt. Gen. William Gott, who had been involved in the earlier Gazala defeat, was flying in a Bristol Bombay aircraft to take up his new command. As it prepared to land at El Alamein, the unescorted transport was ambushed and destroyed by six Messerschmitt Bf-109Fs. Gott’s place was taken by General Bernard Montgomery, who, though controversial, was considered a far abler officer.
The Desert Fox’s change of fortune came with the double loss of Fellers’ cables and Seeböhm’s expertise. The Axis divisions, virtually ignorant of what was transpiring on the other side of the lines, threw themselves against the Allied defenses from July to early September without success. Then on October 23, 1942, to the thunder of a thousand cannons, Montgomery, aided by information from an improved and more efficient Ultra staff, began the offensive that pushed the surprised Afrika Korps back for the last time. As one historian noted, the Fellers intercepts had “provided Rommel with undoubtedly the broadest and clearest picture of enemy forces and intentions available to any Axis commander throughout the war.” *