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AS A LANGUAGE SPECIALIST IN U.S. Army intelligence, “I was a natural,” quips 96-year-old Max Horlick. His Russian-Jewish parents raised him in New Jersey among immigrants speaking German, Italian, Polish, Czech, and Hungarian; he practiced French with Cyd Charisse’s future mother-in law and studied languages at Rutgers and Columbia. Before the Battle of the Bulge, Horlick’s Mobile Field Interrogation Unit—MFIU #1, stationed on the Meuse River—was among American army intelligence units alerting Allied leaders to growing German threats. Horlick resents analyses that blame the Bulge on intelligence failures. Citing books and documentaries using recently declassified files, Horlick bristles. “We sent a stream of reports,” he says. “They were ignored.”

How did you get into intelligence?

I was drafted in late 1942, right after I got married. For months, they kept moving me around. My wife, who, with her parents, was a German refugee, managed to come with me—quite a feat. I kept taking tests, and scored so high guys called me “The Brain.” Finally, they sent me to Haverford College to study Italian as part of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP); we spoke Italian 24/7 because we were going to be in Italy’s military government. One day my wife and I came back from a New Jersey visit. At the railroad station the first sergeant said, “Horlick, what the hell are you doing here? The entire ASTP was cancelled; everybody’s gone.”

Did your wife go with you to your next post?

Yes; we wended our way to Blue Ridge Summit in Maryland, and I reported for duty. Fort Ritchie was a top-secret intelligence camp; everybody was there because of languages. My wife was classed as an enemy alien but I got top-secret clearance. Go figure. We memorized the order of battle of all the armies: Russian, British, German, Italian, and French. We studied photo interpretation, interrogation of prisoners, and so on. We solved field problems, like sitting in the woods for nine days under simulated battle conditions. Or being driven into the mountains and dropped off with an unmarked map, with three hours to locate ourselves and get five miles to our trucks. If we missed the spot, we had to walk 20 miles back to camp. We were tested on every weapon there was. Soon everybody shipped out— except me.

What happened?

I had to wait for a second round of training called French MII—everything we’d learned and then some, all in French. We had specialized training in counter intelligence. One class taught us how to work secretly among a civilian population. During one session, three men rushed in, grabbed the instructor, and dragged him out. We were appalled. Then we were asked, “How many men seized your squad leader?” Believe it or not, we couldn’t agree. That taught us about the differing testimony of eyewitnesses and not to accept statements as fact.

In late fall 1944 you landed at Normandy.

I was a tech sergeant—five stripes. I was in France briefly, and then was sent to Belgium. How I got there was quite a story. At Fort Ritchie, 95 percent of the people involved in my work were foreign-born and highly intelligent. But as usual in the army, there was a glitch: these people weren’t fluent enough in English to write reports. The army was desperate to find some American-born Ritchie person. One day I was called behind a mysterious door; two American majors talked to me in German for half an hour. Next morning, I was put into an open truck and sent to Jambes, in central Belgium, where there was an immense enclosure with German prisoners. We were to interrogate them, and also monitor their conversations. This was utterly top secret; no one ever acknowledged it.

What was a typical day like?

One of us would get into a specially out fitted truck with a German, and talk with him casually and elicit information. We interrogated them about fuel depots, rail roads and transportation, and the location of individual units. The information was put on an immense situation map in our office showing the locations, astonishingly, of all the German units facing the Americans and British.

What were key factors in your prisoner interrogations?

Order of battle was very important. German uniforms, like American ones, had shoulder patches. A tank division’s shoulder patch would say panzer. So immediately we knew quite a bit about this tanker, because we had memorized the makeup of a panzer division. So we’d start talking about their battalion, and they’d be astonished we knew so much. Then we’d sneak in their CO’s name, and eventually their location. Also, they had books in their pockets with the history of where they’d been trained and stationed. So we didn’t have to start from scratch. We just had to know how to approach the information right in front of us, and try to use it to extract more. We never touched the prisoners during interrogations. Asking questions was the best way to find out things, if you knew how to do it.

In late 1944, intelligence units like yours picked up activity that foreshadowed the Battle of the Bulge.

We knew that 5th Panzer Army HQ had moved from deep in Germany to Koblenz on the Rhine, and that Fifteenth Army HQ had moved to Königshofen. We had reports that troops were streaming from east Germany to the Belgian border—that major German divisions, including the SS Wiking and Grossdeutschland Panzer divisions, were moving into the Eifel Mountains. We knew Poles and Russians were being placed in German infantry units. We knew that what became 6th Panzer Army, the attack’s spearhead, was forming around Thuringen. Large numbers of SS troops were reported in west central Germany in fall 1944. Contrary to general belief, we knew that large synthetic fuel plants, refineries, and dumps in Germany had either not been bombed or had been repaired. Reports on German railroads emphasized that although the system was under a strain, it was operating efficiently.

What do you say when people blame the Bulge on intelligence failure?

I tell them the army intelligence sources agreed something was up. We passed our reports up the chain of command. It seems like Omar Bradley and others thought the information was inconclusive. Certainly Ike did nothing.

What do you think happened?

I really don’t know. Common wisdom at the time was that the Germans were collapsing. I wonder: Policy makers in general—do they listen to basic intelligence? Or have they made up their minds in advance?

What happened in Jambes?

Our unit was not under any local commander. As the enemy advanced, we finally got orders to leave. The floor of our cottage was covered with top-secret documents, interrogation reports. When the Germans attacked and the front collapsed, we were told, “Just get outta there!” We were ordered to burn the documents, but paper doesn’t burn when it’s that densely packed. Finally we gave up and buried it all. The Belgian farmers were upset; we were ruining their orchards! That night, the Germans bombed the Meuse bridges; we sought refuge in tunnels in a nearby mountain topped by an ancient fort, Citadelle de Namur. Over our heads flew V1 rockets, which sounded like defective motorcycles. The mountain had a lot of iron in it, which threw the V1s off target. We got so used to hearing them we paid no attention—except when the motor stopped. Then you hit the ground and waited for the explosion.

After a couple of horrible weeks, the tide turned.

As the Bulge collapsed, there were more and more prisoners; finally there were 40,000 at Jambes. The bridge across the Meuse had been bombed, but there was a weir crossing it, so one day we returned and discovered Jambes was now a bombed-out hellhole. Knowing what we did, we realized how lucky we’d been. I can’t describe the feeling of relief when the battle ended.


Originally published in the December 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.