In this Spy Ships series, Holmes begins with the early days of naval espionage, In the Beginning, and continues with The Golden Age of Spy Ships, The US Navy Comes of Age, and Spy Ships in the Civil War, Spy Ships through WWI and the Price of Ignoring Intelligence. Today, Holmes looks at the role of Spy Ships leading up to World War Two.
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Spy Ships and the Path to WWII
Treaty of Versailles, image from historyplace.com
At the conclusion of WWI, some participant countries were convinced that the world was now safe for democracy. They drastically reduced their huge military budgets in an attempt to develop viable national economies.
Germany, on the other hand, was convinced there would be another war, and that Germany would be victorious and vindicate itself from the defeat it suffered. Japan was convinced that large scale war would continue, and that it would continue to profit by it as it had done in World War One and its earlier wars with Russia, Korea, and China.
As for Russia, it was in the middle of a communist revolution that surprised and frightened many Western governments.
In the political climate of the times, Spy Ships of one type or another were a natural occurrence. One of the most interesting Spy Ship operations of the Post WWI Era was carried out by the Royal Navy against the USSR from small bases in Finland.
The UK supported the White Russian faction against the Communist faction, but that support was limited by political realities at home. At that time the UK taxpayers, potential draftees, and their loved ones were certain that war could and should be avoided at nearly any cost. Also, the UK was having difficulty acquiring intelligence from inside of Russia. However, the Royal Navy managed to scrape together very effective operations against the USSR with very limited funds and even less political capital.
In that difficult political environment, the Royal Navy managed, with a handful of people, to set up a clandestine torpedo boat base in Finland. With it, the UK was able to keep the Saint Petersburg port and the large Russian Baltic Fleet under effective surveillance.
The UK used the torpedo boats at night to transport agents into the USSR through the heavily defended Saint Petersburg sea island fortress network. They also extracted agents through the USSR who had been working for the British.
On one occasion, a very daring night raid with three torpedo boats managed to run the gauntlet of sea island fortresses and damage a Soviet war ship inside Saint Petersburg Harbor. The raid proved to be suicidal for two of the three attacking torpedo boats.
In 1930, in an attempt to prevent another world war, France, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US signed the London Naval Treaty. The treaty limited the number and tonnage of large war ships and the use of submarines. Because Germany was already severely limited in naval construction by the Treaty of Versailles, it was not invited to join the treaty. The Soviet Union declined.
The London Naval Treaty was a reasonable attempt at avoiding an expensive and dangerous naval arms race, but it could only be effective if all of the signers followed the terms of the treaty, and they could all be sure that they were all adhering to its terms.
By the time Japan signed the treaty in 1930, she already had plans to violate it and did so without hesitation. These violations were later confirmed by professional baseball player and American intelligence operative Moe Berg during a team trip to Japan. (See Not Bond, Berg. Moe Berg.)
France, Germany, the UK, and the US all had merchant ships entering each other’s harbors regularly and could easily observe any construction of large ships in each other’s ports. Japan, on the other hand, had closed off foreign traffic from its home waters and the waters of its ex-German possessions in the Pacific. This meant that normal Spy Ship operations conducted by intelligence operatives could not be employed against Japan.
Nazi Germany did not foresee any significant operations in the Pacific and was not greatly concerned with Japan’s naval construction. But France and the UK still had major colonial presences in the region and needed to gather intelligence concerning the growing Japanese military. As a Pacific nation, the US had a strong interest in acquiring intelligence on the Japanese military, but was also barred from major Japanese ports.
Necessity being the mother of invention, and espionage being the child of necessity, all of the above nations, including Japan, resorted to new naval intelligence methods. They, along with other nations such as the Netherlands, developed the practice of hiring merchant seamen from any country that had trade access with any target nation.
In some cases, trained intelligence officers were able to gain employment on merchant ships with useful shipping schedules and routes. In other cases, countries made efforts to recruit legitimate merchant seamen to moonlight as spies. In effect, each nation’s own ships became Spy Ships being used against themselves.
Some of the more ambitious merchant sailors were even collecting salaries from four or five governments simultaneously, and they reported whatever fanciful stories they thought their benefactors might enjoy hearing. The Japanese used this ‘reverse spy ship’ technique to great effect, and along with their land-based spies in the Philippines, Hawaii, and Singapore, they were able to accurately map the defenses of Manila Harbor, Pearl Harbor, and Singapore in preparation for attacks in December of 1941.
Next week, we’ll look at the role of Spy Ships in WWII.
Would you have taken money from several countries at once and made up reports?