In this Spy Ships series, Holmes begins with the early days of naval espionage and brings us through to the present. (See articles listed below.) Today, we take a look at spy ships during WWII.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Spy Ships During WWII
The Germans succeeded in setting up several large spy rings inside of the US. The largest known German spy ring operating in the US was the Duquesne Spy Ring lead by Captain Fritz Duquesne. (Those of our readers who remember our Boer War Series might remember Duquesne for his possible involvement in the sinking of the HMS Hampshire during WWI.)
Fritz Duquesne, image from fbi.gov
The Duquesne Spy Ring had thirty-three known active agents and was able to plant several well-trained spies on US passenger liners where they acted as couriers while also spying on key passengers and conducting reconnaissance of British, French, and US ports. The ring was rounded up by the FBI in 1941 and convicted. Luckily for them, their sentences were handed down three months before Pearl Harbor and the US entry into WWII so they were comparatively light. They ranged from two years to fourteen years, and one woman convicted of aiding received only a year and a day.
While the US, Great Britain, and France had failed to gather adequate intelligence against the rapidly growing Japanese military prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, once the Japanese attacked, a new US attitude quickly developed in Congress, in the military, and among voters.
The US lacked the means to conduct long range airborne intelligence against Japan and could not safely sail ships close to Japan prior to 1945. Instead, from 1941 to 1944, the US relied heavily on its submarine fleet for any Spy Ship operations against the Japanese Empire. The submarine fleet was used to survey coastal defenses and to land agents in the Philippines, in China, and on very rare occasions on Japan.
The crew of the US submarine USS Barb conducted the only invasion of the Japanese homeland during WWII in 1945. They went ashore at night and were able to successfully plant a bomb on a coastal train line on the island of Hokkaido.
Germany used an ingenious ploy to plant a Spy Ship on the coast of India to report on British shipping and to act as a powerful transmitter station for relaying information from spies in India. In 1943, the German ship Ehrenfels, along with two other German ships and an Italian ship, anchored in Mormugao harbor in the Portuguese colony of Goa on the west coast of India. The Ehrenfels had a hidden radio room with powerful transmitters that escaped Portuguese inspection. Its operation was assisting German submarines in hunting down British convoys and contributed to the sinking of eleven British merchant ships.
The British SIS was badly short handed in India, and in what might have seemed like a foolish move, they accepted the volunteer services of the aging retired members of the Calcutta Light Horse Regiment in Calcutta. In a low budget operation, they put to sea in a rickety motor barge, sailed to Goa, and conducted a successful night boarding operation of the Ehrenfels. After subduing the German naval crew, the British scuttled her. For thirty-five years, the British denied the boarding party ever took place.
Germany also resorted to using submarines for intelligence gathering operations and to land agents in Canada, Ireland, the UK, and the US. Germany conducted successful radio intelligence operations against Canada and the US by using a specially equipped submarine to monitor radio traffic and to detect the frequencies and locations of US radar installations. The information was helpful for the subsequent landing of spies and saboteurs on the US mainland by German submarines.
Once Germany captured most of continental Europe, the UK routinely relied on submarines for conducting intelligence operations, but it also used its aircraft carriers for launching airborne reconnaissance missions. In one of Great Britain’s more amusing Spy Ship operations, British Naval Intelligence operatives posed as Canadian lobster fishermen in order to intercept German spies operating from the Atlantic coast of Canada. At night, they would drop pods with fake lobsters already inside and would retrieve them during daylight.
A British submarine off the coast of southern Spain conducted one of the UK’s most important intelligence missions during WWII. The British disguised a body as a British Army officer carrying an attaché case handcuffed to his wrist. They planted the body at night near the coast of neutral Spain, and it was discovered on the beach the next day by Spanish authorities.
The Germans were allowed access to the attaché case before the body and attaché case were handed over to a British consul officer. The attaché case contained false details for the D- Day Invasion of France and helped convince Hitler that the main landing would be in Calais.
Normandy Invasion, image from history.navy.mil
Based on that bad interpretation, Hitler, against the advice of his best generals, withheld armored reinforcements from Normandy until the allies already had 250,000 troops ashore there. Had the German reinforcements been released early enough against the allied forces in Normandy, the allied death toll of the Normandy Invasion would have skyrocketed.
After WWI, the Soviet Union maintained a war stance both toward itself internally and toward Europe, Japan, and North America externally. While other nations lagged behind in Spy Ship operations during this period, the USSR developed increasingly effective Spy Ship operations using Russian fishing trawlers and merchant ships. Some trawlers were well equipped for electronic intelligence missions, and it was standard procedure for Russian merchant ships to gather intelligence aggressively on any nation outside of the USSR.
Although Soviet Spy Ship efforts were substantial, Stalin more often than not ignored the intelligence that they gathered. In later years, the Soviets were to use Spy Ship operations to much greater effect, but that’s a story for another day.
Next week, we’ll look at the Post-WWII Era, which is the beginning of the Cold War.
If you had been invited to join in the attack on Goa by the retirees of the Calcutta Light Horse Regiment, would you have joined the party?
The Spy Ship Series: