By Jay Holmes*
On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on Great Britain. At the time, Great Britain lacked the resources to invade Italy, and Italy had no intention of invading Great Britain. However, the two enemies, along with France, had large colonial holdings in North Africa. At the time, the Suez Canal in Egypt was critical for Great Britain to connect the British Isles, Gibraltar, and Egypt to its colonial holdings in India, Ceylon, and Burma. Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini was confident that his forces, along with his German allies, could deal a major blow against the British from their bases in Libya, and perhaps threaten the British Suez Canal.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, image from the German Federal Archives
In general, the North African campaign of WWII is remembered as a series of battles. Great Britain dealt a decisive blow against the Italians in Libya. Germany sent reinforcements led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, aka the Desert Fox, who pushed the British back to the Egyptian border. Newly appointed British commander Field Marshall Montgomery led UK forces in a series of counterattacks. Those attacks were marginally assisted in the final phases by American landings in Morocco and Tunisia.
Conventional analysis of these battles emphasizes the skills of the opposing leaders. More in-depth descriptions also consider the logistical nightmares that both sides faced during the campaign. However, these assessments are based on well-researched analysis that was conducted without the benefit of certain classified information that was not released before 1970. When we consider the newer information, we learn that Erwin Rommel’s tactical genius and Bernard Montgomery’s inspiring leadership were heavily impacted by a variety of intelligence operations conducted by both sides.
Until July of 1942, Rommel, the Desert Fox, enjoyed a tremendous advantage over the British in the form of timely, detailed, and accurate intelligence about British dispositions, supplies, and intentions. This information came inadvertently from US General Bonner Fellers.
General Fellers was the US liaison with the British in North Africa. Over his objections, he was instructed to use the US diplomatic Black code to transmit messages to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Unfortunately, that code was stolen and copied by the Italians from the US Embassy in Italy in September of 1941, prior to the US entry into the war. As a result, Rommel’s staff read every word Fellers sent back to Washington before Washington read it. When Fellers was replaced in July of 1942, his replacement was permitted to switch his communications to US military cyphers. The Germans could no longer decipher the intercepted transmissions.
They turned to an Egyptian belly dancer for help. In the spring of 1942, a team of elite German commandos set out from Libya in US military vehicles captured from the British. Their goal was to infiltrate two Abwher agents, Johannes Eppler and his radio operator Hans Sandstede, into Egypt.
Eppler had a German mother and an Egyptian father and had spent most of his childhood in Alexandria and Cairo. He was well-trained and well-prepared for an operation in Egypt. After a grueling fifteen day trip through the desert, Eppler and Sandstede were dropped near the British Egyptian rail station at Asyut, Egypt.
The German spies made their way to Cairo where they used well forged documents and high quality counterfeit British cash to rent a house boat and set up operations. The crux of Eppler’s plans came down to one roll of the dice. He contacted an ex-girlfriend by the name of Hekmet Fahmy.
Hekmet Fahmy, image from bellydancemuseum.com
In 1942, Fahmy was the most popular belly dancer in Egypt. She had access to the best night clubs and parties attended by the elite of local British and Egyptian society. She was the most alluring female celebrity in that country and enjoyed popularity with dance fans across Europe. She was also trusted in the highest military and social circles. Fahmy recruited other popular belly dancers to assist Eppler, allowing him to operate one of the most successful honey traps of all time.
British officers and government officials mistakenly trusted Fahmy and foolishly revealed critical information. As Fahmy’s guests slept in her arms, Eppler searched their personal effects. By keeping track of which British officers from which regiments frequented the clubs, the Germans determined when particular units were being dispatched to the front.
In some cases, British officers and civilians revealed more detailed classified information that was then transmitted to Rommel’s headquarters. In effect, the Germans replaced an American general with an Egyptian belly dancer.
Thanks to the continued flow of high grade intelligence, the Desert Fox confounded British attacks with timely delaying actions and skillful withdrawals. Rommel’s tanks were outnumbered by now, but he could continually place them and their accompanying 77 millimeter anti-tank guns in ideal locations to deal with British movements.
After a few months of operations in Cairo, the British pushed back the Afrika Korps from El Alamein. Communications with Rommel’s headquarters became difficult. Eppler sought out the Egyptian Free Officer Corps, who were anti-British, to request assistance with passing information to Rommel. The young Egyptian officer who agreed to help was the future president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat.
In his 1957 book Revolt on the Nile, Sadat depicts Eppler and Sandstede as being too lazy and too concerned with their own pursuits of flesh. The depiction may have been unfair, as Eppler needed to appear to be a Scandinavian-American playboy in order to conduct his operations most effectively. If Eppler was in fact lazy, then we have to say that he was also fantastically lucky in his recruitment of Fahmy and his skillful use of her connections in gathering vital intelligence for the Desert Fox.
While Fahmy seduced British officers and Eppler fed their information to the Germans, the British simultaneously read and partially decrypted German military communications. They quickly became suspicious that German spies were succeeding in operations against them in Cairo. Either by managing too many local agents without insulation from themselves, or possibly because an Egyptian messenger was compromised, the British captured Eppler, Sandstede, and Fahmy.
With the defeat of the German intelligence operations in Cairo, combined with an increasing flow of Allied supplies and continued decryption of German military communications, the British were able to roll back Rommel across Africa. When the British captured 130,000 Germans in Tunisia in May of 1943, Rommel was on medical leave in Germany.
Rommel was tasked with organizing the German defenses on the French Atlantic Coast. However, he was implicated in a plot to kill Hitler. He committed suicide in exchange for his family being spared from persecution. The Nazis kept his betrayal of Hitler secret, announcing the Desert Fox had died of a heart attack. They gave Rommel a hero’s funeral.
Eppler and Sandstede were sentenced to death as spies, but Egyptian King Farouk intervened, and their sentences were commuted. They were released from prison after the war and Eppler became a successful construction engineer.
Fahmy was assumed to be an unwitting accomplice. She was sentenced to two and a half years in jail. She was unable to revive her career after her release, though she managed a few minor movie roles and invested her own money in a failed movie. The Egyptian Fox who did so much to aid the success of Desert Fox Field Marshal Erwin Rommel turned to Christianity for solace and spent long hours praying in church.
The North Africa campaign of WWII will always be remembered as a battle of supplies and opposing wits, and it was. But it was also a campaign greatly affected by the intelligence operations of both opponents, and for a while, the balance of it all was tipped by the weight of a single belly dancer.
Hekmet Fahmy in Rabab
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*‘Jay Holmes’, is an intelligence veteran of the Cold War and remains an anonymous member of the intelligence community. His writing partner, Piper Bayard, is the public face of their partnership.
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