Master Spy

Background

Major John R. Boker, Jr., U.S. Army (deceased), graduated from Yale University.  In May 1941, Boker accepted a commission to serve as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Infantry.  After attending the Infantry Officer School, the Army detailed him to remain as an instructor, where he served until October 1943.  Boker then attended the U.S. Military Intelligence Training Center (MITC) at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, for the Interrogation Course.  He remained an instructor in the German Section until June 1944, when he received orders to report to the British Army Strategic Interrogation Office outside London.

During the closing days of World War II in the Eastern Theater of Operations (E.T.O.), Captain Boker formed and then commanded an independent counterintelligence detachment known as the 6824th Detailed Interrogation Center, Military Intelligence Services (also 6824 DICMIS) to handle the interrogation and debriefing of German Air Force intelligence personnel who had surrendered to the U.S. Third Army.  As the Allies closed in on the Nazis, high-ranking German officers and civilians fell into the hands of American units.  Two issues became apparent to Captain Boker: the Allied effort would soon dissolve itself, and there was a rising threat to U.S. security by the Soviet Union.  Today, we credit John Boker for being the first allied officer to realize this.  He was also the first officer to recognize the value of recruiting captured German intelligence assets to work for U.S. intelligence agencies during the emerging Cold War.[1]

Chief among the former German officers recruited by Captain (soon promoted to Major) Boker was General-Lieutenant Reinhard Gehlen.[2]  Gehlen was a central figure in German intelligence.  By establishing a personal rapport with the General, Major Boker recognized Gehlen’s potential value to the American intelligence effort.  As it turned out, the highly intelligent German P.O.W. had in his possession an almost unbelievable stockpile of intelligence files on Soviet civilian and military intelligence assets and a well-formed nucleus of an anti-Soviet intelligence network — in place — that he was prepared to offer the United States in exchange for the safety of himself, his men, their families, and their intelligence resources inside the Soviet Union.

In this case, Major Boker worked outside regular military and intelligence channels (with the knowledge and approval of his immediate superior) to gather important German intelligence personnel from P.O.W. camps throughout Germany.  The information these prisoners provided included Soviet military manuals, the complete Order of Battle of the Red Army, digests on Russian industrial and economic strength, and information about an existing espionage network in Eastern Europe.

The Gehlen organization’s files saved the American Intelligence Community years of work, replicating their efforts by providing a ready-made base of intelligence from which to work in the early years of the Cold War.  Although Major Boker left the Army in 1946, he remained a member of the Army Reserve until 1953.  Major Boker’s story is recounted in the memoirs of Reinhard Gehlen, The Service (1972).  John R. Boker, Jr., passed away on 12 April 2003.

Much of the following information comes directly from the Report of Initial Contacts with General Gehlen’s Organization by John R. Boker, Jr., dated 1 May 1953.[3]

General Lieutenant Reinhard Gehlen c.1945

General-Lieutenant Gehlen

Reinhard Gehlen (1902 – 1979) was born into a Catholic family in Erfurt, Germany.  His father was a former army officer who worked for the Ferdinand-Hirt-Verlag publishing house, specializing in publishing textbooks for schools.  In 1920, after Reinhard gained his abiturium (secondary certificate), he joined the Reichswehr, which was the remnants of the Imperial German Army following World War I.

There is not much information available about Gehlen between 1920 – 1935, possibly explained by these facts.  After World War I, the Allied nations forced Germany to disarm and reduce their military.  More than this, however, the Allied powers imposed severe reparations payments on the German government totaling $33 billion ($568 billion today), which did not allow any spending for an armed force.  Consequently, promotions within the Army were very likely relatively slow.  It is entirely possible that Reinhard Gehlen served as an ensign and lieutenant for 15 years before becoming eligible for promotion to Captain.  In any case, by 1935, Adolf Hitler had advanced to national prominence and was no doubt planning on re-establishing the German military forces.

After Gehlen completed training at the German Staff College in 1935, the high command promoted him to Captain and assigned him to the German General Staff.  He served there until 1936 when he was reassigned as a staff intelligence officer with a German infantry division.  He continued to serve in that capacity when the German Army invaded Poland in 1939.  Subsequently, Gehlen advanced to major in the German Staff Corps.

A short time later, Gehlen became a liaison officer on the staff of Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, German Army Supreme Commander, where he earned a good reputation for intelligence and thoroughness in his staff assignments.  In late 1940, the high command transferred Gehlen to the staff of General Franz Halder, Chief of the German General Staff.  Gehlen’s promotion to lieutenant colonel became effective in July 1941, after which he received orders to serve on the eastern front.  Upon arrival, his commander assigned him as a senior intelligence officer, Foreign Armies East (F.H.O.).

In the spring of 1942, Gehlen assumed command of F.H.O.  Realizing that the organization could not provide quality intelligence data to his field commander, he reorganized F.H.O. to include Russian linguists, geographers, anthropologists, lawyers, and junior officers who understood that the Russians were not Slavic monkeys, as many Germans at the time viewed the Russians.

In the summer of 1944, Colonel Henning von Tresckow, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, and General Adolf Heusinger visited Gehlen, asking him to join their plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  Without entering the group officially, Gehlen remained in the background while authorizing the plotters to formulate their plans while he provided them with cover.  Fortunately for Gehlen, when the bomb plot failed, Gestapo agents overlooked the possibility of Gehlen’s involvement.

As chief of intelligence (F.H.O.), Gehlen was responsible for producing quality intelligence concerning the Soviet Army, frequently dismissed by Berlin as an example of defeatism.  Even though Hitler promoted Gehlen to General-Lieutenant in early 1945, he fired Gehlen in April.  This was Gehlen’s impetus for saving himself, his men, and his spy network inside the Soviet Union.  F.H.O.’s military and political intelligence collection were massive — more than enough to assure his survival in the post-World War II world of the Cold War.  This information was copied to microfilm, stored in watertight containers, and buried at various locations in the Austrian Alps.  Try to imagine fifty waterproof cases filled with microfilm material. 

General Gehlen surrendered to the Counter-Intelligence Corps (C.I.C.) in Bavaria and turned over to Captain Boker at Camp King.  Realizing Gehlen’s potential, Captain Boker removed Gehlen’s name and the names of all his men from P.O.W. lists.  Seven other former senior F.H.O. officers joined Gehlen.  Boker managed to locate and transfer Gehlen’s documents to Camp King without the knowledge of the Camp Commander.  Armed with this treasure, Boker received the support of Brigadier General Edwin Sibert, the intelligence officer of the 12th Army Group who, with the assistance of General Walter Bedell Smith, William Donovan, and Allen Dulles, evacuated Gehlen and his most-senior assistances to the American Zone in Berlin.

U.S. authorities released Gehlen in July 1946 and returned him to occupied Germany.  Operations against the Soviet Union began in December.  Gehlen and his men were known as simply the Gehlen Organization, or “The Org.” The service was composed of former intelligence officers of the Wehrmacht, the S.S., and S.D. headquartered near Frankfort and later near Munich.  None of those individuals was required to appear before a post-war tribunal.  Their “cover” was a fictitious agency known as the South German Industrial Development Organization.  Gehlen Org grew from 350 ex-intelligence officers to more than 4,000 anti-communist secret agents.

The Gehlen Organization

While working for the U.S. government, Gehlen was subordinate to U.S. Army G-2 (Intelligence).  It was an arrangement he deeply resented because the Army’s intelligence network and the people involved in it were, in Gehlen’s opinion, among the least competent in the entire world.  At the end of 1947, Gehlen arranged to transfer his organization to the Central Intelligence Agency.  The importance of this network within the C.I.A. cannot be over-emphasized.  Between 1945 – 1991, Gehlen’s agents were the only U.S. spy assets in the entire Eastern Bloc.

Between 1947 and 1955, Gehlen’s agents interviewed every German P.O.W. who returned from captivity in the Soviet Union and established close contact with anti-Communist Eastern European organizations and communities.  They observed rail systems operations, airfields, and ports inside the Soviet Union.  Gehlen’s secret agents penetrated every one of the Soviet Republics, including Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the security and efficacy of the Gehlen Org were compromised by East German security, who not only penetrated Gehlen but pumped much information back to the Soviet K.G.B.  Eventually, the moles were identified, arrested, convicted, and thrown into jail — but the damage was catastrophic because the K.G.B. had also infiltrated the American C.I.A. and Britain’s S.I.S. (MI-6).  Gehlen’s failures were resented by the British, more than likely because he was a former German officer and because the British press made its government’s officials miserable by publishing the entire story of the Gehlen Organization.

German Federal Intelligence Service (B.N.D.)

Eleven years after the end of World War II, the C.I.A. transferred the Gehlen Organization to the Federal Republic of Germany.  In this way, the Gehlen Organization became the nucleus of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (B.N.D.), with Gehlen serving as its head.  In 1968, scandals forced Gehlen out of office.  Gehlen’s refusal to correct reports with questionable content strained the organization’s credibility and reliability.  The B.N.D. had become corrupt.  At one time, Gehlen had sixteen family members on the organization’s payroll.  The fact that the BND could score some success despite interference from the East German Stasi, internal malpractice, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and political infighting was due entirely to certain staff members who took it upon themselves to step up to remedy the problem.

Lieutenant General Reinhard Gehlen died from prostate cancer on 8 June 1979.  According to a C.I.A. analysis of the Gehlen affair, “Gehlen’s descriptions of most of his so-called successes in the political intelligence field are, in my opinion, either wishful thinking or self-delusion.  Gehlen was neither a good clandestine operator nor a particularly good administrator.  And therein lay his failures.  The Gehlen Organization/BND always had a good record of collecting military and economic intelligence on East Germany and the Soviet forces there.  But this information, for the most part, came from observation and not from clandestine penetration.” ~Unknown

The criticism seems somewhat disingenuous, given that the United States had NO eyes on the ground in 1945 and had no idea whatsoever about Soviet intelligence operations.  General Gehlen and his organization fixed that problem.  We can certainly quibble about the correctness of using a former enemy to advantage the United States over the Soviet Union, but this is not the least of the U.S. government’s sins in the post-war period.

According to the C.I.A., whose unmitigated disasters would fill up the New York City phone book, General Gehlen did not meet their expectations.  Success has a thousand fathers; failure is a bastard.

Sources:

  1. Boker, J. R. Jr., Report of Initial Contacts with General Gehlen’s Organization.  1 May 1952.
  2. Cookridge, E. H.  Gehlen: Spy of the Century.  Hodder & Stoughton, 1972.
  3. Hastings, M.  The Secret War: Spies, Codes, and guerrillas 1939-1945.  William Collins, 2015.
  4. Reece, M.E.  General Reinhard Gehlen: The CIA Connection.  George Mason University, 1990.
  5. The C.I.A. and Nazi War Criminals: National Security Archive Posts Secret C.I.A. History, information released under Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act.  Tamara Feinstein, Editor.

[1] General George Patton found himself in hot water with his superiors for making a public statement regarding the value to using captured German soldiers to put Germany back together again following World War II.  It wasn’t the idea that upset his superiors, it was the fact that Patton had unknowingly stumbled over the feet of Boker’s program. 

[2] General-lieutenant in the German Army was roughly equivalent to Brigadier General in the U.S. Army.  Once Germany promised to behave itself and was re-admitted to the family of nations, its military structure incorporated the generally recognized rank structure of NATO, and, in time, Gehlen was promoted to Lieutenant General in the new German Army.

[3] If keeping the Gehlen Organization secret from the prying eyes of the Soviet Union wasn’t difficult enough, Boker found himself in the center of a major internal war within the U.S. Army (ETO) and Army headquarters in Washington.  Truman, having been given poor advice by several senior Army officers (and his own peculiar biases), directed the “immediate” disestablishment of the Office of Strategic Services following Germany’s surrender on 7 May 1945.  It was not only a war for power and influence within the Army, but it was also an Army fight with the Navy over the issue of re-forming a national intelligence agency.  Complicating the problem, even more, was a full press effort by the K.G.B. to gain access to as many secrets (and German scientists) as possible before the Americans could counter their efforts.


About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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1 Response to Master Spy

  1. Andy says:

    Not sure it’s a simple quibble to argue “about the correctness of using a former enemy to advantage the United States over the Soviet Union.” It sounds more like the old debate over whether the end justifies the means.

    It’s beyond dispute that Gehlen’s post-war work served to help create a firm foundation for the U.S.’s intelligence community of today.

    Liked by 1 person

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