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Case Studies

Security in history: the Japanese Intelligence Service in WW2

The latest in an occasion series on security topics in history, based on files downloadable free from the National Archives,at Kew in west London, not open to the public during the covid-19 pandemic lockdowns.

The end of the war in Europe in the summer of 1945 was the occasion for the Allied victors to reckon up accounts – as seen in the Hollywood movie The Monuments Men, seeking to find artworks stolen by the Nazis. For the security services of Allied nations, it was time to track down ‘war criminals’ and tie up loose ends generally. Hence interrogation of Nazis in general and those who had worked in the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) in particular, an agency created by the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, and their sources of intelligence, whether people or wireless intercepts; because the work of intelligence gathering is never ending, if only to learn how past enemies have done their business against their enemies (who might become your enemies).

Also, and more urgent, it’s easy to overlook now that Germany has been fully democratic since 1945 – the Allies at war’s end had fears that Nazi fanatics had laid plans to carry on after defeat on the battlefield, or at least to go underground; whether in the mountains of German-speaking countries, or in neutral or friendly nations such as Fascist Spain.

File KV2-412 from the National Archives is of the German intelligence agent and Viennese man Dr Wilhelm Hoettl and shows how the victorious Allies wanted to fill in any gaps in their knowledge. Interrogated Germans of various intelligence services (the German military had rival espionage services to the SS) confessed to trying to kill the Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle; planning to assassinate Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and to ‘capture’ (a polite way of saying assassinate) the Yugoslav Partisan leader Tito in 1944.

The file – Hoettl surrendered to and was interrogated by the Americans – includes ‘miscellaneous notes on the activities of the Japanese intelligence services in Europe’. As background, and as those notes say, the Japanese ambassador to the Third Reich, Oshima, was kept ‘au courant of Germany’s plans by Hitler personally’. While the Japanese and the Nazis fought separately, separated by geography, in the Second World War, they were allies in the so-called Axis, besides Fascist Italy.

The typed notes by the British security services, dated July 7, 1945, say: “Two outstanding characteristics of the working methods of the Japanese Intelligence Services were its lack of scruples in the choice of means and remarkable technical accomplishment in the execution of its missions.

“In summer 1943 the Japanese Intelligence Service succeeded in getting hold of the strategic plans of the German Army Group Nord [fighting against Communist Russia].

“In the opinion of experts this was quite an accomplishment, unique and without precedent in German military history. The plans were found to have been photographed on micro-films. The film had been wrapped tightly around a thin piece of wire and inserted into the rim of a rubber preservative [condom]. Another part of the film had been inserted into the apertures of a brush where the bristles are set in wood.

“The film reels were about the size of a pin-head. This particular espionage mission had been laid on by the Manchurian legation [Japan had since the 1930s ruled Manchuria, having gone to war with China] and executed by ‘national’ Poles, who were found to be hiding their true identity in the garb of handy-men for the legation. In the course of investigation it transpired that the Japanese (like the British) made extensive use of the services of national Poles [who were without a nation, after the Nazi and Russian carving up of the country in September 1939; and loyal to the government in exile in London].”

Why would the Japanese have sought to steal military secrets from their ally Germany? The notes tried to answer that. “One possible explanation, Dr Hoettl believes, could be advanced, that the Japanese government which was known to put very little trust into Oshima’s reportage – Tojo [the military ruler of wartime Japan] is supposed to have referred to Oshima at one occasion as a German spy – and tried to check up on him.

“The case, incidentally, had no diplomatic sequel and the whole matter was hushed up as well as possible.”

It does show a lack of trust among wartime allies and begs the question – if friendly nations are spying like that on each other today, which ones are?!

The file also shows how interrogators sought to get to the bottom of the Nazi state. Under Hitler’s appreciation of intelligence reports, the file points out that RSHA reports on foreign affairs did make it to Hitler; but he hardly ever took any notice: “He really believed he was appointed by fate and did not need the counsel of mere human beings.”


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