Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Communications Intercept Capabilities at the Start of the Great War

Wireless Intercept Station Near Hunstanton, England, 1915

By Wilhelm F. Flicke

[Note:  The author of this piece was a German scientist and intercept officer during the Second World War. This article is a selection from his longer 1945 memorandum "War Secrets in the Ether," which fell into the hands of  American forces after the war. It was eventually declassified and released to the public in 2014.]

To endeavor to learn what is in the opponent's mind and to draw advantage from it has always been very important in the history of mankind in peacetime and particularly in wartime.

During thousands of years only the methods have changed. In the days when there was no technical medium for conveying thought over great distances, the only existing possibility was either to overhear the spoken word or to intercept — or at least have a look at — messages transmitted in writing. To guard against this latter possibility, secret writing was invented. The history of the last three thousand years is full of examples of great successes in statesmanship or in military enterprises which were due solely to the fact that the statesman or general concerned was able to organize cleverly and to maintain for a considerable period of time a method of spying on the transmitted thoughts of his opponents. Cleopatra, Alexander of Macedonia, Caesar, Napoleon, Metternich, and many others owed their successes to the extensive use or this type or

However, the practical possibilities were narrowly limited, and great individual cleverness was necessary in this work in order to arrive at the goal. In the middle of the nineteenth century, when the Morse telegraph came into use, soon followed by the telephone, new technical possibilities of attack resulted by switching—in and listening—this quickly produced a new situation. The invention and use of radiotelegraphy, with the possibility of picking up anywhere at any time the radiations of a transmitter working at any point whatsoever, increased the possibility of interception in a way hitherto undreamed of. The hour when radiotelegraphy was born was also the hour of birth of illegal listening-in, i.e., of the so-called intercept service.

There were two countries in Europe in which the espionage service had been especially cultivated for centuries: France and Austria-Hungary. Consequently, these were the two countries which first recognized the importance of technical means of intercepting communications and took corresponding action.

Prior to World War I Austria had several occasions to test out this new means of gaining information.  During the crises which arose in 1908 between Austria and Italy in connection with the annexation by Austria of Bosnia and Herzegovina all Italian radio traffic on the continent and at sea was intercepted by the Austrians. At that time Austria began regular cryptanalytic work, and in this way was able to get valuable insight into Italian's attitude; this proved of great value for Austrian foreign policy.

In 1911 when war broke out between Italy and Turkey over Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, the Austrian intercept service had an opportunity for the first time to prove its worth in the military as wall as in the political field. Since the Italians had set up several relay stations for traffic between Rome and Tripoli, where the first Italian landings were made, the Austrians had a fine opportunity to intercept all transmissions more than once—therefore very completely. The radiograms with military dispositions from t.he homeland, and the reports from the theater of war were all intercepted and deciphered so that the course of the operations in Libya could be followed day by day by the Austrian intercept service.

This was the first time in history that the course of military operations between two opponents could be followed move by move by a neutral third party using technical means at a distance of hundreds of kilometers.

When the war in Tripoli took an unfavorable turn and Turkey lost its last possession in Africa and therewith its dominant position in the Mediterranean, an opportunity was offered the nations in the Balkans to shake off Turkish rule. This resulted in breaking up Turkey in Europe. The Balkan League, consisting of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro, which had been formed meanwhile, declared war on Turkey in October, 1912. The Bulgarians were victorious at Kirk-Kilisse and Lule Burgas; the Serbians at Kumanovo; the Greeks occupied Salonika. On 3 December, a truce was made.

For the Danube Monarchy the course and outcome of the military actions and of the entire development in the Balkans were of interest. Therefore, Austria followed the radio traffic with close attention and again had opportunity to make successful use of this new means of gaining information, this time, to be sure, working to some extent with Italy. Austria and Italy put through the formation of an independent Albania. At the preliminary Peace of London, 30 May 1913, Turkey ceded to the allies all territory west of the Enos–Midia Line.

But a quarrel arose among the allies respecting the conquered territories. The Balkan League broke up. In bloody battles the Bulgarians were driven out of Macedonia by the Greeks and Serbs. Romania and even Turkey, which won back Adrianople under Enver Pascha, took the field against Bulgaria. A redistribution of territory took place in the Balkans's.  And once more Austria had the keenest interest in following the course of diplomatic and military events in this area. For the fourth time within five years.

Austria had a chance to get practice in interception and in cryptanalysis. At the peace conferences of Bucharest and Constantinople the new map of the Balkans was drawn. Prior to World War I France had less occasion to engage in radio interception, but it watched all wire lines leading into foreign countries and particularly the exchange of foreign diplomatic telegrams passing over these lines. In the French Foreign Ministry· there was a cryptanalytic section which worked with good success on the solution of the secret writings used by foreign governments and their representatives. For instance, even before the outbreak of World War I the French had solved the cryptographic system in which messages were exchanged between the Foreign Office in Berlin and the German Ambassador in Paris. When the long telegram containing the declaration of war on France was transmitted to the German Ambassador by the Foreign Office in Berlin, the French first deciphered the dispatch and, after they had taken cognizance of the content, so garbled important passages in the original that the Ge man Ambassador could at first make nothing out of the telegram he received. Only after divers inquiries was he able to get matters straight. In this way the French gained valuable time.

In the Deuxieme Bureau of the French General Staff there was, even before World War I, a desk charged with following all foreign radio traffic (especially German and Italian)  in order to have an idea or the normal radio situation and or the changes occurring in case of military complications. The use of radiotelegraphy in the armies of Europe had even then assumed considerable proportions and would probably increase considerably in any coming war. But this raised the question of the extent to which it would be possible to gain insight into the situation on the enemy side by observing his radio traffic. A prerequisite was to watch this traffic in peacetime, to recognize the types of traffic, the use of ciphers, and any methods of camouflage, and by so doing to maintain contact, so to speak.

These chances and possibilities had been recognized both in France and in Austria before the beginning of World War I. And both countries had made preparations in time. As in the French  Deuxieme Bureau, there was in Vienna in the Evidenzbuero a desk for watching foreign army radio traffic, while in the Foreign Ministry in Vienna and in Paris, bureaus had already been set up which were engaged in the decipherment of the cryptograms which I were customary in the diplomatic correspondence of other states.

In Germany to be sure, the General Staff thought or such possibilities, but down to the outbreak of World War I had undertaken practically nothing. Even in the Foreign Office nothing had been done in this direction which was worthy of mention. In England at the Foreign Office the decipherment of cryptograms had been attempted some years before the beginning of World War I,  and good results had been achieved. In Russia, on the other hand, no attention had been paid to this matter.

This then was the situation respecting, the intercept service and cryptanalysis at the beginning of World War I. At that time people did not suspect the proportions which interception would assume during the course of this struggle.

1 comment:

  1. Reminds me of my old amateur radio days (N5XGL). It's intriguing to see how the science of wireless and interception almost grew hand in hand. Thank you for this article.