The German military intelligence organization created in 1928 and headed by Erich Gempp until 1933, when he was suceeded by Capt. Konrad Patzig. Decentralized and structured on Germany’s military districts, the Abwehr assigned responsibility for intelligence collection in foreign countries to particular commands, with Great Britain and the United States being the targets of the Abwehrstelle in Hamburg, the country’s main port and headquarters of the transatlantic Hamburg-Amerika Line, which provided a convenient courier route for clandestine communication to networks in the United States. In January 1935 Wilhelm Canaris replaced Patzig and developed what masqueraded as a military counterespionage organization, as allowed under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, into a global intelligence collection agency, which had been banned.
Before World War II the Abwehr was dependent upon German émigré communities for its foreign intelligence collection and established espionage rings in America and France, but it was prohibited by Adolf Hitler from operating extensively in England where he was anxious to avoid any political or diplomatic embarrassments. Neverheless, one did occur in 1935 when Dr. Herman Goertz was convicted of photographing Royal Air Force airfields in southern England and imprisoned. In another significant incident, Mrs. Jessie Jordan, a German-born hairdresser in Dundee, was found to have acted as a postbox, receiving and redirecting mail from agents across the world, including Sergeant Gunther Rumrich in New York.
MI5’s surveillance of Jordan led to the arrest of Rumrich by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the exposure of the first German espionage network in North America before the war.
During World War II the Abwehr established representatives in most of the world’s neutral capitals and was successful in recruiting large numbers of agents to collect information in target countries. It also proved effective in running counterespionage operations in occupied territories, especially France and the Netherlands. The Abwehr penetrated the enemy’s resistance organizations and took control of large parts of the Special Operations Executive’s (SOE) networks, manifesting considerable skill in Holland where the En-
glandspiel resulted in the manipulation of virtually all SOE’s activities in the region.
Under the enigmatic leadership of Admiral Canaris, the Abwehr became a focus of anti-Nazi plotting, but it was the defection of the key personnel in Turkey to the Allies in early 1944 that prompted the absorption of the entire organization into Heinrich Himmler’s Reich Security Agency. Following the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, Canaris and much of the rest of the senior Abwehr leadership were arrested and executed.
In 1972 the British Security Service revealed the extent to which the Abwehr’s agent network had come under its control after it had compromised the organization’s communications. Both the Abwehr’s hand and machine ciphers, code-named ISOS and ISK, respectively, had been solved early in the war, which gave the Allies a formidable advantage in manipulating its activities. The Abwehr was also handicapped by high-level defections of staff in Lisbon, Istanbul, and Ankara and by agents in the United States and South Africa.
The Abwehr may also be said to have been disadvantaged by the political views of its personnel, fear of their Sicherheitsdienst rivals, and the inherently insecure practice of allowing case officers to recruit and run agents for long periods without the discipline of rotating handlers who could exercise independent judgment, routinely
conduct rigorous integrity tests, and be confident that their own careers would not end in a posting to the Russian Front in the event that one of their recruits had been “doubled” by the enemy.