World War II: Traditional Military Intelligence

Figure 1.--

Military intelligence is surely as old as warfare itself. The objective of military intelligence is to assess opportunities and risks associated with friendly and enemy operations. It is also used to reduce reduce uncertainty associatted with terrain and weather conditions. The basic tasks are to: 1) acquire informtion, 2) analize that data, and 3) securely deliver actionable information to the appropriate commanders. Traditionally the principal sources of information have been human sources. This includes interviewing captured enenmy combatants and civilians. There are also academic sources, such as published texts with maps offering terraine information or in naval warfare, oceanographic charts. Until the 20th century, the calvalry was an important source of information on both terraine and enenmy movements. Modern weapons greatly reduced the role of calvalry in World War I and it played a minor role in Workd War II in the area of intelligence. Another source of information is spying, but this is often carried out by organizations other than the military itself, although this varied from country to country. Intelligence outside the military structure was often at first not trusted by the military, but this chnged over time when Allied Ultra proved to be so accurate. Technological advanced created two new areas of intelligence acquisition: 1) photo reconisance and 2) signals intelligence. Both first appeared in World War I, but were perfected during World War II, especially signals intelligence.


America at the onset of World War II had a military intelligence capability, as with other areas, that was illprepared to conduct a global war. The United States had two military services each with cabinet status, the Army and the Navy. The Air Force was part of the Army rather than an independent service, although because of its expansion during the War gradually achieved a large degree of organizational autonmy. The U.S. Arny at the onset of World War II was the smallest army of any of the major beligerants and was smaller than that of several of the minor beligerants. The U.S. Navy was one of the major naval forces, but woefully insufficent to wage a two-ocean war. Because of budgetary restructions and arms control agreements, Japan with a relatively small industrial base was able to build a naval force capable of challenging the U.S. Navy. Both the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy had intelligence units and capabilities. And organizationally there were centralized units in the Pentagon as well as field units. Both had programs working on Japanese codes. There was, however, liittle cooperation between these intelligence units. The United States did not have a civilian intelligence agency. President Roosevelt created the first peacetime, civilian intelligence agency--the Office of the Coordinator of Information (1941). This ws was a very small office created to organize the intelligence activities of several agencies. After Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the War, major changes occurred (December 1941). Pearl Harbor was the most costly intelligence failure in American history. Several major changes in military intelligence followed. General Marshal undertook a major reorganization of Army intelligence, largely intended to strengthen the Army's central intelligence structure. And President Roosevelt decided that a larger and more diversified civilian intelligence agency was needed--the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) (1942).


Britain's World War II military intelligence system was essentially based on a system set up just before World War I and futher developed during the War. Britain's modern military intelligence system was founded as the Secret Service Bureau (SSB), the forerunner of today's Secret Inteligence Service (SIS) (1909). The SSB (also called the Bureau) was a joint initiative of the Admiralty and the War Office to coordinate the collection, analasis, and distribution of intelligence within Britain and overseas. The initial focus was on Imperial Germany, the principl military threat at the time. The SSB was split into naval and army sections which. Gradually these two divisions shifted to a geographic division of labor, foreign espionage and domestic counter-espionage operations. The primary interest of foreign espionage was the strength and capability of the growing Imperial German Highsea Fleet. This was SSB's formal orgnization when World War I broke out (1914). The intelligence needs of the militry varied as the War developed and a large British army was deployed in France. Thus naval intelligence becanme only one part of what was needed. The domestic unit became Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI5). The foreign section became Militay Intelligence Section 6 (MI6). These terms are still used today in popular culture today.


French intelligence during World War II is a very complicated story. The French Army and Navy had intelligence units, but we know little about them. The French Army was largekly ibnterned in the Reich as aesult of the German invasion and vicgtory (Junre 1940). The French Navy survived largeky intact, but we know little about its intelligence operation. The Deuxième Bureau (Second Bureau) of the General Staff) was established as the French external military intelligence by the Third Republic (1871). It was dissolved along with the Third Republic itself as a result of the armistice with Germany (June 1940). The Resistance which organized in occupied France was not capable of significant military oposition to the Germans. And the brutality of the Germans meant that any attacks on the Germans would result in horendous reprisals. The majopr importance of the Resistance becme collecting intelligence. And the primary target was information needed by Allied planners preparing the cross-Channel invasion. Information on the Atlantic Wall, German deployments, and the V-wepon instalations were of critical importance. Vichy also had an intelligence operation, but this focused more on domestic security than military intelligence.


German military inteligence was composed of a centralized intelligence agency controlled by the Wehrmach High Commabnd (OKW)--the Abwehr. Each of the service commnds had their own inteligence units: the Heer (OKH), the Krriegsmarine (OKM), and the Luftwaffe (OKL). The naval intelligence unit was B Dienst and proved to be the most successful of the German intelligence units. Captured allied and neutral flagged merchant ships yielded a wealth of information. B Dienst also achieved some success with code breaking. The Germans had inteligence operations in many different countries. The most important was the Soviet Union. The best know Heer inteligence officer was Major General Reinhard Gehlen (1902–79) served as chief of intelligence-gathering on the Eastern Front. He accumulated a vast amount of infoormtion, but failed to predict Red Army offensives. Spy operations in America and Britain were noable failures. Even after the defeat of France, the Germans mounted a spy operation in Vichy. In addition to military agencies, the SS also participated in military intelligence through the e Sicherheitsdienst (SD) commabnded by Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich protoge Walter Schellenberg took command of the SD after Heydrich assasintiion (1942). Late in the war with the arrest of Abwer chief Admiral Canaris, the Abwehr was dismanteled and Schellenberg and the SD took over German intelligence operations. The service units, however, retained their untelligence units. German military intelligence during World War II had some notable sucesses, but generally failed, especially at critical points of the War. Historians have addressed the topic of why German intelligence agencies performed less sucessfully than those of the Allies. The principal reason identified is that the authority structure of the Führer state inhibited analytical phase of the intelligence process. Hitler considered his judgement superior to that of subordinates and would commonly dismiss information that did not support his opinions or the pursuit of objectives he wanted to pursue. The German assumption of supperority is also identified as a factor as was the fact that Abwehr Chief Admiral Canaris was an anti-NAZI.


Italian military intelligence proved more effective than the Italian Army in World War II. It was produced some valuable information that was not generally used or was misinterpreted by senior commanders. The espionage and counterespionage operations that the Fascists had used so effectively during to achieve and maintain power proved less effective in dealing with foreign enemies. [Conti]


The primary Japanese military intelligence units were organizations within the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and Navy ((IJN). There was littkle cooperation between the two units. Such cooperation was not that important with the war fought in China, but became vital in the Pacific War. There was no civilian intelligence agency. The Kempeitai (憲兵隊) litterally translated as Corps of Law Soldiers was the military police arm of the Imperial Japanese Army (1881-1945. It was not strictly a military police like the American and British military, but more like a French-style gendarmerie with secret police functions. The Kempeitai played a major role in the World War II occupation regimes. It also had counter-espionage functions and in Japan itself had a major effort to deal severly with those expressing anti-War or deatist sentiments. The Kempeitai was organizationally a unit of the IJA. It also provided military police for the IJN under the direction of the Admiralty Minister. The IJN had its own much smaller Tokkeitai). The Kempeitai provided the executive police under the direction of the Interior Minister and the judicial police under the direction of the Justice Minister.

Soviet Union

The intelligence operations in the West have been reported on in some detail, especially the Ultra code breaking operation. We also have some information about the incredibly unsuccessful NAZI operations on the Eastern Front. This operation was conducted beginning in 1942 by Reinhard Galen who the the American employed after the War. Much less, however, is known about the very successful Soviet operations. This has been obscured by the surprise achieved by the NAZIs in the opening phase of Barbarossa. This was, however, not a failure of Soviet intelligemnce. Soviet agents as well as the Allies gave Stalin ample warning. He simply refused to believe that Hitler would attack him. Subsequently each of the major Soviet offenses (Moscoe 1941, Stalingrad 1942, and Bagration 1944) achieved almost total surprise with devestating results. Some have speculated that the success of the Soviet intelligence operation was such that there must have been a very high-placed traitor in the German high command or security services. Soviet sources have never identified this individual if he existed. Another unanswered question is the extent and success of Soviet code breaking operations. While Soviet intelligence operations on the Eastern Front are not well documented, a great deal is known about Soviet operations in the West. Here the Soviets during and after the War obtainedcritical information which proved of great assistance in building the atomic bomb as well as other military secrets.


Conti, Giuseppe. Mussolini's Spies: Italian Military Espionage, 1940-1943.


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Created: 9:36 PM 6/26/2011
Last updated: 4:34 AM 12/20/2012