A Time to Act: The Beginning of the Fritz Kolbe Story, 1900–1943, Part 4
Spring 2002, Vol. 34, No. 1
By Greg Bradsher
Dulles and Kolbe Meet
Exactly at midnight Mayer's door opened and Kocherthaler entered, followed by Kolbe. Not long afterward, Dulles arrived. Mayer poured highballs for the four of them. But nobody relaxed; the atmosphere was tense, the conversation rigidly formal. They all spoke German.105
Both Mayer and Dulles sized up Kolbe. He appeared to be 5' 6" or 5' 7" tall, round face, clean shaven, dark, typical Prussian-Slavic features, and slightly bald, with brownish hair he had clipped short. He had gray-blue eyes that made a frank expression. His ears were not large, but they stood out from his head. He was not distinguished looking but was self-possessed. He appeared unworldly or unsophisticated but seemed to have acquired some ease in conversation through his travels.106
Kolbe said he assumed the two Americans were wondering whether the dispatches were authentic and how he was able to obtain them. He said that the information came from material that crossed his desk in the Foreign Office. He explained that he worked as an assistant to Karl Ritter, the Foreign Office's liaison officer with all of the German military services. Ritter dealt not only with cables and documents from German missions abroad and documents resulting from conferences with German officials but also with war plans, secrets of submarine warfare, activities of the German air force, and moves of the army, including military government in occupied territories. His job, he said, was to sift through this information and prioritize before it reached Ritter's desk. It appears that Mayer and Dulles knew who Ritter was, and it seemed unthinkable that he would have anyone working for him but a most loyal Nazi.107
Mayer asked how long he had held his position. Kolbe said three years and that "I tried long ago to get out of Germany on a mission such as this but one has to be patient. However, I have been in the Foreign Service nearly twenty years, long before the Nazis ever came to power, and I have acquired a certain expertise." He continued, "From the first day I found myself in touch with Nazi secrets, I knew I would have to find a way, somehow, to get them out." "I tried, before Pearl Harbor, to reach certain Americans in Berlin through church sources, but this failed. One had to move like a snail. Months went by without my being able to do a thing." "It became obvious," Kolbe continued, "that the only way to make a satisfactory contact would be on neutral territory" and that "Switzerland seemed the best place." He said he knew the country and had friends there, foremost among them Kocherthaler. Kolbe explained how he had previously tried unsuccessfully to get to Switzerland and how finally, through his contacts with Maria von Heimerdinger, he was allowed to successfully volunteer for diplomatic courier service.108
Kolbe freely told Dulles and Mayer all about himself, his Wandervogel association, his career, present assignment, his pay and special confidence bonus, Leitner and Ritter, friends in the Foreign Office, his avoidance of joining the Nazi Party, how he helped to get forged passports into the hands of Jews, his apartment address and telephone number. Kolbe told them that he was not a member of the Nazi Party but did not think he was under suspicion on this account because he had been engaged in highly confidential work and had also recently been given a war service medal. He revealed to them a detailed knowledge of the German Foreign Office, the personalities, the intrigues, and cliques. He told them that there were about fifty other members of the German Foreign Office who belonged to the opposition, and all were intimately known to each other.109
Kolbe spent several hours discussing the contents of the cables, expanding on some of them, providing additional information, and making suggestions for Allied activities.110 He told Mayer and Dulles that morale in the Bern legation was bad and that the morale of the German population had worsened considerably, mainly as a result of heavy air raids rather than the setbacks of the Russian campaign. He said the fear of raids in Berlin was very great and that the audience of foreign radio programs had vastly increased in Germany, especially for "America Calling Europe" and BBC news programs.
Long-term planning had completely disappeared in the German war industry, Kolbe told them, and plans were made from day to day and subject to constant change. He discussed certain factories, their production, the results of Allied bombing on them, and how well one was camouflaged. He said that it was most important to bomb the Telefunken plant near Berlin as it produced plane-detecting devices and radio-location devices used by night fighters. Dulles urged him get as much specific information on armaments and synthetic gasoline plans as he could, and Kolbe promised to procure this information.
He talked about Foreign Office evacuation plans in terms of where certain people were to be relocated. He told them about Hitler's headquarters in Rastenburg, East Prussia, and said that Himmler and the generals lived nearby in well-camouflaged armored trains on a railway siding in the woods, protected by anti-aircraft flak units. He also identified Ribbentrop's nearby residence. He then drew a map showing the locations.
Kolbe discussed events in foreign countries. For example, he provided information about the Ploesti oilfields and the results of American bombing raids and strongly urged another attack be made as soon as possible to complete the job. He discussed Hungary and Bulgaria and pointed out that Germany regarded Hungary as the weakest point in the defense of the Balkans. He discussed Finnish diplomatic matters, German bribes to Argentina to keep it neutral, and the bad feelings between Japan and Germany.
He also discussed military matters. He provided information about the numbers of German divisions in Greece, Sicily, and along the Austrian-Italian border and where it was generally believed that the Germans would develop their defensive line in Italy. He talked about the numbers and types of military aircraft that the Germans and Russians had on the eastern front. Kolbe told them that German U-boats generally met with Japanese submarines west of Cape Point, in line with Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and this was how Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose had been smuggled from Germany to South Africa to Japan to lead an uprising against the British in India. Kolbe explained Hitler's position against prisoner-of-war exchanges and voiced the opinion that German claims of a secret weapon were probably only a rumor.
Espionage- and communications-related activities were also discussed. The German consulate at Lourenço Marques in Portuguese East Africa, Kolbe said, provided much important information about Allied ship movements. In addition, this consulate was able to infiltrate spies, monies, and arms into the Union of South Africa. Kolbe told them that in Dublin, Ireland, the Germans had a secret transmitter that they used only on rare occasions. He also provided the names of several German spies, including one in Dublin. He also discussed the fact that German cryptanalysts had broken many Allied codes and cited from memory the substance of an OWI cable. Kolbe also provided a very detailed description of how German Foreign Service code system worked.
Kolbe made several suggestions the Allies could take. Among them were dropping arms by parachute for use by the opposition and landing parachute troops in the heart of Germany. These troops, Kolbe suggested, should be landed near concentration camps and foreign workers camps, thus securing immediate collaboration because these individuals had often made their own weapons and were willing to fight.
During the meeting, in discussing the telegrams, Kolbe made a special effort to find out which telegrams were of special interest and implicitly accepted Dulles's suggestion that the most useful would be those that had direct reference to a threat against British or American interests. During the course of the discussion, Kolbe made no attempt to lead the conversation into any particular channel.111 This was probably reassuring to Dulles, as a German plant would have done so.
After hearing his story, Dulles raised the question of Kolbe being an agent provocateur or, perhaps worse, a double agent. Kolbe tried to convince Dulles he was neither. Kocherthaler also spoke on Kolbe's behalf. Dulles asked Kolbe about his motives and whether he wanted money. He said he lived by a principle his father had drilled into him— always to do what he thought right and never be afraid— and by an ideal of inner integrity espoused by the Wandervogel. He also said that he would refuse any money for his collaboration. As for his motives, Kolbe said he believed the overthrow of the Nazis to be an urgent necessity for Germany's own sake as well as the rest of the world's, and he was doing what he could to bring it about. He also indicated that he was driven by the conviction that by helping the Americans now, Germany would receive U.S. support against an assumed Russian threat once the war ended.112
These comments prompted Mayer to ask whether Kolbe had any conditions. Kolbe said, "I hate the Nazis. To me they are the enemy. I have a similar feeling about the Bolsheviks. They both menace the world. But we are in the middle of a war and this is no time to bargain. Try to believe me that I am a patriotic German with a human conscience and that there are others. All we ask as payment for our services is help and encouragement and support after the war." "We can hardly divine now what will happen after the war," Dulles said. "It must be won first."113
It was past 3 A.M., and Kolbe and Kocherthaler believed they could not safely stay longer. They made arrangements for another meeting later that morning and settled on code names for any future contacts or communications. Kolbe and Kocherthaler departed, and Dulles and Mayer spent the rest of the night poring over the documents.114
Kocherthaler and Kolbe showed up at Mayer's apartment on Thursday, August 19, at 10:30 A.M., where they remained until approximately 2.30 P.M.115 There appears to be no record of what took place. Later that day both Mayer and Dulles wrote up their recollections of the meeting while it was still fresh in their minds.116
There was a short 8 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. meeting with Kolbe on Friday morning, August 20, at Mayer's apartment, before he had to leave.117 He passed on some bits of information he had picked up the previous afternoon at the German legation. He had been informed that the German espionage service procured most of its information in Switzerland. He explained the Sicherheitsdienst (SD, the intelligence branch of the German SS) and Abwehr operations in Switzerland. The Germans, Kolbe said, had agents in every one of the enemy legations in Bern. He discussed some of the German diplomats in Bern, pointing out one was "a Nazi by necessity rather than by conviction" and was "approachable." Another man he mentioned was "also a lukewarm Nazi." Other information Kolbe passed on was an order from Hitler to immediately increase aircraft in Romania, the name of the head of the Abwehr in Stockholm, and details of German-Spanish arms negotiations. Kolbe again warned that the Foreign Office constantly received deciphered code messages of American as well as British warships at sea and also messages originating in the Cairo and Moscow legations and consulates of the Allied nations.118
At this meeting it was decided that his code name would be Georg Winter, and time was spent discussing other code names and methods of communication between Kolbe and Dulles and the Allies. Kolbe then left for the train station, leaving them with a letter addressed to his son in case he was "shot." That afternoon at 2:30 P.M., Kocherthaler came to visit Mayer at his office, perhaps to discuss Kolbe and to say goodbye before returning home to Adelboden.119
Kolbe took the train back to Berlin that morning and, though it was late in the day when he arrived, went straight to his office. He did so with the view of making things appear quite normal— Kolbe hardworking at his desk. He felt good about the trip, believing that in Mayer and Dulles he had connected with two people who realized what a valuable contribution he could make to the Allied cause. Now the questions facing Kolbe was whether or not he would be able to get back to them and how best to send them information.120
Meanwhile in Bern, Dulles had his own questions. Was Kolbe for real? Was the information Kolbe provided true but being fed to the Allies so when it was cabled the Nazis would break the code? Or was the information true and being used to entice the Allies into believing everything that Kolbe would subsequently provide? During the days after Kolbe's departure, Dulles started background checks on Kolbe and cautiously began to send Kolbe-provided information to Washington to be evaluated and used. He gave Kolbe the code name "Wood" (George Wood as he was subsequently identified) and the code number 674.121
Kolbe would make it back to Bern to meet with Dulles twice more during 1943 and twice more in each of the next two years. On many occasions he also used friends and unsuspecting colleagues as a means of getting documents, copies of documents, rolls of film containing images of documents, and information to Dulles. In all, from mid-August 1943 to early April 1945, Kolbe provided more than sixteen hundred individual pieces of German diplomatic correspondence between the Foreign Office and German diplomatic missions in thirty countries. They included reports from the military and air attachés in Japan and the Far East; data on the structure of the German secret service in Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland; and espionage activities in England and the British embassy in Istanbul. Each step in the German efforts to squeeze more raw materials and commodities from satellite states and neutral countries and to obtain more manpower from occupied countries was known by Kolbe's information. Kolbe also informed Dulles about American codes that had been broken by the Germans.122
The Americans and the British viewed Kolbe's information skeptically at first. But by the summer of 1944, everyone involved with Kolbe's information believed it to be genuine and, equally important, was willing to accept Kolbe for what he purported and appeared to be. Kolbe-provided information ended up in 1944 being sent to the White House and used by Allied military and political leaders. British cryptographers engaged in breaking German diplomatic codes used copies of the actual German documents Kolbe provided to help them in their work. In June 1945 the OSS informed President Truman about Kolbe's information and told him that the "usually skeptical and conservative British intelligence officials rated this contact as the prize intelligence source of the war."123
Kolbe's contribution to the Allied cause cannot be ascertained with certainty, but undoubtedly his actions contributed to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Kolbe would live out his life after the war in obscurity while Allen Dulles became the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Dulles was an intelligence operative who aspired to be America's spy master. Kolbe, on the other hand, neither desired nor expected to be rewarded for his services. He was an idealistic bureaucrat who simply acted upon his father's admonition that he always do what he thought right and not be afraid. In the summer of 1943 Kolbe realized it was time to act, time to help save his Germany by assisting the Allies defeat it. He thought he was right, he was not afraid, and he did act.
A Time to Act, Part 1
A Time to Act, Part 2
A Time to Act, Part 3
A Time to Act, Part 5
The Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group
Greg Bradsher, an archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration, is working on a book about Fritz Kolbe, Allen Dulles, and World War II intelligence. His previous contributions to Prologue have been "Taking America's Heritage to the People: The Freedom Train Story" (Winter 1985) and "Nazi Gold: The Merkers Mine Treasure" (Spring 1999).