Posts

Value and Handling of Prisoners in World War I

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

“Prisoners or deserters constitute one of the most fruitful sources from which information of the enemy is obtained.”
Intelligence Regulations, American Expeditionary Forces, October 21, 1918

By the time of the Armistice ending World War I on November 11, 1918, the US held nearly 48,000 prisoners of war. The majority had been captured within the final months as the war moved out of the trenches.  The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) G-2, Maj. (later Maj. Gen.) Dennis Nolan put much emphasis on the information obtained from enemy prisoners. After the war, he remarked, “[A prisoner] can, as a rule, tell you much more than a spy…who is trying to get around and find out about the enemy.  [A prisoner] knows and the other man is frequently guessing at it.”

In mid-October 1918, Capt. Ernst Howald (standing right), the lead interrogator for the 28th Division, Second US Army, used prisoner statements to construct a detailed template showing the enemy facing the division. After the war, his estimates were proven to be highly accurate.

As Nolan shaped his formal intelligence organization in the early months of American involvement, he recognized prisoners could be captured any time on any battlefield, and commanders at every echelon wanted to examine the prisoners they captured.  He also realized that, due to a lack of personnel and the high operating tempo, in-depth interrogations at lower echelons were not practicable or effectual.  Nolan developed a hierarchical system for the examination of prisoners at all echelons and outlined clear guidelines for handling prisoners in the 1918 Intelligence Regulations and Instructions for Regimental Intelligence Service. Those same guidelines were published in the Army’s first (provisional) Combat Intelligence Manual, also printed in 1918.

Nolan’s system started at the regiment.  The Regimental Intelligence Officer, typically a first lieutenant, determined the name, rank, and organization of any prisoners, as well as the time and place captured.  Prisoners were searched and then quickly transferred to division assembly points.  The division G-2 sections, led by a lieutenant colonel or major, conducted limited questioning, with the help of commissioned linguists from the Corps of Interpreters.  This questioning focused on necessary tactical information about the division sector to a depth of two miles behind the enemy front lines.

From the division, prisoners were transferred to the corps collecting centers, where more in-depth questioning began.  The number of prisoners, especially during offensive operations, often stressed the corps G-2 sections.  At those times, Army headquarters dispatched teams of four sergeants and one officer to augment the corps’ interrogation efforts.  During the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives in the fall of 1918, French interrogators also supplemented the US interrogators.

The corps intelligence sections found that simple and direct questioning, combined with kindness and courtesy, was the most effective method for eliciting information.  Many of the AEF’s interrogators had been lawyers in their civilian lives and could coax information out of the most recalcitrant prisoner.  Corps interrogators used a variety of other tactics to elicit information, as well.  One interrogator found that he could get prisoners to talk openly if he showed them aerial photographs with landmarks they recognized. The II Corps G-2, Col. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, recruited a drafted German soldier, who had previously lived in the United States and yearned to return there, to “work the prisoner cages” and glean information from his fellow prisoners.  Additionally, US interpreters donned German uniforms and wandered the collection points to eavesdrop on prisoners bragging about intentionally misleading their interrogators.  This use of “stool pigeons” was common practice throughout the war.

The quality and veracity of the information varied with the rank of the prisoner.  Lt. Col. Walter Sweeney, who served in the AEF G-2 during the war, claimed that “noncommissioned officers were by far the best sources for gaining information” and “few of them resisted insistent interrogation.”  About 60 percent of officers “invoked military honor” and refused to cooperate.  A typical German soldier had little knowledge about the larger battlefield, but he provided details on his own unit, weapons, troop losses, and general morale.  Enemy soldiers from Poland, Denmark, the Alsace-Lorraine region and southern Germany were particularly cooperative.  Unquestionably, the most important information obtained from prisoners was enemy order of battle, but they also gave up their routes of movement; the position and condition of trenches, dugouts and wire entanglements; their capacity to attack; and how susceptible they were to being attacked.

Based on the preceding outline, it is clear that World War I was no different than any other war in US Army history: prisoners of war have always been proven and valued sources of intelligence.  However, formalizing and standardizing the process for handling and examining prisoners in the 1918 Intelligence Regulations and provisional manuals was one more step in modernizing US Army Intelligence.  While field manuals published in 1940 provided more details on accepted interrogation techniques, the system for prisoner-of-war handling Nolan developed for World War I continued, with minor changes, throughout the 20th century.

Ralph Van Deman and the Birth of Modern American Military Intelligence

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the US Army’s intelligence efforts were nearly non-existent.  Early attempts to gather information about foreign armies resulted in the creation of a Military Information Division in 1885.  In 1903, the division transferred from the Adjutant General’s Office to the Office of the Chief of Staff, where it became the Second Division of the General Staff.  However, by 1908, the Second Division had been absorbed by the Third (War College) Division, and the Army’s intelligence functions had been relegated to a committee.  Intelligence activities declined over the next several years due to insufficient personnel and appropriations as well as limited interest or understanding of its importance.  By early 1917, “personnel and appropriations were limited, the powers of the committee were narrow and its accomplishments, though valuable, were necessarily meager.  Such was the situation at the time war was declared.”  But change was coming.

In 1915, Major (later Major General) Ralph Van Deman arrived at the War College.  A native of Delaware, Ohio, he had attended both law and medical schools before accepting an infantry commission in 1891.  Over the next two decades, he gained valuable intelligence experience in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and China.  In Manila, Van Deman established an intelligence organization to conduct terrain analysis, mapping, and counterintelligence.  By the time he arrived at the War College, Van Deman was one of few career military intelligence officers in the Army.  He immediately grasped the implications of the United States’ lack of a military intelligence organization and resolved to reverse the situation.

Van Deman wrote numerous memoranda criticizing the ineffectual nature of the War College’s committee.  He stated, “To call a chair a table does not make it a table—it still remains a chair. And to call the personnel of the War College Division a Military Information Committee does not make it one” [emphasis in original].  His appeals for the creation of a competent organization were essentially ignored.  One week after the US declaration of war, Van Deman pled his case to Major General Hugh Scott, the Chief of Staff, who refused to consider the proposal on the grounds that it would only duplicate British and French efforts.

Persisting, Van Deman enlisted the aid of a female novelist and the Washington DC Chief of Police, both friends of Secretary of War Newton Baker.  Either because of or coincident to these outside interventions, Secretary Baker summoned Van Deman to his office on April 30, 1917, to explain the state of US military intelligence.  Just three days later, on May 3, the War College received an order to create an intelligence organization and detail an officer to “take up the work of military intelligence for the Army.”  Van Deman, of course, was the perfect choice to lead the newly established Military Intelligence Section (MIS).

The MIS experienced rapid growth throughout the war.  The Section was divided into a Positive Branch for intelligence collection, attachés, translations, maps and photographs, and training, and a Negative Branch for all counterintelligence functions.  A Code and Ciphers Section within the MIS became the Army’s first organized signals intelligence unit. Finally, Van Deman initiated the first personnel security investigation and identification card systems within the War Department.

By 1918, the renamed Military Intelligence Division had more than 1,400 military and civilian personnel.  At this time, it moved out from under the War College to a spot as one of four equal divisions on the War Department’s General Staff, a position it has maintained to this day.  In addition to equality on the General Staff, other long-standing consequences of the establishment of the MIS were the recognized need for professional intelligence personnel and the preservation of an intelligence effort even in times of peace.

That the World War I period was a watershed in US Army intelligence history cannot be overstated. No single individual did more to advance Army intelligence than Ralph Van Deman.  In 1988, the MI Corps recognized this when it chose him as one of the initial members of the Hall of Fame.  In 1992, it further memorialized him by naming the East Gate in his honor.  Maj. Gen. Ralph Van Deman is recognized as the Father of American Military Intelligence for his role in establishing the first effective, professional intelligence organization within the Army 100 years ago.

NOTE:  Join the US Army Intelligence Center when it rededicates the Van Deman Gate during the Hall of Fame activities, June 23, 2017, at 1430.

 

Ralph Van Deman

Ralph Van Deman

After the war, Ralph Van Deman, shown here as a Colonel, commanded at the regiment, brigade, and division level.  Promoted to Major General in 1929, he retired later that year but continued to consult in Army intelligence matters until his death in 1952.  (US Army photo)

 

Sound Ranging in the Great War

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

Private (later Sergeant) Jesse R. Hinman, a native of Astoria, Oregon, arrived on the Lorraine front after three months at the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) school in Langres, France.  Reaching Mandres on Sunday, March 10, 1918, he was able to watch firsthand the AEF’s 1st Division conduct its first bombardment of the war.  The next day, Hinman’s detachment began its work establishing two forward observation posts, six microphone bases, and a central station all connected by dual lines of communications wire.  Stringing the line was arduous work given the shell-pocked terrain of the area.  Keeping these lines in working order once the German’s launched their Spring Offensive would be even more difficult and hazardous. The detachment’s function, however, was critical to the 1st Division arrayed along the AEF’s sector of the St. Mihiel salient.  Their work was kept highly secret, and the men referred to their unit only by its initials—SRS, Sound Ranging Section.

Hinman was a member of the first SRS to reach the front. By the end of the war, four sections were operational on the American front.  Sound ranging, along with its counterpart flash ranging, was a science new to the battlefield.  Given the static nature of trench warfare over the previous two years, British and French forces had developed and deployed equipment that allowed them to locate enemy guns using sound waves and artillery flashes.  Impressed by the results, General John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF, tasked an officer to study the British and French systems of sound and flash ranging. Simultaneously, the Signal Corps tasked three officers to establish sound and flash ranging companies in the AEF.  The Signal Corps officers and their companies were assigned to Engineer regiments upon reaching France.  However, they operated under the direct tactical command of the AEF G-2.

Each SRS was comprised of a lieutenant, a sergeant, and 39 privates, including linesmen who laid and repaired the communications wires, forward observers on the front lines, and the recorders, computers, and plotters at a Central Station who worked the electrical apparatus.  In simplified terms, the process of locating the position of an enemy gun began with the forward observers stationed on the front lines.  When they heard a significant report by an enemy artillery piece, they pressed a button to activate the recorder at Central Station.  When the sound wave from the report hit a series of six microphones arrayed behind the front line, each microphone sent an electric pulse via communications wire to the recorder.  The recorder documented the exact moments at which the report reached each microphone, similar to the jumps caused by an earthquake on a seismograph.  By plotting the recorded differences in time on a map board, the men at Central Station identified the position of the piece.  Seasoned Sound Rangers could pass the location on to the Chief Intelligence Officer within three to five minutes.  AEF artillerymen could then refine their targeting and conduct a counter barrage to eliminate the enemy’s gun.

As enemy artillery inflicted nearly half of all Allied casualties, the information provided by the Sound Rangers proved to be a significant intelligence source.  In addition to immediately passing on the location of enemy guns, the SRS compiled a daily report for the Artillery Information Service that summarized the class of battery (howitzer or gun), caliber, and probable targets.  Forward observers added their assessments to the report and collected shell fragments, duds, and portions of fuzes for analysis.  The observers’ remarks were critical in many respects.  For example, from their front line posts, observers heard the arrival of German resupply trains.  They also determined that, when the enemy’s band played, new troops were arriving at the front in preparation for an upcoming attack.

The SRS daily reports were compared with information from other intelligence sources, like prisoner-of-war statements, captured documents, and aerial photographs.  As a new science, sound ranging provoked skepticism on the part of many officers who demanded corroboration from other sources, especially aerial photos.  However, sound ranging proved most valuable in locating artillery pieces hidden from visual observation.  In one instance, Sgt. Hinman’s SRS No. 1 had identified the location of a very active enemy battery on the eve of the Battle of St. Mihiel.  Because the information could not be corroborated on an aerial photograph, the sound ranging data was considered an error.  Later it was found that an enemy artillery piece had been hidden in dense woods exactly where the Sound Rangers had indicated.

A post-war study of sound ranging accuracy showed the method could identify the location of an enemy gun within 10-25 meters in ideal weather conditions.  Roughly 80 percent of all battery locations were identified by the Sound Rangers.  Like many new technologies employed during the Great War, sound ranging matured in the postwar period, and by 1927, the function had been transferred from the Engineers to Field Artillery.  The methods continued to be used during World War II, but by that time, sound ranging was being overshadowed by the advent of radar.

Forward observation posts near Forges, France, during World War I.
Forward observers were critical to the effectiveness of sound ranging operations.

 

World War I Counterintelligence Agents Get Their Man – February 1918

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

On August 13, 1917, the US Army’s Military Intelligence Section (later elevated to Division) created the Corps of Intelligence Police (CIP) to protect American forces in France from sabotage and subversion. CIP agents also conducted special investigations, including suspected German espionage activities, throughout the United States.  The CIP had difficulty apprehending the enemy agents involved because they often fled to Mexico.  Several CIP agents were stationed along the US-Mexico border during this period to investigate and apprehend suspected German spies.

Two CIP agents in Nogales, Arizona, Captains Joel A. Lipscomb and Byron S. Butcher, recruited Dr. Paul B. Altendorf to infiltrate German spy rings in Mexico.  Altendorf was an Austrian immigrant to Mexico, where he served as a Colonel in the Mexican army.  Known to the CIP as Operative A-1, Altendorf managed to join the German Secret Service and become linked with several other German spies living in Mexico.

In January 1918, the CIP learned that Altendorf was accompanying one Lothar Witzke from Mexico City to the US border.  Witzke was a 22-year-old former lieutenant in the Germany navy, who alternately went by Harry Waberski, Hugo Olson, and Pablo Davis, to name just a few of his many aliases.  He had long been under CIP surveillance as a suspected German spy and saboteur.  During the trip from Mexico City, Witzke had no suspicion that his companion was an Allied double agent taking note of Witzke’s every move and indiscretion.  At one point, a drunk Witzke let slip bits of information that Altendorf quickly passed on to Capt. Butcher.  Specifically, Altendorf informed the CIP that Witzke’s handlers had sent him back to the US to incite mutiny within the US Army and various labor unions, conduct sabotage, and assassinate American officials.

On or about February 1, 1918, Capt. Butcher apprehended Witzke once he crossed the border at Nogales, and a search of Witzke’s luggage revealed a coded letter and Russian passport. Capt. John Manley, assistant to Herbert Yardley in the Military Intelligence Division’s MI-8 Cryptographic Bureau in Washington, DC, deciphered the letter, revealing Witzke’s German connections. The letter stated: “Strictly Secret! The bearer of this is a subject of the Empire who travels as a Russian under the name of Pablo Waberski. He is a German secret agent.”

While detained at Fort Sam Houston awaiting trial, Witzke was extensively interrogated by CIP agents but refused to provide any details about his contacts, co-conspirators, or alleged espionage.  His trial began in August 1918, and witnesses against him included Dr. Altendorf, Capt. Butcher, Capt. Lipscomb, and Capt. Manley.  Witzke took the stand in his own defense and spun a fantastical tale of how he was simply a down-on-his-luck drifter framed as a German spy.  The Military Commission found Witzke guilty of espionage and sentenced him to death, the only German spy thus sentenced in the US during World War I.  After the war, President Woodrow Wilson commuted his sentence to life in prison, and he was transferred to Fort Leavenworth.  In 1923, however, Witzke was pardoned and released to the German government.

A decade later, during the international Mixed Claims Commission hearings into damages related to the war, several American lawyers revealed Witzke’s role in the sabotage of the Black Tom Island munitions depot in New York Harbor on July 20, 1916. Ostensibly, he had been one of three collaborators who had placed dynamite on several barges loaded with ammunition causing a blast felt as far away as Philadelphia and Maryland.  The explosion lit up the night sky, shattered windows, broke water mains, and peppered the Statue of Liberty with shrapnel.  Seven people were killed.  Although in 1939 the Mixed Claims Commission found Germany complicit in the sabotage, Witzke and his co-conspirators, allegedly responsible for the worst act of terrorism on American soil up to that time, went unpunished.  Additionally, Germany refused to pay the $50 million judgment.

The capture of Witzke and other German spies and saboteurs by the Army’s counterintelligence agents undoubtedly prevented many, but not all, planned sabotage activities during the war.  Such incidents poisoned relations between the US and Germany and introduced suspicions and fear in the minds of the American public.  Americans could no longer assume complete security from enemy acts of terror on US soil, a reminder still valid today.

For more information on the Black Tom Island incident, see Michael Warner’s “The Kaiser Sows Destruction: Protecting the Homeland the First Time Around,” https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol46no1/article02.html#rfn12.

 

Damage to a pier at Black Tom Island caused by German sabotage to prevent American munitions from reaching Germany’s enemies.
(Library of Congress Photo)

Decoded Zimmermann Telegram Sets US on Path to War – January 1917

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

“…we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.”

These words are extracted from the now infamous telegram from Arthur Zimmerman, the German Foreign Secretary, to Heinrich von Eckardt, German Minister to Mexico.  The telegram, sent from Berlin on January 16, 1917, directed Eckardt to propose an alliance between Germany and Mexico to the Mexican president in the event the US formally entered World War I.

World War I, or the Great War as it was then known, had been fomenting in Europe for years, but the final catalyst proved to be the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in June 1914.  Shortly thereafter, Germany declared war successively on Russia, France, Belgium, and Portugal, and the United Kingdom and other European nations quickly declared war on Germany. The war eventually embroiled nations worldwide.  The US steadfastly retained its neutrality for two years. President Woodrow Wilson, re-elected in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” resolutely but unsuccessfully pursued a negotiated peace between the two sides.  By early 1917, Germany decided to launch unrestricted U-boat warfare on all ships, neutral or belligerent, in the waters of the war zones. This effort, German planners predicted, would bring England to the brink of economic collapse and thus surrender within months.

Zimmermann knew that the U-boat war would force the US, reluctantly but inexorably, into the war on the side of the Allies.  He believed that if Germany could entice Mexico into a war with the United States, it would divert US attention and ammunition shipments away from the Allies.  On January 18, the telegram reached Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German ambassador in Washington, DC, who was then to send it to Eckardt in Mexico.  Zimmermann had audaciously sent the message over the US State Department’s own trans-Atlantic cable, which President Wilson had allowed Germany to use for transmitting communications related to peace negotiations.  Inexplicably, Wilson had allowed those dispatches to be sent in the German code, for which the State Department did not have a codebook.

Unbeknownst to the US, British cryptographers had been intercepting message traffic on the State Department’s telegraph route.  In addition, unbeknownst to both the US and the Germans, those same British code-breakers had cracked the German diplomatic code and immediately set themselves to decoding the Zimmermann Telegram.  Incredulous at its contents, the British debated how best to notify the US, knowing, on one hand, it would bring the US into the war and, on the other, that it would anger the US to know England was reading its dispatches.  To prevent the latter, the British code section waited until Bernstorff sent the message to Eckardt and used that message, slightly altered from the original, to enlighten the US of the brazen German scheme.

The British finally revealed the contents of the telegram to the US on February 23, and a week later, major newspapers around the country published the evidence of the German conspiracy.  Americans reacted with a mix of disbelief and anger.  Rumors that Germany had financed Mexican bandit Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916 had resulted in a comprehensive investigation by the State Department.  The results of that investigation, as well as others into German intrigue in Mexico, were inconclusive, however.  As a result, most Americans initially viewed the telegram as a hoax–surely the Germans were not so foolhardy as to promise to give away part of the United States.

Ultimately, the directives in the Zimmermann Telegram came to naught; the Mexican president chose to remain neutral rather than instigate a war with its northern neighbor.  Undeniably, however, knowledge of the threat of hostile action on American territory shifted public opinion in support of a war most citizens had previously marginalized.  At the same time, Germany had launched the unrestricted submarine warfare it had previously threatened, resulting in the sinking of several US merchant ships in late March.  The Great War, therefore, was no longer just a threat to Europe.  On April 2, 1917, President Wilson requested a declaration of war from Congress, stating, “That [the German government] means to stir up enemies against us at our very doors, the intercepted note to the German Minister at Mexico is eloquent evidence. We accept this challenge of hostile purpose….”  Congress overwhelmingly voted for war and ultimately, American intervention helped turn the tide in favor of the Allies and end the war.

The Zimmermann Telegram (National Archives)