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Security threats/leaks


centurion
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Just been reading about the latest security fiasco (American military information on Afghanistan found on an MP3 player bought in a charity shop in Oklahoma) and thought that people leaving data on memory sticks (or PCs on car rear seats) wasn't a problem they had to deal with in WW1. However given some of the information that did leak out (for example the Nivelle offensive was pretty comprehensively trailered for the Germans and the details of the initial A7V tank designs appeared in the New York Times as they were being discussed by the A7V committee) there were some problems. How good was security in WW1 and what (apart from waking up with Mata Hari breathing in your ear) were the sources of leaks?

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Hello centurion

I think the leak about the Nivelle offensive may have been due to a set of papers being found on the body of a dead French officer. Like today's PC-linked leaks, this is basically down to a personal failing by officers to observe fairly simple security procedures, although the danger may not have been sop readily perceived a hundred years ago.

The same technique was of course used in WW2 to plant deliberate mis-information, in the case of "The Man Who Never Was".

The A7V leak may have been a case of loose tongues in Berlin when speaking to neutral diplomatic staff, which somehow found its way to US agents there.

The leaking of the Zimmermann Telegram was due to the British intercepting the transatlantic telegraph lines, decoding, and then deliberately passing the information to the Americans without disclosing the source. The German Foreign Office, rather foolishly, confirmed its accuracy.

Individual soldiers were often warned to "keep your mouths shut", notably prior to 8 August 1918. Officers and others (including influential civilians) further back may have been less alert to the dangers.

A British politician in 1916 mentioned in the course of a speech that the Whit Bank Holiday for munition workers had been cancelled, "which should speak volumes." It certainly did, and the Germans heard it. However, the fact that the British intended to launch a major offensive in mid-1916 would not have been unexpected, and the Somme was not specifically mentioned.

Ron

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Other side of the coin was the Meinetzagen (hope I have spelled that correctly) ruse for the battle of Beersheba.

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Agree with your comment but as one of Allenby's Intelligence Officers very effective.

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Wartime is the period when oddballs like Meinertzhagen often come into their own.

The example of the Zimmerman telegram is quite complex.

Quite early in the war the British had dredged up all the German submarine cables and either cut or diverted them (in fact Churchill jumped the gun and ordered the first one cut a couple of days before Britain declared war). This left Germany dependent on either wireless or cooperation by neutral countries. Most of Germany's military and political transatlantic traffic was going via the Swedish cable to America in contravention of Swedish neutrality. To conceal this the Germans mounted a deception operation to make it look as if all transatlantic communications were going via their large wireless station in the USA - part of this meant that German telegrams from the Swedish cable were routed to the wireless station for onward distribution. In fact British Naval intelligence were already well aware of the use of the Swedish cable. The Swedish cable came ashore in Britain and crossed the land before becoming a sea cable again. It was generally believed that it was impossible to tap such a cable without leaving very clear indications that one was doing so. In fact this was not the case and British Naval intelligence were happily retrieving German material from the Swedish cable and then breaking the code. No complaint was made about the Swedish contravention of its neutrality as it was reckoned the value of the intercepts was such that it was better to keep quiet and keep on getting them (it was like having a tap into the German embassy in Washington). When the Zimmerman telegram was intercepted it was taken from the Swedish cable but the British ran their own deception operation to make it seem that they had intercepted the message in the US after it had been forwarded by cable from the Wireless station. Both the Americans and the Germans thought that the British refusal to declare the source of the intercept was because Britain would have been violating US neutrality by admitting intercepting the signal on American soil. It's possible that the German Foreign Office's gaffe was part of the attempt to conceal the use of the Swedish cable.

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Peter Barton's 'Somme Panoramas' book contains references to Germans 'tapping in' to poorly earthed telephone cables pre-1st July. More tactical intelligence gathering I suppose but worth throwing in the ring.

Des

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Peter Barton's 'Somme Panoramas' book contains references to Germans 'tapping in' to poorly earthed telephone cables pre-1st July. More tactical intelligence gathering I suppose but worth throwing in the ring.

Again a bit more complex. The Germans were taking advantage of a feature of ground return phones and telegraphs. See the following extract from an article I did for Landships.

The Western Front was festooned with the wires of trench and field telephone and telegraph systems. Although the official British Army instruction was to bury these at least a foot and a half this was not always possible in the heat of an action. Other armies on both sides would have the same problem and wires might be laid across the open ground, draped across the tops of trenches and shell holes, lie under duck boards, be tacked along the sides of trenches or even properly buried. As the trench line altered with minor advances and retreats some wires might end up crossing from friendly trenches across no mans land through enemy positions and back to ones own side. Where enemy wires were spotted exposed in no mansland men might crawl out at night and lay wires to tap them. In other cases shell fire or even the inadvertent clumsy boot might break the wires. In some cases, when the line was thinly manned or sentries inattentive, wire taps were even laid onto cables in the enemy’s trench. The trench telephone and telegraph system on either side was not secure or reliable.

However the British began to get a sense that their calls were being intercepted with alarming ease. This was serious as the enemy might, for example, gain advance warning of a trench raid or learn when the line was thinly manned. However no one could work out why this was so. It became the common practice not to pass any important information by the trench phones but to rely on despatch riders and runners even with the risk of additional casualties to the messengers. At the same time emergency signalling methods such as warning rockets were kept handy as, with the predictably malignity of inanimate objects, the trench phone would fail just when a call for help was needed.

The cause of the security problem was found by accident when a signals instructor, Sgt Lorne Hicks, on a course in Canada found that his phone was picking up the signal of the man next to him. The British field telephone relied on a ground return system. In this the phones are connected by a single wire with the ‘second wire’ of the circuit being a short wire to a spike in the ground. The AC current on the phones was creating a signal through the ground that could be picked up on devices known as Moritz Stations. It was worse (easier to pick up) when the phone was being used to transmit Morse buzzes (as was the case over long lines). As the Germans perfected the sensitivity of the Moritz Stations they could ‘bug’ a phone from a kilometre away. Moreover, as the signal was transmitted through the ground, by creating underground saps towards the British lines they could sit at its end and pick up even more signals. One interesting sidelight to this is that the German monitors frequently picked up a whistling noise that sounded like the screech of a descending shell. Known as ‘screamers’ these were at one time thought to be artificial noises made by British operators attempting to ‘jam’ the interception; they are now known to have been created by the solar wind hitting the ionosphere – true signals from outer space.

Once the problem was identified attempts were made to find ways to intercept the German trench telephones by picking up the magnetic induction from operation of the speaker or buzzer. How successful this was is unknown as the results were classified and seem to have been lost for ever in the labyrinth of military secrecy. At the same time a British device called the Fullerphone, the invention of a Captain (later Major General) A C Fuller in 1915, was investigated and then adopted. The Fullerphone could send Morse over a 20 mile long single wire line and voice over a shorter distance. On some versions of the device it could send Morse and voice simultaneously along the same line (effectively what your broadband modem does only it’s much much faster). When used on normal phone lines distance was not a problem. It used a DC signal that was much less powerful than the old trench telephone and therefore much more difficult for the Moritz Stations to pick up. At the same time the Morse system depended on a device in each phone called a ‘buzz chopper’, the people at each end had to synchronise their buzz choppers, these acted as a scrambling device so that no third party could listen in. As a bonus it was found that the Morse signals could be transmitted over damaged lines and across breaks (provided each side of the break was in ground contact and not too far apart). Like all new devices it took time to roll the new system out but it was in fairly widespread use amongst the Allies by the end of the war. More advanced versions of the Fullerphone system were in extensive use in World War Two.

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Some of the attempts at security were pathetic - for example a junior subaltern usually got the job of censoring the men's mail to ensure for example that no-one could deduce where he was and therefore where his unit was - so when they sent a French postcard of the town they were in the officer put a line through the town name, usually leaving it perfectly readable. Added to which the mail stamps used by the field post office had the brigade number included. When the British captured a German mail train in early 1916 and reconstructed virtually the whole of the German order of battle from the intelligence gleaned from the letters they instituted a swap system where every six months a pair of Brigades swapped handstamps.

Also if you read local newspapers from the 1914-1916 period you will probably find that as soon as a man returned home injured a local journalist would be on his tail for a story and the papers are full of descriptions of tactics and events giving battalion names and locations. I dont know whether the Germans actually subsribed to these local papers but they certainly were sent out to troops in the front line inn bulk and could easily be a source of leak -

One could go on and on but of course the real intelligence problem was knowing which source to believe and which to be suspicious of.

regards

John

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Really interesting posts and thank you for posting them.

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The more I look at this subject the more amazed I become at the sheer carelessness that existed before and during WW1. Goodness only knows what they would have done if they had had memory sticks to play with. In the late 1890s the German Embassy staff in Paris used to dispose of important papers by putting them in their wastepaper baskets so the concierge could take them down to the furnace in the basement at night and burn them, The concierge needless to say was in the employ of the French secret service. At the same time the British Foreign Secretary used to take important telegrams home to read in bed, leaving them in his beside cabinet - his valet was also in the employ of the French.

In WW1 one French cabinet minister carried vital papers in his briefcase when he went on holiday to Nice. On visiting the 'seamstresses' quarter in Nice his briefcase, complete with papers, was stolen.

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In the end, until artillery solved the problem of firing effectively without registering, there was no real chance of a major surprise attack. Added to this, the preparations for a battle such as the Somme or Paschendaele, which involved tens of thousands of men and months of work behind the lines could hardly be kept a secret. Only the actual day or time could be hidden and perhaps the precise tactical intentions. These would not concern the higher commands. It would be for the commanders of the forces opposite to make sure they were ready for all conceivable actions. When battalions of men were making roads, laying railways, burying water mains and stringing telephone lines by the mile, just behind the front lines, it would be hard to convince a man in a front line trench that there were any secrets from the enemy.

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On the other hand whilst the Germans were aware well before Sept 1916 that French tanks were being built they knew nothing about the British until they arrived on the scene

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A Canadian journalist with the First Canadian Contingent got sent home for indiscreet reporting in 1914. This was at a time when there was widespread coverage of the Canadians' experiences on Salisbury Plain but also near-hysteria in Britain about "spies". (Forty-six "enemy aliens" who had enlisted in the Contingent were sent home.)

In 1909 Sir Ian Hamilton observed the Saxon army manoeuvres and took part in the German staff discussions afterwards. He was handed a document that condemned cavalry for charging artillery batteries; he was astounded to see it was his own secret report on the October 1908 manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain, which had been acquired, translated and distributed by the German staff!

Moonraker

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On the other hand whilst the Germans were aware well before Sept 1916 that French tanks were being built they knew nothing about the British until they arrived on the scene

Certainly there were secrets and some were kept as long as need be. The mines at Messines were perhaps among the best examples. I was really thinking of trying to convince a squaddie that he was putting the whole war effort at risk by telling his old mum back home that he was at a place called Armenteers.

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"The Signal Service (France)", by Major R E Priestley, published jointly in the 1920s by the RE Institution and the Signals Institution, has some fascinating material about wireless intercepts, including the deliberate use of badly-earthed circuits to pass mis-information. There is also a story of a Brigade Major on 1 July 1916 - I think in 34th Division - being ordered by his brigade commander to pass the text of a Corps Operation Order to one of his battalions in clear. The BM protested vigorously but was overruled, and the whole brigade was hammered on that day.

There is another story in the same book, about a British wireless operator in no-man's-land, monitoring the traffic between an aircraft and a gun battery, clearly supplying target corrections. As the bangs outside got louder he realised, fortunately in good time, that the intended target was his own radio mast!

"Signals Intelligence in the First World War", one of the volumes produced by the Army Records Society, also has interesting material on codes and code-breaking. In March 1918 the Germans changed their code. One German unit received a message it could not understand, requested clarification, and was sent the same message, word for word, in the previous code! This single mistake enabled the British to break a large part of the new code within about 72 hours of its introduction.

Ron

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It is perhaps significant that the British and French governments, together with their respective war offices, were not informed about the attack at Amiens on 8th August 1918 until it had actually started.

Charles M

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I recently read about a man who was employed in the censors office - he just happened to work for the other side. Did so all the way through the war.

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Somerset Maugham wrote his novel the Ashenden stories during the Great War whilst based in Switzerland "to write a play in the peace of a neutral country".In reality,Maugham was British agent and his work was based "on the whole a very truthful account of my experiences".Some of it proved to be too truthful for his friend Winston Churchill who complained that the stories infringed the Official Secrets Act.

Maugham responded by burning 14 manuscripts of his Ashenden stories and left the publication until 1928.He was happy to meet his spies,pay them, send them back into Germany and despatch any information they were able to bring back.

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In 1917 the War Department set up a statistical unit with staff from the PRO to produce information on effectiveness of transport, resupply, shells delivered etc etc. It was shut down very soon as it was realised that given the 'leakiness' of government it could be collating vital information for the Germans.

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