Soviet and German Intelligence on the Eastern Front

01 Sep

Soviet spy Dr. Richard Sorge

Soviet Expertise at Intelligence
Soviet intelligence in the pre-WWII era began with the noted Soviet spy Richard Sorge, who amassed an effective network in the 1930s that stretched from Japan to Germany. It was Sorge’s intelligence effort that aided the Red Army effort at Moscow; he, through his network, was able to postulate that the Japanese would refuse Germany’s request to enter into war against the Soviets until they (Germany) had defeated the Red Army. Sorge’s team had monitored the combat gear and kit being issued Japanese troops—rather than heavy winter clothing, the Japanese Imperial Army was issued tropical uniforms, suited for the central and south Pacific. Armed with this intelligence, the Red Army was able to free up troops destined for eastern Siberia—fortuitously moving them to Moscow instead.[1]The Soviet intelligence system, and maskirovka, was as not nearly as good as its reputation, both before and during the war. Their job was made much easier of course, as it was for all of the allies, that German intelligence was as limited as it was. The German military intelligence agency Abwehr, had limited success in the west, in Britain and Western Europe, but little on the Eastern Front. There was continual conflict between the Abwehr and the Gestapo, or “Secret State Police,” and the SD, or Security Service.It is difficult to state with certainty whether the Soviet exaggeration of numbers (and statistics) was due to either a) the desire to embellish victory and therefore rewrite history, or b) a total lack of incompetence on the part of Red Army and maskirovka intelligence. Of battlefront intelligence, we know that the Red Army was lacking.

Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson, from The Korsun Pocket: The Encirclement and Breakout of a German Army in the East, 1944, in their post-breakout analysis of the Korsun Pocket, note that “The dubious Red Army information on the German divisions is perhaps not surprising. After the Allies landed in Normandy, an exchange of intelligence took place between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. The Western Allies were clearly disappointed with the information provided by their comrades in the East. It revealed that the Red Army had poor knowledge about which German divisions were actually present on the Eastern Front.[2]

German Under-estimation of Soviet Capabilities
The literature, across many sources, suggests that German intelligence had grossly miscalculated Soviet troop strength (numbers of divisions) before Barbarossa, and the beginnings of the war. It is possible that so much intelligence manpower, on Germany’s part, had gone to the Gestapo, SS, and other organizations and their missions, that Germany’s war effort might have been better served had those thousands of resources been directed at military stratagem and aims—as opposed to the “policing of Europe” and the extermination of Jews and other civilians.

The German military units at the Korsun Pocket had difficulty in believing intelligence reports offered them by their own sources. Walter S. Dunn Jr., in The Korsun Pocket: The Encirclement and Breakout of a German Army in the East, 1944, writes: “The German army OKH [Nazi Germany’s High Command of the Army] was reluctant to believe the corps and division intelligence reports that were based on local patrols and observation. This reluctance helped Russians in their planned deception. . . . Local German intelligence officers had detected a major buildup at Rogachev on 30 May, but the information was considered a track by the OKH, which was not convinced that a major offensive was in progress until 25 June, 3 days after the attack had begun!”[3] It cannot be said with absolute certainty that all German intelligence was bad or ineffective across the entire Eastern Front from 1941 through 1945, but these noted incidents suggest that intelligence was an issue for the OKH and Wehrmacht troops.

Absolute Intelligence, Absolutely
Hitler’s mismanagement of Germany’s war has been well-noted throughout the literature of the War in Europe and the War on the Eastern Front. The Gestapo, SS, and SD had seemingly unlimited intelligence resources for their missions of “policing,” and extermination throughout Europe. Too many intelligence sources allotted to hunting civilians. Had Hitler focused intelligence to his enemy on the battlefield as opposed to his ideological enemies in Eastern and Western Europe there might have been a different outcome.

1. Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000) 485-486, 502.
2. Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson, The Korsun Pocket: The Encirclement and Breakout of a German Army in the East, 1944 (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2008) 278.
3. Walter S. Dunn Jr., Soviet Blitzkrieg: The Battle for White Russia, 1944(Mechanicsburg, Pa: Stackpole Books, 2008) 26.

Burleigh, Michael. The Third Reich: A New History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000.
Dunn, Walter S. Jr. Soviet Blitzkrieg: The Battle for White Russia, 1944. Mechanicsburg, Pa: Stackpole Books, 2008.
Fritz, Stephen G. Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2011.
Zetterling, Niklas and Anders Frankson. The Korsun Pocket: The Encirclement and Breakout of a German Army in the East, 1944. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2008.

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Posted by on September 1, 2012 in The Eastern Front, WWII Germany


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