He might be the most prominent military officer you never heard of. His behind-the-scenes activities before and during WWII dramatically impacted the conduct and outcome of the war, but were kept secret for decades after it ended.
A pilot with the British Royal Flying Corps during WWI, he was shot down and spent 18 months as a POW in Germany. After the war, he earned a law degree from Oxford, then tried his hand at farming in England, Kenya and Rhodesia, but never warmed up to civilian life.
In 1930 he landed a job in RAF intelligence, was given the rank of major and assigned as Head of the Air Section in the British Secret Service (MI6) under the stewardship of Admiral Hugh Sinclair. On paper he was listed as Air Staff Liaison Officer. One of his cohorts was Ian Fleming, who worked in British naval intelligence and would later gain fame as the creator of the fictional super sleuth James Bond.
His primary intelligence source in Berlin was a pro-British correspondent for The London Times who was close to the Nazis’ then chief propagandist Alfred Rosenberg. Through this connection, Winterbotham met Rosenberg when he came to London in the fall of 1932.
The British Government so lightly regarded the Nazi movement in Germany at the time that the party was deemed “off limits” to the British Embassy in Berlin. The Nazis were therefore desperate to cultivate contacts in London through which they might rationalize their still secret rearmament plans and secure British neutrality. Secret agent Winterbotham became one of their most trusted conduits.
In 1934 Rosenberg invited him to Berlin, where he received VIP treatment and had a lengthy personal audience with Adolph Hitler. The self-proclaimed Fuhrer told him that he considered the Treaty of Versailles to be dead, that he was rapidly developing an air force and that he intended to wipe out the Bolsheviks in Russia. His aim, he told Major Winterbotham, was to rid the world of Communism.
“There should be only three major powers in the world,” Hitler said, “the British Empire, the Americas and the German Empire of the future. All we ask is that Britain should be content to look after her empire and not interfere with Germany’s expansion plans.”
Winterbotham was introduced to other key Nazi leaders, including General Walther von Reichenau, principal planner of the coming Blitzkrieg against Russia. Reichenau proudly briefed his special guest on the details of his entire plan, which the British agent dutifully reported to MI6 when he returned to London.
Winterbotham’s recurring contact with the likes of Goering, Hess, Ribbentrop, Goebbels, Heydrich, Kesselring and Himmler laid the groundwork for an open exchange in 1936 between the RAF and Luftwaffe of order-of-battle data and aircraft production plans—Hitler’s initiative to promote British neutrality. But by then the little Fuhrer had already openly repudiated the Versailles Treaty and occupied the Rhineland, and, finally, the British began to awaken to the threat he posed to the West.
As his "Nazi Connection," Rosenberg often escorted Winterbotham by car or plane to major party rallies around the country where he was given a front row seat and witnessed first hand the way in which huge gatherings of party faithful were roused to the brink of hysteria by Hitler's increasingly fiery speeches. He was also given demonstrations of new German aircraft and allowed to mingle freely with young pilots undergoing training with the Luftwaffe. His final visit to Germany as an agent for British intelligence came in 1938 when a drunken Rosenberg warned, that because of the rapidly changing national mood, it would be unsafe for him to return. The invasion of Poland by Germany the following year served as a dress rehearsal of General von Richenau’s Blitzkrieg strategy and precipitated WWII.
Winterbotham and airborne photo reconnaissance
No longer welcome in Germany, Winterbotham took charge of an experimental aerial photography program in London. He arranged the purchase of an American Lockheed Model 12 and hired a civilian pilot, Sydney Cotton, an Australian, to fly it. By accident, Winterbotham and Cotton discovered the secret of taking clear photos from altitudes greater than 20,000 feet. They found that warmed cabin air flowing across exposed camera lenses kept them free from condensation, a problem that previously had limited British photo reconnaissance missions to 8,000 feet and below.
Winterbotham and Cotton modified the aircraft by cutting a hole in the belly, installing internal cameras and mounting an indicator light in the cockpit to show they were operating properly. They camouflaged the belly cut-out as an emergency fuel release and, beneath the cabin floorboards, hid the cameras with the top of an empty fuel tank. Cotton flew the plane on regular photo reconnaissance missions into Germany and all around the Mediterranean. These flights produced countless photographs of unprecedented quality for use by British intelligence analysts.
In the summer of 1939 Cotton took the plane, with its cameras in place, to the Frankfurt air show and put it on static display. One interested spectator was Luftwaffe General Alfred Kesselring, who one year later would command one of the three German air fleets involved in the Battle of Britain. Kesselring inquired if he might have a ride, a request happily accommodated by Winterbotham’s pilot. While airborne over areas of interest along the Rhine and with Kesselring at the controls, Cotton switched on the cameras. Kesselring noticed the flashing green light and asked what it meant. He accepted Cotton’s explanation that it was simply a fuel flow indicator.
Winterbotham recounts a tug of war that ensued between himself and Ian Fleming of British Naval Intelligence when Fleming went behind his back to pinch the Lockheed and its pilot for more melodramatic purposes, most of which proved to be embarrassing failures. After the war began the RAF established its first Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU), taking over Winterbotham’s photo collection program and (ultimately) employing Spitfires for the mission. Sydney Cotton, given a temporary commission, was put in charge of the unit to ensure the high-altitude aerial photography techniques he and Winterbotham had earlier discovered by accident were properly adapted by the PRU, its aircraft and pilots.
Winterbotham, meanwhile, would be taking on responsibilities of even greater significance.
Then along came Enigma
In the early 1920s a private company in Berlin developed and marketed a rudimentary encoding device called Enigma. Though intended to provide security against industrial espionage, it never caught on commercially.
However, the American Military Attaché in Berlin bought one in 1928 and shipped it to the United States. Japan and Poland also procured Enigmas as did the German military. The Germans and the Japanese went to work independently on modifying their Enigmas for military and diplomatic purposes. The Axis countries would rely on Enigma ciphers for top level communications throughout the war.
Cryptographers in the United States succeeded in cracking Enigma-based Japanese diplomatic codes and later, the more elaborate Japanese naval codes. Meanwhile, Polish intelligence enjoyed early success in breaking German military ciphers, but could not keep pace with the evolving sophistication of the German Enigma, which was being perfected to support their coming Blitzkrieg operations. So they infiltrated the factory where the Germans were building their machines, smuggled out plans and parts and constructed several mock-up units. They gave one of these to the British just two months before Germany invaded Poland. British intelligence then proceeded to crack the advanced German Enigma cipher. Intercept information that it produced the Brits christened “Ultra.”
At Bletchley Park, a former country estate outside London, the British constructed a room-sized computer dubbed “the Bronze Goddess” to do the work of deciphering Enigma signals, which included operational orders from Hitler himself. The subsequent capture of several front-line German Enigma machines helped them refine the computer’s capabilities. Now they were solidly in the Nazi communications loop.
In April 1940 Winterbotham set up an organization for the translation, distribution and security of decoded Ultra communications. Under his personal supervision, Ultra regularly provided precise information on enemy force dispositions and intended operations to Winston Churchill and senior British military commanders wherever they were engaged in combat. Winterbotham himself reported this information to Churchill, often adding his own assessment based on his personal knowledge of key Nazi leaders.
By the autumn of 1940 in the United States meanwhile, the Army's Signals Intelligence Service and the Navy's Communications Security Group were reading Japanese diplomatic and intelligence messages. The encrypted traffic was called "Purple." Decrypted material derived from Purple was given the cover name "Magic." Like the Poles and Brits before them, the S.I.S. constructed machines on which enciphered Japanese signals could be returned to their original text. (One of these Purple machines was sent to England in January 1941, another one year later.) Unlike the British, however, American code breakers had not yet refined their procedures for evaluating and distributing decrypted intelligence. While Pearl Harbor demonstrated this organizational deficiency in spades, the Japanese radio traffic being read by the Army and Navy was diplomatic, not operational. It included specific telltale instructions to Japanese diplomats, but did not spell out Japan's military intentions in the Pacific.
Pearl Harbor lit a fire under American intelligence. The Navy's Combat Intelligence Unit at Pearl Harbor turned to on cracking the newest Japanese naval code, JN-25. (It was called JN-25 because it was the 25th new code adopted by the Japanese Navy since 1930. All of the previous 24 had been broken by the US Navy.) Their success enabled the Allies to blunt Japanese expansion toward Australia and New Zealand in the Battle of Coral Sea and paved the way for the U.S. victory in the Battle of Midway, the turning point in the Pacific War.
Beginning in 1942 Americans would become full partners with the Brits in the use of Ultra and would learn a great deal from Winterbotham in the process. A cadre of some 28 American intelligence officers, after undergoing intensive training at Bletchley Park, fanned out to serve as advisors on the staffs of the major American commands in Europe. Like their British counterparts, they manned Special Liaison Units (SLUs), closely guarded receiving stations for processed Ultra information transmitted from London. They had two primary responsibilities--to keep their respective commanders briefed on Ultra intelligence and to make sure those same commanders refrained from taking any direct action that might compromise this precious intelligence source. The latter was a daunting task, given the propensity of senior Americans to act quickly, directly and decisively ("Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"). Contrarily for the Brits, whose national survival had been at stake from the outset of the war, the routine employment of cover and deception, subtlety and obfuscation in the operational use of Ultra had become a necessary way of life.
Among the Allied military commanders in Europe who were briefed by Winterbotham and eagerly embraced Ultra were Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, Spaatz and Doolittle. On the other hand, Gen Mark Clark stubbornly ignored it and paid the price operationally. Unlike other British generals, Montgomery was slow to accept it, considering it ungentlemanly to read the enemy’s mail.
Ultra intelligence was also sent to Washington, where only President Roosevelt and a handful of senior officials were authorized to read it. Washington transmitted it by secure means to various commands throughout the Pacific where Admiral Nimitz, Generals MacArthur, Chennault, Stilwell, LeMay and others were in the Ultra picture. By late 1944, they were supported by a cadre of Ultra-trained advisors like those assigned to their counterparts in Europe. Winterbotham traveled to the Far East on several occasions to straighten out Ultra-related security problems when they arose there, just as he had similarly visited every major Allied command on the Continent.
“It saved the British at Dunkirk, beat the Luftwaffe in the skies over England, turned the tide at El Alamein, destroyed the Nazi U-Boat fleet, outfoxed Rommel in the desert, and kept Normandy from turning into a disaster. It allowed the Americans to win the vital battles of Midway and the Coral Sea, and to shoot down the plane carrying the great Japanese Admiral Yamamoto.”
Eisenhower, mindful of the skill, tenacity, courage and sacrifice of those who had actually done the fighting, said Ultra was “decisive” in winning the war, that it “saved thousands of British and American lives and, in no small way, contributed to the speed with which the enemy was routed and eventually forced to surrender.”
Eisenhower, who wrote these words immediately after the war, was constrained by security regulations then in place from saying more about Winterbotham's Ultra organization and its contribution to the Allied victory. It was 30 years later, after expiration of the British Secrets Act, that the public began to learn what Ike and others knew then but were not permitted to divulge. Here are a few selected examples:
After defeating Poland Hitler (who had previously annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia) launched a three-pronged Blitzkrieg attack into Luxemburg, Holland, Belgium and France. The allied forces of those countries were in disarray. Based on Ultra intercepts suggesting the German army intended to encircle them, the British Expeditionary Forces and their European allies made for Dunkirk, France, where a fleet of naval craft and small civilian boats evacuated 335,000 of them to England. Still hoping to achieve peace with the Brits, Hitler halted his advancing Panzer divisions and allowed the BEF to escape, albeit without its armor.
Battle of Britain (8 August - 31 October, 1940)
When Hitler finally concluded there would be no peace with England, the Germans initiated an air campaign (Operation Eagle) intended to destroy the RAF in advance of their planned invasion of Britain (Operation Sea Lion). Fortunately for the badly outnumbered RAF, the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, Reich-Marshal Hermann Goering, was a prolific user of Enigma. As a consequence, British Intelligence was privy to daily operational orders sent by Goering as well as situation reports he received from his subordinate units. Ultra enabled the RAF to strategically disperse its meager fighter assets and to scramble the minimum number of planes needed to disrupt incoming German bomber formations, to make their bombing less accurate and to whittle away at their numbers. But at least as important as Ultra, Winterbotham wrote, was the more tactically immediate role played by British radar, by which the RAF was able to begin tracking German formations even before they reached the English Channel. The combination of Ultra, which revealed the Germans’ targets, radar, which guided British fighter intercepts, the careful husbanding of resources by the RAF and the tenacity of its fighter pilots enabled England to survive the Battle of Britain and caused Hitler to cancel Operation Sea Lion.
The Coventry myth
The bombing of London and other cities in England persisted beyond the official end of the Battle of Britain, even as the RAF had begun bombing Berlin. On the night of November 14, 1940, the city of Coventry was nearly destroyed in a savage attack by the Luftwaffe. But Winterbotham's recollection of events surrounding this particular incident--specifically that Churchill had advance warning of the attack, but chose to sacrifice the city in order to protect Ultra--appears to have been faulty. Previously classified records opened after publication of his book The Ultra Secret enabled others to set the record straight on this matter. The consensus among them, including men who were with Churchill that night, is that evaluated Ultra intelligence available prior to the infamous attack had not identified Coventry as the Germans' intended target. Indeed, the British Air Staff had erroneously concluded that central London was the target and only after bombs started falling on Coventry did they learn otherwise. Hence, the notion that Churchill, in order to protect his "most secret intelligence source," consciously decided against warning the citizens of Coventry they were about to be bombed has been exposed as a myth.
North Africa/El Alamein
Winston Churchill considered the November 1942 victory of the Allies, led by General Bernard Montgomery, over German General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps the turning point of the war in Europe. It saved Egypt for the Allies and led to the 1943 defeat of the Germans in North Africa.
Prior to the arrival of U.S. forces in North Aftrica, Ultra played a pivotal role in enabling the British to stymie Rommel’s drive toward Egypt. It told the Brits where and in what strength “the Desert Fox” would move his forces, enabling them to employ surprise hit-and-run tactics. After El Alamein, during Rommel’s retreat to Tunisia, Ultra alerted the Malta-based RAF and Royal Navy as to the timing, routes and destinations of German resupply ships sailing from Italy, which were regularly sent to the bottom of the Mediterranean.
Whenever Rommel received an Enigma message informing him that a resupply convoy was en route, the Brits read it too. In order to protect Ultra as its intelligence source, the RAF would send a plane to overfly the convoy, making sure it was spotted. Then the British Navy would arrive to sink the vessels, robbing Rommel of crucially needed food, fuel, armament, ammunition and reinforcements--the personification of Winterbotham's strict guidance on the prudent operational use of Ultra.
While the “Desert Fox” was outfoxed in North Africa by the clever use of Ultra, many military historians believe Montgomery was overly cautious, that he could have made even better use of this information by employing more aggressive tactics. Nevertheless, Churchill later said, “Before Alamein, we never had a victory; after Alamein, we never had a defeat.”
Allied bombing campaign
It was not unusual for members of American bomber crews, regardless of their theater of operations, to question the sanity of those who assigned their targets. By policy and practice, they had no way of knowing the extent to which Ultra was influencing the target selection process. Sometimes Ultra intercepts revealed that repairs were nearing completion on targets struck previously or that an enemy shipping convoy would be transiting a certain area within a particular time frame. Especially valuable were enemy communications reporting the extent to which a particular attack had succeeded--a form of battle damage assessment direct from the horse's mouth. And weather guessers weren't always guessing. Often they based their forecasts on enemy weather reports. But while there was a relentless flow of information on the disposition, status and intended deployment of the enemy's forces, foreknowledge of his strong points did not necessarily diminish the risks faced by aircrews on a given mission. It was they who ultimately had to put their lives on the line against a fiercely determined enemy.
The virtual wealth of Ultra information available to Eisenhower and his Allied air force commanders enabled them to read what German generals were reporting to Hitler about the effectiveness of the Allied bombing campaign as new targets and new tactics were introduced. German reactions, as revealed in their high level communications, led directly to the reprioritization of targets from oil refineries, to airfields, to rail and ship yards, to V-1 rocket launch sites, to ball bearing factories, to aircraft factories and, ultimately back to oil facilities.
In some cases being privy to too much information was considered a curse by senior bomber commanders. When Ira Eaker replaced "Tooey" Spaatz at the 8th Air Force, Spaatz advised Eaker that he should not allow himself to be indoctrinated into Ultra, because once briefed, he would be prohibited from flying on bombing missions. Eaker was prepared for Winterbotham when he arrived to do the honors and refused to be Ultra-cized. "No, no, no!" he said. He would designate a subordinate to carry that load.
Jimmy Doolittle hated--and virtually ignored--the no-fly restrictions placed on him as an Ultra recipient and flew anyway. (Doolittle's kindred spirit on the ground, George Patton, reacted the same way in making superb use of Enigma information while not allowing exposure to that information to cramp his charismatic leadership style.) Ironically, seven months after Dootlittle took command of the 8th Air Force in January 1944, he reluctantly authorized his new intelligence chief, BGen Arthur Vanaman, to tag along on a bombing mission for orientation purposes. When the aircraft filled with smoke after being hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire, Vanaman and five other crewmen had bailed out before the source of the smoke was determined, the bailout order rescinded and the aircraft returned to base. Vanaman was captured and interned in a German POW camp named Stalag Luft III, site of the famous "Great Escape." Fortunately, the Germans never learned what he knew about Ultra.
Meanwhile, as Commanding General, U.S. Army Air Forces in Europe, Spaatz occasionally invited Winterbotham to sit in on bomber mission briefings. Whenever anyone questioned the basis of the meteorologist's forecast weather to and from the target, Spaatz, knowing the information had come directly from the Germans via Ultra, would wink at Winterbotham and say, "I think you can rely on that."
Spaatz' Ultra advisor at USAAFE--one of Winterbotham's special cadre of intelligence officers trained at Bletchley Park--was Lewis Powell, whom Richard Nixon would appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972.
Battle of the Atlantic
While the Brits had long been feasting on deciphered Luftwaffe communications, they were on a starvation diet when it came to reading the German navy's mail. Indeed, the German navy was gorging on theirs, having themselves broken the codes employed by the British navy as well as those of the British/Allied merchant fleets. Things changed for the better in the summer of 1941 with the British acquisition of Enigma machines from two captured German surface ships and another from a captured U-boat. Until that time, Germany's practice was to support its Atlantic U-boats from a strategically deployed fleet of surface ships. Thereafter they were forced to abandon that practice in favor of "Milchcow" U-boats for re-supply at sea, a much more cumbersome proposition.
Things changed again with America's entry into the war. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States three days after the U.S. and Great Britain declared war on Japan. The German U-boat fleet then switched to a new Enigma cipher (Triton) in early 1942 coincident with the initiation of Operation Drumbeat, submarine operations off the American east coast where the pickings were easy for them. The Triton cipher was not broken at Bletchley Park until December of that year, a critical ten-month blackout during which German U-boats wreaked havoc upon Allied shipping in the Atlantic. The resulting loss of millions of tons of Allied shipping hindered America's ability to transport men and material to England and seriously impeded the beginning of the U.S. strategic bombing campaign. Even after the U-boat codes were broken, shipping losses continued to mount, peaking in March 1943. But Ultra, produced by the cracking of the new U-boat Enigma codes, eventually began to take a decisive toll. It enabled the Allies to avoid, and ultimately defeat, German U-boat "wolf packs" and by the autumn of 1943, the Battle of the Atlantic was essentially over.
The Drumbeat crisis had spurred an unprecedented degree of cooperation between U.S., British and Canadian intelligence in trying to defeat the suddenly unreadable U-boat Enigma codes. But once they were broken, friction arose regarding the way in which Ultra decrypts, along with other intelligence (such as RF direction finding) should be used operationally. When the location of U-boats--or packs of U-boats--was determined, the British preference was to route convoys away from them, while the American approach was to dispatch hunter-killer groups to attack them head on. The crux of the friction was whether Ultra might be compromised by the American way of doing business. In any case, Winterbotham was only indirectly involved with naval operations. He had his hands full tending to the Allied air and ground forces.
D-Day and the drive on Germany
Eisenhower knew from Ultra that the Germans expected the Allied invasion of France to occur at Pas de Calais, some 200 miles northeast of Normandy. This knowledge led to the creation of Patton's famous phantom army at Kent, UK, directly across the Dover Straight from Calais. The deception held an entire German army in the Calais area and caused the Germans to position four Panzer divisions well away from the Allied landing beaches.
And while a plethora of Ultra intercepts documented the steady disintegration of the German army and air forces in the months following D-Day, it also created a sense of overconfidence among the Allies that led to temporary disaster during the drive on Germany. Allied commanders had come to rely so heavily on Ultra that when German radios went silent in November 1944, other intelligence that might have precluded the "Battle of the Bulge" was disregarded. The battle began in mid December with a surprise and deadly German counteroffensive in the Ardennes, an operation that began to fall apart as breaking weather permitted the application of Allied air power. When Hitler took personal charge of the failing German campaign from Berlin, the enemy's radios finally came back to life, as did Ultra. Still it required a month of heavy fighting for the Allies to quash the unexpected German offensive. This battle alone accounted for 81,000 American casualties, including 23,544 captured and 19,000 killed and 100,000 German killed, wounded or captured.
Now once again, Ultra was in full operation. It enabled the Allies to coordinate their efforts in fighting their way to Berlin. Meanwhile, the Russians were advancing on Germany from the east. As Winterbotham observed in the concluding chapter of The Ultra Secret, "Without Ultra, we might well have had to meet the Russians on the Rhine instead of the Elbe, and they would have stayed put."
Winterbotham's second book, The Nazi Connection, published in 1978 and now out of print, detailed his experiences as a British intelligence agent hobnobbing with Adolph Hitler and other top Nazis in pre-war Germany. The Nazis readily shared their war production and operational plans with him in the mistaken belief that he would help persuade England to stand aside while Germany gobbled up Europe to create its new empire.
By the time his books appeared, Group Captain Winterbotham had long since retired to a quiet life on his farm in the English countryside. Meanwhile, his former rival Ian Fleming had purchased a vacation home on a beach in Jamaica, named it "Goldeneye," and there wrote most of his James Bond novels.
It is impossible in an article of this length to recount the entire history of WWII or the role intelligence played in it. But that is not its purpose. Rather, it attempts to briefly highlight the contributions of one man--a former fighter pilot turned intelligence officer--working tirelessly, if quietly, behind the scenes to help defend his homeland and defeat the Axis powers. Group Captain Winterbotham was a hero of a different sort, one whose story is worth preserving as an important part of the history of the war.
Other recommended reading on this subject:
Ultra Goes to War by Ronald Lewin
A Man Called Intrepid by William Stevenson
The Codebreakers by David Kahn
Enigma by Wladyslaw Kozaczuk
Combined Fleet Decoded by John Prados
And now available in Kindle format...