Fellers in Cairo – Die Gute Quelle

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For six months and 11 days the Germans enjoyed an even speedier, more across- the-board intelligence source than Britain’s Ultra in the Desert campaign. It was what Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, called ’die gute Quelle’ (the good source). It also was known as “the little fellows” or “the little fellers”, a play on the surname of its unwitting provider, Brevet Col. Bonner Frank Fellers, the U.S. military attaché in the Egyptian capital of Cairo. Together with what has become known as the Seebohm affair, it was a major contributor to Rommel becoming the legendary “Desert Fox”.

General Cesare Amè, head of the Servizio Informazione Militari (SIM, Italy’s military intelligence), had approved a break-in of the still neutral American embassy in Rome back in September 1941. Since Amè had keys to all the embassies in Rome – except for the Russian – it was a simple matter to gain entry at night. The burglary team consisted of two Carabinieri (national paramilitary police) specialists and two Italians employed by the embassy. One of the latter, a messenger, Loris Gherardi, opened the safe in the military attaché’s office. Among the items inside were the Black Code (named after the colour of its binding) and its super-encipherment tables which were used by U.S. military attachés and ambassadors worldwide, they were taken to SIM headquarters, photographed and returned over-night. The Italians now could read everything that the U.S. Ambassador telegraphed. Although they were allied with Germany, the Italians only gave their Axis partner sanitized versions of the American messages, not the code. While the Nazis appreciated the Italian largesse, they omitted to tell their ally that they had, in the meantime, independently cracked the Black Code. By the autumn of 1941, the German Chiffrierabteilung (military cipher branch) intercept stations were successfully intercepting Black Code traffic. The intercept station specifically assigned to cover Egypt (Britain’s North African headquarters) and the United States, among others, was situated in the medieval town of Lauf, just northeast of the Bavarian city of Nuremburg. There, on a 24-hour basis, 150 radio operators operated receivers linked to six tall towers – all devoted to the interception of Allied wireless traffic. The Lauf facility was backed up by a listening post near Berlin. Since the Mediterranean theatre was then the war’s most active battleground, it was only natural that Lauf concentrated on Cairo. It was just  as natural that attention was focused on the American military attaché, Col. Fellers there. His reports were the most thorough and provided the best intelligence to the Germans.

Fellers was as dedicated as he was ambitious. Although it soon became apparent to the British that he actively disliked them, they needed American support and went out of their way to give Fellers what he wanted. As Fellers said, he knew that ‘if I was going to be a good observer and write good reports I’d better report what I saw myself’. He talked to British military and civilian headquarters officials, read documents and visited the battlefront, where “it wasn’t difficult to learn a great deal”. Fellers composed long, usually pessimistic radiograms describing virtually everything he learned, encoded them and filed them with the Egyptian Telegraph Company for transmission across the Atlantic to Washington. Within an hour of their transmission from Cairo, the Colonel’s Black Code messages found their way to German cryptanalysts’ desks. Another hour or two and they would be broken into readable text, ready to be retransmitted in a German cipher. Thus, a few hours after Fellers’s messages were sent, the data would be in Rommel’s hands. Chiffrierabteilung archivist Dr. Herbert Schaedel said that military headquarters “went crazy . . . to get all the telegrams from Cairo”. He pointed out that the most revealing, Fellers’s reports, were easily pulled from the hundreds of coded intercepts received daily. They were flagged MILID WASH (Military Intelligence Division, Washington) or AGWAR WASH (Adjutant General, War Department, Washington), and signed FELLERS. Schaedel recalled that the Desert Fox, “by lunch each day we knew exactly where the Allied troops were standing the evening before”. Even with Enigma, the Allies had nothing to compare with that!

On December 7, 1941, Rommel’s Panzergruppe Afrika followed his initial success with a long retreat from near Tobruk west and south across Libya’s Cyrenaica to Tripolitania. There, the German and Italian units regrouped. There, also, beginning on December 18, the Desert Fox studied Fellers’s detailed reports, along with local intercepts. The latter came from his second secret ear in the enemy’s communications, his own 621st Signals Battalion mobile monitoring element commanded by Hauptmann Alfred Seeböhm: his own mobile version of Bletchley Park.

The British not only failed to change their codes frequently during this period but also displayed an unbelievable lack of battlefield radio discipline. According to Rommel’s chief of staff, they “were quite broad-minded in making speeches during combat, and we had the possibility of making important conclusions from their speeches”. On January 21, 1942, aided by intercepts telling him he had temporary front-line armoured superiority, the Desert Fox launched an offensive, advancing an impressive 300 miles in just 17 days.

“Die gute Quelle” kept pace with the advance of Rommel’s forces, now elevated to Panzerarmee status, along Libya’s north-eastern shore. On January 29, for example, Rommel received a full summary of British armoured strength. Then he learned that the more effective American-made M3 medium tanks would be entering combat after mid-February. On February 6 the intercepts detailed, in addition to unit locations, the establishment of a heavily mined British defence line stretching from Gazala on the sea to the oasis at Bir Hacheim. From that line, the British intended to launch a decisive counteroffensive. With his 560 tanks (including 240 obsolete Italian ones) against his opponent’s 700, Rommel pre-empted the Allies by unleashing a daring assault. His main force swept south parallel to the defence line, swung east around its Free French¬ held anchor at Bir Hacheim and then pivoted back north against the British positions. Axis momentum finally slowed as supplies dwindled, due mainly to an overextended and inadequate logistical system. All this had been possible as a result of his Sigint capabilities.

The key to British success in preventing the Axis Mediterranean convoys was the island of Malta, situated just west of the principal Axis sea lane. German and Italian aircraft pounded the little island, dropping some 9,000 tons of bombs during a two- month period. Fellers’ cables made only too clear the island’s perilous position and predicted its surrender if the bombardment continued and supply convoys failed to reach it. In June, the British decided to sail two convoys simultaneously from Alexandria in the east and Gibraltar in the west, respectively code-named Vigorous and Harpoon, in a full-scale attempt to relieve Malta. A vital part of the operation was the neutralization of Axis ships and aircraft. Toward this end, air raids were scheduled against key enemy bases. In addition, numerous airfields would be attacked by parachute and ground elements to destroy bombers before they could be flown against the convoys. Fellers efficiently reported this. His cable, No. 11119 dated June 11, was intercepted in both Rome and Lauf. It read, in part:


British and Free French raiders went into action behind the lines in Libya and on the island of Crete. At most bases, they were slaughtered. The raids were successful only where Fellers’ unwitting early warning was not received, was ignored or was ineptly handled.

The British tightened up their radio security in April and changed codewords much more often. Nevertheless, a German platoon detached at Tobruk achieved success in May when a decoded message told of the breakout routes that an Allied unit was going to use. That unit suffered heavy losses when it tried to do so. On land, meanwhile, superior leadership, communication and use of intelligence enabled Rommel’s Afrika Korps to drive the British Eighth Army out of Libya into Egypt. By the end of June, Rommel’s Army was about 90 miles from Alexandria. Just beyond lay Cairo, the Suez Canal and Palestine. The opponents stopped to face each other along parallel lines running south-westward just outside the town of El Alamein. Adolf Hitler, optimistically discussing the expected capture of Alexandria, is said to have remarked, ‘It is only to be hoped that the American [Fellers] in Cairo continues to inform us so well over the English military planning through his badly enciphered cables.’

Finally the British security forces began to realize that sensitive information was leaking to the enemy. The Afrika Korps was still blitzkrieging the Cyrenaican coastline when security officers, seeking the possible sources of the leaks, approached Fellers to, in his words, ‘see my security measures for the [Black] code.’

Fellers, however, apparently allayed any suspicions the British might have had about his being the source of the suspected leaks because they directed their investigation elsewhere. He, of course was not aware of his unwitting contribution to Rommel’s success. In addition, at least five suspicious-looking Axis signals had been picked up by Allied stations beginning on January 25. One actually cited ‘a source in Egypt.

In June 1942, without realising it, the Americans put an end to the Fellers leak by changing the cipher system depriving Rommel of his primary source of intelligence. No sooner had the “Good Source” dried up, than a catastrophe took place of even more serious consequences for Rommel and his ‘Panzer Armee Afrika’ with the destruction of “621”.

It is ironic, in a way that the Allied success of the D-Day landings can be attributed to a degree to a similar weakness in Diplomatic communications. (See separate article Oshima in Berlin).

PWC Dec 2014