by Harold E. Raugh, Jr.
German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, renowned as “the Desert Fox,” was a master of mobility and maneuver warfare during the see-saw North African campaign of World War II. He was successful because of his dynamic leadership abilities, technical and tactical competence, ability to understand and properly use the terrain, professionalism and perseverance, and ardent desire to be as far forward as possible to best “see” the battlefield and control military operations.
There was another more significant and less known factor that permitted Rommel to seemingly always be “at the right place at the right time.” Rommel frequently received detailed and accurate information on Allied troop dispositions, tactical innovations, logistical concerns, and future plans from what he called “die gute Quelle”—“the Good Source.” The “Good Source” of Erwin Rommel’s high-grade intelligence was, ironically and surprisingly, the U.S. Military Attaché to Egypt, Major (later Colonel) Bonner Fellers, U.S. Army.
Fellers Arrives in Cairo
Fellers, born in 1896, graduated from West Point in November 1918. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Coast Artillery Corps of the U.S. Army. During the following two decades, Fellers’ military assignments were typical of those of a junior officer: various military courses and schools, instructor duty at West Point, and troop and staff duty in the Philippines.
Major Fellers was assigned as the U.S. Military Attaché to Egypt in 1940. The Americans had not yet entered the war and were eager to have an astute and intelligent observer report firsthand on British combat operations against their Italian, and later, German desert adversaries. Fellers recognized the importance of his position and its responsibilities: “I learned very soon after I got to Cairo that if I was going to be a good observer and write good reports I’d better report what I saw myself. Some people in Washington had the idea that the British were handing me all my material. That’s an injustice to the British because they weren’t but they permitted me to go wherever I wanted in the desert and it wasn’t difficult to learn a great deal.”
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Stealing the Allied Code
Fellers did not have to wait long after arriving in Cairo to begin his attaché duties and observe British military operations. The British were apparently eager to solicit American support and engender a feeling of cooperation between the armies of the two nations. Accordingly, British Lt. Gen. (later Field Marshal Lord) Henry Maitland Wilson, commanding British troops in Egypt, invited Fellers to accompany him to observe “Training Exercise No. 1” in the Western Desert during November 25-26, 1940. Fellers had unrestricted access to the exercise area and all participants.
After returning to Cairo from this exercise—which, unknown to Fellers and all but a handful of senior British commanders and staff officers, was in fact a rehearsal for Operation Compass—Fellers wrote an interesting and detailed report on his observations and experiences. Before making a radio transmission, Fellers encoded this and all subsequent messages in a new, supposedly impregnable top-secret code called “Black,” from the color of its binding.
However, the Black diplomatic code used by Fellers was not as invulnerable to interception and decryption, or simple theft, as he thought. In September 1941—two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and American entry into the war—members of the Servizio Informazioni Militari (Italian Military Intelligence), working undercover as servants in the American Embassy in Rome, stole the code. With unrestricted access to all foreign embassies in Rome (except the Russian), Italian General Cesare Ame, in charge of the heist, later recalled, “The operation wasn’t so difficult. All I had to do was reach for the American Embassy key from my office wall.”
Monitoring Transmissions to Washington
The Black code was removed from the U.S. Embassy safe, rushed to the Italian Secret Service headquarters where it was photographed, then returned within two hours to its supposedly secure location. The theft of the Black code permitted the Italians to read almost all intelligence reports and other classified transmissions of all U.S. embassies in Europe and North Africa—including that in Cairo. Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciani gloated in his diary that the Italian “military intelligence service has come into possession of the American secret code; everything … is read by our decoding offices.”
The Italians did not share the precious Black code with their Axis partner Germany, although they did provide some decoded Black messages. The Germans, from a listening post at Lauf, near Nuremburg, monitored transmissions from Cairo and were soon able to break the Black code themselves. The Germans were aided in large part by Fellers’ consistent repetition of the same message address. The Germans looked for and isolated for priority handling messages that began either with “Milid. Wash.” (Military Intelligence Division, Washington) or “Agwar Wash” (Adjutant General, War Office, Washington) and were signed by Fellers. Even Adolf Hitler knew about “the Good Source,” and declared to Hermann Göring, “Let’s hope that the U.S. legation in Cairo keeps us well posted about Britain’s military planning, thanks to their poorly encoded messages.”
Unprecedented Intelligence for Germany
As the intensity of military operations in North Africa increased, so did the frequency of Fellers’ reports to Washington, complete with details of British troop dispositions and intentions. It took the Germans about two hours to identify Fellers’ messages, decode them, and translate them into German. After being encrypted in a German code, these messages were then transmitted directly to North Africa. As a result, by the beginning of 1942, every morning at breakfast, Erwin Rommel was said to have received “a concise appreciation of his opponent’s plans, location of units, strength, and morale.” Such a daily diet of detailed and accurate enemy intelligence was veritably unprecedented.
Fellers continued to unwittingly serve as Rommel’s eyes and ears in the desert. A second set of ears was provided by German Captain Alfred Seebohm’s 3rd Radio Intercept Company. Seebohm’s unit was highly proficient at intercepting British and Allied signals intelligence, of which “the Good Source” was probably the most significant.
Originally Published April 22, 2014