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Operation Overlord’s Colonel Alexis von Roenne

WWII

Operation Overlord’s Colonel Alexis von Roenne

Even as the Allies Sweated Over Deceiving Hitler About the Destination of Operation Overlord, von Roenne, a German Officer, Was Aiding Their Efforts.

As the Allies were deceiving Adolf Hitler about the destination of Operation Overlord, German officer Alexis von Roenne was aiding their efforts.

During the early part of 1944, an event took place that would change the outcome of World War II. It seemed insignificant at the time, but would have a profound influence upon Operation Overlord, code name for the invasion of German-occupied France, as well as the resulting Battle of Normandy and the breakout that followed.


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The incident concerned Colonel Alexis von Roenne, the head of Fremde Heere West (FHW), and a new staff officer, Lt. Col. Roger Michel. FHW was the intelligence department responsible for evaluating all information pertaining to Britain and the United States. [Fremde Heere Ost (FHO) performed the same function of evaluating intelligence from the Russian Front.] Colonel Michel joined the staff of FHW at the end of 1943 as the new director of its English Sector. His main responsibility was to report and evaluate all intelligence relating to the British Isles—including any information pertaining to Overlord. Von Roenne and Michel worked in the building of the general staff in Zossen, just south of Berlin.

After he had been on the job for a few weeks, Colonel Michel noticed that his estimates of Allied troops in Britain were constantly being changed. He submitted all of his figures to the SD (Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence branch of the SS) as he had been ordered to do, so that they could check them for accuracy. The SD, a Nazi Party organization, wanted all information gathered by an outside agency—meaning outside the Nazi Party—examined by its own staff. But the SD not only examined Michel’s numbers, they also had the annoying habit of changing them radically. Every time he sent his troop estimates, the SD reduced them by half. Only then would they send his report along to Hitler and the Supreme Command (OKW, Oberkommando der Wehrmacht).

Michel’s Scheme

Michel complained about the SD’s methods to Colonel von Roenne. Von Roenne sympathized, but explained that there was nothing he could do about it. The SD was a Party organization and could do pretty much whatever it wanted. But after having his figures changed several times in a row, for no apparent reason, Michel decided that there was something that could be done about it. If the SD cut his numbers in half, then he would double his numbers before sending them. When the SD divided this number by two, OKW would then have a fairly accurate estimate of Allied troops in Britain. The SD would deliver an accurate report in spite of itself—with the help of a little subterfuge by FHW.

When von Roenne first heard Michel’s suggestion, he immediately rejected it. But the more he thought about it, the better he liked it. The reason that Michel’s scheme appealed to him had nothing to do with providing Hitler and his generals with more accurate information, however. In fact, it was for precisely the opposite reason.

Colonel Alexis von Roenne, the head of FHW and probably the single most important person in German Intelligence, was an anti-Nazi conspirator. His opposition to Hitler and the Nazi regime had started before the war, and intensified with Hitler’s encouragement of SS atrocities in Poland, the Low Countries, France, and other occupied countries. Through his acquaintance with Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, von Roenne’s anti-Nazi feelings intensified. Admiral Canaris was head of the Abwehr, German secret military intelligence, and was also leader of a conspiracy to bring about Hitler’s defeat, which came to be known as the Schwarze Kapelle, or Black Orchestra.

But, although Canaris strengthened von Roenne’s anti-Nazi sympathies and convinced him that Hitler was an enemy of Germany, von Roenne took no active role in the conspiracy. Michel’s suggestion to alter his troop estimates changed everything. It was an opportunity that von Roenne was not really looking for, but when it presented itself he took full advantage of it.

According to the most recent estimates that had been compiled by FHW, which were based upon Luftwaffe aerial reconnaissance, radio intelligence, reports from agents in the field, and other sources, the Allies had a total of 35 divisions in the British Isles. This included British, Free French, American, and Canadian units. With Michel’s suggestion in mind, von Roenne took this number and more than doubled it.

FUSAG: An Elaborate Deception

At the beginning of June 1944, Allied troop strength actually stood at 45 divisions: 23 British and Canadian divisions, 20 American divisions, 1 Free French, and 1 Polish division. An FHW report listed 22 American divisions, 57 Allied divisions (British, Canadian, Free French, and Polish), and 10 divisions made up of armored and paratroop units—a total of 89 divisions. According to the report, the bulk of these divisions was part of the First U.S. Army Group (FUSAG), a fictitious concentration of troops situated in southeast England, across the Straits of Dover from Calais. This inflated report was entirely made up by Colonel von Roenne.

FUSAG was an elaborate deception scheme created by Allied counterintelligence. Its purpose was to convince German intelligence that the main Allied invasion would come at Calais instead of Normandy. It was pure fabrication, made up of canvas tanks and trucks, sound effects, and camouflage made by Shepperton Film Studios in London. A few actual troops were also stationed in the FUSAG area, but these were reserves and would not be taking part in the initial landings. To make FUSAG even more convincing to the Germans, the phantom army was placed under the command of General George S. Patton, one of the Allies most able officers. (Patton did not appreciate being given a make-believe army to command, and hated the assignment.) German radio listeners in France had been picking up FUSAG’s fake radio traffic, as well as the sound effects of its “tanks” and “troops” (which were nothing but realistic sound recordings), but were not sure how large the army was or if it was just an Allied ruse. Von Roenne gave FUSAG credibility and made the Germans believe that it was preparing to invade the Pas de Calais.

Even as the Allies Sweated Over Deceiving Hitler About the Destination of Operation Overlord, von Roenne, a German Officer, Was Aiding Their Efforts.

Because the inflated report had come from Colonel von Roenne, the head of FHW, the SD accepted it. They believed all 89 of his divisions and did not divide the number in half. The SD sent the estimate along to Hitler and OKW. When he read the official report from Colonel von Roenne of FHW, Hitler was convinced that FUSAG actually existed. Von Roenne’s number-changing made FUSAG real, at least in the minds of Hitler and his senior commanders.

Double agents in Britain had also been reporting on FUSAG to their contacts in German intelligence.  Agent “Brutus” sent detailed reports on Polish, Free French, and American paratroop units, every one of which was completely made up. All of these reports appeared to be authentic to the SD, even though every unit and activity was dreamed up by Allied counterintelligence. When Brutus sent his information, his German contact sent it to FHW for evaluation of its reliability and accuracy.

Other double agents, including “Garbo” and “Tricycle,” contributed their own misleading information. Garbo sent about 400 letters and 2,000 cables to his German contact. All of them contained data that was either misleading or totally fictitious, but all of it seemed believable. In February 1944, agent Tricycle hand-delivered a detailed listing of FUSAG units to his German contact in Lisbon. He continued to send data that named nonexistent units, or gave inaccurate data for existing units, and did so throughout the spring of 1944—while German intelligence tried desperately to put together an accurate picture of Allied troop strength in Britain.

Double Agents Attempt to Confuse Hitler

The reports sent by the double agents and the misinformation being prepared by von Roenne went hand-in-glove to confuse Hitler and his generals regarding the Allied armies and their intentions. The reports of Brutus and the other agents complemented von Roenne’s misinformation. In fact, von Roenne may have taken Brutus’s figures and inflated them still further, making FUSAG seem even more of a threat to invade the Pas de Calais. Von Roenne gave Allied counterintelligence an enormous advantage. With his stamp of approval, what could the SD have done but accept all the misinformation?
Colonel von Roenne came to Tricycle’s rescue early in 1944. One of the agent’s contacts questioned the validity of the information he had been passing along regarding FUSAG, and said that it was not worth the money being paid for it. Tricycle was completely taken by surprise, but did not have to worry. Colonel von Roenne wrote a memo, which was read by Hitler and his senior commanders, defending Tricycle’s information. Von Roenne wrote that the authenticity of Tricycle’s report had been checked and verified, and the data regarding 3rd Army, 3rd Army Corps, and “twenty three large formations” confirmed FHW’s own estimates. Actually, none of the units mentioned by von Roenne, including all 23 large formations, existed—except in the fictitious FUSAG order of battle.

Hitler’s first instinct regarding the Allied invasion was that it would come at Normandy. But von Roenne’s manipulation of the estimates sent by intelligence, along with his swearing to Allied counterintelligence’s lies about FUSAG, changed Hitler’s mind. By mid-May 1944, Hitler believed that the objective of all those troops in southeastern England was Calais, although there might be secondary landings in Normandy as well. As he saw it, General Patton’s armeegruppe was not in Kent just to enjoy the English countryside, and all the reports on FUSAG could not be wrong.

One of von Roenne’s many deceptions concerned the U.S. Eighth Army Corps. He mentioned the Eighth Army Corps in one of his situation reports, and went on to say that it was probably in the Folkstone area—on the Kentish coast, just across the Straits of Dover from the Pas de Calais. He also made it seem as though the unit was about to become operational and would be one of the initial units in the invasion. Although the U.S. Eighth Army Corps actually did exist, it did not become operational until June 15, over a week after D-day, and none of its component units was stationed anywhere near Folkstone. This was the sort of deception that von Roenne was feeding Hitler during the buildup for D-day—lies, half-truths, and distortions.

By June 1 the Allied army that von Roenne had built out of guile, distortion, and exaggeration was almost twice as large as the actual invasion force. Forty-two more Allied divisions had been invented by von Roenne and Allied counterintelligence than actually existed. When taking these fictitious units into consideration, there were more than enough troops in Britain for a landing at Calais and a second landing at Normandy. And this is just what Hitler and OKW believed—a diversionary force would come ashore at Normandy to draw German forces away from Calais, and then the main invasion would take place. If Hitler believed this, all other branches of the German forces and German intelligence were forced to believe it, as well.

Some questions have been raised regarding whether or not Colonel von Roenne knew that FUSAG was a fake, or if he was fooled by Garbo, Tricycle, and Brutus and their stories about a nonexistent army. He certainly suspected that FUSAG was not what the double agents said it was. At the very beginning of October 1943, about three months before Colonel Michel made his suggestion about the troop estimates, von Roenne dismissed reports by Tricycle and his fellows as fantastic nonsense. But in the spring of 1944 he was using these same reports to justify his inflated numbers on Allied troop strength. Von Roenne was convinced that FUSAG was an elaborate fraud until his conversation with Colonel Michel. After that, he used FUSAG and the reports from double agents to suit his own ends.

“The Constant Sobbing of Autumn’s Violins”

OKW already knew when the invasion would take place. The SD had infiltrated a number of French Resistance groups and found out that the time of the invasion would be broadcast in code. BBC Radio in London would send the first line of Paul Verlaine’s poem Chanson d’Automne on the 1st or the 15th day of the month of the invasion: Les sanglots longs/Des violins/D’l’automne (“The constant sobbing of autumn’s violins”). The broadcast of the second part of the passage, Blessent mon coeur/D’une longeur monotone (”Pains my heart with their monotonous lethargy”) would signal that the Allied landings would take place within 48 hours. Both messages were intercepted.

German intelligence knew that the code name for the invasion was Operation Overlord, and realized that it would come ashore in one of two places: Normandy or Calais. Normandy was defended by Seventh Army; Fifteenth Army was in place guarding Calais. Both of these units made up Army Group B, commanded by the legendary Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel. The entire Channel coast, from Calais to Cherbourg, was covered against the coming invasion, which everyone realized was inevitable.

OKW was certain that the landings would take place at Calais. Calais was much closer to England than Normandy—it is only about 20 miles across the Straits of Dover. There were arguments for Normandy, as well—its beaches were flatter and better suited to landing troops. But Colonel von Roenne and his doctored reports convinced Hitler that Calais would be the site. FUSAG and its divisions were just across the Straits, waiting. In fact, Seventh Army was not even notified of the Verlaine passage—the invasion was bound for Calais, so why bother notifying the troops in Normandy?

Germany Loses a Tremendous Advantage

Colonel von Roenne’s misinformation had thoroughly confused Hitler and OKW. On the morning of Tuesday, June 6, after the landings had already begun, no one was sure if this was the invasion or just a diversion to draw Fifteenth Army away from Calais. OKW had been told many times that FUSAG would be the main attack force, and that it would land at Calais. When Feldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of all German forces in the West, ordered two panzer divisions to begin moving to Normandy (the veteran 12th SS Panzer and Panzer Lehr divisions, which totaled about 500 tanks and 40,000 infantrymen), his orders were immediately countermanded. No one at OKW wanted to commit forces to Normandy for fear that the main attack was still to come at Calais. A tremendous advantage had been lost and would cost the Germans dearly—if they had not been stopped, the two divisions would have reached the Normandy landing beaches later that day. Colonel von Roenne’s FUSAG myth had a lock on the Wehrmacht’s mind that morning. Later in the day, von Roenne reinforced the Calais myth by reporting that the Normandy attack employed only a “relatively small” portion of the available forces stationed in England.

By the end of June 6, Hitler and OKW had reached the following conclusions: (1) The Normandy operation was only a diversion; (2) the fact that FUSAG had not taken part in the operation indicated that another large-scale operation was not far off; and (3) the objective of this pending operation was the Pas de Calais. No one was absolutely certain when the Calais phase of the invasion would take place. Hitler decided to hold Fifteenth Army in the Calais region to wait for FUSAG.

This is exactly what the Allies wanted. They had feared the Germans would mount a counterattack in strength soon after the invasion, before the landing troops had the time to consolidate their position. If von Rundstedt’s panzer forces had been allowed to move quickly, this is exactly what would have happened. The standard explanation for the German failure to counterattack when the Allied position was most vulnerable is to blame Hitler. But although Hitler gave the orders to hold back troops from Normandy, Colonel von Roenne supplied the misinformation that led Hitler to make that decision.

Throughout the coming weeks, while Allied reinforcements continued to come ashore at Normandy, von Roenne kept deflecting attention from the beachhead. On July 13, he reported that none of the troops still in England would be sent to Normandy. He went on to say that he did not have an exact date for the coming attack, but Calais would be the objective. By insisting that FUSAG still posed a threat, von Roenne prevented OKW from sending Fifteenth Army to Normandy. And by late July, German forces in Normandy were in desperate need of reinforcements.

Even as the Allies Sweated Over Deceiving Hitler About the Destination of Operation Overlord, von Roenne, a German Officer, Was Aiding Their Efforts.

On July 26, Allied forces finally broke out of the Normandy beachhead. British and Canadian forces had tried at Caen and had been blocked by SS units. This time, U.S. forces, supported by more than 2,000 bombers, broke through the German lines at St. Lo. Within two days, American units began their advance into Brittany as well as into the open fields of northern France. British and Canadian troops attacked southward, at Caen, while the Americans swept toward the east. The combined Allied forces began to encircle Seventh Army. By the time Hitler realized what was happening and gave permission for his forces to withdraw, it was too late.

German forces were confined to the horseshoe-shaped Falaise Pocket, 40 miles long and about 13 miles wide. When the Falaise Gap closed, Seventh Army ceased to exist as a cohesive unit, and the Battle of Normandy was over. The Canadian First Army and British Second Army began advancing eastward into the Pas de Calais. By mid-September, Canadian troops had captured the ports of Calais, Boulogne, and Dunkirk. Von Roenne’s deception scheme had finally become obsolete. There was no point in trying to convince Hitler of an Allied invasion at Calais—it was already occupied by Allied troops.

Assassinating Hitler

But by this time, von Roenne had been removed as head of FHW. The reason had nothing to do with his Normandy deception, however, but was due to an incident in which he played no active part, and may not even have known about.

On the afternoon of July 20, members of the Schwarze Kapelle attempted to assassinate Hitler at his headquarters in East Prussia. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, an acquaintance of von Roenne and Canaris, placed a bomb inside the conference room where Hitler was meeting with senior staff officers. The explosion killed several people, but Hitler survived the blast. Hitler determined to round up everyone who had any connection with the plot to kill him. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, used every means at his disposal to track down suspects. Under torture, prisoners gave names of other conspirators.

One of the names that was given was Alexis von Roenne. On the morning of August 9, he was arrested by the Gestapo. He was subsequently tried by the Nazi “People’s Court” and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out on the evening of October 11, 1944 in Berlin’s Ploetzensee Prison, where he was hanged along with several other prisoners.

The officer who gave Colonel von Roenne the idea of doubling the troop estimates, Lt. Col. Michel, is the mystery man of the episode. He may or may not have been working for either British or American intelligence when he made his suggestion. After the war, he almost certainly went to work for U.S. Army Intelligence; he wore an American uniform and said that he had been attached to counterintelligence. But shortly afterward, he crossed to East Germany and defected to the Russians.

Normandy’s Unsung Hero

The impact of Colonel von Roenne’s deception is almost beyond evaluation. Without his constant reports, which persuaded Hitler that FUSAG would land at Calais, the outcome of Overlord and the Battle of Normandy might well have been completely different. The Allied campaign to create a fictitious army would never have been the brilliant success that it was without von Roenne, and might not have succeeded at all.

For more than half a year, Colonel von Roenne undermined every German defense against Overlord, and then subverted the Wehrmacht’s attempts to block an Allied breakout from the beachhead. And no one—including General Eisenhower—knew anything about von Roenne’s vital role in the success of Overlord and the subsequent Allied breakout. The Normandy campaign produced many heroes, from generals to ordinary infantrymen, on both sides. But Colonel Alexis von Roenne risked his life every day for the success of Overlord, and perhaps should be remembered as Normandy’s unsung hero.
David Alan Johnson has written extensively about World War II for more than 20 years, and has appeared on the History Channel. This article is adapted from his seventh book, Righteous Deception: German Officers Against Hitler (Praeger, 2001).

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