10 Ways Nazi Germany Sucked at War: (4) They Sucked at Intelligence




Deficient military intelligence tends to flow from underestimating one’s adversaries, just as deficient strategy tends to flow from overestimating one’s own military and national power. German military intelligence didn’t completely suck as it had some substantial successes, but on the whole it had consistent deficiencies.


There’s the more famous deficiencies in German intelligence (or superior intelligence of their adversaries). For Imperial Germany, there’s the Zimmerman Telegram – the secret diplomatic communication from the German Foreign Office in January 1917 that proposed an alliance with Mexico (as well as promising the latter Texas, Arizona and New Mexico) to attack the United States – which was promptly decoded by British intelligence and forwarded to the American government (also illustrating consistent German deficiencies in political diplomacy, but we’ll get to that). However, this pales in comparison to the British Ultra program in the Second World War, which systematically decoded Nazi Germany’s communications and signals traffic. And as for classic human espionage, there’s the Double Cross System, in which all the agents Nazi Germany sent to Britain gave themselves up, were captured or were turned by British intelligence into double agents.


Let’s face it, Nazi Germany had consistent failures of intelligence against its adversaries, whether it was due to ideological bias or the ‘organized chaos’ of the Third Reich (but we’ll get to that too), not least its competing and not very cooperative intelligence agencies – the various service agencies (army, navy, air force), the Foreign Ministry, the Security Service or SD (Sicherheitsdienst) and other agencies of the Party and the SS as well as the Abwehr (headed by Admiral Canaris and often working directly against the Nazi regime).


In the Battle of Britain, Nazi Germany lacked intelligence of British aerial defences – overestimating British fighter losses and underestimating British fighter production (such that the Germans thought they were winning when they were actually losing), while also lacking intelligence to target British radar stations or command centers.


In the invasion of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany massively underestimated Soviet military forces and reserves. It also consistently failed to apprehend or detect Soviet counter-offensives, leading to German forces constantly being taken by surprise – by the Soviet counter-offensive that drove the Germans back from Moscow in December 1941, by the Soviet counter-offensive in November 1942 that cut off the German army at Stalingrad (despite its weakly held flanks being an obvious target), by the depth of Soviet defenses in July 1943 to the German attack at Kursk (which the Soviets had prepared with their foreknowledge from intelligence) and most dramatically of all by the Soviet offensive in Operation Bagration in June 1944 which effectively destroyed Germany’s Army Group Center and broke the back of the Eastern Front.


However, it was the western Allies who really ran rings around Nazi Germany’s military intelligence with their landings – despite (and because of) the advantage Germany had with the mechanized transport of the twentieth century, which left maritime means of transport at a disadvantage to transport on land, particularly in western Europe. In short, a defender on land had an inherent advantage over any invader by sea – “an ability to bring superior force to bear on a beachhead by virtue of lines of communication” that were “intrinsically superior”. And yet, the Anglo-American alliance pulled this off THREE times (that is, in major operations, not counting more minor operations), particularly by counter-intelligence that was able to distract German attention from targets that should have been obvious. In 1942, it was mostly the surprise of invading French North Africa, although the Allied intention should have alerted itself to any astute German intelligence. Sicily should have been obvious as the next target in 1943 due to its geographic position (closest to Allied forces in Tunisia and Malta), but Allied counter-intelligence – notably through their Operation Mincemeat posing a corpse as a dead officer with false invasion plans (for Greece and Sardinia) with Sicily as a feint – persuaded German leadership otherwise. The crowning achievement was Normandy, where despite limited options for Allied invasion and years of preparation by Germany, Allied counter-intelligence effectively deceived German leadership that Normandy was only a feint while the real invasion was to occur at the Pas de Calais. Fool me three times – shame on Nazi Germany!

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