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Today in Security History: Victory in Europe

It's 7 May 1945, and celebrations have begun throughout Europe. New York City prepares for victory parades. The Nazis and their collaborators are finished. The war in Europe is over, Hitler has committed suicide, and Germany surrendered. Allied Forces are in the process of opening the gates of concentration and extermination camps throughout Eastern Europe, freeing the remaining prisoners.

Years earlier, however, the race to collect intelligence had begun—coupled with counterintelligence measures—key determinants in deciding who would win World War II. On 11 December 1941, Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. From then through early May 1945, American forces allied with the British and Free French systematically advanced through Europe and into Berlin.

In the United States, Nazi Germany’s intelligence agency, the Abwehr, began espionage activities. J. Edgar Hoover’s men took notice. The FBI smashed Abwehr’s Operation Pastorius, named for the founder of the first German settlement in the American colonies. Hitler’s plans included landing eight saboteurs by U-boat on American soil—four on Long Island and four on the Florida coast (see Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America, by Michael Dobbs). They brought explosives with orders to destroy manufacturing plants run by companies like ALCOA, halting aluminum production—an invaluable commodity used to fabricate fighters and bombers. Two of the invaders defected. A military tribunal sent the remaining six to the electric chair in the District of Columbia.

Following a separate FBI-run investigation, a Brooklyn jury found 14 defendants guilty of espionage. FBI counterintelligence began in February 1940 when William Sebold, a former German soldier who had served in the trenches on the Western Front during World War I, spent two days detailing his recruitment and training as an Abwehr operative to agents in the FBI’s New York Field Office. He recounted training in disguises, operating a short-wave radio, encrypting messages, and learning Morse code. His goal was to enlist in the U.S. Army’s National Guard and gain access to developing weapons while working in America’s aircraft industry. He detailed mail drops, a wristwatch containing microfilm, and identities of Abwehr contacts in New York City. The convictions broke the Abwehr’s back in the United States—the agency never recovered. The FBI investigation has been called “The First Victory of World War II” (see The Origins of FBI Counterintelligence by Ray Batvinis).

In Europe, counterintelligence and resistance movements aided in defeating the Nazis. The French Underground reported German troop positions and strengths to London, provided intelligence in advance of June 1944’s D-Day Invasion, set up small unit ambushes in occupied France’s valleys and hillsides, and assisted downed American B-17 crews with escape and evasion. Operational security was paramount. Capture by the Waffen-SS meant torture and the gallows. The Underground’s mission could not afford to fail.

Read more about World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany in The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground by Justus Rosenberg.


By R. Scott Decker, PhD, retired FBI agent and author of Recounting the Anthrax Attacks: Terror, the Amerithrax Task Force, and the Evolution of Forensics in the FBI.