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Tactical Signals Intelligence Originates in World War I

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

After the invention of the radio in the 1890s, the first widespread use of the technology for military communications occurred during World War I.  The ease of intercepting radio messages quickly spurred advances in encryption and decryption of codes and ciphers.  The Military Intelligence Division in Washington recognized the importance of this discipline and quickly established Herbert Yardley’s Code and Cipher Section.  Likewise, shortly after arriving in France, Brig. Gen. Dennis Nolan, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) G-2, was forced to acknowledge that the US was woefully unprepared to exploit signals intelligence.  When British intelligence informed him that it had identified two-thirds of the enemy’s divisions through the intercepting and decoding of Germany’s radio messages, Nolan acted immediately.  On July 28, 1917, he tasked Capt. Frank Moorman to form the AEF’s Radio Intelligence Section (RIS), also known as G-2 A6.

Moorman, a 40-year-old Coastal Artillery officer serving as the acting director of the Signal School at Fort Leavenworth, had served in the Military Information Division in the Philippines and had temporarily worked with Parker Hitt, the Army’s foremost authority on codes and ciphers.  When Moorman arrived in France, however, he understood little more than his mission: to read and decipher German radio messages.  Starting from scratch, Moorman soon built a successful collaborative network that provided the AEF with reliable intelligence throughout the war.

Lt. Col. Frank Moorman and his staff of the Radio Intelligence Section, AEF Headquarters (INSCOM photo)

The US Army’s Signal Corps, which had responsibility for Army code compilation and communications security, figured prominently in Moorman’s network.  The Signal Corps’ own Radio Intelligence Service, later renamed the Radio Section, established, operated, and maintained listening stations close to the front lines.  Personnel manning these stations intercepted and copied enemy radio messages around the clock.  The Signal Corps turned recorded messages over to RIS personnel at each Army headquarters for deciphering and analysis using keys provided by the G-2 A6. The most difficult codes and ciphers and potentially important messages were passed further up the chain to Moorman’s section.

The US Army’s first foray into tactical signals intelligence quickly surpassed the efforts of its Allies.  Its eight listening stations intercepted more than 72,000 messages and 238,000 telephone calls.  Additionally, personnel located enemy radio stations, constructed net diagrams, intercepted and located radio signals from airplanes ranging for hostile artillery, policed US Army telephone lines near the front for operational security, and distributed American trench codes.  They also helped develop enemy order of battle through traffic analysis by using call signs and knowledge of German communication protocols.

One early success occurred in December 1917, when the RIS intercepted a transmission indicating the enemy planned a barrage in an area where a US division was co-located with the French.  The RIS passed this intelligence to front line headquarters just in time to allow the Allies to unleash a counter-battery attack that effectively prevented the Germans from carrying out their plan.  Examples like this quickly won over skeptical commanders who initially distrusted the value of code and cipher work. However, it also exposed a vulnerability for future warfare. Moorman cautioned that the system developed for use in World War I was successful primarily because of the static nature of trench warfare.  Its value decreased when the enemy became mobile and the RIS could not maintain close contact long enough to establish the listening stations and install the necessary equipment.

In 1920, Moorman spoke to the officers of the Military Intelligence Division in an effort to pass on insights relevant for the future.  He recalled that his most pressing problem was obtaining adequate personnel: “The difficulty in finding men who could actually think without a guardian was surprising.  It is hoped that one of the aims of the future will be to develop this ability in men chosen for code and cipher work.”

Another obstacle the RIS faced was educating outside personnel about the process of code and cipher work.  “What [headquarters] wanted us to do was pick out the important messages, decode them, and let the rest go.…It was a matter of considerable difficulty to make them see that we had to work them out and that the Germans did not tag their important messages before sending them.”  Additionally, educating troops about the importance of safeguarding their own communications was paramount.  Moorman warned, “It is a sacrifice of American lives to unnecessarily assist the enemy in the solution of our code.”  Too often, soldiers mishandled codes and refused to “[observe] the ‘foolish’ little details that the code man insists on.”  Moorman correctly predicted that all these issues would endure in the future.

Dennis Nolan Builds the First US Army G-2 Section

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

In May 1917, General John J. Pershing had cause to celebrate and lament his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of a “theoretical army which had yet to be constituted, equipped, trained, and sent abroad.”  As his first step in the monumental effort to build the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), he carefully chose his field general staff comprised of Administrative (G-1), Intelligence (G-2), Operations (G-3), Logistics (G-4), and Training (G-5) sections.

While Pershing searched for his most trusted staff members, Maj. Dennis E. Nolan was completing a two-year assignment on the War Department General Staff.  His first experience in intelligence work was preparing products used by the General Staff for planning and mobilization purposes. This included a threat estimate on Germany’s capability to invade the United States.  Nolan had been commissioned a Second Lieutenant in Infantry following graduation from the US Military Academy in 1896.  He received two citations for gallantry in action during the Spanish-American War and commanded a squadron of the 11th US Volunteer Cavalry during the Philippine Insurrection. It was during this latter assignment that Nolan had come to know Pershing and the future AEF Chief of Staff, James Harbord.  Between 1901 and 1915, Nolan held a variety of positions including, instructor of law and history at West Point, director of Southern Luzon in the Philippines, and officer with the 30th Infantry.

Despite his impressive service record, Nolan was hardly holding his breath for a position on the AEF staff.  Consequently, when Maj. Harbord summoned him for dinner one night and informed him of his appointment as the AEF G-2 in charge of the Intelligence Section, Nolan declared himself “surprised and delighted.”  He sailed with Pershing and the rest of the AEF staff less than two weeks later.

Once on the ground in France, Nolan built, from the ground up, the Army’s first multi-discipline theater intelligence organization.  Following the British model, Nolan divided his Headquarters G-2 Section into four divisions: Information, Secret Service, Topographical, and Censorship and Press.  Nolan’s staff, totaling nearly 350 personnel, compiled daily intelligence reports based on a multitude of sources.  In addition to the traditional methods of intelligence collection, such as patrolling, observation, prisoner interrogation, and document translation, Nolan added aerial observation, photographic interpretation, sound and flash ranging, and radio intelligence.  He also played a direct role in organizing the Corps of Intelligence Police, the Army’s first permanent counterintelligence organization.  Venturing outside the normal intelligence arena, Nolan’s press division started up The Stars and Stripes newspaper to communicate orders and regulations, provide news of events, and boost the morale of American soldiers in Europe.

Because Pershing’s General Staff organization was repeated in the tactical units, intelligence officers were appointed at every echelon down to battalion.  To increase their effectiveness, Nolan drafted a set of intelligence regulations applicable to each echelon and established a school at Langres, France, to train all intelligence officers down to division.  Throughout the war, these tactical intelligence sections pushed intelligence up through higher headquarters to Nolan’s G-2 Section, which also pushed intelligence down to give lower echelons a broad picture of the enemy’s situation.

In the closing days of World War I, Nolan was given an opportunity to command the 55th Infantry Brigade, 28th Division, for ten days. For extraordinary heroism in action near Apremont, France, on October 1, 1918, he received the Distinguished Service Cross and the respect of his men, who recalled Nolan was “right up there with us doughboys.”  He then returned to his G-2 Section for the duration of the war.

Nolan’s G-2 Section, the Army’s first theater intelligence organization, unquestionably contributed to the AEF’s success.  Declaring that “no army was better served by its intelligence bureau than our own,” Pershing awarded Nolan the Distinguished Service Medal.  Secretary of War Newton D. Baker praised “the fidelity and intelligence with which General Nolan supplied [Pershing] eyes to penetrate the fog which clouds military actions.”

After the Armistice, Nolan was detailed to the Peace Commission until returning to Washington in July 1919.  After a year instructing military intelligence at the Army War College, he was named as the War Department’s Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2. Perhaps his most important contribution during this assignment was the establishment of the Military Intelligence Officers Reserve Corps—the first formal recognition of the Army’s need to retain professional MI officers.  From 1924-1926, he served as the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, receiving promotion to the rank of Major General in 1925. His final assignment was Commander, Second Corps Area and First Army.  In 1936, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 64, Nolan had served 44 years and was the second-highest ranking officer of the US Army.

 

Dennis Nolan

Dennis Nolan

Col. (later Maj. Gen.) Dennis Nolan sitting at his desk in AEF Headquarters, May 23, 1918.

Ralph Van Deman and the Birth of Modern American Military Intelligence

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, the US Army’s intelligence efforts were nearly non-existent.  Early attempts to gather information about foreign armies resulted in the creation of a Military Information Division in 1885.  In 1903, the division transferred from the Adjutant General’s Office to the Office of the Chief of Staff, where it became the Second Division of the General Staff.  However, by 1908, the Second Division had been absorbed by the Third (War College) Division, and the Army’s intelligence functions had been relegated to a committee.  Intelligence activities declined over the next several years due to insufficient personnel and appropriations as well as limited interest or understanding of its importance.  By early 1917, “personnel and appropriations were limited, the powers of the committee were narrow and its accomplishments, though valuable, were necessarily meager.  Such was the situation at the time war was declared.”  But change was coming.

In 1915, Major (later Major General) Ralph Van Deman arrived at the War College.  A native of Delaware, Ohio, he had attended both law and medical schools before accepting an infantry commission in 1891.  Over the next two decades, he gained valuable intelligence experience in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and China.  In Manila, Van Deman established an intelligence organization to conduct terrain analysis, mapping, and counterintelligence.  By the time he arrived at the War College, Van Deman was one of few career military intelligence officers in the Army.  He immediately grasped the implications of the United States’ lack of a military intelligence organization and resolved to reverse the situation.

Van Deman wrote numerous memoranda criticizing the ineffectual nature of the War College’s committee.  He stated, “To call a chair a table does not make it a table—it still remains a chair. And to call the personnel of the War College Division a Military Information Committee does not make it one” [emphasis in original].  His appeals for the creation of a competent organization were essentially ignored.  One week after the US declaration of war, Van Deman pled his case to Major General Hugh Scott, the Chief of Staff, who refused to consider the proposal on the grounds that it would only duplicate British and French efforts.

Persisting, Van Deman enlisted the aid of a female novelist and the Washington DC Chief of Police, both friends of Secretary of War Newton Baker.  Either because of or coincident to these outside interventions, Secretary Baker summoned Van Deman to his office on April 30, 1917, to explain the state of US military intelligence.  Just three days later, on May 3, the War College received an order to create an intelligence organization and detail an officer to “take up the work of military intelligence for the Army.”  Van Deman, of course, was the perfect choice to lead the newly established Military Intelligence Section (MIS).

The MIS experienced rapid growth throughout the war.  The Section was divided into a Positive Branch for intelligence collection, attachés, translations, maps and photographs, and training, and a Negative Branch for all counterintelligence functions.  A Code and Ciphers Section within the MIS became the Army’s first organized signals intelligence unit. Finally, Van Deman initiated the first personnel security investigation and identification card systems within the War Department.

By 1918, the renamed Military Intelligence Division had more than 1,400 military and civilian personnel.  At this time, it moved out from under the War College to a spot as one of four equal divisions on the War Department’s General Staff, a position it has maintained to this day.  In addition to equality on the General Staff, other long-standing consequences of the establishment of the MIS were the recognized need for professional intelligence personnel and the preservation of an intelligence effort even in times of peace.

That the World War I period was a watershed in US Army intelligence history cannot be overstated. No single individual did more to advance Army intelligence than Ralph Van Deman.  In 1988, the MI Corps recognized this when it chose him as one of the initial members of the Hall of Fame.  In 1992, it further memorialized him by naming the East Gate in his honor.  Maj. Gen. Ralph Van Deman is recognized as the Father of American Military Intelligence for his role in establishing the first effective, professional intelligence organization within the Army 100 years ago.

NOTE:  Join the US Army Intelligence Center when it rededicates the Van Deman Gate during the Hall of Fame activities, June 23, 2017, at 1430.

 

Ralph Van Deman

Ralph Van Deman

After the war, Ralph Van Deman, shown here as a Colonel, commanded at the regiment, brigade, and division level.  Promoted to Major General in 1929, he retired later that year but continued to consult in Army intelligence matters until his death in 1952.  (US Army photo)

World War I Counterintelligence Agents Get Their Man – February 1918

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

On August 13, 1917, the US Army’s Military Intelligence Section (later elevated to Division) created the Corps of Intelligence Police (CIP) to protect American forces in France from sabotage and subversion. CIP agents also conducted special investigations, including suspected German espionage activities, throughout the United States.  The CIP had difficulty apprehending the enemy agents involved because they often fled to Mexico.  Several CIP agents were stationed along the US-Mexico border during this period to investigate and apprehend suspected German spies.

Two CIP agents in Nogales, Arizona, Captains Joel A. Lipscomb and Byron S. Butcher, recruited Dr. Paul B. Altendorf to infiltrate German spy rings in Mexico.  Altendorf was an Austrian immigrant to Mexico, where he served as a Colonel in the Mexican army.  Known to the CIP as Operative A-1, Altendorf managed to join the German Secret Service and become linked with several other German spies living in Mexico.

In January 1918, the CIP learned that Altendorf was accompanying one Lothar Witzke from Mexico City to the US border.  Witzke was a 22-year-old former lieutenant in the Germany navy, who alternately went by Harry Waberski, Hugo Olson, and Pablo Davis, to name just a few of his many aliases.  He had long been under CIP surveillance as a suspected German spy and saboteur.  During the trip from Mexico City, Witzke had no suspicion that his companion was an Allied double agent taking note of Witzke’s every move and indiscretion.  At one point, a drunk Witzke let slip bits of information that Altendorf quickly passed on to Capt. Butcher.  Specifically, Altendorf informed the CIP that Witzke’s handlers had sent him back to the US to incite mutiny within the US Army and various labor unions, conduct sabotage, and assassinate American officials.

On or about February 1, 1918, Capt. Butcher apprehended Witzke once he crossed the border at Nogales, and a search of Witzke’s luggage revealed a coded letter and Russian passport. Capt. John Manley, assistant to Herbert Yardley in the Military Intelligence Division’s MI-8 Cryptographic Bureau in Washington, DC, deciphered the letter, revealing Witzke’s German connections. The letter stated: “Strictly Secret! The bearer of this is a subject of the Empire who travels as a Russian under the name of Pablo Waberski. He is a German secret agent.”

While detained at Fort Sam Houston awaiting trial, Witzke was extensively interrogated by CIP agents but refused to provide any details about his contacts, co-conspirators, or alleged espionage.  His trial began in August 1918, and witnesses against him included Dr. Altendorf, Capt. Butcher, Capt. Lipscomb, and Capt. Manley.  Witzke took the stand in his own defense and spun a fantastical tale of how he was simply a down-on-his-luck drifter framed as a German spy.  The Military Commission found Witzke guilty of espionage and sentenced him to death, the only German spy thus sentenced in the US during World War I.  After the war, President Woodrow Wilson commuted his sentence to life in prison, and he was transferred to Fort Leavenworth.  In 1923, however, Witzke was pardoned and released to the German government.

A decade later, during the international Mixed Claims Commission hearings into damages related to the war, several American lawyers revealed Witzke’s role in the sabotage of the Black Tom Island munitions depot in New York Harbor on July 20, 1916. Ostensibly, he had been one of three collaborators who had placed dynamite on several barges loaded with ammunition causing a blast felt as far away as Philadelphia and Maryland.  The explosion lit up the night sky, shattered windows, broke water mains, and peppered the Statue of Liberty with shrapnel.  Seven people were killed.  Although in 1939 the Mixed Claims Commission found Germany complicit in the sabotage, Witzke and his co-conspirators, allegedly responsible for the worst act of terrorism on American soil up to that time, went unpunished.  Additionally, Germany refused to pay the $50 million judgment.

The capture of Witzke and other German spies and saboteurs by the Army’s counterintelligence agents undoubtedly prevented many, but not all, planned sabotage activities during the war.  Such incidents poisoned relations between the US and Germany and introduced suspicions and fear in the minds of the American public.  Americans could no longer assume complete security from enemy acts of terror on US soil, a reminder still valid today.

For more information on the Black Tom Island incident, see Michael Warner’s “The Kaiser Sows Destruction: Protecting the Homeland the First Time Around,” https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol46no1/article02.html#rfn12.

 

Damage to a pier at Black Tom Island caused by German sabotage to prevent American munitions from reaching Germany’s enemies.
(Library of Congress Photo)

Decoded Zimmermann Telegram Sets US on Path to War – January 1917

Published with Permission by:
Lori S. Tagg, Command Historian,
US Army Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, AZ.

“…we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.”

These words are extracted from the now infamous telegram from Arthur Zimmerman, the German Foreign Secretary, to Heinrich von Eckardt, German Minister to Mexico.  The telegram, sent from Berlin on January 16, 1917, directed Eckardt to propose an alliance between Germany and Mexico to the Mexican president in the event the US formally entered World War I.

World War I, or the Great War as it was then known, had been fomenting in Europe for years, but the final catalyst proved to be the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in June 1914.  Shortly thereafter, Germany declared war successively on Russia, France, Belgium, and Portugal, and the United Kingdom and other European nations quickly declared war on Germany. The war eventually embroiled nations worldwide.  The US steadfastly retained its neutrality for two years. President Woodrow Wilson, re-elected in 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” resolutely but unsuccessfully pursued a negotiated peace between the two sides.  By early 1917, Germany decided to launch unrestricted U-boat warfare on all ships, neutral or belligerent, in the waters of the war zones. This effort, German planners predicted, would bring England to the brink of economic collapse and thus surrender within months.

Zimmermann knew that the U-boat war would force the US, reluctantly but inexorably, into the war on the side of the Allies.  He believed that if Germany could entice Mexico into a war with the United States, it would divert US attention and ammunition shipments away from the Allies.  On January 18, the telegram reached Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German ambassador in Washington, DC, who was then to send it to Eckardt in Mexico.  Zimmermann had audaciously sent the message over the US State Department’s own trans-Atlantic cable, which President Wilson had allowed Germany to use for transmitting communications related to peace negotiations.  Inexplicably, Wilson had allowed those dispatches to be sent in the German code, for which the State Department did not have a codebook.

Unbeknownst to the US, British cryptographers had been intercepting message traffic on the State Department’s telegraph route.  In addition, unbeknownst to both the US and the Germans, those same British code-breakers had cracked the German diplomatic code and immediately set themselves to decoding the Zimmermann Telegram.  Incredulous at its contents, the British debated how best to notify the US, knowing, on one hand, it would bring the US into the war and, on the other, that it would anger the US to know England was reading its dispatches.  To prevent the latter, the British code section waited until Bernstorff sent the message to Eckardt and used that message, slightly altered from the original, to enlighten the US of the brazen German scheme.

The British finally revealed the contents of the telegram to the US on February 23, and a week later, major newspapers around the country published the evidence of the German conspiracy.  Americans reacted with a mix of disbelief and anger.  Rumors that Germany had financed Mexican bandit Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916 had resulted in a comprehensive investigation by the State Department.  The results of that investigation, as well as others into German intrigue in Mexico, were inconclusive, however.  As a result, most Americans initially viewed the telegram as a hoax–surely the Germans were not so foolhardy as to promise to give away part of the United States.

Ultimately, the directives in the Zimmermann Telegram came to naught; the Mexican president chose to remain neutral rather than instigate a war with its northern neighbor.  Undeniably, however, knowledge of the threat of hostile action on American territory shifted public opinion in support of a war most citizens had previously marginalized.  At the same time, Germany had launched the unrestricted submarine warfare it had previously threatened, resulting in the sinking of several US merchant ships in late March.  The Great War, therefore, was no longer just a threat to Europe.  On April 2, 1917, President Wilson requested a declaration of war from Congress, stating, “That [the German government] means to stir up enemies against us at our very doors, the intercepted note to the German Minister at Mexico is eloquent evidence. We accept this challenge of hostile purpose….”  Congress overwhelmingly voted for war and ultimately, American intervention helped turn the tide in favor of the Allies and end the war.

 

The Zimmermann Telegram (National Archives)