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The mystery of the Desert Fox's victories against the British

Among the generals of the Hitler’s Reich, General-Field Marshal Erwin Rommel historians give one of the leading places. Appointed commander of the Afrika Korps on February 6, 1941, after the capture of Tobruk, he was nicknamed The Desert Fox. Despite the shortage of supplies and the scarcity of troops, the Afrika Korps smashed the British until mid-1942, but later, completely deprived of reinforcements and supplies, Rommel's troops were forced to retreat to Tunisia, where later they surrendered. Without a doubt, all the victories were achieved thanks to the successful command of Rommel, but with proud Allies these victories are explained by many other reasons.


One of these reasons was told by the researcher D. Kahn, who had access to the archives of the secret services of the United Kingdom and the United States. There is also another source from Great Britain, which describes a story with significant discrepancies. Thus, we collected all the versions together and tried to get the average picture.

Desert Fox plans maps with Italians in North Africa

In October 1940, Colonel Bonner Frank Fellers was appointed to the US military attaché at the headquarters of the commander-in-chief of British troops in North Africa, General Wavell. Arriving in Egypt, the Colonel immediately began to get acquainted with the state of the army of Wavell. The English did not prevent Fellers from traveling around the theater of war and collecting different information. They even began to dedicate the American Colonel to plans to conduct operations to seize Tobruk, Sidi Barrani and Bardia, expecting that the payment for frankness might be the building up of American assistance to the army fighting in Africa. Fellers took the rule of everything seen and heard to report to Washington. Almost every evening his radio operator went on the air, tapping coded telegrams with detailed reports.


Back in January 1941, before Rommel became head of the German-Italian troops, an Italian was recruited for service at the US Embassy in Rome. This hard-working, energetic, intelligent person was considered simply a miracle worker. In fact, he was an extremely sly agent of the SIM, the Italian secret service, which provided him with fraudulent documents for employment in the embassy. His mission was to steal secret documents.


Being an expert in hacking locks, sort of like he once sat before the war for using his "labor" skills in bank robbery, the agent SIM decided that his hour struck. When the military attaché, Colonel Fiske, left Rome for the weekend in August 1941, the Italian quickly opened the safe and pulled out the "Black Code" - a secret code that was used by the US military attachés around the world and was viewed by Washington as undiscovered. Quickly doing his job, listening in one ear, does anybody from the embassy staff go, the Italian took a picture of the code and put it back in the safe. Then the code came to the head of the SIM in Rome, Cesare Ame, who supplied the Germans with a copy.


Even during the French campaign of 1940, Erwin Rommel was convinced of the effectiveness of radio spying. Therefore, during the formation of the Afrika Korps, he insisted that the best division of the radio intelligence of the Western Front be transferred to his disposal. In the winter of 1941, Captain Seebohm's radio intercept company arrived in the German Afrika Korps. Together with radio technical personnel, a group of cryptanalyst specialists "Z" departed for Africa. These specialists already had experience of hacking Polish and French military and diplomatic codes.


According to D. Kahn, the Seebohm radio operators from the first day of work in Africa began to write down Feller’s ciphered telegrams, and cryptanalysts quickly coped with their code and began to decipher literally everything that the attaché sent to Washington, like they did not have the "Black Code" transmitted by the Italians. According to another version, Fellers every time went to the Cairo telegraph to send encoded reports to Washington, where German agents worked, who copied his messages, decoded them and passed them on to Rommel.


The reports of the American on the British troops contained a detailed and rather critical analysis of their combat capability and indication of their location, an analysis of the personal qualities of commanders, their reputations and tactical capabilities, data on the movement of warships and convoys, deployment of bases and data on the combat readiness of tank and air units.

Radio intelligence in Afrika Korps


From the messages of his unwitting informant, Rommel learned in early March 1941 that the British 7th Armored Division had been sent to a relatively quiet Egypt for restocking and rest, and its positions were occupied by units of the 2nd Armored Division, who had just arrived from the metropolis and had no combat experience. The meticulous observer from the USA also recorded that parts of the 9th Infantry Division, which replaced the Australian 6th Infantry Division, which had declined to Greece, were poorly trained and, in addition, did not have a complete set of weapons.


Rommel made from the statements of Fellers proper conclusions and aimed attacks on the positions of the weakest opponent, as he now knew for certain. The effect of Rommel's impudent blow was truly stunning and the English began to hurry away. Rommel took Benghazi, the armored brigade lost almost all the tanks, and the 2nd Armored Division was surrounded and surrendered. This was the price of the American Colonel's talkativeness.


On another occasion, he shared with the Washington authorities information about the operation of paratroop commandos planned by the British command. According to Wavell's plan, they were to land at night on 9 German airfields and carry out a number of sabotage operations. If this operation was successful, the Afrika Korps would be permanently deprived of supplies by air, and the bomber squadrons supporting it could no longer host the Mediterranean Sea. Recognizing Fellers' intercepted coded telegram about the English plan, the Desert Fox prepared a truly hot meeting for the British commandos. Each group of saboteurs met a flurry of fire during the landing. Most paratroopers died, and the survivors surrendered. The next morning, Goering's aces rose from the undamaged airfields to attack the English convoy that was sailing towards Malta. Several ships carrying military cargo and escort destroyers were sunk. After that, British communications in the Mediterranean were paralyzed for several months.


According to D. Kahn, as is often the case in the war, the Germans summed up the accident. Due to interruptions in the supply of spare parts, the specialists of Seebohm could not quickly replace the failed parts in the direction finding equipment, and while it was idle, the radio spy missed the tank attack of the British, struck on June 10, 1942 and arrived just in their camp. Captain Seebohm and many of his specialists were killed in battle, some taken prisoner. And most importantly, in the hands of the British almost all the archives of the Rommel cryptanalysts with extensive documentation, revealing the entire situation from the radio interception, including the decrypted revelations of the American attaché.


Colonel Fellers was hastily recalled from Africa. Replacing Fellers, the new US military attaché in North Africa arrived in Cairo, supplied with a code that survived all subsequent attempts by German cryptanalysts to hack it. As a result, the Desert Fox was deprived of the strategically important information that helped him to navigate the situation perfectly and to beat the enemy for sure.


According to another version, no one called Fellers back from Africa. Of course, Colonel Fellers was shocked when he learned that his reports had reached Rommel. He immediately received a new set of codes to communicate with Washington, and the “Black Code” was used by the British, this time to misinform the enemy.

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