Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dealing with the Devil: Anglo-Soviet Intelligence Cooperation During the Second World War by Donal O'Sullivan

Donal O'Sullivan has crafted a detailed and interesting narrative of the Anglo-Soviet cooperation during the Second World War. While not all of the topics discussed merit the same level of interest (at least not for me), there is enough presented to showcase how much we still do not know, keeping in mind that we're talking about an event that's more than sixty years past. Initial chapter discuss the relative relationship between the British and the Soviets on the eve of the war, followed by a chapter detailing the 'main players' on both sides. Knowing the background and future of these men gives some insight into their character and actions throughout the war.

The more interesting chapters of the book deal with the 'Pickaxe' agents sent by the Soviets to England to be flown into Europe for clandestine operations. 'Operation Mamba', where the British hoped to utilize Soviet POWs - these men were captured by the Germans, then joined the Wehrmacht (for one reason or another), and were in turn captured by the allies after the invasion of Normandy - and insert them behind enemy lines for sabotage operations. Lastly, enlightening was the overall discussion of the 'Red Orchestra' and how this 'entity' was utilized by all sides for their own needs, an organization that in the end proved to have been nothing but smoke and mirrors when archival materials became available for scrutiny.

With 'Pickaxe', the author allows the reader to see in essence how desperate the situation was for the Soviets. They put their trust in the British to get their agents (none were Soviet citizens, all were foreigners - Germans, Austrians, etc.) to mainland Europe for clandestine operations. Unfortunately, the majority of these agents were just not prepared well enough, did not have the mental capacity to pursue espionage work, and at times even lacked proper documentation. German counter-intelligence operations, which utilized captured agents, were much more successful and regularly outwitted the NKVD on the Soviet side (even when warnings signals were being sent over by captured agents).

'Operation Mamba' was something new. One regularly hears about Soviets being drafted into the Wehrmacht to fulfill one role or another, but after being captured by the allies not much more is heard about them until it comes to repatriation to the Soviet Union. Here, the author offers a glimpse into British SOE planning for a few dozen Soviets, including their training, the impression they made on their British handlers, etc. Unfortunately, nothing came of these plans as the Soviets vigorously protested such actions on the part of the British.

Lastly, the 'celebrity' reputation the 'Red Orchestra' enjoys today in the history of the Second World War is based in myth and exaggeration. The majority of those assumed to have been part of the organization were in truth independent agents. Unfortunately, because many of these agents were communists with similar views living in the same country, they were aware of each other and gave each other up when caught and interrogated. The Germans first used the idea of a 'Red Orchestra' in the post-war period when offering their services to the British. They exaggerated the intelligence apparatus of the Soviets to increase their worth in the eyes of the allies. The allies, in turn, did the same to increase government funding against the 'Red Menace' and the Soviets never cared to correct them as having your new Cold War enemies view your assets in Europe as a credible threat was better than knowing the truth.

Overall, this is an excellent addition to literature on clandestine operations in the Second World War and a little known collaboration between the Soviets and British. The only flaw is the fact that not all documents and documentation on these operations have been released, especially from the Soviet side. The author is forced to rely solely on what is available, which leaves many questions as of yet unanswered. But, he can hardly be blamed for that.

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