Battles in Code for World War Secrets (Jul, 1933)

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Battles in Code for World War Secrets


Amazing secret battles of spies and cipher experts, involving the use of codes and cryptograms on which hung the lives of millions of men in the trenches, played a vital part in determining the course of the World War. Kept secret for years in confidential archives, some of the startling exploits of American cryptographers are brought to light here.

“The enemy has our secret code!”

The dread tidings were whispered through the corridors of Washington; War Department, State Department, even the White House. They brought a cold chill of fear. Could it be that at the climax of the greatest fighting effort in our history, the Germans were reading our leaders’ most confidential messages, knew their inmost thoughts and plans? We must stop that, at once.

So in that thrilling summer of 1918, a hidden combat raged unknown, between the code and the cipher experts of the German and American secret services. The battlegrounds were official Washington, hostile Mexico, European neutral countries rotten with intrigue, in the air, under the sea, in the bowels of the earth — the trenches. Everywhere, the Germans struggled to find out our plans to hurl our million fresh troops into battle; everywhere, we struggled to conceal those plans. No wonder, when from our own secret service had come this report:

“The Germans got our secret code from a spy—a spy, and in our own code and cipher room, here in Washington!”

Our own code and cipher room, an inner recess of the massive brick building, secluded, safe, that housed the best brains of the Army War College. Here, by patient work, we had assembled the cleverest of American experts in this occult science of hiding the most important orders, plans, policies beneath a puzzling string of numbers or strange symbols. Aided by records and paraphernalia brought from the secret department of Col. George Fabyan’s Riverbank. Laboratory outside Chicago, they compiled codes and ciphers to mask our confidential communications oyer the network of cables and telegraph lines that covered the world, and even through the air itself, by radio. These men held their country at their mercy—if one of them turned traitor.

A Spy in the Cipher Room!

No wonder strong faces paled, when a few of our leaders heard, in strictest confidence, the strange story a strange man had told General Marlborough Churchill, then chief of our Military Intelligence Service. This man, who came secretly by night, was one of the cleverest American spies in the World War. Unknown, he played a large part in preventing invasion of Texas by Germans and Mexicans. This time, he had come straight from the German spies’ nest in Mexico City, bearing a photograph that he had stolen.

It was a photograph of a man with a German name, who was then a trusted cryptographer in the American code and cipher room in the Army War College in Washington. He was one of the trusted men who composed the codes and ciphers in which our important messages were to he concealed, and to whom were handed over similar messages sent by German officials, secret agents or spies, that had come into our hands and must be solved correctly and honestly. But now!

“There’s your leak!” cried the man from Mexico.

In a Nest of Spies

He was Dr. Paul Bernardo Altendorf, an Austrian, turned American. Posing as a German-American draft dodger, he had gone boldly to Mexico City, wormed his way into the group of desperadoes, bomb-makers, incendiaries that German Minister Eckhardt had working against the United States. He even lured one of them, the famous Pablo Waberski, across the border into Texas, to be captured by the Americans and sentenced to death. Then, with cold courage, Altendorf had turned around and returned to Mexico, where, if his trick were known, his life would not be worth one peso. But he wanted to keep a date there with Kurt Jahncke, German Master Spy, who is now a member of the Prussian Diet.

The date was at the apartment of an attractive German-American woman, who had assembled the choicest of Jahncke’s spies and saboteurs, who boasted they would slit the throat of any dirty American spy. Altendorf made himself agreeable, sauntering about, admiring the apartment’s decorations. This admiration led him to recesses.

Suddenly he stopped, amazed. Before him was a photograph of a man he had seen before—before—but where? Ah—in Washington! But where, in Washington? And how?

A step sounded in the passage. Altendorf wheeled about.

“Ah, Senora,” he exclaimed. “Pardon that I withdrew a moment, led astray by these tasteful decorations. So many interesting things! Now, who is this man so handsome—though in your apartment, he could be only handsome!”

Disarmed, his hostess blushed, then said, “That is my friend, Rudolph Metz.”

Tracking Down a Suspect

Rudolph Metz! That was the name, Altendorf exulted. Rudolph Metz—Washington—ah, the Army War College! The room where the code and cipher men did their secluded, vital work! Yet among these picked men, supposedly trustworthy until death, he had seen this man—who was the “friend” of a notorious German spy! He managed more gallant speeches as he sauntered back with his hostess— having noted that, outside the window, was a balcony.

An hour later, the American spy dropped quietly from that balcony, and flitted away in the Mexican darkness. Beneath his coat, he clutched the photograph of Rudolph Metz.

That story sent General Churchill hurrying to the code and cipher room.

“Why, Metz was sent to us by a woman,” they told him. “A woman member of our own secret service. Why, it was ‘Pandora’!”

“Pandora!” General Churchill exclaimed in amazement. He knew “Pandora.” The name camouflaged an American woman who played a fascinating role, guarding a box of secrets of the Texas border that she had solved, for she was an expert cryptographer. She was the wife of an American government official.

“But ‘Pandora’ is loyal, beyond suspicion!” General Churchill cried.

No doubt of that, her explanation showed. She had recommended Rudolph Metz when the War Department first commenced searching for cryptographers. He had helped her decipher Mexican secret messages, and he seemed a loyal American citizen. Apparently, he was trustworthy.

The Spider’s Web

But to confirm that, sleuthhounds of the Military Intelligence gave him such an investigation, past and present, as few can survive. They found him blameless of his “wife’s” Mexican activities, and no evidence that he had been recently in communication with her. He seemed, like most German – Americans, loyal to this country. So they let him remain at the very center of the web, knowing many of our profoundest secrets—but not really, the spider, but the fly—for always, he was under watch. Now, he is out of Government service.

But the investigation of him was part of a search that was not in vain. Its urgent warnings went out all over the world, to all who handled American secret communications or code books, and disclosed another possible leak, again through a woman, who was close to secrets—and trouble.

She was the daughter of an American diplomat in a neutral country that was honeycombed with spies. Also, she was the wife of a German Naval Officer. She lived with her father, who enjoyed his “enemy” son-in-law’s frequent visits “on leave.”

A German With the Code Book!

“That husband of yours is a good fellow, German or not,” he told his daughter. He made the young man free of house and office. At the office, the diplomat kept his copy of the American secret code book— and not in the safe, but in his own desk. One day when he was out, the son-in-law called.

“I will wait,” he said, and stepping into the private office, he closed the door. Presently, a clerk peeped in. There sat the German, feet cocked on the desk, smoking one of his father-in-law’s cigars, and calmly perusing the code book! The clerk was aghast. He went to the Chief of the American secret service in that country.

That gentleman assigned to the case a woman spy, just arrived from Washington. We will call her Estelle. She had taught French in a fashionable American girls’ school, and now occupies a higher position in a similar institution abroad. She was very beautiful, ambitious, but quite inexperienced in secret service. Nevertheless, to the diplomat’s office she went, gorgeously arrayed as a tourist.

“I am an American just arrived,” she said, “and I want information about a trip.”

Lives Hanging on a Code

She flashed her most charming smile— which promptly proved her undoing. The diplomat might not suspect a German naval officer son-in-law, but he knew about women spies. He arose, majestically, pointing to the door.

“Madame, you are a spy!” he said, dramatically. “Go back and fell whoever sent you, that you can’t fool me with your smiles.”

Its woman spy foiled, the local secret service got the State Department to send an inspector.

“Absurd suspicions!” exclaimed the diplomat. “Why, my son-in-law and I are friends”

Which seemed to him a sufficient answer. But his son-in-law had been seen in a stationery store, buying thin tissue paper. How easy to trace the groups each with a hidden meaning vital to American success, from that code book so accessible to his prying eyes. The situation was so serious that there was a conference at American General Headquarters in France, and over the cables that night went to Washington a message in a new code that General Pershing’s experts knew the Germans had not seen:


Happy in the thought that America had won a point in the secret combat, the chief returned home—to face a startling new move.

“A woman to see you,” they told him at the office. With his foot, he pressed a buzzer, and as his confidential man slipped behind a screen to listen, there entered a caller, heavily veiled, nervous—probably, he thought, a professional spy.

Machinations of a Woman Spy

“I have most won-der-ful information for you!” she said, in a deep, thrilling whisper. She raised her veil, revealing a striking, dark face. “You will pay me well?”

“Perhaps, Madame,” the Chief replied. But only after we have seen the goods.”

“The goods?” the lady repeated. “Ah, yes. Well, Monsieur, turn your back.”

When the chief looked again, she handed him, with an arch smile, a typewritten official paper. With a start, he recognized it as a copy of an order from the German Navy Department to a submarine commander. He was to cross the Atlantic, and cut the undersea cables connecting America and Europe—and to judge from the date, was even now arriving in American waters. No time to find out whether the paper was a fake. Not a moment to lose!

“Yes, Madame,” said the Chief, “we will pay for this.”

Hurriedly he composed, in the new code, a cablegram to General Churchill, warning of this new menace to American communications. Perhaps, he worried, all the cables have been cut already, and the warning comes too late. But he got this reply:

“What the hell? Four cables were cut— yesterday!”

The Chief’s remarks were in a very ancient code. Long afterward, he had a friendly chat with an Austrian who had also been in secret service in that neutral land.

“We certainly thanked you for taking the Baroness off our hands,” he said. “That woman we sent to tell you about the cable-cutting.”

“Was she a Baroness?” the American replied. “Her news was stale.”

“But, of course,” the Austrian smiled. “She was a professional spy, who pestered us so, looking for work, that to be rid of her, we gave her that paper to sell you—of course, a day late. You paid her so well, she retired.”

The Silver Greyhounds

But after all, we laughed last. The cable-cutting emergency had not been unforeseen. The Navy was forewarned before the first German submarine reached American waters—equipped with cable-cutting shears. But fewer cables were needed, for the Silver Greyhounds were ready. That was their emblem, a picked corps of young officers who carried dispatches, maps, charts, and even $50,000,000 cash. Capt. T. Walter Gilkyson once made their regular trip from Washington to Chaumont, France, in seven days, six hours. They took the strain off the cables. We had not lost the hidden combat beneath the waves. . The A. E. F. named its codes for Indian tribes, to help confuse German radio operators across No Man’s Land, who picked our messages from the void, and tried to read them. To plug these leaks in the air, G. H. Q. changed the radio codes used along the front, every three to six weeks.

As we assembled our new First Army for its first big drive at St. Mihiel, the need for secrecy became even greater. Lt.-Col. Frank Moorman, in charge of radio code and cipher work at G. H. Q., got these orders:

“The St. Mihiel area is getting full of American radio stations. We try to prevent the Germans suspecting our coming attack, but some of our operators are careless. You will detail operators especially to listen in on our own radio talk, to see whether the Germans doing the same thing—as of course they are—could discover our plans.”

Colonel Moorman’s report brought dismay. Knowing to start with no more than the Germans might know, in a few days and nights, he had found out where practically every American division was, and about what it was doing. But still worse, he knew that we were going to attack, and was only one day off as to when— and that because the American operator he had listened in on had slipped. If the Germans knew all that, our attack would be a bloody disaster! Major General D. E. Nolan, Chief of A. E. F. Intelligence, looked grave. No wonder the few who knew waited anxiously for reports, after the attack began the morning of September 12, 1918.

But the result was not bloody disaster, but glorious victory. The Germans had not known, after all, what our radio experts thought they must know. Once again, in the secret combat to hide our plans from the German code spies, we had turned failure into success—and more.

For this same American radio expert, arising early one morning, had found no American messages on the air. Instead, he had picked up a single German, busily sending time after time, the same string of code number groups.

“He must be practicing,” thought the American, noting the numbers. He passed them on to our own code and cipher men, who asked themselves:

“What short message would a German send, over and over, for practice?”

The answer came: “Well, maybe some German proverb, or saying.”

Starting there, they worked out this: “The early bird catches the worm!” And that appropriate sentiment proved the entering wedge to break down the new radio code that the German operator had got up early to practice! Trying to keep our own codes secret, we had hit upon a new German one. So, after all, our ingenuity and perseverance had not only hidden our plans that helped win the war, but won the hidden combat of codes and ciphers.

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