Hitler’s Spies: Secret Agents and the Intelligence War in South Africa, 1939–1945

Evert Kleynhans, Hitler’s Spies: Secret Agents and the Intelligence War in South Africa,1939–1945 (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2021)

MILITARY history does not have a fashionable profile and tends to be circumscribed, but Evert Kleynhans argues for greater relevance if it is put into socio-economic context. The focus of his book is somewhat narrower than its title suggests. Based on a long-restricted Potchefstroom archive, it is basically an investigation of the extent of Ossewa Brandwag (OB) communication with Germany during World War II.

After South Africa’s delayed declaration of hostilities in September 1939, German diplomats decamped to Lourenço Marques (LM), a wartime hotbed of intrigue from which Consul-General Paul Trompke and Abwehr officer Luitpold Werz ran a very active network. They were hampered by a number of technical challenges such as poor wireless links with Berlin; but aided by close proximity to the porous South Africa border and that country’s numerous anti-war movements of which the OB and its paramilitary Stormjaers were the most significant by far. A further asset was long-term resident German nationals and other anti-British, Nazi sympathisers.

The earliest German agents were couriers such as Marietjie and Will Radley or spies who claimed to be monitoring South African harbours and supplying naval intelligence. The first significant agent, infiltrated from Portuguese East Africa, was Hans Rooseboom, extricated from Leeuwkop internment camp by the OB; but subsequently discarded by them over use of the information he collected, although his network seems to have lived on. He was replaced by Lothar Sittig.

Sittig was a man of enormous resourcefulness. Interned at Leeuwkop, he escaped and was exfiltrated to LM by the Greyshirts. By January 1942, briefed by Werz, he re-entered South Africa (bizarrely by cycle), was re-interned at Baviaanspoort and escaped again into an underground existence that was to end only in 1948. In the meantime he successfully carried out Werz’s instructions, setting up an operation known as Felix later assisted by another LM agent Nils Pasche. Its greatest technical achievement was to build and successfully operate a wireless transmitter capable of reaching Berlin. This was assisted by a renegade Post Office engineer, Reijer Groeneveld, who used parts from a stolen hospital diathermy machine. Until it became operational from farms around Vryburg, wireless communication of coded messages was maintained with LM assisted by fictitious death notices placed in The Star. The Felix operation lasted from mid-1942 until mid-1944.

It has been suggested that information provided contributed to U-boat sinkings of Allied shipping off the South African coast, but it would have dated too rapidly. If intelligence about the North African Torch landings was compromised, it was probably ignored. Most transmissions concerned low-grade information of little value to the German war effort. Sittig’s network and technical triumphs were largely of benefit to the OB propaganda machine enabling its astute leader J.F.J. (Hans) van Rensburg to have his speeches broadcast to South Africa from Radio Zeesen.

Van Rensburg played a canny wartime role. He communicated with the enemy sufficiently thoroughly to elicit favourable treatment from a German victor. But he and Heimer Anderson controlled the flow of information to ensure that no South African service personnel were endangered. Van Rensburg was able to cover himself with the protective clothing of Afrikaner patriot.

British intelligence monitored all wireless traffic for source location and content. The latter was decoded by the Government Code and Cipher Service more generally referred to as Bletchley. The HF/DF (huff duff) interception network provided rough locations. But raids proved fruitless because of what the British described as an incompetent and corrupt (that is, infiltrated and subverted) police force and an unco-operative and hostile local population. MI5 had a clear picture of the German operation in southern Africa, but was unable to roll it up.

Prime Minister Jan Smuts believed, with good reason, that Felix was ineffective and that the best way to deal with the far Right was largely to ignore it. Kleynhans mentions the possibility that Smuts may have had a deal of some sort with Van Rensburg, but does not elaborate. The OB leader was undoubtedly expert at hedging his bets.

After the war two South African missions visited Europe: Rein to investigate questionable activity by prisoners-of-war; and Barrett to look at the activities of disloyal South African citizens and residents. The second mission included the police officer George Visser who would thirty years later write an account of the OB. With considerable effort, a significant amount of relevant documentary evidence was retrieved, including German signals from LM.

It was generally agreed that there was a prima facie case of treason against Van Rensburg. Both Smuts and, after 1948, Prime Minister D.F. Malan for differing political reasons declined to bring charges. Malan had been the target of early unsuccessful German attempts to make contact from LM. All copies of the Barrett report were requisitioned by the Malan government and thought for many years to have been lost to posterity; but Kleynhans located a sole survivor in the archived papers of C.R. Swart.

This book comes to the same general conclusion as the British immediately after the war: the efforts of German agents operating in South Africa had little or no military significance. While U-boats and surface raiders sank 900,000 tons of Allied shipping in South African waters this was only 5% of global losses. The intelligence sent to Berlin by various routes had more to do with the political conflict within the Union. This conclusion nevertheless raises the questions why transmissions were able to continue and how spies managed to stay operational. Apart from considerable popular support for subversion, the answer seems to lie with tension between British and South African authorities; rivalries, deception and local jealousies.

This is a fascinating book through which Kleynhans justifies his defence of military history. It does touch on other forms of enemy activity such as planned U-boat landings, but leaves open the broader canvas of sabotage designed to subvert the Allied war effort. Perhaps one disappointment is that there is no account of what happened in later life to the central characters.


Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page,From the Thornveld