In response to:
The Fabulous Five from the January 12, 1995 issue
To the Editors:
In his anecdotically fascinating review of three books on the life of Kim Philby and the Cambridge University spy ring [“The Fabulous Five,” NYR, January 12] Noel Annan leaves the impression that if it were not for John Cairncross (one of the “faithful servants” of the KGB) and his access to Ultra at Bletchley, England, the “rout” of German tanks by the Russians at Kursk could have gone the other way. According to Annan, it was Cairncross who supplied the Russians with “two pieces of information that enabled them to win the decisive battle of the war.”
Without meaning to detract one iota from John Cairncross’s achievements as a spy for the Russians, long before his Ultra information was in their hands a distinguished anti-Nazi German journalist, Rudolf Roessler, had been supplying the Russians with volumes of detailed intelligence as to the strengths and dispositions of all the major Wermacht units and their attack plans even prior to their invasion of the Soviet Union. These included even the number of Tiger tanks (about 2000) that would be engaged in the Kursk salient, as it came to be called by historians of the battle.
As early as the late 1930s, Rudolf Roessler had been cultivating a cadre of young, mostly of aristocratic background officers in the Abwehr (Germany’s intelligence department) who were to have unrestricted access to Hitler’s top-secret plans for his invasion of the Soviet Union. From his cover as a rare book and documents dealer in Lucerne, Switzerland (with the code name Lucy) Roessler and his Swiss radio operator used a constantly moving van in the transmissions by wireless of the virtual tons of intelligence that he received from Berlin prior to, and throughout the war. Had Stalin not initially rejected Roessler’s reams of infallible intelligence on Hitler’s blitzkrieg plans for the Ukraine (he distrusted and disdained spies who did not demand money) the German campaign in the early stages of the invasion could have turned out disastrously for Hitler long before Stalingrad. Rudolf Roessler is virtually unknown in the literature of anti-Nazi espionage. Yet he was the greatest spy of them all.
New York City
Noel Annan replies:
I cordially agree with Mr. Dworan that the Lucy ring gave priceless information to the Stavka, and I certainly did not want to suggest that Cairncross alone fed the Red Army details of the German order of battle. It has been alleged—though I do not know if it is true—that one of the ways British intelligence was able to pass information from Ultra to the Russians and yet preserve security was to pass it through the Lucy ring. But none of that detracts from Roessler’s masterly operation.
Yet perhaps the most potent reason for the German defeat at Kursk was Hitler. Manstein was poised to strike from south of the salient as part of a pincer movement in the spring of 1943. Yet time and again Hitler postponed Manstein’s offensive; so that when finally he did attack the Red Army was waiting for him—fully informed.