The cunning of the Russian Bear
When it comes to espionage and counter-intelligence in World War II, most people think of British exploits or the fake vehicles of Patton’s fictitious army group before the Normandy invasion. Today, we’ll look at a lesser-known but impressive operation performed by Soviet agents.
In 1941, a Russian called Alexander Demyanov contacted a German spy in Moscow. Demyanov was a disgruntled socialite with aristocratic ancestors and connections to anti-Soviet elements in Russia. He offered to defect to Nazi Germany and supply them with Soviet military intelligence. After dispelling some initial doubts about his intentions, he spent three months at the Abwehr (German military intelligence) field office in Smolensk, returning to Moscow as a German agent.
Or so the Germans thought. Demyanov was in fact a double agent, entrapping genuine German spies and feeding the Abwehr false Russian plans as part of Operation Monastyr (“Monastery”). His information went all the way to Reinhard Gehlen, head of the Foreign Armies East department of German Army High Command. Some genuine intelligence of value was mixed into the false information to make it all seem legitimate. Operation Mars, a Soviet offensive near Moscow, was defeated because real details of it were handed over by Demyanov. However, it was still for the greater good, since the leak rendered the Germans blind to the much more important Operation Uranus, the encirclement of German forces at Stalingrad.
Stalin personally followed the developments of Operation Monastyr, but wanted to expand its scope and use it to physically destroy German intelligence assets. The result was Operation Berezino, usually called Operation Scherhorn in English sources. The deception was carried out by Pavel Sudoplatov, a hardened agent of the NKVD, the Russian secret police. Sudoplatov joined the Cheka, the NKVD’s predecessor, in 1921 at the age of 14. He was involved in several important operations. In 1938, he personally assassinated a Ukrainian nationalist leader in Rotterdam by giving him a box of chocolates. He waited nearby for the bomb hidden inside to explode and then calmly walked away. In 1940, he was in charge of the infamous assassination of Trotsky.
You can learn more about the lesser-known battles and operations on the wide and deadly Eastern Front, on our Eastern Front Tour in August 2018.
The plot of Operation Berezino / Scherhorn revolved around a fictional German force of some 2,500 men trapped behind Soviet lines near the Berezina River, calling for relief over radio. The unit was, of course, really made up of ethnic German communists and anti-fascists along with Russian NKVD agents. To make the ruse credible, the force needed a real German officer as a leader, someone the Wehrmacht knew to be a real person. The role fell to Lt. Col. Heinrich Scherhorn, a WWI veteran and officer in a rear-security division who was captured by the Soviets. He was found especially suitable because of his family’s personal ties to Hitler: his father used to be a major supporter of the Nazis in the early 1930s. After heavy interrogation in the infamous Lubyanka building in Moscow, he was given a choice: participate or be prosecuted for war crimes. He chose the first.
Scherhorn’s “lost unit” sent its first message on August 18, 1944, reporting that they were surrounded by the enemy in the swamp. Gehlen, who had also bought into Operation Monastyr before, fell for the ruse and demanded military support for the encircled “Germans.” Infamous commando leader Otto Skorzeny was instructed to send his men on a rescue mission. In September, a group of four or five German commandos were inserted by parachute and made contact with the force. Some of the commandos, of Baltic descent, were separated from the rest and quietly subdued, while the German soldiers were cordially led to the camp and into Scherhorn’s tent, where they were arrested by NKVD agents and forced to send a radio report home about a safe landing. Skorzeny sent several additional drops to help Scherhorn: two disappeared, one was captured and had to send back a false message, one was misdropped but eventually made it back to German lines without ever discovering the truth.
As the operation progressed, Scherhorn reported that the large number of wounded made a breakthrough impossible, prompting German command to suggest an airlift operation. Such a rescue mission would have exposed the ploy, so Sudoplatov had to prevent it. An illuminated airfield was built by the force, ostensibly to receive the rescue planes. On the night of the planned rescue, however, a Soviet force was arranged to “accidentally” come across Scherhorn’s force, engaging it in mock combat. During the fight, the landing lights of the airfield were knocked out, preventing the German planes from landing.
Through late 1944, Scherhorn was in regular contact with Gehlen and Skorzeny. He was instructed to split his troops in two and try to make it to friendly territory. At the instructions of his handlers, Scherhorn replied that the planned route might put them in contact with Polish population. To help him cope with the situation, Skorzeny sent him several ethnic Polish agents… who, of course, were captured and interrogated, exposing Germany’s Polish intelligence network. All in all, the Germans conducted 39 flights to aid Scherhorn’s force, dropping 22 commandoes, 13 radio sets and other supplies sorely needed elsewhere.
By early 1945, German forces were pushed back so far that further “resupply” missions were impossible, though orchestrated pleas for help continued until May. Back home in Germany, Scherhorn became a national hero for his “actions” behind enemy lines, receiving the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross in March in absentia.
After the war, Scherhorn was held in a Russian prison camp and eventually repatriated to Germany in the 1950s. Sudoplatov fell prey to a political purge after Stalin’s death, spent 15 years in prison, ostensibly for overseeing poison experiments on human subjects, but was cleared of criminal charges in 1992. Reinhard Gehlen, who bought the Russian ruse hook, line and sinker went on to found the West German secret service.