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Greatest Counter-Espionage Operation in World War 2: The Lost Wehrmacht Unit

Heinrich Scherhorn

By August 1944 the retreating German Heeresgruppe Mitte on the Eastern Front had lost over half a million soldiers in the wake of the Red Army’s enormous Bagration offensive. On August 19 the German Long Range Signal Intelligence Company, FAK 103 received a message from a Soviet spy, “Alexandr”, working for the Germans. Alexandr relayed to the intelligence company that a large German armed group was stuck behind enemy lines. They weren’t discovered as of yet and continued operating. During their retreat, this large German army unit, a couple of thousand men, was cut off from Heeresgruppe Mitte and sought refuge in a forest near Berezino a town in Belarus. They were in dire need of military supplies and provisions if they wanted to try to break out. Over in Germany, Wehrmacht commanders thought it vital to rescue these men. And not just any commanders. All the way up to Hitler personally, the entire chain of command became involved in the rescue of this Wehrmacht unit. Over the next couple of months, multiple intelligence officers were sent behind enemy lines to establish contact, and the Luftwaffe set up several missions to drop their scarce supplies in the army group’s supposed area. 

And, well, the intelligence officers all sent encrypted messages to confirm they safely reached the thousands of men stuck in the forest, requesting more supplies and material to force a break-out. With their already overstretched manpower resources, the German command did everything they could to safely rescue the army group… until Germany was finally defeated in May 1945, and they could no more, leaving the men to their own fate in that forest. A horrible end, knowing the conditions of Soviet gulags and their treatment of POWs. Except… well, the entire army group had never existed. Operation Berezino was one of the, if not the most successful counterintelligence operations set up by the Soviet NKVD. 

Background

During the war the German army worked with several Soviet spy cells, often times soldiers in the Red Army feeding the Germans information. Sometimes these contacts ended up in so-called ‘Funkspiels’, radio-play counterintelligence operations. For example, in France the Germans used compromised Allied agent’s radios to send controlled transmissions to their parent service, rendering those instances none the wiser. Well, the Soviet spy Alexandr, who signalled the Germans, was part of a larger Soviet spy cell, Flamingo. The Germans figured Alexandr was a captain in the Red Army, adding credibility to his transmission when he told them about the lost army group.

Location of Berezino

The army group was stuck near Berezino, close to Minsk. A captured German corporal told Alexandr the group was cut-off from the main army group during their retreat. They numbered around 2500 men and were stuck in a nearby forest. Oberstleutnant Heinrich Scherhorn commanded the group, and he planned to lead his men to the German frontlines, through the Red Army units roaming around the area pushing further west. A sizeable number of wounded soldiers and a shortage in supplies prevented him from forcing an early breakout. 

Okay, so when receiving a message like this during the already chaotic time, the Germans naturally considered it plausible. But they were right to be wary, for several reasons. How was it possible a German corporal knew so much about Scherhorn’s plans and whereabouts? And who was Scherhorn anyway? Even if Scherhorn existed, the Soviets could simply use his documents to create a ruse. 

Head of the intelligence service of the Heeresgruppe Mitte was Hans-Heinrich Worgitzky. He suspected a Soviet deception operation intending to exhaust Germany’s already overstretched resources. Through the Long Range Intelligence Company, FAK 103, Worgitzky requested Flamingo to provide the exact whereabouts of Scherhorn’s position so he could organise an air supply and to establish radio contact. 

On September 6 Flamingo reached out. They stated Alexandr managed to contact the lost army group directly. Scherhorn was adamant about breaking through Soviet lines to the Germans, but he required military material, medicine and provisions. The group’s exact position, a bit over 50 kilometres to the north of Berezino, including the location signals for an eventual dropping was included.

Meanwhile, other commanders heard about the missing Wehrmacht unit. Among them was Oberst Reinhard Gehlen, head of the Fremde Heere Ost, the military intelligence organisation for the Eastern Front. According to historian Stuart Smith, the Fremde Heere Ost was undoubtedly the most successful German intelligence organisation of the entire war and Gehlen was respected by most of the German general staff thanks to his excellent intelligence work. Gehlen received information from his men that indeed, an Oberstleutnant Heinrich Scherhorn, commanding a Landesschützen-Regiment, had been missing since June.

The regiment Scherhorn commanded was very experienced in dealing with partisan activity, and thus considered more valuable than other regular Wehrmacht regiments. In addition, Scherhorn’s father was an intimate of Hitler; he contributed significantly to the Nazi party’s finances. It gave the rescue of Scherhorn an important political dimension. 

Rescuing Scherhorn

The German command requested Otto Skorzeny to lead the rescue operation. Skorzeny was a notorious SS commando that had been involved in several secret operations, often behind enemy lines. Skorzeny and his Jagdverband Ost, a unit consisting of Balts, Russians and Poles, started preparing the mission which initially was named Operation Freischütz. 

Otto Skorzeny

Their first objective was to render the communication via Flamingo obsolete. In order to do so they had to establish direct contact with Scherhorn. On September 15 an intelligence and connection officer crossed the frontlines in an attempt to locate Scherhorn. The intelligence unit near immediately lost contact with the men and considered them lost. Until five days later, when Heeresgruppe Mitte received a detailed message from Scherhorn himself, albeit through Flamingo. In it, Scherhorn confirmed the men safely reached him and he named several other high-ranking officers that were known to be in Soviet captivity. So… well reason enough for the German command to doubt the existence and situation.

Two weeks later the Wehrmacht intelligence unit sent another intelligence officer behind enemy lines, without notifying either Flamingo or Scherhorn. This officer confirmed he safely reached his position, and to be certain two days later four men of the SS Jagdverband Ost were dropped behind enemy lines, disguised as German prisoners of war. 

Official reports detailing the landing of the groups show what happened next. After a difficult landing taking heavy machine-gun fire, the first group established radio contact but then lost all contact. The second group sent a message several days later stating they successfully reached the Scherhorn group, and in early November the missing group too sent a code indicating they reached the Scherhorn group. 

Considering the existence of the Scherhorn group confirmed by separate intelligence units, the German command now took on the difficult task of rescuing them. The Luftwaffe set up a regular airdrop supply and the German intelligence units maintained daily contact with Scherhorn. Doctors were dropped in addition to the supplies and the German commanders convinced Scherhorn to build a landing strip nearby their stakeout, so they could establish an air bridge to pick up the men. But a harsh winter and Soviet activities in the area made it near impossible, and by late November Scherhorn pleaded with the German command to allow a change of plans. 

The German frontline at this point was around 500 kilometres away and the situation seemed hopeless. Scherhorn told the German commanders he was going to divide his men into two: a unit with wounded and weak soldiers trekking south, and a more combat-ready group to travel through Lithuania, where they would attempt to establish a new airlift. According to Skorzeny’s memoirs, he followed the group’s progress via radio reports. Their movement was slow, barely five kilometres every day, and the realisation dawned on the Germans that these men may never reach Germany again. 

For months the dropping of supplies at night and sending special units across frontlines continued. All the while the Red Army was advancing closer to German borders, and the German resources ran out. The responsible Luftwaffe squadron ran out of fuel in early 1945 and was unable to supply the lost Wehrmacht unit altogether. All the while the entire German warmachine rapidly collapsed, and the Scherhorn group could expect no more than a personal letter from Hitler on March 23. In it, Scherhorn was promoted to Colonel and he received the Ritterkreuz. 

One month later, in April 1945, the German radio intelligence unit received a transmission from the SS Jagdgeschwader Ost unit commander who supposedly travelled with the Wehrmacht unit. He stated the group had reached the agreed-upon meeting point, and requested the Luftwaffe to pick them up. Having no planes, fuel or any resources available, all the Germans could do was listen to his last radio transmission. Skorzeny described it as heartbreaking. Realising they could not be saved, the commander requested the minimal amount of fuel to charge their batteries to continue transmitting messages, but even that the German command could not promise. They realised the horrible fate that awaited these men, who had gave it their everything in an attempt to reach Germany. Not too long after Hitler took his own life in the Führerbunker, and the Germans surrendered, bringing the Second World War to an end. In the aftermath of the war the entire situation in Europe was very chaotic, and naturally, the whole Scherhorn affair faded to the background… only to be forgotten.

Counter-Intelligence

So, what happened to Scherhorn and his several-thousand strong Wehrmacht unit stuck behind enemy lines? Well, Oberstleutnant Heinrich Scherhorn certainly existed. And even the Flamingo spy cell was genuine. The agent, Alexandr, existed as well. His real name was Alexandr Petrovich Demianov, and he had worked for the NKVD counter-intelligence branch for over a decade. He reported directly to Pavel Sudopatlov, an intelligence officer. Sudopatlov was deeply involved with many secret operations, including Leon Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico and the obtaining of information about the Manhattan project. 

Alexandr had been infiltrating the German Abwehr from the beginning of the war, expanding his network. He was a double agent. And using Alexandr, the NKVD set in motion the most ambitious deception operation of the war. Stalin personally ordered Sudopatlov to create a counter-intelligence operation about a fake German Wehrmacht unit surrounded behind the frontlines. Stalin’s goal was to have the Germans deplete their already exhausted resources on this non-existent unit, and that’s exactly what happened. 

It appears that Alexandr’s entire family was involved in the deception. His wife’s father’s house in Moscow was used as a safehouse for Abwehr agents that agreed to defect to the Soviet Union. And Alexandr made sure to feed the Germans just enough correct information among the falsehoods, for them to continue trusting him. 

Alright, so Scherhorn did exist. But in reality, his Landesschützen-Regiment had been annihilated during the initial days of their retreat. Together with 200 survivors, they surrendered in July 1944, and in the notoriously awful NKVD captivity, Scherhorn was forced to defect. There were multiple reasons for his defection. Considering he fought against partisans he realised he would be executed if he didn’t, and he figured the Germans knew many partisans controlled the area he went missing in. So to have a sizeable German army unit missing there seemed unrealistic to him. Little did he know the German commanders would buy it.

When the Soviets relayed coordinates of the supposed army group’s position, they clothed counter-intelligence officers and special operations units in tattered Wehrmacht uniforms, to meet the SS men dropped behind enemy lines to meet Scherhorn. And Scherhorn too was there, located inside a hut in the forest. When the SS men met him, they transmitted their coded message to confirm the group Scherhorn existed. Subsequently, NKVD officers revealed they weren’t Wehrmacht soldiers. They arrested the SS men and gave them a choice: join in or die. Most men defected, handing over their valuable codebooks and passwords. The entire course of events was a debacle for the German command, although they would never find out. As we’ve seen, the deception lasted until nearly the end of the war, until the Germans simply had no resources to help out the fake Wehrmacht unit.

Although this was a secret counter-intelligence operation, there’s a reason why we know so much detail about a mission such as this one: Scherhorn actually survived the war. Sudapotlov kept him under house arrest until 1949, before he was repatriated to East-Germany. He was one of the lucky ones because the vast majority of men captured during the operation were executed after the Germans surrendered. To the Soviets, the operation was an incredible success. In total 67 airlifts were intercepted and 25 paratroopers arrested, not to mention the ammunition, provisions, medicine, weapons and codebooks. Ironically enough, Reinhard Gehlen, who bought the deception, ended up becoming a spymaster of the CIA-affiliated anti-communist Gehlen Organisation. Certainly a story worth telling in another video.

Sources:

Beaumont, R. (1982). Maskirovka: Soviet Camouflage, Concealment and Deception. 
Smith, S. (2018). Otto Skorzeny: The Devil’s Disciple. Bloomsbury Publishing.

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