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World War II Spy Rings in Latin America
Osorno Volcano taken from the Petrohue Falls
Admiral Canaris of the Nazi Abwehr
Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Head of the Nazi Abwehr
In previous articles, I have been writing about events in World War One that took place near the southern coasts of Chile and Argentina.
In the most recent of these, I related the adventures of Lieutenant Wilhelm Canaris, the intelligence officer of the SMS Dresden, including his epic escape from the Talcahuano Naval Base, where he was interned by the Chilean government, and his trip down south to Osorno, and then over the Andes into Argentina, and so on home to Germany.
After a successful career in the German Navy, Canaris became head of the Abwehr Military Intelligence Unit in 1935. He therefore had access, together with his various subordinates, to all the information related to the very active spy rings that sprang up in various Latin American countries, as WW2 entered its more active phases.
These Spy Rings and Intelligence Activities, Important Elements in WW2?
Numerous writers and historians consider both the German intelligence efforts and the Allies’ counterintelligence measures in Latin America, to be important enough to merit substantial research in post war years.
In his memoirs, Winston Churchill wrote “….dominating all our power to carry on the war, or even keep ourselves alive, lay our mastery of the ocean routes and the free approach and entry to our ports”.
The weakest link in Great Britain’s military strength was the dependency upon the Empire and the Western Hemisphere for vital raw materials, foodstuff, and equipment. Thus, British maritime commerce was the very life-blood of the British Isles. The German naval authorities were very aware of this fact, and made every effort to disrupt Britain’s shipping and maritime communications.
For these activities to succeed, it was vital for the German intelligence force to have accurate information on ship movements, and a high quantity of maritime commerce involved the South American countries of Brazil, Argentina and Chile. The success in sinking Allied shipping in the southern Pacific and the North and South Atlantic during the first two years of the war was a direct result of Admiral Canaris’ superb organization in the Abwehr, supported in part by his own experience and knowledge of the countries involved.
Map of South America
Brazil declares War on Germany.
Brazilian Naval Action during WW2
Brazil's Contribution to the War Effort
Brazil held a strategic importance to both side during WW2, due to its geographic position relatively near the West coast of Africa and the natural products that were its main exports: rubber, cotton, diamonds and platinum, as well as iron ore, manganese, quartz, and nut oils.
The country also boasted a large German population, and in years prior to the outbreak of the war, had been the target for intense development of commercial relations with companies located in Germany. In fact, Brazil became Germany’s leading trade partner after 1934, and in 1937-1938 the Brazilian government signed large armament contracts with Krupp.
As a consequence of the above, Brazil became an important theater of clandestine activity, especially since Berlin regarded Brazil as a basically friendly country.
Another factor that influenced the organization of strong clandestine networks was the technical discovery that radio communication was much easier in a North-South direction, than in an East-West direction. In other words, it was easier to transmit from South America to Germany, than it was to send radio messages from the United States to Europe.
Consequently, the Brazilian spy rings flourished, complete with clandestine radios, invisible ink, and the Mikropunkt or microdot, developed by the Institute of Technology in Dresden.
The President-dictator of Brazil, Getulio Vargas, a very wily politician, was able to play both sides against the other for several years, until finally coming in on the side of the Allies and declaring war on the Axis after German submarines sunk several Brazilian merchant ships, killing hundreds of Brazilian nationals. From 1944 onwards, Brazil actually had troops and a flight squadron operating on European soil.
The spy rings were finally broken and disbanded, as it was a very different matter to carry out clandestine activities within a country that was actively at war.
Argentina's Casa Rosada
The Position taken by Argentina during WW2
During the period that corresponds to WW2, the political situation in Argentina was rather chaotic, with several coups and leadership changes. The style of government was basically dictatorial and conservative. This is also reflected in this country’s position towards the belligerent forces.
On the one hand, Argentina’s population, made up principally of Italian, Spanish and German immigrants, gave the country a definite pro Axis profile.
On the other hand, the country’s commercial ties were firmly committed to Britain.
As a result, during most of the war, Argentina loudly proclaimed her neutrality, and happily sold vital products to both sides. The main exports were meat and wheat, two products that were vital for Britain’s survival during the crucial months after the fall of France.
This background allowed the spy rings to flourish practically undisturbed, and to engineer the dispatch of many critical secret documents through the Spanish diplomats that resided in Buenos Aires. It must be remembered that Spain, under Francisco Franco at that time, was definitely pro Axis and also maintained much trumpeted “neutrality”. One of these secret documents referred to the plans and disposition of the defenses on the Panama Canal, that were obtained from American sources, transferred through Ecuador to Chile, and then on to Argentina and subsequently, to Spain.
Argentina finally declared war on Germany in March, 1945. Italy was no longer a member of the Axis at that date.
Osorno Volcano at the heart of the German communities in Chile
And what about Chile during WW2?
Last but not least we will refer to Chile’s role during this period. It is no secret that Chile defended her neutrality throughout most of the war. The reasons for this policy of neutrality are various:
- The country had a large German population living in the southern region between Valdivia and Puerto Montt.
- These descendants from the original German settlers who had opened up the countryside in that area, were considered Chilean nationals and voted at every official election.
- The political situation was extremely delicate in the crucial period at the end of 1941 and beginning of 1942, due to the untimely death of the President, Pedro Aguirre, while still in office. The result of the next Presidential elections was very uncertain, and the incumbent party could not risk alienating the German votes, especially as the opposing candidate, an army officer, was receiving financial help from the Axis for his campaign.
- The pressure brought to bear by the USA after Pearl Harbor, was not welcome, due to the ongoing diplomatic friction between Chile and the US.
- The Chilean army had been trained by German officers, and had received important quantities of German weapons and equipment, that would eventually need technical maintenance and replacements.
- The Navy, very pro-British, could not defend Chile’s extended coast line with its fjords and channels in the extreme south, and its far off island possessions. A high percentage of the Chilean population lives near the coast and it was feared that the coastal localities could be attacked by Axis submarines, especially after Japan entered the war.
- Chile depended to a high degree on her maritime commerce, and it was thought that by remaining neutral, there was a higher possibility of commercial shipping being able to navigate unmolested. Of special significance was the transport of copper, which Chile produced in abundance.
Port of Valdivia
Puerto Varas, in the vicinity of Osorno
Chilean Spy Rings
There were several very active rings, well equipped with clandestine radios, radio operators and many contacts in the German consular network, the German Embassy and with the strongly Nazi oriented population in the southern provinces. The towns of Valdivia and Osorno were especially active.
Now that both the USA and Great Britain have declassified many of the official documents pertaining to the WW2 years, it is possible to highlight some interesting facts.
The Admiral Graf Spee is scuttled on the River Plate
False Passports for German Nationals
During the first months of the war, in December 1939, the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee was cornered by three British ships, HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles at the entrance to the River Plate, opposite Montevideo. This naval action is now known as “the Battle of the River Plate”.
As a result, the German ship Admiral von Spee was scuttled, and its crew of about 1,000 German nationals were interned in Argentina for the duration of the war.
Several members of the crew escaped from the detention centers, made their way to Bariloche near the border and crossed over the Andes into Chile, arriving in Osorno, where they received help to continue on their trip north to Valparaiso. There they were provided with false passports obtained by the German consul-general in that city, so they could continue to Europe and there rejoin the German navy.
This produced a controversy in Chilean official circles that lasted for several months until the diplomat in question was recalled.
It is also interesting to note that this group of escapees repeated practically the same route followed by Wilhelm Canaris during WW1, but in reverse order!
The Osorno region with the Cardenal Samore Pass
The Puyehue Pass, now called Cardenal Samore Pass
Expansion of the German Diplomatic Corps in Chile during the Nazi Period
According to American FBI reports, the German diplomatic corps in Chile engaged in numerous questionable activities, from the manipulation of media to espionage. It is significant to note that by 1942 Nazi Germany had a really large diplomatic and consular staff installed in Chile, out of all proportion to the actual size and population of the host country. There was an embassy in Santiago, a consulate-general in Valparaiso, seven consulates (Antofagasta, Concepcion, Iquique, Punta Arenas, Santiago, Temuco and Valdivia), seven vice-consulates (Arica, Caldera, Corral, Coquimbo, Osorno, Puerto Montt and Talcahuano), and a consular agency. All this enormous display was set up in a country with just over 5 million inhabitants! In addition, most of these posts had opened during the Nazi years, from 1936 onwards, that is even before the actual start of the hostilities.
The Port of Valparaiso
The Clandestine Radios
Again according to FBI reports, Abwehr agents in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, reported to Hamburg from bases within these countries.
The principal source of messages from Chile was the clandestine radio transmitter identified as PYL, located at Quilpué, near Valparaiso and headed by Albert von Appen a.k.a. “Apfel”, a card-carrying Nazi since 1933. Another collaborator of PYL was Ludwig von Bohlen a.k.a. “Bach”, an attaché at the German embassy in Santiago. Some reports name “Bach” as the real leader of the PYL group and the subsequent PQZ group that worked closely with PYL and continued the work after the PYL group’s radio was silenced by the Chilean police.
There can be no doubt that during World War Two a lot of Nazi activity took place in the various Latin American countries. There was also some real danger to the maritime communications in the Western Hemisphere, especially due to the vulnerability of the Panama Canal installations. If these had been sabotaged, all traffic would once again have had to revert to the southern passages and channels, and these were controlled by two “neutral” states, Chile and Argentina.
Another point of interest was the abundance of natural resources in this part of the world, several of which were indispensable to the war effort. These products had to be transported by sea, and were therefore open to submarine attacks.
These two aspects alone can justify the zealousness of both the Nazi spy rings and the counter-espionage efforts that were organized by the Allies.
The Strategically Important Navigation Channels
What about the Allied Counter Espionage?
Well, that’s another story, which I will write about from a purely personal perspective, as it involved the participation of a close member of my family, my father.
Stick around, you might find it interesting!
© 2012 joanveronica (Joan Robertson)