How not to preserve secrecy – the German way

How not to preserve secrecy – the German way


I work a lot with ULTRA intercepts at the moment, and every so often they provide some light relief.

Two facts ahead:

1) Rommel’s 50th birthday was on 15 November 1941. Being an important member of the Wehrmacht general’s group, and an erstwhile member of Hitler’s inner circle, when he commanded his body guard, he did get telegrams of congratulations from the Nazi leaders, at least Goebbels.

2) The Germans used a system of code-names for places, formations, ships, and offices throughout the Mediterranean.  So for example, ATLAS (of course) was the command of the German Afrika Korps, while AMTSGERICHT (Magistrate’s court) was Benghazi. Overall they are mildly amusing in some cases (a personnel office called UNGEHORSAM (disobedience) for example), or highly transparent in others such as OTTO LUCHS (Otto Lynx) is the Intelligence Department of Panzergruppe staff – and Germans think of the Lynx as a very cunning and perceptive animal. It’s relatively easy to figure out a lot of them, or at least to get a good idea, especially for a German speaker.  Sometimes the ULTRA type-outs also provide the explanation. 

Betraying the Code

Now, how do 1) and 2) come together.

On 16 November 1941 a ‘Source’ (i.e. ULTRA) intercepted the birthday wishes from Goebbels to Rommel. The German signaler transmitting the message had been a good soldier, and followed the coding instructions and text he received to the hilt (there’s something about German stereotyping here), so the message starts:

To the Commander in Chief of OTTO ELEFANT, General Rommel…

I am sure it took the best of the Empire’s brains to figure out what OTTO ELEFANT meant after this little indiscretion…


Rommel at Hitler’s Headquarters. Unknown Date. Collection