How Effective Were Nazi Sabotage and Espionage Missions in Britain? | History Hit

How Effective Were Nazi Sabotage and Espionage Missions in Britain?

Bernard O’Connor

27 Nov 2020
Abwehr clerks in 1939 (Image Credit: German National Archives).

Following the Nazi occupation of Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France, Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of Britain was postponed since many of the Luftwaffe planes had been shot down during the Battle of Britain. However, Operation Lena, part of Hitler’s invasion plan, went ahead.

Operation Lena

Operation Lena was the infiltration of German-trained secret agents into Britain on sabotage and espionage missions.

The Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence, selected and trained English-speaking Germans, Norwegians, Danes, Dutch, Belgian, French, Cuban, Irish and British men (and a few women). They were either parachuted into remote areas of Ireland or central and southern England, or brought by submarine close to the coast. From there they paddled a dinghy onto an isolated beach in South Wales, Dungeness, East Anglia or Northeast Scotland.

Provided with British clothing, British currency, a wireless set and sometimes bicycles, they were ordered to find accommodation and contact the Abwehr’s listening station and await orders. They had to arrange parachute drops of explosives and sabotage equipment. Their missions included blowing up airfields, power stations, railways and aircraft factories, poisoning the water supply and attacking Buckingham Palace.

OKW secret radio service / Abwehr (Image Credit: German Federal Archives / CC).


One reason why the stories of these saboteurs were never printed was because the British government kept their exploits secret. It was following the Freedom of Information Act that historians were able to access previously classified documents and discover the truth.

I have been able to access dozens of these files in the National Archives in Kew and, for the first time, provide an in-depth account of the successes and failures of these men and women. I have also investigated German accounts of the Abwehr’s sabotage section.

The British spy who saved thousands of Austrian Jews from the Holocaust.
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What I have found was that the Abwehr’s choice of agents was poor as many handed themselves in to the British police shortly after landing, claiming they had only accepted the training and the money as a means to escape Nazism.

Some managed to survive a few days but were apprehended when suspicious people reported them to the police for such things as going into a pub and asking for a drink before opening time. Some aroused suspicion by buying a railway ticket, for example, with a large denomination note or leaving a suitcase in a left-luggage office which started leaking seawater.

Spy hysteria

Britain was in the middle of ‘spy hysteria’. Throughout the 1930s, books and films about spies were extremely popular. An IRA bombing campaign in 1938 led to heightened police and public awareness of anything suspicious, and the imposition of tighter security laws and government propaganda made people aware of possible spies and saboteurs.

Spy films and books were popular in Britain in the 1930’s. Image shows: (left) ‘The 39 Steps’ 1935 British poster (Image Credit: Gaumont British / Fair Use); (centre) ‘Secret Agent’ 1936 film poster (Image Credit: Fair Use); (right) ‘The Lady Vanishes’ 1938 poster (Image Credit: United Artists / Fair Use).

Having exploited anti-British sympathies amongst the IRA community, the Abwehr was keen to recruit Welsh and Scottish Nationalists, offering them independence in exchange for their help in sabotage attacks. A Welsh policeman had agreed to be sent to Germany, returned to Britain, told his superiors all he had learned and, under MI5 control, continued to work for the Germans. In this way, other agents were caught.

Once apprehended, enemy agents were taken to London for deep interrogation in special camps for captured enemy agents. Faced with execution as spies, the vast majority chose the alternative and were ‘turned’ and agreed to work for British Intelligence.

Counter intelligence

MI5, responsible for Britain’s domestic security, had a specialist department devoted to counter intelligence. The agents’ interrogation reports reveal their family background, education, employment, military history as well as details of the Abwehr’s sabotage training schools, their instructors, their syllabus and methods of infiltration.

Having supplied their British interrogators with all their military, economic and political intelligence, these enemy agents were kept in special concentration camps until the end of the war.

Those agents who had been provided with wireless telegraphy training were provided with two ‘minders’ and a safe house in suburban London from where they transmitted British-inspired messages to their German masters. They were fed and ‘entertained’ in exchange for their efforts in double-crossing the Abwehr. Double agents like Tate, Summer and ZigZag provided invaluable intelligence to MI5.

Odette Sansom, was the most highly decorated woman, and the most decorated spy of any gender during World War II. She was awarded both the George Cross and was appointed a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur. Her wartime exploits and later imprisonment by the Nazis made her one of the most celebrated members of the Special Operations Executive, the British sabotage and espionage organisation.
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Britain had an extremely effective and very sophisticated deception programme running throughout the war. The XX (Double Cross) Committee was involved with these agents.

Not only did MI5 give the Abwehr the bearings of parachute drop zones and the date and best time for the drop of explosives and sabotage equipment. MI5 were then supplied with the names of new agents who were to be dropped and details of people in Britain who they were supposed to contact. The police were then told where and when to wait, arrest the parachutists and confiscate their supplies.

MI5 were particularly interested in the German’s sabotage material and had a special section, headed by Lord Rothschild, dedicated to amassing samples and collecting intelligence on the Abwehr’s sabotage programme. They had a display of German sabotage equipment alongside British equipment in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Fake sabotage

What I have also found was an extensive use of fake sabotage. To give the Abwehr the impression that their agents were settled into a safe house and on task, MI5 arranged for messages to be sent detailing the agent’s reconnaissance of their target, the method of attack and the date and time of the explosion.

MI5 officers then arranged with a team of carpenters and painters to build a sabotaged electrical transformer, for example, and to paint a burnt-out and exploded building onto a large sheet of tarpaulin which was then pulled over the target and tied down. The RAF were told that there would be a Luftwaffe plane flying over the target on the day following the ‘fake’ explosion to take photographs and they were ordered not to shoot it down.

Messerschmitt fighter aircraft, used by the Luftwaffe (Image Credit: German Federal Archives / CC).

National newspapers were given reports to include reports of these sabotage attacks, knowing that the first editions would be available in neutral countries like Portugal where Abwehr officers would find evidence that their agents were safe, on task and successful. Although the editor of The Times refused to publish British lies, the editors of The Daily Telegraph and other papers had no such qualms.

When a financial reward from the Abwehr was dropped by parachute to the ‘successful’ saboteurs, MI5 added the cash to the money confiscated from the agents and claimed to have used it to subsidise their activities.

One of Fougasse’s most famous pieces. Hitler and Göring depicted as listening behind two women on a train gossiping. Credit: The National Archives / CC.

Eluding the net

Although the British reported that they captured all the Abwehr spies infiltrated into Britain, my research shows that some eluded the net. Using captured Abwehr documents, German historians claim that there were some who had been responsible for real acts of sabotage which the British did not want to report to the press.

One agent was reported to have committed suicide in a Cambridge air-raid shelter, having failed in an attempt to carry a stolen canoe on a bicycle to the North Sea.

Whilst it is impossible to know the whole truth, my book, ‘Operation Lena and Hitler’s Plans to Blow up Britain’ tells most of these agents’ stories and provides fascinating insight into the day-to-day workings of the British and German intelligence agencies, their officers and their methods, in an intricate web of lies and deception.

Bernard O’Connor has been a teacher for almost 40 years and is an author that specialises in the history of Britain’s wartime espionage. His book, Operation Lena and Hitler’s Plots to Blow up Britain is published on 15 January 2021, by Amberley Books. His website is

Operation Lena and Hitler’s Plot to Blow Up Britain, Bernard O’Connor

Bernard O’Connor