Operation Bolivar

(19th century South American liberator)

'Bolivar' was the German espionage programme in Latin America (1940/45).

The undertaking was controlled by a department of the Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers-SS (SD), the German security service, and was intended primarily to collect clandestine information from Latin America for transmission to Germany. The Germans managed to establish a secret radio communications network from their control station in Argentina, and also a courier system using Spanish merchant vessels for the passage of documents.

Germany had three areas of interest in Latin America. The most important of these were Argentina and Chile, the second most important were Brazil and Mexico, and the smaller countries of southern Central America and northern North America constituted the nations of tertiary interest.

The Argentine authorities had arrested most of the German agents operating in their country by the middle of 1944, however, effectively bringing to an end 'Bolívar' activity. It is also notable that the information collected during the operation was of greater utility to the Allies, who intercepted much of the secret transmissions, than to Germany.

Johannes Becker was the chief figure in the operation and the man personally responsible for organising most of the German gathering of intelligence in Latin America. Becker arrived in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, during May 1940 with instructions to undertake sabotage operations in partnership with Heinz Lange, who reached Argentina soon after Becker. Following protests from the German embassy in Argentina during August 1940, however, the operation’s task was switched to espionage alone. Soon discovered by the Argentine authorities, Becker and Lange moved to Brazil, where they met Gustav Engels, another German agent and the owner of the General Electric Company in Krefeld.

Engels had originally been recruited by the Abwehr (German military intelligence agency) in 1939 to collect economic intelligence from the western hemisphere. Engels established a radio station in Săo Paulo, the Brazilian capital, and used a radio transmitter (CEL) owned by his electric company to sent the information collected by his agents in Brazil and the USA.

When Becker arrived in Săo Paulo, he transformed Engels’s operation into an agency which reported on all subjects of interest to German intelligence. This meant that agents also collected information about shipping, war production and military movements in the USA, and political and military matters in Brazil.

Although 'Bolívar' was originally an SD undertaking, many of the agents used were of the Abwehr. One of these in the USA was Dusan Popov, who often travelled to Brazil to speak with Engels. Popov was in fact one of the most successful British double agents of World War I. Other important 'Bolívar' agents included Ludwig von Bohlen, the naval and air attaché in Chile, Hermann Bohny, the naval attaché in Brazil, General Niedefuhr, the military attaché in Argentina, and Kapitän Dietrich Niebuhr, the naval attaché in Argentina and head of the German intelligence organisation in Argentina; Herbert von Heyer was added to the organisation in the middle of 1941 to provide maritime intelligence.

Engels’s group was not the only ring active in Brazil, for three other clandestine radio stations, each serving a different spy net, began to operate during 1941. In May, Rio de Janeiro’s LIR radio station started communicating with 'Max' in Germany, and the LIRMAX group, as it was called, eventually expanded to operate in Argentina, Uruguay and Ecuador as well as Brazil: LIRMAX was centred on a commercial information service, the Informadora Rapida Limitada (RITA) managed by Herbert Muller and with its radio station run by Friedrich Kemper. von Heyer, who also worked with Engels’s CELALD group, was also connected with the LIRMAX group.

There were several other personnel overlaps as both groups co-operated. von Heyer’s cover was his job with the Theodore Wille Company, several of whose employees were involved in another spy net centred on CIT in Recife. The CIT group began to operate during June 1941, but was active only in Brazil. A third and smaller group, comprising only Fritz Noak and Herbert Winterstein, was located between Santos and Rio de Janeiro, communicated with Germany’s LFS station, was operational only between September 1941 and January 1942, and had no connection with the CELALD, LIRMAX and CIT groups.

Significant German espionage in Brazil came to an end in March 1942, when the Brazilian authorities rounded up all suspected German and Italian agents. Becker was not in country, however, having returned to Germany to meet with his superiors, and it was during this time that Becker was placed in charge of all German espionage activities in South America: these were centred on radio communications, and ordered to make Buenos Aires the control station for collation and communication directly with Berlin; smaller stations were opened in other South American countries for use only as the means whereby information was transmitted to the control station. Lange had escaped from Brazil to Paraguay before the arrests and was instructed to create an intelligence network in Chile, and Johnny Hartmuth, another agent who had escaped Brazil, was despatched to create a network in Paraguay. An agent named Franczok was put in charge of the radio network which was to be established.

In February 1943, after considerable difficulty, Becker managed to return to Argentina as a stowaway on a ship travelling from Spain to Buenos Aires. Lange, Hartmuth and Franczok, who sent one transmitter to Paraguay by air before leaving Brazil, set up a temporary station at Asunción, Paraguay’s capital, and re-established contact with Berlin. However, after receiving Becker’s orders, Franczok moved to the new control station in Buenos Aires in May 1943, Lange went to Chile, and Hartmuth remained in Paraguay. Becker hoped to establish clandestine radio stations in every South American nation, but was successful only in Argentina, Chile and Paraguay.

When Lange went to Chile, there was already an agent organisation and radio station in operation, so Lange fitted himself into it as an independent operator with his own sources. The station, using the call sign PYL to communicate with REW in Germany, had been established in April or May 1941, seemingly by von Bohlen and Friedrich von Schulz Hausman. By February 1942, reports were being passed from agents in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru and the USA. The major figures in the organisation were von Bohlen in Santiago; Bruno Dittman, the actual head of the network, in Valparaiso; von Schulz Hausman, who had relocated to Buenos Aires; and George Nicolaus in Mexico. The PYLREW network’s tie with 'Bolívar' was revealed through intercepts, especially in July 1941, when von Bohlen was instructed by radio to contact von Heyer in Rio de Janeiro to obtain a supply of secret inks and developers which von Bohlen had ordered from Germany.

The PYLREW network was based on the Compania Transportes Maritimos, formerly a branch of Norddeutscher Lloyd. von Schulz Hausman had been the manager of the Norddeutscher Lloyd shipping agency in Chile before moving to Argentina, and had been succeeded in that job by Dittman. Other PYLREW personnel who had been associated with Norddeutscher Lloyd were Hans Blume, a radio technician at PYL, and Heinrich Reiners, who had worked for Norddeutscher Lloyd in Panama before opening a maritime freight office in Valparaiso. Reiners’s sister was married to Blume, and Reiners' wife was the drop for the network’s agents.

As result of data collected by US counter-intelligence agencies and passed by the Department of State to the Chilean government, several of the more active agents of the Chilean network were arrested in the autumn of 1942, but sufficient agents escaped to allow von Bohlen to build another network, known as the PQZ group. When von Bohlen went back to Germany late in 1943, his group was sufficiently well organised so that he could leave it, a large sum of money and much equipment in the hands of Bernardo Timmerman, who led the network until his arrest in February 1944. At this time the intelligence networks in Chile were deemed to have been smashed, but again some of the Germans managed to escape to Argentina, where they continued to operate.

George Nicolaus headed the intelligence network in Mexico up to the time of his arrest in the spring of 1942. Nicolaus had served with distinction in the German army during World War I, spent many years in Colombia, and returned to Germany in November 1938. In January 1939, he was recommissioned in the army and assigned to the Abwehr headquarters. Late in 1939, before the start of 'Bolívar', Nicolaus was sent to Mexico to establish an intelligence network. Between 1940 and 1942, Nicolaus organised an extensive network which maintained contact with other networks in South America and attempted to obtain information from the USA. While technical data from US publications were extracted or photographed and some general information was obtained from contacts in the USA, there is no evidence that Nicolaus managed to obtain any vital military secrets. He was, however, successful in leaving behind the nucleus of an organisation which was able to maintain some activities throughout the war, although it was of little value to the German war effort in anything other than its nuisance value in occupying the attention of Allied counter-intelligence agencies.

German espionage activity in Cuba was minor, despite the country’s importance to the Allied war effort, and was eliminated by Allied counter-intelligence forces before it could become an effective part of the 'Bolívar' network. To establish a clandestine radio station in Cuba, the Abwehr despatched Heinz Lüning to Havana. Lüning was an incompetent, however, and failed to master even the basics of espionage: he was never able to get his radio working correctly, did not understand how to use the secret ink with which he had been supplied, and missed drop boxes. Despite his incompetence, after his premature arrest in August 1942, Allied officials including President Fulgencio Batista, General Manuel Benítez, J. Edgar Hoover and Nelson Rockefeller attempted to fabricate a link between Lüning and the U-boats operating in the Caribbean, claiming that he was in contact with them via radio, to provide the public with an explanation for their failures early in the 'Paukenschlag' U-boat campaign. Allied officials thus elevated Lüning’s importance to that of a master spy, but there is no evidence that he ever came across even a single piece of important information during his time in Cuba. Lüning was found guilty of espionage and executed in Cuba in November 1942, becoming the only German agent put to death in Latin America during World War II.

The first information passed from Argentina to Germany concerned finances, the organisation of the South American network, Argentine politics, and the establishment of a courier system between Argentina and Spain using crew members of Spanish merchant vessels. Once the network was approaching maturity, the volume of traffic increased to as much as 15 messages per day. In January 1944, however, the Argentine government arrested several German and Spanish agents, and Becker and Franczok were forced into hiding. Communications between Argentina and Germany were interrupted for about a month, and when these were re-established, Becker asked Berlin for radio equipment, money and secret ink. This request resulted in 'Jolle' which, eventually, turned into a mission not only to resupply Becker’s network in South America, but to establish additional clandestine radio stations in Central America (including Mexico) and the USA to pass information back to Germany via the South American network.

The plan was for two agents, Hansen and Schroell, to deliver the supplies to Buenos Aries by sea, and then make their way into Mexico, where they would build a transmitter for communicating with the control station in Argentina. From Mexico, Schroell would make his way into the south-western USA, where he was supposed to find work in a war industry facility, and then send the information he had collected back to Hansen in Mexico. Additionally, Schroell and Hansen were to recruit new men for the expansion of the network into the Central American countries. Allied intelligence knew all about the plan through intercepts, however, so in August 1944, shortly after Hansen and Schroell arrived in country, most of the German agents were arrested by the Argentine authorities, permanently ending all effective German espionage activity in the western hemisphere. The Germans who managed to escape continued with minor espionage operations in Latin America until the end of the war, but never again did the volume of clandestine radio traffic return to its former level.