‘Opera House’: The Death of Heydrich and The Demotion of Rowehl

By the 1930s, Theodor Rowehl was a Flugkäpitan in the Hansa-Luftbild airline. This was an innovator in new methods of aerial photography, as well as in the commercial use of photogrammetry. Its predecessor – Aero Lloyd Luftbild GmbH – was founded in 1923 as a branch of the transport airline ‘Deutsche Aero Lloyd’. Then it merged with the transport airline ‘Junkers Luftverkehr AG’, resulting in the formation of the airline Deutsche Lufthansa. After that, Aero Lloyd Luftbild GmbH was renamed Hansa-Luftbild. Its director was Wilhelm Gessner, who held the post until his death in 1945.

After learning that Poland was building new defences on the border with Germany, Rowehl carried out several flights over the border area. It is not known exactly who ordered him to perform this task. In the 1920s, large German business concerns, such as Siemens, created their own intelligence services. Industrialist and ‘newspaper king’ Alfred Hugenberg funded ‘Germans for overseas service’, and a few steel enterprises – organization ‘Nunzia’. All of them were mainly engaged in industrial espionage abroad, but had secret connections with the Abwehr. It is possible to assume that Hansa-Luftbild was somehow connected with ‘Nunzia’.

Photos of Polish fortifications taken by Rowehl ‘miraculously’ reached the head of Abwehr Oberst von Bredow. He appreciated the possibilities of aerial photography, realizing that it was the most advanced method of technical intelligence. Von Bredow hired Rowehl to work in his organization.

Officially, Rowehl remained a pilot with Hansa-Luftbild, but he actually worked for German military intelligence. The Abwehr financed the continuation of reconnaissance flights over Polish territory. Rowehl was provided with a Ju W34be/b3e aircraft, number D-1119, which was specially equipped for high-altitude flights and fitted with a British Bristol Jupiter VII engine. In this plane, on 26 May 1929 the test pilot Wilhelm Neuenhofen (later famous for the first flight of the prototype Ju 87V1 on 17 September 1935) rose to a height of 12,739m (41,795ft), setting a world altitude record. It was officially registered by the International Aviation Federation. Now this record-breaking plane was to be used for secret missions.

Soon Rowehl was joined by several other pilots from Hansa-Luftbild. A suspiciously sharp increase in the number of incidents, when usually efficient German pilots ‘got lost’ and ‘accidentally’ found themselves in Polish airspace, caused Polish counterintelligence to suspect that these ‘civilian’ aircraft were actually engaged in espionage. But they had no proof.

After the coming to power of the Nazis, who dreamed of revenge for the defeat in the Great War of 1914–18, the work of German intelligence was given fresh impetus. Already by the end of 1933, Theodor Rowehl had officially returned to military service and been appointed head of the photographic department of the headquarters of Luftkries VI (6th Air District). His office was in Kiel. The ostensibly ‘civil’ airline Hansa-Luftbild began to expand its areas of operation. Reconnaissance aircraft in civilian livery began flying over Czechoslovakia, France and Belgium. In 1934, Rowehl carried out several flights over the Soviet Union, photographing the naval bases at Kronstadt, Leningrad, Pskov and Minsk. This information allowed the Germans to obtain accurate information about the composition of the Russian fleet in the Baltic and the implementation of the programme of construction of new ships and submarines.

In the autumn of 1934 there was a clash between the head of the Reichswehr General Werner von Blomberg and the chief of the Abwehr Konrad Patzig. Blomberg learned about the secret air reconnaissance missions and accused Patzig of ‘provoking war’ and threatening the Führer’s ‘peaceful intentions’. Patzig was on bad terms with the Nazis’ secret police (Geheime Staatpolizei – Gestapo), and it seems that the Gestapo provided information to Blomberg about the ‘provocative’ work of the Abwehr. Patzig was fired, and on 2 January 1935 Wilhelm Canaris was made the chief of the Abwehr.

Canaris was very much interested in the continuation of the secret missions, and he decided to enlist the support of the Reich Minister of Aviation Hermann Göring. The chief of the Abwehr showed the narcissistic and vain companion of Hitler the results of Hansa-Luftbild’s flights (photos of fortifications in France, Poland and Russia). Göring liked this opportunity to become a provider of strategic intelligence to the Führer. On 1 March 1935 Germany announced the creation of the air force – the Luftwaffe. On the same day Theodor Rowehl was enrolled in it at the rank of Hauptmann. Göring personally instructed him to create the first squadron for secret missions – Fliegerstaffel z.b.V. It was formed at the Staaken airfield near Berlin. The squadron was composed of five planes with crews from Deutsche Lufthansa. The deputy commander of the squadron was an experienced navigator, Siegfried Knemeyer, whom Rowehl had personally appointed. Fliegerstaffel z.b.V. received its orders from the 5th Department of the Luftwaffe General Staff and Abwehr-I. Photos taken during missions were first studied by representatives of military intelligence, then they were sent to Luftwaffe Intelligence HQ in Zossen.

Secret missions were carried out under the cover of Deutsche Lufthansa. Disguised as airliners, Fliegerstaffel z.b.V planes ‘accidentally’ strayed from their routes and performed their secret missions. In 1936–7 the squadron was given three passenger He 111s. They were the prototype He 111V2 W. Nr. 715 ‘D-ALIX’ ‘Rostock’, He 111V4 W. Nr. 1968 ‘D-AHAO’ ‘Dresden’ and He 111C-03 W. Nr. 1830 ‘D-AXAV’ ‘Köln’. They wore Deutsche Lufthansa livery and carried concealed cameras on board. In 1937 the Abwehr carried out such a secret mission over Great Britain. For most of this time there was only one serious incident that could have lead to the disclosure of the programme. He 111V2 W. Nr. 715 ‘D-ALIX’ crashed in Soviet territory during a flight to the Caucasus. The Russians studied the wreckage and guessed the true purpose of the aircraft, but did not protest too much.

During the Sudetenland crisis, information obtained during secret missions was employed by the Germans for the first time. There were 3.3 million ethnic Germans in the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia who complained of harassment and discrimination by the Czech government. In February 1938, the Führer delivered a speech in the Reichstag, during which he called upon the world ‘to pay attention to the terrible living conditions of our German brothers in Czechoslovakia’. Fooled by the German Chancellor, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French President Edward Daladier made concessions. They naively hoped that the Czech territories would ‘pacify’ Germany and help to avoid a new war in Europe. A meeting of Hitler, Mussolini, Daladier and Chamberlain in Munich on 29 September reached an agreement on the dismemberment of the territory of Czechoslovakia. On the night of 30 September, the British and French actually forced the Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš to accept a German ultimatum.

The next day, the text of the Munich agreement was signed. Between 1 and 10 October 1938 the Sudetenland was transferred to Germany. The Wehrmacht already had a plan to invade Czechoslovakia. At the disposal of the German staff were detailed maps of the Czech border fortifications, airfields, bridges and armaments factories.

The leadership of the Luftwaffe and Abwehr praised the activities of Rowehl. In November 1938 he was promoted to Oberstleutnant. In January 1939, the Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe (Commander-in-Chief Luftwaffe) formed Aufklaerergruppe Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe (Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L.), which was informally known as ‘Group Rowehl’. It was based at Werder airport near Potsdam.

Initially the group consisted of two squadrons, equipped with He 111s, Do 17s and Bf 110s. Among them were seven machines specially built for the Rowehl Group. Four Do 17Rs (R-l – R-4) were upgraded versions of the Do 17M, and three Do 17S (SYS 3) were upgraded versions of the Do 17Z, all equipped with DB 601 engines. During 1939 Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L. tested prototypes of various aircraft, which were supposed to be used for aerial reconnaissance. Among them were several Do 215s and one Do 217A-0.

In August 1939 at Oranienburg airport the Versuchsstelle fur Hohenfluge (VfH – Experimental Station for High-Altitude Flights) was formed, which was also subordinated to Oberstleutnant Rowehl. Personnel were recruited from the Hansa-Luftbild state airline. This company became part of the Luftwaffe, but at the same time formally remained a civil enterprise.

The VfH was composed of three staffel. Only the 1st was directly engaged in research into high-altitude flights and aerial reconnaissance. The 2nd carried out comprehensive tests on foreign aircraft, while the 3rd was responsible for secret flights to insert agents, singly or in groups, into other countries.

Throughout 1942, the Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L. successfully carried out the missions assigned to it. Its aircraft were engaged in strategic air reconnaissance for the army, the Luftwaffe and the Abwehr simultaneously. In parallel, Group Rowehl was engaged in missions for the delivery into enemy territory of agents and their resupply. But, despite these successes, by the end of 1942 dark clouds began to gather over Oberstleutnant Rowehl and his unit.

The reasons for this were rooted in the long-standing rivalry between the Abwehr and the SD, which gradually developed into open confrontation. Since his rise to power in 1933, Hitler had plans to create a single secret service, which would be completely devoted to him and to the ideas of National Socialism, as well as entirely controlled by the Nazis. The Abwehr did not meet these requirements. First, it was a structure of the Reichswehr, and therefore many senior officers did not hide their contempt for the Nazis, believing them to be upstarts, who happened to be ‘on top’ accidentally. For this reasons the Führer, leaving the Abwehr to the military, began to create his own intelligence services. On 26 April 1933, the secret state police, the Gestapo, was formed (from 1936 to 1945 it was headed by Heinrich Müller). In March 1934, the SD was formed and the 32-year-old Reinhard Heydrich was appointed to head it. On 27 September 1939, the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RHSA – General Directorate of State Security) was formed, which became one of the twelve main SS departments subordinated to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. The head of the RSHA was the infamous Heydrich. It consisted of six departments, including the 4th office, the Gestapo, and the 6th office, the SD foreign intelligence service, which from 22 June 1941 was headed by Walter Schellenberg.

From the very beginning, relations between Heydrich and Canaris were hostile, stemming from the very nature of their services. The above-mentioned ‘Ten Commandments’ – the agreement on the division of spheres of influence between the Abwehr and the SD – only temporarily gave their rivalry a civilized look. Outwardly the SS-Gruppenführer and the Admiral maintained the best relations. They were neighbours – they lived on the same street, and their country villas were also close. With their wives, they regularly attended each other’s parties. But Heydrich never gave up thinking about how to deal with Canaris and the Abwehr, and subjugating them to the SD. To do this, it was necessary to undermine their credibility in the eyes of Hitler, by sowing doubts about the reliability of the information produced by the Abwehr and the political loyalty of Canaris and his employees.

Heydrich’s first opportunity to do this came in early 1940. On the morning of 10 January a Bf 108 aircraft took off from Loddenheide airfield near Münster. On board were the pilot Major Honmans (commander of Loddenheide airfield), and his passenger Major Helmuth Reinberger – communications officer of Luftflotte 2. The plane was heading to Cologne, but in the fog Honmans got lost and made an emergency landing in Belgium, near the city of Mechelen-aan-de-Maas, located 2km from the German border. This would seem to be a minor incident, but in Reinberger’s briefcase were top secret documents – plans for a surprise attack on Belgium and Holland. The major managed to burn some of them, but among the surviving fragments of three documents were the instructions for Luftflotte 2 with details of the location of Belgian troops in Antwerp and Liège. The Belgians reported the contents of the captured documents to the British, French and Dutch general staffs. When this became known to Hitler, he was furious. Suspecting that the incident was deliberate treason, he demanded a thorough investigation. It was a great chance for Heydrich, because the Abwehr was responsible for ensuring the protection of state secrets, documents of special importance and persons who had access to them. As a result, Canaris had to go to a lot of effort to convince the Führer that this was simply negligence on the part of two Luftwaffe officers.

It should be noted that such suspicions were not groundless. In the autumn of 1939 the SD was already assembling a case against the Abwehr. The actions of Dr Josef Müller, a former lawyer from Munich, aroused considerable suspicion in the SD. In October 1939 he arrived at the Vatican, to meet Pope Pius XII, with a letter of recommendation from Cardinal Michael Faulhaber of Munich. Müller was a friend of Oberst Hans Oster, a senior Abwehr officer, and enjoyed the full confidence of Canaris. While in the Vatican, he made contact with the British ambassador to the Papacy, and through him with British Intelligence. Müller’s first task was to explore the possibility of peace with the United Kingdom. All the information on the activities of Canaris’s messenger collected by SD was combined in a dossier called ‘Black Chapel’. But Heydrich did not have enough evidence to openly move against the chief of the Abwehr.

In early April 1940, the same Oster, known for his active participation in the anti-Nazi opposition, told his friend Major Gijsbertus Jacob Sas, assistant military attaché at the Dutch embassy of the Netherlands in Berlin, secret information of great importance. It was about the completion of preparations for Operation ‘Weserubung’ – the invasion of Denmark and Norway. He passed this information on to a Norwegian diplomat, who for some reason did not give it to his government. A month later, via the Vatican, the Belgians were given information about the imminent attack on Belgium and Holland. After that, the Dutch mobilized their army, and the British Expeditionary Force and French units moved to the border with Belgium. Again, Heydrich’s agents learned of these leaks of critical strategic information. On the evening of 9 May, the SD listening service recorded a telephone conversation between Major Sas and The Hague, during which he said: ‘the Surgeon decided to do the operation in the morning, at four o’clock’. But the Dutch command, apparently, did not believe this warning right away. That night, SD agents intercepted another call, this time from The Hague to Berlin. Confirming the transmitted information, Major Sas said that it came from an absolutely reliable source.

After the beginning of the invasion of Belgium and Holland, the Gestapo chief Müller and the head of foreign intelligence Schellenberg were called into the office of the head of the RSHA. Heydrich told them:

The Führer and the Reichsführer-SS have commissioned me to investigate one of the most egregious cases of betrayal in German history. Some time ago, two radio messages were intercepted by the Belgian envoy to the Vatican to his government; they contained the exact date of our attack in the West. This happened thirty-six hours before the Führer officially announced it. The Führer is shocked. He demands, regardless of means, that the traitor be found.

Heydrich wanted a thorough investigation under the auspices of the SD, but still had to observe the ‘Ten Commandments’, so the investigation was carried out by military counterintelligence – Abwehr-III. As a result, Canaris, who knew perfectly well how the information was leaking, was able to hide the traces that led to his office, but only with great difficulty. So Heydrich had to bide his time and continue to painstakingly assemble his dossier on Abwehr.

Soon, Heydrich had another chance to destroy the Abwehr. On the night of 27/28 February 1942 a group of British commandoes attacked the German radar station at Cape Antifer, near Le Havre, which was equipped with the latest FuG5 ‘Würzburg’ radar. The station staff, led by Hauptmann Ferdinand Alexander von Preussen, were driven off. The commandos removed the most important parts and photographed the rest, and then returned safely to England. As Heydrich wanted, the subsequent investigation revealed serious flaws in the concealment and protection of important sites, the responsibility for which lay with Abwehr-III. In addition, the Abwehr was blamed for not providing any warning of the impending raid. Hitler was furious. He demanded that Canaris provide a full report on intelligence activities against the British, as well as information on how far they had advanced in the creation and use of radar. As already described above, almost all Abwehr agents delivered to England soon fell into the hands of MI5 and became double agents. Therefore, there was practically nothing to boast about, and what information was available was extremely unreliable. As a result, the Admiral ignored the Führer’s order, trying to distract him with evasive arguments. Walter Schellenberg wrote in his memoirs: ‘This behaviour finally split him from Hitler, and from that moment the fate of Canaris was decided.’ Hitler sanctioned Heydrich to launch a concentrated offensive against the Abwehr, something he had long dreamed of. The SD zealously took up the case, and everything pointed to the fact that Canaris’ career would end in 1942.

But fate gave the Admiral a respite of one and a half years. Early in the morning of 27 May 1942, the head of the RSHA and Deputy Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia Obergruppenführer SS Heydrich drove as usual from his country house to his office in the old Royal Castle in the centre of Prague. At the entrance to the Czech capital two men in overalls jumped out in front of his Mercedes convertible. These were Josef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš, trained in England and then parachuted into the Czech Republic. One of them fired at Heydrich and his driver, the other threw a bomb under the car. Heydrich managed to fire at one of the attackers, but was seriously wounded by the fragments of the bomb. Despite urgent surgery and the efforts of doctors, he died in a Prague hospital on 4 June. One can only wonder if the attempt on Heydrich was somehow inspired by the cunning Canaris, constantly feeling his breath on the back of his neck.

‘Heydrich’s case’ was continued by his successor as chief of RSHA Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner. By the end of 1942, all employees of Abwehr and all those who were associated with it were in the SD’s sights. All these events could not pass Oberstleutnant Rowehl by. For twelve years, beginning in 1930, his own activities, and then the activities of his squadron and group, were closely associated with the Abwehr. Rowehl personally reported to Canaris on the results of reconnaissance flights and the delivery of agents. As the authority of military intelligence and its chief fell sharply in the eyes of Hitler, so too did that of Rowehl. He had many envious enemies in the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM – State Air Ministry), who said that in wartime there was no need for an elite long-range intelligence aviation group, and its missions could be performed by conventional reconnaissance units. In the current situation, Canaris was no longer able to protect the Rowehl group.

In the end, on 27 January 1943 Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L. was officially dissolved. Its former 1st, 2nd and 3rd Staffelen became part of the newly-formed Aufkl.Gr.100. It had no ‘special’ status and operated on a par with the rest of the Luftwaffe long-range reconnaissance groups (Aufkl. Gruppen). One of the best pilots of the Rowehl group, Major Siegfried Knemeyer, was appointed commander of the combat training reconnaissance group under the commander-in-chief Luftwaffe (Aufkl.Lehr.Gr.Ob.d.L.). He continued to fly all new aircraft, testing their suitability as scouts. On 29 August 1943 Knemeyer was awarded the Knight’s Cross. Then he held the post of Head of Department in the technical management of the RLM. As an authoritative expert, Knemeyer influenced the development of various aircraft, including the He 177, Me-262, and Ar 234.