There were many reasons for Erwin Rommel’s swift reversal of fortune. His forces, disease-ridden and weary, were operating at the end of a long and tenuous supply line, with shortages of water, food, fuel, and ammunition becoming acute and damaged armament irreplaceable. The British, much closer to their own supply depots, had air superiority and were receiving large quantities of materiel and equipment, notably excellent M-4 Sherman tanks and self-propelled howitzers, from the Americans.
In addition, Rommel’s intelligence sources were vanishing. Not only was Fellers about to “go off the air,” but Rommel’s other hopes for good intelligence were faltering. The German counterintelligence service Abwehr tried to establish a network of agents in the Nile Delta to provide information to Rommel. Involved in one of the attempts to infiltrate German agents was a Hungarian attached to the Abwehr, Count Laszlo Almasy.
Operation Salaam and Operation Condor
Almasy was a renowned pre-war explorer who had led numerous expeditions through the desert of southern Libya, and was familiar with its terrain and hardships. He proposed to the Abwehr that he drive overland from Cyrenaica, around the southern flank of the Libyan Desert to Assiut in Upper Egypt, about 250 miles south of Cairo, where he would insert two German agents. The Abwehr approved Almasy’s plan, and Operation Salaam was born.
The Hungarian count’s convoy, consisting of captured British vehicles, departed Tripoli and meandered through close to 2,000 miles of harsh desert before arriving at its destination on May 24, 1942. Two German agents, Johannes Eppler and his radio operator Sandstetter, were dropped off as planned, completing Operation Salaam.
Operation Condor, in which Eppler and Sandstetter would travel to Cairo, establish themselves at the hub of British military activity there, and gather firsthand information that they would then transmit in code to Rommel, then began. Eppler, born in Germany but having lived in Egypt most of his life, used the name Hussein Gaafar, and Sandstetter, holding an American passport issued to a Peter Monkaster, traveled by train to Cairo without detection.
Rebecca Leads to More Clues
In Cairo, Eppler persuaded the “beautiful belly-dancer” Hekmat Fahmi, who worked at a nightclub frequented by officers from the British Middle East Headquarters, to work for him as an informant. Eppler’s other contacts allegedly included the Egyptian nationalist—and future president—Anwar Sadat, and members of the Jewish Stern Gang.
Unknown to Eppler at the time, Operation Condor had already been compromised. The two Panzerarmée radio operators designated to receive and decode Eppler’s transmitted intelligence reports had been captured by a New Zealand patrol in May 1942. Found among the possessions of the two captured German radio men was a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca—yet neither German could speak or read a word of English. Intrigued, British intelligence officers ascertained that this copy of Rebecca had been one of five purchased in March 1942 by the German military attaché in Portugal. Additional information revealed that Rebecca was the code book of a German agent probably already in Egypt. The British diligently followed this lead, intercepted a number of Eppler’s Morse code transmissions, and captured Eppler, Sandstetter, and Fahmi in July 1942.
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Erwin Rommel’s Legacy
Novelists, Hollywood filmmakers, and others have been attracted to the legend of Erwin Rommel, “the Desert Fox,” and the seemingly heroic and chivalrous nature of the desert war and related espionage operations. British Army Brigadier Desmond Young, captured by German forces in North Africa during World War II, met Rommel and became enthralled by him. Young wrote the seminal 1950 biography of the Field Marshal, Rommel: The Desert Fox, which served as the basis of the 1951 movie, The Desert Fox, starring James Mason in an “utterly convincing” performance as Rommel. Mason reprised his role as Rommel two years later in the movie sequel entitled The Desert Rats.
More recently, in 1980 Ken Follett wrote the novel The Key to Rebecca, based loosely on Eppler and Operation Condor, and this book was made into the movie of the same name five years later. Eppler’s desert traveling companion, Almasy, was a protagonist of the 1992 Michael Ondaatje novel The English Patient, which later inspired the Academy Award-winning Best Picture of 1996 starring Ralph Fiennes.
Erwin Rommel’s war in North Africa was not, however, quite as glamorous as portrayed by Hollywood. The fortunes of war abandoned him—perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not—at about the same time his precious “little fellers” went off the air, Captain Seebohm was killed and his radio intercept company and all their codes were captured, and Operation Condor was thwarted. Rommel had lost his “sixth sense.”
Originally Published August 23, 2018