In 1942 the Abwehr agent, code-named FELIX, transmitted his first radio messages from South Africa to the German consulate in Lourenço Marques, the capital of Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique today). FELIX was actually Lothar Sittig, a German-born immigrant to South Africa who had been recruited to the Nazi cause as a result of his opposition to South Africa’s involvement in the Second World War, and especially as an ally of England’s. He was one of many such agents who either arrived in the country soon after the outbreak of war in September 1939 or who were resident there already and who, like Sittig, threw in their lot with Germany.
South Africa was a divided country at that time. The white nation, who made up just a small percentage of the total population, was itself split into two main groups: those who spoke Afrikaans made up about 60% of the population and the rest were mainly English speakers. South Africa’s Prime Minister was General Jan Smuts, himself an Afrikaner and a hero of the Boer War. But, after the signing of the peace treaty, Smuts and many other Boer leaders saw their country’s future within the British Empire and so they sought to unify its peoples as an independent Dominion under the British crown. The nationalists, on the other hand, took a very different view and the Afrikaner nation, or ‘volk’, were therefore bitterly divided. South Africa thus went to war as a staunch ally of Britain’s alongside the other Dominions, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, but, unlike them, it had a powerful ‘fifth column’ intent on causing maximum mischief at home.
Some of those opposing South Africa’s involvement in the war were under the leadership of Dr Hans van Rensburg, a former Secretary for Justice when Smuts himself held that portfolio. Van Rensburg was a highly intelligent man, but his allegiance was with Germany, a legacy of the Boer War when so many women and children had died as a result of General Kitchener’s scorched earth strategy to defeat the Boers who had switched to fighting a guerrilla campaign in South Africa late in 1900. Van Rensburg’s movement was known as the Ossewabrandwag (the Ox Wagon Sentinel), or the OB, and it was claimed that their numbers eventually reached 300 000 diehard supporters. Amongst them were the Stormjaers, or storm troopers, whose methods involved attacking Union Defence Force (UDF) soldiers home on leave, dynamiting power pylons, cutting telephone lines, with the occasional burst of bank robbery and even the odd murder in between.
Given all this, Smuts had his hands more than full as he performed a continual balancing act in order to keep his own people onside. Meanwhile most English-speaking South Africans and many other Afrikaners provided steadfast support to their government.
FELIX was not the only Abwehr agent in South Africa. The first to arrive was a former South African Olympic boxer by the name of Robey Leibbrant, who had become mesmerised by the speeches and the aura of Adolf Hitler during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Leibbrandt had immediately returned to Germany after the Games and joined the Wehrmacht to be trained as a paratrooper and in sabotage techniques. In 1941 he sailed for South Africa aboard a German-crewed yacht and was accompanied by a trained wireless operator with his transmitter. However, Leibbrandt was a hothead, not given to collaborating with anyone, and he soon fell out with his fellow crew members, including the wireless operator. As a result, he landed alone, with the transmitter, some hundred miles north of Cape Town. From there, he eventually made his way to Bloemfontein, where he met van Rensburg, but soon fell out with him too over Leibbrandt’s stated intention to take over command of the OB before heading north to Pretoria to assassinate Smuts. Van Rensburg resisted this proposal and tipped off the police as to the whereabouts of his rival. Leibbrandt was soon arrested, brought to trial and found guilty of high treason, which meant the death sentence. But Smuts commuted it to life imprisonment, of which Leibbrandt served only five years for reasons that will soon become clear. Smuts had declared that he would never make martyrs of his fellow Afrikaners.
A German by the name of Hans Rooseboom, who had been a stenographer in South Africa’s parliament, found himself in Berlin at the outbreak of war. He was immediately recruited by the Abwehr, trained as a wireless operator and sent back to his adopted country. Once there, Rooseboom came under the control of the OB, who provided him with a transmitter which he operated for some time in Johannesburg by sending coded messages to the German consulate in Lourenço Marques. There, the vice-consul, Dr Luitpold Werz, became the link between the swelling band of Abwehr collaborators across the border in South Africa and the German military and foreign office in Berlin. To Rooseboom’s surprise, Dr van Rensburg gave orders that none of these agents was to send any intelligence to Germany which might endanger the lives of South African servicemen. As a result, there was soon friction between them and Rooseboom found himself an outcast from the OB cause and was even placed on an OB assassination list himself. He decided to lie low and only reappeared much later in the war.
In 1942, Sittig, who had been interned as an enemy alien and had then escaped with the assistance of the many OB-supporting guards, became the favoured communicator between the OB and Werz in Lourenço Marques. The messages he sent went in commercial, and hence, low-grade, code. Unbeknown to Sittig and van Rensburg, and to very few others in South Africa except for those at the highest levels of government and a select few of its military commanders, all of FELIX’s wireless traffic was being monitored by the Y Service of the Royal Navy at its headquarters in Simon’s Town and at all the country’s major seaports. In addition, the communication link from Werz in Lourenço Marques to Berlin was the standard diplomatic telegraphic landline circuit that went to South Africa and thence, via the main telephone exchange in Johannesburg, to the undersea cable that started its journey to Europe in Cape Town. British Intelligence (MI5 and the SIS operating together in view of South Africa’s Dominion status) had tapped that line at the Johannesburg exchange with the result that all Sittig’s traffic to Werz, which was then forwarded to the Abwehr in Germany, was intercepted. It then found its way to Bletchley Park, where it was handled by ISOS, along with all other Abwehr traffic.
It had always been the intention of the Germans, and particularly of FELIX himself, that he would transmit directly to Berlin without the intervention of Werz in Lourenço Marques. However, the technical challenges were great. A much more powerful transmitter was required than the typically 20W transmitters used for the much shorter link across the border. The OB’s communications were the responsibility of van Rensburg’s adjutant, who recruited the services of a disillusioned, Dutch-born radio technician working for the South African Post Office, Reijer Groeneveld. Groeneveld designed a far more powerful transmitter, the power amplifier valves of which came from a diathermy machine stolen to order by the OB from the hospital in Bloemfontein. With this, nominally, 250W transmitter and a dipole antenna at a height of 60 feet (18,2 m), FELIX made his first contact directly with Berlin in mid-1943. He was then operating from van Rensburg’s farm near the town of Vryburg, some 300 miles (483 km) south-west of Johannesburg. The transmitter, its petrol-driven power supply plus the wireless operator, were all accommodated in a hole eight feet (2,4m) on a side, and as deep, which was covered up during the day. In addition, the antenna masts were dropped and themselves hidden from view. The transmitter only operated on three days a week between midnight and sunrise with absolute secrecy being paramount because radio direction finding was being used from all those RN bases as well as with mobile DF equipment provided by the South Africans.
FELIX continued to operate for about a year from that site. Occasional excursions were made further afield if word reached the OB (usually from leaks at the highest levels of the South African Police) that a raid was imminent. He was never apprehended. The British Intelligence personnel in South Africa worked in close collaboration with the Smuts-appointed Director of Censorship, as he was known. That liaison was water-tight, but they all knew that the weakest link in the security chain existed within the police, whose ranks, from the highest to the lowest, had been infiltrated by active OB supporters. It was the police who had the final responsibility for carrying out an arrest. As a result, there was considerable suspicion between them – and not a little hostility too. In London, MI5 and the SIS headquarters were fully aware of the highly unsatisfactory situation but took some comfort from the fact that the quality of the intelligence being supplied to the Germans. This amounted to little more than out-of-date shipping information plus the political trumpeting of van Rensburg, who addressed his supporters by way of news items in the sympathetic Afrikaans press and the regular Afrikaans language broadcasts from Radio Zeesen in Berlin. Since all of Sittig’s transmissions were sent ‘blind’, it was only those broadcasts from Zeesen that confirmed that his messages had indeed been received.
When viewed as an espionage operation, the part played by FELIX and his collaborators contributed little to Germany’s war effort. However, it certainly achieved its purpose in another way: disrupting the security machinery in South Africa and undoubtedly causing sheer frustration within the ranks of British Intelligence, charged with countering it. The technical achievement of being able to communicate, by radio, over a distance of some 9 000 miles (14 500 km) using apparatus built, literally on a shoe string, was a considerable feat and one that the OB viewed with much pride and self-satisfaction as is reflected in the archive of material which is only now coming to light so many years after the end of the war.
In 1948 Smuts was defeated in a general election and the Nationalists, who had so vigorously opposed the war, came to power. One of their first actions was to release all so-called political prisoners who had been found guilty of crimes against the state during the war years, Leibbrandt amongst them.
Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home pageSouth African Military History Society / email@example.com