- Published: 01 May 2010 01 May 2010
- Last Updated: 12 July 2013 12 July 2013
Counterspy is the wartime memoir of Office of Strategic Services officer Richard Cutler, an Ivy League educated lawyer turned counterintelligence specialist who served in England, France and occupied Germany from 1944 to 1946. Cutler began the war as a civilian advisor to the Board of Economic Warfare before being commissioned into the United States Army Air Force as a combat intelligence officer. The author was twice refused application to the OSS before a chance encounter at the Pentagon fast tracked his transfer to “Wild Bill” Donovan’s burgeoning intelligence service. Cutler’s counterintelligence work ultimately led him to West Berlin; where as chief of counterintelligence he played a deadly spy game with the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. In 1946 Cutler left the Special Services Unit (the successor agency to the wartime OSS) and returned to the United States to resume his legal practice.
At roughly one hundred and fifty pages, Counterspy nonetheless reads as a remarkably full memoir. Cutler devotes little time to his pre-OSS career except to note that he had been employed in Donavan’s law firm prior to the war and to briefly outline his responsibilities as a combat intelligence officer. His induction into the OSS was swift and devoid of red tape; rather than shipping out to the Pacific with the newly activated B-29 bomber fleet he found himself with priority orders for England. Posted to London Cutler was assigned the job of vetting potential and existing OSS operatives with the assistance of Britain’s MI-6. Beyond describing his own responsibilities (and these were considerable for such a junior officer) Cutler considers the organisation of the OSS, its early missions into Germany as well as the capabilities of its opponents, the Abwehr and Sicherheitsdienst (SD). He also astutely portrays the experience of Londoners during the V-bomb attacks of 1944 and more generally the mindset of the British people in their fifth year of war.
With the collapse of the Reich in 1945, a team of OSS personnel was dispatched to occupied Germany to locate and interrogate former Nazi intelligence officers. This group, to which Cutler was attached, sought to determine the fate of missing Allied agents as well as to gather information on wartime Abwehr and SD operations. From their headquarters in Weisbaden, located inside the champagne factory formerly owned by Joachim Von Ribbentrop, Cutler and his colleagues toured the ruins of Hitler’s Germany and witnessed the privations of its surviving inhabitants. Breaking with protocol the author interviewed many average Germans to investigate how such a barbaric regime could come to power among such a sophisticated and cultured people. Not surprisingly the responses he received were notable more for their evasion than for their candour.
The massive demobilisation of the American military in Europe severely undermined the human resources available to the OSS. Talented officers were sent home and replacements, if they arrived at all, were often of dubious value. It was at this time that the OSS itself was broken up and partially reconstituted as the Special Services Unit. As American intelligence assets were shrinking the NKVD was acting ever more aggressively against their former allies. Transferred to West Berlin, Cutler, still only a lieutenant, was promoted to case officer, and later to chief of counterintelligence. Among his many responsibilities was the running of the “Joe House”, a hotel for spies situated in West Berlin. The occupants were a colourful collection of German agents and double agents working for American intelligence. These agents were involved in a very dangerous game. The NKVD frequently abducted persons of interest inside the Allied zone, often doing so disguised as German police. Nonetheless, the prospect of a warm meal, clean sheets and maid service in the ruins of Berlin was no small incentive for German agents who preferred to avoid the choice of working for the NKVD or being “disappeared” to the Gulag or a shallow, unmarked grave. Such was the chaotic and exciting situation in which Cutler found himself in 1946.
Beyond counterintelligence and spies, Counterspy delivers an excellent account of everyday life in post-war Germany, both for the American occupiers and for the defeated Germans. In 1946 Cutler attended the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal and a fascinating chapter of Counterspy is devoted to his observations of the defendants, particularly Admiral Karl Dönitz, and to the general conduct of the proceedings. The author’s posting in Berlin allowed him some freedom of movement in the Soviet zone of occupation. An amateur photographer, Cutler took a camera on his travels, snapping pictures of camera shy Russians and, when the opportunity presented itself, engaging them in conversation on politics and international relations. To his surprise he found the Russians at once tight-lipped and gregarious.
Cutler’s service with the OSS/SSU came to an end in 1946 with his decision to leave Berlin and return to law in the United States. In his final chapters the author comments on the long decline (largely through politicisation) of the CIA and resulting intelligence failures prior to the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. These comments are offered with humility, not as irrefutable facts. Cutler also summarises the careers of a number of colleagues and agents described in earlier chapters of his work. Counterspy benefits from thorough footnotes throughout in the event the reader would like to investigate the subject matter in greater depth. Some photographs from the author’s collection are included, though given his interest in photography a wider selection would have been welcome.
Counterspy is an enjoyable and engaging intelligence memoir that will interest students of the Second World War and Cold War alike. Written in an engaging and concise style, Cutler has produced a memorable account of his activities with the OSS in Europe from 1944 to 1946. His is a memoir deserving of study.
(Reviewed by K.H. Roberts)