- Published: 02 February 2012 02 February 2012
- Last Updated: 15 September 2013 15 September 2013
by Dean Robson
Madame Kitty's pleasure palace was the talk of Berlin's high society. All a newcomer had to do was turn up at her door and use the codeword: 'I come from Rothenburg'. She would produce a lavish photograph album of her 20 most ravishing beauties, complete with personal details... and the client would take his pick. After a 10-minute wait, savoring the delights to come over a generous drink, he would be confronted by the girl who whisked him off to her boudoir and pandered to his every whim.
So enticing were Madame Kitty's ladies that visiting dignitaries, army generals and embassy staff could not resist sampling the pleasures behind the elegant third-floor doors of the fashionable house. But sex was seldom what is seemed at 11 Giesebrechtstrasse. And the most satisfied smiles were usually on the faces of men who never availed themselves of the establishment's facilities.
The house that attracted the elite of Germany's diplomatic corps and armed forces had, in fact, been set up by a hard-headed Nazi intelligence chief who was banking on customers abandoning their common sense amid their sensual delights.
He was not disappointed. For months, indiscreet pillow talk gave eavesdropping Gestapo officers the evidence they needed to keep Hitler one step ahead in controlling his own people, and manipulating leaders of other countries. But the great deception eventually came unstuck... because another conman got in on the act.
Operation Kitty had been sparked off in 1939 by SS-Gruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, later notorious as the Butcher of Prague, but then the feared, ruthless, ambitious head of the Nazi SS network.
For some time he had been worried by careless security leaks in high places. With war fast approaching, it was essential to identify and eliminate loose tongues. The quickest way of doing that was to put suspects through the passion test, tempting them to blabber with wine and beautiful women. SS-Obersturmführer Walter Schellenberg, cunning chief of the SD - the Nazi central security organization - was ordered to infiltrate an exclusive brothel and enlist girls willing to pass on information they overheard. But Schellenberg was not a man to do things by halves. The order gave him the idea for an ingenious surveillance blanket check. Instead of using a brothel, he would take it over completely. A team of hand-picked, specially trained beauties would file reports immediately after sex-and-secrets sessions with celebrities. And just incase anything slipped their minds, every room would be bugged, so that other agents in a basement control room could record every word, sigh and exclamation of bliss.
Only one bordello fitted the bill perfectly... and fate had made taking it over a simple matter.
Kitty Schmidt was then 57. For years her pension had been known as the most luxurious house of ill repute in the city, frequented by the most distinguished and influential figures in German society. Her charges were high, but that was the price clients paid for complete discretion. Hitler's rise to power had disturbed Kitty. Rough and ready Brownshirts were replacing the gentle Jewish bankers and businessmen on whom she had built her reputation, and the police were no longer so obliging about letting her operate without harassment. Cautious Kitty began transferring takings to London via Jewish refugees she helped smuggle abroad. By 1939 she had amassed several thousand pounds in British banks - and on June 28 she left Berlin to start spending them. She got as far as the German-Dutch border. SD shadows had tailed her from the capital, and brought her back to Gestapo HQ in Prinz Albrechtstrasse. Schellenberg was waiting with a bulky dossier and a list of crimes: helping Jews to escape, illegally exchanging German marks, illegally transferring money abroad, attempting to leave Germany without permission, using a forged passport. The charges spelled death or an open-ended term in a concentration camp. But the Nazi was prepared to be reasonable. 'If you can do something for me', he said, 'I may be able to do something for you.'
Kitty with no room to bargain, agreed to his astounding suggestions. She would hand her brothel over to the SD, ask for no explanation, do what she was told, and sign an official secrets document which meant death if she divulged one word of what was going on. Workmen moved into 11 Giesebrechtstrasse to give it a sinister refurbishment. The interior was gutted and rewired, with microphones in every bedroom, lounge and corridor. A multi-core cable ran along the guttering, down a drainpipe, and into the bricked off cellar.
Here five monitoring desks, each with two record turntables, were installed. Conversations from ten rooms could be recorded simultaneously on wax discs. Meanwhile SD Untersturmführer Karl Schwarz was finding girls to coax the unwary into filling the records with indiscreet words. Berlin's vice squad carried out an unprecedented number of raids on brothels, nightclubs and street corners. Hundreds of girls were grilled, then rejected as 'emotionally unreliable.'
Psychiatrists, doctors, language consultants and university professors all helped Schwarz whittle his short-list of 90 girls down to 20 in seven days of non-stop tests and interrogation. The breathtaking beauties they selected were taken to a sealed-off wing of the officers' academy at Sonthofen. For seven weeks they went through a gruelling course of foreign languages, unarmed combat, marksmanship, foreign and home politics, economics, use of codes and ciphers.
They had to memorize charts of military uniforms and decorations. German radio interviewers demonstrated how to solicit secrets from seemingly innocent conversation.
By march 1940 all was ready for the launch of Operation Kitty. Schwarz briefed the madame in her newly redecorated parlour. 'Carry on as before', she was told. 'Welcome all your old customers. Keep on your existing girls.'
'But every so often, we will send along someone special. On no account introduce him to one of your regular staff, but show him this album of 20 girls. When he makes his choice, phone for her. She will arrive in 10 minutes. You will not discuss the client with her, and she will leave immediately after he has gone.'
When Kitty asked how she would recognize the special visitors, she was told: 'They will use the codeword "I come from Rothenburg."'
Twelve days later, a young SS officer on leave was used to test the system. Schwarz and his colleagues tuned in as the unsuspecting man prattled about his home, his relatives and his devotion to the Führer.
But the girl had learned her lessons well. When she flattered his fighting spirit, he began bragging of his unit's imminent transfer, adding: 'If you ask me, the führer's got his eye on Sweden.'
Schwarz was delighted with the success of the eavesdropping, even if he did have to arrange a court martial. And there were many more to follow as the supply of Rothenburg romeos was stepped up.
Soon the 20 girls were making love around the clock as special guests outnumbered genuine customers. The Gestapo had to send in extra food and drink as the celebrities exhausted Kitty's ration supplies.
During 1940, nearly 10'000 people climbed to the third floor. And in one month 3'000 love sessions went on record. Count Galeazzo Ciano, Italy's Foreign Minister, amazed listening agents one night with a tirade about Hitler's shortcomings as statesman, soldier and lover. When Schwarz forwarded a transcript to the Führer, relations between the two countries were never the same again.
In September, Schellenberg himself took over the ear phones when Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop arrived at Kitty's salon with his Spanish opposite number, Don Ramon Serrano Suner. He overheard a bizarre Spanish plan to occupy Gibraltar, and was able to warn SS chief Heinrich Himmler in time to squash it.
Another visitor was SS Major-General Sepp Dietrich, commander of Hitler's personal Bodyguard. He dropped no secrets, but caused problems of a different sort - he demanded all 20 girls for a party. Schwarz rounded up as many as he could - and Dietrich amazed listeners with his stamina.
Only once did the code-word fail ... when a soldier turned up who really was from the town of Rothenburg. And the only time the recording and listening equipment was turned off was during Reinhard Heydrich's increasingly frequent 'tours of inspection'.
By this time, though, the Germans were not the only people listening in at Madame Kitty's. Towards the end of 1940, Ljubo Kolchev, a junior press secretary at the Rumanian Embassy stumbled over some wires as he wandered down Giesebrechtstrasse. SD Untersturmführer Schwarz, supervising the rerouting of cables from the No.11 cellar to a new recording post at SD HQ in Meineckestrasse, automatically reached out to prevent a man falling. Schwarz had no way of knowing that the casual pedestrian was really Roger Wilson, a British spy.
Wilson had heard the 'Rothenburg' stories going round the embassy. Now, as he saw SD men in civilian clothes pretending to be workmen, and the multi-core cable in the drainpipe, he knew those stories were fact.
London ordered him to keep tabs on the salon without rousing suspicion, and Wilson became a regular visitor, keeping his eyes and ears open. Later a communications expert was sent to fix the wire taps to three of the wires in the cable.
From December 1940 until 1943, when Operation Kitty was closed down, Britain and the Allies shared some of its most intimate secrets. But the salon's heyday had passed. Bombing raids reduced the flood of celebrities to a trickle, and Heydrich was increasingly using the love-and-listen network to settle old scores with rivals in the Nazi hierarchy. Discipline was becoming ever more lax, with the 20 sex spies often staying on at the brothel for strictly forbidden drinks parties.
In July 1942 a bomb finally landed on Kitty's empire, scattering her elegant furniture and rich tapestries all over Giesebrechtstrasse. Schwarz threw a ring of soldiers round the street, removed any incriminating evidence of the bugging, and then set Kitty up again in the undamaged ground floor of the building.
Within a year it was all over. The SD handed the house back to Kitty, and most of the beautiful agents decided to stay with her. Kitty had to sign another pledge to reveal nothing of what went on. It was a promise she kept until her death in 1954, aged 71.
Walter Schellenberg, the man who dreamed up the great deception, was arrested by the Allies in 1945. But they never got their hands on the 25'000 discs recorded during the operation. They vanished from the files at Gestapo headquarters as the Russians entered the smoking rubble of what had been Hitler's capital.
Do they still exist? No-one can be sure. But they were glimpsed once, in 1963, by author Peter Norden in a top-secret storeroom at the headquarters of the East German state security service in East Berlin.