eForum zeitGeschichte 3/4 2001

'Passive grumbling, rather than resisting`1

The 'Special Operations Executive` (SOE) in Austria 1940 - 19452
First results of a research on the newly released Austrian SOE files of the Public Record Office Kew

by Gerald Steinacher

In January 1941 the SOE defined its policy on Austria with two objectives: Firstly, to assist in the disintegration of the Third Reich by fostering a rapid all-out revolutionary and separatist uprising in Austria. Secondly, to bring about the 'restoration of Austria as a national unit` within the framework of a central European federation. In short, the hopes and aspirations of SOE in an Austrian resistance against Nazi-Germany were flying high.3 Five years later, in March 1946, Ernest Bevin, the British political representative in Vienna summarized the history of the Austrian resistance for Foreign Secretary. Right from the outset, his report clearly showed that there was hardly any history to tell: 'The Austrian Resistance Movement cannot bear comparison with similar organisations in other countries occupied by the German Army during the war or, with the possible exception of the communist-sponsored Austrian Freedom Front (O.F.F.) and the all party 'O5` Organisation, did any section of it make any significant contribution to the Allied victory.'4
Now, with the SOE-files on Austria partially released, we can begin to write the history of the Austrian resistance as seen from the British perspective, ranging from initial high expectations to final disillusion at the end. What were the plans and the actions of the SOE to promote Austrian resistance? What was finally achieved?
When German troops entered Austria in the morning of March 12, 1938 they found no resistance. In all major towns, large crowds of Austrians welcomed the Wehrmacht as liberators. As a consequence, the country became an integral part of the Third Reich. With only Mexico protesting, the international powers accepted this development based on the British 'appeasement policy` with Hitler. Austria should cease to exist forever. But should it? In fact, Britain's reaction to the vanishing of the Republic of Austria was not protest, but secret action. Feeling that there was more to come from Mr. Hitler, Winston Churchill ordered the creation of a new section of the 'Secret Intelligence Service` (SIS) - section 'D`, which was to become the 'Special Operations Executive` (SOE). Never really happy about the Anschluss, Churchill saw Austria as a wartime tool that could be used to weaken Germany and to reorder Central Europe. For Churchill, Austria was among the countries 'for whom Great Britain took the sword`. Anthony Eden made the unspecified British position clear in January 1942: The Anschluss was not formally rejected, nor was Austria considered an occupied country.5 Emphasis was on the liberation of Austria from Nazi-rule, not on an independent Austria.6 The SIS-headquarters in Vienna had quickly been neutralized in August 1938, when Station Chief, Captain Thomas Kendrick, was arrested by the Gestapo. The war broke out before George Berry, the new Station Chief, could organize an efficient fall-back network of agents.7

The SOE's new plan of action came in January 1941 and defined two objectives: First, to assist the disintegration of the Third Reich by fostering the soon to be expected revolutionary and separatist uprising in Austria, through significant propaganda, was well as political and military action. The principal organisations targetted for this purpose were the Social Democrats, the Catholics and the Monarchists. The Social Democrats and Catholics were to be contacted and supported via the ample SOE network in Yugoslavia; the Monarchists, through Hungary - in order to prepare the ground for an uprising against the Germans. A special elite corps of saboteurs, parachutists and leaders was to be sent into the country 'twenty-four hours before the crack comes`. Independent acts of sabotage or partisan-movements were strictly condemned.8 This concept of 'secret armies` had been set up for all European countries in 1940/41 by the SOE Director, Major Colin Gubbins, and Austria was to be no exception.9 High British expectations stemmed partly from the fact that the SOE planners on Austria saw the Anschluss as a result of the efficiency of the German military and political apparatus. According to SOE, this left no possibility for resistance, there was no bloodshed and the Anschluss was a fait accompli within a matter of hours. The second and obviously less important aim for the SOE was 'the Restoration of Austria as a National Unit`. Austria was to be divided into provinces and exiled Austrians should be selected for key positions within the country for 'the decisive moment`. The SOE-plan contained no details whatsoever on Austrian borders or political systems.10 As a matter of fact the SOE took over from the vague British foreign policy. All groups of Austrian resistance, from the extreme right to the extreme left should be contacted and supported for anti-German action. Therefore it was most important to get in touch with Austrian politicians, both those in exile and those still in Austria.11 To this end, the SOE contacted Austrian organisations in London. What they found in 1941/42 was a wide range of small, even minuscule organisations such as the communist-sponsored Free Austria Movement, the Association of Austrian Social Democrats, Austria Office, Austrian Academy, Austrian Centre, to name a few.12 They were bitterly divided amongst themselves and no single one could represent Austrian opinion. The Foreign Office therefore advised SOE to 'limit such informal contacts as prove essential to a bare minimum`. The SOE could not discuss any questions of foreign policy. No encouragement was to be given to any form of central Austrian representation in Great Britain.13

In January 1943 the Foreign Office summed up the 'Opinion and Morale in Austria`, outlining the chances of resistance based on SOE sources. Although there were similarities between Austria and Southern Germany, Austria remained a different country. The Anschluss had not changed this fact. On the contrary, the feeling that 'Austrians are different from Germans` had grown even stronger. The 'boom` that immediately followed the Anschluss had vanished rapidly, and in 1941 there were growing doubts as to whether it justified the cost of war. Many factors contributed to this change in Austrian opinion: Austrians believed that this was primarily the Germans' war. News of casualties greatly affected morale. There was animosity towards German and Prussian prapotence and the large numbers of refugees from the Reich. Some Austrian Nazis were disappointed to see their positions remain far below their hopes. Goebbels` propaganda against the Russian 'asiatic hordes` was effective in Austria as well as in Germany. The strong religious sentiments of the peasantry were affronted by anti-Catholic measures. The Austrians longed for nothing so much as the end of the war. In addition, there was less fear of the consequences of defeat in Austria than in Germany but also no consensus as to what the future of Austria should be. The Anschluss dream was dead and the Nazi regime openly disliked. Yet, there was very little evidence that Austrians anywhere were prepared to take up arms for the sake of their freedom.14 However, it was believed that support for Austrian patriots would change these circumstances.

How could this be achieved? At this stage, the most important SOE informer for Austria was Sir George Franckenstein, former Austrian Ambassador to Britain. Franckenstein contributed to the general British policy on Austria: Great Britain should take the initiative in the Austrian question, otherwise 'Austria could land in the Russian net`15 He pleaded for a declaration by the Allies on the liberation and independence of Austria. This was the only way to promote Austrian resistance and to ensure its contribution to the Allied war effort. In view of their position, Austrians should be major players in sabotage action, uprisings and the removal of Austrian units in the Wehrmacht.16

The turning point in Allied Foreign policy on Austria came in November 1943, in Moscow, when the Allies declared that Austria was the first victim of Hitlerian aggression and should regain its independece at the end of the war (Moscow declaration, 1. November 1943). However, Austria was reminded of its own responsibility in the war and told that the Allies would take into account Austrian action towards liberation. This declaration was meant to stir up Austrian resistance against Hitler. For the first time, there was a clear policy on the future of Austria.17 Following the Declarartion, broad scale Allied plans for post-war Austria finally began and a massive BBC propaganda campaign was launched that same month.18 Even then, however, the SOE was still 'comparatively ignorant of conditions inside Austria`. In light of this, it was decided that the SOE would focus on maximizing secret intelligence operations in the country, whatever difficulties that entailed.19 The Moscow declaration was definitely a great boost for the morale of Austrian patriots, at a time when many considered the country's fate to have been sealed by the Anschluss. However, members of the Austrian Resistance Movement could not achieve active military resistance to any broad extent. The resistance shown was rather of a passive nature: wearing of Austrian national colours, or the familiar Austrian greeting 'Grüß Gott` (May God go with you) instead of 'Heil Hitler`. A Foreign Office official defined this typical form of Austrian resistance as 'passive grumbling rather than resistance`.20

At London headquarters, Austrian affairs were part of the German section, under the direction of Ronald Thornley. As with Thornley, the training of most of the personnel had been focused on Germany, not on Austria. Peter Wilkinson, who was to supervise the German and Austrian Section wrote: 'I found this embarrasing for I knew very little about Germany and nothing whatever about Austria which I had only once visited as a tourist.'21 Lacking most of the SOE-files on Austria, one can assume that a reason for the relative ignorance of the Austrian situation may owe to this fact. From the end of 1943, SOE activities with respect to Austria were conducted from two main centres: the small Central European section in Monopoli, southern Italy, where Peter Wilkinson directed the well-known 'Clowder-missions'; and the Austro-German section at the Berne SOE outpost in neutral Switzerland, under the direction of H.I. 'Bill' Matthey.

As late as July 1944 'Clowder` stated: 'It is just pure bad luck, and our star will doubtless change soon, but there is no denying the fact that, after five months of toil, we still have no agents inside Austria.`22 'Clowder` believed the only realistic base for the penetration of Austria was the southern part of the Austrian province of Carinthia. The Slovenian speaking population living there along the Austrian-Slowene border was already organized by Tito into a few partisan bands. The plan was to penetrate the Austrian heartland from there.23 But the beginning of 1945 brought total disillusion. 'Clowder` did not think that the Allies would be able to make 'any declaration sufficiently attractive to the Austrians to persuade them to embark on a policy of open resistance, or to help us to any significant extent.` A widespread resistance movement could not be expected before Germany was totally defeated. The SOE-position was taken over by the director of the Central European department in the Foreign Office. There was no expectation that declarations and propaganda would encourage Austrian resistance to any larger degree: 'All that can be hoped for is a small degree of sabotage and possibly one or two coups-de-main`.24 This assumption on Austrian resistance possibilities finally proved to be correct. The SOE missions that were sent to Carinthia soon realized that the Austrians Slovenians in Southern Carinthia (partially organized as 'Austrian Fredom Front` (OFF)) had no interest in liberating Austria but rather wanted to occupy the territory claimed by Yugoslavia.25 Action in southern Carinthia by SOE parties consisting in part of German-speaking Austrians soon became impossible. Furthermore the Slovene partisan movement in Southern Austria was weakened by German raids and, by the end of 1944, had no organized connections to resistance inside Central Austria. The SOE concluded that the penetration of Austria should be done independently of the Tito sponsored partisan-movement in the outermost areas of Southern Austria.26 'Clowder` sent in a good number of SOE missions to Carinthia but they never achieved their aim.27 Ernest Bevin was informed that 'they were almost entirely composed of Austro-Slovenes, and until the last few days of the war (...) they never fired a shot on Austrian soil.`28 Peter Wilkinson attributed the failure of 'Clowder` first to the absence of a strong will for resistance in Austria up to the very last days of the war; and secondly to the fact that the SOE had underestimated both the seriousness and the consequences of Tito's territorial claims in Austria.29

Squadron leader H.I. Matthey took over the German-Austrian section of the Berne SOE in September 1944. At that time, he was introduced to the leader of the Swiss-based Austrian monarchist resistance movement 'Patria`. Matthey was convinced that if there was to be any Catholic resistance, it would have to be organised by 'Patria`. Consequently, he became more concerned with Austria than with Germany. 'Patria` enabled the SOE to send its first missions into Western Austria. Discrete help from the Swiss Secret Service proved vital. Initial reports demonstrated the great difficulty of these missions and a high-level apathy in the Austrian population. Missions to the Austro-Italian border province of Bolzano (South Tyrol) showed a more promising picture. In January 1945, SOE-Berne, with the help of 'Patria`, contacted a resistance group led by Hans Egarter (alias 'Barbarossa`) comprising up to 600 men scattered in the South Tyrol valleys. It was decided to do everything to stimulate the group's activities. An Allied W/T operator, weapons and money were sent in. From their headquarters in an unoccupied valley, the group executed acts of sabotage, infiltrated German police regiments and defended itself against German mop up. These actions were triggered by one political aim: the annexation of the province to a new Republic of Austria. 'Barbarossa` met John Mc Caffery in Berne to discuss these territorial claims. This way, he attempted to influence the British in their post war territorial settlements in Europe.30 'Barbarossa's` motivation for active resistance against the Germans was to show the Allies that their cause was also that of the Austrian minority in Italy. The 'Patria` and the 'Barbarossa` group in the Bolzano province were the only productive contact Matthey ever handled.31He made that point in August 1945, when he wrote:

It must always be matter for regret that (the Patria) did not get in touch with us a year or more earlier, since there is no doubt that, given a little more time, we might easily have got Barbarossa's lot properly organized and from his group we might have slowly built up a network of smaller efficient groups in Austria. But the gods willed it otherwise, so we must content ourselves with the knowledge that there was at least one Austrian who got within measurable distance of effectively resisting the Nazis.32
The similarity of assumptions between 'Clowder` and the SOE-Berne is obvious. Both found resistance only in connection with territorial conflicts. The Slovene partisan groups in Southern Austria fought for the annexation of their area to Yugoslavia, while the Austrian resistance groups in the Italian province of Bolzano were motivated by the possible return of their homeland to Austria. Neither plan could be realized. They showed, however, the importance of territorial aspirations in inspiring a resistance movement in Central Europe and the degree to which the SOE underestimated or misunderstood them.

The resistance group in the heartland of Austria, best known to the U.S. war time Secret Service (Office of Strategic Services - OSS) was called 'O5`. It was non-party, but dominated by the middle classes. 'O5` had its headquarters in Vienna and claimed supporters throughout the country. In fact, apart from the group in Innsbruck, they did not amount to much. The first SOE reports on 'O5`, based on OSS documents, were done as late as March 1945. The SOE took a very dim view of the 'O5` claims to organize widespread resistance in Austria. It also realised, that the OSS seemed miles ahead in picking up connections with 'O5`. It therefore announced that it was joining forces with the OSS and qualified this decision with 'we feel we should pull up our socks`.33 SOE reports on 'O5' in April were still very sceptical and stated that'O5` claims consisted of 'a great deal of wishful thinking.`34 In the end, 'O5` plans to help in the liberation of Vienna were never carried out since the leaders of the Viennese group were caught and killed by the SS. A report by the Foreign Office SOE Committee therefore declared 'that there was very little evidence to show that the Viennese had assisted their liberation in any way`.35 Indeed the 'O5`, under the leadership of future Foreign Minister Karl Gruber, was only successful in liberating Innsbruck. The British political representative in Vienna later informed Ernest Bevin about Gruber's resistance:

In Western Austria the main group, (...) seems to have been vaguely subordinated to O5. (...) Its claim to have occupied Innsbruck before the arrival of American troops is to some extent vitiated by the fact that the German Army Group South-West, which included the Tyrol in its command, had already signed the Armistice at the time. This did however, have the result that Dr. Gruber, the leader of the Resistance in the Tyrol and the present Foreign Minister, was able to form a provisional government in that province, where the Resistance Movement continued to maintain a considerable influence on political affairs up to the time of its official dissolution in December 1945. With the single exception of the Tyrol, the Resistance Movement had exercised almost as little political influence since the end of hostilities as it did military influence before it.36
In conclusion, Austrian Resistance was almost entirely passive. There was no open and armed resistance, no partisan movement and no significant leader, with the exception of Gruber. The attempt to stir up resistance by declarations promising independence and better treatment in exchange of resistance against the Third Reich proved to be a failure.

Based on this fact, three questions must be asked for further research:

  1. What was the basis for SOE expectations up to 1943 that all-out resistance would take place?
  2. What were the differences between SOE planning for Austria and Germany?
  3. The SOE seriously underestimated and misunderstood the importance of territorial and ethnic conflicts in Central Europe. This eventually led to the failure of its main resistance bases for Austria, 'Clowder` and SOE-Berne. How did it come to this faulty interpretation of the situation?


1* With thanks to Mark Seaman, Imperial War Museum, for his assistance.

Günter Bischof, 'Anglo-amerikanische Planungen und Überlegungen der österreichischen Emigration während des Zweiten Weltkrieges für Nachkriegs-Österreich` in Manfried Rauchensteiner/Wolfgang Etschmann (eds.), Österreich 1945, Ein Ende und viele Anfänge (Vienna: 1997) pp.32.
2Compared to secondary literature on US-intelligence involvment in Austria, scholarly works on the role and impact of British intelligence in Austria have been quite scarce. Subjects covered include the attempts by the SOE to penetrate into southern Austria in 1944/45 through the help of the Tito-partisans; SIS/ SOE activities in Southern Tyrol in 1944/45, and the security work of the British military filed Security Section (FSS) in Styria. Cf. Thomas M. Barker, Social Revolutionaries and Secret Agents: The Carinthian Slovene Partisans and Britain's Special Operations Executive (Boulder, CO: 1990) Peter Wilkinson, Foreign Fields. The Story of an SOE Operative (London: I.B. Tauris 1997); Gerald Steinacher, 'At least one Austrian effectively resisting the Nazis... Allied secret services and the making of Austrian resistance myths on the eve of the Cold War` in Christopher Andrew (ed.), Intelligence and National Security (coming up) and Felix Schneider 'Zur Tätigkeit des militärischen Geheimdienstes FSS und des Public Safety Branch in Graz 1945-1947` in Graz 1945 (Historisches Jahrbuch der Stadt Graz 25) (Graz: 1994) p.215-233. See also Siegfried Beer, 'Von Alfred Redl zum Dritten Mann. Österreich und ÖsterreicherInnen im internationalen Geheimdienstgeschehen 1918-1947` in Geschichte und Gegenwart 16 (1997) p.3-23.
3Austrian section of SOE, Memoranda on Austria, 21 January 1941. Public Record Office (PRO), HS 6 (SOE Western Europe), 3 (Policy of Austrian section).
4William B. Mack, British political representative in Vienna to Ernest Bevin, 7 March 1946. PRO, FO 1049 (Control Commission for Germany, SHAEF political office) 540 (Austrian situation).
5Anthony Eden to the british embassy in Washington, 28 September 1942. (CONFIDENTIAL). PRO, HS 6 (SOE, Western Europe), 3 ('Policy of Austrian section`). 'Foreign Office Directive for Austrian Broadcasts`, 20 February 1942. PRO, Foreign Office (FO) 898 (Political Warfare Executive), 216 (German section).
6'Foreign Office Directive for Austrian Broadcasts`, PRO, FO 898/216.
7Beer, 'Von Alfred Redl zum Dritten Mann. Österreich und ÖsterreicherInnen im internationalen Geheimdienstgeschehen 1918-1947` in Geschichte und Gegenwart 16 (1997) p.16. The importance of Vienna for intelligence-activities before and after the war is known. Kim Philby, Peter Smollet (Peter Smolka) and Julius Deutsch did start their NKWD-career in the Austrian capital. See Christopher Andrew/Wassili Mithrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West (London: Penguin 1999).
8Austrian section of SOE, Memoranda on Austria, 21 January 1941. PRO, HS 6 (SOE Western Europe), 3 (Policy of Austrian section).
9David Stafford, Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945. A survey of the Special Operations Executive with Documents (London: Macmillan 1980), p.31.
10Austrian section of SOE, Memoranda on Austria. 21 January 1941. PRO, HS 6 (SOE Western Europe), 3 (Policy of Austrian section).
11'Schort analyses of the Austrian emigration in G.B.`, 1942. HS 6 (SOE, Western Europe), 2 (Austria).
12List of Austrian Organisations in London, 1940. PRO, HS6 (SOE Western Europe), 4 (Austria).
13Geoffrey W. Harrison to SOE in London, 11 March 1942. PRO, HS 6 (SOE, Western Europe), 2 (Free Austrian movement).
14'Opinion and Morale in Austria` Memoranda of Foreign Office, German Section basing on SOE-material. 25 January 1943. (CONFIDENTIAL). PRO, HS 6 (SOE, Western Europe), 3 (Policy of Austrian section).
15Sir George Franckenstein to SOE in London, 16 May 1943 (VERY CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET). 'Comments on Sir George Franckenstein's letter to S.O.` Notiz, 19 April 1943, Letter SOE in London an Franckenstein 16 April 1943, Some hand written notes. PRO, HS 6 (SOE, Western Europe), 4 (Use of political groups and freedom movements for SOE activities; Sir George Franckenstein).
16Sir George Franckenstein to SOE in London 14 March 1943. HS 6 (SOE, Western Europe), 4 (Use of political groups and freedom movements for SOE activities; Sir George Franckenstein).
17The significance and the meaning of the Moscow declaration is still controversial among historians. The traditional school stresses this document as declaration of independence of Austria which as a state became 'the first victim of Hitler aggression`. Against this 'victim-myth` some researchers interprets it merely as part of psychological warfare by the Allies. For the first school of thought see Gerald Stourzh, Geschichte des Staatsvertrages 1945-1955. Österreichs Weg zur Neutralität (Graz: Styria 1985). For the revisionist point of view read Robert Keyserlingk, Austria in World War II. An Anglo-American Dilemma (Kingston: Queens U. Press 1988) and Günter Bischof, 'Die Instrumentalisierung der Moskauer Erklärung nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg` in Zeitgeschichte 20 (1993), Heft 11/12, p.354-366.
18Notes on BBC Programmes to Austria, 25 November 1943. PRO, FO/898/216.
19Austrian Editor of BBC to SOE London, November 1943. PRO, FO/898/216.
20Bischof, 'Anglo-amerikanische Planungen und Überlegungen der österreichischen Emigration` p. 32 ff.
21Peter Wilkinson, Foreign Fields. The story of an SOE operative (London: I.B. Tauris 1997) p.126.
22'Report for period 2nd July - 19th July 1944, TO:X, From: XA/2` 19 July 1944 (TOP SECRET). PRO, HS 6 (SOE Western Europe), 18 (Austria, Maryland mission).
23'Report on Clowder Mission` 13 May 1945. (TOP SECRET). PRO, HS 6 (SOE, Western Europe), 17 (Clowder)
24Notice Geoffrey W. Harrisons for Mr. Mack and others, 18 March 1945 (SECRET). PRO, FO 371 (General Correspondence/ Allied Commission for Austria), 46603 (Austrian frontier).
25'Memorandum by H.Q. Clowder Mission on Future of Special Operations in Austria` 16 January 1945. (TOP SECRET). PRO, HS 6 (SOE, Western Europe), 17 (Clowder).
26'Report on a mission to Carinthia (Korosko) May to September 1944`, November 1944. (TOP SECRET). PRO, HS 6 (SOE, Western Europe), 17 (Clowder).
27There were about 28 SOE-missions to Austria most of them between February and end of April 1945. 18 missions were sent from 'Maryland` and 10 from SOE in Berne.
28William B. Mack, British representative in Vienna to Ernest Bevin, 7 March 1946. PRO, FO 1049 (Control Commission for Germany, SHAEF political office) 540 (Austrian situation).
29WILKINSON, Foreign Fields, p. 156 ff.
30Letter of the former SOE-agent Christopher Woods to the author, 29 November 1997.
31Report of H.I. Matthey 'General History from September 1944 to July 1945` and 'Part II. History of Blacks activities`, 30 August 1945. Foreign Office, SOE-Archive, copy in possession of the author.
32Report of H.I. Matthey 'Part II. History of Blacks activities`, 30 August 1945. Foreign Office, SOE-Archive, copy in possessio of the author.
33Telegram to SOE London, 31 March 1945. PRO, HS 6 (SOE, Western Europe), 20 (Maryland).
34Telegram SOE in London to SOE in 'Maryland` (Brindisi), 1 April 1945. PRO, HS 6 (SOE, Western Europe), 20 (Maryland).
35Provisional Minutes of the Meeting of the Foreign Office-SOE Committee, 17 April 1945. (TOP SECRET). PRO, FO 371/46603 (Austrian Frontier).
36William B. Mack, British representative in Vienna, to Ernest Bevin, 7 March 1946. PRO, FO/1049/540.