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A Byte Out of History - Intelligence Helped Win the War

A Byte Out of History
How Intelligence Helped Save the Queen Mary...and Win a War

RMS Queen Mary, painted grey in wartime

03/07/05

For Nazi subs, it was the mother of all targets: a converted British luxury liner nearly the length of the Empire State building carrying thousands of Allied soldiers across the Atlantic.

In early March 1942—63 years ago this week—the Axis Powers closed in on their prey. A Nazi spy in Brazil was watching as the RMS Queen Mary docked at Rio de Janeiro: "The Queen Mary arrived here today at 10:00...she must [go] to the cellar," he telegraphed back to Germany. "With Queen Mary falls Churchill...good luck."

The message quickly went out to Nazi "Wolf Packs"—groups of U-boats prowling the high seas. The lives of thousands of Allied soldiers—and the fate of their cause—hung in the balance.

But the Germans weren't the only ones in Brazil with intelligence operations. At President Roosevelt's request, our Special Intelligence Service agents had begun working across South America in 1940 to counter Axis espionage operations. At the peak of our SIS operation, we had 360 agents in nine of ten South American republics. The President of Brazil, in fact, had invited one of our agents to help organize a national police force in his country.

You can bet that our agents were listening in with high interest when the Nazi spy sent his message about the Queen Mary. Authorities in both Washington and Brazil were immediately notified. And although we have no record of the action that was taken as a result of those calls, we do know that the Queen Mary sailed away untouched and safely delivered her soldiers to North Africa.

A satisfying postscript: On March 10, San Paulo police arrested Josef Jacob Johannes Starzicny, aka Niels Christian Christensen, for sending the message about the ship's movements. His arrest, in turn, led to the end of Starzicny's spy network and other German radio espionage rings in Brazil. In the end, some forty spies were rounded up and arrested.

It's another example of how intelligence pays off when it comes to protecting our country and our people. Today, the FBI continues to strengthen its intelligence operations to combat new and evolving threats around the world.

And in Brazil, law enforcement cooperation continues to this day. Our Legal Attaché agent stationed in Brasilia works closely with his Brazilian counterparts on a range of issues—from terrorism to organized crime—mutually sharing intelligence that strengthens the security of our nations.

Photo of the Queen Mary, painted gray during wartime, courtesy of the National Archives.