Trawling for Spies

A new article in Intelligence and National Security by Stephen G. Craft reveals how the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) ran a counterintelligence program using fishermen along the southern Atlantic seaboard during the Second World War. Expecting that the Axis would land agents on US shores (something that happened, but only rarely) and use German and Italian-American fishermen to support U-boat operations (which seems to have happened not at all), ONI created Selected Masters & Informants (SMI) sections under naval district intelligence officers to recruit fishermen as confidential informants. Their operations caught no spies but offered some comfort that subversion was never rampant along the coast.

For fifty years from 1916 to 1966, the district intelligence officers were ONI’s contribution to local counterintelligence, security, and information-gathering in US coastal areas. The official responsibilities of the district intelligence officer were numerous. According to Wyman Packard’s A Century of U.S. Naval Intelligence they included:

maintenance of press relations for district headquarters; liaison with the investigating units of federal, state, and city agencies within the naval district; liaison with public and private research agencies and with business interests having information in intelligence fields; liaison with ONI and the intelligence services of the other naval districts, and with forces afloat within the district; counterespionage, security, and investigations; collection, evaluation, and recording of information regarding persons or organizations of value (or opposed) to the Navy; preparation and maintenance of intelligence plans for war; and administrative supervision over the recruiting, training, and activities of the appropriate personnel of the Naval Reserve within the district.

The position was only eliminated in 1966, when its investigative and counterintelligence duties passed to the Naval Investigative Service, its intelligence-collection duties to local Naval Field Operational Support Groups, and its other sundry tasks to the district staff intelligence officer.

Admiral Ingersoll, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, and Rear Admiral James at Charleston, South Carolina during an inspection of the Sixth Naval District, 23 November 1943. Courtesy of Mrs. Arthur C. Nagle. Collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 90955.

In October 1942, the creation of SMI sections added recruiting fishermen as counterintelligence agents to the long list of task mentioned above. By January 1943, the SMI sections had recruited 586 agents, 200 of them in the Sixth Naval District (headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina). Ship owners were paid $50 to cover installation of a radiotelephone, which were provided to about 50 craft. Otherwise masters were to report by carrier pigeon (the Navy operated lofts in Mayport, Florida and St Simon’s Island, Georgia) or by collect call once ashore. Some masters also received nautical charts that were overprinted with a confidential Navy grid for reporting purposes.

Shrimp fleet in harbor, St. Augustine, St. Johns County, Florida, 1936 or 1937. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed April 20, 2017.)

The absence of winter shrimp fishing, a tendency to cluster in good fishing spots, and the total absence of enemy covert activity all combined to limit the program’s impact. Further south in the Seventh District (headquartered in Jacksonville and Miami, Florida), most fishing was done so close to shore that the district did not bother to implement the program. In a few cases fishing boats were attacked by U-boat and two confidential observers were reportedly killed in submarine attacks. Though the program operated until V-J Day, few reports of interest were ever received. Similar operations took place elsewhere in the US as well, with scattered references in Packard’s Century of U.S. Naval Intelligence to fishing vessels as observers in other naval districts too.

Shrimp boats were the basis for both overt and covert surveillance. Navy patrol craft like the YP-487 were known as “Shrimpers” because of their origins as commercial fishing boats. Collection of the Navy History and Heritage Command, NH 106994.

How successful you consider the program will depend on how plausible you consider the Navy’s fear of subversion and agent landings. However, the idea of using commercial seafarers as observers and informants clearly proved itself enough to resurface from time to time after the war. In 1947, the Chief of Naval Operations issued a letter authorizing the placing of informants on US merchant ships to detect any crew members involved in subversive activities (this was known as the Special Observer–Merchant Marine Plan). In 1955, merchant ships and fishing vessels were included in plans to collect “merchant intelligence” (MERINT) on sightings of ships, submarines, and aircraft (both efforts referenced in Packard). Did the use of fishermen for counterintelligence continue into the 1960s or beyond? If so, there might have been agents on the boats involved in joint US–Soviet fishing enterprises of the 1980s, carefully watching the Soviets carefully watch the Americans.

Watching the Soviets off the Canadian Coast

David Zimmerman’s new book on the Royal Canadian Navy, Maritime Command Pacific, discusses the navy’s anxieties about the presence of Soviet trawlers or merchant ships off the Canadian Pacific coast. Maritime Command Pacific presumed that Soviet ships were undertaking intelligence activities to monitor Canadian naval and maritime air forces, military radio transmissions, and underwater cables. In wartime, they suspected the Soviet fishing fleet would be cut submarine cables, jam radio communications, lay mines, land secret agents, raid isolated shore targets, support Soviet submarine and aircraft operations, or even scuttle ships to block Canadian ports. As a result, planning for home defense in British Columbia included guards for as many as 3,000 captured Soviet seamen, and naval operations included the close surveillance of Soviet fishing vessels in the Canadian area of operations (which extended beyond Canadian territorial waters).

HMCS New Glasgow at sea, 1956. Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / ecopy. LAC Ref. Archival reference no. R112-6097-7-E.

HMCS New Glasgow at sea, 1956. Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / ecopy. LAC Ref.
Archival reference no. R112-6097-7-E.

The small size of the Canadian fleet meant that surveillance of the Soviet commercial fleet was thin at best. An example of a more involved operation was the tracing of the Soviet trawler SRT 4454. First spotted by American patrol aircraft on June 8, 1962, SRT 4454 was shadowed  over the course of two weeks first by a Canadian Neptune patrol airplane, then by the frigate Stettler, again by Canadian aircraft, and finally by the frigates New Glasgow and Jonquiere. The after action analysis of the operation included the observation that no seagulls followed the ship when it was streaming its trawl, unusual if fish were being caught; reports from the Department of Fisheries and the Pacific Oceanographic Group that the waters SRT 4454 was “fishing” were too deep to catch much of anything; and radar contact by the Neptune with what might have been a submarine nearby. Maritime Command Pacific’s final conclusion was that SRT 4454 might have been planting “underwater navigation fixing aides,” possibly in conjunction with a submerged submarine.

Unfortunately, Zimmerman’s book concludes in 1965, just as the Soviet fishing presence in the eastern Pacific was massively expanding (Carmel Finley’s Pacific Fisheries project has been documenting that expansion here, here, and here). The book also leaves open the question “was the Soviet fishing fleet engaged in spying or other nefarious activities?”

I’ve been looking for anyone writing about this for a while. During the Cold War, the idea that Soviet fishing vessels – as opposed to the intelligence-collecting ships that were built on trawler hulls but openly acknowledged as naval vessels – were heavily engaged in espionage or clandestine operations was widespread. The most dramatic that I’ve ever seen is in the semi-fictional future history World War 3, edited by Shelford Bidwell, in which two Soviet factory ships (the fish-processing mother ships of the Soviet fishing fleet) lay mines in the Dover Straits through concealed ports beneath the waterline.

Twenty-four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I’ve yet to see any new specifics, despite the range of other disclosures about Soviet military and intelligence activities. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, especially when it comes to intelligence and national security, but the gap is starting to look like no one has any good stories to tell – or that the stories remain so relevant to current events that they are staying deeply buried to protect sources and methods. Without any direct evidence, the best argument that the Soviets were probably using the fishing fleet for intelligence activities is that NATO nations were doing the same themselves. The US, British, and Norwegians all both 1) operated covert or clandestine intelligence-gathering ships which were disguised as civilian trawlers or merchant ships and 2) collected intelligence by placing agents on genuine civilian trawlers or cargo ships or having their crews collect information themselves.

Whether or not Soviet civilian vessels really did threaten the Canadian Pacific coast, the fear had at least one major consequence. The need for a military presence, no matter how minimal, along the less populated northern British Columbian coast was one of the reasons for creating the Canadian Rangers as a unpaid, almost unarmed (the only weapon issued was the Second World War-vintage Lee-Enfield rifle), volunteer reserve to protect the coast. The Rangers, who not only still exist but have become a significant part of Canadian military policy in the north.

Source Notes: Maritime Command Pacific: The Royal Canadian Navy’s West Coast Fleet in the Early Cold War (UBC Press, 2015) discusses Canadian surveillance of Soviet ships on Pacific coast. American clandestine intelligence-gathering ships are covered in Jeffrey Richelson’s article “Task Force 157: The US Navy’s Secret Intelligence Service 1966–77” (Intelligence and National Security, vol. 11 no. 1); more overt intelligence-gathering is in Wyman H. Packard’s A Century of Naval Intelligence. British use of trawlers is the topic of Richard J. Aldrich and Mason Redfearn’s “The Perfect Cover: British Intelligence, the Soviet Fleet and Distant Water Trawler Operations, 1963–1974” (Intelligence and National Security, vol. 12 no. 3)

Carmel Finley on Cold War Fisheries

For the past few years I’ve been reading the Pacific Fishery History Project, environmental historian Carmel Finley’s blog. Finley’s dissertation and first book, All the Fish in the Sea, examined the influence of US strategic and economic interests on fisheries management in the early postwar years, and in particular on the international adoption of Maximum Sustained Yield (MSY) as the basis for fisheries regulation. (You can read a briefer version of her argument over at Solutions.) At her blog Finley is following-up on that story, covering – among other things – the arrival of Soviet fishing fleets in American waters and the Cold War politics that came with them.

Finley lays out the basic issues in a blog post that asks “So why were those Soviet boats fishing off Washington?

The answer, it turns out, is:

that the U.S. State Department wanted them to. Or, more precisely, the Departments of State and Defense did not want to do anything to prevent Soviet boats from fishing off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States. Why? Because the cornerstone of American foreign policy after 1945 was open seas and open skies—for American military vessels, merchant marine vessels–and fishing boats.

Finley is continuing to post about the topic, including a series of reminiscences by marine biologist Bob Hitz about the arrival of the Soviets in 1965–66, the Second World War transfer of fishing vessels to the Soviet Union under Lend-Lease, and related themes like the involvement of fisheries research vessel R/V John N. Cobb in the preparatory work for using atomic bombs to blow open a harbour on the Alaska coast.