The Untold Story of the Secret Mission to Seize Nazi Map Data

Oct 25, 2019 by

How a covert U.S. Army intelligence unit canvassed war-torn Europe, capturing intelligence with incalculable strategic value

The fighting for Aachen was fierce. American planes and artillery pounded the Nazi defenses for days. Tanks then rolled into the narrow streets of the ancient city, the imperial seat of Charlemagne, which Hitler had ordered defended at all costs. Bloody building-to-building combat ensued until, finally, on October 21, 1944, Aachen became the first German city to fall into Allied hands.

Rubble still clogged the streets when U.S. Army Maj. Floyd W. Hough and two of his men arrived in early November. “The city appears to be 98% destroyed,” Hough wrote in a memo to Washington. A short, serious man of 46 with receding red hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Hough had a degree in civil engineering from Cornell, and before the war he led surveying expeditions in the American West for the U.S. government and charted the rainforests of South America for oil companies. Now he was the leader of a military intelligence team wielding special blue passes, issued by Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, that allowed Hough and his team to move freely in the combat zone. Their mission was such a closely guarded secret that one member later recalled he was told not to open the envelope containing his orders until two hours after his plane departed for Europe.

In Aachen, their target was a library.

HOUGHTEAM, as the unit was known, was made up of 19 carefully selected individuals. Four were highly educated civilians: an engineer, a geographer who had worked as a map curator at the University of Chicago, a linguist who spoke five languages, and the dapper son of an prominent Kentucky family who’d grown up mostly in Europe as the son of a brigadier general posted to various capitals as a military attaché. There were also ten enlisted men. One was a Japanese interpreter on loan from the Office of Strategic Services, the spy agency precursor to the CIA. Others had been through the secret Military Intelligence Training Center at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. Among the Ritchie Boys, as they were known, were European immigrants who had fled to the United States to escape Nazi persecution. At Camp Ritchie they received training in interrogation and other psychological operations. Their job was to question European civilians about the movement of enemy troops, translate captured documents and interrogate prisoners of war. For the refugees among them, it was a chance to leverage their language skills and cultural familiarity to defeat the enemy that had uprooted their lives.

An undated photograph archived with the HOUGHTEAM files. (The National Archives)Detail: Early in his career, Hough led survey parties across the American West, including a 1921 trip to Arizona (Hough is at right). (The National Archives: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Hough photos

Along with 1,800 pounds of cameras and other equipment for creating microfilm records, HOUGHTEAM also carried 11,000 index cards detailing the holdings of the Army Map Service as well as numerous target lists of technical universities, government institutes, libraries and other places likely to have the materials they had been sent to capture. The lists also named German scientists who seemed likely to cooperate, and some who were not to be trusted.

In Aachen, the library that Hough was looking for was at the Technische Hochschule, or technical university. Though it had been nearly wrecked by American bombs, thousands of books remained. But what caught Hough’s attention were the bundles of folders stacked outside. It appeared as if the Germans “had left a number of files all roped up ready to load onto trucks when they made a hasty exit,” Hough wrote. The abandoned documents included tables of exceptionally precise survey data covering German territory that the Allies had yet to reach—just what Hough was looking for. His team quickly microfilmed the material and sent it to the front, where Allied artillery units could immediately use it to improve their targeting.

The Aachen seizure was the first in a series of remarkable successes for HOUGHTEAM that promised not only to hasten the end of the war but also to shape the world order for decades to come. Little is publicly known about the true scope of the information that Hough and his team captured, or the ingenuity they displayed in securing it, because their mission was conducted in secret, and the technical material they seized circulated only among military intelligence experts and academics. But it was a vast scientific treasure—likely the largest cache of geographic data the United States ever obtained from an enemy power in wartime. Relying on Hough’s memos to his superiors in Washington and other declassified records about the mission, which are stored at the National Archives, in addition to private letters and other materials provided by the families of several team members, I have pieced together the outlines of this historic military feat. The operation seems all the more astonishing because it was executed by an unlikely band of academics, refugees, clerks and soldiers, all led by Hough, an Ivy League-trained engineer with a passion for geodesy, the centuries-old science of measuring the Earth with utmost mathematical precision.

continue: The Untold Story of the Secret Mission to Seize Nazi Map Data | History | Smithsonian

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