World War Two often conjures up a variety of images in our minds. Perhaps cleanly shaven men dashing to their spitfires to defend Blighty in the Battle of Britain (Almost a third of whom were Polish incidentally). Or brave men storming the beaches of Normandy against a tide of bullets and bombs. But in actual fact the war was won and lost in terrible battles deep within Soviet Russia in which ten million men fought. To put this number in context, the British army at the start of World War One had 100,000 men, 1% of that number. Four out of five slain German soldiers died there. Four out of five Russian men born in 1923 didn’t live to see their 23rd birthday. And within six months of the German invasion 15,000 limbs were amputated due to frostbite on their side alone. The Russian victory turned the tide of war and set up the ideological stand off known as the Cold War. A decisive factor in the Allied victory was the work of one man; a heavy drinking, womanising spy named Richard Sorge.
A patriotic German soldier, he served with great distinction on the eastern front of World War One. In 1916 he was awarded the Iron Cross when his leg bones were shattered in battle. Following the age old tradition of the warrior, he seduced his nurse. As fate would have it her father was a Marxist and he fastidiously adopted the political ideology. After being discharged he joined the German communist party but the feeding frenzy of the failing Weimar Republic was no life for a budding Marxist. For the second time in his life he marched East but this time he was welcomed with open arms and was recruited as a member of Comintern. His aim? To encourage Marxist revolution worldwide.
Fast forward to 1941 and Sorge was in Tokyo as a Nazi party member, a respected journalist and crucially, Stalin’s most important spy in Asia. He had lived in Tokyo for nine years and had created strong links with the German and Japanese embassies. His lifestyle was one that now has become somewhat of a cliché. A flamboyant womaniser with a penchant for cocktails, he was notorious for speeding through the streets of Tokyo on his glamorous motorbike. All conducted without a helmet or any care for the effects of alcohol on one’s driving of course.
When not living his fast-paced social life, his secret role was to ascertain whether the Japanese would invade Russia. After all they had defeated the largest country on earth in 1905. However he did not just limit himself to this task, and in June 1941 he warned Stalin with considerable reliability of the surprise Nazi invasion of Russia. But it may surprise you to know that Uncle Joe did not take kindly to advice and dismissed the report, bluntly stating that Sorge was, “a sh*t who has set himself up with some little factories and brothels in Japan.” But once proven right his future reports proved invaluable. More importantly, they were now listened to.
So let’s provide the context of June 1941. Nazi Germany controlled almost all of Europe. There were fewer than ten democracies left on the planet. Pearl Harbour would not occur for six months so America had not yet joined the war although they were heavily subsidising the Allies. Two months later Britain and America agreed to place an oil embargo on Japan. This was crucial. It meant that they would have to source black gold through invading what is now Indonesia. They began to pull troops away from the Russian border to engage in this enterprise. Sorge’s ears pricked up.
Unbeknownst to the busy combatants of this horrific conflict, the winds of change were blowing. He fed this key information to Moscow – the Japanese would, “NOT, REPEAT NOT,” invade Russia for at least one year. This time he was listened to – within weeks the creaking Red Army in Europe were bolstered with 15 infantry divisions, 3 cavalry divisions, 1700 tanks and 1500 aircraft from the Japanese border. The tide in the Battle of Moscow turned and as a result they began to push back the German juggernaut. In the same month, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the sleeping giant of America ferociously plunged into war. Bookmakers around the globe rushed to lower the odds on an Allied victory.
Without these key reserves provided by Sorge’s top drawer espionage the Soviet house of cards may well have tumbled leaving Europe, the Middle East and perhaps even India to the mercy of the National Socialist Party and their horrific regime. Maybe not though. Maybe the Red Army would have shone through without the reserves gained from Sorge’s insights. Maybe history wouldn’t have changed after all. Maybe…
While the Soviet Union survived their fiercest test, Sorge did not. Within weeks his spy ring crumbled and he was arrested. After one week of torture he agreed to talk on the condition that his mistress not be harmed. The Japanese tried to exchange Sorge for a spy of their own but Stalin wasn’t interested, after all he had served his purpose. So one of the greatest spies on history was unceremoniously hung on 7th November 1944 in a quiet Tokyo prison yard. However the Japanese authorities stuck to their word, his mistress was not harmed and she lovingly tended his grave until her own death fifteen years ago.