U.S. ARMY ACTIVATES SECRET INTELLIGENCE SCHOOL

Camp Ritchie, Maryland June 19, 1942

On this date in 1942 the U.S. Army activated the Mili­tary Intel­li­gence Training Center (MITC) at Camp Ritchie, nestled among rolling green hills in western Mary­land. Former pro­perty of a failed ice com­pany, the rural site was con­verted into a sum­mer training camp for the Mary­land National Guard in 1926. Six­teen years later the U.S. Army replaced canvas tents with per­ma­nent buildings. Camp Ritchie’s secluded loca­tion 70 miles north of the nation’s capital seemed ideal for the new task at hand: the first-of-its-kind training center for centralized military intelligence and psychological warfare.

The Ritchie Boys, as camp graduates were soon called, were U.S. special mili­tary intel­li­gence offi­cers and enlisted men who were embedded in regular army units. The sol­diers were tasked with collecting mili­tary intel­li­gence in the field and pro­viding clear and speedy reports up the chain of com­mand. Between 15,200 and 19,000 service­men (sources vary) were trained at the top-secret training facility, re-christened Fort Ritchie after the war. The students were rigorously trained in methods of intel­li­gence, counter­intel­li­gence, inter­ro­ga­tion of prisoners of war, inves­ti­ga­tion, aerial photo­graphy anal­y­sis, terrain intel­li­gence, and psycho­logical war­fare. Most students were direct descen­dants of immi­grants from Central and Eastern Europe. Roughly 14 per­cent of them were German and Austrian Jews who had fled Nazi tyranny and perse­cu­tion. Settling in the United States as “non­citizen resi­dents” (after Decem­ber 11, 1941, many were reclas­si­fied as “enemy aliens”), these exiles volun­teered or were drafted into the U.S. Army. When their fluency in foreign lan­guages, espe­cially German, French, and Italian, was discovered by their com­man­ders or in Army person­nel files—and equally impor­tant when their innate famil­iar­ity with the cul­ture, psyche, and behav­ior of America’s enemies was rec­og­nized as a valu­a­ble tac­ti­cal asset to use in the war effort—these sol­diers were whisked to Camp Ritchie under sealed orders regardless of their citizenship status.

For eight intense weeks, a period often prolonged by highly spe­cialized courses, MITC students engaged in field training and prac­ticed mock inter­views, inter­ro­ga­tions, and intel­li­gence gathering. In all, there were 31 eight-week ses­sions, the first ending in Septem­ber 1942. Captured German and Italian sol­diers from the failed Axis North African Cam­paign, which finally ended in the surren­der of 250,000 enemy sol­diers in May 1943, pro­vided students back at Camp Ritchie with guinea pigs to try out their new or enhanced skill­ sets.

Starting with the June 1944 D-Day landings in North­west France, Camp Ritchie grad­u­ates saw com­bat attached to fabled units such as the U.S. 82nd and 101st Air­borne Divi­sions and other front­line armored and infan­try divi­sions and regi­ments. Imme­di­ately teams of German-language POW inter­ro­ga­tors and French-speaking mili­tary intel­li­gence inter­pre­ters began grilling captured com­bat­ants, mem­bers of the French Resis­tance, and local resi­dents to glean action­able, tac­ti­cal infor­ma­tion about the enemy’s fighting capa­bil­i­ties and move­ments, local defenses, mine­fields, booby traps, machine gun nests, and com­mand posts that con­trib­uted to the Allies’ early battle­field successes. As U.S. forces cut across France and into Germany, Ritchie Boys mostly stayed with their assigned units and focused on col­lecting stra­tegic-level intel­li­gence concerning German rail­road, mili­tary-indus­trial, scien­tific, chemi­cal, weapons, and petro­leum com­plexes, to name a few tar­gets of interest to senior Allied commanders and war planners.

Ritchie Boys took part in every major North African and Euro­pean engage­ment and cam­paign. A smaller num­ber saw service in the Pacific. Reportedly 60 per­cent of the cred­i­ble U.S. intel­li­gence gathered in Europe came from Ritchie Boy oper­a­tives. After Euro­pean hos­til­i­ties ended in May 1945 Ritchie Boys con­tin­ued to provide vital intel­li­gence as part of the Army’s de-Nazi­fi­ca­tion efforts. During this period many service­men of Jewish extrac­tion visited their ances­tral homes, seeking to learn the fate of family mem­bers, friends, and neigh­bors who may or may not have perished in the war. The for­tu­nate ones were reunited with those with whom they had lost con­tact. Sadly, some fates of the missing remained for­ever unknown, whereas other missing per­sons were reported to have died in Allied aerial or artil­lery bom­bard­ments or by star­va­tion, physi­cal abuse, torture, exhaus­tion from slave labor or forced marches, disease, execution, or gassing in death chambers.

From Normandy’s beaches in June 1944 to the post­war Nurem­berg trials of major Nazi war crimi­nals and less well­-known mis­cre­ants (1946–1949), a little-known group of U.S. special mili­tary intel­li­gence oper­a­tives nick­named the Ritchie Boys trans­lated, inter­preted, and inter­ro­gated German pri­soners, defectors, and civil­ians and collected infor­ma­tion of tacti­cal and stra­tegic impor­tance; e.g., enemy troop size, loca­tion and move­ments; defen­sive forti­fi­ca­tions; the psycho­logi­cal and physi­cal state of Axis armed forces and civil­ian popu­la­tion; and the inner workings of the Nazi and Fascist regimes. They drafted propa­ganda leaf­lets, pro­duced radio broad­casts, and pub­lished a German-lan­guage news­paper that was air-dropped behind enemy lines. Using truck-mounted loud­speakers on front­lines, they tried to demor­alize enemy sol­diers and civil­ians and per­suade them to sur­ren­der or at least cease their active resis­tance to the Allied inva­sion of their coun­try. A few Ritchie Boys were in the German-besieged Belgian town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge (mid-December 1944 to late January 1945). With Gen. George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army they saw first-hand the horrors of the Holo­caust as they helped lib­er­ate German concen­tra­tion and death camps and inter­ro­gate survi­vors, camp guards and prisoner-func­tion­aries who had served at the camps, as well as nearby villagers. As Bruce Hender­son tells us in his riveting national best­seller, Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler, the con­tri­butions of the Ritchie Boys resulted in the deaths of many of the deter­mined enemy but also saved numer­ous lives on both sides of the con­flict and arguably helped shorten the war.—Norm Haskett



U.S. Army’s Wartime Military Intelligence Training Center at Camp Ritchie, Maryland

Ritchie Boys engaged in a coding exercise at Camp Ritchie Ritchie Boys demonstrate prisoner of war interrogation at Camp Ritchie

Left: In 1942 the U.S. War Department took possession of Camp Ritchie, named after a Mary­land gover­nor. A sum­mer training base for the state’s National Guard, the War Depart­ment repur­posed the leased site as a U.S. Army training cen­ter for com­bat intel­li­gence. Officially the camp was known as the Mili­tary Intel­li­gence Training Center, or MITC. MITC graduates would become known as the “Ritchie Boys”: the base’s wrought-iron front gate still proudly bore the name “Camp Ritchie.” In this photo, students are seen engaged in a coding exer­cise in MITC’s Signal Intelligence Code Room.

Right: Demonstrations of how to properly capture, handle, and inter­ro­gate pri­soners were part of MITC’s inten­sive eight-week intel­li­gence training sessions, 31 all totaled. Demon­stra­tions like the one in the photo­graph allowed sol­diers to see first­hand how their class­room instruc­tion was to be used in combat zones. For the sake of authen­tic­ity the “prisoner” in the middle is an Amer­i­can service­man dressed in a German uni­form playing the part of a German POW. Jewish soldiers found it galling to wear a German uni­form for any reason. Other enemy props included pistols, rifles, mortars, hand grenades, machine guns, and field artillery.

Ritchie Boys learn how to sweep enemy locale at Camp Ritchie 1 Ritchie Boys learn how to sweep enemy locale at Camp Ritchie 2

Above: Soldiers sit on hillside bleachers watching actors raid a cut­away farm­house and con­duct maneu­vers in con­fined spaces, searching for both enemy com­bat­ants as well as action­able intel­li­gence like maps, docu­ments, and code­books, radio transmitters and receivers hidden in the nooks, crannies, walls, and beneath floorboards of the house.

2016 American Heroes Channel’s Interview with Guy (Günther) Stern, Former Ritchie Boy