During the Second World War, the Nazis and Palestinian Arab leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, mufti of Jerusalem, planned and executed a commando mission whose primary objective was killing Jews in the land of Israel. The five men who were parachuted into Palestine had all lived there for much of their lives and knew the territory well. Their plan was to incite Palestinian Arabs against Jews and to attack individual Jewish targets, such as synagogues and Jewish-owned stores. The operation was codenamed Atlas and took place in October 1944. This is the story of an event that has been all but lost to history, but which casts important light on the global dimensions of Nazi war planning—and the key role played by their willing accomplices.
In December 1943, Lieutenant Kurt Wieland reported to 32-37 Berkaer Strasse Berlin, headquarters of the SS security service. Up until 1941, the building had been a Jewish old age home. When the residents were deported, the security service, which was formally named the Sicherheitsdienst but more commonly known as the SD, took over the building.
Wieland had been summoned for an interview with an SD lieutenant colonel called Beissner, who wanted to know what Middle Eastern countries he was familiar with. Beissner mentioned Syria, Transjordan, and Palestine as examples. Wieland replied that he only knew Palestine.
Wieland had wanted to lead a commando mission to Palestine for some time. Through his cousin, an SD official, he’d managed to get himself in front of Beissner. The interview went well enough that Wieland was transferred from the Brandenburg Special Forces regiment to the SD and given control of an operation targeting Palestine called Elias. Wieland promptly changed the name to Atlas and focused it on a Special Forces mission to train and incite the Arabs of Palestine against the Jews. He would later write that the military aim of the operation was to cause “the greatest possible damage to the common enemies (Jews, English, Americans and the Allies).”
The Wieland family had left Germany for Palestine in 1923 when Kurt was 7 and had lived there as members of the German Templer community. Kurt attended junior school in Jaffa and Sarona and went to high school in the German Colony in Jerusalem. He left Palestine to go back to Germany in 1936 and spent another year in Palestine in 1938 before returning to Germany in time for the war. In late 1942, he was wounded while fighting in Odessa in the Ukraine. Shortly after recovering, he was sent to officer school.
Roughly a month after his meeting with Beissner, Wieland was taken to the Adlon Hotel in Berlin to meet with the self-styled grand mufti, the Palestinian Arab leader al-Husseini, for the first time. Husseini was a Palestinian leader who is widely blamed for the deaths of scores of Jews in the 1920s and 1930s. He led a three-year insurrection against the British from 1936 to 1939, during which he was chased out of Palestine by the British Army. After being forced from Palestine in 1937, the mufti made his way to Berlin, where he was warmly welcomed and paid considerable sums of money by various Nazi ministries for work that included propaganda and recruitment. Himmler himself ordered that the mufti receive 1 million Reichsmarks.
In the mufti’s hotel suite Wieland was quizzed about his plans for the Palestine mission. The mufti wanted to know how he planned on getting into the country, what he was going to take with him, and who he would need to carry out his mission. Wieland came to understand that this was to be a joint operation between the SD and the mufti.
Later that month, the mufti asked Wieland to visit him in his residence where he introduced him to Thulkifl Abdul Latif and Hassan Ali Salameh (the father of Ali Hassan Salameh, the future Fatah security chief and key CIA contact), better known as Abu Ali. These men were to accompany Wieland on the mission and the mufti insisted that operational control of the mission be handed over to Abu Ali as soon as they hit the ground. Wieland reluctantly agreed.
Abu Ali was well known in Palestine among the Arabs and the British. He had proven to be a capable guerrilla leader during the 1936-39 uprising and was popular among Arab Palestinians. The British had a file on him from that period which referred to him as a “well-known gang leader of the 1936-39 disturbances.”
After the failure of the Arab “disturbances” in Palestine, Abu Ali fled to Iraq, where he participated in another uprising against the British in 1941. When that uprising failed, he fled to Turkey until summoned to Rome by the mufti in 1942. A British intelligence report states of him that “while in Rome this man lived in the Mufti’s villa and was employed by the Mufti to look after his Arab soldiers.” Abu Ali had the experience, contacts, and knowledge of the area to succeed in an operation aimed at recruiting and training local Arabs to kill Jews.
Wieland also recruited a radio operator by the name of Werner Frank and a weapons specialist called Friederich Dieninger. Both were born in Haifa, grew up in the German community in Palestine, and had served in the Brandenburg regiment with Wieland.
The mufti had a particular obsession with the equipment Wieland and his men were to take with them. He persuaded Wieland to take pistols with silencers for the purposes of killing dogs, and poison to assassinate Arab traitors. He discouraged Wieland from taking large amounts of explosives, telling him instead to take a variety of detonators and claiming they’d be able to get hold of explosive material in Palestine. The mufti also insisted they take a large amount of money and propaganda material. When the mufti asked Wieland how much money he thought they’d need, he answered £1,500; they ended up taking £14,000 in gold sovereigns and paper notes.
Twice, Wieland went to the mufti’s residence to demonstrate the various submachine guns and grenades they planned on taking to Palestine. They test-fired them in a field near his residence. He also showed the mufti British Sten guns and German machine pistols and grenades, which particularly impressed the mufti and his coterie.
During the planning, the three Germans worked out ways to contact one another if they were separated on the ground. Three locations were agreed upon: a bench in a park in Jerusalem, a restaurant near Jaffa Gate, and a public bathroom close to the restaurant. The first team member to arrive at the venue would draw a shape and a number with chalk as a signal to whomever came next. A square would denote Wieland, a triangle meant Frank, and a circle was Deininger. The number was the day that month they would return to the place to make contact.
In late July 1944, while hundreds of German officers were being rounded up and shot for their involvement in the failed plot to assassinate Hitler, Abu Ali, Abdul Latif, Wieland, Frank, and Deininger sat with the mufti and his men to hammer out a written agreement on the formal objectives of the mission. Wieland later wrote about these objectives, stating:
“On the agreement of all members of the mission it was decided that the greatest possible damage should be done to the Jews in order to avoid too early an interference by the English. The German leaders were to regard their task as accomplished if there were continual riots between Arabs and Jews.”
Once the arrangements were finalized, Operation Atlas was submitted to Himmler, the head of the SS, who gave his approval.
At the beginning of September 1944, the members of the Atlas team, together with the mufti, associated SD officers, and members of the mufti’s entourage, participated in “a dinner party in an Officers Mess in Wannsee”—the location where the Nazis had formally decided on the Final Solution a year and a half earlier. Present at the dinner party was the head of the SD, General Walter Schellenberg, who made a speech saying:
I am delighted to meet the Mufti personally and sincerely hope that this mission will prove successful and by this success the Arabs will fulfil their hopes of ridding themselves of the Jewish danger forever. I promise to continue the supply of arms and munitions to the mission despite the critical German position, although Germany will be weakened by this present war she will never be brought to her knees. Germany is fighting now on all fronts and has Bolshevism and Anglo Americans as her foes. It is however to be remembered that those two regimes are totally opposed to one another on all points except in the ultimate defeat of Germany. I am fully cognizant of the degree the Jews are playing in defeating Germany, should Germany come out safely from this war she will once and for all take the opportunity of ridding herself of the Jewish problem and menace forever.
The mufti also made a speech where he spoke as if he was the leader of an Axis power: “The Arabs had long been fighting the Jews and now the Germans had joined the struggle. The Germans and the Arabs had always understood each other,” he said. He hoped that “now all Arab nations would join in the struggle against the Jews,” and that “the mission would contribute to a speedy and successful conclusion of the war.”
From there, the five commandos were flown to a small airfield near Athens, Greece. A captured American B-17 Flying Fortress bomber took off on Sept. 11, 1944, with the men and their equipment on board. After just 15 minutes, the pilot turned back to Greece with engine trouble. While the men were waiting for the aircraft to be fixed, an Allied air raid damaged the B-17 further. The operation was postponed for a month, and the men returned to Berlin.
A host of problems had already plagued the operation. Wieland was unhappy about the prospect of being under the command of Abu Ali in Palestine and had conspired with the SD to use a code signal in their radio communications when he wanted Berlin to pretend the mufti had vetoed Abu Ali’s plans. For their part, Abu Ali and Abdul Latif were planning on hiding the Germans away somewhere in Palestine, preventing them from participating in any decision-making at all. The mufti refused to hand over to Wieland the details of anyone on the ground in Palestine he could contact for help. After they returned to Berlin, the mufti interfered with the team’s equipment, adding propaganda leaflets, drugs, and poison; he also added a briefcase filled with personal documents for delivery to his wife.
On the night of Oct. 5, another captured B-17 took off from the airfield near Athens with the team on board. The team fell asleep on the flight and were woken by the aircrew moments before the signal to jump. Looking out the window, Wieland calculated that they were being told to jump too soon. But when he looked from the window to inform the others, they were already jumping out of the aircraft. With his teammates already out of the plane, Wieland had no option but to jump with the knowledge that they were in the wrong place. He hit the ground roughly five kilometers southeast of Jericho—instead of in the Jordan Valley, as he’d intended.
On the ground Abu Ali and Wieland found each other; Abdul Latif and Frank also found each other. No one knew what had happened to Deininger. The two pairs searched independently for their equipment but could find little of it except for the mufti’s briefcase and one of three radio sets the commandos had jumped with.
The two pairs of commandos made their way north with no clear plan as to where they were going or why. British intelligence painstakingly documented 10 days of meandering movement: The Germans spoke little Arabic and were reliant on Abu Ali and Abdul Latif, neither of whom was able to deliver them to a place of safety or find anyone willing to hide them for more than a night or two. Meanwhile, their equipment had been discovered and the British were searching for them.
On Oct. 11 the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wired a short article from Jerusalem: “Police have asked the population of Palestine to look out for one or more parachutists of ‘unknown nationality’ who are believed to have been dropped over the Jordan Valley over the last few days.” Various units including the police, the Arab Legion, and the Arab Frontier Force were dispatched to help with the search.
Local newspapers and international news outlets also followed the story. The New York Times reported on Oct. 27 that “a tip that gold coins were circulating among the inhabitants of Jericho in eastern Palestine led the Palestine police early this month to pick up a trail that resulted in the capture of three German air officers.” Wieland put it somewhat more laconically when he later wrote a report of his capture: “From about 0600 hours Abdul Latif was on guard. I went into the cave in order to continue sleeping. About 0900 hours when I wakened, I heard a noise in front of the cave. I was asked to come out. We were prisoners.” The three men were caught without a shot being fired or a radio transmission being sent. They had never managed to find Deininger.
The three were handed over to interrogators. At first, the prisoners were kept separate from one another. The Germans were brought before Lieutenant W.B. Savigny, who interrogated them individually from the 18th to the 29th of October 1944. Abdul Latif was interrogated by Lieutenant Brodie. All three men lied to varying degrees. Savigny pressed Wieland and Frank for details, not just about the mission but every aspect of their service. After his first interrogation of Werner Frank, he wrote, “Frank has yet to tell his full story. He should have much more to say especially on the subject of proposed W/T (wireless telegraphy) transmissions.” With Wieland, he recommended that “W should be interrogated further and should also now be questioned on his knowledge of the SD, Abwehr, and personalities connected with these organizations.”
A report summarizing the Atlas operation by an officer of Security Intelligence Middle East (Britain’s intelligence organization covering the Middle East) to London on Nov. 5, 1944, states: “It is felt here that none of these men is yet completely broken. The stories are incomplete and unconvincing.”
Savigny’s second interrogation of Wieland lasted from the 1st to the 28th of November. At the end of the month, he reported that Wieland was “now willing to tell the truth but whether this is the whole truth or he is still concealing something is not quite certain” and recommended that “the information obtained from W should be used to interrogate the other two members of the party.” That information included a written report by Wieland of everything that had happened in the planning and execution of the operation, which included the statement that the fight was to be “directed against Jews and it was to be done in such a way so as to not invite too strong a British response against Palestine’s Arabs.” Wieland also wrote that an “example of sabotage activity was to be taken from former Arab guerrillas in Palestine, e.g., incendiary bombs in Jewish shops, bombs in synagogues, etc.”
Wieland proved to be a gold mine of information for the British about the German intelligence setup. He wrote about the people he knew, their roles, the courses they ran, and the names of as many of the students as he could remember. His report included names of SD personnel and their plans, including one floated to him by Otto Skorzeny, the German Special Forces commander who had rescued Mussolini from prison. Skorzeny, who would help train the Egyptian Army under Nasser, advise the Perons in Argentina, and allegedly become an agent for the Mossad, was said by Wieland to be planning an audacious attack on the Haifa oil pipeline.
The second interrogation of Abdul Latif lasted from Nov. 27 to Nov. 29, during which he claimed “the Mufti’s object was to coordinate a united retaliation in the Arabic world against the Jews, and thus make them (the Jews) and their societies abroad release the mounting strangle-hold they had on Palestine. The Mufti’s intention was to organize an anti-Jewish movement in all the Arabic world.”
This was no idle threat. A British intelligence security summary from February 1945 refers to a second group of paratroopers who were dropped in Iraq: “Reinterrogation of one of the Iraqi parachutists seems to confirm that the object of their expedition was to organize armed bands which would attack Jews and Jewish interests in Iraq and Palestine. This coincides interestingly with the principal aims of the earlier Palestine parachute expedition which was despatched by the same German service also in cooperation with the Grand Mufti.”
Abdul Latif claimed that the impetus for the operation had come from the mufti in March 1944. “When asked what the Germans hoped to achieve by sending three German personnel on the mission, Thulkifl replied that he was informed by the Mufti that the object of including them was to ensure that the weapons were used correctly, i.e., against the Jews.”
In December, a letter was sent from the office of Security Intelligence Middle East claiming, “we consider all the prisoners to be completely broken.” After the interrogation, the British were faced with the question of what to do with their captives. The High Commissioner for Palestine sent a telegram to the secretary of state for Transjordan in June 1945, writing of Abdul Latif that he “is not less dangerous than those Palestinians who worked from Axis territory,” adding that he “is now in Egypt in military custody and intention is to ask that he be kept there until arrangements can be made for him to join exiles.”
A letter from an official at the British Foreign Office stated:
There appears to be no doubt that the Arab named Abdul Latif is liable to prosecution seeing that he was not in uniform and is stated to be a Palestinian by nationality. We do not anticipate any tiresome political reactions in the surrounding Arab countries as the result of a trial in this case. What the reactions are likely to be in Palestine itself is, of course, a matter for the Colonial Office and the Palestine Government to judge. We do not see how it is possible to bring the Germans to trial if, as is stated, they were wearing uniform. Surely in that case, they must be treated as prisoners of war.
Neither of the Germans was put on trial. Abdul Latif was sent from Cairo to the Seychelles in February 1946, where he was interned as a dissident.
Abu Ali was never caught. A report dated Dec. 6 states that “investigations in Palestine indicate that Salama (Salameh) and an unknown stranger are in hiding somewhere near Ramleh, Palestine. Salama is said to be considering surrender to the police but is rather worried about some of his earlier recorded activities.”
There the British paper trail on Salameh ends. In 1947, he emerges as a commander of irregular forces during Israel’s War of Independence. He was killed in June 1948 after being wounded in combat. But the war didn’t end there for his family. Abu Ali’s son Ali Hassan Salameh, better known as the Red Prince, became the leader of the militant Black September group responsible for terror attacks that included the murder of Israeli Olympic athletes at the Munich games in 1972. He was assassinated by the Mossad in 1979 during Operation Wrath of God.
Marc Goldberg is the author of Beyond the Green Line: A British volunteer in the IDF during the al Aqsa Intifada.