In the movie Kelly’s Heroes (1970 – MGM Pictures), Kelly (Clint Eastwood) leads a rag-tag assemblage of soldiers deep behind German lines with a singular goal in mind. While his commanding officers mistake Kelly’s assault as an unbridaled act of bravery, his real aim is to raid a bank vault containing gold bars hidden away by the Nazi’s. In this WWII comedy about double dealing and chicanery, Kelly and the Germans guarding the hoard call a truce long enough for each side to remove a .9 million dollar share (per man) of the bullion before going their separate ways. The all-star cast included notable names like Gavin MacLeod, Stuart Margolin, Harry Dean Stanton, Telly Savalas, Carrol O’Connor, and Don Rickles, but the all time oddball of the bunch was the tank commander played by Donald Sutherland (whose nickname just happens to be ‘Oddball’). Kelly’s Heroes is a sideways glance at WWII in much the same way that M.A.S.H. parodied the Korean War (or Conflict if you prefer). It is an entertaining tale, but a tale about a rogue band operating outside of the main battle plan while moving independently behind enemy lines separated from the regular Army units is surely a work of pure fiction. . . right?
As the end of World War II approached in the European Theater, U.S. Army Major Floyd W. Hough was the head of an independant expeditionary force known as HOUGHTEAM (personally, I would have liked to call them ‘Hough’s Heroes’, but it was long before the movie mentioned above). His team carried special blue passes from the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force that allowed them to move about the combat zone freely. They weren’t searching for gold bullion, but what they were seeking was more valuable to the United States than that precious metal. The nineteen member force included ten enlisted men, four highly educated civilians, and an assortment of European immigrants who had fled to the United States to escape Nazi persecution. All were secretly trained in interrogation methods and psychological operations. They were charged with capturing the accumulated archives of geodetic information that the Nazis had been removing from Berlin. To protect this stash of information, the German’s were secreting documents away in obscure villages far removed from the battle hotspots. As much as this information would hasten the end of the war, those who framed HOUGHTEAM’s mission were also looking beyond the end of the war when such information would give the Americans an incalculable advantage in future global conflicts.
An excerpt from science journalist and co-author of All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey by Greg Miller was published in the November 2019 issue of Smithonian magazine. In his book, Miller unravels the remarkable story of this top secret mission (the article’s full title: behind THE LINES: The Untold Story of the Secret U.S. Mission to Capture Priceless Mapping Data Held by the Nazis). How secret were the mission’s objectives? The HOUGHTEAM were not allowed to open the envelope containing their orders until they were two hours into their flight to Europe.
Geodesy, defined by Miller as ‘the centuries-old science of measuring the Earth with utmost mathematical precision’ does not often pop up on the list of ‘essential weapons of warfare’. Today, when one can get pinpoint GPS coordinates for any place on the planet with their phone, even using maps in battle seems an antiquated idea. Miller points out that the first Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) were launched by the U.S. military in 1978. Reaching the globe spanning capability of today’s GPS systems required decades of satellite launches and the continued refinement of the software needed to process the information. Gathering accurate geophysical data points in the centuries before GPS was a much more painstaking proposition involving physical, boots on the ground measurement.
During the 1979-80 academic year, I was back at NMU finishing the last requirements for a Master’s degree in Geography. As a graduate student, my twenty hour a week assignment was to man the Geography Department’s Map Library. Part of my job involved stocking and resale of all the United States Geological Survey (USGS) topographic maps covering Upper Michigan. Map coverage for an area as geographically small as the U.P. still required a lot of standardized topographic maps. Still, the USGS maps I sold were all housed in a couple of cabinets in the front corner of the room across from my desk. The large rectangular room housing the Map Library was ringed with cabinets that stored a large inventory of classroom wall maps that were available for professors to check out and use in various classrooms and lecture halls. By far the largest section in the Map Library was the collection housing 250,000 declassified military maps (occupying cabinets that took up the 90 percent of the floor space). Northern Michigan University was one of a series of nationally designated map repositories where the U.S. Military would send their old maps once newer maps were put into use, a fact that I was not aware of until taking care of them became one part of my grad student position.
In the course of my ten month tenure as the Map Librarian, I was asked to find specific maps from the declassified collection a handful of times. When business was slow, fellow Geography grad student Mike and I would look for obscure places just for the fun of it. If we managed to look at 1000 maps in this time, we viewed a paltry .4 percent of the collection. The maps were indexed in four or five large binders each 8 to 10 inches thick. If there was a place called, say ‘Lower East Slambovia’, the index would direct us to Drawer K-12, Slot #18. Low and behold, there would be detailed topographic maps of ‘Lower East Slambovia’. In more recent years, the collection was relocated to the Olson Library across the Academic Mall from the West Science building and is no longer part of the Geography Department. If there were 100 such repositories around the country and each collection contained a similar number of maps, one doesn’t even need to do the math to get a mental picture of the mountain of maps the U.S. Military relied on. How much of this work is done strictly in digital form these days is unknown to this old paper map guy. It is a pretty safe bet to say an Army unit going into combat would want a hard copy back up of any digital information necessary to wage war. Yes, I would think the pertinent maps are still available in paper form but please remember, my personal knowledge of the declassified military maps is forty years old. The last visit I made to the NMU Geography Department twenty years ago was a bit of a shock because the pen and ink cartography lab had already gone digital (and on that visit I never got to take a look at my old stomping grounds in the old Map Library).
If they made a movie about the HOUGHTEAM, it would be interesting to see who they cast as Major Hough. Miller describes him as, “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 South American rainforests for oil companies.” When his team touched down in Paris, they were toting 1800 pounds of camera gear and equipment for creating microfilm records of their finds. They had lists including potential targets, names of German scientists who might prove helpful in their search (as well as those who should be avoided), and 11,000 index cards detailing information already on file with the Army Map Service. When the first German city fell into Allied hands (Aachen on October 21, 1944), the HOUGHTEAM moved in to search for materials at the Technische Hochschule (Technical University). They found bundles of folders that (to Hough) appeared as if the Germans, “had left a number of files all roped up ready to load into trucks when they made a hasty exit.” The files were microfilmed and sent directly to the commanders at the front. The information was put into use immediately to improve the targeting accuracy of the Allied artillery units. The long term benefit of this information would not be fully realized until after the war.
Hough’s team found their progress slowed as the Germans mounted the counteroffensive known as the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944. The HOUGHTEAM were hunkered down in Paris during this pivotal battle but they were not idle. They continued their research six days a week. When the Belgians requested assistance microfilming survey data and secret lists of artillery coordinates they had acquired, Hough was happy to help. What he didn’t mention were the duplicate copies he made and sent off to Washington. The French city of Strasbourg was soon reliberated and the HOUGHTEAM removed a cache of top-quality German survey equipment before the French army even knew it was there. When the Allied forces regained the upper hand and resumed their eastward march toward the German heartland, Hough and his team were poised to follow them across the Rhine.
As they moved from Cologne (on March 7) to Frankfurt at the end of March, they continued to interrogate those who could provide information about the hidden geodetic information they were seeking. Surprised that some of the Germans were willing to be helpful (“It is surprising that these Germans cooperate as they do,” Hough reported in a memo to Washington), he wasn’t sure if the scientists were anti-Nazi or just afraid of what the Americans might do to them.
The team found a major cache of material in Wiesbaden marked ‘Secret’ or ‘Confidential’. An interview with a captured officer of the German national survey agency (the Reichsamt fur Landesaufnahme or RfL) put two small towns east of Thuringia on Hough’s target list. There they located the entire RfL archive stashed in three doll factories, private homes, a ranch house, and a stable. Hough wrote, “Cannot begin to estimate yet what is here but it is plenty.” April 12 found Hough at Ohrdruf, a satellite camp of the Buchenwald complex, at the same time as Generals Eisenhouwer and Patton. “There are not words capable of expressing the horrible scenes on every hand,” Hough wrote. “It was revolting and we were left almost speechless.”
While overnighting in the city of Gotha, a less than cooperative RfL official finally blurted out the name ‘Saalfeld’. The HOUGHTEAM entered Saalfeld on April 17, some four days behind the advancing U.S. 87th Infantry Division. Here they discovered nothing less than the central map and geodetic data repository for the German Army. With an estimated 4,000 Soviet and Polish refugees running amok (they had been liberated from the nearby forced labor camps), Hough was concerned that this mother lode of information might be destroyed by some of the drunken, angry mobs. He requested 150 troops to help transport the materials and to protect the townspeople. By the time the Germans surrendered on May 8, Hough’s men had shipped 35 truckloads (some 250 tons) of captured materials 75 miles south to the town of Bamberg. Haste was necessary as Saalfeld was in the previously agreed upon ‘Russian Zone’ and if they had waited until the end of the fighting, the Red Army would have laid claim to the valuable intel. Among the captured items were 100,000 maps covering all of Europe, Asiatic Russia, North Africa, and the Middle East. By Hough’s estimate, 95 percent of this data was new to the U.S. Military. The HOUGHTEAM was still removing materials from Saalfeld as late as July 1. The Soviets took possession of the area none the wiser on July 2.
Hough was still in country at Bramberg when the war ended, but he already had an idea of how to apply the captured data. Geodesists had a dream that one day they could create a geodetic network or ‘datum’ covering the whole world. Hough was now in charge of the data needed to construct the network for Europe. He brought an RfL geodesist named Erwin Gigas to Bramberg and had Gigas’ team begin the calculations needed to integrate survey data for Central Europe. He even arranged for them to receive room, board, and pay equal to the salaries they had been paid by the German government during the war.
By September of 1945, Hough had returned to Washington D.C. and his position as the head of the Geodetic Division of the Army Map Service. His involvement with the European Datum (the ED50) culminated when the project was completed in 1951. The ED50 became part of the new global coordinate system known as the Universal Transverse Mercator which is now the standard coordinate system used by the U.S. military and NATO. According to Yale science historian William Rankin, “The Universal Transverse Mercator was a crucial step along the path from old-fashioned maps . . . to coordinate systems such as GPS. It was like GPS before GPS.”
Hough died in 1976 at the age of 77. When military cartographer Thom Kaye learned about the HOUGHTEAM just a few years ago, he began a campaign to have Hough be inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. This posthumous honor was granted in 2018. He may not be remembered as the leader of ‘Hough’s Heroes’, but at least he is enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
As for Kelly’s Heroes, it was filmed in Yugoslavia (now Croatia) because their army was still using WWII vintage tanks and other mechanized equipment – German and American. British TV and film writer Troy Kennedy Martin based the story loosely on a true story featured in the Guinness World Records (1956-2000) called “The Greatest Robbery on Record.” The Guiness tale recounts the removal of the German National Gold Reserves in Bavaria by a combination of U.S. Military personnel and German civilians in 1945. Lack of corroborating evidence at the time Martin was writing the movie script led Guiness editor Norris McWhirter to advise MGM’s Head of Research that, “Any film made will have to be a historical romance rather than history.”
British researcher Ian Sayer began a nine-year investigation of the incident in 1975 that confirmed that this ‘Greatest Robbery’ had been the subject of a cover up. Eventually Sayer was able to personally view two of the remaining gold bars (replete with Nazi markings). On September 27, 1996, these two bars of bullion (now valued at more than $1 million) were secretly handed over to the American government. The gold was then transported to the Bank of England to be added to the account of the Tripartite Commission for the Restitution of Monetary Gold (TCRMG). The location of the rest of this gold hoard is another historical mystery waiting to be solved.
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