Intelligence Services

This section is about the Minox's use in intelligenece gathering


Introduction

Interview with the inventor Walter Zapp (translated from german):

[..] the first officially sold VEF Minox Riga went to a foreign diplomat, and unfortunately I understood immediately what that meant in plain english: Espionage! I was horrified! I never though of the Possibillity to use [the camera] for this application. Until today I did not (verschnatzt?) that [the camera] has been used in this area further. This was the best free advertisement, but the meanest! [..] - Later sources indicate that this may have been a french diplomat

Strength & Weakness of the Minox camera

Characteristic
Score
Comment
Concealment
10/10
Smallest precision camera availble, easily hidden
Covert photography
02/10
While easily concealed the telescopic film advance was a major drawback in taking sequential shots unnoticed
Picture quality
06/10
Negative size limitation, Fast film requirement for observations and indoor shots
Document copy ability
09/10
Perfect short focus ability, good document copy film available
Availability
08/10
Hundreds of cameras were immediately available at the start of the war
Overall
35/50


Its strongest advantage was its size. The Minox was just absolutely ideal, It could  be shipped into the enemy territory through various channels (in inconspicuous objects) and then easily hidden by its operator when carrying out dangerous covert operations. You need to be able to hide a camera as best you can. Especially when observing or even entering top secret areas or buildings you inevitably had to pass numerous checkpoints. For example you could hide the camera dircetly on your body as you would rarely or never be subjected to a full strip search. Equally you could conceal it in an object and walk away from it in danger. It really depended on the situation.

Its strongest disadvantage was the film transport. Manually advancing each frame by opening and closing the camera was a huge obstacle and shows that the camera was not designed as a spy camera. Either you had to blow your cover and take shots rapidly when you had the chance, or painstakingly advance each frame in secret. This costed valuabe time making sequential shots almost impossible. Moving was always better and as you would almost always be surrounded by someone. The rule of thumb would be not to behave any diffrent as the rest of them. No-stopping, no-lingering on. The later post-war Minox copy Tochka solved this by building a spring loaded mechanism into the camera allowing pictures to be taking rapid without revealing any movement at all.

How the Minox could be used

Different uses of the Minox camera

Documents, Secret observation of buildings, access etc

45-50 hour training in microfilming (US)

Containers for smuggling Minox film (Empty batteries in torch, Shaving brushes)





French Resistance

Potential agencies:


Persons identified:


Germany

Potential agencies:


Persons identified:




Sowjet Union

Potential agencies:


The Sowjet Union had perfect access to Minox cameras from 1939 - Spring 1941. That they were still in short supply shows a now declassified top secret document.




United Kindgdom & Commonwealth

Potential agencies:


Note: Ian Fleming worked for NID and later after WW2 he wrote his famous James Bond novels. By the way the head of MI6 was not "M" but "C" and "Q" may be a fictional character in James Bond devising spy gadgets but the "Q" Branch and "Q" gadgets really existed. The letter Q originally comes from WW1 were the term Q-ships refered to merchant ships luring in the enemy and destroying it with concealed heavy weaponry on board. 

Just before and particularly after
September 1939 when war was declared on Germany, intelligence gathering was paramount and sourcing Minox cameras relatively easy. Only in the late summer of 1940 did the fortunes turn, and Minox Ltd ran out of all supplies and the agencies had to find new ways to obtain cameras.

Buy-back program
By the end of 1940, Minox Ltd had run out of cameras and no new supplies were coming in. Agencies thus had to actively buy back cameras from the considerable number of civilial owners. Similar in both UK and US this was not done directly but employing agents, not to raise german suspicion of their plans or their shortage of cameras. They contacted Wallace Heaton who owned a camera store on Bond Street and was  more importantly the President of the Photographic Dealer Association. Through him several camera chains and stores would start calling their original customers and send low key adverts out. Through this, they were immediately able to buy back several dozens of cameras from their original owners. While the Buy-back program was initially a success, it became more and more difficult to source cameras. Always one or two would turn up but no large quantities.

During the War, many shrude business man would achieved huge financial profits by trading rare materials and parts. This war profiteering was strictly forbidden and any trade required an official seal of approval. This didnt stop many from doing so in secret and o
ne day the Ministry of Supplies recieved an anoymous tip off.  An american business man had 60 Minox cameras in his possession and was about to send them for a huge profit to the USA. This was a big find and they impounded the cameras immediately and forwarded them to their agents.

Later, the search became more desperate! In 1943 Advertsiements would now be made in the mainstream newspapers such as the Times even though they were regulary checked by the enemy. By 1944 and 1945 they didnt hide their true intention anymore and pleaded dircetly on the loyalty of british citizen to hand in their cameras.


The Times London 30th Jan 1945

Building an english Minox alternative
It was clear that Minox stocks were finite and the market almost empty. Even offering higher and higher prices would not deliver the amount of cameas required. This was the case both in in the UK and the US and both tried to evaluate building their own spy cameras. In England the Lines Brothers were contacted and given a Minox to reverse engineer. The company already had the precision tools and skills needed as they produced miniture models and toys (e.g. Dinky toys). They dissassembled the camera and evaluated making it and return their dossier to the Ministry of Supplies. To assemble the production line and start making all the required parts was in the region of 100,000 pounds. This was far too much for any cash straped war budget and it never went any further.

Cameras used in His Majesty's Services:

Camera
Used by
Survived
Mission History
No.06638
SOE
Yes
France (1943), Greece (1944)





Persons identified:



United States of America

Potential agencies:

The Minox was widely sold throughout the States starting from July 1940. By the time the US entered the war with Germany and Japan in December 1941, the majority of cameras had already been sold to civilian customers. That the intelligence agencies were already interested in the Minox before this shows a document from the Sixth Army Corps.

At the time intelligence was gathered by several different agencies and departments within the US government and military. It is difficult to know how many cameras were already purchased by these individual departments before the OSS was founded. In 1942 the US goverment bundled a majority of intelligence gathering under one agency, the office of Strategic Services (OSS). The same year, 1942, the OSS, requested 50 Minox cameras with the option to purchase more.

Cameras were issued to OSS agents, the Minox miniature camera being the most ideal.The OSS parachuted trained Minox equipped agents into France and other areas where they photographed secret documents, installations, bridges and approaches.By 1944, the Minox was a standard intelligence gathering tool and the camera, daylight developing tank and enlarger feature in the OSS Catalog.


The number of Minox cameras which served for the USA is unknown but must have been significant.

 

Buy back program
The surviving OSS purchase order from 1942 already indicates the scarcity of these cameras and that they had to be located and bought back from original owners. As the 50 cameras had been located in 1942 it is likely that the OSS and other agencies did request more camras, hence the continued buy back program.

Surviving cheques found so far (pls email if you found another one):

Camera
Bought back
Original Owner
Used by
Survived
Mission history
No.03292
20 May 1943
Rudy Vallee (cashed Los Anegles)



No.03622
08 March 1943
Oscar Lieberman (New York)



No.03935
01 September 1943


Yes

No.04459
01 November 1948




No.04581
17 March 1943




No.04769
12 July 1943
Mis B N Woodward



No.05204
21 April 1943
RA Stranahan (New York)



No.08771
28 July 1949




No.08843
27 February 1946




No.08863
27 May 1949




No.08987
27 May 1949




No.10130
06 July 1948




No.10866
17 December 1948





Building an american Minox alternative
As the Minox remained scarce despite a nationwide search, the OSS tried to find ways to make up for the shortage. I am sure they came to the same conclusion as the English that building a Minox production line was far too cosly. Thus with the collaboration of Kodak they developed a cheap and easily assembled miniature Matchbox camera. This camera, the Kodak-X was manufactured for the OSS close to the end of World War II but due to the cost and time constrains remained inferioir in picture quality.

Persons identified: