Cellars of Secrecy: Vintner Peter Sichel’s Double Life As An OSS & CIA Spy

Peter Sichel's life is an extraordinary blend of wine and intrigue. He was born into the family business in Germany and played hide-and-seek as a child among the mountains of wine barrels and cases. Hitler’s rise to power and WWII set him on a different path, however, a dangerous escapade that involved spying for the OSS and CIA before returning to his roots in the vineyards.

As the tentacles of the Third Reich stretched across the European continent, Sichel’s family made their daring escape from Germany via France, Spain, and Portugal, finally settling as Jewish immigrants in New York in 1941. After Pearl Harbor, Peter volunteered to return to Europe, this time as a 20-year-old American intelligence officer determined to recruit German Prisoners of War (PoWs) to spy on their homeland. The danger was palpable.

“Most scary was infiltrating agents through the German lines where the danger was foot mines,” Peter said in 2023, still razor-sharp at the age of 101.

Back in his heyday, Peter Sichel was known as ‘The Wunderkind’.

The legendary Peter Sichel: Spying through the grapevine


Germany: Back on the front lines

Peter Sichel was billeted at a French nunnery in the 1940s, reporting to Henry Baldwin Hyde, a New York lawyer and spymaster operating out of HQ in Lyon, France, one of the team assembled by William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan at the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the civilian spy agency that paved the way for the CIA.

Sichel’s fluent German and intelligence training allowed him to draft and train PoW spies for two types of missions. ‘Tourist’ missions involved captured German soldiers who were given false ID papers and parachuted behind enemy lines to report on German troop dispositions, airports, and other targets. The second type of mission was more complex. PoWs were embedded longer-term and reported back to the Allies via Morse code or using the Joan-Eleanor, a high-frequency, two-way voice radio that communicated with a plane flying overhead at a specific time.

Peter Sichel, age 20 in 1942

Infiltrating PoW spies into German territory by land could be even more harrowing than parachute drops. Usually, the agents would go to ground and Allied troops would advance and retreat until their designated spy was (quite literally) behind enemy lines - not as simple as it sounds. On one occasion, a recruit stepped on a shoe mine. On another, a German patrol captured John Hemingway, son of writer Ernest Hemingway. Luckily, John threw away his classified instruction book and was liberated a few weeks later.

"There was great camaraderie among our team and a feeling that we were doing something useful," Sichel recalled in his autobiography. "Like all wars, there were periods of long, hard work followed by periods of inactivity where we played bridge or chess. We had assured ourselves of a good cook, and I used the family connections to buy wine in Burgundy."

Chateau du Haut Barr in Saverne, France; Sichel was billeted in the vicinity

Cellars of Secrecy: Vintner Peter Sichel’s Double Life As An OSS & CIA Spy

BY
Caroline Byrne
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Peter Sichel's life is an extraordinary blend of wine and intrigue. He was born into the family business in Germany and played hide-and-seek as a child among the mountains of wine barrels and cases. Hitler’s rise to power and WWII set him on a different path, however, a dangerous escapade that involved spying for the OSS and CIA before returning to his roots in the vineyards.

As the tentacles of the Third Reich stretched across the European continent, Sichel’s family made their daring escape from Germany via France, Spain, and Portugal, finally settling as Jewish immigrants in New York in 1941. After Pearl Harbor, Peter volunteered to return to Europe, this time as a 20-year-old American intelligence officer determined to recruit German Prisoners of War (PoWs) to spy on their homeland. The danger was palpable.

“Most scary was infiltrating agents through the German lines where the danger was foot mines,” Peter said in 2023, still razor-sharp at the age of 101.

Back in his heyday, Peter Sichel was known as ‘The Wunderkind’.

The legendary Peter Sichel: Spying through the grapevine


Germany: Back on the front lines

Peter Sichel was billeted at a French nunnery in the 1940s, reporting to Henry Baldwin Hyde, a New York lawyer and spymaster operating out of HQ in Lyon, France, one of the team assembled by William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan at the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the civilian spy agency that paved the way for the CIA.

Sichel’s fluent German and intelligence training allowed him to draft and train PoW spies for two types of missions. ‘Tourist’ missions involved captured German soldiers who were given false ID papers and parachuted behind enemy lines to report on German troop dispositions, airports, and other targets. The second type of mission was more complex. PoWs were embedded longer-term and reported back to the Allies via Morse code or using the Joan-Eleanor, a high-frequency, two-way voice radio that communicated with a plane flying overhead at a specific time.

Peter Sichel, age 20 in 1942

Infiltrating PoW spies into German territory by land could be even more harrowing than parachute drops. Usually, the agents would go to ground and Allied troops would advance and retreat until their designated spy was (quite literally) behind enemy lines - not as simple as it sounds. On one occasion, a recruit stepped on a shoe mine. On another, a German patrol captured John Hemingway, son of writer Ernest Hemingway. Luckily, John threw away his classified instruction book and was liberated a few weeks later.

"There was great camaraderie among our team and a feeling that we were doing something useful," Sichel recalled in his autobiography. "Like all wars, there were periods of long, hard work followed by periods of inactivity where we played bridge or chess. We had assured ourselves of a good cook, and I used the family connections to buy wine in Burgundy."

Chateau du Haut Barr in Saverne, France; Sichel was billeted in the vicinity

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Cold War Spying

Sichel believes his most useful contribution to US intelligence was the collection of ‘Order of Battle’, the details of the disposition of German troops and equipment trying to prevent the Allies from moving forward into Germany. During the Cold War, he also helped US spies establish that the Soviets were not planning for war.

Although the OSS was disbanded when WWII ended in 1945, Peter Sichel carried on living in the shadows for another decade. He transferred to Berlin in October 1945 and worked with Richard Helms, a legendary spymaster who’d eventually head the CIA under President Richard Nixon.

It was a traumatic time. Entire sections of Berlin were leveled. Peter recalled battalions of women in headscarves who cleaned the streets brick by brick - some in high heels, as that was likely all they had. Some 600,000 Berlin apartments were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Berliners lost their lives to bombardment and street-by-street fighting with the Russians. "You can never forget the devastation and misery that war brings once you have seen it," Sichel said. 

His job was to look after senior Germans feeding military, economic, and diplomatic intel to the Allies. Peter was also investigating Soviet nuclear capabilities and tracking war criminals and scientists - both a criminal investigation and search operation for people who needed protection from the Russians. By December 1945, Sichel was temporarily heading up Berlin Operations Base (BOB, for short) and HQ was in the Henkell sparkling wine factory in Wiesbaden.

Sichel was about to return to Washington, D.C., however, and get involved in the most expensive operation the CIA had undertaken at that point: the Top Secret Berlin tunnel, a sneaky, joint operation by the CIA and British MI6 officers to tap into Soviet cable lines in East Berlin and spy on the KGB.

Peter Sichel in Wiesbaden, Germany, 1945


Operation Gold

Operation Gold was an audacious undertaking. The Berlin tunnel ran 1,476 feet - the length of four American football fields - and stretched right under the nose (or at least the feet) of the East German border guards at a cost of a whopping $25m.

As head of Eastern European Operations, Sichel was involved in the approval process overseen by CIA Director Allan Dulles. Bill Harvey, as Chief of Berlin CIA, was ultimately responsible for the tunnel, which soon became known as ‘Harvey’s Hole’. “Most of the information on locations was provided by MI6 based on their operations in Vienna, which is why MI6 was involved in the early stages of the project,” Sichel told SPYSCAPE. 

The tunnel-and-tapping operation got underway in 1954 using a US Air Force radar site and warehouse in a West Berlin suburb as cover for the construction. The target was Soviet-controlled East Berlin where the CIA and MI6 would tap into telephone and telegraph cables to eavesdrop on the Soviet military command in Germany. They listened in for almost a year.

George Blake, a member of MI6’s Section Y, took the minutes at the London meetings where British and American delegations discussed progress on the three telephone and telegraph cables that ran 18 inches beneath the soil alongside the East Berlin highway, the Schönefelder Chaussee. Western spies agreed it was an incredible intelligence coup - until, possibly, it wasn’t.

It transpired that Blake was a Soviet spy, a mole in MI6, and Moscow knew about the tunnel from the start. The Kremlin decided not to blow the whistle - or Blake’s cover - until a Soviet maintenance crew 'accidentally' found the tunnel. “We had no inkling of the operation being compromised even before the building of the tunnel,” Sichel said. “The whole tunnel operation was handled by a specially structured unit outside of the CIA station for security reasons with Harvey being in charge of both.”

Was Operation Gold a success? It depends on who you ask. While CIA officials didn’t ignore the possibility of a massive, year-long Soviet disinformation campaign, they determined it was highly unlikely the Soviets and East Germans had the time, funds, or inclination to undertake such an immense effort. Others, including the NSA, weren’t quite so certain.


The Vintner emerges

Sichel resigned from the CIA after 16 years. He ran operations in Berlin and Hong Kong. He rose to the title of head of CIA Eastern European Operations and won a US Distinguished Intelligence Medal, but he’d had enough of the hall of mirrors. It was time to join the family wine business established in 1857.

While Sichel worked as a company apprentice in Bordeaux in 1939 and 1940, Peter had no real understanding of the German side of the operations. That was about to change. Peter Sichel, the Wunderkind born in Mainz, Germany in 1922, was always a quick study. The tasting sessions, which largely took place between 11 am and 1:30 pm (sometimes even later) were at the heart of the business.

He is largely credited with popularizing the company’s Blue Nun wine brand in the 1980s, for a while the largest international wine brand in the world. Since then, Peter Sichel has also written several books on German wine and a guide to wine, in addition to his autobiography.

"I happened to be in the right place at the right time," he said a few years ago. "I wasn't any brighter than the other guy. I had one advantage. I knew what I didn't know and got very good people to work for me. And that's the principle of my life.”

“I’ve never tried to pretend that I know it all,” he added, laughing. “I’m not that German."

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