The term "Rote Kapelle" ("Red Orchestra") originated from the RSHA which referred to radio operators as "pianists", their transmitters as "pianos", and their supervisors as "conductors". "Red" stood for Communism. Thus, the German counterintelligence called the perceived Soviet covert network die Rote Kapelle, the "Red Orchestra".
The three espionage rings were the Trepper group, the Schulze-Boysen/Harnack group, and the Rote Drei (Red Three).
The Sonderkommando Rote Kapelle ("Red Orchestra Special Detachment"), was a task force set up to combat the Red Orchestra's activities. Including representatives of the Gestapo, Abwehr, and the SD, it was formed in early 1942 at Hitler's personal order.
Trepper directed seven GRU networks in France, and the network steadily gathered military and industrial intelligence in Occupied Europe, including data on troop deployments, industrial production, raw material availability, aircraft production, and German tank designs. Trepper was also able to gather important information through his contacts with highly-placed Germans. Posing as a German businessman, he held dinner parties at which he acquired information on the morale and attitudes of German military figures, troop movements, and plans for the Eastern Front.
In addition, contacts between the Simex company and its main customer, the Todt Organization, provided information on German military fortifications and troop movements. As a further bonus, these contacts supplied some of Trepper's agents with passes that allowed them to move freely in German-occupied areas.
In December 1941 Trepper's transmitter in Brussels was shut down by German security forces and Trepper himself was arrested on 5 December 1942 in Paris. After agreeing to work for the Germans he began transmitting deliberate misinformation to Moscow, which may have included hidden warnings. In September 1943 he escaped and went into hiding with the French Resistance until after the Liberation of Paris in 1944.
Operations by the Trepper ring had been entirely eliminated by the spring of 1943. Most agents were executed, including Suzanne Spaak at Fresnes Prison just thirteen days before the Liberation of Paris in 1944.
The Berlin group began transmitting intelligence to Moscow using radio transmitter just four days after the invasion of Russia. Members of the ring used Soviet-made radios said to be "superior to German transmitters and even to those used by British agents". The Soviets insisted that the Red Orchestra agents transmit lengthy messages, seemingly unaware of the German advances in radio direction-finding; the Abwehr was said to be able to locate a transmitter in an average of 40 minutes.
On 30 July 1942 the network began to unravel when the Gestapo arrested radio operator Johnann Wenzel. Schulze-Boysen was arrested on 30 August and Harnack on 3 September after a warning from Horst Heilmann in the OKH's Cipher Section failed to reach Schulze-Boysen in time.
The Schulze-Boysen group ran the gamut of German society, being comprised of Communists and political conservatives, Jews, Catholics and atheists all united to fight the Nazis. It also contained 40% women, who worked equally alongside the men. The oldest person arrested was 86, the youngest 16. Among the arrested were Harnack's wife Mildred, Schulze-Boysen's wife Libertas, theatre producer Adam Kuckhoff and his wife Greta Kuckhoff, Horst Heilmann, author Günther Weisenborn, journalist John Graudenz (who had previously been expelled from the Soviet Union for reporting negatively about their famine), the potter Cato Bontjes van Beek, the pianist Helmut Roloff, and others.