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They crouched in makeshift booths in dank, secret parts of wartime England, poring over the coded radio traffic flowing from the commanders of Nazi Germany. With some brilliant coups, and much plodding labor, the British code-breakers tracked the progress of the German army on its march across Europe.

Then came the summer of 1941 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Now the content of the coded messages used by the German commanders of the SS and police units that followed the front-line troops was shockingly different from routine intelligence about troop movements: July 18 - "1,153 Jewish looters shot"; Aug. 27 - "Regiment South shot 914 Jews; the special action staff with police battalion 320 shot 4,200 Jews"; Aug. 31 - "2,200 Jews shot."This, many historians now believe, was the shorthand for the beginnings of the Holocaust. But in a striking display of official secretiveness, only in recent days have the contents of the radio intercepts finally been made public in Washington. For historians and Holocaust researchers, they provide a clue to one of the vital missing links of the history of the era: who in the West knew at the time that genocide was beginning?

"What is perfectly clear is that British intelligence had absolutely definite information, not about all of Europe, but certainly about occupied parts of the Soviet Union," Professor Richard Breitman said.

Breitman, a historian at American University here, was among a group of American scholars who requested the declassification of 1.3 million wartime documents from the National Security Agency under the Freedom of Information Act. The agency released the documents to the National Archives.

Breitman said in a recent interview that 282 pages of radio intercepts from SS and police commanders in Belarus and Ukraine were among the documents. Taken together with earlier British research, he said, they establish that the British knew that Jews were being targeted for atrocities as early as September 1941 - more than a year before Britain or the United States publicly acknowledged the plight of European Jews.

Even before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Polish resistance and Jewish groups had been telling Britain and its allies of atrocities against civilians in Poland.

By late 1941, Breitman said, "the British knew a lot about the shootings in the Soviet Union" and had concluded that "it was perfectly obvious that the Nazis were executing every Jew they could lay hands on."

Although Britain and the United States shared intelligence during the war, it remains unclear when the British passed on this information, including copies of the documents, to the Americans, who entered the war in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The documents reaffirm that in the wartime German hierarchy, responsibility for the mass killing of Jews lay not only with elite SS units, but also with municipal police units - the Order Police - supposedly drawn from less fanatical Germans.

The disclosure, moreover, raises the troubling question of why the transcripts, still classified in Britain, were not released earlier to assist in the prosecution of war criminals.

The documents have opened a new fault line among historians of the Nazi era in the United States, Britain, and Germany over questions relating to the very definition of the Nazi genocide and the Allied response to it.