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Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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In the years after the war, some MI5 officers such as Tar Robertson would criticise the deception tricks of Dudley Clarke and A-Force in the Egyptian desert as ‘amateur’. A-Force was certainly not a professional intelligence service in the way that MI5 or SIS were. It was also the case that Clarke was a highly eccentric individual. In a truly bizarre episode, in 1943 he was arrested in Madrid dressed as a woman. At first he told the Spanish police that he was conducting research for a news report on people’s reactions to men dressed as women, but he then changed his story and stated that he had been bringing the clothes to a friend, and decided to try them on as ‘a prank’ – but as one official in the British embassy in Madrid noted, this did not explain why the women’s shoes and brassi?re he was wearing fitted him.

For all of Clarke’s undoubted eccentricities, it was unfair for Robertson to suggest that he and A-Force were ‘amateur’. The root of the tension between MI5 and outfits such as A-Force was that MI5 was concerned with counter-espionage for its own sake – to prevent an enemy from gaining British secrets – and viewed strategic deception as an extreme form of counter-espionage, whereas agencies like A-Force tended to view strategic deception as the ultimate goal. A-Force’s disinclination to regard counter-espionage as an end in itself seems to be the reason Robertson played down its efforts.

Robertson was one of MI5’s best agent handlers in the first half of the twentieth century. He was a professional intelligence officer who joined the service in the early 1930s, having served in the Seaforth Highlanders regiment of the British Army – his tendency to persist in wearing the regiment’s uniform of Scottish trews earned him the affectionate nickname ‘passion-pants’ within MI5. During the war he led Section B1a of MI5, which was responsible for running all double-cross agents – 120 in total. Robertson’s success had much to do with his affable manner, which could put even tough enemy agents at ease. Nevertheless, as a professional intelligence officer, he naturally regarded those who saw matters differently from himself and MI5, particularly over the use of strategic deception, as novice upstarts.

In labelling A-Force ‘amateur’, Robertson overlooked a crucial point: MI5, like the rest of the British intelligence community, actually owed much of its wartime success to the influx of amateur outsiders into its ranks. A flood of outstanding, if eccentric, individuals equipped Britain’s wartime intelligence services with a degree of ingenuity and creativeness hitherto missing. They included a number of high-powered intellectuals from Britain’s leading universities, with Bletchley Park in particular becoming a bastion of such brainpower. Among its most notable recruits were the brilliant mathematicians Alan Turing, Alfred ‘Dilly’ Knox and Gordon Welchman, all from Cambridge University. Two-thirds of the Fellowship of King’s College, Cambridge, worked at Bletchley Park at some point during the war. Turing was essentially responsible for devising an entirely new system of mechanised ‘bombes’ to power decryption efforts against the Enigma code – for this reason he has justifiably been termed the father of modern computer science. Recruits into SIS included high-calibre Oxford academics such as the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper and the philosophers Stuart Hampshire and Gilbert Ryle. Some notable literary figures also entered SIS’s wartime ranks, sometimes with humorous results: when Malcolm Muggeridge and Graham Greene were given training by SIS on the use of secret inks, which included instructions on how to obtain raw material for an ink codenamed ‘BS’ (birdshit), their reactions were understandably bemused. Intellectual heavyweights who joined MI5 during the war included Victor Rothschild from Cambridge, who became MI5’s in-house expert on sabotage, and from Oxford the academic lawyer H.L.A. Hart and the historian John Masterman. Masterman, a brilliant academic, a bachelor and one of the best spin bowlers in English cricket at the time, became the chairman of MI5’s ‘Twenty Committee’, which oversaw all the double-cross agents that MI5 ran during the war. In a typical example of the wordplay used by its academically-minded members, the Twenty Committee was so called because a double cross, ‘XX’, is the Roman numeral for twenty.

Alongside this kind of intellectual firepower, less academic professions also produced some outstanding wartime officers for British intelligence. One of MI5’s best agent handlers, Cyril Mills, came from an unlikely family background: he was the son of the famous circus-owner Bertram Mills. Probably the best working relationship that developed during the war between an agent and an intelligence case officer was that of the ‘amateur’ MI5 wartime recruit Tomаs Harris and his double agent Garbo. Harris joined MI5 from the unlikely background of an antiquarian art dealership in London. His fluency in Spanish made him the obvious handler for Garbo, and the two worked brilliantly together, building up an extremely detailed but entirely fictional espionage network, consisting of twenty-eight sub-agents in various parts of Britain, who in reality were ‘nothing more than a figment of the imagination’. Garbo had to make use of a guidebook when describing the locations of these bogus agents to his German handlers, because he had not travelled widely in Britain. As Harris later commented, Garbo’s imagination was worthy of Milton.

Another benefit of ‘amateur’ wartime recruits like Harris was that they were less concerned with careerism, and staying within the corridors of power of the secret state, than their professional colleagues, which meant they were more free to come up with creative ideas and less worried if those ideas did not work. That said, it should be noted that ingenuity and creativity only go so far in the mechanics of agent-running: there comes a point when it has to involve tiresome, but necessary, methodical research. One former SIS officer who worked closely with MI5’s Section B1a recalled that his day-to-day business involved such mind-numbing tasks as reading a Madrid telephone directory backwards in order to find an agent’s name from an intercepted telephone number.


During the Second World War Britain’s intelligence services essentially faced the same kind of threats as they had in the First World War. The intelligence services of the Axis Powers attempted to incite revolt and unrest across the British empire just as the Central Powers had done. To counter these threats, Britain’s secret state built up unprecedented imperial intelligence capabilities. The Second World War was when Britain’s imperial intelligence came of age, and MI5’s pre-war vision of being an imperial security service became a reality. It increased the number of officers (DSOs) posted to colonial and Commonwealth countries from six at the start of the war to twenty-seven by its end, supported by twenty-one secretarial staff, stationed across the globe, from Trinidad to Aden to Kuala Lumpur. DSOs communicated with the ‘Overseas Control’ section in MI5’s headquarters in London, run by an officer named Col. Bertram Ede, using secure cyphers and under the cover address ‘Subsided’. During the war several senior MI5 officers made trips to British territories overseas to oversee and help reform local security. Both Dick White and Tar Robertson visited the Middle East, and recommended ways in which MI5’s inter-service outfit there, known as Security Intelligence Middle East (SIME), could function more efficiently, particularly in running double agents. MI5 also maintained highly secret laboratories in two outposts of empire, Bermuda and Singapore, run by specially recruited scientists – real-life James Bond Q-types – whose responsibilities included testing intercepted letters for secret inks.

Along with MI5’s expanded imperial role, the war also revolutionised SIGINT operations in British territories overseas, and led to GC&CS’s direct involvement in colonial and Commonwealth countries. GC&CS’s regional hub in India, the so-called ‘Wireless Experimental Centre’ in Delhi, dramatically increased the amount and quality of traffic it intercepted, obtaining volumes of enemy communications once the Enigma code had been cracked. GC&CS did the same in other parts of the empire, in Hong Kong, Cyprus, Malta and the British Army’s wireless station at Sarafand in Palestine, which acted as a local collection point for GC&CS in the Middle East. A similar surge in intercepted traffic occurred in the largely civilian outfit that GC&CS ran at Heliopolis, in Egypt, and in the SIGINT station that the RAF ran for GC&CS in Iraq, which was occupied by Britain and the Allies during the war. The massive expansion of GC&CS’s overseas wartime operations led to some ingenious developments. When a tall antenna was needed to intercept radio communications in Egypt, workers at the Radio Security Service (RSS), the outfit under MI5’s control responsible for intercepting illicit radio communications sent to and from agents, came up with the idea of sticking one on top of the Great Pyramid – effectively making this wonder of the ancient world the largest wireless receiver on the planet.

As in the First World War, during the Second World War it became a strategy of Britain’s enemies to forge alliances with anti-colonial groups campaigning for independence within the British empire. Once again, Ireland was an obvious target for Germany to incite anti-British revolt, and the Abwehr attempted unsuccessfully to forge links with the Irish Republican Army in a plan codenamed Operation Kathleen. The IRA took full advantage of Britain’s weakened domestic security during the war, launching a bombing campaign in 1939 in which London’s Hammersmith Bridge was among the targets attacked – which increased MI5’s fears of a ‘fifth column’ operating in Britain. At the time, security threats posed by the IRA were not the responsibility of MI5, but fell squarely on the shoulders of the Special Branch at Scotland Yard – which had originally been established in the 1880s as the ‘Special Fenian Branch’. In the immediate pre-war years, MI5 did have a link with the police in Dublin and Belfast, and also maintained a liaison with military intelligence (G2) in the Irish Free State (or Eire as it was called after 1937). During the war it opened a desk devoted to Irish affairs, led by Cecil Liddell, brother of the wartime Director of MI5’s B-Division, Guy Liddell. However, MI5 only really became involved in dealing with the IRA during the war if there was a clear German connection. Luckily for MI5, all of the German agents sent to Ireland to link with the IRA proved to be spectacularly inept. They were either identified by other agents already in MI5’s custody, tracked down by the Irish police, or identified in Ultra decrypts provided by Bletchley Park. One agent, Herman G?rtz, was parachuted into Ireland in the summer of 1940 wearing full Luftwaffe uniform and regalia. His wireless set was destroyed on landing, he nearly drowned while crossing the river Boyne, which also claimed the bottle of invisible ink he was supposed to communicate with, and he was totally unsuccessful in contacting the IRA’s leadership. Although he was not tracked down by the Irish police until November 1941, while he remained at liberty his mission was a complete failure. After his arrest he was imprisoned in Dublin for the rest of the war, and when told that he would be repatriated back to Germany he committed suicide in a Dublin police station.


It is easy to romanticise the story of the wartime successes of British intelligence, and to forget a fundamental point: for all of Britain’s wartime intelligence achievements, its secret services were fortunate to face opponents who were generally ineffective, in some cases spectacularly so. The failures of the Nazi intelligence services were ultimately due to the authoritarian nature of the Third Reich itself. Like the intelligence services of all one-party authoritarian regimes, they were extremely good at intelligence collection: keeping detailed records on their enemies, conducting surveillance and using the fear of denunciation to terrorise populations into submission. They enforced the racial conspiracy theories of the Nazi leadership with ruthless zeal, orchestrating the ‘Final Solution’ with a cold, bureaucratic efficiency. They also mounted some successful operations against the British: the notorious Venlo incident was followed by the ‘Cicero’ spy affair, by which classified information was obtained from the British consulate-general in Istanbul from 1943 to 1944. In the Netherlands they identified and overran resistance groups working for the British Special Operations Executive, and recruited double agents from among their members. However, these successes were the exceptions, not the rule.

Just like the Soviet Union’s NKVD operating at the same time, the Nazi intelligence services were astonishingly poor at intelligence assessment: their activities were more concerned with furthering the racial conspiracies of the leadership than with gathering critical information. The Nazi Sicherheitsdienst (‘Security Service’ – SD), for instance, had an entire division devoted to researching church records to identify Jewish and Slavic ancestry, while the SS, Hitler’s murderous elite corps, devoted its resources to researching bizarre subjects like the significance of top hats and Gothic pinnacles at Eton, the suppression of harps in Ulster and the activities of Freemasons.

This type of warped activity was accentuated by the fact that there were a number of inbuilt reasons preventing the objective collection of intelligence by Nazi officials: they were often afraid of reprisals against themselves or their families if they produced ‘wrong’ reports, and this inevitably created a large degree of sycophancy among their ranks, with junior staff wary of voicing dissenting opinions. There is some evidence to suggest that, due to their fear of admitting failures to their superiors, some Abwehr officers continued to run agents even when they suspected that their cover had been blown. The head of the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, is known to have been strongly anti-Hitler, and was eventually executed for treason in April 1945 on the F?hrer’s personal orders. However, contrary to what has been alleged, there is no evidence that Canaris was secretly in communication with SIS during the war to negotiate a peace settlement.

One of the main Abwehr officers conducting operations against Britain and its empire, Dr Nikolaus Ritter, who also went by the alias ‘Clark Gable’ because, he said, of his resemblance to the Hollywood actor, later unconvincingly claimed to have known that the cover of some of the agents he sent to England was blown, and that he was really running a triple-cross against Britain. By the middle of the war, after a series of failed intelligence missions, Ritter’s Abwehr career was over. He went on to be in charge of civil air defence in Hanover, and was responsible for coordinating the city’s defences on the evening of a devastating Allied raid in October 1944, when his powers of prediction spectacularly failed him. Believing that a diversionary raid was the main thrust of the attack, Ritter stood Hanover’s air defences down. Precisely six minutes after he gave his order, 1,500 Allied bombers arrived overhead. Ritter was immediately retired. One of the last reports we find on him in MI5 records is from 1945, after his capture by the Allies, which notes that he is in charge of sweeping out the canteen in a British interrogation facility in occupied Germany, and that he has one subordinate under him in his sweeping duties – Kurt Zeitzler, the former Chief of the German General Staff.


One of the most harebrained schemes devised by the Abwehr in the entire war – and it devised many – occurred in the spring of 1941, when Ernst Paul Fackenheim, a Palestine-born Jewish prisoner in a German concentration camp, was recruited and sent on a mission to Palestine to learn what he could of the British efforts to stop Rommel taking the Suez Canal. Unsurprisingly, Fackenheim gave himself up to the Allies after he was dropped into Palestine by parachute. The German intelligence services devised similarly ill-conceived plots elsewhere in the Middle East. Operation Atlas was planned by the Abwehr together with Hitler’s Arab protеgе, the virulent anti-Semite Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el Husseini, who from 1940 was exiled in Berlin, installed at the splendid Bellevue Palace where he set himself up as a kind of Lawrence of Arabia figure, and was known as Hitler’s guest in the red fez. The gist of Operation Atlas was that in September 1944 two Arab fighters and three Abwehr agents would be dropped from a Heinkel 111 over Jericho with banknotes and ten cylinders of poison with which to poison the wells in Tel Aviv – apparently in a perverse reversal of the old conspiracy theory that Jews were responsible for poisoning wells in Europe. The Abwehr agents would then help fund anti-British revolts in Palestine and neighbouring countries. Although the Abwehr did not know it, details of the mission had been disclosed to the Allies by Ultra decrypts obtained by Bletchley Park, and its agents were tracked down and arrested. One of the Arab agents, Ali Hassan Salameh, known as ‘the cut-throat’, was wounded in a skirmish with the Palestine police, but limped off to fight another day, waging violent campaigns against Jews in Palestine and, after 1948, against Israelis. Salameh’s son inherited his father’s implacable anti-Semitism. Born in 1940, he was known as ‘the red prince’, and would become notorious as the chief of operations of Black September, the Palestinian terrorist organisation responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes and officials at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Nothing better illustrates how animosities and hatred can be passed down through the generations in the modern history of the Middle East.

Another, equally unsuccessful, Nazi espionage network in the Middle East was the so-called ‘Pyramid’ organisation in Egypt, led by Count Lаszlо Almаsy, a Hungarian explorer and the real-life original of ‘the English Patient’. In the award-winning novel of that name by Michael Ondaatje and film by Anthony Minghella, Almаsy is depicted as a handsome airman and hero. In reality he was neither handsome nor a hero, but an unsuccessful Nazi intelligence officer, according to his MI5 file a ‘hunchback … shabbily dressed, with a fat and pendulous nose, drooping shoulders and a nervous tic’. In the novel and the film, Almаsy is depicted as dying from a morphine overdose, with his heart broken. In reality, he died of amoebic dysentery in 1951. After his recruitment by Nazi intelligence in Paris sometime in the immediate pre-war years, Almаsy was sent to Egypt to report on British troop and shipping movements. His mission was a total failure. In 1942 he was supposed to infiltrate two agents into British-occupied Egypt, who would report directly to Rommel’s headquarters in the Middle East by wireless. For this task he recruited an Egyptian, Mohsen Fadl, who was working for the Egyptian tourist board in Paris, and a former cotton trader named Hans Eppler, the illegitimate son of a German woman who had married an Egyptian judge. Both proved unqualified disasters.

In May 1942 Almаsy began Operation Condor, an epic but ultimately unsuccessful mission to smuggle his two agents into Egypt. It involved a hellish journey of about 3,000 miles, in two stolen US trucks and two Chevrolets, from Libya across the Egyptian desert. The first attempt was a failure, with the vehicles becoming stuck in quicksand and the drivers falling desperately ill. The second, however, was a success. After dropping his agents in the town of Asyut, Almаsy made the return journey to Libya. His agents travelled on to Cairo, where they went underground in the city’s red-light district, and blew the ?3,000 he had given them on cheap champagne, cabarets, prostitutes and nightclubs. Their mission produced no important intelligence, but they did manage to recruit one of the best belly-dancers in Egypt, described in MI5 records as ‘an exponent of the dance de ventre’, who installed them on a houseboat on the Nile, in the cocktail bar of which they hid their radio transmitters. Their attempts to make wireless communication with Rommel’s headquarters were unsuccessful: unknown to them, the Abwehr unit with which they were supposed to communicate had been captured by the Allies. In a desperate bid to get messages to the German forces they recruited a young signals officer in the Egyptian army named Anwar Sadat – the future President of Egypt. In fact, Almаsy’s entire mission had been compromised from the outset: Bletchley Park and MI5’s inter-service agency, SIME, had been closely monitoring it as it took one inept turn after another. Almаsy was identified in Ultra decrypts as operating under the codename ‘Salam’, an anagram of the first five letters of his surname. After three months watching its every move, SIME finally decided to put an end to the network, and in July 1942 Almаsy and all of his agents, including the young Sadat, were arrested.

One of the most complicated counter-espionage and deception agents run anywhere in the British empire in the Second World War was ‘Silver’, who was skilfully handled by British and Allied intelligence services in India. Silver is revealed by IPI records, now held at the British Library in London, to have been Bhagat Ram, an Afghani who was the right-hand man of the great Indian-Bengali nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose. In the course of the war Ram, who also went by the alias of ‘Ramat Khan’, actually became a triple agent, working at various times for Germany, the Soviet Union and Britain, and there is some evidence to suggest that he was also in communication with Chinese intelligence.

Ram was a fiercely anti-British Indian nationalist, whose twin allegiances lay with India and the cause of communism. When war in Europe was declared in 1939, he and Bose threw in their lot with the Axis Powers – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union started the war as allies through the Nazi–Soviet Pact of 1939. Bose, who regarded the war as India’s great opportunity, helped to lead the ‘Quit India Movement’, whose aim was to eject the British from India, and also assisted with the formation of the Indian National Army (INA), which collaborated with the Japanese and fought bloodily against the Allies. Indeed, some of the writings of the Burmese wartime nationalist leader Ba Maw, who also collaborated with the Japanese, show an affinity with many of the tenets of National Socialism. As a corollary to the wartime ‘Jewish Brigade’ of the British Army, during the war some 3,000 Indians joined a special division of the German army (the Wehrmacht), which was later absorbed into the notorious Waffen-SS. Facing a ‘fifth column’ threat, the British authorities in Delhi arrested and detained its supposed ringleaders. Bose was imprisoned in late 1940, as was his main rival in India’s Congress Party, Jawaharlal Nehru. However, in January 1941 Bose escaped incarceration in Calcutta and fled to Afghanistan, where he made contact with German forces, including the Abwehr.

Bose and Ram’s fortunes were transformed by Nazi Germany’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, on 22 June 1941. Hitler’s disastrous decision was the result of his desire to establish a slave empire and ‘living space’ (Lebensraum) in the east for ‘pure’ Germanic races. One of its results was that previous diplomatic alliances were instantly overturned, with the Soviet Union and Britain becoming allies overnight. While Bose, India’s so-called ‘man of destiny’, remained a supporter of Nazi Germany, Ram held his allegiance to communism and the Soviet Union even higher, which led him to side with the Soviet Union’s new ally: his old foe, Britain. Ram started to work as an agent for British and Soviet intelligence – one of the few double agents shared by the two nations during the war. He presented himself to the Abwehr station in Kabul as a kind of modern-day Rudyard Kipling or Lawrence of Arabia figure, and started passing misinformation to them in October 1942.

As in other parts of the British empire, local security agencies in India looked to Britain’s homeland intelligence services, particularly MI5, for guidance on how to run double-cross agents. Early in 1943 a senior MI5 officer, John Marriott, who was secretary to the ‘Twenty Committee’, travelled to India – with the honorary rank of Major, in order to afford him ‘better treatment’ than a civilian – to help coordinate the running of double agents, particularly Silver. Marriott was given a warm welcome by the IB in Delhi, but as his reports back to MI5 in London reveal, he was far from impressed with the IB. Between bouts of dysentery and suffering from the extreme heat in India – there are still apparently sweat marks on some of the pages of his reports – he noted that the IB had only fifty officers in total, stationed across the various provinces of India. With just twelve officers at its headquarters in Delhi, the IB was, according to Marriott, ‘understaffed and overworked’. Moreover, apart from Silver, it lacked any other meaningful double-cross agents. However, as Marriott conceded, part of the problem was that he often found it difficult to understand the details of cases in India – a former London solicitor, he undoubtedly had an English ‘home counties’ outlook. As he explained in one report to MI5 in March 1943:

I quite honestly find myself unable to recall the name of the man whose file I am reading sometimes, and anything like association of ideas or even being able to recall a name which appears on the previous page is for the moment beyond me. Place names are even worse. I don’t pretend to be awfully good at the geography of western Europe so you can imagine the lack of response I feel when I read that a man has travelled from Monywa to Kalewa and thence has followed the Tamu Road.

Despite the meagre resources the IB in Delhi had at its disposal, together with MI5, it ran the Silver case – perhaps so named because one of the IPI officials working on it in London was a Mr Silver – remarkably successfully. Overall control came under the military intelligence unit led by Lt. Col. Peter Fleming, attached to the staff of the Commander in Chief in India, Wavell, who showed as much appreciation for intelligence there as he had in the Middle East. However, the day-to-day running of the case was carried out by William ‘Bill’ Magan, then a British Army officer attached to the IB, who would go on to play an important role in MI5’s involvement with anti-colonial movements, and broader issues of British decolonisation, in the post-war years. Magan had begun his career as an Indian cavalry officer, and was described to his wife before their marriage in New Delhi in 1940 as ‘a cavalry officer who has actually read a book’. With Magan’s assistance, Ram successfully portrayed himself to the Abwehr in Kabul as the head of a totally fictitious ‘All India Revolutionary Committee’, and depicted India as on the brink of disintegration due to Axis subversion and propaganda. In reality, the ‘All India Revolutionary Committee’ was nothing more than a figment of Ram and Magan’s imagination, and the wireless communications despatched to the Abwehr every night actually originated from Magan and Ram in the garden of the British High Commission in Delhi. As a subsequent MI5 report noted, through Ram British intelligence established a ‘direct line’ to Berlin. The disinformation provided by Ram, portraying India as on its last knees, helped to persuade the German High Command not to transfer more military divisions to India. Ram also made contact by wireless with Japanese intelligence in Burma. Documents captured after the war revealed that, thanks in part to the deception information he provided, the Japanese military judged that Allied troops in South-East Asia numbered fifty-two divisions, a staggering 72 per cent higher than reality. Subhas Chandra Bose died in an air crash in August 1945, never aware that Ram was secretly working for British and Soviet intelligence. In his posthumously published memoirs he misguidedly described Ram as his trusted comrade, ‘who secretly passed messages to comrades in India’ against the British.


At the same time that Britain’s intelligence services were running double-cross agents like Silver in India, its special forces were also actively thwarting Axis plots in the empire. British territories in the Middle East, particularly Egypt, occupy as important a place in the history of British irregular warfare as they do in that of British strategic deception. As with modern strategic deception, the Middle East was the birthplace of Britain’s modern special forces. Dudley Clarke, the founding father of strategic deception, was also one of the founders of the modern British special forces. In 1940 he was instrumental in setting up a self-sufficient and highly mobile new unit which he termed the commandos, and in July 1941 he helped to establish one of the most famous of all special forces units: the Special Air Service (SAS). The SAS was founded in Egypt by Colonel David Stirling, under the British Commander in Chief of the Middle East, General Claude Auchinleck, but Clarke provided valuable input to the new regiment: he explained to its leaders the benefits of strategic deception, as he had done to the LCS, and he even helped to create its emblem, featuring the sword of Damocles, which it retains to the present day. During the war the SAS successfully used groups of men and jeeps, known as Long Range Desert Groups, to harry German forces, and after the war it would perform a valuable role in anti-colonial revolts, or ‘Emergencies’ as they were termed, in various parts of the globe.

Along with the commandos and the SAS, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) also conducted sabotage operations against the Axis Powers in various parts of the British empire. SOE is commonly associated with Europe, but in fact it was an empire-wide service, operating in the Middle East, Africa and the Far East. It was very much the stuff of ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure stories. Strictly speaking, in the British tradition at least, it was not an intelligence agency at all, but a paramilitary organisation, established in July 1940 with the aim of waging a supposedly ‘new’ type of irregular warfare against the Axis Powers – apparently the lessons of guerrilla warfare that existed from Lawrence of Arabia’s days had been forgotten by the Chiefs of Staff in London. SOE picked up where Lawrence had left off. Its remit was, to use Churchill’s famous phrase, ‘to set Europe ablaze’. Its headquarters in Electra House, Baker Street – earning its personnel the nickname ‘the Baker Street Irregulars’ – were inconspicuously identified by a brass plate on the front door that merely read ‘Inter-Services Research Bureau’. From there SOE organised paramilitary and sabotage operations in enemy-occupied territories in Europe and further afield, as well as establishing communications networks in those countries and arranging escape routes from them. In total, during the war it probably employed close to 10,000 men and 3,000 women across the globe.

At first SOE’s operations in the Far East were run out of Singapore, but with the Japanese advance in late 1941 and early 1942, its headquarters were moved first to India, where it was known as the ‘India Mission’. From mid-1942 onwards overall control for its operations in Malaya and Burma was switched to new headquarters in Ceylon, where SOE adopted the cover name ‘Force 136’. Force 136 was led throughout the war by Colin Mackenzie, a former Scots Guards officer with a razor-sharp intellect (he was a student of John Maynard Keynes at Cambridge) who had been badly injured during the First World War. Its operations in the Far East, like broader British interests there, were totally transformed by the rapid advance of Japanese forces through British territories: Hong Kong fell on Christmas Day 1941, Malaya and Burma in early 1942, followed by the catastrophic surrender of the city of Singapore on 15 February. The capitulation of Singapore has rightly earned a place among the worst defeats in modern British military history, and we can now see that it was the result of a massive intelligence failure on the part of the British. Although it is a myth that the enormous guns protecting the city were facing the wrong way when the Japanese attacked, British forces were supplied with the wrong type of ammunition, and they had also been provided with little accurate intelligence from MI5 or SIS warning when and from which direction the Japanese forces would arrive – in fact, they unexpectedly came by land, hiking through the thick Malayan jungles, and not by sea, as expected.

In the immediate pre-war years SIS’s operations in the Far East had been centred on a single officer, Harry Steptoe. No matter how good Steptoe might have been – and many commentators have followed Kim Philby in considering him totally incompetent, a ‘near mental case’ who cooked his own goose – clearly the task of gathering intelligence on imperial Japan was greater than the resources that SIS devoted to it. Once Japanese forces had captured Malaya and Singapore there followed a mass evacuation of Force 136 and other service personnel from the city, with some Force 136 officers, such as Eric Battersby, only reaching safety after a gruelling hike from Malaya to Siam (Thailand). Other Force 136 members, such as John Davis and Richard Broome, escaped from Singapore on Mackenzie’s personal orders in a small vessel from Malaya to Ceylon, where they arrived after a horrendous thirty-two-day journey, with only a tiny amount of food and clean water. An even smaller minority, including Lt. Col. Freddie Spencer Chapman of Force 136 and Captain (known as ‘Major’) Louis Cauvin of SIS, remained in Malaya to fight an extremely lonely war, operating deep in the jungle, where they suffered from malaria and were often near to starvation while they waited for supplies and reinforcements to arrive, and for broken communications to be reinstalled with Force 136’s headquarters in Ceylon. Only forty or so of the stay-behind forces in Malaya avoided death or capture by the Japanese.

Help eventually arrived when John Davis smuggled a group of Chinese agents into Malaya by submarine in May 1943. Thereafter he dramatically zig-zagged around the Indian Ocean by submarine, landing in the Malacca Straits in August 1943. He was soon joined by Richard Broome, and together they set about trying to track down any survivors of the stay-behind forces. They finally located Chapman, who had been training Malayan guerrilla fighters deep in the jungle, on Christmas Day 1943. On 31 December at Blantan Davis signed an agreement (written on a page torn from an exercise book) on behalf of the Allied Supreme Commander for South-East Asia, Lord Louis Mountbatten, with the leader of the guerrillas fighting the Japanese in Malaya, the so-called ‘Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army’, a communist named Chin Peng. Davis was empowered by Mountbatten to ‘aid and strengthen’ the guerrilla forces in Malaya, and Force 136 provided arms, supplies and money in return for Chin Peng’s guerrillas stirring up labour disputes against the Japanese occupiers and sabotaging Japanese shipping.

Force 136 supplied Chin Peng’s fighters with large amounts of equipment, or ‘toys’, to use the vernacular of Force 136’s Quartermaster of Operations (Q-Ops), who was responsible for them. These ‘weapons of minor destruction’, as one MI5 report described them, included Chinese stone carvings with hidden compartments for explosives; Balinese carvings made of high explosives, finished to look like wood, sandstone or porcelain; tins of kerosene disguised as soya sauce; ammunition hidden in cigarette packs; sten guns; and wireless transmitters. Despite the best efforts of Q-Ops to make such ‘toys’ safe, there were inevitable risks. One SOE operator, David Smiley, was injured (in Europe, not the Far East) when a briefcase loaded with explosives went off prematurely. Largely in response to the difficulties of hauling unwieldy wireless transmitter sets (‘W/T’ for short) weighing up to four hundred pounds through the jungles of Malaya, by 1942 SOE had developed lighter and more portable models, codenamed BI and BII – but at fifty pounds they were still heavy, and could not be fitted easily into a suitcase. The RAF also dropped food supplies and ammunition to guerrilla forces in the jungle.

As well as its paramilitary activities, SOE, including Force 136, seems to have been involved in undercover political activities in the empire. It is known that it was responsible for distributing funds to bribe political groups in the Middle East to buy support for the British war effort, and the same appears to have occurred in the Far East. Force 136’s operations expanded so rapidly that by 1943 it had a total staff of 680 in Ceylon, the India Mission deployed 450 agents throughout South-East Asia, and by 15 August 1945 there were 308 SOE personnel, five Gurkha support groups and forty-six W/T sets in the field in Malaya – by any standards, a significant number. As the war progressed, Force 136 developed more elaborate strategies. By 1944, with wireless communications with its headquarters in Ceylon reinstalled, it was developing a plan with the Malayan guerrilla fighters, codenamed Operation Zipper, for the Allied reinvasion and recapture of Malaya and Singapore. However, events were to overtake these plans: the war ended with the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945, before Operation Zipper could become a reality.

Over the years, much ink has been devoted to analysing the successes and failures of SOE, both in the Far East and in Europe. One way of measuring its effectiveness is by considering the goals it set itself. From 1943 onwards, Force 136’s aims were essentially to establish a submarine link between Ceylon and Malaya, to create an intelligence system within Malaya, contact and support guerrilla fighters, and find any survivors of left-behind forces. Given these aims, it seems fair to say that it was largely successful. In other ways, however, Force 136 was a failure. It never really adopted the sabotage role that it was intended to have in Malaya – which was, after all, the main purpose of SOE. Instead, it developed into much more of an intelligence agency than was originally planned, and thereby trod squarely on the toes of SIS. Unsurprisingly, the result was a fierce turf war, with SIS regarding SOE as a maverick organisation full of cowboys.

The encroachment of SOE’s activities into SIS’s realm in the Far East raises an obvious question: would it have been better to combine intelligence collection and covert operations into a single organisation, as happened with the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and later with the CIA, which was in many ways its successor? The British tradition shunned this idea: a single agency, ran the argument, would be unable both to collect impartial intelligence and to carry out actions based on it. But, given the fierce resentment between some SOE and SIS officers, it is likely that Britain’s wartime intelligence activities in the Far East would have been more effective had they been formally combined into a single service.

The confusion over what Force 136’s charter entailed in the Far East is part of a much broader picture relating to SOE’s failures during the war. Critics have pointed out that far from ‘setting Europe ablaze’, as it was tasked to do by Churchill, in fact its operations in Europe barely produced a smoulder. It certainly had some notable failures, the most notorious of which were its operations in the Netherlands, where from 1942 onwards the Abwehr totally compromised its operations, capturing its main agents and using their remarkably ineffective wireless codes to fool SOE into thinking they were still operational, and to continue to provide them with information and supplies – the Abwehr’s famous ‘England game’ (Englandspiel). However, it should be remembered that what the Abwehr did to SOE in the Netherlands for eighteen months – SOE finally realised in 1944 that its agents there had been blown – the British did to the Germans through the Double Cross System for six years.

Furthermore, there were instances when SOE’s operations produced significant successes for the Allies. Its sabotage of heavy-water supplies at Vermork, in Norway, probably frustrated Nazi Germany’s attempt to build an atomic bomb. Its guerrilla operations at Montbеliard, in occupied France, showed how a small group of men could take out a machine-gun turret where successive bombing raids had failed. Finally, and probably more importantly than anything else it achieved, as M.R.D. Foot has noted, SOE gave a sense of self-respect back to countries, in Europe and the Far East, whose conventional armies had been totally overpowered by the Axis Powers. Many of the agents it dropped into occupied territories to assist local resistance groups displayed remarkable bravery. Wing Cmmdr. Forrest Frederick Edward Yeo-Thomas (codenamed ‘the White Rabbit’) forged valiant links with the French resistance and managed to escape Nazi captivity. Others, such as Violette Szabo, did not live to tell their tale, succumbing to Nazi interrogation, torture and execution. In total, SOE sent fifty-five female agents into occupied Europe, thirteen of whom were either killed in action or executed.


During the Second World War British intelligence developed imperial responsibilities in ways that it simply hitherto had not. MI5 posted more officers to British colonial and Commonwealth countries than it ever had previously, and GC&CS dramatically expanded its capabilities, hoovering up enemy traffic from its regional collection stations across the empire. Meanwhile, SOE armed guerrilla fighters against the Axis Powers. However, there is one chapter in the story of Britain’s wartime imperial intelligence responsibilities that is apparently so sensitive it has only recently been disclosed. It has some remarkable parallels with controversial intelligence and security practices in the present day.

As part of its counter-espionage efforts, during the Second World War British intelligence ran a top-secret process of detaining, interrogating and transporting enemy agents between various parts of the British empire. At times this came close to being a form of state-sponsored kidnapping – closely resembling the process of ‘extraordinary rendition’ employed by the US government in the so-called ‘war on terror’ closer to our own time. After December 1940, Ultra decrypts revealed a number of German agents operating throughout the British empire and Commonwealth. In the first six months of 1942, six high-level agents were identified (but not arrested) in different British colonies, and in June 1942 one of them operating in Mombasa, in Kenya, was detained by local police. His detention sparked a debate within MI5 about what should be done with him and other such agents. MI5 wanted them, as well as any other agents who may have been working in different parts of the empire, to be interrogated, and if possible turned into double agents as part of its Double Cross System. However, MI5’s officers in Section B1a, responsible for counter-espionage, were reluctant to have them interrogated in the distant outposts of empire, where effective methods could not be guaranteed. Furthermore, MI5 feared that if the identified agents were interrogated locally, it would have to release the most closely guarded secret of the war, Ultra, to colonial authorities who could not necessarily be trusted – interrogators invariably used information derived from Ultra to trick enemy agents into thinking that British intelligence knew everything about their missions. Instead, MI5 wanted the agents to be brought to its own top-secret interrogation facility, Camp 020, located in a former lunatic asylum, Latchmere House, in Ham Common, a suburb of South London.

Camp 020, which probably derives its name from the ‘Twenty Committee’ responsible for overseeing the Double Cross System, operated outside the control of any British government department except for MI5, and was without legal oversight. Its aim was to isolate and ‘break’ enemy agents, who were held without trial, in some cases for years, with the intention of turning them into double agents. Because its detainees were non-combatant enemy agents, international regulations concerning the treatment of prisoners of war did not apply to Camp 020. Nor was it inspected or listed by the Red Cross. In short, its detainees were placed in a legal void. The question that MI5 needed answering was whether it was legally justifiable to detain foreign nationals, and transport them from British territories overseas for interrogation in Britain. One of the leading figures in B-Division, Dick White, put it in the following terms to MI5’s legal adviser Toby Pilcher (a future High Court judge):

… we shall find ourselves in a particularly serious position if it is ruled that the legal machinery for detaining an enemy agent in a Colony and subsequently bringing him to the U.K. is found to be faulty in law … I am afraid that this is a case in which we cannot leave the matter in doubt, for were the detention of an enemy agent brought here under this proposal to be tested by Habeas Corpus [the legal process by which a prisoner can demand to be brought before a court], in all probability it would be a moment when he was already installed in Camp 020. Subsequent publicity attendant upon a test of Habeas Corpus would be extremely detrimental to Camp 020 and might jeopardise our whole position with regard to it.

Under the draconian Defence Regulations that had been enacted in Britain on the outbreak of war, it was impossible for the overwhelming majority of those detained to bring habeas corpus proceedings against the responsible authorities – which was invariably MI5, acting behind the cover of the ‘War Office’. That said, in at least one case a detainee did demand to be brought before a court, though unsurprisingly, given how expansive the British state’s powers of detention were under the Defence Regulations, his case was ultimately unsuccessful.

There is also some evidence to suggest that there was more going on behind the scenes in the famous wartime legal case of Liversidge v Anderson in 1942 than appears in the recorded judgement of the House of Lords. The case has gone down in the annals of legal history as a low point in the story of civil liberties and the rule of law in Britain, with the judiciary cowing before the power of the executive. It involved a Polish-born naturalised British citizen, Jack Perlzweig, who went by the name of Liversidge, who was detained in 1940 under Regulation 18b of the Defence (General) Regulations 1939. This regulation allowed the Home Secretary (Sir John Anderson) to detain persons of hostile origin if he had ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect them of being involved in acts contrary to the defence of the realm. Put simply, Mr Liversidge asked to see what evidence the Home Secretary had against him, and asked the court to consider whether it constituted ‘reasonable grounds’ for his detention without trial, which he argued was false imprisonment. The majority verdict of the Law Lords – who heard the case in an annexe to the House of Lords because their usual chamber had been bombed out in the Blitz – stated that in times of national emergency courts had no authority to question whether the Home Secretary’s evidence against an individual constituted reasonable grounds for his detention. It is likely that the ‘reasonable grounds’ for Liversidge’s detention were really derived from adverse intelligence on him provided by MI5. The case of Liversidge v Anderson was really, it seems, to do with how intelligence could be introduced into court, which was difficult, if not impossible, because the British government only tacitly recognised the existence of MI5. The use of intelligence as evidence is an issue that courts in England, and in the Western world more generally, are still grappling with to the present day.

There was a significant problem for MI5 when it came to the detention and transportation of enemy agents from overseas territories to Britain. By a curious omission in the colonial legislation passed by Parliament on the outbreak of war, Colonial Order 12(5)a, there was no equivalent to Defence Regulation 18b, which meant that it was legally permissible for aliens detained in British colonies to bring habeas corpus proceedings. This brought a stark warning from MI5’s legal adviser Toby Pilcher, who stated that in his opinion, under the existing legislation it was ‘undesirable, and probably illegal, to remove an alien from a ship and detain him in a colony’. Following a high-powered meeting in June 1942 between Dick White, Pilcher and the Colonial Office’s legal adviser, it was decided that the only way to resolve the problem was to introduce ‘ad hoc legislation’ under the Defence Regulations ‘specifically empowering the Governor [of a colony] to remove a suspect alien from a ship or aircraft visiting the colony, and to detain him pending his removal from the colony’. Before long MI5 and the Colonial Office had formulated a written codicil, or warrant, which could be quickly signed by colonial governors allowing enemy aliens to be detained on British territory and then rendered to Britain for interrogation. This was precisely what occurred during the rest of the war – confirming the axiom that laws are silent during wars (silent leges inter arma).

The willingness of MI5 to go along with this process of detaining and transporting – kidnapping, in all but name – individuals, despite its original lack of legal authority to do so, is all the more striking when the heavyweight legal brains it employed during the war are considered. One of the B-Division officers centrally involved in detaining and transporting enemy agents to Camp 020 was H.L.A. (Herbert) Hart, an Oxford academic lawyer who went on to become one of the most eminent legal philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century. On one level, it is surprising that ideas of ‘natural justice’ and ‘fairness’ did not prevent lawyers working in MI5 – a large number of whom were wartime recruits from the Law Society – from supporting such legally dubious practices as detention without trial. On another level, however, it is less surprising than it may seem. H.L.A. Hart is most famous for his ideas of legal positivism, which, put crudely, argue that there is not necessarily an inherent association between the validity of laws and ethics or morality, and that laws are made by human beings. The thrust of legal positivism is therefore that laws are essentially malleable.

One cannot help concluding that MI5’s wartime lawyers (in both its legal section and its counter-espionage division) were willing to overlook the weighty ethical and moral issues raised by detaining and transporting enemy agents, so long as the formality of ‘ad hoc’ emergency legislation was in place and all the other legal niceties were fulfilled. This narrow focus on formality, rather than substance, is a characteristic as common among some lawyers today as it apparently was then. Furthermore, it is notable that prior to the passing of ‘ad hoc’ emergency legislation, neither H.L.A. Hart nor MI5’s legal advisers, including several future High Court judges, nor the Colonial or Foreign Offices’ legal advisers, could find any legal justification for the detention and transportation of foreign nationals without due process – which is striking given the allegations of ‘extraordinary rendition’ today, because it allegedly involves exactly the same matters, but the law requiring due process is no different now from what it was during the Second World War.

It is impossible to state with certainty how many enemy agents were transported from British colonies to Camp 020 for interrogation during the war. At least twenty-three such agents can be identified in declassified MI5 records, though the true number may be considerably more. Whatever it was, many of the cases were highly dramatic, while others bordered on farce. One of the most important involved an Argentinean national of German descent, Osmar Hellmuth, who worked in the Argentine consulate in Barcelona, and who in September 1943 was identified as acting as a courier between the officially neutral Argentine government and the Third Reich. Working under diplomatic cover, Hellmuth’s mission was to travel to Germany, where he was to meet the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, and possibly even Hitler, and purchase arms and other equipment for the Argentine government, which from June 1943 was ruled by a military junta led by General Pedro Pablo Ram?rez. Hellmuth’s high-level mission made a mockery of the claims by General Ram?rez that the Argentine government remained neutral in the war.

The tip-off about Hellmuth’s mission to Nazi Germany came from the SIS head of station in Buenos Aires, who forwarded it to SIS’s headquarters at the Broadway Buildings in London, where it was received by none other than Kim Philby, then working on the Iberian desk of Section V (counter-espionage), based in St Albans, just outside London. Philby passed the information on to MI5 – as he probably also did to his KGB masters. SIS and MI5 together orchestrated a detailed plan for Hellmuth’s detention and transfer to Britain, which was put into effect the following month, October 1943, when Hellmuth set sail from South America to Spain. As soon as his ship touched British soil en route, at Trinidad in the West Indies, MI5’s DSO there arranged for him to be arrested by local police. This was authorised at the highest level, by the British Governor of Trinidad, who signed Hellmuth’s arrest and detention order under the newly enacted ‘ad hoc’ legislation – though in fact it was clearly in violation of Hellmuth’s diplomatic status. Hellmuth was put on a waiting British seaplane that flew him to Bermuda, and from there he was transported on board a Royal Navy cruiser, the Ajax, to England, where he arrived in early November.

After his installation at Camp 020, MI5 interrogators set to work on him, and he was quickly broken. He revealed an array of highly explosive diplomatic information, producing letters written with secret ink, giving up the identities of senior Nazi intelligence officials, such as Siegfried (or Sigmund) Becker, the head of the Sicherheitsdienst mission in Argentina, and disclosing that the Argentine Minister of War, the future President Juan Perоn, was involved in the Nazi arms deal. Hellmuth also confessed that part of his mission to Germany had been to contact the notorious Nazi espionage chief Walter Schellenberg, the head of the SS’s foreign intelligence department and later head of Section VI (foreign espionage) of the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, RSHA). With duelling scars on his cheeks, a signet ring stashed with cyanide, and a desk in his Berlin office mounted with machine guns which could spray the room with bullets at the flick of a switch, Schellenberg was very much the stereotype of an arch villain.

The information produced by MI5’s interrogation of Hellmuth at Camp 020 was of such massive diplomatic importance that the British government decided to go public with it and expose the duplicity of the Argentine government. This caused a sensation, with General Ram?rez being forced publicly to disavow Hellmuth. As the post-war history of Camp 020 noted, the Hellmuth case forced Argentina to sever diplomatic relations with the Third Reich, and helped to precipitate the collapse of the Ram?rez government. It also had repercussions in Nazi Germany itself, with Himmler blaming the head of the Abwehr, Canaris, for the chaos it caused and demanding Canaris’s resignation.

Other Axis agents were also arrested when they landed in Trinidad, and transported to Camp 020. This happened with the German agent Juan Lecube – a former footballer, greyhound-owner and ex-Spanish civil servant – and also with Leopold Hirsch, who was arrested on board the Cabo de Hornos in Trinidad harbour after his identity was revealed when his name was given en clair in a German telegram intercepted by Bletchley Park. The case of Gast?o de Freitas Ferraz is a striking example of how seizing an agent at sea saved Allied lives. De Freitas was a wireless operator on a Portuguese fishing depot ship, who was recruited by the Abwehr to provide maritime intelligence under the neutral cover provided by his Portuguese employment. However, while his ship was en route from Newfoundland to Lisbon in October 1942, he was arrested and removed first to Gibraltar then to Camp 020. At the point when he was arrested on the high seas, his ship was on the tail of a convoy taking part in Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa. De Freitas was interrogated at Camp 020, confessed and was detained for the duration of the war. If he had not been kidnapped, it is almost certain that he would have seen the invasion convoy taking part in Torch and reported it by radio, which would have had disastrous consequences for the Allies. His arrest seems to have saved the Allied invasion of North Africa.

Perhaps the most bizarre wartime rendition case was that of Alfredo Manna, an Italian agent operating in the neutral territory of Portuguese South Africa (present-day Mozambique). Manna was one of a number of agents run by the Italian Consul, Umberto Campini, in Louren?o Marques (today the city of Maputo), whose mission was primarily to report on Allied shipping movements off the coast of East Africa. It is unclear how British intelligence identified Manna: it may have been from an Ultra decrypt, or it may have been the result of good old-fashioned detective work on the part of the local SIS representative stationed in Louren?o Marques, the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Nevertheless, by early 1943, MI5 and SIS, sensing that he was far from loyal to his Italian masters, hoped to turn Manna into a double agent. Muggeridge worked closely with a local SOE team to devise an elaborate plan, ‘along the best Hollywood lines’, as he later put it, to detain Manna and transport him to Britain for interrogation. According to Muggeridge, a devout Catholic and future biographer of Mother Teresa, the plan was essentially to ‘kidnap’ him. Knowing that Manna’s great weakness was women, Muggeridge hired an exotic casino dancer named Anna Levy to lure him to the border of British territory in Swaziland. As the later history of Camp 020 noted: ‘There he was seized, gagged and bound by British agents, who took care to leave him on the right side of the border.’ Manna was promptly arrested by local police and transported, via South Africa, to Britain. Thus an Italian agent, enticed by an exotic dancer to a border and dragged across it by British agents, came to be interrogated at Camp 020. Although Manna’s interrogation at Camp 020 did not result in him becoming a double agent, it did yield valuable intelligence on Axis espionage in southern Africa, particularly on local ship-watching operations.

One of the reasons MI5 was determined to have Axis agents brought to Camp 020 for interrogation was to avoid disclosing the Ultra secret. It also wanted them to be interrogated in the most effective manner possible – which for MI5 meant not resorting to physical violence. Contrary to what we might assume, and contrary to its ominous first appearances, Camp 020 did not permit the use of physical coercion during interrogations. This is confirmed by contemporary records, such as the diary of Guy Liddell, the wartime head of MI5’s B-Division, which was written without the intention of ever being made public, and by the subsequent testimonials of Axis agents who were detained at the camp, and who had no reason to lie about their treatment. The MI5 officer who ran Camp 020, Lt. Col. Robin Stephens, enforced a strict policy of no physical violence, or ‘third degree’ measures, in the facility. ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens, so called because of his thick monocle, believed that the aim of interrogation should be to draw out all information possible from an agent, and not simply to obtain quick answers to specific questions. The only way to do that, he judged, was to refrain from physical coercion. ‘Violence is taboo,’ he wrote in his in-house post-war history of Camp 020, entitled A Digest of Ham after the camp’s location at Ham Common, ‘for not only does it produce an answer to please, but it lowers the standard of information.’ He wrote in another post-war report:

Never strike a man. In the first place it is an act of cowardice. In the second place, it is not intelligent. A prisoner will lie to avoid further punishment and everything he says thereafter will be based on a false premise. Through stupidity, therefore, an investigation becomes valueless.

None of this should give the impression that Camp 020 was a soft place. Its tactics for ‘breaking’ agents included every conceivable trick of what Stephens termed ‘mental pressure’: newly arrived prisoners were usually stripped, humiliated and disorientated; they were terrified by rows of barking dogs; confined to small solitary cells; threatened with court-martial and execution. Microphones were installed in their cells to overhear conversations; guards disguised as prisoners (known as ‘stool pigeons’) were sent into cells to get them talking; false newspapers were printed to trick them into thinking their friends and family at home had been killed; and Ultra decrypts were used to convince them that all the details of their missions had already been discovered. Stephens noted that every man has a price, and every man is capable of being broken – it is simply a question of applying the right mental pressure to do so.

The way in which MI5 interrogators broke Osmar Hellmuth is instructive. As soon as he arrived at Camp 020 in November 1943, Hellmuth was marched into a room where he was faced by a number of high-ranking British officers sitting behind a desk, in what looked like a military court. He was then subjected to a barrage of shouts from ‘the Commandant’ (Stephens), who told him that the Argentine government and his German spymasters had abandoned him, and that he would be executed as a spy. As a final touch, the Commandant added that he hated all spies with a passion. The bad-cop show was now over, and the good cops were free to go to work. Hellmuth was taken into another room, where a different group of officers plied him with soft words, telling him that they understood the difficult position he was in, and wanted to help. It did not take long for Hellmuth to break.

Stephens’s rule against the use of physical coercion is all the more striking given that in the summer of 1940, Camp 020 interrogators were desperately questioning enemy agents amid an invasion crisis – undoubtedly the greatest threat to British national security in the twentieth century. Many of the techniques that they employed, such as sleep deprivation and humiliation, would today constitute forms of ‘torture’ under international law. However, for Stephens there was a clear distinction between ‘physical pressure’ and ‘mental pressure’. It should be stressed that he did not reject physical ‘third degree’ measures because he was a humanitarian at heart – fourteen German agents held at Camp 020 were executed, and Stephens later declared that he wished more had been. Rather, he rejected them because in his opinion they produced unreliable intelligence. Stephens was one of the most successful Allied wartime interrogators. His interrogations at Camp 020 played a significant role in the Double Cross System, producing about twelve double agents run by MI5 during the war (out of about 120 in total). They also helped to build up a unique card-catalogue index on the German intelligence services.

Although it was not termed ‘rendition’ at the time, the process devised by British intelligence during the Second World War resembles the US government’s recent policy of ‘extraordinary rendition’, which is claimed by its proponents to be a necessary tactic in the ‘war on terror’. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two. During the Second World War, German and Axis agents were brought from British territories abroad to Britain specifically in order to safeguard their effective interrogation – which at Camp 020 meant every method short of physical coercion. In sharp contrast, ‘extraordinary rendition’ policies instigated after 11 September 2001 involve exactly the opposite: the US government and its allies deliberately sending suspects to third-party countries with poor track records on human rights, where they have allegedly been tortured to gain intelligence. The assumption behind recent ‘extraordinary rendition’ policies is that torture can produce intelligence. Given MI5’s experiences during the Second World War, and the observations of its most successful interrogator, Stephens, it seems doubtful whether this is so. An inescapable conclusion is the dictum given by William Pitt the Younger: ‘Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom.’
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