Did interrogators at a secret British facility go too far in extracting information from German POWs?

In the summer of 1940, just after the Dunkirk evacuation and as Britain girded for a possible German invasion, the British War Office decided to ramp up its intelligence-gathering activities. Quickly and secretly, it opened nine Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centres throughout the United Kingdom. More simply called “cages” because they functioned as temporary holding compounds for prisoners of war, the facilities were not uniform in appearance, design, or operation. The cage in Doncaster, England, for example, was built on the town’s racecourse, while those in Catterick and Loughborough were constructed on bare fields. But what became known as the London Cage was housed in three opulent mansions, numbers 6, 7, and 8 Kensington Palace Gardens, in one of the capital’s exclusive neighborhoods. Some of the war’s most notorious Nazi criminals were interned in those buildings, separated from the adjacent splendid homes by a single strand of barbed wire.

The cage network was operated by MI19, a shadowy arm of Britain’s Directorate of Military Intelligence. Originally an offshoot of MI9, MI19 became responsible for interrogating enemy prisoners of war and, as the war progressed, Nazis either suspected of or charged with war crimes.

To run the London Cage, the War Office picked a man who seemed perfect for the job. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Scotland was a tough, patriotic Briton and a hardened spy, with extensive experience as a POW interrogator. But Scotland’s methods of extracting information soon created discomfort for a government with a reputation for fair play and adherence to the 1929 Geneva Convention. German prisoners who had been interrogated at the London Cage during the nine years it was in operation, from 1940 to 1948, complained they had been subjected to cruel tactics and even torture, information that the British kept under wraps for decades.

 

ALEXANDER SCOTLAND, took command of the London Cage, seems like a character straight out of an Ian Fleming novel. As a young man, he left home to fight in the Second nearly 60 when he Boer War, but arrived too late and wound up selling provisions to soldiers in Germany’s South-West Africa colony, now Namibia. Scotland’s 1957 memoir The London Cage recounts how during this period, a British liaison officer pulled him aside, telling him: “Learn all you can about the German army, and one day you will be valuable to your country.” Scotland, then 22, did that and more, enlisting in the German army in southern Africa in 1904 and becoming fluent in German and Cape Dutch. During that stint and later, while still in Africa, he sent information on German manpower, equipment, and tactics to British intelligence in Cape Town. Thus began Scotland’s career. The Germans imprisoned Scotland for spying in 1914; British soldiers freed him a year later, and he was formally commissioned in the British intelligence service.

During World War I, Scotland proved effective at interrogating German prisoners in Europe. Posing as a South-West African colonist, he made three perilous trips to spy behind German lines in Belgium before falling under suspicion. For his work he was honored as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. He spent the 1920s and early ’30s in South America, where he claimed to have “a roving job” with a well-known company (that he left unnamed), and made many trips to Germany, even meeting Hitler on a visit to Munich. Scotland was recalled to military duty in 1940 and sent to France with the Intelligence Corps, where he set up interrogation centers and noted the British Army had a “pathetically inadequate” number of trained interrogators in the field. On his return to Britain in the Dunkirk retreat, he was promoted to the head of his own interrogation section and placed in charge of the London Cage, a brand-new facility with five interrogation rooms that could hold up to 60 prisoners at a time.

Scotland was surpassingly confident in his ability to coax statements from Nazi captives interned at the cage. “If any German had information we wanted, it was invariably extracted from him in the long run,” he wrote in the first draft of his memoirs, which was found at Britain’s National Archives by the Guardian newspaper and formed the basis of a 2005 story examining declassified documents relating to the London Cage. Possibly more telling was the phrase from Dante’s Divine Comedy that Scotland said ran through his head every morning as he arrived at work: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

By all accounts, Scotland was successful at his work. Nearly 3,600 men passed through the London Cage and more than 1,000 gave statements on war crimes to their British handlers. Just how that information was obtained at the secret prison became a sensitive issue.

 

SCOTLAND’S CONDUCT on, in late 1940, when MI19 was aiding MI5’s XX System—better known as the Double Cross System—to convert captured German spies into aroused concern early double agents for the British. Guy Liddell, director of MI5’s counterintelligence division, investigated a report that Scotland had “manhandled” a German spy named Wulf Schmidt—codenamed Tate—during an interrogation at Camp 020, London’s center for captured enemy agents. Scotland “was hitting Tate in the jaw and I think he got one back himself,” Liddell recorded in his diary. More disturbingly, Liddell got word that Scotland showed up the next day “with a syringe containing some drug or other, which it was thought would induce Tate to speak.” While the veracity of the story is unknown, Schmidt subsequently became a double agent for Britain. Scotland was banned from Camp 020.

Because the cages were secret transit centers, inhabiting a gray area between the battlefield’s clear rules of engagement and the POW camp’s international protection, there were opportunities for abuse. And Britain’s plethora of intelligence organizations operating during the war, all competing for turf and resources, may have tacitly led to what some called “robust” interrogations and even rogue behavior at an especially tense time. In fact, an interrogation center run by MI5—Bad Nenndorf, opened in 1945 in the British zone of Occupied Germany—proved even more problematic for the War Office than the London Cage.

The center was run by Lieutenant Colonel Robin Stephens, the former commander of Camp 020. Though physically imposing—an impression bolstered by a monocle and cigarette holder—Stephens disavowed the use of outright violence during questioning. “Never strike a man,” he instructed interrogators. “It is unintelligent. A prisoner will lie to avoid further punishment and everything he says thereafter will be based on a false premise.” But Stephens’s policy should not be mistaken as a sign of compassion for prisoners. One former inmate described Bad Nenndorf, originally intended for Nazis but soon housing suspected Soviet agents as well, as a “Cold War torture center.”

In January–February 1947, after two prisoners died and approximately 50 more were hospitalized for frostbite, malnutrition, and assorted injuries, hospital staff lodged a complaint. An investigation by the House of Commons reported “no physical torture, starvation, or ill-treatment,” though it noted the camp’s lack of heating. The Foreign Office, conducting its own inquiry shortly after, was far more critical in its assessment. A formal memo cited insufficient clothing and food, mental and physical torture during interrogation, and inadequate medical attention.“They were confined to punishment cells, not for any offence, but simply because the interrogator was not satisfied with their answers; in the punishment cells, during the bitter winter, they were deprived of certain articles of clothing, had buckets of cold water thrown into the cell and were forced to scrub the cell floor for long periods, and were assaulted and man-handled.” The camp was closed in July.

Colonel Stephens was court-martialed and charged with “disgraceful conduct of a cruel kind.” He and two other officers were cleared of wrongdoing at Bad Nenndorf—in closed proceedings in Stephens’s case—while a fourth was convicted of “professional neglect.” In 2000, Britain’s National Archives published a compilation of these documents and Stephens’s writings on nonviolent tactics as Camp 020: MI5 and the Nazi Spies.

 

BY LATE 1946, of scrutiny himself. MI5 had conducted two investigations of the London Cage during the war years, but nothing came of them. Colin McFadyean, the Scotland was attracting a great deal chief interrogator for the Naval Intelligence Division during the war, knew Scotland and disapproved of his operation. “We fought great battles to stop him interrogating our prisoners,” McFadyean said, in an interview with BBC historical documentary director Andrew Williams. McFadyean asserted that Scotland was prepared to interrogate prisoners “at the point of a bayonet” to get information where others had failed, and added: “He was a well-known bastard.”

Scotland certainly had no empathy for the numerous SS and Gestapo officers who were shipped to the London Cage, including a few charged with war crimes. Fritz Knöchlein, a German lieutenant colonel in the Waffen-SS, was one such prisoner. Knöchlein was brought to the cage in October 1946, accused of ordering the massacre of nearly 100 British soldiers who had surrendered at the village of Le Paradis in northern France in May 1940. At the time, Knöchlein was a company commander in the SS Totenkopf (Death’s Head) Division.

During and after his war crimes trial, Knöchlein filed complaints charging that when he didn’t give London Cage officials the confession they were seeking, he was stripped and deprived of sleep for four days and nights, and then starved. He also claimed he was made to stand naked next to a red-hot gas stove for hours, then taken to a bathroom and forced under an icecold shower, then scrubbed with coal dust. Knöchlein also said that after making an earlier complaint about mistreatment, he was punched in the face and thrown down a flight of stairs.

The War Office looked into the accusations but refused to open an inquiry. Both Scotland and the British authorities took the view that Knöchlein’s charges were a ploy to save himself from the hangman’s noose. As the Director of Army Legal Services put it in 1948: “I personally would accept…Scotland’s word before that of Knöchlein.” Scotland made his own views clear in a 1947 Le Paradis case report: “The bringing to justice of those guilty of the brutal crime should become a crusade with every man serving in the Army today.” Knöchlein was convicted, and hanged in January 1949.

Several other German prisoners lodged complaints similar to Knöchlein’s. A prisoner named Werner Schafer alleged that a sergeant major repeatedly beat him with a stick while he was sick with malaria. And SS Sergeant Erich Zacharias claimed that he had been beaten and “worked on psychologically”—coerced into a confession. Zacharias was one of 21 former SS and Gestapo men who were accused of murdering 50 Royal Air Force prisoners following a failed escape attempt from Stalag Luft III in 1944, an event later immortalized in print and on film as The Great Escape.

At their trial in Hamburg in 1947, the German murder suspects alleged that they had been starved, deprived of sleep, and tortured by an electric shock device inside the London Cage. The only evidence against Zacharias and others were the confessions they had given to interrogators. The attorney for Zacharias asked that his confession be waived because it was given under duress. Scotland, who was a witness at the trial, later wrote in his memoir how he was troubled by the fact that “these manufactured tales of cruelty toward our German prisoners were fast becoming the chief item of news while the brutal fate of those 50 RAF officers was in danger of becoming old history.” The court did not waive Zacharias’s statement, and in the end he and 19 other co-defendants were found guilty of the Stalag Luft III murders. Zacharias and 13 others were hanged.

Though the International Red Cross monitored POW facilities and detention centers, it wasn’t aware of the London Cage’s existence until its name was inadvertently added to a list of camps that was sent to the organization in March 1946. A Red Cross inspector went to the London Cage twice and was turned away. After the Red Cross applied more pressure, the British government asked Scotland to open the facility to inspection. Scotland, according to the Guardian, wrote an ominous note to the War Office: “The secret gear which we use to check the reliability of information obtained must be removed from the cage before permission is given to inspect the building.” When the Red Cross eventually gained entry, most of the worst injured and malnourished prisoners had been spirited away to a hospital the night before. The inspector found nothing amiss.

 

IN SCOTLAND’S using tough tactics, including beating prisoners, forcing them to stand for more than 24 hours, and threatening execution or “an unnecessary operation.” When he memoir manuscript, he acknowledges submitted the manuscript to the War Office for censorship in 1950, the government threatened him with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. Special Branch detectives raided Scotland’s retirement flat and seized copies of his manuscript, along with research material and old files from the cage that he had secretly kept. An MI5 document at Britain’s National Archives discloses why Scotland’s manuscript was taken: among other reasons,“it reveals some infringements of the Geneva Convention.”

In 1957 the heavily censored version of his memoir, The London Cage, was finally published in Britain. In it, Scotland denies that violence was used to extract confessions and claims that little more than “our intimacy with German habits, personalities and language” was needed to inveigle information from Nazi prisoners.

There are no declassified records of prisoner mistreatment being sanctioned at high levels, though it seems likely that elements within British intelligence turned a blind eye to aggressive behavior and worse. If accusations or investigative findings related to prisoner mistreatment were made public, they could have compromised the war crimes trials, damaged Britain’s international standing, and antagonized the Soviet Union.

Although the United States awarded Scotland the Bronze Star in 1946, for his interrogation work and for enhancing cooperation between the United States and the United Kingdom, the intelligence veteran received nothing from his own government. Whether the suspected breaches of conduct had anything to do with that is not known. Assessing Scotland’s alleged assault of Tate at Camp 020, MI5 officer Guy Liddell wrote in 1940: “Apart from the moral aspects of the thing, I am convinced that these Gestapo methods do not pay in the long run.”

Scotland, who died in 1965 at age 82, claims to have agreed. In his memoir he writes that people were intrigued by his success at getting Nazi criminals to confess their roles in the Stalag Luft III murders. He maintains there was no mystery as to how it was accomplished: He merely asked each German suspect to write a detailed version of his involvement in the crime, and then the various versions were crosschecked— discrepancies noted, lies detected. In that way, enough of the truth could be ferreted out to establish a case for the court.“We were not so foolish as to imagine,” he wrote, “that petty violence, nor even violence of a stronger character, was likely to produce the results we hoped for in dealing with some of the toughest creatures of the Hitler regime.”

 

Originally published in the February 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.