This week has seen much debate and controversy over the bugging of conversations (emails, texts, etc) and outbursts about countries bugging each other. The spying game is, in the words of one historian, the second oldest profession. So what’s new? Just the sophisticated mode of technology and the fact that some of it can even be done from space. During WW2 British intelligence rigged 3 stately homes with the latest bugging devices and held enemy prisoners there. The special unit was MI19 and used ‘secret listeners’ to monitor and record German prisoners’ conversations. One location became the focus this week of a major article in the Radio Times (pages 25-6). Latimer House in Buckinghamshire was one of those sites. Fritz Lustig, one of only three surviving secret listeners, was taken back to see the cells. His son, journalist Robin Lustig, wrote a moving and powerful feature about his father’s reactions to seeing the original cells which are not open to the public for reasons of health & safety. From this site a mass of intelligence was gained that enabled the Allies to win the war against Hitler. It included the discovery of the V1 and V2 development site where Hitler was experimenting with his “secret weapon”. The devastation caused by the ‘Doodlebug’ and the V2 is still within living memory. These intelligence units, like the one at Latimer House, gained so much information about the enemy that it shortened the war alongside Bletchley Park.
During 1942 British Intelligence took over and modified Wilton Park near Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire. It became one of 3 main premises where the conversations of German prisoners-of-war were bugged from a special room called “The M Room”. Here for next 3 years the “secret listeners” recorded an unprecedented amount of intelligence that would help all aspects of the war – from the Battle of the Atlantic & the U-boat menace, to military strategy, morale, propaganda, secret weapon technology (V1 & V2) as well as experimental weapon sites being used by Adolf Hitler. The secret listeners also overheard admissions of terrible war crimes and atrocities against Jews, Poles, Russians, the elderly, and killings of Allied soldiers and airmen. The evidence gathered by the Allies about the Holocaust became overwhelming. This top-secret unit which was known by the lengthier name of Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Unit (CSDIC) eavesdropped on nearly 10,000 POWs. The White House (pictured here) has since been destroyed and now houses a language school. During the war it held captured Italian Generals, and also some prized German Generals before they were transferred to Trent Park in North London. Little has been written about the work of this unit, but the latest book “The M Room” is currently the subject of TV documentary … forthcoming.
This month saw the passing of a much-respected war veteran, devoted wife and mother: Susan Lustig. Susan was born Susanne Cohn in Breslau in 1921 at a time when no one could have suspected the horrors that would besiege the region after Hitler came to power in 1933. She managed to flee to England in July 1939. Life was not easy for a penniless refugee in London in those days but Susan always kept her optimistic and cheerful outlook through difficult times. She had an extremely interesting and important war when she transferred from the ATS to the Intelligence Corps in December 1943. After an interview at the War Office she was posted to a top-secret unit, first at first Latimer House and then Wilton Park in Buckinghamshire, where German emigres were secretly bugging the conversations of German prisoners-of-war for British Intelligence. Here she was immediately promoted to Sergeant and worked on prisoners’ personal classified intelligence files. She was required to sign the Official Secrets Act and not allowed to talk to family or friends about it. It was at this unit (MI19) that Susan met fellow-refugee Fritz Lustig, her husband of 67 years. Fritz was one of the secret listeners there who worked in the “M Room”, bugging the conversations. After the war Susan discovered the awful truth that her mother, who could not get out of Breslau, had died in the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis. In latter years Susan and Fritz were very happy to record their stories in two books: The King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens, and The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis. It was an absolute delight for Susan to be able to attend the launch of The M Room in January at the London Jewish Cultural Centre and the proudness on her face as she and two other veterans (one of whom was her husband) received public recognition of their extraordinary contribution to the war and defeat of Nazism. Susan is survived by Fritz and their two sons Stephen and Robin.
With a constant stream of books, documentaries and films about the Second World War, can anything fresh really be discovered after seven decades? Is there anything substantially new that could change our understanding of the war itself or cause historians to re-evaluate the campaigns? There is one major body of documents at the National Archives which has largely been ignored or undiscovered by historians. These are the 100,000 transcripts from a unit called Combined Detailed Services Detailed Interrogation Unit – or CSDIC for short. It sounds boring enough. But the title masks one of the greatest top-secret deceptions of the Germans by British Intelligence during the war. Pulling some of these transcripts at a glance does seem tedious and offers little more than reams of undigested intelligence. But that is where the mistake lies… a conversation in a cafe today reinforced for me the importance of these documents for the wider campaigns of the war. I met someone from the past whose wife’s father had lost his life in 1942 in Operation Aquatint- a daring raid into the coastal area of France to test the Nazi defences and if possible, to take a German prisoner for interrogation. The comment came up that the family has always wondered whether he had died in vain. Was the sacrifice worth it because there appeared to be no apparent gain? Or is it time to look again? In my recent book The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis British Intelligence reports show that German POWs were taken after major raids like Dieppe, Bruneval, and into Norway. They were brought to England where they came under the unit mentioned above – CSDIC. In a stately house near London, and later two in Buckinghamshire, the German prisoners were held and their conversations with fellow prisoners secretly bugged. The unit bugged over 10,000 POWs over the 5 years of the war. The results have been recorded in those 100,000 transcripts which still survive in the National Archives. The M Room shows that there was little that British Intelligence did not know about Nazi Germany. Historians who want to evaluate the importance of these raids need to pull the relevant transcripts from CSDIC files and assess the results – so far, this has not been done. The major raids are just one example where historians have not looked at new material. The transcripts cover every aspect of the war and is a thus far undervalued archive which dates to the wartime itself. Trawling these files enables the historian to re-revaluate and even learn new material about military, naval and airforce history as well as shedding light on the inner workings of British Intelligence during this period. The ton of material is bound to throw up some gems and the odd surprise. For the families of war heroes who died in action these transcripts can lay to rest the misconceived idea that men in high places were playing war games and experimenting in unprepared, buggled operations without proper planning.
The only two surviving veteran “secret listeners” who during WW2 bugged the conversations of Nazi prisoners were honoured in the launch of a new book ”The M Room” at the London Jewish Cultural Centre this week. Fritz Lustig and Eric Mark, now in their 9os, vividly recalled the work that they did for British Intelligence when they recorded some of Hitler’s most closely guarded secrets. They eavesdropped on conversations, including high ranking officers, for up to 8 hours a day from the ‘miked’ M Room. To honour them, and their 100 or so colleagues, the London Jewish Cultural Centre invited relatives of secret listeners to read short extracts from the book. The readers were Adam Ganz, actor Roger Lloyd-Pack, Jessica Pulay, publisher Stephen Lustig and comedian Helen Lederer. The event brought together over 170 people. Afterwards, Eric, myself and Fritz were whisked off to the BBC and appeared live on the One Show. Both veterans agreed: it was an extraordinarily special day that they will remember forever. The event supported the charitable work of the London Jewish Cultural Centre in Holocaust education and anti-racism awareness. To find out more and donate to this ongoing work, visit the LJCC website: ljcc.org.uk
In 2008 a sculpture by prominent sculptor Philip Jackson FRBS was unveiled outside the Foreign Office to commemorate the British diplomats and consular personnel who saved victims of Nazi oppression. These included: John Carvell, Consul-General, Munich (1938-39); Arthur Dowden, Vice-Consul, Frankfurt am Main (1934-39); Frank Foley, Passport Control Officer, Berlin (1921-1939); Frank Fulham, Vice-Consul, Munich (1934-39); Donald St Clair Gainer, Consul-General, Vienna (1938-39); Thomas Kendrick, Passport Control Officer, Vienna (1925-38); Sir George Ogilvie-Forbes, Minister, Berlin (1937-39); Sir Thomas Preston, Consul, Kovno, Lithuania (1929-1940); Sire Gerald Shepherd, Consul-General, Danzig (1937-39); Robert Smallbones, Consul-General, Frankfurt am Main (1932-39); amd Arthur Whittal, Passport Control Officer, Istanbul.
Yesterday I was asked to speak to a group of Holocaust survivors at the London Jewish Cultural Centre. What a profound experience. In the discussion after my talk I realized for the first time that they had felt utterly abandonment by the world during the Holocaust. In the camps, they felt that the world did not care. Three of those present were survivors of Auschwitz; others were survivors of other concentration camps. They had longed for the Allies to bomb the crematoria. Yes, they may have died in the bombings but they were prepared to sacrifice their own lives to bring an end to the extermination in the camps. What remains with me from yesterday is their sense of total abandonment and isolation. One of the survivors sent me a copy of his memoirs: “Living with the Enemy” – Freddie Knoller was forced to abandon his family and flee Vienna as Nazi Brownshirts swept through his apartment building in November 1938. Little more than a schoolboy, his desperate journey took him, amongst other places, to Paris, where he earned a living guiding the Nazis around the red light district, an occupation that provoked complex feelings of guilt, elation and fortune. But his luck ran out, and Freddie was soon on the run again before he fell victim to a friend’s betrayal that saw him transported straight to Auschwitz.
“In order to survive it was necessary to think like the Nazi conquerors amongst whom I lived, to remove myself as far as possible from the people they hated; in fact, to remove myself from myself,” Freddie Knoller
We may be busy making and breaking new year’s resolutions? For me as an active historian it looks like a busy 2013. Already various newspapers are beginning to cover my new book “The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis in WW2″, which is being launched on 29th January by the London Jewish Cultural Centre. The only 2 surviving secret listeners, both veterans in their 90s, will be there. This year also sees the publication of my History of the Jews of Exeter to mark the 250th anniversary of the foundation of the synagogue in 1763. That’s old! Exciting times – I am finishing off a novel set in England in 1936 with my writing partner in fiction, and hoping to finish a second novel. This year sees the publication of my biography of MI6 agent Thomas Kendrick in “K is for Kendrick”. I will also be researching and writing a history of the Jews of Plymouth for publication in 2014. Meanwhile, I’ve turned out some WW1 family stuff of interest to write if there is time. My new year’s resolution? To keep going at a steady pace and make sure that the stories which need to be told are told.
On this date 70 years ago, concern at the events unfolding in Poland and Nazi-occupied areas with regard to the fate of Jews received the full attention of Parliament. Anthony Eden read the Allied Declaration to the House of Commons which encompassed other nations, including the United States and the Soviet Union as well as the governments-in-exile of Belgium, Greece, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia and Norway in a condemnation of:
‘in the strongest possible terms of this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination… None of those taken away are ever heard of again.The infirm are left to die of exposure and starvation or are deliberately massacred in mass executions.’
In reference to the deportation of Jews, the Declaration pulled no punches, and Eden read to a shocked chamber of MPs:
‘I regret to inform the House that reliable reports have recently reached His Majesty’s government regarding the barbarous and inhuman treatment to which Jews are being subjected in German-occupied Europe.’
Labour MP William Cluse asked the Speaker of the House if MPs could stand in silence to show abhorrence for ‘disgusting barbarism’. The House rose to its feet and a two-minute silence followed for the victims of Nazi atrocities. Meanwhile at London’s Wigmore Hall, the Women’s International Zionist Organization was being addressed by Churchill’s wife. She referred to Hitler’s ‘satanic design to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.’ In a moment of solidarity she told the female audience: ‘I wish to associate with you in all your grief, and I pray your meeting may help to keep the attention of the British people focussed upon the terrible events which have occurred and are impending in Nazi Europe.’
The release of files at the National Archives in 1999 revealed a cache of over 100,000 transcripts of bugged conversations of Nazis PoWs in WW2. It provided a window onto Hitler’s most closely guarded secrets…
British Intelligence bugged the conversations of over 10,000 Nazi PoWs. At the heart of this clandestine unit were German émigrés who had fled Nazi persecution and were serving in the British army. In an ironic turn of events they became British Intelligence’s most valuable asset. From the ‘M Room’ these secret listeners eavesdropped on unguarded conversations; most significantly those of the 59 German Generals at Trent Park. The results were to prove astounding and beyond anything Churchill imagined when he authorised unlimited funds in its set-up.
Providing a detailed, oft humorous, insight into life of the Generals in captivity, the book shows the farcical ‘stage-set’ in which they found themselves. But against this backdrop, the secret listeners overheard admission of war crimes and terrible atrocities against Russians, Poles and Jews; as well as new revelations of an SS mutiny in a concentration camp in 1936, and Hitler’s human ‘stud farms’. This story places firmly on record just how much British Intelligence knew about the Holocaust. Why, at the end of the war, were these files not released for the war crimes trials?
For over sixty years the listeners never spoke about their work, not even to their families. Many went to their grave bearing the secrets of the nation which had saved them from certain death in the Holocaust. Today, only two secret listeners are still alive.