Filmed this week at Latimer House and Trent Park for a documentary for French television about how the Allies won the war, including the discovery of the V1 & V2 through the bugging of conversations of German POWs. Today, the filming focused on interviews with myself and 93-year old war veteran Lord Peter Eden about the hunt for Nazi war criminals and the denazification of Germany from 1945.
Helen is giving a talk with WW2 veteran Fritz Lustig at Latimer House on 16th March to raise money for the Scanner Appeal at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. The event is sold out with over 90 people attending! This house had a secret history. Behind these walls, one of the most audacious deception plans was carried out against Nazi Germany. Told in the book The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis.
Wednesday 5th February, 2pm-3.30pm, Helen is in conversation with journalist Melanie McFadyean at The London Jewish Cultural Centre. Melanie’s parents worked in different top secret intelligence departments in WW2. Her father Colin was recruited for Naval Intelligence by Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond) and had a fascinating career. At the end of the war, Colin was involved in reading the terms of surrender to Admiral Doenitz in Flensburg. Melanie’s mother, an artist and talented woman, was a refugee from a prominent banking family in Germany. During the war, she worked for a unit, forging documents for use behind enemy lines. It promises to be fascinating and engaging discussion. Spaces still available.
Harry Rossney, who passed away last November 2013, was one of 10,000 Germans who fought for Britain in WW2. He was terribly proud of his role in the British Army for 6 years during the war. He fled Germany, the country of his birth, after the Nazis were about to call him up for army service – not a wise move because he was half-Jewish. Ironically, his Christian cousins died fighting for Hitler at Stalingrad. Harry was a craftsman and sign-writer by trade, and as such, this skill enabled him to come to England on a visa in early 1939. He arrived at Kitchener Camp near Sandwich in Kent and helped to rebuild this derelict WW1 camp to enable over 3,000 refugees from Nazism to take temporary refuge there. It was from this camp that he himself volunteered for the British Army’s Pioneer Corps – a labour unit, and the only one open to him as an “enemy alien”. Harry moved with the training camp and the Pioneer Corps to Ilfracombe on the North Devon coast, then moved around the country on essential labour duties. He was reluctant to leave his mates in the Pioneer Corps when the order came for him to transfer to a new unit after they had landed on the D-Day beaches of Normandy. He graphically described his war in a series of moving poems which were published in an autobiographical work, Grey Dawns. Harry was transferred from his Pioneer unit to 32 Graves Registration Unit in charge of the sign-writing on the graves of the thousands of Allied soldiers who were being buried in France every day. He worked on the graves of the fallen in the cemeteries of Bayeux, Hottot and Ranville. He himself admitted that it was a soul-destroying time to see so many young lives gone. Yet, he did an invaluable service in honouring the war dead that few people have the hour of performing. Now he himself has gone. But he has left his mark on the world in his poems, his autobiographical work Grey Dawns, and in the documentaries in which he took part for National Geographic and BBC South-West. I knew Harry for over a decade and we travelled a journey together with his fellow veterans who entrusted me with their stories. Thank you Harry for sharing so much of those days and ensuring that I was able to record the stories of you and your comrades.
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.