• Helen Fry

Can anything new be said about WWII?

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.