The interrogation of captured enemy agents and other suspects has always been an essential – but sometimes controversial – element in counter-espionage and counter-terrorist work. Different generations have confronted this challenge in different ways, but all have faced a consistent issue: how to persuade detainees to disclose reliable information in a useful period of time that will help us to protect the country and the lives of its citizens.
During and after WW2 one of those most closely involved in managing detainee interrogations was Robin ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens who had joined MI5 shortly before the outbreak of war. He ended up running successively two interrogation centres: Camp 020 in London between 1940-45, and No.74 Detailed Interrogation Centre at Bad Nenndorf in Germany between 1945-47. The latter played an important part in the western Allies’ efforts to stabilize and ‘denazify’ Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war. But this led to controversy, scandal, accusations of sadism, and a Court Martial.
Early in the war, MI5 established an interrogation centre, known as Camp 020, at Latchmere House on Ham Common in south London. This was new territory for MI5 and, indeed, for the British Government. (The Home Office, to which MI5 answered, carried out inspections of the camp and provided advice and direction on the prison regime. Internees were permitted to write to the Home Office if they had complaints or requests.) Camp 020, in which captured enemy agents of many different nationalities were interrogated and ‘broken’, played a key role in MI5’s now legendary ‘Double Cross’ System. It achieved successes that were unprecedented in the history of warfare. MI5 detected every wartime German spy who arrived in Britain and turned many of them into effective and often long-running double agents.
Lt Col Robin "Tin Eye"
of Camp 020
Camp 020’s function, however, was not simply confined to the ‘Double Cross’ System. It also provided useful information for Allied code-breakers in their vital work on ENGIMA and ULTRA at Bletchley Park. And in the closing stages of the war, it was responsible for ‘breaking’ several captured Nazi leaders – some of whom were then successfully prosecuted by the Allies at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.
Colonel Stephens, who ran Camp 020, was a formidable, forceful and energetic character who had an extraordinary ability to break even the hardest of spies. ‘Tin Eye’ – so called because of his thick monocle – used every kind of ‘mental pressure’ to ‘break’ prisoners. Such methods were deemed at that time to be a permissible ruse de guerre, provided the threats were not carried out. Stephens’ monocle, by the way, was not some theatrical affectation: it was the result of his exposure to Italian mustard gas while working as a volunteer with a British Red Cross team in Abyssinia in the mid-1930s.
Much like Stephens himself, Camp 020 made for an ominous first impression. The camp was not designed for prisoners of War (POWs) but rather for captured civilian agents (spies). The Geneva Convention relates only to POWs and so did not apply to Camp 020, nor was it listed by the Red Cross. This left the inmates potentially open to physical abuse.
But Stephens was adamantly opposed to the use of physical violence. This is supported by a number of sources. First, in conformity with normal military practice, Stephens, who had served with distinction in the Indian Army as a younger man, drafted and issued Standing Orders – rules and guidance for all personnel working at Camp 020. He later employed these orders at Bad Nenndorf. Importantly, one Standing Order stated: “Under no circumstances will physical violence be used except in self-defence or in cases of prisoners attempting to escape.” Stephens had no hesitation in punishing those who disobeyed this order. Second, in an in-house history of Camp 020 (now available as a National Archives publication) Stephens asserted: “Violence is taboo, for not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information”. He put the unprecedented successes of Camp 020 down to this rule of non-violence. “Never strike a man,” wrote Stephens in instructions for interrogators. “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.” Finally, staff who served at Camp 020 during the war and knew Stephens well have spoken out publicly over the years in Stephens’ defence, asserting that, while an intimidating character, he never resorted to the use of physical violence.
Stephens never wavered on this issue. His stance was well known to, and endorsed by, senior officials from the Home Office and Security Executive who conducted regular inspections of the Camp. And the diary – never intended for publication – kept by Guy Liddell (a future MI5 Deputy Director General) confirms that Stephens sometimes went to considerable lengths to enforce his edict. On one occasion, in September 1940, Stephens ejected from Camp 020 a visiting senior War Office interrogator who hit a prisoner, the double agent TATE. As Liddell noted in his diary “It is quite clear to me that we cannot have this sort of thing going on in our establishment. Apart from the moral aspect of the whole thing, I am quite convinced that these Gestapo methods do not pay in the long run.” Stephens, infuriated by this foolish incident, made sure that that the officer in question never returned to Camp 020.
Stephens’ rule regarding interrogations was straightforward: he believed that in a protracted ideological battle like WW2 or the Cold War, the quick benefits that might be gained from physical abuse were outweighed by the long-term damage to intelligence-gathering which those acts caused. He believed that the objective of interrogations was not to obtain quick answers to a few questions, nor to extract a simple answer. Rather, interrogations should induce a prisoner to give all the relevant information in his or her possession – and the only way to do that, Stephens believed, was to abide by an axiomatic rule of non-violence.
At the end of the war, Stephens, with considerable reluctance, accepted a secondment to the Army in occupied Germany, where he was placed in charge of a new interrogation facility (No.74 Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre, or No.74 DIC) at Bad Nenndorf, a spa town near Hanover in Lower Saxony. Stephens was the obvious choice to run this camp: he had more experience of running such an establishment and of conducting and directing successful interrogations than anyone else in the British intelligence community.
Although the camp was modelled on Camp 020, it was under different management. It was run by the War Office – the predecessor of today’s Ministry of Defence – rather than by MI5, and its administration was in the hands of the Control Commission Germany. It was staffed by personnel drawn from across the British Armed Forces and intelligence community, including MI5.
The location of Bad
The camp was initially used to gather information on the German intelligence services, in part to prevent a post-war Nazi revival, which was feared to be a real possibility in 1945. Some of Hitler’s most notorious henchmen were interrogated at No.74 DIC, including one of the Third Reich’s main espionage chiefs, Horst Kopow (whose MI5 files are now in The National Archives). Hitler’s former adjutant, Nicholaus von Below, was sent there and revealed previously undisclosed details of the Nazi leader’s final communications to his generals. The test pilot Hanna Reitsch was also interrogated there under American supervision, as was Oswald Pohl, a senior Nazi official who played a leading role in the Holocaust. His unrepentant statements to his interrogators were to play an important part in his later trial, at which he was sentenced to death.
However, as the Nazi threat declined and the Cold War set in, No.74 DIC was directed to focus on the Soviet Union, a former wartime ally. British intelligence had emerged from WW2 knowing very little about the Soviets and No.74 DIC played an important part in developing a greater understanding of the potential threat. Interrogations at the camp provided a crucial source of information on a range of subjects, such as Soviet scientific research and technology, most importantly atomic research, and the Soviet intelligence services. They also produced, as one report noted in 1947, “as complete an Order of Battle for the Red Army” as was possible to obtain at the time. Several suspected Soviet agents were interrogated at Bad Nenndorf, providing “unassailable evidence of Russian espionage within the British Zone in Germany”, as Stephens put it.
Despite No.74 DIC’s crucial role in the early Cold War, Stephens, facing funding and other belt-tightening measures imposed by the Control Commission, struggled to run the sprawling camp effectively. Due to massive and rapid post-war demobilisation, he lost some of his most experienced personnel – people who had served with him at Camp 020 – and the replacement interrogators and warders often lacked the appropriate experience and attributes for their tasks. Seven hundred staff had been stationed at Bad Nenndorf in 1945, but by 1946 staff numbers had been more than halved. Later testimony confirms that, despite Stephens’ vigorous and repeated protests to his military superiors, a number of whom clearly sympathised with his predicament, quite a few soldiers with extensive criminal records were deployed to the camp as warders.
By his own account, supported by the testimony of others, Stephens worked assiduously to ensure that No.74 DIC operated on the same principles as Camp 020. Interrogating officers were briefed on their role and were shown a copy of Stephens’ history of Camp 020. Standing Orders were posted and drawn to the attention of all personnel and Stephens himself, on a couple of occasions, lectured the warders on the absolute necessity of refraining from violence. And he had other measures in place to ensure oversight and control. Prison Control Officers were responsible for the day-to-day operation of the prison; at night Duty Officers made rounds of the prison wing; the Medical Officer made daily visits; and Stephens conducted a formal inspection once a week and made other unannounced visits to the wing. He also assumed that the covert eavesdropping system covering the inmates’ cells would reveal if anything were amiss in the prison. He thought he could rely on these arrangements.
Much has been made in recent years of Stephens’ alleged sadism, his utter disregard for the welfare of those under his control. The record does not support this. In addition to his clear opposition to the use of physical violence, Stephens also seems to have taken some steps to ameliorate the conditions in which inmates at No.74 DIC were held. Against considerable opposition from the Control Commission, he was successful in securing an enhanced food ration for prisoners, considerably superior to that for those held in civil internment camps in the British Zone. And during the unusually harsh winter of 1946-47, when the Control Commission was unable to replenish coal stocks for the camp’s heating system, Stephens, as a partial remedy, was able to provide stoves and wood supplies for the detainees. He also secured a supply of drugs and other materials from Camp 020 to enable the Medical Officer to treat internees, when the provision of such items for use on Germans had been forbidden.
Despite these various measures, something was clearly going wrong at Bad Nenndorf. In the early months of 1947, a number of internees from the camp were transferred to the local internee hospital at Rotenburg. Some appeared to have suffered physical abuse, others were evidently malnourished, while others were thought to have suffered serious medical neglect. Two inmates died within twenty-four hours of arrival at the hospital, while another, Robert Buttlar-Brandenfels (an interesting character whose MI5 file is now in the National Archives), had four toes amputated as a consequence of undiagnosed frostbite.
When all this was brought to public notice, it caused a scandal, both in Britain and Germany. Britain, it was claimed, had established ‘concentration camps’ similar to those of the Nazis. The apparently poor physical and mental condition of some detainees following their release from No.74 DIC caused serious concern. This led, in April 1947, to a military Court of Inquiry being hastily appointed to look urgently into the allegations. In a matter of days, following the receipt of some fairly alarming evidence, it concluded that there had been a number of serious failings and abuses at the camp. Stephens and two other officers were immediately suspended. But the Court of Inquiry reserved some of its harshest criticism for Stephens’ superiors, noting that:
“Intelligence Division [of the Control Commission] must themselves bear the major share of the ultimate responsibility for the treatment meted out at Bad Nenndorf. The establishment was run under their authority and they should have ensured that proper regulations were laid down for the guidance of the Commandant and his staff…”
The Court also recognised that it was some of the warders that had been directly responsible for the ill-treatment of internees. These men were later identified and granted immunity to give evidence for the Prosecution at Stephens’ Court Martial. While admitting their role in the physical abuse of prisoners, none implicated Stephens. And, despite the Court of Inquiry’s strictures, no members of the Intelligence Division of the Control Commission were subject to administrative or other action.
Following the Court of Inquiry’s findings, a more detailed investigation was launched, led by a former Metropolitan Police officer. As a consequence of this investigation – and following considerable debate between the Foreign Office, the War Office and the Control Commission – it was decided to bring several officers before Courts Martial to face a range of charges relating to the neglect and abuse of prisoners at Bad Nenndorf.
In the event, between March and July 1948, three officers were prosecuted. A fourth – an officer in charge of one of the interrogation sections at Bad Nenndorf – escaped prosecution through a legal technicality, a decision that troubled the Foreign Office and the Attorney General. The first to be tried, a young interrogation officer, was acquitted. The next trial was that of the Medical Officer: he was acquitted of two charges of manslaughter but found guilty on a number of charges of professional neglect and dismissed from the Army.
As commanding officer of Bad Nenndorf, Stephens faced four charges. These related essentially to cruelty arising from the improper confinement of prisoners; neglect of duty through failure to exercise appropriate supervision resulting in a range of abuses including prisoners being subjected to physical violence; and inflicting hardship and suffering on prisoners through failure to provide adequate nutrition. Two of the charges he faced were dropped on the first day. Much of his case was conducted behind closed doors because of the sensitivity of the testimony heard in his defence, which included details of the information gained on the Soviet Union. Over fifty witnesses testified for the Prosecution, and twenty for the Defence. The latter included some of the most distinguished members of the British intelligence community, including Sir Dick White, a future head of both MI5 and MI6.
Stephens pointed out to the Court Martial that he had persistently stood against the use of ‘physical pressure’ during interrogations and had repeatedly impressed this view upon his subordinates. It was also shown that he had not hesitated to punish those who disregarded these instructions. It was not Stephens’ case that the alleged abuses at No.74 DIC had not taken place, rather that the systems, processes and personnel upon which he thought he was entitled to rely for detecting and preventing such abuses had failed. While it was successfully shown that much of the prosecution evidence was exaggerated or false, it was nevertheless clearly demonstrated that there had been medical neglect – for which the Medical Officer was tried and convicted – and that some private soldiers and NCOs had assaulted prisoners. These former warders, in their prosecution evidence, admitted their part in these assaults; they also admitted that they were fully aware of Stephens’ rules forbidding violence. But these were evidently isolated incidents: there were no grounds for concluding that this behaviour was either widespread or systemic.
The Court Martial acquitted Stephens of all charges. Shortly afterwards, he returned to MI5. He retired in 1960 having served in several posts at home and abroad.
Following the Bad Nenndorf case, the government took steps to ensure that there would be no recurrence. It instigated oversight mechanisms and established universal standards for its interrogation centres abroad, including a prohibition of the use of ‘mental pressure’. To quote a brief given to the Prime Minister in March 1948: interrogation centres abroad had a crucial role to perform, but it was equally necessary to safeguard the rights of those who were detained.
Bad Nenndorf illustrated the importance of maintaining high standards for the interrogation of detainees. Some serious acts of abuse had clearly occurred at the camp and some of those implicated were investigated and brought to trial. The abuses were carried out at a low level, by personnel who ignored Stephens’ specific instructions, and were never condoned by higher authorities.
Stephens’ instructions for the interrogation of prisoners over half a century ago remain highly relevant today. MI5 still operates under strict rules for interviewing and questioning individuals. All MI5 staff are trained in the requirements of the Human Rights Act before they are deployed to operational posts, and the Service has rigorous procedures for ensuring that the law and the government’s consolidated guidance on the detention and interviewing of detainees overseas is followed.