‘A brutally tough place for brutally tough people’
The court martial and acquittal of a senior British Intelligence officer accused of presiding over abuses of German prisoners during the Second World War highlights failings in intelligence policy and accountability, says Simona Tobia.
Violence is taboo, for not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information.’ These words, uttered by Lieutenant Colonel Robin W.G. ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens during his court martial in 1948 over allegations of prisoner mistreatment, underpinned the British approach to interrogation. British questioning systems are usually regarded as legal, humane and effective, but certain cases challenge this view and raise questions about the boundaries between military interrogation and ill-treatment. That incidents of violence and torture occurred at certain British prisons during and after the Second World War, was the result of some zealous ‘rotten apples’ rather than part of an established policy. But there is also the matter of responsibility. Who was to be held accountable for these transgressions?
After war was declared in 1939 specific interrogation facilities were established both in Britain and abroad with the precise purpose of gathering intelligence via interrogation of the enemy. The Prisoner of War Interrogation Section (PWIS) with its system of ‘cages’ across Britain (including the infamous London District Cage), the London Reception Centre at the Royal Victoria Patriotic School, Camp 020 in Richmond and Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centres (CSDIC) were all elements of a complex system of networks that contributed to the overall success of British intelligence during and after the conflict.
Within 24 hours of the outbreak of war Britain’s first CSDIC was in operation at the Tower of London with the aim of submitting selected enemy captives to a ‘comprehensive interrogation by specially qualified officers’. Several interrogation centres were also set up in locations abroad, together with a number of mobile units. At the end of the conflict, interrogation took on a new importance, especially in occupied areas where there were huge numbers of prisoners of war. Its function now was not only to collect strategic information, but also to aid de-nazification and, increasingly, to identify potential Soviet spies. Thus in mid-1945 the War Office, in collaboration with MI5 and MI19 (a section of the Directorate of Military Intelligence), established a new centre in the British zone of occupied Germany. Bad Nenndorf was a spa town near Hanover, which had prospered for over a century thanks to its mud baths. As the new camp commander Lieutenant Colonel Stephens wrote:
The bathrooms lent themselves to prison conversion and that saved many months of basic construction … On 30 June an advance party took possession of the Schlambads, the messuages and tenements, and the usual curtilege of wire was in place in due course.
The prisoners were held there for relatively short periods, usually not longer than 12 months. After they had been submitted to detailed interrogation they were returned to their original prisons.
Bad Nenndorf was modelled on wartime MI5’s Camp 020, formerly headed by Stephens. An interrogation centre in operation at Latchemere House in Richmond from July 1940, it played a key role in the celebrated ‘double-cross system’ (breaking enemy spies and turning them into double-agents). Born in Alexandria in 1900, Stephens had travelled extensively and could speak a number of languages, including French, German and Italian as well as Urdu, Arabic, Somali and Amharic. He had joined the security service in 1939 at the age of 39 with the rank of captain. During consultations in early 1945 about the establishment of an interrogation camp in the Western European Area, Stephens was eager to put himself forward for the position of commanding officer, confident that no one was better qualified for the role. He considered himself a natural ‘breaker’, able to establish guilt and obtain a confession, with a proven track record at Camp 020. As an intelligence officer his abhorrence of the enemy tended towards the obsessive. He believed that to make a good interrogator:
First and foremost there must be certain inherent qualities. There must be an implacable hatred of the enemy … the interrogator must treat each spy as a very individual case for that matter, a very personal enemy.
Violence was banned, but for technical rather than ethical reasons. Brutality and violence carried the risk of eliciting answers to please and could therefore lower the quality of information and consequently its strategic worth. Stephens expressed these views in his history of Camp 020, A Digest of Ham, completed in 1947, but which remained hidden in MI5 files until 1999, when it was released to the National Archives and published a year later. His views were also reflected in Bad Nenndorf’s Standing Orders, which established that:
All interrogations will be carried out in a humane fashion. It is a fundamental rule in British interrogation that no physical violence is ever employed.
Despite banning the use of physical violence, Stephens was convinced that every type of ‘mental pressure’ could be used to break prisoners, including harsh imprisonment, threats and methods to induce fear in the prisoners. In fact, during his subsequent court martial Stephens informed the court that:
Bad Nenndorf was a brutally tough place, for brutally tough people. Its prisoners included Nazis who had been involved with implementing the Holocaust.
Under Stephens’ command Camp 020 had been one of the most productive intelligence centres of the war, without the need to use physical violence. But the situation at Bad Nenndorf was quite different. In 1946 Stephens was already struggling to run the camp due to funding reductions and postwar demobilisation. Staff had been reduced from an initial 702 to 330. Few of the interrogators were experienced intelligence officers and he often complained about the personnel sent to him. Some had no practical experience and were there mainly because of their knowledge of the German language. Of 20 interrogators employed in 1947, eight were non-British born, a number of whom were Jewish refugees who had reached Britain and been naturalised, having fought with the British against the Nazis. They certainly knew German and had a high level of hatred for the prisoners. However they lacked intelligence experience and interrogation skills. It was later discovered that some had criminal records. During the course of 1946 and 1947 a number of prisoners from Bad Nenndorf ended up in nearby hospitals severely injured, frostbitten, malnourished and covered in dirt. One of them was Gerhard Menzel, who was admitted to hospital in March 1947. The doctor who visited him later stated that:
He was the worst case I saw. He was only skin and bones. He could neither walk nor stand up without assistance, and could only speak with difficulty because his tongue and lips were swollen and broken open. It was impossible to take his body temperature because it was not higher than 35° celeius [sic] and the thermometer only starts at 35° celeius [sic].
In January 1947 two prisoners died shortly after arriving at Rothenburg hospital, near Bremen. Some doctors reported these cases and involuntarily initiated an international scandal that would continue into the 21st century.
The commander in chief of the British Zone in Germany, Air Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas, appointed a court of inquiry which found that, although physical torture was banned, Bad Nenndorf lacked adequate measures of supervision and guidance. It emerged that ‘mental pressure’ was widely used, with methods that were considered extreme even for a harsh military prison holding suspected war criminals of the worst kind. When the possibility of legal proceedings emerged, Douglas suspended Stephens and some of the staff and ordered a full inquiry. This was headed by Tom Hayward, an inspector appointed by the Control Commission Germany.
Hayward’s investigation confirmed that conditions at Bad Nenndorf were pretty dire. Male prisoners were kept in unheated cells with no mattresses, which, as Hayward stated, ‘must have made conditions unbearable if not dangerous during the winter months’. They were denied proper rest and were allowed only limited exercise. Prisoners were found wearing filthy clothes, as they had no means to wash or dry them. Usually detained in cells of two or more, they could be punished, according to the Standing Orders, with a period of ‘solitary confinement’, the only form of punishment mentioned in the document, for a maximum of 72 hours. However, it appeared that in some cases men were put in solitary confinement for periods of over 40 days. Hayward noted:
It needs little imagination of feeling to understand the suffering inflicted upon the prisoners by long periods of solitary confinement. From enquiries made it appears that prisoners are put into solitary confinement on arrival as an automatic process, and left there for days – and often for weeks.
By June 1947 Hayward had produced a report with a huge amount of evidence supporting the allegations, which led to the court martial of ‘Tin Eye’, the medical officer and two interrogators.
The Foreign Office initially tried to keep the episode secret. Nonetheless as soon as the first court martial began in Hanover in March 1948 of Lt Richard Langham, one of the interrogators, the story hit the headlines in the British press. It remained in the news until the summer, when the last trial ended with Stephens’ acquittal. The Foreign Office did not disguise its unease over the conduct of the affair, particularly Stephens’ trial, believing that specific references in open court to the function and conduct of interrogation centres might indicate to the Soviets British weaknesses and chinks in the armour.
The first trial opened on March 2nd 1948 with Langham accused of disgraceful conduct of a cruel kind. It lasted 21 days. Langham was born in Munich in 1921 and had arrived in Britain before the war, joining the British army in 1940. As a Jew he was one of a number of non-British interrogators who might not be expected to be wholly impartial. The allegations of torture were made by two former inmates, Mahnke and Roeder, who claimed they had been badly beaten, stripped naked and forced to run while being punched or kicked and tormented with lighted cigarettes. They were also told that their families had been arrested and that if they did not confess to being Nazi terrorists, pressure would be applied to their relatives.
When Langham was acquitted at the end of March because the prosecution failed to present enough evidence, The Times reported that he had been found ‘not guilty of cruelty to SS men’ and that his accusers were ‘two charmers, trained liars, deceivers’ and of course ‘two Nazis’. The fact that acts of violence and torture had been committed and that Langham was among those responsible was quite clear. Samuel John Mathers, another officer who had made a deal in exchange for his testimony at the trial, admitted to some violent behaviour:
It is quite untrue that it was a horrifying attack which we had made on the two men. They were just pushed around for a few minutes.
Yet nobody was going to be held accountable for these breaches. As they were so used to fabricating stories, the two former SS men’s testimony ‘clearly showed that [they] had touched it up to make it more attractive’, reported The Times. This was the main defence argument in all the Bad Nenndorf courts martial: that the prosecution’s witnesses were proven liars and therefore their testimonies could not be considered strong enough evidence to convict the accused.
The two most important trials, however, were those of the Medical Officer, Captain John Smith, and Stephens. Both hearings opened in Hanover and later transferred to London and most sessions were conducted in camera for security reasons. Captain Smith faced 16 charges, including manslaughter. He was found guilty of five neglect charges and sentenced to be dismissed from the service. Smith may have been guilty of failing to attend to the prison patients as a doctor should, but he was not responsible for the brutal treatment they were forced to endure. Stephens on the other hand, as camp commander, was clearly responsible for what occurred at Bad Nenndorf but he was not held accountable for it. His court martial opened on June 8th, 1948 and he was charged with four counts of disgraceful conduct and ill-treatment, though two charges were later dropped. He was tried for his responsibility, as commandant, for the various forms of mistreatment meted out at Bad Nenndorf, but also for having improperly caused the confinement of Gerhard Menzel, who had been placed repeatedly in solitary confinement in a punishment cell, was kept handcuffed for days and for a fortnight was forced to scrub his cell with his own trousers from 4.30 to midnight, with water thrown at him as soon as the cell was dry. The prosecution case was weak as Menzel could not be called upon to testify having ‘disappeared’ into the Russian Zone. About 65 years later Menzel was traced by lawyers from Berlin to Lindau in Bavaria. They advised him and his family of the possibility of demanding compensation for what he had suffered at the British interrogation facility. The case however, never reached the High Court because Menzel died in May 2013, shortly after his 90th birthday.
During the court martial Stephens pointed out that he had persistently spoken against the use of ‘physical pressure’ during interrogations, but he was convinced that any kind of ‘mental pressure’, apart from physical violence, could be used legitimately to ‘break’ prisoners. Asked by the court whether he believed it was acceptable to ruin a man’s health to obtain information from him, one of the interrogators, a Mr Spiller, confidently replied ‘yes’. Stephens’ defence argued that he was convinced that physical violence produced poor intelligence and that the purpose of interrogation was not to obtain quick answers but to induce prisoners to reveal all the information they possessed. His lawyers constantly referred to Stephens’ complaints of staff shortages and that ‘suspended sentence men’ were sent to him as warders. Almost all witnesses cross-examined by the defence were presented as proven liars, who, by the time of Stephens’ court martial, had been giving evidence at the court of inquiry and at other trials, allowing them the opportunity to forge credible stories. Quite a lot of time was spent in undermining the evidence collected by Hayward in his investigation and defending irregularities questioned by the inspector. Stephens was duly acquitted. He subsequently resumed his career in the Secret Services.
The documentary maker Patricia Meehan was the first to tell the story of Bad Nenndorf in her 2001 book on postwar Germany, A Strange Enemy People. At this point most files were still classified. Between 2005 and 2006 the official documents of the inquiry and court martial were declassified, after the Guardian made a Freedom of Information request and the Bad Nenndorf scandal made the headlines again. More recently the publication of Ian Cobain’s Cruel Britannia in 2012 initiated a debate on the existence of a secret policy of torture in British interrogation.
Whatever had been happening in CSDIC, however, must have been widely known among officers and warders. In accordance with Tin Eye’s idea that a good system had to be based on hatred of the enemy, the warders at CSDIC had been chosen from fighting regiments (the infantry or artillery) to ensure that they really had no sympathy for the enemy. Most of the warders at Bad Nenndorf were very young soldiers and many had experienced harsh combat with the British Army of the Rhine and many had witnessed the horrors of Bergen-Belsen. One former infantry soldier, ‘C.S.’, who had been posted to Bad Nenndorf as a warder in 1945, told me in 2009: ‘I shall never forget what I saw at Belsen. Worst thing ever, ever.’ But by then C.S. appeared disillusioned with his CSDIC experience. In 2005 he had learned the full story of the inquiry and courts martial through the newspaper reports about the release of the inquiry papers. Back in 1947 and 1948, when he had been called upon to testify at Stephens’ trial, he felt he had not had a clear understanding of what was actually going on:
We defended the CO because we had a great deal of respect for him, you know, and we couldn’t believe that these things were happening and he’d been responsible.
As time passed he had changed his perspective on the ethics of the war and his role in it. Bad Nenndorf was:
... a pretty dire place. We were told that, you know, if … if we … these Germans you know, caused us any trouble, we could hit them which you shouldn’t do to prisoners … but the … the regime was pretty, pretty sort of … tough, really.
At the time C.S. knew he was working to enforce military discipline and when instructions to give ‘punishment’ to some of the prisoners came down from prison control, he did not question them. He knew of a prisoner he was to ‘break him morally’, but ‘if you think retrospectively, it was a bit diabolic, you know’.
There is no question that ill-treatment and violence occurred during the Second World War and its aftermath, although there was no secret policy to implement torture. Nevertheless the ‘bad apple’ argument is an insufficient explanation. The documents reveal that abuse happened largely where facilities were operating with limited resources, untrained officers and improvised interrogators whose hatred for the enemy exceeded their interrogation skills and experience.
The recently declassified documents reveal what is surely a major failing in the celebrated British interrogation system: nobody at Bad Nenndorf was to be held accountable for the inadequacies that occurred. While the medical officer was dismissed for his faults as a doctor, the interrogators, who used brutal methods, and the camp commander, responsible for the overall management of the organisation, were acquitted of all charges. No wonder that similar abuses have occurred again in later conflicts, from decolonisation struggles to the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and, more recently, in Afghanistan and Iraq.