Inside Britain’s clandestine interrogation centres
Helen Fry’s new book lifts the lid on The London Cage, a building in Kensington where German PoWs were held and which officially did not exist
23 November, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman
Exterior of the London Cage: Nos 8 and 8a Kensington Palace Gardens, taken in 1938
Wartime spying, for the vast majority of people, is simply part of today’s rich field of entertainment seen through the eyes of John le Carré’s George Smiley or Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
And it is strange that both authors have Hampstead links, le Carré, now snowy-haired and 86, still with an abode in NW3 and Fleming having been born in Hampstead.
But the grim reality of wartime atrocities in which the Nazis slaughtered some six million Jews and others resulted in a fight-back in London now exposed by Golders Green-based historian and biographer Helen Fry in her book The London Cage. Indeed, her fascinating original research reveals the clandestine history of Britain’s wartime interrogation centre based in two elegant houses in Kensington Palace Gardens, currently home to millionaires and celebrities, as well as foreign embassies.
Numbers 8 and 8a were the headquarters of The London Cage, where German PoWs were interrogated – even allegedly tortured – for the duration of the war and beyond. Officially it did not exist: only in 1946 did the Red Cross discover it but were then thwarted in all their attempts to carry out an inspection.
Equally remarkable was the man in command of the London Cage, Colonel Alexander Scotland, a nephew of George Bernard Shaw, whose career included serving briefly in the German Army before the First World War broke out.
Commander of the London Cage, Colonel Alexander Scotland
He became an expert in interrogation on his return to the UK, those skills and his fluent German putting him in charge of the Cage from its opening in 1940. By the time it closed eight years later, some 3,000 German PoWs secretly spent time there, the essential intelligence gained undoubtedly helping Churchill to victory.
How did that happen? Well, German prisoners were rounded up after a British raid on France in 1942, and they revealed the existence of camouflaged factories in Poland producing U-boats and planes, vital information in the planning of D-Day, as well as giving the first warnings of the horrors at Buchenwald, the Nazi extermination camp.
How do you make a difficult German talk? asks Helen Fry. The answer in some cases was to ignore the Geneva Convention and introduce torture. Prisoners were locked in narrow sentry boxes for hours and then doused with cold water. Others were forced to stand naked for long periods or even chained to a chair. Sleep deprivation too and starvation diets were other techniques, together, it is reported, with the experimental use of truth drugs.
They were explicitly told, as one man has claimed: “You are here in the English Gestapo!”
A Second World War Intelligence poster . Image courtesy of Eye spy intelligence magazine
Revealing one particular case, Helen Fry tells how German-Jewish refugees who fled the evil Nazis came face to face with members of the real SS and Gestapo who perpetrated so many crimes.
“For them the war suddenly became personal,” she writes. “Gary Leon had witnessed the Gestapo come for his father, Bernhard; he had been thrown down the stairs and had died instantly. Gary’s mother was transported to Theresienstadt, where she died. “Facing Nazi war criminals in the cage was never going to be easy. It must have been tempting to exact revenge… Leon’s story is quite typical of the German-Jewish refugees who came to England to escape Nazi persecution and served in the British forces.
“Having fled Nazi Germany, he was married at Hampstead Town Hall on 2 April, 1938. After the outbreak of war, he came an ‘enemy alien’, subject to restrictions. On 1 May, 1940, he enlisted in the Pioneer Corps and undertook vital labour work for the war effort, clearing the heavily blitzed areas of south London.”
Then came a dramatic change when he saw an advertisement for fluent German speakers, passed all the tests, and on D-Day received a call from the War Office and found himself at Kempton Park racecourse assessing and interrogated captured German prisoners of war, some subsequently transferred to The Cage. Leon was later promoted to Sergeant Major there.
And Helen Fry adds: “Leon wrote very little about what he did at the Cage, perhaps feeling that he was still bounded by the Official Secrets Act, but he did make some reference in his memoirs to hearing about the V1 and V2 secret weapons from the prisoners’ interrogations.”
That the Cage played a vital part in Britain’s victory is one inevitable conclusion from this amazing tale. We might be thankful that the world today suffers from cyber spying and intimidated and that any future wars are likely to be robot controlled.
Whether humanity shall survive is another question.
• The London Cage: The Secret History of Britain’s World War II Interrogation Centre. By Helen Fry, Yale University Press, £18.99