By Ian Cobain
The German SS officer was fighting to save himself from the gallows for a terrible war crime and might say anything to escape the noose. But Fritz Knöchlein was not lying in 1946 when he claimed that, in captivity in London, he had been tortured by British soldiers to force a confession out of him.
Tortured by British soldiers? In captivity? In London? The idea seems incredible.
Britain has a reputation as a nation that prides itself on its love of fair play and respect for the rule of law. We claim the moral high ground when it comes to human rights. We were among the first to sign the 1929 Geneva Convention on the humane treatment of prisoners of war.
It was in 2005 during my work as an investigative reporter that I came across a veiled mention of a World War II detention centre known as the London Cage. It took a number of Freedom Of Information requests to the Foreign Office before government files were reluctantly handed over.
From these, a sinister world unfolded — of a torture centre that the British military operated throughout the Forties, in complete secrecy, in the heart of one of the most exclusive neighbourhoods in the capital.
Thousands of Germans passed through the unit that became known as the London Cage, where they were beaten, deprived of sleep and forced to assume stress positions for days at a time.
Some were told they were to be murdered and their bodies quietly buried.
Others were threatened with unnecessary surgery carried out by people with no medical qualifications. Guards boasted that they were ‘the English Gestapo’.
The London Cage was part of a network of nine ‘cages’ around Britain run by the Prisoner of War Interrogation Section (PWIS), which came under the jurisdiction of the Directorate of Military Intelligence.
|Out in the open: Lieutenant Colonel Alexander |
Scotland revealed some secrets in his controversial
book about interrogating German officers, 'The
But prisoners thought to possess valuable information were whisked off to a top-secret unit in a row of grandiose Victorian villas in Kensington Palace Gardens, then (as now) one of the smartest locations in London.
Today, the tree-lined street a stone’s throw from Kensington Palace is home to ambassadors and billionaires, sultans and princes. Houses change hands for £50 million and more.
Yet it was here, seven decades ago, in five interrogation rooms, in cells and in the guardroom in numbers six, seven and eight Kensington Palace Gardens, that nine officers, assisted by a dozen NCOs, used whatever methods they thought necessary to squeeze information from suspects.
Of course, it is crucial to put these events into context. When the gloves first came off at Britain’s interrogation centres — the summer of 1940 — German forces were racing across France and the Low Countries, and Britain was fighting for its very survival. The stakes could not have been higher.
In the following years, large parts of Britain’s cities were left in ruins, hundreds of thousands of service personnel and civilians died, and barely a day passed without evidence emerging of a new Nazi atrocity. Little wonder, perhaps, that it was felt acceptable for German prisoners to suffer in British interrogation centres.
And it should also be said that whatever went on within their walls, it paled into insignificance compared with the horrors the Nazis visited on millions of prisoners.
So, how can we be sure about the methods used at the London Cage? Because the man who ran it admitted as much — and was hushed up for half-a-century by an establishment fearful of the shame his story would bring on a Britain that had been fighting for honesty, decency and the rule of law.
That man was Colonel Alexander Scotland, an accepted master in techniques of interrogation. After the war, he wrote a candid account of his activities in his memoirs, in which he recalled how he would muse, on arriving at the Cage each morning: ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here.’
Because, he said, before going into detail: ‘If any German had any information we wanted, it was invariably extracted from him in the long run.’
As was customary, before publication Scotland submitted his manuscript to the War Office for clearance in 1954. Pandemonium erupted. All four copies were seized. All those who knew of its contents were silenced with threats of prosecution under the Official Secrets Act.
What caused the greatest consternation was his admission that the horrors had continued after the war, when interrogators switched from extracting military intelligence to securing convictions for war crimes. More>> How Britain tortured Nazi PoWs: The horrifying interrogation methods that belie our proud boast that we fought a clean war