Aug 2009 Journal

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Wilton Park: A very special PoW camp

The use, after the war, of the Wilton Park estate near Beaconsfield for re-educating former German prisoners-of-war in the virtues of democracy was related in an article by Eric Bourne and a letter by Peter Hart in recent issues of the Journal.

However, Wilton Park was perhaps even more important during the war, albeit for different reasons. Before May 1945, it was a very special prisoner-of-war camp, where prisoners from whom it was hoped to obtain important information were sent. Wilton Park was one of three camps forming the intelligence unit CSDIC (UK) - Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre - as not only army, but also navy and RAF intelligence personnel were serving there.

The other two camps were at Trent Park near Cockfosters in north London, which housed German generals and other senior officers (recently the subject of a Radio 4 Afternoon Play, which was written by the son of an ex-refugee who served there), and at Latimer House in Buckinghamshire, where lower-ranking officers and other ranks were held, which was also the case at Wilton Park. At the latter camp, there was a Palladian mansion called ‘The White House’, originally built in 1779, in which a few Italian generals were housed and which also served as the mess of the British intelligence officers. It was demolished in 1968 (the prisoners’ cells had disappeared a few years earlier) and now there are no buildings of the old camp left – instead, a 15-storey-high structure has been erected, which is claimed to be the highest building in Buckinghamshire. The camp is now the Defence School of Languages.

CSDIC was a highly secret unit; anybody working there had to sign the Official Secrets Act. I had been serving in the Pioneer Corps since September 1940 and, like most of my contemporaries, was very keen to be transferred to a more active unit. In early 1943 CSDIC was expanding and, although until then only commissioned officers had been working there, the War Office had decided to allow sergeants and warrant officers to do the same job. At that stage, recruitment was by recommendation from people already working at CSDIC and, through a relative who was friendly with an officer serving there, I was recommended for transfer. After waiting about two months and having passed a day-long interview in London, I found myself at Latimer House, where I was at once promoted from private to sergeant. After further promotion to WOII (company sergeant major) a few months later I was transferred to Wilton Park.

What were we all doing? Listening to the conversations of the prisoners! The POWs’ cells were ‘bugged’ - a microphone was concealed in the light fitting - and we listened to their conversations, in the hope that they would discuss something that might be of interest to British intelligence. There were only two prisoners to a cell, as far as possible from different services or units, which made it likely that they would talk to each other about their experiences. We had to identify who was who by their voices and accents.

The monitors operated in teams of about six, each in a separate room with an officer in charge. Sitting at tables which were fitted with record-cutting equipment (this was before electronic tapes were invented!), we had a kind of old-fashioned telephone switchboard facing us, where we put plugs into numbered sockets in order to listen to the PoWs through our headphones. Each operator had to monitor two or three cells, switching from one to the other to see whether something ‘interesting’ was being discussed. As soon as the conversation touched on a subject we thought might be ‘valuable’, we pushed a switch which started a turntable revolving, and pulled a small lever to lower the recording head onto the record. We had to keep a log in which we noted what our ‘charges’ had been doing or talking about, and specified at what times and about what subjects we had recorded their conversations.

As soon as a record had been cut, another operator had to take over the monitoring, and the person who had been listening went to a different room to transcribe what he had just recorded - not every word that was spoken, of course, but only those bits of the conversation which were important. After that, the officer in charge of the team (or later a sergeant major) had to check the transcription: correct errors (i.e. mis-hearings), fill in gaps if possible (often prisoners were ‘security-conscious’ and - suspecting a hidden microphone - started to whisper when talking about something important), and do some judicious editing, i.e. cutting out superfluous material.

There were a number of SPs (‘stool pigeons’), i.e. prisoners who from political conviction or possibly practical considerations had decided to work for us. They were briefed on the subjects about which their cell-mate would be knowledgeable so that they could steer the conversation around to them. Of course, they did not know about the hidden microphones and were left in the belief that whatever information they managed to extract they would have to report to their ‘handler’. One SP, however, was an ex-refugee officer, and we were full of admiration for him, for what he was doing clearly required exceptional nerve, courage and presence of mind, let alone acting ability. As far as I know, he never gave himself away or aroused the suspicion of any of his cell-mates. He posed as a (German) officer and was always paired with some particularly valuable officer-prisoner.

All PoWs were, of course, interrogated several times (always by officers not working in our ‘monitoring’ section called ‘M-Room’ - we operators never dealt with any of them face-to-face), and their reaction to the interrogation was often particularly ‘fruitful’. They would tell their cell-mate what they had been asked about, what they had managed to conceal from the interrogating officer, how much we (the British) already knew, etc.

We recorded not only military intelligence, but also any atrocities the prisoners might have witnessed or taken part in (and those records were kept in an archive, whereas others were scrapped after use); also stories about the German home front, when prisoners related what they had heard or experienced while on leave. Such material was useful for ‘psychological warfare’ purposes: there were several Allied radio stations purporting to be illegal German ones which broadcast stories calculated to undermine the morale of soldiers.

Until D-Day (6 June 1944) most of our prisoners were either shot-down Luftwaffe pilots or members of U-boat crews who had been rescued after their U-boat was sunk. After the Allied invasion of the Continent, a steady stream of army prisoners arrived, and we got busy listening to them. The material we obtained was, of course, very different from what we had recorded until then, and we felt that what we were doing had suddenly assumed a far greater importance than before. The success of the invasion depended to a great extent on good intelligence, and the existence of the decoding centre at Bletchley Park and its successes was then completely unknown, even in intelligence circles.

Fritz Lustig

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