Mar 2013 Journal
Eavesdropping on the enemy(review)
In her latest book, Dr Helen Fry describes the important contribution to winning the War made by a group of people who, because of the nature of their work, have remained virtually unknown. The ‘M Room’ (the ‘M’ stood for microphoned) was the code for a secret operation which employed up to 1,000 staff, including some 100 listeners engaged in eavesdropping on captured enemy soldiers, mainly senior officers and including 59 German generals.
It was necessary to employ listeners with an excellent knowledge of German, including colloquial terms, and with the ability to understand various local dialects. The listeners also needed to be familiar with recent changes and political events in Germany. For this reason Military Intelligence turned to Austrian and German refugees, many of whom had enrolled in the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps. The author points out the irony that, after vetting, the recruits had to sign the Official Secrets Act and were privy to much critical information yet had to wait several more years before obtaining British nationality! Obtaining information, which had been so highly secret during the War, involved trawling through around 100,000 documents in the National Archives as well as interviewing one of the only two known survivors of the surveillance teams. The fascinating stories resulting from this research suggest that the effort was well worthwhile.
A major part of the book deals with the German generals and other senior officers. Considering that these people were prisoners, they seem to have lived in reasonable comfort, with their own batmen and the freedom to wander round the grounds of the camp. This may have helped to make them relaxed and chat more freely with their fellow prisoners and thus provide material for their eavesdroppers. One of the important aspects arising from this material shows that not all the officers were ardent Nazis and that there was considerable friction between them with respect to their attitude to Hitler and the conduct of the War.
It was, however, not only from high-ranking officers that useful information was obtained: military personnel at all levels often spoke about new equipment and procedures, sometimes to impress their fellow prisoners with their knowledge. Key information obtained in this way included details about German work on the development of rockets and radar.
From the point of view of readers of this journal, probably the most relevant and interesting information relates to their knowledge of the Holocaust. The prisoners captured before 1942 and the Wannsee Conference may have been unaware of the full intentions of the Nazis but generals captured later had no such excuse. There are harrowing transcripts of discussions and arguments between officers, with some not believing Germans could carry out such atrocities and with others disapproving of them but using the excuse of ‘just carrying out orders’. Some of the material also referred to mass murders being carried out by Latvians and Lithuanians, perhaps in an effort to shift the blame. The effect of the revelations on the secret listeners is discussed by the author, but it is not hard to imagine how frightening it must have been for many who had left relatives behind in Germany or the occupied countries.
In this connection, it is shocking to learn that the evidence collected through listening to the prisoners was not available for use in the war-crime trials, including Nuremberg. Because of this, many self-confessed perpetrators were able to escape justice. Even more disturbing is that the information could perhaps have been used in some way during the War to stop the atrocities or at least to provide proof to the world of what was happening. It was apparently feared that acknowledging how the evidence was obtained could prejudice future use of this method.
Unfortunately there is relatively little in the book about the actual personnel carrying out the eavesdropping. The major exception to this is Fritz Lustig, whose fascinating story is interlinked with the setting up and development of the M Room. Initially, he was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ but was eventually allowed to join the Pioneer Corps. At first, his contribution to the war effort was as a cello player in the orchestra of the Entertainments Section, but in 1942 he was recruited into the intelligence services as a secret listener. The author also pays tribute to Colonel Kendrick of Military Intelligence who enabled so many Jewish refugees to play an active and vital role in the war effort. An interesting account of a little-known aspect of the War.