The Special Interrogation Group [SIG] Part III


Not that the SIGs would be serving in the British army, of course. Buck had already been transferred into MO4, one of the numerous cover names for the Special Operations Executive. Any who volunteered for the SIG would likewise be shifted sideways on to the SOE’s shadowy payroll.

One of the first to step forward was Maurice ‘Tiffin’ Tiefenbrunner, a German Jew hailing from Wiesbaden, a city in western Germany. One of eight children, his parents had owned a delicatessen. After school, Tiefenbrunner had worked as a fitter in a Jewish-run department store, but in 1934 Nazi storm troopers had burst in and started beating up the staff. Tiefenbrunner had stepped in, trying to defend the store manager. He ended up spending several days in hospital as a result of the beating he sustained.

Four years later his parents were rounded up for deportation to Poland. Maurice offered to take his mother Matel’s place, so she could continue caring for his younger siblings. He was duly shipped to Poland along with his father, Efraim, who was blind. So began a long saga of flight from Nazi oppression, which ended with Tiefenbrunner being forced to abandon even his father. With war about to break out, he managed to bribe his way onto the Parita, a French pleasure boat bound for Palestine. En route the captain diverted to Cyprus, for the hopelessly overcrowded vessel was running out of food. It was crammed with over 700 Jewish refugees.

Tiefenbrunner and his fellows decided to act. They seized the ship and steamed full speed for Palestine. Upon arrival the British authorities tried to prevent them from landing, but they were not to be deterred, running the boat aground on Tel Aviv beach before smashing up her engines. Tiefenbrunner and the other refugees were interned as illegal immigrants, but at war’s outbreak they were released, most signing up for the British army.

By the spring of 1942 Tiefenbrunner had already had a long and varied war. He’d fought with the British Expeditionary Force in France, escaping via St Malo in June 1940 on one of the last of the ships. On his arrival back in England he’d immediately volunteered to serve in the commandos. He’d joined the Middle East Commando, fighting in the Horn of Africa, where he was wounded while trying to rescue a fallen comrade, earning a mention in dispatches.

Tiefenbrunner described Captain Buck’s 17 March 1942 recruiting pitch in the following terms: ‘He said we would be trained by experienced people to behave like German soldiers, put on German uniforms and go into enemy territory and do intelligence as well as sabotage work . . . This was one step further to my aim to hurt the Nazis as much as possible . . . I and the other volunteers said we were willing to take the risk and go.’

For those who did step forward, all traces of Jewishness would have to be expunged. Maurice Tiefenbrunner chose to adopt his war nickname Tiffin as his new ‘official’ surname in the SIG. But with his shock of black hair, darkly intense eyes and prominent features, he remained particularly Jewish in appearance, so his cover story in the SIG would have to be flawless, if it were to be convincing.

Another commando who stepped forward was an unlikely looking recruit. Corporal Charlie ‘Chunky’ Hillman was plump, cheerful, fresh-faced and barely out of his teens. The son of an Austrian butcher, Hillman had clearly overindulged in the pastries of his native Vienna. Small, stout and with gold-rimmed spectacles, he looked more like a junior professor than an archetypal paratrooper or desert warrior, but his appearance belied his true nature.

In his mid-teens Hillman had been imprisoned in Vienna for what he described happily as ‘Nazi-baiting’. Among other things it had involved ringing up the fire brigade and police from public phone boxes and calling them out to emergencies that did not exist, and otherwise generally throwing a spanner in the works of the Nazi administration. After prison, he’d been forced to take a job on a chicken farm. He was to feed several thousand chickens before breakfast, to encourage them to lay eggs for the Nazi war effort. In spite of his love of food he decided to stop feeding the chickens, after which egg production dropped from around 2,000 a day to six.

Portly, even in his late teens, he would nevertheless prove to have the spirit of a lion, earning both a Military Medal and a Military Cross as the war progressed. He also had a somewhat left-field sense of humour, which endeared him to his fellows. He spoke English with a cockney accent and was in the habit of introducing himself as Baron Von Schnitzberger. Hillman chewed garlic whenever he could get his hands on it, and he cheerfully avowed that the only things he cared about in life were eating . . . and killing Germans.

Hillman was utterly fearless and would go on to be one of the most highly decorated foreigners in the British army. Towards the war’s end he would be parachuted into his native Vienna on an SOE operation, and end up interrogating the head of the Vienna Gestapo. But for now the SIG beckoned.

Private Opprower, at twenty years old, was another volunteer and equally imbued with raw courage. In 1936, when he was just sixteen years old, his father was deported from their native Berlin to the concentration camps. There he was to perish alongside millions of others. Young Opprower was sent out of Berlin and arrived in Palestine at the outbreak of war, signing up right away for the British military.

Posted to administrative duties, Opprower absconded from camp three times in an effort to join a front-line unit and avenge his father’s death. Three times he was brought back to face charges. Luckily, he came to the attention of someone at Special Operations headquarters in Cairo. ‘This is just the kind of chap we are looking for,’ he declared, and Opprower was promptly recruited into the Commando.

By late March Buck had his full complement of SIG recruits. There were thirty-eight all told, around a platoon in strength. Not all were German Jews. Some hailed from the Free Czech forces, others from the French Foreign Legion and yet others from the ranks of the Free French. They shared two things in common: they were all fluent German speakers who could pass as German natives, and they had an all-consuming desire to strike back hard against the Nazi war machine.

Buck the master-planner and strategist was under no illusions as to the challenges they faced. Success – and with it the survival of those now under his command – depended entirely upon the ability of the men to carry out their masquerade to perfection. Nationality and language proficiency alone would not be enough; each and every SIG operative would need to speak the slang used by the Afrika Korps, reflecting the latest barrack-room gossip, topics of interest and military jargon.

They would need to be intimately acquainted with the German movie actors, dancehall singers, pin-ups and sports stars then most popular with Rommel’s troops. Bearing, dress, drill, mannerisms, the curses and idioms they used would need to be that of seasoned veterans of Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

Buck decided his men needed to train in utter isolation from any other Allied forces. He couldn’t afford to have the SIG ‘contaminated’ by British soldierly ways or anything else remotely un-Germanic. Accordingly, he established a training camp on the shores of Egypt’s Bitter Lakes, stretches of intensely salty water lying astride the Suez Canal. The SIG base was isolated, utterly secret and off limits to all but himself and other members of the unit.

There, the training regime proved relentless. Trainees wore German uniform at all times, even down to their underwear and socks. Reveille was signalled by a sharp blast on a whistle and the greet-the-dawn cry of ‘Kompanie aufstehen!’ – Company, get up! This was followed by twenty-minutes of PT, after which the SIG trainees had to march to breakfast, singing lusty German martial songs along the way.

All cigarettes, chocolate or other luxuries in camp were German. The recruits were forbidden from speaking any language other than German, and when they marched it had to be in the German fashion, goose-stepping and with their hands swinging smartly across the chest. Great emphasis was placed on close-combat training, as every member of the SIG might have to fight his way out of a seemingly hopeless situation with no chance of reinforcement or relief.

They trained with the full assortment of Afrika Korps weaponry: Gewehr 41 semi-automatic rifles, Luger P08 pistols, Maschinenpistole 40 submachine guns (commonly known as the Schmeisser by the Allies), Stielhandgranate stick grenades and Schiessbecher 30-millimetre grenade-launchers. They handled German explosives, learned to read German maps, and were taught desert navigation They also learned to maintain and operate the German vehicles provided in response to Lieutenant General Terence Airey’s memo requesting German staff cars and trucks.

Buck’s recruits had to salute officers in the German fashion and utter ‘Heil Hitler’ with appropriate gusto. They even had to dream in German – for a few English words uttered in their sleep might spell a death sentence. Awakened suddenly in the night by an inquisitorial Buck, they had to speak German from the off.

In his relentless quest for authenticity, Buck began to slip one or two of his men – Tiefenbrunner among them – into the POW camps around Cairo. There they were told to mix with the German prisoners, masquerading as Afrika Korps soldiers captured in recent fighting. Their mission was two-fold. First, they were to test out their own disguises: could they make it as German captives? Second, they were to soak up the essence of the Afrika Korps and bring it back to the SIG camp.

At night they would talk about every aspect of Rommel’s forces, becoming steeped in the identity of the unit they supposedly belonged to. After several weeks of such intensive training, they had been indoctrinated to think and behave as Afrika Korps soldiers, if not to feel like one of their number.

To complement their new sense of identity, the SOE’s forgery department went into overdrive, producing false Afrika Korps Soldbücher – pay books – and numerous other official papers, complete with photographs, stamps, dates and grand-looking seals. Buck secured German army typewriters, stationery and genuine Wehrmacht forms, to better document the force now in training.

The recruits’ personal stories were refined and perfected. For those genuinely hailing from Germany, they were kept as close to reality as possible. Each was furnished with a photo of himself in Afrika Korps uniform posing with a suitably Aryan-looking ‘sweetheart’ – in reality volunteers serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, dressed in suitably Germanic clothing. The photos were even furnished with typical German backgrounds, to complete the ruse.

A member of the SIG who considered himself something of a writer penned ‘love letters’, which were copied by those ATS ladies on to crumbly, well-thumbed notepaper for the men to carry with them into battle. The stamps, franking and envelopes were all entirely authentic, courtesy of the SOE’s documentation and forgery department.

Opprower’s girlfriend was an ATS blonde bombshell. He addressed her as Lisbeth Kunz in his love letters, the name of the daughter of a well-known Nazi who had been a neighbour on his Berlin street. Even this was done for a deliberate purpose. In case of capture, it was always better to claim a real person as a sweetheart, as opposed to some flimsy creation of the imagination that might fall apart under interrogation.

Likewise, each trainee had to commit to memory his new German name and life story. He had to answer to that name instantly. He had to know intimately his family history as if he’d really lived it. He had to know when and to whom he was married, the names and birthdays of his children, and what jobs his wife was doing back in Germany to aid the Nazi war effort. Every day Buck would quiz them on such details. It was relentless, but it was also entirely necessary if the SIG deception was to hold up.

But still Buck wasn’t satisfied. A perfectionist, he sought to take the SIG to the next level. He decided he needed real Afrika Korps veterans to train his recruits. He sought two junior officers as instructors. As only the genuine article would do, they would need to be sourced from the POW cages holding Afrika Korps soldiers.

The risks to security were legion, especially as the fortunes of the war were going very much against the Allies. Finding two German prisoners who were willing to swap sides was a tall order. Moreover, the SIG was slated to work in tandem with other special forces on operations to which those POWs would doubtless become privy, adding another layer of security risk.

Still Buck demanded his Afrika Korps trainers.

British intelligence worked closely with the Military Police to scour the camps for potential recruits. It took time, but eventually two candidates were identified. Both had served in the French Foreign Legion, before being conscripted into the Wehrmacht when France signed the armistice with Germany. They had been drafted into the 361st Regiment of the Deutsches Afrika Korps, and they had been captured in November 1941.

Unteroffizier Heinrich Bruckner was a big, fair-haired, muscle-bound sergeant. Brash, overconfident and prone to belligerence, he was in many ways a classic product of the French Foreign Legion, if not a typical Afrika Korps soldier. By contrast Feldwebel Walter Essner was a quiet, good-natured and generous staff sergeant. Between the two they typified the breadth of unusual characters – the misfits and wanderers – attracted to life in the Legion.

In fact, Bruckner and Essner were not their real names. These were the covers given to them by their recruiters and screeners, who themselves were a decidedly oddball bunch. In order to be cleared for the SIG, Unteroffizier Bruckner and Feldwebel Essner had been put through the grinder at Camp 020, one of Britain’s most secretive and least known – but vital – initiatives in the war. Camp 020 always gave cover identities to those it had turned.

More formally known as the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC), Camp 020 was a MI5 facility located within the most incongruous of settings – Latchmere House, a rambling Victorian-style mansion adjacent to Ham Common in the leafy London borough of Richmond. At Latchmere they specialized in interrogating German spies. Due to Ultra intercepts, British intelligence knew when and where German agents were being inserted into the UK. In all but one case they were captured, sent to Camp 020 and turned.

Camp 020 was run by a severe and uncompromising nonconformist, Lieutenant Colonel Robin Stephens, known as Tin Eye due to the steely gaze that peered out of his fierce face, his right eye sporting an ever-present wire-rimmed monocle. In many ways Stephens appeared like the archetypal Gestapo interrogator, yet he could not have been more different. Any form of physical abuse or torture was banned at Latchmere.

‘Never strike a man,’ Stephens exhorted. ‘In the first place it is an act of cowardice. In the second place, it is not intelligent. A prisoner will lie to avoid further punishment, and everything he says thereafter will be based upon a false premise.’ In other words, torture only produced what the torturer wished the prisoner to say. ‘Violence is taboo, for not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information.’

The interrogators at Camp 020 relied instead upon the full gamut of psychological measures developed there – the stool pigeon, the cross-ruff and sympathy men – to break prisoners. Such methods proved remarkably effective: of the 400 enemy agents who passed through its portals, few held out for more than forty-eight hours once they faced their interrogators.

The tales revealed at Latchmere were sensational. They involved intrigue, fraud, blackmail, theft, drugs, perverts, playboys, prostitutes, violence and sabotage. But no matter what an enemy agent’s story might be, Stephens sought only one outcome from any interrogation. It was at Camp 020 that the so-called Double-Cross System was perfected. Rather than imprisoning or executing the German spies, they were turned to work for the Allied cause, feeding back carefully crafted misinformation to Berlin via their radio sets.

Stephens nursed a burning hatred of cowards, turncoats and liars. It drove everything that he did at Latchmere. Camp 020 maintained files on all who were guests there. They were chillingly detailed, including photographs, letters, tape-recorded conversations, lists of associates, interrogation reports and confessions. A ‘yellow peril’ was compiled for particularly reviled agents – a file summarising the worst aspects of that individual’s nature.

In the spring of 1942 Unteroffizier Bruckner and Feldwebel Essner were flown to Britain and supposedly broken at Latchmere. It was an extraordinary achievement, even for a place like Camp 020. This was no normal double-cross. Radioing back doctored intelligence was one thing, but Bruckner and Essner’s mission was quite another. These former Afrika Korps sergeants were to train a unit whose express mission was to deceive, confound and kill their former brothers-in-arms.

Bruckner and Essner arrived at Buck’s Bitter Lakes camp in late May 1942. Neither was Jewish, but at Camp 020 they had declared themselves passionately anti-Nazi. Their French Foreign Legion bona fides – they had fought on the side of France in the war’s first months – lent credibility to their claims, and they were sent to Buck with a clean bill of health.

At first the SIG recruits were deeply suspicious of the newcomers, but as the weeks passed and Bruckner and Essner threw themselves into the training such suspicions began to subside. By mid-May the former POWs were largely accepted. The recruits were able to curse in an Afrika Korps soldier’s typically colourful language, and Buck declared their training complete

The time for preparations was over; the great deception needed to be tested in action.

 

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