The London Cage: Life inside the top secret WWII interrogation facility

exterior of the London Cage

exterior of the London Cage - Credit: Archant

Golders Green historian Helen Fry’s latest book details the top secret World War II facility where senior Nazis were interrogated by intelligence officers

The London Cage

The London Cage - Credit: Archant

Kensington may now be a neighbourhood for the super-rich, but 70 years ago, three mansions in the exclusive enclave were highly undesirable residences.

During World War II, the Georgian properties in Kensington Palace Gardens housed The London Cage, where British Secret Service officers interrogated Nazi Prisoners of War, in sometimes brutal ways.

Behind the genteel facades that are now home to ambassadors, Sultans and steel magnates, the most “hard to crack” prisoners were subjected to “special treatment” designed to break their will.

Golders Green historian Helen Fry has trawled the National Archives to uncover life inside this top secret facility in The London Cage (Yale University Press £18.99)

Kurt Meyer. c/o Eye Spy

Kurt Meyer. c/o Eye Spy - Credit: Archant

“They are beautiful stucco fronted houses and no-one had an idea what was going on behind the façade,” says Fry.

“It was top secret, even the Red Cross didn’t know The Cage existed. Prisoners were brought there at night. It didn’t appear on any lists. It became the most important war crimes investigation unit outside Germany but is barely referenced in books on the War.”

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Operational from July 1940-September 1948, the centre was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Scotland whose memoirs Fry drew on to “reconstruct for the reader what life was like inside The Cage.”

“A heavily redacted sanitised version was published in 1957 but I read the original. One of the challenges of researching intelligence history is this is out of living memory, there are no surviving witnesses and a lot of material including all reports from 1940-43 are still classified.”

Fry reveals that the thousands of prisoners who passed through the Cage suffered beatings, sleep deprivation, dousing in water and stress techniques – forced to stand for hours on end – at the hands of Scotland’s German speaking interrogators. There were four known suicides inside it but no coroners’ reports.

In the run up to D Day prisoners were sweated for “incredibly detailed analysis of the defences in France including Poles who had worked on construction of bunkers.” Interrogators also compiled evidence about concentration camps and war crimes.

“That period in Spring 1946 was very tense. You had die-hard Nazi War Criminals, totally unrepentant commandants of concentration camps. It was very challenging for the interrogators, you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.”

Top Nazis who passed through the Cage included Kurt Meyer, who was later convicted for his role in the Ardenne Abbey massacre of Canadian POWs in Normandy. They also interrogated those who carried out the shooting of 50 RAF officers in March 1944 after tunnelling out of Stalag Luft II - the breakout featured in The Great Escape

Captain Fritz Knoechlein, who commanded an SS unit which gunned down 99 members of the Royal Norfolk Regiment at Le Paradis in May 1940, after they surrendered wile retreat ing from Dunkirk, complained of sleep deprivation and beatings while in The Cage. He was later hanged for the war crime.

“Some like Knoechlein start to make allegations at the time of their trial that they had been mistreated,” says Fry.

“Colonel Scotland had to answer to the charges but a lot of complaints were swept under the carpet in case they undermined the convictions of war criminals.”

Fry points out that the decision over how much force to use in extracting information remains topical.

“I am not imposing answers but the book does grapple with the dilemmas of intelligence gathering. They needed to crack prisoners considered to have important intelligence perhaps about when an attack was coming. By the time they got there all other methods had failed. They would try to unnerve die-hard Nazis by reconstructing scenes, or with solitary confinement, psychological and physical techniques. You can start unpeeling the facts and allow people to think about those dilemmas, to look at when interrogators crossed the line, psychologically or physically.”

Fry discovered that truth drugs were used to extract confessions.

“We think of truth drugs as a Cold War thing in American military intelligence but they were used on prisoners in World War II.

The Naval Intelligence team experimented on themselves to see how much they could give someone before they passed out and in The Cage they mixed them to get the ideal drug. Leaders like Churchill didn’t seem to object on moral grounds if it was to gain intelligence to win the war, as long as you didn’t leave any lasting damage to the person.”

Fry, whose previous book The M Room, detailed the secret listeners at Trent Park can’t help thinking libation was often as good as interrogation:

“What they did in Trent Park was far cleverer. These generals wouldn’t give anything away under interrogation so they softened them up with a glass of whiskey then bugged everything.”

But she admires Scotland, who she feels had a bad press.

“He was a pivotal character, quite brilliant. He knew success depended on understanding the psyche of your prisoners and he knew the Germans better than they knew themselves. We often don’t know who brought the people to justice in cases where Allied soldiers and Airmen were shot but in many cases it was the men in The Cage. It’s important to tell history in as objective a way as possible and be careful not to get into conspiracy theories.”