BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site

Contact Us

An Interrogator's Life (Part 1)

by quickroughrider

Contributed by 
People in story: 
John oswald
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
27 October 2004


I joined the Intelligence Corps when I was commissioned in 1942, and was sent straight to their wartime headquarters at Oriel College, Oxford. After the induction, I was informed that I would become an interrogator, and would be trained accordingly,

Training for interrogators took the form of a number of courses in different places and attachments to various specialised units. There was a General Intelligence Course at Matlock Spa. Lectures and living quarters were in the Hydro building, and the main direction of the course was for field security. This was followed by a German Language Course at Cambridge, where candidates were billeted in rooms in colleges. The course included a few more specialised subjects — German uniforms and ranks, and air photograph interpretation.

There was also an attachment to the “London Cage”. This was in a house at the northern end of Kensington Palace Gardens, and was run by Lt Colonel Scotland, who was well known for his saying “It was a tough job, but we did it!” The prisoners were held in prison-like cells in the house, and complained bitterly about having to be interrogated over and over again by us “rookie” interrogators.

A further attachment was to the intelligence section of a military headquarters. I was sent to HQ Western Command at Chester, an interesting five weeks in a pleasant city.

But probably the most rewarding part of the training period was when a party of interrogators was sent at short notice to Oldham, where a redundant textile mill had been requisitioned as a transit camp for the Afrikakorps. Tens of thousands of soldiers who had surrendered to the Allied Forces in North Africa were being sent to the USA for internment, via Liverpool. We had apparently negotiated with the Americans to be allowed to weed out any men who had knowledge of the German rocket testing station at Peenemünde, on the Baltic coast.

The prisoners were arriving by the trainload, marshalled into holding areas, and then fed singly to interrogators, who were allowed three minutes with each man. During this short time, we had to check whether the prisoner had been anywhere near Peenemünde, but not to alert him as to why we were interested in this. Presumably, if he had, he would be sent to London Cage.

One pointer to watch for was the field post codes in the man’s paybook. These codes (Feldpostnummern) were a way of hiding a man’s unit. A number was allocated to each company or equivalent, throughout the German forces. Many of these were known to us, and we each had a list of “sensitive” codes. Any prisoner with one of the latter would automatically be sent back for further interrogation.

We worked for up to 36 hours at a stretch, with only short breaks for picnic meals. I forget how long the exercise took, but it was certainly a week or ten days, after which we were quite exhausted, but felt that it had been a job worth doing!

In September 1942, a small group of Intelligence Officers — Captain W J Ingham and Lieutenants J W Powell, M Mitchell, D O Williams and myself — were kitted out for the Middle East and sent off to Liverpool, where we boarded the RMS Dunnottar Castle. We were put four to a cabin with a large group of other personnel. The officers’ quarters also housed a number of ATS, WAAF and nurses. The other ranks were confined to another area of the ship.

Once outside Liverpool, we were joined by a number of other vessels, including Royal Navy escort vessels, and we started off on our slow journey round the north of Ireland and then down to the Bay of Biscay. Here it was quite stormy, and most of us were confined to our quarters, but once we were steaming southward past the coast of Portugal, the weather improved and life on board became more pleasant.

We were encouraged to write letters home, and these had to be censored. Officers were allowed to censor their own letters, and Other Ranks had to send theirs to their commanders for censoring. Several of the female units requested permission to have their letters censored by some officer other than their own commanders, and, as we Intelligence Officers had no men with us, we were “volunteered” for the job.

After the stormy time through Biscay, there was usually some form of entertainment in the evenings. Several officers were accomplished pianists, but there was one who had to be asked not to play, as he insisted on playing, over and over, “You’ll be so nice to come home to”!

Those who had seen the Rock of Gibraltar before were delighted to show off their superior knowledge to us others as we hove into sight of this unforgettable landmark.

There followed the passage down the Mediterranean, mainly occupied by lounging on deck and watching the dolphins escorting our convoy and the flying fish, which skimmed the waves in great showers.

The temperature had risen considerably by the time we reached the convoy’s destination — Port Said. Here, we were assailed by swarms of small boys, who urged us to throw coins into the water. They would then dive for them and show them off proudly as they resurfaced.

At Port Said, we were transferred into a rickety old train, which rolled slowly southwards through the Nile Delta region. It stopped at many stations, where we were entertained by “galli-galli” boys, who performed simple conjuring tricks on receipt of a coin, and urged to buy the wares of the “eggs’n’bread” sellers. At one station, quaintly named Zagazig, we were even treated to a dance show by some young girls apparently eager to show off their knickers!

Finally, in Cairo, we were distributed to our units. Captain Ingham went directly to HQ, Middle East Forces (MEF), whilst we four lieutenants were sent to Helwân Camp, a few miles south of Cairo. We were allocated to galvanised iron huts, where we set up our camp beds and mosquito nets, and waited for orders. Days were hot and nights very cold. It was a considerable surprise to wake up in the middle of the night and find oneself freezing cold, but it was a thing we got used to quite quickly.

We were told that we would be in Helwân for some days, and, as Cairo was apparently unaffected by the War, we were given a list of “places to see” in the meantime. Accordingly, we set for the Mousky (Cairo’s souk), where we bought ourselves suede boots with soft rubber soles — the “brothel-creepers” that seemed to be the badge of the Eighth Army; the various interesting mosques; the Pyramids; and, of course, Groppi’s tearooms, where the best ice creams were to be had.

My most memorable achievement during this waiting period was to climb to the very top of the Great Pyramid. This is forbidden today, because of the wear on the stones of the pyramid. I learned next day that it had been the hottest day for some decades - 41°C at noon, just when I reached the top!

In due course, we were posted to the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC) at Ma’adi Camp, in a southern suburb of Cairo, and began life seriously as interrogators. By this time, Lieutenant Williams had been taken ill with a serious lung disorder, brought on by the extreme Egyptian climate, and he was repatriated to Britain after several weeks in hospital.

CSDIC was an interesting community. A small, non-intelligence administrative staff ran the camp, and about a dozen Intelligence Officers were assigned to interrogation work and editing reports, while a somewhat larger number of non-commissioned officers performed ancillary duties. Most of these were Jews, who were probably more highly qualified than many of the officers, but who could not be commissioned because they still had German or Austrian nationality.

One of these duties, which was kept very secret, was the so-called Map Room. This consisted of a number of recording devices. Magnetic tape was not yet readily available, and recording was a specialised job, using wax discs. The recording instruments were connected to microphones hidden in certain cells, into which incoming prisoners were placed in pairs. Their conversations were then studied, and those likely to have specialised knowledge were readily identified and interrogated accordingly.

Many amusing incidents occurred in this department. One of these was when two apparently ordinary soldiers who displayed amazing knowledge of the German Navy baffled the listening NCO’s for some hours. It was later found that they had been whiling away their time by playing “Battleships” on scraps of paper! This game was obviously as popular with the Germans as it was with us.

Prisoners were mainly brought in as a result of raids on the Mediterranean islands. The bulk of these were members of the German 999 “Punishment” Regiment. This was made up largely of misfits — soldiers shown to have anti-Nazi, rebellious, or even Christian tendencies. They were usually glad to be out of the War, and rarely resisted interrogation.

Amongst the naval vessels operating in the eastern Mediterranean was a Polish submarine, the Sokol. We understood that it was the only Polish naval vessel to escape the clutches of the Germans. The crew of this ship was instrumental in bringing us a steady flow of prisoners. A small party would go ashore on one of the islands at night, snatch one or two men on sentry duty, and bring them to Egypt in the sub. They were usually very complimentary about their treatment on board and settled down to POW life quite happily.

A highlight at Ma’adi was the capture on Crete of the German General Kreipe by a Commando unit.
We junior officers were not allowed near him. Interrogation was performed by officers of the rank of major or above. I heard later that the German troops on Crete took cruel reprisals on the local population, whom they accused of having sheltered and advised the Commandos. I visited Crete on holiday in 1983, and was told that it was still unsafe for German tourists to venture into the interior of the island.

In March 1943, some of my fellow officers were sent to the Greek mainland, but after a promising start, fared rather badly. One of them, Lieutenant Heilbronner, a young South African officer, was slightly injured in a local gun battle, and was evacuated by air. The plane was shot down as it was taking off, and he, together with all aboard, perished. Two others, Lieutenants Mitchell and Powell, were taken prisoner by Greek partisans after the Germans had evacuated Athens, and spent several miserable weeks in captivity before being returned to Egypt. Lieutenant Mitchell developed hepatitis during this time, and recovered only slowly.

At about this time, I was transferred to CSDIC — CMF (Central Mediterranean Forces — which meant, in fact, Italy) with a small party of fellow officers. We drove by truck to Alexandria and sailed to Taranto, where we were picked up and taken to an Intelligence office in Bari for a few days before proceeding to Portici near Naples, where CSDIC was temporarily housed in a pleasant villa overlooking the Bay of Naples.

There were no facilities here for interrogation, and this was merely a holding and briefing time. Leisure activities were laid on for us, and small parties visited Pompeii, Herculaneum, the Sorrento peninsula, the mud craters of Solfatara, the crater of Vesuvius (which had only recently erupted, but had now been declared safe to visit), the San Carlo Opera, and other interesting places. Capri was unfortunately “Out of Bounds” for us, having been reserved for the recreation of American troops.

The long awaited “push” came, and at Portici we were able to hear the heavy gunfire at Cassino. The German troops fell back to new positions north of Rome, and CSDIC moved to their permanent headquarters at Cinecittà, a cinema studio complex just outside the city. The main building had been a German holding centre for British prisoners. The floors were deep in straw and alive with fleas. It took some weeks before the place became habitable — thanks to DDT, which the Germans did not have.

From now on, divisions in the front line were allocated interrogators from CSDIC. Each officer was equipped with a 15cwt truck, the driver of which doubled as batman. One or two of my colleagues fitted their trucks up as offices and sleeping quarters, almost like the campervans of today, but most of us relied on the Administrative Officers of the division they were with for accommodation. In addition to divisions, corps HQs also had interrogators.

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

Special Operations and Intelligence Category
Italy Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy