Home History Was This the UK’s Worst Spy Failure of World War II?

Was This the UK’s Worst Spy Failure of World War II?

by Enochadmin

AS CHRISTMAS APPROACHED in 1942, a younger cryptographer named Leo Marks sat in an workplace on Baker Avenue in London, attempting to know what was bothering him. Marks labored for the Particular Operations Government (SOE), the clandestine outfit Prime Minister Winston Churchill had ordered to “set Europe ablaze” with sabotage operations. His job was to enhance the safety of communications with brokers behind enemy strains who transmitted and acquired encrypted messages in Morse code by way of transportable radio units.

There have been loads of issues to bother the 22-year-old: he gave the impression to be on the purpose of being fired for insubordination, he couldn’t get a girlfriend, and his neighbors believed his lack of a uniform meant he was a coward. However it wasn’t any of these issues that have been on his thoughts. It was one thing concerning the messages SOE was getting from its brokers within the Netherlands.

Primarily based in London’s Westminster space, the Particular Operations Government was devoted to aiding anti-Nazi resistance. (Mick Sinclair/Alamy Inventory Photograph)

For a begin, some weren’t utilizing their safety checks. Brokers got secret alerts—usually a deliberate spelling mistake—to incorporate in a message to point out that they weren’t “managed”: that they hadn’t been captured and compelled to transmit at gunpoint. Usually brokers can be given two such checks: one they might confess to below torture and one they have been supposed to maintain secret. One Dutch agent had by no means used any of his checks; one other had began out doing so after which stopped. That should have been a purple flag, however when Marks requested the Dutch part’s controllers about it, he was informed to not fear.

A part of the difficulty was that every one of SOE’s communications safety was lax. Marks had been horrified, on becoming a member of earlier that yr, at how simple the group’s ciphers have been to interrupt. That made the principle a part of his job notably necessary: making certain that the brokers spent as little time as attainable on the air. As soon as an agent started transmitting, Nazis utilizing direction-finding tools would begin attempting to find the sign’s supply. If caught, the agent confronted torture and loss of life. One trigger of additional transmissions was when an agent made an encoding error, which means that the message couldn’t be decoded on the different finish. Till Marks arrived, SOE had tended to ask brokers to ship their message once more. However Marks considered that as an pointless danger. He set about instructing SOE’s alerts workers the way to work out the place the agent had gone mistaken and decode their messages in order that they didn’t should retransmit. 

Though, when Marks considered it, this was one drawback the Dutch brokers didn’t have. Their messages have been all the time completely encrypted. It might be a number of weeks earlier than he realized the importance of that.

SOE brokers (in Greece, prime) communicated with their handlers by way of encrypted messages despatched on transportable radio units (under)—an act that put them in danger. The longer an agent was on the air, the extra possible it was the Nazis may discover the sign’s supply. ( © Non-public Assortment (HU 102108) )

(AKG-Pictures/Interfoto/Hermann Historica GMBH)


OVER IN HOLLAND that Christmas, one other younger man had little question in any respect that there was an issue with SOE’s operation. His title was Johan Ubbink, a 21-year-old SOE radio operator, and he was in a German-controlled jail. 

Ubbink—codenamed “Chive” by SOE, which gave a lot of its Dutch operatives vegetable code names—had already had a energetic struggle, beginning out as a Dutch naval officer earlier than making his strategy to England by way of Sweden, Russia, Iran, and India. In Britain, he’d been recruited as an agent, and on the finish of November 1942 he and a fellow Dutchman
had parachuted into the Netherlands on a mission to prepare native resistance to the Nazi invaders right into a “secret military” able to assist Allied plans to liberate the Continent. 

On the bottom, Ubbink and his companion had been met, as deliberate, by a neighborhood “reception committee” of six Dutchmen. They wished him handy over his pistol, as it could be unimaginable to elucidate if he have been stopped by a German patrol. With some reluctance, Ubbink agreed. After an change of gossip, he was informed it was time to set off for his or her hideout. “Then we have been out of the blue seized from behind,” he stated later. The reception committee was in truth a gaggle of Dutch policemen working for the Nazis.

When the Germans interrogated him, the expertise was friendlier than Ubbink anticipated. He was given espresso and cigarettes. At first, he refused to present greater than his title, age, and native land. However his interrogator replied that they already knew every little thing, providing an in depth rundown of the websites the place Ubbink had been skilled, his instructors, and his fellow college students. Each agent despatched to Holland had been captured, the interrogator stated. It was at this level that Ubbink cracked: what was the purpose of holding out in opposition to individuals who knew a lot? Over the following few days, disadvantaged of sleep, he gave up most of what he knew, together with his radio code. 

Ubbink’s interrogator wasn’t bluffing when he stated that the whole Dutch SOE operation was in Nazi fingers. It had been for months. Hermann Giskes—a 46-year-old veteran of the Nice Struggle who had spent most of the years since in his household’s tobacco enterprise—was the highest operative in Holland for Germany’s navy intelligence group, the Abwehr. In late 1941 Giskes’s subordinates informed him about an informant who had reported that the British have been sending provides to the Dutch resistance. He was initially skeptical: “Go to the North Pole along with your tales,” he scoffed. However Giskes’s males persuaded him the supply was proper, and the following operation—christened “North Pole”—noticed them seize two SOE brokers in March 1942, certainly one of them a Dutch radio operator named Hubertus Lauwers.

Lauwers, a bespectacled 26-year-old who’d been engaged on a rubber plantation in Singapore earlier than the struggle, had been in Holland for 4 months earlier than then, signaling faithfully and utilizing safety checks, as he had been skilled. Giskes informed Lauwers that he may save his and his fellow agent’s life by performing as if nothing was mistaken and transmitting messages to London drafted by the Abwehr. To the Dutchman’s alarm, Giskes requested him what safety checks he used, however Lauwers managed to give you a believable lie. He went on air assured that SOE would see that the real checks have been lacking and deal with his messages with applicable suspicion.

This, sadly, was placing extra religion in Lauwers’s British masters than they deserved. His alerts, after they got here in, have been flagged “BLUFF CHECK OMITTED, TRUE CHECK OMITTED”—each safety checks lacking—however this was ignored. It was one of many issues Marks had questioned when he joined SOE a couple of months later, solely to be informed to not fear.

Dutch radio operator Hubertus Lauwers repeatedly tried to sign his British handlers that he’d been captured—however all his efforts have been in useless. And whereas the British didn’t discover the warnings, the Germans did, and changed him. (The Nationwide Archives, UK)

That directive wasn’t solely unjustified: the radio alerts at that vary have been faint, and it was attainable that the messages had been mistranscribed. However the principle motive Baker Avenue ignored the purple flags was that the controllers selected to. Whereas SOE’s French and Polish sections appeared to have loads to report, the Dutch part had struggled to recruit brokers and get them into the nation. It had solely three energetic brokers initially of March 1942. It was preferable to imagine they have been all protected and beginning to get outcomes.

Errors compounded on errors. Eight extra brokers have been despatched into Holland within the subsequent two months. One was so badly injured on touchdown that he took the cyanide capsule each agent was provided with. The Abwehr, working with the Gestapo, picked up the opposite seven after SOE despatched Lauwers—then below German management—a message about the way to get in contact with certainly one of them. That left a single SOE agent at giant, Georgius Dessing—codename “Carrot.” He went to a rendezvous with certainly one of his colleagues, unaware that the person had already been captured and was accompanied by an undercover Nazi escort. Thankfully the contact managed to whisper the phrase “Gestapo” to Dessing in time for him to slide away. Dessing had been dropped and not using a radio operator; the assembly had been his likelihood to hyperlink up with one by SOE colleagues. With no strategy to contact London, he spent a couple of extra months in Amsterdam, after which determined Holland was too sizzling and made for Switzerland. 

After that, SOE dropped all its brokers to what it believed have been Dutch resistance reception committees. By the tip of 1942 there had been 25 of them, together with Ubbink, all arrested on touchdown. 

The brokers’ interrogators shortly discovered that one of the simplest ways to interrupt them was to inform them they’d been betrayed by somebody in London. Most believed this—one thing had, in any case, clearly gone badly mistaken—and plenty of instantly began speaking. Even those that, like Ubbink, tried to carry necessary particulars again ended up serving to with future interrogations. Trivial information—the fashion of mustache worn by a coaching officer, say, or the colour of a door at one other web site—have been nonetheless helpful in persuading future prisoners that the Germans knew every little thing there was to know as a result of they’d somebody on the within.

It wasn’t simply folks that Giskes and his crew captured: there was tools, together with new forms of communications equipment, and substantial quantities of cash. The Germans additionally discovered the identities of prompt contacts within the Netherlands, resulting in round-ups of attainable resistance and opposition figures. Attempting to take credit score for the profitable operation, the Gestapo referred to it not by the Abwehr’s “North Pole” designation, however by a brand new title: “Das Englandspiel”—“The England Recreation.”

considerations of compromise

HUBERTUS LAUWERS continued sending alerts the Abwehr had drafted for him. Giskes had intentionally not changed him: radio males had distinctive methods of tapping out Morse, and Giskes feared the British would discover if Lauwers have been changed and his fashion—his “fist”—modified out of the blue. 

Involved that SOE apparently hadn’t detected the absence of his safety checks, Lauwers tried different methods to warn them. He was supposed to shut his messages “QRU”—a standard radio time period which means “I’ve nothing additional”—however as a substitute started sending “CAU.” And when he wished to vary frequency, he was alleged to ship “QSY,” however as a substitute despatched “GHT”—hoping somebody in England would notice that he was spelling out “CAUGHT.” Allowed to ship random letters firstly and finish of his messages, he tried to incorporate the phrase “Labored BY JERRY SINCE MARCH SIX”—however the Abwehr, maybe fearing a transfer like this, forbade him from utilizing vowels. In any case, London didn’t discover. The one individuals who noticed Lauwers’s makes an attempt have been his captors, who lastly changed him with a German who may imitate his fist. Nobody in Britain observed the change.

It was early 1943 when Marks had a sudden perception into the troubling nature of the Dutch alerts. Each different part’s brokers made errors in coding, so why didn’t the Dutch? There was no proof from their coaching that they have been particularly expert. He started investigating and found one thing else. Alone of SOE’s brokers, the Dutch by no means requested London to repeat a transmission due to interference. It was nearly as if the Dutch brokers have been working with higher tools, and with out the stress and concern of being caught that prompted others to make errors. And the rationale for that may very well be that they’d already been caught.

Marks was satisfied—however a scarcity of errors was a skinny foundation for suggesting that an agent was compromised. His bosses have been uncertain. Like their colleagues within the Dutch part, they’d an incentive to imagine every little thing was superb. They have been engaged in a bureaucratic struggle with Britain’s intelligence company, the Secret Intelligence Service—often known as MI6. MI6 had resented SOE from the beginning, arguing that the Nazi crackdowns that had adopted SOE’s sabotage operations put its personal brokers in danger. A catastrophe on the dimensions Marks was suggesting would possibly see SOE closed down. 

And so the SOE’s response to Marks’s warnings was to induce him to say nothing and to do nothing themselves. In the meantime, brokers continued to drop into Holland: eight extra in February 1943 and one other three in March.

a slim escape

ONE OF THOSE THREE was Pieter Dourlein, 24, a former policeman and sailor. “When in a standard temper, he’s most cheap, quiet, nearly shy,” his SOE trainers reported. “However when angered he appears to lose a few of his self management.” It was in such a mood that he had, in 1941, killed a Dutch Nazi, which was the rationale he’d fled to Britain, stealing a lifeboat to make the journey. Having lived in Holland below occupation and managed to make his escape, he was a powerful recruit for SOE. His codename was “Sprout.”

Dourlein and his staff had the identical expertise as the remainder of the brokers SOE had dropped into Holland: a pleasant greeting—on this event with English cigarettes and a nip of whisky—a couple of questions on who they have been supposed to satisfy subsequent, after which a seize from behind and handcuffs.

Occupying Germans requisitioned a Catholic seminary within the Dutch city of Haaren and transformed it into a jail. It will definitely held hundreds of inmates, together with captured SOE brokers. ( © Brabants Dagblad/DPG Media Group)

The brokers have been taken to a transformed seminary in Haaren, within the south of the nation. Dourlein was dissatisfied to seek out that almost all of his fellow prisoners had little curiosity in escaping. It appeared unimaginable and, in any case, a bit pointless: SOE was apparently compromised, and their captors have been treating them nicely and had promised they’d not be killed as long as they cooperated. He tried to get a message again to SOE by way of some Dutch civilians within the jail who have been in touch with MI6, however his warning turned garbled because it was handed from contact to contact, and SOE didn’t know what to make of it when it arrived. That is an inadequate excuse: sufficient of the message was clear to alert SOE that parachutists, together with Dourlein, had been arrested. And MI6 may have helped interpret the remaining, had it wished to. As an alternative, it delayed passing the warning on for 2 weeks.

It was the uncooperative strategy of one other part of the British navy that saved SOE from sending nonetheless extra brokers into German fingers. In Could 1943, the Royal Air Power knowledgeable SOE it could now not make transport runs over Holland. This was Giskes’s fault. He’d gotten into the behavior of alerting the Luftwaffe every time a drop was coming, with the understanding that the British planes would solely be attacked on the return journey. The consequence was that Dutch runs have been unusually harmful for RAF pilots. This, once more, ought to have been a warning to SOE that one thing was mistaken—nevertheless it was, once more, ignored. 

Over in Haaren, Dourlein didn’t imagine the Nazi guarantees that he can be stored alive. The prisoners may talk with neighboring cells by tapping out Morse on their radiator pipes, and he found that Ubbink, within the cell subsequent to him, was additionally excited by escape. They dug a tiny gap within the wall between them and started to whisper plans. 

In Haaren, Pieter Dourlein (above) found that his cell adjoined Johan Ubbink’s and that Ubbink (pictured under) was keen to affix him in an escape try. The transfer was extremely dangerous—and profitable, permitting them to move alongside phrase of the compromised operation. (The Nationwide Archives, UK)
(The Nationwide Archives, UK)

Above every of their cell doorways was a barred window. SOE brokers had acquired briefings on escape strategies earlier than they set off—usually from British prisoners of struggle who had escaped throughout World Struggle I. One of many suggestions he remembered was that jail bars have been usually far sufficient aside to squeeze by. Utilizing a chunk of thread, he measured his, and reckoned he may do it. He and Ubbink minimize up their bedsheets to make a rope—each males have been sailors and knew their knots—after which waited for his or her second. They selected a moonless Sunday on the finish of August 1943.

That night, the pair waited of their cells for the dinner trolley to come back spherical. One in all Dourlein’s cellmates begged him to name the escape off—“They’ll solely shoot you”—however he was decided to go. Their cell door was flung open, and plates of meals shoved in. When Dourlein heard the trolley flip the nook within the hall outdoors their cell, he knocked on the wall, the sign to go. He stealthily opened the window above his cell door and caught his head out between the bars. From the following cell, he may see Ubbink doing the identical. It was the primary time they’d laid eyes on one another. The coast was clear, and so they squeezed by the bars and scurried to the tip of the hall, the place they knew there was an empty cell. 

There, they waited for the dinner trolley to return from its rounds after which crept alongside behind it to a rest room utilized by the guards, the place they deliberate to cover till midnight. For six hours they sat, often talking in whispers and hoping no guards observed that one stall was completely occupied. Open air there was a thunderstorm: good climate for a jailbreak. 

As midnight approached, they opened the toilet window. Outdoors, a guard was plying his searchlight beam alongside the jail’s home windows. They waited till it had handed them earlier than looping their ropes round a bar on the window, squeezing out, and sliding to the bottom. They have been out of the constructing, however there was a barbed-wire fence across the compound. On their stomachs they crawled towards it. A patrolling guard handed them with out noticing something. Ubbink scaled the fence first and Dourlein adopted, pulling his sleeves over his fingers to guard in opposition to the sharp barbs. He acquired caught on them briefly however pulled himself free and dropped to the bottom. They have been out and sprinting for freedom.

Getting out of the jail was one factor. Getting overseas was the following problem. Their garments have been torn and lined in mud. The Germans would quickly uncover they have been lacking. They got down to make pursuit as complicated as attainable by strolling in loops, altering route and making their approach down the center of ditches earlier than they headed for a close-by city and threw themselves on the mercy of a Catholic priest. Their luck held: the priest handed them to sympathetic locals who hid them and labored out an escape plan. It was a gradual, irritating course of, involving weeks of inactivity interrupted by nerve-wracking journeys between hiding locations as they traveled by Belgium to Paris after which on south, however in late November 1943 they crossed the border into impartial Switzerland. 

They reported instantly to the British navy attaché: SOE’s Dutch networks have been fatally compromised. 

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shedding the sport

BY NOW, THERE WERE severe rumblings on Baker Avenue that one thing had gone mistaken. MI6—which due to its personal networks within the Netherlands had suspected issues for a while—had ultimately handed alongside a warning. Georgius Dessing had lastly made it again to London and reported his expertise. Mixed with the opposite indicators, it was all an excessive amount of to disregard. However there was nonetheless a reluctance to face information. After Dourlein and Ubbink escaped, Hermann Giskes had an alert despatched, ostensibly from one other SOE agent, that the pair had been captured by the Gestapo and been turned. In consequence, some in London clung to the hope that the 2 brokers’ arrival in Switzerland could be a part of a Nazi plan to destabilize SOE, and that the remainder of the Dutch networks have been stable. Even when the pair made it again to London the next yr, they have been handled with suspicion and stored below guard till after D-Day. 

However SOE may now not keep away from the reality. In January 1944, Winston Churchill was informed by his chief navy assistant, Normal Hastings Ismay, the “very disquieting” information that his secret military in Holland had “for a lot of months been penetrated.” 

Leo Marks, right here in 1998 with a silk scarf marked in code (above), discovered no consolation in being proper, and was lengthy haunted by the various brokers’ deaths. Conversely, the Abwehr’s prime operative in Holland, Hermann Giskes (under), delighted in his success, and taunted the British to the tip. (AP Photograph/Dave Caulkin)
(The Nationwide Archives, UK)

Giskes, too, knew that the sport was up. He had sensed from December 1943 that SOE’s messages to the brokers in his fingers had grown extra cautious. He determined to exit with a flourish. On April 1, 1944, he transmitted the next unenciphered message to London: 

We perceive that you’ve been endeavouring for a while to do enterprise in Holland with out our help. We remorse this the extra since now we have acted for as long as your sole representatives on this nation, to our mutual satisfaction. Nonetheless we are able to guarantee you that, must you be pondering of paying us a go to on the Continent on any intensive scale, we will give your emissaries the identical consideration as now we have hitherto, and a equally heat welcome. Hoping to see you. 

The joke wasn’t seen as very humorous in London—however then it wasn’t meant to be. It was supposed as a humiliation. It wasn’t simply brokers that SOE had misplaced; it had despatched 355,500 guilders to Holland—roughly $130,000, or about $2 million in at the moment’s cash. However the human price was far worse. Between November 1941 and Could 1943, SOE had despatched 53 brokers into Holland. Fifty-one have been caught by the Nazis. Of these—regardless of the guarantees that they’d be protected—47 have been killed, nearly all by the SS. 

A monument depicting the autumn of the mythological determine Icarus and devoted to the 47 brokers misplaced in “The England Recreation” is unveiled within the Dutch metropolis of The Hague in Could 1980. “They jumped in loss of life for our freedom,” an inscription reads. (BNA Photographic/Alamy Inventory Photograph)

Leo Marks took little pleasure in having been proved proper, and a long time later nonetheless fizzed with anger on the waste of courageous lives. After the struggle he turned a playwright and screenwriter—though his most lasting contribution to cinema might have come within the film Carve Her Title with Satisfaction, about SOE agent Violet Szabo, which featured a 1943 poem by Marks, “The Life That I Have,” that she used to encode her messages. 

SOE’s failure in Holland was so complete that for many years suspicion lingered within the Netherlands that it will need to have been deliberate, a part of an elaborate deception operation. Certainly, the argument went, the wizards of British intelligence couldn’t have been so comprehensively fooled. They will need to have been taking part in a double sport. The destruction of most of the outfit’s information in a hearth in London shortly after the struggle solely stoked these rumors.

However recordsdata launched since 1998 inform a less complicated, sadder story—of the fog of struggle, of wishful pondering, and of a refusal to see the reality till it was far too late. 

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