Spy fiasco cost Britain 50 agents
Interesting though this story is, it is fair to say that the England-spiel is already familiar to those who have researched in the files of the Reichsführer SS and the SS (National Archives microfilm series T-175). David Irving refers to the scandal in both Hitler's War and Churchill's War.
London, September 21, 1998
Spy fiasco cost Britain 50 agents
By Paul Lashmar and Chris Staerck
DETAILS OF Britain's worst intelligence disaster of the Second World War have finally been released, revealing how Special Operations Executive (SOE) networks in Holland were penetrated by the Germans, resulting in the capture of more 50 agents. Most were executed.
Documents released by the Public Record Office in Kew, and suppressed until now, also show that SOE's rivals in MI6 under the legendary "C", Sir Stewart Menzies, tried to use the crisis to absorb the Special Operations Executive. Only five years ago a dispute erupted after it was discovered that documents on the affair had been "removed and destroyed" by Downing Street officials.
Whitehall was accused of a cover-up of one of the most shameful incidents of undercover wartime operations. David Stafford, author of Churchill and Secret Service, published last year, said yesterday:
"This is an important release on a terrible tragedy that nearly killed SOE. It encouraged all those in Whitehall who wanted to take over SOE and they came close. It was only Churchill's intervention and commitment to SOE that saved it."
Churchill had set up the SOE in 1940 to "set Europe ablaze", by helping the resistance movements in occupied countries. At its peak it had some 10,000 men and 3,200 women working for it, running agents and arranging resistance and sabotage behind enemy lines.
The organisation had many successes, especially in France, but it had some failures, of which the disaster in Holland was by far the worst. The newly released records show that poor leadership of the Dutch section of SOE sowed the seeds of disaster. In the vital period Major Charles Blizard, who used the codename "Blunt", headed the Dutch section, though he was replaced by a Major Bingham.
Under SOE's "Plan for Holland" agents started to be dropped into the Netherlands in 1941. Among one of the first teams parachuted in, on a November night, was Thijs Taconis, a trained saboteur, and his wireless operator, Hubert Lauwers. The German security police then penetrated the embryonic Dutch underground movement and a stool pigeon informed on Lauwers, who was captured early in March 1942.
He was forced to transmit messages to England, but was confident that SOE in London would spot a false security check. Unfortunately it did not. Shortly afterwards it told him to receive another agent. "Watercress" arrived on 27 March. He was captured and the process went on as further agents arrived. The lack of radio security checks was ignored by SOE in London.
It was even stupid enough to radio back to one operator: "You ought to use your security checks," thereby alerting the Germans to the existence of such checks. The German operation was called Englandspiel - the England Game - and its chief strategist was Lieutenant Colonel H J Giskes. He reported daily to Hitler through Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr - German intelligence.
By April 1943 the Germans controlled 18 radio channels back to London. For about 15 months, SOE's Dutch section planned the creation of resistance in Holland, recruiting and training agents, sending and receiving intelligence and other wireless traffic, the dispatch of supply-laden aircraft, all the time confident that a vigorous underground movement was being built.
A memo of May 1943 says:
"The sabotage organisation as planned is now complete. It comprises five groups containing 62 cells and totalling some 420 men. These groups are now well equipped with stores and are ready for action."
In reality the entire operation was compromised. The files reveal that, up to October 1943, SOE sent 56 agents to Holland of which 43 were given a "reception" by the Germans. Of the 56 only eight survived. Of those captured 36 were executed in September 1944, at Mauthausen concentration camp. Eleven RAF aircraft were shot down in the process. (A later War Cabinet note observed that RAF losses on these missions had been "abnormally high".)
The phoney network was finally revealed to London after the escape from Haaren concentration camp in August 1943 of two SOE agents, Pieter Diepenbroek and Johan Ubbink - "Sprout" and "Chive". Files in the Public Record Office contain the debriefings of "Sprout" and "Chive", which make clear that the Germans had controlled the Dutch "Underground" movement for more than 18 months. The Germans realised that their double-cross network had been blown.
Giskes signed off with this message to London on April Fool's Day 1944:
"Messrs, Blunt, Bingham and Successors, Ltd. London. In the last time you are trying to make business in the Netherlands without our assistance. We think this rather unfair in view of our long and successful co-operation as your sole agents. But never mind, when you come to pay a visit to the Continent you may be assured that you will be received with the same care and result as all those you sent before. So long!"
The files also show the courageous "Sprout" and "Chive" were locked up in Brixton Prison upon their return to London in case they were German double agents. "Sprout" and "Chive" were convinced that the Germans had help from Major Bingham, then the Dutch section's head. "No one else was in such a good position to 'play ball' with the enemy," Chive told his MI5 interviewers.
The British author of the memo was clearly angered by the assertion. The two had had the temerity to make an allegations against a British officer, "which it is fair to say they have failed to substantiate". The two were later released and allowed to join the Dutch Armed Forces.
The SOE post-mortem examination shows that serious doubts had been raised about the network as early as July 1942 but the warning had been ignored by the section's chief. "Not only, however, does there appear to have been a failure to look the facts squarely in the face but also failure when suspicion had once been aroused to test suspicions." Major Blizard had gone by the time of the denouement. Major Bingham was posted Australia.
The Germans' chief gain from the fiasco was that until just before D-day they thwarted all attempts to build a Dutch resistance movement into Allied plans and to equip it ready for action. Several files on the SOE in Holland are still withheld.