THE BAD NENNDORF CONTROVERSY
The interrogation of captured suspects has always been an essential – and controversial – element in counter-espionage and counter-terrorist work. Different generations have faced this challenge in different ways, but all have faced a consistent issue: how to persuade a detainee to disclose reliable information in a useful period of time.
During the Second World War and its aftermath, when Britain was seeking to stabilize and denazify Germany, the Security Service played a key role in managing detainee interrogations. This effort, however, was accompanied by controversy which culminated in a scandal involving a British interrogation centre at Bad Nenndorf, Germany.
Camp 020 and ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens
During the war, the Security Service established an interrogation centre in Britain, Camp 020, in which captured German agents were interrogated and ‘broken’. Based in Latchmere House in south London, Camp 020 played a key role in the Security Service’s now legendary ‘Double Cross System’.
It achieved successes that were unprecedented in the history of warfare. The Security Service detected every wartime German spy who arrived in Britain and turned many of them into double agents.
Lt Col Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens, the commanding officer of Camp 020
Camp 020’s function, however, was not simply confined to the ‘Double Cross System’. The camp also provided useful information for Allied codebreakers at Bletchley Park. And in the closing stages of the war, it was responsible for ‘breaking’ several captured Nazi leaders – some of whom were then successfully tried by the Allies at Nuremberg.
The camp was run by Lt. Col. Robert ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens. By all accounts, Stephens was a formidable character who had an extraordinary ability to break even the hardest of spies. ‘Tin Eye’ – so called because of his thick monocle – used every kind of available ‘mental pressure’ to ‘break’ prisoners.
Much like Stephens himself, Camp 020 made for an ominous first impression. The camp was not designed for prisoners of war (POWs), but rather for captured civilian agents (spies). The Geneva Convention relates only to POWs and so did not apply to Camp 020, nor was it listed by the Red Cross. However, contemporary Security Service records – written without the intention of ever being declassified – reveal that Stephens persistently took a hard-line approach against the use of physical violence in interrogations.
‘Violence is taboo’, wrote Stephens in his in-house history of Camp 020 now available as a National Archives publication, “for not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information” . Stephens put the unprecedented successes of Camp 020 down to the rule of non-violence. “Never strike a man” wrote Stephens in instructions for interrogators. “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 on a false premise”.
Stephens’ orders are supported by other contemporary records, such as the diary of Guy Liddell, a future Deputy Director-General of the Security Service. These records show that Stephens sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to outlaw physical violence at Camp 020. On one occasion in September 1940, Stephens expelled a War Office interrogator from the camp for hitting a prisoner, the double agent TATE. As Liddell noted in his diary “It is quite clear to me that we cannot have this sort of thing going on in our establishment. Apart from the moral aspect of the whole thing, I am quite convinced that these Gestapo methods do not pay in the long run”. Stephens saw that the officer in question never returned to Camp 020.
At the end of the war, Stephens was posted to occupied Germany, where he was placed in charge of a new interrogation centre based at Bad Nenndorf, a spa town near Hanover in Lower Saxony. Stephens was the obvious choice to run the German camp: he had more experience of interrogating prisoners, and had more success in doing so, than anyone else in the British intelligence community.
 Camp 020: MI5 and the Nazi Spies, ed. Oliver Hoare. Public Record Office (2000). ISBN 1903365082
THE BAD NENNDORF CONTROVERSY
Establishment and role of the camp at Bad Nenndorf
The British interrogation centre at Bad Nenndorf was established within the spa town’s mud baths complex, which was converted into a prison in June 1945. Although it was modelled on MI5’s Camp 020 facility, it was run by the War Office – the predecessor of today’s Ministry of Defence – rather than by MI5. It was staffed by personnel drawn from various departments of the British Armed Forces and intelligence community, including MI5.
Bad Nenndorf was at the forefront of intelligence gathering in the early Cold War. The camp’s prisoners were divided into three distinct categories: self-confessed spies, political refugees and deserters.
Although it was a purely British facility, the other western Allies cooperated with the camp’s work, sending prisoners to Bad Nenndorf from internment camps throughout the occupied zones of western Germany. They rarely remained at Bad Nenndorf for more than twelve months and, after they had been fully interrogated, were released back to their original places of internment.
The location of Bad Nenndorf in occupied Germany
The camp was formally known as No. 74 Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre Western European Area (CSDIC WEA). Its initial aim was to gather information on the German intelligence services, in part to prevent a post-war Nazi revival, which was seen as a real possibility in 1945.
Some of Hitler’s most notorious henchmen were interrogated at Bad Nenndorf, including one of the Third Reich’s main espionage chiefs, Horst Kopkow (whose MI5 files are now at The National Archives). Hitler’s former adjutant, Nicholaus von Below, was sent there and revealed previously undisclosed details of Hitler’s final communications to his generals.
The test pilot Hanna Reitsch was also interrogated at Bad Nenndorf under American supervision, as was Oswald Pohl, a senior Nazi official who participated in the Holocaust. His unrepentent statements to his interrogators at Bad Nenndorf were to play an important part in his later trial, at which he was sentenced to death.
However, as the Nazi threat in Germany declined, by mid-1946 the CSDIC began to re-orientate its efforts towards the Soviet Union. As the Cold War set in, the work of the CSDIC came to play an important role. British intelligence emerged from the Second World War knowing very little about the Soviets.
Interrogations at Bad Nenndorf consequently became a crucial source of information. They provided information on a range of subjects, such as Soviet scientific research and technology, most importantly atomic research, and the Soviet intelligence services. They also provided, as one report noted in 1947, “as complete an Order of Battle for the Red Army” as was possible to obtain at the time. Several suspected Soviet agents were interrogated at Bad Nenndorf, providing “unassailable evidence of Russian espionage within the British Zone in Germany”, as Stephens put it.
THE BAD NENNDORF CONTROVERSY
The scandal at Bad Nenndorf
Despite the crucial role which Bad Nenndorf performed in the early Cold War, Stephens struggled to run the camp effectively. The camp was undermined by funding reductions and insufficient resources. Due to massive post-war demobilisation, it was staffed by under-trained and under-experienced interrogators. Seven hundred staff had been stationed at Bad Nenndorf’s in 1945, but by 1946 staff numbers had been slashed to approximately 330. According to later testimony, some of the camp guards were themselves ex-convicts.
During the unusually harsh winter of 1946-1947, conditions at Bad Nenndorf rapidly worsened. A number of severe cases of abuse emerged from the camp between January and March 1947. Several prisoners suffered such severe physical harm that they had to be taken to a local civilian hospital.
Two of the prisoners died within twenty-four hours of arriving at the hospital, and another was so badly malnourished that it took him six months to recover. When it was brought to public notice, the situation at Bad Nenndorf caused a public scandal, both in Britain and Germany. Britain, it was claimed, had established ‘concentration camps’ similar to those of the Nazis.
London’s response to the scandal at Bad Nenndorf was comprehensive, by any standard. Following an initial court of enquiry, a full court-martial was instigated.
The Schlammbad (mud baths) at Bad Nenndorf, used as an interrogation centre from 1945-1947
(Pictures courtesy of Mike Thomson)
This led to several prosecutions between March and July 1948, concerning the mistreatment of nine German prisoners. The chief medical officer at the camp was charged with professional neglect (for which he was convicted) and manslaughter (for which he was acquitted). The officer in charge of interrogations was likewise prosecuted, but was found not guilty. Another interrogation officer narrowly escaped prosecution due to a legal technicality.
As commanding officer at Bad Nenndorf, Stephens was also charged on four counts of professional negligence and disgraceful conduct, although the latter charge was dropped on the first day of his court-martial due to lack of evidence. Much of his case was conducted behind closed doors because of the sensitivity of the testimony heard in his defence, which included details of the information gained on the Soviet Union. Some of the most distinguished officers in the British intelligence community testified in Stephens’ defence, including Sir Dick White, a future head of both MI5 and MI6.
Stephens pointed out to the court-martial that, more than anyone else in the British intelligence community, he had persistently stood against the use of ‘physical pressure’ during interrogations. Stephens alone had unsuccessfully petitioned for more rations at Bad Nenndorf. But at the same time, Stephens warned the court that it should not fool itself: Bad Nenndorf was a brutally tough place, for brutally tough people. Its prisoners included Nazis who had been involved with implementing the Holocaust. Every kind of ‘mental pressure’ short of physical violence, which Stephens had explicitly prohibited, was used to ‘break’ prisoners during interrogations.
When Stephens arrived at Bad Nenndorf, he distributed his history of Camp 020 to interrogators to brief them on his rules of non-violence. Stephens’ objections to ‘third degree’ measures were not motivated by humanitarian concerns; indeed, fourteen spies had been tried and executed at Camp 020, and he later admitted that he wished more had been. Rather, Stephens objected to violence because, in his judgment, it produced poor intelligence.
Stephens’ rule regarding interrogations was straightforward: he believed that in a protracted ideological battle like the Second World War or Cold War, the quick benefits that might be gained from physical abuse were outweighed by the long-term damage to intelligence-gathering which those acts caused. Stephens believed that the objective of interrogations was not to obtain quick answers to a few questions, nor to extract a simple answer. Rather, interrogations should induce a prisoner to give all the relevant information in his or her possession – and the only way to do that, Stephens believed, was to abide by an axiomatic rule of non-violence.
The court accepted Stephens’ defence and cleared him of all charges. After the scandal at Bad Nenndorf, he became a Security Service liaison officer, serving at several posts abroad.
Following the Bad Nenndorf case, the government took steps to ensure that there would be no recurrence. It instigated oversight mechanisms and established universal standards for its interrogation centres abroad. To quote a brief given to the Prime Minister in March 1948: interrogation centres abroad had a crucial role to perform, but it was equally necessary to safeguard the rights of those who were detained.
Bad Nenndorf illustrated the importance of maintaining high standards for the interrogation of detainees. Serious acts of abuse had clearly occurred at the camp, but the implicated officers were investigated and brought to trial. The abuses were carried out at a low level, by interrogators who ignored Stephens’ specific instructions, and were never condoned by higher authorities.
Stephens’ instructions for the interrogation of prisoners half a century ago remain highly relevant today. The Security Service still operates under strict rules for interviewing and questioning individuals. All Security Service staff are trained in the requirements of the Human Rights Act before they are deployed to operational posts, and the Service has rigorous procedures for ensuring that the law is followed