Synopsis: In a Kensington basement after the war, a British colonel drew a confession from the brutal Nazi who massacred 100 of our surrendered troops. So, were we guilty of torture too?
THE FORMER member of the Gestapo was arrogant and defiant as he faced his interrogators. No, he snarled, refusing to discuss his part in the murder of two of the British airmen who had tunnelled their way out of Stalag Luft III in the Great Escape in 1945.
Fifty of the captured escapers had been summarily shot on the orders of Hitler, and, with the war over, British investigators were rounding up those suspected of the killings.
One of them, Erich Zacharias, was brought to the so-called London Cage, a clandestine interrogation centre run by the Secret Service behind closed doors in an exclusive, leafy private road in Kensington, London. Elegant rooms had been turned into cells and dormitories. The basement billiard room housed the interview rooms.
There, the man in charge, the redoubtable and fearsome Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Scotland, staged a special scenario to loosen his captive’s tongue.
“The blinds were drawn, the lights were on. Zacharias was brought in with handcuffs and made to kneel in front of a table. Four of us faced him.”
This was a deliberate re-enactment of the scene when Zacharias tortured the two escaped airmen in his charge before killing them – as Scotland knew from other witnesses.
“A statement was read out giving the facts about his part in the murder. I put my hand on his shoulder and said: ‘What is the truth?’” Shocked, unnerved and intimidated, Zacharias broke down immediately and blurted out his admission of guilt to the shooting.
For Scotland, it was job done – in just five minutes. He recorded: “It is true we tried a little showmanship with Zacharias but this was a matter of psychology, not force.”
Certainly no direct physical violence was used to extract the confession, but did his actions still amount to putting undue pressure on the suspect? Did Scotland contravene the standards of behaviour towards prisoners laid down by the Geneva Convention?
These sorts of moral questions have always hung over what went on in the mysterious London Cage, and they are raised again by historian Helen Fry in this impressively forensic study, which not only throws light on an intriguing (and murky) backwater of World War II but also on an unresolved ethical dilemma still with us today.
The Cage – housed behind the ornate facades of numbers 6,7 and 8 Kensington Palace Gardens and backing onto the Palace grounds – was not a cosy place to find yourself in, and was never meant to be.
It was intended for the extraction of vital intelligence, initially information from German PoWs and then, after the war, evidence to convict those suspected of war crimes.
Scotland, as tough and motivated as any Nazi but outstandingly clever and psychologically perceptive, ran it with a rod of iron. He claimed an intimate knowledge of the mindset of Germans, and that they responded only to a figure of authority.
So he barked and bawled, demanding submission and cooperation from the thousands of inmates who passed through it. His penetrating gaze alone could make strong men quail. Those who chose to take him on were humiliated.
In his memoirs – which went unpublished because MI5 banned them under the Official Secrets Act – he maintained that “it was necessary to discipline tough, arrogant and impudent prisoners and we had our methods for these types”. But he insisted that “no physical force was used, no cold-water treatment, no third degrees”.
Fry comes to a different conclusion. “Few can deny he went too far,” she concludes as she examines evidence of prisoners being deprived of sleep, doused with cold water and made to carry out humiliating chores, such as scraping a toilet with a razor or toothbrush. Some were exercised to exhaustion on the parade ground, others kept in solitary confinement for extended periods.
The most uncooperative found themselves in Room 22 in the basement, which was dark, damp and kitted out like a dungeon. Prisoners were forced to stand naked for hours, sometimes chained, or kept for prolonged periods in a cold bath.
There was talk of electric shock treatment and the use of tongue-loosening ‘truth’ drugs. Four Cage prisoners committed suicide.
Scotland, however, always maintained that he only ever used “moderate” physical force – such as boxing an inmate’s ears – as a disciplinary measure, not as a way of extracting out information. Allegations of serious misconduct generally came from those whose necks were literally on the line, such as Zacharias.
When he went to trial in 1947, his German defence lawyer accused the British of obtaining his confession by force, and Scotland spent three days in the witness box denying that he had struck Zacharias or used electrical devices on him. The court believed him, accepted Zacharias’s confession as genuine and sentenced him to hang.
In explanations of his actions, Scotland wrote: “You don’t allow tough Gestapo criminals to imagine they have arrived at a kindergarten or for a rest cure. But there were ways of putting a cocky prisoner in his place without beating him up.
Another who alleged misconduct was SS officer Fritz Knochlein, responsible for the massacre of nearly 100 British soldiers who had surrendered en route to Dunkirk in 1940.
SCOTLAND admitted he was tempted, describing him as “the worst German we ever had in the Cage. I could hardly look at him without wanting to hit him.
“He aroused the worst side of my nature. His evilness, lying and brutal nature and the thought of the brave men he had caused to be slaughtered, made me long to give him a taste of the SS medicine.” But he was adamant that he had not done so.
In court, Knocklein alleged that he’d been whipped, kicked, beaten and tortured, but the judges who heard his war crimes trial decided that, even if true, the allegations were irrelevant to the charges against him. He, too, hanged.
For Scotland, the verdict did not amount to a vindication. Rumours and innuendo clouded his reputation, and still do.
Seventy years on, it’s easy to be shocked by the excesses that undoubtedly went on at the Cage. The liberal conscience is offended, as if Scotland were equivalent in evil to the atrocities of the Nazis.
Fry is aware of this, urging us to keep the backdrop of the Cage in proper focus. They had to deal with some of the toughest prisoners ever held by the British, perpetrators of the vilest acts of inhumanity, genocide and cruelty on an unprecedented scale.
But how rough is rough? There’s the rub. The line crossed at the Cage was a thin and uncertain one, with which we still struggle.
We were at war then, and are in a war now, against terror. To what lengths should those charged with our protection be allowed to go, compiling information to secure our safety?
That was Colonel Scotland’s dilemma, and it’s the same not only for the security forces of the 21st century but for every citizen, too. I only wish there were an easy answer
– The London Cage by Helen Fry is published by Yale for £18.99