Something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. Nearly two weeks ago, the Guardian newspaper ran a piece on Britain’s secret wartime torture camp. To summarise – newly released papers from the National Archives revealed that about 3,000 PoWs were processed through a London ‘cage’ – based in posh mansions in Kensington – at which they were exposed to systematic ill-treatment, including beatings, stress postures, sleep deprivation, threats of abuse with red hot pokers and threats of ‘unnecessary operations’. The Red Cross were never allowed to inspect the ‘Cage’, and rather than shutting down after the war, it was moved to occupied Germany, where its activities continued.
1) Get an expert
The camp was run by
‘Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Scotland, a forceful, outspoken man deemed to have the perfect background. Although English, the colonel had served briefly in the German army in what is now Namibia shortly after the turn of the century, and was later awarded the OBE for his work interrogating German prisoners during the first world war.’
Well, indeed. If you want a brutal bastard, get a veteran of the German army in Namibia.
No denying that this place existed, but it’s worth noting that much of the evidence for its nature comes from the manuscript of Scotland’s post-war memoirs (which obviously sent MI5 and the FO into a fit, with the result that the published version was heavily censored) and from a letter from a German PoW, SS Capt Fritz Knoechlein. Knoechlein’s letter of complaint details fairly appalling treatment at the hands of his guards. The article points out that Knoechlein may have been trying to save his own neck (he was under sentence of death for war crimes), but it doesn’t address whether we should take Scotland’s memoirs at face value.
3) Face? Botherered?
The very fact that I noticed this story tells you that, in part at least, I’m a pant-wetting pinko liberal Guardian reader. At the moment, I’m clean shaven for the first time in years, but I’ve been known to sport a beard, eat muesli and wear sandals. Certain human rights are inalienable, and freedom from torture (which this was, albeit not that outlandish or extreme) is one of them. Almost certainly, given the traditional competence of Military Intelligence, some innocent Germans got caught up in the Cage. And yet, I have to say that I found it pretty hard to be sympathetic to Knoechlein. It was troops under his command who massacred 124 unarmed British prisoners, well after the heat of battle, on the retreat to Dunkirk in May 1940. They included 98 men of the Norfok Regiment, whose flag appears at the top of this post. Maybe he should have thought about the consequences of his actions when he was on the winning side, rather than later. Can I condone some hulking brute stepping on this man’s testicles?… Give me a minute to change out of my sandals into my hobnailed boots and let me join the queue.
4) Did it actually work?
Depends what you mean by ‘work’, doesn’t it. It terms of gathering evidence, there’s mixed evidence for the effectiveness of coercion in assembling useful evidence: see this account (hat-tip to Cliopatria). Nearly all of this comes from counter-insurgency (COIN) operations, in which the potential ‘hearts and minds’ side effects are a key argument against (let alone all this liberal, namby-pamby human rights stuff). It’s unclear from the Guardian’s report whether the purpose of the ‘Cage’ stayed the same throughout its existence (1940-48). Was its aim to extract useful military intelligence, or to get information about war criminal escape networks after the war? Or was it essentially retributive – so being sent there was itself a punishment?
5) Contemporary History
This was a good piece of journalism and a responsible piece of writing. It is also a great example of the study of the past being influenced by contemporary concerns. For who now can read of the UK running a ‘torture camp’ in the Second World War without thinking of Camp X-Ray or Abu Ghraib?
There is, I think, a great deal to be done on the British tradition of brutality. For all our proud gloating about our successful COIN record (trumpeted each time our chaps take off their helmets and sunglasses in Iraq), a different history of Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Northern Ireland would reveal just how much time British soldiers spent brutalising their opponents and the population in which the insurgent fish swam. The real learning experience of Northern Ireland was that once the press and the lawyers were interested (a fact not unconnected with the conflict taking place amongst white Europeans, rather than Asians, Africans or Middle Easterners), you couldn’t get away with repression. The problem, of course, is that most of those who’ve approached this topic have done so from the point of view of scandal, rather than history.