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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.

Some points:

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.

2) Evidence
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.


5 Responses to Torture

  1. Brett says:

    re: point 5 – indeed! Brutality could be exercised at a distance, too: one of “my” guys (L.E.O. Charlton) essentially resigned from the RAF due to his opposition to air control policies in Iraq. He visited Iraqi civilians in hospital, who had been maimed by RAF bombs, and was reportedly sickened by the sight. Apparently, he was in a very small minority in feeling this way.

  2. Dan says:

    A former Sandhurst colleague, who shall remain nameless, used to point out that the German COIN campaign in the Ukraine in WW2 was one of the most effective of recent times. ‘The great myth of counter-insurgency’, he would proclaim,’is that brutality doesn’t work. You just have to be more brutal than everybody else.’ Without condoning such academic brutality, I do think that it needs pointing out that just being nice to people wasn’t necessarily the only historical response to insurgency.

  3. Dan says:

    Incidentally, Brett – how did his age profile (1879-1958) fit with other RAF types during the inter-war period?

  4. Brett says:

    I’d say pretty typical for his age and experience (pre-war RFC, but only just) – there were a number of other officers who were fairly close contemporaries, who held similar rank at that time. Eg P.R.C. Groves, or say, Dowding (b. 1882, promoted to Air Commodore 1922). Looking through the bios of the ones I know to some degree, there’s a bunch of them around this age (eg Ashmore, Brancker, Chamier … I wont bore you with the details!)

    One was Frederick Sykes, born 1877, and who rose to much greater heights – he was the second Chief of Air Staff (in 1918) and moved to the Air Ministry in 1919, as Director of Civil Aviation. But that also reflects his getting into the RFC very early on, in 1912 (Charlton joined the RFC just before the war, and was only a lieutenant then, Sykes was already a major when he joined). Trenchard himself was only born in 1873, though he was pretty old for flight training when he went through it in 1912. So there was a bit of a bottleneck of senior officers with flight experience (and a lot of them who stayed in after 1918 seemed to have been promoted a few grades pretty rapidly, including Charlton). I guess Charlton would have risen pretty close to the top, if he’d stayed in.

  5. Leaving aside the ‘human rights’ arguments for a moment (difficult, because it was WW2 which really embedded the idea), the empirical arguments for or against torture in the Cage are very different to (say) those that apply to Abu Ghraib, or Castlereagh. When fighting a total war to the death there are far fewer hearts and minds to win or lose. It all gets a bit Millwall. I’d be interested to know whether there was any fear of reprisal in the surviving records, though.

    Quite a few non scandal-driven treatments of UK COIN practice have been written: start with Charles Townsend’s _Britain’s Civil Wars_.

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