In October 1940 Britain stood alone, with London under daily assault from German bombers, while the threat of invasion appeared only to have been delayed by the coming winter. The prospects of overcoming Nazi Germany looked remote. However many remained convinced that that day would eventually come, and there would be a reckoning.
Even if that day lay far off the important business of interrogating prisoners had to be prepared for. There were few significant individuals in custody to date, but that was expected to change in time.
The street at the heart of questions about Britain’s wartime interrogation techniques sits in one of the most exclusive and fashionable parts of London. Numbers 6 and 7 Kensington Palace Gardens now form part of the Russian Embassy. Numbers 8 and 8a were demolished in the 1960s and replaced by billionaire apartments. Several other foreign embassies and consulates are situated on the street, as well as very expensive private houses. The street is guarded at both ends by police but there is nothing remaining to indicate what happened here in the 1940s.
The requisitioning of houses in Kensington Palace Gardens started in October 1940 and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Scotland started setting up an interrogation centre there. The first prisoners arrived on 23 October 1940. Eventually there were twenty-eight rooms and the centre could accommodate sixty prisoners at any one time. In 1941 part of the paddock of the neighbouring Kensington Palace itself was also taken over to provide supplementary, tented accommodation.
Kensington Palace Gardens was conceived as one of a network of ‘cages’ around the country (see below). Their role was to question captured enemy prisoners of war and determine their usefulness for further questioning. The vast majority of Italian and German PoWs stayed only brifley in these holding camps as they were deemed not to have any information useful to the Allied war effort. They were then sent on to regular PoW camps. However, some, generally high—ranking officers, were deemed worthy of further interrogation.
This type of interrogation was carried out by yet another clandestine operation of the British wartime machine, (CSDIC). This organisation had started work in the Tower of London at the beginning of the war. However, the need for more space and a base safe from the bombing risk of central London led CSDIC to establish three bases outside the capital (see below) but the London Cage also acquired a role as a formidable, and later a controversial, interrogation centre.
It is estimated that around 3,000 German prisoners passed through the doors of the London Cage throughout the war. What is clear is that the Cage was never declared by the British authorities as an official PoW camp to the Red Cross until 1946. After the War ended, the Cage became an interrogation base for the investigation of German war crimes. What remains unclear is whether the interrogation carried out there both during and after the War was authorised as part of the overall CSDIC operation. Some believe it wasn’t and that it was largely a rogue operation pursued in defiance of official policy by its maverick boss, Alexander Scotland.
Scotland was an unusual man. Curiously, he had served in the German Army in the early twentieth century in Southern Africa and also spent time as a German PoW during the First World War. Later in that War, he served in British intelligence. He met Hitler in Munich in 1937 and at the beginning of 1940 he signed up with British intelligence again.
The evidence about the methods employed at the London Cage comes principally from Scotland’s own post-war memoirs, but also from the claims of captured Germans when they appeared in war crimes trials in the late 194Os. A number of official files about the existence and operation of the London Cage remain classified; others were apparently lost.
In summary, the allegations concerning the London Cage include claims that undoubtedly involve breaches of the Geneva Convention, even though they are clearly not of the same severity as the treatment meted out by the Japanese, Germans and indeed Russians.
Many people might question whether Germans on trial for war crimes can be regarded as entirely reliable witnesses about what happened during their interrogation. However, they alleged that they were doused with cold water, forced to clean rooms with a toothbrush, denied food for long periods, deprived of sleep for several days and made to stand to attention for hours without a break. There were a variety of claims of the use of so-called truth drugs and of extreme psychological pressure put on detainees. Lieutenant Colonel Scotland was himself accused of hitting a number of PoWs.
There were also claims that prisoners at the London Cage were repeatedly threatened with a range of worse treatments including deportation to Russia and even execution. Those official files about the London Cage which have been released into the National Archives make reference to ‘secret control gear’ and to electric shock treatment. There were at least four suicides reported at the London Cage in the immediate post-war period.
Many of the claims about the London Cage appear to relate to the period after 1945 when interrogation of alleged war criminals was the principal activity there. This might explain, though perhaps not justify, the harsh treatment apparently inicted upon people interrogated there who ranked among some of the most despicable of men in twentieth- century history. Fritz Knochlein was an SS lieutenant colonel who faced trial as the alleged leader of the so called Le Paradis massacre in France in 1940. More than 100 British soldiers, who were in the process of surrendering during the retreat to Dunkirk, were gunned down by an SS division on 27 May 1940.
Knochlein was held at the London Cage for sixty-four days from October 1946. When his trial took place in Germany in October 1948, he alleged that he had been tortured there. He claimed that he had been given virtually no food for three days and that he had been unable to sleep for a similar period because he had been placed in a room where his guards were singing and playing cards.
He said that he was forced to do 100 trunk bends without a break and that he was made to walk round in a narrow circle in the same direction for four hours. When he complained of feeling giddy, he was kicked by the guards. He said he was made to do unnecessary cleaning tasks, that he was refused use of the toilet, forced to stay in cold showers for long periods and made to clean floors kneeling down with a guard sitting on his back.
These claims by Knochlein led to the remarkable sight of his interrogator, Alexander Scotland, ending up in the dock defending himself against war crimes. Scotland fiercely denied Knochlein’s testimony and the court came to no firm conclusion about the truth of the allegations. It ruled instead that the claims were irrelevant to the question of the SS officer’s guilt.
Fritz Knochlein was convicted for his part in the Le Paradis massacre and sentenced to death. He was hanged on 21 January 1949.
Although the allegations against Scotland were left unproven, his court appearance left an air of controversy around the London Cage which had finally closed in autumn 1948. Scotland tried to get permission to publish his memoirs in 1954 but was refused on the grounds that their publication would breach the Ofcial Secrets Act.
His book came out in 1957 but was heavily redacted. Scotland maintained until his death in 1965 that he had not used torture at the London Cage although he admitted to creating a harsh environment, believing that to be justiable and necessary to deal with hardened Nazis and, in many cases, war criminals.
This account comes from Secret Wartime Britain, published in 2018, a survey of a variety of locations around Britain that were used for secret wartime purposes. “They include underground factories, storage sites and headquarters; spy and communication centres; interrogation and POW camps; dummy sites; research facilities such as sinister Porton Down; treasure stores in stately homes and even royal retreats in the event of invasion such as Madresfield Court”