Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A cog in an ally's war machine

It is never a good idea to be poor, small and powerless. One story that keeps cropping up in The Netherlands is the “Englandspiel” story from the Second World War. It is a story about a group of Dutchmen who managed to smuggle themselves to England during the war and joined a British organisation tasked with strengthening the resistance effort on the continent. The organisation was called the SOE, for Special Operations Executive. In order to connect itself with the Norwegian, Danish, Belgian, French and Dutch resistance against the German occupation SOE wanted to establish radio links with the fledgling resistance organisations.

The SOE recruited patriotic individuals amongst those who had fled from the German occupied countries. The SOE operatives were trained to be saboteurs, instructors and radio operators. The radio operators received special training in encryption and decryption of message traffic in order to safeguard the information links from being compromised by German intelligence organisations.

The SOE operatives had to be brought over to the German occupied countries. This usually happened by Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) or by slow flying STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) planes such as the Lysander. Once they were in The Netherlands they had to find resistance groups and start training, sabotaging, intelligence gathering, reporting and sending messages back to SOE in Baker Street in London. More than 60 Dutch operatives were trained and dropped in The Netherlands.

The Germans off course were waiting for just such an initiative and had a at least two organisations in occupied countries to deal with insurrection and espionage. One was the Sicherheidsdienst (SD) or “Security Service” and the other was Abwehr of “Army Counter Intelligence”. The former is tasked with keeping in check elements of the occupied population unhappy with the new German rulers, the other was the German Army organisation entrusted wit the task to deny the Armies of the Enemies of Germany with forming a picture of the strengths, weaknesses and plans of the German Armed Forces.

Major Giskes, Head of the Abwehr in The Netherlands already captured a first indigenous Dutch radio transmitter in November 1941 before the SOE even smuggled in their first sets and communication team. Giskes set the radio up and pretended that it was still operated by a Dutch resistance cell. Messages from SOE London inform them that there will be new operatives dropped by SOE planes.

The first teams of SOE operatives are left unmolested by Abwehr and also by the goons of the SD, which is informed by Major Giskes. But soon the Germans bag all the operatives dropped by the English STOL planes.

As a part of the safeguards on the communications between the Dutch operatives and SOE in London there are some prearranged “errors” that have to be entered in messages in order to inform SOE that the messages are real. When the “errors” are omitted, it serves as a signal to SOE that the link has been compromised.

The Abwehr and SD understand this rule too, so they ask the “this message is uncompromised” signal during interrogation of captured operatives. The Dutch operatives give false signals and omit the “this message is uncompromised” signal, thusly indicating that their messages are in fact compromised.

But the bosses of Dutch section of SOE in Baker Street in London never pick up the signals that their radio transmitters and their operatives have fallen in German hands.

However Leo Marks the Chief Cryptographer and signal designer of the SEO monitors all garbled messages and has a special section dealing with incorrectly ciphered messages. And at a certain point Marks realised he was not getting any “indecipherables” from the Dutch section of SOE. This was due to the fact that the messages were encrypted by safe and sound German military professionals, rather than chased and hunted Dutch amateur operatives.

Finally in 1943 some captured Dutch operatives managed to escape from their prison and flee, first to Switzerland and then to England were they were accused of counter espionage and arrested.

However, despite the fact that SOE got confirmation in all their messages from The Netherlands that “this message is compromised”, the warning from the escaped operatives PLUS the warning from Leo Marks, the Chief Cryptographer, SOE leadership kept on sending operatives and war material to The Netherlands. 500.000 cartridges, 12 planes, 15 tons of explosives, 5,000 pistols, 3,000 sub-machineguns, 2,000 hand grenades, 300 machineguns and 75 radio transmitters fell in German hands. Of 61 operatives dropped 51 were captured of whom only 5 survived their captivity.

Abwehr called the operation, operation Nordpol. In The Netherlands it is known under the German name “Englandspiel” or “England game”. After the war suspicion mounted that the operation was indeed a game, but that it were the British who were playing with the Germans and that the Dutch operatives and the resistance groups hiding them were just pawns. The bigger game was supposed to be the location of the invasion. There was a commission of inquiry that looked into the working of SOE Dutch section. It came to the conclusion that SOE Dutch section blundered badly, which it indeed did. However, this is not supposed to mean that the English leadership of SOE were unaware of what was going on.

Hiding the location of the invasion is in my opinion not a reason for the game, as the English themselves did only in early 1944 decide that the invasion would be in Northern France. The Dutch after-war investigation in the working of SOE was so narrow that it can not have been intended to uncover any embarrassing truths.

The reason why the inner workings of SOE were kept secret after the war is simple. After the war SOE was merged into MI6. The communication techniques developed by the Leo Marks and his cipher section were important assets and had to be kept hidden, in order not to endanger the work of agents working for the UK in new battle fields across the world. Certainly there will have been more starry eyed believers used as pawns by the hard men running MI6.

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