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5.0 out of 5 stars `The M Room' by Helen Fry, 29 Jun. 2013
This review is from: The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis in WW2 (Paperback)
(author's review copy)

Ms Fry is already the author of a number of books; her focus is on the history of Jews in Britain and on the Second World War. Here the two themes come together in the shape of Jewish refugees who served as `secret listeners' in MI 19's camps where German PoWs were left to chat to each other in bugged quarters, thus inadvertently amplifying whatever information they had given under formal interrogation. Through this runs the career of cellist Fritz Lustig, who with other `enemy aliens' was interned on the Isle of Man, allowed to enlist in the Pioneer Corps, and in 1943 was transferred to secret listening.

The sources for the book are chiefly the transcripts of this bugging released to the National Archives in 1999 under WO 208 (already mined by Sönke Nietzel in 'Soldaten') and AIR 40, which codes also cover summary reporting and other matters. There are tens of thousands of pages of paper in these records and Ms Fry is to be congratulated on creating a coherent and digestible narrative from them for the lay public.

The story of the bugging of PoWs starts in 1939 in the Tower of London where the `M Room' housed the initial listening operation. The supply of useful PoWs meant that larger quarters had soon to be sought, and the Hertfordshire mansion Trent Park was taken over and equipped with secret microphones and recording equipment in 1940, Latimer House and Wilton Park being added to the programme soon afterwards. When thoroughly milked the PoWs were moved on to make room for others. The programme continued beyond the end of the war for interrogation of senor German personnel. Farm Hall in East Anglia was used in 1945 for a similar process with captured German nuclear scientists. This was written up in 2001 by Jeremy Bernstein in `The Uranium Club'.

The original listeners were chosen from officers with a good knowledge of German, ideally good enough to transcribe the conversational German of the PoWs and able to cope with the variety of German dialects. A huge step forward came when Lt Col Kendrick, the architect of the scheme, was allowed to fish the pool of native German speakers who had fled Nazi Germany before the war. They of course had also to be fluent in English.

In the early part of the war Kendrick's subjects were chiefly Luftwaffe aircrew and U-Boat survivors. Prisoners snatched on Commando raids were added to the mix as they became available. The result was a rich haul of technical, tactical, operational, organisational, political, social and domestic intelligence of immense value, particularly prior to Bletchley Park getting into its stride. The content of this intelligence is described in some detail. Absolutely vital technical information apart, an uncovenanted benefit was a sort of continuous attitude survey of the Germans. `Turned' PoWs were used as stool-pigeons to lubricate the process and seem to have gone undetected.

From 1942 Generals started to be captured and Trent Park was turned over to housing senior officers (and their batmen), in relaxed conditions. The petty behaviour of the arrogant and self-important Generals makes amusing reading. Their political arguments amongst themselves made very informative `listening' but most important of all was the lead they gave us on Peenemunde and the V-weapons.

There is discussion over the refusal to allow the material gathered to be used as direct evidence in War Crimes trials. For me there would seem to be `hearsay' objections which would probably have disallowed its use anyway.

Ms May's work was the basis for the programme recently shown on Channel 4 'Spying on Hitler's Army' [ ... ], in which she appears. Its 45 minutes of course cover far less material than her book. When that was written she was unable to identify `Lord Aberfeldy' who was the Generals' British welfare officer, but he was named in the programme as Major Ian Monroe of MI 19. Equally the soldier who had been in Belsen, and whose accounts of that must have tormented his secret Jewish listeners, emerges in the television programme as Private Pffanberger.

Sometimes a PoW was horrified to hear from cellmates about what went on in the East, but others approved whole-heartedly. Some of the Generals retrospectively disapproved, but mostly because they saw the routine murder of the Jews as a massive political blunder. None of this had stopped them doing their bit before capture to try to plunge the whole world into a thousand-year Nazi night. Finally confronted with newsreels of the death camps one of them commented "That's the only thing about the Thousand Year Reich that will last for a thousand years".

Debits are a rather perfunctory index, and some infelicities of vocabulary in Service matters such as `petty officers' (p.83), `escorted' (p.84), `other rank officers' (p.99) and so forth; and HMS Hood was a battle cruiser, not a battleship.

"We are disgraced for all time" - Generalmajor Paul von Felbert
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