To an untrained eye, the small room must have looked like a telephone exchange. A console of sockets and plugs was placed on top of a table, at which was sat an operator who was wearing a pair of headphones.
Occasionally, he would swap some of the plugs around, but there would be little more movement than that.
Wearing the uniform of a British sergeant-major, the operator was, however, no telephone operator. In fact, he was taking part in one of the most secret operations ever conducted during World War II.
British officers listened to conversations of German prisoners-of-war incarcerated in Trent Park House, a Hertfordshire mansion
The man was part of a team of eavesdroppers — fluent in German, quite often Jewish, and more than likely to have fled from Nazism to Britain during the Thirties — who were listening to conversations of German prisoners-of-war incarcerated in Trent Park, a Hertfordshire mansion that housed the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Center, or CSDIC.
Between 1939 and 1945, no fewer than 10,191 German and 567 Italian prisoners passed through Trent Park and its two related POW listening centers. The operation was unimaginatively nicknamed ‘Operation Eavesdrop’, and what the listeners heard appalled them, as the German soldiers, sailors and airmen reminisced about committing some of the most barbaric atrocities imaginable.
They would recall machine-gunning civilians from their fighter planes, or knowingly torpedoing boatloads of children. They would laugh about raping Russian women and Jews before slaughtering them, or wiping out inhabitants of Russian villages with grenades and petrol.
As one CSDIC officer said at the time: ‘If we didn’t know why we were fighting the war before this, we sure as hell knew afterwards.’
‘I had an hour to spare and we went to a kind of barracks and slaughtered 1,500 Jews. There were some 20 men there with tommy-guns. It only took a second, and nobody thought anything of it.’
Recordings and transcripts were made of these conversations, and then, for several decades, they remained under lock and key, before they were sent to the National Archives, where they gathered dust.
It was not until 2001 that they were finally unearthed by a German historian called Sönke Neitzel, who quickly realized that the conversations constituted some of the most important testimony to have emerged from the war.
And, most controversially of all, Dr Neitzel realized that the CSDIC transcripts gave the lie to the notion that the regular German armed forces — the Wehrmacht — had more or less behaved honorably, and that it was only the fanatical members of the armed SS that had committed the most repellent of war crimes.
After working on the transcripts for a decade, Dr Neitzel published his book about the recordings in Germany last year, and now it is published in Britain.
The fact that ordinary German soldiers were likely to be complicit in acts of barbarity has shocked modern German readers.
Nazi soldiers rush into action against Red Army positions during the invasion of the Soviet Union in this October 1941
What emerges most strongly in the recordings, is the fact that many German soldiers did not see their acts as crimes, no matter how horrific. As one soldier put it: ‘the fact that we were soldiers was enough to justify any crimes and corruption, and was sufficient basis for an existence in hell.’
Between them, the German Army, Navy and Air Force most successfully did create their own version of hell, and they created it all over Europe. A Luftwaffe corporal called Müller recalled how he had travelled around the Ukraine by truck, from which he had observed women being forced to work.
‘They were employed on road-making,’ he told his companion in his cell at Trent Park. ‘Extraordinarily lovely girls; we drove past, simply pulled them into the armored car, raped them and threw them out again. And did they curse!’
These women were fortunate compared with those living in the Belgian village of Hilay, who found themselves at the receiving end of the anger of Private Franz Diekmann and his comrades. The Germans had just lost one of their men to a ‘terrorist’.
‘We fired MGs [machine guns] into the midst of thirty Belgian women,’ Diekmann said. ‘They wanted to raid the German supply dump. But they were chased away in no uncertain manner.’
When Diekmann’s cellmate asked whether the women managed to run away, Diekmann simply replied: ‘No, they were all dead.’
Even women in Britain were not safe from the murderous impulses of members of the Wehrmacht. The operators at Trent Park once heard two Luftwaffe officers sharing tales of how they had machine-gunned civilians in British towns.
‘We once made a low-level attack near Eastbourne,’ recalled a pilot called von Greim. ‘When we got there, we saw a large mansion where they seemed to be having a ball or something; in any case we saw a lot of women in fancy-dress, and an orchestra. We turned round and flew towards it. The first time, we flew past, and then we approached again and machine-gunned them. It was great fun!’
Similar atrocities were carried out by other members of the Luftwaffe. First Lieutenant Hans Harting from Fighter Wing 26 recalled how he had raided southern England in 1943: ‘We were ordered to fire at everything, except military targets,’ he claimed. ‘We killed women and children with baby carriages.’
At sea, submariners were just as likely to kill children as from the air. In September 1940, the vessel U-48 spotted the civilian passenger ship the City Of Benares, which was carrying 90 evacuee children from Britain to Canada.
Passenger ship City of Benares was sunk by a German U-Boat in September 1939 as it was taking evacuee children to Canada
Two survivors from the unprovoked attack on the evacuee ship the City of Benares
German soldiers are marched through an English village to a POW camp in June 1944
On board the U-boat was a corporal called Solm, who later claimed that the Germans knew that the boat was carrying children, and yet they still decided to attack.
‘We bagged a kiddie ship!’ Solm triumphantly told his Trent Park cellmate. ‘Six thousand tons. We heard on the radio what was on board. No one survived.’ In fact, 13 of the children did survive, but 260 of the 407 on board were killed.
Often during the conversations, the German prisoners justified their crimes by claiming that they were a reaction to the brutalities carried out by the Russians.
An army Lieutenant called Leichtfuss recalled how he had come across six dead German soldiers on the Eastern Front who had had their tongues nailed to a table, as well as another dozen who had been thrown down a well and stoned to death.’These incidents were taken for a reason for repaying it tenfold, twenty and a hundredfold,’ said Leichtfuss.
‘When a small detachment of about ten or 15 [enemy troops] was captured there, it was too difficult for the soldier to transport them back 100 or 120km. They were locked in a room and three or four hand grenades were flung in through the window.’
Such reprisal killings by the army were not uncommon, especially in Russia. Attacks by partisans often meant nearby villages were razed, and their inhabitants slaughtered.
Private Müller recalled how he and his comrades disobeyed an order to kill every tenth man in a village, and decided instead to simply kill everybody.
A Nazi firing squad guns down prisoners in Poland in 1941
This photo, taken on April 19, 1943, shows a group of Jews, including a small boy, being escorted from the Warsaw Ghetto by German soldiers
‘We filled beer bottles with gas,’ he said, ‘and put them on the table and, as we were going out, we just threw hand grenades behind it. Immediately everything burned merrily — all roofs were thatched.
‘The women and children and everyone were shot down; only a few of them were partisans. I never took part in the shooting unless I was sure that they were proved to be partisans; but there were a lot of fellows who took a delight in it.’
The idea that mass murder could be ‘fun’ was also shared by some members of the Luftwaffe. Even in the very earliest days of the war, during the invasion of Poland, members of the German air force would take similar delight in mowing down people and horses from the air.
‘On the first day, it seemed terrible to me,’ said Lieutenant Pohl, a Luftwaffe airborne observer, ‘but I said to myself, “Hell! Orders are orders”. On the second and third days I felt it didn’t matter a hoot, and on the fourth day I enjoyed it. But, as I said, the horses screamed. I hardly heard the plane, so loud did they scream. One of them lay there with its hind legs torn off.’
Of course, the most infamous crime to have occurred during the war was the Holocaust, and although much of it was carried out by units such as the SS, the Gestapo, and the SD — the SS Security Service — there were men and officers of the Wehrmacht who also participated.
When talking in their cells at Trent Park, German officers would often try to convince themselves it was only really the SS that carried out mass killings, but there were some, such as Colonel Eberhard Wildermuth, who knew better.
‘In carrying out the mass executions, the SS did things which were unworthy of an officer,’ said Wildermuth, ‘and which every German officer should have refused to do, but I know of cases where officers did not refuse, and did do them, those mass executions. I know of similar things that were done by the army, and by officers.’
One of them was a First Lieutenant in the Luftwaffe called Fried, who was flying transport planes during the campaign in Poland. ‘I was at Radom once,’ he was recorded saying, ‘and had my midday meal with the Waffen SS battalion who were stationed there. An SS captain or whatever he was said, “Would you like to come along for half-an-hour? Get a tommy-gun and let’s go”.
‘So I went along. I had an hour to spare and we went to a kind of barracks and slaughtered 1,500 Jews. There were some 20 men there with tommy-guns. It only took a second, and nobody thought anything of it. They had been attacked at night by Jewish partisans and there was a lot of indignation about those damned Poles. I thought about it afterwards — it wasn’t very “pleasant”.’
When Lieutenant Fried was asked by his cellmate, a First Lieutenant Bentz, whether he had fired as well, Fried replied: ‘Yes I did. Some of the people who were inside there said, “Here come the swine”, and swore and threw stones and things at them.
‘There were women and children there too! . . . There were whole families, some were screaming terribly and some were just stupid and apathetic.’
Although participation by members of the Wehrmacht in the ‘Final Solution’ was relatively infrequent, Fried’s admission shows the German armed forces knew exactly what the SS was doing to the Jews.
Soldiers and officers in the Army often witnessed killings first hand, and in the CSDIC recordings, feelings of regret or sorrow are rarely expressed. One who witnessed a mass shooting of Jews was Major General Walter Bruns, who watched a pit fill up with slaughtered families.
‘I can still see it all in my memory,’ said Bruns in his cell. ‘A pretty woman in a flame-colored chemise. Talk about keeping the race pure! At Riga, they first slept with them and then shot them to prevent them from talking.’
German Soldiers, sailors and airmen were caught by operatives at Trent Park listening centre in the UK reminiscing about committing some of the most barbaric atrocities imaginable
Although participation by members of the Wehrmacht in the ‘Final Solution’ was relatively infrequent, the transcripts show German troops knew exactly what the SS was doing to the Jews
Nazi concepts such as physical and racial purity were not just expressed by the SS. The chief quartermaster of submarine U-187, Heinrich Skrzipek, maintained that ‘cripples should be put out of the way painlessly’.
‘It’s just a question of not being sensitive,’ Skrzipek insisted. ‘After all, we aren’t women! . . . Because the half-wits are the very people who have very large families and for one mental-defective you could feed six wounded soldiers. Of course you can’t please everybody. Several things don’t suit me, but it’s a question of the good of the people as a whole.’
But it appears Nazi ideology was not the chief motivating factor that made ‘ordinary’ members of the German armed forces commit atrocities. Dr Neitzel argues they took part in such actions because they saw it as their job, and that war normalizes violence and creates a context in which men can commit bloodthirsty acts with little or no conscience.
Although war crimes were undoubtedly committed by all sides during the war, the Trent Park transcripts reveal that the German military machine was uniquely brutal.
This tendency was even identified by the commander-in-chief of the Germany Army, General Walter Brauchitsch, who lamented the behavior of some his officers during the Polish campaign. ‘The image that results,’ he wrote, ‘is that of a pack of marauding mercenaries who cannot be reprimanded sharply enough.’
Thanks to the recordings made in Hertfordshire 70 years ago, it is an image that remains today.
Attribution: Guy Walters