Was This the UK’s Worst Spy Failure of World War II?

AS CHRISTMAS APPROACHED in 1942, a younger cryptographer named Leo Marks sat in an workplace on Baker Avenue in London, making an attempt to grasp what was bothering him. Marks labored for the Particular Operations Govt (SOE), the clandestine outfit Prime Minister Winston Churchill had ordered to “set Europe ablaze” with sabotage operations. His job was to enhance the safety of communications with brokers behind enemy traces who transmitted and acquired encrypted messages in Morse code through moveable radio units.

There have been loads of issues to bother the 22-year-old: he gave the impression to be on the purpose of being fired for insubordination, he couldn’t get a girlfriend, and his neighbors believed his lack of a uniform meant he was a coward. However it wasn’t any of these issues that had been on his thoughts. It was one thing concerning the messages SOE was getting from its brokers within the Netherlands.

Primarily based in London’s Westminster space, the Particular Operations Govt was devoted to aiding anti-Nazi resistance. (Mick Sinclair/Alamy Inventory Photograph)

For a begin, some weren’t utilizing their safety checks. Brokers got secret alerts—usually a deliberate spelling mistake—to incorporate in a message to indicate that they weren’t “managed”: that they hadn’t been captured and compelled to transmit at gunpoint. Usually brokers can be given two such checks: one they may confess to below torture and one they had been supposed to maintain secret. One Dutch agent had by no means used any of his checks; one other had began out doing so after which stopped. That must have been a pink flag, however when Marks requested the Dutch part’s controllers about it, he was informed to not fear.

A part of the difficulty was that each one of SOE’s communications safety was lax. Marks had been horrified, on becoming a member of earlier that yr, at how straightforward the group’s ciphers had been to interrupt. That made the principle a part of his job significantly vital: making certain that the brokers spent as little time as potential on the air. As soon as an agent started transmitting, Nazis utilizing direction-finding tools would begin looking for the sign’s supply. If caught, the agent confronted torture and dying. One trigger of additional transmissions was when an agent made an encoding error, which means that the message couldn’t be decoded on the different finish. Till Marks arrived, SOE had tended to ask brokers to ship their message once more. However Marks considered that as an pointless danger. He set about instructing SOE’s alerts employees find out how to work out the place the agent had gone unsuitable and decode their messages in order that they didn’t should retransmit. 

Though, when Marks considered it, this was one drawback the Dutch brokers didn’t have. Their messages had been at all times completely encrypted. It will be a number of weeks earlier than he realized the importance of that.

SOE brokers (in Greece, high) communicated with their handlers through encrypted messages despatched on moveable radio units (beneath)—an act that put them in danger. The longer an agent was on the air, the extra probably it was the Nazis may discover the sign’s supply. ( © Non-public Assortment (HU 102108) )

(AKG-Pictures/Interfoto/Hermann Historica GMBH)


OVER IN HOLLAND that Christmas, one other younger man had little question in any respect that there was an issue with SOE’s operation. His identify was Johan Ubbink, a 21-year-old SOE radio operator, and he was in a German-controlled jail. 

Ubbink—codenamed “Chive” by SOE, which gave a lot of its Dutch operatives vegetable code names—had already had a energetic warfare, beginning out as a Dutch naval officer earlier than making his method to England through Sweden, Russia, Iran, and India. In Britain, he’d been recruited as an agent, and on the finish of November 1942 he and a fellow Dutchman
had parachuted into the Netherlands on a mission to arrange native resistance to the Nazi invaders right into a “secret military” able to help Allied plans to liberate the Continent. 

On the bottom, Ubbink and his companion had been met, as deliberate, by a neighborhood “reception committee” of six Dutchmen. They wished him handy over his pistol, as it might be not possible to clarify if he had been stopped by a German patrol. With some reluctance, Ubbink agreed. After an trade of gossip, he was informed it was time to set off for his or her hideout. “Then we had been immediately seized from behind,” he mentioned later. The reception committee was the truth is a bunch of Dutch policemen working for the Nazis.

When the Germans interrogated him, the expertise was friendlier than Ubbink anticipated. He was given espresso and cigarettes. At first, he refused to offer greater than his identify, age, and homeland. However his interrogator replied that they already knew every part, providing an in depth rundown of the websites the place Ubbink had been educated, his instructors, and his fellow college students. Each agent despatched to Holland had been captured, the interrogator mentioned. It was at this level that Ubbink cracked: what was the purpose of holding out towards individuals who knew a lot? Over the subsequent few days, disadvantaged of sleep, he gave up most of what he knew, together with his radio code. 

Ubbink’s interrogator wasn’t bluffing when he mentioned that your entire Dutch SOE operation was in Nazi fingers. It had been for months. Hermann Giskes—a 46-year-old veteran of the Nice Struggle who had spent lots of the years since in his household’s tobacco enterprise—was the highest operative in Holland for Germany’s army intelligence group, the Abwehr. In late 1941 Giskes’s subordinates informed him about an informant who had reported that the British had been sending provides to the Dutch resistance. He was initially skeptical: “Go to the North Pole along with your tales,” he scoffed. However Giskes’s males persuaded him the supply was proper, and the following operation—christened “North Pole”—noticed them seize two SOE brokers in March 1942, considered one of them a Dutch radio operator named Hubertus Lauwers.

Lauwers, a bespectacled 26-year-old who’d been engaged on a rubber plantation in Singapore earlier than the warfare, had been in Holland for 4 months earlier than then, signaling faithfully and utilizing safety checks, as he had been educated. Giskes informed Lauwers that he may save his and his fellow agent’s life by appearing as if nothing was unsuitable and transmitting messages to London drafted by the Abwehr. To the Dutchman’s alarm, Giskes requested him what safety checks he used, however Lauwers managed to provide you with a believable lie. He went on air assured that SOE would see that the real checks had been lacking and deal with his messages with applicable suspicion.

This, sadly, was placing extra religion in Lauwers’s British masters than they deserved. His alerts, after they got here in, had been flagged “BLUFF CHECK OMITTED, TRUE CHECK OMITTED”—each safety checks lacking—however this was ignored. It was one of many issues Marks had questioned when he joined SOE a couple of months later, solely to be informed to not fear.

Dutch radio operator Hubertus Lauwers repeatedly tried to sign his British handlers that he’d been captured—however all his efforts had been in useless. And whereas the British didn’t discover the warnings, the Germans did, and changed him. (The Nationwide Archives, UK)

That directive wasn’t fully unjustified: the radio alerts at that vary had been faint, and it was potential that the messages had been mistranscribed. However the principle cause Baker Avenue ignored the pink flags was that the controllers selected to. Whereas SOE’s French and Polish sections appeared to have a lot to report, the Dutch part had struggled to recruit brokers and get them into the nation. It had solely three energetic brokers at first of March 1942. It was preferable to consider they had been all protected and beginning to get outcomes.

Errors compounded on errors. Eight extra brokers had been despatched into Holland within the subsequent two months. One was so badly injured on touchdown that he took the cyanide tablet each agent was equipped with. The Abwehr, working with the Gestapo, picked up the opposite seven after SOE despatched Lauwers—then below German management—a message about find out how to get in contact with considered one of them. That left a single SOE agent at massive, Georgius Dessing—codename “Carrot.” He went to a rendezvous with considered one of his colleagues, unaware that the person had already been captured and was accompanied by an undercover Nazi escort. Happily the contact managed to whisper the phrase “Gestapo” to Dessing in time for him to slide away. Dessing had been dropped with out a radio operator; the assembly had been his probability to hyperlink up with one by means of SOE colleagues. With no method to contact London, he spent a couple of extra months in Amsterdam, after which determined Holland was too sizzling and made for Switzerland. 

After that, SOE dropped all its brokers to what it believed had been Dutch resistance reception committees. By the tip of 1942 there had been 25 of them, together with Ubbink, all arrested on touchdown. 

The brokers’ interrogators rapidly discovered that the easiest way to interrupt them was to inform them that they had been betrayed by somebody in London. Most believed this—one thing had, in any case, clearly gone badly unsuitable—and plenty of instantly began speaking. Even those that, like Ubbink, tried to carry vital particulars again ended up serving to with future interrogations. Trivial information—the type of mustache worn by a coaching officer, say, or the colour of a door at one other website—had been nonetheless helpful in persuading future prisoners that the Germans knew every part there was to know as a result of that they had somebody on the within.

It wasn’t simply folks that Giskes and his crew captured: there was tools, together with new sorts of communications equipment, and substantial quantities of cash. The Germans additionally realized the identities of advised contacts within the Netherlands, resulting in round-ups of potential resistance and opposition figures. Attempting to take credit score for the profitable operation, the Gestapo referred to it not by the Abwehr’s “North Pole” designation, however by a brand new identify: “Das Englandspiel”—“The England Recreation.”

issues of compromise

HUBERTUS LAUWERS continued sending alerts the Abwehr had drafted for him. Giskes had intentionally not changed him: radio males had distinctive methods of tapping out Morse, and Giskes feared the British would discover if Lauwers had been changed and his type—his “fist”—modified immediately. 

Involved that SOE apparently hadn’t detected the absence of his safety checks, Lauwers tried different methods to warn them. He was supposed to shut his messages “QRU”—a typical radio time period which means “I’ve nothing additional”—however as an alternative started sending “CAU.” And when he wished to vary frequency, he was alleged to ship “QSY,” however as an alternative despatched “GHT”—hoping somebody in England would understand that he was spelling out “CAUGHT.” Allowed to ship random letters at the start and finish of his messages, he tried to incorporate the phrase “Labored BY JERRY SINCE MARCH SIX”—however the Abwehr, maybe fearing a transfer like this, forbade him from utilizing vowels. In any case, London didn’t discover. The one individuals who noticed Lauwers’s makes an attempt had been his captors, who lastly changed him with a German who may imitate his fist. Nobody in Britain observed the change.

It was early 1943 when Marks had a sudden perception into the troubling nature of the Dutch alerts. Each different part’s brokers made errors in coding, so why didn’t the Dutch? There was no proof from their coaching that they had been particularly expert. He started investigating and found one thing else. Alone of SOE’s brokers, the Dutch by no means requested London to repeat a transmission due to interference. It was virtually as if the Dutch brokers had been working with higher tools, and with out the stress and concern of being caught that brought on others to make errors. And the explanation for that may very well be that that they had already been caught.

Marks was satisfied—however an absence of errors was a skinny foundation for suggesting that an agent was compromised. His bosses had been uncertain. Like their colleagues within the Dutch part, that they had an incentive to consider every part was effective. They had been engaged in a bureaucratic warfare with Britain’s intelligence company, the Secret Intelligence Service—often known as MI6. MI6 had resented SOE from the beginning, arguing that the Nazi crackdowns that had adopted SOE’s sabotage operations put its personal brokers in danger. A catastrophe on the dimensions Marks was suggesting may see SOE closed down. 

And so the SOE’s response to Marks’s warnings was to induce him to say nothing and to do nothing themselves. In the meantime, brokers continued to drop into Holland: eight extra in February 1943 and one other three in March.

a slender escape

ONE OF THOSE THREE was Pieter Dourlein, 24, a former policeman and sailor. “When in a standard temper, he’s most cheap, quiet, virtually shy,” his SOE trainers reported. “However when angered he appears to lose a few of his self management.” It was in such a mood that he had, in 1941, killed a Dutch Nazi, which was the explanation he’d fled to Britain, stealing a lifeboat to make the journey. Having lived in Holland below occupation and managed to make his escape, he was a robust recruit for SOE. His codename was “Sprout.”

Dourlein and his workforce had the identical expertise as the remainder of the brokers SOE had dropped into Holland: a pleasant greeting—on this event with English cigarettes and a nip of whisky—a couple of questions on who they had been supposed to fulfill subsequent, after which a seize from behind and handcuffs.

Occupying Germans requisitioned a Catholic seminary within the Dutch city of Haaren and transformed it into a jail. It will definitely held hundreds of inmates, together with captured SOE brokers. ( © Brabants Dagblad/DPG Media Group)

The brokers had been taken to a transformed seminary in Haaren, within the south of the nation. Dourlein was dissatisfied to seek out that almost all of his fellow prisoners had little curiosity in escaping. It appeared not possible and, in any case, slightly pointless: SOE was apparently compromised, and their captors had been treating them properly and had promised they might not be killed as long as they cooperated. He tried to get a message again to SOE through some Dutch civilians within the jail who had been involved with MI6, however his warning turned garbled because it was handed from contact to contact, and SOE didn’t know what to make of it when it arrived. That is an inadequate excuse: sufficient of the message was clear to alert SOE that parachutists, together with Dourlein, had been arrested. And MI6 may have helped interpret the remainder, had it wished to. As a substitute, it delayed passing the warning on for 2 weeks.

It was the uncooperative method of one other part of the British army that saved SOE from sending nonetheless extra brokers into German fingers. In Could 1943, the Royal Air Drive knowledgeable SOE it might not make transport runs over Holland. This was Giskes’s fault. He’d gotten into the behavior of alerting the Luftwaffe each time a drop was coming, with the understanding that the British planes would solely be attacked on the return journey. The end result was that Dutch runs had been unusually harmful for RAF pilots. This, once more, ought to have been a warning to SOE that one thing was unsuitable—but it surely was, once more, ignored. 

Over in Haaren, Dourlein didn’t consider the Nazi guarantees that he can be stored alive. The prisoners may talk with neighboring cells by tapping out Morse on their radiator pipes, and he found that Ubbink, within the cell subsequent to him, was additionally involved in escape. They dug a tiny gap within the wall between them and started to whisper plans. 

In Haaren, Pieter Dourlein (above) found that his cell adjoined Johan Ubbink’s and that Ubbink (pictured beneath) was prepared to hitch him in an escape try. The transfer was extremely dangerous—and profitable, permitting them to move alongside phrase of the compromised operation. (The Nationwide Archives, UK)
(The Nationwide Archives, UK)

Above every of their cell doorways was a barred window. SOE brokers had acquired briefings on escape strategies earlier than they set off—usually from British prisoners of warfare who had escaped throughout World Struggle I. One of many ideas he remembered was that jail bars had been usually far sufficient aside to squeeze by means of. Utilizing a chunk of thread, he measured his, and reckoned he may do it. He and Ubbink reduce up their bedsheets to make a rope—each males had been sailors and knew their knots—after which waited for his or her second. They selected a moonless Sunday on the finish of August 1943.

That night, the pair waited of their cells for the dinner trolley to return spherical. Considered one of Dourlein’s cellmates begged him to name the escape off—“They’ll solely shoot you”—however he was decided to go. Their cell door was flung open, and plates of meals shoved in. When Dourlein heard the trolley flip the nook within the hall outdoors their cell, he knocked on the wall, the sign to go. He stealthily opened the window above his cell door and caught his head out between the bars. From the subsequent cell, he may see Ubbink doing the identical. It was the primary time that they had laid eyes on one another. The coast was clear, they usually squeezed by means of the bars and scurried to the tip of the hall, the place they knew there was an empty cell. 

There, they waited for the dinner trolley to return from its rounds after which crept alongside behind it to a rest room utilized by the guards, the place they deliberate to cover till midnight. For six hours they sat, often talking in whispers and hoping no guards observed that one stall was completely occupied. Outdoor there was a thunderstorm: good climate for a jailbreak. 

As midnight approached, they opened the toilet window. Exterior, a guard was plying his searchlight beam alongside the jail’s home windows. They waited till it had handed them earlier than looping their ropes round a bar on the window, squeezing out, and sliding to the bottom. They had been out of the constructing, however there was a barbed-wire fence across the compound. On their stomachs they crawled towards it. A patrolling guard handed them with out noticing something. Ubbink scaled the fence first and Dourlein adopted, pulling his sleeves over his fingers to guard towards the sharp barbs. He obtained caught on them briefly however pulled himself free and dropped to the bottom. They had been out and sprinting for freedom.

Getting out of the jail was one factor. Getting in another country was the subsequent problem. Their garments had been torn and coated in mud. The Germans would quickly uncover they had been lacking. They got down to make pursuit as complicated as potential by strolling in loops, altering course and making their means down the center of ditches earlier than they headed for a close-by city and threw themselves on the mercy of a Catholic priest. Their luck held: the priest handed them to sympathetic locals who hid them and labored out an escape plan. It was a gradual, irritating course of, involving weeks of inactivity interrupted by nerve-wracking journeys between hiding locations as they traveled by means of Belgium to Paris after which on south, however in late November 1943 they crossed the border into impartial Switzerland. 

They reported instantly to the British army attaché: SOE’s Dutch networks had been fatally compromised. 

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shedding the sport

BY NOW, THERE WERE severe rumblings on Baker Avenue that one thing had gone unsuitable. MI6—which due to its personal networks within the Netherlands had suspected issues for a while—had eventually handed alongside a warning. Georgius Dessing had lastly made it again to London and reported his expertise. Mixed with the opposite indicators, it was all an excessive amount of to disregard. However there was nonetheless a reluctance to face information. After Dourlein and Ubbink escaped, Hermann Giskes had an alert despatched, ostensibly from one other SOE agent, that the pair had been captured by the Gestapo and been turned. Consequently, some in London clung to the hope that the 2 brokers’ arrival in Switzerland may be a part of a Nazi plan to destabilize SOE, and that the remainder of the Dutch networks had been strong. Even when the pair made it again to London the next yr, they had been handled with suspicion and stored below guard till after D-Day. 

However SOE may not keep away from the reality. In January 1944, Winston Churchill was informed by his chief army assistant, Normal Hastings Ismay, the “very disquieting” information that his secret military in Holland had “for a lot of months been penetrated.” 

Leo Marks, right here in 1998 with a silk scarf marked in code (above), discovered no consolation in being proper, and was lengthy haunted by the numerous brokers’ deaths. Conversely, the Abwehr’s high operative in Holland, Hermann Giskes (beneath), delighted in his success, and taunted the British to the tip. (AP Photograph/Dave Caulkin)
(The Nationwide Archives, UK)

Giskes, too, knew that the sport was up. He had sensed from December 1943 that SOE’s messages to the brokers in his fingers had grown extra cautious. He determined to exit with a flourish. On April 1, 1944, he transmitted the next unenciphered message to London: 

We perceive that you’ve been endeavouring for a while to do enterprise in Holland with out our help. We remorse this the extra since we’ve got acted for as long as your sole representatives on this nation, to our mutual satisfaction. However we are able to guarantee you that, must you be pondering of paying us a go to on the Continent on any in depth scale, we will give your emissaries the identical consideration as we’ve got hitherto, and a equally heat welcome. Hoping to see you. 

The joke wasn’t seen as very humorous in London—however then it wasn’t meant to be. It was supposed as a humiliation. It wasn’t simply brokers that SOE had misplaced; it had despatched 355,500 guilders to Holland—roughly $130,000, or about $2 million in in the present day’s cash. However the human value was far worse. Between November 1941 and Could 1943, SOE had despatched 53 brokers into Holland. Fifty-one had been caught by the Nazis. Of these—regardless of the guarantees that they might be protected—47 had been killed, virtually all by the SS. 

A monument depicting the autumn of the mythological determine Icarus and devoted to the 47 brokers misplaced in “The England Recreation” is unveiled within the Dutch metropolis of The Hague in Could 1980. “They jumped in dying for our freedom,” an inscription reads. (BNA Photographic/Alamy Inventory Photograph)

Leo Marks took little pleasure in having been proved proper, and a long time later nonetheless fizzed with anger on the waste of courageous lives. After the warfare he turned a playwright and screenwriter—though his most lasting contribution to cinema might have come within the film Carve Her Title with Pleasure, about SOE agent Violet Szabo, which featured a 1943 poem by Marks, “The Life That I Have,” that she used to encode her messages. 

SOE’s failure in Holland was so whole that for many years suspicion lingered within the Netherlands that it should have been deliberate, a part of an elaborate deception operation. Absolutely, the argument went, the wizards of British intelligence couldn’t have been so comprehensively fooled. They should have been enjoying a double sport. The destruction of lots of the outfit’s data in a hearth in London shortly after the warfare solely stoked these rumors.

However recordsdata launched since 1998 inform a less complicated, sadder story—of the fog of warfare, of wishful pondering, and of a refusal to see the reality till it was far too late.