A slight air of unreality has permeated the debate over “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the war against terror, with historians embarrassedly studying their toecaps over the issue. For the truth is that there has not been a war in history in which torture has not been employed in some form or another, and sometimes to excellent effect. When troops need information about enemy capabilities and intentions—and they usually need it fast—moral and ethical conventions (especially the one signed in Geneva in 1929) have repeatedly been ignored in the bid to save lives.
In the conflict generally regarded today as the most ethical in history, World War II, enhanced interrogation techniques were regularly used by the Allies, and senior politicians knew it perfectly well, just as we now discover that Nancy Pelosi did in the early stages of the war against terror. The very success of the D-Day landings themselves can largely be put down to the enhanced interrogation techniques that were visited upon several of the 19 Nazi agents who were infiltrated into Great Britain and “turned” by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) between 1939 and 1945. Operation Fortitude—the deception plan that fooled the Germans into stationing 450,000 Wehrmacht troops 130 miles north of the Normandy beaches—entirely depended upon German intelligence (the Abwehr) believing that the real attack was going to take place at the Pas de Calais instead. The reason that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, was utterly convinced of this, was because every single one of his 19 agents, who he did not know had been turned, told him so.
If anyone believes that SIS persuaded each of these 19 hard-bitten Nazi spies to fall in with Operation Fortitude by merely offering them tea, biscuits, and lectures in democracy, they’re being profoundly naïve.
If anyone believes that SIS persuaded each of these 19 hard-bitten Nazi spies to fall in with Operation Fortitude by merely offering them tea, biscuits, and lectures in democracy, they’re being profoundly naïve. An SIS secret house located in Ham Common near Richmond on the outskirts of London was the location where the will of those agents was broken, using advanced interrogation techniques that reportedly started with sleep deprivation but went on to gross mental and physical abuse. The result? Many thousands of Allied servicemens’ lives were saved because the German 15th Army stayed well away from beaches such as Omaha, Utah, and Sword. And another 100,000 others were stationed in Norway for another attack that never came.
The wartime SIS being what it was, full firsthand details of the enhanced interrogation techniques have not emerged, either from the British or the German side since the war. In a country where the very existence of the wartime decryption operation known as Ultra was successfully kept secret until 1971, it was never likely that former SIS officers would have revealed precisely how the Abwehr agents were turned, but the talk and gossip in the intelligence community is another matter. Ham Common undoubtedly saw gross violations of the Geneva Conventions, as every means was used—fair and foul—to ensure the safety of Great Britain. Today Fortitude is generally considered to be the most successful strategic deception operation in the history of warfare.
Elsewhere, one only has to read George MacDonald Fraser’s excellent autobiography, Quartered Safe Out Here, with its description of the ill treatment of Japanese POWs by Indian soldiers of the 17th Division, to recognize that not all torture was committed by the Axis in WWII.
Did Winston Churchill know what was going on in the cellar-dungeons of the house in Ham? Of course he did, but like Nancy Pelosi and other politicians he understandably preferred not to dwell on this less auspicious side of the defense of freedom. As I show in my recently published book, Masters and Commanders—reviewed here yesterday by Michael Korda—Churchill always advocated the toughest option in any issue that came before his War Cabinet, be it over the bombing of German cities, allowing Mahatma Gandhi to die in his hunger strike, retaliating over the destruction of the Czech village of Lidice, and so on. The idea that he would have balked on ethical grounds over the breaking and turning of Abwehr agents—knowing how vitally necessary that was for the liberation of Europe—is ludicrous.
So, when we wring our hands about the waterboarding that took place at the hands of the CIA and their proxies in secret locations around the world, let us not pretend that such techniques are in any way historically exceptional, for in fact they constitute the norm. The only surprising thing is the extent of the information that we have been given about such unpleasant but ultimately necessary practices. Sometimes the defense of liberty requires making some pretty unpalatable decisions, but it was ever thus.
Historian Andrew Roberts' latest book, Masters and Commanders, was published in the U.K. in September. His previous books include Napoleon and Wellington, Hitler and Churchill, and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts.