Book Review - Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture (2012)

Book Cover - Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture - Ian Cobain (2012)
The Book
Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture. Ian Cobain. Portobello Books, London. 2012.

Since the tragedy of 9/11, there has been much in the news about the war on terror, and the questionable interrogation methods used by the United States of America. While many point fingers at the United States, Great Britain has also participated in interrogations during which prisoners were tortured.

What is less well known, is that many of the physical and psychological torture techniques used by the British were developed at two British interrogation centres during World War II: the London Cage and Camp 020. The London Cage seems to have leaned more towards physical torture, whereas Camp 020 used psychological torture.

During World War II, Lt. Col. Alexander Scotland commanded the London Cage, an interrogation centre for German prisoners of war. Thousands of prisoners passed through the doors of the Cage, located in Kensington Gardens, behind the doors of three Victorian mansions. Most were deprived of sleep and forced to assume stress positions for days at a time. Some were beaten. Some died and were secretly buried.

Camp 020 had a slightly different history. It opened in July 1940 under the command of Lt. Col. Robert Stephens. Stephens apparently eschewed physical violence, claiming it produced low-grade information. The first inmates at the camp were members of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). They claimed that they were subjected to:
  • solitary confinement for weeks,
  • meagre rations,
  • woken up frequently at night,
  • only two 30 minute periods of exercise,
  • pulled from beds in middle of night and brought in for interrogation,
  • some held in cells lit 24 hours a day or kept in complete darkness,
  • moved from one location to another without notice,
  • all were threatened with being shot or hanged (Cobain, 10)
One member of the BUF said that his memory was badly damaged by this treatment. "Certain periods of my life completely disappeared from my mind. Others who shared my experiences at Ham Common [Camp 020] have since remarked on similar symptoms in themselves. The resident doctor...stated to me plainly that the treatment was intended to produce a state of "mental atrophy and extreme loquacity". (Cobain, 11)

The doctor in question was Dr. Harold Dearden, a medical doctor and psychologist. He dreamed up regimes of starvation and sensory & sleep deprivation that were designed to break the will of even the most stubborn Camp 020 detainee.

Many of the techniques used by Scotland at the London Cage were contraventions of the Geneva Conventions (forcing prisoners to stand at attention for more than 24 hours at a time, forcing them to kneel while they were beaten about the head). (Cobain 32) While Camp 020 apparently stayed away from such physical tortures, it too contravened the Geneva Convention by threatening to have men shot for failing to disclose information. Eventually all British subjects at Camp 020 were moved elsewhere and the camp was devoted to the interrogation of foreign espionage suspects.

Stephens claimed physical violence was never used at Camp 020 because it produced information of dubious quality. Some scholars question that assertion and point to the track record Stephens developed at his next posting.

When the war ended, Stephens was appointed Commandant of Bad Nenndorf, a British interrogation centre in Germany. As the months progressed, there was no doubt that prisoners at Bad Nenndorf were starved, beaten and deprived of heat and clothing. They were told that their wives and children would be murdered. Such threats were apparently considered quite "proper" by the British officers in charge of the camp.

Sick inmates were dropped off at the local hospital where they were found to be: filthy, confused, emaciated, terrified and suffering from frostbite and multiple injuries.

An investigation was eventually conducted against Stephens and some of his fellow officers who were brought before a court martial. Stephens claimed he had no idea what was going on at Bad Nenndorf as he was busy writing the history of Camp 020. In private, his lawyer threatened to spill the beans and say that if cruelties did take place, they were of the sort used at Camp 020 and authorized by the government and the head of MI5. In the end, Stephens was a acquitted.

Between 1950 and 1970, British authorities experimented with various techniques for extracting information from stubborn subjects. Drugs and hypnosis were generally not successful. Scientists began to dabble in sensory deprivation and discovered a most useful tool. Most people became disorientated in less than 24 hours. The idea that isolation and sensory deprivation could be used to break down an individual's resistance to interrogation would have come as no surprise to Dr. Harold Dearden at Camp 020. By the early 1970s, British authorities had come up with a torture regime that included:
  • isolation
  • sensory deprivation
  • seemingly self-inflicted pain (stress positions - e.g. standing at attention for hours)
  • exhaustion
  • humiliation (Cobain, 129)
The British tweaked their technique during the Irish troubles. But by the 21st century, little had changed in the British interrogation toolkit:
  • shouting and deception (used at Camp 020)
  • sleep deprivation (used at Camp 020)
  • stripped naked (possibly used at Camp 020)
  • hooding, light and auditory deprivation (used at Camp 020)
  • use of stress positions (possibly used at Camp 020)
  • isolation up to 30 days (used at Camp 020)
  • mild, non-injurious physical contact
  • death threats (used at Camp 020)
  • exposure to extreme cold
  • water boarding
The modern British interrogator makes a distinction between "torture" (severe pain as accompanying a serious physical injury) and "inhuman and degrading treatment (not torture). In their view, the simple infliction of pain and suffering, whether it is physical or mental, is not torture (Cobain, 231).

Cobain admitted that he didn't want to see what his government was doing. He admitted that when things look desperate, England resorts to torture (Cobain, 308).

A most fascinating book, well-researched and timely. Everyone who doubts that the "upstanding" British could stoop so low, should read this book. It was disturbing to learn of the fragility of the human psyche.

Review Score
5 out of 5 -most helpful in researching the techniques that would have been used at Camp 020


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