Book Review - The London Cage: The Secret History of Britain's World War II Interrogation Centre (2017)

The London Cage by Helen Fry (2017)
The London Cage by Helen Fry (2017)

The Book
The London Cage: The Secret History of Britain's World War II Interrogation Centre. Helen Fry. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2017.

The London Cage stormed into public view over 10 years ago (2005) when Ian Cobain published a provocative article in The Guardian - The Secrets of the London Cage. The article took the lid off and established that torture had been used at the London Cage. Cobain's follow-up book, Cruel Britannia (reviewed on my blog) pretty much put a nail in the coffin. Without a doubt, the London Cage, under the command of Lt. Col. Alexander Scotland, had been the scene of hideous events against members of the German Army as well as Nazi officers. What more could be said about it?

This past year, Helen Fry tackled the subject in a full-length book. The write-up sounded promising. An excerpt from the inside cover of the book jacket tell us that: 

Until now, what has happened at the London Cage has remained a secret closely guarded by the Home Office. This riveting book reveals the full details of operations there as well as the subsequent efforts to hide them.

Helen Fry's extraordinary original research paints rich portraits of the interrogators and their prisoners, and gives disturbing, compelling accounts of daily life revolving around systemic Soviet-style mistreatment. Fry also provides sensational evidence to counter official denials concerning the use of 'truth drugs' and 'enhanced interrogation' techniques.

Bringing dark secrets to light, this groundbreaking book at last provides an objective and complete history of the London Cage.

The author devotes various chapters to such diverse topics as: Lt. Col. Scotland, interrogators, "guests", interrogation methods, truth drugs and various war crimes carried out against Allied forces by the Nazis. The book is not arranged chronologically, so each chapter tends to jump around a fair bit in time and space, with the exception of the war crimes chapters which are relatively coherent. The author takes great pains to point out how the information gathered at the London Cage between 1940 and 1945 helped Allied forces defeat the Nazis.

I've read Lt. Col. Scotland's own memoir on the London Cage (reviewed on my blog) and I've read Ian Cobain's book on Cruel Britannia. I've read Lt. Col. R.W.G. Stephens' report on MI5's secret interrogation centre (Camp 020) where violence was ostensibly verboten. Stephens was working on the Camp 020 report while his subordinates were abusing prisoners at the Bad Nenndorf interrogation centre. I have to admit that Helen Fry's book was a bit of a challenge.

While the book is extremely well-researched, the presentation of the material, particularly in the first half of the book made me question the editorial process. In a nutshell, the material is poorly organized and disjointed. Space is devoted to introducing the well-researched background of minor individuals but these people are never referred to again. At times it feels as if material has been cut from the book, thereby affecting the continuity and flow of the narrative. The war crimes chapters were very familiar as they are described at some length in Scotland's own book. Without referring to the footnotes, it was difficult to tell what material was drawn from Scotland's unpublished memoirs (confiscated by the authorities before the abridged version was published) and what material was drawn from his published book. One chapter dealt with truth drugs but, other than the first and last paragraphs, made no mention of how truth drugs related to the London Cage. The only concrete evidence of truth drugs being used by Lt. Col. Scotland was when he showed up at Camp 020 with a syringe that he promised would make a prisoner talk (as noted in Guy Liddell's diaries).

Scotland is also quoted in various places as stating under oath:

...he [Scotland] permitted no violence during interrogation and nor were prisoners beaten to extract information. (p.205)

No physical force was ever used during our interrogations to obtain information, no cold water treatment, no third degrees, nor any other refinements. (p. 206)

I would have liked to see the author dissect these statements with a view to identifying any possible prevarications within them. Perhaps physical force was not used "during" interrogations but does that mean it wasn't used before interrogations or between interrogation sessions? Perhaps prisoners were not beaten "to extract information" but were simply beaten to soften them up prior to interrogation?

The book leaves a lot of questions unanswered but the author does note that "in times of war and extreme tension, moral boundaries can often become blurred". While there is no doubt that the interrogation results from the London Cage helped the Allies win the war against the Nazis and brought many war criminals to justice, one is left wondering... do the ends justify the means?

Or is justice a one-way street? High-ranking German army commanders were tried and found guilty for the crimes of their subordinates. And yet, in the face of overwhelming evidence that their subordinates brutalized prisoners in their charge, Lt. Col. Scotland and Lt. Col. Stephens were either not tried (Scotland) or were tried and acquitted (Stephens re: Bad Nenndorf).

As A.W. Brian Simpson noted in his book In the Highest Degree Odious (1992) - all power corrupts - particularly power exercised in secret (p. 412).

Review Score
3 out of 5 - well researched but disjointed narrative


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