In the early evening of March 6, 1942, Lauwers sat in an apartment in The Hague, waiting to begin his scheduled biweekly transmission to London, which was always broadcast at the same time and on one of two predetermined frequencies. Just then, the apartment’s leaseholder, a Dutch lawyer who had been secretly sheltering him, flung open the front door and announced that four police vans were parked outside.
Stuffing his codes into his pocket, Lauwers hurriedly left the building and, trying to appear as calm as possible, strolled down the snow-covered street. In seconds, he was cornered by a dozen men waving pistols. “I cursed my stupidity,” he later wrote. “The game was up.”
On the sidewalk, a tall man with penetrating blue eyes, a sharp nose, and a thin moustache watched as Lauwers was quickly hustled into a car. Major Hermann Giskes, the 45 year-old head of Abwehr counterintelligence in the Netherlands, had been on Lauwers’s trail for weeks. Contrary to what SOE thought of Giskes and his colleagues, they were, in the words of the Dutch historian Louis de Jong, “extremely skilled and dangerous opponents”.
In his interrogation techniques, Giskes preferred using a rapier approach – quiet, intense verbal pressure – rather than the SD’s (the SS’s intelligence arm) and Gestapo’s bludgeon, which usually involved torture. Promising Lauwers he would not be harmed, Giskes pressed the exhausted, frightened agent to agree to “play back” his wireless set – that is, to continue to send messages to London as if he were still free. At first Lauwers adamantly refused, but after many hours of interrogation, he finally gave in, confident that when he left out his security check, as he had been repeatedly told to do, SOE would realise he had been captured.
He and his fellow Dutch agents, Lauwers later wrote, had two things in common: “a deep love of our country and a blind trust in our superiors. The long-standing reputation of the British Secret Service throughout the world and the training which the agents received brought our trust . . . to the heights of almost mystical belief.”
Secure in that conviction, he resumed his transmissions to London under Giskes’s watchful eye. In four successive messages, he left out his security check, but SOE gave no indication it understood his warnings. Increasingly desperate, he began inserting the letters “CAU” and “GHT” in his transmissions. Again no reaction. Many years later, Leo Marks would remark that “no agent in my experience tried harder than [Lauwers] to let us know he was caught. . . . Poor devil, he did his damnedest.”
In fact, Lauwer’s missing check had been noted by SOE signals operators and brought to the attention of Blizzard and his N Section subordinates. They concluded it was insufficient evidence to prove that Lauwers was in custody. Not long afterward, they informed him that another agent would be parachuted in to join him and Taconis. When the new operative landed in late March, Giskes and his men were on hand to greet him.
Thus began das Englandspiel (“the England Game”), an extraordinary two-year Abwehr operation that netted more than 50 London-sent Dutch agents, not to mention hundreds of tons of arms and explosives. The worst disaster in SOE history, it would virtually decapitate the Dutch resistance movement.
From March 1942 onward, a steady flood of operatives and weapons was dropped into the waiting arms of the Abwehr and Gestapo. Like Lauwers, the agents who were wireless operators agreed to “play back” their sets, believing that SOE would instantly notice their lack of a security check. And once again, the omitted checks were ignored. To a man, the newcomers’ reaction to “this continuous negligence of the grossest kind” was “stupefying bewilderment,” as Lauwers put it.
By June 1942, 15 agents had been dispatched to Holland, all of them, in N Section’s deluded view, doing a fine job of organising Dutch resistance. The next man to be parachuted into Holland was George Jambroes, a former resistance leader who had escaped to Britain in late 1941 and who had close connections with the Dutch government in exile. His mission was to take command of all resistance groups in the Netherlands and form them into an underground army of saboteurs that would begin readying itself for its role in the Allied invasion of Europe.
On June 26, 1942, Jambroes was parachuted into Holland, with a wireless operator and several tons of weapons and explosives. They were met, of course, by a large German reception party, including Giskes. If its successes continued, das Englandspiel might well produce clues to the exact timing and location of the Allied invasion of Europe.
In the summer and fall of 1942, SOE received a series of rosy reports from Giskes/Jambroes. London responded in “conveyor-belt” fashion, Giskes later wrote, dispatching 27 more agents and hundreds of additional tons of equipment and supplies. By December 1942, 43 operatives were in German custody.
By early 1943, das Englandspiel had ballooned into such a huge scam – complete with faked-up sabotage campaigns, supposedly organised by the SOE agents – that Giskes was forced to cut it back. “I was faced with the problem of keeping London . . . supplied with information about the multifarious activities of nearly 50 agents,” he wrote, “and it seemed impossible that we could keep this up for long.”
His solution was to inform SOE that, regrettably, several of the agents had suffered fatal accidents or had been captured and killed by the Germans.
Though N section never seemed to doubt Giskes’s self-described “fairy tales”, an increasing number of outsiders began expressing scepticism about the entire Dutch operation including Prince Bernhard, Queen Wilhelmina’s son-in-law in exile. One officer in SOE’s signals department was so insistent in his warnings that he was told by his superiors if he mentioned the matter again, he would be drafted into the British Army for frontline service.
Also suspicious were a number of RAF pilots who transported the Dutch agents to their drop zones. The pilots noted that they never had any problems in their flights to Holland or in making the drops. The difficulties would begin on the return trip home.
But of all the sceptics of SOE activities in Holland, none was more insistent than Leo Marks. To test his theory that the enemy was controlling Dutch radio traffic, he sent a message to Holland that ended with the common German sign-off “HH,” standing for “Heil Hitler”. When he received an apparently reflexive reply that also ended with “HH”, Marks knew it had come from a German. (As das Englandspiel progressed, German radio operators had begun taking over from the captive SOE agents.)
Marks described later trying to imagine how it felt “to be in a prison cell in Holland hoping that someone in London was awake”. SOE’s chief of codes had finally had enough. In January 1943, he shut himself away for three days to study every message that had been exchanged between Holland and London. When he finished, he wrote a blistering four-page report that could have been summarised, he said, in just four words: “God help these agents.”
[Marks’ report had little effect as SOE’s top brass protected the agency instead. Of the 54 agents sent in by London, only four – including Lauwers – survived. Most were machine-gunned at Mauthausen concentration camp. Hundreds of key resistance figures died as well. After the war, SOE documents, including lengthy reports by Marks, were destroyed by a mysterious fire in early 1946, foiling an attempt in 1949 by a Dutch parliamentary commission to get at the truth behind das Englandspiel. “I’d worked too long for SOE to believe the fire was accidental,” Marks said years later.]
Was this simply abject, bone-headed stupidity on the part of the British? Or was there, as Marks’ obit in The Telegraph indicates, a ‘longer game’ being played, for the success of which these men’s lives were deemed to be acceptable sacrifices?
I can’t see how. I can’t see how it could possibly have benefitted the British to have lost so many agents, for nothing in return (that I can see, anyway).
The aim of this post isn’t to point and shame the British for stupidity. It is to point out how easy it is, even for those who rely on their brains for making life-and-death analysis and decisions, to dumb things – especially in bureaucracies.
Think of your own office, now, or your workplace. Now imagine those people who make the dumb decisions, and who do the stupid things, over and over, having control over the lives of others.
We recognise it, because we want to improve the situation.