Spies, intrigue and afternoon tea: St Ermin’s Hotel and the Secret Intelligence Service

What were the Secret Intelligence Service and Churchill up to in Caxton Hall, Caxton Street and Westminster in London during the 1930s?

Every street in London has a story to tell. Some stories might be as simple as a birth or a death, a lasting legacy originating from someone coming into the world or someone leaving. The blue plaques which adorn many London buildings will happily point you in the direction of these important locations. But there is another type of London history. There are locations around the city which are wrapped in intrigue. Homes and hotels which have altered the course of the country’s history with little to no fanfare. While it might be important to know where an old poet breathed his last, those with a historical interest might be fascinated to discover the history which hides within some of the subtler city walls.

St Ermin's HotelIn terms of threats to the country, there were few which were more feared than the Nazis. The waging of the Second World War was a caustic and exhausting campaign, fought in the fields of France, in the skies above the city, on sea, sand and snow. But it was also the birth of modern spying. The war was a global concern, but the heart of the British effort was born in a clandestine series of locations in West London. Caxton Hall, Caxton Street and Westminster saw the arrival of British spying, and the creation of the vaunted SIS.

The birth of spies

Espionage in the British Isles has its roots in the end of the Victorian era. The Secret Service Bureau was established in 1909 with the intent of evaluating the capabilities of the German Navy. This service became formalised and evolved as the First World War began to take hold, with the branch devoted to foreign investigations becoming known as MI6. Although the service achieved middling results, it was able to collect a great deal of intelligence in neutral countries.

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Joseph Goebbels – a summary

Paul Joseph Goebbels was the third of five children born to a Catholic family in Germany, on 29 October 1897. An educated and intelligent man, he swiftly rose through the ranks of the Nazi Party in the 1920s, ultimately becoming the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and one of Hitler’s closest associates. A man of below average height, Goebbels was occasionally referred to as ‘the Poison Dwarf’ and was the force behind the indomitable National Socialist propaganda machine. As the Third Reich crumbled in the final days of World War Two, the Führer named Goebbels as the next Chancellor, a position he held for just one day.

Bild 183-L04035Rise to Prominence

Although of an eligible age to fight, Joseph Goebbels had a club foot that prevented him seeing action during World War One and gave him a permanent limp, facts he resented greatly throughout his life and endeavoured to disguise. He wrote a novel, and studied philosophy and literature and was awarded his doctorate from Heidelberg University in 1921.

Goebbels joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and after ascending to the rank of Gauleiter of Berlin within four years, he was appointed the party’s propaganda minister in 1929. He edited a weekly newspaper called Der Angriff (The Assault) and also drew attention to National Socialist principles through provocative speeches. In 1933, following Hitler’s assumption of power, he became the Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.

In spite of his own club foot and diminutive stature, Goebbels ardently preached the physical superiority of the Aryan master race. With control over all media channels and cultural output in the Third Reich, Goebbels oversaw the dissemination of Nazi racial ideology to the masses; from celebrations of classical German culture and history, to warnings about the dangers that Jews and other supposedly subversive peoples posed to society.

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Oskar Schindler – a summary

Oskar Schindler was born into a German family in the Czech Sudetenland on 28 April 1908. He joined the Nazi Party at the age of 30, following the absorption of the Sudetenland into the Third Reich. Nearly forty years after his death, he is remembered as a ‘good Nazi’ who saved an estimated 1,200 Polish Jews from almost certain death in concentration camps during World War Two. His posthumous fame is largely due to the 1993 blockbuster film Schindler’s List.

The Emalia Factory

Oskar SchindlerAn enterprising businessman, Oskar Schindler recognised the lucrative opportunities that war could present and took over an enamelware factory in Krakow in the autumn of 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War Two. This was within the Generalgouvernement area of Poland, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were forcibly resettled by occupying Nazi forces. Officially named the Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik, his factory became more commonly known as Emalia.

Anti-Semitic feeling and action in Poland escalated swiftly following the Nazi invasion. Mass shootings were carried out throughout the country and those Jews who survived the exodus from their homes were crowded into sealed ghettoes. Although Schindler remained a member of the Nazi Party, he became increasingly opposed to the violent persecution of Jews and by late 1942, 370 Jews from the Krakow ghetto were among the workers employed in his factory.

Besides enamelware, Schindler’s factory also manufactured ammunitions. As ammunitions were vital to the German war effort, Schindler argued that the Jews employed in Emalia were indispensable if high production levels were to be maintained, thus preventing their deportation to labour and extermination camps. He protected his workers while the Krakow ghetto was liquidated in March 1943 by allowing them to remain in the factory overnight and subsequently established his own sub-camp, so they would not be subjected to harsh forced labour in nearby Plaszow.

Averting Deportations

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Exercise Tiger – a summary

As D-Day approached, training intensified. Troops were told only what they needed to know; they certainly had no idea about when or where they’d be going into action. Troops trained embarking and disembarking from landing craft. (The flat-bottomed Landing Craft, Assault vessels (LCA) weighed ten tons each, could carry thirty-eight men and travel up to ten knots per hour, while the much larger Landing Ship, Tank, LST, carried three hundred men and sixty tanks. Both vessels could sail right onto a beach.)

Exercise TigerExercise Tiger

It was at one such training exercise, one that involved the use of live ammunition, that tragedy struck. 23,000 American troops, the entire invading force of Utah beach, and 300 vessels were rehearsing on Slapton Sands in South Devon on 27 and 28 April 1944 in an exercise codenamed Tiger designed to acclimatize troops as accurately as possible to what they could expect at Utah during the real thing, right down to a number of pretend dead bodies strewn around. Six villages in the area had seen the evacuation of their 3,000 inhabitants. They’d been told they would, one day, be allowed back. But when, no one knew.

30,000 acres of land around Slapton Sands, chosen because of its similarities to the intended target area of Utah beach, had been sealed off with barbed wire and sentries. On the 27th, during Exercise Tiger, poor communication resulted in a number of troops being fired upon by their own ships. (Pictured: US troops in training for the Normandy Landings.)

28 April 1944

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Dwight Eisenhower – a summary

Born in Texas into a family of German immigrant pacifists, Dwight Eisenhower, the third of seven boys, was brought up in Kansas. He attended the West Point Military Academy, graduating in 1915. Although he rose to the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel during the First World War, during which he spent most of his time training tank crews, he never saw any action; a drawback, as he saw it, that caused him embarrassment and was later used against him.

Dwight D EisenhowerAfter the war Eisenhower continued to work in the tank arm, befriending George Patton and sharing his views on the importance of mobility. While stationed in France, he wrote a guide to the battlefields of the Great War, as it was still known.

Inter-war

From 1933 he worked with General Douglas MacArthur, moving with him to the Philippines in 1935, where he stayed until 1939. More senior staff work ensued and in 1941 he was made Brigadier General. When the USA entered the Second World War Eisenhower worked in the War Plans Office, which he eventually headed.

Despite his lack of frontline experience he was made US Theater Commander in Europe in June 1942. As such, he had overall command of the Torch landings in North Africa in November, and thereafter the Anglo-American armies which invaded Italy. In December 1943 he became Supreme Allied Commander for Europe – a role in which his deft political skills were more important than his military ones. Somehow he managed to operate successfully between such egos as Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Patton and Bernard Montgomery. He emerged from the war a full five star General, highly regarded by all sides.

Following the liberation of Nazi-occupied France, Eisenhower favoured a ‘broad thrust’ into Germany rather than the quicker but riskier narrow front favoured by Montgomery.

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Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire – review

‘It was one of those enterprises which could be attempted only because in the eyes of the enemy it was absolutely impossible.’ Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, describing the Second World War raid on Saint-Nazaire.

Into the Jaws of Death - coverOn 28 March 1942, 621 men of the Royal navy and British Commandos attacked the port of Saint-Nazaire in occupied France. The mission has been dubbed ‘the greatest raid of all time.’ It was certainly daring, audacious in the extreme and terribly dangerous – less than half the men returned alive. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded, two of them posthumously. As the title of this new book on the raid states, the men went Into the Jaws of Death.

Historian, Robert Lyman, has written much about specific aspects of the Second World War, with books about the Cockleshell Heroes, the Siege of Tobruk, Kohima, the Middle East during the war, and a biography on General Bill Slim. Now, Lyman has turned his attention to the Saint-Nazaire raid. Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire is a detailed book on the raid: the reasons that lay behind it, the preparation, the training, the raid itself and its aftermath.

A Bleak Time

Early 1942, as Lyman reminds us, was a bleak time for the Western Allies during the Second World War – British forces had just surrendered their garrison at Singapore; Britain was losing the Battle of the Atlantic; and wartime austerity was beginning to bite. In Europe, following the fall of France eighteen months earlier, Nazi occupation had been firmly established; and the first deportations of Jews residing in France had just begun.

Britain’s high command was gripped by fear of Germany’s huge battleship, the Tirpitz, a massive ship, a sixth of a mile long. Its sister ship, the Bismarck, had been sunk in May 1941, but the Tirpitz still roamed large. The only dry dock on the French coast capable of accommodating such a ship was to be found at the port Saint-Nazaire, a town of some 50,000 people. If the Normandie dock, as it was called, the largest dry dock in the world at the time, could be put out of action, then the Tirpitz’s activity in the Atlantic would be severely constrained.

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Bernard Montgomery – a summary

The son of a bishop, Bernard Montgomery, or ‘Monty’, was born in London but spent his early years in Tasmania. He fought during much of the First World War, and was twice badly wounded. An obstinate individual, he fell out with his mother to such an extent that when she died in 1949, he refused to attend her funeral. Training to be an army officer at Sandhurst he was demoted for having set a fellow student on fire and during First World War he allegedly caught a German by kneeing him in the testicles.

Bernard MontgomeryThe early death of his wife in 1937 from septicaemia, caused by an insect bite, devastated Monty and from then on, he devoted himself entirely to his career.

El Alamein

Self-confident in the extreme, prone to odd headwear, Montgomery was adored by his men, especially during the Second World War desert campaigns in North Africa during which he made his name by defeating Erwin Rommel at El Alamein. But he frequently clashed with his American counterparts and, because of his immense self-pride, took offence easily. Having planned the successful invasion of Sicily, he believed himself worthy of being in overall command of the Italian campaign, and took great umbrage at having to work under Dwight Eisenhower.

In December 1943, Montgomery was appointed land commander, again under Eisenhower, for Operation Overlord, the planned invasion of France. His D-Day objectives included the capture of Caen within the first 24 hours. In the event, it took several weeks and proved costly, for which he was heavily criticised. During the chaotic days of mid-June, his American counterparts felt that Montgomery’s strategy was too cautious and hoped to have him replaced, a view endorsed by Churchill. But Montgomery held onto his post and his tactics did draw much enemy attention to the east of the Allies’ bridgehead, allowing the Americans to successfully breakout from the west.

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Juan Pujol Garcia – a summary

Juan Pujol Garcia was unique among Second World War agents – he was the only one to offer his services as a double agent as opposed to all others who had been captured and ‘turned’. Bespectacled, balding and timid, Pujol was not the image usually associated with a double agent, let alone Britain’s most effective one.

Joan Pujol GarciaBorn in Barcelona on 14 February 1912, Pujol was working on a chicken farm when, in 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out. He managed to fight for both the Republican side and the Nationalists. He was committed to neither and hated the extreme views they each represented. By the end of the war, he was able to claim that he had served in both armies without firing a single bullet for either.

For the good of humanity

He emerged from the experience with an intense dislike for extreme ideologies and, for the ‘good of humanity’, sought to help achieve a more moderate system. With the outbreak of war in 1939, three times he approached British services in Lisbon and Madrid, offering to spy for them, only to be turned away without an interview. Undeterred, Pujol decided to become a double agent. He offered his services to the German Abwehr service based also in Lisbon, offering to spy on the English, claiming that as a diplomat working in London, he knew England well. His audacity was certainly impressive – he had never visited England, nor could he speak the language, and he had forged a British passport without ever having seen a real one. Incredibly, the Germans fell for the story, put him through an intensive training course, and supplied him with the tools of the trade: invisible ink, cash, and a codename – Arabel, and sent him on assignment to England with instructions to build a network of spies.

Agent Arabel

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Omar Bradley – a brief summary

Born 12 February 1893 in Missouri, Omar Bradley fought on the Western Front during the last months of the First World War. His father, a schoolteacher who had married one of his pupils, died in 1908 while Omar was still only thirteen.

Omar BradleyIn 1943, during the Second World War, Bradley led US troops onto Sicily. The following year, based in London, he was given command of American troops assigned to the Normandy landings. His immediate commander was Bernard Montgomery. After a battle of attrition, he led the capture of Cherbourg, then into the town of Avranches. On 1 August 1944, Bradley was given command of the US Twelfth Army Group, consisting of one and quarter million troops, the largest US army ever assigned to a single general.

Bradley’s army fought in the Ardennes, during the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944 – January 1945, and were among the Allied troops who shook hands with their Soviet counterparts on the River Elbe in April 1945.

Post-war, Bradley served on the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and in 1950 was appointed ‘General of the Army’, the highest rank in the US army.  He oversaw US strategy during the Korean War and retired in 1953, a month after the end of the war. Although retired, he advised President Lyndon Johnson on military policy during the Vietnam War.

His memoirs, A Soldier’s Story, were published in 1951.

Omar Bradley died on 8 April 1981, aged 88, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Untitled-1Rupert Colley.

D-Day: History In An Hour, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is due for publication 24 April 2014.

Dr Josef Mengele: The Angel of Death – a summary

In addition to being sites of slave labour and human annihilation, many Nazi concentration camps also functioned as medical experimentation centres throughout the Holocaust. Under the guise of researching new treatments or investigating racial eugenics, doctors conducted painful and often fatal experiments on thousands of prisoners without consent. The man most commonly associated with these pseudo-medical experiments is Dr Josef Mengele, whose notoriety among the inmates of Auschwitz earned him the nickname ‘the Angel of Death’.

Josef MengeleJosef Mengele was born on 16 March 1911, the eldest of three brothers. He studied in both Munich and Frankfurt, specializing first in philosophy and then in medicine. He shared Hitler’s racial views, believing in the supremacy of the Aryan people, and joined the Nazi Party in 1937. Mengele served in the medical corps on the Eastern Front from 1940, but returned to Germany in early 1943 after sustaining an injury. No longer able to fight, he arrived at Auschwitz in the spring of 1943, where his cruel experiments on prisoners swiftly made him more infamous than any of the other camp physicians.

An Obsession with Twins

Auschwitz-Birkenau was both a concentration camp and an extermination centre, thus from the summer of 1942, whenever new convoys of Jewish deportees arrived at Auschwitz, there would be a selection to determine which people were fit to work and which would be killed. Mengele was regularly involved in these selections on the arrivals ramp, where in addition to deciding which of the incoming prisoners would perish immediately, he searched for twins and people with unusual physical conditions.

Mengele had a particular obsession with twins and conducted experiments on around 1,500 pairs of siblings during his time at Auschwitz, the majority of whom were young Jewish or Romani children. If one twin died, the other would also be killed so that he could perform a comparative autopsy. Mengele’s fascination with twins may have been linked to the Nazi desire for an increased Aryan birth rate.

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