Errors of Judgement

Title:                      Errors of Judgement

Author:                  Nicholas Kelso

Kelso, Nicholas(1988). Errors of Judgement: SOE’s Disaster in The Netherlands, 1941-44. London: Hale

LCCN:    89111387

D810.S7 K425 1988


Date Posted:      October 7, 2015

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[1]

Ponder the sad fate of Marble Arch (near Edgware Road and Oxford Street). Built as a royal entrance to Buckingham Palace, it proved too narrow for the state coach; then, relocated here, it was left high and dry by road-widening. Ponder, too, the changes in Park Lane, once lined with the mansions of local landowners. Now the only view of London not spoiled by the Hilton on Park Lane is from the Hilton. In the first block of Park Lane is 140 Park Lane. SOE’s N Section worked here—but so inattentively and irresponsibly that for almost two years every SOE agent sent into the Netherlands was captured. To this day, the Englandspiel (as Germany termed its playing back of these agents) still arouses outrage, still arouses suspicion as to how this German operation lasted so long and whether some hidden British game was behind it. Other secret organizations made mistakes. Indeed, the capture of an MI6 agent with his cyphers “made the whole deception feasible”, writes Nigel West. But the extraordinary malfeasance of SOE’s Dutch Section seems unbelievable, even today, and one grieves afresh at the loss of some 60 Dutch and British agents, many of them barbarously executed by the Nazis at Mauthausen concentration camp.

The first to be captured (in March, 1942) agreed to continue transmitting, confident that London would pick up his warnings. Huburtus Lauwers properly omitted his “security check” (which would have involved a mistake every 16th letter) and improvised false security checks to satisfy the Germans and still warn London. Amazingly, London paid no heed. Even when Lauwers transmitted “worked by Jerry since …” and three times inserted the word “caught”, London didn’t catch on. So great was his admiration for British Intelligence (he thought he was working for MI6) that he decided against escaping; he thought London must want him to be where he was for some larger deception. Only when several dozen captured agents began communicating with each other through the central heating system of their prison did they realize the magnitude of the disaster.

Warnings came also from England, reports Nicholas Kelso in Errors of Judgement: SOE’s Disaster in the Netherlands, 1941-44. Leo Marks, SOE’s chief cypher officer, reported his belief that all SOE radios in the Netherlands were under German control, but an MI5 investigation found nothing amiss. Repeated warnings came from a man in SOE’s signal section but he was warned, in turn, to keep silent or risk-being sent to the front. A garbled message from the prisoners finally reached Berne in May, 1943. MI6 warned SOE at once, amplifying an earlier SIS warning to SOE (on 5 April} that a Dutch SOE agent was under the closest Gestapo surveillance. Yet SOE sent more agents into Holland later in May. Supplies continued until October.

In August, 1943, two brave Dutch officers, Peter Dourlein and Johan Ubbink, escaped from their prison at Haaren and made their way through occupied Europe to Britain—where they were confined to Brixton Prison until after D-Day. (The Germans had used a captured set to tell London that the escapees couldn’t be trusted, and Dourlein and Ubbink only confirmed British suspicions by providing different answers to the seemingly trivial questions asked about their escape. To complicate matters further, the two were convinced of the treachery of an officer in London’s N Section and seemed bent on disposing of him. It made perfect sense, unfortunately, to keep these two under British lock and key.)

When three more agents escaped in November, the Germans knew the game was over. In April, 1944, the Abwehr’s Hermann Giskes sent this stunning message to N Section: “We understand that you have been endeavouring for some time to do business in Holland without our assistance. We regret this the more since we have acted for so long as your sole representatives in this country, to our mutual satisfaction. Nevertheless we can assure you that, should you be thinking of paying us a visit on the Continent on any extensive scale, we-shall give your emissaries the same attention as we have hitherto, and a similarly warm welcome. Hoping to see you.” (The message was not even encyphered.)

The Dutch conducted a postwar enquiry. Had their agents been deliberately sacrificed in some deception operation? Or (a possibility the Dutch took more seriously) had SOE’s N Section harboured a traitor? No evidence supported either theory—or a handful of other speculations. The official verdict of both the British and the Dutch was “errors of judgment.” Kelso finds these words wholly inadequate to describe SOE’s “crass incompetence.”

His book, Errors of Judgement, gives details. Agents were told, incorrectly, that the Germans couldn’t trace their transmitters. Agents were untrained in radio repair. Radios had crystals for very few frequencies (giving the Germans an easy job of monitoring). Radios required large and visible antennae. Agents were required to keep all previous messages (London often referred to them). London made no effort to verify a transmission’s location. London had no alternate ways of confirming an agent’s whereabouts, such as the innocent postcard or the walk-by.

And so on. And these “technical” errors were in addition to other difficulties. The rigid compartmentation in SOE kept N Sectionfrom learning of a similar “playback” in F Section. The lack of communication between SOE and Dutch Intelligence prevented the Dutch from seeing messages sent by their own agents. And the early leadership of N Section was ignorant or pig-headed enough to overlook every sign of trouble. To be sure, the Englandspiel benefited from the work of able Dutch collaborators (more than 50 of them) and brilliant German counterspies (the Abwehr and the Sicherheitsdienst co-operating fully with each other for a change). But SOE’s contribution to the disaster was broad and deep.

The Englandspiel netted the Germans vast quantities of weapons, equipment and money. It also provided knowledge of British bombing routes over Holland; 12 bombers were lost. But the operation never provided information about “military intentions” (specifically D-Day), writes Kelso. Disastrous as it was, it was successful for only part of the war and only tactically, while the British “playback” of German agents in Britain was successful for all of the war and strategically.

After this debacle, Dutch Intelligence demanded to see all orders for their agents and all messages from them. A hundred or so agents went into Holland in the last year of the war, most of them operating safely and effectively. “Had SOE co-operated with the Dutch in 1942, as they were forced to do in 1944,” writes Kelso, “the Englandspiel might well have been avoided.”

[1] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 185-188

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