Friday, 27 September 2013

Part Two - Compasses Smuggled into Camps via MI9 & MIS - X

The Allies were able to assist escape work in the POW camps of occupied Europe by sending in a range of concealed aids. British POWs were able to communicate with MI9 in London via coded letters and later the Americans operated the same way via MIS–X in New York and Fort Hunt near Washington. Compasses were a key escape item which the two organisations attempted to smuggle into camps. 
MI9 initially led the way in this field as they had been in the war for over three years by the time MIS –X was formed in October 1942. After some early problems with codes, and subsequent help from MI9, the Americans were able to build up their own operations quickly, as they did with producing and shipping out concealed escape aids to camps.  
Christopher Clayton Hutton
Clayton Hutton had been proactive for MI9 (see earlier post). He found a firm of instrument makers, Blunts in the Old Kent Rd London run by 2 elderly brothers. From 1000 feet of steel strip they made 5000 magnetised bars nearly 1inch long. This formed the basis from which various designs of compass were made.
Tiny brass cylinders a quarter of an inch across with a luminous compass needle balanced within them could be hidden in a pipe or fountain pen, or in the back of a service button or cap badge. Larger ones could be painted over and become the bases of collar studs. These were commonly worn by men so could filter their way into a camp without suspicion. The escaper could scrape the paint off with a finger nail when he needed to use the compass.

Another method was to use a lead pencil with a metal clip for carrying in the breast pocket. The clip could be made of steel, then magnetised before a small dent was punched beneath it at the point of balance so it would swing on its own pencil tip.

Razor blades were also magnetised, with the north end of the magnet at the same end as the start of the maker’s name printed on the blade. It would function well when suspended from a piece of cotton or thread.
It was possible for certain escape aids to be requested via a normal chatty letter home to one of the mythical ‘relatives/friends’  (MI9/MIS –X aliases) adopted by the POW coded letter writer (see previous post). The aids would then arrive at the camp concealed inside specific items which were part of a general consignment of tinned food, coffee and everyday articles  such as soap, razor blades etc. They came from one of the fictitious prisoner of war welfare organisations created by MI9 or MIS – X. (These bodies were totally separate from the International Red Cross parcels which were never compromised because of the prisoner’s total reliance upon them due to meagre German rations.) 
By the time the loaded parcels arrived, a typical return letter from the ‘relative/friend’ to the prisoner involved in the code writing would already have been received in camp. The correspondence would indicate once decoding had taken place, which package(s) contained the hidden contraband. BBC radio broadcasts were also occasionally used to conceal similar coded messages about items (usually The Radio Padre – see previous post).
The CIO would be briefed and a plan adopted to minimise the risk of any detection by German guards or censor (in some camp organisations this was done via the code writer briefing the Senior Officer, who in turn briefed ‘X’.) A tried and tested system with subtle diversionary tactics was often already in operation.

An early American example of this process in action occurred at Oflag 64 (American ground force officer’s camp), but what happened was typical of other Allied camps in occupied Europe at the time.

Oflag 64  - Robert Keith

The American parcels officer in Oflag 64 was always on hand when a consignment of mail and packages arrived for POWs. The reason given had been to prevent German pilfering. The captors were happy to accommodate this arrangement as it removed the opportunity for such allegations to be made.
The parcels officer was able to have a regular volunteer crew of trusted POWs to assist the Germans in unloading any railway wagons with POW mail and parcels at the nearby railway station. For the German guards, it was an opportunity away from the camp to take a rest and observe someone else doing the work (they were probably smoking American cigarettes handed over by one of the volunteer party).
Two POWs would unload the wagon and stack boxes and packages into the back of a lorry, while a third man with a clipboard (usually the parcels officer) appeared to be keeping a record of all deliveries. The third man was in reality looking out for specific coloured labels on the consignment. Unknown to him, these would be shipments from one or more of the fictitious POW welfare organisations run by MIS – X, e.g. ‘Servicemen’s Relief.’ He would also be keeping an eye out for packages or boxes addressed to certain named individuals. These were often the code writing POWs, or a link man involved in the subterfuge. It is important to note that although a number of POWs were involved in the operation, they would be unaware of the contents of any of the packages apart from details indicated on the routine labelling, and they had no idea that the organisations which supplied the prisoner’s parcels were false.
Each package was taken from the lorry and carried to the Camp Vorlager (receiving area) and placed at the end of a long table. The censor would be waiting close to the parcels officer at the opposite end.
In this example, requests had been made by the code writers for escape items and a radio part. A coded reply had arrived back by letter advising that packages with concealed items were en route. The parcels officer had already been solely briefed ly on what to look out for and he had alerted his team. The men had been looking for these packages for a number of weeks and they stood out from the ordinary Red Cross boxes which were smaller, wooden and strapped with metal bindings. The ‘Servicemen’s Relief’ packages were wrapped in brown paper and tied with hemp twine.
Typical Contents of Red Cross Parcel
As the parcels officer was there only to ensure correct handling and prevent theft, he could not touch the packages. The guards took them off the table in groups of five to line up in front of the censor. The metal bindings around the Red Cross boxes were retained by the Germans for obvious reasons, and the censor opened each box or package to inspect the contents individually. Anything soft such as soap or shoe polish had a needle inserted to check for concealed items. Once the censor was happy, he would allow a POW to stack the box or package with other cleared ones.     
When the delivery had been dealt with, the prisoner party was allowed to take it into camp. The team had been briefed to look out for and ‘fast track’ specific packages, so once they had been spotted at the railhead, they were suitably stacked on the lorry to enable suitable placement in the inspection order at the Vorlager. The ‘loaded’ packages were also conveniently the next ones in the pile to be taken out as the parcels officer conveniently reached his turn in assisting the other prisoners.
Once the recipients had received their delivery from the parcels officer, lookouts were posted to watch for any Germans or POWs. In a typical camp organisation, only the code writers and probably ‘X’ and the CIO would be present. In this example, the 2 code writers, Camp CO, ‘Big X’ and an officer k/a ‘Big S’ for security were in the hut. The coded message from MIS – ‘X’ had added ‘break all wooden objects’.
The contents of the parcels included tinned and dried food. Also in this consignment were a normal looking shoe brush and shaving brush. These were the only wooden items and appeared routine and not tampered with. The men decided to follow their instructions and began to attack the shaving brush. Five small compasses and a wad of German Reichmark bills fell out as it broke. The hollowed out handle of the brush also contained five tissue maps in the bottom. Everything had been packed together to stop it rattling around inside. After the handle had been hollowed out by MIS – X and the items inserted, it had been glued back to the rest of the assembly, sanded and then varnished until any signs of interference were removed. The radio ‘part’ inside the shoe brush was a requested diagram for a radio transmitter.  
The Escape Factory – Lloyd Shoemaker (Recommended read)
MI9 Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 - M.R.D. Foot & J. M. Langley (Recommended read on MI9)

National Archives

Personal notes
©Keith Morley
THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.



Monday, 23 September 2013

The Camp Intelligence Officer – Compasses Part One

From The 'Ideal Camp Organisation' Flowchart

German Officers at Stalag Luft 111 - IWM
In an ideal POW camp organisation, the Camp Intelligence Officer (CIO) or IO would have overall control and accountability for:
Compasses being made in the camp
Compasses entering the camp concealed in welfare packages from the various fictitious prisoner of war welfare organisations.* (*Next week’s post)
These operations would be delegated to individuals and teams who reported to the CIO. Responsibility for stooges and lookouts in the camp (who were positioned as an early warning system to protect the manufacture, receipt and hiding of items) went to ‘X’ under his remit of ‘Security’ of the escape service (see full diagram on earlier posts). No one else apart from ‘X’ and the ICO would have knowledge of the whole picture.

The CIO and/or his immediate subordinates often had a lever on certain German guards and ‘ferrets’. They were able to obtain items and intelligence useful for escape work from ‘the goons’, via blackmail, ‘persuasion’ or bribery. In Stalag Luft 111 during the run up to the Great Escape, Flight Lieutenant Arnost ‘Wally’ Valenta was in the author’s view the ICO. He was proactive in the role and far from being just a figurehead, used his expert knowledge of Czechoslovakia to accumulate and head intelligence gathering for that area. Valenta had also been able to use his influence on certain Germans within the camp tas regards obtaining materials and intelligence. E.g. luminous paint for compass needles so they could be used at night without the danger of striking matches.
Flight Lieutenant Arnost ‘Wally’ Valenta  -

Manufacture of Compasses in a Camp
The best recorded examples of this are arguably in Stalag Luft 111 where Valenta oversaw the manufacture of compasses by Australian Flight Lieutenant Albert Hake who headed the British, Commonwealth and European Allies effort from Block 103. In effect, he let Hake get on with the job as the Australian was a master of his craft.

Flight Lieutenant Albert Hake

Captain John M Bennett led the US equivalent. He had learned his trade from Hake before the two were split up when the Americans were housed in a separate compound and Bennett went on to adopt certain variations of his own in the ‘manufacturing’ process. The details of how the two men made up the compasses are a testament to their skills in craft, ingenuity and improvisation.

Bennett’s Compasses – A Step by Step Guide
Heat up a section of a broken phonograph record (made from Bakelite) until soft and moulded.
Put the soft Bakelite over a moulded hole in a bed board about one and a quarter inches in diameter and push a section of the Bakelite into the hole to form a ‘cup’ about one and half inches deep.
With the ‘cup’ still in the hole, press it on to an ‘engraved’ metal disc below which has the imprinted words on it ‘made in Stalag Luft 111. (This would show on the bottom of the ‘cup’ of every compass made.)
Glue a bunch of old razor blades into a double line on a board in such a way that two legs of a child’s horseshoe magnet could be drawn across each line of blades simultaneously.
Stroke the blades in the same direction for three to four hours. At the end of that time, the blades would have been permanently magnetised.
Use a window hinge as a precision vice and break the blades into precisely sized magnets. 
From a piece of cardboard cut some compass cards of an equivalent size to the Bakelite cup and make a hole exactly in the centre. Cards will already have had the key compass points drawn on them.
Push some warm Bakelite through the hole of the card so as to extend out of the top of it. Create a tiny cavity in the point with a lead pencil, so that the compass card could be suspended on a phonographic needle.
Using broken window glass; cut a top for each compass under water with a pair of scissors, so that the glass does not chip or break.
Cut a short strip of cardboard to serve as a spacer for the glass to sit on,  and position.
Compass is complete.
Hake’s Compasses

Hake’s original design was similar to Bennett’s adaptation except:
A gramophone needle was sunk in the centre of the ‘cup’ base for the needle pivot.
The direction needle itself was part of a sewing needle which had been rubbed against a magnet.
A tiny pivot socket was soldered to the centre of the magnetised direction needle. (Solder came from the melted joints of bully-beef tins and resin for the soldering out of pine trees, and when they were cut down out of the resinous wood of the huts)
Artists painted the points of the compass accurately in white on a little circle of paper and it fitted neatly into the base of the casing. The ends of the needle were painted with luminous paint.
After the glass for the compass tops had been cut in the same way as Bennett outlined, it was fitted on to the ‘cup’ or casing by an interesting method. Hake made a small blow lamp out of a fat-lamp and some thin tubing rolled out of old food tins. Through the tube he blew a gentle jet of air against the flame playing it around the rim of the Bakelite compass ‘cup’. When it was melting soft he pressed in the glass and it set tight and waterproof.
Hake was able to produce one compass a day with this method.

Once the compasses were made, X assumed responsibility for hiding them along with other aids. In Stalag Luft 111, Roger Bushell directed they were hidden behind various false walls in huts and cupboards, down tunnel ‘Dick’ and outside at the earth latrines.

Both Hake and Valenta escaped from Stalag Luft 111 in The Great Escape but were tragically two of the fifty executed by the Germans.

More rudimentary compass used by Oliver Philpott who escaped from Stalag 111 via 'The Wooden Horse in Oct 43 - IWM

Compass with razor blade Stalag Luft 1 - Roy Kilminster

Next Week - Compasses smuggled into the camps via MI9 & MIS - X
National Archives

The Great Escape – Paul Brickhill

The Escape Factory – Lloyd Shoemaker

The Great Escapers – Tim Carroll

MI9 Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 M.R.D. Foot & J. M. Langley

Personal notes

©Keith Morley
THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Camp Intelligence Officer - Part Two (Wireless Traffic From England)

The Camp Intelligence Officer (CIO) generally had a line responsibility for the receipt, control and distribution of information picked up from hidden radio receivers in POW camps in Western Europe. Some camp organisations incorporated the CIO duties into X’s role. ‘X’ would have control over radio and coded message matters, report to the Senior Officer, but still be free to manage the various other escape committees.  
The use of coded letters in and out of POW camps had resulted in an exchange of helpful  intelligence without discovery by the German censors. The major disadvantage was the time taken for question and answer processes to run their course. The war had often moved on in between letters, and information could become stale or of no use. Seven weeks for letters to be exchanged between Germany and England was seen as an optimistic timescale and in Italy anything from seven months upwards made MI9 and MIS–X look for better ways of communicating with prisoners.
POWs in Western Europe received the German version of the war, which was totally slanted and hardly a boost to morale.  The use of wireless receivers, (if they could be smuggled in to a camp or assembled from random parts) was seen as an ideal way to speed up communication and enable POWs to receive a more helpful version of how events were progressing.  

Actual wireless concealed in RAF Roy Kilminster's bunk at Stalag Luft I -  Roy Kilminster

From the beginning of the war, prisoners had always been on the look out for chances to cadge or steal wireless receivers or in most cases acquire miscellaneous parts which could be adapted to construct a simple piece of apparatus to pick up transmissions, especially the powerful BBC broadcasts. Most camps had some POWs who were wireless technicians with good skills around the workings and components. They were able to utilise and adapt the most unlikely metal items in the construction of a receiving set. Additionally MI9 and MIS–X smuggled key radio components and  the smallest receivers they could find into camps concealed in parcels from the fictitious welfare organisations for POWs. (See previous posts on escape aids and codes) This practice lessened once intelligence filtered through that most camps had hidden radios. 

Drawing of how the wireless was concealed  - Roy Kilminster
Close up of hiding place - Roy Kilminster
Screwdrivers used to tune the radio concealed behind the board - Roy Kilminster

MI9 on occasions used one of the most popular programmes on the BBC, ‘The Radio Padre’ to transmit its messages. Every Wednesday evening at 7pm, the Reverend Ronald Selby Wright delivered some religious words and thoughts which also contained information in one of MI9’s secret codes. (Usually ‘HK’- see previous post)
If the Reverend was told to open his talk with the words ‘Good evening forces’ instead of ‘Hello’ or just ‘Good evening’ – both he and the POWs would know that the text contained a hidden message for prisoners listening on their radios. Wright had no idea what information the hidden message contained, only that a coded message existed within. The whole broadcast was taken down in shorthand by a listener in the camp and then written out in full longhand before work commenced to decode it. 
Reverend Ronald Selby Wright pictured with Princess Margaret

BBC transmissions also enabled prisoners to receive more accurate news of the war. Both captor and captive were known on occasions to have displayed maps showing the latest position of the respective armies across Europe. As the war began to turn, the flags on the Allied map might have shown the enemy in a more advanced state of retreat than those positioned on their captors map. It is easy to imagine an enraged Camp Commandant stepping up searches for a hidden radio some days later, once the information on the POW map was proved to be accurate. POWs openly adopting this practice must have been confident that their wireless equipment was sufficiently well hidden to avoid discovery and viewed it as another form of ‘goon baiting.’ The reality was that in most camps, information obtained by prisoners as a result of listening in to wireless broadcasts stayed  'in house.'
The Camp Intelligence Officer played a vital role around wireless operation. The whole process had to be conducted in the most complete secrecy and centred in a room in one specific hut. The CIO would usually insist on all appropriate personnel living in that particular room e.g. technicians, shorthand men and the man who hid the radio. As operation of the ‘set’ was confined to one person who would take down a transcript of the broadcast, other members of the team acted as lookouts whilst the radio was in use. One person stood at the window of the room, one at the door and one stood at each of the two entries to the hut, watching the lookouts who were positioned around the camp to spot any signs of approaching German ‘ferrets’ or guards. It was common for most prisoners to be totally unaware of who was involved with actual wireless work, where the ‘set’ operated from and where it was concealed.

Fences at Stalag Luft I - Roy Kilminster

Another key role for the CIO was the control and release to POWs of war of news received by wireless.. Good news such as Allied victories and advances were a great morale booster, but any setbacks had to be carefully handled. German victories or heavy Allied casualties could have a negative effect on camp spirits and were not always revealed or were played down. News coming into the camp via the radio would be translated from the initial shorthand and then examined by the ICO, who would liaise with the Senior Officer to finalise what information would be released to prisoners. Common practice was then for one high security man to memorise it and then pass the information on to each hut. This is where the line of the CIO and wireless operations crossed into the security of ‘X’s territory.
POW’s were all instructed following the receipt of good news not to show the slightest signs of a change in emotion or body language which might tip off the Germans that information about the war was being received via a wireless. Loose talk amongst POWs, and with their captors about anything beyond the wire that could not be explained was expressly forbidden.  
One aspect of wireless work which was not used by POWs was radios with transmitters. Some camps had managed to obtain the parts and assemble them by the same methodologies as they had for receivers, or by way of MI9/MIS-X who had sent components concealed in the usual welfare parcels. Radios with transmitters were more difficult to conceal and use effectively. The sending of any transmissions was also strictly forbidden by MI9 and MIS- X, except in emergencies and this instruction was relayed to the camps via coded messages. A hypothetical example of an emergency might have been if reliable information had been discovered that all POWs were to be imminently executed by the Germans and POWs were making ready to try and fight their way out.
As the invasion of Italy by the Allies loomed and the Italian fascist regime stood on the point of collapse, in June 1943 MI9 issued a disastrous coded order to all POWs through the Reverend Ronald Selby Wright’s weekly radio programme.  This was picked up in the camps and decoded and it ordered British POWs in Italy to remain in their camps after Italy surrendered. In some locations, British officers even posted their own guards to prevent the men from leaving after the Italians had laid down their weapons. As a result, the German army was able to walk into dozens of camps and round up the POWs. It is estimated that more than 50,000 Allied soldiers were transported from Italian camps by cattle train to far worse conditions in Germany and Poland during the summer of 1943. Many died, either shot while trying to escape from the trains or in the camps over the course of the following two winters. The use of hidden radios in Allied prison camps had a darker side.


MI9 Escape and Evasion - M.R.D. Foot & J.M. Langley
National Archives
The Escape Factory - Lloyd R. Shoemaker

©Keith Morley
THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.



Friday, 6 September 2013

The Camp Intelligence Officer – Part One (Letters and Codes)


During World War Two, many Allied POW camps in Western Europe, leaned towards operating their escape organisation with a Camp Intelligence Officer who sat directly alongside ‘X’. Stalag Luft 111 had a textbook escape organisation (see flow chart), but this should not detract from the efforts in other camps. They did not always have the same ‘advantages’ as the camp involved in the Great Escape.
Stalag Luft 111 (Sagan):
1) At its peak extended over a larger area which was more difficult for the Germans to administer, control and cover.
2) Expanded to contain high numbers of prisoners, who in turn generated equivalent amounts of Red Cross parcels, the contents of which were ideal for bribery and blackmail with the guards and 'ferrets'.
Contents of Red Cross Parcel

3) Received greater numbers of welfare packages pro rata, containing concealed escape aids etc. (See previous post Escape Aids & Codes). Red Cross parcels were never used for this kind of trafficking because of the prisoner’s total reliance on them. The risk of these being stopped by the Germans was too great. The packages containing concealed escape aids were orchestrated by MI9 and came from fake British organisations such as The Licence Victuallers Sports Association, The Prisoners Leisure Hours Fund and The Welsh Provident Society etc.  MIS-X fronted the US equivalents which were The War Prisoners Benefit Foundation and Servicemen’s Relief. Statistically because of the sheer volume, the expertly concealed escape aids stood a better chance of getting past the German censor and assistants in the camp Vorlager without discovery.
4) Was a camp for Allied Air Force officers, who brought with them a full range of skills and creativity which could be utilised in escape work.
5) Had very sandy soil below the top surface, making tunnel digging quicker, but the risk of cave-ins was higher, necessitating more reinforcement of the sides and roof, plus the need to dig down deeper than usual. The latter became a considerable advantage in avoiding detection.

Camp Intelligence Officer (CIO) Alongside 'X'
Coded letters and wireless traffic from England were the domain of the CIO. 'X' linked in to the line at 'Escape Intelligence'
It is easy to assume that the Camp Intelligence Officer (CIO) would be solely concerned with information gleaned from inside and outside the camp which helped escape work and planning. In practice, the CIO also oversaw the sending of intelligence information out of the camp to the Allies and any reciprocal return of messages.
In the early part of the war, intelligence gained from observations/ information within camps and deemed helpful to the Allies, was concealed in code via innocent letters from POWs to close family or wives. Some prisoners had worked out a system of coded communication with their wives in the event of capture, so were able to implement this. Because the ‘signposts’ used would be personal and only known to the couple, they were difficult to spot or break, provided they were well thought out and carefully utilised. These systems were known to MI9 and labelled ‘dotty codes’ because they often used a row of dots in the heading or text of the letter to show where the message began and ended. 
MI9 saw the potential of this medium of communication from an early stage and developed a code called HK which several POWs were using to contact London from Germany by November 1940. John Parker was one of them. He had been caught in a raid on Guernsey and having narrowly avoided being shot as a spy had already passed on his code which formed the basis for HK.
HK worked through a written letter home. The author would indicate by the way they set out the date on the letter whether it contained a coded message within. The opening words would conceal which part of the code would be used and then a normal chatty correspondence would contain words containing letters at certain points which could be extracted, set against the code table and deciphered. 
Code users were picked as a result of MI9 lectures to service personnel during training. These equated to around 1% of the army and navy, most fighter pilots and 6% of other aircrew. They were selected for their aptitude and discretion and during the short training were warned that the subject must never be mentioned in the mess or when off duty. ‘No discussion on the Code must take place between yourselves or anyone else…be on your guard at all times against talking of these matters, and, in the interests of everyone, report to this branch any breach of Security which comes to your notice.’ 
Statistically only a small percentage would be captured and have to make use of their code from behind the wire, but a plan was in place.  

The Americans did not develop their own codes, preferring to use the MI9 ones (the latter developed new versions as the war progressed).This made operational sense and the MI9y coding sub section and American equivalent invented numerous fictional characters such as aunts, uncles, girlfriends, old school mates etc who wrote to prisoners out of the blue, sometimes in chatty familiar terms but always with the catch-date at the top to warn the prisoner that the letter was in code. (More on this and how the letters home were filtered and decoded in later posts).
The CIO would not have known the intricacies of the codes themselves, unless he himself was a code user. It is highly likely that he would have known the identity of POW’s who sent out and received the coded letters or at least the hut which housed them. The CIO (unless he delegated the task) would filter intelligence information through the letter code writers and ensure procedures were in place so they were able to work without discovery or interruption by the other prisoners. Privacy and security whilst this work was carried out remained vital and the CIO would have certainly tapped in to X’s camp ‘early warning systems’ already in place for escape work.
MI9 Escape and Evasion - M.R.D. Foot & J.M. Langley
National Archives
The Escape Factory - Lloyd R. Shoemaker
The Great Escape - Paul Brickhill
©Keith Morley
THIS BLOG claims no credit for any images posted on this site unless otherwise noted. Images on this blog are copyright to its respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please message me with a link to said image and it will be promptly removed.