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
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  1. Great content Keith. Brings back memories of my childhood days playing the brilliant board game 'Escape from Colditz'.

    1. Thanks Jack. A lot of people tried to come up with ideas for an escape board game that really worked. 'Escape From Colditz' cracked it and was a good bet to succeed - real life Colditz escaper Pat Reid created it.

  2. Very interesting - coding sounds very complicated.

    1. I found it difficult to get to grips with initially Sally, when I was looking at some coded letters and what they really meant. Helen's reply highlights a good example of a code writer, and he uses a typical pattern for an MI9 coded letter.