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Review of Helen Fry’s The M Room: Secret Listeners who Bugged the Nazis in WW2 (2012).
In 1999, a large number of MI19 documents relating to the so-called M Rooms were released (MI19 was a branch of British Military Intelligence tasked with obtaining information from prisoners of war). As Helen Fry explains in her recently published book, the M Rooms (or microphone rooms) were part of a project instigated at the beginning of World War II. The first M Room was set up at a stately house at Cockfosters (a suburb of North London) that was requisitioned for the war effort when its owner, Sir Philip Sassoon, passed away (page 16). The M Rooms were locations from which German officers could be monitored by ‘secret listeners’. Later in the war, two additional estates were selected for the project to cope with the influx of prisoners (pages 47-48). More important than the interrogations at these stately homes were the listening devices carefully secreted throughout the buildings which allowed the conversations of prisoners of war to be listened to when they were left alone. From 1943 onwards, it was largely German refugees, many of whom were Jewish, who were tasked with listening in to these conversations. Among the prisoners were a number of high-ranking German officers, including fifty-nine Generals (page 11). Lulled by their comfortable surroundings at Trent Park, the Generals revealed a great deal of information in their not so private conversations.
Fry reveals that a great deal of useful military intelligence was gathered in the M Rooms, relating to ‘[German] rockets, flying bombs, jet propelled aircraft and submarines’, ‘German secret weapon development programme, new technology on Luftwaffe planes, Hitler’s plans for a gas attack on Britain, German battle plans, U-boat bases’, and so on (page 11). Her study is also a useful resource for historians interested in antisemitism, with extracts from the transcripts of conversations recorded in the M Rooms – according to Fry, the National Archives at Kew hold the transcripts of over 10,000 German prisoners of war held by MI19 (page 285) – as well as the recollections of Fritz Lustig. These recollections are interesting as they draw attention to the role played by German Jews in the British Army during the war. Fry draws extensively on the recollections of Fritz Lustig, ‘a German, forced to flee Hitler’s regime because the Nazis considered him a non-Aryan’ (page 10). Lustig enlisted in the British Army, and after a period working in an unskilled labour unit of the Pioneer Corps, he was recruited to become one of the many secret listeners (pages 10-11).
Fry quotes extracts from a number of recorded conversations. For example, on 10 July 1943, General Georg Neuffer was recorded asking Major-General Gerhard Bassenge (both identified as German Generals with anti-Nazi views): ‘what will they say when they find our graves in Poland? … I must say it was frightful, a horrible sight. There were lorries full of men, women and children – quite small children. … The women, the little children who were, of course, absolutely unsuspecting – frightful! Of course, I didn’t watch while they were being murdered’ (pages 197-198). Both of these Generals were again recorded on 19 December 1943 discussing the number of Jews executed in Poland, estimating figures between three and five million (page 198). Another German officer, named Kittel, confided that he had on one occasion gone up to an SS man during a public execution of Jews in Latvia and told him: ‘Once and for all, I forbid these executions outside, where people can look on. If you shoot people in the wood or somewhere where no one can see, that’s your own affair’ (pages 199-200). He found the spectacle of Jews being publically murdered distasteful and unwise, but he did not seem to regard the murders as intrinsically wrong per se.
One disturbing feature of this material, as Fry observes, is that some of the transcripts from the M Rooms could have been used as evidence against war criminals. They were not, and Fry justifiably asks: ‘why were the files withheld’ (page 252)? According to Fry, as a result, some prisoners identified in the transcripts went unindicted for war crimes admitted during their confinement by MI19 (page 259).
In conclusion, Helen Fry’s study brings together a mass of useful primary source material (a mixture of MI19 transcripts and the recollections of secret listeners and their families). My only real grumble is that the referencing could have been more thorough. In some cases document numbers are provided for files in the National Archives. But in other instances reports and recorded conversations are referred to but without a clear reference. However, whilst occasionally frustrating to those of us who would like to go to the archives to see the documents for ourselves (ideally pre-armed with a list of references), it is nevertheless an interesting and valuable study.