anzac POW freemen in europe

Part 2 - Escape from Italian Prison Camps

Chapter 10 - Activities of SOE "The British Secret Service"

The "British Secret Service", while certainly a single title, was anything but a single entity. But in this it was not alone. The intelligence operations of all democratic Governments were spread throughout their military activities, whether on land or sea, and in more recent wars, in the air. Espionage, was accepted as an indispensable function of any countries Government, just as much a function as taxation or health. Although the existence and procedures of "secret activities" received as little publicity as possible, they were ultimately subject to political control. All activities in the field, were subservient to political demands at home and in many instances those field objectives were completely incompatible with home political policy. 

This divergence, was often emphasised by inter-service rivalry, and filtered down to individual commanders given specific governmental authority to implement their political policies. Individual commanders brought their own experiences, idiosyncrasies and ambitions to their jobs, and often served two masters like Germany's Admiral Canaris, or followed two policies at the same time, such as was openly the case with partisan warfare in Italy and Yugoslavia, where Tito and Michailovitch were both supported by the Allies on behalf of King Peter, despite their diametrically opposed domestic political policies.

The German "blitzkreig" and "fifth columns" had changed the nature of war, and intelligence activities had to be expanded to cover, sabotage, propaganda, hostage taking, and many other techniques intimately involving ordinary civilians.

Those volunteer Australian servicemen, with their heritage of Gallipoli and France, fighting under British Command in North Africa against Rommel and his Axis troops, were probably the last of the traditional  "old breed of diggers" fighting in orthodox fashion on non-urban battlefields.

Until the Germans threw away the book at the end of the "phoney war" so it was too, with the "British Secret Service".

The SIS (Secret Intelligence Services)

Prior to the outbreak of WWII, traditional intelligence activities in Europe by the "British Secret Service" were controlled by MI6, or SIS (Secret Intelligence Services) under the direction of  Admiral Sir Hugh "Quex" Sinclair, RN. MI6 was controlled by the Foreign Office, while MI5, which was responsible for counter-intelligence in Britain, was under the control of the Home Office.

When Admiral Sinclair assumed control of the SIS in 1923, it had been largely staffed by WWI officers, who had been attached to the Foreign Office on "Special Duties". Many of these were on pensions, or preferred to live outside Britain for taxation reasons, so that the wages segment of the SIS budget was kept to a minimum.

When Sinclair died of cancer in 1938, the SIS was staffed by "Station Officers" located in various strategic British Consulates under the guise of PCOs - Passport Control Officers. With rare exceptions, these PCOs, mostly service officers, did not enjoy the diplomatic privilege of the executive staff in British Embassies, nor their same diplomatic status.

The prime function of PCOs was to gather secret information about the military plans, state of strength, armaments and motives of both friends and foes in their own and those neighbouring countries to which they were posted.  PCOs tended to leave the actual office work of issuing visas to hired local employees, while they busied themselves with intelligence matters. Together with the rapidly growing income of cash from issued visas and the increasing demand for them from Jewish and other citizens seeking political refuge, the visa system was opened to corruption. The increasing demand for visas tended to divert the PCOs time from their intelligence duties, while more and more clerical staff was required to process the rapid growth in visa processing and issuance.

Funds for the SIS to extend its international network of stations and the adequate staffing of them, were controlled by the Foreign Office and seemed always difficult to obtain, and this difficulty appeared to inhibit the number and calibre of its operatives serving abroad. The entire expenditure on the SIS was roughly the equivalent of keeping one Royal Navy destroyer in commission for one year (refer Cave-Brown "Bodyguard of Lies" M7).

The Foreign Office was startled to learn how little it knew about the planning that underpinned Mussolini's successful invasion of Abysinia in 1935. It became even more concerned of its lack of prior knowledge of Hitler's re-occupation of the Rhineland soon after. Its confidence in the capabality of the SIS to provide adequate and reliable intelligence was steadily being eroded at a time when accurate and full information of foreign events was vital. And the means of gathering it was costing more and more.

This lack of confidence in the SIS peaked with the scandal surrounding the suicide of the PCO in the Hague, Major Hugh Dalton who had been caught up in visa corruption. This event, and the "Venlo Incident" - the kidnapping on the German border of two other SIS members stationed in the Hague, almost permanently disrupted the good relations existing between Britain and the then neutral Netherlands.

Admiral Sinclair's SIS was patently ineffective, and the German occupation of Austria in 1938 proved it to him with absolute certainty. In no doubt whatsoever that war was imminent, he began to take immediate counter action, by authorising the formation of an entirely new espionage network operating under commercial, rather than Governmental cover. This was the so called "Z" organisation, the brain child of and experienced SIS officer Colonel Claude Dansey.

The Chief of the British Secret Service known as CSS (changed to "M" in the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming) was Major-General Sir Stewart Menzies, a Guards Officer of "outstanding presence and experience". He was a close personal friend of Winston Churchill. The Deputy Chief, known as DCSS was Claude Dansey, who was also a personal friend of Churchill ("Within Two Cloaks" M53 p39). When Stewart Menzies took over SIS after Sinclair's death, to many, he inherited a shambles. German Intelligence knew that all they had to do to get an interview with a "British Secret Service" officer was to apply to the nearest British Consulate for a visa!

But he also inherited a priceless advantage. This was a direct link with the code-breakers at Bletchley Park. And he used this to personally deliver highly secret information to Winston Churchill - a link that was later to prove invaluable.

The "Z" Organisation

Other serving intelligence bureaucrats had also convinced themselves of the inevitability of war. One of them was "Uncle Claude" Dansey, had seen action in the Boer War. In WWI he served in France and Belgium before being posted to MI5. There he made himself useful to Sinclair in MI6. But in 1934 he had fallen out with Sinclair, apparently over some scandal with money and banished to Switzerland ("Operation Lucy" M23 p24).

Yet when Sinclair realised that the old PCO system had outlived its usefulness and authorised the development of a tandem system - the Z system - in which all the operatives were commercial, with a non-governmental cover, he selected Dansey,who himself had been a PCO in Rome, to run it from London. Such well known figures as Sir Alexander Korda, the famous film director, Frederick Voight, the Central European correspondent of the "Manchester Guardian" and Captain Sigismund Best a businessman resident in the Hague, whose Dutch wife was the daughter of Admiral van Rees, were typical agents of the Z system.

Although the neutrality of Switzerland and of Holland was always at risk and the Passport Control staff there had requested an evacuation, Dansey, head of the Z organisation in London, denied their request and ordered them to to assemble in Geneva and to make their own way to England from there.

Among those who eventually made it to Geneva where an experienced SIS officer Victor Farrell, previously in Budapest was Consul, were Major "Fanny" van den Heuvel, and Andrew King, a young Cambridge graduate under cover as working for Alexander Korda at London Films of which Claude Dansey was a director. Victor Farrell also liased with MI9, that branch of British Intelligence dealing with escaped prisoners, and assisting in the establishment of "safe routes" to get them back to Britain.

Switzerland, along with SIS stations in fellow neutral countries such as Portugal and Sweden were to become the major collection points for Allied intelligence about the Axis war plans in Europe.

Count Frederick "Fanny" van den Heuvel, the epitome of a perfect old time diplomat, tall, courteous, an excellent linguist, had been educated in Berne and could speak fluent Swiss-German. He had also gone to school in England and had once been a director of "Enos" Fruit Salts. He had worked for the SIS during WWI but had been compromised. He was appointed Station Chief SIS Geneva, while Victor Farrell was appointed a "Press Attache" at the British Embassy in Berne, where he joined the Air Attache, Air Commodore Freddie West, MC, VC and the Military Attache, Colonel H.A. Cartwright both of who had previous links with SIS.

The various Naval, Military and Air Attaches were the main intelligence gatherers for MI5.

The "Venlo Incident" - November 1939

(A full and explicit account of the "Venlo Incident" is set out in Chapter 7 of Anthony Cave-Browns book - "Bodyguard of Lies" M7 p186-191.)

When Britain declared war on Germany on Monday September 4, 1939, the SIS head of Station in the Hague, Holland, Major Richard Stevens, received a telegram advising him that a senior SIS operative would shortly arrive there to assume joint control of the plans and operations of the Station. He was amazed, later on that day, to receive Captain Sigismund Best, an English businessman, well known to most residents of that city.

Best introduced himself as Claude Dansey's chief Z agent in Holland, operating under cover of a well-known Import/Export business - The Continental Trading Co. - which possessed a license to import English bicycles into Holland. Its chief "export" was intelligence communications to Z in London to Menoline Ltd. a cover company run by Dansey who was busily working on similar amalgamations of Z operatives and local PCOs throughout Europe.

The Hague was assuming great importance to SIS as its Berlin Station had closed down, and Best, who had many good business contacts in Germany was an important intelligence source of events in that country. His contacts included a major coal distributer and dealer in Wurtemburg - Dr. Franz Fischer - who claimed to have information of such importance, that he would only disclose it to directly to the "British Secret Service" in London. Stevens contacted Menzies, now head of the SIS after Admiral Sinclair's death and was ordered by Menzies to arrange Fischer to make direct contact with SIS in London, but to proceed with the utmost caution.

Stevens and Best duly arranged with Fischer for a high ranking anti-Nazi Wehrmacht General to fly secretly to London to provide details of a military coup and the arrest of Hitler by the German Army in Berlin. A meeting with two "emissaries" from the Wehrmacht, Captain Schaemmel of the transportation corps, and Captain Hausmann of the medical corps was arranged in Amsterdam to plan the details But it was a trap laid by SS Brigadefuehrer SS Walter Schellenberg, chief of foreign intelligence section of the Sichersheitsdienst, the Nazi Security Service, and Professor Max de Crinis, a psychologist at Berlin University who were the "emissaries". 

This initial meeting was followed by another rendezvous in Venlo, which lead to the kidnapping of Stevens and Best, in broad daylight, when they reached the German/Dutch border at Venlo on November 9, 1939. They were triumphantly taken to Hitler in Berlin. Keeping the two SIS agents completely seperated from each other, and skillfully interrogating them, with facts gleaned from each, German counter-intelligence soon learned the full details of the Z system together with the names of its local operatives in Europe. In May, 1940 the German Army blitz-krieged neutral Holland and British intelligence in that country, already harmed by the suicide in the Hague of Major Duncan, never sucessfully re-established itself.

Schellenberg was later to visit Switzerland several times and even once had a meeting with General Guisan himself. There was a large pro-Nazi element in Switzerland, paticularly in the Swiss Army and the Federal President Pilet-Golaz was convinced of ultimate success of Germany and terrified not to appease them ("Operation Lucy" M23 p108).

Although Operation "Boehme" an invasion of Switzerland in much the same way as Holland, was thwarted by the political dexterity of General Guisan, in command of the Swiss Military Forces, and his Chief of Intelligence Colonel Roger Masson, Switzerland managed to maintain its precarious "positive neutrality" having been able to convince the German High Command that they were better off to remain the "eyes of Europe".

As a geographically central neutral country, able to have relations with every other country's intelligence services, Switzerland had become, as descibed in an eponymous chapter of Read and Fisher's "Operation Lucy" - "The Intelligence Mart". But General Guisan knew that the only way he could get reliable and full intelligence of what the Axis powers plans for Switzerland were, was to obtain that information through Allied networks, operating in Switzerland. He also skillfully played on the ability of the Swiss male population to destroy all their mountain tunnels and to operate a guerilla war disruptive to German army supply.

Those members of both the PCOs and the Z system, who had managed to reach Geneva, were dispersed throughout Switzerland, and were to become imbedded in the new system being developed by Menzies at Churchill's request - the soon to be launched SOE.

Dansey was disappointed as he had looked forward to obtaining Menzies job and  he had regarded Switzerland as very much his own bailiwick.  Nevertheless, after leaving the SIS, he managed to carve out a new career for himself in textiles.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, and the entry of America on the Allied side, the controlling Allied triumvirate of America, Britain and Russia, emerged as the supreme policy spokesmen for the anti-Axis powers.

Early in 1942, without the foreknowledge of either MI5 or MI6, Winston Churchill conceived the idea of bringing together the intelligence-gathering capacity of all the Government-in-exile in London, to form the SOE - Special Operations Executive - to complement the existing resources of the "British Secret Service".

The charter for the SOE was drawn up by none other than Neville "Peace-in-our-Time" Chamberlain. It made the SOE completely independent of the War Office and Churchill solved the matter of political control by selecting the ruling Labour Party's Hugh Dalton to be its Chief. In Churchill's words, the aim of SOE was to "set Europe ablaze" and Hugh Dalton undertook to have his new secret organisation engaged in "unavowable" operations all over the world.

The general brief given to SOE was to sabotage enemy activity, recruit, arm and train citizens of occupied countries and organise "secret armies" to work alongside re-occupying Allied forces, in essence to add sabotage to espionage. With its communications system via Bletchley Park in impeccable condition, Menzies found no difficulty at all in folding his SIS into the new SOE of which he put in charge, to the chagrin not only of Claude Dansey but to many other British intelligence officers.

Brigadier (Later Major-General) Sir Colin Gubbins was appointed Operations Chief of SOE bringing his experience from the First World War, in 1939 Poland and Commander of SIS Norwegian Operations to his new task.

Foot, in his book "SOE" (M35 p13) describes Gubbins: "He was a small, slight, wiry Highlander, who wore the toothbrush moustache that was part of a Royal Artillery officer's uniform, yet hid behind formal neatness, an original mind and a daring spirit. He was in many ways an unusual soldier, fluent in French and German, understanding Russian, fond of good living, widely read and widely travelled. He had been born in 1986 (1896?). His father, who was then in the consular service, had fluent Japanese and fought both in southern Ireland and northern Russia in the aftermath of the previous world war".

He and "Fanny" van den Heuvel made Switzerland a very significant source of intelligence.The latter and his assistant Andrew King had their own office in Berne, completely separate from the Embassy, but also spent considerable time in Geneva where Victor Farrell dealt with escaping POW and organising safe routes via the Pyrenees back to London. Farrell had his own radio transmitter/receiver and kept in continous contact with both Berne and London.

He subequently moved up to the Embassy in Berne, and Count Frederick van den Heuvel and Andrew King moved down to Geneva, to be closer to the Americans fighting their way up through France to the Swiss border, which they reached in 1944.

Information came to the British Intelligence organisation in Switzerland from many sources. There were two main types of informant "those that wished to give their information freely and those who wished to be paid". The free suppliers were left to Fred West, the Air Attache in Berne who was interested in passing on anything which could help to indicate targets, guide bombers to them and assess the results of raids, while those who wanted money were dealt with strictly by van den Heuvel ("Operation Lucy" M23 p111).

While under the Hague Convention, the British "evades" in Switzerland were "free men", they were still serving servicemen, under British Command. When additional staff was required by the Foreign Office for their consulate network in Switzerland and suitable British "evades" were available, they could be seconded for special duties.

Flying officer Fred Eggleston RAAF was seconded to the British Legation in Berne, and Flight Sergeant Edwin Worsdale RNZAF and the Recorder were seconded to the British Consulate in Geneva. Fred Eggleston was released back to England on January 21, 1945 and the Recorder on February 8, 1945. Edwin Worsdale had earlier "jumped the border" on June 8, 1944.

The SOE - Special Operations Executive in Switzerland

Whilst the steady stream of British POW escapees into Switzerland was underway during the autumn of 1943 and local patriots in North Italy were beginning to organise the escape routes and safe houses to facilitate their movement there, back in London support for their resistance efforts was also being organised through the SOE posts in Switzerland.

SOE well understood the Swiss doctrine of "positive neutrality", and after "D-Day" established closer contacts with their American counterparts in Switzerland, under Allan Dulles, with whom "Fanny" van den Heuvel established good rapport.

The Americans, who really did not trust many of the Governments-in-exile, particularly that of De Gaulle's Free France, readily adopted the concept of the SOE, but created their own version, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which subsequently was to become the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The Germans also had a somewhat similar military intelligence set-up, where the traditional intelligence service of the Abwehr operated alongside the Sicherheitsdienst of the SS, and the secret police service run by Himmler, known as the "Gestapo".

Inter-departmental rivalry was to plague all three protagonists.

Firstly, there was the general antipathy of the professional soldiers to those "spy organisations" that did not have a professional grounding in the techniques of espionage and sabotage, secondly the often political appointment of well-meaning and gifted amateurs to highly sensitive positions, and thirdly the general internal mistrust that impeded the free flow and interchange of intelligence reports from the field, into one centrally co-ordinated pool of high grade intelligence.

Nevertheless, the co-operation of the SOE and OSS in Europe was generally very effective and in Italy they were able to call on help, not only from patriotic Italian citizens, but on many serving Allied soldiers "on the loose" there as a result of the Italian Armistice.

The full account of SOE operations in Italy is being written, but has yet to be published. But there is no doubt, that their officer concerned with resistance and sabotage in Europe stationed in the British Embassy in Bern, Jock McCaffery, was instrumental in recruiting outstanding talent from British escapees who had actually escaped into Switzerland itself, or who were active in the emergent partisan groups which were forming in the mountains of North Italy.

Two such were Australians QX759 Sapper Frank "Butch" Jocumsen of the 2/7 Field Company 9th Australian Division Engineers, and VX9534 Private John Desmond Peck of the 2/7th Infantry Battalion 6th Australian Division. Their personalities and motivations differed, but their performance in the field was equally impeccable. Both were recruited by Jock McCaffery, both were given temporary commissions as Captain in the British Army, outfitted and armed as such, given identity and travel documents and appropriate briefings.

So back they went to Italy, where they re-joined known partisan groups, Jocumsen with that lead by the communist Cino Moscatelli, and Peck, that lead by the conservative Ingegner Giuseppe Bacciagaluppi, the former manager of an American firm manufacturing telecommunications equipment in Milan, who was married to an English women and spoke English well (A7 p39).

There is no question but that Bacciagaluppi was the power behind the web of assistance given to Allied POW escapees around Milan, although they seldom knew of its origin (See "Il Movimento di Liberazione in Italia" Novembre 1954 No. 33 - Milano - Library of the Monte San Martino Trust (N)).

Although differences in political aims were also to bedevil co-operation between the various main partisan groups, and hinder the strategic objectives of the various British Missions, established by SOE, the Committee of National Liberation of Lombardy, based in Milan, was undoubtedly reponsible for aiding thousands of British escapees to gain the safety of neutral Switzerland (see "Special Operations Europe" Basil Davidson, Victor Gollanz, 1980. M36)


M2 "A Matter of Trust", Nigel West, London, 1982. ISBN 0297782533
M6 "Blood Money", Tom Bower, London, 1997. ISBN 0333715179
M10 "Colonel Z", Read & Fisher, London, 1984. ISBN 03400269103
M11 "Escape and Evasion", Ian Dear, London, 1997.  ISBN 1854092936
M16 "Gubbins and SOE", Wilkinson & Astley, 1993. ISBN 085052556X
M23 "Operation Lucy", Read & Fisher, London, 1980. ISBN 0340259027
M35 "SOE: The Special Operations Executive", M.R.D. Foot, London, 1984. ISBN 0563201932
M36 "Special Operations Europe", Basil Davidson, London, 1980. ISBN 0575 028203
G33 "The Swiss Corridor", Jozef Garlinski, London, 1981. ISBN  046004351
M53 "Within Two Cloaks", Philp Johns, London, 1979.  ISBN 0718300270
M19 "MI6", Nigel West, New York, 1983.  ISBN 0394539400

Acknowledgments and Thanks to:

Roger Absalom
Wendy Jay
Keith Killby
Duncan Stuart
Christopher Woods

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