Book Review: British Intelligence Gathers Germany’s Secrets

 

When World War II started, British Intelligence embarked on one of the war’s most audacious information-gathering projects.

They outfitted cells in the Tower of London for prisoners of war to secretly eavesdrop on inhabitants’ conversations.

“The Walls Have Ears: The Greatest Intelligence Operation of World War II” by Helen Fry, tells what happened.

The rooms were fitted with hidden microphones, some outside the building near openable windows. These caught conversations by POWs leaning out the window to avoid microphones possibly planted in their rooms. The conversations were recorded and later translated by German-speaking operatives.

The POWs in these cells were subject to clumsy intelligence interrogations by seemingly inept interrogators. Returning to their cells afterward they often bragged about outsmarting their questioners to others in their room, revealing the secrets sought during the interrogation. Other times, gossip revealed invaluable intelligence nuggets.

The Tower of London operation proved so successful it was replicated in three other places, most notably at Trent House, a stately country house in North London.

This housed captured German generals. They were housed in comfortable quarters, provided luxuries and would be greeted by “Lord Aberfeldy,” a fascist-sympathizing Scots peer (actually an untitled Scots actor). The generals frequently forgot they were POWs and spoke freely about their experiences.

The operation revealed secrets of German nighttime air navigation technology. This enabled British scientists to bend the radio beams directing German night bombers. Their bombs fell on open fields — not the targeted British cities.

It provided advanced warning of the V-1 and V-2 projects, leading to attacks, which delayed both. It also provided early and accurate information on the Holocaust. Combined with operational intelligence gathered, this operation gave the Allies the edge needed to defeat Germany.

The project involved hundreds, many anti-Nazi German nationals providing translation services. It was kept highly secret during the war, and decades afterward. (Secrecy permitted reuse in a potential future war with the Soviets.) Those participating maintained that secrecy until the British declassified it in 1999.

“The Walls Have Ears” is a fascinating and intriguing book about a decisive yet unknown World War II intelligence operation.

“The Walls Have Ears: The Greatest Intelligence Operation of World War II,” by Helen Fry, Yale University Press, 2019, 320 pages, $26

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

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  1. AUMom Member
    AUMom
    @AUMom

    Ohm, that is interesting. 

    • #1
  2. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Awesome, and I will add it to my reading list.  And I also love the cover art.  Perfectly describes what is within.

    • #2
  3. ToryWarWriter Thatcher
    ToryWarWriter
    @ToryWarWriter

    Was just reading about the Trent House operation in Andrew Roberts Storm of War.  Very interesting, but I would hardly call it the Greatest Intelligence operation of WW2.  

    • #3
  4. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    ToryWarWriter (View Comment):
    Very interesting, but I would hardly call it the Greatest Intelligence operation of WW2.

    What topped it? Even Enigma was less useful, and was aided by the unknown interrogations at Trent House.

    • #4
  5. ToryWarWriter Thatcher
    ToryWarWriter
    @ToryWarWriter

    I think the turning of the entire German intelligence system under the Doublecross system was more significant.  Completely controlling the entire apparatus of your opponent is pretty awful thing to happen to you.  To have much of your foreign agents turn out to be made by one guy who the Germans gave an Iron Cross to and the British gave the OBE was pretty good.  Making the Germans believe in the existence of a non existand First US Army Group tying down half a million troops in the Pas De Calais during the Normandy invasion was probably the most significant and important intelligence operation in WW2.

    And thats just the main event, it doesnt include all the additional things that Doublecross did.  

    Also I have been very favourable to the Soviets Red Orchestra network where they set up a corporation to literally sell the Nazis equipment for the war effort.

    I have read a lot on Enigma, I find it hard to believe that it was less useful than the interrogations at Trent House.  The cracking of the Naval Codes by the USA navy was also pretty important.  

    The Germans to a lesser extent compromising and taking over the entire resistance operation in Holland was pretty impressive if ultimately for us tragic.

    • #5
  6. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    ToryWarWriter (View Comment):
    The cracking of the Naval Codes by the USA navy was also pretty important.

    The cracking of those codes led to the ambush at Midway. The United States Navy went from being down 4 fleet carriers to 8 to a much more manageable 3 to 4. They knew the carriers would be there because they had figured out what “Target AF” designated. They knew what AF meant because they had had Midway transmit a request for parts for its desalinization equipment in the clear and heard the IJN report that AF “may be short of fresh water.”

    (There was also extraordinary heroism and some of the dumbest of dumb luck in the history of warfare, but there wouldn’t even have been a battle if we hadn’t been decoding Japanese Navy radio traffic.)

    • #6
  7. ToryWarWriter Thatcher
    ToryWarWriter
    @ToryWarWriter

    I think the turning of the entire German intelligence system under the Doublecross system was more significant.  Completely controlling the entire apparatus of your opponent is pretty awful thing to happen to you.  To have much of your foreign agents turn out to be made by one guy who the Germans gave an Iron Cross to and the British gave the OBE was pretty good.  Making the Germans believe in the existence of a non existand First US Army Group tying down half a million troops in the Pas De Calais during the Normandy invasion was probably the most significant and important intelligence operation in WW2.

    And thats just the main event, it doesnt include all the additional things that Doublecross did.

    Also I have been very favourable to the Soviets Red Orchestra network where they set up a corporation to literally sell the Nazis equipment for the war effort.

    I have read a lot on Enigma, I find it hard to believe that it was less useful than the interrogations at Trent House.  The cracking of the Naval Codes by the USA navy was also pretty important.

    The Germans to a lesser extent compromising and taking over the entire resistance operation in Holland was pretty impressive if ultimately for us tragic.

    • #7
  8. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Outstanding.  Thank you, Seawriter.

    • #8

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