Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: Set Europe Ablaze

set_europe_ablazeBritish historian Nigel Perrin’s blog, Set Europe Ablazetakes a somewhat opposite approach to this one: instead of generating a lot of posts, he generates few posts, but each one is of superior quality, and of great interest if you are interested in the secret war in Europe 1939-45.

While it’s mostly about the SOE special operations organization — the command, “Set Europe ablaze!” was Churchill’s command to the organization’s first leader — it also includes some information about the separate MI-8 POW escape and evasion network, and (if memory serves us well), the networks of the Secret Intelligence Service. (SIS materials have not been as thoroughly and completely declassified as SOE ones which are a treasure trove in the British National Archives. We suspect this is because of an ongoing concern with the protection of intelligence sources and methods, but we don’t know).

This was a high-stakes war, and the Germans were quite good at it, and utterly ruthless. (Not as good as the equally ruthless Russians, as we’d learn trying to run OSS/SOE tactics against the Soviet Union and Satellite nations postwar). The fate of the Interallié network (which was organized by Polish intelligence officer Roman Czerniawski (Cher-nee-AHFF-ski), is instructive.

Among them were two Polish émigrés, Wladimir de Korczak Lipski and his teenage daughter Lydia, both of whom Czerniawski had personally recruited. For nearly a year they had worked together as a team, collecting details of troop movements, noting the positions of anti-aircraft batteries, running errands, quietly doing whatever was asked of them. Lydia’s passion was for dancing but she also discovered a talent for technical drawing and often copied blueprints of factories and German military installations for Interallié’s regular courier to London; the network codenamed her Cipinka.

On 18 November 1941, Czerniawski was arrested with his mistress, and the collapse of Interallié soon followed. Within hours his deputy, the extraordinary Mathilde Carré, began giving up nearly everyone she knew, and four days later she led the German secret police to the de Lipski’s Montmartre apartment. Not yet seventeen, Lydia would spend the next eighteen months in miserable conditions in La Santé and Fresnes prisons, sometimes in solitary confinement. Smuggling in notes to her, Wladimir tried to keep up her spirits; in one he wrote, “Do not forget that you have great talents, and that one day you can have a beautiful and happy life”. They were reunited briefly at the fortress at Romainville on the outskirts of Paris, but in July 1943 Lydia was deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp. There she spent several months in the punishment block, which regularly supplied human guinea-pigs for medical experiments.

Remarkably, both Lydia and her father, who was deported to KZ Ravensbrück, survived.  In fact, most of the forty agents of Interallié survived. But about that German ruthlessness:

[Czerniawski] and more than fifty of his agents were arrested by the Abwehr. Some agreed to collaborate, but Czerniawski held his nerve and cleverly conned his interrogators into sending him to London as a double agent. There was one condition to his freedom, however: as insurance against any further treachery, Czerniawski’s agents would be held as hostages. If he cooperated, his comrades would be safe. If he decided to change sides again or renege on the deal in any way, they would suffer the consequences.

But once in England Czerniawski did turn again, and as MI5’s agent “Brutus” he became one of the heroes of its double-cross system and a crucial player in the success of the D-Day deception strategy. His MI5 case officers did a tremendous job in fooling Czerniawski’s handlers, and to the end the German High Command’s faith in Brutus’s reports remained unshakeable.

If so, how did the de Lipskis wind up in concentration camps? Write this down: you can’t trust a hostile intelligence officer.  Perrin found out that the Germans were as treacherous as they were skilled:

The Abwehr did not keep its promise.

Shocking, I know. “The Allied services never did something like that!” The hell we didn’t. The concentration camps, no. (Well, Russia as an ally had its own). The medical experiments, no. (USSR? Maybe. But we think Biopreparat used ordinary domestic convicts as its test animals, not politicals). But as far as lying to some agent? If the case officer ever tells the agent the truth, it is only because the truth best serves the officer’s purpose at that time.

Beginning in March 1943, a total of forty of Czerniawski’s agents were packed aboard trucks and deported to concentration camps in Germany; classed as “Nacht und Nebel” (Night and Fog) prisoners – political opponents of the Nazis – they could expect the most brutal treatment and were unlikely ever to see France again.

It may be indicative of the care with which Czerniawski selected his agents for Interallié that a remarkable 33 of the 40 returned to France; but luck was also a factor, when any guard was free to beat a prisoner to death for any or no reason, and capricious disease might kill one, sicken a second, and pass over a third entirely.

A great deal of this sort of research is archived within Perrin’s blog, even if his posts these days tend to be short notes of Resistance obituaries — every one fascinating — or tips to his own book reviews in Times Literary Supplement, which are unfortunately not available except to readers of the dead-tree TLS.

(Editor’s Note: due to an editorial oversight, this post was not delivered on time but was posted approximately 10 hours behind schedule. It has been backdated to fit in where it belongs. We regret the error). 

One thought on “Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: Set Europe Ablaze

  1. archy

    ***Write this down: you can’t trust a hostile intelligence officer. ***

    I don’t believe that any intelligence officer can be trusted to any sort of absolute or comprehensive extent. The nature of the trade is such that duplicity and pragmatism can override any feelings of obligation or duty to those facing the blunt end of the stick. Is there really a timer on that demo charge, or will it go off as soon as I push the red button?

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