the england game
A string of events that would have a profound impact on the Jedburgh teams dropped into the Netherlands began more than two years earlier in the coastal Dutch city of The Hague, the nation’s bustling political center.
On the cold, damp evening of Friday, March 6, 1942, Lieutenant Hubertus Gerardus Lauwers prepared to transmit a coded message to London on his clandestine radio from a building near the center of the city. He had often used this second-floor apartment at 678 Fahrenheitstraat, the home of a newly married couple named Teller, as a place to operate his radio. In fact, he had fallen into a routine of transmitting from the Teller home at six-thirty on alternate Friday evenings. It was from here that he had arranged his first drop of weapons and explosives for the Dutch underground, which had arrived only a week earlier. Now Lauwers set up his transmitter on a table in an unheated room of the apartment.
Lauwers, thin-faced and bespectacled, rather frail-looking, was a twenty-six-year-old native of the Dutch East Indies, where he had been a journalist before the war. After the German invasion and occupation of the Netherlands, he had gone to England to join the exiled Dutch forces in the fight against the Nazis. There he had been recruited by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), trained as a behind-the-lines radio operator, and parachuted into Holland in 1941.
SOE had been organized early in the war to carry out Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s plans to build an immense armed resistance movement in the German-occupied countries of Europe. To organize and train resistance fighters and saboteurs, SOE had begun parachuting highly trained agents into Norway, France, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Working as resistance organizers, they arranged for parachute drops of weapons, ammunition, explosives, and other supplies. They also trained the partisans in their use and in the age- old tactics of guerrilla warfare. When the time came for the Allies to launch an invasion aimed at liberating the occupied countries of Western Europe, well-timed sabotage and interdiction efforts by such groups could cripple German communications and delay German reinforcements from reaching the invasion area. Each SOE organizer, typically, was accompanied by a radio operator.
To orchestrate such activities in the Netherlands, SOE had established its Dutch Section in 1941. As one of a number of country sections, Dutch Section was charged with recruiting and training Dutchmen in the United Kingdom to serve as agents—organizers and radio operators—to be parachuted into the Netherlands. Prospective agents were found among the many Dutch citizens who had escaped their homeland at the time of the German invasion and found their way to England.
Upon completion of his training in England, Lieutenant Lauwers had been assigned as radio operator for an agent named Thijs Taconis; and on the night of November 7, 1941, the two men, dressed in civilian clothes, had jumped into Holland from a modified British Whitley bomber.
Four months later, sitting in his winter overcoat in the cold room in the Tellers’ apartment, headphones to his ears and a blanket draped over his knees, Lauwers prepared to tap out his message on the radio’s Morse key.
Not far away that evening, a French car bearing Dutch plates pulled to the curb on Cypresstraat, near the intersection with the broad thoroughfare called Fahrenheitstraat. In the car was a balding, stern- looking man in civilian clothes—Major Hermann J. Giskes of the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence organization. He had been posted to The Hague only two months earlier to serve as chief of the Abwehr’s III-F department (counterespionage) for the Netherlands and Belgium. Already he had formed a close working relationship there with the head of the counterespionage and countersabotage office of the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD (German Security Service), a melon- headed Bavarian named Joseph Schreider.
Soon another car pulled to the curb—a huge gray Mercedes with an ominous black-and-white SS pennant sprouting from the passenger-side fender. In this car sat Schreider, his dumpy form bedecked in the menacing dark uniform of his branch, a coal black collar tab bearing the four silver pips of an SS-Sturmbannführer (major). Other police cars, each containing armed men, also pulled to the curb on Cypresstraat.
Giskes and Schreider were acting on a tip from an informer, a fat and often inebriated diamond smuggler named Georges Ridderhoff, who had penetrated the Dutch resistance in December 1941. Since that time, he had provided information to the Germans for payment of five hundred guilders a month. Ridderhoff had identified several radio operators and, under German direction, had fed the radiomen false information to transmit to London. One of the operators he had betrayed was Lieutenant Hubertus Lauwers.
Ridderhoff had saved the Germans much time and effort in locating Lauwers’s transmitter by providing information that indicated the general neighborhood in which Lauwers operated. Giskes had alerted a radio-monitoring unit, which used radio direction–finding equipment to attempt to identify the particular building from which radio transmissions originated. Before long, the men operating the direction finders had narrowed down the transmitter’s location to a block-long, three-story red brick apartment building on Fahrenheitstraat, near the intersection with Segbroeklaan.
As Lauwers prepared to send his message on the evening of March 6, Teller entered the room and reported to the radioman that several police cars had gathered down the street near the Cypresstraat intersection. Lauwers did not seem alarmed, however; police were often seen in the area. He was concerned, however, that German radio direction–finding scanners might be searching the area for a transmitting signal. To be on the safe side, Lauwers decided to pack up his radio and leave the apartment. He quickly reeled in his antenna and ground wire, packed the radio and headset back in their case, and pocketed a couple of pieces of paper containing unsent messages. Teller and Lauwers decided that they would casually exit the apartment building and walk down the street, chatting innocently to appear unconcerned with the police presence.
Snow was falling as the two men left the building through the front doorway, sauntered down the half-dozen stone steps, and began walking along the sidewalk, talking quietly and being careful not to appear suspicious by looking around. A brisk wind out of the northwest drove the snow through the chilled sea air. It was nearly dusk; what daylight remained seeped through low, somber clouds. At the corner, Teller and Lauwers turned onto Cypresstraat in the opposite direction from where the police cars sat. Lauwers was able to steal a quick glance back and was satisfied that the police were paying no attention to them. But as the men picked up their pace, the two cars carrying Giskes and Schreider began following slowly, creeping along the icy cobblestones, as if stalking the men.
Lauwers and Teller, uncertain of what was happening behind them as they dared not look back, tried to appear innocently unconcerned, even unaware; but they felt the eyes of the Germans on them. When would they pounce? Would they pounce?
As the two men reached the next corner, the Mercedes suddenly shot forward and pulled sharply to the curb next to them, followed quickly by the French car. Armed men sprang from both cars, shoved the two Dutchmen against the wall, frisked them for weapons, handcuffed them, then threw Teller into the security police car and Lauwers into the car with Giskes. The car carrying Lauwers, who was lodged between two Germans in the backseat, turned around and headed back toward the Teller apartment. Schreider’s car drove off with Teller, who would eventually meet his death in a concentration camp.
Teller’s wife had suspected trouble as soon as her husband left with Lauwers. Anticipating that a police search of the apartment might soon follow, she took the small suitcase containing Lauwers’s radio and threw it out behind the house from the balcony in back. Not long afterward, the Germans arrived, conducted a search of the apartment, inside and out, and found the radio. Already, in searching Lauwers, they had found three enciphered messages in one pocket.
Lauwers was then interrogated harshly, though not tortured, and was coerced into giving up the code he used for enciphering his messages. Lauwers was not overly distraught, though. Hadn’t the SOE instructors back in England told him that after resisting to a reasonable point, he could give up his code, as long as he did not reveal his security check?
Communications specialists at SOE, those responsible for briefing radio operators and providing them with their codes prior to deployment, were fully aware of how the “radio game” was played—how captured operators could be coerced into transmitting messages back to England under duress and German supervision. Such messages were carefully crafted by German intelligence officers to mislead and manipulate Allied planners—reporting inaccurate “intelligence,” inviting additional delivery of arms and agents into the hands of the waiting Abwehr or Gestapo, Germany’s state security police.
As a defense against this, all Allied radio operators sent to the field were given a “security check” to be used in all messages sent back to England. This usually consisted of a particular and deliberate mistake that was to be inserted into every message. Radio operators were instructed that in the event they were ever captured and forced to transmit messages back to England, they were to omit the deliberate mistake. Thus, when an operator’s security check was missing from a message, it was a signal to the recipients in London that the operator had been arrested and was transmitting under duress for the enemy.
Upon completion of his initial interrogation, Lieutenant Hubertus Lauwers was taken to a prison just outside The Hague. There, Giskes further questioned the Dutchman in his cell for more than an hour. The Abwehr man was in his forties, with penetrating blue eyes and a thin mustache over equally thin lips. Sometimes he spoke in German, other times in Dutch, using his ample powers of persuasion to try to convince Lauwers that many of his comrades had already been captured and were now working for the Germans. Other Dutch SOE radio operators, Giskes lied, had opted to use their radios to transmit German-prepared messages to London rather than face a firing squad.
As Lauwers knew, the Germans could not simply use their own radio operators to communicate with London over the SOE wireless sets. Every radio operator’s touch on the Morse key was unique, like a fingerprint, and the girls receiving the messages at the base station back in England would quickly detect a message that was sent by an impostor. If the Germans wanted to send false messages to mislead SOE, they would need to coerce the Dutch operators into doing the transmitting.
By March 15, nine days after his arrest, Lauwers had missed three scheduled transmissions to London, and his next was to be at two that afternoon. That morning, Major Giskes took him to a building housing the Abwehr’s radio section in The Hague, a large house on Parkstraat. Giskes made a deal with Lauwers. If the Dutchman would make his scheduled transmission at two o’clock, he and Thijs Taconis, who also had been arrested, would be saved from the firing squad. All other captured radio operators, Giskes once again glibly assured Lauwers, had agreed to cooperate. Why, then, should Lauwers persist in his stubborn loyalty to a British organization and lose his life as a result? Finally, Lauwers consented.
Perhaps the German was telling the truth about the other radio operators, thought Lauwers. Certainly he had been rather well treated, under the circumstances, since his arrest. Lauwers pretended to go along with Giskes’s proposal. Privately, though, he still hoped that by omitting his security check from any message he sent, as he had been trained to do in a circumstance such as this, he could alert London to the fact that he was now under enemy control.
Lauwers’s assigned security check was to be a deliberate error in every sixteenth character in each message he sent. The presence of this error told SOE that all was okay; its absence signaled danger.
Lauwers realized that because he had surrendered his code, the Germans undoubtedly had already deciphered the three messages they had discovered in his pocket. In two of those messages, by coincidence, the sixteenth character had been the letter “O” in “STOP”—the word used in Morse code messages to indicate a period at the end of a sentence. Accordingly, when writing the messages before his capture, Lauwers had employed his security code, inserting deliberate errors in the sixteenth character of each message by changing the word “STOP” to read “STEP” in one message and “STIP” in the other.
So when Giskes, who had already learned of SOE’s use of security checks through interrogation of other prisoners, asked Lauwers for his security check, the clever Dutchman explained that his check consisted of misspelling the word “STOP” in every message. He further explained his failure to do so in the third message as a simple oversight. Luckily, Giskes seemed satisfied with this answer.
When the time came for Lauwers to transmit, he began a procedure that he would follow in every message he sent for the Germans throughout his captivity. In every message, he was careful to use “STIP” or “STEP” in place of “STOP” to satisfy Giskes, but he also omitted his true security check—a spelling mistake in every sixteenth character. Surely the decoders back in England would catch the omissions and know that he was sending under the eyes of the Germans.
When messages from SOE’s field agents arrived in London, they were delivered by motorcycle messenger to a team of decoders at a country house just outside the city. After decoding, the messages from the Netherlands were taken to Dutch Section’s offices at Norgeby House on London’s Baker Street.
When Lauwers’s messages were deciphered, they were correctly stamped “SECURITY CHECK OMITTED” and forwarded on to Norgeby House. Upon their arrival at Dutch Section, the deciphered messages were handed to Major Charles Blizzard, a regular army officer who had been attached to SOE only three months earlier and made chief of Dutch Section in February 1942. Blizzard, for reasons that have never been adequately explained, decided to ignore Lauwers’s omission of the security check.
Lauwers was shaken, then, when he received the next message from London, announcing the pending arrival of another agent by parachute during the next full moon. When the agent, Lieutenant Arnold Baatson, jumped from a British plane on the night of March 27, German security police were waiting on the ground and arrested him immediately upon landing. Lauwers was then made to signal to London that the agent had arrived safely.
Germany’s radio game with SOE’s Dutch Section had begun. Within months, some thirteen SOE agents were captured in the same way, including five radio operators.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Abundance of Valor by Will Irwin. Copyright © 2010 by Will Irwin. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.