Historical story

A shameful disgrace to British intelligence. The English annihilated the Underground State of one of their closest allies

Last updated:2022-07-25

Specialists breaking all procedures. Principals are blind to every warning signal. And hundreds of agents, underground activists and politicians arrested and then shot by the Germans. And all because of the British incompetence so extreme that it is hard to believe.

Over the years, British intelligence has built up a reputation for being extremely effective. When the Special Operations Management (SOE) was established in July 1940, this fame, as it were, came from an automatic machine. Not really deserved. The memories of Leo Marx, who was assigned to a secret agency of the British government in early 1942 as the new head of cryptography, tell a lot. He noticed right away that SOE was in ... utter confusion.

The organization dealt with, among other things, the diversion and support of local resistance movements in Europe, and was divided into sections responsible for individual territories.

As reported by Marx, quoted by Lyne Olson in the book "The Island of Last Hope" :

Whatever country section I visited, it lacked everything but chaos.

The most important mode allowing the functioning of the complex machine, which was SOE, were radio operators, who allowed them to stay in touch with the occupied countries. Unfortunately, over time, the Germans learned to express radio stations and tracked the agents transmitting through them like wild animals. As emphasizes Lynne Olson , SOE executives had no idea what the field agents faced, nor the courage and nerves of steel required by their daily work. Section N, operating in the Netherlands, faced a particularly difficult task.

WWII propaganda poster in Dutch.

The country did not border any neutral country, was densely populated (it was impossible to move unnoticed), had few natural hiding places (e.g. forests or invisible bays), and thanks to an extensive network of roads and railroads, the Germans moved around it expressly. In terms of the percentage of citizens shot or sent to camps during the war, this country was second only to Poland.

Although the area of ​​operations was extremely difficult, the English did not consult the Dutch intelligence operating in exile in London, and they informed their partners about the transfer of agents to the Netherlands ... only after the act. SOE wanted to send the first people in the summer of 1941, but they trained and provisioned them so ineffectively that they ... literally rebelled. It was only the attempt made in November that it came to fruition. Hubertus Lauwers (radio operator) and Thijs Taconis (organizer of the resistance movement) were then transferred to the Netherlands.

Festival of incompetence

Already during the briefing, the agents found out that did not have a prepared list of contacts and hiding places . The radio operator could not test his radio station, and the documents they were supposed to use were printed ineptly. They were transported to the continent wearing clothes that screamed "I'm not from here!" .

To make matters worse, when they wanted to submit their first reports, it turned out that the allegedly carefully checked radio station did not work. Despite all the adversities, they managed to get to the country, survive and undertake the mission.

It took a while for Lauwers to start broadcasting regularly to London, which he did every two weeks, always at the same time. On March 6, 1942, when warned of the threat, he tried to escape unnoticed, fell into the hands of Major Herman Giskens, who had been tracking him for several months . The SOE agent was sent to the Gestapo prison, where the German finally managed to make him start transmitting again. The exhausted Lauwers agreed because he believed it was a way of warning the British.

During the training, he was told that if he found himself in such a situation, he was to leave the authentication signal while transmitting, which would inform London that he had been caught. The agent followed the instructions, but SOE… completely ignored the warning . Rather than reacting according to procedures, British intelligence accepted successive reports from the Abwehr without murmuring.

This is how Operation das Englandspiel began (English game). As a result, the Germans fell into over fifty Dutch agents shipped from London, and hundreds of tons of explosives and military equipment. On-site human and equipment resources were to facilitate the Allied preparations for the upcoming D-day.

Dutch plaque commemorating Operation Englandspiel.

As Lynne Olson points out , the captured radio operators agreed to transmit because they believed that in London, the principals would notice the lack of an authentication signal. Meanwhile, section N was convinced that it had a large network of saboteurs in the Netherlands, which the German counter-intelligence confirmed with false press releases about its activity.

More Abwehr "trophies"

To oversee a growing (and completely fictional) "resistance", George Jambroes, a former underground leader who had fled the Netherlands in 1942, was finally dumped. The man who was supposed to prepare a diversion for the Allied invasion, of course, was in close contact with the Dutch government in exile. The Abwehr could not have wished for a better gift - Jambroes with the accompanying radio operator and equipment fell straight into the hands of Giskens. As Jeffrey T. Richardson describes it in his book, A Century of Spies. Intelligence in the Twentieth Century ”:

Then, at the end of June, George Jambroes, a high-ranking member of the Dutch government in exile, his radio operator and their radio were included in the German collection.

Their radio was used to inform London of "low morale" and low security within the resistance . SOE in response sent more agents, immediately arrested by the Germans. Management took all information from the Netherlands for granted despite warnings from various sides that the whole operation seemed too beautiful. Even the planes transferring SOE envoys have never had the slightest problem taking them to the continent. Only after they had dropped them off, on the way back, did all hell begin.

In addition to the Germans, the agents also had to fear the Dutch Nazis. The photo shows the headband of the Dutch National Socialist Movement. (photo:Drrcs15, license CC BY-SA 4.0)

By interrogating the captured agents, the Germans made them understand that they knew everything about the agency, among others thanks to placing their spy in its structures. As a result of information extracted from the captured, the Nazis were able to infiltrate the structures of the resistance movement operating in the country. As the author of "Islands of Last Hope" points out this has led to mass arrests and executions . At one point, the man claiming to be SOE envoys made contact with the former prime minister, and during the war one of the underground leaders. An Abwehr agent convinced him that the Dutch government in exile wants to:

[...] find out the names of the members of a large conspiratorial group of prominent Dutch politicians that he has created. The ex-prime minister complied with the request and the next afternoon, along with over 150 of the most important representatives of the underground, he was imprisoned.

Fifty-four SOE agents captured by the Germans were taken to the Mauthausen camp. The great majority were shot. Only four survived, including Lauwers. When it became clear in London what a great catastrophe had taken place in the Netherlands, Giskens dictated the last report ... on April 1, 1944. In it, he promised that if the Allies ever decided to "pay a visit", they would be greeted with the same care as their agents.

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