In 1941 the Dutch (D) Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) under Major Bingham started sending trained agents to the Netherlands by parachute and like other country sections their role was to recruit resisters from the civilian population before providing training, arms and directing their resistance activities to support the Allied strategy.
Among the first agents to arrive was saboteur Thijs Taconnis and a wireless operator named Hurbert Lauwers, but as they climbed into the converted Halifax bomber at RAF Tempsford D Section was unaware the underground network they were sent to join had been infiltrated by a double agent and both were quickly captured along with Lauwers’s wireless and personal codes.
Lauwers was forced to contact London under German supervision but included within the body of the message prearranged codes indicating he had been captured and his wireless was under German control. To his great surprise and frustration his warning codes were either overlooked or ignored and London ask for the coordinates of a DZ (drop zone) for the arrival of a new agent. This was the start of the ‘Englandspiel’ (England Game) under Abwehr Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Joseph Giskes.
Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Joseph Giskes.
For around 18 months the Dutch Section was happy with the news coming from the Netherlands: they had 62 underground networks consisting of around 420 Dutch civilians who were being trained to fight the occupying forces and at the request of these ‘networks’ the RAF dropped a large quantity of weapons, sabotage stores and money to finance their operations.
D Section was oblivious to the fact most of the resistance was in hiding: The Gestapo and Abwehr were attempting to track them down, there were mass arrests and German security forces knew everything about their network.
The first person in London to suspect there were serious problems in the Netherlands was SOE’s head of codes and ciphers, 22-year-old Leo Marks, who suddenly realised what had been worrying him for some time about the Dutch radio traffic, Marks later explained:
“What I discovered was we had never received an indecipherable message from Holland due to mistakes in coding…”
Wireless operators were always under immense pressure: they had to send their message as quickly as possible to avoid wireless detection teams finding their location and under these stressful conditions it was considered inevitable an operator would make several mistakes in their coding; but his concerns were rejected by the Dutch Section which continued to send agents, weapons and sabotage stores by parachute.
After bringing his concerns to the attention of Brigadier Nicholls, the head of the signals section, Marks was asked to provide proof of his suspicions because the Dutch Section claimed they had ways of checking on their agents and were adamant there were no issues. Marks then sent an indecipherable message to Holland- one which could only be broken by a trained code breaker; a genuine agent would ask for the message to be repeated but this did not happen, Marks explained:
“The fact that they didn’t say repeat that message immediately which they would do if they ever got an indecipherable message from London, which was very rare, told me beyond doubt the Dutch agents had been captured. There was no other conceivable explanation…”
The wireless operators in England were also concerned about the sending style of the agents under their charge and suspected they were receiving wireless traffic from German operators, but the Dutch Section rejected their concerns.
German agents always signed off with the letters HH (Heil Hitler) so Marks sent a false message to the Netherlands and signed off with HH and back came the instantaneous response HH. Marks then knew there was a German operator at the other end.
Fourteen of the known agents delivered to the Gestapo by parachute.
Although the wireless channel was eventually closed whilst the damage was being assessed it was not until SOE agents Peter Diepenbroek and Johan Ubbink escaped from a prison camp in August 1943 that the full damage due to the ‘English Game’ started to be realised. Over a period of 18-months German operators had used 18 captured wireless sets and codes to create a ‘mousetrap’ in which 56 agents were parachuted to waiting members of the Gestapo, 11 RAF aircraft were shot down whilst delivering weapons and supplies to a resistance network controlled by the Germans but there are no figures regarding the fate of a conservative estimate of 420 civilians engaged in resistance.
After the war Freyer, head of the German wireless section for western Europe, said:
“The transmitter of a group of agents is always a mailbox where everything goes in and out. And connected to the mailbox there is always the leadership of the organisation, and so, if we had the transmitter, then either the boss to operate it or via his right-hand man and via him we got further and further into the organisation. This explains why we invested so much effort into radio direction finding.” He also went on to say, “some wireless operators were totally overwhelmed when they were discovered. The arrested men reacted in very different ways. Some were sort of composed, some knew their future and came to terms with it, and in one case we once arrested a man, and there was a big bang, he had soiled himself, we could smell it.”
There was no mention of the wireless operators, men and women, tortured by the Gestapo for their codes and their subsequent executions.