Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.

With over 350,000 monthly readers and more than 87,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.

The Commandant: A Master Interrogator Reveals His Secrets

Meet Colonel Robin Stephens, a master interrogator, who was tasked with breaking down the most hardened of German Spies during WWII. He was so successful, the British “actively ran and controlled the German espionage system.”

Stephens didn’t believe in violence, instead, he applied many forms of psychological pressure.

“Figuratively, a spy in war should be at the points of a bayonet,” wrote Stephens, who insisted that he be addressed as the “commandant.” Yet he was adamant about one thing at Camp 020. “Violence is taboo,” he wrote, “for not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information.” In his instructions for interrogators, Stephens wrote, “Never strike a man. In the first place it is an act of cowardice. In the second place, it is not intelligent. A prisoner will lie to avoid further punishment and everything he says thereafter will be based on a false premise.”

Silence.

He created an eerily silent and isolating environment at Latchmere House that seemed to evoke a sense of foreboding among the captives. Guards wore tennis shoes to muffle the sound of their steps. Cells were bugged. No prisoners encountered one another. “No chivalry. No gossip. No cigarettes,” Stephens wrote in his reports. Prisoners were kept alone and in silence. Food was kept bland, and no cigarettes were to be offered. Sleep deprivation was a common tactic, as was the hooding of prisoners for long stretches of time.

We are here to crush them.

Stephens fancied himself an amateur psychologist and did a great deal of reading on the human psyche, including Freud and Jung. His interrogative abilities, he claimed, stemmed from “years of studying the complex minds of the Gurkhas he had commanded,” Thomas writes. “We are here to crush a spy psychologically,” he told his staff, according to Thomas. “Crush his mind into small pieces, examine those pieces and then if they reveal qualities useful to the war effort—like becoming double agents—they must be mentally rebuilt. Those who do not have the qualities we require will end up on the gallows or before a firing squad in the Tower of London.”

Scare them:

“Pressure is attained by personality, tone and rapidity of questions, a driving attack in the nature of a blast which will scare a man out of his wits.”

Blow hot-blow cold:

When he felt that a prisoner was ready, Stephens would arrive at the doorway, dressed in his Gurkha uniform. Protocol required that the prisoners stand upon his entrance, and under the glare of a bare bulb, Tin Eye would grill his subjects for hours, beyond their limits of endurance, flanked by two intimidating officers. “I am not saying this in any sense of a threat,” Stephens told one captive, “but you are here in a British Secret Service prison at the present time and it’s our job in wartime to see that we get your whole story from you. Do you see?”

He had the tenacity to bring attention to the most mundane and precise detail. He would commonly interrogate a subject for long stretches of time over 48 hours in which the subject remained awake. Sometimes, according to Ben Macintyre, author of Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal, “Captain Short, a rotund, owlish figure who was as cheery as his boss was menacing,” would step in to offer sympathy in a technique Stephens described as “blow hot-blow cold.” An “extroverted oddball” was how one historian described him, and some of his own officers feared him and believed him to be “quite mad.”

By 1941, MI5‘s counterespionage and deception operation was so successful that its chairman, John Cecil Masterman, boasted that the agency “actively ran and controlled the German espionage system” in England. Stephens’s interrogations also gleaned information that aided Allied codebreakers.

Continue Reading

Date:
Filed Under: