The entrance to Kensington Palace Gardens, former home of the "London Cage." Photo via
All things considered, the London boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea are not places for frumpy ironic T-shirt wearing tourists like you. It's for sultans, sheikhs, oligarchs, and people who sit atop other power structures that British people don't really understand. It's a place where the dogs are better fed than you and the cats have their own televisions. It's a place where everyone carries around a thousand in every major currency at all times because they never know which country they're going to go to bed in. But did you know it also used to be home to a gargantuan torture facility?
The London Cage, as it came to be known, was situated inside three buildings that are now used as part of the Russian Embassy, neighboring the current homes of the Sultan of Brunei and Roman Abramovich. Sixty years ago, it served first as one of several British War World II interrogation centers, then as the War Crimes Investigation Unit’s post-1945 HQ.
Within the walls of Kensington Palace Gardens, the British paid little regard to the Geneva Convention and treated captured Nazi war criminals to some Gulag-level torment and Guantanamo-style interrogation. That the buildings once held a vast prisoner-of-war facility that you probably didn’t know about (mainly because, weirdly, that information has been omitted from its tour itinerary) says a lot about Britain and its secretive practices since the Second World War.
Between July 1940 and September 1948, 3,573 enemy soldiers passed through its doors. Several of the war’s most infamous criminals were kept there, like Fritz Knochlein, the German SS soldier responsible for massacring 97 members of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment in Le Paradis, France, and a Nazi Gauleiter (a leader of a regional branch of the Nazi party) named Sporenburg, who was guilty of systematically killing 46,000 Jewish Poles in 24 hours. His method involved gathering victims by the hundreds from concentration camps, taking them to fields, and forcing them to dig the holes that they would fall into after being shot by Nazi soldiers.
Fritz Knochlein of the SS. Image from the London Cage
No one’s disputing that most of the people who wound up at the London Cage were there on fairly solid grounds. But the interest here lies in the fact that it remained a secret for so long, despite being less than a quarter of a mile from Notting Hill Gate and Kensington High Street subway stations. In fact, the existence of the Cage went unreported until 2005, when journalist Ian Cobain finally revealed its history.
In 1946, Knoechlein stated in a written complaint that he'd been stripped, deprived of sleep for four days, starved, forced to run until he collapsed, forced to march in tight circles for four hours, beaten with a bat, forced to stand under freezing cold water after standing beside a large gas stove for hours and forced to run circles while carrying heavy logs. Other inmates corroborated these claims, adding that they had also been threatened with electrical devices. It was later claimed that Knoechlein reached a point of shrieking in a half-crazed state every night, causing local police to call in and inquire as to why such a chilling racket was coming from the Kensington Palace Gardens.
The man in charge was Lt. Col Alexander Scotland. He was the belligerent and uncompromising head of the prisoner of war interrogation section of the intelligence corps. And he remained indignant when confronted with allegations of torture. One extract from his memoirs gives a vivid idea of the attitude he took towards this and similar allegations. He recalled an exchange with a lawyer named Dr. Oehlert, who was defending Erich Zacharias, a man accused of killing an RAF officer and rumored to have also ordered the death of his mistress, during a trial of 18 Nazis in 1947.
Dr. Oehlert claimed that, “her client had complained that he was several times beaten about the face in London Cage, that food was withheld from him for several days, that on many days when he was interrogated he was not allowed to sleep at night.”
Addressing Scotland, she continued: “Zacharias says that you threatened him with electrical devices.”
To which Scotland replied, “Quite untrue. We have no weapons and no such devices in the London Cage”.
"And so it went on," Scotland wrote in his book, The London Cage, published by the now-defunct Evans Brothers in 1957, “until another defence counsel suggested I had told prisoners in London that they would be hanged with their wives [and] deported to Siberia where they would become common property.”
Lt. Col Alexander Scotland. Image from the London Cage
In what sounds more like the move of a schoolgirl bully, Scotland was also accused of pulling prisoners' hair. Again, he met these accusations with a rebuttal and found a bizarre, vaguely ridiculous way of proving his accusers wrong.
“This allegation interested me, because it seemed not only an unlikely form of torture, but possibly an ineffective one," he wrote. "So, in the presence of several witnesses at London Cage, I proceeded to give a demonstration designed to show that it was impossible. One of my own British assistants and NCO [noncommissioned officer] agreed to become guinea pig for this test. First, he sprawled on the floor and I took a firm grip on his hair. Finally, I dragged him in this manner across the room… with the final result that when I released my hold, only a few strands of hair were seen to be left in my hand… And, as often happens, some of the newspaper headlines were wildly inaccurate, as, for example… 'Gestapo Men Were Not Beaten—But Had Hair Pulled.'”
The stories emerging from the Cage range from the harrowing to the absurd. Another case that was reported a few years earlier in Scotland’s memoirs was that of the "boy who wouldn’t stop laughing."
One of the few dozen survivors when the German warship Bismarck was sunk in the Atlantic in 1941, “he was brought to the Cage in London, where his interrogation began. His response to all questions, however, was an uncontrolled giggle. Even the simplest and most commonplace queries touched off a burst of laughter. It was as if, for all his childishness, he possessed some intuitive spark, some reflex action, prompting this queer method of avoiding a subject which he had been taught to guard with secrecy.”
Scotland claimed that his method for resolving this little hiccup was to simply laugh along with the boy, prompting him to buck up his ideas and talk straight.
Image from the London Cage
Strange, sadistic lieutenants aside, the secrecy surrounding the London Cage once again raises the issue of Britain’s supposed "no torture" policy since the end of the War. Sure, it was guys facing mass homicide charges who received the worst treatment. And their accusations—especially those of Knoechlein, who'd already been sentenced to death and seemed hell-bent on damaging the reputation of the British Armed Forces before he was executed—should be treated with skepticism. But his accounts don't differ substantively from those of other prisoners. And, as Darius Rejali states in his book Torture and Democracy, we can’t ignore the fact that, “Scotland refused Red Cross inspections, arguing that his prisoners were either civilians or criminals within the armed forces, so not protected by the Geneva convention.”
A later MI5 investigation concluded the opposite, but Scotland was never charged, despite later admitting, "We never went in for any sadism. Still, there were things we did which were mentally just as cruel… One fellow we had up before us was really cheeky and obstinate. We told him to undress and eventually he stood before us completely naked. That deflated him. Then we told him to start doing exercises. That killed his resistance completely. He soon started to talk.”
The humiliation also extended to bodily functions: “Sometimes we would keep them standing on their feet round the clock,” Scotland continued. “If a prisoner wanted to pee, he had to do it there and then, in his clothes. It was surprisingly effective.” It’s also been claimed that British interrogation officers wore KGB uniforms to further intimidate the German inmates.
Was it this that caused the War Office to block Scotland’s memoirs when they were submitted for censorship in 1950? He was swiftly threatened with a prosecution under the Official Secrets Act and his home was raided without warning. The Foreign Office insisted the book be concealed from public knowledge and it was only published seven years later after all incriminating evidence had been removed.
Whatever the exact cause—and we may never know—it’s important to highlight how far back Britain’s secret use of torture goes as concern among Brits mount towards the introduction of secret courts, which are closed cases where defendants may not be aware of all the allegations against them and are presided over only by a judge and security-cleared "special advocates."
Like the US, Britain has a long history of unjustly presenting itself as a lawful state that respects and upholds human rights. It's unnerving to imagine their government is now at liberty to conceal even more information than ever before and cover its tracks when due process doesn’t prove quite as effective as brute force.
Follow Nathalie on Twitter: @NROlah
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