The secrets of the London Cage

  • Beatings, sleep deprivation and starvation used on SS and Gestapo men
  • POW camp in Kensington kept secret and hidden from Red Cross

Kensington Palace Gardens is one of the most exclusive, and expensive, addresses in the world: its stately row of 160-year-old mansions, built on land owned by the crown, is home to ambassadors, billionaires and princes. One property bought by the Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal for a reputed £57m is said to be the most expensive house in London. Down the road, a pair of Manhattan tax lawyers are renovating No 6, while next door, No 7, is the London home of the Sultan of Brunei. Over the years No 8 has housed its fair share of dowagers and dukes.

Between July 1940 and September 1948, however, these three magnificent houses were home to one of the country’s most secret military establishments: the London office of the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre, known colloquially as the London Cage.

The London Cage was run by MI19, the section of the War Office responsible for gleaning information from enemy prisoners of war, and few outside this organisation knew exactly what went on beyond the single barbed-wire fence that separated the three houses from the busy streets and grand parks of west London.

Years later Tony Whitehead, a consultant psychiatrist in Brighton, recounted in his memoirs how, as a young aircraftsman delivering a belligerent SS sergeant to the Cage, he was shocked to see a German naval officer in full dress uniform on his hands and knees, cleaning the entrance hall floor. An enormous Guardsman stood with one foot on the prisoner’s back, casually enjoying a smoke. When Whitehead collected his prisoner three days later, the man was completely subdued, rarely looked up, and addressed him as sir. “I do not know what had happened to him at the London Cage,” Dr Whitehead wrote.

By examining thousands of documents stored at the National Archives, formerly the Public Record Office, as well as the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, the Guardian has established what happened to this prisoner, and many others like him.

The London Cage was used partly as a torture centre, inside which large numbers of German officers and soldiers were subjected to systematic ill-treatment. In total 3,573 men passed through the Cage, and more than 1,000 were persuaded to give statements about war crimes. The brutality did not end with the war, moreover: a number of German civilians joined the servicemen who were interrogated there up to 1948.

The Cage was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Scotland, a forceful, outspoken man deemed to have the perfect background. Although English, the colonel had served briefly in the German army in what is now Namibia shortly after the turn of the century, and was later awarded the OBE for his work interrogating German prisoners during the first world war. In 1939, at the age of 57, he was recalled for service.



Ian Cobain
Saturday November 12, 2005
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