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"Prisoners of War (German)" from Intelligence Bulletin

[Intelligence Bulletin Cover]   A report on German questioning of Allied prisoners of war and British methods used for questioning German prisoners, from the Intelligence Bulletin, December 1942.

[Editor's Note: The following article is wartime information on enemy tactics and equipment published for Allied soldiers. In most cases, more accurate data is available in postwar publications.]



All the powers engaged in the present war try to get as much information as possible from prisoners; they use various methods in questioning those captured, and sometimes resort to tricks and threats. Invariably, the soldier who continues to be a soldier after being captured fares better at the hands of his captors. A soldier is still a soldier for his country if he keeps his mouth shut after capture, except to give his name, rank, and serial number. Absolutely no other questions should be answered, according to the instructions given by both the Axis and United Nationsunder international law, no other information is required.

British prisoners have been praised, even by their enemies, for refusing to talk after capture. The following statement about the British, made by Italian General Navarrini, was taken from a captured Order of the Day:

"When subjected to questioning by our Intelligence Branch, all enemy prisoners refused firmly and categorically to give any military information whatsoever. They confined themselves to providing personal particulars and army numbers.

"More energetic demands and indirect questions intended to obtain certain details had no better success. The prisoners remained firm in their dutiful decision to obey the order not to talk, conscious of the fact that any other line of conduct would amount to treachery.

"I wish these facts to be brought to the notice of all (Italian) units. . . . Military honor demands that the spirit of dignity and pride of race should always be alive and present in the minds of our troops."

On the other hand, German and other Axis prisoners have given the United Nations forces valuable information, as can be noted from the following captured document, signed by Field Marshal Rommel, commander of is forces in North Africa:

"From the attached translation of three enemy news sheets of the 2d South African Division, it regrettably appears that German prisoners of war have talked inexcusably.

"On receipt of these examples, the troops will be instructed in detail how a soldier who is unfortunately taken prisoner of war is to behave. When questioned, give name, date of birth, birthplace, and rank. No further information may be given. As response to further questioning, the following will be the reply: 'I cannot answer any further questions.'

"In conversation with German prisoners of war who are not known, the greatest reserve will be exercised, as the English use agents in German uniforms to listen to prisoners.

"Furthermore, under no circumstances may soldiers who are taken prisoners of war—after the usual destruction of all service papers—allow diaries and letters from home to fall into enemy hands. Conclusions could be drawn from these as to food worries, air raid damage, and the like.

"The German soldier who is taken prisoner must prove that even in this disagreeable situation he does not lose his proud, superior bearing."


Some of the tricks used by the Germans in trying to get prisoners to talk are as follows:

a. "Stool Pigeons"

In a building prepared for the occasion, prisoners are questioned in a half-hearted manner and are then transferred to another room where they find three or four other "prisoners." These "prisoners" are Italians or Germans who speak perfect English. To avoid detection, they are often dressed in a uniform of a service other than that to which the real prisoner belongs. (For example, RAF when the prisoner is in the army, American when the prisoner is English.) They are "stool pigeons," and are highly trained to get the information the questioners have failed to obtain.

b. Man-to-Man

"England and Germany should be fighting together. We don't hate one another." This is what the smiling Nazi says in an attempt to appear as a friend and make his British prisoners forget the atrocities he is committing all over the world.

c. Delayed Action

The prisoner is not questioned for several days—perhaps weeks. If he is in a hospital, they send along a "wounded" German or Italian who has been in England and speaks a bit of English. He has all the charm of a vacuum-cleaner salesman, and gradually lets it leak out that he is anti-Nazi and perhaps has had a row with a fellow Nazi. He takes his time and gradually the conversation veers around to the war.

d. "Know-All"

"We know so much there is nothing you can tell us," says the Hun. He flips over a lot of important looking papers—"See what I have?" He is rude and attempts to provoke the prisoner into proving that he is not the ignoramus the interrogator thinks he is.

e. Third Degree

The prisoner is marched into a tent lit by one flickering lantern. There is a good deal of side play. The interrogator snaps out the routine questions: "Name—rank—number?" When the next question is greeted with silence, the sentry is ordered to leave the tent. The interrogator fingers his revolver. "I don't want to resort to methods we dislike," he says, and hopes the prisoner will believe the opposite. He may be taken into a confined space, such as an armored car. The interrogator talks in a low voice. He explains that he wants some important information and that he is determined to get it. He is candid. "You are alone; you have a family. You want to live. It is nice to be a hero when someone is looking, but you are alone."

The note of death is constantly repeated in an attempt to break down morale. The interrogator, however, is not going to kill the goose which may lay the golden egg. Besides, we have thousands of enemy prisoners, and news of what happens in German prison camps travels fast.

f. Try Again

Breaking down resistance and morale is the first object of the enemy interrogation officer. To do this, physical fatigue is often provoked by forced marches, light rations, and inadequate shelter. Another trick is the spreading of fantastic tales about Russian reverses, Japanese successes, and British and American losses. Then there is the time-worn trap: "Your comrades have told us everything, so why don't you?"

g. Listening Walls

In a Nazi or Fascist state, everyone is a suspect of the secret police. They are well trained in eavesdropping. Their experience is used in war time. After failing to obtain information by other methods, prisoners are put together in the most innocent-seeming circumstances. A hidden microphone reveals to a listening enemy any matters of military interest that are talked about.


The answer to these tricks—and there are others—is the maintenance of a cast-iron security in the event of capture.

Direct questioning is a war of endurance between prisoner and interrogator, and the battle is lost by the one who tires first. If it is the questioner, the prisoner is passed on as "no good" to join his countrymen in a prisoner-of-war camp. If, however, he tries to bluff the interrogator by giving him false information, or to appease by giving half-truths; if any chink is found in his armor of security, he will often remain for weeks and weeks under a process of questioning, much to his own personal discomfort. The tough prisoner is not only admired by the enemy, but, if he wins out, has a far better time in the end.

Thus, strict observance of the rule of giving "Name, rank, and serial number only" does more than help one's comrades; it is in the best interests of the individual.

Conversations about military matters must always be avoided resolutely. Plans to escape should be discussed only in the open, away from persons you are not sure you can trust. Attempts by the enemy to persuade a prisoner into broadcasting must be resisted. It is only offered to serve a purpose.

Lastly, personal papers should never be carried into battle. Most insignificant pieces of evidence, such as personal letters, hotel bills, and street-car tickets give clues to a competent interrogator.


The Intelligence Bulletin for September published extracts from a captured German manual instructing German soldiers how to behave in case of capture. American troops, who also receive careful instruction along this line, will be interested to know how the advice set forth in the manual tallies with the actual behavior of German prisoners of war.

No matter how painstakingly the German soldier has been drilled in the art of keeping his mouth shut—apart from telling his captors his name, rank, and number—German prisoners of war still reveal, without intending to do so, information of great value to the United Nations. A British Intelligence officer stationed in North Africa writes in a personal letter that the German prisoners he has questioned in his official capacity "nearly always respond (a) to someone who shouts at them, and (b) to show off knowledge. Many of them are comparatively silent about tactical information, but most of them will at least admit their units."

According to this officer, the "show of knowledge method" worked especially well with one German engineer, who, unlike most of his countrymen, had no paybook and no identification tag. When he refused to give his unit, he was asked, "Don't you suppose we know what German engineer units are in Libya?" He said he didn't believe that the British knew anything of the sort. As soon as the list of engineer units was reeled off to him, he gave the name of his own unit without hesitation.

"Other points which I have had a chance of verifying or discovering," the British officer continues, "are (a) Never ask a leading question. (b) Don't ask too many questions, one on top of the other. (c) If the prisoner of war doesn't answer a question immediately, always leave a longer pause than you think necessary; he usually says something in the end which will help the interrogation even if it doesn't give you any information. (d) Don't expect too much from interrogation. Training courses inevitably present interrogation as something a little spectacular. If a chap does produce a spectacular piece of information, go to great pains to check it; for this purpose it sometimes helps to deny what he says, so that he is obliged to give the reason why he knows. (e) Out here, at any rate, it is practically useless to show a prisoner a map. The Germans apparently make little use of them; a corporal never has anything to do with one. If a prisoner of war starts to point out a route or a position on a map, he nearly always gets the scale wrong. It is best for the interrogator to have the map or the air photograph and to take some well-known reference point and then say 'You are standing here with your back to so-and-so. Now what do you see?' It is most important to cross-check any estimate of distance that a prisoner of war gives.

"I have held two parades of German prisoners of war, one of 16 men and the other of 95. The words of command taught at X (a training school in England) worked very well and so did the idea of calling out the senior NCO and making him do the work. Here, again, a show of knowledge and authority help a great deal. It was a good scheme to line them up, tell them to place all their belongings on the ground in front of them, and hold ready their paybooks and identification tags. On the first occasion the old trick worked of saying 'Everybody in the 104 Motorized Inf. Regt. fall in over there.' On the other, after the fall of Bardia, I told the senior NCO . . . to fall in the 95 other chaps according to units and, to my great surprise, he did it.

"The paybook was on the familiar pattern. Very occasionally a prisoner said he had handed it to the company office, and sometimes pages 3 and 4 were torn out. Practically always it gave the necessary information. All officers carried paybooks.

"During the operations at Bardia, Salum, and Halfaya, many prisoners did not carry paybooks. These had been . . . kept . . . at the company office, where, in many cases, they were duly found later on. Instead of a paybook, prisoners carried a temporary certificate of identity giving the following particulars:

Rank, Christian name, surname,
Date and place of birth,
Home address,
Date of arrival in Africa.

"The certificate was signed by the company commander and was stamped with the field post number. Identification was therefore possible in most cases.

". . . Documents were almost fantastic in their quantity and value to us. . . . Minor examples are legion: war diaries, code names, photographs showing new weapons, training pamphlets, intelligence summaries, personal diaries, casualty returns, and so on. Two things stand out from the Intelligence officer's point of view: he must be able to read German script as well as possible, and he should have a very good knowledge of German conventional signs. The Germans use them for marked maps, orders of battle, operation orders, and vehicle markings—in fact, wherever possible. If an intelligence officer knows them by heart, he will save himself an immense amount of time."

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