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"Intelligence from German Prisoners of War" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following report on British interrogation of German prisoners during WWII was originally published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 9, Oct. 8, 1942.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


The following article on methods of dealing with German prisoners of war consists of excerpts taken from a personal letter written by a British Intelligence Officer in the North African desert. This officer's notes are based on his work at headquarters of the British XXX Corps during the winter campaign of 1941-1942. A few changes have been made in unfamiliar British military terminology, but otherwise the excerpts are presented verbatim.

Of particular interest both to U.S. Intelligence officers and to any U.S. soldiers who may be taken prisoner are the illustrations of the tremendous amount of information which is unintentionally divulged by prisoners of war.

"In static warfare evacuation of PW [prisoners of war] was easy, because they went back through the normal supply channels to the cage and thence to railhead. The great advantage was that they could be intercepted at any point, and there was always a little transport to spare for carting around a few who were specially interesting.

"In the armored battle, when movement was generally very rapid, it was impossible to arrange anything cut and dried. Interrogation could not be done forward of the FMCs [field maintenance centers] because IO [intelligence officers] at Div Hq and below were much too busy with other duties. My own view it that a second IO is essential at Hq of an Armd Div.

"The shortage of tactical interrogators is very marked. The cages at FMCs and railhead were manned almost entirely by CSDIC [sic] personnel. This is not satisfactory, except in a few cases, because CSDIC people know nothing about tactics, and, with respect, nothing about tactical interrogation either. It is essential to have interrogators who can do the job without calling in gunners, etc., to be present at the interrogation and telling them what questions to ask. The idea that interrogators need not be soldiers should be buried forever.

"Arrangements for interrogation were haphazard. Sometimes a tent was provided for the interrogators at the cage, sometimes nothing. Some form of cover is essential at the cage even in mobile warfare, and in a campaign like this where two foreign languages are involved, the arrangements should be duplicated. It would be a great help if each pair of interrogators could have one car, driven by a batman-driver; this car should be of the Humber staff-car type with an office table in place of the rear seat. A typewriter is an enormous asset.

"During the armored battle, liaison with interrogators was almost non-existent (a) because the intelligence staffs of higher echelons were too busy with other jobs, and (b) because there was no direct means of communication. During the static operations, it was very good, because (a) intelligence staffs had more time; (b) the FMC, though not the cage itself, was on the end of a line, and we put the interrogators in the picture at least once a day; and (c) we sent the interrogators our intelligence summaries daily. Results in this case were first-rate, and each day we gave the interrogators a list of the points which were of most immediate interest.

"The technique of tactical interrogation as taught at X [in England] seems to me, if I may say so, to be excellent. German PW have run true to form. They nearly always respond (a) to someone who shouts at them, and (b) to show of knowledge. Many of them are comparatively secure about tactical information, but most of them will at least admit their units.

"The 'show of knowledge' worked with one Pionier, who unlike most of his countrymen had no Soldbuch [paybook] and no Erkennungsmarke [identification tag] . He refused to give his unit and was asked 'You don't imagine that we don't know what German sapper units are in Libya?' - he said 'Yes, I do', but gave the name of his unit straight away as soon as the list of sapper units was reeled off to him.

"Other points which I have had a chance of verifying or discovering are (a) Never ask a leading question, (b) Don't ask too many questions one on top of the other, (c) If the PW 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) Maps: out here at any rate it is practically useless to show a prisoner a map. The Germans apparently make little use of them; an Obergefreiter never has anything to do with one. If a PW 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 PW gives.

"I have held two parades of German PW, one of 16 men, and the other of 95. The words of command taught at X 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 helped a great deal. It was a good scheme to line them all up, tell them to place all their belongings on the ground in front of them and hold ready their Soldbuch and Erkennungsmarke. On the first occasion the old trick worked of saying 'Everybody in the 104 Lorried Inf Regt fall in over there'; on the other, after the fall of Bardia, I told the senior NCO, that rare specimen, a Hauptfeldwebel, to fall in the 95 other chaps according to units and, to my great surprise, he did it like a lamb.

"The Soldbuch was on the familiar pattern. Very occasionally a PW said he had handed it to the company office, and sometimes pages 3 and 4 were torn out. But practically always it gave the necessary information. All officers carried Soldbücher.

"During the operations at Bardia, Salum, and Halfaya, many PW did not carry paybooks. These had been taken away and kept with the Wehrpass at the company office, where, in many cases, they were duly found later on. Instead of a Soldbuch, PW 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.

"The certificate was typed on any piece of paper. When folded it was much the same size as a Soldbuch. A facsimile is reproduced below. Occasionally particulars of pay were entered on the back of the certificate, and in these cases the company commander's signature and field post number were repeated.

Vorlaufiger Personal-Ausweis.
Inhaber ist der __________________________________________________
                           (Dienstgrad, Name, Zuname)
geb am ___________________________________________________________
wohnhaft in ______________________________________________________
(written in) Am . . . . . . . auf afrikanischem Boden eingetroffen
(Official stamp)              . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

"Erkennungsmarken were of three kinds (1) showing the man's present unit - this was comparatively rare, (2) showing the man's ersatz unit - this was the most common, (3) giving a number, usually so far as I remember of five digits but not the field post number - this is evidently a new kind; very few PW have it.

"The field post number was invaluable as a means of identification. From quite early on, Army compiled a fairly extensive list, and this must have been of great help to regular interrogators. I think that in the first few days of a campaign it is most important that field post numbers should be reported with identifications.

"Documents were almost fantastic in their quantity and their value to us. Examples are (a) the capture by 30 Corps on D2 of a map showing the dispositions of all German units before D1; (b) the capture by 13 Corps of a valuable operation order, and (c) by far the biggest capture, the complete signals office of 21 Pz Div during the first week of the offensive. 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 IOs point of view; he must know Schrift 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 IO knows them by heart he will save himself an immense amount of time.

"Out here almost all the organizations have something peculiar about them; but a knowledge of the normal organization helps a lot. I believe that it would be a good aim to have everyone leaving X knowing the organization of the German Inf and Armored Divs backwards. An IO who knows his way about enemy weapons is invaluable.

"A knowledge of the main principles of tactics is invaluable, because the Germans are so consistent. I take back any mud that I may have thrown at von Cochenhausen! [See Tactical and Technical Trends No. 7, p. 22, and No. 8, p. 7] This knowledge is particularly helpful when it comes to writing deductions for the summary."


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