During the latter half of World War II, the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) undertook a massive clandestine operation of which the full, extraordinary details are only now coming to light.
Between 1942 and 1945, a section of SIS – known as MI19 – secretly recorded no fewer than 64,427 conversations between captured German generals and other senior officers, all without their knowledge or even suspicion. The 167 most significant of these are about to be published for the first time.
Together, they provide us with a goldmine of information about what the German High Command privately thought of the war, Adolf Hitler, the Nazis and each other.
They also explode the post-war claim of the Wehrmacht that they did not know what the SS were doing to the Jews, Slavs, mentally disabled and others among what they termed “untermensch” (sub-humans).
General Von Thoma, who commanded a panzer division in Russia before being captured at El Alamein, told the pro-Nazi General Ludwig Cruwell in January 1943: “I am actually ashamed to be an officer.”
He related how he had spoken to the Army Chief of Staff, General Franz Halder, about the atrocities, only to be told: “That’s a political matter, that’s nothing to do with me.”
So he put his protests in writing to Army commanderin-chief General Walther von Brauchitz, who said: “Do you want me to take it further? If you want me to take it further, anything might happen.”
Thoma said of those who believed the Fuhrer was ignorant of what was happening: “Of course, he knows all about it. Secretly, he’s delighted. Of course, people can’t make a row – they would simply be arrested and beaten if they did.”
The kind of things that were happening to Poles, Russians and especially Jews were common currency in the ‘private’ conversations at Trent Park.
In December 1944, Generalleutnant Heinrich Kittel, commander of 462 Volksgrenadier division, told General-major Paul von Felbert, commandant of Feldkommandantur 560: “The things I’ve experienced! In Latvia, near Dvinsk, there were mass executions of Jews carried out by the SS.
“There were about 15 SS men and perhaps 60 Latvians, known to be the most brutal people in the world. I was lying in bed one Sunday morning when I kept hearing two salvos followed by small-arms fire.”
On investigating, Kittel found “men, women and children – they were counted off and stripped naked. The executioners first laid all the clothes in one pile. Then 20 women had to take up their position – naked – on the edge of the trench. They were shot and fell down into it.”
“How was it done?” asked Felbert.
“They faced the trench,” Kittel replied. “And then 20 Latvians came up behind and simply fired once through the back of their heads, and they fell down forwards into the trench like ninepins.”
Kittel gave an order forbidding such executions from taking place “outside, where people can look on. If you shoot people in the wood or somewhere where no one can see,” he told the SS men, “that’s your own affair. But I absolutely forbid another day’s shooting here. We draw our drinking water from deep springs; we’re getting nothing but corpse water there.”
“What did they do to the children?” asked Felbert. Kittel – who sounded “very excited” at this point, according to the transcriber – answered: “They seized three-year-old children by the hair, held them up and shot them with a pistol and then threw them in. I saw that for myself. One could watch it.”
Another general, General-leutnant Hans Schaeffer, commander of the 244 Infantry division, asked Kittel: “Did they weep? Have the people any idea what’s in store for them?”
“They know perfectly well,” replied Kittel. “They are apathetic. I’m not sensitive myself, but such things turn my stomach.”
The book is Tapping Hitler’s Generals: Transcripts Of Secret Conversations 1942-45, edited by Sonke Neitzel with an introduction by Ian Kershaw, is published by Greenhill Books on August 31 at Â£30. Its release date in the U.S. is September 15.