Dressed as Nuns I

Britain was gripped by a feverish spy mania during the first few months of theWWI, in which anyone – or anything – German or faintly alien was viewed with hostility and scorn. Dachshunds were stoned in the streets, delicatessens and pork butchers attacked and looted, and enamelled advertising signs examined for coded instructions to spies. Tennis courts were identified as gun platforms, and matches struck in London streets reported as signals to German U-boats and Gothas. Spies and saboteurs were identified on every street corner, usually masquerading as waiters and barbers, with others in service as maids or governesses, their steamer trunks packed full of bombs. Some enemy agents, it was said, had been arrested in female attire, or dressed as nurses. Everywhere, it seemed, there was signalling to airships, some of them invisible, to which the latter replied by dropping poisoned sweets over cities to kill children. No rumour was too ridiculous, no exaggeration too great.

Little of this alarmism had any foundation in fact, and following the Armistice a marked degree of disenchantment flowed from the exposed falsehoods of the Crucified Canadian, the corpse rendering factory, and the often pornographic stories of bestial outrage committed by the Kaiser’s army on its march through Belgium in 1914. It is all the more fascinating, therefore, that so many of these First World War myths and legends were dusted off, re-labelled, and sold as new in 1939 and 1940, as Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and finally France were overrun. Poisoned sweets, murderous spies, treacherous maidservants, secret signals, even the enamel sign story – all, like Lazarus, rose up from the dead as soon as hostilities commenced. Just as the Kaiser was said to have been insane, so too was Adolf Hitler. One rumour current in Britain during the first few days of the war was that which held that the Führer had ‘gone off with a gun and shot himself’. A lie, it is said, never lives to be old, and so it was that this particular falsehood soon perished, to be replaced with a more pleasing (and less easily disproved) legend that the German leader was equipped with a solitary testicle.

Although 1939 and 1940 spy mania never escalated into the panic of 1914, the First World War rumour of the familiar figure or ‘friendly enemy’ was revised and updated. The original version involved a young woman suddenly and unexpectedly confronted in Piccadilly by her fiancé, an officer in the Prussian Guards, who cut her dead before making his escape by means of a passing omnibus or taxi. In the updated version, in one town or another (Dover and Crewe were among the locations cited) a tradesman was said to have called at a newly let house to solicit orders. When the door was opened, the horrified vendor found himself facing the same brutal Prussian who had commanded the prisoner-of-war camp in which he had rotted two decades earlier. In his memoir Friend or Foe, self-styled ‘spycatcher’ Oreste Pinto records a supposed chance meeting with a senior Dutch Nazi on a London street, although Pinto is a highly unreliable witness and the incident probably an invention.

Another feature common to the first few days of both conflicts were the widespread and almost gleeful rumours of mass destruction. Just as the British Expeditionary Force of 1914 was said to have suffered extinction-level casualties immediately upon arriving in France, and the British fleet mauled in the North Sea, early in September 1939 word spread of various towns being heavily bombarded from sea and air. At the same time, each air raid warning was followed by wild speculation as to the awful fate which had befallen some faraway part of the country. While it is doubtful that anyone actually wished to see the devastation of Hartlepool, Scarborough and Lowestoft repeated, the morbid appetite of some seems to have extended far beyond weary resignation.

From early September 1939 onwards false spy reports were returned from the fighting in Poland, many of them sponsored by official sources. German paratroops were reported fighting in Polish uniforms, assisted by ethnic Volksdeutsche dressed in distinctive or eccentric clothing, while the general brutality of German troops was said to include the use of civilians as human shields, and a reluctance to take prisoners. It was claimed German aircraft had dropped poisoned chocolates and cigarettes, while other reports told of tobacco leaves strewn across meadows so that cattle, alarmed by the odour of nicotine, would starve. When the Luftwaffe ran short of bombs, chunks of rail and other scrap metal were thrown from aircraft. Although there was no repeat of the sustained atrocity propaganda manufactured by the Allies in 1914–15, it is clear that the Polish authorities took a conscious decision to manufacture certain fictions, the most flagrant of which involved the use of poison gas. At a press call in London on 3 September, the Polish Ambassador announced that the German air force had begun dropping gas bombs, while on the 5th it was reported from Warsaw that

German bombers have dropped asphyxiating bombs, and many people have been injured and burned. There were particularly many casualties among children… Enemy warplanes dropped little balloons filled with poison gas, which were collected by children in the streets. Analysis established they were filled with Yperite gas.

On the basis of this report, questions were raised in the Commons. On the ground German agents and saboteurs were said to have poisoned water supplies with mustard gas, while a rumour spread in Germany that Britain was supplying gas shells to the Poles. With all sides keen to prevent the outbreak of chemical warfare, these charges were rapidly quashed, Lord Halifax reminding the House of Lords on 14 September that Germany had ratified the Geneva Protocol which proscribed gas as a weapon of war. A German counter-claim that Polish ‘poison gas mines’ had caused casualties near Jaslo made little headway, and despite claims of atrocities on both sides it is clear that in Britain at least a general mood of scepticism prevailed. A prescient letter published in several papers on 9 September, above the pseudonym Everyman, deplored some of the wilder reports printed during the first week of the war:

Already the truth appears to be the first casualty in some papers. The first news of the war in Poland suggesting that women and children were especially aimed at … One paper carried a story of poisoned chocolates dropped on Polish towns, and children dying as a result… Can we not determine to fight this war without lies of the corpse factory description? A just cause should be fought on truth, and truth alone.

However, the voice of reason (or disenchantment) was little heard. Just as tales of poisoned chocolates and sweets were hoary relics of the First World War, so too were widespread rumours of signalling to enemy aircraft. This paranoia was no doubt fuelled by the bombing of civilians during the Spanish Civil War, which had also produced a new name for the alien and spy peril: the fifth column. The phrase is attributed to General Emilio Mola, who in October 1936 claimed to have four columns of troops waiting to march on Madrid, and a fifth inside ready to rise and fight for Franco. In fact there was no Nationalist organisation in the city, and no solid proof that the general himself phrased the threat in these terms. Nevertheless the phrase was taken up by British newspapers, and borrowed by Ernest Hemingway as the title of his 1939 play about life and love in besieged Madrid.

As in the First World War, phantom signalling by fifth columnists in Poland took a number of forms. Miniature wireless transmitters were hidden in tombs, chimneys and trees, while others daubed markers on roofs, or painted chimneys white, or heaped straw from hayricks in suspicious patterns. Crops and pasture were said to have been planted or cut according to pre-arranged plans, while at night signals were flashed by means of lamps, fires and matches. One spy was even identified ‘by his German shoes’. If these activities were largely illusory, the result was all too real. In Poland untold numbers of suspects were arrested or killed on the basis of little or no evidence. In the town of Thorn alone, 34 were shot for signalling with mirrors and flags, while supposed sniping in Bydgoszcz on 3 September led to a reprisal dubbed Bloody Sunday. Hans Roos, in his History of Modern Poland, observes that some 7,000 German and ethnic German civilians were deported, murdered or simply shot out of hand in the wave of national hatred which swept the country, this despite the fact that a considerable number of ethnic Germans were fighting in the Polish army. The same fictions, and the same summary justice, would be repeated across Holland, Belgium and France eight months later.

In reality, the assistance offered by German Volksdeutsche in Poland seems to have been largely uncoordinated. Many helped clear roads, repaired vehicles, fed troops and acted as guides, but this falls some way short of the mythic bands of killers and saboteurs. Abwehr units (including Brandenburg troops) did operate in civilian clothes to secure key objectives at the outset of the campaign, but not in the garb of priests or monks, or any of the more outlandish disguises commonly ascribed to the Polish fifth column. Since no airborne troops were deployed in Poland, none fought in Polish uniforms, as early reports suggested.

After six months of Bore or Phoney War, on 9 April 1940 German forces invaded Denmark. The country was taken wholly by surprise and overrun in a single day. Against this background, it is easy to understand why rumours quickly spread that German troops had hidden in the holds of ships which docked in Copenhagen some days before, and in freight cars on the Warnemunde–Gjedser ferry, to issue forth ‘like the Greeks out of the Trojan horse’ at the critical moment. In Northern Schleswig rumours of underhand tactics also extended to poisoned water supplies, although the foreign press were less interested in this particular story than in the nefarious activities of the dread fifth column. According to The Times:

Members of the large German colony undoubtedly played pre-arranged roles, as did a number of German reserve officers in civilian clothes who had obtained Danish visas in the guise of commercial travellers.

On the same day Norway too was attacked. Here it was also rumoured that German forces were smuggled into target ports by ship, while an armed fifth column already in place in Oslo passed on false orders, cut telephone wires, and sabotaged a mine barrage. Many, it was said, had entered the country in the guise of salesmen, tourists and even foster-children. These reports reached the British government on the same day and were accepted as factual. A widely syndicated report by Leland Stowe, of the Chicago Daily News, left a sinister and lasting impression:

Norway’s capital and great seaports were not captured by armed force. They were seized with unparalleled speed by means of a gigantic conspiracy which must undoubtedly rank among the most audacious and most perfectly oiled political plots of the past century. By bribery and extraordinary infiltration on the part of Nazi agents, and by treason on the part of a few highly placed Norwegian civilians and defence officials, the German dictatorship built its original Trojan Horse inside Norway.

Everywhere the portrait painted was of powerless Allies fighting an invisible enemy capable of diabolical cunning. One British sapper, evacuated after the abortive attack on Trondheim in May, lamented: ‘The place was full of spies. Every move we made was known to the Germans almost as soon as we made it.’ The truth is that the hastily assembled expeditionary force sent to Norway largely comprised ill-equipped Territorials, and failed to mount an effective counter-attack despite outnumbering the German defenders at Trondheim by six to one. On land the Norwegian campaign was an ignominious shambles, although the Royal Navy did manage to inflict decisive damage on its German counterpart.

Again, the reality of the supposed ‘Trojan Horse’ was very different. In Denmark, Volksdeutsche did little beyond offering the invading force an enthusiastic welcome, while covert actions along the frontier were undertaken by Abwehr operatives, rather than a Danish fifth column. No German troops hid in ships; instead they simply crossed the Baltic on board ferries and naval vessels on the day and took the Danes by surprise. As early as 6 May the Norwegian foreign minister announced publicly that he had still to discover a single authenticated case of treachery, but this statement was little reported. Although in Norway the name of the former foreign minister, Vidkun Quisling, would become synonymous with treachery, he was not taken seriously by Germany and his Nasjonal Samling followers took no real part in the battle. Although Quisling did succeed in seizing a radio station in order to proclaim himself Prime Minister, it was not until 1942 that his German masters permitted him to use this title. In his definitive 1953 study, The German Fifth Column in the Second World War, Dutch historian Louis de Jong concluded that in both Denmark and Norway no special forces were deployed other than regular airborne troops. An official Norwegian enquiry into whether any prominent member of the Nasjonal Samling played an active part in the German invasion reached a similarly negative conclusion. Hitler and his generals wished to keep their plans completely secret, and instead German planners relied principally on tourist guides such as Baedeker.

Although most core fifth column myths were already in place by May 1940, it was the invasion of Holland on 10 May which saw the greatest flowering of falsehoods. German paratroops now came to replace the dreaded Uhlans of 1914 in the iconography of myth, due in part to the sheer number deployed against Holland: some 4,500 paratroopers and a fleet of 430 transport aircraft. However the heightened Dutch hysteria probably owes something to the fact that Holland had remained neutral during the First World War, and thus had had no recent reminder that in war truth is always the first casualty.

The facts run as follows. In Holland the German airborne arm undertook three main operations. Paratroops of the 7th Flieger Division captured three key bridges over the River Maas, while at Rotterdam a dozen seaplanes landed 120 men, who then seized several key bridges. Less successfully, a force landed from transport planes at The Hague was almost destroyed, and failed in its object of capturing Queen Wilhelmina and her government. Allied to the spectacular conquest of the Belgian fortress at Eban Emael by just 55 combat engineers landed by glider, the overall achievement of German airborne forces in the Low Countries was considerable. However, their victory came at a high cost, with 3,900 of almost 11,000 men killed, wounded and captured, 220 Ju 52 transports destroyed, and almost every parachute lost.

From the outset fantastical reports emerged in Holland, and quickly fed back to Britain. On the night of 10 May the Home Office issued a statement warning of enemy paratroops ‘wearing uniforms calculated to deceive observers’, who should immediately report suspicious jumpers to the nearest police station. On the same day an Air Ministry circular warned that German paratroopers might descend with their arms raised above their heads, as if to surrender, but in fact holding primed grenades. The following day it was reported that 200 parachutists dressed in British uniforms had landed in The Hague. On 13 May the Daily Express ran the following, almost comically alarmist report:

On the first day of the invasion parachutists dropped out of the sky like a vast flock of vultures. Most of them were disguised in Allied or Dutch uniforms, others came down in the uniform of Dutch policemen and began to direct the population in the streets and mislead the army. One ‘policeman’ told a group of isolated Dutch troops that their friends were round the corner. When the Dutch troops turned the corner, German troops, barricaded across the road, slaughtered them …

But, most fantastic of all, the steward of an English ship said that he and the crew had watched parachutists descend in women’s clothing. They wore blouses and skirts and each carried a sub-machine-gun. The steward could not tell if they were women or men disguised as women. Several eye-witnesses in the boat confirmed it, and said that others had come down disguised as priests, peasants and civilians …

As machine-guns came out of the sky like unnatural lighting peppering the streets below, the Fifth Column crept out of their homes in German uniforms, heavily armed. Holland had combed out the Fifth Column for weeks before, but as the doors opened at 3 am the men who had been proclaimed anti-Nazis and refugees from Germany, held rifles.

In a similar vein, the Daily Telegraph told of lethal delivery boys with hand grenades in their baskets, in league with female spies who signalled their allegiance by clapping at their windows. In a litany of ‘every kind of trick to sap confidence and cause confusion’, the Daily Express listed ‘poisoned chocolates and wine’ as well as ‘spies disguised as priests and postmen and housemaids’. Another typical report appeared in the Eastern Daily Press on the same date:

Holland’s internal defence organisation is matching in alertness the valour of her fighting troops at the front as parachute invaders and the Fifth Column enemy strike at the heart of the country. German parachutists disguised as clergymen and peasants, as well as others in the uniforms of the Dutch forces, have been rounded up in several towns, while hundreds of Fifth Column suspects have been arrested… The Press Association correspondent saw one large building surrounded by police with fixed bayonets, while others climbed onto the roof and finally chased and shot a man who had been giving signals to enemy aircraft.

A detachment of Dutch soldiers was attacked yesterday near the Hague by a group of ‘Dutchmen’ who proved to be German soldiers. It is recalled that as long ago as last August a store of about 2,000 uniforms of Dutch postmen, railway officials, gendarmes and soldiers had been seen by a resident stacked up in the local offices of a small German village in Westphalia. The reasons for these collections is now revealed.

The sheer volume and similarity of these reports suggests they were the deliberate creation of official propagandists, possibly from Department EH, a small subsection of MI6 charged with the creation of propaganda. The charge of underhand tactics, and disregard for the laws and usages of war, largely replaced the overt atrocity propaganda of 1914–18, with books such as The Rape of the Netherlands (1940) and Belgium in Bondage (1943) offering far less than their lurid titles promised. However, the alleged use of human shields was revived, as is clear from The War cover reproduced in the plate section, and an official Dutch communiqué circulated by British United Press:

Some of the parachutists had forced motor coach drivers at pistol point to take them to certain places, shielded by Dutch civilians, but they were afterwards annihilated by our tanks. It seems that German soldiers are not able to fight without using civilians as shields.

From Brussels it was reported that German parachutists jumped equipped with dummies, used to simulate death on landing, allowing the parachutist to make good his escape. At Ostend they were said to have dropped in sky-blue uniforms beneath transparent canopies, so as to remain semi-invisible during their descent. In fact no German paratroops were dropped anywhere in Belgium, although another fiction was born when the Air Ministry announced on 14 May that German paratroops were released like bombs through a hole in the floor of their transports – ‘the pilot pulls a lever and out they go’.

Outlandish as these fictions seem now, in May 1940 many of them were taken seriously by the Joint Intelligence Committee, and perhaps by Churchill, who wrote to Roosevelt on the 18th warning that Britain ‘must expect to be attacked on the Dutch model before very long’. Many senior officers fell prey to the scare, including Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the naval commander at Dover, who reported:

Indications of numerous acts of sabotage and Fifth Column activity in Dover, eg communications leakages, fixed defences sabotaged, second-hand cars purchased at fantastic prices and left at various parking places.

On 31 May General Ironside, then Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, recorded in his diary that:

Fifth Column reports coming in from everywhere. A man with an arm-band and a swastika pulled up near an important aerodrome in the Southern Command. Important telegraph poles marked, suspicious men moving at night all over the country …

Indeed on 2 July Ironside recorded confidently that ‘there is signalling going on all over the place’ and ‘people quite definitely preparing aerodromes’ while at the same time (and apparently without irony) noting with regret that no one seemed able to obtain any evidence.

Even as late as September 1940, Home Guard units in London were formally instructed to watch for signalling to aircraft. In 1941 the Ministry of Information resorted to faking refugee memoirs, for example The Diary of a Dutch Boy Refugee by the wholly fictive Dirk van der Heide, while in 1942 films such as The Foreman Went to France and Went The Day Well? continued to peddle well-worn fifth column stereotypes. Returning to 1940, MI5 undertook what the Official History describes as an ‘elaborate analysis’ of suspicious markings on telegraph poles around the country, while the RAF flew patrols to scour the countryside for larger markings in fields. Most of the coded signs on telegraph poles turned out to be the handiwork of Scouts and Girl Guides, while another report ‘sponsored from a very high quarter’ that trees had been felled in a wood so as to form an arrow pointing to a neighbouring airfield proved no less illusory. A revealing first-hand account of the abortive investigation of a scout master thought to be involved in jamming a Chain Home radar station at West Beckham in Norfolk is given by R.V. Jones in his book Most Secret War. At nearby Stiffkey in June the naturalist, author and Great War veteran Henry Williamson, best known for his novel Tarka the Otter, was arrested following local gossip that concrete roads on his farm had been laid to assist a German invasion, and that a fanlight inserted to give light on a stairway was a means of signalling to hostile aircraft. None of the countless reports received and investiagted by MI5 was found to have any substance, or indicated a genuine Fifth Column activity, to lead to the detection of a single enemy agent.

Nor were the Dutch military immune. In his account The Ordeal of the Frontier Battalion, published in 1945, E.P. Weber recalled:

One cannot name a single commander in the Dutch army who, according to rumour, has not been killed at least once. Over the roads along which our troops are to march poison gas has been observed. Whenever chocolates are found they should be destroyed, because they are sure to be poisoned. In our grenades there was supposed to be sand instead of gunpowder, and the rumour went that casemates had crumbled at the first shot because the concrete was no good.

Paratroops and parachute saboteurs were frequently run together to form a single menace from the air, as in the following report from 14 May. On this date a large British contingent from Holland returned by sea, including sundry consular officials, newsmen and the entire Sadlers Wells Ballet Company.

All the passengers had a great deal to say concerning Germany’s Fifth Column in Holland. Many Nazi supporters, even domestic servants, went to the aid of the parachutists who appeared in all manner of disguises as dustmen, clergymen, policemen and postmen. They frequently knocked at a private house and at the point of their revolver demanded civilian clothing.

Many paratroops who had been taken prisoner were boys of 16 and 17. They did not know what fighting meant and they told a Dutch officer that they had been pushed out of the plane when over their objective. One carried with him his last letter from his mother and her picture. He said he had made up his mind when he set out that he would never live to see her again.

Little if any of this was true, and as we shall see, the technique of spreading useful disinformation via travellers and passengers would be repeated later in 1940 when the myth of a failed German invasion attempt was actively promoted in America. Among the evacuees returning from Holland was Sir Neville Bland, the British Minister to the Dutch government in The Hague, who quickly prepared a report on the ‘Fifth Column Menace’. This thousand-word fantasy included the following disinformation:

All boys of 16 to 18, completely sodden with Hitler’s ideas, and with nothing else in their minds but to cause as much death and destruction as they could before being killed themselves. They dropped on the roofs of houses, in open spaces – even in private gardens …

Bland also told how a detachment of German troops were led to a vital bridge by a German maidservant, and warned that when the moment came, the fifth column in Britain would

At once embark on widespread sabotage and attacks on civilians and military indiscriminately. The paltriest kitchen maid not only can be, but generally is, a menace to the safety of the country … and we cannot conclude from the experiences of the last war that ‘the enemy in our midst’ is no less dangerous than it was then. I have not the least doubt that, when the signal is given, as it will scarcely fail to be when Hitler so decides, there will be satellites of the monster all over the country who will at once embark on widespread sabotage and attacks on civilians and the military indiscriminately. We cannot afford to take this risk. ALL Germans and Austrians, at least, ought to be interned at once.

Some credit Bland with importing the worst of the paratroop and fifth column myths into Britain, yet most had already appeared in the press. At the same time Department EH prepared a report titled ‘Operations in Holland’, containing the now-familiar litany of bizarre disguises, poisoned cigarettes, and peasant girls armed with machine-guns. In truth the main purpose of the Bland report was to help justify the mass internment of male aliens, which the Home Secretary had ordered on 13 May.

Myth and reality were blurred further still on 16 May when the Dutch foreign minister, E.N. van Kleffens, stated for the first time that enemy parachutists had landed dressed as nuns. This picturesque image would in time become an integral thread in the mythology of the fifth column. Van Kleffens fed the falsehood first to the French press, which meant that it did not immediately catch fire in Britain. By the end of May paratroop myths had expanded beyond sky-blue uniforms, dummies and female attire to include Hunnish brutality. It was said that some dead jumpers found in Holland ‘had obviously been shot in the back – presumably by their officers in the plane when they displayed an undue reluctance to take the drop into space’. A late report at the end of May from Norway held that some Germans were being kicked out of their transports without parachutes: ‘These soldiers are ordered or thrown out of low-flying aeroplanes onto patches of snow on the hill slopes, in the hope that some of them will escape without broken limbs.’ This absurd tale was perhaps inspired by the fact that a significant number of German paratroops were killed by canopies which failed to open.

While conceding that some of these ‘well-armed desperadoes’ had landed ‘dressed as women and girls’, The War Illustrated was prepared to accord the Fallschirmjäger a measure of respect:

The parachute soldier is a formidable invader. He may bring with him a collapsible bicycle and may even carry a portable tent; with his iron rations he can keep going until he obtains food from the country; should he be able to make contact with a Fifth Columnist he is sure to help.