The Monocled World War II Interrogator
Robin “Tin Eye” Stephens became known for “breaking” captured German spies without laying a hand on them
The gloomy, sprawling Victorian mansion is nestled in the center of Ham Common, a village outside London. During World War I, Latchmere House served as a hospital for the Ministry of Defence; officers were treated for shell shock in the bucolic setting along the Thames. But by World War II, Her Majesty’s Prison Service had taken control of the house and surrounded it with barbed wire. The silence there gave little indication of the intensity and importance of the work being done in the building known as Camp 020, MI5’s secret interrogation center. Within those walls, captured German agents were questioned under the command of a ferociously tempered British officer named Lieutenant Colonel Robin Stephens. Boorish, disdainful of the non-English but half-German himself, Stephens was nicknamed “Tin Eye” for the monocle he was said to wear even when he slept. He had a record of breaking down even the most hardened of German spies.
“Figuratively, a spy in war should be at the points of a bayonet,” wrote Stephens, who insisted that he be addressed as the “commandant.” Yet he was adamant about one thing at Camp 020. “Violence is taboo,” he wrote, “for not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information.” In his instructions for interrogators, Stephens wrote, “Never strike a man. In the first place it is an act of cowardice. In the second place, it is not intelligent. A prisoner will lie to avoid further punishment and everything he says thereafter will be based on a false premise.”
Guy Liddell, a fellow officer at Latchmere House, wrote in his diary of Stephens’ efforts to prevent violence there after an officer from MI9 “manhandled” a prisoner during an interrogation. “It is quite clear to me that we cannot have this sort of thing going on in our establishment,” Liddell wrote. “Apart from the moral aspect of the whole thing, I am quite convinced that these Gestapo methods do not pay in the long run.” At one point, Stephens expelled an interrogator from the War Office for striking a prisoner.
But the commandant did apply many forms of psychological pressure. He created an eerily silent and isolating environment at Latchmere House that seemed to evoke a sense of foreboding among the captives. Guards wore tennis shoes to muffle the sound of their steps. Cells were bugged. No prisoners encountered one another. “No chivalry. No gossip. No cigarettes,” Stephens wrote in his reports. Prisoners were kept alone and in silence. Food was kept bland, and no cigarettes were to be offered. Sleep deprivation was a common tactic, as was the hooding of prisoners for long stretches of time.
Stephens also found significant leverage in a provision of the law: in wartime, captured spies who refused to cooperate could face execution. Of the nearly 500 prisoners who arrived at Latchmere House during the war, 15 were shot or hanged at the Tower of London under Stephens’s command. (William Joyce, the American-born, Irish fascist known as Lord Haw-Haw, was interrogated there after he renounced his British citizenship and fled to Germany to broadcast Nazi propaganda over the radio; he was hanged for treason in 1946.) There were also several suicides.
But the number of prisoners who provided useful intelligence for the British was significant: 120 were judged to be of high value and handed over to MI5′s B Division for misinformation and other counterespionage purposes, and Stephens turned more than a dozen of them into highly successful double agents.
Stephens was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1900 and attended the Lycée Francais there before returning to England to attend Dulwich College, the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich and then Quetta Cadet College in India. He spoke seven languages fluently, among them Urdu, Arabic and Somali and spent years as an officer and rising star with the Gurkhas, the elite regiment of the Nepalese troops in the British army, according to Gordon Thomas in his book, Secret Wars: One Hundred Years of British Intelligence Inside MI5 and MI6. Stephens was seconded to MI5, and in July of 1940, he and his staff moved to Latchmere House, where they set up shop amid 30 cells.
He had seen much of the world, but Stephens was by no means broad-minded. He acknowledged that he was xenophobic and still expressed dislike for “weeping and romantic fat Belgians,” “unintelligent” Icelanders and “shifty Polish Jews.” He had no tolerance for homosexual behavior. But Germans were at the top of his most hated list, and enemy spies, he wrote, were “the rabble of the universe, their treachery not matched by their courage.”
Stephens fancied himself an amateur psychologist and did a great deal of reading on the human psyche, including Freud and Jung. His interrogative abilities, he claimed, stemmed from “years of studying the complex minds of the Gurkhas he had commanded,” Thomas writes. “We are here to crush a spy psychologically,” he told his staff, according to Thomas. “Crush his mind into small pieces, examine those pieces and then if they reveal qualities useful to the war effort—like becoming double agents—they must be mentally rebuilt. Those who do not have the qualities we require will end up on the gallows or before a firing squad in the Tower of London.”
A “breaker,” Stephens opined in a report, “is born and not made. “Pressure is attained by personality, tone and rapidity of questions, a driving attack in the nature of a blast which will scare a man out of his wits.”
When he felt that a prisoner was ready, Stephens would arrive at the doorway, dressed in his Gurkha uniform. Protocol required that the prisoners stand upon his entrance, and under the glare of a bare bulb, Tin Eye would grill his subjects for hours, beyond their limits of endurance, flanked by two intimidating officers. “I am not saying this in any sense of a threat,” Stephens told one captive, “but you are here in a British Secret Service prison at the present time and it’s our job in wartime to see that we get your whole story from you. Do you see?”
He had the tenacity to bring attention to the most mundane and precise detail. He would commonly interrogate a subject for long stretches of time over 48 hours in which the subject remained awake. Sometimes, according to Ben Macintyre, author of Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal, “Captain Short, a rotund, owlish figure who was as cheery as his boss was menacing,” would step in to offer sympathy in a technique Stephens described as “blow hot-blow cold.” An “extroverted oddball” was how one historian described him, and some of his own officers feared him and believed him to be “quite mad.”
By 1941, MI5‘s counterespionage and deception operation was so successful that its chairman, John Cecil Masterman, boasted that the agency “actively ran and controlled the German espionage system” in England. Stephens’s interrogations also gleaned information that aided Allied codebreakers.
And yet after the war he came to grief. Assigned to an interrogation center at Bad Nenndorf in Germany, he oversaw the captivity of some of the worst Nazi war criminals. By 1947, the camp’s staff and budget had come under the axe; staffing was reduced by more than half. A number of inmates suffered severe physical abuse or malnourishment; two died shortly after being removed to a civilian hospital. Stephens and other officers in charge were court-martialed on various charges. Stephens was accused of professional negligence and disgraceful conduct, but a London court acquitted him.
Tin Eye Stephens went on to become a Security Service liaison officer, serving in Accra in the Gold Coast (Ghana). The interrogation of prisoners remains a complicated and contentious issue, but his rejection of physical means remains a vital part of his legacy.
Books: Ben Macintyre, Agent ZigZag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal, Harmony Books, 2007. Nicholas Booth, Zigzag: The Incredible Wartime Exploits of Double-Agent Eddie Chapman, Portrait Books, 2007. Frederick Taylor, Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany, Bloomsbury Press, 2011. Gordon Thomas, Secret Wars: One Hundred Years of British Intelligence Inside MI5 and MI6, Thomas Dunne Books, 2009. Nigel West, The Guy Liddell Diaries; MI5′s Director of Counter-Espionage in World War II, Vol. 1: 1939-1942, Routledge, 2005. Gus Walters, Hunting Evil: The Nazi War Criminals Who Escaped and the Quest to Bring Them to Justice, Broadway Books, 2009. Christopher Andrew, Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, Vintage Books, 2010.
Articles: Simon Usborne, “Top Secret: A Century of British Espionage,” The Independent, October 6, 2009. Ian Cobain, “The Interrogation CAmp that Turned Prisoners into Living Skeletons,” The Guardian, December 16, 2005. “History, Bad Nenndorf”, Security Service MI5, https://www.mi5.gov.uk/output/bad-nenndorf.html “History: Cases From the National Archives-Eddie Chapman (Agent Zigzag), Security Service MI5, https://www.mi5.gov.uk/output/eddie-chapman-agent-zigzag.html