How Secret Were the Secret Listeners?

How Secret Were the Secret Listeners?
On the 9th of July 1943 at Trent Park, Senior German General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim called an extraordinary meeting of his fellow inmates in the communal mess area. Von Arnim had commanded the 10th and 21st Panzer divisions prior to his capture earlier in the year in the doomed North Africa campaign and was surprisingly upbeat about German prospects in the war. Thus he encouraged morale boosting conversation. However, he warned, ​‘none of us know whether listening apparatus is still installed’ (acknowledging Trent Park’s previous use as an interrogation centre).

Von Arnim urged his audience against handing the enemy easy propaganda opportunities. His main reason for caution was, in his mind, when Germany was gloriously victorious there would be nothing on record that as Prisoners of War they might be ashamed of. A month later Von Arnim repeated his warning adding that he wanted ​“no defeatist talk”. Von Arnim however lost credibility with his colleagues, who ignored him, since he had been seen chatting intensely about the progress of the war with ​‘Lord Aberfeldy’ and had been having tantrums about which radio station was being listened to.

Overall, the Germans underestimated the whole ​‘secret listening’ operation at Trent Park. British Technology was superior because for example, the Post Office Research Department (Dollis Hill) were constantly improving bugging devices not only for improved clarity but also to avoid detection. Ingenious locations of the devices were used as well as the normal wall and light fitting locations, trees, window sills and even the billiard table. All were intended to catch every potential vital piece of information. The Germans probably also underestimated the efficiency and diligence of the Allied staff in dealing with the gleaned information; the recording, collating, evaluating and distribution to other co-operative intelligence organisations when it was deemed necessary.

Some Germans incarcerated in the plush Sassoon era décor at Trent Park were right to be suspicious of tapping. However, as the war turned against Nazi Germany the prisoners seemed to lose all sense of caution, revealing to the British their true state of mind, whether it was about Hitler, the Nazi party, war crimes or their generally distorted world view. All were secretly listened to.

Further Reading:

Ellis, C. 2001. 21st. Panzer Division: Rommel’s Afrika Korps Spearhead. Ian Allan Publishing.

Fry, H. 2020. The Walls Have Ears: The Greatest Intelligence Operation of World War II. Yale University Press.

Neitzel, S. 2013. Tapping Hitler’s Generals: Transcripts of Secret Conversations 1942 – 45. Frontline Books.