The War Hero in my Family: A Profile of Ernst Lederer

The War Hero in my Family: A Profile of Ernst Lederer
It wasn’t until a documentary programme invited me to take part in their series ​‘War Hero in my Family’ in 2011⁄2 that the true secrets of my grandfather Ernst Lederer’s ​‘other’ life emerged. Up until that time, I was under the impression that Big Baba, as we knew him, had been conscripted into the Home Guard and was busy guarding Hampstead Heath to play his part in the war effort. We even had photographs of him in ​‘Dad’s Army’ uniform.

And although I had grown up knowing my grandparents, father and aunt were forced to escape Hitler in 1939 and rebuild a life in England, my sister and cousins had no idea about Ernst Lederer’s work as a ​‘Secret Listener’.

If it hadn’t been for beady eyed historian Paul Reed (who was working on the documentary), I would never have been given this final jewel of information. Paul’s interpretation of a key letter of gratitude sent by the Head of MI9 to Big Baba in 1944, led us (along with the camera crew) to the basement of Trent Park to be told about his real war work. Here, in the basement of the stately home previously owned by Sir Philip Sassoon, German-speaking refugees would sit with their headphones to record and interpret the unguarded conversations of captured German officers. Pot plants and skirting boards were used to hide microphones and the seemingly simple eavesdropping device was never discovered.

Records of these conversations have been made available relatively recently in the Public Records Office at Kew, demonstrating the range of attitudes revealed by the captured generals as they enjoyed the luxuries provided by the British Government.

A second documentary took me back to Trent Park a few years later, where historian Helen Fry suggested that Ernst Lederer had not only been a Secret Listener but had also been tasked with mingling amongst the German generals to manipulate their conversations and tease out essential information. His affable personality may have come in useful when extracting information from the incarcerated generals. He was asked to assess their characters and interview them personally. The generals were encouraged by these ​‘stool pigeons’ to speak freely about the war, and remarkably enough, they were most forthcoming.

The debt I owe to these discoveries is huge. If I hadn’t taken part in ​‘War Hero’, I would never have been introduced to Frantisek Lederer, my father’s cousin who was still in his 80s when we met in a Prague community centre for an emotional reunion. Unlike many of my relatives, Frantisek survived Auschwitz. His fate was sealed, when a guard decided to spare him from the gas chambers because they both came from the same town in Teplitz. He was fourteen. He spent his later years visiting schools and telling them about his experience. If I hadn’t taken part in either programme, our family documents may never have been processed and I would never have learned that Ernst may well have been part of the Czech resistance or understood the significance of intelligence gathering. While Ernst Lederer was at Trent Park, my 21-year-old mother was recruited from university to Bletchley Park in Hut 6 as a code breaker to process message traffic that was particularly difficult to identify. My Czech grandfather and English mother hadn’t yet met at this time, but when they did, the Official Secrets Act would have ensured their individual work was never discussed. Ever. When my grandmother waved her husband off to guard the Heath, he was in fact on his way to Cockfosters in Enfield, to take up his duties in Trent Park House. – Helen Lederer.

Ernst Ledererwas born in Teplitz, in the Sudetenland, in 1892. He enlisted to fight for the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914, and spent the First World War in the trenches alongside German and Italian soldiers. After the war, Ernst married Margarette (the pair had two children, Peter and Brigit) and resumed his furniture business in Czechoslovakia.

In 1939, while the threat from Hitler was ignored by many, Ernest made plans to leave. His brothers, mother and immediate family remained. Ernst sent his son to school in England in 1938, before arriving himself in 1939, meanwhile his wife and daughter arrived together on one of the last trains out.

He and his wife settled in Hampstead and started another furniture business. While many German-speaking refugees were interned, Ernst Lederer was recruited by M19 at the same time as being conscripted into the Home Guard. By then he was in his early fifties and signed the Official Secrets Act, meaning he would take his secrets to the grave when he died in 1959.

Ernst’s medals are testimony to his work in both wars. The work was vital in working out who the German prisoners were, where they fitted into the Nazi hierarchy and what intelligence they could be encouraged to give up. This not only gave an indication into attitudes towards Hitler, but also crucial information on weapons, tactics, and vital evidence into the Holocaust. A letter dated 12 November 1944, addressed to Captain Lederer, from Major General J. A. Sinclair, the Director of Military Intelligence states his gratitude, if a little obliquely:

“I wish to convey my real gratitude for and appreciation of the assistance you have given to my interrogation organisation in respect of POWs captured during recent operations on the Continent. Your keenness and self-sacrifice in volunteering to assist in this work, and the efficiency shown in its execution, have materially contributed to these satisfactory results. Thank you again for what you have done.”

Other German-speaking Secret Listeners, such as Eric Mark, later observed that many Secret Listeners found the Germans to be ​‘arrogant’ and that they genuinely believed they were infallible. The intelligence gathered by the Secret Listeners was of huge value: one of their key discoveries was the location of the site where the V2 Rockets were being made – in Peenemünde, Germany. As a result, the British destroyed the area, saving countless lives as a result.

After the war, Ernst continued to run his furniture business until his death in 1959, taking his secrets to the grave with him.