The Englandspiel was a counter-espionage operation set up by the Germans that lasted from March 1942 to April 1944. Secret agents of the SOE who had been dropped over the Netherlands were often arrested immediately upon landing and forced to maintain radio contact with England. Despite hidden warnings in their broadcast messages, British intelligence continued to send secret agents, eventually over 50 of them were murdered in captivity. The majority in Mauthausen.
Churchill had set up the SOE in 1940 to “set Europe ablaze”, by helping the resistance movements in occupied countries. At its peak it had some 10,000 men and 3,200 women working for it, running agents and arranging resistance and sabotage behind enemy lines. The organisation had many successes, especially in France, but it had some failures, of which the disaster in the Netherlands was by far the worst.
Recently released records show that poor leadership of the Dutch section of SOE sowed the seeds of disaster. In the vital period Major Charles Blizard, who used the codename “Blunt”, headed the Dutch section, though he was replaced by a Major Bingham.
Under SOE’s “Plan for Holland” agents started to be dropped into the Netherlands in 1941. Among one of the first teams parachuted in, on a November night, was Thijs Taconis, a trained saboteur, and his wireless operator, Hubert Lauwers. The German security police then penetrated the embryonic Dutch underground movement and a stool pigeon informed on Lauwers, who was captured early in March 1942.
He was forced to transmit messages to England, but was confident that SOE in London would spot a false security check. Unfortunately it did not. Shortly afterwards it told him to receive another agent. “Watercress” arrived on 27 March. He was captured and the process went on as further agents arrived. The lack of radio security checks was ignored by SOE in London. It was even stupid enough to radio back to one operator: “You ought to use your security checks,” thereby alerting the Germans to the existence of such checks.
The German operation was called Englandspiel – the England Game – and its chief strategist was Lieutenant Colonel H J Giskes. He reported daily to Hitler through Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr – German intelligence. By April 1943 the Germans controlled 18 radio channels back to London.
For about 15 months, SOE’s Dutch section planned the creation of resistance in Netherlands , recruiting and training agents, sending and receiving intelligence and other wireless traffic, the dispatch of supply-laden aircraft, all the time confident that a vigorous underground movement was being built.
A memo of May 1943 says: “The sabotage organisation as planned is now complete. It comprises five groups containing 62 cells and totalling some 420 men. These groups are now well equipped with stores and are ready for action.”
In reality the entire operation was compromised. The files reveal that, up to October 1943, SOE sent 56 agents to the Netherlands of which 43 were given a “reception” by the Germans. Of the 56 only eight survived. Of those captured 36 were executed in September 1944, at Mauthausen concentration camp. Eleven RAF aircraft were shot down in the process. (A later War Cabinet note observed that RAF losses on these missions had been “abnormally high”.)
The phoney network was finally revealed to London after the escape from Haaren concentration camp in August 1943 of two SOE agents, Pieter Diepenbroek and Johan Ubbink – “Sprout” and “Chive”.
Files in the Public Record Office contain the debriefings of “Sprout” and “Chive”, which make clear that the Germans had controlled the Dutch “Underground” movement for more than 18 months.
The Germans realised that their double-cross network had been blown. Giskes signed off with this message to London on April Fool’s Day 1944:
“Messrs, Blunt, Bingham and Successors, Ltd. London. In the last time you are trying to make business in the Netherlands without our assistance. We think this rather unfair in view of our long and successful co-operation as your sole agents. But never mind, when you come to pay a visit to the Continent you may be assured that you will be received with the same care and result as all those you sent before. So long!”
The files also show the courageous “Sprout” and “Chive” were locked up in Brixton Prison upon their return to London in case they were German double agents.
“Sprout” and “Chive” were convinced that the Germans had help from Major Bingham, then the Dutch section’s head. “No one else was in such a good position to `play ball’ with the enemy,” Chive told his MI5 interviewers.
The British author of the memo was clearly angered by the assertion. The two had had the temerity to make an allegations against a British officer, “which it is fair to say they have failed to substantiate”. The two were later released and allowed to join the Dutch Armed Forces.
The SOE post-mortem examination shows that serious doubts had been raised about the network as early as July 1942 but the warning had been ignored by the section’s chief. “Not only, however, does there appear to have been a failure to look the facts squarely in the face but also failure when suspicion had once been aroused to test suspicions.”
Major Blizard had gone by the time of the denouement. Major Bingham was posted Australia.
The Germans’ chief gain from the fiasco was that until just before D- day they thwarted all attempts to build a Dutch resistance movement into Allied plans and to equip it ready for action.
Several files on the SOE in the Netherlands are still withheld.
Below are just some of those brave men. These few were all murdered in Mauthausen on September 6,1944.
The fifty Dutch SOE agents that had been captured by the Germans were transported to Mauthausen concentration camp in September 1944 as allied military forces were advancing into the Netherlands, and eventually executed. Giskes, the Abwehr mastermind of Englandspiel, was arrested by the British, but after the war was employed by the United States during the occupation of Germany.
Some of the officials of the Dutch government-in-exile in London refused to cooperate with SOE when the details of Englandspiel became known to them. They were ordered to do so by the Dutch Prince Bernhard, and a fresh start was made in mid-to-late 1944 under new leadership at SOE. Twenty-five well equipped and trained sabotage teams of two Dutch agents each were parachuted into the Netherlands. However, engendered by Englandspiel the British distrusted the Dutch resistance which prevented it from having an impact in Operation Market Garden, the unsuccessful offensive by allied military forces in the Netherlands in September 1944. The spearhead of the British forces, the First British Airborne Division, was ordered not to cooperate with the resistance. Had it not been ignored, the resistance would have been helpful in providing badly needed intelligence and communications to the division which had to be withdrawn from the battlefield after heavy losses.
Conspiracy theories in the Netherlands alleged that a traitor in SOE caused the Englandspiel and that Dutch agents were sacrificed to conceal allied plans for an invasion of the Netherlands. “For many, it was simply impossible to fathom how the devastation caused by das Englandspiel could have been the result of stupidity and ineptness. “The contrary and more accepted view of M.R.D Foot is that “the agents were victims of sound police work on the German side, assisted by Anglo-Dutch incompetence in London.”