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The Game Against England

During World War II, the Allies outnumbered, outgunned and outproduced the Axis many times over.

By Thomas Boghardt

By general consensus, they also outspied them. In one theater, however, German spooks turned the tables and inflicted a devastating defeat on the vaunted British Special Operations Executive (SOE). The “Englandspiel” or “Game against England,” as the Germans called it, was a hugely successful—if completely ruthless—counterespionage operation.

In March 1942, the Germans captured Huub Lauwers, a Dutch SOE agent based in The Hague, who communicated with London by code using a wireless set. Rather than imprison or execute Lauwers, the Abwehr (military intelligence) and Gestapo (secret police) decided to run him jointly as a double-agent. Hoping to pass a warning to London, Lauwers agreed to operate under German control. Alas, SOE headquarters ignored the many warnings he managed to insert in his German-prescribed messages and continued to believe he was their man. “Am I stupid or are they?” Lauwers wondered in despair.

Lauwers, who survived the war in captivity, later suspected that SOE deliberately “missed” his clues and played along with the Germans in order to feed disinformation to Berlin. But no hard evidence to this effect has ever surfaced, nor did London in any way exploit the fact that the Germans controlled an SOE network in the Netherlands. Evidently, British intelligence was simply outwitted by their German counterpart.

Over a period of 18 months, the Germans used Lauwers to request more and more funds, materiel and, most of all, SOE operatives to be parachuted into the Netherlands. The incoming British agents were invariably picked up by German security forces. Eventually, over 60 SOE operatives were arrested, cross-examined and for the most part executed. The Germans also shot down several RAF aircraft during agent-dropping missions. Through interviews of captured operatives, the Abwehr and Gestapo gained valuable insights into British intelligence—down to the level of detail such as which brand of cigarette some SOE instructors preferred. SOE operations in the Netherlands were virtually paralyzed.

In August 1943, two captured SOE agents managed to escape. However, before they could contact the British, their German handler informed London that the two had defected to the Gestapo, ostensibly using one of their radio sets. This ingenious ruse resulted in the arrest of the two escapees as soon as they arrived in England. Still, the Germans decided to call it quits. In an unusual display of Teutonic humor, Abwehr Major Hans Giskes aired the following message in clear on All Fools’ Day 1944:

“To [SOE section chiefs] Messrs Blunt, Bingham and Successors Ltd. You are trying to make business in Netherlands without our assistance. We think this rather unfair in view of our long and successful cooperation as your sole agent. But never mind whenever you will 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 who you sent us before. So long...”