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Castaways in Question

There is an enduring fascination with the secret history of the two world wars. Castaways of the Kriegsmarine, examines the interrogators’ contribution to British naval intelligence in early 1944. This project was planned to work back from there and show how the interrogation system reached such a high state of tune. I quickly realised that most of the 1939 naval team learnt their trade in the First World War, when these veterans developed their technique. The story inexorably grew.

Some of the characters who founded the service pop up repeatedly. Transcripts of prisoners’ unguarded conversations reveal their individuality, and their struggle to reconcile conflicting loyalties. We think about the pressures that could induce a U-boat crewman to change sides. We consider the everyday serviceman’s awareness and experience of the Nazi regime’s atrocities.

We see how British naval intelligence officers were the first in the world to notice and exploit a loophole in the Hague Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. We watch them develop a structured, systematic information source that produced important results in the First World War and had a critical influence on the second. We learn how the team’s successes saved countless naval and merchant seamen’s lives – and how they didn’t get everything right.

Two questions run through the book. They are the ones I am asked most often about the topic: ‘Did it work?’ and ‘Did we use torture?’ The answer to the first is an emphatic yes, to the second a qualified no.


This book examines the interrogation of German prisoners captured by the British navy in the First and Second World Wars, explaining the process, identifying the objectives and analysing the information garnered. It is a fascinating story hitherto largely shrouded in mists of ignorance and neglect. It deserves detailed scrutiny and Nudd is a wonderful guide. As a trained historian with a second degree in operational research and a lifetime’s experience in engineering, he sets the context, lucidly describes technical developments and evaluates what was achieved with balanced judgments. And he writes absorbingly well. 
In Castaways of the Kriegsmarine Nudd gave 5 snapshots of WW2 naval interrogation at work over a short time-span. In this new book he charts the development of this wing of naval intelligence from before the Great War. He tracks its course through WW2 and a tad beyond and attempts a more far-reaching evaluation than the earlier book allowed. This would be fascinating as an intellectual exercise but it is so much more: we are made to think  how events might have unfolded if NSDIC had not existed or if it had fumbled its catches. 
Interrogators probed for scraps of information about new weapons or techniques, and were alert to indications of how effectively Allied systems were working against the enemy. Unwary hints of devastation to come for the British gave forewarning of German inventions or tactical advances, hints to be pursued by later questioners or planted informers. Microphones detected private chat between POWs and sometimes yielded detailed technical information of great value. Even arrogantly uncommunicative prisoners unwittingly provided snapshots of morale in Nazi Germany. 
Trained intelligence specialists managed to learn much which had real benefit for Allied war planners. Nudd skilfully allows us to eavesdrop on this process. We sense the concern of interrogators as they uncovered fresh dangers being devised by Nazi scientists and weapons specialists – and provided information to spur on the hunt for a remedy. Occasionally RN intelligence detected a threat so far in advance that a counter-measure was in place before the weapon became operational. This book allows us to sense the tension: interrogation was not a mind puzzle for unusual naval staff but a crucial component in Britain’s existential struggle against a pitiless ideology. Like cryptanalysis it called for minute attention to detail and an imagination rigorously controlled by evidence: like Bletchley it sometimes laid golden eggs. 
... It is a piece of original writing, fair-minded, scrupulously researched and satisfying for a serious readership. 
Richard Blake, MA (Oxford), M Phil (Southampton), FSNR
August 2020

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