1939-45 MI9 and the Stool Pigeons
Escape, evasion and Prisoners of War
In December 1939 the War Office formed MI9. Their role was to enable and assist the escape from enemy territory of British prisoners of war and to help in the return of those who had evaded capture behind enemy lines. They were also tasked with collecting and disseminating information to British and Allied prisoners within POW camps, often using innovative and novel methods to ensure the secrecy of their clandestine operations.
Whilst MI9 might be lesser known today, one aspect of their work was immortalised by Ian Fleming through the fictionalised character of Q. Fleming was linked to MI9 through his role in Naval Intelligence. The ingenious creations given to James Bond have their origins in the gadgets that were created by Christopher Clayton Hutton and Charles Fraser-Smith. Their technical ingenuity and creativity saw them invent all sorts of tools to assist those already in prison camps, as well as those trying to find their way back to Britain. They included tiny compasses hidden in uniform buttons, foreign currency rolled into toothpaste tubes, flying boots that could be converted to civilian shoes, hacksaws hidden in dart boards and numerous other items that could be sent to POW camps without suspicion.
The clandestine techniques of MI9 enabled hundreds of British and Allied forces to return to Britain through the escape and evasion lines that criss-crossed occupied Europe. Critical to this success were the hundreds of thousands of maps that were given to airmen, special forces and other units who were going into action. These were printed on silk, or tissue paper, and stitched into clothing, or hidden in playing cards, imitation sweets and even small fruit.
Beyond the considerable operations in escape and evasion MI9 had a second role, which is perhaps a lesser known, but maybe more significant and certainly just as ingenious.
They were responsible for gathering intelligence from captured enemy service personnel who were held in Britain. The interrogation of enemy prisoners was originally the responsibility of MI1 (the forerunner of MI6), operating from the Tower of London, but was taken over by MI9 (later MI19) upon their formation in December 1939. They soon moved their primary base to Trent Park in Buckinghamshire and expanded further in 1941 to Latimer Park and Wilton Park. Headed by Thomas Joseph Kendrick, prisoners of war were interrogated for important information to support the war effort.
Interrogation was only thought to be successful when questioning was used alongside secret listeners (known as M-Rooms) and stool pigeons. Whilst all the cells were ‘bugged’ using advanced microphones, and recorded and listened to by specialists, the conversations didn’t always provide the details needed. It was this that stool pigeons could help with. These were fake prisoners, often ex-refugees, who would pretend to be prisoners of war and be placed in cells with genuine prisoners. Starting with only four ex-refugees these stool pigeons would often flatter a prisoner, and get the prisoner to recall an interrogation, bringing with the re-telling more details and an idea of the accuracy of information given. They “could accomplish a great deal to help an interrogator” (War Office Report, 1945, Intelligence from Prisoners of War) putting prisoners in the right frame of mind and generating conversation that could be listened to by the secret listeners. In all it is thought there were around forty-nine stool pigeons used during the war, rewarded with preferential treatment and special trips.
The combination of the secret listeners and stool pigeons was able to give MI9 information on new weapons such as incendiary devices, proposed German tactics like chemical weapons, movements and details of German Battleships, aircraft developments and capabilities and much more. Reports were used by the air, land, and naval ministries in their war efforts. As well as by Bletchley Park and the other Intelligence Services, to develop counter-measures, critical in the allied war effort.
At the end of the war British Intelligence refused to release the documents, and the unit’s existence and achievements were kept secret. There were an estimated 75,000 records held, some of which have been opened to the public. However, even today, many details of the stool pigeons remain clouded in mystery, with their identities either protected or lost.
By Emma Breeze