11 March 1943. In a cell at Latimer House in Buckinghamshire, two German soldiers, a lower rank infantry officer captured in Tunisia the previous year, and a paratrooper captured in Algeria a few months before, are discussing the interrogations they have undergone. The previous day, British agents had hauled the paratrooper into an interrogation room and shown him a sketch of some rocket launch ramps. He had given nothing away and was now boasting about it. As he told his cellmate, the British had got the dimensions of the projectile and its track entirely wrong, and, thankfully, knew absolutely nothing of Germany’s launch ramp designs. What’s more, the interrogating officers had tried in vain to soften him up to make him talk. They were unbelievably stupid.
What the prisoners did not suspect was that behind the walls of their cell a team of secret listeners were recording, transcribing and interpreting every word. That these two prisoners had been brought together in the one room was no accident, and the interrogations which had been so inadequate were not what they seemed. Above all, their boastful conversations were not private. The captured soldiers had unwittingly handed over another piece of vital information to MI6, playing their part in an elaborate hoax, a brilliantly conceived and spectacularly successful strategy to extract information from German prisoners of war. The recording of prisoners’ private conversations following an interrogation was one part of an enormous clandestine operation run by one man: Thomas Joseph Kendrick. When war was declared on 3 September 1939, Kendrick already had three decades of experience in espionage and running spy networks across Europe for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6). His eventful career was veiled in total secrecy and would not have appeared out of place in the gritty world of a John Le Carré novel.
Kendrick was both soldier and spy, having served Britain in intelligence since the age of twenty-one at the end of the Boer War, into the 1910s in South Africa, and again during the First World War in France. He had been formally on the payroll of SIS since 1923. In 1925, he was posted to Vienna as the British Passport Officer – a cover for his SIS intelligence work. He oversaw spy networks across Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Italy and handled a number of double agents. Kendrick was the ideal spymaster – quick-witted, gregarious, cultured and a gifted pianist who charmed his way through Austrian high society and gathered useful contacts for his spy network. Like a spider, he spun his fine web in every discreet corner of Europe and stole secrets for his country. With an old-fashioned sense of humour, he could amuse a room full of guests and regularly entertained in his Viennese apartment. Gregarious, yes – but he was also discreet, trained in the art of human espionage and able to think on his feet.
Within hours of Hitler’s annexation of Austria on 12 March 1938, termed ‘the Anschluss’, the British Passport Office was inundated with hundreds of Jews seeking exit from Austria. Kendrick struggled to run his spy networks and send intelligence back to MI6 chief Hugh ‘Quex’ Sinclair in London because he and his staff were working up to twelve hours a day to save the country’s Jews and political opponents of the Nazi regime. Foreign Office reports credit them with saving between 175 and 200 Jews a day, something for which they have yet to be fully recognised. Kendrick forged documents to enable the country’s Jews to emigrate, even if they did not qualify, and stamped and approved their papers, including applications that were not complete.
Adolf Eichmann, who later masterminded the Final Solution, had been dispatched to Vienna with orders from the Führer to rid Austria of its Jews by actively assisting their emigration. Eichmann turned to Kendrick as the British Passport Officer who could aid his plan. He struck a deal with Kendrick in which a thousand Jews were given illegal visas to enter Palestine without the knowledge of the British authorities. Palestine was a thorny issue for the British, with strict quotas at the time. Kendrick was acting on humanitarian grounds but was reprimanded when the Foreign Office discovered his actions over Palestine.
Kendrick became the ‘Oskar Schindler’ of Vienna. As he struggled amidst the catastrophe facing the Jewish population, the Gestapo (Secret Police under Himmler) were looking for the ‘elusive Englishman’ whom they knew was SIS’s man in Vienna. In August 1938, Kendrick’s luck ran out. He was betrayed by one of his own agents, Tucek, who was acting as a double agent.
From The Walls Have Ears by Helen Fry. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Helen Fry is the author of The London Cage and over twenty books focusing on intelligence and POWs in World War II.