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Many people can tell you about the horrors of the Nazi regime, but few know the true story of what the SS-men did during the war, or how they were able to get away with it.

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To extract intelligence from Allied airmen, the Luftwaffe used sophisticated psychological tactics.

It was one of the hardest and deadliest battles of the war for the American and British soldiers that battled their way into Germany in 1944 and 1945. But nearly 45,000 Allied troops arrived first, landing in Germany in the most difficult manner possible: jumping out of a damaged aircraft at 18,000 feet. Over ten thousand RAF pilots from Bomber and Fighter Commands were taken prisoner during the conflict. From 1943 through 1945, more than 35,000 American pilots and airmen were imprisoned by the Luftwaffe.

Almost all of the seized British and American pilots had one trait: they had spent time at the Luftwaffe’s Auswertestelle West (Evaluation Center West) in Oberursel, a suburb of Frankfurt. Almost every one of them was greeted by a suave, sympathetic Luftwaffe officer or NCO who spoke excellent English, including the newest slang, and appeared to know all there was to know about the new POW.

A downed fighter pilot would be given a file book with the names of his unit members, the location of his home base in England, the unit’s fighting record since arriving in the theater, and even the name of the commander’s dog and the unit’s favorite English pub. Who had been moved, who had been shot down, and who had just arrived as a replacement would be revealed to the surprised airman. It’s also possible that the airman will be informed about the details of missions he’s recently flown in.

“See, we have spies at every base in Britain, and we receive a complete account of everything you do,” the interrogator would add with a grin. Given the knowledge the Germans already possessed, the POW would be informed that the whole questioning procedure was just a formality.

“I was horrified and sickened,” one captured American air corps commander recounted after seeing the Luftwaffe’s comprehensive data on his fighter squadron. Someone in our squad was clearly passing on specific information about us to the Germans.”

No one was, in fact. In reality, the Germans were using a well-honed method of collecting little information to give the appearance of “knowing everything,” which duped many a captured Allied airman into lowering his guard. Without using coercion, threats, or force, Luftwaffe interrogators were often able to glean crucial details on Allied air operations and tactics, which were then quickly passed to Luftwaffe flak and fighter commands, where the intelligence was put to good use.

Secrets of the Nazi Interrogators At Auswertestelle West, efficient staff workers, shown here with American POWs, processed almost all captured pilots and collected intelligence that would aid the Luftwaffe in shooting down thousands of British and American planes. (Photo courtesy of the Scharff family, courtesy of Toliver)

The specialists at Oberursel perfected the technique of interrogation to the point that many Allied pilots handed up crucial intelligence without even realizing they were being questioned.

One of the lesser-known tales of World War II intelligence is how the Luftwaffe wheedled this information from Allied officers and NCOs who had all been taught to resist questioning.

Col. Hubert Zemke of the United States Army Air Corps had a normal POW experience. Zemke was probably America’s best fighter commander in the European theater in October 1944. The 56th Fighter Group (nicknamed “Zemke’s Wolfpack”) became the scourge of the Luftwaffe’s fighter defenses under his leadership, winning more aerial victories than any other American fighter unit. With seventeen and a half aerial victories under his belt, Zemke earned a reputation as a brilliant combat commander who could transform a struggling unit into a “ace” unit, and in August 1944, he was promoted to command of the 479th Fighter Group.

Zemke was scheduled for a rotation back to the United States after more than 450 operational sorties, but he persisted on flying a few more flights. His luck was ended on October 31, 1944, when he flew into a rainstorm near Hanover, Germany. The storm shredded his tough Mustang fighter to shreds, forcing him to bail out into dangerous circumstances. Zemke attempted to hide in the adjacent woods after being severely injured by his bailout and landing, but was quickly apprehended.

Secrets of the Nazi Interrogators At Auswertestelle West, Col. Hubert Zemke, a unit leader with seventeen and a half kills, was a VIP prisoner. (FRE 9942 IWM)

He was brought to a detention cell at a neighboring Luftwaffe base, then transported by rail to Frankfurt and then by tramcar to Oberursel. Zemke was first required to complete an official-looking form with the Red Cross letterhead and form number. The form included slots for his name, rank, and serial number, all of which he was obliged to provide under the Geneva Convention. However, the form had sections for him to fill out his home address, civilian occupation, unit, home base, and commanding officer. The Luftwaffe staff insisted that Zemke had not filled out the processing form properly, despite the fact that he understood the regulations well and simply wrote the legally necessary information.

After that, Zemke was placed in a solitary confinement cell. Despite the fact that the Geneva Convention prohibited solitary confinement for more than thirty days, and the Luftwaffe administration at Oberursel observed this regulation, a POW seldom knew how long he would be kept. The prisoner in solitary confinement had nothing except a basic room, a bed, a chamber pot, and a hole in the door through which he was fed soup and bread twice a day. There were no books, newspapers, cigarettes, or, perhaps most importantly, no one with whom to converse. Zemke, like the majority of POWs, was held in isolation for two days before being interrogated.

He encountered Cpl. Hanns Scharff, a well-educated, cheerful guy in his mid-thirties, in the interrogation office. Scharff, like the other top interrogators, was fluent in English. Scharff learned his language skills in South Africa, where he managed a branch of his family’s company for seven years before the war. He was only in Germany because he was home on holiday when the war broke out in August 1939; he had been conscripted and trained as an infantryman, and was on his way to the Russian front when his wife brought Scharff’s proficiency in English to the notice of an old family acquaintance, a Wehrmacht colonel. Scharff was transported to Oberursel in 1943, where he was supposed to work in administration, after being moved to a German translation business. However, the death of two leading interrogators in an airplane crash pushed Scharff into the field of questioning. With his incredible recall and pleasant demeanor, he quickly demonstrated that he could extract information from even the most obstinate POW.

It was impossible for Zemke to resist Scharff’s allure. He was greeted by a nice guy in a lovely office who knew everything about him and his unit after days of isolation and pain. Scharff showed Zemke his book of files and press clippings on the 56th and 478th Groups, as well as three-day-old copies of the Stars and Stripes. Corporal Scharff was well-versed on all of the American fighter units’ aces and commanders, as well as detailed facts about the bases from which they flew. When Zemke complained of soreness and bruises after bailing out, Scharff exhibited a lot of sympathy for his plight—and it wasn’t all fake pity. Scharff vowed to bring Zemke to a doctor and kept his word, trekking half a mile with Zemke to neighboring Hohemark Hospital, which the Luftwaffe had seized for the care of wounded pilots. Zemke was invited to a nice supper with Scharff and the medical personnel after being treated for his injuries, which turned out to be minor.

Secrets of the Nazi Interrogators The questioning of well-known aces Lt. Col. Francis Gabreski and Col. “Hub” Zemkie is shown on a page from Schraff’s journal. (Photo courtesy of the Scharff family, courtesy of Toliver)

Scharff was an excellent communicator who took advantage of any chance to speak with Zemke, whether he was waiting at the hospital or coming back from supper. It was only the first of many fun social gatherings to come. Of course, Zemke was aware of Scharff’s activities and would shift the topic whenever the discussion turned to air force issues. For his part, Scharff did not pressurize or intimidate Zemke. He didn’t stop talking. Zemke was sent to a normal POW camp after eight days in the Evaluation Center.

“There’s no question in my mind that he took something from me,” Zemke later confessed, “but I have no clue what it was.” If you asked him about the weather or anything else, he’d very certainly be able to provide you with some information or confirmation. He reminded me of the usual American insurance salesperson who, after getting his foot in the door, left you with a $10,000 insurance policy. He never appeared to push for information, but every now and then he’d make an innocent comment that made me think.”

The Germans used the term “psychological approach” to describe their interrogation technique, which was designed to capitalize on the basic human need to communicate, be understood, and be treated with dignity. Zemke was a part of the German system when it was at its most effective. That was not the case from the outset. In reality, the Luftwaffe’s sophisticated questioning and analysis system was created only after much trial and error, as well as a few blunders.

The Luftwaffe Evaluation Center West was established on the grounds of a small agricultural school and experimental farm in the Frankfurt suburbs in December 1939. The camp slowly grew with the addition of buildings. Since many prisoners were likely to be wounded, the Luftwaffe appropriated a section of the nearby Hohemark Hospital for use for the prisoners. By the height of its operations in 1943–1944 the camp would grow to hold several hundred POWs at once, with a staff of more than three hundred German guards and administrators, of whom sixty were interrogation personnel. From the start, the Evaluation Center was meant only as a holding center for airmen POWs to be processed and interrogated and then passed on to regular POW camps.

Secrets of the Nazi Interrogators Scharff, center, was so good at gaining POWs’ confidence that many of them remained in contact with him even after the war ended. (Scharff family courtesy of Toliver)

The Luftwaffe had built a huge signals intelligence agency and a well-developed picture intelligence section before the start of World War II. Attachés of the Luftwaffe in Western countries had gathered a large quantity of open source aviation technology and transmitted it to the Luftwaffe’s general headquarters. Officers in the field and a research facility in Germany were part of the Luftwaffe’s Air Technical Intelligence Branch, which investigated lost or captured enemy aircraft.

However, the Luftwaffe had anticipated that future battles would be brief affairs, lasting just a few weeks, and that the campaign would be finished by the time enemy POWs were processed. As a result, the Luftwaffe did not have a cadre of specialized interrogators when the war started. The Battle of Britain, on the other hand, showed the Germans that they were in for a long war, and they were obliged to catch up fast.

From 1939 through 1941, the German efforts to extract intelligence from captured Allied pilots were sloppy, harsh, and unsuccessful. Prisoners were roughed up and threatened with torture, but no actual torture was used due to fear of retaliation against German pilots. Drugs and hypnosis were also attempted. None of these approaches produced a lot of data.

When a renowned Luftwaffe airman, Capt. Franz von Werra, visited Germany’s POW camps in 1941, things changed. Von Werra was a German fighter pilot who was shot down over England during the Battle of Britain in September 1940. Von Werra was taken prisoner and questioned in Britain before being transferred to a POW camp in Canada. Von Werra staged a daring escape in January 1941, making it to the then-neutral United States. He then went to Mexico before returning to Germany in April 1941.

Von Werra was given the task of examining and comparing the German and British interrogation systems after completing the British system. Von Werra paid a visit to the Luftwaffe’s Oberursel headquarters and was unimpressed. “I would rather be questioned by a half-dozen German inquisitors than by one RAF expert,” he told Luftwaffe leader Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.

The RAF, according to Von Werra, had a sophisticated approach to prisoner interrogation that took into account the prisoner’s psychological requirements. The POWs’ bewilderment and disorientation were first exploited. RAF specialists would carefully study each prisoner during the first processing to determine which ones were the most vulnerable and likely to speak. After separating him from human contact for a few days, RAF interrogators would provide him a sympathetic ear and take advantage of any chance to converse with him. The POW’s reluctance would undoubtedly fade after gaining some trust, and he would typically spill important bits and pieces of information over an afternoon of pleasant discussion over tea or beer. The British psychological method, according to Von Werra, was almost difficult to resist. A kidnapped airman would unintentionally give up crucial intelligence without intending to betray his nation.

The Luftwaffe chose a small corps of skilled interrogators after von Werra’s study. The first criterion was near-perfect English proficiency. The finest English speakers were Germans who had lived in English-speaking countries: Scharff’s subordinate, Sgt. Otto Engelhardt, earned the nickname “Canadian Wild Bill” during his time in Canada. Lt. Ulrich Hausmann, a bomber crew interrogator, had previously worked as an English literature professor in the civilian world and had spent time in the United Kingdom.

An sympathetic disposition was also a necessity. An interrogator with a fake personality and a cold demeanor would not gain the prisoner’s confidence. In fact, many senior interrogators at Oberursel were so well known for their pleasant demeanor with the inmates and concern for their well-being that the Gestapo suspected them of being Allied spies.

Finally, a competent interrogator needed a fantastic memory. While speaking with the POW, the airman took notes to remind himself that he was being questioned. Instead, a skilled interrogator would speak with the prisoner for hours at a time, recalling key information from the discussion while he wrote his interrogation report.

The skill of questioning was acquired on the job, with no official training. From 1942 onwards, the Luftwaffe discovered that certain questioners were more effective than others as the system developed. These individuals were designated as lead interrogators, regardless of rank, to interrogate the most difficult cases and those most likely to have valuable information. Interrogators were divided into specialized divisions by 1943, with some specializing in downed fighter pilots and others in bomber crewmen.

A large quantity of information was collected from various sources to assist reinforce the Germans’ technique’s “we know everything” illusion. Every Allied aircraft shot down over Germany or Axis territory had its wreckage thoroughly inspected for documents, letters, and other intelligence. To establish the circumstances of the aircraft’s loss, documents from Luftwaffe flak and fighter units were compared to the debris. This data was transmitted to the Oberursel analysis department on a daily basis, with the goal of matching the airman POW with the downed aircraft. The foundation for the questioning became simple once the aircraft and airman were recognized as belonging to a particular unit. The continuous radio conversation of American and British air units above Britain was listened to by Luftwaffe signals intelligence, typically young ladies who spoke excellent English. By late 1943, the Luftwaffe had compiled a surprisingly realistic order of battle for the US Army Air Forces in the United Kingdom, complete with unit stations and call signs.

The airmen, especially the Americans, were also notoriously bad at the basics of operational security. Against all regulations, bomber crewmen and fighter pilots would bring personal letters, unit photos, and even operations orders with them into combat. Much of this survived when the aircraft was shot down and information from such sources formed the basis of the squadron and group books kept by the Oberursel analysts. In addition to such information, Luftwaffe intelligence was able to get copies of the Stars and Stripes, the U.S. Army newspaper, and British newspapers through neutral embassies in Britain. The Stars and Stripes was an especially good source of information because it regularly featured stories and photos of American air units and their exploits.

The Luftwaffe interrogators were most interested in the most recent developments in Allied tactics and equipment, such as the radar bandwidths used by British and American bombers on their targeting equipment, the precise range and capabilities of escort fighters, and other technical details that, while minor, could translate into effective countermeasures.

Captured Allied pilots and crews may not have had access to broad strategic plans, but they were well-versed in their own equipment and its strengths and limitations. The assault they dreaded the most was high and from the front, since only the two guns of the B-17’s top turret could be brought to bear against it, according to an American bomber crewman caught in one of the first American raids in Europe. The Luftwaffe ordered its fighter units to launch a “twelve o’clock high” assault on the American bombers right away.

The Oberursel interrogators provided critical information to the Luftwaffe’s air defense commanders almost every day, and this superb tactical intelligence enabled the Luftwaffe to shoot down thousands of British and American planes over Europe. In early 1944, a typical discussion between an interrogator and a captured American fighter pilot could begin with the German providing information about the unit’s home base, mission order, and course heading. He would then describe the battle from the perspective of the German troop that had shot him down. The German would ask the American to recount his tale and it would go like this:

AMERICAN: Yes, that’s correct. For our escort mission, we took off from our base and ascended to altitude. We dumped our tanks near the Dutch border and were attacked by a flight of Fw 190s five minutes later.

GERMAN: Our fighters claimed that they approached you from the north and that you were taller. Our fighter unit claimed that you first received three Fw 190s, but that another set of Me 109s subsequently came in.

AMERICAN: We got it jumbled up, and I took a bad hit in the engine…

As the American pilot finally got another airman to relate his tale to, the discussion might go on for an hour. Despite the fact that the German interrogator had not asked the American any particular questions, he had just discovered the precise range of the new P-47 drop tanks. The Luftwaffe’s Home Defense Command now knew when escorting American P-47s were expected to return or hand over their escort duties to longer-ranged P-51s or P-38s. The heavy bombers were particularly vulnerable at this time because fighter units often missed their meeting location or arrived late, leaving the bombers without an escort for a period of time and allowing the Luftwaffe aircraft a greater assault chance.

The interrogation program at Oberursel was extensively examined by US Army Air Forces intelligence after the conclusion of the war. Although a few Luftwaffe interrogators exceeded the line and slapped or threatened detainees, the final American evaluation stated that such conduct was an aberration to the Luftwaffe’s normal procedures and was not supported by the center’s leadership.

Corporal Scharff and his other interrogators were asked to teach American intelligence officials on the tactics that had elicited so much useful information from Allied pilots because the American analysts recognized so many valuable lessons in the German methods. Because the German “psychological method” was founded on common human needs—most notably, the desire to speak to a sympathetic listener after a traumatic event, such as being shot down and taken prisoner—it remained successful after WWII.


Originally published in World War II magazine’s March 2008 edition. To subscribe, go to this link. 

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