Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture Ian Cobain

Portobello Books, pp.388, £18.99, ISBN: 9781846274839

One of our more cherished national myths is that we British do not torture prisoners of war and criminal suspects. We support decency and fair play. Ian Cobain’s book proves beyond doubt that we do indeed make use of torture, and sometimes with relish. It shows that the British state has long practised a secret torture policy and continues to do so.

It is easy to predict the fate of this carefully researched and well-written book. It will be ignored, glossed over and quietly rubbished by a political and Whitehall establishment which has persistently covered up or denied the very troubling state crimes that are documented here.

Cobain traces British involvement with torture and prisoner abuse back to the second world war. He has unveiled a network of secret interrogation centres in Britain and continental Europe, showing that their use persisted well beyond the end of the war. One of the worst of these facilities, Bad Nenndorf, west of Hanover, was visited by the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper while working on behalf of British intelligence to prove that Hitler was well and truly dead, the project that turned into the bestselling The Last Days of Hitler.

What happened next might help prove the argument that information produced under duress is rarely accurate. Trevor-Roper obtained testimony from a number of high-ranking officers, among them Nicolaus von Below, Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant. Below, who had been subject to the usual regime of isolation and sleep deprivation, was forced to stand to attention for hours on end while his interrogators shouted questions at him about Hitler’s secret last orders.

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According to Below: ‘Since I never received or heard of any such orders, I had to make them up, to get myself out of the bad situation I was in.’ His fabrications went straight into print as Hitler’s ‘last message to the world’:

The efforts and sacrifices of the German people in this war have been so great that I cannot believe that they have been in vain. The aim must still be to win territory in the East.

This was ‘all bullshit’ Below later insisted, adding that it had nevertheless ‘given me much pleasure to read it in Trevor-Roper’s book’.

Cobain charts the history of subsequent abuse through Aden, Kenya, Northern Ireland and South Iraq after 2003, where British army conduct was depressing beyond measure. British soldiers beat up and tortured a number of Iraqis, some of whom died. Cobain says that investigations ‘appeared designed carefully to bury evidence rather than unearth the truth’. Other suspects were handed over to the Americans for almost certain torture. Even when, as with Baha Mousa — ‘tortured to death’, in Cobain’s words, by the British — the evidence was incontestable, most of those accused were cleared. Just one soldier, who was found guilty of inhumanely treating civilian detainees, was dismissed from the army and jailed for a year.

Cobain shows how, after Margaret Thatcher banned the use of information gathered under torture ahead of the first Gulf war, Tony Blair’s government changed the rules. Throughout the last decade, intelligence officers have been advised not to be present at a scene of torture; but they have been heavily involved in despatching suspects to friendly countries happy to stand proxy.

Adam Ingram, Blair’s armed forces minister, misled parliament about British treatment of prisoners in southern Iraq. Jack Straw, who as foreign secretary sent the telegram which consigned British Muslims to Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo, told MPs in 2005 that claims about British involvement in rendition were based on conspiracy theories. As late as 2009 the wretched Straw was still expressing his ‘abhorrence of rendition’.

Some heroes do emerge from this sordid story. There is Lt Col Nicholas Mercer, the British army lawyer, who warned against the Iraqi atrocities. He was frozen out of the army and is now an Anglican priest. And Craig Murray, the British ambassador to Uzbekistan, was horrified by what he found out and lost his job.

Ian Cobain, a Guardian journalist, has not told a one-dimensional story. He displays a serious understanding of the pressures that soldiers and intelligence officers work under, and the very brave things they do. He should be congratulated for addressing a subject which much of the rest of Fleet Street has been determined to ignore.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated