Hidden behind Kensington Palace, in one of London’s smartest streets, there is a grand old house which played a leading role in Britain’s victory over Nazi Germany. Today it’s owned by Roman Abramovich, apparently — it seems he paid £90 million for it. But during the second world war, and for a few years thereafter, 8 Kensington Palace Gardens was a secret interrogation centre known as the London Cage. This is where suspected spies (and, later, suspected war criminals) were broken down. Between 1940 and 1948, thousands of German servicemen passed through here, on their way to POW camps (if they were deemed innocent) or prison (if they were guilty). The information that was squeezed out of them in this secluded mansion saved the lives of countless Britons, and avenged the deaths of many more.
The interrogators all spoke fluent German, but that was just about all they had in common. There were lawyers and academics, journalists and businessmen (there were no women here). A few were refugees from Nazi Germany, but most of them were British. These Brits were an odd bunch, and the oddest of the lot was their boss, Colonel Alexander Scotland.
Alexander Scotland is the flawed hero of this grim but gripping saga. As a young man he’d sailed to southern Africa to seek his fortune and ended up serving in the Kaiser’s army before the first world war. During the Great War he was imprisoned by the Germans, for a while in solitary confinement. They suspected him (with good cause) of being a secret agent.
After the war he went to Argentina — ostensibly as a businessman, but probably also as a spy. Through his German contacts, he enabled several hundred German Jewish families to flee to South America, rescuing them from the impending Holocaust.