Obituary: Fritz Lustig, ‘secret listener’ whose covert work helped shorten Second World War

Fritz Lustig, wartime covert listener. Born: 31 March 1919, Berlin, Germany. Died: 18 December 2017, London, aged 98.

Fritz Lustig, wartime covert listener. Born: 31 March 1919, Berlin, Germany. Died: 18 December 2017, London, aged 98.

Fritz Lustig was a German-Jewish émigré who fled Nazi Germany to the sanctuary of Britain only to be interned as an “enemy alien” but who later served with the secretive MI9 unit, a branch of military intelligence, as a “secret listener”.

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One of 100 native German speakers, almost all of Jewish origin, Lustig eavesdropped on high-ranking German and Italian prisoners of war interned in one of three requisitioned stately homes, listening 24-hours a day in 12-hour shifts. By the end of the war, the unit had accumulated over 74,000 transcripts of conversations from 10,000 prisoners, including some of Adolf Hitler’s closest generals.

At the war’s conclusion, the recordings were destroyed and transcripts of the conversations locked away, but since their recent declassification, historians now argue that the information acquired was as significant as the code-breaking work done at Bletchley Park. In an interview with the BBC, Lustig recalled, “We listeners didn’t feel that the prisoners were our fellow countrymen any more. We learned of all the horrible things that were happening in Eastern Europe, with the killing of Jews, and we knew that would have happened to us if we had stayed in Germany. We felt no guilt – on the contrary, we felt proud to be able to contribute to the British war effort. I’m proud of what we did.”

Born in Berlin in 1919, Fritz Lustig was the youngest of four children of Franz, a travelling bike salesman, and his wife Rose. Upon leaving school, Fritz started an apprenticeship with a Jewish company that produced dental equipment, but he was dismissed following Kristallnacht, the pogrom against Jewish businesses and synagogues in Nazi Germany carried out by SA paramilitary forces and German civilians on 9-10 November 1938. The Lustigs, who had initially thought things would blow over, scattered.

Fritz escaped via the port of Hamburg in April 1939 to the UK, his parents fled to Portugal, where one of his sisters was living, and his brother, Ted, went to the United States, where he enlisted and fought for the US Army.

Upon arriving on a temporary visa, Fritz was hosted by a family in Hertfordshire whom he had known previously, while his older sister followed on a domestic permit and became housekeeper for a Cambridge professor.

Lustig started working at a school as a part-time gardener and cello teacher in Derbyshire until the outbreak of the Second World War, but following the fall of France and the invasion scare in May-June 1940, he was arrested as an “enemy alien”, and interned on the Isle of Man following Winston Churchill’s policy of “Collar the Lot!” This proclamation saw the mass internment of nearly 30,000 German refugees and another 19,000 Italians after Italy’s entry into the war. They were housed in a number of camps behind barbed wire across the island.

In September 1940, however, he was released and allowed to join the British Army’s Pioneer Corps, where, as a cellist, he was in the orchestra that entertained Allied troops. He recalled: “Not my idea of fighting the Nazis.” Later, the intervention of a friend of his mother, who worked for British Intelligence, led to Lustig’s recruitment to the clandestine unit known as Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC) to train as a secret listener.

The CSDIC under the jurisdiction of MI9, based at Latimer House, near Amersham, was the brainchild of Colonel Thomas Kendrick, a former longstanding spymaster of MI6, who had been tasked with establishing the unit shortly before the war. By the time Lustig joined in 1943, a highly sophisticated set-up was in operation at three venues, in which high-ranking German and Italian prisoners of war, as well as Luftwaffe pilots and U-boat commanders, had their private conversations overheard.

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Kendrick told the new recruits: “What you are doing here is as important as firing a gun in action or fighting on the frontline.” The information gleaned from the eavesdropping of the German generals and officers was vitally important to the war effort – so much so that it was given an unlimited budget by the government.

The bugged prisoners were kept in three locations, Latimer House, Wilton Park near Beaconsfield, both in Buckinghamshire, and Trent Park near Cockfosters in north London. The first two housed captured U-Boat submarine crews and Luftwaffe pilots, who were bugged for a week or two before being moved on to conventional captivity.

The generals, whose numbers reached peaked at 59 as the war progressed, resided in Trent Park until the war ended. Hidden nearby in each of the three stately-homes-turned-prisons were the pro-British Germans, listening in a place known as the “M room” – the “M” stood for microphoned.

Although German servicemen had been warned before going on active service that if they were captured their conversations would be monitored, almost all the senior officers became uninhibited in their private conversations. One group of captured German generals could not believe their luck. Held in a stately home, they were allowed to keep personal servants, drink wine and eat good food. The generals even enjoyed garden parties hosted by Col. Kendrick. The high-ranking guests chatted away in their native language, unaware that Kendrick himself spoke German and that such entertainment was provided in order to relax them in captivity, making them so unguarded as to divulge secrets, which they did.

However, what the PoWs did not know was that British intelligence had bugged every part of their accommodation, from lampshades and plant pots to bedsteads and the billiards table around which they relaxed.Thus, information about the psyche and mind-set of the Nazi military was gleaned from the idle gossip flowing between the inmates.

Lustig and his team also learned about Germany’s military capability, its weaponry and its new technological developments.

As a direct result of this information, Churchill ordered Operation Crossbow in August 1943, which saw the RAF destroy the German secret weapons establishment at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast of northern Germany.

Post-war, Lustig continued with this unit and in 1945 was posted to No.74 CSDIC in Bad Nenndorf, near Hanover, northern Germany, to spy on political prisoners, industrialists and scientists, many of whom were neo-Nazis. He was demobbed the following year with the rank of regimental sergeant, and became a British citizen in 1947. As a civilian, he became an accountant and worked as a company secretary, while continuing to play his cello in a local orchestra.

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In later life, Lustig gave a number of interviews; his last public interview was broadcast as part of David Jason’s Secret Service series, on Channel 4, the day after his death.

He wed Susan Cohn in June 1945; she also worked at Latimer House, translating the records of the captives’ conversations. She died in April 2013. He is survived by two sons and two grandchildren.

Martin Childs