My Father The Nazi-Hunter
How a chance find while spring cleaning started me on the trail to discover my father’s heroic actions in the Second World War.
My father, Merton Fink, never told us much about what he did during the War – other than that he was a captain in the Royal Engineers. But we knew about the effect it had on him: this would now be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Combat Stress, and it cast a shadow over life when I was a child. We all had to be careful what we did. He had a hair-trigger reaction to any sort of sudden noise or movement and would lash out – it was second nature that we didn’t give him any sort of fright. Anything unexpected might set him off, even the click you get when you lock a car door, we’d have to warn him that we were about to do it. But it wasn’t recognised then and we just had to live with it.
Earlier this year, he began to get muddled with bills and I decided to have a complete clear-out of his desk to work out what he owed. What I found among the old bank statements and supermarket receipts took my breath away. It was a Wehrpaß, a wartime German army service book. And on the front was his name. I asked him to explain. At first the information came slowly, but suddenly it was as though a tap had been turned on and the story began to flow. “The pass was part of my cover when I worked in prisoner of war camps,” he explained, showing me the Iron Cross medal
and the foreign currency inside the pages of the book recording his service in Norway and the Channel Islands. “Because I spoke fluent German I was sent in as a fake prisoner, to get information from the others.” He spoke German because his paternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants from East Prussia who spoke German and Yiddish at home. My father also ran interrogations, as a British officer, trying to pick out the Nazis. Some admitted it but others pretended they were not, and he had to catch them out. For instance, if they said they had owned a business in Germany before enlisting, he knew – only members of the Nazi party were allowed to do that. Sometimes extreme measures were needed: he once had to threaten to shoot a man before he would take his shirt off, so that they could look for the blood group tattoo that all members of the Waffen-SS had under their left arm. The die-hard Nazis were sent to the special camp at Comrie, but those thought to be useful were sent to one of the interrogation facilities, most likely the “London Cage” run by MI19.
The photos inside the service book, including one taken in 1936 of Hitler standing in the
middle of a group, had been confiscated from the prisoners and the people with circles round their faces were the ones he had to try to look out for. He recruited “agents” among the prisoners, who would feed information back to their British captors.
He volunteered for the army in July 1942 at the age of 21 and, because he had been studying chemistry at university, he was sent to a chemical warfare division. Next he joined the Royal Engineers as a Sapper “and that was where I had the best meal I’ve ever eaten. We’d been digging trenches at night-time, the sparks flying off the pick-axes as we hit stones. The sergeant came up with something the size of a baby bath, full of stew.” But then my father trained as an officer and they asked for people who could speak German to step forward, which was how he came to be an interpreter and decoy. I requested a copy of his service record from the MOD, which confirmed his postings as interpreter to various prisoner of war camps.
He was sent wherever translation was needed. “When the entire German U-boat fleet surrendered at Loch Eriboll on the north coast of Scotland, I had to go onto the subs and see if there was anything we might be interested in, once the crew had been taken off. It was noiseless and cold, water slowly dripping. I didn’t like it.”
Sometimes he would interrogate prisoners while they were still on the beach-heads in Europe. They would go to France on commando raids. Some prisoners would be sent to England but they would let others overhear false information and let them escape. He would even fly in to airstrips inside Europe, to carry out interrogations on the spot or to escort the person of interest back to England. My father said that one of these people was Admiral Canaris, who was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. My father gave me a copy of a memo dated February 1944 he had signed in his capacity as Intelligence Officer, sent to the Political Intelligence Dept at the Foreign Office setting out the results of a commando raid on Cherbourg in which he had taken part. This was part of Operation Bodyguard, a complex deception plan to make the Germans think that the invasion was going to happen in Norway and Calais, including feeding them disinformation about the allied plans. The name came from Churchill’s comment in November 1943 that the truth was so precious that “it needed to be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies”.
The Germans thought the Allies needed to capture a natural port, and the only ones in Normandy were Cherbourg and Le Havre. To carry on the deception, the Engineers had to cross the Channel at night to survey the German-occupied beaches nearby. The danger to all of them is obvious, but my father is Jewish. How much more perilous would it have been for him, if he were captured? The beaches were heavily defended. They would cross the channel in small boats: “As we splashed ashore, bullets would be cracking besides our heads and there’d be shells bursting among us, flinging us flat onto the sand. That used to make your ears ring and your nose bleed. Some would move on but others would be lying still. You’d hear lads calling out for their mothers. Eventually we would pick up the wounded and go back to the boats, turning our backs against the sound of following fire and the sight of those lying dead on the sand.” When D-Day came in 1944, and the forces landed on the beaches in Normandy, my father was waiting for them.
Some people find that, because of their wartime experiences, they lose their religious faith, while others find theirs strengthened. “People have asked where God was in all that, and I don’t know,” he said, “but think about this. We were going forward up a beach in France, with the Germans dropping bombs on us the whole time. They were falling in “sticks”, that’s groups, of four and I counted them exploding, getting closer to me all the time. Then right above me I heard one, two, three…I said a prayer. And the fourth didn’t go off.” I wanted to know more about the decoy work and about the operations in occupied Europe – had he really escorted Admiral Canaris back to England? My father’s memories have faded and I believe he has repressed many of them. He could not tell me which organisations he had been working for, and I did not know where to search for information. According to his service record, he had been transferred to clerical, back office work in 1943. This did not fit with the fact that the Cherbourg document places him in Europe at the time – was the desk job a cover story? The Archivist at the Jewish Military Museum told me that my father would have been working either for the Intelligence Corps, as part of a Field Security Section attached to Combined Operations, MI19, MI9 or for the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
My father is now suffering from dementia and will never be able to tell me more about what he did. My next task is to visit the National Archive and look through files relating to MI9 and MI19. I hope to be able to report back when I have the complete story. I feel it is vital to record the full detail of my father’s heroic but secret wartime service. I am proud of what he did, and want everyone to know how brave he was.
By, Judith Field
Copyright Judith Field May 2013
Judith is a wife, mother and grandmother who lives in England and is interested in military history, particularly involving unconventional weapons or covert operations. I am a scientist, journalist, editor and (mostly speculative) fiction writer.