Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (18 & 19 July 2018)
Date of Auction: 18th & 19th July 2018
Estimate: £1,800 - £2,200
India General Service 1908-35, 5 clasps, Afghanistan N.W.F. 1919, Waziristan 1919-21, Mahsud 1919-20, Malabar 1921-22, Waziristan 1921-24, with M.I.D. oak leaves (Lieut. R. W. G. Stephens, 2/2/Gks.) extremely fine and extremely rare £1800-2200
FootnoteProvenance: Lieutenant-Colonel Kingsley Foster Collection, Glendining’s, December 1951 (bought Spink); John Tamplin Collection.
O.B.E., ungazetted, circa 1945.
M.I.D. London Gazette 12 June 1923: ‘For distinguished service during the operations in Waziristan, April 1921 to December 1921.’
Robin William George Stephens was born in Alexandria in 1900, the son of William Henry Stephens of the Ministry of Education, Egypt. He was educated at the Lycee Francais in Egypt and Dulwich College where he distinguished himself in rugby and athletics. He left school in April 1918 to be a cadet at Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, then attended the Indian Army College at Quetta.
Service with the Indian Army
In April 1919, Stephens was commissioned into the Second Battalion of the 2nd Gurkha Rifles, forming part of 68 (Derajat) Brigade based at at Dera Ismail Khan. Just a month later the brigade was deployed in the Third Afghan War and the operations in Waziristan in 1919.
On 1 November 1919, Stephens was appointed Orderly officer to the C.O.C. Number 2 Sector, Lines of Communication, Manzai, and in this capacity took part in the campaign against the Mahsuds in the winter of 1919-20. This period saw the most fierce fighting of all the North West Frontier campaigns and casualties were heavy. For much of the period he served as Cipher Officer, an unpopular job usually allocated to the most junior officers. The job reportedly entailed sitting up late at night, coding and decoding messages by the light of a hissing hurricane lamp, no doubt hoping that the glow of the lamp would not provide too tempting a target for the tribal snipers. On 12 June 1920, Stephens was detached from his regiment and served as a G.S.O. 3 until 15 October 1921, and then again from 3 November to 27 December 1921, with the Wana Column in southern Waziristan. He was mentioned in despatches for his services in this campaign.
On 19 January 1922, Stephens transferred to the 39th Royal Garhwal Rifles. Early in 1922 the Garhwalis took part in the campaign on the Malabar coast against the Moploh rebels. The Malabar District lies on the south-west coast of India just to the north of Cochin, between the Western Ghat mountains and the Arabian Sea, and has been described as 'well off the beaten track' for the army in India. It is inhabited by the Moplohs, Moslems descended from Arab traders, who were vehemently anti-Hindu. After their leaders openly defied the Government in August 1921, police were sent to arrest the ring-leaders but were ambushed; a guerrilla war then broke out, in which up to 10,000 Moplohs were in the field. They concentrated on destroying railway facilities, forestry and tea plantation buildings, and attacking both civilians and the security forces. The Army responded by aggressive patrolling and succeeded in inflicting heavy casualties on the Moploh gangs. The larger gangs were broken up and, by the end of December, increasing numbers of rebels surrendered. By the end of February 1922 the civil authorities resumed charge and martial law was withdrawn.
In 1922 the British decided to occupy the Razmak plateau and establish a considerable base there. The plateau lay near the boundary of the Mahsud and Wazir tribes and was thus well-sited as a base for expeditions against either. The Razmak Force, assembled along the Tochi River and slowly advanced southwards as the road progressed. The final advance, in January 1923, took place in a blinding snowstorm. In order to punish the Mahsuds for their numerous outrages, it was decided to destroy Makin, a series of villages in a large basin of cultivated land. In February columns marched out of Razmak, set fire to the buildings and blew up stone watch-towers, the retaining walls of fields and water channels. The Mahsuds resisted vigorously.
On the 10th the 39th Garhwalis were engaged in an operation near two villages on the south side of the basin. The broken hills round the villages were covered in thick scrub and ravines full of dense undergrowth led down to the villages. This enabled parties of Mahsuds to infiltrate through the piquets and approach the destruction parties unseen. At around 1.30 p.m. a party of Mahsuds charged the Garhwalis from the scrub at a very short distance. The covering fire detachments were alert and cut them down with light machineguns. Shortly afterwards, another party armed with swords charged the flank and inflicted a few casualties. The withdrawal started at 2 p.m. and was completed before dark. Total casualties for the Makin column that day were four killed, thirteen wounded. Over the following days, the more inaccessible enemy villages were attacked by artillery fire and one was bombed. The column then returned to Razmak having suffered total casualties of forty-two killed and ninety-five wounded. The Mahsuds sued for peace and agreed to keep the peace at a jirga (tribal assembly) held in March 1923.
In April 1925, when Stephens was promoted Captain, he was serving with the 11th (Training) Battalion of the Regiment. He was appointed Quartermaster of the 10/18th Battalion on 15 September 1925.
On 15 May 1926, Stephens was appointed Commandant of the Muscat Levy Corps. Muscat was one of the Trucial States in what is now Oman. The Commanding Officer was an officer on attachment from the Indian Army, and the personnel were recruited from members of the recently disbanded Seistan Levy which, during the war, had operated on the borders of Baluchistan and Persia. As the Political Agent in Muscat explained, 'What is wanted is a small, highly paid and well-trained and loyal body of cut-throat mercenaries with no ties in the country in which they serve and no love for the Arab.'
In the final years of his service in the Indian Army Stephens specialised in military law; on 15 July 1929, he was officiating Deputy Assistant Judge Advocate General, Northern Command (India), and, on 27 June 1930, was employed in the same capacity in Army H.Q., India. Stephens resigned from the army in 1931. Probably this was prompted by financial problems for almost exactly a year later he filed for bankruptcy. He also had marital problems and divorced his wife for adultery.
Stephens returned to the United Kingdom in 1933, living at Farnham. Benefiting from his experience in military jurisprudence, he found employment of a legal nature in connection with Lincolns Inn, and collaborated in the compilation of ‘A Digest of the Laws and Evidence in Court Martial’. In his later application for the Security Service, Stephens stated that he played an unofficial role in the Abyssinian crisis of 1935-36, as a volunteer with a British Red Cross team, and was awarded the Star of Abyssinia. Stephens was back in England from 1937 to 1939, based in Lincoln and working for the National Fitness Council for England.
On 9 September 1939, Stephens joined the Security Service (MI5) with the rank of Captain. Entry to the Security Service was by introduction and Stephens was sponsored by Lord Birdwood, a former Commander-in-Chief India under whom he had served.
Stephens was employed in Section B1e, concerned with the interrogation of suspected Nazi spies. Over the winter of 1939-40 they dealt with British Fascists and enemy aliens but found little of significance. In July 1940, the section took over a disused Victorian mansion called Latchmere House, located near Ham Common in west London. Later it was renamed Camp 020. Stephens, who was soon promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, was Commandant and Chief Interrogator, with a staff of 25 Intelligence officers and a number of secretaries, warders, etc.
In a book produced after the war for internal distribution within MI5, Stephens considered the characteristics of the ideal interrogator for breaking suspected spies; clearly he was describing himself:
'There must be an implacable hatred of the enemy. From that is derived a certain aggressive approach, a disinclination to believe without independent corroboration, and above all a relentless determination to break down the spy, however long the process may take, however hopeless the odds, however many the difficulties, however long the process may take …
'Obviously a man of experience is required, essentially a man of common sense. If he has travelled, so much the better. If too he has seen war, lost much, that is an advantage. The wider the range of his interests, the better … So much depends upon personality, upon mood, upon the man who can impress or cajole, blow hot blow cold, stand down at the psychological moment, without jealousy, in favour of another officer.'
Between September and November 1940, the Abwehr (German Intelligence) sent twenty-one spies to the UK, some by parachute, others landed by dinghy. Of these, twenty were captured and sent to Camp 020; five of them were executed and three agreed to become double agents. The only one to escape detection achieved nothing and committed suicide. Thereafter, spies were infiltrated among the streams of refugees making their way to the U.K. from occupied Europe. In January 1941, the London Reception Centre was set up to check every refugee; their stories were checked for discrepancies and any suspicious ones were sent to Camp 020. With refugees arriving at the rate of 700 per month it was a huge job - in the course of the war the Centre checked over 20,000 - but only three spies are known to have passed through LRC undetected.
At Camp 020 the suspects were physically examined and kept alone in a cell for a few hours, then brought before an interrogation panel, usually with Stephens himself presiding. The procedure was designed to be intimidating, with the prisoner standing to attention while the interrogator barked questions at him. There was no chair, no cigarette, no small talk or civilities for the suspect. However, the use of violence against suspects was strictly prohibited; Stephens regarded it as cowardly but, more importantly, the information it produced was unlikely to be reliable. On one occasion a Colonel Scotland from the War Office slipped away from the Officers Mess at lunchtime and was found in the cell of a prisoner, giving him a severe beating; the man was immediately ejected from the camp and never permitted to return.
The main method to put pressure on a prisoner was the threat of the death penalty. Stephens said, 'The man's neck is in your grasp. Never forget it; never let him forget it'. Full confession and co-operation offered the only hope (and it was only a hope, not a guarantee) of saving their life. In fact, of all the hundreds of spies dealt with by Camp 020, only sixteen were executed. One, Josef Jakobs, was a serving member of the German Army and was executed by firing squad in the Tower of London; the others were hanged.
Camp 020 had a variety of techniques to break agents; 'Blow hot, blow cold' or what would today be called 'Good cop, bad cop', the use of stool pigeons, bugging of cells, and the threat to send them to Cell Fourteen. The horrors of Cell Fourteen were never specified, so each prisoner could use his own imagination for the details; in fact, there was nothing very special about it.
Up to September 1945, Camp 020 processed a total of 480 suspects. Only seventy-seven of these were Germans; in all, there were thirty-four nationalities, with Belgians (68), French (64), Norwegians (35) and Dutch (31) prominent amongst the remainder. There were twenty-nine British; these included Edward Chapman, a criminal who had been in a Jersey prison when the Germans captured the island. He volunteered to work for the Germans and surrendered as soon as he reached England. Stephens’ role was to assess whether he was telling the truth and where his loyalties really lay. As Agent Zigzag he became one of Camp 020's greatest successes. Another British inmate was Duncan Scott-Ford, a sailor of the merchant navy who had an affair with a German girl in a neutral port and was seduced into treason; he was among 'the unlucky sixteen' to be executed. Fifty-five were cleared of suspicion and released. Of those whose guilt was established, a few were prosecuted, the remainder were detained until the end of the war, then turned over to their own countries.
The task of Camp 020 was to establish the guilt of the suspects referred to them and obtain as much information about enemy intentions as possible. Once a spy had been broken, the question arose of whether he should be used as a double agent. Even if co-operative, not all prisoners were suitable. Eleven of Camp 020's detainees became double agents, supplying information to the Germans at the request of their British handlers. This became known as Operation Double Cross and played a strategic role in shortening the war. False intelligence provided by these agents persuaded Hitler that the Normandy landings were only a diversion and the real attack would come at Calais. As a result, he kept two Panzer divisions there when their presence in Normandy during the first few days would have gravely imperilled the success of the whole operation. Another provided false information about where the V1 and V2 rockets were landing, reducing their effectiveness considerably. One was awarded both the Iron Cross and the M.B.E. Their loyalty could not be taken for granted and one of them attempted to escape. Even in 1941 the prospect of a German invasion seemed very real and Stephens was instructed to execute the agents if their recapture by the Germans seemed imminent. According to the official history of MI5, this was the only occasion when the Director of that agency has ever issued instructions to kill anyone.
In November 1944, Stephens took command of Diest, a facility similar to Camp 020 set up in recently liberated Belgium. There was still plenty of work detecting German agents who crossed the lines or stayed behind as the Germans retreated to report on the Allied armies, dealing with traitors in the resistance movements and so on.
In June 1945 Stephens set up and commanded an intelligence centre at Bad Nenndorf, a spa town near Hannover. There was concern about possible attempts to re-establish the Nazi regime. It was important to confirm that Hitler was really dead and Allied intelligence had great interest in those who had been close to him in the last days. Other targets included war criminals, such as Oswald Pohl, Inspector General of Concentration Camps, the SS soldiers who massacred British POWs in France in 1940, and the Gestapo personnel who executed the recaptured POWs after the 'Great Escape'. Stephens' prisoners included German security and intelligence officers of all levels, from Kaltenbrunner down. Then, as the Cold War developed, his staff detected increasing numbers of spies working for the Russians.
At this time Stephens wrote a book about the work of Camp 020, 'A Digest of Ham', for internal circulation only. The curious title comes from Stephens’ last publication, ‘A Digest of Military Law’, and the location of Camp 020, Ham Common. It was recently republished by the Public Records Office under the title 'Camp 020; MI5 and the Nazi Spies'.
Stephens was awarded the O.B.E. at the end of the war but which, because of the nature of his work, was not published in the London Gazette. Post-war official documents, however, always included the post-nominals after his name.
In 1947 abuses of some of the prisoners at Bad Nenndorf were reported and some of the staff were court-martialled. Stephens, who was cleared of all charges, was unrepentant and described Bad Nenndorf as 'a brutally tough place, for brutally tough people.'
Stephens next turned up at Accra in West Africa. MI5 was responsible for security in the Empire as well as in the U.K. and from the 1940s to the 1960s, MI5 personnel could expect to spend about a third of their working life in the colonies. According to the Gazette, Lieutenant-Colonel Stephens, O.B.E., 'of the Territorial Army' was promoted to the rank of Colonel (London Gazette 26 November 1954 refers). It is believed that from 1954 until his retirement he was commander of the Port and Travel Control Group, an intelligence unit that inspected Warsaw Pact ships that called at British ports. Stephens retired on 23 June 1960 with the honorary rank of Brigadier (London Gazette 26 July 1960 refers).
Character and Personality
Robin Stephens was certainly an interesting personality. In appearance he presented the central casting image of a Gestapo officer himself, with his thick monocle,which gave him the nickname 'Tin Eye', austere haircut and severe expression. He was always sharply dressed and immaculate in his Indian Army uniform. His manner towards suspects was described as terrifying and, although this was to some extent an act put on for interrogation purposes, he had a real hatred of the enemy. His intimidating manner was not confined to the enemy - he was both temperamental and authoritarian and Nigel West, who wrote a history of MI5 around 1980, states that he was widely disliked by his colleagues because of his vile temper and 'Nazi-like behaviour'. However, his secretary reported that he was the kindest boss she ever had. He was a loud, boisterous man and a generous host whose monthly parties in the officers' mess were memorable for good food and a copious supply of drink. His personality comes through strongly in his book; sardonic humour, politically incorrect opinions.
The date of Stephens’ death remains a mystery. Certainly he is known to have predeceased his second wife who died in 1990.
Sold with comprehensive research and a copy of the book ‘CAMP 020 - MI5 and the Nazi Spies; The Official History of MI5’s Wartime Interrogation Centre.’