War memorial on the south bank of the Thames, dedicated to the SOE
The US government's attitude to the subject of 'waterboarding' has been a
concern since the early years of the century. The subject garnered quite a lot of attention in the American media a few years ago, but little seems to have been written about it in the mainstream media since. The current US president has made it clear that he is an advocate of this treatment, and that certainly should make it a subject of deliberation and discussion once again.
Although the US congress challenged President George W Bush by opposing the use of torture by US military or government personnel, the US government under Bush, and now under President Trump, acceded to the practice of waterboarding. The result is that the wider public has adopted a somewhat cavalier attitude towards the practice – certainly in the US, and perhaps in Canada and Britain as well.
We are too quick to forget our history; often too lazy to do our own due diligence in matters of civilised behaviour. Quite apart from the morality of waterboarding, however, there are serious questions about whether it is an
effective tool for obtaining intelligence. More importantly, its implications to the strategic questions that involve the world's most obvious trouble spots do not appear to have been well-examined. It would be of benefit to have a much more defined and well-researched approach to the practice by an informed media whenever it is discussed or mentioned.
Waterboarding was one of the nastier torture techniques employed by the Nazis during the second world war. To the resistance, and to field personnel of Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE) in France, it was known as 'la baignoire'. It is a torture that involves drowning, or simulated drowning, or suffocation.
Between 1941 and the late summer of 1944 waterboarding torture was conducted at 11 Rue des Saussaies, 93 Rue Lauristan, 84 Avenue Foch in Paris, and at other addresses in France. It was practised quite frequently by members of the Gestapo, the Sicherheitsdienst (the intelligence division of the SS), and by a number of civilian auxiliaries – most of whom were convicted criminals.
Put briefly, this Gestapo torture tactic involved holding the head of a captive in a bathtub of ice-cold water. If the captive didn't divulge the information the interrogators were looking for, the treatment was repeated – over and over again – until the captive became unconscious or died. It was usually accompanied by ferocious physical beatings.
During the second world war many brave young men and women were subjected to waterboarding. Few of them ever really recovered from it – if, that is, they survived the torture or the concentration camps they were sent to – Sachsenhausen, Belsen, Pforzheim or any of the others.
Eileen Nearne, an SOE wireless operator, was 23 when she was captured by the Gestapo in July 1944. The Gestapo introduced her to 'la baignoire' in order to make her betray the members of her resistance circuit. She never did betray her colleagues, and the Gestapo eventually shipped her off to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck.
Like most of the people who were waterboarded Eileen Nearne never recovered from the torture she was subjected to. After the war she suffered severe depression and acute anxiety for years. Eventually she was admitted to a psychiatric clinic where she underwent electro-convulsive therapy. When she died in 2010 she had never married or had children. She spent her life after the war more or less as a recluse.
One of the more thorough accounts of the Gestapo's waterboarding tactics was catalogued in Bruce Marshall's biography of wing commander F F E
Yeo-Thomas, one of SOE's most important agents in France. He was captured by the Gestapo in March 1944. Marshall wrote in 'The White Rabbit' that Yeo-Thomas was manacled hand and foot and beaten. Naked, he was upended into a bathtub of ice-cold water, and his head was held under water. The Gestapo brought in young female staff personnel to watch this humiliation and drowning. The treatment went on for days, for they were keen to make him talk. Every time Yeo-Thomas drowned he was given artificial respiration to bring him back to life.
Wing commander Yeo-Thomas survived the Gestapo's torture and waterboarding. Like Eileen Nearne he did not divulge any secrets, and because of his bravery other agents working in France were not discovered by the Nazi secret police. He even survived the degradation of the concentration camp at Buchenwald. But Freddie Yeo-Thomas died less than 20 years after the war, comparatively young. The appalling treatment he received at the hands of the Gestapo was more responsible than anything else for his early death.
No doubt the 'science' of waterboarding has undergone considerable refinement since the days of the Gestapo and the Sicherheitsdienst, but whatever form it takes today it induces extreme terror in its victims. Research suggests that it was never used by any of the allies in the second world war – although some will dispute this – but waterboarding did not help the Nazis to win that war, and it did not help the allies to win it either.
The present US congress and the US government administration services surely contain many children and grand-children of people who fought against something that was considered so abhorrent to their parents and grandparents that they were prepared to die for their beliefs. They should be reminded – over and over again – that waterboarding is not a tactic that is employed by a civilised nation.