World War 2 History: England Game—British Agents in Holland Controlled by the Germans

Updated on December 4, 2018
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Rotterdam in Ruins

WW2: Invasion of Holland: German bombers set the whole inner city of Rotterdam ablaze, killing 814 of its inhabitants
WW2: Invasion of Holland: German bombers set the whole inner city of Rotterdam ablaze, killing 814 of its inhabitants | Source

War Breeds Secrecy

The fog of war breeds secret organizations which can only function in near total secrecy. In World War Two, Allied intelligence services had some spectacular successes. Britain early on rounded up virtually every German spy planted in the country, turning many into double agents. The breaking of Enigma allowed the Allies to decrypt German military transmissions. The U.S. broke the Japanese code and utilized Navajo code talkers to confound the Japanese in turn. The Germans also had successes. One was the control of nearly all British agents sent into the Netherlands from 1942 to 1944 in what they called The England Game.

Dutch Agent Lauwers Is Caught

After Europe fell to the Nazis, Britain's SOE (Special Operations Executive) sent Dutch intelligence agents into the Netherlands to spy and foment resistance against the occupying Germans. On March 6, 1942, one of those agents, Huub Lauwers, was arrested by the Germans and, on March 15, 1942, under the watchful eye of the Germans, dutifully and completely keyed every dot and dash of their carefully constructed message. What the Germans didn't know was that British Intelligence had instructed Lauwers to garble every 16th letter as a security check. This would alert them that the agent was who he professed to be and that he was not transmitting under duress. By complying exactly with the Germans' orders, he knew the British would realize he was compromised.

Missing Security Checks-- The England Game Begins

The problem was, SOE overlooked the missing security checks and proceeded as normal, transmitting and receiving messages and sending in more Dutch agents and supplies. After Lauwers' transmissions resulted in a British drop of four containers of materiel and another agent exactly as planned, Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) Major Hermann Giskes realized the possibilities and organized Operation North Pole, also known as the England Game (“Das Englandspiel”), whereby he constructed an imaginary resistance network.The object was to intercept and control all Dutch agents in the Netherlands, extract secrets, feed misinformation back to their British handlers and confiscate dropped materiel, even to the point of telling SOE where to make the drops. Amazingly, SOE continued to dismiss the lack of security checks.

They Jumped to Their Death for Our Freedom

Titus Leeser's "Englandspiel Monument" or The Fall of Icarus in The Hague memorializes the agents who were dropped into the Netherlands during Das Englandspiel in WW2. The inscription says, in part "They jumped to their death for our freedom."
Titus Leeser's "Englandspiel Monument" or The Fall of Icarus in The Hague memorializes the agents who were dropped into the Netherlands during Das Englandspiel in WW2. The inscription says, in part "They jumped to their death for our freedom." | Source

Dutch Agents Delivered To The Germans

Over the course of nearly two years, the British provided nearly 200 drops of men and materiel. This included tons of the latest explosives, thousands of firearms, machine pistols and machine guns, ammunition and money. A total of 54 Dutch agents were caught at the drop sites. They were interrogated and imprisoned and 47 of them were executed as spies. To convince the British that their drops were having an effect, the Germans occasionally reported internal disturbances and sometimes staged harmless explosions in various places in Holland. On one occasion, based on concocted Dutch agent activities, downed British fliers were returned to England via Spain, just to convince the British of the value of their Dutch network. When Dutch agents sent in were supposed to return, the Germans made up excuses or reports of accidents explaining their inability to travel to Britain.

The End Of The England Game

At some point in late 1943 to early 1944, SOE finally caught on and started sending dull routine messages. After several months of this, Major Giskes decided there was nothing more to be gained from Operation North Pole and sent the following message, unencrypted, and closed down the operation:

“We understand that you have been endeavoring for some time to do business in Holland without our assistance. We regret this the more since we have acted for so long as your sole representatives in this country, to our mutual satisfaction . . . Should you be thinking of paying us a visit on the Continent … we shall give your emissaries the same attention as we have hitherto.”

Dutch Resistance

Dutch resistance group.
Dutch resistance group. | Source

Pointing Fingers And Conspiracy Theories

When word of Operation North Pole got out, there was an uproar. Inter-agency jealousies were blamed, with various groups like SOE and SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) and even different sections within the same agency guarding their turf. A current day example of this sort of infighting is the almost complete lack of inter-agency cooperation in the U.S. before September 11, 2001. Accusations of SOE incompetence resulted in SOE declaring they knew all along what was going on and was using the situation to make the Germans believe the coming European invasion would take place in Holland and not Normandy, France-- despite the fact that the decision to land at Normandy wasn't decided until late in England Game's life. The Dutch were livid, with some conspiracy theorists accusing the British of deliberately getting the Dutch agents killed as part of some wild scheme to wrest control of Dutch colonies. Another conspiracy theory involved the collusion of the British and Dutch governments working together to get rid of the Dutch resistance because it was suspected to be riddled with communists. The current consensus, however, is that human error, organizational flaws and incompetence were the order of the day.

"Englandspiel" ("England Game")

Plaque commemorating the Englandspiel in WWII on the Binnenhof in The Hague
Plaque commemorating the Englandspiel in WWII on the Binnenhof in The Hague | Source

Was It Incompetence Or Something More Sinister?

Documents relating to the England Game will not be released until 2042. When pressed for an earlier release, the British government sniffed: ““It is contrary to the public interest to publish details of the affairs of secret organizations.”

One almost hopes that incompetence rules the day. The thought of deliberately sending so many agents (whether Dutch or otherwise) to near-certain death in some broader “game” is repugnant. But, given that deceit and intrigue is the stock in trade of secret organizations, we may never know the true story-- even after 2042. One fact remains: the England Game was played.

© 2012 David Hunt


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    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      8 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Nice to hear from you again, Gypsy. Thanks for reading, commenting and sharing. Will we ever know the truth?

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 

      8 years ago from Daytona Beach, Florida

      Voted up and interesting. This was really a fascinating read especially about the England Game. Passing this on.

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      8 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      xstatic-- I like that: "the best and the worst". Seems to sum things up nicely. I wonder if we'll ever know? Given that the Secret Service will have had 100 years, can we be sure the documents will have remained "untainted"? Just the cynic in me, I suppose.

      Pavlo-- thanks for once again for reading and commenting.

      old albion-- I agree wholeheartedly. As cynical as I can sometimes be, the very thought that the British might not have made mistakes and were playing a double game disturbs me.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, guys. Always appreciated.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 

      8 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi UH. Another cracking hub. I was totally unaware of this and I have to admit my own disappointment at reading it. As you say the depth of intrigue here we will never know, but on the surface we seem to have been lax in our application to duty.


    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 

      8 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      Great hub revealing an other page of WW2 history!

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 

      8 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      Another great historical report! Given the British betrayals in the 1950s (Philby, Burgess, et al) it is not inconceivable that it was an inside job. The Brits were the best and the worst at espionage and still accomplish much.


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