Interrogation Tips

Here are some lessons from leading interrogators of prisoners of war and suspected spies in World War 2…

1. What makes a good interrogator?

“Interrogators are of two kinds. Firstly there is the ‘breaker’, the man whose duty it is to reduce the spy to the stage of speaking, and of speaking at least some of the truth. Secondly, there is the investigator who, given the advantage of the ‘break’, must deal with the minutiae, check and counter-check, analyse, collate and report.

It is customary to say a breaker is born and not made. Perhaps the first class breaker has yet to be born. Perhaps he has yet to be recruited from the concentration camps, where he has suffered for years, where, above all he has watched and learnt in bitterness every move in the game.”

Lieutenant Colonel R.W.G. Stephens, MI5 interrogator and chief spy catcher.

2. Preparation

“The secret of successful direct interrogation was always the ability of the interrogator to assert his personality over that of the POW; the firsts necessity was that the interrogator should know very much more than the POW concerning the Germany navy….and that he should be given the impression that the interrogator already knew full details of the information which he was in fact trying to obtain.”

Lieutenant Commander Colin McFadyean, naval interrogator.

“You can break some men by bullying, on others this has the reverse effect. Decide beforehand whether you are likely to obtain results with the subject you are dealing with, either by bullying, by sarcasm, by cold and impassive treatment, or by sympathy and by working on his emotions……My object in any cross-examination was always a simple one. It was to provoke in the suspect an emotional crisis as early as possible in the course of questioning. A cross-examination is primarily a battle of wits and one side or the other must grasp the initiative early on and then retain it…..if the interrogator can make the suspect angry or frightened by his questions he will have taken a long stride towards success.”

Lieutenant Colonel Oreste Pinto, MI5 interrogator and spy catcher.

3. ‘Ways of making you talk’

Suspected spies and prisoners of war were treated very differently, but here are some techniques used by both MI5 and service interrogators from time to time.

Physical discomfort

A suspect or prisoner is given a hard chair to sit on or made to stand to attention for long periods of questioning. A trick, used by some army interrogators when dealing with senior enemy officers who might be an easy victim to embarrassment, was to offer them large quantities of tea before interrogation and then to prolong questioning until they were so desperate they would give away vital information in order to be free to go to the toilet.


MI 5 maintained pressure by day and by night. It was not uncommon to interrogate throughout the night. Physically and mentally it broke the strongest constitution in the end.

‘Blow Hot-Bow Cold’

Better known now as ‘Good cop, Bad cop’, where alternating interrogators are by turn hostile then sympathetic. An interrogator was told to pretend to lose his temper but NEVER to lose it in reality.

Cover Story

Breaking the cover story of a spy by repeatedly taking him through minute details of his imaginary story; forcing him to name streets, describe journeys, give bus numbers, the names of rivers – anything that will expose the spy as a fraud. A critical point in questioning should always be an ambush and, where possible, the surprise attack should be a statement not a question.

‘Sympathy Men’ 

The interrogator seeks to win the confidence of a prisoner by breaking down barriers, behaving warmly, sometimes in the guise of a welfare officer. More effective with prisoners than spies.

The Cross-Ruff

Prisoners are separated and played off against each other, encouraged to believe their comrade has broken. Effective with prisoners and spies.

The Legend of Cell 14

German spies were threatened by MI5 interrogators with ‘Cell Fourteen’. They were told it was such an awful place many men committed suicide and some died of natural causes: ‘the mortuary is conveniently opposite’. Cell Fourteen was a padded cell but in other respects, no different from any other, but fear conjured in the spy’s imagination was effective. Navy interrogators sometimes accused prisoners of spying and warned them they would be shot or handed over to the Soviet Union.


Known as ‘M’ intelligence, a hidden listening device in a cell was often effective with prisoners of war, but rarely caught out the ‘professional spy’.

The Wrong Prisoner

Pretending to interrogate the wrong prisoner. An interrogator repeatedly presses a prisoner with technical questions he cannot answer, the POW is returned to his cell where he tells the story to his comrade who knows all the answers. This prisoner laughs at the interrogator’s foolish mistakes but reveals the correct answers in the process. The results are recorded by the hidden microphone.

The stool pigeon

A German refugee or a prisoner of war who has been turned is placed in a cell with his former comrades and tries to tease intelligence from them under a guise of friendship. Useful with German prisoners of war but distrusted by MI5 as a technique with spies.

Drink and drugs

Although alcohol was supplied to prisoners in a few cases in an effort to loosen tongues, it did not prove a success. Drugs were also tested by the navy but did not prove very useful.


“There is no doubt that physical torture will ultimately break any man, however strong in body or determined in mind……Physical torture will make any man talk but it cannot ensure that he will tell the truth.” Lt-Col. Oreste Pinto, MI5 interrogator and spy catcher.

Although against the Geneva Convention, there were a few instances of torture in the field, but it was not used on prisoners at Trent Park where kindness often proved just as effective.

Trent Park

Trent Park, Middlesex University Campus. In the first years of World War 2 the home of the Combined Detailed Interrogation Centre where U-boat crews were questioned.

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