You’re out of luck. The raid that your Squadron Leader said would be a walk in the park has gone wrong: they were waiting for you and you’ve been shot down. You’re injured – no idea, as yet, how badly. And they’ve found you before you could get to shelter.
You’re carted off to some unknown place in the dark by men whose language you don’t understand but about whom you’ve heard… well, you’d rather not think about it.
You’re thousands of miles from home.
After a preliminary roughing-up, you find yourself alone in a cell. Nothing happens, for what seems like hours.
The cell door opens. You feel a sick lurch.
You’ve already given your name, rank and number when you first got here.
But nobody’s shouting at you and, apart from the guards at the door who haven’t moved from their posts, there’s only one of him.
“Hi. My name’s Hans.”
He gestures to imply you needn’t bother rising from your bunk. He pulls up a chair. It occurs on you, as he recounts the events of the previous night and how your people were caught out, that he doesn’t even have that harsh accent. He sounds just like you.
You gather, as he carries on talking, that they must’ve known all about the raid days, maybe weeks, in advance. Hell, about the entire history of the Squadron, sounds like. You don’t know it, but you’re nodding agreement with some of the stuff he’s saying.
He asks when you last ate: you realise how hungry you’ve gotten.
We don’t get much in the way of decent food round here, but I’ll see what we can rustle up…
You find yourself joking about your food – about the guys responsible for getting it to you. The rats. The QM who’s always on the make. Yeah, same here.
He leaves, returning later with food, even a few magazines. Film stars. You haven’t been to the movies in months. You get nostalgic. He asks about your favourite films. Their lads, he tells you, stencil the Divas on their planes: how about you..? You banter a little, about the planes. He tells you there’s a movie theatre here at the camp, and as soon as the medic’s treated that burn…
You find yourself talking, over the food. You’ve been careful: not given anything away. No numbers, no strategies, no tactics…
Or have you?
His name was Hans Joachim Scharff. A successful salesman in civilian life, he became one of the Luftwaffe’s top interrogators: the very antithesis of the harsh, ‘we have ways of making you talk’ trope of war films.
On the other side of the world, at roughly the same time, former missionary Marine Major Sherwood Ford Moran, an American Japanophile who spoke the language perfectly, was working the same magic on captured Japanese soldiers following failed raids on Pacific islands.
They’d sit in the shade on folding wooden chairs not far away from the immediate battlefield, and just talk – about places, about food. The captives were often grateful for someone who spoke their language: who understood them and knew the rhythm of their lives back home. It would almost be rude not to talk…
It got so sometimes they’d even seek him out, for a chat.
Because whether in the pub just down the road, or in mortal peril halfway round the world, everybody loves to witter about themselves, really.
Which brings me to my turn, and Kate in Portsmouth.
I was not a captured soldier in dread of what might happen next, and of course my job was to give information: not withhold it.
But shock has an unexpected effect on the mind and on your ability to deal with direct questions. You blank out. The people needing the facts are working against obstacles, but these obstacles are not of your deliberate making: they lurk in the hidden parts of the mind, with our species’ other survival instincts.
I don’t remember the room. I couldn’t recall her face for the life of me – not even hair colour – but I do remember that it was she who eased me in to the talking and that all else, bar the street incident, left my mind.
Someone brought me a coffee. I remember wondering how they knew I took sugar.
We ran through it, all of it, in the present tense. The only interruptions would come if I stopped for lack of inspiration. They generally took the form “and what happens now?”
I don’t recall giving any details about appearances at this stage: only actions. I’m poor at remembering appearances.
Or so I thought.
We came to the end of my run-through of the incident: to my arrival at Geordie-Man’s house.
I thought that was that – I’d failed almost completely to give any useful details…
Then we went back and ran through it all again: but different this time.
“He’s coming towards you. Can you hear his footsteps?”
“What’s his hair like?
“What sort of clothes is he wearing?”
And back I was, in Burnaby Road…
MRI scans have since that time shown that the brain activity of someone imagining a situation is all but indistinguishable from that of the same person perceiving it in real life. This, it’s my guess, is how the true victims – those less lucky than I was that night – find their interviews so traumatic. I can only hope that, like ‘therapy’ is supposed to do, it helps get some of the awfulness out of their minds.
My interview, as mentioned before, took a whole three hours. It didn’t feel like that. It didn’t feel like any time at all. I became kind-of suspended: taken out of the normal flow of time, re-playing bits of reality like an eighties film fan would re-play action highlights of a video.
And that is how it’s done: the technique now accepted as ‘best practice’ in police stations throughout the U.K. for victims, witnesses and suspects alike. Kate – who’d ‘been on a course’ recall – must have been one of the earliest pioneers.
Its name is PEACE:
Prepare – Engage/Explain – Account, Clarify & Challenge – Close – Evaluate
There’s a free course here, for the curious.
And for the skeptics – of whom I admit I was once one – I give you experts from Liverpool who’ve demonstrated how well this kind of interviewing works, even on hardened criminals and terrorists.
I leave you with two quotes from top interrogators:
“The best (interviews) suspended moral judgment and conveyed genuine curiosity.”
“Rapport is the closest thing interrogators have to a truth serum.”