In the aftermath of the Second World War, an elite British Army unit was tasked with abducting hundreds of German scientists and businessmen who could help the Allies gain the advantage over their new enemy: Russia.
Some were literally forced from their beds and taken to Britain, where they were interrogated until they gave up their trade secrets – which included everything from jet engines, coal mining and plastics manufacturing to the secret formula of well-known perfumes. If they did not comply, they were interned.
“It was a grab on the human spoils of war,” explains Stephen Poliakoff, whose latest BBC2 drama was inspired by the secretive work of T-Force, as revealed in recently declassified government documents.
Close To The Enemy, written and directed by Poliakoff, revolves around Captain Callum Ferguson (played by Jim Sturgess), who has been tasked with turning German aviation scientist, Dieter Koehler (August Diehl) to work for the British.
As the plot unfolds, Ferguson finds himself up against Kathy Griffiths (Phoebe Fox), a tough, young woman working for the War Crimes Unit, whose mandate is to bring escaped war criminals to justice. The stellar cast also includes Bates Motel actor Freddie Highmore, Charlotte Riley (Peaky Blinders), and Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones).
Of the seven-part drama, which begins tonight (Thursday), the 63-year-old writer says he wanted to show how the interests of national security were “pitted against justice and humanity” in the years following the war, but adds that not everything is as black and white as it first seems.
“I wanted it to be morally complex. I didn’t just want the Nazi hunter to be the good person and the soldier seizing the scientists to be the bad person,” he says.
Researching the work of T-Force, as well as that of the War Crimes Unit, Poliakoff, whose Russian-born father lost members of his family to the Holocaust, discovered some 4,000 Nazis were listed as suspects in the aftermath of 1945 – but that number was whittled down to just 150 in a matter of months, primarily because of a lack of resources and fears over encountering the Cold War.
“So that’s an awful number of guilty people walking free, but the imperative was to get ahead in this new world,” he explains.
The tiny proportion of war criminals brought to justice can also be explained by the lack of co-ordination between various organisations tasked with finding former Nazis. Poliakoff describes the situation as “chaotic”.
“Much of the Nazi hunting was very ad hoc, and you hear about Jewish soldiers who went off and did it because they realised nobody else was going to.”
Most famously, German-Jewish refugee Hanns Alexander tracked down and arrested Rudolf Höss, the notorious commandant of Auschwitz.
Meanwhile, former Nazis were being grabbed by the Allies and having their former lives erased in return for their cooperation.
He continues: “The impetus was on getting people who could be of use to us and to not be too fussy about what they had done during the war. In America, they had their own secret programme, Operation Paperclip, in which they gave many former Nazis new biographies and fake jobs.
“The government publicly stated it would do no business with any ex-member of the Nazi party, but that of course would have counted out many of their top scientists, including Wernher von Braun, who created their rocket programme –and he wasn’t just a Nazi, but a member of the SS.”
Meanwhile the British acted in a similar fashion. Nazi counter-intelligence officer Horst Kopkow was sheltered from the war crimes investigation by British intelligence – and they even faked his death in 1948, to help him escape prosecution.
“That story we know about, but there were probably many we don’t know about,” speculates Poliakoff, who was awarded a CBE in 2007.
While the armed forces concerned themselves with the coming Cold War, Britain was also left facing a more familiar enemy, in the form of the Blackshirts.
Poliakoff calls it “mind-boggling” that Oswald Moseley’s Union Movement came to prominence again, just months after the war had come to its conclusion. “It was a horrible disease, like eczema on the body of Britain and a terrible affront to people that it was here,” he says.
But it’s equally the human story beneath world events that Poliakoff tries to draw out in his drama, showing how the war affected surviving soldiers, many of whom experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as those left behind on the home front.
Poliakoff can still recall seeing, as a child, the devastation in London years after the war had ended, while his parents, who lived in Kensington, experienced the events of the Blitz first-hand.
The award-winning writer, who has two children with wife and fellow screenwriter Sandy Welch, tells me: “The V2s were raining down within weeks of the end of the war. People lost homes, their loved ones and had witnessed horrific things. But they wanted to address the future and not concern themselves with the immediate past.
“Instead, they were left to battle on their own with their demons.”
υ Close To The Enemy premieres on BBC 2 tonight, 10 November at 9pm