The scepticism that rewrote a (false) chapter of British history

Sometimes, your scepticism can be your best journalistic tool, and I fear that in the current, hectic rush of the world we don’t always have the time to be as sceptical as we should be.

A lot of people have asked me how I spotted three documents in The National Archives as forgeries. When I answer that it was just a hunch, I feel that they don’t quite believe me, but my former news editor, Neil Darbyshire at The Daily Telegraph, would back me up.

I told him that something about those documents was just wrong and he backed me to pin down exactly what it was, no matter the time or (within reason) the money involved.

A friend of the Telegraph’s literary editor sent him digital images of the documents in question in 2005, because they had been cited as references in a book making seriously damaging claims about Britain’s conduct during the Second World War. The headline-grabbing allegation was that Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, didn’t commit suicide in May 1945 as historians believed, but was murdered by British spies.

Everything in my experience of The National Archives, where the originals of these papers had been found, told me that it was the fount of accepted knowledge. Hard fact.

But there was something about these papers, about one in particular, that excited my innate journalist’s suspicion of new spin on an old tale. It all came down to a tired old word – ‘devastating”. We’ve all used it in copy, usually quoting someone to whom something awful has happened.

However, because I had spent the best part of a decade reading files in The National Archives, many of them dating from the Second World War, I knew it was not a word our forebears, especially educated people, used in that way.

So, when I read a letter supposedly written by Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s minister of information and a bit of a literary stylist, in which he speculated on the ‘devastating repercussions’if the ‘murder’of Himmler was pinned on Britain, it made me look harder at what I was being asked to believe.

And when I looked harder, I saw what looked like pencil traces under Bracken’s signature.

From then, it was just a question of building a case until The Archives agreed to have the papers forensically tested, and then to follow the course of a lengthy police investigation into the forgeries, simply refusing to let the matter rest, knowing that I was a bore to my colleagues and family, but just wanting to get at what we all want to get at: The real story behind the camouflage. Thankfully, my new home at the FT has made that possible, giving me my head on this complex tale.

Actually, this column should be called ‘How I am Still Doing It”, because in effect this story isn’t finished. As I write, I am still challenging official refusal to submit this affair to an independent inquiry. And I am still sceptical of the outcome.    

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