Who was Hanns Scharff?
The year was 1944, Nazi Germany interrogator Hanns Scharff, who had only been recently appointed lead interrogator, was in his office with a captured American pilot. Unlike the toxic environment characterized by other Nazi interrogators, Scharff’s office oozed tranquility and a sense of security. His recent conversations with the American pilot had enabled him understand that American tracer bullets produced white smoke instead of red not because of shortage of raw materials. Through guile and respect, Scharff had made the American pilot reveal to him that the white color of the bullets were meant to signal that ammo was running low.
How did Scharff manage to pry such a valuable and useable information from captives? But first, who was Hanns Scharff, and how did his interrogation techniques get incorporated by the US military into their interrogation schools?
Take a closer look at the life and career of Hanns Scharff, the German Luftwaffe interrogator who deployed peaceful ways of interrogation, including taking nature walks with the prisoners without guards.
Hanns Scharff was a German interrogator and intelligence officer during World War II. Born on December 16, 1907, in Offenbach am Main, Germany, Scharff joined the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) and was trained as an interrogator. He became known for his unique and effective approach to obtaining information from captured Allied pilots.
His interrogation method focused on building rapport and establishing a friendly and non-threatening atmosphere with the prisoners. He would engage them in casual conversations, often discussing topics unrelated to the war. By employing this approach, he was able to gain the trust of the prisoners and extract valuable intelligence without resorting to physical or psychological coercion.
One of the key elements of Scharff’s technique was his ability to remember details about the prisoners’ personal lives and use that knowledge to make them feel comfortable and open up voluntarily. He would avoid direct questioning and instead encourage the prisoners to speak freely.
Scharff’s interrogation skills were highly regarded by his superiors, and he was credited with obtaining valuable information that benefited the German war effort.
After the war, he immigrated to the United States and became an aviation consultant. He passed away on September 10, 1992, in California, U.S.
Despite his association with the German military during World War II, Hanns Scharff is primarily remembered for his innovative and humane approach to interrogation, which set him apart from the harsher methods employed by others during the conflict.
What else is he known for?
When Scharff was not in the lecture halls of US military academies, he was involved in the creation of mosaics. The German would go on to become famous for this passion of his. As a matter of fact some of his mosaic works are on display in the United States, including some at the Los Angeles City Hall and the California State Capitol building.
Questions & Answers
Here is what you need to know about the Master Interrogator of the Luftwaffe:
What was Hanns Scharff’s early life like?
Hanns Scharff was born on December 16, 1907. He was born in Rastenburg, East Prussia – what is today Kętrzyn, Poland. His parents were Else Scharf and Hans Hermann Scharf.
He had two siblings – Eberhardt and Wolfgang. Both of them died in hiss teen years. In 1917, his father, a Prussian army officer, passed away from the injuries he sustained during World War I.
In his teens, he and his brother, Eberhardt, worked in his grandfather’s textile manufacturing plant. He also served in the merchandizing and exporting departments.
For about a year, he worked as a sales agent in Johannesburg, South Africa. After chalking up a lot of successes, he was appointed head of the sales division in South Africa. He went on to live in Johannesburg for about a decade before relocating to Germany.
His wife, Margaret Stokes, was the daughter of Claud Stokes (1884-1918), a British pilot who died in 1918 after his aircraft was shot down by the Germans in France.
Why was Hanns Scharff called the Master Interrogator of the Luftwaffe?
Hanns Scharff earned the moniker “Master Interrogator of the Luftwaffe” due to his exceptional skills and success as an interrogator within the German Air Force during World War II.
He was known for his unique and humane approach to obtaining information from captured Allied pilots, which set him apart from other interrogators. His success rate was so high that he was asked to aid other interrogators in their work. Scharff was also placed in charge of interrogating captured senior officers and fighter aces of the Allies, including Capt. John T. Godfrey, Col. Hubert Zemke, Maj. Gerald W. Johnson, and Maj. Duane Beeson.
How did Hans Scharff go about his interrogation?
Scharff’s interrogation method involved establishing a friendly and non-threatening atmosphere with the prisoners. Instead of using physical or psychological coercion, he focused on building rapport and engaging the prisoners in casual conversations. He would discuss topics unrelated to the war, allowing the prisoners to speak freely without feeling pressured or guarded.
One of Scharff’s notable talents was his ability to remember details about the prisoners’ personal lives. By utilizing this knowledge, he would make the prisoners feel comfortable, gradually gaining their trust. Through these casual conversations, he skillfully extracted valuable and useable intelligence without resorting to harsh interrogation techniques.
How different were his interrogation techniques from other Nazi interrogators?
It is worth noting that Scharff’s interrogation skills were distinct from the harsher methods employed by other interrogators during the war. His ability to elicit information through rapport-building and empathy made him stand out and earned him the respect of both his superiors and the prisoners he interrogated.
Why did the United States Air Force invite him to the United States?
After the Second World War, the US military leadership invited Scharff to the US to give lectures on his calm and respectful interrogation techniques and experiences during the war.
The US needed all the military and intelligence gathering expertise if it was going to contend with the rising power of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And the knowledge Scharff imparted into US military and intelligence agents proved to be invaluable.
To this day, Hanns Scharff’s interrogation techniques are taught in US military academies.
How Scharff’s wife saved his life
It’s said that when the Second World War broke out, Scharff’s intention was to flee; however, he was unable and got stranded in Germany. As a result, he was drafted into the German military. He was first with the Wehrmacht, the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany. He had his military training in Potsdam in Brandenburg.
Had it not been for the timely intervention of his wife, he would have ended up serving at the Russian Front. His wife, Margaret, managed to convince a senior German general in Berlin of how her husband’s talent would be severely wasted if he was sent to the Russian Front.
Scharff was then transferred to the Dolmetscher Kompanie XII (Interpreters Company 12) in Wiesbaden, where he worked as a clerk.
From interpreter to interrogator
Not satisfied with his role, he was able to talk his way out of the role and get his superiors to transfer him to the Intelligence and Evaluation Center West, a Luftwaffe interrogation center at Oberursel. There, he began serving as an interpreter for the interrogators of all captured Allied Air Force personnel, except for Soviet officers.
His months-long training equipped him with necessary interrogation techniques to become an assistant interrogation officer. He served as the assistant to two interrogators – Schröder and Weyland. After those two interrogators were killed and injured, respectively, in late 1943, Scharff was promoted to interrogation officer by Captain Horst H. Barth.
The Scharff Interrogation Technique
Scharff, assisted by his assistant interrogator Otto “Canadian Wild Bill” Engelhardt, deployed a number of innovative techniques, including one that made the prisoner wrongly believe that the interrogator was on his side.
He would make the prisoners feel like he was doing everything in his power to halt his superiors from turning them over to the Gestapo for questioning. The official secret police of Nazi Germany, the Gestapo were infamous for their ruthless techniques that completely disregarded all forms of human rights.
He proved to his superiors that adhering to the most thorough standards of human rights and treatment of prisoners of war elicited far more useful intelligence than brute force and torture.
By placing himself as someone that wanted to shield prisoners from the Gestapo, he was able to win the trust of the people he interrogated.
He would then proceed to genuinely act like a friend of the prisoner. He would take some of the prisoners out for nature walks without any guards present. Sometimes he would even make them homemade food, drink beers, and crack jokes with them. In some cases, he allowed high-profile prisoners get all the medical aid they deserved. He even allowed some of the prisoners visit the hospital wards where other prisoners were treated.
All of that was a carefully orchestrated scheme to position himself as confidant of the prisoner. This helped allay all the fears that the prisoner had at the time of his capture.
His efforts in gaining the trust of his prisoners were aided by the fact that he was fluent in English and knowledgeable about both American and British customs.
Scharff also had a way of making his prisoners genuinely believe that he was empathetic to their predicament. He was very calculative when it came to disclosing personal information about himself.
He did it gradually, disclosing to his prisoners that he was married to an Englishwoman, and that him being the son-in-law of a famed British aviator who died in World War I meant that he harbored no ill will against the prisoners. His use of personal and honest information worked wonders on the prisoners’ minds.
No sooner was this done than did the captured Allied aviators begin to divulge information to Scharff beyond their name, rank, serial number, and airbase.
Scharff’s interrogation technique for tight-lipped captives
When Scharff came across a prisoner that was tight-lipped and wouldn’t be swayed easily by all his pleasantries, he would take a different approach. The German interrogator would inform the prisoner that he had all the information he needed to know about the prisoner. So the question that went through the prisoner’s mind was: why then was Scharff “wasting” his time asking questions that he already knew the answer.
Scharff would tell the prisoners that he only asked the questions because his superiors wanted the prisoner to say it himself.
As an illustration of his approach, Scharff and his team compiled comprehensive dossiers on American aviators, gathering information from various sources such as U.S. newspaper clippings, previous interrogations, and radio logs. Through his research, he uncovered hidden markings concealed within pilots’ clothing that revealed information about the fighter, including their bomber groups.
The truth of the matter is Scharff did indeed have some personal information about the prisoner, but he did not have all. Regardless, he managed to convince the prisoner that he knew everything about him. He did this by starting with things that he already knew. He would then build it up to a point where the prisoner continues to assume that Scharff knew the information.
In some cases, he would intentionally inject very absurd statements during the conversation so he could observe the prisoners’ response. Often times, the prisoner would immediately interject and correct him.
Ultimately, the peaceful interrogator proved to his colleagues that his technique was more effective in prying truthful information from captives than a hard approach of confrontation and mental and physical torture. And all the while, the prisoners often times erroneously believed that they were not divulging much to him.
Why did he use calm and peaceful techniques?
Early on his service, he witnessed a very disturbing event where a Luftwaffe interrogator caused a prisoner to absolutely lose his mind and then ran to hide in the corner of the cell. It was in that moment that Scharff knew that he could swipe intelligence from prisoners without the use of physical and/or mental torture.
Who were some of the notable prisoners Scharff interrogated?
From 1943 to the end of the war in 1945, Scharff chalked up many successes. As a result, he was often the go-to interrogator when it came to difficult and tight-lipped prisoners. Some of the most senior Allied aviators that he interrogated were:
Lt. Col. Francis “Gabby” Gabreski (1919-2002)
Lieutenant Colonel Francis “Gabby” Gabreski was an American fighter pilot who served during World War II and the Korean War. Born on January 28, 1919, in Oil City, Pennsylvania, Gabreski became one of the leading American aces of World War II.
During World War II, he flew P-47 Thunderbolts and became known for his exceptional flying skills and combat prowess. He scored 28 confirmed aerial victories, making him one of the top American fighter pilots of the war.
In July 1944, his plane was shot down as he tried to attack a parked German airliner, the Heinkel He 111, at an airfield in Niedermedig, Germany. He crashed landed and managed to escape capture for about 5 days. When he was ultimately captured by the Germans, he was interrogated by Hanns Scharff.
It said that Gabreski was one of the few prisoners of Scharff that did not disclose any intelligence to the Germans.
Throughout his military career, Gabreski was highly decorated, receiving numerous awards and honors, including the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Legion of Merit. He also held the distinction of being the top American ace of World War II in the European Theater.
Lt. Martin James Monti (1921-2000)
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Monti enlisted in the US Army Air Forces in 1942. While serving at Foggia in Southern Italy, he stole an unarmed photographic reconnaissance aircraft – the F-5E Lightning aircraft. He flew it to Milan and surrendered himself to the German forces, stating that he was deserting to Nazi Germany. Monti was interrogated by Hanns Scharff and gave the Germans all the intel he had.
After the war, Scharff even testified in Monti’s treason trial, which saw Monti found guilty for desertion and ultimately sentenced to 25 years in prison. It was during the trial, that Scharff had the chance to meet some senior US military and intelligence officers.
Maj. Duane Beeson (1921-1947)
A renowned American pilot, Beeson chalked immense success in his brief career. He became an ace in two different types of fighter aircraft, receiving the Distinguished Service Cross, the Air Medal, and the Prisoner of War Medal, among other military decorations.
On April 5, 1944, and on the back of shooting down two Bf 109s, his plane was brought down by a German attack from the ground. The aviator ace was captured and interrogated by Scharff. Beeson was allowed by Scharff to read and even engage in boxing.
Col. Hubert Zemke (1914-1994)
Described by General Jimmy Doolittle as the “greatest fighter group commander”, American aviator Colonel Hubert Zemke served very well in the 56th Fighter Group and 479th Fighter Group in World War II.
On October 30, 1944, his P-51 plane’s wing’s was ripped off during turbulence. Zemke was left with no other option than to bail out. Unfortunately he landed in enemy territory and had to evade the enemy for a number of days. Ultimately he was captured and an interrogation center, where he was interrogated by Scharff. It is said that Zemke and Scharff managed to convince senior German guards to improve the deplorable conditions of Stalag Luft I at Barth, the POW camp he, along with more than 9,000 POWs were held.
Did you know…?
Zemke save the lives of two young German girls. The incident occurred during his captivity in Germany. There were even rumors that some Nazi officers recommended him for a Nazi medal for bravery.
What were some of the downright bizarre privileges Scharff offered his prisoners?
Being fluent in English and the fact that he was knowledgeable about British and American customs weren’t the only things that Scharff deployed to extract information from his prisoners. He acted as a true friend of the prisoners, often times sharing a drink with them.
Sometimes, he left his prisoners all alone by themselves in his office, reading foreign newspapers and smoking cigarettes.
He would also bring homemade food to the prisoners and eat together. Perhaps the strangest of things Scharff did was when he allowed a captured Allied aviator fly a Bf 109 fighter. The message Scharff was putting out there was that he wholeheartedly trusted his prisoners.
And even during the nature walks that he took with the prisoners, he chose not to focus too much on the war, preferring to talk about non-military topics. Basically, his goal was to make the prisoners first have a very pleasant experience, and only when that was achieved, would he start asking questions in order to get the information he wanted. In many cases, the prisoners did not even realize when they divulged that information as they were so captivated by the kind gesture and politeness of Scharff.
He was fluent in English and knowledgeable about British customs and some American ones, which helped him to gain the trust and friendship of many of his prisoners. In addition, he could empathize with the captured Allied aviators, drawing on the fact that he was not only married to an Englishwoman but also a son-in-law of a World War I British flying ace (Claud Stokes, as noted above).
He made them feel that he was on their side, and that they needed to help so he could keep them safe – i.e. keep them away from the Gestapo.
Hanns Scharff: Quick Facts
Born: Hanns-Joachim Gottlob Scharff
Birthday: 16 December 1907
Place of birth: Rastenburg, East Prussia, Germany (now Kętrzyn, Poland)
Died: 10 September 1992
Place of death: California, U.S.
Parents: Else Scharf and Hans Hermann Scharf
Spouse: Margaret Stokes
Nicknames: Stone Face, Poker Face
Other facts about Hanns Scharff
- Hanns Scharff enlisted in the German army and was not a member of the Nazi Party. Unlike the brutal interrogation techniques the Gestapo used, Scharff deployed tools of kindness, empathy and cleverness to pry information from captured Allied aviators.
- He was an Obergefreiter in the Luftwaffe. The rank is the equivalent of Private First Class.
- After World War II, he wrote his memoirs and agreed to have some sections of it published in Argosy Magazine, an American pulp magazine that operated from 1882 to 1978. The publication was titled “Without Torture”.
- It is not just the US military alone that incorporated Scharff’s interrogation technique. The FBI and other intelligence and security agencies have benefited a great deal from Scharff’s non-violent and trust-building interrogation techniques. Established during the Obama administration in 2009, the FBI-led High-Value Interrogation Group has certainly appreciated Scharff’s technique when it comes to prying intelligence from suspected radical and extremist groups.
- It’s said that he interviewed more than 450 captured Allied aviators, mostly US pilots. He was able to get information from more than 95% of them – military men that were trained to stay tough at all times and not divulge anything beyond their name, serial number and rank.