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Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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Despite the dwindling of its resources, throughout the 1920s and 1930s MI5 continued to pride itself on its imperial responsibilities established during the First World War. During the interwar years the overwhelming thrust of MI5’s duties was focused on the threat posed by the Soviet Union. With hindsight, we can see that MI5 and SIS both miscalculated, and were slow to react to, the growing threat posed by Nazi Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933. That said, MI5’s focus on the Soviet Union was hardly irrational. Soon after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the Soviet Union became just as much of an empire as the former Russian tsarist empire which it replaced – and posed a similar threat to the British empire. Immediately upon coming to power, Lenin pledged his support for a worldwide revolution against imperialism, which he famously described as the ‘highest form of capitalism’. The threat posed by the Soviet Union to the British empire was exposed by the head of the Intelligence Bureau in Delhi, Sir David Petrie, who went on to become the Director-General of MI5 from 1941 to 1946. In the late 1920s he wrote a classified official history, Communism in India, 1924–27, the circulation of which was limited to a small number of senior British officials in London and Delhi. Petrie warned that the Soviet Union posed a double threat for the British empire, especially in India: Soviet expansion was a strategic threat along the traditional lines of the ‘Great Game’ with Russia, but it also posed a subversive threat, with Moscow supporting anti-colonial movements inside the British empire. As it turned out, Petrie’s forecast was remarkably accurate: for over seven decades following the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, interrupted only by the Second World War, the Soviet Union became the main supporter of anti-colonial movements in the British empire and other European colonial empires. The reality was therefore that throughout the 1920s and 1930s the British government was engaged in a low-level ‘cold war’ with the Soviet Union, long before the real Cold War set in after 1945.

During the interwar years, Britain’s armed forces (the army, Royal Navy and RAF) all maintained intelligence departments that focused on the empire and Commonwealth. However, it was MI5 that was responsible for overall imperial security intelligence, maintaining direct contact with British intelligence authorities in India, the Delhi Intelligence Bureau (DIB), or Intelligence Bureau (IB) as it was also known, through a small London-based outfit known as Indian Political Intelligence (IPI). IPI was officially part of the India Office, which paid its budget, but from 1925 onwards it was housed in MI5’s headquarters at 25 Cromwell Road in London, opposite the Natural History Museum. The office space that MI5 rented to IPI (at rates that IPI often considered exorbitant) was by any standards pitiful: it consisted of three small, low-ceilinged, poorly-lit, dingy rooms in the attic of MI5’s headquarters. According to IPI’s head, Sir Philip Vickery (London Club: ‘East India’), these quarters were of such poor quality, with a ‘minimum amount of light and airspace’ and with half the main room ‘in darkness’, as to be almost ‘uninhabitable’. IPI was run on such a minuscule budget from the India Office that in 1926 it had only a handful of officers in London, equipped with three secretaries, one clerk and one typist, and apart from a few liaison officers in India, it had only two officers stationed elsewhere abroad, in Paris and Geneva. These few personnel formed the entire official security intelligence liaison channel between British intelligence and authorities in the subcontinent of India. Just how ill-equipped IPI was can be seen from a report in 1927: Vickery had to campaign hard for the purchase of ‘one extra hanging lamp’ for IPI’s attic office – for which the Department of Works ultimately seems to have refused to pay. When MI5 moved to its new headquarters, ‘Thames House’, Millbank, near Lambeth Bridge, IPI came with it, though its new accommodation was no better than before.

Despite the scanty resources at its disposal, sharing an office with MI5 allowed IPI to collaborate closely with other sections of British intelligence. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, MI5 and IPI continued to monitor the activities of Indian revolutionaries in Britain. Their main subject matter increasingly became communist agents travelling between Britain and India on behalf of the Communist International (Comintern), an underground network that Moscow had established in March 1919 to act as a vehicle to export the ‘workers revolution’ from the Soviet Union to countries abroad. MI5 and IPI’s investigations were focused on detecting agents acting as secret couriers for the Comintern, passing information between the British Communist Party and communist cells in India. The main investigative mechanism they relied on was a Home Office Warrant (HOW), which allowed for the interception of telephone and postal communications. Unlike SIS, which operated abroad and collected intelligence from foreign countries illegally, MI5 and IPI’s area of operations, domestically in Britain and also in the empire, were constrained by law in ways that did not apply to SIS. This was the case even though at the time MI5 (and IPI) did not have any powers at its disposal, either in statute or in common law, which allowed it to intercept mail. Despite existing in a shadowy legal netherworld, MI5 records reveal that it worked hard to operate hard within a legalistic framework, even if not a legal one.

In order to impose a HOW, MI5 had to apply to the Home Office, with a written explanation of why a warrant was sought, and the Home Secretary then had to sign off on it. HOWs were extremely resource intensive – hence the small number that were operating in the 1920s. The actual interception of communications was carried out by a small, secretive section of the General Post Office (GPO), known as the ‘special censor section’, whose workers had all signed the Official Secrets Act. This section’s work was laborious and far from glamorous: its office was equipped with a row of kettles, kept almost continually boiling, which were used to steam open letters, after which their contents were photographed, resealed and sent on their way. Some of these intercepted communications, still found in MI5 records today, contain information about the private lives of MI5 targets and their broader social history that cannot be found in any other archive. Telephone calls were likewise intercepted (‘tapped’) by the GPO, which employed a small team of transcribers at the main telephone exchange in Paddington, London. The team included foreign-language speakers, especially ‘White’ (anti-Bolshevik) Russian еmigrеs, who translated telephone conversations in Russian and other Eastern European languages. Later, MI5 and the GPO developed an innovative device, based on a modified gramophone machine, which was used to record telephone conversations. This machine allowed record discs to be mechanically added and taken off the recording device, or ‘pooled’, thus eliminating the hitherto tedious task of GPO workers having to switch them manually.

The first agent identified by MI5 as acting as a Comintern courier was Percy Glading, a member of the British Communist Party who in 1925 travelled to India under the alias ‘R. Cochrane’. Glading’s covert trip was revealed to MI5 and IPI by intercepted communications through a HOW. Over the following years he also used his secretary, a pretty twenty-five-year-old blonde named Olga Gray, to deliver funds to communists in India. However, unknown to Glading or anyone else in the British Communist Party, Olga Gray was in reality an undercover MI5 agent, who had been recruited and planted into the British Communist Party in 1931 by MI5’s legendary agent runner, Maxwell Knight, one of MI5’s most successful counter-espionage officers in the twentieth century. After retiring from MI5 as a spymaster in 1946, Knight embarked on a highly successful broadcasting career, becoming known as ‘Uncle Max’, a colourful presenter of children’s radio nature programmes. According to a later report on Knight’s agent-running section, ‘M Section’, the six-year penetration of Gray into the British Communist Party had been so successful that she had achieved ‘the enviable position where an agent becomes a piece of furniture, so to speak: that is, when persons visiting an office do not consciously notice whether the agent is there or not’.

Olga Gray’s courier mission in 1935 to India for the British Communist Party provided MI5 and IPI with an extraordinary insight into how Comintern agents were run, and also revealed the identities of communist agents in India. However, her trip was an extremely delicate task for MI5, which had to go to remarkable lengths not to blow her cover. As Maxwell Knight later recalled, it was so badly organised by the British Communist Party that without MI5’s help it is unlikely that she would ever have got to India. Knight helped her devise a suitable cover story – that she was a prostitute – without making it appear that she had received help in concocting it. He also feared that if her passport and other paperwork for travel to India were approved too quickly, her superiors in the Communist Party might become suspicious. Her MI5 handlers therefore ensured that it was delayed sufficiently not to arouse any suspicion. After her trip, Gray revealed to MI5 the existence of a substantial Soviet espionage network operating in Britain. Its ringleader was none other than Percy Glading, and it was based at the Woolwich Arsenal in London, where Glading worked as a mechanic, and where he and his agents gained access to sensitive information on British armaments.

The strain of acting as a double agent began to take a toll on Olga Gray – she appears to have had at least one nervous breakdown – so in 1937 MI5 decided to wind up the Soviet network at the Woolwich Arsenal and have its agents arrested. Gray testified at Glading’s trial for espionage at the Old Bailey in February 1938, appearing anonymously behind a screen as ‘Miss X’. Her evidence helped to convict him of spying for Soviet intelligence, for which he was imprisoned for six years. The trial judge congratulated her for her ‘extraordinary courage’ and ‘great service to her country’. Soon afterwards, she left for Canada under a new name.

As well as providing intelligence on Soviet networks in India and Britain, Olga Gray’s position in the British Communist Party – unassuming but central – provided her, and thus MI5, with unique access to codes used by the Party to send radio messages to Comintern networks in Europe. Her information helped the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), Britain’s first official peacetime SIGINT agency, established in 1921, to break radio traffic messages passing between the headquarters of the Comintern in Moscow and its numerous representatives abroad, in countries as far apart as China, Austria and the United States. GC&CS gave this radio traffic the codename ‘Mask’. The Mask traffic revealed to the British government that Moscow provided secret subsidies to the British Communist Party and also to its newspaper, the Daily Worker. In January 1935 Mask revealed the existence of a secret radio transmitter, based in Wimbledon, in south-west London, which was being operated by a member of the British Communist Party’s underground cell to send messages to Moscow. MI5 closely monitored the activities of those agents identified.

MI5 and IPI identified other Comintern couriers, such as British Communist Party member George Allison, alias ‘Donald Campbell’, who, following a tip-off from MI5, was arrested in India in 1927 for travelling on a forged passport. However, the most important direct involvement of British intelligence in the empire at this time was with the so-called ‘Meerut conspiracy case’, a long-drawn-out trial that opened in India in 1929. Although their involvement was not publicised, both MI5 and IPI provided crucial evidence of the Comintern’s attempts to use communist agents in India to incite labour unrest there. In August 1929 the Deputy Director of MI5, Sir Eric Holt-Wilson, led a delegation of British officials to India to provide evidence at the trial and to testify to the authenticity of the intercepted documents – thus overcoming any objections the defence counsel might raise that the documents were unreliable ‘hearsay’ evidence, and should be inadmissible. The delegation, travelling First Class by ship and train, included five London Metropolitan Police Special Branch officers, as well as the head of the special censor section of the GPO, Frederick Booth, and the official in charge of the team in the GPO that actually photographed the documents, H. Burgess. They liaised closely with Sir David Petrie at the IB in Delhi, and judging from existing IPI records, it also appears that GC&CS provided intercepted communications passing between Moscow and a communist cell operating in India.

After providing evidence at the Meerut trial, Sir Eric Holt-Wilson embarked on an enormous worldwide tour, visiting and liaising with security officials from Hong Kong to New York. Holt-Wilson’s extensive trip was all the more remarkable given that it was made in an age before long-distance air travel, when the journey from Britain to India took weeks. More than any other MI5 officer in the first half of the twentieth century, Holt-Wilson – nicknamed ‘Holy Willy’ on account of his strong Anglican beliefs and because he was a rector’s son – was responsible for promoting the idea that MI5 was an imperial agency. In fact, he often referred to it as the ‘Imperial Security Service’. Holt-Wilson returned to India in 1933, at the conclusion of the Meerut trial, which led to the prosecution of a number of communist agents. Upon his return to London the next year he gave a closed lecture to the London Special Branch, at which he emphasised MI5’s imperial responsibilities:

Our Security Service is more than national; it is Imperial. We have official agencies cooperating with us, under the direct instructions of the Dominions and Colonial Offices and the supervision of local Governors, and their chiefs of police, for enforcing security laws in every British Community overseas.

These all act under our guidance for security duties. It is our duty to advise them, when necessary, on all security measures necessary for defence and civil purposes; and to exchange information regarding the movement within the Empire of individuals who are likely to be hostile to its interests from a security point of view.

Holt-Wilson went on another extensive overseas journey in 1938. The main purpose of this trip was to review local security and intelligence services in India and a number of other colonies and Dominions, and ensure that their security standards were adequate to meet the needs of the looming war with the Axis Powers. However, during the trip he himself displayed a remarkable disregard for basic security procedures – certainly far less care than he was attempting to instil in the colonial authorities he visited. In a series of soppy love letters that he sent by open, unsecured post back to his wife – a vicar’s daughter twenty years his junior – in England, Holt-Wilson described in detail the local intelligence officials he met, and also lamely attempted to glamorise for her benefit the nature of his ‘cloak and dagger’ work. If these letters, found in his personal papers now held in Cambridge, had been intercepted by the Axis Powers, they would have revealed a range of sensitive information on British imperial security and intelligence matters. The fact was that Holt-Wilson, a keen huntsman and one-time President of the Ski Club of Great Britain, was not one for modesty – which is surprising for someone whose career necessitated working in the shadows. In his own words he was ‘a champion shot’, and in the official description he penned for himself in Who’s Who, he stated that he was the Director-General of the ‘Imperial Security Intelligence Service’, and also accurately but pompously noted that he was ‘author of all pre-war official papers and manuals on Security Intelligence Police Duties in Peace and War’. Not very subtly for one of Britain’s senior intelligence officials, Holt-Wilson also listed his home address in his Who’s Who entry.

In March 1938 Holt-Wilson arrived in India, where he met the new head of the IB in Delhi, Sir John Ewart, whom he referred to as the ‘K [‘Kell’] of India’. He next travelled to Singapore and Hong Kong, where as he reported to his wife, he was spotted by local press reporters as being involved with ‘hush-hush’ work. In Singapore he liaised with a local MI5 officer stationed there, Col. F. Hayley Bell, in Holt-Wilson’s unflattering opinion a ‘deaf madman’, whose deafness made hushed conversations difficult. He also met Hayley Bell’s daughter, Mary Hayley Bell (later Lady Mills), who in 1942 would write a popular wartime play, Men in Shadow, about resistance groups in France, which would attract the attention of MI5 for revealing sensitive details of escape routes from occupied France. MI5 only allowed the play to be performed after the passages in question were removed. At a dinner held in his honour during Holt-Wilson’s visit to Hong Kong in April 1938, which was officially described as an ‘inspection of the colony’s defences’ so as not to attract too much press attention, the Governor proposed a toast to ‘good old Thames House’ (MI5’s headquarters), which was lost on all the guests except for himself and Holt-Wilson.

Ireland was a particularly important recruiting ground for colonial police officers, many of whom would deal with intelligence matters across the empire. After the Irish Free State was granted a form of Dominion status in 1921, a stream of former officers of the disbanded Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) moved into the Indian and other colonial police forces, particularly in Palestine, where they gained a reputation for stern discipline and ‘backbone’. Ireland was also the theatre that provided a model for policing and counter-insurgency operations that persisted in British military thinking for several decades. In 1934 Major General Sir Charles Gwynn published an influential book, Imperial Policing, on low-intensity conflicts or ‘small wars’. Drawing on lessons from Ireland, and the tactics the British used to crush the Indian Mutiny in the 1850s and other Indian revolts at Dinshawai (1906) and Amritsar (1919), Gwynn recommended that to be effective, colonial policing required the use of minimum necessary force, with the aim of restoring civilian government as soon as possible, and tactics such as troops moving in sweeping column formations against enemies. While Gwynn’s recommendations were undoubtedly applicable to Palestine in the 1930s, they left their mark for much longer than they should have on British military authorities, who continued to apply these tactics to anti-colonial insurgencies in the post-war years, when they were largely irrelevant because Britain’s enemies in those conflicts did not fight in open, regular and identifiable formations. Thanks in large part to Gwynn, there was a direct continuum between the way the British military crushed colonial revolts in India in the 1860s, and how it tackled post-war insurgencies in places like Palestine, Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus.


In 1931 the British government finally drew an official distinction between MI5 and SIS’s responsibilities. Ever since the establishment of the two services in 1909, when MI5 was made responsible for ‘domestic’ security intelligence and SIS for ‘foreign’ intelligence-gathering, there had been confusion over whether the empire and the Commonwealth counted as domestic or foreign territory. The issue was finally resolved following a fierce turf war within Whitehall over intelligence matters. In 1931 the London Special Branch, led by its eccentric head Sir Basil Thomson, essentially attempted to take over MI5. Although the bid was unsuccessful, it led to a major review of intelligence matters within Whitehall, led by the top-secret committee responsible for them, the Secret Service Committee, chaired by Sir John Anderson, the Permanent Undersecretary at the Home Office. One of the recommendations of the Committee in June 1931 was that MI5 should have increased responsibilities. From that point on MI5 was given responsibility for all forms of counter-espionage, military and civilian – previously it had been limited to detecting espionage in the British armed forces – and a number of skilled officers were transferred from the London Special Branch to MI5, including Guy Liddell (a future Deputy Director-General of MI5) and Milicent Bagot (who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Comintern activities, and is thought to have been the inspiration for John le Carrе’s character, the eccentric Sovietologist Connie Sachs). One of the other major decisions taken by the Secret Service Committee was that MI5 would assume responsibility for security intelligence in all British territories, including the empire and Commonwealth, while SIS would confine itself to operating at least three miles outside British territories. In other words, from 1931 onwards a three-mile demarcation line was drawn around all British territories worldwide, at the time covering roughly one-quarter of the globe, which acted as the official boundary between MI5 and SIS.

With this operational border established, MI5 was given more of a free rein to concentrate on imperial security matters – hence Holt-Wilson’s numerous trips overseas and his attempts to promote the view that MI5 was an imperial service. Throughout the 1930s MI5 collaborated with IPI and the Delhi IB to keep a close watch on the main anti-colonial political leaders in India, such as Nehru, whom IPI considered – accurately – to be, next to Gandhi, the ‘second most powerful man in India’. Whenever Nehru travelled to Britain in the 1930s, which he did on several occasions, MI5 monitored his activities, often imposing HOWs to intercept his post and telephone conversations, and instructed Scotland Yard to send undercover officers to his speaking engagements. Judging from IPI records, it also seems that IPI acquired a source close to Nehru himself: it obtained sensitive information relating to the death of his wife from tuberculosis in 1936 at a hospital in Switzerland following a trip Nehru made to Britain. The information reaching IPI included private arrangements that Nehru’s family was considering for the funeral, which most likely came from an informant within Nehru’s close entourage. MI5 and IPI also attempted to track the activities of the Comintern agent Narendra Nath Bhattacharya, also known as M.N. Roy – but were not always successful: on at least one occasion Roy was able to travel to Britain without being discovered. At the same time, MI5 and IPI also scrutinised the activities of the British Communist Party’s leading theoretician and anti-colonial Indian campaigner, Rajani Palme Dutt, who acted as a Comintern agent on at least one trip to India. They likewise kept a close eye on Dutt’s younger brother Clemens, who led the ‘Indian section’ of the British Communist Party, and even discovered the cover address that Clemens used to communicate secretly with underground communist sympathisers. Furthermore, although no specific file has yet been declassified, it is likely that MI5 also worked in conjunction with SIS to track the movements of the notorious German Comintern agent Willi M?nzenberg, who moved widely around Europe and even further afield, and in 1927 organised a conference in Brussels against imperialism.

However, MI5’s claim in the 1930s that it was an imperial service was more aspiration than reality, more chest-puffing than fact. Throughout the decade it had such limited resources at its disposal that there was no way it could have a meaningful supervisory role over imperial security intelligence as a whole. As late as 1938 it had a total staff of just thirty officers, only two of whom worked in its counter-espionage section, B-Division, in London – that is, a grand total of two officers formed the front line of detecting Axis espionage in Britain, to say nothing of the empire. However, a turning point for the involvement of British intelligence in the empire occurred in the late 1930s, when MI5 broke with its past practices and, instead of merely receiving intelligence from colonies abroad, began to post officers to British territories overseas for the first time. These officers were known as Defence Security Officers (DSOs) and were attached to British military general headquarters (GHQs) in British colonies and other dependencies. Their responsibilities were focused on coordinating security intelligence on Comintern activities, and as the Second World War approached, increasingly on the threat posed by the Axis Powers.

The first DSO stationed abroad was posted to Egypt. Egypt had gained independence from Britain in 1935, but in a manner that would be replicated over subsequent decades in other British territories – as we shall see – the British government had negotiated a series of favourable treaties for itself, which allowed for a continued British presence in Egypt. From 1935 onwards British military headquarters for the Middle East was based in Cairo, and London continued to have control over the Suez Canal, the strategic gateway to India – which would become a hotly contentious subject after the war, and the focus of one of Britain’s greatest ever foreign policy disasters, signifying the final eclipse of Britain’s imperial power in the Middle East. MI5’s first DSO in Egypt was Brig. Raymund Maunsell, an old India hand whose appointment in 1937 was followed by those of other DSOs in Palestine and Gibraltar in 1938. These officers would form the basis of MI5’s wartime security liaison outfit run throughout the Middle East, known as Security Intelligence Middle East (SIME), which would form the vanguard of countering wartime Axis espionage in the region. On the outbreak of war in 1939, MI5 increased the number of its DSOs permanently stationed abroad to six: in Cairo, Gibraltar, Malta, Aden, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Although the establishment of MI5’s DSOs was a watershed in the history of British intelligence, with just six officers stationed overseas, MI5 was still clearly not the imperial service that it claimed to be. As the official history of British intelligence in the Second World War noted, in 1939 MI5 was just a ‘skeleton’ of an imperial security service. It took the war for it to become truly the imperial service that it claimed to be. It was also the war that transformed the involvement of Britain’s largest and most secret intelligence services, GC&CS, in the British empire.

In the pre-war years, MI5 claimed to be – but had not yet actually become – a service for the empire. Even at this stage, however, it was a service of the empire. This was most clearly shown by the high proportion of senior MI5 officers in the pre-war years who began their careers in the empire. Its first head, Sir Vernon Kell, and his deputy who served him for twenty-eight years, Sir Eric Holt-Wilson, had both previously served in British colonial campaigns. Its Director-General during the Second World War, Sir David Petrie, was similarly an old colonial sweat, having served as the head of IB in Delhi from 1924 to 1931, and carried scars of his service (literally) on his legs with wounds from a bomb attack inflicted by an Indian revolutionary in 1914. The sources that Petrie used for his classified official history, Communism in India, included intercepted correspondence of both Indian communists and the Comintern. The post-Second World War head of MI5, Sir Percy Sillitoe, likewise had a former colonial police career, having served in the British South Africa Police. One of the few pre-war British counter-espionage desk officers, John Curry, had served with the Indian police for a quarter of a century before joining MI5 in 1933. Curry was among the limited number of people in British intelligence, and in Whitehall generally, who recognised and warned about the threat posed by Nazi Germany after 1933. He had previously written a history of the Indian police, which attracted the attention of Sir David Petrie, and in 1945 was the author of MI5’s in-house history, which has now been declassified. MI5’s most successful wartime interrogator, Robin ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens (discussed in the next chapter), was also a former Indian policeman, as was MI5’s semi-senile septuagenarian wartime Deputy Director-General, Brigadier O.A. ‘Jasper’ Harker, later described by the notorious KGB spy Kim Philby as filling his position in MI5 with handsome grace, but little else. With such strong colonial connections in the pre-war years, MI5’s working culture and outlook undoubtedly also had a colonial feel. An examination of the CVs of MI5 officers before the Second World War reveals that several of them included ‘pig sticking’ among their hobbies, a hangover from colonial service in India of the pink-gin-and-polo type. Moreover, because pay in MI5 at the time was so poor, many of its senior staff, doubtless burnt out from too much sun, came from independently wealthy backgrounds.

These connections with the British empire did not only exist in MI5: they were also prominent in the rest of the pre-war British intelligence community. In fact, a remarkable number of Britain’s leading spooks in those years had previously served in the empire. In SIS, for example, the two most important counter-espionage desk officers st the time were both former Indian policemen. The first was Valentine Vivian, known to his friends as ‘Vee Vee’, the son of a Victorian portrait painter, who entered SIS in 1925 after serving in the Indian police and in an IPI station in Constantinople. Vivian had a glass eye, which he tried to shield by awkwardly standing at right angles to those he met. Philby – who had a vested interest in making his former SIS colleagues look as incompetent as possible – depicted him in his KGB-sponsored memoirs as being afraid of his subordinates in SIS, and acidly described him as ‘long past his best – if, indeed, he ever had one’. Vivian’s subordinate in SIS’s pre-war section dealing with counter-espionage, Section V, was Felix Cowgill, the son of a missionary, who had served as a personal assistant to Petrie in the Delhi IB. Cowgill’s colonial past gave him, as one of his wartime colleagues described, a ‘sallow face and withdrawn tired air that came of long years of service in India’. Philby poisonously described him as tempestuous and incompetent: ‘His intellectual endowment was slender. As an intelligence officer, he was inhibited by a lack of imagination, inattention to detail and a sheer ignorance of the world we were fighting in,’ but even Philby conceded that Cowgill had ‘a fiendish capacity for work’, sometimes toiling through the night, knocking an array of pipes into wreckage on a stone ashtray on his desk. Whether this was the case or not, he was certainly spectacularly outmanoeuvred by Philby for wartime promotion within SIS – with disastrous consequences for British intelligence, as we shall see.

There were similar colonial connections within GC&CS, the first Director of which, Alistair Denniston, began his career in India, where he successfully intercepted and decrypted Russian traffic. Likewise, the department in GC&CS that successfully broke Comintern radio traffic in the 1930s was led by a brilliant major from the Indian army, John Tiltman, who had been running a small but successful interception outfit in north-west India before being brought back to London in 1929. There were also colonial connections in Special Branch at Scotland Yard. Its pre-war head, Basil Thomson, had an eccentric colonial career: after being educated at Eton and dropping out of Oxford he joined the Colonial Office, and at the age of twenty-eight became the Prime Minister of Tonga, where – as he vividly noted in his memoirs – his first true friends were cannibals. He also went on to become private tutor to the Crown Prince of Siam and Governor of Dartmoor Prison.

Officers in Britain’s intelligence services brought to their new roles many of the practices they had acquired in their colonial postings. In GC&CS, Tiltman wholeheartedly incorporated decryption techniques pioneered in India. The Special Branch adopted the technique of fingerprinting, which became the most basic form of police and security investigations in the modern world, from India, where it had been invented. MI5 also embraced techniques pioneered in the empire. When its Registry collapsed during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 – essentially giving up under the strain imposed on it during an apparently imminent Nazi invasion – Petrie advised reforming it on lines that he had devised for card-cataloguing ‘revolutionaries and terrorist suspects’ in India.

The intelligence services of other major European powers had similar colonial hangovers, both in terms of staff and practices. Some influential French intelligence officers during the Second World War started their careers in the French colonial empire. More ominously, there were also colonial connections with the secret police and intelligence services of Europe’s murderous ‘totalitarian’ regimes before 1945. This was first identified by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) argued that twentieth-century totalitarianism had its roots in European colonial rule in the late nineteenth century. Arendt believed that the type of savagery that European powers inflicted upon colonial populations, as graphically depicted in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, modelled on Belgian rule in the Congo, was in the first half of the twentieth century brought back to its heartland: Europe. Although Arendt’s thesis was at first largely discounted by scholars, more recently it has been re-examined, and is now regarded by historians as having in many ways been proved correct.

The Soviet secret police, the NKVD – subsequently renamed the KGB – imposed security practices such as mass detention which had been forged by the British in India, the French in Algeria, and by the Russians in their own empire. In Spain, Franco’s 1936 rebellion against the democratic government was waged predominantly by former Africanista generals, who, as one study has noted, were steeped in a ‘colonial mentality’ and embarked on a ‘colonial clearing-up’, namely institutionalised repression, of a working class deemed to be ‘hardly human’. These colonial connections with authoritarian regimes are hardly surprising when it is considered that the nature of European colonial rule allowed for the development of new forms of bureaucratic domination of ‘inferior’ races, which involved the registration of entire populations, mass deportation and the forced separation of races. These were all hallmarks of mass murder in Europe in the twentieth century: cataloguing, controlling and massacring. Colonies also provided a testing ground for new forms of warfare, which could be freely deployed against expendable, lesser, races. Europe’s colonial ‘small wars’ gave rise to, or allowed for the first testing of, concentration camps, barbed wire and machine guns – which were all then re-imported for use in Europe itself. The genocidal war that the Prusso-German army waged in the German colony of South-West Africa (present-day Namibia) foreshadowed the extermination policies conducted by the Nazis on the Eastern Front a generation later. It is no coincidence that it was in German South-West Africa that one of the founders of Nazi pseudo-scientific ideas of ‘racial hygiene’, Eugen Fischer, conducted his first research experiments supposedly proving the ‘inferiority’ of certain races. Later Fischer led forced sterilisation programmes against racial ‘degenerates’ in Nazi Germany, which paved the way for and legitimised mass-murder programmes – Fischer was a teacher of the so-called ‘Angel of Death’ at Auschwitz, Joseph Mengele.

In the years before 1945, then, both in Britain and in a number of other European imperial powers, both democratic and non-democratic, there was a continuum between empire and ‘domestic’ intelligence services. However, as we shall see, in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century precisely the opposite occurred. In the two decades after 1945, Britain’s intelligence services posted a succession of intelligence officers out to the empire and Commonwealth. Recruits to MI5 at this time spent on average between a quarter and a half of their careers stationed in colonial or Commonwealth countries. It was the cataclysmic event of the Second World War that permanently transformed the imperial responsibilities of the British secret state. Ironically, the importance of MI5’s colonial responsibilities would increase after 1945, precisely when Britain’s imperial power began to decline.

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Strategic Deception: British Intelligence, Special Operations and Empire in the Second World War (#ulink_e9999c15-6565-520c-bcee-40dddc187365)

‘You were a spy then?’

‘Not quite … Really I was still a thief. No great patriot. No great hero. They just made my skills official.’

MICHAEL ONDAATJE, The English Patient

Towards the end of the Second World War, Sir David Petrie, the wartime Director-General of MI5, wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Sir Anthony Eden, outlining some of the notable successes that MI5 and British intelligence more generally had gained during the war. As Petrie explained, the successes of Britain’s wartime intelligence services had necessarily not been disclosed to the public, and it was likely that they would have to remain under a veil of secrecy for the foreseeable future: ‘The full story can perhaps never be told but if it could be, it could perhaps claim acceptance as truth mainly on the grounds that it seems stranger than fiction.’ In many ways the story of Britain’s wartime intelligence successes still seems stranger than fiction, but luckily for us it can now be told. Put simply, the story is that during the war Britain’s intelligence services gained unprecedented successes: they learned more about their enemies than any power had ever learned about another in the history of warfare. At the end of the war, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, personally congratulated them for the role they had played, which in his opinion was ‘decisive’ in bringing the conflict to a successful conclusion for the Allies.

Britain’s intelligence services achieved their wartime successes both in Britain itself and across the empire and British-occupied territories – from the deserts of North Africa to the hilltops of India and the steamy jungles of Malaya. The Second World War was the event that revolutionised Britain’s imperial intelligence responsibilities, with MI5, SIS and GCHQ being directly involved in colonial affairs in earnest for the first time. However, before we can turn in detail to the wartime operations of British intelligence, it is necessary to understand their context. It is only by appreciating how the intelligence services operated domestically, from their headquarters in London, that their activities in distant outposts of the empire can be understood.


The unprecedented successes of British intelligence during the Second World War are all the more remarkable when it is considered how weak the collective position of MI5, SIS and GC&CS was in 1939. The British secret state began the war with pitiful intelligence on its enemies, the Axis Powers. GC&CS had failed to make any significant headway in reading German communications, which relied on the famous Enigma code. The situation was similarly bleak for MI5 and SIS: they had such a dearth of intelligence that in 1939 they barely knew the name of the German military intelligence service (the Abwehr) or of its head (Admiral Wilhelm Canaris). MI5’s official in-house wartime historian, John ‘Jack’ Curry, who had worked as a counter-espionage officer before the war, and was therefore well placed to comment on what Britain knew at the time about Nazi intelligence, described MI5 as entering the war in a state of ‘confusion’ that often amounted to ‘chaos’:

In 1939 we had no adequate knowledge of the German organisations which it was the function of the Security Service [MI5] to guard against either in this wider field of the ‘Fifth Column’ or in the narrower one of military espionage and purely material sabotage. We had in fact no definite knowledge whether there was any organised connection between the German Secret Service and Nazi sympathisers in this country, whether of British or alien nationality.

A similarly bleak picture was given by one of MI5’s principal wartime counter-espionage desk officers, Dick White, who went on to become the only ever head of both MI5 and SIS. He later recalled that MI5 started the war ‘without any real documentation on the subject we were supposed to tackle. We had a very vague idea of how the German system worked, and what its objectives were in time of war.’

Much of the reason why the British secret state had so little information on Nazi Germany at the beginning of the war was that, for most of the 1930s, its intelligence services had been starved of resources. In 1934 Whitehall’s Defence Requirements Committee had predicted that Nazi Germany would be the ‘ultimate enemy’ for Britain and its empire, but in the years that followed, MI5 and SIS failed to obtain any significant increase in funding or staff. Some minority voices, such as John Curry in MI5, warned from an early stage that Britain’s intelligence machinery needed to gear up to face the threat of Nazi Germany. From 1934 onwards Curry was advising that it would be dangerous simply to dismiss Mein Kampf, in which Hitler essentially outlined his vision for world domination, as the writings of a crazed lunatic – which of course it was, but it was also much more. As Curry argued, the problem for Britain (and the rest of the world) was that this crazed lunatic was now in power, so his diatribe in Mein Kampf had to be taken seriously. However, Curry was a voice in the wilderness within Whitehall, and neither MI5 nor SIS managed to secure any major expansion of resources in the pre-war years. While both agencies failed to make their warnings about Hitler sufficiently loud to be heard, Whitehall bureaucrats and bean-counters were only too willing to disregard the warnings they did hear as merely the perennial cry for more resources from intelligence services – after all, armies always ask for more tanks. As late as 1939, SIS was so underfunded that it could not even afford wireless sets for its agents.

MI5’s lack of reliable intelligence on Nazi German intelligence was made worse by the frenzied ‘spy scares’ that broke out in Britain in the early stages of the war, just as they had in 1914. During the so-called ‘phoney war’, the period after September 1939 when war had been declared but proper fighting had not yet commenced, hysterical reports from the British public bombarded MI5’s London headquarters about German ‘agents’ – and even ‘suspicious’-looking pigeons, which led MI5 to establish a falconry unit, appropriately led by a retired RAF wing-commander, to track down and ‘neutralise’ enemy pigeons. Its efforts were unsuccessful: all of the pigeons killed by MI5’s falcons turned out to be innocent British birds – a new twist on the term friendly fire.

More seriously than rogue pigeons, the paucity of intelligence on the Axis Powers essentially led to MI5’s near total collapse. In July 1940, amid the Battle of Britain and the so-called ‘fifth column’ crisis, MI5’s internal bureaucracy completely broke down under the strain of checking reports on supposed enemy agents and other ‘suspicious’ activities, ranging from the plausible to the preposterous. So many reports of ‘enemy spies’ bombarded MI5 that its central Registry, the nerve centre of its operations, which in 1940 contained two million cards and 170,000 ‘personal files’ or dossiers, ground to a halt and then collapsed. The chaos that these reports caused – those on ‘enemy light signalling’ alone reached a stack five feet high in MI5’s office – was made worse by the spectre of events on the Continent. Between May and June 1940 Hitler launched an unprecedented ‘lightning war’ (Blitzkrieg) in Europe, which led to the surrender of European countries from the Netherlands to Norway in quick succession. Hitler’s Blitzkrieg was facilitated by ‘fifth column’ saboteurs and agents planted and parachuted into the invaded countries. With their conventional armies obliterated, the Dutch gave up after just five days of fighting; the Belgians after seventeen. At the end of May the entire British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was evacuated from the Continent at Dunkirk, and by mid-June Britain’s greatest ally in Europe, France, had ignominiously surrendered. Britain was standing alone in Europe, fighting for its survival, with only its empire and Commonwealth to support it. The Joint Intelligence Committee, Britain’s highest overall intelligence assessment body, sombrely planned for its own evacuation from London, and speculated on how it could survive (by hiding in bunkers) after the Nazi invasion of Britain that appeared imminent. The JIC was not fantasising: the German leadership had drawn up detailed plans for an invasion of Britain (codenamed Operation Sealion), which included the arrest and likely execution of a number of senior MI5 and SIS officers, whose names the Gestapo had probably found in London telephone directories and entries in Who’s Who, which in many cases, as we have seen with Sir Eric Holt-Wilson, gave their home addresses.

The situation for Britain was actually even worse than this suggested. Due to the Nazi–Soviet Pact of August 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany entered the war as allies. It is often forgotten that the invasion of Poland in September 1939, which brought Britain into the war, was carried out by German and Soviet forces together. For a nightmare period between the outbreak of war in September 1939 and Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia in June 1941, it appeared that Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union would act in uneasy concert and divide the spoils of the world between themselves. Britain nearly went to war with the Soviet Union when the Red Army invaded Finland in November 1939, and as papers of the British Chiefs of Staff reveal, in April 1940 the RAF was planning a devastating bombing attack on the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Pike.

In these circumstances, with Britain standing alone against Nazi and Soviet forces, in the summer of 1940 MI5 concluded – inaccurately, as it turned out – that large-scale German sabotage and espionage networks were operating in Britain, as they had done in Europe. The truth would only be revealed later: unbeknownst to MI5 at the time, code-breakers at Bletchley Park had in fact identified virtually all German agents operating in Britain. Unaware of this, in June 1940 MI5 took one of the most controversial decisions it would ever take, recommending the mass internment of all ‘enemy aliens’ in Britain. In total over 27,000 foreign nationals were interned in Britain during the war on MI5’s orders. In Britain, as with the wartime internment of Japanese Americans in the United States, this was a lamentable low point in the history of civil liberties.

Due to its lack of reliable information on Nazi Germany, British intelligence started the Second World War effectively fighting in the dark. To make matters worse, it was chronically under-resourced: in 1939 MI5 had a total staff of only thirty-six officers. The bungling efforts of British intelligence in the early days of the war were symbolised by a catastrophic incident that befell SIS in October 1939, soon after the outbreak of hostilities. Two SIS officers stationed in the Netherlands, Richard Stevens and Sigismund Payne Best, were lured to the town of Venlo on the Dutch–German border on the pretext of meeting a group of anti-Hitler German officers. In reality, the ‘resistance’ group was controlled by the Gestapo. The two SIS officers were immediately arrested, dragged from neutral Dutch territory across the German border, and imprisoned for the rest of the war. Inexplicably, they had come to the rendezvous with a complete list of their agents in Germany, all of whom were promptly arrested and neutralised (with many executed) by the Nazi authorities. In one fatal swoop, Britain’s network of agents in the Third Reich was dismantled.

The ‘Venlo incident’ seems to have cast a long shadow. Although little information is currently available in British records, it does not seem that after Venlo SIS assisted or sponsored any significant anti-Hitler resistance groups within Germany. This may have been caused by anxiety after Venlo, or it may have been due to fears within Whitehall that killing Hitler would simply create a martyr and unleash further demons. None of the various wartime attempts made on Hitler’s life by German officers, the most famous of which was the ‘July Bomb Plot’ of 1944, appears to have been sponsored by SIS or any other part of British intelligence. Armchair assassins and ‘critical historians’ today rarely comprehend the genuine bravery shown by these plotters, but even with that concession, contrary to what has been suggested in a recent Hollywood film, Operation Valkyrie in July 1944 was not intended to oust Hitler and establish democratic government in Germany. Instead, it was an attempt by a group of German officers to replace the Third Reich with a non-democratic military dictatorship.

One of the reasons the British secret state had such poor intelligence on Nazi Germany at the start of the war was the extreme difficulty of gaining reliable information on a closed police state like the Third Reich. To this day, understanding its power structures is still one of the most controversial, and voluminous, subjects in modern history. Historians today, equipped with German records, which British intelligence at the time was not, are unable to agree on such basic questions as who was ultimately in charge of Nazi Germany and whether Hitler was a ‘strong dictator’ or a ‘weak dictator’. That said, in the pre-war years British intelligence as a whole failed catastrophically to understand the mindset of the Nazi leadership. There were a few pre-war officers, in particular MI5’s John Curry and Dick White, who grasped the true nature of the strategic threat posed by the Third Reich, but their attempts to convince the rest of Whitehall of this came to little. The Oxford historian and wartime recruit to SIS Hugh Trevor-Roper was shocked to find that none of his colleagues had bothered to read the ‘sacred texts’ of those they were fighting, such as Mein Kampf. To make matters worse, MI5 and SIS had given an overwhelming priority in the pre-war years to Soviet and Comintern activities, and had largely neglected the growing threat of Nazi Germany. This also meant that they viewed the Nazi threat through the paradigm of the Comintern, and erroneously concluded that fascist organisations such as Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) were run along similar lines to the British Communist Party, which was controlled by Moscow. In fact the black-shirted members of the BUF were above all British, and contrary to what MI5 believed, were not willing to bow to instructions from Berlin or Rome in the way that the ‘internationalised’ British Communist Party followed instructions from ‘the centre’, Moscow. That said, it is impossible to know exactly how the BUF would have reacted if there had been a Nazi invasion of Britain.

The remarkable failures of Britain’s intelligence services before the war led them in some astonishing directions during it. By 1942 the intelligence chiefs in Whitehall had become so desperate in their bid to understand the mindset of the Nazi leadership that they employed a water-diviner, nicknamed ‘Smokey Joe’, and a Dutch astrologer, Louis de Wohl, who both claimed that they could predict Adolf Hitler’s behaviour from his star sign (Libra rising). It was only after de Wohl had been employed for several months that MI5 and SIS realised he was nothing more than a con artist.

One of the main reasons why, despite the meagre intelligence Britain had at the start of hostilities, its intelligence machinery achieved such phenomenal wartime successes was because of Winston Churchill, who, as the world’s leading intelligence historian Christopher Andrew has pointed out, more than any British political leader before or since was an enthusiastic believer in intelligence matters. Churchill had probably first become interested in ‘cloak and dagger’ activities while serving as a reporter in the Boer War from 1899 to 1900, but his interest blossomed after he became Home Secretary in 1910. As Home Secretary he helped the fledgling Secret Service Bureau in its early days – he was a contemporary of Sir Vernon Kell’s at Sandhurst – providing it with increased powers to intercept letters (HOWs) and steering a revised Official Secrets Act through Parliament in 1911, which made it easier to bring prosecutions for espionage. Churchill’s fascination with intelligence continued after he became Prime Minister in May 1940, Britain’s ‘darkest hour’, which under Churchill became its finest. As Prime Minister he was an avid consumer of intelligence reports, and allowed for vastly more resources to be given to the intelligence services. Under Churchill, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which had been established in 1936, came into its own, operating as a streamlined assessment body for all of Britain’s intelligence services, and producing concise weekly reports for Churchill and his cabinet on threats to British national security – a legacy that lasts down to the present day. Britain’s separate intelligence services began to collaborate in ways they previously had not, thus effectively becoming the British intelligence community.

It was in the realm of signals intelligence (SIGINT) that Churchill’s support of the intelligence services paid the biggest dividends. The unprecedented successes gained by British intelligence during the war were caused largely by the herculean efforts of the code-breakers at GC&CS, based at Bletchley Park. In the course of the war, Bletchley Park would come to preside over mass-espionage on an industrial scale. In May 1941 Churchill received a top-secret request from Bletchley Park begging for more resources. He was so perturbed that he demanded ‘Action this Day’, and instructed his military assistant, General Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay, to give GC&CS all the resources it needed and to report that this had been done. In December 1940 Bletchley Park had managed, with the assistance of Polish code-breakers, to crack the first of the famous German Enigma codes. With the resources that Churchill now threw behind it, GC&CS expanded rapidly: by 1943 its code-breakers were reading on average 3,000 German communications per day. These decrypts were codenamed Ultra, but were also known as ISOS, standing for ‘Intelligence Services Oliver Strachey’ (ISOS), named after a high-ranking official at GC&CS, and more generally were termed ‘Most Secret Sources’ (or MSS for short). The Ultra decrypts were passed by SIS, which had formal control over GC&CS during the war, directly to Churchill himself on an almost daily basis. Ultra provided such accurate and rapid ‘live’ intelligence that some German communications from the Eastern Front or the deserts of North Africa actually arrived on Churchill’s desk in London before they reached Hitler in Berlin. Bletchley Park code-breakers also acquired chilling ‘real time’ messages about the Holocaust. As early as 1941, intercepts of low-grade German traffic from the Eastern Front were revealing to Bletchley Park what, with hindsight, we can see was the evolution of the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ – the mass murder of European Jews and other supposed racial subhumans (Untermenschen). There is some existing but disputed evidence that the British and US governments refused to release what Bletchley Park had discovered about the Holocaust because to do so would have jeopardised the Ultra secret. On present evidence, it is impossible to state whether this was the case or not.

Over 12,000 people are thought to have worked at Bletchley Park, and their voluminous Ultra decrypts contributed to Allied military successes in a number of areas. The leader of British forces in North Africa in 1942, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, was provided with a stream of high-grade Ultra decrypts that revealed the location of his opponent Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The decrypts flowing to Montgomery were so accurate that after the war the JIC worried that when the history of the North African campaigns came to be written, historians would realise that he had some kind of foreknowledge of Rommel’s movements, and would be able to piece the puzzle together. As it turned out, the JIC gave historians far too much credit – the Ultra secret remained hidden for years after the war. We now know that the decrypts assisted Montgomery’s Eighth Army in its famous victory in the summer of 1942 at El Alamein, once an obscure port on the edge of the Egyptian desert, which was a major turning point in the Allied campaign in North Africa. By May 1943 Montgomery’s ‘desert rats’ had effectively driven Rommel’s Afrika Korps into the sea in Tunisia. Bletchley Park’s Ultra decrypts also produced direct benefits for the Allies in the Battle of the North Atlantic: they revealed the locations of German U-boats, allowing the Admiralty to manoeuvre supply convoys away from danger, bring shipping losses down to bearable levels, and contributed to Allied victories in the Battle of Cape Matapan (March 1941) and the Battle of the North Cape (December 1943).

Ultra decrypts likewise made possible MI5’s now-legendary ‘Double Cross System’, the process by which every German agent in Britain was identified, and many of them turned into double agents. It was only after Ultra came on-line in December 1940 that MI5 could establish conclusively whether any unidentified German agents were operating in Britain, and also, crucially, whether the disinformation that MI5’s double agents were passing back to Germany was being believed by the German High Command. The MI5 officer T.A. ‘Tar’ Robertson, who was in charge of Section B1a within MI5, responsible for running double agents, would later describe how Ultra decrypts allowed MI5 to see whether the files of its enemies were being stocked with the exact information that MI5 desired. In several cases, MI5 watched with pride as its disinformation was passed by the Nazi intelligence services across Europe and beyond. The magnitude of these successes was later summarised by Sir John Masterman, the head of MI5’s wartime deception committee, who noted that during the war Britain ‘actively ran and controlled the German espionage system in this country’.

Churchill later reflected on the value of the intelligence produced by Bletchley Park and the secrecy of its operations, describing its code-breakers as ‘the geese that laid the golden eggs but never cackled’. Some historians, including F.H. ‘Harry’ Hinsley, who worked as a junior official at Bletchley Park and who later became the editor of the magisterial official history of British intelligence in the Second World War, have suggested that the intelligence produced by Bletchley Park was so valuable that it shortened the war by up to two years, saving countless lives on both sides. More recently, doubt has been cast on this claim, with historians arguing that the Second World War was really a war of matеriel production, and that once the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war, in June 1941 and December 1941 respectively, victory for the Allies was assured. Although counter-factual ‘what if’ postulations can produce endless debates, the reality was that, if the war in Europe had not ended in May 1945, the Allies would have dropped an atomic bomb on Germany – which was the original target for the bombs dropped on Japan in August 1945.


The idea of strategic deception – that is, providing false information to misguide an enemy’s strategy – was put to best use by Allied forces in Europe, but it was not originally conceived there. During the so-called phoney war, between the outbreak of war in September 1939 and the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, the Middle East was the only theatre where British forces were directly fighting Axis forces, and it was there that innovative uses of intelligence for modern military affairs were born. Before either MI5 or SIS had begun to envisage the idea of strategic deception, it was being pioneered by a small, crack intelligence outfit attached to the Cairo-based staff of the British commander in the Middle East, General Archibald Wavell. Wavell was one of the best-educated generals in British military history, a quiet, scholarly type who liked to write poetry in his spare time and had lost an eye in the Great War. He knew the history of Lawrence of Arabia well, and valued the use of intelligence in war. The unit he established was known as ‘A-Force’, and the man he placed in charge of it was a brilliant military intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Dudley Clarke, who came up with a number of ingenious deception ploys. In Clarke’s view, it was possible to do more than prevent secrets reaching an enemy’s intelligence service (counter-espionage): secrets obtained through counter-espionage could also be used to deceive an enemy’s strategy (strategic deception).

In 1940 Clarke recruited a young officer, Jasper Maskelyne, who came from a long succession of famous stage magicians and conjurors, to help him build an entire false city out of plywood in the Egyptian desert, three miles from the port of Alexandria. The ‘city’ built by Maskelyne’s group, the so-called ‘Magic Gang’, was apparently so realistic-looking from the air – complete with a false lighthouse and anti-aircraft batteries – that it deceived German bombers, which destroyed it instead of the actual city of Alexandria. To misdirect German bombers, the Magic Gang also used a series of elaborate mirrors to create optical illusions over the Suez Canal in order to obscure intended targets there. A-Force also assisted with deception campaigns before the strategically key Second Battle of El Alamein, fought in the Western Desert of Egypt from October to November 1942. It built 2,000 false tanks to the south of El Alamein, complete with convincing pyrotechnics, which deceived Rommel into thinking that the main Allied attack under Montgomery would come from the south, when in reality it came from the north. Maskelyne had a vested interest in exaggerating his trickery heroics in the post-war account he penned, Magic–Top Secret, because he felt his wartime exploits had not been recognised. Some historians have doubted his tales, but it does seem that he deserves more credit than he has been given. The authors of the official history of British intelligence in the Second World War, who had access to classified records, note Maskelyne’s ‘numerous and valuable contributions’ to Allied visual deception in the Middle East. Thanks to A-Force and the Magic Gang’s trickery, the Germans at El Alamein believed that British forces were 40 per cent larger than they actually were.

In October 1941 Clarke travelled to London, where he briefed the War Office on his ideas of strategic deception. The War Office was so impressed that soon afterwards it established a top-secret outfit known as the ‘London Controlling Section’ (LCS). Although its name does not feature in most histories, it was one of the most important – if not the most important – Allied intelligence agencies in the entire Second World War. The LCS only had non-executive powers – to plan, coordinate and supervise – but this did not mean its influence was limited. In the opinion of M.R.D. Foot, the esteemed late official historian of Britain’s wartime sabotage organisation, the Special Operations Executive, the LCS was more important than either MI5, SIS or GC&CS during the war. Headed from May 1942 by Lt. Col. J.H. Bevan, its purpose was to ‘prepare deception plans on a worldwide basis with the object of causing the enemy to waste his military resources’. The actual running of double agents and other deception ploys was carried out by MI5 and the other services, but it was the LCS that had overall responsibility for coordinating all the disinformation sent to Germany and Britain’s other enemies. A-Force’s pioneering efforts in strategic deception in the Middle East therefore inspired the LCS, which then took it to new heights. As the official history of British intelligence in the Second World War noted, a small acorn planted in the deserts of North Africa by Dudley Clarke grew during the war into an enormous tree, spreading across Europe and the British empire.

The first significant use of strategic deception by the LCS was with Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942. In the run-up to the landings, one of MI5’s prize double agents, a Spanish national, Juan Pujol Garc?a, codenamed ‘Garbo’, sent letters to his German handlers with misinformation about the timings of the landings. One of Garbo’s letters gave information from a fictional sub-agent supposedly operating in Britain stating that Allied ships had set sail from Scotland, apparently destined for North Africa. Although the letter contained accurate information, MI5 deliberately delayed it so that it would not arrive until after the actual landings had occurred. The plan worked perfectly: Garbo’s German handlers were thankful for his accurate information, which had unfortunately arrived too late for them. Similar deception material on the Torch landings was passed to Nazi intelligence by the double agent ‘Cheese’, an Italian of Jewish parentage who had been recruited by SIS before the war, but was then also recruited by the Abwehr in France in 1940, and thereafter served as a British double agent. In February 1941 the Abwehr sent Cheese to Egypt, where he secretly worked under the control of MI5’s regional outfit, SIME. He and his MI5 case officers created a fictional sub-agent whom they called ‘Paul Nicosoff’, in reality a British signals officer, who passed over strategic deception material to Nazi intelligence. By the autumn of 1942 Cheese was providing an almost daily service of reports from ‘Paul Nicosoff’, and in the period leading up to Operation Torch was in direct communication with Rommel’s headquarters, furnishing false information on the mobilisation of British forces in the Middle East. By the end of the war Cheese and ‘Paul Nicosoff’ had transmitted 432 messages to the Abwehr station in Cairo, and Ultra decrypts revealed that the Abwehr classified them as reliable. The success of strategic deception in Operation Torch was clear: General Alfred Jodl, Hitler’s closest military adviser, Chief of the Operations Staff of the German High Command (OKW), told Allied interrogators after the war that the landings in North Africa had come as ‘a complete surprise’.

The next major use of strategic deception by the LCS was with Operation Mincemeat, which involved the Allied invasion of Europe from North Africa, opening up a ‘second front’ to relieve pressure on the Soviet forces in the east. Mincemeat deceived the German High Command into thinking that the Allied invasion of Italy, the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’, as Churchill termed it, would not take place in Sicily, as was actually intended, but instead in Sardinia and Greece. Operation Mincemeat, begun in early 1943, was the brainchild of an MI5 officer, Charles Cholmondeley, and a brilliant wartime naval intelligence recruit, Ewen Montagu, who was assisted by another naval intelligence officer, Ian Fleming (the future creator of James Bond). Together they devised an outstanding ruse: to drop a dead body over the side of a ship, carrying supposedly top-secret Allied plans for the invasion of Sardinia. The deceivers were so meticulous in their preparations that they created a complete false persona for the dead body, known as ‘Major Martin’, even putting a photograph of his fictional fiancеe (in reality an MI5 staff member) in his wallet and obtaining the stub of a cinema ticket from a showing in London a few nights before his ‘death’. ‘Major Martin’, who in reality had been found in a London morgue, a deceased homeless man without any known relatives, achieved more in death than he apparently ever did in life. After his body was found off the Spanish coast, the German High Command was deceived by the documents in his briefcase that outlined the supposed Allied plans for the invasion of Sardinia, and on Hitler’s personal orders troops were diverted there – even though it would have been perfectly obvious to any child with a school atlas that the Allies’ intended destination from their base in North Africa was Sicily, not Sardinia.

The climax of Britain’s wartime deception campaigns was Operation Fortitude, the deception operation paving the way for the Allied cross-Channel invasion of Fortress Europe on D-Day, 6 June 1944 – the largest seaborne invasion in naval history. In preparation for D-Day, MI5’s star double agent Garbo and his MI5 handler, Tomаs Harris, passed over voluminous amounts of false strategic intelligence to Germany about non-existent Allied forces stationed in Britain. Garbo helped to fabricate an entire false US army group, ‘the First United States Army Group’ (FUSAG), which was never more than a collection of balsawood tanks and inflatable ships, but just like Dudley Clarke’s previous deceptions in the Egyptian desert, nevertheless looked realistic from the air. The most important misinformation that Garbo supplied to his German spy-masters was a radio message on 5 June 1944 which convinced the German High Command into thinking that the main Allied landings would not be in Normandy, but in the area around Calais. Based on this information, crucial SS Panzer divisions were diverted to Calais, where they awaited an invasion force that would never arrive. Garbo’s deception information, which diverted Nazi forces and allowed the Allies to establish a crucial bridgehead, undoubtedly saved Allied lives. A measure of the value that the Nazi leadership attached to him was that Hitler personally awarded him an Iron Cross, making him the only person ever to have received both a Nazi Iron Cross and a British MBE.
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