Skip to main content

The Cloak and Dagger War

ISSUE:  Autumn 1980
British Intelligence in the Second World War: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations. Volume I. By F. H. Hinsley, with E. E. Thomas, C. F. G. Ransom, and R. C. Knight. Cambridge. $24. 95. Canons. By Heinz Hohne. Translated by J. Maxwell Brown John. Doubleday. $15.95.

Both the works under review here are notable in quite different ways, and one is uniquely important. The many books which have been published about the British Intelligence Services in World War II have varied across a very broad spectrum in terms of reliability and scope. In A Man Called Intrepid one is left with the impression that British intelligence service headquarters was moved from London to Rockefeller Center in 1940 and run by a Canadian millionaire thereafter. In Sir John Masterman’s The DoubleCross System in the War of 1939 to 1945, because of the author’s reputation and position (formerly Provost of Worcester College, Oxford), one could be confident that the facts presented were accurate, though it was confined to the successful “turning” of the German agents in Britain at the outbreak of World War II; and, of course, one did not know what had been withheld. Another type of book on the subject relates a few entertaining anecdotes and reveals nothing. An example is the third volume of Sir John Wheeler-Bennett’s autobiography, Friends, Enemies and Sovereigns, of which even Sir Harold Macmillan complained in his foreword that he wished the author had been less discreet. All in all, then, the books about intelligence have been of every kind: modest, immodest, accurate but limited, wildly false, whether innocently or not. Yet in terms of devout amateur research, Canaris, as we shall see, is in a class by itself. In between these extremes one can have read volume upon volume without ever knowing how reliable the accounts were. But the picture has recently been radically changed by what is, in fact, the publication of the first volume of the “official” history of British Intelligence in the Second World War.

The principal author, who is professor of the history of international relations at Cambridge and was recently elected Master of St. John’s College, is widely known to have performed outstanding service himself in intelligence in World War II, about which he is completely silent. Three assistants are named, two of whom also served in intelligence and the third in the Foreign Office. Professor Hinsley was charged by a British government, perhaps exasperated by some of the rubbish already in print, “to produce an account of the influence of British intelligence on strategy and operations.” He was given completely unrestricted access to all documents, perhaps for the first time in British history. Since the lid has now been closed again, to remain sealed for some documents under statute until 2015, the book will occupy a unique position until that date and it follows that any statement which is contradicted by it must be treated as false. But before the contents are discussed, the limitations should be made clear.

British Intelligence, as one may refer to it in brief, is extremely and explicitly restricted in some ways, implicitly in others. Volume I, although 483 pages long (excluding the appendices), covers only the period from the outbreak of war to the start of the German attack on Russia. Next, while having “set out to see all,” the authors were required to be silent about the intelligence techniques used. Thus the important information and misinformation assembled by the intelligence services is all there, but except in broad terms how the data were obtained is not. They were also required to retain secrecy about a few individuals, but this principle has been carried to extreme lengths. Citing Flaubert’s “pas de monstres, et pas de héros,” hardly a person is named. This makes for dull reading; and although it no doubt eased the enormous task before them to refer only to offices and not the occupants and thus to avoid attributing praise or blame, Flaubert did not add “pas de noms.” Lastly, the authors have naturally tended now and then to slip into the vernacular of intelligence services when ordinary English would have been preferable and the reader must expect such lines as this “Service HQs, with DDM1 of GS Int GHG, MEF as secretary, which” (p. 194, line 1).

But this ends the criticisms that can be made of this remarkable work. Within these restrictions the end product is brilliant. The problem of organizing such a mass of material would have appeared insuperable to lesser men. Not only were many agencies involved in the collecting of information, with each service having its own intelligence branch, but in addition the Secret Service, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Economic Warfare, and, most importantly, the Government Code and Cypher School and numerous other units were also engaged in the task. To evaluate and to describe their work in the different theaters of war, to examine what was done to coordinate their findings, and then to assess the influence exercised upon actual operations—these were some of the complexities the authors faced. The opening chapters on the organization of intelligence up to the outbreak of war are depressing reading, and the interservice rivalries, which continued to prevail long after the war broke out, made men despair of obtaining a coherent and sensible overall intelligence arm. But gradually collaboration developed, and by the end of Volume I the conflicts are reasonably well resolved, although the German Army Enigma traffic code was not broken until 1942.

This being an account of British, not German, intelligence, there is little mention of the latter, but it does seem that the Nazis, the general incompetence of the Abwehr notwithstanding, started the war with one great advantage: Enigma. This encoding machine was a baffling device because the settings could be changed mechanically with ease and frequency and the chances of decoders hitting the right solution ran into odds in the billions. Solving the riddle set by Enigma was the great triumph of intelligence in the war. The personnel involved are described as “a body of men and women that must. . . have seemed extraordinary for its lack of uniformity in outlook, organisation and procedure. . . . Professors, lecturers and undergraduates, chess-masters and experts from the principal museums, barristers and antiquarian booksellers. . . such. . . were the individuals who inaugurated and manned the various cells . . . . There is also no doubt that they thrived on the lack of uniformity, as they did on the absence at GC and CS of any emphasis on rank or insistency on hierarchy. . . preserving the condition of creative anarchy.” (p. 273). It is of these unnamed people that Churchill is said to have remarked to his escort, while being shown round their headquarters at Bletchley, “When I told you to leave no stone unturned, I did not expect to be taken quite so literally.”

If this collection of eccentrics failed to solve the German Army’s use of Enigma until 1942, fortunately the German Navy’s methods of using the device were, in large part, deciphered regularly before that, and this saved Britain from starvation. The story of intelligence during the Norwegian and French campaigns is of a succession of failures. Thereafter the value of information provided by GC and CS came to be appreciated only gradually by such Whitehall bodies as the Joint Intelligence Staff. But it was appreciated sufficiently soon by the Admiralty to make victory in the battle of the Atlantic possible, even at high cost in men and ships. The underlying motif of this book is, in fact, the crucial role played by GC and CS in contrast to the relative futility of the efforts of the Ministry of Economic Warfare, the Secret Service, Special Operations Executive, and the Foreign Office.

One other example of its crucial role in operations demands inclusion here. General Wavell, while under heavy pressure from Rommel, was compelled by Churchill to dispatch troops for the defense of Greece. This episode terminated in the close-run battle for Crete. It has hitherto been hard to understand how the tired British and New Zealand soldiers there, with few weapons left, could have inflicted such damage upon the fresh, elite German parachute divisions with which the Nazis attacked. Although forced off Crete, the allies caused such havoc that the Nazis never tried airborne assaults again in the course of the war. The explanation is simple. Signals deciphered provided all the German operational plans, information which enabled the Royal Navy to prevent any German support whatever by sea.

Two heroes are named, both because, one assumes, they were not members of the official establishment. One was Paul Thummel, a senior Abwehr officer, who was recruited by Czech intelligence in 1936 and who supplied “excellent information” from then until 1942. His fate is not revealed, but he should be held in honor by the free world. Though what he related was often disregarded, he was unfailingly accurate. The other is F. Sidney Cotton, an Australian, who provided the groundwork for air reconnaisance photography from Germany to Italian East Africa by his pioneering efforts as early as 1938. The vast range of complex, interwoven facts examined by the authors in documents which cover all three fighting services and many others, as well as the ultimate decisions reached about different and simultaneous campaigns by the government and military commanders in the field—insofar as they reflected intelligence received—are handled with masterful lucidity. Yet the book will have few readers: it is dry, factual, and dispassionate. The authors are very properly most careful in passing judgments, which tend to be both guarded and donnish. “It seems not improbable that. . . .” “It may perhaps be inferred. . . .” Some widespread myths are exploded, for instance that the Government permitted the destruction of Coventry to avoid revealing sources, and the description of the prelude to operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of their ally the U. S. S. R. , is even exciting reading. (It is not difficult to imagine the wonder in Whitehall over the flow of information indicative of Nazi plans to attack in the East while Britain remained undefeated in the West. ) But, by and large, this extraordinary book will be consulted by historians and intelligence buffs alone. Has a history book ever appeared before, one wonders, which has to be treated as incontrovertible in all its claims for 35 years?

Canaris, by Heinz Hohne, is very different. Admiral Canaris became the head of the Abwehr, roughly, the head of German military intelligence from abroad, in 1935 and remained in charge of it until 1943, before his execution by the Nazis in 1945. Herr Hohne is a professional journalist who joined the staff of Der Spiegel in 1955. The author says, credibly, that he spent six years on the research required, a claim borne out by his references occupying 60 pages and a bibliography of twelve pages.

Canaris’ role in relation to the Nazis has long been a matter of dispute. Be it to his credit, he knowingly provided a shelter within the Abwehr for several resolute anti-Nazis, including Colonel Oster, who were actively plotting against Hitler, and he saved some Jews from extermination. But that, if Herr Hohne is correct, is all the credit he can be given, and even here one may be too generous. Perhaps he may have been hedging his bets, for he also warned the Gestapo about antiHitler plots. And when Oster and his group were caught, Canaris did nothing to help them. Furthermore, when the going was good for the Nazis, he was an enthusiastic proponent of their repulsive creed, repeatedly emphasizing that “the really good serviceman will also be a good National Socialist.” He may, in fact, have been the first to propose that Jews should wear the Star of David. He wept publicly at Heydrich’s funeral.

Herr Hohne’s study claims, paradoxically, that before entering the intelligence service, Canaris proved himself a very efficient and brave naval deck officer in World War I. His political views, which had some influence on events in postwar Germany, were extremely reactionary. But as an intelligence chief he was a disaster. He was obsessed about invisible ink. “Secret agents with blackened faces and foreign uniforms, demolition teams creeping up on bridges guarded by unsuspecting sentries, couriers in the night, insurrections behind the enemy lines—that was the world he loved. . .” (p. 338). German generals from Jodl down complained bitterly of his inefficiency. They received, to give two instances among very many, no warning of the Anglo-American landings in North Africa in November 1942, and Canaris never learned that the Abwehr’s British network had been “turned” by Sir John Masterman’s team since the outbreak of war.

Herr Höhne’s debunking of Canaris is the more impressive for being accomplished in a low key and without invective. The portrait he draws is rebarbative; that of a friendless, vain, pusillanimous, devious, and silly man. On the dust cover the American publishers have subtitled this book Hitler’s Master Spy. Thank God he was!


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading