Every Club in the Bag

R.W. Johnson

  • The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War by Peter Hennessy
    Allen Lane, 234 pp, £16.99, March 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9626 9
  • Know Your Enemy: How the Joint Intelligence Committee Saw the World by Percy Cradock
    Murray, 351 pp, £25.00, March 2002, ISBN 0 7195 6048 9

Every book about the Cold War and the nuclear threat that dominated it should probably begin with a chapter about what would have been the biggest invasion in human history, dwarfing even the Normandy landings. In this case, D-Day was to be 1 November 1945. An American army of five million men was to be assembled for the invasion of Japan, with smaller but still significant contingents from Britain, Australia and the rest of the Commonwealth. Despite an unprecedented advance bombardment from sea and air, which would have annihilated the Imperial Navy and Air Force, and despite the help the Red Army could provide by driving simultaneously south to Port Arthur, the casualties on the beaches of Kyushu and Honshu alone were expected to be staggering: advance estimates numbered tens of thousands dead on the first day.

Pushing on from those bridgeheads in the bitterly cold weather, the Allied Armies would come face to face with huge numbers of soldiers emerging from the tunnels in which they’d been hiding. (By this stage of the war Japanese schoolchildren, too, had been trained for suicide missions, and would be carrying satchels full of explosives.) Military planners, when asked for estimates of Allied casualties, threw up their hands and said a million, maybe more, with Japanese casualties many times that. Roosevelt and Truman, Churchill and Attlee, recognised that they faced a return to the casualty levels of the Somme and Passchendaele. Even if they won the war they would never be forgiven; and it was in this desperate state of mind that Truman took the decision – with Attlee’s assent – to drop the first atom bombs.

Had nuclear deterrence had to depend merely on scientific warnings or even the evidence of nuclear tests, it might not have worked. But nobody could doubt the evidence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or have any difficulty imagining what even more powerful weapons – by the time of the US ‘Mike’ test at Eniwetok in 1952, they were seven hundred times more powerful – would do to their own cities.

This gave nuclear strategising and Intelligence – carried out in Britain by the Joint Intelligence Committee – a primary importance. The JIC was made up of all the Intelligence agencies and the Chiefs of Staff. It was to the wartime JIC run by Bill Bentinck that the Ultra decrypts poured in from Bletchley, to be mulled over by a team including the legendary Admiral Hall, whose Room 40 in the Admiralty had laid the foundations of modern cryptography during World War One; Stewart Menzies, head of SIS (the model for James Bond’s M); Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Strong from Military Intelligence, who had, in 1940, warned the disbelieving French that Hitler would attack through the Ardennes, and who was later appropriated by Eisenhower to become his chief of Intelligence; and the formidable Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear-Admiral Godfrey, and his assistant Ian Fleming. Their meetings must have been fun. Godfrey, brilliant but acerbic, called the RAF the Royal Advertisement Service, and dismissed the Army as the ‘evacuees’, the people the Navy had had to fish out of the sea at Dunkirk, Crete and elsewhere. Bentinck, accompanied everywhere by his small dog, Angus – known throughout Whitehall as ‘the Intelligence dog’ – had predicted Hitler’s invasion of Russia. The JIC was sceptical: the Nazi-Soviet Pact suited Germany perfectly, and surely no one in his right mind would start a war on two fronts? Bentinck, mindful of Hitler’s deep-seated anti-Bolshevism, cited the French proverb: ‘One always returns to one’s first loves – and one’s first hatreds.’

The nuclear age transformed the worlds of strategy and Intelligence. Peter Hennessy describes step by step how Britain got the bomb and what it was then used for. From 1945 on, the Chiefs of Staff took it for granted that Britain had to have ‘every club in the bag’, and the RAF began adapting the V-bomber force to deliver the bomb. Dalton and Cripps attempted a rearguard action against it in 1946, but Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary, would have none of it. Smarting from the way he’d just been talked down to in Washington, Bevin insisted that being taken seriously by the US now depended on having the bomb: ‘We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs. We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.’ When Stalin mounted the Berlin Blockade in 1948, Washington dithered but Bevin was adamant: the US must send B-29s to Europe immediately. This dramatically raised the potential cost of Soviet misbehaviour: the B-29 had the range to fly to Moscow and back and was the only plane with the proven ability to deliver an atomic bomb. This may well have been decisive in persuading Stalin to back down. It was the world’s first example of nuclear diplomacy – and it worked.

You are not logged in