No wonder people think of the secret services as farce or fiction. What is one to make of an organisation whose leaders have names like Dummy Oliver, Blinker Hall, Biffy Dunderdale, Lousy Payne, Buster Milmo, Pay Sykes, Tar Robertson, Barmy Russel and Quex Sinclair (not to be confused with his successor but one, Sinbad Sinclair)? It’s no good reassuring the reader that in the transition from Victorian days, when men called even their closest friends by their surnames, to the present time, when not to know the first name of a casual acquaintance makes it almost impossible to address him without appearing pompous or supercilious, nicknames like Stubby, Toby or Tubby came to be used as a gesture to informality, particularly in the Army and Navy. The reader is likely to think that such men are preposterous and what they do ludicrous. Even in fiction, the secret services are no longer heroic. Gone are the days when Sapper’s Jim Maitland would sun-bathe himself to a frazzle in order to pass in a burnous as an Arab in Tripoli or thwart the machinations of Baron Stockmar in the Sudan (‘It’s the game, Dick: The Great Game. The only game in the world worth playing’).
The rot set in with that lacklustre fellow Ashenden. His adventures, while accurate in detail, reflected Somerset Maugham’s own failure in organising a network. The spy-master has been degraded by Graham Greene into a shabby down-at-heel anonymous creature who will identify an innocent colleague with the mole he is hunting and kill the wrong man. For him Philby and Co are the modern equivalents of heroic Jesuit priests plotting against Elizabeth. In Le Carré’s world the dingy agents of the KGB and MI6 are interchangeable. Who can forget A.J.P. Taylor’s jibe that no spy ever told his masters anything of value they could not have gleaned from the press? Or Malcolm Muggeridge’s chronicles of his wasted time in the farce of paying agents in Lorenço Marques during the war? Perhaps Cyril Connolly said the last word on the spy story when in ‘Bond strikes camp’ he pictured 007 being nearly seduced by a C monstrously attired in drag.
The spy story continues to flourish, but no longer do upper-class heroes outwit von Stumm and Hilda von Einem as they did in Greenmantle. Giles Railton, the hero of John Gardner’s novel, is a scion of the landed gentry and works in the mysterious upper reaches of the Foreign Office. There he recruits his offspring and nephews and nieces into the ranks of the secret service, just in time for the First World War. But all unknown to Cumming (the original C) and Kell, the first head of what became MI5, or to Dummy Oliver, the Director of Naval Intelligence, and Blinker Hall, head of Room 40 in the Admiralty, who appear as characters in the interests of verisimilitude, Giles Railton is a mole. His kinsmen are playthings in his hand: the devoted and stupid are exposed as German agents, the young and gallant are betrayed and imprisoned in Germany or face a firing-squad. He works towards a German victory but for a higher end – to bring about revolution. At some time this paragon of the Establishment suffered a sudden conversion to Bolshevism. It sounds improbable but, after all, sudden conversions occur. ‘Personally, I would have had the watchers out on St Paul for a long time if I had been in charge of the Christian secret service when he came blundering into Damascus yelling that he’d gone blind, and Christ was the Messiah.’ Railton does his work only too well and on the last page we see one of his younger kinsmen, who disappeared in 1917 in Soviet Russia with other British agents, back in England in the Thirties, at Cambridge, briefing the undergraduate Donald Railton who has already been recruited as a mole.
This is stirring stuff. But verisimilitude in thrillers is not achieved by introducing Cumming and Kell from real life. It is achieved by the authenticity of the jargon (Le Carré) and of the conversation. Kell would never have asked if he could call a man by his first name five minutes after meeting him. Nor is it credible to listen to the Kaiser briefing his spies. The authentic upper-class milieu is better conveyed in Bertie Denham’s Two Thyrds. This book again involves a traitor and spans two generations from the Second World War to the present day. The author, who is the Conservative chief whip in the House of Lords, really knows how the upper classes talk and, as a master of deals behind the scenes, has written a story of singular ingenuity and suspense. Probably in revenge for years of listening to speeches from the benches opposite, he makes his villain a Labour intellectual who becomes a life peer and bears the transparent soubriquet of Lord Frost.
And yet the modern intelligence services owed at one time a considerable debt to the writers of spy stories – in particular to William Le Queux and Phillips Oppenheim. Le Queux’s hero, Duckworth Drew, whose name rhymed with his own and whose appearance matched his own self-image – ‘unobtrusive, of perfect manner, and a born gentleman’ – is first found outwitting the French Foreign Minister by offering him a cigar ‘drugged with a solution of cocculus indicus’. But after the entente, Le Queux was quick to switch villains and, following Erskine Childers’s Riddle of the Sands, unravelled German plans for the invasion of England. Within a few months, Le Queux had got Field-Marshal Lord Roberts and Harmsworth to believe there were 50,000 German waiters spying in London. No, 80,000 German soldiers, said Roberts, employed mostly on the railways. No, 350,000 German soldiers, said Colonel Driscoll DSO, working as moles. The King spoke of his nephew the Kaiser planning to land an army corps and proclaim that, as a grandson of Queen Victoria, he was ready to free the King from ‘the Socialistic gang which is ruining the country’; Parliament voted funds to build eight Dreadnoughts when the Admiralty had asked for only six; and the Committee of Imperial Defence set up in 1909 created what was later to become MI5 under Vernon Kell with a staff of one clerk. Le Queux was an absurd figure, and the Liberal ministers Esher and Haldane kept their heads and refused to countenance the evidence of deranged informers or the forgeries which it had by then become financially worthwhile to manufacture. In fact, the German network consisted of a few penniless part-time agents whom Kell put in the bag directly war started. But Le Queux continued to believe his own yarns and did much to fan the spy mania in the First World War.
The secret services have been in existence for many years. Walsingham nearly ruined himself by running at his own expense, for Elizabeth I, a corps of agents who uncovered the Ridolfi and Babington plots. The Cambridge mathematician John Wells decrypted Charles I’s despatches for the Parliamentarians. Spies and sigint came into their own in warfare when cavalry and frigates could no longer operate to give warning of enemy troop or fleet movements. In 1914, the Director or of Naval Intelligence realised that cryptography was not a skill which naval officers had been taught and recruited an engineering don who was, like Walsingham, a Kingsman. Ewing was a poor organiser but he got Room 40 going, staffed partly by young dons from his college who in 1939 were again the nucleus of the cryptography centre at Bletchley. Meanwhile Cumming had established MI6 and was finding that Holland was a good deal more hospitable to spies than Switzerland. Other ways of gathering intelligence came into use, such as aerial reconnaissance and pigeons, and in the Second World War enemy agents were not shot but turned into double agents, the master of this art being Guy Liddell.
The development of this intelligence community is the theme of Christopher Andrew’s book, which contains the first reliable narrative history of the secret services from Victorian days to the present. Needless to say, he has received no encouragement from Whitehall, and former members of MI5 have been warned not to talk to him. As he observes, there is every reason for secrecy in relation to current and recent intelligence operations, and for protecting, during their lifetime, certain officers and agents. But not to release pre-1914 documents, and to argue that peacetime intelligence should be even more secret than wartime operations, brings security into contempt. Happily, bureaucracy is its own worst enemy. The vagaries in weeding files and the purloining by the great of intelligence material for their own archives gives a don like Andrew his opportunities. The result is a scrupulous, reasonable, judicious account, as remote as can be from the breathless denunciations by journalists heaving with indignation at secret service inefficiency and treachery. Nigel West’s book on MI6 looks by comparison, like an exercise in name-dropping. Not that Mr Andrew does not have his throw-away lines. Sir Claude Dansey, that unattractive deputy head of MI6, was, it appears, seduced at the age of 16 by Robbie Ross. Tom Driberg was ‘put under pressure’ by MI5 to inform on the Communist Party (he was an uninhibited homosexual cruiser) until, Andrew deduces, he was shopped by Anthony Blunt and expelled from the Party by Pollitt in 1941.
If, however, we set on one side the flow of good stories and try to analyse Andrew’s narrative, what emerges? The most obvious lesson for SIS is to gain and keep the confidence of those in power – the prime minister, the Foreign Office and the Armed Forces. They all need secret information and all distrust it. Menzies, the indifferent head of SIS during the Second World War, was fly enough to keep sigint under his nominal command. Even though he had nothing to do with the organisation at Bletchley, it was he who fed Churchill with intercepts. Yet SIS must resist the temptation to do the politician’s job and make policy. Quex Sinclair, Menzies’s predecessor as C between the wars, was hostile to Germany, but, seeing the way his masters’ minds were turning, he ended by advising Chamberlain to abandon Czechoslovakia. Eden, whom one would have imagined welcoming Vansittart’s uncompromising opposition to Hitler, was determined to get him out because he considered Vansittart to be acting as if he were Foreign Secretary.
Intelligence is not the road to promotion in the Armed Services. What general officer commanding, other than Gerald Templer, held a senior post in field intelligence? Templer who destroyed the Communist guerrillas in Malaysia only because he realised that good intelligence would enable him to detect them. Before 1914, that disputatious admiral Lord Charles Beresford was one of the few in the Navy who understood its value. He got Salisbury to establish the Naval Intelligence Department. In revenge, the Admiralty cut the salaries of all employed in it. During the First World War, the Director of Naval Operations despised intelligence and the bizarre civilians who worked in Room 40, although the cryptographers never failed to warn the admirals when the High Seas Fleet was intending to come out into the North Sea. The Admiralty had a miserable record. They misread the intercepts and misled Jellicoe and Beatty. In the Army, the Duke of Cambridge, Buller, Haig and Henry Wilson all thought intelligence unnecessary. Joffre and French nearly lost the war in August 1914 because they refused to believe reports of the great enveloping movement of the right wing of the German Army. Knowing his master, Charteris; head of intelligence at GHQ, fed Haig optimistic reports before and after the Somme.
Nothing wrecks intelligence more than rivalry between competing departments and services. The Allies gained by the feuds between the Gestapo, Sicherheitsdienst and Abwehr. And yet such jealousies are inescapable. SIS never forgave SOE for hiving off during the war, even though the collection of information and the organisation of sabotage are not complementary but antagonistic by nature. SIS operations in Russia in 1917-18 were worthless because no one was clear whether the object was to gain information or to subvert Kerensky and then Lenin. In the First World War, GHQ in France sent an intelligence officer to Holland. Enraged by this invasion of his territory, Tinsley, the MI6 station officer at the Hague, had him coshed. When Nigel Clive was parachuted into Greece, SIS warned him that his predecessor had been shot by SOE (so he had – caught signalling to the Germans). He later discovered that none of his radio reports had ever been circulated to anyone. After 1918, Thomson of the Special Branch determined to get a monopoly of intelligence about industrial unrest. MI5 were up in arms.
For years, the services resented the intrusion of civilians and certainly many of the cryptographers were odd. Dilly Knox preferred to solve problems in his bath; Alan Turing converted his savings into silver ingots, buried them and forgot where. Bletchley was a success, partly because it was more like a university than a military or civil service department. On the other hand, in MI6, Dansey, who loved nothing better than to have a row with another organisation or individual, had a grotesque hatred of intellectuals, and the intellectual level of his Z organisation was correspondingly low. Perhaps the most lasting damage which Philby and Blunt inflicted was to reinforce the service’s traditional suspicion of intellectuals. Intelligence officers are bound to be suspicious of each other and obsessed by security: but they should also recognise that their best men are less likely to be the bureaucrats than those who are mildly mad or who have flair, like Guy Liddell.
Unfortunately SIS also attracts the deranged, whose schemes are as mad as they are. I remember hearing in the German section of War Office Intelligence of the storing, during the phoney war, of quantities of explosives under the Ambassador’s bed in the Swedish and Rumanian Embassies. SIS officers planned to use them to sabotage the transport to Germany of iron ore and Ploesti oil. The most ingenious scheme was to block the Danube by blowing up the hills in the Iron Gates defile. As this involved the transportation of ‘naval ratings on barges, improbably disguised as art students’, the Iron Gates survived. The Director of Naval Intelligence between the wars, Sir Barry Domville, spoke of the lunatics who added to the duplication of paper on his desk, but he became convinced that Hitler was the saviour of the West and the war found him in Brixton gaol. Sometimes intelligence officers allow their own predilections to govern their conclusions. The two brewers in the Russian section of War Office Intelligence could hardly conceal their satisfaction in 1941 as Russian army after Russian army was destroyed by the Germans, and predicted total Russian defeat. The bravest spies are often, like the German spy Lody in 1914, the stupidest. There has been no end to black comedy since the day the Fenians blew up a urinal opposite the Special Branch headquarters. This led to all other strategically-placed urinals, including those in the Houses of Parliament, being searched for infernal devices. Naturally they were searched by Irish labourers.
Somehow SIS has to convince their masters, the politicians, that their intelligence is valuable. Some of it is, but that little is more valuable in war than in peace. They should also warn their masters that information from agents is chancy. The claims of agents are not necessarily false, but they are nearly always inflated. I remember the glowing reputation of a secret source whom Andrew identifies as an Abwehr informant called Thümmel. He had warned of the Ardennes offensive and of Hitler’s intention to invade England. But he was wrong to predict the invasions of Spain and Turkey – he probably got wind of contingency plans. He predicted the invasion of Czechoslovakia – but in the spring of 1938; and when it did not materialise, Chamberlain deduced that his warnings had deterred Hitler. On the rare occasions when sigint reveals the enemy’s plans, the intercept is susceptible of several interpretations; and plans do not necessarily materialise as operations. If the secret services never advertise a victory, their masters will lose confidence in them. After all, the press will always trumpet a failure. For every Penkovsky or Gordievsky there is a Blake, a Philby or a Prime. Schellenberg and the Sicherheitsdienst humiliated MI6 in 1939 when they lured two British agents across the Dutch border and used their victory as propaganda. But the British, by turning instead of shooting German agents, won the more resounding victory. Garbo deceived Hitler and the German High Command into believing that the main Overland landings would be in the Pas de Calais.
There is always likely to be tension between the Foreign Office and SIS. Both gather intelligence and each will complain that the other frustrates him. In the past, embassies were a gift to foreign agents. Cicero, the Ambassador’s valet in Ankara, was not alone. In Rome, an Italian chancery servant, suspected of stealing documents after a security check, was such an embassy pet that the Ambassador refused to dismiss him; and when Italy declared war, he was passed on to the legation in the Vatican where he continued to work happily.
A prime minister should get to know his secret service chiefs. Churchill and Margaret Thatcher did, Harold Wilson confessed he scarcely knew them by sight. Churchill was one of the rare politicians who understood the value of intelligence. He quoted intercepts to the Chiefs of Staff and got them in the end to organise the Joint Intelligence Committee on proper lines. A boy all his life, he chortled over its mysteries and indulged his love of mischief, of being in the know. When at the Admiralty during the First World War, he antagonised Kitchener by asking him about an intercept before Kitchener’s staff had decyphered it: but in the Second World War he conquered his own nature and showed a sharp eye for an indiscretion.
He may have recalled that, not once but twice between the wars, sigint was compromised by Conservatives. The first time, Curzon did so (the Times had no scruples about revealing it), and the Russians did not notice. The second time, Baldwin read out the contents of four intercepts in the House: ‘the debate on 26 May 1927,’ Andrew writes, ‘developed into an orgy of governmental indiscretion about secret intelligence for which there is no parallel in parliamentary history.’ This time the Soviet Union acted, and between that date and the outbreak of war no high-grade Soviet messages could be read. One hardly wonders why Blinker Hall kept such political dynamite as the Zimmerman telegram under wraps.
A prime minister should also make a judgment on the succession when the head of MI6 or MI5 retires. Attlee made bad choices. Menzies was a poor appointment, but his successor was worse. Sillitoe in MI5 was also a misfit. Not until Dick White succeeded him and later became C, did the services get a first-class mind. (Andrew maintains that White discovered, in the chaos of the post-Commander Crabbe days, a plot Eden had sanctioned for assassinating Nasser, and gave orders that assassination was no longer an option. This may explain why Philby, whom White had always believed to be guilty, was not dealt with in Beirut when he admitted his guilt.)
In the inter-war years, the secret services were run down and their tiny staffs were almost wholly engaged in identifying Soviet attempts to cause mutinies in the Armed Forces and capture the leadership of the Left and the trade unions. Although Carl Peterson existed only in Sapper’s imagination, the plots Bulldog Drummond unmasked were not fantasy. Then, as now, the British Government’s desire to trade with Russia came up against the Soviet determination to infiltrate their agents. Lloyd George behaved with admirable sangfroid – so it is no surprise that that archintriguer and hater of politicians, Henry Wilson, should enquire in his diary: ‘Is Lloyd George a traitor?’ In the end, Lloyd George sacked Basil Thomson, head of the Special Branch, whose predilection for forged documents and putting tabs on the leaders of the Labour movement became intolerable. Andrew’s examination of the Zinoviev letter is particularly thorough. He concludes that it was probably not a forgery, but that, even if it were, the contents were similar to letters Zinoviev was writing to Pollitt, the leader of the Communist Party. But the way Blinker Hall, by then a diehard Conservative MP, was briefed by MI5, leaked the contents to the Daily Mail, and brought down the Labour Government, was only one reason why Labour had grounds for distrusting the secret services. Baldwin’s éminence grise John Davidson employed retired MI5 officers to infiltrate Labour Party headquarters, so that for years the Conservatives had an answer prepared to any initiative Labour made before they made it.
But the case against Baldwin is stronger than this. Wesley Wark is not concerned with sigint and spies, but with the effectiveness between the wars of operational intelligence – with the assessment of all intelligence from whatever source and the deductions drawn from it. Wark argues that when in the Thirties it became obvious that Germany and not Russia was the greater threat to Britain, the disdain with which Baldwin treated intelligence was even more harmful than the wishful thinking of the intelligence staffs of the Armed Forces, ‘The man who says he can see ahead is a charlatan,’ he pronounced. And yet, as Wark points out, he made the prediction that ‘the bomber will always get through’ (it did). On the major issue Wark is right. Baldwin was lackadaisical and optimistic and Chamberlain dogmatic and pessimistic: but both were encouraged in their follies by the intelligence services’ assessments. In those days, there was no co-ordination of intelligence and each service came up with its own forecasts. Andrew points out there was no lack of intelligence: there was too much. Until 1936, the services, on the intelligence before them, tended to argue that Germany would rearm only so far as to satisfy her amour propre. That meant parity in the air with France and adherence to the Anglo-German Naval Agreement. Only the industrial intelligence centre under Desmond Morton struck notes of warning. Between 1936 and 1938, the doctrine changed: Britain, it was argued, must avoid a war at all costs because it had to catch up with Germany’s fabulous rearmament programme. Finally, in 1939, a new wave of optimism overtook planners and intelligence and diplomats, who deferred to Chamberlain’s view that firm action by Britain at Munich had deterred Hitler. These fatal errors, says Wark, had fatal consequences. Because Morton could not give a realistic estimate of Germany’s potential, there was little incentive at first for Britain to rearm. Then when the danger was at last recognised, the strength of the German Army and Air Force was exaggerated because it was assumed that totalitarian methods overcame all those bureaucratic blockages that impeded our own rearmament – and the exaggeration encouraged the Munich mentality.
What happened in the analysis of the German economy is instructive, though not, perhaps, quite in the way Wark sees it. Morton’s effort to alert the Government to Germany’s war potential led him to argue that, by 1938, the German economy was in high gear. If it was in high gear, it could not, by definition, change up. Hence arose the theory that in 1939 Germany was ‘fully stretched’. Our bombers or our blockade could deprive Germany of oil, ball-bearings, rubber (the item changed over the months) and its war machine would grind to a halt. After the war, Nicholas Kaldor discovered (and Speer confirmed his findings) that at no time, and especially not before 1944, was the German economy as efficiently organised as that of Britain or Russia. Pondering on this paradox, historians of the Sixties developed an ingenious theory. It was that Hitler never expected any of his wars to last for more than a few months. They were Blitzkriege. Why then upset morale at home by putting guns before butter? Recently, however, other historians have come up with a more mundane explanation. The Nazis never organised the economy efficiently because Nazi governance was riddled with corruption and strangled by the old-boy network. In other words, it was the diseconomies of the system which no one had the incentive to touch until Speer got control, and by then it was too late.
This illustrates the difficulties intelligence chiefs face. What would Chamberlain or any prime minister have said it he had been told that ‘Hitler is determined to make war but he is leaving a lot of slack in the economy which is not really geared for war’? Wark is rather too inclined to impale the intelligence chiefs of those days on what can appropriately be called a set of Morton’s forks. Desmond Morton, who was not Churchill’s friend for nothing, was right to swim against the tide and paint a picture of German rearmament that would awaken the British public and politicians. In a perfect world, the picture of German air power would not have been painted in such dark colours (the strength of the bomber force and the load it could deliver were thought to be double what they were). But the tide metaphor is apt: when it sweeps in you cannot turn it off like a tap – it takes time for a new or more refined interpretation to gather momentum. God knows one does not want to minimise the follies and evasions of the Thirties. But, as Andrew says, political intentions are always the hardest thing for intelligence to judge. Politicians change their policies so often and what seems firm today has dissolved tomorrow. Wark’s criticisms are too severe. They fail to take account of two perennial problems.
The first is that it is the nature of governments, indeed of bureaucracy itself, to demand answers which are logically coherent. The intelligence services are expected to produce convincing forecasts and analysis. The trouble is that events rarely are coherent; irrationality keeps breaking in. Before June 1944, the Joint Intelligence Committee reassured the Chiefs of Staff that Hitler had no mass of manoeuvre able to be moved across Europe to oppose the landings. That was true, and yet Hitler did manage to transfer some divisions. He even found troops to throw the British out of Cos and Leros in the Mediterranean. It was irrational to do so, but he did it. All intelligence assessments look odd in hindsight. They are, after all, only best guesses.
The second dilemma is this. In theory, the collation and analysis of intelligence should be dispassionate and undefiled by the probable reactions of those for whom it is intended. At the top level it rarely is. In peacetime, what the country as well as Westminster and Whitehall is believed to think is bound to affect intelligence. A messenger who is always bringing bad news will, in the end, be discounted as a person who takes the easy way out by forecasting the worst so that he can never be accused of failing to warn his masters of their possible fate. We have to live with the future, however bleak: so why not stress the factors that make it easier to live with? The intelligence services have to live with the fact that Britain has never been willing to pay enough for her defence. In the 18th century, the Navy was starved and we paid allies subsidies to fight our Continental wars for us. After 1918, Britain had to maintain an effective navy, army and air force. It could not and would not do so. This had the effect of making politicians clutch at straws, and the intelligence chiefs provided them. The question today is: have they learned?