In the field

Nigel Hamilton

  • Washington Despatches, 1941-45: Weekly Political Reports from the British Embassy edited by H.G. Nicholas
    Weidenfeld, 700 pp, £20.00, August 1981, ISBN 0 297 77920 6
  • British Intelligence and the Second World War. Vol. II by F.H. Hinsley, E.E. Thomas, C.F.G. Ransom and R.C. Knight
    HMSO, 850 pp, £15.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 11 630934 2
  • Mars without Venus: A Study of Some Homosexual Generals by Frank Richardson
    William Blackwood, 188 pp, £5.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 85158 148 X
  • Soldiering on: An Unofficial Portrait of the British Army by Dennis Barker
    Deutsch, 236 pp, £8.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 233 97391 5
  • A Breed of Heroes by Alan Judd
    Hodder, 288 pp, £6.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 340 26334 2
  • War in Peace: An Analysis of Warfare Since 1945 edited by Robert Thompson
    Orbis, 312 pp, £9.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 85613 341 8

Some weeks ago Sir Isaiah Berlin gave a broadcast in which he described his first visit to the legendary Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in Moscow in 1945 – a visit cut short in its prime by the bellowing of Randolph Churchill in the courtyard outside, hotly pursued by the Russian Secret Police. Alas, such humorous anecdotes will not be found by Berlin devotees in his latest book, Washington Despatches. Berlin was actually on his way to Moscow as Press Attaché when he was dismissed by the British Ambassador, Sir Stafford Cripps, then greedily snapped up by our men in New York: by 1942 he had become a member of the Survey Section of the Embassy in Washington. Each week he drew up a political commentary for despatch to London, but any hopes of witnessing the formidable Berlin intellect at war in the corridors of US power will be disappointed. Although – a trifle immodestly – he claims in his Introduction that his material was considered by Denis Brogan in London to be ‘the Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinths of American politics’, it is hard to see Berlin as Theseus in these reports, which veer from matters of local American concern (labour troubles etc) to generalities so general one can only yawn one’s way through. The burning issues of America’s entry into the war, the loss of the Philippines, the disastrous first eight months of 1942, the whole question of the Second Front, the great conferences at Yalta and Tehran, the agonising questions of post-war Europe, of Palestine and – still so agonising today – of Poland, are dealt with summarily, drily, in no way memorably. Why should this gifted man have failed to deliver something more rewarding?

The answer is, of course, censorship. Not imposed – though that, too, possibly – so much as self-imposed. The FO in London – Berlin does not say so, but it can be inferred – knew that the Americans were reading the British Embassy signals: it therefore wanted nothing that burned, nothing contentious or embarrassing – above all, nothing personal. So, effectively restrained, Berlin penned his weekly school letter and gave it to the headmaster to read, revise and encypher. Professor Nicholas, the editor, fawns and bows, proclaims those despatches written in Berlin’s absence to be ‘school of Berlin’: but he cannot get away from the fact that, deprived of the right to portray personalities, express opinions, or be funny, Theseus puts up a pretty disappointing display against the American Minotaur.

Harold Nicolson had the right idea in steering the budding Berlin towards Moscow – which Berlin finally reached in 1945/6. But whether Sir George Weidenfeld has had the right idea in resurrecting his despatches, I doubt. No person, no issue is concentrated upon in depth, and the footnotes provide witless and inaccurate help (Desert Victory was not a film about O’Connor’s 1940-41 offensive, and Montgomery did not participate in ‘First’ Alamein in July 1942).

Harry Hinsley’s British Intelligence and the Second World War: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations, Volume II, is another impersonal work. He has the strange notion that in order to simulate ‘perfect’ reality he must exclude any mention of individuals. Pas de monstres, et pas de héros – Flaubert is quoted sadly out of context. Just imagine Emma Bovary reduced to the cypher GII(I) or DDMI(O)! Hinsley gives a brilliant, nameless account of the development of Intelligence organisation in England between 1941 and 1943, but then, instead of confining himself to the history of Intelligence-gathering between 1941 and 1943, he has elected to try and chart the influence of that Intelligence on the conduct of both strategy and operations in the field. I think this is a mistake. Hinsley is a fine historian (Professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge University) and was a distinguished wartime Naval cryptographer at Bletchley Park. But he has no feeling for, or even interest in, operations in the field, and his essay reads like a university exam paper rather than a work of military history. He has failed to interview the survivors from among those responsible for British Intelligence there, and his apologia for this strikes a very feeble note for a Cambridge professor who has been given unique freedom of access to Intelligence files, together with the assistance of no less than three researchers: ‘Some members of the wartime community may feel we might have made our consultation more extensive; we have confined it to points on which we needed to supplement or clarify the evidence of the surviving archives.’

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