Access to Ultra

Brian Bond

  • Hidden Weapons: Allied Secret or Undercover Services in World War Two by Basil Collier
    Hamish Hamilton, 386 pp, £15.00, April 1982, ISBN 0 241 10788 1
  • The Other Ultra: Codes, Ciphers and the Defeat of Japan by Ronald Lewin
    Hutchinson, 332 pp, £10.95, April 1982, ISBN 0 09 147470 1
  • The Puzzle Palace by James Bamford
    Sidgwick, 465 pp, £9.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 283 98976 9

Numerous accounts, not least among them Ronald Lewin’s pioneering survey Ultra goes to war, have familiarised us with the remarkable story of Anglo-American achievements in breaking enemy codes and keeping their most valuable source of intelligence secret not just during the war but for thirty years afterwards. Yet, as both Basil Collier and Ronald Lewin stress in their new studies, neither British nor American intelligence services enjoyed high prestige or had much to boast about in the inter-war period. In his foreword to Hidden Weapons, Professor R.V. Jones recalls expressing disquiet to Lord Vansittart that MI6 was recruited on the basis of friendship rather than competence. Vansittart agreed, but added that the pay was so bad it was only your friends you could persuade to take the job. Ironically, Kim Philby was initially discouraged from joining MI6 on the grounds that he was too good for the pay on offer. As for the United States, Mr Lewin doubts whether Secretary of State Stimson actually uttered the celebrated dictum, ‘gentlemen do not read one another’s mail,’ but he was certainly outraged to discover that his agents were reading a few Japanese ciphered signals. He ordered that such unethical activity should cease forthwith and closed down the ‘Black Chamber’, with the unfortunate result that a disgruntled employee sold the story to the press. Mr Collier is equally critical of British ministers and senior officials who liked to be regaled with secret service reports but did not take them any more seriously than thrillers, and tended to be guided by preconceptions or hunches sometimes backed by unconfirmed rumours or private communications. Similarly many regular officers put in charge of intelligence sections showed a strange contempt for their stock-in-trade while fiercely reacting to external criticism. These strictures are exemplified by the misinterpretation of German air strategy in the Munich era. There was also a gross overestimation of the Luftwaffe’s bombing capacity which R.V. Jones suggests may have been due to an RAF officer’s joke that was taken seriously.

Basil Collier, author of The Defence of the United Kingdom (1957) in the Official History series, points out that privileged historians like himself were aware of the Allied access to Ultra in their own special areas, though unable to mention it. Predictions in the mid-1970s that the history of the Second World War would have to be completely re-written now seem exaggerated, but there is a need for broad reappraisals to take account of what is known now about all kinds of intelligence and covert activities. Professor F.H. Hinsley and his colleagues are fulfilling this task meticulously and with clinical detachment in their official history of British Intelligence in the Second World War, but Mr Collier has meanwhile provided a useful synthesis for non-specialists. As one would expect, he is a particularly perceptive and judicious guide on the operations in Norway and France, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz.

One legend which Collier seeks to demolish is that Air Chief Marshal Dowding controlled the Battle of Britain from Bentley Priory. As Commander-in-Chief Fighter Command, Dowding had ultimate responsibility for the air defence of Britain, but tactical control was delegated to the fighter groups. Dowding and his staff ‘gave no executive orders to fighter stations or squadrons, gun batteries, searchlight companies or balloon centres’. Even the tactical reinforcement of one fighter group by another was left to group commanders. Indeed after the early novelty had worn off Dowding seldom visited the operations room except to show it to a distinguished visitor.

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