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.

In his detailed account of the notorious raid on Coventry on 14-15 November 1940, Collier differs on one point from R.V. Jones, who had solved the German method of direction-finding by using intersecting beams (the X-Gerät or Knickebein system). Collier is satisfied that No 80 Wing knew by 3 p.m. on 14 November that the target was Coventry: Jones recollects that as late as 6 p.m. he did not know where the beams were intersecting. Collier attributes the Luftwaffe’s success on this occasion to a failure of jamming; he gives no credence to the allegation that Churchill deliberately sacrificed Coventry, otherwise the precise time of discovery of the target for that night would be of critical significance.

By the summer of 1941 Ultra and other intelligence sources enabled the British authorities to put together a clear picture of the enormous build-up of German forces in Eastern Europe. Stalin was repeatedly but vainly warned of a probable German attack. Collier suggests, however, that the British were not convinced that Hitler would invade the Soviet Union, because they thought he would wish to avoid a war on two fronts. German dispositions might instead herald a plan to drive through Greece and Turkey into the Middle East. Even after Barbarossa was launched, Russian powers of resistance were so underestimated, because of the wholesale purge of officers and her poor showing in Finland, that it was feared she would collapse in time for Hitler to reorganise his forces for an invasion of Britain before the autumn.

Collier concludes his account of the Japanese conquests between December 1941 and March 1942 by asking: could better intelligence have helped the Western Powers to avoid some or all of these disasters? He answers that defeats in Malaya, Singapore and Burma were due not so much to lack of knowledge as to errors of judgment, inadequate resources, or a combination of the two. ‘Everything the Japanese did at the outset of hostilities was foreseeable, and indeed at one stage or another had been foreseen.’ Early in 1941, for example, the American commanders in the Pacific assessed a carrier-borne air attack on Hawaii as most likely, but this menace was neglected when the Japanese were seen to be planning a southward drive from Indo-China. Instead commanders in the Central Pacific focused their anxieties on the security of the Philippines, which were strictly indefensible with the means that were available in 1941.

Ronald Lewin would doubtless agree that better intelligence would not have made a substantial difference to the initial British defeats in the Far East, but his excellent study stresses throughout the increasing value of decrypt intelligence in the Pacific war. In the most sensitive areas of signal intelligence a firm basis for Anglo-American co-operation had been laid several months before Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into the war. Four American service representatives arrived at Bletchley Park in the spring of 1941, and shortly afterwards the British ambassador in Washington began to receive intelligence from ‘Magic’ intercepts (the Japanese diplomatic cipher) for use in the war against Germany. Like most reputable historians, Lewin rejects the conspiracy theory that Roosevelt deliberately provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor. His meticulous reappraisal of the substantial intelligence available at the time shows that a Japanese attack was expected – but not at Pearl Harbor. In retrospect, it is clear that a few vital clues (notably an intercepted German inquiry about harbour facilities on Hawaii) were missed, but given the variety of options open to Japan the faulty assessment was excusable. Far less easy to account for, or exonerate, was the unpreparedness at Pearl Harbor itself, for which the local commanders were made scapegoats.

In the months following this disaster American decrypt specialists made a Herculean effort to break Japanese naval codes, and with such success that by the time Admiral Nimitz fought the decisive battle of Midway in June 1942 he had a more intimate knowledge of the enemy’s strength and intentions than any other admiral in the history of sea warfare. While bringing out the precise value of Ultra and other forms of intelligence in the Pacific war, Lewin rightly stresses that much still depended on such traditional military assets as sound tactical doctrine, efficient weapons and high morale.

As in later wars, the achievements of American code-breakers were put at risk by their newspapers’ disregard for security. On 7 June 1942, the front page of the Chicago Tribune was headlined: ‘Navy had word of Jap plan to strike at sea.’ The article even revealed that Nimitz knew in advance that the attack on the Aleutians was a diversion. Quite apart from press revelations, the secret of American access to Japanese codes and ciphers was of course hazarded by military actions made possible by such intelligence and hard to account for without it. The most spectacular instance was Nimitz’s bold decision to act on advance notice, giving precise timings, of Admiral Yamamoto’s proposed flight to Rabaul in April 1943. Yamamoto’s death was a serious loss to the Japanese and marked a definite decline in their operational performance. Why did the Japanese not realise that their codes had been broken and alter them drastically? Arrogance perhaps ruled out this perception of the obvious, and in the case of Yamamoto’s death insecurity in local Rabaul signals was suspected. However, as Lewin points out, while Japanese codes and ciphers were supposed to be changed periodically, the vast distances and the number of stations involved often caused postponements.

As in the European theatre, there were errors and shortcomings on both sides. The United States Army and Navy displayed a reluctance to pool intelligence, and in some headquarters to accept liaison units from Special Branch which handled the transmission and security of Ultra intelligence. On the latter point General MacArthur was a notorious maverick and had to be overruled by Marshall. Signal intelligence activities in MacArthur’s South-West Pacific command were never integrated to the same degree as in other commands. Despite his undoubted charisma and leadership qualities, MacArthur’s reputation is seriously undermined in respect of the use of intelligence in command decisions. In 1942 his failure to act on advance warnings permitted the Japanese to get established in New Guinea, while in 1944 he would have preferred to launch a direct assault on Rabaul rather than the dramatic leap forward to Hollandia which he was ordered to make by the Chief of Staff when Ultra revealed it to be only lightly defended.

Although the German-Japanese axis failed to function in terms of policy and strategy, Lewin shows in a fascinating chapter that the partners made tremendous efforts to trade in vital war materials. In the first half of 1941, before the German invasion of Russia abruptly severed the link, Germany received over 212,000 tons of war materials from Japan along the Trans-Siberian railway, including rubber, oils, minerals and chemicals. In return Japan received heavy machinery, vehicles and aircraft. Thereafter the Axis Powers made determined efforts to break the naval blockade with surface vessels, but Allied access to Ultra enabled most of the ships to be sunk. In the winter of 1942-3, for example, six out of seven Japanese ships sailing to Bordeaux were lost. Germany decided to transfer the main mercantile role to submarines, but this remarkable enterprise also failed. A revealing statistic: all the material successfully delivered by U-boats could have been carried by a single surface blockade-runner.

Probably the most impressive application of Ultra intelligence in the Pacific War was its crucial role in the annihilation of Japanese merchant shipping. This was made possible by the breaking of the Japanese mercantile code (or maru) early in 1943. Lewin shows that from this source American Intelligence was able to piece together a near-perfect picture of the enemy’s merchant shipping. Only such superb intelligence made feasible the application of wolf-pack tactics in the vast wilderness of the Pacific. By the end of 1944 imports of oil and other vital materials for Japanese war production had virtually ceased.

The Other Ultra concludes with a balanced account of Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan in the light of his knowledge, derived from Magic intercepts, of Japanese peace moves in Russia. Lewin suggests that Truman was surely influenced by what this revealed about Russia’s aggressive intentions in the Far East. On the other hand, he allows that American Army and Navy intelligence sources pointed to the likelihood of fanatical resistance to invasion of the home islands at the cost of perhaps a million American casualties. In my opinion, this grim prospect justified Truman’s decision in the light of the knowledge available and the attitudes prevailing at the close of a uniquely barbarous war.

There was a final irony in the Japanese certainty that their codes were secure. On 6 September 1945 the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo advised surviving Japanese legations in Europe that the current cipher would continue in use as a means of evading surrender terms and countering the effects of defeat.

James Bamford’s valiant attempt to expose the secrets of the American National Security Agency could well have been subtitled ‘Beyond Ultra’ because he traces the vast expansion that has taken place in espionage and surveillance since Britain divulged the ‘Enigma’ source to her American ally.

Vulgarly known as ‘the Puzzle Palace’, the NSA was established by a secret Presidential memorandum in 1952 and for many years thereafter its very existence was officially denied. Though still shrouded in mystery, it is known to be much larger than the CIA and to spend many more billions of dollars annually. Its director is allegedly the most powerful official in the US intelligence community. Mr Bamford has been more successful than any previous investigator in showing how the NSA developed from Anglo-American collaboration in World War Two, in identifying many of its leading officials and in detailing the responsibilities of its numerous divisions. Understandably, his sources are less informative for the post-Watergate era, but it is a pity that in order to give the book wider popular appeal he has inserted a good deal of journalistic padding. In the chapter on the Anglo-American partnership, for example, he provides a detailed account of the Allied acquisition of Ultra and of how wartime co-operation was extended in the post-war decade until a rift occurred over the Suez crisis. The significance of William Friedman’s conciliatory mission in 1957 is fully discussed, but after that the narrative fades into pen portraits of the British directors of Government Communications Headquarters, originally established at Bletchley Park but subsequently moved to Cheltenham.

A lengthy preface has been added for the British edition, describing the lay-out and atmosphere of the Cheltenham complex with its almost comically lax security. The espionage activities of Geoffrey Prime are detailed. It is no consolation to hear that security at NSA in the Seventies was, if possible, even more lax and one can only hope that it has been tightened since the arrest of Messrs Lee and Boyle in 1977 after they had given a large amount of damaging material to the Russians.

Poor security checks may be a characteristic of democracies, but Mr Bamford is much more worried by NSA’s extra-legal position and its growing threat to civil liberties. ‘Where once America’s chief source of raw intelligence was the clandestine agent with his or her Minox camera, today that source is the same worldwide blanket of microwave signals and rivers of satellite transmissions that give us our telephone calls, our remote banking, telegrams and, soon, our mail.’ In his excellent concluding chapter Bamford paints an alarming picture of NSA’s surveillance technology sucking in more and more private communications in addition to its chief source of intelligence: the coded messages passing between Soviet departments and their stations abroad.