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MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service

By Asa Briggs | Posted 14th May 2012, 15:30
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MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service
Keith Jeffrey
Bloomsbury 830pp £30

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Cribs for Victory: The Untold Story of Bletchley Park’s Secret Room
Neil Webster, edited by Joss Pearson
Polperro Heritage Press  147pp  £8.95

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These two books, very different in approach, scope and length, are in fact complementary; and, given current media interest in the role of intelligence in war and peace, they are both relevant for contemporary debate. Professor Jeffrey, a professional historian, has been given access to Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) papers covering 40 years from 1909 through two world wars to 1949, an early year in a long Cold War. Although his was an official commission, the judgements he makes on individuals and institutions are very much his own. His book is divided into seven parts, the first of which, called ‘early years’, ends in 1914 and breaks much new ground. The sixth part, ‘from hot war to cold war’ is circumspect. The seventh part, ‘leadership and performance over the first forty years’, is forthright and in places controversial.

As the chief of the Secret Intelligence, ‘C’, writes in a cautious introduction, SIS does not disclose the names of agents or of living members of staff and ‘only in exceptional circumstances agrees to waive the anonymity of deceased staff’. Nevertheless the most lively paragraphs relate to individual agents. This is because Jeffrey is free to disclose the names of many of the people who recruited them and employed them. In his last chapter he reserves his criticism for a far better-known professional historian than himself, Hugh Trevor-Roper, who has his place as a player in the wartime and postwar intelligence game. Trevor-Roper’s condemnation in an unpublished note of his superiors in SIS as a ‘nest of timid and corrupt incompetents’ Jeffrey dismisses as ‘absurd’.

Jeffrey writes little about Bletchley in his book and does not appear to have examined in any detail the papers in the National Archives that reveal many of its secrets. Instead he concentrates on and praises unreservedly the work of Richard Gambier-Parry, who created a communications network that enabled him to keep in touch with SIS agents scattered through many countries. In May 1941 Gambier-Parry took over the Radio Security Service (RSS), which ceased to be a part of the War Office and became part of SIS. It was not until 1943, however, that the comprehensive term ‘Sigint’ (Signals Intelligence) was evolved. By then Gordon Welchman, who had devised the Hut system in Bletchley Park to cover intelligence in Hut 3 and cryptography in Hut 6, had moved to the centre of the park to join ‘Jumbo’ Travis, the head of the Government Code and Cypher School, as assistant director for mechanisation. Alistair Denniston, Travis’s predecessor, had left Bletchley in February 1942. The service’s work carried out there continued, but the diplomatic and commercial work moved under Denniston to London. At the end of the war secret histories were written of the different sections of Bletchley Park by those who had worked there during the war. Some, not all of them, have subsequently been published. Organising the history project was Frank Birch, who had worked with Denniston before the war. He also wrote a two-volume history of Sigint. His judgements on the organisation when Travis took it over were as sweeping as Trevor-Roper’s. He called it ‘a hybrid monstrosity in keeping with nothing but the architecture of Bletchley Park mansion itself’.

Joss Pearson, who has edited Cribs for Victory, is the daughter of Neil Webster, a liaison officer between signals intelligence and cryptographers working in Hut 6, who wrote one of the history volumes under Birch’s direction in 1945. She fills in much of the detail about Bletchley Park structures and activities in an informative book based on a text her father wrote in 1985. Security clearance for the publication of this well-organised first-hand account was only granted in 2010, more than 20 years after Webster’s death. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the relationship between signals intelligence, a broader concept than traffic analysis, and cryptography. It supplements, but does not replace, James Thirsk’s Bletchley Park: An Inmate’s Story (2008). Having worked at Bletchley Park myself, I like the word ‘inmate’.

Asa Briggs was Chancellor of the Open University.


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