Churchill and the Secret Service

Robert Pearce | Published in History Today

Churchill and the Secret Service

By John Murray, xiii + 386 pp. £25. ISBN 0-71-955407 1

Churchill as Peacemaker

Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Cambridge University Press, xiii + 344 pp. £35. ISBN 0-521-58314 4

Nothing Sacred: Nazi Espionage against the Vatican

Frank Cass, xiv + 190 pp. £29.50 (hb). ISBN 0-7146

Just as eels are supposed to get used to skinning,' wrote Winston Churchill philosophically, 'so politicians get used to being caricatured.' He himself was often characterised by hats. The sheer variety of his exotic headgear gave cartoonists plenty of scope but prevented them from assigning him any single, instantly recognisable, image. (The only uniformity, according to Punch, was that Churchill found all the hats 'on the small side'.) The problem his life presents to historians is a similar one. There's plenty of information, but whatever image we assign him seems to be contradicted by an equally plausible opposite. If the hydra-headed Churchill seems, at one moment, to be wearing his warmonger's hat, he soon doffs the peacemaker's. To confound the problem, new roles, for instance that of spy-master, are being uncovered. There are so many Winston Churchills stalking the pages of modern history that it is hard to credit that he was in fact a single human being.'

The history of the human race,' wrote Churchill, 'is war' – and he admitted to a horrible fascination with it. ('Is it not horrible to be built like this?') But if he loved war, he also hated it, and the longer he lived the more he hated it. This was a man who waged peace as well as war. It is Churchill the peacemaker who forms the theme of the ten essays introduced by James W. Muller. If their quality is somewhat uneven, and there is a good deal of repetition of issues and quotations, it must nevertheless be said that they make for absorbing reading. There are succinct overviews of his life and also detailed examination of his writings and of particular phases of his career, for instance his involvement with South Africa before the First World War and with Ireland after. There is even an account of Churchill's policy towards Zionism, when he was secretary of state for the colonies in 1920-21, which – quite remarkably – shows that his policy was marked by drift and irresolution. Viewing the Middle East as no more than a 'strategic sideshow', Churchill tamely took the advice of his officials and allowed policy to remain purposefully vague. This analysis, which uncovers seemingly unChurchillian qualities, is certainly convincing, though one does wonder whether it was necessary to take 53 pages over it.

There is in fact an aura of homage about the book. This is shown most clearly in Martin Gilbert's chapter on Churchill's search for peace after 1945. It is a typically lucid, well-documented and indeed moving account. Quotations from Churchill's letters to Eisenhower in 1954 show that the octogenarian's rhetorical powers were still remarkable – though, alas, he did not coin the phrase 'jaw-jaw is better than war-war', which was Macmillan's rewording of a more prosaic phrase. Gilbert's theme is Churchill's far-sighted, valiant struggle against American obstructionism and Soviet indifference. His ambition could not have been made of sterner stuff. Yet the realism of the hero's quest is nowhere questioned, nor the egotism of his search for a summit meeting even mooted.

This is a valuable, scholarly book, which no one interested in Churchill will want to miss. But Churchill studies are in fact more varied and controversial than it implies. How this collection would have been enlivened by the contribution of a Churchill-sceptic! The authors might also have related the role of peacemaker much more to Churchill's personality, above all to the humour which again and again punctured pomposity and ranged him on the side of Eros against Thanatos.

David Stafford's Churchill and Secret Service is another most welcome addition to Churchilliana. It traces Churchill's involvement with covert secret service operations over sixty years, from his own intelligence work in the empire in the 1890s, through the founding of the secret service bureau in 1909, to the Anglo-US operation which gave the boot to Iran's Dr Mosaddeq, and replaced him with the Shah, in August 1953. 'The adrenaline excitement of action never left him.'

Stafford praises Churchill for nursing Britain's secret service through its infancy, but he also delivers square criticisms, as of the typical over-reaction that led him to see German spies behind the miners' strikes in South Wales in 1911. Fears that his wife was about to be kidnapped and held to ransom for several Dreadnoughts came close to paranoia. After 1914 his use of spies to report on labour relations, and his hatred of George Lansbury, were equally unbalanced, and he reposed a quite unreasonable confidence in the ability of Boris Savinkov and the master spy Sidney Reilly (Sigmund Georgevich Rosenblum) to unseat the Bolsheviks. Similarly in the Second World War, Churchill at first harboured unrealistic fears of sabotage and assassinations, and it was the fact that his 'imagination was in overdrive' that led not only to the internment of enemy aliens but their deportation. Moreover it was perhaps his small-mindedness which led him to deny any special decoration to John Godfrey, the director of naval intelligence who had wanted to reveal the truth about British shipping losses.

Churchill is shown to be deeply flawed, but he emerges as a hero nevertheless. Especially important was his wise vigilance of Ultra security. Yet Stafford disposes authoritatively of the myth that Churchill sacrificed Coventry rather than reveal to the Germans that the code had been cracked, and he justifiably casts scorn on the absurd notion that he deprived Roosevelt of advance knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor. On the other hand, British forces almost certainly were behind the assassination of Darlan, the former Vichy collaborator, in December 1942. Champagne corks were popped in London in celebration. It was by such means that Churchill struggled to resist American efforts to dictate Allied strategy. If at times the book, for instance in its coverage of Operation Mincemeat, reads like a James Bond novel, this is a clear case of art imitating life, not vice versa. Ian Fleming was involved in these events, serving for a time as assistant to Admiral Godfrey.

Stafford's study is admirably detailed, scholarly and convincing. His literary skill and willingness to sketch in the general context of events also make it accessible to a very wide readership. Many will find this a quite fascinating book.

The theme of counter-intelligence is continued in Nothing Sacred, by David Alvarez and Robert A. Graham, the first study to document the Nazi espionage campaign against the Vatican. Whereas many historians have criticised the papacy for its weak response to fascism, Hitler considered Pius XII a threat to his international ambitions. The Nazis achieved some success, for instance intercepting and decoding communications between the Pope and his representatives worldwide. But this was testimony to the Vatican's amateurish, one-man cipher office, not to Nazi efficiency. German espionage was indeed often ham-fisted. Intelligence was often manufactured in the hope of attracting the favour of the Führer, so that 'not only was a lie as good as the truth, it was sometimes better'. The Nazis certainly had no success in penetrating the closed clerical circle in the Vatican. Pius generally kept his own counsel and reserved the key issues to himself. Yet it must be added, despite the authors' silence on this point, that the pontiff not only had no divisions, he had precious few secrets either.

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week