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The Ultra Ultra Secret

Bodyguard of Lies

by Anthony Cave Brown
Harper & Row, 947 pp., $15.95

Mr. Cave Brown is a very courageous man. He undertook the difficult task of writing a history of Allied deception during the Second World War at a time when the two essential sources for such a study were officially concealed. These two sources were, first, all material directly relating to deception, and, secondly, all material relating to cryptography and its results. In the course of his research he was able to penetrate these barriers indirectly. Then, while he was still at work, the ban was partially lifted and partially broken. F.W. Winterbotham was allowed to publish The Ultra Secret, or at least that part of it—the most jealously protected of all—which concerned the breaking by British intelligence of the German cipher machine called “Enigma”; and Sir John Masterman, undeterred by the bumble of bureaucracy, published his account of the Double-Cross System. The delays caused by the ban, and the labor which it has entailed, are obviously great, and we must respect the energy and industry which have enabled Mr. Cave Brown to produce, in the end, this enormous book.

The book is enormous partly because the subject is large and complex, partly because it has grown in his hands. In fact, it has become something like a general history of Anglo-American—and more especially (since the British were at it longer) British—intelligence in the Second World War. But it is far longer than it need be, first, because it has grown in an uncontrolled manner, so that the essential argument is buried in digressions, and secondly, because the author suffers from a fault (as I conceive it to be) which is only too common among modern historical writers, of “encyclopedism,” of insisting on telling us everything, whether it is relevant or not, Finally, having inflated an anyway complex subject to a huge and some-what flabby bulk, he has sought to rearticulate it by inserting into it a novel thesis: a thesis which, in my opinion, is quite wrong.

To the reader, the most obvious characteristic of Mr. Cave Brown’s writing is what I have called its encyclopedism. He piles on the illustrative (or irrelevant) detail. He cannot leave anything out. Every person mentioned must have a potted biography. Every place must be equipped with atmosphere, furniture, associations. He cannot use the word “Jubilee” (code name for the Dieppe raid) without adding that it was “the old Jewish word for a time of rejoicing and celebration announced by the sound of a ram’s horn,” or refer to the Balkans without adding that the name is “derived from the Turkish word for ‘the mountains.”’ Moreover, these endless illustrative details, which journalists seem to regard as necessary to enliven their stories, are often wrong. Seldom, if ever, have I read a book containing so many unnecessary errors of description. Yugoslavia was not part of the Turkish empire in 1905. The Karel Borromaeus church in Prague is not Greek Orthodox. Etc., etc.

This passion for inessential detail seems to be inseparable from the “instant history” of which this book is an example. We are never allowed to believe that the author was not himself there. The very first words of the book set the standard: “General Sir Stewart Menzies, the chief of the British secret intelligence service (MI-6), a pale man—’pale skin, pale eyes, silvery blond hair,’—who was known to the Allied high command by the enigmatical cipher ‘C,’ walked past the brooding statues of Beaconsfield and Lincoln….” “The three men met in Menzies’ office, beneath a portrait of his patron, the late King Edward VII, dressed in tweeds and deerstalker, a shotgun in one hand, a brace of grouse in the other, and a gun-dog playing in the heather…” etc., etc., etc. This fashion of implicitly pretending to have been there is particularly maddening when the details, so lovingly supplied, can be shown, by those who were there, to be wrong, and when the journalist’s desire to enliven the attendant circumstances replaces the historian’s duty to see the central issue.

However, let us forget these questions of style. Let us turn to the substance; for the book is, after all, very substantial. The history of strategic deception is an important part of the history of Allied intelligence. Such deception was developed from small beginnings. Its development was made possible by some lucky chances and some brilliant coups. On the eve of the invasion of Normandy in June 1944 it became a vital part of strategic planning, contributing, perhaps decisively, to success.

For the invasion of Normandy was a very perilous operation, unparalleled in history. Previous attempts to land on the heavily fortified Atlantic coastline of Hitler’s Europe had been ineffective if not, as at Dieppe, disastrous: And yet, if Hitler were to be defeated, it had to be done. In order to do it, it was essential to secure surprise. Ultimately, the whole plan of strategic deception looked forward to the great operation which it was designed to camouflage. Even in the darkest days of 1940 and 1941, the machinery was being developed to protect an adventure which, at that time, seemed remote and scarcely credible.

What was that machinery? My chief objection to Mr. Cave Brown’s work is that he does not answer this question clearly and intelligibly. Instead, he involves us in elaborate narratives about strategic ideas and controversies, about personalities and intrigues, ciphers and secret services. His narrative contains a greal deal about deception, but it is not a rational or accurate description of the deception program. Instead it is a congeries of stories united only by a thesis which, in my opinion, gravely distorts the truth.

This thesis is that the deception program, and indeed all British intelligence, was ultimately controlled by MI-6; that the intelligence war against Germany was a war between MI-6 and its German equivalent, the Abwehr; and (since he likes to personalize the issues) that this was almost a personal duel—rather a friendly duel—between the head of MI-6, Sir Stewart Menzies, and the head of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris. In his index, MI-6 and the Abwehr each enjoy nearly a full page. No other organization—not even the London Controlling Station (LCS), the central co-ordinating body for deception—comes near to this. By the end of the book, Menzies has emerged as the hero of the intelligence war: a tragic hero, because the war destroyed the supremacy of his class, the British upper class from which the elite of these able intelligence officers was drawn.

In order to show the absurdity of this thesis, it is only necessary to examine, more closely than Mr. Cave Brown has done, and more briefly than he has done anything, the real structure of British intelligence, and the position of strategic deception within it.

On the British side, the highest organ of intelligence was the Joint Intelligence Committee of the Chiefs of Staff. On this committee, all intelligence bodies were represented. One such body was MI-6. MI-6 was a fact-finding body, whose function it was to secure secret information from abroad and pass it on to other departments for use, under such conditions as might be necessary to protect the source. In wartime, when reliable foreign intelligence became particularly difficult to procure, MI-6 might have to adopt special measures both of penetration and of protection; but, generally speaking, it did not have an active role: it merely sought to obtain, and to supply to other services, information which the enemy sought to protect. These other services of course had other sources of information under their own command. Generally speaking, until the arrival of Ultra, they regarded their own sources as more reliable. Officially, MI-6 was responsible not to the War Office (like most other departments of military intelligence) but to the Foreign Office, and its chief had direct access to the prime minister.

The German Abwehr had a somewhat similar function. Under Hitler, as formerly under the Kaiser, it came under the German General Staff, and was one, but only one, of its intelligence-seeking bodies. Like MI-6 it was divided into sections specializing in distinct service areas, and its chief had a privileged position. However, in the period of the war, the Abwehr was different from MI-6 in two important respects: first, it had an internal rival in the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD, the intelligence and security organization of the SS, whose chief was the notorious Reinhard Heydrich; secondly, its own chief, Admiral Canaris, had political interests of his own: he was anti-Nazi.

This brief statement of facts, which are never set out by Mr. Cave Brown, makes it obvious that neither MI-6 nor the Abwehr determined, or could determine, the intelligence war. And in fact, owing to their structure and personnel, they were very ill fitted to do so. Admiral Canaris was more concerned with politics than efficiency. Sir Stewart Menzies was a man of very narrow horizons and his organization, for various reasons, was ill equipped for the times. However, Menzies had, as Kim Philby has remarked, one great asset: “a sharp eye for cover in the bureaucratic jungle,” and this valuable quality secured him a very important advantage. This advantage was the possession of Ultra.

Ultra, as is now well known, was the name given to intelligence derived from the most secret radio communications of the German Armed Forces. These were in a cipher thought by them to be quite unbreakable. In fact, they were regularly read by the British. So were other “most secret sources” in similar “unbreakable” machine ciphers—for instance, the communications of the Abwehr. These precious sources enabled the British not only to follow and foresee German movements, but also to watch German reactions to the intelligence which they received—or which was fed to them. Ultra, in fact, gave to all the activities of high-level British intelligence a sureness of touch which the Germans, having no equivalent source, could not hope to match. Consequently, all intelligence departments competed to exploit the advantages of Ultra information, and MI-6, having obtained bureaucratic control of it, enjoyed an enhanced credit and self-satisfaction. Because of that bureaucratic accident, MI-6 was represented on every body which made use of Ultra.

However, this did not mean that MI-6 had either created Ultra, or was the major user of it, or even understood it. To MI-6, control of Ultra was a fortunate windfall which enabled it to go on as before and remain unreformed throughout the war. It also enabled it, after the war, to claim the credit. Mr. Winterbotham, who first revealed the story in print, was the MI-6 liaison officer for Ultra, and he has seen to that. But the first public version of a story is not necessarily the whole truth. Liaison officers are contact men, not creators or users.

The real creators of Ultra, as a source of Allied intelligence, were the experts of the Code and Cypher School. The real users were the intelligence departments of the Services. For bureaucratic reasons (and real reasons of security) they had to allow that it was the property of MI-6 and, as it were, pay a royalty of respect in exchange for its use. But that was all.

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