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Superagent

A Man Called Intrepid: The Secret War

by William Stevenson
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 486 pp., $12.95

Sir William Stephenson is a man with a very distinguished past. A Canadian of great courage and resourcefulness, he fought gallantly in the First World War. Then he went into business and soon became a millionaire by his own exertions. But he never lost his taste for adventure, or his patriotism, which he showed in various ways. He became a friend and ally of Winston Churchill, and during the Second World War he was the principal agent of the British Secret Service in America. His chosen code name was “Intrepid,” which he still keeps—see Who’s Who—as his telegraphic address. We knew him, more impersonally (if I remember aright), as “38,000.”

During the early part of the war, he did invaluable work as liaison officer, in intelligence matters, between Churchill and Roosevelt. His organization in New York was known as British Security Coordination, or BSC, for it coordinated the work of MI-5, MI-6, and SOE. After Pearl Harbor and the entry of America into the war, a separate US secret service, OSS, was set up, and learned some of its early lessons from him. Thereafter, the liaison between the British and American secret services inevitably moved to Britain; but Stephenson continued to do good work in America, for which he was afterward decorated by both governments. He is now eighty years old and enjoys his retirement in Bermuda.

At the close of his active life, Sir William evidently decided that a little publicity, after so many years of discretion, would do no harm. He therefore commissioned a biography. As its author, he chose Mr. H. Montgomery Hyde, who is well known as an able, scholarly, and prolific historical writer, and had himself worked in BSC. Mr. Hyde has written a number of excellent biographies, and Sir William did well to choose him. The result was a book entitled—since Sir William was known for his modesty—The Quiet Canadian. In America its title is Room 3603. It was published in 1962, with a preface by Mr. David Bruce, US ambassador to Britain, formerly head of OSS in Britain. Evidently Sir William was pleased with the book, for he cites it in Who’s Who, as giving further light on his career.

However, with the passage of time, the urge for even greater publicity has overcome this quiet, modest Canadian. This time he has found a different biographer, Mr. William Stevenson, who is also a former colleague and, like himself, Canadian. In order to avoid confusion between these similar names, I propose hereafter to refer to Sir William Stephenson as “the Hero” and to Mr. William Stevenson as “the Biographer.” The Biographer is also a prolific writer, but his books are less historical than those of Mr. Hyde. He writes about secret activities, revolutions, romantic escapades, under such titles as The Yellow Wind, Birds’ Nests in Their Beards, The Bushbabies, The Bormann Brotherhood, etc. I have looked at the last of these books: the less said about it, the better.

Why, we may ask, has the Hero suddenly found himself dissatisfied with the work of Mr. Hyde? Is it because of some error in it? The only error known to me is Mr. Hyde’s unfortunate description of M. Henry-Haye, Marshal Pétain’s ambassador to the US, as a pro-Nazi who ran a “Gestapo” in the US and kidnaped loyal Frenchmen. That description caused M. Henry-Haye to appeal to the English courts, where he was vindicated. However, it is not to correct this error that the new biography has been written: indeed, the libel (like much else of Mr. Hyde’s book, including several of the illustrations) is repeated in full. Presumably M. Henry-Haye is now safely dead.

No, the reason for the new book is not any positive error in the old. Rather, it is its inadequacy. Laudatory though it is, it does not praise the Hero enough. Whole areas of his activity were apparently overlooked by Mr. Hyde: areas in which that activity, we now discover, was particularly glorious. This is made clear in the preface, in which Mr. Hyde’s book is cut down to size. That publication, we are now told, was only “a partial leak,” “a carefully limited disclosure,” occasioned by the escape to Russia of Kim Philby. Now that the CIA—successor to OSS—is under attack, it is important to make “a full disclosure” and reveal “the authentic story.” So the Hero has thrown open his files without reserve; the Biographer has shouldered “the staggering burdens of investigation and selection from such vast records”; and Mr. David Bruce, who has once again stepped forward to puff the result, describes it as a work of “profound historical importance,” of “overwhelming significance.”

Such is the avowed purpose of this egregious publication. The logic, I must admit, escapes me. However, the reader will soon discover a more obvious reason. Since 1962 there have been some important revelations. In particular, Mr. F.W. Winterbotham’s book The Ultra Secret has made all studies of the intelligence war seem irrelevant unless the authors can show that they knew about Ultra. So now everyone must scramble in on that act. The real purpose of this book is to show that the Hero, in addition to everything else, was the hero of Ultra. He discovered Ultra, and the means of intercepting and deciphering it. That great triumph of the war is really due to him.

Now it is perfectly true that the Hero, like many others, knew about Ultra. Indeed, he was the liaison officer through whom Ultra material was confidentially communicated by Churchill to Roosevelt before Pearl Harbor and the full alliance. But the addition of so modest a postscript to Mr. Hyde’s book would hardly justify a complete new work. Therefore the Biographer has gone much further. Stripping away all the veils of secrecy, abandoning all the checks of evidence, or probability, or decency, he has presented the Hero as the universal genius: the Midas who turned all that he touched into gold; the master of economic life; the prescient mastermind who directed all British and American intelligence; the secret manipulator of presidents, prime ministers, and kings.

In a recent review, in these pages, of Mr. Anthony Cave Brown’s Bodyguard of Lies,* I ventured to regret that the author of that book had not exerted himself to understand the organization of British intelligence, since such understanding is a necessary precondition of writing sense on the subject. To make such a charge against this Biographer would be unfair. It would be like urging a jellyfish to grit its teeth and dig in its heels. The poor creature lacks the rudimentary organs for such an operation. Although I cannot now furnish him with an understanding, I can perhaps, by a few illustrations, show why his book, far from having “overwhelming significance,” is, from start to finish, utterly worthless.

Any historian, before coming down to particular events, or presuming to describe their causes, must know that there are distinctions of responsibility, of function, of machinery, and of evidence, upon which understanding of events must depend. But to our Biographer, leafing mechanically through those disconnected private documents, or listening mindlessly to octogenarian reminiscences, all such distinctions have been merged. Out of the haze there emerges nothing recognizable except the benevolent features of the Hero, no sound except his quiet voice assuring the hero-worshipper that it is he who is responsible for all these events: events which he now condescends to reveal in order (as he tells us in his own foreword) to pay “tribute to the gallant women and men of many nations” who so faithfully served him, but who somehow seldom get mentioned in this personal apotheosis.

One who does qualify for a mention is King George VI, whose part as an agent of the Hero was, we are told, “vital.” Any historian knows that the king of Great Britain stands above politics. He may also know that King George VI was not particularly attached to Churchill, preferring Chamberlain and, after him, Halifax. But the Biographer knows better. He tells us that Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, on the instigation of the Hero, persuaded the king to authorize him, behind the back of the prime minister, to convey the secrets of the prime minister’s own department to a foreign statesman. This role of the king as “an active participant in Britain’s clandestine warfare,” “the ultimate authority in secret-intelligence matters,” is, says the Biographer, “little understood,” and he does not make it more intelligible by saying, on another page, that the king was not allowed to see secret material. But it does not really matter what the Biographer thinks that he understands or that other people do not.

Let us descend from high politics to administration. Anyone who begins to study British wartime intelligence must know that there were several distinct organizations. Among them were SIS (or MI-6) and SOE. The Hero may have represented both in America, but they themselves were entirely separate in structure, responsibility, and function. SIS was under the Foreign Office and had headquarters off St. James’s Park; SOE was under the Ministry of Economic Warfare and had headquarters in Baker Street. Hence Mr. Bickham Sweet-Escott, an officer of SOE, could describe his service as “Baker Street Irregulars.” But the Biographer, who occasionally appropriates the title, as he sometimes silently appropriates the contents, of a book, never even begins to distinguish these bodies. Indeed, he supposes that the Ministry of Economic Warfare itself was “a shadow organization” founded by Churchill, as a private citizen, before the war. “The general term ‘Baker Street Irregulars,”’ he tells us, was applied, “by those in the know,” to all secret organizations. So he describes Philby (who was in SIS) as one of the “Baker Street Irregulars” and Sir William Deakin (who was in SIS) as a member of SIS, and Sir Colin Gubbins, the head of SOE, as “one Baker Street leader.” Whoever else was “in the know,” clearly our Biographer is not, and never will be.

Least of all in a subject so exact as cryptography. On this subject our Biographer speaks confidently enough. He does not need to refer to Mr. Winterbotham’s book, for he already knows everything. He tells us that the Enigma cipher machine, which produced part of the Ultra material, was the property of the Nazi Party and, particularly, of Reinhard Heydrich. Indeed, he regularly calls it the “Heydrich-Enigma” and prints a portrait of Heydrich, as its proprietor.

How the name of Heydrich ever got into his head is not clear, but once there, it stuck very firmly. Heydrich, it seems, was almost the inventor of Enigma, just as the Hero, Heydrich’s “opponent in the battle of wits,” was the man who, in the end, mastered it. Heydrich, in fact, is the Antichrist, the Lucifer of this hazy intellectual cosmology. The Hero and his angels are locked in combat with Heydrich and his angels. Heydrich, we are told, was the true author of Stalin’s purges; he already dominated “all branches of German intelligence” in 1941; but he was himself destroyed, in the end, on the orders of the Hero.

It is amusing to note how these authors have Heydrich on the brain. Mr. Cave Brown, it may be recalled, cast Sir Stewart Menzies as Heydrich’s dedicated opponent and final exterminator. In fact I do not suppose that either Sir Stewart or Sir William had more than the haziest notion of Heydrich’s identity before his assassination. Nor does the Biographer now. But we shall ignore these secondary fantasies, which are about as true as Hitler’s visit to Liverpool in 1913, which the Biographer solemnly accepts from “BSC documents.” BSC documents, it seems, contain a lot of rubbish, and the Biographer will swallow anything.

In fact, Heydrich had nothing whatever to do with Enigma. His organization, the SS, did not use it, nor did we read its main communications. The Enigma, in different forms, was used by the German Armed Forces, and by the Abwehr, which was an organ of the Armed Forces. The Biographer regularly says that the British deciphered the German Foreign Office communications from the start of the war, and ascribes particular information to these sources. They did not. Here, as elsewhere, the Biographer does not know what he is talking about.

For the rest, this book is one of the tribe. It has the usual “instant” style. It is peppered with eye-catching names, totally irrelevant to the subject—Lady Astor, Rebecca West, Noel Coward…. What had they to do with secret intelligence? Nothing. Of course the Biographer thinks otherwise. I particularly enjoyed the alleged antics of Noel Coward. We are told how Noel Coward reported for action in secret service after the fall of France; how he was interviewed in suitable secrecy; how he was sent to join the Hero in New York; how he was briefed for a mission to South America and “shot off into the unknown.”

Coward’s career in secret intelligence,” we are told, “must have been one of the best-kept secrets” of the war. It must indeed, if even the Biographer cannot be more precise about it. In fact, he need only have looked at Mr. Hyde’s “partial disclosure” to discover the essential facts. There he could have read the telegram in which the Hero informed the Entertainer that he could not be employed. He had been turned down by London; and the Hero (though no one would guess it from this book) was under orders from London. But why should the Biographer pay heed to the limited utterances of Mr. Hyde? Mr. Hyde had written that “at the height of its operations, BSC” employed “close on a thousand men and women.” A mere thousand? The Biographer knows far better: he raises the number to “more than 30,000 experts,” all “linked by invisible threads to BSC in New York.”

Over 30,000 agents…. The imagination boggles. I wonder where the poor fellow got that absurd number? Can it be that he has confused codes with things? All SIS agents were known by their numbers, and those in America had five-figure numbers beginning with “3.” I have mentioned that the Hero was 38,000. Can it be…? Yes, I fear that it can. The Biographer’s howlers are such that I believe him capable of anything.

As for Noel Coward, I happen to remember his attempt to join the secret service. I also remember why he was turned down. The Entertainer was very willing to serve, but he insisted on full publicity for all his activities; so it was found difficult to accommodate him. But no doubt, in after years, as two old gentlemen sat together in the luxury of Bermuda (or was it then Jamaica?), their warm imaginations cooked up some more glorious fantasy which then became part of the gospel so eagerly lapped up by this credulous disciple.

There are many other grotesque claims in this book, but I shall not pursue them. I shall content myself with two final observations, one particular, one general.

First, Sir William Stephenson had no direct responsibility in the European theater. He may have known about some intelligence activities there, and been a channel of communication, but his direct responsibility was for British security and propaganda, and the training of agents, in America. This function he performed well; but any claim that he initiated or controlled interception, cryptography, strategic deception, or special operations in Europe is impertinent.

Secondly, I have already observed, in my review of Mr. Cave Brown’s book, that Sir Stewart Menzies, the head of SIS, at the end of his life evidently suffered from delusions of grandeur, seeing the war as a dialogue between himself and Canaris. Now it seems that Sir William Stephenson has gone the same way—and been carried further by the greater silliness of his biographer. During my own period in the secret service, I was often astonished by the puerility of some of our grandees, which I ascribed to their insulation from real life, their absorption into a self-contained subculture. I now realize that the same quality, if events are magnified by war, can lead, in old age, to dangerous hallucinations. This is a sad fact, and we should draw the obvious conclusion. We should remember with affection our old clubland heroes but publishers should flee from their approaches and friends should prevail upon them to be silent.

  1. *

    NYR, February 19, 1976.

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