Ultra Ultra Secrets

British Intelligence in the Second World War: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations

by F.H. Hinsley, by E.E. Thomas, by C.F.G. Ransom, by R.C. Knight
Cambridge University Press, Vol. II: 850 pp., $39.50

Intelligence was the British success story of the Second World War. The Russian army broke the power of the Wehrmacht, and American industry provided the material superiority that allowed Britain to survive and triumph. The British war record was a mixed one, but in intelligence its victory over the Germans was indisputable. Stories about espionage and counterespionage, clandestine operations and prisoner-of-war escapes flooded the market after the war. The Wooden Horse, The White Rabbit, and M.R.D. Foot’s semiofficial SOE in France were all best sellers. But in 1974, the publication of The Ultra Secret by a former air intelligence officer, F.W. Winterbotham, opened a new chapter in the history of the European war. Winterbotham, defying a strictly enforced government ban, revealed that through intercepting and decoding radio signals, the British had been able to read the strategic and tactical information being relayed at every level of the three German armed forces and many domestic messages as well. The Germans knew nothing of this. They thought the codes and ciphers for their “Enigma” machine were impregnable. The story of the British triumph became the best-kept secret of World War II.

Winterbotham’s account provoked heated comment. Claims and counterclaims about distortions in The Ultra Secret appeared in the letter columns of The Times. More revelations followed about Enigma keys and navigational beams, ciphers and codes. This was not the world inhabited by Smiley’s friends. The government did not prosecute. Instead, the Cabinet Office agreed to commission and then publish an official history of wartime intelligence, the first and, thus far, the only government to do so. They turned to F.H. Hinsley, a diplomatic historian and professor of international relations at Cambridge University and currently its vice-chancellor.

Hinsley was doubly qualified for the job: as a young St. John’s undergraduate he had been recruited for the naval section at Bletchley Park, a country house about fifty miles from London which became the wartime center of Britain’s cryptographic work. Hinsley and his colleagues were given free access to all intelligence archives, even those that could not be cited and might never come into the public domain. The authors made their way through the archives and the bureaucratic jungles at home and abroad. Their first volume appeared in 1979, the next two years later, and there is a third still to come. No one concerned with the Second World War can ignore these books, for they show the European struggle in a new light.

Intercepting and deciphering radio signals was an old intelligence art. The British had created small cryptographic departments (the Admiralty’s Room 40) during the First World War but had failed to actively pursue these efforts in the interwar period. The Germans, on the other hand, had marketed and named a Dutch-invented ciphering machine in the early 1920s. The Enigma machine was bought first by the German navy and then by the other German armed forces and security services. Now found only …

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