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.

For practical purposes, Ultra was the property of the intelligence departments of all the Services, which insisted, successfully, on receiving it complete and direct from the cryptographers. And it was inter-Service committees which, using Ultra, carried out the strategy of deception: a strategy which was applied not through British spies abroad (controlled by MI-6) but through German spies in Britain (controlled by MI-5) and by special operations mounted by army, navy, and air force intelligence.

From these basic facts of organization, it is clear that although Ultra was central to all intelligence operations, MI-6 was not. In fact, MI-6 was marginal, very marginal. All the deception operations discussed by Mr. Cave Brown were made possible by Ultra, but none of them depended on MI-6. They were all the work of inter-Service bodies. As I have mentioned, these bodies were directed, in a very general way, by the body known as LCS, but in fact even this body—to which Mr. Cave Brown ascribes too great an initiative—was rather a general umbrella for specialist bodies than an originating “general staff” for deception.

The system, in fact, was constructed upward. The first deception policy was carried out, through captured spies, even before the Abwehr “Enigma” had been broken. Little by little, thanks to Ultra, the system was expanded and sophisticated, until, in the end, the successes of 1944 were achieved. But even then the most striking successes were not obtained by LCS, with its overambitious “grand designs,” but by specialists in particular war theaters. Thus it was not the “grand design” called “Bodyguard” that was the most effective operation on the eve of D-Day, but the local operation “Fortitude” (the pretended attack on Norway and the Pas de Calais). Mr. Cave Brown, ascribing the initiative to LCS, is too rational for our empirical world.

The same failure to see the real organization is visible in Mr. Cave Brown’s treatment of “operation Mincemeat,” since known as “The Man Who Never Was.” In this operation, the corpse of a supposed British staff officer was discharged from a submarine in a position from which it would be washed ashore at Huelva in Spain. The corpse was equipped with a verifiable identity and with spurious papers which indicated that the Allied landings of 1943 would be in the Peloponnese. The papers, as predicted, were handed over to the German Abwehr office in Spain. Thanks to Ultra, we were able to follow the German reactions in detail, and were gratified when German divisions which might have opposed the Allies in Sicily were diverted to the Peloponnese.

Mr. Cave Brown’s treatment of “Mincemeat” is very typical. He begins, somewhat pretentiously, by discovering its origin in the operations of Colonel Meinertzhagen in the Near East in 1917. In fact the origin was not nearly so remote in time or in place. We can stay in Spain and need not go back beyond 1942. Ultra then revealed that the Spanish police had handed over to the local branch of the Abwehr British documents washed ashore from a wreck; and it was decided that what had happened once by accident could happen again, deliberately. MI-6 had nothing to do with the case; nor did the LCS to whom Mr. Cave Brown ascribes it. Its author was Commander Montagu of NID17 M (not F), and the project was worked out, as usual, by an inter-Service committee. Mr. Cave Brown’s account teems with small errors of name, time, and place—he seems constitutionally unable to get such details right. Some of his details have evidently been taken from the film about this incident, not from historical sources.

There are also errors of biography. Commander Montagu has never been Recorder of London, and as for being “one of the best fly-fishermen in the realm,” I cannot do better than quote his own comment:

I was never any good at fly-fishing, but I enjoyed trying until I started sailing. A friend told me that “if you want to get asked to good fly-fishing waters and good shoots, it’s worth putting them among your recreations in Who’s Who.” So I did (without getting any invitations), never bothered to take them out—and haven’t fly-fished since one week on leave in 1942. That is what I mean by journalists’ embellishment for effect.

Mr. Montagu is not alone in finding himself credited by Mr. Cave Brown with surprising qualities, functions, and distinctions.

Another operation which would have been impossible without Ultra was the continuing Double-Cross work which has been described by Sir John Masterman. As the British, through Ultra, generally knew about German spies before they landed, they were easily picked up and, if cooperative, used to deceive their paymasters. Once in operation, Ultra showed whether they were being successful and gave valuable guidance in playing them. The operation of these agents in support of the general plan of deception was in the hands of Section BIA of MI-5, which Mr. Cave Brown ignores, giving all the credit, as usual, to LCS. (The head of BIA, Colonel T.A. Robertson, who did more than any other man for the deception program, is only mentioned once and then wrongly.) This is in line with his general refusal to master the machinery of intelligence. Those who merely want to read dramatized spy stories will not mind that; but it disqualifies him as a historian.

Thus a study of the organization of deception does not support Mr. Cave Brown’s picture of the triumph of MI-6. MI-6 hardly comes into the true story at all. Nevertheless, Mr. Cave Brown consistently represents Sir Stewart Menzies as the genius behind the whole deception program. For Menzies, he maintains, was not only “the master of Ultra”: he also had another secret weapon almost as valuable as Ultra. This was die Schwarze Kapelle, or “black orchestra,” by which he means the fronde of anti-Nazi generals to which Canaris certainly belonged. According to Mr. Cave Brown, Menzies and Canaris were bound together by “long years of peculiar association” and die Schwarze Kapelle provided Menzies with usable intelligence. Indeed, in a fine flight of fancy, Mr. Cave Brown even tells us that Menzies organized the murder of Heydrich in 1942 in order to prevent Heydrich from taking over the Abwehr and displacing Canaris, so depriving Menzies of his essential opposite number. “Heydrich,” he writes, “had been a marked man ever since he assumed control of the SD. He could not be permitted to live; he was too dangerous to Menzies, to the Allied cause—and to Canaris.”

I am afraid I must say that this picture of a Canaris-Menzies axis, of Canaris as one of Menzies’s sources of usable information, and of Menzies ordering the assassination of Heydrich—“signing his death warrant”—in order to save Canaris, is the purest fantasy. Whatever “evidence” may be claimed in its support, anyone who understands the structure of MI-6, the limits of its responsibilities, the extent of its knowledge of the internal politics of Germany in 1942, or even the true facts about Germany in 1942, knows in advance that it could not be true.

It is in his account of the alleged relations between Menzies and Canaris that Mr. Cave Brown becomes most irresponsible. Having satisfied himself that such a link existed—having even declared (quite incorrectly) that Menzies employed many men to study the personality of Canaris—he asks himself why that link was not more effective, and answers his question by wheeling out a familiar diabolus ex machina, Kim Philby. “Postwar events would reveal,” he says confidently, that Philby, “whose desk at MI-6 headquarters was just down the corridor from Menzies,” intervened to block the vital documents. I think I can detect the origin of this firm statement: a speculation by me concerning a possible motive of Philby’s action in blocking one document, which, for particular reasons, it happened to be in his power to hold up. He could not conceivably have stopped the communications to which Mr. Cave Brown refers—Allied communications from Berne to Washington and Washington to London. And Philby’s office, at that time, was not “just down the corridor from Menzies”: it was forty miles away, at St. Albans.

These then are the two main strands of Mr. Cave Brown’s thesis. The Allied intelligence achievement, he maintains, was based on two important facts: Ultra and die Schwarze Kapelle; and both led to Menzies. Menzies was “the man behind Ultra”; he also was the sole personal link between the headquarters of MI-6 and die Schwarze Kapelle. Menzies was thus “the chief of MI-6 who commanded much of the Allies’ intelligence and counterintelligence with the Germans.” I regret to say that this is pure fantasy. It is a fantasy that could not have been entertained if Mr. Cave Brown instead of adding ever more otiose (and often inaccurate) detail to his spy stories had done his essential homework and learned how the machinery of intelligence worked. For that is the beginning of historical wisdom.

How then, I asked myself as I read his book, did Mr. Cave Brown arrive at this dramatically personal but totally false picture? The answer comes at the end of the book; for as the name “General Sir Stewart Menzies” begins the work, so it dominates the final epilogue. Here we discover that in 1964, when Menzies was seventy-four years old, retired at his country house in Wiltshire, he was visited by Mr. Cave Brown, and apparently spoke very freely to him and showed him a complimentary letter from General Eisenhower—not, I need hardly add, about MI-6, but about Ultra. He also seems to have told Mr. Cave Brown some tall stories about Canaris and his own personal contact with him and about the famous German spy “Cicero,” the Albanian valet of the British ambassador in Istanbul. “Cicero,” it will be remembered, photographed the ambassador’s confidential dispatches while the ambassador was playing the piano, and sold them to the Germans for a huge sum which the Germans paid him in forged banknotes. According to Mr. Cave Brown, when he mentioned “Cicero,” Menzies snapped—and thus confirmed Mr. Cave Brown’s own speculations—“Of course Cicero was under our control.”

It was this last remark which was finally too much for me. I well remember the Cicero affair. How can I forget it? It was a dramatic episode. It is perfectly true, as Mr. Cave Brown says, that we knew that there was a German spy called Cicero in the British embassy, but that was not because we controlled him. Far from it. His existence and his cover-name were revealed by Ultra. It was impossible to warn the ambassador by telegram, because it was precisely such telegrams that Cicero was photographing and selling to the Germans; and that would blow Ultra. We flew a special high-powered messenger—the Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, no less—to Istanbul to warn the ambassador; but by the time he had arrived, new evidence had come in, and, once again, we could not communicate with him without risk to Ultra. Ultimately, the mystery was solved, and Cicero, having been identified, was used to deceive instead of to inform. As the Germans had not believed him anyway, it did not make much difference.

Therefore, when I read, in Mr. Cave Brown’s book, that Menzies, in 1964, claimed (implicitly at least) that we had always controlled Cicero, I began to have doubts. Could Menzies really have made so false a statement? My own view was that Menzies was not the man to talk about his work to anyone. However, I reflected, perhaps by 1964, when he was old and distressed by failure—the last straw was the flight to Moscow of Philby, his most trusted officer, whom he had personally designated to be his ultimate successor—perhaps then he broke the habit of a lifetime and spoke to a visiting journalist. I therefore consulted a friend who knew Menzies very well, and asked if he thought this probable. My friend replied that it was absolutely out of the question: Menzies was the most uncommunicative of men, and after a lifetime of secrecy would never have spoken so.

Did Mr. Cave Brown then invent the conversations? That I could not believe. But then the answer came. I discovered, from a close friend who was deeply involved in all these events, that in 1964, after the shock of Philby’s flight, Menzies decided to write his memoirs in order to show that his life’s work had not ended in total failure. The memoirs were typed out, as far as they went, and were described to me as “self-glorifying rubbish.” It must have been precisely at this time that Mr. Cave Brown called on Menzies; and Menzies no doubt saw an opportunity to unload on this visitor the content of the memoirs which he was writing. From that senile vanity, aided by a vague and weakened memory (I do not believe that Menzies was ever very close to the detail), came the strange thesis which runs through Mr. Cave Brown’s book.

There is also another thesis, implicit but insistent, in this book. It is that British intelligence was essentially a gentleman’s game, even an aristocrat’s game. Whenever Mr. Cave Brown can, he dwells on the blue blood, or the wealth, or the expensive hobbies of the officers concerned. He seems to have an interest in presenting intelligence as an extension of country-house life. The Beaufort Hunt, we are told (and not only the Beaufort), “was as much a political conspiracy as a sport,” and British intelligence was dominated by “a group of men who represented the aristocratic cream of a caste of blood, land and money.” This thesis, or rather this insistent suggestion, seems to me worthy of a novelette. There were some rich men in intelligence, and some poor; some nobly, some less nobly born. If any sociological generalizations are to be made, they must be more subtle than this.

There is a great deal in this book which will interest the leisured general reader. There are numerous stories which are well told and amply documented. But alas, there are large errors of emphasis and countless errors of detail, and a grotesquely distorted thesis; and therefore, I am afraid, while it can be enjoyed as narrative, as history it cannot be trusted.

This Issue

February 19, 1976