Friday, November 09, 2018

Winston Churchill and the Secret World

Nigel West, (ed.) Churchill's Secret Spy Files
Winston Churchill loved spies, commandos, and all things covert. So it was no surprise that as Prime Minister he had a vast appetite for reports from his spy chiefs. He was also an inveterate meddler. So it is no surprise that he spent a lot of time listening to, prodding, and making suggestions to his spymasters and shadow warriors.

Decades later we are still learning a great deal about this aspect of the Second World War. (The British government is notoriously slow to release documents especially when they involve their secret services.)

A recent book offers another peek behind curtain. Churchill’s Spy Files does not provide any bombshell revelations but it does add a few more tiles to the historical mosaic. It also reinforces several well-established themes.

The spy files in question were monthly reports from the Security Service (MI5) which were submitted only to Churchill. As the editor (Nigel West) notes this allowed the authors to be candid in these summaries because no on expected the public to ever see them.

(Although their candor had its limits. The authors all skilled bureaucrats and academics were obviously trying to place their work in the most positive light. The reports dwell on successes and deal with failures only when forced to by events.)

Nonetheless, MI5 made a good record in the war. Germany had little success penetrating the vital parts of the British war machine. On the contrary, MI5 managed to capture and turn around every agent sent to Britain. This enabled them to mount one of the greatest disinformation efforts in history--the XX system. Their efforts were vital to the success of the Normandy landings.

Neither James Bond nor the Imitation Game

The controlled double agents did more that pass disinformation to the German intelligence agencies. Their messages also were a source of ‘cribs’ that Bletchley Park could use in their efforts to discover the daily settings on the Enigma machines. Further, the questions Germany asked their spies could, when collated and analyzed, offer clues about Germany’s knowledge of her enemies and provide hints about the Reich’s future actions.

As noted previously, a successful intelligence war is not waged by lone spies breaking into safes nor by solitary geniuses breaking codes with will and sheer brain power.

Britian's secret weapon in the war against Hitler
German arrogance and German failures

Not every officer in German intelligence was duped by the XX operation. The high command, though, was unwilling to even consider the possibility that their organization could be duped by the British:

They also told him the story of a major in the German Secret Service in Berlin who had suggested to his superiors that the agents in England were under British control but was sacked for this suggestion within 24 hours.
In this the Abwehr was no different than the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine which refused to believe that their encrypted communications could be broken. As we now know, their confidence was not justified.

When the secret world was really secret

Nearly all of the participants in this effort kept their secrets after the war was over. Even the PM himself felt bound to silence.

The paradox is that although Churchill proved the past master of exploiting SIGINT, he exercised unusual discretion when he supervised the compilation of his magnum opus, The Second World War, published in six volumes between 1948 and 1954, which made no reference to double-agents, wireless intercepts or even FORTITUDE. Although Churchill had wanted to include mention of ULTRA and its influence on the conflict, the Cabinet Secretary Sir Edward Bridges, and ‘C’, Sir Stewart Menzies, had prevailed upon him to refrain from disclosure on the grounds that the techniques employed were still operational.
The “need to know” principle was maintained with a vengeance during the war. Churchill, for instance, likely never knew the real names of celebrated agents GARBO and TRICYCLE. Often, a spy case would be months old before it appeared in these monthly reports.

Extreme secrecy was absolutely vital to the success of the XX system. But such secrecy also allowed intelligence agencies to hide their failures and fatal missteps. West notes that Churchill was probably never aware of the full extent of the disaster suffered by the Special Operations Executive in the Low Countries.

Stalin may have known more about these operations than Churchill did

While MI5 and MI6 did a great job keeping secrets from the Germans and from the British public, their overall record was far from perfect. Even as they reveled in their success running double agents against the Germans, they were oblivious to the fact that the Soviets had placed their own double agents in the heart of the XX system. In fact, the reports were compiled and written by Anthony Blunta member of the Cambridge spy ring.

The ticklish task of selecting cases for submission to Churchill was assigned by Liddell to his trusted assistant, Anthony Blunt, who must have relished the prospect of being given a pretext to range far and wide across the Security Service, and elsewhere, to assemble the appropriate material for the Prime Minister. Few spies in history could ever have been presented with such a spectacular opportunity to call for files, question colleagues and demand briefings on topics that would otherwise be completely outside the ambit of his duties. Quite simply, Blunt, who had been a Soviet agent since 1936, was granted a licence to delve into just about any operational issue that caught his interest.

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