Numerous accounts, not least among them Ronald Lewin's pioneering survey Ultra goes to war, have familiarised us with the remarkable story of Anglo-American achievements in breaking enemy codes and keeping their most valuable source of intelligence secret not just during the war but for thirty years afterwards. Yet, as both Basil Collier and Ronald Lewin stress in their new studies, neither British nor American intelligence services enjoyed high prestige or had much to boast about in the inter-war period. In his foreword to Hidden Weapons, Professor R.V. Jones recalls expressing disquiet to Lord Vansittart that MI6 was recruited on the basis of friendship rather than competence. Vansittart agreed, but added that the pay was so bad it was only your friends you could persuade to take the job. Ironically, Kim Philby was initially discouraged from joining MI6 on the grounds that he was too good for the pay on offer. As for the United States, Mr Lewin doubts whether Secretary of State Stimson actually uttered the celebrated dictum, 'gentlemen do not read one another's mail,' but he was certainly outraged to discover that his agents were reading a few Japanese ciphered signals. He ordered that such unethical activity should cease forthwith and closed down the 'Black Chamber', with the unfortunate result that a disgruntled employee sold the story to the press. Mr Collier is equally critical of British ministers and senior officials who liked to be regaled with secret service reports but did not take them any more seriously than thrillers, and tended to be guided by preconceptions or hunches sometimes backed by unconfirmed rumours or private communications. Similarly many regular officers put in charge of intelligence sections showed a strange contempt for their stock-in-trade while fiercely reacting to external criticism. These strictures are exemplified by the misinterpretation of German air strategy in the Munich era. There was also a gross overestimation of the Luftwaffe's bombing capacity which R.V. Jones suggests may have been due to an RAF officer's joke that was taken seriously.
LRB 16 June 1983 | PDF Download