Roosevelt and Churchill: Men of Secretsby David Stafford
Much is known about Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill’s close relationship: they had similar backgrounds, education, and tastes, and shared world enemies. What David Stafford adds is an exploration of the touchstone of their mutual trust: an extraordinary and far-reaching sharing of military intelligence and a fascination for clandestine operations.
New York Times Book Review
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Men of Secrets
Outside CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, stands another bronze, life-size statue, this time of Nathan Hale, his hands bound and a noose around his neck. A graduate of Yale, he is celebrated as America's first `patriot spy'. He was a 21-year-old captain in George Washington's Continental Army when he volunteered to spy behind British lines. Captured in New York City, he was hanged in September 1776. As he mounted the scaffold, he is reputed to have said, `I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.'
Four years later Major André, spymaster to the British commander Sir Henry Clinton, suffered the same fate as Hale for negotiating with Benedict Arnold, the commander of West Point, to betray its secrets to the British. Caught when the plot was foiled, he was hanged by the Americans in October 1780.
Both spies have become legendary in the annals of Anglo-American intelligence. Yet behind each stood a spymaster usually invisible or unnoticed. American mythology long held that the New World had cast off the evil habits of the Old, not least the murky world of espionage, counter-espionage, codebreaking, deception and domestic surveillance. Yet the nation's first President, George Washington, regarded intelligence as one of his top priorities. `The necessity of procuring good intelligence,' he told one of his secret agents, `is apparent and need not be further urged. All that remains for me to add is that you keep the whole matter as secret as possible. For upon secrecy, success depends ...' Most ofhis successors took the same view. When William Casey, Director of Central Intelligence under President Ronald Reagan, declared that his first predecessor was none other than George Washington, he was uttering an awkward but undeniable truth about the traditions of the White House.
As for the British, its leaders have always relied on secret services to obtain intelligence about foreign powers and keep tabs on dissidents at home. The Victorian years of peace and prosperity made this less important. But for both America and Britain the end of the nineteenth century was a turning-point. The defeat of the Spanish Empire in the war of 1898 meant that the United States was now a world power, while the rise of the Kaiser's Germany posed a threat to a Britain already under pressure from Irish nationalism and domestic radicalism. The Americans created an Office of Naval Intelligence, and in 1909 the British, in total secrecy, established the Secret Service Bureau for both espionage and counter-espionage.
Roosevelt and Churchill, then both young and aspiring politicians, absorbed the spirit of these years. The intensity of their partnership during the Second World War often obscures the fact that in many respects they were an ill-assorted pair. Paradoxically, each defied his national stereotype. Churchill, the nostalgic Victorian wedded to the glories of Empire, was emotional, direct and transparent, with a lifelong predilection for the company of self-made men. Roosevelt, the New World Democrat, had the manners of an English gentleman, and behind the surface bonhomie was impenetrable, enigmatic, secretive and machiavellian. Churchill carefully wrote down his thoughts and instructions. Roosevelt was deliberately informal, often giving inconsistent verbal orders. Churchill described him as `a charming country gentleman whose business methods are almost non-existent'.
Yet they had much in common. Each was an ambitious high-flyer who lived and breathed politics, and each courageously overcame severe handicaps: Roosevelt a crippling attack of polio, Churchill a debilitating childhood stammer and lifelong bouts of depression. Both leaned heavily on their wives. Eleanor became her husband's political eyes and ears, Clementine provided the emotional rock on which Churchill stood. Each, too, was accused of being a turncoat and evoked bitter political enmity. The patrician Roosevelt who brought in the New Deal was loathed by Republicans, while many British Tories never forgave Churchill's early radicalism or his maverick behaviour after he returned to the Conservative fold. Echoes of these controversies still have potency on both sides of the Atlantic.
They shared another thing in common. From their knowledge of the world and experience of politics they knew what intelligence could deliver. Neither lacked courage to use the levers of office, and intelligence was a useful source of power and influence. Combined with their personal vision and imagination, it delivered important rewards. Roosevelt has been described as a `genius of the unexpected, maestro of the improvisational, [and] artist of the dramatic [whose] mind danced across the scene where his legs would not carry him'. Churchill was similarly agile `his mind once seized of an idea works with enormous velocity around it', noted the British journalist A. G. Gardiner, a rare and early admirer, on the eve of the First World War, `[it] intensifies it, enlarges it, makes it shadow the whole sky'.
By nature, Roosevelt liked secrets. An only child with a powerful mother, he needed them. A lifelong reader of spy novels, as a student at Harvard he constructed his own secret cipher for recording special confidences in his personal diary. One such entry translated into `E. is an angel'. It referred to his cousin Eleanor, the favourite niece of President Teddy Roosevelt, and he married her soon after. But his first encounter with the official world of intelligence came as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson. Here he found himself responsible for overseeing the Office of Naval Intelligence. It had been a small and sleepy outfit until the First World War catapulted it into the wider and rougher world of international intrigue.
Roosevelt's enthusiastic embrace of its work marked an important moment in American intelligence. He spent much of 1916 organising the Naval Reserve Force, where he cast aside the pretence that Americans were innocents and recruited like-minded Ivy League friends for secret work. Like him, they regarded it as both glamorous and legitimate. Those destined to run American intelligence in the future would no longer be regarded as social outcasts or political lepers, but could include the best and the brightest. He even recruited an espionage network of undercover agents in Latin America behind the back of an exasperated Director of Naval Intelligence.
In July 1916, in the so-called `Black Tom' incident, German saboteurs set off an explosion that destroyed the most important loading terminal in New York harbour for munitions to Britain. It convinced Roosevelt that there was an extensive `Fifth Column' of GermanAmericans conspiring to sabotage the war effort. After the United States finally entered the war in 1917, he bombarded the new Director of Naval Intelligence, Captain Roger Welles, with requests for information about alleged German-American plots, sent him alarmist reports from his own sources, and even fantasised later that he had carried a revolver in a shoulder-holster after becoming a target for assassination by German secret agents.
Welles proved a congenial soulmate and soon the ONI was stuffed with Wall Street lawyers, financiers and stockbrokers. Roosevelt also learned about the significant co-operation that had developed with British naval intelligence in the United States through their naval attaché, Captain Sir Guy Gaunt. A colourful Australian-born bon vivant, Gaunt had taken to the murky world of counter-espionage like a duck to water and ran a network of agents penetrating German-American organisations and others considered subversive by the British. When not running his agents from the Biltmore Hotel in New York City, he was carefully cultivating Colonel House, President Wilson's confidant and trouble-shooter. `[Gaunt] tells me,' confided House to his diary, `the British intelligence is marvellously good.' Thanks to Gaunt, ONI files soon bulged with the names of Irish rebels, Hindu plotters and Bolshevik terrorists.
Gaunt's superior in London was the legendary Director of British Naval Intelligence, Admiral Sir `Blinker' Hall, who ran British naval codebreaking (known as Room 40) as well as a multitude of secret agents engaged in covert operations around the globe. Admiral Sims, the American naval representative in London who had his own intelligence operations in Europe, told Welles that Hall and the British had broken `practically every cipher' that they had been put up against. The Zimmerman telegram affair dramatically illustrated the point.
In January 1917 the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmerman, sent a cipher telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico announcing his country's decision to begin unrestricted submarine warfare the following month. If the Americans entered the war, Zimmerman wrote, he would suggest that Germany and Mexico `make war together, make peace together', with Mexico being rewarded with territory from Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Audaciously, Zimmerman sent the telegram via Count Bernstorff, his ambassador in Washington, using the American transatlantic cable recently placed at Berlin's disposal by President Wilson to facilitate peace feelers. What neither Wilson nor Zimmerman knew was that British codebreakers were regularly tapping the cable to read American diplomatic ciphers. They quickly intercepted Zimmerman's message, broke its cipher, and by early February its plaintext was lying on `Blinker' Hall's desk.
How the British naval intelligence chief resolved the dilemma of revealing Zimmerman's plan to the Americans while disguising its source is the stuff of spy fiction and has often been told. Simply put, it involved a British agent in Mexico City stealing a copy of Zimmerman's telegram and claiming it had been intercepted in North America. Thunderstruck at this German duplicity, Wilson abandoned hopes of remaining neutral and publication of the telegram in the press paved the way for Congress to approve his declaration of war in April. German espionage both within the United States and `at our very doors', as an outraged Wilson declared, proved that Berlin was neither peaceful nor trustworthy.
Roosevelt was entranced by the whole affair, especially as, behind the scenes, one of his oldest Harvard friends had played a part in the coup. This was Edward Bell (`Ned' to Roosevelt) who under cover as Second Secretary of the American Embassy in London was liaison officer with Hall and other British intelligence agencies. It was to Bell that Hall had handed the text of Zimmerman's message once it was sanitised for American eyes. Roosevelt had done favours for Bell, and soon Bell was able to reciprocate.
In July 1918 Roosevelt arrived in Britain on official navy business. Welcomed at Portsmouth by Admiral Sims, he was whisked off in a Rolls-Royce to the Ritz Hotel in London. Here the British laid out the red carpet. The First Lord of the Admiralty organised an inspection tour of British and American bases, he had a friendly talk with Prime Minister David Lloyd George, he drove out to see Nancy Astor at Cliveden, and he met Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary. He also had a forty-five-minute audience with King George V, proudly writing to his mother that the monarch was shorter than he expected but `delightfully easy to talk to'.
But the highlight of his visit was a personal call to the Admiralty and Bell's good friend, `Blinker' Hall. Roosevelt never forgot the encounter. In the midst of their talk Hall suddenly said, `I am going to ask that youngster at the other end of the room to come over here ... I want you to ask him where he was exactly twenty-four hours ago.' Roosevelt did as he asked. `I was in Kiel, sir,' replied the young man. That he was talking to a secret agent supposedly returned from behind enemy lines so impressed Roosevelt that twenty years later he could recount the episode in detail to Hall's successor, Admiral John Godfrey, in the White House. What he probably failed to realise was that it was all a charade designed to divert attention from Room 40's codebreaking work. Roosevelt came away convinced that British intelligence was the best in the world, blissfully unaware that it was also breaking American ciphers and would continue to target them well into the 1920s. It was also on this London visit that he had the encounter with Churchill he later described to Joseph Kennedy.
Back in the United States, Roosevelt's passion for secret agents almost sabotaged his political career. A homosexual scandal had engulfed the Newport naval base. Disregarding advice that the affair was irrelevant to naval intelligence, he set up a special investigative unit. Paid out of a special fund, its work culminated in the arrest and trial of several Newport civilians, including the base's naval chaplain. But the scandal escalated dangerously when it emerged that sexual entrapment had been used and that enlisted men had gone well beyond the bounds of duty in their pursuit of the guilty. The chaplain was acquitted, and a naval court of enquiry severely criticised Roosevelt for his role in the affair. By this time he had resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to run unsuccessfully as Democratic vice-presidential candidate in the 1920 election. The Republican-dominated Senate Naval Sub-Committee strongly condemned his actions, and while Roosevelt claimed he was innocent of the details of the Newport investigations and was the victim of partisan politics, it was clear he had deliberately kept many of his instructions verbal rather than commit them to paper. Already he had learned the skills of plausible deniability.
After he entered the White House in 1933 he quickly resumed his interest in intelligence. Four years before, Henry Stimson, the Secretary of State, had abolished the `Black Chamber', the nation's first peacetime codebreaking agency, famously declaring that `gentlemen do not read each other's mail'. Later, in the shadow of Pearl Harbor, critics would claim that this had neutered American codebreaking during the 1930s. In reality, it merely redirected it into more secret channels in order to conceal it from an isolationist nation and Congress. The army set up its Signals Intelligence Service under the codebreaking genius, William Friedman, and by the mid-1930s it was regularly cracking Japanese diplomatic ciphers. By the end of the decade these were being discreetly circulated in Washington under the codename `Magic'.
Likewise, the navy's cryptanalytic branch, Op-20-G, made significant headway against Tokyo's ciphers, although it was constantly racing against ever more complex machine systems. Then, shortly after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war, in December 1937, the gunboat USS Panay the American navy's most successful spy ship of its time, crammed with intelligence material (and the first American warship destroyed by enemy action in the twentieth century) was sunk in the Yangtse river by Japanese warplanes while observing Japanese operations outside Nanking. Behind the scenes Roosevelt was already contemplating the intelligence alliance he was to forge with Churchill. Four days later the British ambassador in Washington, Sir Robert Lindsay, was a guest of honour at a White House reception. Afterwards, Roosevelt asked him to stay behind for a private conversation. Here he reminisced warmly about Sir Guy Gaunt and Anglo-American intelligence co-operation during the First World War, hinting strongly that he had been deeply involved. Surely it was time to again inaugurate a systematic exchange of secret information?
Lindsay thought Roosevelt was in one of his worst inspirational moods and that his ideas sounded like `the utterances of a harebrained statesman or amateur strategist'. Nonetheless, he said they were worth exploring. Over the next twelve months Roosevelt discreetly supported highly secret talks between the British Admiralty and the US Navy which led to limited intelligence exchanges the following year. After Hitler's occupation of Prague in March 1939 killed off hopes of European peace and intensified demands for naval talks with the British, Roosevelt repeated his praise for Gaunt. Simultaneously an old friend, Admiral William Leahy, the commander of naval operations (and later his wartime White House chief of staff) oversaw an expansion of the Office of Naval Intelligence and its strengthening in the naval hierarchy. Roosevelt also initiated exchanges of military information between the American and British armies.
But Roosevelt was never content with official channels alone. He also developed personal contacts as alternative sources of information. One of the most prolific was the syndicated Washington journalist John Franklin Carter, whose appeal to Roosevelt lay in his easy access to the NBC shortwave radio network and the fact that he could come and go at the White House without attracting suspicion. Roosevelt used him for private investigative work and paid him generously from his Presidential Emergency Fund. Apart from producing over six hundred reports on a huge variety of topics before Roosevelt died, he also investigated the performance and loyalty of unhappy members of the Roosevelt team.
Another personal source was the wealthy and gregarious Philadelphian William C. Bullitt, an influential fundraiser for his 1932 election whom he sent on a private fact-finding mission to Europe and later appointed ambassador in Moscow and Paris. There was also the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh, whose isolationist views and admiration for Hitler opened doors that were closed to others. After three inspection tours of Hitler's Luftwaffe, Lindbergh passed on highly exaggerated estimates of Nazi strength to the White House.
Roosevelt's most prominent informant, however, was Vincent Astor, his wealthy Hudson Valley neighbour and distant cousin in whose heated indoor pool at Rhinebeck, just north of the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park in upstate New York, Roosevelt had exercised his polio-damaged legs in the 1920s. In 1927 Astor formed a secret society he called `The Room', a group of about twenty close and influential friends from the world of business that met regularly in New York to discuss financial and international topics. Founded with Astor and Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt, sons of the former President, it included the banker Winthrop Aldrich, the journalist and world traveller Marshall Field III, the publisher Nelson Doubleday, Judge Frank Kernochan, and David Bruce, a foreign service officer and future wartime head of the OSS in London and ambassador to London and Peking. Nearly all had some background in intelligence and one, Sir William Wiseman, a partner in the Wall Street investment bankers Kuhn-Loeb, had headed Britain's intelligence service in New York during the First World War.
Roosevelt highly valued the intelligence they provided, and in 1938 he secretly approved a Pacific cruise by Astor in his luxury yacht, the Nourmahal, to spy on Japanese military, naval, air force and radio installations in the Marshall Islands. `The information-gathering side of our cruise has proved interesting, instructive, and I hope, will be helpful,' cabled Astor enthusiastically to Roosevelt from Honolulu.
But in the long run the most important of FDR's intelligence sources was the wealthy New York lawyer William `Wild Bill' Donovan. Variously described as America's last hero and its first director of central intelligence, the silver-haired Donovan was a man of indefatigable energy and enthusiasm whose thirst for action and adventure was to leave an indelible mark on America's intelligence community for the next quarter of a century.
Donovan, said movie director John Ford, who worked for him during the war, was `the sort of guy who thought nothing of parachuting into France, blowing up a bridge, pissing into Luftwaffe gas tanks, then dancing on the roof of the St Regis hotel with a German spy'. Hollywood hype aside, this neatly captures the swashbuckling spirit of Donovan that Roosevelt admired. He was as adept at waging guerrilla war at home as he was abroad, and left in his wake a trail of wounded bureaucrats and interdepartmental jungle fires.
A former classmate of the President at Columbia Law School, he was a self-made man. Born in Buffalo of a poor Irish immigrant family, he won the name `Wild Bill' while fighting against Pancho Villa with Pershing's expedition to Mexico in 1916, and he returned from the Western Front in France as the most decorated soldier in the American army; serving with New York's `Fighting Irish' regiment, he won the Congressional Medal of Honor, the DSC and the Croix de Guerre. Over the next decade he held both state and federal office for the Republicans, then moved to New York to establish a highly successful and lucrative business specialising in international law. Here he made contact with The Room, where his foreign contacts and travel soon recommended him to Roosevelt. In 1935 the President sent him on an unofficial mission to report on Italy's military performance in Abyssinia, and in 1938 he attended German army manoeuvres and investigated the Spanish Civil War from General Franco's side. By the time war broke out in Europe he was an ardent anti-isolationist and knew more than most Americans about European military affairs.
While Donovan, Astor and others gathered foreign intelligence for him, others worked on counter-espionage. Hitler had launched an intelligence war against the United States, and with vivid memories of the `Black Tom' explosion Roosevelt was soon obsessed again about German spies in America. In 1934 he summoned J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI, to the White House and told him to investigate fascist and Nazi groups, later extending the order to Communists. In 1938 Hoover's men exposed a massive spy ring operating in Manhattan headed by Gunther Rumrich, a US Army deserter of German background. The trial that followed spawned sensational headlines, deepened Roosevelt's fears of internal conspiracy, and jolted him into seeking increased appropriations for counter-espionage. He also ordered Hoover to co-ordinate his efforts with army and naval intelligence and the State Department. Two years later Hoover reassured him that all potential enemy espionage was under control. Under Roosevelt, the FBI enjoyed an enormous expansion of its powers, including an intensive programme of secret domestic surveillance.
Typically, Roosevelt also liked to be sure himself. Naval intelligence had always dabbled extensively in domestic affairs, and in the 1930s it considerably expanded its domestic surveillance, targeting political and labour radicals and such organisations as the American Civil Liberties Union. To discuss its reports, Roosevelt frequently met as often as three times a week with the Director of Naval Intelligence. To prevent liberal protests he kept such contacts secret. His efforts to centralise and strengthen intelligence even further met with bureaucratic and media resistance. `No glorified "OGPU" [Soviet secret police] is needed or wanted here,' declared the New York Times.
Ironically, Soviet espionage was already at work in America. But Roosevelt, like most others, misunderstood the threat. This was seen in the case of Whitaker Chambers.
A journalist, Chambers was a courier and contact in Washington for Soviet intelligence. In 1938 he recanted his allegiance to Moscow, and after hiding for several months to escape Stalin's assassins re-emerged as a writer for Time magazine. Shocked by the brutal cynicism of Stalin's pact with Hitler in August 1939, he told his story to Adolf Berle, Roosevelt's international security adviser in the State Department, and also pointed the finger at more than thirty Communist agents at work in the federal government, including the senior State Department official Alger Hiss. Berle told neither his department nor the FBI, but did, according to one source, pass the intelligence on to Roosevelt. But the President merely `scoffed at the charge'. He was incredulous that there could be a Soviet espionage ring in his administration; to him Communists were blue-collar trade union militants, not suave representatives of the east coast establishment. Gentlemen like Hiss could simply not be traitors. As a result, no counter-intelligence programme for identifying Communist agents in the federal government was put in place.
Six weeks after the Munich crisis Roosevelt chaired a special conference at the White House to decide on US air power requirements. A full-scale review of national strategy and war plans was already under way, and he was deeply alarmed by intelligence reporting that the Germans were making thousands of military aircraft. Lindbergh estimated annual German production at some 9,000 military aircraft, a figure backed up by the American military attaché in Berlin. Bullitt, now ambassador in Paris, had already passed on similar figures. To Roosevelt, the conclusion was obvious. This huge air capacity had fatally encouraged Hitler and intimidated the allies. To defend the western hemisphere, he announced, America required some 10,000 planes. Thus began the shaping of US rearmament.
The decision throws revealing light on Roosevelt's approach to intelligence. For one thing the figures for German aircraft production were hopelessly exaggerated the true number was closer to 3,000 per annum. Second, the intelligence came from a mix of unofficial and official sources, with Roosevelt giving as much weight to the former as to the latter. And third, he even came up with numbers of his own 12,000 from no identifiable source except his own imagination.
Army Secretary Henry Stimson later complained that Roosevelt rarely followed a consecutive chain of thought, but was full of stories and incidents and hopped around in discussion from suggestion to suggestion. It was all, he despaired, `like chasing a vagrant beam of sunshine around a vacant room'. This was the Roosevelt method. Unimpressed by professional bureaucracies, he most trusted his own contacts both inside and outside the government and combined these with his own instincts and preferences to reach a policy decision. It was a haphazard way of dealing with intelligence. Yet his belief that the European powers had been thoroughly intimidated into appeasement by fears of Hitler's Luftwaffe was correct, and his natural optimism provided a necessary counterweight to the inevitable worst-case scenarios produced by professional naval and military advisers.
Churchill also had a passionate appreciation for intelligence and secret agents, sometimes to the point of being carried away by the romantic character of cloak-and-dagger exploits. He had even been a spy of sorts himself during the war that catapulted Roosevelt's cousin Theodore into the American public eye. In 1895, when the Cubans revolted against Spain's colonial rule, the twenty-year-old Churchill, then a junior officer in the British army, crossed the Atlantic to observe the war from the Spanish side. Before he left London, Britain's Director of Military Intelligence, Colonel Edward Chapman, briefed him on the background and asked him to find out details about Spanish weaponry, thus placing Churchill firmly in the tradition of the `amateur' gentleman spy typical of the Victorian age. He was fascinated by the ability of the Cuban guerrillas to outwit the Spaniards. `What their own spies fail to find out,' he noted, `their friends in every village let them know.'
His exploits during the British army's imperial skirmishes in India, Sudan and South Africa drove home the lesson of how local intelligence could yield valuable dividends and how its lack could sow disaster. On the Indian North-West Frontier he travelled with an army intelligence officer meeting informants. In Sudan, advancing with Kitchener to Omdurman, he was generously briefed and hosted by army intelligence and, in a burst of embarrassing zeal, detained a British agent on suspicion of being an enemy spy. The Boer War, above all, convinced him that good intelligence was a vital weapon of war. What else could explain the success of the Boers a small, ill-armed bunch of farmers in humiliating the imperial might of Britain? Its lack, moreover, explained many of Britain's failures. `The whole intelligence service,' he complained bitterly after he returned home, `is starved for want of both money and brains.' The Boer War also made him a convert to guerrilla war and covert action. The drama of his own escape from a prisoner-of-war camp, and his dangerous journey home, burnished his fascination with heroic exploits behind enemy lines.
After he entered Parliament in 1900, some of his strongest criticisms of the British army were reserved for its poor intelligence, and he demanded the creation of a powerful Intelligence Department. Events went his way. As the Kaiser constructed a powerful German navy to challenge British maritime supremacy, anxieties over national security sparked a series of spy scares. To keep an eye on German spies in Britain, as well as to improve intelligence about the German navy, in 1909 Britain's Committee of Imperial Defence created the Secret Service Bureau, the forerunner of the two agencies later to become known as MI5 (the Security Service) and MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service).
Churchill, who by this time was in the Cabinet, was one of the few ministers to take an interest in the new Bureau's work. Driving his enthusiasm was the firm belief that a powerful German Fifth Column in Britain was poised to carry out sabotage and subversion to assist a German invasion; in truth, no such plan existed, although German spies were certainly at work trying to uncover intelligence about Britain's navy. As Home Secretary (1910-11) Churchill happily gave MI5 extensive powers to carry out secret surveillance on suspected spies, and as First Lord of the Admiralty (1911-15) he kept in close touch with MI5's Director, Captain Vernon Kell. It was Churchill who, on the eve of war in July 1914, gave the order to Kell to round up all suspected German spies in Britain.
Like Roosevelt, he was also `hands-on' in his approach. He liked to read `raw' intelligence reports himself, relished what they had to tell him, and even employed an agent to report back to him personally. This was `Captain' Edward Tupper, a burly firebrand in the seamen's union, who was eager to sniff out German spies at work in British ports. During the First World War Churchill was to find him useful in countering strikes and militancy among British seamen.
But the most important early milestone in Churchill's long connection with British intelligence came only weeks after war broke out in 1914. As the airwaves hummed with radio messages between the fleets and ships at sea and their home commands, top-secret coded intercepts began to flood the Admiralty. Quickly alerted to their value for intelligence, Churchill created a special section known as `Room 40' in the old Admiralty building in Whitehall. With hard work and lucky breaks, it soon broke all significant German codes, and from then until the end of the war Britain could follow the movements of the German High Seas Fleet, trace the departure of U-boats from their home ports, and read most of Germany's diplomatic messages with the results that Roosevelt and other Americans so vividly learned during the Zimmerman telegram affair. Again, Churchill insisted on seeing Room 40's raw reports with his own eyes. So convinced was he of its significance that he personally wrote out in longhand its early `charter'.
In May 1915 Churchill became the principal scapegoat for the disaster of the Dardanelles Expedition a futile bloodletting that attempted to break the stalemate on the Western Front by opening up a southern front in the Balkans. The crisis would have been terminal for most politicians, and it badly damaged Churchill. But he quickly bounced back, and by 1919 was Minister for War and Air. By this time Lenin and the Bolsheviks had replaced the Kaiser's Germany as national bogeyman, and British codebreakers were busily cracking Moscow's codes. Churchill read these with the same enthusiasm he had brought to German codes, using their evidence of Communist subversion in Britain to urge the expulsion of Moscow's representatives from London. He also lent his energies to the efforts of secret agents plotting to overthrow the Bolsheviks. In the chaotic conditions of civil war and famine, a motley collection of passionate anti-Communists and dubious adventurers, including the ex-nihilist assassin Boris Savinkov and the legendary `ace of spies' Sidney Reilly, courted British intelligence with extravagant plots to topple the Bolsheviks. Churchill gave them all the support he could, and although their plots failed he remained mesmerised by the potential of covert action behind enemy lines to cause mischief and mayhem.
The lessons were reinforced by events in Ireland. In 1922 the British were forced to recognise the Irish Free State after a bloody guerrilla struggle in which Michael Collins' IRA also won a ruthless and protracted intelligence war. Churchill's role is largely remembered because of his support for the `Black and Tans', a force of British ex-servicemen notorious for its indiscriminate violence. But he also pressed hard for enhanced intelligence. When Sir Henry Wilson, the army's chief of staff, demanded the shooting of hostages in reprisal for Sinn Féin terrorist attacks, Churchill disagreed. `It is no use ... saying I should shoot without mercy. The question immediately arises: "Whom would you shoot?" And shortly after that: "Where are they?"' In short, what was needed was an intensified intelligence war.
Out of power after 1929, Churchill created what was almost an alternative private intelligence service at his home in Chartwell in Kent. With a vast range of contacts and sources inside and outside of government, he battered the governments of Baldwin and Chamberlain with a barrage of facts and figures in his campaign against the appeasement of Hitler. One of his most important sources was Major Desmond Morton, an officer he had befriended on the Western Front. Morton was a senior officer in the Secret Intelligence Service who in the 1930s ran the Industrial Intelligence Centre. He was also a neighbour in Kent, and would frequently stroll over to Chartwell carrying top-secret files to prime Churchill on statistics about German and British rearmament. Churchill also had sources and allies in the armed forces and the Foreign Office who kept him up to date. If Roosevelt was a `sponge' who soaked up information, Churchill was a vacuum-cleaner who sucked the last particle of intelligence from every corner and crevice he could. When war came in September 1939, he was by far and away the best-informed and experienced minister to mobilise British intelligence for the tasks ahead.
Meet the Author
David Stafford, a former diplomat and Project Director of the Centre for Second World War Studies at the University of Edinburgh, is the author of Spies Beneath Berlin and Secret Agent, published by Overlook.
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