Churchill's Secret War: Diplomatic Decrypts, the Foreign Office and Turkey 1942--44

Churchill's Secret War: Diplomatic Decrypts, the Foreign Office and Turkey 1942--44

by Robin Denniston

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Churchill's Secret War: Diplomatic Decrypts, the Foreign Office and Turkey 1942--44 by Robin Denniston

The key part played by Winston Churchill in shaping the course of the Second World War is still of great interest to historians worldwide. In the course of his research, Robin Denniston has uncovered previously unknown files of diplomatic intercepts which show that Churchill's role in British foreign policy and war planning was far more signficant than has hitherto been supposed. Although neither a commander-in-chief nor a head of state, he personally exerted considerable influence on British foreign policy to force Turkey into the Second World War on the side of the Allies. This ground-breaking book explores Churchill's use of secret signals intelligence before and during the Second World War and also sheds fresh light on Britain's relations with Turkey - a subject which has not received the attention it deserves. The book examines a little-known plan to open a second front in the Balkans, from Turkey across the eastern Mediterranean, designed to hasten D-Day in the west, and reveals new information on the 1943 Cicero spy scandal - the biggest Foreign Office security lapse until the Burgess and Maclean affair some twenty years later.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750979559
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 08/04/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 228
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

The author of Trevor Huddleston: A Life, Robin Denniston has written widely on the intelligence services during World War II.

Read an Excerpt

Churchill's Secret War

Diplomatic Decrypts, the Foreign Office and Turkey 1942-44

By Robin Denniston

The History Press

Copyright © 2009 Robin Denniston
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-7955-9


Why Turkey?

Those who remember the operations of 1915 and 1916 in the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia may be glad that the Turks, who were then against us, are now for us. What is the cause of this change? It was because, during the same years in which the Germans turned to thievery, the Turks turned to honest ways.

R.G. Collingwood, The New Leviathan, p. 374

This chapter attempts to answer the question, why was Turkey so important to Churchill in 1941? It brings together Turco-British international relations from 1914 to 1943, relates Churchill's failed attempt on Turkish neutrality in the First World War to his playing of the Turkey hand in the Second World War; links his perceptions of, and intelligence on, Turkish foreign policy to his war strategy, considers the balance of advantage of having Turkey as an active and demanding ally, and then summarises Turco-British relations between 1940 and 1943 using newly disclosed diplomatic intercepts.

The following pages also touch on the importance of Turkish economics, geography and history in relation to world affairs since the ascendancy of Atatürk. His successors shared with Britain (and probably also with Germany) a common source of intelligence – ambassadorial reports from most European capitals sent to Ankara for their guidance, which were also intercepted and used by the FO in London. Churchill's interest in signals intelligence generally is then integrated into the picture, particularly that related to Turkey. His obsession with the Turks had strong roots in the First World War, and thus can be seen to lead directly to his unilateral decision to seek out the Turkish leadership on Turkish soil in January 1943.

Churchill and Turkey in the First World War

To answer the question, 'Why Turkey?', some account of Turco-British relations in 1914–15 is first required, for significant parallels can be observed between British war strategy towards the Turks at the Dardanelles, in part driven by Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914, and remarkably similar thoughts of a Balkan offensive launched from Turkey harboured by an older if not wiser Churchill in 1942–43.

In August 1914 the German failure to destroy France following the 'miracle' of the Battle of the Marne induced the Reich to look at Turkey, then still neutral. A Turkish threat to distract Russian armies from Germany's Eastern Front would stop Russian trade through the Dardanelles, might hasten Bulgarian involvement and would threaten British imperial communications at Suez. The parallel with the Second World War, so far as Germany was concerned, was clear, and von Falkenhayn in 1914, as Jodl would do in 1943, promoted the view that a threat to Suez would weaken British forces in the west.

In Whitehall Winston Churchill urged the cabinet towards an offensive against Turkey – first conceived as involving a strong military contingent as well as the then all-powerful Royal Navy, subsequently a navy-only operation. The generals and admirals – ill-prepared culturally for the onset of total war – failed to deliver unequivocal support. On 30 October the Germans provoked the Turkish navy to shell the Russian Black Sea Fleet and provided Churchill with his opportunity in the Mediterranean. He unilaterally – and unconstitutionally – ordered the Royal Navy to shell the Turks stationed round the Dardanelles. This obliged the Turks to strengthen their defences, though their ammunition remained in short supply.

Churchill's advocacy of an attack on the Dardanelles was based on the perception that a successful result would give Britain the chance to dictate terms at Constantinople. However, he knew (as he would know about the Dodecanese assault in 1943) that the venture would be both costly and risky. In 1914 he found insufficient support for his plan: an attack on Turkey would only relax pressure on Russia, it was said, and play the German game. But he did have support from Adm 'Jacky' Fisher, the First Sea Lord, who wrote on 3 January 1915: 'The attack on Turkey holds the field, assuming a strong body of British troops to achieve a continued assault.' In the event, this was unforthcoming but Churchill pressed on, despite Fisher's view, expressed to the Dardanelles Commission in 1917, that the naval operation alone was doomed to failure.

The consequence of the confused leadership structure in Whitehall and of the First Lord's determination to play the Turkey card himself, led to disaster for Britain. This remained in the collective memory as a stigma to be born by Churchill for the next twenty years. That leadership structure was no less confused at the outbreak of the Second World War, except that Churchill was in undisputed command by June 1940, and not compelled to work entirely through advocacy. A parallel situation with regard to Turkey quickly developed in the stricken years of 1940–41 but before that Turco-British diplomatic relations had taken a turn for the better. To see why, Turkey needs to be seen in a European context.

Turkey in Context

The dismemberment of the Ottoman empire in 1879 followed the successful Russian siege of Erzerum five years earlier. Previously extending to the Adriatic in the west and the Danube basin in the northwest, the empire had been in decline since 1690. By 1878 new nation states had grown within the Ottoman boundaries; Bulgaria had thrown off the Turkish yoke in a revolt backed by fellow Slavs in Russia, to whom thereafter she was tied by race, religion and gratitude. Despite their victory over the British at the Dardanelles, the First World War proved disastrous for those in Ankara reluctant to face the realities of the post-Ottoman world.

The Treaty of Versailles left Turkey with no European territory, and western leaders, in particular Lloyd George, were determined to exclude her from the Continent. She was disliked and feared by the international community. The dislike stemmed in part from a deep-seated anti-Muslim prejudice, partly explained by the residual predominance of Christian prejudices in the chancelleries of the great western powers. The legacy of Ottoman oppression and corruption had left Turkey the sick man of Europe and something of a pariah. The fear arose from Turkey's strong tradition in arms, weakened but not allayed by being on the losing side in the First World War.

The rise of Atatürk signalled to the architects of Versailles a recrudescence of Ottoman imperialism, symbolised by Turkish victory over Greece at Chanak in 1922. Greece, backed only by Britain and in spite of British public opinion, was repelled from Turkish territory amid some savage ethnic cleansing. A severe earthquake then compounded the problems of the Turkish leadership. Thereafter Atatürk was to prove a friend of the west, and Britain in particular, thanks in part to the close friendship he established with the British ambassador in Ankara, Sir Percy Loraine.

The world longed for peace, and thus good relations with the nascent, etiolated Turkish state became the cornerstone of the Balkan policies of all the western great powers – of none more so than Britain. Additionally Turkey's foreign minister, Ismet I·nönü – later to lead the Turkish nation through the Second World War and beyond – proved to be a formidably successful negotiator at the Lausanne Conference of 1923. While Lord Curzon was perceived to be the ablest tactician of the great power statesmen present, it was I·nönü who won for his country significant modifications to Versailles, including parts of western Thrace which made the Straits in effect a broad river through Turkish territory, much to the chagrin of generations of Russian and Bulgarian diplomats.

Chanak in 1922 and Montreux in 1936 were significant moments in the development of Turkish foreign policy in the interwar period. British attitudes to Turkey were affected by two factors which bound Turco-British relations together for the next twenty years. One was the presence of Winston Churchill back in government after serving in a sort of honourable disgrace as a battalion commander on the Western Front. Churchill was passionately in favour of the Chanak provocation in 1922, pressing information derived from Turkish diplomatic intercepts on his colleagues to show which way the wind was blowing. The second, arising from the first, was Britain's access to Turkish military and diplomatic ciphers continuously from 1916 to 1945. These informed Churchill how he could have taken advantage of the shortage of Turkish ammunition and the willingness of the Turkish banks to accept bribes to intervene: thus informed, he could have averted the Dardanelles fiasco. Seven years later he read the intercepts which spelt out the chances of the success of the Chanak provocation and, twenty years after that, he plotted each step in Turkey's plans to stay neutral in 1941–43. Thus the relationship between Churchill, Turkey and diplomatic intercepts can be traced over twenty-nine years, which helps explain why playing the 'Turkey hand' was so important to him in the Second World War.

Some account of Turkey's economic and political developments will serve to bridge the interwar years. The crises and conferences which brought modern Turkey into being created an essentially non-viable state, lacking the infrastructure and resources of other Middle Eastern countries, settling uneasily for a centralised one-party state on Portuguese lines but with a commitment to some form of eventual social democracy which was slow to come and over which the Turkish leadership procrastinated, often with good reason.

Turkey's strategic position at the eastern end of the Mediterranean and the southern shore of the Black Sea meant that it was a target of constant surveillance by Whitehall, but in fact the country was split, not geographically but ethnically and culturally, into two quite distinct groupings. Turkish discrimination against Armenian, Azerbaijani, Kurdish and Greek minorities obscured the fact that many Turks shared more in common with populations between the Caucasus and the Caspian than with their Balkan neighbours. The huge Anatolian hinterland was comparatively undeveloped, and schools, roads and amenities generally were scarce. The economy was fragile, illiteracy extensive and taxation yielded insufficient revenue to support not only a large standing army but by 1939 a massive call-up of reservists and a state of emergency. Foreign trade was hard to come by without credit, or barter, or state intervention. Here was a third world country in which a million peasant farmer producers had become consumers through the call-up, as Prime Minister Saraçoglu explained in the Turkish National Assembly in July 1941. A wealth tax, introduced as a consequence, caused widespread alarm, particularly among the non-Muslim minorities in the west of the country, against whom it was targeted and who involuntarily contributed 85 per cent of the additional revenue raised. After a good harvest the peasantry regularly worked on the roads for additional subsistence, and thus gradually opened Anatolia up to the internal combustion engine.

Looking east and south, to Mecca and Arabia and central Asia rather than to Europe, the 18 million population had no wish to fight the Germans, the Russians or anyone else, except perhaps the Bulgarians. Only Muslims could bear arms and many of the minorities suffered discrimination. Dissent was discouraged and the press followed the government line with only mild differences of emphasis depending on whether the proprietor or editor inclined to national socialism or democratic capitalism. All alike were afraid of Russia, until Mussolini's interventions in Africa, Spain and Albania made Italy Turkey's chief problem.

I·nönü knew that his army was equipped to fight and win on Turkish soil and elsewhere in Asia but not against the Wehrmacht (German army) with its new weapons and frightening new ways of carrying out Blitzkrieg (lightning war). On Atatürk's death in 1938 I·nönü had been appointed his successor in the presidency. He concentrated his attention on foreign policy, to maintain his predecessor's priorities, holding Turkey's new borders inviolate, keeping her hard-won rights in the Straits, buying only from nations that bought from them, making wary non-aggression noises to her equally fragile neighbours – Romania, Greece and Bulgaria – ignoring the Arab world and the Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, and maintaining friendship, albeit on their terms, with the great powers, particularly Britain. And he based the policy on the reports of his ambassadors which were invariably delivered straight to him.

At the start of hostilities in September 1939 Turkey's major enemy was Italy, whose advance into Albania two months previously was seen as further evidence of Mussolini's neo-imperialist policy, already condemned by the League of Nations, though later condoned. It was clear to the Turks that Mussolini's ambitions were by no means fully realised, and his occupation of the Dodecanese islands might prove to be the prelude to sharp fighting in the eastern Mediterranean. But elsewhere I·nönü followed Atatürk in seeking to ensure the balance of power in Europe was maintained. So Germany's ambitions in eastern Europe, already realised in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, loomed menacingly, although German diplomats then and thereafter, on Hitler's orders, treated Turkey with politeness and care. The British approach by way of reciprocal guarantee in April 1939 came as the climax of several years of diplomatic activity designed to keep Turkey sweet. The formalities were completed by the Franco-Turco-British Pact which guaranteed Turkey's borders from any threat in the west – but the FO files reveal that almost no one understood what the pact really entailed, and in particular what would happen if a belligerent country attempted to sail its ships through the Straits. And it was never put to the test. French influence, hitherto dominant, was severely eroded by the unmoving nature of the French position which failed to maintain her mission civilisatrice in the Middle East, and was effectively eliminated when France surrendered to the Germans in June 1940.

Thus preserving Turkish neutrality required all I·nönü's concentration and formidable negotiating powers. Conflicting concerns swirled round the politicians in Ankara, and historical and ancestral memories skewed the negotiating processes. Fear of Russia was compounded by the widespread fear of international Bolshevisation – which by 1938 threatened to bring parts of northern Spain into the Russian orbit – with a growing awareness of what Stalin's purges were doing to the officer class there. With France immobile and Italy flexing its muscles, with Germany enticing her into trading dependency and Britain unable to deliver what she promised, Turkey also had potential problems on her eastern borders where in Persia and Afghanistan unstable regimes, tribal loyalties and oil complicated international relations. Many Turks – sometimes I·nönü himself – hankered for a recrudescence of panturanism – the re-establishment of the wider frontiers and spheres of influence of the declining years of the Ottoman Empire – and longed at least to fight the Bulgarians, their erstwhile vassals. Control of the Straits was maintained only through the terms of the Montreux Convention which were widely resented by the other Black Sea littoral powers.

Such was the geopolitical reality for Turkey in 1939. This was the situation Churchill manipulated constantly, though in the end unavailingly. He was kept informed of Turkish military thinking by Adm Howard Kelly whom he sent to Ankara where he struck up a friendship with Marshal Kakmak. Kelly's manuscript diary entries covering these years are at the National Maritime Museum. The Turks, he reported, admired German efficiency. He went on unauthorised walks near strategic installations and was constantly being arrested. In 1940 he noted that it was evident that Turkey had no intention of going to war except for the protection of her own interests, but Churchill disregarded his view. Despite his knowledge of Ottoman history and the wounds left by the Dardanelles venture, Churchill's wish to get Turkey into the war was not based on geopolitical reality but on a mixture of hope and desperation. In 1940 when France fell he had no one else in Europe to turn to, and when a year later Russia joined the Allies, and America six months after that, neither partner went along with his Turkish ploy, though such was his influence until mid-1944 that the other two sometimes pretended to do so.


Excerpted from Churchill's Secret War by Robin Denniston. Copyright © 2009 Robin Denniston. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Plates,
Author's Note,
Acronyms and Abbreviations,
1 Why Turkey?,
2 Churchill's Diplomatic Intercepts,
3 Before the Deluge: 1940–41,
4 Turkish Neutrality: Liability or Asset?,
5 Churchill's Turkey Hand 1942,
6 Adana and After,
7 Churchill's 'Island Prizes Lost' Revisited,
8 Cicero, Dulles and Philby: 1943–44,
9 Conclusions,

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