From the Wireless War to Warwick
FROM THE WIRELESS WAR TO WARWICK
An adaptation from a book by Professor Richard Aldrich, PAIS
Our expert for the current theme is Professor Richard Aldrich, Department of Politics and International Studies, who is available to answer your questions on conspiracy theories, international security and the recent death of Osama bin Laden. Here, Professor Aldrich has re-worked a chapter from his book GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain's Most Secret Intelligence Agency, centering around the development of wireless technologies during the second world war.
Bletchley Park was at the centre of a secret wireless war in which intelligence was gained by "breaking" encrypted enemy radio traffic. The intelligence it produced was called “Ultra" because it was above Top Secret. We now know that Allied code breaking success had a magical effect on the conduct of the Second World War. Winston Churchill suggested to King George VI that “Ultra” had effectively “won the war.” Even cautious historians have conceded that it may well have shortened the war by two years.
The mysteries of Bletchley Park were unveiled to a surprised British public in 1974. Since then more secrets about the wartime code breakers have been declassified. We now know that British code breakers were not only eavesdropping on our enemies, but also on neutral countries - and even on our allies. Up until Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Britain was breaking the cyphers of the United States. Britain worked on the communications of the Russians, the Free French and some two dozen other countries throughout the war. Neutral countries were important for wartime diplomacy and their capital cities were hot-beds of espionage.
Neutral countries were important for wartime diplomacy and their capital cities were hot-beds of espionage.
Recently declassified files reveal that code-breakers were actually stationed in hidden sections inside the British embassies within these neutral countries. These secret stations could collect a great deal of short-range communications that could not be gathered elsewhere. Indeed, precisely because these were short-range transmissions, the locals thought their messages immune to interception and often did not even bother to put them into code. These secret listening stations could deliver great dividends - but they also entailed risk. If discovered, they would tip other countries off that the British were busy listening in on communications.
The first example was probably set up in late 1939. At this time Germany seemed to be in league with Russia through the Nazi-Soviet Pact signed in the autumn of that year. It is often forgotten that Poland was invaded by both Germany and Russia together. Throughout this dangerous period, Russia remained a key target for Britain's intelligence. MI6 even organised a secret aircraft to photograph promising bombing targets deep inside southern Russia, notably the oilfields. Indeed, in October 1939, only a month after Britain had declared war on Germany, British military chiefs insisted that they were also keen to ‘get cracking on Russian traffic’. But Bletchley’s experts were sceptical about what sort of Russian messages could be intercepted, since any site in Britain was too far away to offer good reception. So Britain’s code breakers began a unique and profitable experiment. They decided to send a party of operators to Sweden to work out of the British Embassy there. The creation of the Stockholm station was fortuitous, since Stalin embarked on the Winter War against Finland in November 1939 and so British listeners enjoyed a front seat on the whole proceedings.
MI6 even organised a secret aircraft to photograph promising bombing targets deep inside southern Russia, notably the oilfields.
If Stockholm was the first tentative experiment, then Istanbul was the real thing. By 1943, a covert intercept party of no less than thirty staff - disguised rather improbably as shipping clerks - was working out of the attic space of the rather elegant British consulate building there called Lena House. This group was led by Captain Thomas Howat, drawn from the main Middle East listening unit at Sarafand in Palestine. This was a secret experimental venture launched on the authority of senior British intelligence officers in the Middle East. The most senior of these was Brigadier Edgar “Bill” Williams, intelligence chief to Montgomery’s Eighth Army. Like many intelligence officers, he had been a pre-war academic and had a brilliant mind. With a First in History, he had taught at Liverpool University and then Merton College, Oxford.
The main problem for the covert listening station in Turkey was its friends. For reasons that are not clear, the listeners were initially attached to an over-zealous team from the Special Operations Executive or “SOE”. SOE liked blowing things up and had earned a bad reputation in Turkey with risky operations on what was, after all, neutral territory. Indeed, by March 1945, SOE had been thrown out of the country on account of what Thomas Howat called their ‘dirty work’. Thereafter, the secret listening station was assisted by MI6, who were supposed to ‘square things’ with the Turkish secret police. This was a thinly veiled reference to bribery designed to afford the listeners ‘immunity for local police inspection’. However, Howat noted that during his recent absence on a visit to Cairo the local police had attempted to break into his house three times.
SOE liked blowing things up and had earned a bad reputation in Turkey with risky operations on what was, after all, neutral territory.
Remarkably, Bletchley Park and indeed Britain’s secret service chiefs in London were initially unaware of the existence of this secret station in Istanbul. When they discovered what Bill Williams and his colleagues had initiated, they were horrified and were determined to close it down. However, the Middle East intelligence officers resisted, pointing to the high value of the intelligence it produced. Much of the intelligence that was being scooped from Istanbul concerned the Balkans. This intelligence was valuable for planning bombing operations and supporting partisans that were being armed and trained by SOE.
By mid-1944, the value of the secret Istanbul station was increasing as the Russians moved into the region. Even London now agreed that it should remain in business because of growing interest in the Russians and the possibility that they might scoop insights into Russian codes. Indeed, Istanbul was now becoming a model for further stations. Significantly, on 19 November 1944, code breakers in London observed: ‘Intercept of low power transmitters inaudible at a distance by intercept stations camouflaged in Embassies ... will necessitate special organisation now under discussion’. Over the next year this ‘special organisation’ was developed and pointed the way to the future.
This intelligence was valuable for planning bombing operations and supporting partisans that were being armed and trained by SOE.
The Second World War ended and the Cold War began in short order. The station in Turkey stayed on and another was soon operating from the Moscow embassy. This expanding network was run by Richard Gambier-Parry who had been responsible for the wartime distribution of “Ultra” to senior theatre commanders such as Montgomery throughout the Second World War. Gambier-Parry worked from two country houses adjacent to Bletchley Park and also provided the radio network for MI6.
Meanwhile, Montgomery’s intelligence chief, Brigadier Bill Williams, had now returned to a more sedate academic life, becoming a Fellow of Balliol and Warden of Rhodes House. However, in 1961, the Cabinet Secretary considered calling him back to the secret world. Government spending on the post-war successor to Bletchley Park – which had been renamed “GCHQ” - was spiralling out of control and the Treasury needed an expert to review the problem. Bill Williams seemed an excellent choice, but his candidature was eventually dropped for ‘dynastic’ reasons. He was now married to the daughter of Richard Gambier-Parry and was thought to be too close to the secret listeners to be properly independent. In any case, Bill Williams was already busy with an even more important project. He was Chair of the Academic Planning Committee of one of the new universities. This opened in 1965 as the University of Warwick.
This article forms part of our coverage of the Festival of Social Sciences taking place at the University throughout May 2011. The festival is designed to celebrate the vibrancy and innovation of research and teaching in the social sciences at Warwick. The theme for 2011 is 'Public Engagement, Communication and Impact'.
Richard J Aldrich is a Professor of International Security at the University of Warwick and joined PAIS in September 2007. His main research interests lie in the area of intelligence and security communities; last year his book on Britain’s intelligence agency, GCHQ, was published to wide acclaim. He also recently headed up a multidisciplinary research project focusing on America’s Central Intelligence Agency. Entitled "Landscapes of Secrecy: The Central Intelligence Agency and the Contested Record of US Foreign Policy, 1947-2001", the project (funded by AHRC) comprised a team of eight scholars at the universities of Nottingham and Warwick. Together, they examined CIA activity and the Agency’s public face using a variety of approaches.
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During our theme 'The Future of Social Sciences' we gave you the opportunity to ask questions to Professor Richard Aldrich, Politics and International Studies.
Also on the Knowledge Centre...
Professor Richard Aldrich exploresd the work of GCHQ, from code breaking to modern surveillance, in his latest book.
Since 2002, Professor Richard Aldrich has been investigating war diaries in order to look at the lives of everyday people in wartime.
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