Sunday, June 23, 2013

Book review – British Intelligence in the Second World War

In the 1970’s the first books came out that revealed how in WWII the Allied codebreakers were able to solve the German Enigma cipher machine (and other systems). Those early books were written without access to all the official documents and many of the things they claimed were incorrect. They also greatly exaggerated the effects of codebreaking on the various campaigns of the war.

Unfortunately historians have mostly relied on those early books so most history books continue to claim that the Allies won specific battles or campaigns because they could read German messages etc.
If you are looking for a more reliable analysis of the role that secret intelligence played in WWII then you need to read the official ‘British Intelligence in the Second World War’ volumes:

Volume I: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations, 1979

Volume II: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations, 1981

Volume III, Part 1: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations, 1984

Volume III, Part 2: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations, 1988

Volume IV: Security and Counter-Intelligence, 1990

Volume V: Strategic Deception, 1990

These books are large and heavy with many chapters and appendices, covering all the campaigns of the war and the role that intelligence played.
They’re also out of print so you’ll have to go to a used books store and be prepared to pay a premium. If you do get hold of them however you will undoubtedly be impressed by their scope and analysis.

The first four books on operations each cover a specific time period. There are separate chapters for the organization of the intelligence agencies, economic and strategic assessments and of course the role that intelligence played in the actual campaigns. Volume 4 deals with internal security, ‘double’ agents and the operations of the Abwehr and the Sicherheitsdienst. At this time I haven’t gone through the fifth volume.


1). The first volume covers prewar intelligence arrangements and ends with operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941. The campaigns of Norway, France, Battle of Britain, Battle of the Atlantic, the Balkans and N.Africa are covered. Among the most interesting appendixes are: appendix 1 which covers the Polish and French contribution to the solution of the Enigma machine (with mistakes that were corrected in vol3), appendix 9 ‘Intelligence in advance of the GAF raid on Coventry’ and  appendix 11 ‘GAF Navigational Aids’.

2). The second volume covers the British strategic assessments from mid ’41 to mid ’43, the War at sea up to summer ‘43 and most importantly the North African campaign from July 1941 till the fall of Tunisia. Some of the appendices have interesting information on the security of British ciphers (appendix 1), the German police ciphers (appendix 5), the British assessment of German tanks and A/T guns (appendix 14) and the compromise of the initial German plan for the battle of Kursk (appendix 22).

3). Volume 3 part 1 has the strategic assessments from June ’43 to June ’44, the British assessments of the German war economy, the Italian campaign, the developments in occupied Yugoslavia (Chetnik-Partisan conflict), the War at sea from summer ’43 to summer ’44, the air war in the West and the intelligence on the V-weapons (V1 flying bomb and V2 rocket). There is interesting information in appendix 2 describing the solution of the Tunny teleprinter, in appendix 4 ‘Intelligence estimates and German statistics on the German war economy’, in appendix 10 ‘’German anxieties about Allied ability to locate U-boats’ and appendix 16 ‘Decrypt of the Japanese ambassador’s report to the foreign ministry Tokyo of his interview with Field Marshal Milch in Berlin, 17 August 1943’.

4). Volume 3 part 2 is the largest book (1.038 pages!) and covers the planning and execution of operation ‘Overlord’, the fighting in the Eastern Front, the Italian campaign, the War at sea and the Allied strategic bombing offensive up to the defeat of Germany. There is interesting information in appendix 9 ‘Intelligence on Germany’s reinforcement of the Cotentin peninsula and its effects on First US Army’s operational plans’, appendix 10 ‘Allied intelligence on German divisions on the Eve of D-day’, appendix 14 ‘Intelligence relating to 21st Panzer division and 352nd Infantry division up to D-day’, appendix 26 ‘Intelligence on the Axis oil situation up to the summer of 1944’, appendix 29 ‘TA project: Enemy intelligence’ (nuclear weapons research) and appendix 30 ‘Polish, French and British contribution to the breaking of the Enigma: A revised account’.

5). Volume 4 is smaller in size than the previous books but it has interesting information on the counterintelligence operations of the British security services in the UK and abroad. In 1940 the sudden German successes in Norway and France led to the belief that a vast underground network of spies, saboteurs and collaborators had assisted the German forces. This led to a ‘Fifth column’ panic with the authorities fearing that such a network might be operational in the UK. In reality the actual German spy network was very small and was quickly rounded up by MI-5. Attempts of the Abwehr to insert spies were so clumsy that they all failed. The Brits not only arrested the German spies and interrogated them but in many cases they were able to use them in radio-games and thus transmit false information to the Abwehr.  Things were not as easy abroad as the German agencies were assisted in their work by friendly foreign governments, for example in Spain. Codebreaking played a major role in uncovering the German spy networks in neutral countries since in 1940-41 the hand cipher and the Enigma machine used by the Abwehr were ‘broken’ and their communications could be read. Interesting information is included in the appendices, especially appendix 1 which has an overview of the Abwehr and the Sicherheitsdienst and appendix 14 dealing with the resistance leader turned double agent Christiaan Lindemans.

As in all books there are some small mistakes (or white lies) especially regarding the influence of codebreaking on actual operations (for example on the sinking of Rommel’s supplies). However these are nothing compared to the monstrosities that one reads in other history books.
Overall the ‘British Intelligence in the Second World War’ volumes remain the most authoritative source on signals intelligence in WWII.

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