Category Archives: Geography

A Rootless Cosmopolitan

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A Rootless Cosmopolitan

A few weeks ago, at the bridge table at St. James, I was chatting between rounds, and my opponent happened to say, in response to some light-heated comment I made: ‘Touché!’  Now that immediately made me think of the famous James Thurber cartoon from the New Yorker, and I was surprised to learn that my friend (who has now become my bridge partner at a game elsewhere) was not familiar with this iconic drawing. And then, a few days ago, while at the chiropractor’s premises, I happened to mention to that one of the leg-stretching pieces of equipment looked like something by Rube Goldberg. (For British readers, Goldberg is the American equivalent of W. Heath Robinson.) The assistant looked at me blankly: she had never heard of Goldberg.

James Thurber’s 1932 Cartoon

I recalled being introduced to Goldberg soon after I arrived in this country. But ‘Touché’ took me back much further. It set me thinking: how had I been introduced to this classic example of American culture? Thurber was overall a really poor draughtsman, but this particular creation, published in the New Yorker in 1932, is cleanly made, and its impossibly unrealistic cruelty did not shock the youngster who must have first encountered it in the late 1950s. A magazine would probably not get away with publishing it these days: it would be deprecated (perhaps like Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes) as a depiction of gratuitous violence, likely to cause offence to persons of a sensitive disposition, and also surely deemed to be ‘an insult to the entire worldwide fencing community’.

Was it my father who showed it to me? Freddie Percy was one of the most serious of persons, but he did have a partiality for subversive wit and humour, especially when it entered the realm of nonsense, so long as it did not involve long hair, illicit substances, or sexual innuendo. I recall he was fan of the Marx Brothers, and the songs of Tom Lehrer, though how I knew this is not certain, as we had no television in those days, and he never took us to see a Marx Brothers movie. Had he perhaps heard Tom Lehrer on the radio? He also enjoyed the antics of Victor Borge (rather hammy slapstick, as far as I can remember) as well as those of Jacques Tati, and our parents took my brother, sister and me to see the films of Danny Kaye (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – from a Thurber story – and Hans Christian Andersen), both of which, I must confess, failed to bowl me over.

Freddie and Mollie Percy (ca. 2004)

What was it with these Jewish performers? The Marx Brothers, Lehrer, Borge (né Rosenbaum) and Kaye (né Kaminsky)? Was the shtick my father told us about the Dukes of Northumberland all a fraud, and was his father (who in the 1920s worked in the clothes trade, selling school uniforms that he commissioned from East London Jewish tailors) perhaps an émigré from Minsk whose original name was Persky? And what happened to my grandfather’s Freemason paraphernalia, which my father kept in a trunk in the attic for so long after his death? It is too late to ask him about any of this, sadly. These questions do not come up at the right time.

I may have learned about Thurber from my brother. He was a fan of Thurber’s books, also – volumes that I never explored deeply, for some reason. Yet the reminiscence set me thinking about the American cultural influences at play in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and how they corresponded to local traditions.

Movies and television did not play a large part in my childhood: we did not have television installed until about 1965, so my teenage watching was limited to occasional visits to friends, where I might be exposed to Bonanza or Wagon Train, or even to the enigmatic Sergeant Bilko. I felt culturally and socially deprived, as my schoolmates would gleefully discuss Hancock’s Half Hour, or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and I had no idea what they were talking about. (It has taken a lifetime for me to recover from this feeling of cultural inferiority.) I did not attend cinemas very often during the 1950s, although I do recall the Norman Wisdom escapades, and the Doctor in the House series featuring Dirk Bogarde (the dislike of whom my father would not shrink from expressing) and James Robertson Justice. Apart from those mentioned above, I do not recall many American films, although later The Searchers made a big impression, anything with Audrey Hepburn in it was magical, and I rather unpredictably enjoyed the musicals from that era, such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The King and I.

It was perhaps fortunate that I did not at that stage inform my father that I had suddenly discovered my calling in the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, as the old meshugennah might have thrown me out of Haling Park Cottage on my ear before you could say ‘Jack Rubenstein’. In fact, the theatre had no durable hold on me, although the escapist musical attraction did lead me into an absorption with American popular music, which I always thought more polished and more stimulating than most of the British pap that was produced. (I exclude the Zombies, Lesley Duncan, Sandy Denny, and a few others from my wholesale dismissal.) Perhaps seeing Sonny and Cher perform I Got You Babe, or the Ronettes imploring me to Be My Baby, on Top of the Pops, led me to believe that there was a more exciting life beyond my dreary damp November suburban existence in Croydon, Surrey: California Dreaming reflected that thwarted ambition.

We left the UK in 1980, and, despite my frequent returns while I was working, and during my retirement, primarily for research purposes, my picture of Britain is frozen in a time warp of that period. Derek Underwood is wheeling away from the Pavilion End, a round of beers can be bought for a pound, the Two Ronnies are on TV, the Rolling Stones are just about to start a world tour, and George Formby is performing down the road at the Brixton Essoldo. [Is this correct? Ed.] I try to stay current with what is going on in the UK through my subscriptions to Punch (though, as I think about it, I haven’t received an issue for quite a while), Private Eye (continuous since 1965), the Spectator (since 1982), and Prospect (a few years old), but, as each year goes by, a little more is lost on me.

We are just about to enter our fortieth year living in the USA. As I wrote, we ‘uprooted’ in 1980, although at the time we considered that the relocation would be for just a few years, to gain some work experience, and see the country, before we returned to the UK. My wife, Sylvia, and I now joke that, once we have settled in, we shall explore the country properly. We retired to Southport, North Carolina, in 2001, and have thus lived here longer than in any other residence. Yet we have not even visited famous Charleston, a few hours down the road in South Carolina, let alone the Tennessee border, which is about seven hours’ drive away. (The area of North Carolina is just a tad smaller than that of England.) We (and our daughter) are not fond of long journeys in the car, which seems to us a colossal waste of time overall, and I have to admit there is a sameness about many American destinations. And this part of the world is very flat – like Norfolk without the windmills. You do not drive for the scenery.

Do I belong here? Many years ago we took up US citizenship. (I thus have two passports, retaining my UK affiliation, but had to declare primary loyalty to the USA.) My accent is a giveaway. Whereas my friends, when I return to the UK, ask me why I have acquired that mid-Atlantic twang, nearly everyone I meet over here comments that ‘they like my accent’ – even though some have been known to ask whether it is Australian or South African. (Hallo! Do I sound like Crocodile Dundee?) Sometimes their curiosity is phrased in the quintessential American phrase: ‘Where are you from?’, which most Americans can quickly respond to with the name of the city where they grew up. They may have moved around the country – or even worked abroad – but their family hometown is where they are ‘from’.

So what do I answer? ‘The UK’ simplifies things, but is a bit dull. To jolly up the proceedings, I sometimes say: ‘Well, we are all out of Africa, aren’t we?’, but that may unfortunately not go down well with everyone, especially in this neck of the woods. Facetiousness mixed with literal truth may be a bit heady for some people. So I may get a bit of a laugh if I respond ‘Brooklyn’, or even ‘Connecticut’, which is the state we moved to in 1980, and the state we retired from in 2001 (and whither we have not been back since.)

What they really want to know is where my roots lie. Now, I believe that if one is going to acknowledge ‘roots’, they had better be a bit romantic. My old schoolfriend Nigel Platts is wont to declare that he has his roots in Cumbria (wild borderlands, like the tribal lands of Pakistan, Lakeland poets: A-), while another old friend, Chris Jenkins, claims his are in Devon (seafarers, pirates, boggy moors: B+). My wife can outdo them both, since she was born in St. Vincent (tropical island, volcano, banana plantations: A+). But what do I say? I grew up in Purley, Coulsdon, and South Croydon, in Surrey: (C-). No one has roots in Purley, except for the wife of the Terry Jones character in the famous Monty Python ‘Nudge Nudge’ sketch. So I normally leave it as ‘Surrey’, as if I had grown up in the remote and largely unexplored Chipstead Valley, or in the shadow of Box Hill, stalking the Surrey Puma, which sounds a bit more exotic than spending my teenage years watching, from a house opposite the AGIP service station, the buses stream along the Brighton Road in South Croydon.

Do I carry British (or English) culture with me? I am a bit skeptical about these notions of ‘national culture’. One might summarise English culture by such a catalogue as the Lord’s test-match, sheepdog trials, pantomime, fish and chips, The Last Night of the Proms, the National Trust, etc. etc., but then one ends up either with some devilish discriminations between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture or with a list of everything that goes on in the country, which makes the whole exercise pointless. And what about ‘European’ culture? Is there such a thing, apart from the obvious shared heritage and cross-influences of music, art and literature? Bullfights as well as foxhunting? Bierfests alongside pub quizzes? The Eurovision Song Contest? Moreover, all too often, national ‘culture’ ends up as quaint customs and costumes put on for the benefit of the tourists.

Similarly, one could try to describe American culture: the Superbowl, revivalist rallies, Fourth of July parades, rodeos, NASCAR, Thanksgiving turkey. But where does the NRA, or the Mormon Church (sorry, newly branded as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), fit in? Perhaps the USA is too large, and too new, to have a ‘national culture’. Some historians have claimed that the USA is actually made up of several ‘nations’. Colin Woodard subtitled his book American Nations ‘A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America’, and drew on their colonial heritages to explain some mostly political inclinations. Somewhat of an oversimplification, of course, as immigration and relocation have blurred the lines and identities, but still a useful pointer to the cultural shock that can occur when an employee is transplanted from one locality to another, say from Boston to Dallas. Here, in south-eastern North Carolina, retirees from Yankeedom frequently write letters to the newspaper expressing their bewilderment and frustration that local drivers never seem to use their indicators before turning, and habitually drive below maximum speed in the fast lane of the highway. The locals respond, saying: “If you don’t like how we do things down here, go back to where you came from!”.

And then is the apparent obsession in some places about ‘identity’ and ‘ethnicity’. The New York Times, leading the ‘progressive’ (dread word!) media, is notorious on this matter, lavishly publishing streams of Op-Ed articles and editorial columns about ‘racial’ identities and ‘ethnic’ exploitation. Some of this originates from the absurdities of the U.S. Census Bureau, with its desperate attempts to categorise everybody in some racial pigeonhole. What they might do with such information, I have no idea. Shortly after I came to this country, I was sent on a management training course, where I was solemnly informed that I was not allowed to ask any prospective job candidate what his or her ‘race’ was. Ten minutes later, I was told that Human Resource departments had to track every employee’s race so that they could meet Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines. So it all depended on how a new employee decided to identify him- or her-self, and the bureaucrats got to work. I might have picked ‘Pacific Islander’, and no-one could have questioned it. (Sorry! I meant ‘Atlantic Islander’ . . .) Crazy stuff.

A few weeks ago, I had to fill out one of those interminable forms that accompany the delivery of healthcare in the USA. It was a requirement of the March 2010 Affordable Care Act, and I had to answer three questions. “The Government does not allow for unanswered questions. If you choose not to disclose the requested information, you must answer REFUSED to ensure compliance with the law”, the form sternly informed me. (I did not bother to inquire what would happen to me if I left the questions unanswered.) The first two questions ran as follows:

1. Circle the one that best describes your RACE:

  1. American Indian or Alaska native
  2. Asian
  3. Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
  4. Black or African American
  5. White
  6. Hispanic
  7. Other Race
  8. REFUSED

2. Circle the one that best describes your ETHNICITY:

            a. Hispanic or Latin

            b. Non-Hispanic or Non-Latin

            c. REFUSED

What fresh nonsense is this? To think that a panel of experts actually sat down around a table for several meetings and came up with this tomfoolery is almost beyond belief. (You will notice that the forms did not ask me whether the patient was an illegal immigrant.) But this must be one of the reasons why so many are desperate to enter the country – to have the opportunity to respond to those wonderful life-enhancing questionnaires created by our government.

This sociological aberration leaks into ‘identity’, the great hoax of the 21st century. A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an editorial in which it, without a trace of irony, announced that some political candidate in New York had recently identified herself as ‘queer Latina’, as if that settled the suitability of her election. The newspaper’s letter pages are sprinkled with earnest and vapid statements from subscribers who start off their communications on the following lines: “As a bald progressive Polish-American dentist, I believe that  . . . .”, as if somehow their views were not free, and arrived at after careful reflection, but conditioned by their genetic material, their parents, their chosen career, and their ideological group membership, and that their status somehow gave them a superior entitlement to voice their opinions on the subject of their choice.  (I believe the name for this is ‘essentialism’.) But all that is irrelevant to the fact of whether they have anything of value to say.

The trouble is that, if we read about the views of one bald progressive Polish-American dentist, the next time we meet one of his or her kind, we shall say: “Ah! You’re one of them!”, and assume that that person holds the same opinions as the previously encountered self-appointed representative of the bald progressive Polish-American dentist community. And we end up with clumsy stereotypes, which of course are a Bad Thing.

Identity should be about uniqueness, not groupthink or unscientific notions of ethnicity, and cannot be defined by a series of labels. No habits or practices are inherited: they are all acquired culturally. That doesn’t mean they are necessarily bad for that reason, but people need to recognize that they were not born on predestinate grooves to become Baptists or Muslims, to worship cows, to practice female circumcision, or to engage in strange activities such as shooting small birds in great numbers, or watching motor vehicles circle an oval track at dangerous speeds for hours on end, in the hope that they will at some time collide, or descending, and occasionally falling down on, snowy mountainsides with their feet buckled to wooden planks, while doing their best to avoid trees and boulders. It is not ‘in their blood’, or ‘in their DNA’.

Social workers are encouraged (and sometimes required) to seek foster-parents for adoption cases that match the subject’s ‘ethnicity’, so as to provide an appropriate cultural background for them, such as a ‘native American’ way of life. Wistful and new-agey adults, perhaps suffering from some disappointment in career or life, sometimes seek out the birthplace of a grandparent, in the belief that the exposure may reveal some vital part of their ‘identity’. All absolute nonsense, of course.

For instance, I might claim that cricket is ‘in my DNA’, but I would not be able to tell you in what epoch that genetic mutation occurred, or why the gene has atrophied in our rascally son, James, who was brought to these shores as a ten month-old, and has since refused to show any interest whatsoever in the great game. On the other hand, did the young Andrew Strauss dream, on the banks of the blue Danube, of opening the batting for England? Did Michael Kasprowicz learn to bowl outswingers in the shadow of the Tatra Mountains? 

Yet this practice of pigeon-holing and stereotyping leads to deeper problems. We now have to deal with the newly discovered injustice of ‘cultural appropriation’. I read the other day that student union officials at the University of East Anglia had banned the distribution of sombreros to students, as stallholders were forbidden from handing out ‘discriminatory or stereotypical imagery’. Well, I can understand why Ku Klux Klan hoods, and Nazi regalia, would necessarily be regarded as offensive, but sunhats? Were sombreros introduced by the Spanish on reluctant Aztecan populations, and are they thus a symbol of Spanish imperialism? Who is actually at risk here? What about solar topis? Would they be banned, too?

We mustn’t stop there, of course. Is the fact that Chicken Tikka Masala is now viewed by some as a national British dish an insult to the subcontinent of India, or a marvellous statement of homage to its wonderful cuisine? Should South Koreans be playing golf, which, as we know, is an ethnic pastime of the Scots? Should non-Maori members of the New Zealand rugby team be dancing the haka? English bands playing rhythm ‘n’ blues? Should Irving Berlin have written ‘White Christmas’?

The blight has even started to affect the world of imaginative fiction. I recently read, in the Times Literary Supplement, in an article on John Updike, the following: “Is self-absorbed fiction always narcissistic, or only if it’s written by a straight white male? What if it’s autofiction, does that make it ok? What are the alternatives? If a writer ventures outside their own socio-cultural sphere, is that praiseworthy empathy or problematic cultural appropriation? Is Karl Ove Knausgaard more self-absorbed than Rachel Cusk? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” (‘Autofiction’ was a new one on me, but it apparently means that you can invent things while pretending to write a memoir, and get away with it. Since most autobiographies I have read are a pack of lies planned to glorify the accomplishments of the writer, and paper over all those embarrassing unpleasantnesses, I doubt whether we need a new term here. Reminiscences handed down in old age should more accurately be called ‘oublioirs’.)

The writer, Claire Lowdon, almost nails it, but falls into a pit of her own making. ‘Socio-cultural sphere’? What is that supposed to mean? Is that a category anointed by some policepersons from a Literary Council, like the Soviet Glavlit, or is it a classification, like ‘Pacific Islander’, that the author can provide him- or her-self, as with ‘gay Latina’? Should Tolstoy’s maleness, and his ‘socio-cultural sphere’, have prevented him from imagining the torments of Anna Karenina, or portraying the peasant Karatayev as a source of wisdom? The defenders of culture against ‘misappropriation’ are hoist with the petard of their own stereotypes. (And please don’t ask me who Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk are. Just because I know who John Updike, James Thurber and Rube Goldberg are, but fall short with these two, does not automatically make me nekulturny, and totally un-cool.)

The whole point of this piece is to emphasise the strengths and importance of pluralism, and diminish the notion of multiculturalism. As I so urbanely wrote in Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm: “In a pluralist society, opinion is fragmented – for example, in the media, in political parties, in churches (or temples or mosques), and between the legislative and the executive arms of government. The individual rights of citizens and their consciences are considered paramount, and all citizens are considered equal under the law. The ethnic, cultural, religious or philosophical allegiances that they may hold are considered private affairs – unless they are deployed to subvert the freedoms that a liberal society offers them. A pluralist democracy values very highly the rights of the individual (rather than of a sociologically-defined group), and preserves a clear line between the private life and the public sphere.”   

Thus, while tracing some allegiance to the cultures of both the UK and the USA, I do not have to admit to interest in any of their characteristic practices (opera, horse-racing, NASCAR, American football, Game of Thrones, etc. etc.) but can just quietly go about my business following my legal pursuits, and rejoice in the variety and richness of it all.

It was thus refreshing, however, to find elsewhere, in the same issue of the TLS, the following statement  –  about cricket. An Indian politician, Shashi Tharoor, wrote: “And yet, this match revealed once again that cricket can serve as a reminder of all that Indians and Pakistanis have in common – language, cuisine, music, clothes, tastes in entertainment, and most markets of culture, including sporting passions. Cricket underscores the common cultural mosaic that brings us together – one that transcends geopolitical differences. This cultural foundation both predates and precedes our political antipathy. It is what connects our diasporas and why they find each other’s company comforting in strange lands when they first emigrate – visibly so in the UK. Cricket confirms that there is more that unites us than divides us.”

Well, up to a point, Lord Ram. That claim might be a slight exaggeration and simplification, avoiding those tetchy issues about Hindu-based nationalism, but no matter. Cricket is a sport that was enthusiastically picked up – not appropriated – in places all around the world. I cannot be the only fan who was delighted with Afghanistan’s appearance in the recent World Cup, and so desperately wanted the team to win at least one game. I have so many good memories of playing cricket against teams from all backgrounds (the Free Foresters, the Brixton West Indians, even the Old Alleynians), never questioning which ‘socio-cultural sphere’ they came from (okay, occasionally, as those readers familiar with my Richie Benaud experience will attest), but simply sharing in the lore and traditions of cricket with those who love the game, the game in which, as A. G. McDonnell reminded us in England Their England, the squire and the blacksmith contested without class warfare getting in the way. Lenin was said to have despaired when he read that policemen and striking miners in Scotland took time off from their feuding to play soccer. He then remarked that revolution would never happen in the UK.

For a while, I considered myself part of that very wholesome tradition. I was looking forward, perhaps, to explaining one day to my grandchildren that I had watched Cowdrey and May at the Oval (‘Oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago  . . .’), and that I could clearly recall an evening in late July 1956 where I overheard a friend of my father’s asking him whether he had heard that ‘Laker took all ten’. But Ashley, and the twins Alexis and Alyssa (one of their maternal great-grandfathers looked just like Ho Chi Minh, but was a very gentle man with no discernible cricket gene in his make-up) would surely give me a quizzical look, as if it were all very boring, and ask me instead to tell them again the story of how I single-handedly tracked down the Surrey Puma . . .

Alyssa, Alexis and Ashley reacting to the story of Jim Laker’s 10-53 at Old Trafford

Uprooted and rootless I thus remain. My cosmopolitan days are largely over, too. Even though I have never set my eyes on Greenland’s icy mountains or India’s coral strand (or Minsk), I was fortunate enough to visit all five continents on my business travels. I may still make the occasional return to the United Kingdom: otherwise my voyages to major metropolitan centres are restricted to visits to Wilmington for appointments with the chiropractor, and cross-country journeys to Los Altos, California to see James and his family.

So where does that leave me, and the ‘common cultural mosaic that binds us together’? A civilized culture should acknowledge some common heritage and shared customs, while allowing for a large amount of differences. Individuals may have an adversarial relationship in such an environment, but it should be based on roles that are temporary, not essentials. Shared custom should prevent the differences becoming destructive. Yet putting too many new stresses on the social fabric too quickly will cause it to fray. For example, returning to the UK has often been a strange experience, revealing gradual changes in common civilities. I recall, a few years ago, walking into the branch of my bank in South Croydon, where I have held an account since 1965. (The bank manager famously gave me what I interpreted as a masonic handshake in 1971, when I was seeking a loan to ease my entry into the ‘property-owning classes’.)  The first thing I saw was a sign on the wall that warned customers something along these lines: “Abuse of the service staff in this bank will not be tolerated! Offenders will be strictly prosecuted.”

My, oh my, I thought – does this bank have a problem! What a dreadful first impression! Did they really resent their customers so much that they had to welcome them with such a hostile message? Was the emotional well-being of their service staff that fragile? Did the bank’s executives not realise that customer service requires a thick skin? And perhaps behind all that lay a deeper problem – that their customer service, and attentiveness to customers’ needs, were so bad that customers too often were provoked into ire? Why would they otherwise advertise that fact to everyone who walked in?

I can’t see that happening in a bank in the United States, where I am more likely to receive the well-intentioned but cringe-making farewell of ‘Have a blessed day!’ when I have completed my transaction. That must be the American equivalent of the masonic handshake. (No, I don’t do all my bank business via my cell-phone.) Some edginess and lack of trust appear to have crept in to the domain of suburban Surrey – and maybe beyond. Brexit must have intensified those tensions.

Another example: In North Carolina, when walking along the street, we residents are in the habit of engaging with strangers as we pass them, with a smile, and a ‘Good Day!’, or ’How are you doin’?’, just as a measure of reinforcing our common civility and good humour. When I last tried that, walking around in South Croydon, where my roots are supposed to be, it did not work out well. I got a scared look from an astonished local, as if to say: ‘Who’s that weird geezer! He clearly doesn’t belong here’. And he would be right.

In conclusion: a list. As a retired Anglo-American slightly Aspergerish atheist ex-database administrator, I love lists, as all persons with the above description predictably do. My choice below catalogues fifty cultural figures (including one pair) who have influenced me, or for whom I hold some enthusiasm, a relationship occasionally enhanced by a personal encounter that contained something special. (I should point out, however, that I was brought up in a milieu that stressed the avoidance of showing excessive enthusiasm: ‘Surtout, pas trop de zèle!’. Somehow I survived American business without being ‘passionate’ about anything.) That does not mean that these persons are idols, heroes, icons, or role-models – they simply reflect my enthusiasms and tastes. But they give an idea of how scattered and chaotic any one person’s cultural interests can be in a pluralist society. Think of them as my cosmopolitan roots. Rachel Cusk did not make the list, but she would probably have beaten out J. R. R. Tolkien and Eric Hobsbawm.

Kingsley Amis

Jane Archer

John Arlott

Correlli Barnett

Raymond Chandler

Anton Chekhov

John Cleese

Robert Conquest

Peter Cook

Peter Davison

Theodor Fontane

Milton Friedman

Alan Furst

Peter and Rosemary Grant

Robert Graves

Emmylou Harris

Friedrich Hayek

Audrey Hepburn

Ronald Hingley

Clive James

Paul Jennings

Gordon Kaufmann

Hugh Kingsmill

Heinrich von Kleist

Arthur Koestler

Osbert Lancaster

Philip Larkin

Stephen Leacock

Fitzroy Maclean

D. S. Macnutt

René Magritte

Nadezhda Mandelstam

John Martin

Peter Medawar

H. L. Mencken

Christian Morgenstern

George Orwell

Arvo Pärt

Sergey Rachmaninov

Joseph Roth

Peter Sellers

Eric Shipton

Posy Simmons

Joe Simpson

Wilfred Thesiger

Alan Turing

Immanuel Velikovsky

Carolyn Wells

Michael Wharton

P. G. Wodehouse

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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Filed under General History, Geography, Literature/Academia, Personal, Philosophy, Uncategorized

The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 5)

News update: A few weeks ago, one of my on-line research colleagues contacted me on some topic, adding incidentally: “You probably know that Ursula Beurton [i.e. SONIA] is the title of Ben Macintyre’s next book.” Well, I did not know that, but was able to verify the information at https://www.thebookseller.com/news/macintyre-reveals-20th-centurys-greatest-woman-spy-viking-979556. I thought it appropriate and timely to record the fact that I had tried to contact Macintyre towards the end of last year, sending the following message to his agent at Penguin/Random House, and asking her to forward it to the author:

“Dear Mr Macintyre, 

I have just finished reading ‘The Spy and the Traitor’, which I enjoyed as much as your previous books on espionage and sabotage (all of which I own). 

I wondered whether you were searching around for a topic for your next project. If you consider that extra-judicial execution of a German spy by the British authorities in World War II might be an attention-getting subject, may I suggest that you look at my latest monthly blog at www.coldspur.com? This is a fascinating case that has not received the attention it merits. Alternatively, you might want to pursue a highly credible explanation for the failure by Britain’s Radio Security Service to detect Soviet agent SONIA’s radio transmissions a little later on. The full saga can be seen at http://www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio/.

I am a serious historian. My book ‘Misdefending the Realm’, about the communist subversion of Britain’s security during the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact, published a year ago, was based on my doctoral thesis at the University of Buckingham. I clearly have some copyright interest in what I have written on my website, but I am keen to encourage an author like you to pick up my research, and collaborate with me on broader publication. 

I thank you for your time, and look forward to hearing from you. 

Sincerely,

Antony Percy (Southport, NC)”

I did not receive the favour of a reply, not even an acknowledgment, but that is sadly not an unusual experience. I am intrigued to know what secret sources Mr. Macintyre has been able to lay his hands on, but I would have thought that ‘Sonia’s Radio’, and ‘Sonia and the Quebec Agreement’ would have provided him with some valuable research fodder. After all, if he came up with similar conclusions to mine, that would be quite noteworthy. On the other hand, if he did not, it would mean that he had missed an opportunity. Just sayin’. (And of course he may come up with some spectacular evidence that counters everything I have written.)

So I thought I should lay this marker on the ground, just in case.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

The Mystery of the Undetected Radios, Part 5

“S.I.S. foresee no difficulties in the provision of W/T sets on the scale we understand the S.O.2. require, but the extension of this form of communication will raise demands for an increase in the W/T frequencies and the number of skilled wireless operators allotted to the S.I.S., or to S.O.2. if an independent organisation is set up under their direction. As the whole plan will depend on successful communications, and their establishment must necessarily form a commitment in the early stages, we feel that favourable consideration should be given to these demands.” (from ‘Special Operations Executive’, Report by the Joint Planning Staff, 9 August 1941)

The previous chapter in this saga concluded with an analysis of the military situation in Europe of June 1941. Hitler’s war machine had recently invaded the Soviet Union, prompting the latter’s agents back in Germany to be urgently re-activated by Moscow Centre. In Britain, the Radio Security Service had found its permanent home within SIS, and David Petrie, the new Director-General of MI5, was implementing the organisation he had envisioned before he accepted the job, which allowed B Division to concentrate exclusively on anti-Axis counter-espionage and counter-sabotage activity. The Nazi invasion of Great Britain had been (temporarily) called off, but the Abwehr believed it maintained a few residual spies from the Lena operation in place, to keep it informed of morale, weather conditions, and military plans. A year after its foundation, the Special Operations Executive was still groping its way in search of an effective and secure model for building a sabotage network in Nazi-occupied Europe. The acquisition of new territories brought more flexible and more powerful wireless detection capabilities to the Reich’s defence and intelligence organisations, but presented fresh challenges in scope, geography, communications and the management of hostile populations.

France – Occupied Zone & Free Zone

I had originally intended, in this installment, to take the story up to the end of 1943, but the volume of material forced me to be more conservative. Instead, this chapter covers the period up to the autumn of 1942 – a similarly critical turning-point in the conduct of the war. Fortunes for the Allies were probably at their lowest in 1942. Even though the USA had now joined the conflict, Great Britain was being battered on all fronts, and the Soviet Union was trying desperately to repel the Nazi advance. Stalin and his minions were applying pressure on the UK and the USA to open a ‘Second Front’, yet Churchill did not impress upon the dictator the impossibility of launching a successful invasion of Europe so soon. Nevertheless, plans were already underway for the deception campaign deemed necessary for the eventual assault on the European mainland, and the unit responsible, the London Controlling Section, acquired new leadership. The XX Committee nursed some doubts: whether their most established agent, TATE, was trusted by the Abwehr, and whether their opponents saw through the whole deception exercise. Attempts to cooperate with the Soviets on wireless and cypher matters (some officers hoped that the Soviets would share with them their codes, and thus eliminate decryption needs!) also started to break down at the end of 1942.

Meanwhile, the Abwehr, now joined by the Gestapo, was starting to mop up the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra), the spy network controlled by the Soviets. Schulze-Boysen was arrested on August 30, 1942, and Germany had by then started to apply to the operations of SOE and SIS what it had learned in radio detection and infiltration of Soviet enemy cells. The invasion of North Africa prompted Germany, in November 1942, to take over control of Vichy France, putting a severe dent in the efforts of French resistance movements that had been operating with relative freedom there. In Britain, the Soviet Union’s spies were able to take advantage of the pusillanimity displayed by British politicians, anxious not to upset Stalin. SONIA was active, and had been joined by her husband: Fuchs had recently adopted British citizenship. Despite Petrie’s concerns, the communist spy Oliver Green was not prosecuted. And the RSS appeared to ignore many illicit wireless transmissions that were being made from British soil.

I should make clear that it is not my intention to provide a comprehensive summary of all aspects of these resistance movements, and the various attempts at espionage and sabotage. My goal has been to show patterns of wireless usage among the various agencies, the techniques that led to both success and failure, and reveal how the advances in expertise and technology in radio-detection and location-finding contributed to the fortunes of the secret radio-operators, and thus to the outcome of the war.

Countering the Red Orchestra

Plans for increased wireless activity from Soviet spies in Germany had begun before Barbarossa. At the beginning of May 1941, for example, Berlin station had asked for more, and improved, radio-sets for the Harnack group. Thus it was only a few days after Barbarossa, on June 26, that German monitoring-stations intercepted the first of the transmissions from the network that the Nazis would come to call the ‘Rote Kapelle’. It was the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, in its interception station at Cranz, that picked up the callsign ‘KLK from PTX’. As Heinz Höhne wrote, in Codeword Direktor: “By 8 July 1941 the intercept service had seventy-eight Comintern transmitters on its books and by October there were a further ten. (By July 1942 there were 325 clandestine Soviet sets working in German-occupied Europe, the majority admittedly on the Eastern Front.)”

Organisation of German Radio Counterintelligence (Praun)

The Funkabwehr (Wireless Defence, which was not subordinate to the Abwehr) had been approved by Hitler as the authority for radio monitoring in June 1941. Competing intelligence groups had tried to take responsibility for the interception of illicit broadcasting, but both the Abwehr and the Ordnungspolizei (the Orpo, or regular police) had failed. The Orpo, which at the start of the war was responsible for locating unlicensed transmitters, had tried to develop its own interception capabilities, and, after setting up in Norway and the Netherlands, extended its reach into France, Poland and Russia, hoping to be able to work independently.  Yet it was overwhelmed by sheer volumes. The Funkabwehr was stronger, bolstered by the transfer of expertise and men from the army interception service, with five companies formed to cover Europe from Norway to the Balkans. Yet, at this stage, the equipment used by the Funkabwehr was inferior to, say, that of the Luftwaffe. It possessed only short-range direction-finders, and its mobile units were too bulky and obvious. It might have come as a surprise to the British authorities (who, it will be remembered, were at the time concerned that transmissions from their double-agents might be accurately located by the Abwehr) to learn that the FuIII (the shortened version of the very Teutonic name for the radio section, OKW/WNV/FuIII) as late as September was still trying to establish whether the transmitter with the PTX callsign was working in North Germany, Belgium, Holland or northern France – that is an area as large as England itself.

In fact FuIII discovered, through ground-wave detection,  three illicit transmitters on its doorstep, in Berlin, and by October 1941 was ready to pounce. The operation was bungled, however, and an observer was able to warn Schulz-Boysen of the impending raid, after which the transmitters (who had deployed solid security practices) were shut down on October 22, and not reactivated until February 1942. FuIII had thus to return its attention to PTX, and, with improved direction-finding techniques, was soon confident that its operator was working in Belgium, probably in Bruges. FuIII then engaged the assistance of the local Abwehr office. A few weeks later, on November 17, Berlin confidently informed the local team that Brussels was now the source. Captain Piepe flew over the city with direction-finding equipment, and aided by improved short-range detection gear (as well as by disastrously long broadcasts by the radio operators), a successful raid was conducted on the night of December 13/14. The agent KENT’s set had been disabled, and the chief, Trepper, had to flee to France.

German Direction-Finding Operation (Praun)

The Rote Kapelle in Germany was eventually mopped up quite speedily. Hitler, provoked by the insult of hostile wireless operators continuing to transmit, ordered its destruction in early 1942, and brought the Gestapo in to assist. The exercise was a rare example of the German intelligence agencies cooperating. As Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in his report on the Abwehr: “Liaison at the centre for the most part consisted of little more than the transmission of reports between departments, though some large-scale cases, such as the Rote Kapelle, appear to have been centrally controlled by co-operation between different organisations.” The counter-espionage operation was thus aided by the secret police’s merciless interrogation and torture of agents they had arrested, as well as by some absurdly irresponsible behavior by the wireless operators. The papers seized in Brussels had given Germany’s decryption agency insights into the codes used, and this experience was parlayed into more aggressive pursuit of the members of the network in 1942. Yet as early as October 10, 1941, a fateful message had been sent from Brussels that revealed the addresses of the major spies in Berlin, Schulze-Boysen, Harnack and Kuckhoff, and when that message was deciphered in July 1942, it allowed the traitors to be tracked down quickly, and eventually executed.

For some time more, the Rote Kapelle operated outside the boundaries of Germany: the Brussels cell was effectively moved to Paris, while the unit in Switzerland, first detected in September 1942, would remain a thorn in the Funkabwehr’s flesh until late in 1943. The Abwehr learned, however, several lessons from the successful exercise in Brussels and Berlin. More accurate long-range direction-finding was necessary, but it would always have to be complemented by more discrete, miniaturised, and concealable local equipment. Gaining access to codebooks, and torturing spies to betray secrets, made up for slow and lengthy decryption capabilities. Given the rivalries that were endemic to German intelligence, a degree of cooperation between the Gestapo, the Orpo, and the Abwehr (who all had different agendas) turned out to be an important contributor to success. Moreover, the experiences that shortly followed in the Netherlands and Belgium proved that an efficient machine could, with some patience, ‘turn’ radio networks into an efficient vehicle for arresting further agents before they even started broadcasting. The improved techniques in location-finding would eventually, some time in 1943, be consolidated in the Gestapo’s headquarters on the Avenue Foch in Paris.

The Abwehr and the ‘Englandspiel’

The Abwehr was then able to apply some its lessons learned to confounding the attempts of the SOE to install sabotage agents into Nazi-occupied Europe. The Netherlands was one of the busiest countries, and, from the German standpoint, had one if its most ingenious teams working on the problem of illicit wireless. With its territory expanded, the RSHA was able to deploy more accurate direction-finding techniques, and Section IX of the Abwehr in the Netherlands had been informed, in the summer of 1941, of what sounded like classical agent activity (call-signs, irregular times of communications, short traffic-periods, etc.) in the country, in a triangle with a base of about twelve miles between Utrecht and Amersfoort. Another transmitter was indicated in an equilateral triangle of about twenty miles between Gouda, Delft and Noordwijk. An intense campaign of close-range tracking was initiated.

Issues of territorial ownership had to be resolved, however. If the groups responsible were working independently of London, it would fall to the Orpo (which, predictably, had its own Radio Observation Office, known as FuB) to investigate and prosecute. In the Abwehr’s mind, the Orpo would enter the project bull-headedly, quick to trumpet its success and punish the offenders: Himmler’s Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei, or Sipo), of which the secret police, the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo), was a part, alongside the criminal police (Kriminalpolizei, or Kripo), would be even more aggressive. The Abwehr, on the other hand, had longer-term goals of undermining the network, learning more, and inveigling further indiscretions. Hermann Giskes of the Abwehr had been able to gain the cooperation of the Orpo and the Sipo, and was then informed that the Funkabwehr had been able to prove that the stations were communicating with contacts in England. (A few months later, the station communicating with PTX had been localised to ‘North of London’ – still not a very precise estimate.)

The transmitter with the callsign UBX was caught red-handed by the Sipo, but the opportunity to play the agent back dissolved, as Sipo insisted on performing the interrogation, and the codes used turned out to be hard to crack. Another failure occurred in the Hague, where the local direction-finder, disguised as a meter-reader, was too obvious. Even though the operator with callsign TBO was localised to a single block of flats, the operator got away. These failures, and the corresponding decline in illicit transmissions, meant that the Wehrmacht direction-finding detachment was withdrawn from the Netherlands at the end of September, showing that, at this time, such units were something of a luxury that had to be deployed sparsely. Yet, early in 1942 the FuB had discovered a new transmitter with the call-sign RLS, located only as ‘somewhere in South Holland’. Close-range direction-finding was able to ‘pinpoint’ (a perhaps overused term in this sphere of discourse) to a modern block of flats in the Farhenheitsstraat in the Hague. The Sipo was able to conduct a successful raid on March 6, and haul in one Lauwers, who was to play a major role in allowing the Germans to run the SOE network in the famed ‘Englandspiel’, by which the Abwehr controlled almost all the SOE’s network in the Netherlands..

When Giskes wrote his book about the operation (London Calling North Pole), he described how incompetent and poorly trained the SOE wireless operators had been. “Without doubt, lack of experience and gullibility played an important part on the other side. The agents were really amateurs, despite their training in England, and they had no opportunity to work up through practice to the standard required for their immensely difficult task.” Yet the main fault lay with their contacts in England, who overlooked the omission of security signals that would have indicated that the agents were not operating under duress. Giskes rightly criticised the total radio organisation of British Intelligence for its sloppy approach to security, which allowed a small team of Orpo men to hoodwink the Baker Street setup, going on to write: “The carelessness of the enemy is illustrated by the fact that more than fourteen different radio links were established with London for longer or shorter periods during the Nordpol operation, and these fourteen were operated by six ORPO men!” He also showed that both parties were in total ignorance of the enemy’s direction-finding techniques, grossly overestimating the comparative capability of the other. Giskes said that the Abwehr assumed that the British would be taking bearings on the wireless locations of their agents, just as B1a in MI5 took pains to ensure that agents like TATE did actually transmit from where they were supposed to be.

The successful deception would carry on until March 1944, when Giskes recommended to the RSHA of putting a stop to it, sending a message of disdain and triumph to the British when he did so. The whole exercise was a coup for the Germans, and a tactical disaster for the British. Certainly, Giskes and his team showed as much flair and imagination as the members of the Double-Cross operation, and the British SOE Netherlands group was woefully naïve and gullible about what was going on (and later tried to cover up its mistakes). Yet the impact on the war’s outcome was meagre: many gallant lives were lost (the Germans executed most of the wireless operators, despite the Gestapo making promises to Giskes to the contrary), but sabotage in the Netherlands was not a critical component of the conflict, while deception of Allied invasion plans most assuredly was.

I shall study the infrastructure that the Funkabwehr supposedly deployed from the Gestapo headquarters in Paris in the next instalment. It represents an impressive achievement – if it can be entirely believed. Hugh Trevor-Roper, who wrote a very informative account of the detection and location methods deployed by the Orpo and the Funkabwehr, which can be seen in the HW 34/2 folder at Kew, encouraged a certain degree of caution. After describing the technical means by which a transmitting station could be precisely located within half an hour, he went on to write: “The greater amount and reliability of information which has become available since the end of the war has shown that the picture presented by these reports was very far from accurate. In point of fact there is no real evidence that the size of the Funkabwehr was in any way remarkable nor that it possessed greater technical efficiency than might have been expected. This throws an interesting light on the origin of these reports which came from apparently quite distinct sources but which were yet mutually confirmatory. In the light of this it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that they were the result of exaggerated information deliberately put out by the German authorities to discourage the Allies from the use of illicit wireless. In this case they may in effect have been a form of preventive weapons used by the Funkabwehr itself whose effectiveness may have been feared by its own chiefs or by other security services to be very different from what these reports suggested.” That judgment would echo a familiar theme – that the Germans exaggerated their direction-finding abilities in order to deter operators and instill fear.

German Radio Counterintelligence Operations (Praun)

Lastly, the Germans admitted that ‘cooperation’ was a technique forced upon them by confused organizational structure. In his report on German Radio Intelligence given to the Americans in March 1950, General Praun wrote that this structure: “ . . .  in which the authority of the counterintelligence agencies, the civilian police, the Central Office of National Security, and the like overlapped constantly –  –  led to a waste of effort and constant jurisdictional conflicts. As a result many an enemy radio agent was able to escape, although his whereabouts had been definitely established by D/F.”  Maybe there is an element of buck-passing in General Praun’s account, but the reputation for ruthless efficiency over wireless matters enjoyed by the Nazi counter-intelligence machine received another buffeting.

SOE Strikes for Independence

In the previous instalment, in which I concentrated on SOE in France, I showed how histories of SOE have tended to overstate the efficiencies of Nazi radio-detection and location-finding techniques in the first couple of years of its existence, as an honourable but incorrect method of covering up its own operational failures, primarily in the area of training and security. Thus the experience in the Netherlands constitutes a more useful representation of how the Germans made advances in their defensive techniques, taking advantage of geography (a smaller, adjacent area, with flatter terrain, which made concealment difficult, and radio-wave distortion less likely). The Netherlands was also a crowded theatre in terms of the overall conduct of the war: the obvious sea-based entry towards Germany from the British Isles, and the territory that bombers on their way to the German heartland had to cross. For those two reasons it was stoutly defended. I now turn to analyzing the Allied perspective of SOE’s accomplishments in the Low Countries.

Whereas British Intelligence was able to compose (primarily through interpretation of ULTRA intercepts) a highly accurate picture of the organisation of their Nazi counterparts – insights that amazed officers interrogated after the war – the Germans had only a hazy idea of the structure of their adversaries’ intelligence units. M.R.D. Foot has written about how the SS and the Abwehr did not understand the distinctions between SOE and SIS, were slow to conclude that they had separate missions (sabotage and intelligence-gathering, respectively), and even thought that the SAS was a uniformed wing of SOE. Yet SIS and SOE were at daggers drawn, in a rivalry that matched any of the internecine battles of the Nazi hierarchies. From the outset, Stewart Menzies, the head of SIS, had regarded SOE, set up under the civilian control of Hugh Dalton, as an irresponsible upstart unit whose destructive sabotage activities would interfere with SIS’s mission of intelligence-gathering. While jealously protecting his ULTRA information sources, since the Government Code and Cypher School reported to him, Menzies had also been given control of RSS, and had established a wireless section (Section VIII) under Richard Gambier-Parry.

The problem was that SOE was scorned by SIS, interfered with by the Foreign Office, and excluded from the military planning mechanism in the War Office, all of which led Frank Nelson to threaten to resign in November 1941. Hugh Dalton does not even mention SIS or Menzies in his diaries (primarily for reasons of secrecy), but they were a thorn in his flesh, and it was not until after Dalton was relieved of his post in February 1942 that SOE was able to take better control over its own communications. For SOE had to go begging, not only for airplanes that it had to plead for against the priorities of the Air Ministry, but also for wireless equipment and ciphers. As Foot wrote: “ . . . all SOE’s W/T equipment and ciphers were handed out by SIS, of which the home station handled all the traffic – with no increase in the cipher staff. This naturally caused delays, which in turn caused friction.” Thus the dry, bureaucratic minute with which I introduced this segment does not do justice to the struggle that evolved between SOE and SIS. SOE’s requirements had by far surpassed what SIS could provide. The matter would not be resolved until June 1942. Professor Hinsley, who in Volume 2 of his History of British Intelligence in World War II overall revealed a rather hazy and misleading understanding of how MI8 morphed into RSS, recorded how SOE, in March 1942, ‘acquired its own codes and wireless organisations and no longer depended on those of the SIS’.

Moreover, Menzies, and his sidekick Dansey controlled the information coming back from SOE agents. Claude Dansey – – an even more committed enemy of SOE than Menzies – was the latter’s liaison at Baker Street, the headquarters of the SOE, and was responsible for ensuring that, under an agreement made as early as September 15, 1940, any intelligence gathered by SOE agents had to be passed to Menzies even before SOE officers and managers had a chance to see it. (I was intrigued to read in the London Review of Books, May 9, 2019, an extract from an unpublished memoir by Kenneth Cohen, shared by his son, in which Cohen, who had worked for Dansey in the highly clandestine ‘Z’ unit, reported that ‘the SIS organisation was at its worst, partly because it made no serious attempt to pool varied intelligence sources on France: diplomatic (even Vichy); Free French; SOE, and our own counter-espionage were all operating uncoordinated.’ Neglect of SOE was no surprise, but Menzies was clearly in love with ULTRA, and derived his power and prestige from his role as communicator to Churchill of the output of the project.)

Thus the setbacks which SOE experienced in the Low Countries have to be reviewed in the light of the challenges imposed upon them by SIS. Several mishaps were reported in the attempts to land agents in the Netherlands in the summer of 1941. Radio equipment frequently failed, as it had been wired improperly (or so was the claim by SOE alumni). A lone agent, J. J. Zomer, was parachuted in in mid-June, and the first successful pair (Homburg and Sporre) arrived by the same means on September 7, which time happened to coincide with an increase in sabotage, probably caused by Dutch communists who had now changed sides. In any case, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who had been appointed Reichskommissar over the Netherlands in May 1940, was ordered to clamp down. As Giskes reported in detail, none of the agents survived long undetected. Zomer was discovered near Utrecht on August 31, by direction-finding equipment: his capture turned out to be a colossal liability, as ‘the text of about a hundred messages that he had exchanged with London since his arrival in mid-June, both in cipher and in clear’ (Foot), was captured with him. On the night of November 7/8, Taconis and Lauwers were sent into Holland to find out what had happened to Homburg and Sporre. Lauwers’s set would not work, and he had to get it repaired by a student. It was not until early January that Lauwers was able to make his first transmission, a delay in operation that some at Baker Street thought suspicious, only this time his silence had been an accident.

By now, the Abwehr knew about planned aircraft arrivals, with stores or further agents. Lauwers was arrested on March 6, and was turned just quickly enough to meet his transmission schedule. When a junior employee in N Section of SOE pointed out that Lauwers’s next message did not contain any security checks, he was told ‘not to worry about trivia, at the start of great events’. Foot indicates that security checks were regarded as an annoying fad of Menzies’s, but in this case, Gambier-Parry and his team were correct. It took a long while for Baker Street to come to the conclusion that its network had been suborned: since running a successful agent was what defined the career of the home officers, they were reluctant (as were the Abwehr espionage officers) to believe the evidence they had been trained to suspect. At the end of April, Gubbins, responsible for operations, expressed to Hambro the uncertainty felt by the Dutch authorities about which groups in the Netherlands should be regarded as intact. Yet the network was not closed down, and further agents were needlessly sacrificed.

SOE was undone more by its own incompetence in Belgium: it seemed to experience special trouble in recruiting appropriate persons. If no subversion of the networks on the lines of the Dutch fiasco occurred, enough missteps were made for ‘T’ Section of SOE effectively to shoot itself in the foot. Parachute drops started in May 1941, but the navigator on the first run forgot to press the switch to release the container of the wireless, with the result that it actually landed in Germany. Training was frequently rushed. The wireless operator Leblicq died horribly after making a bad exit from a plane. Agents were frequently dropped miles beyond their designated dropping-zone. One Courtin foolishly strung up his set immediately he had booked himself into a hotel: the casual curiosity of the local police resulted in his aerial being spotted, and his wireless set discovered under his jacket. (That is at least an indication that less clumsy and bulky apparatus was in use at the time.) Another, called Campion, started transmitting on December 1, but he was quickly captured, and his set turned, allowing the Germans to confirm new arrivals, and be waiting for them. Agents frequently fell out with their wireless operators, whom they regarded as feckless, careless or idle. One named van Impe plugged his AC-adapted set into a DC socket, and burned it out. Brion and van Horen stayed on the air for over an hour, and were caught by direction-finding: Van Horen had to watch while an Orpo sergeant played his set back. Fonck always transmitted from the same place – his mother’s home, and was caught on May 2, 1942. In June 1942, ‘Lynx’ could not make his wireless work.

Such maladroitness was compounded by the nervousness of the local population. Belgium was a small country, and it was difficult to hide. It was perhaps understandable that scared members of the population, doing all they could to survive the war, brought such illicit goings-on to the attention of the authorities. Thus Foot’s conclusion is not wholly surprising: “London normally put these arrests of wireless operators down to efficient German direction-finding. D/F was in fact often the cause; but so was careless talk, and so sometimes – as Campion’s example shows – was treachery. It suited the Germans to have the British believing in D/F, rather than realizing how widespread were the Germans’ informers, conscious and unconscious, in resistance circles. One contemporary account put down denunciation as responsible for 98 per cent of the arrests in Belgium.” It was much more Secret Army than ‘Allo ‘Allo.

And I unashamedly quote Foot again, at length, with his final judgment on the Belgian operation.

“By late October 1942 T had dispatched forty-five agents to Belgium, of whom thirty-two had fallen into enemy hands, ten of them – including three killed in enemy action – on their dropping zones. Besides Leblicq, who had never landed, eighteen of these forty-five were wireless operators. Among these, Verhafen had returned safely, Vergucht had no set, and all the rest were already dead or in enemy hands: in most cases, unknown to T. It may help the reader to have these unhappy results set out in the table on the following page; which adds two relevant agents from DF and one from the NKVD to T’s tally.”

“The Germans were both ingenious and assiduous in playing back their captured sets; T’s war diary is full of imaginary tales of minor acts of sabotage, with a few major ones – undetectable from the air – thrown in; T dutifully reported all this to higher authorities, and it was generally understood in the secret world in Whitehall that Belgian resistance showed great promise. This was all illusion: T had so far achieved very little.” The sense of failure was crystallized in the fact that, in August 1942, SOE and the Belgian government-in-exile came to break off relations in a dispute over objectives.

The timing of Foot’s analysis (and what I reported in January) shows that SOE’s move to independence from SIS brought results only slowly, and that the lessons of security were not quickly learned by Gubbins himself. The switch occurred in June 1942, and SOE took control of wireless, as well as the deployment of codes and ciphers. It constructed its own sets, and developed a training centre at Thame Park in Oxfordshire. It established two transmitting-receiving statins at Grendon Underwood and Poundon, on the Oxfordshire-Buckinghamshire border. Later, Passy, of de Gaulle’s government-in-exile, was to claim that SOE professionalism in wireless operation greatly improved after this, but the service was still hindered by the abilities of those it could hire, and the struggle to complement solid, reliable and more concealable equipment with safe transmission practices.

SIS in Europe

While most of the attention in the media has focused on SOE, SIS had a valuable role to fill in providing intelligence from Nazi-occupied Europe. The networks had to be re-built almost from scratch, however, as the Venlo incident (whereby two SIS agents had been captured by the Germans, and identities of SIS networks betrayed), and the rapid overrun of European territories by the German war machine had left SIS without active agents or wireless capabilities to communicate back to the United Kingdom. The history of this attempt at reconstruction is choppy: much of it relies on individual testimonies that have frequently been romanticized to emphasise the heroic. Keith Jeffery, in The Secret History of MI6, provided some fragmented accounts of the challenges and successes, but there is no dedicated ‘authorised’ history of SIS espionage in Europe to draw on. Hinsley’s history reminds us that SOE was accused by SIS of recruiting some of its agents, and then invading its turf by using them to transmit intelligence when its mission was one of sabotage.

Claude Dansey’s Z organisation had moved to Switzerland at the outbreak of war, but the wireless set in Geneva could be used only for receiving messages, because of local regulations. Despite friction between SIS and the Dutch government-in-exile, SIS was able to send in fifteen agents into the Netherlands between June 1940 and the end of 1941, but eleven of these lost their lives. Operations in Belgium were a little more successful: Gambier-Parry learned a lesson from early mishaps that trying to train an agent with no signalling experience into reliable wireless practices was a lost cause. (He apparently did not pass this insight on to his dependent ‘colleagues’ in SOE; moreover, it was a hopelessly utopian principle, given the recruitment pool to which the subversive organisations had access.) Thus a successful network called ‘Cleveland’, later ‘Service Clarence’, under Dewé operated fruitfully until Dewé was captured and shot in 1944. ‘Cleveland’ was joined by three other networks at the end of 1941, although Jeffrey writes that their effectiveness as a source of intelligence was jeopardized by their use of a courier service for British service personnel trying to escape home via Spain. By 1942, however, with new, properly-trained wireless operators in place, the Air Ministry and the War Office were complimenting the SIS networks in Belgium for their valuable intelligence on German troop movements, night fighter organisations, and railway activity.

The theatre of France differed in many ways. What it offered in the way of terrain – large and spacious, offering scope for concealment – was offset by some intractable political problems, very representative of the fact that, while all the governments-in-exile were bitterly opposed to Hitler, they frequently nourished vastly differing visions of what should replace the Nazi tyranny when the war was won. France had a strong Communist contingent, which was muted during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but took on new breakaway life after Barbarossa. SIS’s strongest contacts had been with men who continued to serve under the Vichy regime, a faction that was strongly opposed by de Gaulle’s Free Frenchmen. Thus, as Jeffery points out, the split was reflected within SIS where Wilfred (‘Biffy’ *) Dunderdale headed Section A.4, in contact with the Vichy French, reporting directly to Menzies, while Kenneth Cohen, who had served under Dansey in the Z Organisation in Paris, continued to report to Dansey as head of A.5, dealing with the Free French.

[* It is one thing for Wodehousian or Boy’s Own Paper -type nicknames, such as ‘Biffy’, ‘Jumbo’, ‘Bobbety’, ‘Buster’, and ‘Sinbad’, to be used by their colleagues, but a regrettable aspect of this mannerism is that all too frequently the sobriquets leak into the authorised histories, sometimes perpetuating a character belied by the evidence.]

The War Office applied pressure on SIS to infiltrate France immediately after the country’s fall. For the first year, efforts were tentative, and successes meagre. The professionalism of agents sent in was sub-standard, and attention to security was weak. Far too many persons knew the names of other agents in a network, and the networks were too big. One of the most prominent networks, Navarre’s ‘Kul’ organisation, had successfully penetrated much of Northern France, as well as the unoccupied zone, but Navarre was arrested in July 1941. The network was then taken over by Marie-Madelene Fourcade, as ‘Alliance’, and the latter has received a large amount of attention in histories and biographies. Cohen was able to report a high degree of success in many exploits, including the information gained by the Confrérie de Notre Dame about Saint-Bruneval that led to the successful raid on the radar station in February 1942, but the losses, especially of wireless operators, caused a constant drain on efforts to get information back to London.

Alliance was largely undone by the recruitment of one Blanchet who, immediately after Navarre’s incarceration, was sent out by London with a new type of transmitter, and a mission to train agents in its operation, and in cyphers. At about the same time, communist resistance fighters took up a more aggressive campaign of assassinating German officers, which provoked sterner measures on all in the movement. The Metro Barbès assassination of August 21, 1941 led to fierce reprisals culminating in the execution of forty-eight hostages at Chateaubriant on October 22. In turn, fierce debates took place between the governments-in-exile and the more radical leadership of SOE, again spotlighting the contrary aims of sabotage and intelligence-gathering.

SIS benefitted from some relaxation. In the spring of 1942, for example, the British Ambassador in Spain cancelled his ban on the deployment of clandestine wireless sets. SIS thus continued with its mission, but in much of France and the Low Countries the atmosphere had been contaminated by carelessness and civilian fear. For a while, a burst of productivity allowed reports to be sent to London from six French cities, but then disasters started to occur. Agents in Pau were betrayed by the head of Alliance in the Dordogne, who had been having an affair with the daughter of a policeman. Blanchet turned out to be a Nazi informer: he was eventually executed by Alliance officers in November 1942. David Stafford informs us of another major disaster: “In November 1942 the names of 200 of its [Carte’s] important members fell into the hands of the Abwehr when a courier fell asleep on a train and a German agent walked off with his briefcase . . .” While the intensity of requests from London for information increased every week, the networks were becoming under more and more stress.

A significant fact about this period is that radio direction-finding, at least until the summer of 1942, did not play a large role in the dissolution of the networks, which were undermined by traitors and poor security procedures. Yet the Nazi RSHA was impatient at the progress that the Abwehr had been making in eliminating all illicit wireless activity. On April 18, 1942, the ardent pro-Nazi Pierre Laval became head of the Vichy government, and collaborated in a much harsher policy. Laval gave his approval for the SS to transport into the South nearly three hundred agents from the SS and the Abwehr, accompanied by a fleet of cars and vans with the latest direction-finding equipment. Alliance tried to adapt by giving instructions to operators to move around more, and restrict their broadcasts, but the attempt was largely futile. On November 11, the so-called ‘Free Zone’ was invaded by several divisions of the Wehrmacht: the period of intense and accurate surveillance, so familiar from the war movies, started at this time. As Hinsley records:  “  . . .operation Torch led to a further setback for the SIS by precipitating the German occupation of Vichy France, where its own and Polish and the Free French networks suffered heavy casualties and widespread arrests, and Bertrand [who had developed productive connections both in Vichy and Paris] forced to retreat to the Italian-occupied zone in the south, lost most of his remaining contacts.”

The Double-Cross Operation

Back in Great Britain, as the threat of imminent invasion wore off, MI5 started to prepare its double-agents for the inevitable deception operation that would be required when Allied forces would cross the Channel into Europe. Some had had to be discarded, because their credible sell-by date had elapsed, or they had turned out to be untrustworthy (e.g. Reysen (GOOSE), ter Braak, Caroli (SUMMER), and Owens (SNOW) – all incarcerated or dead. TATE (Wulf Schmidt) appeared to have the most potential, but he had to be given a credible cover-story to explain his survival. While the investments that MI5 made in his equipment eventually provided him with a reliable transmitting capability, the need for him to find permanent employment put restrictions on his mobility, and he was thus prevented from answering much of the questionnaires sent to him by his handlers. But first, his ability to maintain reliable communications with the Abwehr had to be developed.

Coverage of Great Britain by German agents (from KV 3/77)
Guide to German agent activity – October 1940 (from KV 3/77)

TATE experienced an extensive number of teething-problems when his communications were tested out in the latter half of 1941. He had been given frequencies that were too close to a commercial station, and thus needed an alternative crystal. But when Karel Richter flew in with a replacement, in May 1941, Reed of B1A later discovered that it would not work on TATE’s apparatus. His transmitter was unstable, his receiver was too weak; modifications had to be made to his aerial. His handlers failed to pick up messages on his alternative wavelength (which made MI5 question how efficient the German equivalent of the RSS was). He was having problems with corroded parts, but received poor technical advice from the Germans on replacements. The apparatus was too large and conspicuous, and thus could not be moved around the country easily.

The experiments and tinkering went on into March 1942, when it appears that MI5 had almost given up. RSS was constantly monitoring TATE’s attempts to make contact (and the responses from the Abwehr). One irony from this exercise was the arrived conclusion that any double-agent working in the UK would be at great risk from direction-finding. As Reed wrote on March 16, 1942: “It is quite apparent from this that as soon as any agent here starts to send more than one or two messages at a time the possibility of his station being intercepted and located by means of direction finding is very great. TATE for example can usually get through his traffic in about ten or twelve minutes, but operating is spread over a period of an hour to an hour and a half, the danger to the agent is great . . .” Reed therefore made efforts to reduce the radiation output from the set, so that groundwave detection would be more difficult.

At last, in the spring of 1942, regular communications were achieved, and TATE’s wireless traffic was of high standard, and being picked up. RSS was able to monitor the fact that TATE’s organisational control was based in Hamburg, and that there were regular exchanges between Hamburg and Paris about his messages. The state of the art of remote direction-finding can be assessed by the fact that Reed was able to report that bearings indicated that the replying station was probably located ‘some twenty miles south of Paris’. By this time, however, TATE had been set up with a new legend: having been called up for military service, he had found notional employment on a farm, in September 1941. His apparatus had been in actuality been established in Letchmore Heath, east of Watford, which was presumably near enough to agricultural land to convince the German direction-finders, if they were indeed similarly acute in such calculations, that his new occupation was genuine. TATE’s opportunities for secret communications, however, were small, what with his long farming hours. He kept his transmissions short, and infrequent, just at the time that the pressures for increasing the information he could send were intensifying. But by the end of 1942, MI5 was confident that the enemy trusted its prime radio performer.

While the London Controlling Section, given the mission of masterminding the deception campaign, had been set up in April 1941, it was slow finding its feet, and acquiring the appropriate leadership. And MI5 struggled to expand its array of agents with wireless capabilities: it is astonishing how much information at this time was still relayed through invisible ink to poste restante letter boxes in neutral countries. John Moe (MUTT) and Tor Glad (JEFF) had arrived in April 1941, in Scotland, but their behavior was often troublesome, and JEFF had to be interned in September 1941. It was not until February1943 that MUTT received a new workable wireless set, parachuted in near Aberdeen. One agent who eventually turned out to be the most productive, Garby-Czerniawski (BRUTUS), arrived in Gibraltar in October 1942, after making a deal with the Nazis, who had arrested him, but he did not disclose his full story and hand over his wireless crystal until November 1942, so his story belongs to the next episode. Likewise, Natalie Sergueiew (TREASURE), who had even been trained in wireless operation and tradecraft in Berlin in 1942, and who would turn out to be a valuable (but temperamental) contributor, was in May 1942 taught how to use invisible ink. After moving to Madrid that summer, she had to remind her handler, in November 1942, that she had had wireless training, and needed to be equipped with a proper apparatus. Thus her story will appear in the next instalment, also. Dusko Popov (TRICYCLE) did not bring back a wireless set from Lisbon until September 1943.

Perhaps the most famous of the XX agents was Jan Pujol (GARBO), who will turn out to be the most controversial of all those who broadcast before D-Day, and whose wireless habits are critical to the story. Not only did he himself (or, more accurately, his MI5 wireless operator) provide some of the most important messages concerning invasion plans, but he also ‘recruited’ a complex network of imaginary sub-agents who were able to report from around the country. Yet GARBO’s ability to use wireless was also delayed: he had arrived in London in April 1942, and Reed had quickly acquired a transmitter for him and his network to use. Yet it was not until August of that year that his handlers in Lisbon gave him permission to use it, and in fact it took until March 1943 before his first transmission was sent.

On May 21, 1942, the Chiefs of Staff had approved John Bevan to replace Stanley as head of the London Controlling Section. He would turn out to be a great success: calm, forceful, inspiring, and insightful. Thus the pressures on MI5 and the XX Operation increased. At that time, MI5 confidently told the LCS that it controlled ‘80% of the German espionage network’, which was a surprising assertion, in many ways. How did it know who the remaining 20% were? And what efforts was it making to unveil them? Yet it was probably very sure that it controlled all the wireless agents, as it had an effective RSS on its side; indeed, Masterman wrote to the W Board in July, 1942, claiming all such agents were under his control. Yet some eerie fears set in. On August 8, one of Robertson’s officers, John Marriott, voiced the concern that the Germans might be suspicious of TATE. In his diary entry for August 13, Guy Liddell expressed a general scare that the Abwehr must realise that its ciphers had been broken, and its messages were being read. And how effectively was RSS operating in picking up illicit traffic?

The Radio Security Service

(I have already written quite deeply about the activities of RSS, and interception of illicit Soviet and Russian traffic  – the two not necessarily being synonymous, of course – in the 1941-1943 period,  at http://www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio-part-ix//.  Rather than my repeating that analysis, I would suggest that readers might like to refresh their memories by inspecting the latter part of that instalment. I summarise here the findings, and add a few observations gained from research since, with the contributions of a former RSS interceptor, Bob King, especially poignant and relevant.)

Unlike the USA, which enforced a ban on any non-governmental wireless traffic when it entered the war on December 7, 1941, Great Britain had a more complicated set-up to deal with. It had granted permission to the Polish and Czechoslovakian governments-in-exile to have their own telecommunications facilities. Thus official bans became difficult to enforce, especially since SIS was trying to gain foreign government approval for its own clandestine wireless usage overseas (such as in Switzerland). Moreover, with the Soviet entry into the war, a more testing challenge reared its head, what with the Russians seeking permission for similar facilities – and if not gaining permission, going ahead anyway. In the United States, the FBI had its claws clipped on April 2, 1942, when it had to agree not to move against any clandestine transmitters without service approval, suggesting that some illicit operators were working under military control.

In Britain, the coyness of the early part of the war disappeared. The National Archives (HW 34/1) report that RSS in 1942 busily started monitoring the communications of the foreign governments-in-exile – ‘mainly [sic] Polish, Czech, Yugoslav, French, Russian’, thus proving that spying on allies was viewed as a necessary ploy. Guy Liddell and Richard Gambier-Parry, the head of SIS’s Section VIII (which controlled RSS) had frequent disagreements about illicit transmissions. Early in 1942, Liddell noted in his diary that he was being let down by RSS, as it had failed to detect transmissions from the Soviet consulate, and (maybe more alarmingly) from German agents in Croydon and Blackpool. Gambier-Parry was not interested, enigmatically insisting that he had everything under control with the Russians. “They are well watched”, he dismissively told Malcom Frost on March 6, 1942, when Frost wrote to complain about illicit transmissions detected at 3, Rosary Gardens in London, effectively telling the MI5 officer to mind his own business. Gambier-Parry would later have to review his casualness.

RSS grew under its new control, SIS. One report indicates that, at its peak, it had a staff of 2094, of which 98 were officers, 1317 operators, 83 engineers and 471 administrative personnel, as well as 125 civilian clerks. That team was complemented by over 1200 Voluntary Interceptors in the UK, as well as units abroad. And, while it eventually had to concede some of its control of equipment and codes to the SOE, it took ownership of more location-finding capabilities. In the autumn of 1941, SIS terminated its contract with the General Post Office for mobile direction-finding units. The GPO had developed quite an extensive fleet of such vans, but they were judged (by one RSS insider) as being too obvious, too slow, and their operators not disciplined enough. Yet, by this time, the prevailing wisdom was that, since all extant enemy wireless operators were under MI5, no remaining operators, however illicit, could harm the national war effort.

What spurred all this research, as will be known to those who are familiar with ‘Sonia’s Radio’, is the question of how such an efficient RSS organisation could have overlooked the transmissions of Sonia. I reproduce here an extraordinary artefact from December 1941 that was passed to me by Bob King, a veteran of RSS. As is clear, it is a log sheet of Mr. King’s as a ‘watcher’ in the Oxford area, where Sonia Kuczynski operated. In an email message to me last summer, Mr. King wrote: “The RSS knew of her [Sonia’s] presence, with over 2,000 widely spread operators listening for any unidentified signals we could hardly miss her. But as she was not Abwehr we didn’t follow her up. I expect someone else did.” He later added: “I can say the tests and good evidence shows that it is unlikely that any illicit transmission within the UK during the war years escaped our notice. If it was not our assignment we dropped it. Whether the information (call sign, frequency, time and procedure, if any) was passed to some other organisation I cannot say. I was informed by one RSS operator that Sonia (he later discovered it was she) was copied and told ‘Not wanted’”, and then: “But it is certain that no Abwehr traffic escaped our notice including the movements of all spies/agents (with the exception of Ter Braak).”

I was overwhelmed by being able to exchange information with a survivor from the war who had operated before I (now a 72 year-old) was born, and intrigued by Mr. King’s revelations. I followed up with other questions, asking, for instance, how his unit knew that the operator, was Sonia, even that she was a woman. Mr. King replied: “I am sorry but I have no further information.  We identified the Abwehr by several means: procedure, tying in with other Abwehr (already known) and such things as operator recognition, note of transmitter and an experienced knowledge hard to describe. It was an operator (I forget who) who wrote to me long after the war saying that he had copied Sonia (this was sometime after 1946 I believe) when I left RSS and had no connection with it at all. Surveillance of short waves continued post-war I understand and exercises demonstrated that transmitters could not go undetected for long. Pre-war a rogue transmission was located by the GPO in many cases, it was their job to catch unlicensed transmitters and post war radio amateurs as well to report a station sending coded messages which in peace time was strictly forbidden.  This is why I maintain that Sonia could not have been undetected at any time since.  What the authorities did about it I am not in a position to say.” Mr. King also told me that the Interceptors were instructed to log everything, indiscriminately, on the wavelengths they were responsible for. They could not make independent decisions, say, on listening for overseas transmitters.

RSS Logsheet from December 1941

When commenting on one of my posts on Sonia, Mr. King summed up his experiences and opinions: “I am convinced that no illicit, or other, transmission audible in the UK could escape detection for long.  The whole high frequency spectrum was divided into sections (the size dependent on frequency) and searched regularly by several thousand skilled listeners.  All signals, recognised or not, by the operator, were passed to Arkley unless directed otherwise.  If not identified by us as Abwehr we either asked for a ‘Watch please’ or ‘Not wanted’. We had several VIs in or near Oxford (I was one in 1941) and I visited a full time one in Somerton so Sonia’s signals must have been reported. In my nearly 5 years at Arkley reading logged reports I may well have stamped ‘Not Wanted’ on a Sonia transmission.  There were some inquisitive attempts to discover the ownership of strange signals but I know no more or where information that we had was dealt with. Embassy traffic also I am sure was monitored.”

Like all members of RSS who were sworn to secrecy about what they did in the war, Mr. King obeyed the interdiction, but was then taken aback by the sudden revelations in the 1980s and 1990s, with books like The Secret Listeners by Sinclair McKay being published, and he warns about the possibility of faux memoirs among such publications. (I have written about the inventions recited in the periodical After the Battle, and how they have been promulgated by careless writers.) Mr. King’s goal is only to keep the memory of the dedicated persons who worked for RSS alive, and to ensure that the truth is told. He is very confident about the watertight coverage of illicit transmissions that occurred, and added the following: “We were always concerned that an enemy agent may have slipped our notice and put the XX system in danger.  It transpired after the war from our records and those of the Abwehr that no operational agent went undetected.  Several times spoof transmissions were arranged by us to test the RSS intercept capabilities.  They always appeared on our operators’ logs.  The longest delay was only about 5 to 6 weeks but usually much quicker.   This is hardly surprising with a least 2,000 people listening (about 500 on 24 hour watch) distributed over the UK.”

Yet there was a darker story behind the energies of RSS, an account that the rather sunny analysis in Hinsley’s official history overlooks. The archive at KV 4/97 (itself frequently redacted, which is alarming) shows a prolonged struggle between the forces of MI5, pressing for stricter interception of illicit wireless, and the more relaxed, but obviously arrogant, leaders of RSS, who were driven by other priorities. The main protagonist was the maverick Malcolm Frost, the ex-Post Office man who had so excited Guy Liddell early on in his career with MI5, but then antagonised so many by his own power-seeking and arrogance. From the time that SIS took over RSS up until the end of 1942, Frost ceaselessly prodded RSS to be more communicative on its ‘discrimination’ practices (i.e. selection of wavelengths and messages to pursue), and to bolster up the defective mobile units that the RSS had inherited from the General Post Office. This thrust, gradually taken up more enthusiastically by Guy Liddell himself, evolved from two drivers: the increasing knowledge that the airwaves in the UK were being illegally exploited by various agents, including suspicious Russian traffic, and the developing recognition that such interception apparatus and skills would be required after the eventual invasion of Europe in order to handle all the wireless-using agents that the Nazis were expected to leave behind as they retreated from the Allied attack.

Maltby in RSS at last grudgingly agreed with much of Frost’s argument: that the RSS Engineering staff had been dedicated to other work, and had not invested anything in the ‘deplorable’ state of the mobile units they had taken over (a fact they had concealed from Liddell). The apparatus was bulky, and required too many operators probably visible to the subject under scrutiny. They had made poor personnel choices, the incompetent Elmes heading up the teams being a prime example, and morale in the detection squads was low. RSS reputation for arrogance and poor leadership went before it: potential candidates for detection squads were refusing to join it. The mobile units themselves were too sparse, and too slow to move in on their prey. (A note by Guy Liddell in October 1942 states, for instance, that ‘the existing Mobile Unit bases at Leatherhead and Darlington should be transferred to Bristol and Newcastle respectively’, with Newcastle having to cover an area from Edinburgh to Leeds, and Bristol required to cover Wales. That is not a rapid-response organisation.)

Frost continued to probe and pester. In September 1942, he had reported that it could take three weeks for a unit to move in on suspect premises. Communications were slow and insecure, via telephone, when radio contact was essential. For such a search operation to be successful, of course, the illicit transmitter would have to keep on operating at the same location – highly likely if the culprit was an operator at a foreign embassy in London, but less probable if the transgressor was a trained Abwehr agent or Soviet spy looking out for detector vans. On October 23, 1942, Frost requested a correction/insertion to the minutes of the recent RSS Committee meeting: meeting: “Major Frost said in his experience it was unlikely that d/f bearings taken from this country could possibly give an clearer indication of the location of an illicit transmitter than a minimum area of 100 square miles, and he did not consider that this would be of much material assistance in making an arrest.” This observation matched what an expert such as Frank Birch wrote in his Official History of British Signals Intelligence. The fact that Frost had to make this observation would suggest that RSS was probably making exaggerated claims about the power of remote direction-finding techniques when mobile units tracking groundwaves were essential to trap offenders.

What all this meant was an expressed desire by Frost and Liddell to bring back the GPO, and Dollis Hill as a research establishment, and have MI5 put in charge of the mobile units. Liddell, somewhat belatedly complained, in September 1942, that ‘for eighteen months, RSS had done nothing to provide a solution to the problem which was of vital interest to the Security Services’. (He even told Maltby that MI5 had been undertaking its own research into better apparatus, which rather shocked the RSS man.) Yet RSS was overall obdurate, claiming territorial ownership. The foolish Vivian had endorsed the breaking up of the joint RSS-MI5 committee, being pushed by Gambier-Parry without knowing the facts, and then had to climb down. Maltby had to admit that his unit was really only interested in technical matters, and did not want to deal with the messy details of liaising with the Police, for instance. Gambier-Parry was clearly impossible to negotiate with, condescending and obstinate: he did not want his operation run by any committee, and he was evidently just very single-minded and parochial, or simply taking his orders from someone behind the scenes. Thus matters between RSS and MI5 (not purely involving intercepts) came to a head at the end of 1942, when new committees were set up, and an improvement in operations occurred.

Conclusion

The rapid progress that the German intelligence machinery made in detection techniques and apparatus during 1942 contrasted sharply with the relaxed and inefficient way that the British infrastructure dealt with the challenge. First of all, the Weimar Republic’s prohibition of private radio traffic, an order provoked by the fear of illicit Communist communications, ironically deprived it of a pool of capable amateur interceptors. The Germans were faced with a real and growing threat as their Reich expanded, and they complemented their improvements in technology with an uncharacteristic degree of cooperation between rival agencies, as well as a ruthless approach to interrogation and torture. It was a necessary survival technique – or so they believed. The various forces working subversively helped to soak up valuable German effort and resources, and both their intelligence and sabotage ingredients contributed much to the success of OVERLORD. Whether the carpet bombing of Germany or the thrust of SOE – so often at apparent loggerheads in the demand for resources – was a more effective factor in the prosecution of the war is still debated by historians. But the Germans took SOE and SIS very seriously – and probably exaggerated their detection capabilities as a deterrent.

The British, on the other hand, got lulled into a false sense of security by virtue of their isolation and relative impregnability, by their confidence that they had turned all existing wireless agents of the Abwehr, and probably by the notion that their decryption of the ULTRA traffic was really the key to winning the war. Unlike the Germans, they had a very gifted set of ‘amateurs’ in their Voluntary Interceptors: the Germans recognized the diligent way that the ‘Radio Amateur Association’ (as General Praun called the Radio Society of Great Britain) had selected and managed its members. On the other hand, the overall organisation and management of RSS was flawed. (Of course, it helped the cause of the Double-Cross Operation if the Germans gained the impression that British location-finding was weak!)  The British were not helped by a more bureaucratic approach to decision-making, a greater respect for the law, and a more humane approach in handling offenders. Yet there was also a failure of will, a slowness to respond to political conflicts, and a lack of clear leadership from the top. One can detect an absence of resolve in such subjects as how important the actions of SOE were, and how the organisation should be helped, how firm a line should be taken with such a dubious ally as the Soviet Union, and what actions should be taken with obstinate leaders such as ‘Bomber’ Harris  or Richard Gambier-Parry, and how the weaknesses of Stewart Menzies’s organisation was protected by his custodianship of the ULTRA secret. Certainly SOE suffered especially from some very poor management and preparation of agents. Yet overall there endured a cultural respect for rival personalities and institutions, a feature entirely lacking in their adversaries, which helped them surmount the various crises.

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Special Bulletin: Hurricane Florence

Trees down on the triangle with Irwin Drive

I interrupt my regular bulletins to report on our experiences with Hurricane Florence. This major storm passed directly over St. James, in Southport, North Carolina, where our family lives, and caused some catastrophic devastation. It left us without power for several days, and we were able to keep up with what was going on only through our battery-driven radio, and cellphone contact with friends – some of whom had evacuated the town for safer havens. St. James issued a ‘mandatory’ evacuation order, but that meant that, if you did decide to stay, it was at your own risk, with no access to emergency facilities. About 300 families – maybe 15-20% of the occupants of St. James – decided, like us, to sit it out.

We have survived hurricanes up to a category 3 or even 4 beforehand. We have a variety of hurricane-shutters installed. While we are only a couple of miles from the ocean, we reside at the highest point in St James, about thirty feet above sea-level, which means we drain quickly. Brunswick County beaches face south-west, so the winds are normally less severe. We have stands of trees protecting us on the south side, where the first, ninth and seventh holes of the Members Club golf course – as well as the driving-range – help to break up the fiercest gales. And our closest friends are 1500 miles away. All of which reinforced our decision to stay. But we do not have a generator. . .

Our shutters are of a variety. Several are managed by a hand-driven crank, with a ratchet mechanism. Many are true shutters, which are closed and secured by bolting on a simple iron rod – downstairs from the outside (see picture) and upstairs from the inside, with one notable exception. We also have concertina-type doors that roll across the two large window-doors at the back of the house. The front door, and the windows of the recently converted back porch are all designed to resist hurricane-force 4 winds.

The hurricane shutters at No. 3835

But this was no ordinary hurricane. It was enormous – about half the size of France, which is 210,000 square miles. And even though it was only a category 2 when it made landfall at Wrightsville Beach, it brought an enormous volume of water with it. The water temperatures in the western Atlantic were very warm (in the 80s Fahrenheit), which gave Florence some enormous punch. She took a very slow and erratic path, which meant she stayed over the Cape Fear region for days. Forty inches of rain was expected in some parts (I am writing this on Sunday 16th September, without access to any news). Moreover, the ground was saturated. We have had sixty inches of rain this year before Florence arrived – over half of in the summer months – which means that trees were weakened, and there was nowhere for the water to go. Storm surge – abetted by the tides when they were high – was the biggest danger.

So Florence arrived on Thursday afternoon, when the first drops fell. We lost power about sixteen hours later. At noon on Friday, the eye passed over us, an episode normally accompanied by clear skies and calmness, although we learned from observation and the radio that the eye had filled in with rain. Two hours later, the gales returned, and it has been raining – mostly in torrents – ever since (11:00 am on Sunday, as I write), when raindrops are still falling into the new stream in our back yard. That means that the backside of the storm spent about forty-five hours to pass through: at two miles per hour, about 800 miles in radius. (I make these estimates with the help of my spies watching the radar on the Weather Channel from out-of-state safe houses, and communicating with me over an encrypted cellular connection. For security reasons, I cannot identify them by name, but their cryptonyms are ORCHARDIST, SAILOR, and TREASURER. They know who they are, and I am very grateful to them.)

At the end of our driveway

But this is a very serious matter. People have lost their lives, and property damage must be immense. We are in the hands of highly dedicated engineers and linesmen trying to restore our power. St. James is isolated, with all access roads impassable, and the main interstates (95 & 40) are also closed off in sections. I have not ventured beyond my driveway, but the flooding here must be disastrous in places. A few trees came down in the triangle opposite our house, but fortunately did not damage any property. One of Sylvia’s Bradford peartrees did not survive.

Sylvia’s Bradford Pear – probably cannot be replanted

I also took a few photographs of the flooded 1st hole at the Members Club, by the tee of which our house sits. (See below). We shall learn more soon, I hope.

The picturesque first hole at the Members Club. Be sure to take enough club to carry the demanding water hazard that bestrides the fairway . . .

Now you have cleared the water, you will need all of your 3-wood to reach this demanding par five, with its green well-protected by sand and water, and then face a tricky eagle putt.

Looking back to the first tee of the Members Club ‘Water Hole’. (Actually all eighteen are now called ‘the Water Hole’.)

And what about that last shutter? For some reason, the house designer decided that for two windows – in separate rooms – upstairs, each window would not have its own internal bar, but instead they would be linked and secured by an external bar that crossed the intervening wall. That means that a ladder has to be used to free the shutters, fold them back, and then bolt the shared bar tight. And the ladder has to be moved. Well, not only do I not really work on ladders any more, since the last practice I had with this, several years ago, the holly-tree in front of the windows has grown to such an extent that I had to abandon the exercise (see photograph), and risk the possibility that hurtling pine-cones (very dangerous missiles, by the way) would not break through our defenses.

The exposed windows!

One benefit of all of this was that I had a little nook during the day where enough light came through that I was able to read, as there was little else to do but meditate. (I was able to read Professor Foot’s extraordinary ‘SOE in France’, written in 1966 when he could not even admit that SIS existed.) During one long session, I started calculating how much water Florence actually dropped on SE North Carolina. If you take a section of 10000 square miles, which is not massive, just a portion of the tract that Florence covered, and a tenth of Florence’s area – Brunswick County is 1050 square miles, about 150 % of the size of Surrey, England, the area of which is 642 square miles – and project 40 inches of rain, I could fairly easily calculate mentally the number of cubic yards of water that must have fallen in the broader local area. Then I had to convert that number into recognizable gallons. But how many gallons in a cubic yard? I reckoned about 40, but the Encyclopaedia Britannica informed me the divisor was 54. So I was able to adjust my result to come up with 2,000,000,000,000 gallons, that is 2 European billion, and an American 2,000 billion. That means 6 cubic miles of water for the section I describe. Multiply that by six, and Coldspur diehards will recall that this amount would be enough to fill Lake Tahoe.

[Note: On September 19, the New York Times reported that Florence had dumped 8 trillion gallons on North Carolina alone. Sounds right.]

Lastly, I plucked from my shelves ‘The Connoisseur’s Crossword Book’, edited by Alan Cash, and published by Penguin in 1964. I had completed a few of the puzzles, but most had lain dormant, and it was a convenient way of spending the time, alternately reading a couple of clues by flashlight, and then trying to solve them in the dark. The first few were by the ‘legendary’ (though he did in fact exist) Ximenes, and it surprised me a) how verbose he was allowed (or allowed himself) to be, and b) how unXiminean his clueing occasionally was. Thus I was initially baffled by the following:
‘Refer with a certain amount of freedom – yes, with more of it (5)’, until I realized it was much more obvious than I had imagined. I believe the Times of today would have rejected what D. S. MacNutt was able to deploy in the Observer sixty year ago. He disobeyed some of his own rules (such as clue length), and his clues reflect a number of awkward structures (e.g. overuse of ‘I’ and cockneyisms, clumsy joining segments, superfluous ‘thes’ in anagrams, duplicated signifiers in the same puzzle, rather dubious indicators of troublesome letter sequences, and references to living persons), as well as classic and literary references that would be considered far too academic and esoteric for today’s solvers. Still, his influence on the craft of cruciverbalism was enormous, and I believe that individual setter styles ought to be allowed to transcend too rigorous formalism.

My thanks to everyone – especially those in England – who passed on their good wishes at a time that I was not able to respond. I shall do so individually. In the meantime, expect a stunning and shocking story on Coldspur on the regular last day of the month. This one will blow you away more than Florence ever could!

The power was restored at about 8 a.m. today, Monday. Wilmington still cut off, St. James still isolated, and water not potable, but we are making progress. Yet there is more rain forecast, and I hear thunder in the background, and it is getting closer.

Postscript: Now that we are on-line again, I can see how devastating the damage has been, how many lives were lost, and how many are suffering. We were lucky, and I thank all the responders and service people helping out those whose property has been ruined by the storm. In fact, just as I was about to post this on Monday afternoon, we lost cable, Internet and telephone service. It came back at about 1:50 today, Tuesday.

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Surveying Lake Tahoe

 

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Several weeks ago, the New York Times published a travel piece about Lake Tahoe, that body of water that straddles the California-Nevada border. The article included an astonishing claim – that the lake contained enough water to cover the whole drought-ridden state of California to a depth of fifteen feet. At the time, I found it hard to believe, but was too busy to perform the research and calculations that would verify or refute this assertion. So I was not surprised when, a couple of weeks ago, the paper issued a correction that stated that the lake would cover the state to a level of fifteen inches, not feet.

Is this still credible? After all, Lake Tahoe is the size of a small English county, 191 square miles, something between Rutland and the Isle of Anglesey. California is almost 164,000 square miles, almost double the area of Great Britain. Lake Tahoe must be very deep, right? Well, its average depth is given as 1000 feet (its maximum being 1644 feet), offering it a volume of 36 cubic miles (1000/5280 *191). The multiple of California’s area over Tahoe’s is 858.6 (164,000/191). Spreading Tahoe’s water over the area of California gives 1.164 feet (1000/858.6), or about fourteen inches. So the revised claim is fairly accurate.

So I got to thinking about other freshwater lakes. The largest in North America, Lake Superior, is 31,700 square miles in area, not as deep as Tahoe, but still providing 2903 cubic miles in volume. The greatest in the world in volume is Siberia’s Lake Baikal, which, while only 12,248 square miles in area (one and a half times the area of Wales) contains 5700 cubic miles of water, as its average depth is 2500 feet, with the deepest section reaching over a mile (5387 feet), well above the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis. Thus, if the 15-inch claim is correct, the water in Baikal could cover the whole of California to a depth of 200 feet (5700/36 x 1.25). Perhaps President Putin could spare some for those long-suffering Californians? (While in California, one of the books I read was Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. Frazier quotes Dr. Sergei V. Shibaev, director of the Siberian Geophysical Survey at the Russian Academy of Sciences, in downtown Yakutsk, as saying: ‘But all other rivers in Yakutia are extremely pure, with reserves of water for all mankind. There is a deficiency of freshwater on the planet, as is known. We in Yakutia have freshwater here.’)

I thought I should check out Lake Tahoe. As it happened, we travelled to San Jose, California, in June, to visit our son and his family, now consisting of five – wife Lien, Ashley, now three years and eight months, whom regular readers will recall from ‘An American Odyssey’, and the twins, Alexis and Alyssa, whose second birthday we celebrated while we there there. We broke our visit to spend a few days in South Lake Tahoe, a drive of about four hours away from San Jose, and ascended the gondola (a ski-lift in winter) to a height of about 9000 feet, where I was able to take the pictures below. Yes, you could easily fit Rutland into the lake – including Rutland Water, Europe’s largest man-made lake when it was constructed in 1971 – and, with a highpoint of 646 feet, the county would easily be submerged in Lake Tahoe. Truly multum in parvo, as Rutland’s motto goes.

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Lake Tahoe, looking North towards Nevada

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Looking West towards San Francisco

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Julia and I at Lake Tahoe

Meanwhile, Ashley and the twins gave us great pleasure: we hadn’t seen them for eighteen months. After some initial shyness, they took to us very well. It is astonishing to me that Lady Ashley, at that age, could be so facile with an iPad and iPhone. I do not believe such skills are ‘in her blood’ or ‘in her DNA’, as that would mean a magical transfer of genetic material some time between the birthdates of her four grandparents and her arrival on the scene, but she has taken to them with complete confidence. (Her father’s working for Apple, and her mother’s aptitude in the same area, may have something to do with it.) However, I was able to introduce her to some new gadgets – a ‘non-scrollable, foldable, combustible information delivery vehicle’ (commonly known as a ’newspaper’), as well as a ‘single-function photographic device’ (a ‘camera’). Ashley was intrigued by both items, as she had clearly not seen either of them before. I present a few photographs of our visit.

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James, Lien, and the girls at the twins’ 2nd birthday party

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My three grand-daughters and I

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The girls overpowering their father.

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Sylvia and I at Father’s Day Dinner at Morton’s

A few new Commonplace entries for the month, to be found here.     June 30, 2015

 

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