I interrupt the normal monthly schedule to present a report on MI5 structure in WWII that should not wait any longer – and probably does not merit prime billing as a monthly blog post, as it is of even more recondite interest than my normal articles. Yet it addresses a serious oversight in the authorised history of MI5, Christopher Andrew’s Defend the Realm. I thank Dr. Giselle Jakobs for her very helpful comments during the creation of this piece, and welcome comments from my readers.
I also take the opportunity to update the tale of Aberystwyth. On the night of November 4, at 9:45 PM local (East Coast) time, I received a brief email attaching a schedule for the Security Conference which starts on November 15. In it can be found my session: ‘Elusive Transmissions: The Riddle of Radio Detection in Wartime Britain’. My messages had been completely ignored, and I have had to request, very respectfully, that my presentation be removed. I apologise to the thousands of my fans who were about to flock to Gregynog Hall to listen to me. And it is probably true: ‘I shall not eat lunch in Aberystwyth again’.
B2B or not B2B
The group within MI5 that has become renowned for managing the group of German double-agents in World War II is regularly identified as ‘B1A’. Led by the charismatic figure of Tommy (‘Passion Pants’) Robertson, known as ‘Tar’, it carefully shepherded TATE, GARBO, TRICYCLE, TREASURE and others through the process of passing on carefully prepared messages, some by invisible ink, some by wireless, to the Abwehr controllers who believed they were still working for the Nazis. It maintained credible real-life experiences for them, selected a mixture of harmless facts and mendacious reports for them to pass on, and fed off the Germans’ weaknesses to convince the enemy that the major D-Day landing would take place near the Pas de Calais rather than in Normandy.
The histories and biographies mainly appear to reinforce this identity. If you read Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross (2012), you will find the following: “A live spy was more useful than a dead one, though a lot more trouble. Section B1A was launched, a new subsection of Liddell’s B Section with Tar Robertson at the helm”. The event is undated, but the text strongly indicates August 1940. Nigel West, in MI5 (1981) writes of the time of the establishment of the Twenty (XX) Committee, in early January 1941: “B1(a) continued [sic] to manage the agents on a day-to-day basis but their efforts were now combined with B1(b), a hybrid unit devoted to the art of assessment of the enemy.” And in his authorised history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm (2009 – US title), Christopher Andrew introduces B1a, ‘the double agent section of B Division’, as existing as early as May 1940, when MI5 was undertaking risky manoeuvres with agent SNOW and his Abwehr case officer, Major Ritter. Dick White’s biographer, Tom Bower, in The Perfect English Spy (1995), has Robertson’s B1(a) in existence by September 1939. Geoffrey Elliott’s biography of Robertson, Gentleman Spymaster (2011) completely avoids the issue of reporting structures before 1941.
Yet any researcher who inspects the files of these double-agents – and unturned spies – at the National Archives will soon become bewildered by the range of identifiers used by many of the participants – especially Tar Robertson. He or she may find Robertson given the tag ‘B3’ between September 1939 and September 1940. For a short while thereafter, he appears as ‘W2’. In the first half of 1941, letters and memoranda refer to him as ‘B2’. It is not until the end of July 1941 that he first appears as ‘B1A’. What is going on? And why are the histories so inattentive to this issue?
Well, one historian was careful. John Masterman, the Oxford historian who chaired the XX Committee, wrote, in a note on p100 of his history of the project, The Double Cross System, (1972): “Until Sir David Petrie’s reorganisation in 1941 the section dealing with double-cross agents was otherwise named, but for purposes of convenience it will be mentioned as B.1.a. throughout.” (Readers will notice already the discrepancies in format: B1A, B1(a), B1a, and B.1.a: I shall use the first form in all references from now on.) Masterman referred to a predecessor unit, W Branch, that had been established in July 1940, but left the rest of the puzzle unresolved. But shouldn’t we expect, from the authorised historian (Andrew) especially, that he would pay proper diligence to important issues of chronology and organisational structure, instead of skipping over the anomalies as if they didn’t matter?
At a high level, perhaps, it doesn’t matter, as the association of Robertson and B1A will be a stable linkage with which to identify MI5’s agent-handling group. But since the negotiations, rivalries, resentments and plotting that went on behind these organisational changes are an important part of the history of MI5 and its exploitation of double agents, I believe it is important to set the record straight. At the same time, I suspect the many researchers who are delving into the files that are continually being released at Kew may find a reliable guide to the evolution of Britain’s counter-espionage organisation during World War II a useful backdrop for their research.
A sceptical reader of Macintyre’s book might have asked: how was it that such an obvious unit descriptor as ‘B1A’ was unused and available when it came time to launch Robertson’s new unit? Information about MI5’s structure at the beginning of the war is very elusive, but on page 19 of my book Misdefending the Realm I reproduce a chart (found in the archives at KV 4/127) with the following observation: “Nevertheless, ‘B’ Branch still looks essentially unmanageable, with the following subsections and chiefs:
B (Investigation) Harker & Liddell;
B.1 (Internal Security in HM Forces) Alexander;
B.1a (Navy) Watson;
B.2 (Germany) Cooke;
B.2a (Nazi) Curry;
B.2b (C.E. Germany) Whyte;
B.2c (BUF, Italian Fascists) Sinclair;
B.3 (Arms Traffic) Robertson;
B.4a (Civil Security – home) Sissmore and Mr Younger;
B.4b (Civil Security – foreign) Dick White;
B.5a (Spec. Enquiries) Boddington, Badham;
B.5b (M Organisation) Knight;
B.6 (Enquiries) Hunter.”
So it is clear that a predecessor B1A unit did exist, although it had nothing to do with managing potential double agents. We can also see that Robertson is identified as B3, responsible for Arms Traffic, a function that Geoffrey Elliott assumes was to deal with the frequently clandestine way in which surplus weaponry was bought and sold to support various conflicts and insurgencies around the world, such as the Spanish Civil War.
At this stage, it may be suitable to explore exactly what this system of nomenclature meant. MI5 was composed of Branches (or Divisions), terms which in books about MI5 are used almost interchangeably. (In a Note on page 127 of his history, Christopher Andrew writes: “Within MI5 ‘branch’ and ‘division’ were often used interchangeably. In internal administrative documents ‘branch’ predominated until 1931, ‘division’ from 1931 to 1940, ‘branch’ in 1941-2 and ‘division’ from 1943 to 1950. From 1953 onwards the accepted term was ‘branch’.) Beneath these were ‘sections’, sometimes referred to as ‘sub-sections’. One can see that the organisation before WWI was very flat, with most sections occupied by only one officer. The implication, however, is that there is no direct equivalence between an officer and a code, and that a section name (e.g. B.4a) could refer to either of the officers who represented it.
When a researcher reads memoranda and letters written by and to certain officers, the equivalence between the officer and the section is frequently tenuous. Thus a letter may be identified as originating from B1A (for example, Robertson), but the response is sent, likewise, to B1A, which should presumably mean any of the officers in that section, or even whoever happened to be on duty at that time. Attempts are often made to remove the confusion by adding the name of the individual officer intended to make sure the right recipient receives the message, e.g. “B.2b (Mr Hart)”. It is not a watertight system, but it probably reflects the relative chaos in which MI5 grew, especially at the beginning of the war, when formalities, written job responsibilities and training were cast by the wayside. My view is that it was unlikely that it was a system designed to confound the Germans for reasons of security: I suspect British military, governmental and intelligence departments that had daily business with MI5 were more confused than the Abwehr. And it appears to have perplexed the authorized historian. Let us just note that each code properly defines a section, and that the section’s leader is, by default, customarily given that nomenclature.
In any case, at some stage, the mission of B3 morphed into one of interception of illicit wireless. We owe it to John Curry’s official history of MI5, The Security Service 1908-1945, published internally in 1946, and by the Public Record Office in 1999, for the information that ‘A section known as B.3., under Lt.-Colonel Simpson, C.M.G., R.E. had been established at the beginning of the war to deal with these inquiries [i.e. reports of suspicious Morse signals picked up by wireless receivers]”. I have covered the short, fascinating but enigmatic career of Lt.-Col Simpson at MI5 elsewhere on this website (MysteryofUndetectedRadios), but it is clear that Robertson was working for Simpson for the whole first year of the war, when he was handling the SNOW case. Curry refers to an unnamed section run by Lt.-Col. Hinchley-Cooke ‘which had always dealt with German espionage’, but ‘continued to be in the same isolated position which it had held for some years.’ (Isolation seems to have been a key feature of all departments.) From the chart above, we can see that this unit was B2, with Hinchley-Cooke being presented as ‘Cooke’. Curry (who at that time worked as B2A for Hinchley-Cooke) also informs us that Robertson’s involvement with wireless usage by SNOW (though not stated thus explicitly) was then leading him into attempts to ‘find a key to the Abwehr system of wireless communication’. He adds: “He [Captain Robertson] was also in charge of the section responsible for the investigation of all reports of illicit wireless transmissions and for co-ordinating the work in this connection of the police, the Radio Security Service and the G.P.O.” Robertson was clearly gaining in experience, importance, and visibility in his time at B3.
At some time in the Spring of 1940, however, there was a fallout between Simpson and MI5, and Liddell had to look for a replacement. He eventually picked Malcom Frost, who had previously worked for the BBC, and was not only a crony of Lord Swinton, who had taken overall control of MI5 after Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940, but also was a member of the Security Executive itself. It was at this stage that the function of the old B3 was proposed to be established at a higher level – a W (Wireless) Branch, which was the brainchild of Swinton himself. Thus Frost, an ambitious character, was initially promised that his organisation, ‘established inside the Security Service and . . . intended to deal with the interception of enemy communications for the purpose of detecting their agents’, would report at the same level as B, with initial supervision by Liddell. Liddell, who had replaced Harker as head of B Branch on June 11, was also assistant to acting director Jasper Harker, but also shared his role for an uncomfortable time with a solicitor introduced by Swinton, William Crocker. This was a desperately difficult time for Liddell.
Despite Liddell’s initial enthusiasm for Frost, the latter’s arrogance and unreliability soon undermined his standing with his new MI5 peers. Frost had been appointed head of W Branch on July 24, 1940: a month later Liddell folded the Branch, much to Frost’s disgust, into B as a conventional Section, with Robertson and his team moving with him. Andrew tells us that Crocker left in September after a row with Swinton. As the dilemma about where to place the Radio Security Service (RSS) became more urgent, Frost expressed the desire that the whole organisation should report to him, an attitude that went completely against the grain of what MI5’s senior management was thinking. By the end of November, even his ally Swinton was telling Liddell that Frost could not stay in MI5. (Yet Frost was a survivor, not leaving MI5 until January 1943.) On December 6, Liddell wrote in his Diary that Robertson had told him that working for Frost was intolerable, and Liddell was forced to move Robertson’s unit out of the W Section, and park it (including Robertson and Cholmondeley, and possibly Luke and Reed) elsewhere. In the latter months of 1940 (from early September onward), Robertson is thus identified in the archival reports as ‘W2’: another part of his career is explained.
Liddell was inhibited from making solid and durable changes to MI5’s structure at this time, since David Petrie had by then been invited to review MI5’s operation as a pending successor to Vernon Kell, Jasper Harker having being recognised as too weak a character to take over the leadership. Thus, until Petrie’s arrival in early 1941, and the restructuring that took place at the end of July of that year, Robertson’s team was placed in B2. Now B2 has always been somewhat of a murky entity: according to Curry, now that Crocker was out of the way, he himself became in September 1940 Liddell’s deputy, thus opening up a slot for Robertson at B2. (This promotion does not appear to be verifiable from any other source, so we should be wary of Curry’s claim.) Liddell reportedly arranged B Division into seven subject areas, but probably did not publicize the new organisation very aggressively, in view of Swinton looking over his shoulder. But it would explain why B2A was available at this time, as, by now, B2’s other officer had been moved into a new role. Hinchley-Cooke, who was half-German, was increasingly being used to interrogate captured agents at Latchmere House, and his legal expertise was being used more in decisions made about bringing such agents to trial, which meant he no longer led the B2 unit. The National Archives show that Hinchley-Cooke was identifiable as B13 by October 1, 1940, perhaps replacing an enigmatic ‘J R S’ whose name appears as B13 in the last months of 1939.
Dick White now appears as B2 (and occasionally B2B), so it is clear that Liddell had appointed him to take a leading role in handling German espionage. Nigel West and Christopher Andrew (who does not even recognize B2’s existence until his saga reaches 1950: B2 was re-created after the war) are oddly very parsimonious in their coverage of White in 1940 and 1941. West states, however, that ‘early in the war Liddell looked to his pre-war hands, Dick White, Tar Robertson and Jack Curry to cope with the problem of German espionage’. Dick White and Roger Hollis had both been given assistant-director rank in July 1940. According to West (and Bower), White at this time became Liddell’s deputy, although that would conflict with the story as Curry tells it. According to Curry’s account, White did not take on that role until July 1941, when Curry moved across to take over the new F Division. Bower even grants a larger part of the XX programme to White, asserting that ‘Arthur Owens [SNOW] was White’s first double-agent’. Perhaps Liddell had two deputies: that was the model in SIS, although it was a policy bound to cause resentments and uncertainty. In any case, the evidence shows that White was busily engaged with Robertson in discussing the fate of their captured agents, and arguing with Swinton (and vicariously, Churchill) why their execution was not a sensible policy.
There is some confusion about the remainder of B2. The group that was eventually known in the Petrie era as B1B, under Helenus Milmo, which at some stage brought in Herbert Hart, was responsible for ‘analyzing ISOS decrypts, Abwehr communications with the double agents and other intelligence relevant to the Double-Cross system’ (Andrew). Yet Andrew again prematurely misrepresents the B1B nomenclature as being current in August 1940, since records tell us that, in the first half of 1941, Milmo was identified as B2C (and once as B3C!), and Hart as B2B, which suggests that they were pursuing separate agendas. (What happened to B2C Sinclair is not clear, while Curry shows that B2B Whyte would later become B4A, in the ‘Country’ section.) Whether Milmo and Hart had also been in Frost’s ill-fated W Branch is uncertain: Hart did not join MI5, and sign the Official Secrets Act until July 3, 1940, so he may have been waiting in the wings until the new B2 organisation took shape a couple of months later. The main conclusion, however, is that Robertson had an identity and home as B2A in the first seven months of 1941. Another stage in his career is explained, although whether personnel in other wartime units who communicated with him, such as RSS, understood what was going on may be another question.
We have the firmest confirmation of the final order in Curry’s history, since he provides a detailed chart of the structure that Petrie imposed after his appointment as Director-General in March 1941. Yet how much the ideas were his, and how much he was swayed by Swinton, is unclear: Curry states that, on April 22, Petrie decided to ‘follow the Swinton recommendation of splitting up B Division’. The new structure was announced on July 15, and implemented on August 1. This shows White as Assistant-Director to Liddell, and in charge of B1 (titled ‘Espionage’, but, more accurately ‘Counter-Espionage’), Robertson is B1A, responsible for Special Agents, and Hart is B1B, ‘Espionage Special Sources’ – rather enigmatically suggesting that Milmo is no longer part of the picture, although archival documents show that he was still B1B in 1942. (As I have pointed out, Curry may not be 100% reliable – but he does provide more detail than Andrew or West.) B2 is now ‘Agents’ under Maxwell Knight, whose group has been generally known as the ‘M’ organisation, but which was clearly B2B in the chart I offered above. (The ‘agents’ here were mostly British citizens recruited to infiltrate subversive organisations on the mainland, previously Fascist groups, and now the Communist Party.) A large part of Knight’s group would shortly be moved away from him, and in August 1941 B2 was apparently dissolved, with Knight joining a staff unit titled ‘Agents and Press Section’ reporting directly to Harker and Petrie. A new Division, F Division, was also created at this time, initially under Curry, responsible for ‘Subversive Activities’, and it is here that Roger Hollis found his home, as F2, watching ‘Communism and Left Wing Movements’.
The main outcome of this restructuring is that Robertson found his happier and permanent home at B1A, under Dick White, and that is how we remember him. What is extraordinary in this whole saga is how unhelpful the ‘authorised’ or ‘official’ histories are in providing a comprehensive and comprehensible explanation of how the structures of MI5 evolved. One might say: if they cannot get facts like that right, how accurate is the rest of their story? I hope that this narrative helps remove the confusion, and that it will find its way into a future rewritten history of MI5. I encourage any researchers who discover facts that expand or counter any of what I have written to contact me.