The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 2)

Cyril Fairchild of RSS: Ditchling Beacon, 1939

When I set about my research into the puzzle of the apparent failure of the British Radio-Direction Finding mechanisms to detect the German agents incorporated in the Double-Cross System, I thought it would turn out to be a relatively straightforward case of guile – foolish, perhaps, and lucky – but still a feint. Yet my readings led me to conclude that here was a multi-dimensional enigma, involving the following conundrums: the bizarre and humbling treatment of Gill, after he made a breakthrough analysis; Gill’s mistake over the assumption that Hitler’s agents all had receivers as well as transmitters; the mystery of Lt.-Col. Simpson, who made a significant impact, but was almost completely removed from the records; the deceptions of Dick White about the timetable of the Double Cross System; the misrepresentations of Guy Liddell about his organisation; the official exaggeration of the Abwehr strategy, and finessing of some technical aspects of their agents’ method of operating; the contradictory representations, by various ‘experts’, of the state-of-the-art of wireless direction-finding; and the scanty coverage of the topic by the authorised historians.

Yet perhaps the most extraordinary finding was the almost apocalyptic observation that appeared in John Curry’s confidential history of MI5 compiled at the end of the war, asserting that the decisions made about the responsibility for the Radio Security Service (RSS) had caused a tragedy of Greek proportions to take place. This judgment was made when the war had recently been won, and the activities of the Double Cross Committee, in exploiting the agents under its control to promote the message that a dummy army (FUSAG) was assembled to invade the Pas de Calais, had been a primary contributor to the success. Was Curry hinting at the Cold War, and the betrayal of Eastern Europe by the Allies? Was he suggesting that British Intelligence had abdicated its responsibility for monitoring illicit Soviet transmissions? Did a careless decision not to deploy the RSS with the correct discipline allow the Soviets to transmit undetected, or did a careful decision to soft-pedal RSS in order to allow the spies to be surveilled open up a different exposure? Or was he simply lamenting the handing-over of control of RSS to SIS, with the struggle over the release of ISOS (Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey) material implying a colossal failure in joint intelligence? Given the political climate at the time, it is difficult to posit any other scenario beyond these. And, in fact, archival documents that have recently come to my attention firmly suggest that it was complacency about German agents that led to carelessness over other threats.

In my May blog, I had referred, in passing, to three documents written by the enigmatic Lt.-Col. Simpson that I believed were no longer extant. In June, through the agency of Dr. Brian Austin, I managed to contact a wartime RSS operator, one Bob King (who can be found in Pidgeon: see below) now in his nineties, who passed on to me a few files. One, though undated and unauthored, was surely an early draft of a contribution by John Curry of MI5 to his 1946 history of the institution (as the style was unmistakeable), but included comments that did not find their way into the eventual published version. The second was the 1938 report by Simpson on the threats constituted by the use of low-powered and miniaturized wireless transmitters in time of war, and what infrastructure, technology and organisation would be required to take on and eliminate such a menace. The discovery of this document is as if one of the lost plays of Aristophanes had suddenly been found. Likewise, I had not been able to locate this report from the Index of the National Archives at Kew, but, if any of Simpson’s contributions have been made publicly available, it astounds me that no historian appears to have grasped the significance of both these pieces. Another absorbing item is a report by an engineer who worked on a secret wireless interception project under the Metropolitan Police. I have no doubts whatever as to the authenticity of these documents, and shall use them (and others) to update the story in this entry. Moreover, in an email communication, Bob King assured me that Sonia’s illicit messages were picked up by the RSS, but the unit was told to ignore them. This nugget of information has enormous significance, and I shall address it in a future episode.

I had originally intended that this chapter would move the whole story – including progress in wireless transmission and detection techniques made by British, Soviet and German espionage and counter-espionage agencies – up to June 1942. The discovery of these new sources, however, means that this piece is dedicated to a deeper analysis of the evolution of RSS leading up to its transfer to SIS in the spring of 1941, and the immediate decisions made in the months afterwards.  I shall return to a full discussion of Phase 2 (January 1941 to June 1942) in a couple of months’ time.

RSS finds its Home

  • Background

For my research on the RSS as displayed in ‘Sonia’s Radio’, I had relied primarily on the Introduction to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Secret World, subtitled Behind the Curtain of British Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War, written by its Editor, Edward Harrison, for much of my information on the evolution of the Radio Security Service in the first two years of the war. That was complemented by a revealing chapter in Nigel West’s GCHQ, although West probably ascribes too much importance to the role of Lord Sandhurst, since West enjoyed exclusive access to the Sandhurst papers, and relied on them for much of his narrative. I found valuable, but mainly anecdotal, evidence in Geoffrey Pidgeon’s The Secret Wireless War, some rather fragmented accounts in Frank Birch’s often inscrutable Official History of British Sigint (which frequently reads as if it had been poorly translated from a foreign language, probably German), and some revealing but often imprecise material in Professor Hinsley’s official history of British Intelligence in the Second World War. Philip Davies’s MI6 and the Machinery of Spying is overall very thorough and contains good corrective analysis. But Keith Jeffery’s Secret History of MI6 is very disappointing in its coverage, considering that it is the authorised history, and that RSS was an integral part of SIS after the spring of 1941. I had inspected some of the source material at the National Archives on a visit in 2017, but, since little of it has been digitised, I have not been able to analyse any other since, apart from a few pieces shared by other researchers.

I recently discovered (thanks to Stan Ames, an RSS enthusiast) a longer paper published by Harrison, which appeared in the English Historical Review Vol. CXXIV, no. 506, dated January 13, 2009. It is titled ‘British Radio Security and Intelligence, 1939-1943’, and provides a very comprehensive account of this critical era in wireless and intelligence. Harrison, who suggests that his contribution ‘fills the gap’ in offering an academic article ‘dedicated to the organisation’ of RSS, generally provides an insightful guide to the literature, and skilfully exploits a broad number of sources. He crisply explains the evolution of RSS, taking the line that MI8 tried to find it a  home in MI5; that MI5 resisted, because of issues of overstretch and competence; how Walter Gill, introduced to the unit late in 1939, brought to it new skills in discrimination (isolating and organising signals of relevance from among a vast noise in the ether); how Gill’s findings shifted efforts towards Abwehr signals abroad rather than illicit transmissions from the UK; and how, because of this geographical re-focusing, with the approval of the imminently-to-be-appointed chief of MI5, David Petrie, RSS was handed over to SIS early in 1941, with official approval occurring in May. He then relates the continuing battles between MI5 and SIS – primarily through the personalities of Guy Liddell, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Maurice Cowgill – over the availability of ISOS decrypts that MI5 thought were critical for the smooth running of the Double-Cross system. It is a masterful and highly valuable contribution to the history.

Yet Harrison’s story does, I believe, not perform full justice to RSS, or describe accurately the manoeuvrings that went on behind the scenes to determine the control of RSS. It is a more a study of the relationships and tensions between MI5 and SIS than of the machinery and contributions of RSS itself, and Harrison is perhaps a touch too respectful of Trevor-Roper’s role, describing him as ‘the intellectual inspiration of RSS’. Moreover, Harrison largely ignores some of the figures who participated. He says nothing about Lord Sandhurst, who was appointed to RSS, and played some role in recruiting or training the Volunteer Interceptor force in the first months of the war. (As indicated above, this may have been a sagacious choice, as Sandhurst’s involvement remains somewhat controversial.) Harrison does not mention, however, the greater contribution of Lt.-Colonel Adrian Simpson, who wrote the seminal paper that defined the structures, technology and organisation that he felt were vital for protecting the nation’s defences. Harrison seems to be unaware of SIS’s own clandestine interception capabilities constructed in cooperation with the Metropolitan Police, documented by Kenworthy, and chronicled in the National Archives, which throw a bizarre light on the whole issue of MI5/SIS territorial control. He rather bizarrely devotes a section to Malcom Frost’s late efforts to increase the efficiency of the mobile detection units without offering an explanation of what illicit operators they were supposed to be pursuing. He mentions Richard Gambier-Parry, who headed SIS’s Section VIII, under which RSS resided, only in passing. He offers a restrained analysis of John Curry’s highly provocative assessment of the ‘Greek tragedy’ that resulted from SIS’s takeover of RSS, an opinion that Curry himself appeared to abjure elsewhere.

Moreover, Harrison brings to the surface a number of anomalies and paradoxes that are not satisfactorily addressed in his paper, and I have to backtrack a little to the topics I introduced in the first chapter of this saga to refresh the story. I should point out that I am not attempting to offer a comprehensive account of RSS’s history, but to focus on the questions highly relevant to radio interception and direction-finding policies in WWII. Who drove the takeover of RSS by SIS? Why were domestic interception and detection so casually executed? Why were Sonia’s radio transmissions overlooked? Why did British intelligence believe it could convince the Abwehr that the Double Cross agents had not been detectable?

  • The Strange Decline of Lt.-Col. Simpson

Simpson’s Report: First Page

Now that one of Simpson’s papers has come to light, one can understand his considerable strengths, as well as what probably caused him to fall into disfavour. (If not familiar with him, readers should inspect Chapter 1 of this saga first.) His October 1938 report to the Director of Security Service at the War Office, titled ‘Illicit W/T Communication’, is a masterful explanation of the way developments in wireless technology could allow a nest of foreign spies to remain undetected in Britain. He pointed out that low-power transmitters would be able to broadcast to receiving stations overseas (in Germany) while remaining difficult to detect locally via normal ground waves. He recommended the establishment of three fixed Direction-Finding (DF) stations, each complemented by a pair of portable (i.e. mobile) stations, that in turn would be supported by a set of hand apparatuses that could be used for house-to-house search. Landlines to connect the DF stations would be essential, and a line would also link the main DF station with the fixed Interception station. The project was to be enabled by the recruitment of ‘some 50 or 60 picked amateurs out of the 4,000 now existing in this country’; Simpson did add, however, that he believed that the creation of such an organisation was already under way.

Lt.-Colonel Simpson’s Plan for Interception, 1938

Simpson expressed concern about the suitability of the G.P.O., the institution currently chartered with executing MI5’s requirements in this area, since it had a more regulatory and bureaucratic approach to the issue of frequency usage. ‘Our objective’ (which should probably not be interpreted as ‘MI5’s objective’, but as a national interest), he said, is to prevent any unauthorised transmissions, not just investigate them after they had happened. That is why he focused on developing a more elite, professional staff from among all the amateurs who held experimental licenses. He did add, however, the intriguing comment that one of the objectives would be to ‘locate the source of transmission with the least possible delay, but not necessarily stop it’, hinting at the notion of possible control of alien broadcasts, but in fact suggesting a desire to distort the suspected propaganda signals to make them unintelligible. His final appeal was for centralised control over the whole process of interception, direction-finding, and message gathering, and that, when the collection ‘of a certain class of highly confidential intelligence’ had been made, it would be conveyed to the appropriate department ‘to take the necessary executive action’. Lastly, he nominated three very distinguished names to serve on a Technical Advisory Committee, Dr. James Robinson, Director of Wireless Research at the Air Ministry, Captain Round, an expert in DF and interception work, and Mr. K. Tremellen, ‘the greatest practical authority alive on the subject of short-wave communication’. Strangely, none of these names appears in the authorised histories.

Some of Simpson’s ideas would be echoed later (e.g. the need for unification of resources, the professionalisation of voluntary interceptors), but his recommendations were perhaps influenced by two notions that were gradually becoming obsolete: i) a too technical approach that emphasised that the problem was one simply of interception and location, not foreshadowing the technique of traffic analysis, and the way in which that process, alongside (even partial) decryption, fed back into the act of discrimination, and ii) the belief, perhaps encouraged by WWI memories of German spy threats, that the country was riddled with German agents, equipped with wireless, who were ready to spring into action. What is also significant that he articulated the mission as ‘closing . . . all illicit channels of communication with the enemy in time of war, and of locating sources of political propaganda in time of peace’. What he did not include was the need to protect the realm from hostile (not necessarily declared enemy) communications designed to help subvert the country – i.e. transmissions by Communist spies, whether in time of peace or war. This must have been a failure of knowledge or imagination, and it is astonishing that, since he was offering his report on behalf of MI5, he was allowed to make his submission to the Director of Security Service at the War Office without this oversight being pointed out.

John Bryden, in Fighting to Lose, suggests that MI5 rejected his ideas there and then, ‘being firmly of the view that German agents would only be using the mails or couriers to send in their reports’, and that the matter was turned back to the War Office. But that does not make sense. The source that Bryden provides for this explanation (Curry) does not give that as the reason: Curry blamed it on the administrative burden and financial commitments required. Moreover, despite the fact that the War Office approved Simpson’s recommendation that the RSS unit be set up, it did not endorse his ideas of ‘unified control’, and when MI5 declined to become involved, Simpson stayed on as the Security Service’s expert. He was surely happy to see his recommendations accepted, no matter where the unit reported. (His perspective on MI5 ownership is a little ambiguous: at one stage in his report he refers to ‘our’ DF or interception stations, but then goes on to write that they would be used ‘in conjunction with M.I.5.’ It appears he had an open mind on the command structure.) Bryden and Curry do agree, however, that the founding of MI1(g) was attributable to MI5’s lack of eagerness to take charge. Accordingly, RSS started collaborating with the Post Office in March 1939, with MI5 demoted to the sidelines, waiting for results.

Simpson may have been somewhat deflated, but thus hung around in MI5 (though without warm recognition from Liddell, his boss in MI5’s Counter-Espionage B Division). The fragment from Curry indicates that he was vigorously promoting his original vision of unified control, and stressing the importance of the Post Office in harnessing the appropriate resources to tackle the threat of illicit transmissions by supplying suitable personnel, and moving to build the new facilities required. Indeed, Curry reports that Simpson was the main muscle behind the establishment of the Voluntary Interceptor system: a recognition that other commentators have overlooked. As B3b, he was actively supplying the liaison between MI5 that was later mirrored in SIS’s Section V. As MI5’s representative on the Technical Committee on Leakage of Information (TCLI) that the War Office set up in October, 1939, he was quick (in February 1940) to try to persuade the Ministry of Home Security to bring pressure on to the GPO. He attended the critical meeting on March 20 at Bletchley Park after which GC&CS agreed to set up the ISOS decryption unit. Yet his stubbornness in believing that a domestic German menace was being overlooked (when none existed) must have clashed with the messages coming from RSS. His emphasis on the need for widely dispersed Voluntary Interceptors to pick up illicit ground signals turned out to be something of a luxury, although the wide dissemination of interceptors greatly aided the ability of the unit to avoid omissions provoked by the whimsicality of ‘skip zones’ and the presence of thunderstorms. His expressed frustrations with the GPO’s lack of urgency in constructing new DF and Interception stations was probably on target, but his insistence that the detection of illicit wireless was ‘extremely unsatisfactory’ was not.

Maybe the SNOW affair changed Liddell’s mind somewhat. Simpson’s ideas must have had a slight resurgence with the ‘Fifth Column’ scare in the summer of 1940, but Liddell’s entering discussions with ‘the BBC man’ Malcolm Frost in May 1940 suggests that Simpson was no longer around. (Frost had been the BBC representative on the TCLI, and thus presumably had caught Liddell’s eye as a possible replacement for Simpson.) Indeed, the system of Regional Security Liaison Officers that MI5 set up by Guy Liddell in June 1940, specifically to address the threat of illicit wireless (and which was headed by Jane Archer, mysteriously sidelined from her expert role in tracking Communist subversion) mapped very closely to Simpson’s areas of demarcation. But when that was shown to be a false alarm, his whole infrastructure was seen to be somewhat redundant, especially in the light of the lessons being learned by Gill and Trevor-Roper in the RSS organisation. Interceptors were needed in large numbers, but did not have to be located so evenly around the country in order to pick up ground waves. Simpson’s attendance at the meeting at Bletchley Park where the revelations about the discovery of Abwehr traffic were made is the last reference that Liddell makes to him in his Diaries.

Still, Simpson’s omission from the record books (outside Curry) is extremely puzzling, and some of his contribution remains uncredited. For example, his report clearly refers to the 4,000 amateurs known to the Post Office who had the potential of providing the elite force that Simpson needed. Yet most histories and memoirs attribute the imaginative idea to Lord Sandhurst, who was reportedly recruited by RSS at the outbreak of war to develop a professional force of interceptors to replace the largely part-time group assembled by Colonel Worlledge. Sandhurst, who had also been instructed to liaise with R. L. Hughes of MI5 (who, Curry informs us was B3b, responsible for liaison with the RSS and the BBC, and thus working directly for Simpson at that time), soon approached Arthur Watts, the President of the Radio Society of Great Britain. Watts had ‘several thousand’ members who were radio hams, so Sandhurst then began to select the most suitable for training. Thus Simpson’s contribution is overlooked: Davies, like Harrison, remarkably makes no mention of wireless expertise in MI5 before Frost.  Simpson will turn up again in this account, when I write about the negotiations to find RSS a suitable home, but the verdict on his contribution must be that he was technically correct, but strategically wrong. He brilliantly assessed the state of the art of short-wave wireless telegraphy, and its potential subversive use, but he was caught up in the tide of searching for a phantom menace – the German W/T agents installed in the English countryside – and failed to gain the confidence of his colleagues in MI5. The irony was that the flock of interceptors he identified to protect the nation did not need to be precisely dispersed to detect ground waves, as there were no illicit operators at large at that time, but the volume and placement of such individuals did turn out to be essential to pick up the mass of signals originating from overseas.

  • The Rise and Fall of Walter Gill

Walter Gill

Walter Gill, on the other hand, was (in a specialised sense) technically wrong, but strategically correct. It still comes as a surprise to some observers that nearly all the Abwehr agents infiltrated by air or sea in 1940 were equipped only with a transmitter, and not with a combined transmitter-receiver, or with a separate receiver. Operating ‘blind’, without any confirmation that one’s message was being received at all, or perhaps not clearly enough (and thus needed to be re-sent) would appear to reflect a less than serious objective by the perpetrators of the scheme. And that is one interpretation that can be cast on the German planning, as I have suggested. (Preparations for sending agents into Britain did not begin until July 1940.) Yet that phenomenon is confirmed by the archival reports, as well as by the memoirs of some of the members of RSS. While Gill showed great insight over the question of the source of beams guiding German aircraft, his thesis, that if the supposed German agents could hear their controllers’ signals, then so should the operators in RSS have been able to, and that there were therefore none operating, was based on a false assumption. The focus on enemy signals originating abroad, and the eventual deciphering of many of them (ULTRA), was, however, a major contributor to the success of the war.

Gill’s policy must come under continual scrutiny, however. I have recently read accounts of two Abwehr agents who parachuted on to English soil before the main wave (Operation LENA) that arrived in early September 1940. Each of this pair was reported to have brought a working transmitter/receiver unit and successfully exchanged messages with his controller. Such transmissions were presumably not detected by RSS, since Gill claimed the unit had not identified any unexplained outgoing Abwehr signals. Such agents might therefore have been able to transmit undetected for some time, contrary to the accounts that the authorised and semi-official historians would have us believe. I shall investigate such adventures in my next chapter, to judge whether this was all an elaborate hoax. It should perhaps also be noted that Gill came to his breakthrough conclusion about the absence of German agents in Britain in December 1939, when SNOW was, almost certainly, the only wireless operator recruited by the Abwehr. His report, however, was not written until November, 1940, when the experience of Operation LENA, under which a dozen or more spies landed on British soil, would have sharpened sensitivities in MI5. Indeed, as early as July 13, 1940, Liddell felt compelled to record in his diary the following: “While I feel it is likely that there are a few German agents here, possibly transmitting by wireless, I do not envisage anything in the nature of large bodies of individuals going out to stab us in the back as soon as the Germans invade this country.” That observation indicates that the Gill doctrine had not been accepted wholesale at that time, and Liddell did not have complete trust in the energies of RSS.

I have little here to add to my account of Gill’s demise that I described two months ago, but the account that Hugh Trevor-Roper gave of Gill’s departure is somewhat paradoxical. Trevor-Roper was known for his caustic dismissals of many of those he encountered in wartime, especially the blimpish characters he considered to be his intellectual inferiors, but he clearly had some admiration and affection for Gill. Gill had been a lecturer on electricity at Oxford University, and a successful Bursar at Merton College, although Trevor-Roper had diminished his overall academic qualifications by writing that he ‘could only by a charitable laxity of definition be included among the educated’, a harsh and inaccurate judgment (as revealed in Dr. Austin’s detailed profile of him), which sheds more light on Trevor-Roper’s arrogance than on Gill’s cultural accomplishments. Yet they worked well together as a team. Trevor-Roper, however, when commenting on Gill’s clumsy and harsh dismissal and demotion, could only comment (in Sideways into SIS) as follows: “The real genius of the affair, Major Gill, was also deliberately overlooked. Left to find other employment, he became a radar officer and an expert on captured German equipment. Under the new regime, his name was never mentioned.”

Was there a reason for Trevor-Roper’s coyness over Gill’s treatment, which he also characterised simply as ‘rather shabby’? After all, Gill had been fired without even a formal notification, and then demoted from Major to Captain. Major Cowgill, the offended SIS officer (who had joined SIS only in March 1939, so did not enjoy a reputation of any sort), had repeatedly called for Trevor-Roper, who had been just as complicit in the affair as Gill, to be court-martialled. Yet Trevor-Roper escaped unscathed, even though the head of RSS, Colonel Worlledge, lost his job as well. It is surprising that Trevor-Roper did not provide a more comprehensive coverage of the whole business. In fact he concluded that Cowgill in fact ‘had every right to explode’, as Worlledge had revealed secrets concerning intelligence and security ‘not only to his official contacts in the Armed Services intelligence departments . . . but also (horror of horrors!) to the civilians of the Post Office.’ Perhaps Gill and Worlledge were punished because, as military veterans from WWI, they should have known better. In fact, as will be shown, it was a bit more complicated than that.

One last mysterious incident concerns Gill’s reappearance in April 1942. Despite what Trevor-Roper wrote over fifty years later, Gill’s name was apparently mentioned again, because (as Harrison reports) Trevor-Roper was in contact by letter with F. E. Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), who was Churchill’s scientific adviser, at a time when Trevor-Roper, disenchanted again with his work in SIS, was looking for other opportunities. As Adam’s Sisman’s biography of Trevor-Roper makes clear, he was highly frustrated over the failure of RSS management (Maltby and Gambier-Parry) to keep technical policy aligned with intelligence aims. He had earlier rather indiscreetly criticised the leaders of RSS, specifically Gambier-Parry, and now told Lindemann that Menzies (chief of SIS) had called him in, and then accused him (Trevor-Roper) ‘of having supplied facts to Gill which he had supplied to you and you to Swinton’. Is that ‘he’ Menzies or Gill? Unlikely the former, as Trevor-Roper would presumably not have been party to information passed by Menzies to Lindemann: Menzies would in that case have been concerned about a breach of security elsewhere.

So if it was Gill supplying facts to Lindemann that got back to Menzies via Swinton of the Security Executive, what could those facts have been about, and on what basis were Gill and Trevor-Roper still in communication over important matters if Gill was by then working in a completely unrelated sphere of the war effort? And why would Gill want to leak secrets to Lindemann? It may be relevant that, at exactly this time, as Dr. Austin informs us, Gill joined the Army Operational Research Group, where he was responsible for investigating advanced aspects of Army field communications, but no details of the exchange have come to light. It sounds very much as if Gill and Trevor-Roper had stayed in touch, as ex-colleagues who had collaborated very productively on the matter of intelligent signals analysis, and that Gill was a man whose reputation had been restored, and had connections with influential persons. Another interesting twist to the story (as related by Sisman) is that when Trevor-Roper made a trip to Ireland in early 1942, i.e. just before the contact with Gill, Colonel Worlledge invited him to his home, Glenwilliam Castle, where ‘over a convivial dinner each outlined to the other what he knew of the takeover of RSS by SIS’. The existence of this conversation hints at untold scheming and plotting. Vivian of SIS was later to use this incident to make the astonishing claim that Trevor-Roper had gone to Dublin to betray the Ultra secret to the Germans, and that he had been ‘motivated by resentment against SIS for its treatment of Worlledge, and of Gill in particular.’ (Vivian was by now unstable: Liddell reports that he suffered a nervous breakdown in June 1942.) Trevor-Roper’s published account of Gill’s dismissal was clearly much more muted than this: he was surely concealing something of substance, but it may have no important connection with the fate and mission of RSS.

Gill’s major contribution to the debate about RSS’s future was his November 19, 1940, paper on the Organisation of RSS. Curry represented the arguments therein (the whole Theseus episode, after which focus was shifted to interception of overseas transmissions) as a clinching argument for RSS’s ‘vitality and value’, and for moving it into MI5, but that judgment appears weak and woolly. The timing of this report suggests it was produced under some pressure, but Gill’s account expresses no concern about the current organisation, or the allocation of work between RSS & GC&CS, and it concludes simply with a modest request for more resources. Yet the report includes a very telling statement concerning Direction Finding: “Any of the residue [i.e. the messages remaining after known ones had been identified] found by D.F. to be outside the country could for the above purpose have been neglected [but were not].”  RSS was successful in tracking those same messages, but, by implication, some unknown messages did originate inside the country. Gill gave, however, no indication of how these were investigated, a statement that should have alarmed MI5’s officers. If anything, the case as he made it was an argument against moving the unit to MI5, contrary to what Curry claimed. As we shall see, the question of territory and ownership would play a strong role in the decision, and MI5, even if the service had an outspoken champion, was on its weakest footing at this stage. The transfer to MI5 of course did not happen, but it did provoke a major debate about where RSS should report. Had Gill performed his job, and was thus no longer needed? Or was his demise just an accident of politics? That question may be unanswerable.

  • Kenworthy and the Secret Interception Unit

SIS was a notoriously secret organisation, but even it had clandestine corners that were not apparently known to all its officers, or even its authorised historian. In Keith Jeffery’s Secret History of MI6 the author informed us that the strategic split between the responsibilities of MI5 and MI6 (SIS) was made on October 1, 1931, when the semi-autonomous unit of the Special Branch, SS1, which consisted of the familiar Guy Liddell and his colleague Hugh Miller, experts in counter-subversion, was peeled off from the Metropolitan Police and handed over to MI5. SIS was also stripped of its domestic intelligence network, the ‘Casuals’, which was causing an embarrassment. This decision apparently simplified and clarified the missions for MI5 and SIS to handle subversion in the Empire and in foreign countries, respectively. “Thus . . . the Secret Intelligence Service and the Security Service took on their modern form and distinct spheres of responsibility which were to survive for at least the next eight years”, Jeffery wrote, with a high degree of authority (p 236).

Yet it was not quite like that. The reader will learn, from Nigel West’s 1986 book, GCHQ, that in 1930, a Commander Kenworthy reported ‘an illicit Comintern circuit operating between a site just outside Moscow and a terraced house in a suburb of London’. (The Moscow location was verified by direction-finders located in Palestine’s Sarafand, in India, and in London, thereby showing that widely dispersed location-finders working in harness could place remote transmitters with an accuracy that could not always be exercised in more confined areas. Such phenomena perplexed security officers like Liddell.) West added that Kenworthy was ‘the controller of the Home Office intercept station at Grove Park, Camberwell’. It might surprise some that the Home Office was involved with interception. Indeed, in West’s later book (2005) on this Comintern project, MASK, the author informs us that ‘GC&CS’s [sic] monitoring station at Grove Park, Camberwell, headed by Commander Kenworthy, first began intercepting Wheeton’s signals in February 1934 . . .’. Aided by the revelation by an MI5 mole of the cipher used, the codebreakers Leslie Lambert and John Tiltman were able to read the traffic until January 1937. By employing the full force of the direction-finding equipment of the Army (Fort Bridgewoods), Navy (Flowerdown) and Air Force (Waddington), the team of technicians were able to locate the members of a worldwide Comintern ring.

Fort Bridgewoods

The intercept station, however, was not run consciously by the Home Office or by GC&CS. It was run clandestinely by the Metropolitan Police. We owe it to a memorandum by Kenworthy himself, available at HW 3/81 at the National Archives, for a richer account of how Special Branch, assisted by both SIS and MI5, kept a watch on traffic that the armed forces declined to surveille. Supported by secret funds, an interception unit was encouraged by its experience in the General Strike (1926) to seek support from SIS in trying to detect foreign diplomatic stations which did not have ‘Berne List’ status (the latter presumably representing official frequencies allocated by international agreement). Kenworthy made it clear that Admiral Sinclair, the chief of SIS, was intimately familiar with what was going on. Remarkably, Kenworthy indicated that the expertise in interception gained by his unit entitled him to attend Y [= Signals Interception] Committee meetings, where the Services ‘looked to him for guidance’. He described his success in locating the illicit Comintern operator in Wimbledon, also showing that he and his colleague Lambert developed a portable direction-finding piece of apparatus that was critical for their mission.

What is intriguing is that The Metropolitan Police was the institution responsible for tracking the increasing volume of diplomatic traffic that appeared in the 1930s. “The Services were however disinclined to intercept Diplomatic (Commercial) Wireless to any extent as it would lead to a curtailment of the examination of their particular Service channels of Foreign Countries, as it became more and more important that encouragement should be given to Police by S.I.S”, Kenworthy wrote. Soon SIS was funding the exercise, as it was difficult to account for the expenses internally, and not long thereafter the new Receiving Station at Denmark Hill was constructed. Some official funding was approved, and made public, in 1938, but SIS maintained a controlling interest in the project. (At the base of one of his many organisational charts, Birch lists the Police Y Station at Denmark Hill as being controlled by the Foreign Office, i.e. SIS’s sponsor!) Now the interest of GC&CS (which reported to Admiral Sinclair, SIS’s chief) was piqued. In 1939 it decided that Commercial traffic should be intercepted as well, requiring a workload that Denmark Hill could not handle. “G.C. & C.S. realised that more facilities were required but unfortunately they had to cloak their activities and could not openly control wireless stations.” Everything that was going on was contrary to the rules of the protocol-oriented GPO. The outcome was that a new interception station was set up at Sandridge, near St. Albans, ‘specially for G.C. & C. S.’. Finally, to tidy up the picture, GC&CS took over the complete Police signals intelligence capability between November 1939 and January 1940, as the summary of the relevant files at the National Archives website informs us. (Regrettably, I have not yet been able to inspect the complete file.)

This whole chapter in British signals intelligence contains some remarkable ironies. The first is that the task of intercepting commercial and diplomatic traffic had devolved to a clandestine unit of Scotland Yard, a fact that appears to have been overlooked by all historians except Frank Birch. (HW 3/81 was not declassified until 2004: Andrew and Jeffery would have had access to it anyway, but chose not to use it.) The second is that SIS was involved in intercepting traffic occurring within the territorial boundaries of the UK, which flagrantly broke the rules that had been set up in 1931 guiding the missions of the two intelligence services. Since one of the main planks of the argument for placing, in early 1941, RSS under SIS’s aegis was the fact that RSS, after the beginning of the war, changed its focus from domestic to international interception, the episode sheds fresh light on the sincerity and professionalism of Sinclair and Menzies. The third irony is that MI5 knew all about this incursion on its turf, but apparently did not raise any protest: Curry mentions, without judgment, that ‘a certain amount of interception work was being done by M.I.6’, referring to the illicit set operated by the Russians. (One of Kenworthy’s paragraphs reads: “A conference took place with S.I.S. and M.I.5. The latter pointed out that strictly speaking the G.P.O. as the Communication Authority were the Department who should tackle these sorts of jobs but for reasons best known to S.I.S. and M.I.5. G.P.O. were not considered a very secure body.”) In early 1941, the Security Service, already weak in its drive and leadership, would have been on insecure footing had it tried to play the territorial card.

The fourth irony is that GC&CS was allowed to enter the interception game at the beginning of the war (the transfer presumably muscled through quickly by Menzies) at a time when Commander Denniston was making vigorous representations about interceptors invading his own domain of cryptography, an action that led to Worlledge and Gill losing their jobs. Denniston was extremely possessive about GC&CS’s ownership of cryptanalysis, even though he and others (according to Birch) accepted that ‘Y generally involved interception, traffic analysis and ‘low-level cryptanalysis’. But Hinsley also records that, in the summer of 1940, Denniston opposed the demand from MI8 (RSS) that its Traffic Analysis staff of 70 officers be transferred to GC&CS (on the basis that Traffic Analysis and cryptanalysis should be done in the same place), on the grounds that ‘his establishment should continue to be a cryptanalytical centre’ (only).

Kenworthy thus moved to GC&CS, worked there during the war, when it became GCHQ, and retired in 1957. Though working for Bletchley Park, he was stationed at Knockholt, where he led the project to intercept German Teleprinter Communications. This was the very important ‘Fish’ set of non-Morse messages, and Kenworthy wrote a report on that activity in 1946. But of enduring interest to this area of research is his achievement in developing, so early, effective handheld location-finding equipment. I have not yet been able to trace the extent to which his inventions passed on to the GPO in wartime, apart from a brief mention by Curry, who stated that Kenworthy’s portable D-F set was tested by MI5, and that ‘some interesting Mobile Unit operations were carried out on connection with this case [the detection of the Comintern transmissions]’. I thus have not been able to determine whether the apparent dilatoriness of the GPO – so frequently demeaned by intelligence officers – was caused by inadequate technology or by official edict.

  • The Transfer to SIS

So was the transfer of RSS to SIS a smooth operation, or was it bedevilled with conflict and controversy? One can learn little from the authorised histories. The History of British Intelligence in the Second World War contains some errors, as well as some very puzzling observations that do not always make sense. Christopher Andrew does not mention the episode at all, or even the mission that MI5 shared with MI8/RSS. You will not find Lt.-Colonel Simpson, Malcolm Frost, the RSS, or even Section B3, in his Index. Keith Jeffery devotes just two sentences of his equally massive book to the adoption by Section VIII of RSS, indicating simply that it occurred ‘on Petrie’s recommendation’. He has nothing to say about Trevor-Roper, and Cowgill receives just a cursory mention. Geoffrey Pidgeon records the event as follows: “In January 1941, Swinton recommended that RSS be handed over to SIS, but this met with fierce opposition throughout the upper echelons of MI5, resulting in a battle that reached the highest levels”.  However, since Pidgeon (like many commentators) appeared to be under the impression that RSS had been run hitherto by MI5, his account may have been coloured. Nigel West, in his 1985 history, MI5, represents the struggle as one more between Menzies, the SIS chief, and Worlledge of RSS than a conflict between SIS and MI5, although West’s somewhat haphazard chronology of events means it is difficult to follow his narrative. He does, however, make the provocative claim that the change-over ‘was, in effect, “C”s (i.e. Menzies’s) final consolidation of his grasp on signals interception, and was only achieved after a closely-fought struggle with MI5’s ‘old guard’, but this interesting thread is not picked up or developed in his history, MI6, which came out two years later. Since Menzies did not assume his leadership of SIS until November 1939, and did not enjoy a reputation as a deep thinker or strategist, West’s opinion comes over as rather startling. I shall return to it later.

Stewart Menzies

So what does the evidence indicate? Birch suggests that several agencies had had their eyes on the prize of domestic interception, namely MI1b, MI5, SIS, the armed services, the police and the Post Office, before the 1938 decision that the War Office should be in charge, and the establishment of RSS. MI5 had a natural interest, because of the mission it shared with the unit, but, as has been explained, was reluctant to plunge in. Lt.-Col. Simpson must have grown frustrated, because he expressed his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs on September 15, 1939, and, according to Curry ‘suggested that the assistance of Colonel xxxxxxxx [name redacted] (an M.I.6. officer) should be sought’. Now, there were not many established Colonels in SIS at that time. Sinclair, mortally ill, was an Admiral, and Colonel Dansey was absent in Switzerland between September and November 1939. Unless Simpson intended to invoke Dansey, not knowing he was abroad, that left Colonel Menzies, head of Section II (military) and Sinclair’s deputy, Colonel Vivian, head of Section V (counter-espionage). Another officer, however, had been promoted to Colonel earlier that year – Richard Gambier-Parry, head of the Communications unit, Section VIII. There is no doubt, given the length of the name redacted, that it is he whom Simpson approached, and the significance of this connection will be explored later. It is not clear why Simpson decided to voice his frustrations at this time, apart from the fact that war had recently been declared. Was he annoyed at the pace of RSS hiring? Or at the shift to tracking overseas transmissions? Or at MI5’s continued reticence to grab the bull by the horns? The fragment from Curry’s report indicates that his ideas had moved on to consider broader issues of signals security, but his plans at that time encompassed a leading role for MI5 as the hub of a wireless intelligence organisation that it must have been reluctant to assume. Perhaps Gambier-Parry was an old ally, and this was a move to invite SIS to step in. But Simpson might have upset his bosses in MI5 during the process.

Richard Gambier-Parry

RSS was in fact moving along reasonably well: the GPO must have been propelled into action, though perhaps reluctantly. It did not think its mission was to build interception stations that would be focusing on detecting traffic originating from overseas. Three new Direction-Finding stations had been set up, and arrangements had been made in August for linking them with telephone lines. Lord Sandhurst was turning the corps of radio amateurs into a more professional body, though perhaps not as quickly as Simpson would have liked. As Nigel West writes: “The operators had to be skilled, discreet and dedicated, so the recruitment process was necessarily slow. By Christmas 1939, the Home South Region boasted only seven VIs (Voluntary Interceptors) on its roll.” Within three months, RSS had recruited fifty VIs, who were tracking 600 sources – all on the other side of the Channel. West reports that the Home South section had produced 1,932 logs by the end of the year, a figure that grew to 3,052 by March 1940. And, by that time, Gill and Trevor-Roper had cracked the Abwehr hand-cipher, and Bletchley Park had agreed to set up a special-purpose cryptographic unit to handle the traffic. RSS’s reputation was on the rise, but its role probably not broadly understood.

At the same time, fierce arguments over policy and organisation were being discussed by members of the Y Committee, which broadly was responsible for interception, traffic analysis, and low-grade cryptography. There were disagreements about the degree to which the needs of the three Services should be shared, or kept separate, but there was also questioning as to why SIS (whose head, Menzies, chaired the meetings) should control proceedings. It took an appeal to Lord Hankey, the ultimate committee man, for a solution, which involved a stronger Y Committee with a full-time chairman, and supporting clerical staff. Frank Birch suggests some of the confusion when he indicates that the news about the interception and decryption of Abwehr traffic in Europe, and the establishment of GC&CS’s ISOS group appeared to come as some surprise to the committee. ‘Officially, all this was no one’s concern’, he wrote, but in May 1940 the Committee gave formal recognition to the extension of RSS’s responsibility to provide preliminary investigation of these groups of signals. Seven months into the war, the Committee was still in reactive mode, instead of setting policy. The full Committee met for the first time not until January 1, 1941.

In the summer of 1940, after Simpson’s departure, Liddell also found a new candidate to lead B3b (Simpson’s unit), one Maurice Frost of the BBC, whom Swinton encouraged Liddell to hire. After initial good impressions, Frost was signed up, and in June 1940, Liddell reported plans for Frost to set up a new branch (the W Branch), instead of reporting to Liddell in B. The decision was made in July, and ‘Tar’ Robertson (who was handling SNOW) was deputed to work for him. But Liddell had to backtrack, and in August the W unit was folded back into B Branch, much to Frost’s annoyance. (Curry’s report states that Frost was Director of the W Division at this time ‘which comprised B.3’. It is probable that Liddell’s journal is more accurate than Curry’s memory on this matter.  MI5 was also notoriously inconsistent in its naming conventions for Branches and Divisions.) Yet Frost was beginning to get under everybody’s skin by this time. Robertson declared he could not work under him, and even Lord Swinton, who had supported Frost’s recruitment, said in late November 1940 that Frost could not stay in MI5. His ambition and untrustworthiness had become intolerable: moreover, he probably did not possess the appropriate skills for such a job. His interest was more in establishing a service to monitor foreign broadcasts.

Matters appeared to come to a disruptive head in September. According to Hinsley, the War Office concluded that its own interception capabilities (of German Air Force Enigma traffic) were not keeping up with GC&CS’s capacity to absorb it. Thus, on Winston’s Churchill’s bidding, Hankey ordered a transfer of an unspecified number of ‘operators’ from RSS to the Services, ‘overruling RSS’s protests’. This was probably a gross misjudgement: the failure to detect the enemy’s movements in the Nazis’ overrun of Europe in the summer of 1940 was due more to an incapacity to analyse and integrate intelligence properly than a paucity of intercepts. That was the insight that Gill and Trevor-Roper had arrived at.  Moreover, the War Office was responsible for MI8, which was where the unit reported. RSS received intercepts from its team of VIs, the permanent stations managed by the Post Office, as well the Armed Forces, the BBC and the cable companies, so simply shifting operators around was not likely to fix the poorly identified problem. Somehow the discoveries that Gill and Trevor-Roper had made about Abwehr communications with agents as the German war machine moved across Europe in the summer of 1940 should have made it to the General Staff, but there was no mechanism for that to happen.

By now, however, MI8 was feeling the pressure. On October 9 it pushed MI5 to take over the RSS unit en bloc, as it needed to concentrate on military matters, clearly not understanding that the work that RSS was doing was much more closely related to the theatre of war than the stated mission of detecting illicit domestic transmissions. But, of course, MI5 did know. Moreover, Brigadier Allen (MI5’s assistant director) went on record as saying that the service was being asked to take over an organisation that was breaking down. MI5 thus still demurred, because of cost and complexity, and because it understood that the current concentration on Abwehr traffic in Europe (and beyond) made the procedural case for the responsibility’s belonging to the Security Service completely tenuous. MI8 and MI5 were at cross-purposes. No doubt the secret but successful execution of an unchartered mission had to be revealed. The publication of Gill’s report in November 1940 thus brought the achievements of RSS into the open, perhaps preventing any further poaching by the Military, but inevitably driving the unit further away from MI5.

MI5 was also experiencing considerable turmoil at the time: even as Vivian of SIS was reminding MI5 officers (via Jasper Harker) of the correct procedures for communicating with SIS, Liddell was lobbying for Vivian to head MI5, so confusing was the current leadership. Lord Swinton, who headed the Security Executive set up by Churchill, had made life difficult for acting Director-General Jasper Harker, and had inserted William Crocker as an awkward co-head of B Division with Liddell. On December 3, 1940, Churchill’s security adviser, Desmond Morton, had told the Premier that MI5 was ‘close to collapse’, but the previous month the Lord President of the Council, John Anderson, had already brought in David Petrie to review its operation. Petrie had in fact been offered the job of Director-General, but declined to accept until he had performed a proper survey of the operation. He did not complete his report until February 13, 1941, but by January 30 he had already recommended to Swinton that SIS take over RSS. Where is the evidence of the struggle of ‘MI5’s old guard’, identified by West? It seems they put up no fight at all.

David Petrie

Yet the same day that Petrie arrived in MI5 to perform his investigation (January 1), Swinton approached the Director of Military Intelligence, Major-General F. H. N. Davidson to discuss the future of RSS. In an exchange that underlined what critical observers might say about the oxymoron of ‘military intelligence’, Davidson was reported to respond that he found RSS and related matters ‘very interesting, very complicated, and a strain on one’s brain’. Maybe this ‘very model of a modern major-general’ was simply overwhelmed, since he had assumed his new post only the previous month. Harrison, having inspected the Davidson papers, observes that Davidson noted in his diary that Swinton was ‘not satisfied that it [RSS] was doing its stuff’. Whether Swinton understood what RSS’s ‘stuff’ was, or consulted Lt.-Colonel Simpson, as a possibly sharper analyst of RSS’s failings, is not recorded. Davidson’s overall contribution is ambiguous: Cavendish-Bentinck, a normally good judge of character, who was the highly successful Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) for most of the war, recorded that Davidson was ‘a very mediocre officer, with a permanent desire to make our reports fit in with the views of the CIGS [Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff].’ On the other hand, the official history of the JIC makes it clear that Davidson sensibly pressed, in January 1941, for a more integrated view of intelligence to assist the war effort – although he did not include MI5 or SIS in his choice of contributors to the process.

When Worlledge opposed the transfer on February 14 (’vigorously’, as Davies informs us), he also cast aspersions on SIS’s administrative skills, as well as making tactless criticisms of Gambier-Parry’s technical abilities, a mis-step that would later cost him his job. Why Worlledge was so set against SIS’s taking over RSS is puzzling, since it should have been clear to him that MI5 was even less endowed with managerial and technical talent than SIS. Hinsley writes that ‘the MI8 Colonel in any case fervently believed that the Services should control Sigint in time of war’. Was Worlledge perhaps aware of the Metropolitan Police unit, and its mobile detection exercises over the Comintern spies, and harboured some doubts about SIS’s interception policy and strategy?

Maybe Davidson was a fast learner, and had quickly unravelled the complications of RSS. The next day, he questioned Petrie’s decision, pointing out that ‘MI6 is concerned with the transmitting of signals and not their interception or location’, a claim that, as has been shown above, merely indicated that the Director of Military Intelligence did not know the full story of what was going on in the world of interception. Yet Davidson’s preference appeared to be to keep RSS under MI8 control rather than pass it to MI5, echoing his clearly diminished regard for the civilian services. Swinton coolly demolished Davidson’s objections, drawing on his position as supremo of both Intelligence Services to ensure that matters would work out fine, that the necessary committees would be in place to handle overlaps and conflicts, and that more professional training of RSS personnel would address his colleague’s concerns. Davidson was subdued, but not eliminated as a threat. Nigel West informs us that Davidson would later cross swords with Menzies, as he was not happy about the civilian nature of GC&CS, and wanted to wrest control back to the War Office. He believed the Office had not gained the results from interception which it merited for the investment it had made.

Yet another extraordinary step occurred before the eventual decision was made. According to Curry: “Early in 1941 it was suggested that an independent adviser, Mr. Kirke of the B.B.C., should carry out an investigation into R.S.S. organisation from the technical point of view and make recommendations for its future running by M.I.5.” The passive voice disguises an unlikely initiative: that the opinion of a BBC manager, supposedly independent of Frost and his objectives, might have been considered a fair judge of the best home for RSS, with the outcome of the investigation apparently pre-determined, and when in the past year the unit had moved well away from its mission of tracking voice broadcasting, and Frost himself had fallen out of favour, is simply shocking. Unsurprisingly, ‘this proposal aroused considerable opposition’. Curry nevertheless noted that ‘although it was partially carried out’, it resulted in meetings between the Director-General of the Security Service and representatives of SIS. Unsurprisingly, Petrie’s recommendation held. Liddell reported in his diary entry for March 6 that Gambier-Parry of SIS was taking over RSS, and the formal transfer occurred the next day.

  • The Aftermath: RSS under Gambier-Parry

RSS was indeed transferred to the control of Colonel Gambier-Parry in Section VIII of SIS. Gambier-Parry was a larger-than-life character who had been recruited by Sinclair in 1938 to fix the ailing communications systems of SIS and its satellites overseas. Gambier-Parry was an expert on radio: he had worked for the BBC, and for Philco, an American radio company. He had a reputation for being able to get things done, while showing a disdain for any bureaucrats who placed constraints on his will. From most accounts of those who worked for him, he was a popular figure who brought much energy and understanding to the complex challenges facing SIS. He thus embarked on a crash programme of building transmitter-receivers for the locations on the Continent, establishing broadcasting stations in safe places on the UK mainland, and devising the protocols to allow them to communicate securely.

Section VIII was certainly not in the business of interception – overtly, at least. Yet an enigmatic comment by Keith Jeffery in his history of SIS hints at a perhaps clandestine programme that has otherwise escaped the analysts. When Maurice Hankey performed his investigation into SIS at the beginning of 1940, one of the officers he interviewed was Rear-Admiral Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence, seeking his views on the effectiveness of the Secret Intelligence Service. Godfrey was less than enthusiastic about GC&CS, though Jeffery then wrote: “But for Godfrey ‘the one really bright spot’ was the ‘” Y’ side”, in particular the intercepted signals and call signs, which the Admiralty found of the greatest possible use. All praise for this state of affairs’, he added, ‘was due to Colonel Gambier-Parry’. Now Admiral Godfrey was no slouch: he was a well-respected intelligence officer (celebrated for being Ian Fleming’s boss and mentor), and had even been a candidate to replace Admiral Sinclair as head of SIS. It is thus highly unlikely that he would have misunderstood someone else’s contribution as that of Gambier-Parry. This insight therefore does appear to confirm what Nigel West alluded to, namely SIS’s deeper involvement with interception than the authorised histories are prepared to admit.

Guy Liddell knew in March that Gambier-Parry would be taking over RSS, and he was initially optimistic about the changeover, although he recorded in his diary his concern that RSS might now concentrate on ISOS messages solely, to the detriment of MI5’s total interests. Swinton informed the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office Alexander Cadogan on March 10, and on March 16 a meeting was held between representatives of MI5, RSS and SIS to discuss responsibilities. Liddell’s diary entry shows that Gambier-Parry was already putting his stamp on the organisation: “It was agreed that G.P. should set up two Y. masts and retain a limited number of skilled V.I.s. At present there were some 450, many of whom were useless and could be returned to store. He would have expert personnel with his Y. masts who would know the ether and be in a position to eliminate anything but the suspicious traffic. Any communication thought to be peculiar would be sent to the W. Analysis Committee and would be co-related and distributed by Cowgill’s organisation. G.P.s organisation would only be responsible for sifting in the first instance genuine traffic from the suspicious.” It seems clear that Gambier-Parry believed the interceptors themselves were capable of deciding what should be investigated, and would be authorized to do so.

In a significant move, Felix Cowgill had replaced Valentine Vivian as head of Section V in January. It was Cowgill who had objected so strongly to Worlledge’s initiative over the Morocco revelation, and for some reason he was given the task of developing a charter for the new RSS. Liddell again wrote an ominous comment on the proposal in his entry for April 10: “It seems to lay far too much emphasis on the interception of the Group traffic and to neglect the possibility of illicit transmissions in this country. We are replying in this sense.” Was someone guiding the novice Cowgill on this issue? Liddell reinforced his concerns in a conversation with Gambier-Parry on May 1, when he urged that he did not want transmissions from the UK ignored. Gambier-Parry gave a very revealing response, echoing the Gill doctrine that traffic had to be two-way, and arguing that ‘thus we have good chance of picking up traffic from abroad’. Gambier-Parry thus appeared to be set out in an unnecessarily dogmatic vein, parroting a policy that he had not crafted himself. Why would he not show greater sensitivity to his customer’s needs? Since the source of previously unidentified short-wave signals could not easily be located, why would Gambier-Parry promote a policy of diminishing efforts at direction-finding on the mainland? It was another indication that, despite the experience from the MASK exercise, non-Abwehr traffic was not going to be considered seriously. Meanwhile, the highly security-conscious Cowgill was already tightening up on the distribution of ISOS material.

The official handover occurred in early May. Gambier-Parry moved swiftly, installing a long-time friend, Major E. H. Maltby, as Controller of RSS. Liddell reported that Army Signals was taking over the responsibilities of the sniffer vans. A new interception station was set up at Hanslope Park, and some select VIs were recruited to become part of a more professional Royal Signals cadre there. Gambier-Parry dismissed Gill in an unprofessional manner, but Worlledge, contrary to some reports, was not fired immediately. He was instead effectively demoted, to work under Cowgill of Section V. Worlledge did not last long there: Dick White reported later that he resigned that summer on a matter of policy. He might have found working for Cowgill intolerable, but it is also quite possible, given his outspoken comments the previous December, that he did maintain grave concerns about the way interception policy was being diverted away from the mission that he had been attempting to execute. As for Trevor-Roper, he escaped dismissal – no doubt because he and Gambier-Parry had enjoyed hunting together with the Whaddon hounds before the war. “In the world of neurotic policemen and timid placemen who rule the secret service, he moves like Falstaff, or some figure from Balzac, if not Rabelais”, wrote the Oxford don of his comic-opera friend. Adam Sisman goes on to record that, after his appointment as head of Section VIII, “Gambier-Parry had seized an opportunity to establish his headquarters at Whaddon Hall, which was not far from Bletchley. There he lived like a colonial governor, with a fleet of camouflaged Packards at his disposal.”

Whaddon Hall in wartime

On May 20, Liddell chaired the first meeting of the Joint Wireless Committee, attended also by Malty, White, Cowgill and Frost. This was a series of fortnightly gatherings that would eventually create deep rifts between the two security services. The first resolution at this meeting ran as follows: “It was agreed that it was the function of the committee to coordinate the mutual interests of S.I.S. and the Security Service in the Radio Security Section [sic: according to Trevor-Roper, ‘Section’ was a temporary name soon abandoned]. It should lay down general directions for the operation of R.S.S. and decide priorities of service to be supplied by R.S.S. to S.I.S. and the Security Services.” It was also resolved to invite Mr. Strachey from GC&CS to become a member, and Captain Trevor-Roper was appointed Secretary. On the provocative and controversial matter of detecting domestic illicit transmissions, the minute for Item 4 read as follows: “It was agreed to proceed with a limited policy of ‘snifting’ in cases where intelligence information gave rise to a reasonable belief that an illicit transmitter existed at any known location in the British Isles. All Sections of the Security Service should be informed of the facilities available but demands should be strictly allotted to those important cases where the position of a wireless set by any individual was considered a genuine possibility. Major Frost would consult with Mr Dick White on the importance of the cases submitted, and the priority to be given to them.” The bland implication here is that some examples of illicit transmissions would be ‘unimportant’. But who would be the judge of that unless the incident were properly investigated?

That same week, at the end of May 1941, agent Sonia of Soviet Military Intelligence sent, from her lodgings in Oxfordshire, her first wireless message from British territory to her masters in Moscow.

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

So what evidence is there for Nigel West’s claim about SIS’s long-term ambitions to gain control over interception, and that Gambier-Parry’s Communications Section may have been assisting in its objectives? We have the clandestine operation that uncovered the Comintern spies, sponsored by SIS. Lt.-Colonel Simpson may inadvertently have helped the SIS’s cause when he brought Gambier-Parry into the picture in September 1939. That may have provoked SIS into moving on the Denmark Hill operation: the unit was transferred to GC&CS as the disputes over RSS’s future heated up in the winter of 1939-1940. We have the evidence of Admiral Godfrey, who appreciated Gambier-Parry’s valuable contribution to interception and traffic analysis in early 1940. Worlledge is outspoken on his concerns over Gambier-Parry’s and SIS’s suitability for tackling the interception problem thoroughly, and resigns on a point of policy. And SIS’s charter for RSS is oddly delegated to Major Cowgill, who is a relative newcomer to the business, has had no involvement in telecommunications, and does not work for Gambier-Parry. Moreover, Cowgill has recently taken over from Colonel Vivian, who was always bitter enemies with a man who is now his rival as second-in-command at SIS, Colonel Dansey. Dansey will be familiar to readers of Sonia’s Radio, and the most perspicacious of you will recall, from Part 9, that I pointed out an exchange of opinions between Dansey and Gambier-Parry in 1943, which showed conclusively that Dansey maintained a very active interest in clandestine wireless communications. As the saga enters the phase where SIS is in control of RSS, Liddell is soon seen to harbour grave concerns about the purity of SIS’s intentions, and Gambier-Parry gives the impression of voicing a dangerous policy crafted by someone else.  But why would SIS set out so obstructively, not accepting MI5’s requirements, or attending to their legitimate concerns?

Claude Dansey

An observer might ask at this stage: why did the JIC not take a firmer interest in all these negotiations? The committee was in fact still finding its feet after a revitalisation arising from Churchill’s accession to the premiership. MI5 and SIS were not even admitted to the committee until mid-1940, and were normally represented by Brigadiers Allen and Menzies, respectively, who might not have known exactly what was going on, or may not have been certain how much they should disclose. After all, Cavendish-Bentinck, even as Chairman of the JIC, did not know about ULTRA at this time. Yet Hinsley records that the first attempt during the war to involve the JIC in the discussion of Sigint policy and organisation foundered on Menzies’s opposition. This is an extraordinary assertion, given that Menzies, as a newcomer, presumably could not have had much clout, and he would not have been able to display his ULTRA card. As I have shown, the Y Committee, which determined interception priorities, was likewise undergoing a high degree of turmoil at the time. The whole dispersal of policy and practice for interception and intelligence gathering seems a glorious muddle, and then one remembers that glorious muddling-through is the modus operandi of liberal democracies, and the reason they thrive. Halfway through this chapter of RSS’s wartime translocation, the Conservative administration of Chamberlain had been replaced by Churchill’s coalition, with new ministers, new ideas, new appointments. There was in fact a great deal of trust and creative, open discussion between the departments, unlike the fiercely competitive agencies in Hitler’s Germany, or those cowed into indecision under Stalin, with both intelligence groups mainly telling their respective dictators what they wanted to hear.

And, finally, what about the ‘Greek tragedy’ alluded to by John Curry? We recall that this judgment appeared in the official internal history completed by Curry in 1946. Yet in his draft chapter on Illicit Interception dated October 22, 1945, Curry (who was a rather cautious and neurotic individual, as Liddell’s Diaries inform us) came to a very different conclusion. “It is nevertheless true to say that the benefits derived as a result of R.S.S. being under the control, first of the War Office, and secondly of M.I.6. were considerable and the results achieved and the benefits to intelligence work were immense. However, one is left with the feeling that had M.I.5 accepted responsibility for the organisation in 1938 a great deal of the trouble which ultimately arose between R.S.S. and M.I.5. and the ultimate change of command in 1941, would never have arisen and indeed the organisation detecting illicit wireless transmissions would have been just as good, if not better, than the one that ultimately emerged.”

That is a weak and fudgy statement that sounds as if Curry was trying to please too many audiences. Why those multiple ‘ultimates’? Is Curry referring to friction between RSS and MI5 before the ‘ultimate change of command’, or that which occurred afterwards? Was his subjective and unanalytical ‘feeling’ shared by other officers? Why did Curry alone believe that MI5 would have found the right talent and skills to sort out RSS’s house, when its own organisation was in such a mess, and short of managerial talent, and Simpson had resigned? If the SIS control turned out to be a disaster, why did he not say so?

I suspect that the ‘Greek tragedy’ conclusion may have been inserted by Petrie himself. Harrison implies (tacitly) that it might have been the Director-General who doctored Curry’s official history, since he disagreed with Curry’s conclusions, and wanted a firmer statement made on Cowgill’s obstinacies. Harrison, by the way, clearly identifies the ‘Greek tragedy’ as the withholding of ISOS material in April 1942 by Cowgill. Yet that was an Act III episode that was overcome before the finale. I have pointed out before how the circumstances of Petrie’s retirement are finessed by Andrew: I suspect Petrie had discovered some of the nasty smells that derived from a flawed interception policy when he retired in 1946. It is possible that he then realised that a deal between SIS and MI5 had already been in the works when his opinion was sought, one that effectively hamstrung him in his effort to protect the nation from the malign efforts of Soviet spies. Ensuring that his opinion of the whole affair was recorded for posterity was his swan-song.

(I am very grateful to Dr. Brian Austin, for his very helpful comments during the evolution of this article, and to Stan Ames and Bob King for their research contributions and insights. The conclusions made in it, and any errors therein, are mine alone.)

New Commonplace entries can be found here.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Literature/Academia, Politics

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *