BRITISH NAVAL INTELLIGENCE THROUGH THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Reviewed by: Gwythian Prins

It is said that it is both unusual and unfortunate for lightning to strike the same place twice. In the case of Andrew Boyd’s new book, successor to his debut with The Royal Navy in Eastern Waters in 2017 it has done so, but with magnificent effect; and neither is accidental. British Naval Intelligence is an unprecedented and important addition to our knowledge.

A satisfyingly beefy tome of nearly 800 pages that kept this reviewer on the edge of his seat from start to finish, it cements Dr Boyd’s reputation as one of our leading naval and intelligence historians of this generation. Although a naturally modest man like Andy will demur (full disclosure: I supervised his PhD thesis) I have no hesitation in seeing him now in lineal succession to the earlier generation of historians such as Marder and Roskill on the naval historical side, and also as an established new voice in the literature on British intelligence, and especially secret intelligence, as I will explain below. I feel certain that the late Harry Hinsley, who taught me, would relish and applaud this book.

Boyd has read all the relevant previous secondary literature, of course; but a distinguishing feature of his craftsmanship is that he is a meticulous, omnivorous and unusually informed consumer of primary evidence. One of the reasons that both his books have attracted such attention is that as a consequence of his technical competence as an historian informed by his earlier careers first in the Submarine Service and then in the Foreign Office, he has been able to make – and to stand up in the evidence – significant revisionist theses. He really understands that of what he writes and he can join up dots that others might not do.

Eastern Waters overturned well-embedded narratives of who was to blame for what (including the loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse in December 1941) in the apparently well-known history of the British defeats in the Far East during the Second World War. British Naval Intelligence respectfully but powerfully overturns what are in fact even larger assumptions. The book is ‘under-badged’: in it Boyd offers us nothing less than a comprehensive rebalancing and a new way of looking not only at naval intelligence but at the entire modern history of British intelligence and hence of the deployment of British power. Conventional wisdom starts the story from foundations with legendary figures: Reginald Hall and Room 40 and Mansfield Cumming and SSB in the First World War through the GC&CS to Bletchley, Enigma, Turing and an heroic history of its decisive role that has now entered national mythology not just in books but in films (and gripping films) too. As Boyd puts it with usual understatement (p.260), it is rather more complicated than that.

British Naval Intelligence is an immensely ambitious book but also a very mature book. By this I mean that no-where does Boyd seek iconoclasm for its own sake. For example, in discussion of the Fisher era just before the First World War, a period of much historical debate frustrated by destruction of naval records, his view is that “the more traditional interpretation has stood the test of time” (p.43) and his contribution is to supplement, not to overturn. But of the role of Bletchley come the next war, his revision is actually profound and rather familiar to modern eyes. He argues that there is “no direct, and certainly no guaranteed, correlation between sensitivity and value” and shows that “excessive focus on, even fascination with, more sensitive or exotic intelligence sources risks overstating their impact” (p.672). An important contribution of this book is to rehabilitate the often overlooked roles and value of intelligence from relatively open sources: the “if and then” logic of pattern-making by gifted intelligence officers that joins up dots to reveal secrets that are actually hiding in plain sight once you know what to look for. In the battle of the Atlantic the integrated spectrum of radar, HF/DF and especially aerial photo reconnaissance and prisoner of war interrogation, Boyd suggests, cannot be disentangled from Ultra. Nor – another drumbeat argument across the century which this book embraces – can intelligence substitute for the availability and exercise of raw power. Something that today’s by and large historically amnesiac planners need to remember as they cast about for fixes to excuse investment in major systems and sufficient trained manpower that is morally not optional.

British Naval Intelligence opens in the ‘long lee of Trafalgar’ and anchors the emergence of modern naval intelligence to three practical developments: introduction of the undersea telegraphic cable after 1837; creation of the RN Hydrographic Office in 1795 and the introduction of naval attachés at Embassies after 1850. In the mid 1870s three individuals are singled out as key initial animators: Capt John Colomb RM (rtd); John Knox Laughton and Admiral ‘Uncle Geoffrey’ Phipps Hornby (recently rehabilitated by the current holder of the Laughton Professorship in his lapidary book, Admirals). This vignette makes a general point: that Boyd is exceptionally good at identifying obscure pivotal individuals and making clear why they are pivotal in the developing story and why they deserve to be better known.

Equally, the book is full of specific unknown or under-appreciated episodes which build the credibility that, like bricks in a wall, underpins Boyd’s larger strategic claims. Two examples, book-ending this volume, must suffice. The first is the acquisition and exfiltration by the Intelligence Division between July and November 1914 of classified German naval documents relating to gunnery performance and in particular the High Seas Fleet’s focus on long range practice: invaluable for Jellicoe in scoping his enemy. Four pages (pp 91-5) offer a subtle discussion of possible provenance, sources, routes. They read like a practised intelligence officer’s source assessment and they sustain Boyd’s claim that this intelligence coup “is one of the least-known British intelligence achievements of the twentieth century, but one of the more important”.

At the other end of the book are two riveting chapters on RN SSN ‘special collection’ operations at the height of the first Cold War (with the Russians: we are, of course, just now waking up to the fact that we are in a second cold war with the PRC). There is a book on the USN’s Op IVY BELLS tapping Soviet naval undersea cables in the Sea of Okhotsk and there have been scattered accounts and journalistic accounts of aspects of these RN ‘SCP’ missions in the High North. But Boyd pulls together and contextualises this history in a way that has never been done quite like this before.  He judges that they were, “Britain’s single most important defence intelligence contribution in the second half of the Cold War and a major contributor to GCHQ’s defence intelligence effort” as well as buying the UK entry to IVY BELLS product (p.623).

This is a rich and beautifully nuanced book, packed full of lessons for any RN officer who wishes truly to come to grips with the evolution of the Service: a history prerequisite to a contemporary understanding of the full reach of naval power. As Andrew Lambert rightly observes in his Foreword, it is in many ways definitive. It is worth every penny of its £35.