Winston Churchill, Intelligence and Fiction: "Mysteries Inside Enigmas"
Robin W. Winks, F.R. Hist. S. Yale University

April 2, 1995

Mr. President, Mr. Dean, Mr. Kemper, Churchill Fellows, members of the faculty and students of the college, ladies and gentlemen:

The Board of Governors of the Winston Churchill Memorial and Library, and President Traer, have shown remarkable courage in their invitation to me to deliver the thirteenth Crosby Kemper Lecture here at Westminster College. President Traer also has shown magnanimity in concurring in the choice of a historian, since his education is also in that discipline. I am acutely aware of the honor you do me, in inviting me to speak in this place, on Winston Churchill, and the honor you have done me in granting me the college's honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, and I thank the Trustees of the College for doing so. I am not the first historian to appear before you, for you have chosen from the very best and most knowledgeable in Britain, but I am the first American-born speaker and, I am certain, the first to address you without a rich treasure trove of personal stories concerning the subject of this day's remembrance, for I did not know Winston Churchill, and given the nature of life and death, few speakers in the future are likely to have done so. Like Abraham Lincoln, Churchill is now for the ages.

Of course, historians strongly believe they can know the men and women of whom they write. Further, Churchill was himself a most distinguished historian. To be sure, as Sir John Plumb observed in the second Kemper address, few historians today write the kind of history Churchill wrote, and more's the pity. The sweeping canvas on which he painted, the ringing tones of certitude in which he spoke, the absolute conviction that what he had to say was interesting, significant, and moreover, true, would set him apart from our more confessional age, when discussions of the sex lives of our presidents passes for history and when gossip is taken as fact. One might still write a History of the English Speaking Peoples, politically incorrect as the title would strike some ears, but such a book would scarcely be the best seller it was, by which Churchill escaped his persistent anxiety about money and became a rich man. For me, as a historian, to speak of Winston Churchill is a moment of historical autobiography, for I grew up listening to the voice of Edward R. Murrow as he described the German air attack upon St. Paul's Cathedral, my ear glued to the family radio, and I know that it was in some measure a reading of the swelling, sweeping prose of Churchill's great history — partial, biased, Eurocentric, impassioned — of World War II that led me to history as a profession. So I am not only honored, but I am moved by this opportunity to think again about one of the great leaders of this century.

I have taken as my subject today Winston Churchill and intelligence. Given that Churchill was a great believer in intelligence — and the matters that support it, and which it in turn supports, including resistance movements, evasion, escape, and defection techniques, cryptanalysis, security, disinformation, and counterintelligence — one is surprised that, as yet, there is no full study of the subject. Two or three articles, one book, Churchill, the Great Game and Total War,1 which promises more than it provides, and scattered references here and there are about all that we have at the moment. Two former Kemper lecturers, especially Reginald V. Jones, certainly could have told us a great deal, but for the most part, kept silent on Churchill, even in Jones' two fine books on intelligence.

As the book to which I have referred, which is by David Jablonsky, demonstrates, Churchill first learned about intelligence before and during the Boer War. His views as expressed in his book, The River War, are a bit romantic, however, as befitting a person still in his twenties, though the book itself, with its harsh and entirely appropriate condemnation of Lord Kitchener for the way in which he conducted himself at Omdurman, is realistic and quite the reverse of romantic.

Churchill learned even more about intelligence during the Dardanelles campaign in World War I. Sir George Aston, a prisoner of modern British intelligence, was associated with the Statistical and Topographical Battalion, and from it he learned how to set up a tiny department of counterintelligence with, in 1913, a staff of 14 people. He firmly believed in primary sources and in visiting the site, for he was fooled on one occasion by a huge cannon which he sketched from memory, not having been allowed to touch it when on a visit to Paris, and thus missed the fact that it was made of papier- mache. He personally visited the Turkish defenses at the Dardannelles, observing every inch from HMS Surprise with a set of powerful glasses. But though there was much digging going on behind the Turkish defenses, only a few of the shovels were bright; most were rusty, and he concluded that the activity was intended to mislead. In due course, however, he submitted a report warning that the fortifications could be reduced only at the greatest of cost, if at all. When Churchill committed His Majesty's Government to its gamble at Gallipoli, he failed. Yet, one more day of siege might have tipped the scales. Later, when Churchill learned of Aston's estimate, and of the imperfect intelligence on the spot, he became committed to intelligence as a professional enterprise.2

This commitment remained unbending, and no British Prime Minister, with the possible exception of Margaret Thatcher, as shown in her The Downing Street Years, has had so firm a grasp on what intelligence can and cannot do. He also understood that the point of secret intelligence was to be secret, so he seldom commented on the subject.

There are exceptions. In The Gathering Storm, Churchill makes a moderately oblique reference to Ian Colvin, a British journalist who, as he put it, "plunged very deeply into German politics and established contacts of a most secret character with some of the important German generals." Colvin was, it appears, a channel to the British for German army opposition to Adolf Hitler. In Great Contemporaries, Churchill refers to Henri Le Caron as "a strange figure ... in the deep-hidden employ of the British Government." (Le Caron was a British agent against the Irish Fenians for 20 years, though he is best known for his autobiography about his life in Irish revolutionary organizations in the United States and for his revelation to the Canadians during the American Civil War of Fenian intent to invade Canada in a vain hope of embroiling the North in war with Britain.) Churchill also wrote of intelligence in the Boer War — and alluded to the matter in My African Journey, in which he told of his trip to East Africa in 1907. Some observers have found these three books racist, and there now is a battle royal waging in the British press and amongst revisionist biographers as to Churchill's real feelings about race. These are, it is obvious, relevant to the issue of intelligence, for some professionals in intelligence argue that race above all is what prevents an intelligence agent from passing successfully in another culture. Spying is about behavior and about misunderstanding behavior sufficiently well to accomplish the classic ends of intelligence gathering, to make possible projections (called, in the trade, "estimates") about the capabilities and intentions of a putative enemy.

Was Churchill racist? If so, did this influence his view of intelligence? Churchill believed Jews to be "the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world." He supported Jewish desires whenever they were not in clear conflict with the interests of the British Empire. Of Indians, he wrote that they were "the beastliest people in the world, next to the Germans." Yet he admired and was on friendly terms with Pandit Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah and though his famous statement that he had not been chosen as "the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire" was directed toward the leaders of the Indian independence movement, some of whom, in November of 1942, were seeking to play the Japanese card, he was actually speaking to his friend across the ocean, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who he felt was too stridently insisting on post-war independence for India and perhaps other colonial possessions as well. Churchill's remark is often quoted by those who wish to find him a racist, without reference to its use of the Germans. Churchill was a behaviorist: there were people he liked and disliked, indeed entire peoples he liked and disliked, and he was unrepentant in his belief that the English possessed a culture superior to any other. Further, in the darkest hours of Britain, he frequently referred to the "British race" in a way that would make many participants in the political scene today blanch. Yet, when looked at in context, all his statements related to behavior, not to inherency, and it is precisely behavior that sound intelligence studies.3

Intelligence differs from country to country. For Germans, nationalism was an issue of ethnicity, race. They accepted the Volksdeutsch — descendants of German colonists, some not even speaking German — because their blood was German. For the French, language was all. To the Bolsheviks, social theory determined identity: they recruited the mind, or at least claimed they did, and thus one could become a communist at any moment. To be French, one had to master a language. One could not easily become German at all. No wonder, then, that a number of the British who felt on the outside when inside — men who had gone up to Cambridge with high expectations and still found Britain's very real class consciousness excluded them from all the goodies at the table — opted for the one change of allegiance that both made sense and came easily to them.

But my citations to intelligence and to race are all from pre-war or wartime books, speeches, and remarks. After World War II, Churchill did remark on occasion on intelligence, though only obliquely. Let us look at one such occasion, which related to one of the areas (in addition to empire) of U.S. British disagreement. This had to do with the situation in Yugoslavia. The British were determined to back any person who would be anti-German and who was capable of being turned into an anti-Soviet leader as the need arose. Special Operations Executive-Cairo was deeply divided on what to do: there were short-term and long-range analyses that differed, and famously varying estimates about the capacities and intentions of Mihajlovic and Tito should either achieve complete dominance. Churchill felt an almost romantic attachment to the Balkans, for he was a man of the Victorian age, when Britain had contested Germany and France for influence in the region and had won, at least in Greece, and often elsewhere. It was Basil Davidson, a man with a deep sense of history who after the war would become one of Britain's first historians of Africa, who with others persuaded Churchill to hedge his bets and to provide some moral support for the partisans. It was Churchill who decided that there must be a liaison mission sent out to Tito, and though the result was expected to be unpredictable, to maintain contact as much as possible across the board. Of all intelligence subjects, one could (with one exception) most readily get Churchill's attention where Yugoslavia was concerned, as the many memoirs now available attest.

One who knew of these concerns at first hand was F.W. Deakin, whose The Embattled Mountain, published in 1971, tells us of that early British mission to Tito. He echoed Churchill's famous remark about the Soviet Union, that it was a riddle wrapped in an enigma — a remark with obvious insider overtones, given the importance of Enigma to winning the war in the West — by describing the situation as "elusive and protean in shape."4 In his book, Deakin notes that in 1942 and early 1943 the British knew what was happening in Yugoslavia from German intercepts. It is interesting that few readers at the time picked up on this, for it was a clear statement about Enigma and the Ultra secret. It is interesting to me that the Third Crosby Kemper Lecturer, Sir William Deakin, did not, even though his subject was "Churchill and Europe in 1944," make reference to this key operation which was so close to Churchill's heart. Once an intelligence officer, always an intelligence officer.

Sir William did remark, three times, on intelligence matters in his Kemper address. He noted that Churchill took little interest in the July Plot of 1944, in which conspirators in the German Army attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler, because he felt that "any slight gesture by secret agents to contact political or military opposition elements in Germany would smell of a move towards a separate peace behind the backs of the other members of the Grand Alliance."5 Churchill knew Stalin to be paranoid on this subject, and though he feared the intentions of the Soviet Union, he did not wish to contribute dramatically to what he expected to be a post-war face-off with Stalin. Of course, he expected to be involved in that face-off, and hoped that his friend and ally, FDR, would be involved as well, though by election and death, this was not to come to pass.

Sir William's second remark is even more interesting. He quoted Churchill's September 1944 letter to Roosevelt about the French provisional government, in which the British Prime Minister noted that the French were fully admitted to the Boniface series. Deakin inserted at this point the word "Ultra" with the apparent notation in his manuscript, "explain verbally," and this off-stage comment was printed as it stood, providing clear evidence (as does a reference to a "parish nation" when Sir William clearly meant a "parish nation" in reference to Germany) that the printed form of the text was taken from a tape-recording. (Now, that's intelligence on my part, to detect so delicate a matter, but then I understand; this address also is being recorded.) One wonders whether Deakin did in fact explain verbally what Ultra was, and if so, what he said. It may be that I, too, should "explain verbally" about Enigma, to which I have made my own knowing reference, and Ultra, and I shall do so in a moment. But first, one other comment about Churchill's approach to intelligence.

Churchill was ever cautious about timing, as well as discreet, about information bearing upon an operation. He was intensely disturbed when, at the Teheran Conference in November of 1943, President Roosevelt, without consulting with Churchill, told Stalin that the attack on the French northwest coast was fixed for 1 May 1944. Deakin referred to this in his Kemper lecture, and noted that Churchill immediately stated that he could not agree to sacrifice the armies of the Mediterranean, who were engaged in a pre-emptive and highly costly campaign in Italy, to keep such an exact date. What Deakin did not note, though he well knew, is that Churchill was disturbed that a precise date had been given to Stalin when no Russian troops would be involved in the operation, whatever they might be contributing on the Eastern front, and that he regarded Roosevelt's revelation of the precise date as a security failing of the first water. Churchill noted that Americans were given to "clear-cut logical large scale mass production style of thought," which he deplored. General George Marshall had the best insight into the American problem with patience, secrecy, silence and cunning, however — when he noted that a democracy could not fight a seven years' war.6 It is too bad Marshall was not still with us at the time of the war in Vietnam.

Of course, there is much that we do not know and may not about Churchill and intelligence, and even the indefatigable Martin Gilbert has not told us. What of Churchill's relations with Admiral J.H. Godfrey, head of British Naval Intelligence during World War II, who was a superb administrator, despite which, he was removed mid-way though the war? Churchill had a special affection for the navy, and of course for activities at Bletchley Park, and one would like to know more about his relationship with Godfrey. One would like to know more about Churchill's decision, for it was his, to move support to the French resistance from "the theoretical to the practical" than the tantalizing bit we get in Bruce Marshall's and Patrick Howarth's story of F.F.E. Yeo-Thomas, one of the few SOE men to survive German captivity, whom it is said was the person who persuaded Churchill. And only recently has the deep division between Churchill and the wartime prime minister of Australia been fully brought to light.

But having done so as historians are wont to do, and put onto the table an agenda for future research, let me turn to parts of what we do know. In each instance — and I choose four on which we do by now have quite secure conclusions — there is an accompanying body of spy and thriller fiction, largely British, which has helped to encrust these instances with myth.

My four areas for brief intelligence reconnaissance this afternoon are about Britain and Pearl Harbor, the German raid on Coventry on November 14, 1940, the activities of the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley and elsewhere, and the intriguing question of the man called Intrepid. I choose these instances because they have been the subjects of a vast array of spy thrillers, so that the non-specialist on World War II, Churchill, or the history of intelligence can scarcely be expected to know where conventional wisdom now stands with respect to these subjects.

It is quite clear that Winston Churchill had a special affection for America and that he counted on the United States to redress the balance of power in Europe and to join with Britain in resisting Nazi Germany. He encouraged British intelligence to work with the fledgling Americans, who scarcely had any professional intelligence apparatus before Peal Harbor. In an important measure his goodwill toward U.S. intelligence turned at any early state on the person of William "Wild Bill" Donovan.

Who was Wild Bill Donovan? Long before the United States had entered World War I, Donovan was preparing for it. As a captain in the New York State National Guard, he served in the American Expeditionary Force, became a major in the 69th New York Infantry Regiment, around which much tradition had grown, and was promoted to colonel in France. At the second battle of the Marne, in July 1918, Donovan led his troops in a remarkable advance across the River Ourcq, and in October, in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, he again was in the thick of fighting. There, despite an order to withdraw (an order Donovan later claimed he never received), he advanced on the double. At the end of the war he was one of the most decorated men in American history, with the Distinguished Service Cross, the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Legion d'Honneur, the Order of the British Empire, the Croce di Guerra, the Order of Leopold, the Cross Polonia Restituta, and a Croix de Guerre with palm and silver star.

Riding the crest of a wave, Donovan was elected to Buffalo's most exclusive clubs, became U.S. attorney for Western New York, and in 1925 assistant attorney general of the United States. In 1929 he opened a private practice in New York City with a range of powerful clients, and in 1932 ran for governor of New York, as a Republican, and lost. Immediately he plunged into developed overseas clients, and both Hambro's Bank in London and Winston Churchill, used him as an agent on legal matters. He also developed good contacts in Italy, especially with General Pietro Badoglio. Franklin Roosevelt, who became president in 1933, had been a friend for years. Donovan entertained widely, traveled broadly, and accepted every invitation he received to address either a large or an influential group. By the time war broke out in Europe again, he knew, or had a friend who knew nearly everyone who counted.

Many accounts tell us that Donovan's special influence with Roosevelt stemmed from the fact that he alone amongst the president's advisers predicted that the British would successfully withstand the German assault. After Dunkirk, the American ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, was deeply pessimistic, and U.S. Army Intelligence was giving the British little hope of survival. Donovan, on the other hand, visited Churchill and returned to tell Roosevelt that the British would win in the air; when they did, Donovan stood high in the eyes of both FDR and Winston Churchill.

Donovan's standing with FDR came from far more than being right on a single issue, however. He was politically shrewd, and being of the opposition party, also provided Roosevelt with excellent contacts — of which he had many of his own, of course — with liberal Republicans. Were Donovan to head up a secret intelligence agency, Roosevelt would be less open to the charge of trying to create a private spy network than if it were to be in the hands of a New Deal Democrat. Further, Donovan was deeply impressed by British Secret Intelligence and, to a lesser extent, by SOE, and since it was assumed that the inexperienced American group would have to learn a good bit from the British, the fact that he obviously stood well with Churchill would help. More than this, Donovan was exceptionally bright, innovative, both physically and politically courageous, and was thought to be an able administrator. He had his own line to Churchill. In July 1941 FDR appointed Donovan Coordinator of Information.

COI's (and OSS's) relationship to the British would move on a crooked path. Certainly the COI did lean on the British for expertise, including training facilities at Camp X, outside Oshawa, in Ontario, and the British were initially helpful to Donovan personally and to all those who came with his blessing. Early in 1941 Donovan had visited the Middle East and the Balkan capitals under British auspices, and he worked hard at building close ties to SOE. Such ties helped him in his struggles with competing groups in Washington, and especially with the FBI, which opposed the operation of any nation's intelligence services — including the British — on American soil, and also claimed exclusive American intelligence jurisdiction over the whole of Latin America. In time gaps would show between OSS and British aspirations, both in short-term expectations and long-term policies, for as the OSS grew in confidence it found the British insisting that they ought to have exclusive, or at least, primary responsibility for large chunks of the world in which Donovan felt the United States had legitimate interests of its own. By 1943 there would be sharp differences between the intelligence services of the two Allies. But with Churchill's tacit blessing, until mid-1942 the OSS sat at the knee of the British to learn the tricks of the intelligence trade.

Stephen E. Ambrose, in his Ike's Spies, explores how General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the beneficiary of British intelligence efforts, and thus, so Ambrose and his co-author, Richard Immerman, conclude, was favorably disposed toward the post-war growth of the CIA as an instrument against the Soviet Union. He, like Churchill, took a leader's interest in intelligence operations, and in particular, in matters of security and thus of counterintelligence. Indeed, some historians imply that Eisenhower acquired this interest as much from Churchill as from his own concern for a successful landing on the Normandy beaches.8

Unless one is an intelligence historian, one may reasonably wonder why I belabor this point. I do so for two reasons: first, to point out the direct connection between Churchill and the director of America's first centralized intelligence agency, and second, to lay to rest the debate as to whether American intelligence was, for a time, in a position of tutelage to the British. The answer clearly is, that it was, and that the man who became the Supreme Allied Commander accepted this fact.

Why, apart from misplace patriotic sensibilities, does this matter? Because it sets the state for our question: did Churchill know in advance that the Japanese intended to attack Pearl Harbor, and did he withhold this information for FDR in order to force the U.S. into the war? This is a question long set to rest in scholarly circles, but it reoccurs persistently in the popular literature. Further, there is a countervailing argument stemming from British sources, to the effect that the FBI knew, or should have known, of the impending raid, and failed to act.

The case against the British, and Churchill, in the question of Pearl Harbor, is known as the matter of Tricycle. In 1972 Sir John Masterman, formerly of M15, let it be known that the British had introduced an agent into the neutral United States in mid-1941. The agent was identified as Tricycle. He brought with him a questionnaire from the Abwehr — German defense intelligence — which contained questions about military installations in Hawaii. In 1974, two years after Masterman's somewhat passing remark, a Yugoslav, Dusko Popov, identified himself as Tricycle and declared that he had warned both the British and the Americans of the forthcoming attack in Hawaii. In his memoir, Popov alleged that John Edgar Hoover, Director of FBI, had ordered him to leave the country, angry with Popov's sexual habits, and had ignored his warning. A second British C.I. officer, Ewen Montagu, then confirmed Popov's allegations. In time, two American scholars further supported this argument, though they absolved FDR from knowing of the hints of Pearl Harbor contained in the questionnaire by concluding that it was Hoover, who, in telling FDR of it, omitted all Pearl Harbor references.9

The story is complex, and as with all matters relating to intelligence, requires a sense of detail. The original questionnaire, which the FBI said it had, cannot be found. What can be found is an FBI paraphrase of the German document rendered into English. Even so, it is clear that Tricycle was to obtain much information on Pearl Harbor, down to the disposition of moorings and ground placement of aircraft. But he was also to do the same for Manila and certain British and Italian ports, so that the document did not single out Pearl Harbor but read as a general inquiry. The British had their own version of the query, since Popov was a double agent, and when the British scholar, B. Bruce Briggs recently compared it to the American paraphrase and translation, he concluded that the document from which the Americans worked was "incompetent," and that it tells us little about the original questions. Nevertheless, the very fact that Germans were posing questions about Hawaii should have alerted the FBI that something was afoot.

However, the FBI distrusted the entire document, and Tricycle. Hoover felt he was fighting Axis espionage and subversion, but also against British foreign agents who were, he felt, meddling in American affairs. He believed the British were trying to draw the United States into the war, and he suspected that they were creating false documents to do so. He apparently decided Tricycle's questionnaire was such a document and that it was the product of Sir William Stephenson, later known as Intrepid, of whom more later.

Briggs points out, on convincing if technical grounds too complex to unravel here, that "slovenly" translations and other contextual anomalies rather conclusively clear British intelligence in New York or Washington of having prepared the document. Thus the question: was it prepared in England? Popov always insisted that the questionnaire was real and originated in Germany, with questions in it at the request of the Japanese through their embassy in Berlin.

Yet, of whatever origin, the Tricycle questions did not suggest an invasion or attack on Hawaii, for key questions about anti-craft guns, radar, patrols, and placement were omitted. Rather, the questions suggested sabotage as the goal. It was known that Germany had plans for sabotage in the United States and the British concluded this is what was intended. If so, they welcomed the Germans getting embroiled with the Americans, and they were confident — for reasons Sir John Masterman well understood — that they could prevent such sabotage if they wished. Hence there was no need to go further with the Americans than they were prepared to go for themselves. Thus, by different paths, both the United States and Britain arrived at the conclusion that sabotage was intended and Hawaii military bases began sabotage alerts and half anti-sabotage drills on December 6. Aircraft were parked closely together, against sabotage, not attack. Both Britain and the United States misread their intelligence source, but the British did not withhold information.

Our second intelligence story is about Coventry, perhaps the most enduring of all Churchillian legends concerning intelligence in World War II. All know the story. Churchill is said to have made the gut-wrenching decision not to warn the people of Coventry that German bombers were on the way to destroy the city since any sign of preparedness in that cathedral community would alert the Germans to the fact that the British were reading decrypted intercepts of their traffic. (The assumption is based on some fact, in that it is true that often the best decision, with respect to intelligence obtained without the knowledge ofthe enemy, is to take no action at all, in hope of continued flow of information about enemy intentions). What, in fact, do we now know about what British Intelligence, and Churchill, knew about German intentions with respect to the air raid that devastated Coventry on November 14, 1940?

Let Martin Gilbert, also a former Kemper lecturer, tell the story. I paraphrase his superb biography of Winston Churchill, as supplemented by the work of professor F.H. Hinsley.10 On that November day, Churchill was pallbearer at Neville Chamberlain's funeral, held in Westminster Abbey. After lunch, Churchill left for a weekend at Ditchley Park, working through a stack of urgent material as he was driven there. Very shortly he read a recent Air Intelligence estimated on likely German bombing targets. The estimate said that a heavy raid was probable that night. The target was not known, though other reports pointed to London. Churchill instructed his driver to return him to Downing Street, for he was unwilling to be safe in the country if the city was under attack.

Gilbert points out that Coventry was the designated German target, and he is certain that had this been known, "every possible effort would have been made ... to send fire-fighting appliances and civil defense help to the threatened city."11 The problem was, there had been conflicting evidence building up for some days that the next major raid would be on a list of possible targets, the Thames Valley, Birmingham, Coventry, the Kent or Essex coasts, or London. Air Intelligence had bet on London, but also believed if new information became available, it might still be in time to take counter-measures.

Air Intelligence obtained the information that Coventry was the likely target at 3:50 that afternoon. British bombers were sent to attack the airfields from which the German attack would come, and a continuous fighter patrol was put up over Coventry. When the raid against Coventry came at 7:30 that evening, a fire-storm overwhelmed the city center and 568 civilians were killed and the cathedral was destroyed. Coventry was not, however, a "defenseless city," as it often said: it had augmented anti-aircraft coverage and it was amunitions center.

We now know that Enigma decrypt of November 11 had given the British the code name for this attack: Moonlight Sonata. This implied three stages, a night attack, near or at full moon. The next day Air Intelligence learned from a prisoner of war that a major raid was to take place between November 15 and 20. The 14th was the first full moon. The POW referred to Coventry and Birmingham, but Air Intelligence discounted this because of a captured map that listed four targets in London and the Home Counties, and because it misread one radio code group. On the morning of the 14th, Air Intelligence concluded that Moonlight Sonata would be carried out in three phrases in a single night. The further information promised to Churchill thus followed upon two quite understandable misreadings of the available evidence. Countermeasures were begun shortly after 4:00 p.m. so that it is quite untrue that the British were unwilling to reveal that they knew Coventry was the target, but of course they were too little and too late. Churchill himself had taken the initiative earlier to strengthen Coventry's anti-aircraft defenses, but of 509 bombers sent by the Germans to attack the city, 449 reached their target and only one was destroyed. Churchill did not deliberately sacrifice Coventry in order to protect British intelligence.

What of our third instance? I have made reference to it in my title: Enigma, whose product was Top Secret Ultra, the greatest intelligence secret of the European war. Churchill's concern for the secrecy of Ultra was constant, and knowledge of it did not begin to come out until the 1970s. The Government Code and Cipher School, established in 1991, had before the war, broken the French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and American codes, but not the German. Beginning in 1936, Spanish codes were closely monitored, for often they contained information about Italian intentions. In time, the Poles developed their famous Enigma machine, a very early quasi-computer called a bomby, which they passed via the French to the British at the outbreak of the war. Early in 1940 the British had learned how to read German naval traffic.

Churchill knew the significance of this kind of breakthrough. In the World Crisis, published in 1923, Churchill, the writer, told the story of the wreck of the Magdeburg, a German vessel whose code books were recovered by the Russians. It was Churchill who received the Magdeburg codebooks directly from the hands of Prince Louis Battenberg, the first sea lord (later Mountbatten), in September 1914. He knew as well as anyone what it meant to possess the enemy's codes; he also knew how compromised use of those codes was when they had passed through the hands of an intervening party, in the Magdeburg case, of theRussians. In 1939 he was determined that Britain would have another Madgeburg, this time not compromised.

Churchill had a second highly personal reason for his intense sense of security on the matter of the code and cipher activity at Bletchley: it was his 1923 book which had definitely alerted the Germans that mere changes of codes would be insufficient in a future war. They had to have a machine-based encryption system that would not give up its secrets even if captured. And then, in May 1941, the Royal Navy destroyer, Bulldog, sank the German submarine U- 110, and it gave up an Enigma machine — "a World War II Magdeburg."12

On September 6, 1941, Churchill visited Bletchley Park. He was fascinated with the intercepts, now pouring out in quantity; he liked reading other people's mail. From the previous September he had ordered that he be given daily, all Enigma messages, in a buffcolored box: this was Boniface, a sub-set of Ultra. Churchill used this material in his meetings with his chief of staff and in his messages to field commanders. Now at Bletchley, he met Gordon Welchman of Hut 6, and this meeting led to another, on October 21, the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, in which Stuart Milner-Barry (the story is told wonderfully in David Kahn's recent book) persuaded Churchill that Bletchley and Ultra must receive fuller support. The result was one of Churchill's famous messages, beginning, "Action This Day": that Bletchley's needs were to be met in full and with extreme priority. Thus did Churchill contribute most significantly to the world of Enigma. In due course the British were reading all German air and army intercepts, and an American liaison group was working with GC&CS at Bletchley Park.

What of my last instance? From the hard, victorious fact of Ultra, we move to the shifting ground of near fiction, that of Intrepid. In 1976 there appeared A Man Called Intrepid, by William Stevenson.13 It was about Sir William Stephenson, who worked with Wild Bill Donovan on British Security Coordination in New York City, hoping to keep Donovan seated at his knee. He was Churchill's secret envoy and chief of BSC, as he phrased it. Hoover was suspicious of Stephenson, as indeed was Donovan, and both checked on him. Stephenson undoubtedly helped provide crucial information on the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, and Churchill acknowledged this. He also was moderately effective in drawing the United States into the war. The author, William Stevenson, claimed on Sir William's behalf, numerous meetings with Churchill, and proceeded to throw everything remotely relevant, and much not even remotely so, into his book, which ranged across the entire history of intelligence in World War II, making claims for Sir William that he never made for himself. Inevitably, there was a reaction from reviewers and scholars, who by the 1980s were dismissing the story of Intrepid as grossly inflated.

But there is relevance to my theme here, and it relates to how the public likes to romanticize the work of intelligence, not content with the hard facts. (Can any story be more engrossing than the hour-by-hour approach of the German attack on Coventry, and need it have any gloss at all added about unproven and unfounded assertions of betrayal?) An aide to the chief of British Naval Intelligence was assigned to liaise with Intrepid and was trained in tradecraft and disinformation at the BSC's secret training school at Oshawa, in Ontario, where he met the tall, imposing, and debonair head of BSC. This young man would, after the war, create the very model of the romantic spy of fiction, for he was Ian Fleming, and his invention, James Bond, would put even further distance between fact and fiction, enigma and reality.

I end cryptically, as a disquisition on decryption no doubt should. There is much more to know about Winston Churchill and Intelligence than the brief stories I have related here. Still, if all we knew was the story of Ultra and his intense use of it, we would know that Churchill considered well-placed, well-analyzed, well-protected, well-deployed intelligence to be of the highest value. Some of us may be here in this church, itself destroyed in a German bombing raid, detected but not successfully defended against on December 29, 1940, because of the millions of lives saved in the two years the war was, by David Kahn's estimate, shortened through the work of professional intelligence. Had the European war lasted two more years, the entire course of the conflict with Japan might well have been different. Some of us most likely would not be alive today. History is not, after all, a series of abstractions, it is intensely personal in its detail. We are here because of history, of a moment in time, alive because of decisions made and actions taken long ago. This surely is not fiction, though it might rightly be regarded as an enigma.14


1 London, 1994
2 Allison Ind, A Short History of Espionage (New York: David Mckay, 1963), p. 34.
3 This debate has continued at some length in The Spectator. See also the work of Bernard Porter.
4 Sir William Deakin, "Churchill and Europe in 1944," Third Crosby Kemper Lecture, March 18, 1984.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 The following five paragraphs are drawn from my book, Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War (New York: Morrow, 1987), pp. 65-66.
8 Here and at other points I extemporized additions and explanations when delivering this address. This
material is omitted from the printed version, so it does not reflect precisely all that was said. Ambrose's book is sub-titled, Eisenhower and the Espionage Establishment (Garden City, NY; Doubleday, 1981). It was written with Richard H. Immerman.
9 B. Bruce-Briggs, "Another Ride on Tricycle," Intelligence and National Security, VII (April, 1992), pp. 77-100.
10 Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (New York: Henry Holt, 1991), pp. 683-84; Hinsely, et al, British Intelligence in the Second World War(London: HMSO, 1979), 1, 316-18; and F.H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp, eds., Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), part one.
11 Gilbert, Churchill, p. 683.
12 Kahn, Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boat Codes, 1939-1943 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,1991), p. 168.
13 Subtitled The Secret War (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich).
14 Readers may wish to consult chapter 4, "Churchill at Fulton: The Precarious Peace," in Steven James Lambakis, Winston Churchill: Architect of Peace — A Study of Statesmanship and the Cold War (Westport: Greenwood, 1993).

“Leave the past to history especially as I propose to write that history myself.”

Winston S. Churchill