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Don't Mention the War
January/February 2012

 
Secret scribe: Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1940 

Hugh Trevor-Roper had a remarkably Good War, though it cannot have seemed very good to begin with. Recruited into a minor branch of military intelligence, he found himself working in a poky commandeered cell in Wormwood Scrubs, combing intercepted radio signals for evidence of German spies in England. This, in itself, was a complete waste of time; but it led him to the radio transmissions of the Abwehr (the German secret service), whose codes he managed to break.

Gradually, against the wishes of hidebound and resentful superior officers, Trevor-Roper extended the scope of his work. He was joined by two brilliant friends from Oxford, the philosophers Gilbert Ryle and Stuart Hampshire, plus the historian Charles Stuart, and before long they were producing not only valuable intelligence briefings but also policy recommendations — for which, again, their superiors slapped them down. By appealing directly, and privately, to Churchill's advisers over the heads of his commanding officers, Trevor-Roper committed what should have been career suicide. And yet he survived, thanks to a combination of principled stubbornness and sheer undeniable talent. He entered the last part of the war a major, in charge of a section increasingly vital to the war effort (deception operations surrounding D-Day depended on it). On the strength of his undoubted expertise he was asked, four months after the end of the war in Europe, to investigate the last days of Hitler: fame and fortune swiftly followed.

Secret service officers were strictly forbidden to keep diaries. In this, as in other matters, Trevor-Roper was insubordinate, but he tried to respect the spirit of the law by keeping the contents of his wartime journals permanently secret. Indeed, their existence was not even suspected by any of his friends or family during his lifetime. Into these notebooks he had transcribed some material that was derived directly from his work: over several pages, for example, he summarised the transcripts of secretly recorded conversations between two captured German generals, discussing the kitsch country palace of Hermann Göring and the stolen treasures it contained. For this alone he could have been cashiered.

Other entries related to his work more generally, but in a way that might have earned him even less mercy from his superiors, had they enjoyed the pleasure of reading them. "There are only two classes of men in the British Secret Service", he wrote in June 1942: "those who protect their incompetence by neurotic secrecy, and those who screen it with bombastic advertisement." And again, in another entry headed "S.I.S.": "I am sick to death of them, that nest of timid and corrupt incompetents, without ideals or standards, concerned only with the security of their own discreditable existence, bum-sucking under the backstairs of bureaucracy. Weak men on the defensive, who will do and say anything through fear, they dread improvement, for improvement means change, and change may mean the shaking of a few old somnolent moths out of long undisturbed curtains."

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