Donnish Spy Games

Hugh Trevor-Roper had an interesting war. Although by the beginning of it he had already embarked on his famous academic career — his biography of Archbishop Laud was published in 1940 — he then spent six formative years in the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS. Recruited by a fellow don at Merton who had worked on radio intelligence in the First World War, Trevor-Roper was put into a team analysing the communications of the Abwehr, the German intelligence service. Trevor-Roper himself was the first to crack an Abwehr cipher in 1940, which led to further successes.  When Bletchley Park broke the Enigma machine code used for the majority of Abwehr messages at the end of 1941, Trevor-Roper and his team (which by now he headed) had large volumes of material to analyse. He became expert not only in the tactical details of German intelligence operations, and in thwarting them, but used the material to make more strategic assessments of what was going on politically within the German system — demonstrating that it was not a centralised totalitarian system but “a vortex of competing personal ambitions”.

Soon after the defeat of Germany the Russians claimed that Hitler was alive and in hiding, protected by the British. As a leading expert on the internal workings of the German system who was also a clear and articulate writer, Trevor-Roper was sent to Germany to investigate and report on Hitler’s fate. This not only settled the issue but formed the basis for his best-selling book The Last Days of Hitler. Although Trevor-Roper returned to Oxford in early 1946, he wrote about the Third Reich and intelligence matters for the rest of his career. He stayed in touch with former colleagues in the intelligence world — not only men like Sir Dick White (who went on to be head of MI5 and then SIS), but also the traitors Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt.

This volume brings together Trevor-Roper’s published work on intelligence, including reviews and essays, together with unpublished letters and recollections, supported by outstandingly helpful footnotes.  Subjects range from his early days in SIS, as the service struggled to expand and adjust to the requirements of wartime, through an assessment of Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr (“incontestably inefficient”, “a life fatally nullified by its own lack of clarity or conviction”), to an attack on Peter Wright of Spycatcher fame and an analysis of the curious case of the kidnap — or was it defection? — of the head of the post-war German security service.

The centrepiece of this volume is Trevor-Roper’s devastating critique of Philby, published in 1968. He knew Philby well, and whilst acknowledging their friendship realised that he was “a traitor of a particularly despicable kind, lying, deceiving, breaking oaths, abusing confidence and destroying friends in the service not of a natural patriotism nor even of a consistent ideological doctrine but of a particularly revolting tyranny . . . This subtle, sophisticated man was an undeviating stalwart of the changing party line.” Many knew of Philby’s Communist past when he joined SIS in 1940, but in a war against fascism this was not held against him. His background as a war correspondent (and SIS source) during the Spanish civil war prepared him well for intelligence work.  The error, argues Trevor-Roper, was to appoint Philby head of the new anti-Communist section of SIS in the summer of 1944 without revisiting his past — but by that time Philby, through his industry and effectiveness, was considered a known quantity.

Paradoxically it was Philby, who played the game and sucked up to the bosses, whom the pre-war SIS mandarins running the service trusted, and Trevor-Roper, the argumentative incomer, and a German-speaking intellectual to boot, who was suspect: bizarrely it was alleged that he had gone on leave to Ireland, not to go foxhunting, but to make contact with the German embassy in Dublin.  There is a moment of pure Le Carré when Trevor-Roper is summoned by the Chief of SIS, Sir Stewart Menzies, and his deputy to be sacked for circulating an assessment to ministers without proper authorisation.  Trevor-Roper was defending his actions, when “there was a knock on the door and Miss Pettigrew entered, carrying a china tray with a tea-set on it, and put it before the Chief. ‘Do you take milk and sugar?’ he asked me, and at that moment I felt the balance turning: from a prisoner in the dock I had become a guest at a tea-party.”

There are clues as to what led Trevor-Roper to authenticate the forged “Hitler diaries” in 1983. As part of his investigation into Hitler’s death in 1945 Trevor-Roper successfully tracked down copies of Hitler’s personal and political testaments, smuggled out of the bunker in April 1945 by three emissaries and then hidden. And Canaris had kept diaries; it was when Hitler read these that he ordered Canaris’s execution. But then they disappeared. Is it fanciful to speculate that the venerable historian subconsciously expected there to be some more hidden Hitler documents?

Fascinating as Trevor-Roper’s observation and analyses are, he sometimes lets his devastating articulacy stand in for evidence-based argument. He can be partial and tribal; in 1980 he wrote: “Cambridge is really an extraordinary place, totally cut off from the known world: a sort of fossil society in which are preserved (but in a lifeless form) the habits of a lost world. Sometimes I see it as an untouched, still unravished relic of the early nineteenth century: an image of unreformed Oxford, Oxford before 1850. Its immunity to reform is remarkable.”

On intelligence matters he extrapolates from his own personal, necessarily narrow, wartime experience some generalisations which are not supported by a wider examination of the facts. His criticisms of the culture of “privileged secrecy” of the SIS he joined in 1940 may be fair, but SIS expanded from an organisation of 42 officers in 1939 to 750 in 1944, recruiting from a wider range of backgrounds than it had previously done;  and whatever its shortcomings, British Intelligence convincingly “won” the intelligence war against the Germans (and subsequently against the Russians). Trevor-Roper found the atmosphere inside SIS stifling;  one hesitates to consider how this supremely self-confident intellectual would have got on in the officers’ mess of a cavalry regiment, as was his original aspiration, let alone with the soldiery. The bureaucratic turf tussles he describes, or “friction” in Clausewitzian terms, were replicated across the military sphere almost to the end of the war — one only has to consider the rows over RAF cooperation with the army, or UK/US debate over war strategy.

Aside from the culture, Trevor-Roper objected to the way the UK intelligence community was organised, with the intelligence services producing unanalysed single-source reporting for customer departments (the armed services, Foreign Office, etc) to assess and put into context alongside reporting from other sources. His view was coloured by the field in which he worked, German counter-intelligence overseas, for which SIS was its own customer, and so had to do its own analysis.  It was not valid for other areas, e.g. military reporting, where the expertise, and study of the full range of sources, including publicly available information, lay elsewhere.

Trevor-Roper is repeatedly sceptical of Humint, that is intelligence derived from human as opposed to technical sources. He describes SIS’s prewar German agents as “a rotten system of venal spies”, for example.  But it was these networks which had produced intelligence on secret German rearmament in the 1930s, which was leaked to Churchill to help him oppose appeasement.  Subsequently SIS and SOE built up huge networks of agents in occupied Europe: by spring 1944 these were producing 150 reports a day from France and the Low Countries. Trevor-Roper is himself inconsistent on this subject: he acknowledges the significance of the defection or recruitment of Abwehr officers during the war, and of SIS agents reporting on the V2 programme. One suspects that his objections to Humint are personal: he perceived agent work as distasteful and impure, and disliked the worldly SIS case officers from business and clubland who recruited and ran secret agents.

More fundamentally, Trevor-Roper is sceptical of the value of secret intelligence, all the more curious given his wartime experience of penetrating the Abwehr and using this to support the highly successful Allied deception campaign over the invasion of Europe in 1944. Even though long out of the intelligence world, he makes some sweeping statements unsupported by facts. In 1979 he wrote: “Most secrets are in print if one knows where to find them or how to deduce them . . . even scientific secrets are generally in print somewhere.” If only it were so. Trevor-Roper cannot surely have believed that the post-war regularisation and formal establishment of the intelligence and security agencies was a massive and unnecessary con trick played on gullible ministers and officials.

Trevor-Roper was too personally engaged with his subject matter to be an objective or considered voice on the general principles of intelligence work. But this book is of value as a historical record, by someone who personally knew many of the players in Cold War intelligence, and it is easy and amusing reading from a wonderful essayist.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens
Search