Strange Intelligence

Title:                  Strange Intelligence

Author:                Hector Bywater

Bywater, Hector (1931) and H. C. Ferraby. Strange Intelligence: Memoirs of Naval Secret Service. London: Constable

LCCN:    32012963

DA89 .B8


Date Updated:  November 2, 2016

This is an unusually long entry, but important owing to the insights of Hector Bywater in this book. The following is an article that appeared in The Naval Review (p. 155, XX, no. 1, February, 1932, written by W. R. H.)

There has been for many years an idea in the Navy that officers of the Intelligence Department spend their time cutting bits out of newspapers and pasting them in a book; in this sentence is summed up what the Navy thought of Intelligence work. The authors of the book under review have to some extent shown that there are other functions for intelligence officers, and we must congratulate them on their book, since they have produced a most readable volume which in some cases fires the imagination and “points a moral.” It is no small achievement to have put together so much of interest whilst under the combined handicaps of having no access to official documents, and of not having been in the actual service itself.

We may, at the outset, say that the general idea of Intelligence work, as stated in the opening remarks, is to some extent correct so far as the Headquarter staff is concerned. If we cast our minds back to the war period, it would be fair to say that, by the careful collection of information, nearly always of a type which never dealt directly with the subject at issue, it was possible to build up a perfectly accurate picture. We may call to the recollection of our readers the instance which occurred late in the war, when the Admiralty, without warning, published the names of 150 German submarine officers who were either prisoners or who had lost their lives. This list could only have been compiled by the most careful study of local papers, for the German censor had for long forbidden the publication of the names or number of ships or submarines in which there had been loss of life. We have mentioned this particular point because we feel strongly that where an officer has knowledge of a foreign language, there is always open to him the interesting problem of trying to find out how far he can meet the desire of the Admiralty for information.

We have had the opportunity of meeting one of the men employed in Intelligence work, and it is interesting to note that, before undertaking the work, he was told quite frankly that the pay was small, the thanks still smaller, and that, directly there came a hint that he was known as being engaged in such work, his occupation would be ended forthwith. In spite of these disadvantages, there have been and still are-to their credit-many who undertake this essential work for the love of the game.

Intelligence work covers many headings; in peace time the department has to know what preparations and armaments are being made in other countries. This work never ceases. A visit to an engineering works will, to a trained observer, tell him what can be produced; a view of a building slip will tell an observer at once whether it can be used for large or only small ships. We remember an instance of this when the Admiralty, prior to the war, were requiring information about the size of certain building slips. Curiously enough, there was no place from which these slips could be seen, and the dockyard was most carefully guarded, both from land and sea. Patrol boats prevented any boat from approaching, whilst, in addition, three small cruisers were at buoys and hailed any boat which came near. The problem did not seem soluble until the arrival of some racing motor boats, when it became quite simple. A race up the harbour at full speed; a few naval officers (suitably equipped with cameras) doing duty as engineers and coxswain solved the problem. The motor boat, amid the cheers of the crews of the assembled vessels, including the guard vessels, dashed through the line of patrol1 boats and-by one of those accidents which happen-the engines broke (down opposite the (building slips and the boat had to be towed away by the patrol.

It can hardly be supposed that an accurate knowledge of the leading characteristics of foreign men of war is obtained by a close study of the confidential plans from which they were built! This knowledge, as shown in the various official (English) publications, is the result of the accumulated labours of many men. The authors tell us of the success of the German high explosive shell which wrought so much damage to our ships; this knowledge was at the disposal of the designers of our ships before the war, but it could have been no failure on the part of the intelligence service which induced the powers-that be to accept a shell of far lower penetration and bursting effect because the price was less!

We would specially direct attention to the close study of foreign systems of communications both between their ships and between countries. Much can be learned from this study, and a reliable system of intelligence which will not collapse on the outbreak of war may well be designed from the results of such study. Similarly, officers on foreign stations might have at hand a careful analysis of the trade routes and the ships using them. All this information is at hand, and, if studied beforehand, will ensure that, whilst our shipping is as far as possible secured against attack, the enemy’s shipping will meet the maximum of offensive.

We pass from these short notes of intelligence work in peace time to the testing time of war.

Here is a mighty field open. To provide reliable and quick information regarding the movements of the enemy is the first duty. During the late war, as is now known from various writings, this was achieved largely by the interception of the enemy’s wireless messages. In the early days of the war we are told (that the enemy, when moving to sea, were like a pack of hounds in full cry; apart from the actual reading of the cypher messages, the position of the enemy could always be fixed by cross cuts of intercepting wireless direction stations. Thus the movements were easily followed, but that was not the whole of the problem. There remained the outstanding difficulty of accurately forecasting what the objective was. To solve this problem must have been a matter of the greatest moment; but here again it would seem that first principles could be used. To catch fish, with a line, some form of bait must be used. We should imagine that, in approaching this problem, the first thing to seek was the bait. What was attracting the enemy to a certain course? Was there a convoy leaving a certain port with a weak escort? Was there to be a raid on pant of the coast which would draw off the fleet from some other position, and enable the enemy to accomplish its object elsewhere? We would instance the exciting times of the Irish rebellion when, in order to keep our attention off that country, the enemy made a raid on our coasts and attacked by Zeppelins.

We can instance many such examples, all of which serve to show some of the difficulties which have to be faced even when there is good information regarding the movements of the enemy.

We have heard lately of instances where it was possible to mislead the enemy; such, for instance, as the supposed threatened invasion of this country when the War Office received information that the Germans had moved two divisions down to the Belgian coast. The reason for this concentration was not to invade this country but to prevent an invasion by this country into Belgium. We are informed that the whole of this German concentration came about from one or two paragraphs which appeared in a popular daily paper, which paragraphs were blacked out in the edition which was published for home consumption, the original edition being the one which was sent to foreign countries.

There is one outstanding feature of the intelligence work during the war to which we would call especial attention; it would seem that the intelligence service, once it had found the enemy’s means of communication, never attempted to interfere with it. We would emphasize this fact, and go as far as laying down as an axiom that a line of enemy communication should never be broken or hazarded. It would seem to us that it is far better for an intelligence service to be able to rely on a certain line of information, even though it involves the fact that the enemy are using it. We can well imagine the feelings of the intelligence service when a carefully guarded line is broken, either through over zeal of an uninformed man or through the carelessness of one of the men employed. May it not have been such a case when an Austrian submarine took from a steamer, coming from Athens to Brindisi, the mail bags which the energetic (messenger had thrown overboard (having forgotten to put any weights in the bags-weights are heavy things to carry!) so that the bags floated on the surface? We have often wondered what were the contents of that bag, and whether the sudden stoppage of reliable information from a certain quarter of the war was due to the fact that the enemy had found our means of communication and had broken it by the most effective method – DEATH.

We would emphasize one further point; everything and everywhere is of moment to an intelligence service. It is a far cry from this country to Persia and Arabia, and to many it might seem that the Navy had no interest in those parts. The history of the war shows that the Navy’s interests were of immense importance. It should be the endeavour of every intelligence officer to link up with any existing intelligence service, under whatever name it exists; for we are convinced that the value of personal contact between men engaged in so vital a service, where so much depends on the confidence and trust between men, is as valuable in intelligence work as it is in actual fighting.

We have read much about Raiders and their doings. We imagine that to try and keep track of a single ship and forecast her movements must be the most complicated of intelligence problems. Where there is a long trade route the raider can move safely, and, if she keeps a careful watch on the enemy’s wireless, will be able to form a fairly accurate idea as to the whereabouts of any possible cruiser. It would seem from the records that very little information could be gathered at Headquarters regarding the movements of raiders; but, on the other hand, cruisers and armed merchant men which were out in pursuit could gather a fair amount. We much hope that before the next occasion when raiders are at work the intelligence service will have prepared and issued a careful analysis of the points which a searching cruiser should keep in mind. We remember an instance when, had such a manual been at hand, there should have been a very good chance of capturing the Moëwe on her first voyage. The details are so interesting that we propose to give them shortly. The Moëwe had on board her the various crews and officers of the ships she had sunk and, finding them a nuisance, sent them all to a certain port in a captured vessel. Lying in this port was a cruiser; the captured officers were interviewed and it appeared that the last vessel captured was a ship with a cargo of many thousands of tons of Welsh coal. The Moëwe took this vessel in to the mouth of a river on the South American coast, took out of her about goo tons of coal and then sank her in deep water.

Now, had this information been telegraphed to the Admiralty, there would have been plenty of time for action to be taken, for there was only one deduction to be made from the story; the Moëwe was on her way home. Had she been intending to continue her voyage, it is inconceivable that she would destroy the Welsh coal, which was the one thing she wanted. In the result, although immediate action was taken and all available ships placed far out on the Northern patrol, the Moëwe slipped through a few hours before the ships were out on their extended patrol stations. We instance this example, not, of course, to attribute blame, but to emphasize the importance of officers weighing every item of information which comes into their possession. We would remind our readers that everything must have a beginning; the intelligence service, as it exists today, was nonexistent till fifty years ago. In 1882, the late Captain W. H. Hall was sent to the Admiralty as a commander to preside over the Foreign Intelligence committee. His staff consisted of one second class clerk and a boy writer. Captain Hall’s seven years work formed the basis of the present organization, and in these days, when confidential books seem to be a glut in the library and a nuisance to all who want to read any of them, it should not be forgotten that the information in those books if not used will once more-as was the case fifty years ago – leave the service without an intelligence service.

We notice that throughout this book, the attention of the readers is directed to material things, and perhaps this is natural; but we would remind our readers that there is a subject which is even more of importance than material “Dans la guerre, c’est l’homme.” To be on safe ground, a knowledge of the characteristics and personalities of the probable leaders is of paramount importance. In the late War, had Tirpitz been placed in command, we should have been certain that all his efforts would have been directed to the early meeting of the fleets, combined with a resolute attack on our merchant shipping. So long as the officer then commanding the German fleet remained in command, the Admiralty could feel fairly certain that the fight to a finish was not part of his programme.

We have ventured to call attention to these points, not because we desire in any way to detract from the interesting book we are reviewing, but because it seemed to us that by means of what these able authors have compiled we should try and extend the scope of other branches not touched on and fire the imagination of officers. It was Frederick the Great who said, before commencing a campaign: “ . . . He (his opponent) will be followed by a hundred cooks, and I shall be preceded by a thousand spies.” And Frederick the Great won!

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

Bywater and Ferraby, described as writers on naval subjects, seem to have derived motivation to write this volume from books about intelligence that held such work up to derision. Feeling that detractors knew little of what British naval intelligence had accomplished (Compton Mackenzie is prominently named as an example), they wrote this paean of praise to British naval intelligence. This service is described as one that succeeded during the whole of World War I and the four years preceding it in great feats of information gathering on German naval developments; it was, according to them, an indispensable factor in winning the war and a prime factor in the defeat of the German U-boat. The only source given for these sweeping judgments and fulsome praise are some 1930 articles in the London Daily Telegraph. They qualify their remarks by saying that the book is a partial record of British naval intelligence for the period covered and that much more was contained in confidential files. Knowing what we now do of the accomplishments of Admiral Hall and British naval intelligence, we can assume the authors were made privy to some inside information, although Hall does not figure here at all. The chapter on the Battle of Jutland does not mention the mistakes committed by the British in their use of Room 40 decrypts and is reflective of the less-than-central treatment accorded this strategic intelligence success. The successes the authors claim for naval intelligence of the prewar period seem exaggerated in the light of later evidence. It would be better to rely on William James’ The Eyes of the Navy[2]. Grant’s study, U-Boat Intelligence[3], calls Strange Intelligence a mix of fact and fiction.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[4]

An account of British naval intelligence during World War I.

[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 106

[2] James, W. M. (1955). The Eyes of The Navy: A Biographical Study of Admiral Sir Reginald Hall, K.C.M.G., C.B., LL.D., D.C.L. London: Methuen

[3] Grant, Robert M. (1969). U-boat intelligence, 1914-1918. London: Putnam

[4] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 165


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3 Responses to Strange Intelligence

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