Authors: James Wyllie,Michael McKinley
Tags: #History, #Non-Fiction, #Espionage, #Codebreakers, #World War I
While battalions hunkered down in the mud of western France, anti-aircraft guns took aim at zeppelins floating over the capital and Atlantic convoys tried desperately to evade German U-boats, another, more secret battle was underway. A team of codebreakers was fighting for information that would give them a crucial advantage over the enemy.
The new inventions of wireless and telegraph were key to winning the war but vulnerable to interception. In London, Room 40, led by the charismatic and cunning ‘Blinker’ Hall, was at the forefront of cracking the codes used to protect them. Rather than wait for intelligence to come to him, Hall was soon running agents in other countries and exploiting every opportunity to get the upper hand.
From violence and subterfuge on the docks of New York City to shady deals in Madrid cafés, this is the gripping true story of spies, codebreakers and saboteurs.
JAMES WYLLIE is an author, award-winning screenwriter and broadcaster. He published
Goering and Goering: Hitler’s Henchman and His Anti-Nazi Brother
in 2010 and has worked on numerous films for the BBC, Film4 and Talkback. He has written for a number of TV drama series including
MICHAEL MCKINLEY is an award-winning author, filmmaker, journalist and screenwriter. Based in New York, he has written for the
New York Observer
New York Daily News
. He is the author of a number of books and has made documentaries for CNN, The Discovery Channel and CBC.
1916: The war that began in August 1914, and was meant to be over by Christmas, has become truly global. A famous author, now a British spy, sits at a street café in Spain telling a local police officer about the imminent arrival of a German submarine carrying biological weapons. On the mud-caked battlefield of the Somme, an artillery officer is training his guns on the Germans’ own artillery, hoping that by smashing them he’ll save the lives of thousands of his countrymen. In the hostile waters of the North Sea, an admiral guides the British fleet towards a titanic confrontation with the enemy’s battleships. Surrounded by the seemingly limitless deserts of Mesopotamia, a general contemplates the best way to outmanoeuvre Turkish forces en route to Baghdad. Across the Atlantic, a tough New York cop is trying to uncover plots to destroy US factories. And as night descends on London, volunteers rush to man searchlights that will seek out Zeppelin raiders as they attempt to bomb the capital.
Each of these individuals was linked by a common thread: whether huddled together in nondescript rooms in Whitehall, hunkered down in makeshift accommodation close to the killing zones of the Western Front, or meeting in luxury hotels in Cairo, they were all acting on information supplied by codebreakers.
The codebreakers exerted a huge influence on the outcome of the First World War. Their achievements were the result of three interlocking factors: the genius of the codebreakers themselves; the emergence of the modern security state; and the recent revolution in communications technology – the wireless and the telegraph – that would usher in the first Age of Information.
They were an eccentric bunch, recruited mostly from academia – linguists and classicists were highly prized – but they also included writers, artists, theatre folk, crossword fanatics, retired military men and those who mixed in the same elevated social circles. Trained on the job, with no precedents to guide them, they were dedicated, tireless and determined to prove their worth, which they did time and time again.
As a result, Signals Intelligence – the interception and decoding of messages – established itself as the most potent branch of the emerging espionage agencies that had come into being in the years preceding the First World War.
The business of spying was still at a rudimentary stage in 1914. Over the next four years, the espionage community expanded hugely to try and cope with the demands of total war. Agent networks were established, tradecraft was perfected, and the collection of information was thoroughly compartmentalised. Human intelligence contributed to a number of very successful operations; however, overall, its impact on the war was negligible. If anything, the reputation of the burgeoning security services rested on the codebreakers’ achievements and the intelligence supplied by them.
Of course, without material to work on, the codebreakers would have been irrelevant. New modes of communication, particularly the wireless, would provide them with hundreds and hundreds of messages. All the Great Powers were quick to take an interest in radio as a means of revolutionising their military communications. However, wireless had an Achilles heel: while messages could be transmitted and received, they could also be intercepted, the signals plucked out of the air. The advantages wireless offered were therefore offset by the fact that it was a fundamentally insecure medium for broadcasting sensitive information – and in war all information is sensitive.
This left the belligerents with no alternative but to encode their messages, which is where the codebreakers came in. Over the course of the war, all the combatants set up codebreaking organisations and they all achieved notable successes. The French were extremely effective on the Western Front; the Germans cracked Allied naval and army codes; the Austro-Hungarians broke the Russian codes and vice versa; even the Americans, latecomers to the conflict, established their own ‘Black Chamber’ of cryptanalysts. However, none of them matched the sheer scale, scope and diversity of the British cryptographic effort. Overall, Britain’s codebreakers achieved the most significant and wide-ranging results, ultimately changing the course of the war.
The British ran two codebreaking outfits: the navy had Room 40, so called because of the room number of their Admiralty home; while the army had Military Intelligence Section 1b – MI1(b) for short – based at the War Office. The two organisations had a truly global reach and dealt with thousands of enemy messages. They had a major impact on the war at sea, on land and in the air. They tracked the movements and actions of the German fleet in the North Sea and its U-boats as they prowled the Atlantic, while keeping a close eye on the Zeppelin threat. From the Western Front to the Balkans, North Africa to the Middle East, the codebreakers revealed the enemy’s strategic and tactical plans, its strengths, weaknesses and whereabouts.
At the same time, Room 40 and MI1(b) exposed the secret machinations of the German government and its intelligence services as they plotted against Allied interests. The Germans targeted neutral countries across the world, especially America, using agents to foment sabotage and subversion. As a result of the codebreakers’ labours, which included penetrating the diplomatic codes of over a dozen countries, Germany became more and more isolated and frustrated at its failure to hit the Allies where it hurt.
Without question, both Room 40 and MI1(b) made a decisive contribution to ultimate victory, their influence on the outcome of the conflict arguably greater than that of Bletchley Park during the Second World War.
Room 40, the naval codebreaking outfit, concentrated primarily on radio messages. MI1(b), the army equivalent, though it dealt with wireless more and more as the war progressed, handled mostly telegrams, the medium used by governments to communicate with each other. MI1(b) was gifted a huge advantage over its rivals because of Britain’s dominance of international telegraph traffic. Determined to connect together its global empire, Britain had laid underwater cables across the seabeds of the world’s oceans, with London acting as the hub of this communications network. As a result, nearly all telegraph messages passed through the capital on some stage of their journey, even those running through cables owned by other countries.
Though the Germans did have some international cable links of their own, they fell victim to some inspired forward planning by the British. In 1912, the Committee of Imperial Defence decided to cut all of Germany’s underwater cables the minute war broke out between them. Near dawn on 5 August 1914, the
, a cable-laying ship, began dredging up from the sea floor all five cables that led from the German port of Emden to Vigo in Spain, then on to Tenerife and from there to the USA and the Azores. Within a matter of hours, the cables had been severed, and Germany had lost all telegraphic links to the world beyond continental Europe.
MI1(b) was also helped by the destruction of Germany’s global wireless infrastructure. At Nauen, the Germans possessed an extremely powerful transmitter that could reach the wireless stations based in their African colonies, from where signals could be sent to the Americas. On 9 August 1914, the station and transmitter at Dar es Salaam was destroyed by the British navy; the Duala station in Cameroon was seized on 27 September, while the one at Windhoek in south-west Africa was put out of action by the Germans themselves.
Meanwhile, the rest of Germany’s global chain was targeted. As Churchill, then the civilian head of the Admiralty, recalled: ‘there existed in the Pacific only five German wireless stations, Yap, Apia, Nauru, Rabaul, Angaur, all of which were destroyed by us within two months of the outbreak of war’.
This brief but effective campaign meant that if the Germans wanted to communicate with the rest of the world, they had to use the telegraph. But with their own cables already cut, the only remaining option was to use ones belonging to neutral countries. Unfortunately for the Germans, the majority of messages travelling through these cables touched ground in London’s telegraph offices at some point on their journey. Therefore, it was incredibly easy for MI1(b) to access this material; once requested, it was simply handed over. The many hundreds of messages gathered this way were then analysed by MI1(b)’s team of codebreakers.
While most of Britain was woefully unprepared for the war it was about to fight, a handful of individuals in Whitehall had the foresight to understand that the new modes of communication – the telegraph and the wireless – would have a significant impact on the outcome of any major conflict. However, the development of both MI1(b) and Room 40 into efficient and dynamic organisations was a much more haphazard affair, one that relied on the right people being in the right place at the right time.
During September 1896, a couple of months before revealing his new creation – the wireless – to an astonished London audience, Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor and entrepreneur, gave a trial demonstration to representatives of the British army and navy, sending a signal a mile and three quarters across Salisbury Plain. The men in uniform were suitably impressed.