By Dr Jim Beach.
During the spring term our students will again be studying HIS3027 Secret State: British Intelligence, 1558-1945, a module that explores the contribution of the intelligence services to Britain’s security. The first segment of the module examines the writing of intelligence history in recent decades. Unsurprisingly, the authorised histories of Britain’s main intelligence agencies feature prominently within that examination, and previous cohorts of students have looked at Christopher Andrew’s The Defence of the Realm (2009) about the Security Service (aka MI5) and the late Keith Jeffery’s MI6 (2010) on the Secret Intelligence Service.
In October last year a third thoroughbred joined this historical stable: John Ferris’ Behind the Enigma, the authorised history of Britain’s signals intelligence agency, GCHQ. Naturally, this development is most welcome for present and future students of British intelligence, including those at the University of Northampton. However, this blog post is most definitely not a book review. Having worked for many years and co-published with one of John’s research assistants on the book, I recuse myself on the grounds that I will be perceived as irredeemably biased in its favour. Instead, I want to reflect briefly on the kneejerk reactions to the book’s publication.
The day before it appeared the BBC’s security correspondent informed his audience of its imminence with the headline ‘Bletchley Park’s contribution to WW2 ‘over-rated”. The report did include the caveat that ‘Bletchley carried out “amazing” work which did hasten victory, but not necessarily by the amount some previous estimates have claimed’. But at the top of the story it quoted John Ferris as saying “Bletchley [was] not the war winner that a lot of Brits think it is”. Of course, Ferris’ publishers had a commercial interest in stirring controversy, but even I was taken aback by some of the vitriol that flowed on social media.
As is so often the case nowadays, not having read the book was no barrier to condemning it. The online reactions included a questioning of why a Canadian professor, rather than a British one, had been commissioned to write the history in the first place. But it was the perceived attack on the wartime contribution of Bletchley that provoked the most ire. At the time, the controversy didn’t really escalate so I just shrugged, felt it all rather sad and thought that, given the recent climate of Britain’s public history, it was perhaps rather predictable.
With the Xmas break from teaching giving me some time to engage properly with the book itself, I found myself thinking again this episode. In retrospect, it strikes me as a good example of what happens when weighty academic history collides with fragile national folklore. As a First World War historian, I’d seen plenty of these crashes during that conflict’s centenaries. But this one struck me as more visceral, perhaps because it occurred upon the more hallowed ground of Britain’s stand against Nazi Germany; an oft-cited historical example during the years of Brexit turmoil.
As a child of the 1970s, I’d grown up with the standard canon of Britain standing alone, the Battle of Britain, convoys versus U-boats and all that. Then in the 1990s I encountered the story of Bletchley Park, the breaking of the German Enigma cipher machine, and the creation of Ultra intelligence from the decrypted messages. But that was in an academic rather public history context. Later on, after developing an interest in intelligence history, and living only a couple of hours from Bletchley, I visited the site on a number of occasions and followed its rise in public consciousness. Salvation from housing developers, Hollywood films, and its subsequent development into a high-quality heritage site created a fresh and fascinating story arc. And if my friends and extended family can be taken as a methodologically poor sample of public opinion, this process put huts, boffins, and codebreaking close to the top of the list of things-everybody-knows-about-Britain-in-the-Second-World-War.
In parallel with these public history developments academics had, in their thorough if glacial way, unpicked more nuances about Bletchley’s contribution to the Second World War. John Ferris was prominent within this field, but others also raised questions about when, how, and to what extent British signals intelligence had affected military operations. Detailed work published in learned journals and by university presses gradually eroded the rather triumphal popular works that had appeared in the decade or so after Bletchley’s work was declassified in the 1970s. And, following the release of documentation that its authors had used assuming they would remain forever classified, even the five magisterial volumes of the official histories (British Intelligence in the Second World War) have been subjected to revisionism. It is therefore understandable, judging from their social media reactions to Behind the Enigma’s publication publicity, that academic military historians were not surprised by Ferris’ general line of argument.
Of course, such disconnects between experts and the wider audience are normal in most historical fields, but my recollection was of genuine anger deeper that I’d seen during the First World War centenaries. With my curiosity piqued, I carried out a very unscientific online search for John Ferris + Bletchley Park + angry. This led me to a 1,000-word opinion piece written by Howard Wheeldon, a defence consultant, on an electronics news site. It is dated 20 October 2020, which was the day of the book’s publication. I know that the Amazon delivery drivers were doing their thing for those of us who had pre-ordered, but the piece does not make any reference to the book’s actual content. I therefore surmise that it is a representative and analyse-able example of a reaction to the book’s pre-publication publicity.
Regarding Ferris’ conclusion, the opinion piece begins by conceding that Bletchley may have ‘been placed on something of a pedestal’. But Wheeldon takes issue with the fact that an official historian might suggest that it had been ‘over-rated by the public’. His central point is that:
‘No one has ever said that Bletchley Park won the war for the allies but what they can surely agree on is that the amazing and very secret work conducted by staff at Bletchley Park most probably shortened the war by a minimum of a year and quite probably longer.’
This assertion about shortening the war by at least a year or more is one that gained popular currency during Bletchley Park’s rise in public consciousness. Its origins lie in comments made by Harry Hinsley, who had worked at Bletchley and later became the editor of the five aforementioned official history volumes. It’s a simple and easily-remembered ‘fact’ which can perhaps be seen as the core tenet of what, as quoted in the BBC report, Ferris calls ‘the cult of Bletchley’?
But – abbreviated publicity splashes aside – what does Ferris’ book actually say about war-shortening? After examining Bletchley for nearly 70 pages, he addresses the question head-on:
‘[Hinsley’s] case focuses on the superiority of Ultra to its German equivalent, its centrality to the Battle of the Atlantic, and of the latter to the war. This case overestimates Ultra’s contribution to the U-boat campaign and […] overlooks Axis successes in intelligence […] Hinsley defines the value of Allied intelligence by adding its victories and ignoring its defeats […] Ultra significantly multiplied Western power against Germany, but the Soviet Army also shaped German defeat. Counting all the results […] between 1939 and 1945, one might conclude that victory in intelligence, especially Ultra, shaved several months from the war in Europe and saved the lives of tens of hundreds or thousands of Western Allied soldiers.’
Another thread within Wheeldon’s opinion piece is his historiographic contextualisation of this perceived attack on the memory of Bletchley Park. He sees it as part of a wider trend; the ‘modern tendency to rewrite history almost to the point that a person or [… an] organisation that we have been brought up to almost revere, is suddenly portrayed as being far from that’. He offers up Winston Churchill and Lord Nelson as examples of those from Britain’s imperial period ‘or when we were merely defending ourselves from tyranny [and] are these days increasingly mocked’. Overall, he does not wish for ‘political correctness […] to interfere with history’.
I have no desire to dive into a discussion about why some – often on the political right – consider certain aspects of British history to be sacrosanct. There are better-qualified and far more articulate historians, especially of the British Empire, who spend a lot of time doing just that. Suffice to say that I subscribe to the view that nothing should be placed off-limits. Especially within military history, because it’s a field in which complacency about what came before can foster shaky doctrinal assumptions about the present. In short, like all other aspects of history, shining a light on the past should reveal dynamic, interesting, and useful things in the various nooks and crannies. But if that is done uncritically it creates only a static and narrow – albeit rather comforting – glow in which to bask.
In addition to presenting his historical arguments for putting Bletchley Park out-of-bounds to any revisionism, Wheeldon also included an emotional dimension to his case. I found this the most interesting aspect because it offers an obvious point-of-difference with similar debates during the First World War centenaries. After citing Ferris’ statement in the BBC report that Bletchley was not the war-winner that British people think it is, Wheeldon states:
‘Heaven only knows what the handful of remaining people alive who worked there are thinking if they have had the misfortune to read the headlines of this particular story today. Very angry I venture to suggest!’
He therefore suggested that Ferris ought to be put ‘in front of as many remaining survivors as the [Bletchley Park] Trust’ so that they could tell him ‘that he is wrong to minimise the vitally important role that Bletchley Park placed during [the Second World War].’
This feeds into a seductive notion that ageing participants are the only real arbiters of historical truth about a war. During the First World War centenaries this idea foundered on the absence of surviving veterans, although their descendants were sometimes used as proxies. In this regard I commend Dan Todman’s work on how veterans and their testimony affected our understanding of events between 1914 and 1918. By the 1990s their numbers were dwindling rapidly, but their scarcity meant that those who remained were presented in the media as authentic voices of the war simply because they won the longevity lottery. [As an aside for current and potential students, this is one of many issues we examine in my Masters module HISM047 Britain and the First World War.]
We are at a similar point now with the Second World War generation. And in the case of Bletchley Park veterans, those who survive would have been in their late teens or early twenties during the conflict. They are, therefore, highly unlikely to have been in the managerial roles that would allow them to make an evidenced case regarding Ultra’s wartime contribution. If the imagined debate did take place, their presence would undoubtedly be powerful emotionally, but they could only endorse others’ later arguments. But if you want to win a historical debate with nostalgia rather than documentary evidence, who better to face down Professor Ferris just as they did the Nazis?
For those studying – or thinking about studying – history at Northampton, the issues I have discussed here connect not only with my third-year module, but also across our wider curriculum. For example: How is historical knowledge and understanding constructed (HIS1021 Themes & Perspectives in History)? How do we understand Britain’s imperial past (HIS2009 Shadows of Empire)? How important is participant/survivor testimony about the Holocaust (HIS1008 The Holocaust: Sources & Context)?
And my final suggestion is that if you’re finding that your consumption of History is mostly comforting and celebratory, then you’re probably not doing it right.
Gordon Corera, ‘Bletchley Park’s contribution to WW2 ‘over-rated”, 19 October 2020, bbc.co.uk/news (last accessed 5 January 2021).
John Ferris, Behind the Enigma: The Authorised History of GCHQ, (London: Bloomsbury, 2020).
Howard Wheeldon, ‘Bletchley Park WW2 contribution ‘over rated’? – What utter nonsense!’, 20 October 2020, battle-updates.com (last accessed 5 January 2021).
Suggestions for further reading:
John Ferris, ‘Intelligence’ in John Ferris & Evan Mawdsley (eds.), Cambridge History of the Second World War, Vol.1 (2015), pp637-663.
‘Conclusion: Evaluating Plays and Actors’ in WJR Gardner, Decoding History: The Battle of the Atlantic and Ultra (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1999), pp210-218.
‘A Note on Sources and Further Reading’ in David Kenyon, Bletchley Park and D-Day (London: Yale University Press, 2019), pp249-260.
‘Veterans’, Chapter 6 in Dan Todman, The Great War: Myth and Memory (London: Hambledon, 2005), pp187-219.