A worldwide Service

SIS’s postwar deployment after 1945 was increasingly concentrated in countries where the threat of Communism was seen as most immediate, and also in those places where it was thought that threat might effectively be challenged. In practice this meant that resources were focused on countries bordering the Soviet bloc in both Europe and the Middle East, and, after 1949, in Asian countries on the fringes of Communist China. But the Service retained a worldwide reach, even though budgetary considerations compelled it to reduce its representation to the bare minimum where the perceived threat was not so great. This was undoubtedly the case in Latin America. At the end of the war there were ten, usually one-man, stations. Within a few years only those at Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro survived. SIS had even less involvement with Africa, where in the late 1940s, apart from the British Dominion of South Africa, there were only two independent countries, Liberia and Ethiopia. Security in the British territories was the responsibility of MI5 and, apart from a small station in Addis Ababa, which was geared more to the Middle East than to Africa, it was reckoned that any intelligence concerning the colonies of other European countries could be acquired in the appropriate European capitals. Across the Middle East, beyond sizeable stations in Istanbul, Cairo and Jerusalem, SIS was pretty thinly spread, and tackling Communism in Iraq and Iran largely depended on liaison services. Palestine, which for SIS constituted a major commitment, was highly unusual in the postwar world in that Communism was hardly an issue. Here ‘end of empire’, the quest of Jewish people for a secure ‘national home’ and the terrible legacy of the Holocaust combined to fuel a troubling, combustible and violent situation for which in the end neither Britain nor its security and intelligence agencies, including SIS, could do much to help.


Although SIS had an important station in Jerusalem, the gathering of intelligence about Palestine (which counted as part of the British empire) was shared with the Criminal Investigation Department of the Palestine Police, Military Intelligence and MI5. SIS, indeed, had no direct role in the sharp and violent campaign waged between British forces and Jewish insurgents from 1946 until the unilateral British withdrawal in May 1948, and which included (among others) the assassination in September 1946 of a former SIS officer, Desmond Doran, who had transferred to Security Intelligence Middle East (SIME) in October 1942. In December 1946 Broadway estimated that SIS’s sources were rather better on the Arab than the Jewish side, and that Jerusalem was the only political intelligence station in the Middle East ‘to have penetrated effectively the Communist organisations of its own area’.

The threat posed by militant Zionist groups, such as the Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Stern Gang, threatening enough in Palestine (where, for example, in July 1946 the Stern Gang blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem with the loss of ninety-one lives), extended to Continental Europe and the United Kingdom itself. In 1946-7 Irgun units launched sabotage operations against British military installations in Germany, planted a substantial bomb (which did not explode) at the Colonial Office in London, threatened to assassinate Bevin and Attlee, sent letter-bombs to Cabinet ministers and blew up the British embassy in Rome (where the SIS office was badly damaged). SIS helped track Zionist units, and reported (wrongly) to MI5 that the Irgun leader Menachem Begin had altered his appearance by plastic surgery.1 Of particular concern was the question of Jewish illegal immigration to Palestine, which had troubled the British administration since the 1930s. The quotas which the British had established in order to prevent the Jewish population in the country from growing uncontrollably (which would inevitably exacerbate communal tensions) proved increasingly difficult to enforce. This was especially so in the context of the Holocaust when the legalities of the situation seemed both cruel and pettifogging in the face of the evidently desperate desire to reach Palestine of people who had survived savage persecution and the death camps. On the other hand, British responsibilities to the non-Jewish population of Palestine, the government’s hope that some sort of communal balance might be maintained, and the need to maintain good relations with the leaders of oil-rich Arab states led the British authorities to maintain strict limits on the numbers of Jews who were permitted to settle in the territory.2

But how could this be enforced? Towards the end of 1946 the government sought advice from SIS and a paper was prepared containing ‘proposals for action to deter ships’ masters and crews from engaging in illegal Jewish immigration and traffic’. It did not pull its punches: ‘Action of the nature contemplated is, in fact, a form of intimidation, and intimidation is only likely to be effective if some members of the group of people to be intimidated actually suffer unpleasant consequences.’ The ‘falsity of stories based only on “notional” unpleasant incidents’, it argued, would ‘soon be discovered’ and it was ‘essential that “whispers” and rumours should have some factual backing’. This could be arranged through overt British government warnings, or by covert action, which covered a range of possibilities, such as spreading rumours of terrorist action against ships, or actual sabotage against vessels, ‘to prevent a ship from sailing’ or disable it after leaving port. Among a range of options was ‘the discovery of some sabotage device, which had “failed” to function, after the sailing of a ship’; ‘tampering with a ship’s fresh water supplies or the crew’s food’; and ‘fire on board ship in port’. In a covering letter, Menzies reflected on the idea of blaming the action on some specially created, and apparently powerful, Arab organisation, though this might be objected to on the grounds that it could ‘tend to increase tension between Jew and Arab in Palestine and it might encourage Jews to take reprisals against Arabs’. Alternatively, rumours could be spread ‘in vacuo’, and ‘something of a mystery’ made of the organisation behind them, though he thought this was ‘not likely to be as convincing as the proposal to link the whispers with an Arab terrorist organisation’. Whatever was decided, he felt that the strictest secrecy should be maintained ‘as any leakage might have a grave effect on Anglo-American relations, apart from ruining all chances of success’.3

Opinion in the Foreign Office was generally against the more drastic proposals, taking the view that the risk of discovery was too great. Peter Garran of the Eastern Department thought that ‘these are the kind of actions which can be justified in wartime but not I am afraid in time of peace and they would be likely to involve us in serious difficulties with the countries in which they were carried out’. Nevertheless, following a meeting on 14 February 1947 between SIS and representatives from the armed services, the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office, Hayter told Menzies that he should go ahead provided there was ‘no risk of casualties being incurred’. SIS should not kill people or disable ships after sailing and arson attacks ‘must be arranged, if at all, [only] when the ship is empty’; tampering with food or water was also prohibited. In effect this was taken to mean that there should be no direct attacks on ships actually carrying refugees.4 Thus was the perhaps aptly named Operation ‘Embarrass’ born.

For some time both SIS and MI5 (who had a responsibility for security in Palestine) had been keeping watch on illegal Jewish traffic, which was code-named ‘Trespass’. Information was gathered on refugee camps in France and Italy from which parties of prospective migrants journeyed to Mediterranean ports where ships would (they hoped) convey them to Palestine. British agents identified particular camps in Milan, Bari and the heel of Italy used by the Trespass organisation as ‘transit camps for illegal immigrants. Prior to an illegal embarkation, there would be a large decrease in the number of refugees at the Rome camps and they would all turn up at one of these camps demanding, and being given, asylum for a few days pending their departure in an illegal immigration vessel.’ British officers at the camps were alerted to the process and worked to disrupt the traffic. In France one agent located an unofficial refugee camp and provided details (including photographs) of ‘suspect ships’ in harbours along the Mediterranean coast near Marseilles.

Informed by the Trespass intelligence, in early 1947 an Embarrass team was set up in Broadway with instructions ‘to slow down the flow of illegal immigrants into Palestine’. The brief made clear that, ‘although suspicion would be accepted, the primary consideration was to be that no proof could ever be established between positive action against this traffic and H.M.G.’. Knowledge of the operation within SIS was very carefully monitored (indoctrinated personnel were described as ‘Embarrassed’), and a special communications network, ‘Ocean’, was set up dedicated exclusively to Embarrass traffic. Outside the Service a few individuals in MI5 and the Foreign Office (including Orme Sargent) had outline knowledge of the scheme, although in May 1947, after consulting the Foreign Office, Menzies instructed his representatives in Athens, Cairo and Rome to ‘approach their heads of Mission personally and tell them the story’. With a budget of £30,000 (£875,000 in current terms), although in the end only £13,000 was actually spent, the operation had three aspects: direct action against potential refugee ships; a propaganda campaign; and a deception scheme to disrupt immigration from Black Sea ports inaccessible for direct action.

A team of former SOE personnel was deployed in France and another in Italy, though actual attacks were mounted only in Italy. British limpet bombs and timers were supplied. Since huge numbers of such weapons ‘had been supplied to resistance movements in Europe during the war and had not been accounted for’, this was not thought to constitute any security risk. But very careful thought was given to the agents’ cover. In the first place the British individuals involved needed a good reason for their presence abroad, and this included business, visiting friends, holidaymaking generally and taking a Mediterranean yachting trip. If things went wrong and these stories were broken, ‘they were under no circumstances to admit their connection with H.M.G.’. Instead, they were to claim that they had been recruited ‘by an anti-Communist organisation formed by a group of International Industrialists, mainly in the oil and aircraft industries’, said to be directed from New York, which aimed to stop illegal Jewish immigration into Palestine on the grounds ‘that the Russians were infiltrating Communist Jews into Palestine through the Jewish Escape Groups, thus endangering the various interests of the Group in the Middle East’. To do this the international organisation had recruited agents ‘of the ex-Commando type’, who were trained in ‘an old manor house’ near Oxford in England. Agents were warned that this cover ‘was their final line of defence and, even in the event of a prison sentence, no help could be expected from H.M.G.’.

During the summer of 1947 and early the following year attacks were made on five ships in Italian ports. A priority for the sabotage team was to ensure that any target ship was unloaded and that there were no personnel on board. One ship was reported as ‘a total loss’ and two others were damaged. Limpet mines planted on the other two were apparently both discovered. In one case a mine was knocked off, later recovered by divers and ‘its English origin established’, but the local harbour master thought this was ‘not surprising as the Arabs would of course be using British stores’.

As part of the propaganda side of the operation, and in order to divert suspicion from the British, a notional organisation called the Defenders of Arab Palestine claimed responsibility for work against Jewish immigration into Palestine. Letters prepared in Broadway on ‘typewriters of appropriate nationality’ and posted in Paris were sent to the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary (among other prominent personalities) and major newspapers, implicating Soviet Russia in the immigration. It was, claimed the letters, ‘Russia’s intention to force the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish state which looks to them rather than the West for inspiration and support . . . Faced with the alternatives of a war between Arab and Jew in Palestine or the seizure of that country by the Jews’, the Defenders declared that they would ‘carry the fight into those lands where these troubles have their roots’. There was no intention to harm ‘innocent Jews’ or ‘cause further trouble in Palestine’. ‘We shall’, they warned, ‘attack only those who are directly involved in Jewish Illegal Immigration and those who assist them.’

Contrasting with this attempt to implicate Russia in the movement of Jews, the deception scheme aimed to suggest that the British were using the traffic to get agents out of Eastern Europe. Thus it was hoped that the Soviet authorities would act to impede it. A faked British government document was prepared suggesting that not only was the ‘British Secret Service’ exploiting Jewish emigration channels in Bulgaria and Romania to exfiltrate agents to the Middle East, but that ‘Jewish migrants from behind the “iron curtain” were a valuable source of information on Russian activities in that area’. In February 1948 the document was planted by an officer from Broadway in the Casanova night club in Vienna, which was ‘known to be frequented by the MGB [Soviet intelligence service] and believed to be under Russian control’. In the hope that the local postal censors would report it to the Soviet authorities, various letters were also posted in Bucharest hinting at this British scheme, but by the time Embarrass was stood down at the beginning of April 1948 (anticipating Britain’s weary withdrawal from Palestine on 14 May) there was no indication that the deception scheme had had any effect whatever.

Reflecting on the matter afterwards, one SIS officer reckoned that perhaps the biggest missed opportunity had been a planned operation to disable the President Warfield in the small French Mediterranean port of Sète during the early summer of 1947. The ship had been shadowed by an SIS-controlled yacht carrying sabotage-trained agents, who planned to disable the ship by placing a limpet mine ‘on the hull with a three or four day time delay’. While this was to enable ‘the yacht to be in Italian waters before the explosion occurred’, it also inevitably meant that the agents could hardly guarantee that there would be no casualties. In any case, after the French government assured the British in May 1947 that they would themselves take steps to stop the immigrant traffic, the Foreign Office placed a strict embargo on Embarrass operations in France and the yacht was instructed to ‘proceed to other targets in Italy’. The President Warfield, however, sailed from France in July with a cargo of 4,500 refugees and became internationally famous as Exodus 1947. On its arrival off Palestine the ship was seized by British security forces (during which operation three people were killed) and the immigrants forcibly returned to Europe, in the full glare of extremely critical press publicity, especially in France and the USA. ‘The cost’, mused one of the SIS officers involved, ‘both direct and indirect to H.M.G. must have been enormous.’ The affair presented Zionists with ‘a first rate propaganda weapon and even among our friends sympathy was shown towards the illegal immigrants’. All of this, the officer argued, ‘could have been spared if the F.O. had permitted the S.S. [SIS] to take the appropriate action against the President Warfield when they suggested doing so’. Hazarding that the actual cost would have been an improbable £100, and that any British involvement would have been ‘impossible to trace’, he suggested that it would ‘be difficult to find a more glaring example’ of the value of special operations in peacetime or of the inability of the Foreign Office ‘to appreciate the use to which they can put the operational weapon which they have at their disposal in the S.S.’.5

Despite the case of the President Warfield, and uncertainty over the deception side, Operation Embarrass was judged on the whole to have been a success, especially in demonstrating the capabilities of special operations in peacetime, which presented different, and in some ways greater, challenges than in wartime when, for example, ‘the greatest risk occurred during the operation itself and, once the operator was clear of the area, the operation could be considered a success’. But in peace the risk of compromising the British government ‘was the greatest danger and the association of an Englishman with the event afterwards [an irrelevant factor in wartime] would have been disastrous’. In September 1947 SIS claimed that the deterrent effect of the ship attacks had caused a complete cessation of sailings from Italy. The following spring they noted that a number of potential emigrant vessels had left Italian waters and that the Jewish organisers of the illegal immigration had lost confidence in the chief provider of ships ‘as they consider him to be too compromised to be of any further use’. In terms of the actual special operations, the final Embarrass report concluded that ‘careful planning and attention to detail’ had enabled the smuggling of large sums of money as well as explosives across frontiers and proved that the Service could carry out sabotage while maintaining ‘complete cover’ for the agents concerned, thus ‘enabling them to have freedom from suspicion for future action in the countries concerned’. Above all, the operation had been ‘carried out in peace in the interests of H.M.G. without any suspicion of H.M.G. being aroused’. As for the propaganda side, and reflecting on the relative press coverage of different episodes, SIS wryly concluded that a lesson from the operation was that ‘from a purely publicity aspect, a failure involving the discovery of the limpet was of greater success than an actual sinking’.

On 8 May 1948, six days before the proclamation of the new independent state of Israel, Nigel Clive, who had been head of the Athens station, took over in Jerusalem. A month later he reported his initial impressions of Palestine. ‘I think we are wrong’, he wrote, ‘if we persist in thinking of it as a country and wronger [sic] still if we think of Jerusalem as a capital - even a future capital.’ The situation in the region, he thought, was ‘roughly’ back to what had obtained just after the First World War ‘when there was a major dispute over the ownership of this area and where there is now again likely to be some land-grabbing’. There were, too, opportunities for SIS. The early days of the Israeli state, he argued, ‘are those in which they are likely to be most vulnerable. The longer we leave them to settle down the less chance there will be of our finding chinks in their iron curtain.’ Thus he hoped that the situation could be exploited to SIS’s advantage. But the violence and chaos of the First Arab-Israeli War which accompanied the birth of the new state put the lives of British personnel in Jerusalem at risk and in July obliged SIS temporarily to relocate the station to Amman, when Clive was replaced as head of station.

But Broadway remained keen to keep some representation in ‘the Jewish areas of Palestine’. Since it was ‘considered impossible under present circumstances for a male officer to work there effectively’ (but why is not clear), in August the Service (with Foreign Office approval) proposed to attach ‘a woman intelligence officer’ to the British consulate in Haifa, ostensibly as one of the consul-general’s secretaries. But the consul concerned, Cyril Marriott, would have none of it. Already worried by the unsettled situation and the arrest on espionage charges of five British employees of the Jerusalem Electric Corporation (one of whom was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, but released in November after his conviction was quashed),6 Marriott said that the arrival of ‘an English woman’ would undermine his current advice that the country was unsafe ‘for wives and children’. If she did come, however, she should ‘realise that she would be the only English woman here and therefore conspicuous and that she would be under constant watch by Jewish intelligence’. Moreover, if Marriott had to provide accommodation for her, a ‘bathroom and lavatory’ would have to be installed in his office premises ‘where existing arrangements in living quarters are for men only’. Appointing women to work in the region proved a continuing problem with the Foreign Office. In the spring of 1949 Broadway proposed posting a woman to take charge of a sub-station in the new British legation at Tel Aviv, but the Foreign Office refused to agree. When the Service proposed sending a female secretary to Amman in August 1949 the ambassador, Sir Alec Kirkbride, who was ‘extremely sensitive about the question of [female] secretaries’, urged that if they ‘must send a woman she should be a person of a certain age and if possible of forbidding appearance, well able to take care of herself ’.

In the late 1940s Israel remained ‘a high priority target’ about which SIS reckoned in November 1948 the British government was ‘likely to maintain a lively interest for some time to come’. In September a production conference in Broadway had been told that ‘coverage of Israel was negligible’ and in December the head of station was instructed to remain at Amman with a nucleus around which a new station in Jerusalem (which SIS envisaged would be the base for its effort against Israel) could be built. By October the following year Britain’s relations with Israel had sufficiently normalised for SIS’s Middle East Controllerate (the new name for the Eastern Mediterranean Controllerate) to propose that an officer in Tel Aviv would serve purely for liaison - which would ‘undoubtedly be difficult and tricky’ - with the Israeli authorities, hoping to use ‘their assistance in recruiting and running agents into the USSR or the Balkans’. Meanwhile, the ‘penetration of Israel itself ’ could be co-ordinated from Jerusalem. The Controller in London, John Teague, cautiously agreed that an overt liaison officer could ‘in due course’ be posted to Israel, though he also raised in this specific instance a general problem with any serious liaison. He felt that while the Service stood to gain ‘a good deal of useful information’ about the USSR and the Eastern bloc generally, ‘we could be sure that the Israelis would extract the maximum returns and, unless our representative was very cunning, get to know too much about our own organisation and exploit it’. Writing in November 1949, Teague had doubts about the proposal to target Israel from Jerusalem, which had been partitioned between the new state and the rump of Palestine, amalgamated into Jordan following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-9. There was, he noted, ‘a large and strongly-held military barrier’ running through the city, ‘which it is a major operation to surmount’, and it made running operations there quite unfeasible. Once, however, Jerusalem was ‘no longer divided by this physical barrier, we should immediately establish an officer . . . there with the idea of making it our principal office for work into Israel’. Even the veteran Teague, with a quarter of a century’s experience of the region, cannot have anticipated how long it might take before the city would be united.

The Far East

In August 1945 SIS was left with a sprawling deployment in India and China, generally geared to supporting the military needs of Mountbatten’s strategy for the war against Japan. Indeed, for all that it regarded itself as independent, it had in effect become an intelligence-gathering tool in the hands of G. A. Garnons-Williams’s P Division at the headquarters of South-East Asia Command. SIS’s stations had been positioned more to support the military campaign in Burma and the recovery of Malaya than to gather the longer-term intelligence required to support a re-established British presence in the region. With the prospect of Indian independence (which came in August 1947), SIS moved its regional headquarters, the Inter-Services Liaison Department, from Delhi to Singapore, where Donald Prater became Far East Controller, with a staff of eight officers and seventeen secretaries. In September 1947 Dick Ellis, the Chief Controller Pacific in London, reviewed the state of SIS in the Far East before embarking on a tour of the area. In China there were stations at Hong Kong, Tientsin (Tianjin), Shanghai, Nanking and Urumchi (in the north-west); outside China there were stations at Tokyo, Batavia (Jakarta) and Hanoi, and plans for stations in Bangkok, Rangoon, Kabul and Seoul. Ellis was generally disappointed with the lack of intelligence being produced in the region but attributed it to difficulties with accommodation and the degree to which officers were obliged to become involved in their cover duties, an unwelcome feature of the postwar operating environment.

In China, SIS had few assets of its own, and was for the most part dependent on the nationalist Chinese Kuomintang for intelligence. In late 1946 a senior Kuomintang intelligence officer educated in Japan and a former SOE contact proposed to the Nanking station an elaborate scheme to establish a bogus press agency in Shanghai which would collect information on Soviet activity, using White Russians (and some Japanese) previously employed by the Japanese against the same target. While there was some initial enthusiasm for the idea (which involved paying a salary to the contact), the situation very soon became confused partly because of what Nanking called the ‘unrealistic rate of exchange and China’s chaotic economy’. London, moreover, had no faith in the contact, whom they described as ‘an adventurer out to feather his own nest, a bluffer and not too good even at that game’, and the scheme was dropped. Ironically, while the information on Soviet activity that the agent provided was unreliable, his analysis in early 1947 of where the Kuomintang stood in relation to the Communists was entirely sound, though it went unremarked in London, perhaps because by then it was unremarkable. The Kuomintang, he asserted, ‘today find themselves in a parlous condition’. They were ‘losing both territory and influence’. There was ‘no doubting’ that ‘at the conclusion of the war the Kuomintang were militarily far superior to the communists’, but they had ‘succeeded in dissipating much of this advantage’ and it was ‘open to question’ if they were ‘now any stronger than their foes’.

It was, nevertheless, to be nine months before SIS started seriously to make plans in the face of Communist conquests in China. In March 1948 London cabled Singapore to instruct the Tientsin station to ‘make immediate plans for stay-behind organisations with necessary communications in areas likely to be over-run by Communists particularly Peking Tientsin area and South Manchuria’. But there were problems getting anyone to take part in a stay-behind scheme. The head of the Tientsin station assumed that local British firms would remain after the takeover, but found them reluctant to co-operate, displaying a ‘regrettable attitude’ with ‘a mixture of complacency, optimism and fatalism’. There was a more fundamental problem (reflecting the new postwar conditions) in that ‘virtually no Chinese - one may perhaps say literally none - could be trusted to work honestly for us for as much as twenty-four hours once our backs were turned unless we had some powerful hold over them’. This was ‘an indisputable fact’ and the reason for it was obvious. ‘It is quite irrelevant’, declared the Tientsin representative realistically, ‘to say that a considerable number of reliable Chinese were available during the war against Japan. The Japanese were foreign enemies. The communists are neither foreign nor, in the eyes of the vast majority of Chinese, enemies.’ It was, in any case, far too late to do anything. Although wireless sets for stay-behind teams reached Hong Kong in October, Communist advances in north China meant that they got no further. Under Communist rule, moreover, life became increasingly difficult and restricted for regular diplomats and SIS alike. At the end of March 1949, reviewing ‘the situation in Tientsin since the Liberation’, the head of station’s assistant noted how the new regime had instructed that, apart from other limitations, all cable communications had now to ‘be en clair and accompanied by a Chinese text’. The station at Urumchi, whose primary objective in February 1948 had been the ‘penetration of Russian Central Asia’, and whose station chief was a former medical missionary who planned to combine Bible-running with intelligence-gathering, was equally constrained after the Communists arrived in the late autumn of 1949, and not long after the SIS personnel were expelled.

SIS’s problems in China have to be set in the context of the wider demands for intelligence from across the world placed on the Service by its customer departments, and the expectations which those customers had of what SIS could in fact do. This issue was raised by Orme Sargent early in 1948 when he wrote to Menzies complaining about the lack of warning the Foreign Office had received of recent disturbances in Kowloon (which had prompted an attack on the British consulate-general in Canton) and of unrest and violence in Baghdad. ‘I must confess that I am a little perturbed’, he wrote, ‘to find that your organisation was unable to give us any warning of the course which events were likely to take recently in Kowloon and Baghdad.’ Evidently alluding to the Communist political challenge in Western Europe, Sargent was ‘anxious about the supply of secret intelligence because in the coming months we may well be faced with developments of a far-reaching nature throughout Europe, particularly in Italy and France’. Menzies replied reassuringly about France and Italy, where he thought the supply of intelligence was well covered. As for the particular cases of Kowloon and Baghdad, he quite reasonably argued to Sargent that it did not fall ‘within the scope of Secret Intelligence, with its limited resources in peace, to provide a running forecast of specific outbreaks, even when spontaneous combustion is intensified by arson’. The ‘task of Secret Intelligence’, he argued, ‘is to amplify the general warnings of H.M. Representatives and to attempt to penetrate the hostile elements sufficiently to procure fore-knowledge of their general plans’. He went on to explain why SIS had been unable to do more concerning the specific instances raised. He pointed out that in China his organisation was ‘barely under way’, and the seriousness of the Kowloon situation had presumably been reported on by MI5’s local Defence Security Officer or consular officials. In Iraq, he admitted that the SIS representative had concentrated more on government sources than opposition contacts, but maintained (slightly lamely) that he had been quick to report when the riots started.7

Faced with the closing down of SIS’s intelligence assets in China and increasingly insistent demands for information from customer departments, Ellis went out to Hong Kong to assess the situation and came to the conclusion that there was no alternative but to exploit the existing liaison with the Nationalist Chinese. Telegraphing to London early in 1949 he observed that SIS’s ‘China set-up’ had been created in 1945 ‘as a long range project with no early demands on its productivity anticipated. Since then’, he continued, ‘events and fact-hungry departments have forced us to shorten range and speed up pace’. Currently, results were ‘far too meagre’, and if production was to be expanded he thought that ‘orthodox methods’ would have to be supplemented by an arrangement which Nationalist Chinese contacts had first suggested to the head of station at Nanking, at the end of 1948. The Chinese had proposed, for a payment of £3,000 per month (equivalent to £75,000 today), that they would make ‘available all material, replying to special enquiries and undertaking specific tasks, maintaining and extending W/T and courier services’. They also offered, if needed, ‘full collaboration’ in breaking Communist codes, ‘building up stay-behind network and co-operating in all efforts to penetrate Russian or Russian F.E. [Far East] occupied territory’.

In effect what was offered was a prefabricated intelligence service apparently able to provide precisely the kind of information and penetration that SIS’s customers were demanding. Ellis recognised that the cost was high, but was so taken with the scheme that he suggested saving money elsewhere on the SIS budget by cutting the size of existing stations in China. Code-named ‘Salvage’, the proposal was adopted, and in spite of misgivings in some quarters an officer, posted to Hong Kong with the new designation China Area Co-ordinator, was authorised ‘to pay what we must’ to keep the scheme going. Salvage began well. A plethora of reports, mostly of detailed Communist troop dispositions, were well received by customers. The War Office was ‘definitely in favour of continuing this information. Several reports have received “A” crits,’ cabled London in May 1949. A Chinese-manned tactical radio network was allegedly set up (at SIS expense) linking Hong Kong with posts in southern mainland China. When a written agreement was negotiated with the Nationalists, the Chinese contrived to include a guarantee of immunity from interference by the Hong Kong government for a Salvage headquarters in Hong Kong. The implications of this became apparent when in September 1949 the police made a number of arrests which confirmed that the Kuomintang were using Hong Kong as a base for undeclared intelligence and sabotage operations, a revelation that badly damaged SIS’s relations with the local authorities.

By this stage, too, doubts about Salvage reporting had arisen. R.1, the Political Requirements Section in Broadway, minuted in August ‘that information supplied so far by Salvage on important political and strategic issues has been quite unreliable and looks rather as if it was bogus’. Further concerns were expressed about the lack of source details, the frequent reflection of the reports in Hong Kong newspaper articles and the continued flow of tactical information despite the fall of Canton to the Communists in October 1949 and the consequent disintegration of the radio network. Only the sustained appetite for military intelligence from the armed service customers, and their continued assessment of Salvage reports as of ‘great value’, kept the scheme going. At the end of 1949, moreover, Britain’s future relations generally with the Nationalist Chinese were uncertain. In November London warned the Chief Controller Pacific in Singapore that the government was about to recognise the Communist Chinese People’s Republic, leaving him with the prospect that, if the Communists conquered Formosa (Taiwan) too, as seemed very likely, he might not only have to withdraw the station which had been specially opened there for Salvage work but also prepare a stay-behind scheme for the island. The writer of this telegram hoped that the warning would ‘enable you to handle Salvage sources in such a way as to ensure their continued support even on Formosan affairs’. It was a tall order, and small wonder that the message ended ‘Good luck’.

In August 1947 an SIS station was opened in Japan as part of the United Kingdom Liaison Mission to the United States Supreme Commander Allied Powers (SCAP), General Douglas MacArthur. The individual chosen to head the station was a Canadian academic, who had been born and reared in Japan. He had been running a Japanese-language school for the Canadian army, and was described as ‘a brisk, intelligent type of individual, much more “human” than the usual professor’. This officer who had no previous intelligence experience, underwent the two-month ‘Combined General and Tradecraft Course’ in London before travelling out to Japan to take up a university post, and his considered reflections on the course throw light on both the syllabus taught and the specific problems of intelligence work in Japan. He noted that the material presented in the training course was ‘necessarily based chiefly on the successful operation of stations in Europe’. While ‘certain principles such as decentralization for security, training and running of agents, investigation, carding and classification of sources and certain techniques such as are involved in the presentation of reports’ were ‘universally applicable’, there was ‘a mass of technical detail’ which applied ‘only partially’ or ‘not at all’ to Japan. The inability of a Caucasian to ‘fade into the local background’ was an obvious example. In ‘every area studied in the Course there were either natives friendly to Great Britain or well-disposed non-natives who could be contacted and who could function inconspicuously’. This did not apply in Japan.

A further difficulty was that the United States military administration had forbidden intelligence work of any kind, even by allies. The prospective head of station felt that there had been ‘a tendency throughout the Course to underestimate the Americans’, but while they might be ‘amateurs on the European stage’, they had ‘studied the Pacific area very thoroughly’ and could not ‘safely be regarded as clumsy amateurs in any part of the Far East where they operated in the past or are operating today’. This made ‘the task of carrying on clandestine illegal operations under the noses of the local administration very much more difficult than it would seem to be in any European or Mid-Eastern area with the possible exception of Russia’. As for the recruitment of agents, he observed that ‘in the European area apparently there are everywhere persons who are willing to work for pay and who are completely venal so far as their own countries are concerned’. This, he asserted, was not the case in Japan. It was true, however, that ‘Chinese, Koreans and possibly White Russians could be employed on this basis’, though only with ‘extreme safeguards’, as such people, he claimed, were ‘completely unreliable and unprincipled’. In the case of the Japanese, he hazarded that a ‘combination of ideological motives with adequate payment’ might be a possibility. He finally reflected (and this was accepted in Broadway) that success would be possible only through very slow and careful ‘groundwork’, allowing that it might take ‘two to three years’ before any substantial results were obtained.

A typical Military Intelligence questionnaire for SIS, indicating the kind of information customer departments wanted in the postwar years.

The head of station was absolutely right about the difficulties facing SIS operations in Japan, and the slowness with which any kind of network might be built up. It proved impracticable, moreover, for him to act as head of station while carrying a full load as a university professor, so another Service representative was more conventionally installed in the British mission in Tokyo. While he was directed to collect intelligence from China, Korea and, if offered, the Soviet Far Eastern territories, the main priority was Communist activities in Japan itself. During 1949 the Tokyo head of station reported a general lack of progress in the region, blaming this on a combination of the Americans having bagged the best available local sources, a shortage of Japanese-speaking Unofficial Assistants and the demands of cover work.8 In late 1948 George Blake was sent to head a new station in Seoul with instructions to target north-east China, as well as Communist activities in Korea. Blake, the son of a naturalised British father (originally from Istanbul) and a Dutch mother, had served in the Dutch resistance movement and the Royal Navy before joining SIS in 1944. By the end of 1949 he had made little headway. Shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War he was captured by the North Koreans and subsequently recruited as a Soviet spy.9

One Asian country in which SIS achieved success was Burma, where a station was opened in late 1947, shortly before the country became an independent republic and left the British Commonwealth. Both the head of station, Edward James, and his assistant had gained wartime intelligence experience with the British Fourteenth ‘Forgotten’ Army during the Burma campaign, and they were able to bring their specialist knowledge of the region and local contacts to the task. The main objective was penetration of Communist organisations in the country, particularly the pro-USSR Red Flag and the pro-China White Flag parties. An agent with friends in the police was able to acquire periodic Special Branch summaries, and another source was involved in liaison between the Karen nationalist movement and the Red Flag party. The information obtained was discussed with an MI5 Security Liaison Officer, a specialist in international Communism who was later integrated into the SIS station, and the resulting casework produced what SIS afterwards claimed was ‘the deepest penetration of any national communist party in the world’. In Burma, too, SIS was able to provide valuable information about the ethnic minority Karens, whose guerrilla insurgency campaign in the late 1940s threatened to bring down the Rangoon government. In February 1949 the Karen leader Saw Ba U Gyi told the SIS representative himself that his people were ‘fighting for their very existence’, and SIS delivered a number of reports on the strength and disposition of Karen forces in the late summer of 1949 which Military Intelligence in the War Office warmly welcomed and graded ‘A’ for accuracy.10

Penetrating ‘Sovbloc’

When in April 1946 Frank Roberts, the British minister in Moscow, enquired about policy relating to covert operations, it was confirmed that there was ‘no change in the present position as regards Soviet Union under whom no secret service activities of any kind are conducted’.11 Three years later a production conference in Broadway noted the continuing ban on ‘clandestine operations of any kind on Moscow’. During 1946, however, the Foreign Office’s restriction on work within the Soviet Union began to cause frustrations within SIS. In August the Director of Production circulated a paper to the Regional Controllers about stepping up operations in this area. ‘In view of the paucity of information on the principal target, and the troubled nature of our political relations’, he asked if ‘we should not be justified in taking greater risks to obtain information’. There were, he suggested, two sorts of risks, ‘(a) those which apply primarily to the agent, and (b) those which give rise to the possibilities of diplomatic complications’. He thought it ‘obvious that if we were prepared to go the whole hog, we should obtain a great deal more information in a much shorter time’. By ‘going the whole hog’, he had in mind ‘wartime’ techniques, such as ‘parachute operations, widespread use of wireless, possibly raids of safes in Consulates etc. etc.’ This paper generated ‘considerable discussion’ at the next Regional Controllers’ meeting (on 2 September) when it was agreed that ‘a more forward policy might well pay dividends’. The Controller Northern Area, Harry Carr, noted that the head of the Moscow station was not allowed to do any clandestine work, but he felt ‘that potential lines existed there which might, without undue danger, be exploited if this restriction could be modified’. The representative in Helsinki was similarly prohibited from recruiting agents in Finland ‘for despatch to Russia: here too he felt a more positive policy might show results’. He also thought that it might help if he could equip agents entering ‘the Baltic territories’ with radios, ‘a practice which was still discouraged’. All the Controllers agreed that ‘the possibilities of W/T in connection with the penetration of Russia and its Satellite States should be actively explored’, and they also considered ‘the possibility of disguising such sets as American, Polish or French’.

Dick Ellis, the Controller Production Research, had lots of ideas about ‘burgling Russian Embassies and Consulates’, instancing ‘several operations of this nature which his organisation in the Americas had undertaken’. He said that any ‘such operations should not be conducted by normal Stations’ but that a separate organisation, ‘somewhat on S.O. lines’, should be ‘established to undertake strong-arm and burglarious methods of producing intelligence’. He thought that ‘a well conducted burglary might need some six months of preparation’. Sinclair, the VCSS, ‘agreed that it might be well worth trying’ but warned that ‘Russian Embassies, etc, would prove hard nuts to crack and suggested that a start might be made on the Legations of Satellite Powers’. Other suggestions included ‘planting Double-agents on the Russians, through the medium of British deserters (of which there are a number)’, and also the possibility ‘that a suitable cover for strong-arm methods might be found in the formation of an anti-Communist League, with headquarters in, say, Switzerland’.

Papers were prepared on the possibilities of wireless and the use of burglary against the Soviet target for a Regional Controllers’ conference on 7 October. By looking realistically at the costs and benefits, they deflated some of the enthusiasm of the previous month. Despite the most careful disguising of wireless sets, and transmitting signals through cut-out stations in neutral countries, if an agent were ‘caught “red-handed” there was little doubt that he would ultimately be “broken” and the greatest care would have to be taken if British complicity was not to be revealed’. As for the delivery of agents and radio sets, it was felt that in practical terms this might not be very difficult, but that the air force were unlikely to agree to any operation involving a ‘long distance flight over Russia or Russian occupied territory in Service aircraft’. The ‘picking up of agents’, moreover, ‘presented a far more difficult problem’, as ‘more elaborate ground organisation’ would be necessary. Jack Easton, the ACSS, an airman himself, thought, however, that RAF co-operation might be possible ‘for dropping agents a few miles inside hostile frontiers. Arrangements might be made to do this on the assumption that . . . faulty navigation or adverse weather [could] take aircraft a short way off their right courses’. Thus ‘we might be able to drop men and material just within the frontiers of such places as Russian occupied Germany, Russia itself, the Ukraine, Poland and possibly Lithuania’. These reflections were seriously hedged about with qualifications and well-founded worries that other government departments might both disapprove and fail to offer any assistance.

The same tone suffused the discussion of burglary. While it might be a ‘short cut to obtaining valuable information’, the ‘basic snag was that if ever responsibility for the crime were fixed on S.I.S. it might give rise to a diplomatic incident out of all proportion to the value of the information received’. The only justification for planning an operation of the sort was that ‘the results would be outstandingly important and the risk had been reduced to a minimum’, in which case it ‘would almost inevitably involve the presence of inside sources and if these existed there would be no need for burglary at all in the ordinary sense of the word’. While agreeing with this, Ellis (now Controller Far East) thought that an operation might be ‘so technically perfect’ that the burglary need never be discovered. He confirmed this by describing two burglary operations he claimed to have organised during the war where ‘two Embassies had been penetrated and highly satisfactory results obtained’. Despite this example, the conclusion drawn was notably conditional: ‘burglary was almost certainly not worth attempting if the person burgled realised that burglary had been committed’. If it could be done ‘so that this was not known’, an operation might, ‘after careful weighing up of the risks’, be justified, but only ‘in certain cases’. Above all, ‘inside assistance was most necessary’.

The ban on SIS work in the Soviet Union was understood to refer to operations run within the country itself, for example by the Moscow station. There was a less stringent restriction on operations aimed at penetrating the USSR and the Soviet bloc from neighbouring countries, including those employing members of disaffected national minorities. When a new officer took over the Stockholm station in late June 1945 he was told his main task was to work against the Soviet Union which was ‘now permissible . . . in all countries except the U.S.S.R. itself ’, this being defined as including ‘the late Baltic States’ and ‘Poland east of the Curzon line’. At this stage he was merely to ‘try to obtain contacts with a view to penetrating Russia should this be allowed at a later date’. In November London informed him that it was ‘now permitted to penetrate Russia from perimeter’. The following spring an updated directive from London emphasised preparations for penetrating the Soviet Union, and instructed that ‘immediate priority’ should be given to ‘the proposed expeditions to Baltic States’ which, if successful, ‘may well be the foundation for a permanent channel for physical penetration of Russia’. The officer was told to explore ‘every possibility of physical entrance by our agents into Russia and her spheres of influence’. He was able to pick up some of the Baltic contacts which the wartime Helsinki station-in-exile had used (with mixed results) to gather intelligence on German targets. But by the late 1940s the intensely nationalist and anti-Russian groups from whom penetration agents might be recruited also wanted weapons, medicines and other practical assistance for active resistance operations against the Russians who had occupied their countries in August 1940. Matters were complicated by the fact that Swedish intelligence had also been running cross-Baltic operations during the war in co-operation with some of the same refugee organisations, and continued to do so in the postwar period.

Some (but by no means all) of this activity formed the basis of formal liaison between the Swedish and British services. In late 1947 the Swedes asked whether SIS could help them obtain a German E-boat (motor torpedo boat) for their operations. Vessels were available in Germany, and fortuitously a former German naval officer with wartime experience of secret operations into the Baltic states offered his services to SIS the following year. With ‘informal clearance’ from the Foreign Office, Menzies gave his approval for a boat and crew to be supplied for use by both the Swedish Intelligence Service and SIS. The boat was used for a Swedish operation in May 1949 and in October SIS infiltrated two trained Latvian émigrés who ‘claimed to have the possibility of making contact . . . with some patriots who supported groups of Partisans living in the Latvian forests’. That SIS’s Baltic operations depended on such émigré assurances illustrates the immense difficulty faced by any Western intelligence organisation seeking to penetrate the Soviet Union, and the consequent risks individuals (from intelligence chiefs to agents themselves) were prepared to take in the early days of the Cold War. As it happened, the Soviets had themselves penetrated most of the émigré groups, as well as some of the intelligence services, and most of the operations launched with such high hopes against the Soviet bloc in the late 1940s ended in disaster within a very few years.

The ‘Climber’ operations on the Soviet southern flank were no exception. ‘Climber I’ in 1948 had been designed to infiltrate two Georgians ‘with an intelligence brief’ into Soviet Georgia, but the unfortunate men had died on the frontier in obscure circumstances. ‘Climber II’ in August 1949 aimed to insert two further Georgians into the Soviet Union from mountainous north-east Turkey. In the spring of 1949 two émigrés, one apparently in his late forties and the other in his early thirties, were recruited in France and brought to England for training. They were given a special tradecraft course, with particular emphasis on secret writing, and two weeks’ physical ‘hardening-up’ walking on Dartmoor. Here the only reported problem concerned their military clothing, which made them conspicuous among locals and holidaymakers. Next time, their trainer recommended that ‘when eating in cafes or local farmhouses grey flannel trousers, light coloured shirts and sports jackets would have been better dress’. This snag was accentuated because the younger man ‘refused to shave for days on end and at times he must have been considered as anything from a Moroccan Arab to an escaped convict’. But they finished the course satisfactorily, and travelled to Istanbul under false passports, posing as proprietors of a yoghurt factory in South America visiting Turkey ‘to discuss various unspecified plans for improving and extending their business’.

The two men were met in Istanbul by Kim Philby, the head of station, who had arranged co-operation from members of the local security services and the local émigré Georgian community. The original plan had been for the Climber party, who were provided with Turkish army uniforms, to establish themselves close to the frontier. Here Philby and the SIS case-officer for the operation, ‘disguised as Turkish sentries with fixed bayonets’, were ‘to carry out a normal frontier patrol and thereby observe the best route for the Climbers to take’. Once over the border, the Georgians, who had local contacts on the Soviet side, were to ‘abandon and bury their Turkish kit and appear as ordinary local Russians’. For this operation their task was then ‘to proceed to watch for contacts, safe-houses, letter-boxes and generally start to build up the nucleus of an organisation which can be used in the future’. It was estimated that this might take up to six months, after which one of the Georgians would return to report on the organisation which had been formed and ‘also pass over, we hope, a massive weight of frontier intelligence, local living conditions, and possibly industrial intelligence, etc.’. Despite the very detailed scheme which had been prepared, the planners recognised that the arrangements for the frontier operation itself were ‘naturally very fluid and Philby must be left to make ad hoc decisions according to the information available at the time’.

In the event, the Climbers refused to fall in with the SIS plan and at a very late stage proposed a more modest scheme whereby they would cross the frontier with local guides and remain in the USSR for only five weeks or so, during which they ‘would establish contacts and obtain information on living conditions for the following summer when they would return and carry on the work of building up an organisation and obtaining intelligence’. This was something of a fait accompli and, ‘although surprised’, Philby agreed to the revised plan. While he remained in Istanbul, the Climbers, accompanied by their case-officer, headed for Erzerum in eastern Turkey. From there the party took three days, by car, jeep and eventually an eight-hour horseback ride over 8,000-foot mountain passes, to reach a base camp two hours’ walk or so from the frontier. During the final approach the older Georgian, who was badly affected by the altitude, collapsed and could go no further. Afterwards it was reckoned that he was nearer sixty years old than the forty-seven he had claimed to be. But, escorted by two guides, the younger man went on and crossed the frontier without further mishap. Just over two weeks later the Georgian reappeared in Turkey and with his older colleague was flown back to Britain where they were thoroughly debriefed during the autumn. All seemed to have gone well, until on his way back to the border the Georgian had encountered a Soviet patrol, from which he escaped after (he claimed) shooting two soldiers. In Georgia he had made contact with anti-Russian resistance groups. He reported extensively on frontier defences and living conditions in the region. There were also descriptions of naval installations along the Black Sea coast and sightings of several Soviet submarines. Although details of some hydroelectric power stations were taken to be broadly accurate, output figures from aircraft factories in Georgia were dismissed as ‘nonsense’, as was a reported tank factory in Tiflis.

While the actual intelligence product was relatively modest, Climber II was adjudged to have been a success, and a useful basis for further such ventures to penetrate the Soviet Union. But aspects of the operation were dangerously insecure. Even if (as was assumed long afterwards) Kim Philby had passed on details of Climber to his masters in Moscow, the fact that the operation was staged jointly with Turkish security personnel, that the village from where the actual penetration was launched (and where five local guides were engaged) was a regular base for border crossings, and that the presence of both Climbers in Turkey was well known among gossipy émigré Georgian groups in both Paris and Istanbul, all provided vulnerable points for the watchful Soviet authorities to learn about the mission. A senior Georgian in Paris (who from the start had been included in SIS’s planning and knew about the border-crossing) reported that fellow émigrés were ‘convinced that [the] Climbers had been on a special mission’ to Turkey. He believed that these rumours had originated from Istanbul and ‘somebody must have written from there to a friend’ in Paris. The Climbers themselves did not help matters by arriving back in London ‘with their suitcases bulging with every sort of Turkish delicacy clearly revealing their country of origin’, which they were proposing to give their friends in Paris. They also had ‘a large number of secondhand female garments which they were conveying from mutual friends’ in Istanbul for émigrés in Paris. Before their original departure, moreover, they had apparently ‘told several of their friends’ in Paris that they were going to Istanbul.

Operation ‘Valuable’, a scheme for the penetration of Albania, was also being planned in 1948-9, and provides an example of covert action actively supported by Bevin and Attlee. Albania, where Enver Hoxha (whose anti-German resistance forces had been supplied by SOE) had led a Communist regime since the end of the war, was regarded as a good target for the kind of pressure - ‘all possible means short of war’ - which the British Chiefs of Staff in September 1948 envisaged bringing to bear in the developing Cold War. There was continuing unrest in Albania itself, as Hoxha’s government sought to enforce its rule, and Albanian émigré groups in Italy, Greece and Turkey provided a reservoir of potential recruits for anti-Communist operations of one sort or another. Tito’s breach with the Soviet Union in June 1948 had left Albania isolated and, geographically at least, it looked like a good place to begin chipping away at the Eastern bloc. Albania’s other neighbour, Greece, too, might be disposed to support any action as Communist Greek rebels based in Albania had been making incursions across the frontier. In November 1948 the Foreign Office’s Russia Committee, which had been set up in April 1946 to manage policy towards the Eastern bloc and on which the service Chiefs had just secured representation, decided to explore the possibility of operations against Albania.12

Kenneth Cohen in SIS was willing to take up the baton. Albania, he reflected in December 1948, would be ‘a happy choice’ for a response ‘to the Russian campaign in kind, either by S.O. or quasi-S.O. activities’. The ‘primitive political and economic state of the country’ provided ‘an opening of promoting tribal unrest’. There was the opportunity to weaken ‘the support now being given to the rebels in Greece’ and there would be a particularly low risk ‘of causing an embarrassing situation’ for the British government since Britain did not currently have diplomatic relations with Albania. Cohen, apparently, had an agent ready and willing to go and proposed that he could be dropped in during January 1949. Once in Albania he could assess the potential for special operations there. But when Menzies proposed this, Orme Sargent pressed him to produce a further paper on the possibilities in Albania. The task was given to Richard Brooman-White, a very well-regarded officer who had been an ‘exceptional’ head of station in Istanbul for a year before being brought back to Head Office to be Deputy Chief Controller Mediterranean. Heading his first draft, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’, Brooman-White devised a plan with two objectives: to relieve the pressure on Greece by guerrilla operations aimed at Greek rebel bases in southern Albania and fomenting ‘insurrection in other areas of the country’; and to ‘endeavour to undermine the Communist position in the weakest of the orbit countries’, possibly producing ‘repercussions in the satellite bloc which could in turn be followed up and exploited’. Methods envisaged included sending armed bands or fighting patrols across the frontier, sea landings and parachute drops from Italy or Greece. Since the Chiefs of Staff favoured working with the Americans, and as Menzies worried that the Americans might ‘be planning on similar lines’, Brooman-White inserted a note about the necessity for co-ordination, since ‘two great powers cannot operate independently in small countries such as Greece and Albania’.

Although the SIS plan was more ambitious than the Foreign Office felt able to contemplate at that stage, it met with a constructive response. Ivor Porter, an ex-SOE officer working in the Foreign Office’s Southern Department, prepared a ‘counter-plan’ on similar lines, but laying more emphasis on intelligence-gathering, while recruiting Albanians for subsequent operations. Sargent thought that this was ‘the most we can hope to do in Albania and derive satisfactory results’. He stressed to Menzies the importance of setting up a good intelligence network in the country before attempting any operations, and told him that Bevin would want to be assured that the ‘conditions in Albania’ were ‘sufficiently favourable to justify us in expecting a reasonable degree of success’. While Menzies welcomed the Foreign Office proposals, he observed that the nature of Albania and its people was ‘such that no adequate estimate of resistance potentialities can be made purely by Intelligence methods - that is to say, it would not suffice to put in a few agents solely to form opinion on public feeling or transmit verbal assurances given by tribal chiefs’. The ‘only way’ to see whether there was ‘any substance behind their words’ was ‘by more direct methods of probing and by testing local preparedness to take action on the smallest possible scale’. If such testing ‘provided a satisfactory reaction’, ‘we would then move on to the next stage’. Clearly anxious to ensure that the government was aware of the consequences of embarking on any kind of action in Albania, Menzies also warned that it was ‘not worth incurring the effort and possible loss of life entailed by the preliminary operations, unless we are prepared to follow them up by striking as hard as possible at any sensitive point we may find’. This might, he added, ‘involve fairly extensive supply operations at a later date’.13

Sir William Strang (Sargent’s successor as Permanent Under-Secretary in the Foreign Office) put the scheme up to Bevin (and, on Bevin’s request, to Attlee) for approval, and on 28 April 1949 Strang wrote to Menzies conveying the Foreign Secretary’s approval to ‘set up an intelligence system in Southern Albania’ to test local preparedness for action and, if the outcome of this was ‘encouraging’, to ‘infiltrate instructors in modern guerrilla warfare, in order to recruit, arm, feed, clothe and train anti-Communist supporters for military operations against Greek rebel bases and lines of communication’. The ‘practicability for extending operations to Northern Albania and to insurrectionary purposes’ was left ‘for further examination’ in the ‘light of the progress achieved’. Consultations in Washington revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (which had been created in 1947) also had plans for Albania, similar to the British, ‘though on a rather broader basis’. The State Department and CIA proposed joining forces to mount operations, with a combined Policy Committee directing the project. Although there were worries about the ‘grandiose’ nature of the American plans, and the extent of their involvement with dissident Albanian exiles, SIS agreed that co-operation was necessary, ‘and that our original scheme should be regarded as the first phase in a joint operation’, though an immediate effect of American participation was to widen the scope of the initial reconnaissance to include the infiltration of parties into central and northern Albania as well as the south. In practice some co-ordination with the Americans was unavoidable if the British operation was to succeed. Even in October 1949, John Teague in Broadway noted ‘evidence of lines being crossed and the work of certain individuals for S.I.S. being hampered through American intervention and interest in the refugee Committees’. In the Foreign Office, moreover, it was argued that there was more chance of keeping some control over the Americans by working with them, and ‘it would always be possible for us to decline participation in any later activity which went beyond what we should think desirable’.14

With the green light from the Foreign Office, SIS began serious work on the scheme, contacting dissident Albanians in Greece and Italy and making plans for a main base at Malta and a forward one in Corfu (for which it was accepted there would have to be some liaison with the Greek authorities). Training began in Malta at the beginning of August and in the early autumn twenty-nine southern Albanians in six parties were landed by boat along the Albanian coast near Corfu. Meanwhile (though getting the dissident Albanian émigré groups to agree proved very difficult) an Anglo-American-sponsored Committee for Free Albania was launched in Paris on 26 August, to provide the umbrella the Americans particularly desired for anti-Communist operations in Albania itself. Of the six SIS parties, one was wiped out and by the end of 1949 the fate of another was ‘unknown’. Three parties, ‘having become the object of intense interest to the Security Authorities’, withdrew to Greece in less than four weeks, but the sixth ‘successfully maintained itself for over 2 months’. Having ‘failed to find winter quarters’, however, ‘and being also much harried by the now fully alerted Albanian Police’, it also withdrew to Greece in early December. Before the fate of all the groups had become fully clear, one Foreign Office official optimistically concluded that the fact ‘that at least four of these small and lightly armed parties, carrying comparatively heavy wireless equipment’, had ‘received sufficient help from the local population to enable them to survive for a number of weeks and to traverse this most difficult area’, was ‘a favourable indication of the state of affairs in the country’.15

Reflecting on the operation, SIS concluded that while there was evidence of ‘resentment against the Communist regime’, and that the loyalty of the police and army was ‘doubtful’, it had been ‘clearly demonstrated that security is in practice almost impossible to maintain in operations of this type in Albania’. A report of leakages about the operation noted that there were widespread indications among émigré groups in Italy and Greece that something was up and that the British were recruiting Albanians from a refugee camp in Bari. At the beginning of July the Russian head of the Albanian counter-espionage service was reported as believing that the British were running agents from a base at Corfu. A representative of the Italian Foreign Office revealed in a conversation in late September that he knew the British were ‘training Albanians in Malta’, but did not know ‘whether the Americans had a hand in the scheme’. A report in December 1949 stated that members of the ‘National Committee for Albania’ had shown ‘a complete lack of discretion in their letters to political followers in Italy, Turkey, Syria, Egypt and France’. The ‘most serious result of this lack of security was that the Albanian Government was evidently aware of the imminent arrival of the parties some two months before they were actually infiltrated’. The parties that withdrew to Greece, moreover, ‘talked freely to the Greek officials who interrogated them’, thus jeopardising any future operations organised along similar lines.

The results of Operation Valuable in 1949 were not sufficiently positive to support moving on to the second stage, and ‘the tentative project for encouraging active revolt against the Hoxha regime by introducing a shock force of trained Albanian guerrillas in 1950’ was abandoned. The Foreign Secretary ruled that future British participation would be limited to ‘continued support of the Committee for Free Albania’, propaganda, economic warfare and ‘recruitment of a small reserve force of Albanians for use as may become necessary’. Within the limitations, however, of these decisions (which left the door open for future agent operations in Albania), ‘every assistance’ was ‘to be given to whatever further operations the Americans themselves decide to carry out in furtherance of the common purpose’, which, at the end of 1949, were ‘expected to be revealed in the near future’.

A special intelligence relationship?

Liaison with foreign intelligence agencies - those of close allies as well as those of less friendly states - has formed an essential part of SIS’s work from almost the very beginning. Co-operation with the Allied United Nations against the Axis powers during the Second World War, and within the Western Alliance from the later 1940s, was particularly important. In many cases close wartime relationships - with Norway and the Low Countries, for example - underscored much friendly co-operation in the postwar years, some of which was formalised within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation system after its foundation in April 1949. In other instances the perceived (and growing) threat apparently posed by the Soviet Union prompted some national intelligence and security organisations in countries which had been neutral during the war (such as Sweden) to forge closer ties with corresponding British agencies than hitherto. Commonwealth countries, too, like Canada and Australia, began to be treated by Britain more on the basis of formal international equality than had been the case before, when their unquestioning loyalty had largely been assumed. In November 1947 a production conference in Broadway heard that representatives ‘were keen on extending our relations with the Dominions’, and were particularly interested in ‘facilities, such as cover posts and the use of [diplomatic] bags’. The Dominions could also supply prospective agents and safe havens where defectors could be hidden away.

But the closest and most mutually productive relations of all were with the United States and they drew on the extensive (if not entirely untroubled) wartime relationships which had been established between the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), SIS, SOE and signals intelligence organisations on both sides. In March 1946 SIS summed up liaison with the United States as operating on four levels. First was secret intelligence liaison through Dunderdale’s Special Liaison Controllerate and the London office of the American Strategic Services Unit which had taken over intelligence responsibilities following the abolition of OSS in October 1945. This liaison included exchange of reports, of which in 1945-6 the numerical balance was much in SIS’s favour, with 4,403 being received as against 2,063 supplied. Well over half the SIS reports were on political subjects and most of the material dealt with Europe, though on Menzies’s instructions comparatively little information was passed concerning the USSR. There was a similar exchange of secret intelligence material through a member of the SIS Washington station. SIS’s counter-intelligence branch R.5 (formerly Section V) had a separate liaison in London with the American X2, which also had a separate link with MI5, mostly dealing with Communist matters. Finally, there was some local liaison between stations in the field. None of this was co-ordinated in any way and the view in Broadway was that ‘somebody in this office ought to be responsible for co-ordinating our world-wide policy towards O.S.S. [sic] and the details of our exchanges with them’. But there were also some concerns, as it was thought that American agencies had a tendency towards leakage, which meant that SIS had to be ‘especially careful about passing to the Americans the very information they themselves most want to have, namely that connected with the U.S.S.R.’.

In April 1946 Dick Ellis reported that the United States Chief of Secret Intelligence had stressed ‘the importance of the intelligence received’ through liaison with SIS. A recent British report had been rated ‘by MIS [the Military Intelligence Service] as the most valuable single piece of Russian Order of Battle information it had received’. But there were also some reservations on the American side. When Ellis went to the USA the same month for talks with General John Magruder, head of the Strategic Services Unit, he learned that some people in Washington objected to ‘having any direct contact with Allied Intelligence Services, on the grounds that they might be tempted to influence U.S. policy by making available information in such a form as to produce that effect’. On the whole, however, these concerns had been overcome, ‘the advantages on technical and practical grounds outweighing the alleged objections raised by the more suspicious and politically-minded members of the committees’. Ellis found, nevertheless, that ‘as a reaction against the rather loose and publicity-minded tendencies of O.S.S., there is an extremely cautious, official atmosphere about S.S.U.’; he put this down to the new staff being ‘New England types who are notoriously not addicted to display or loquacity’. The following month the American Admiral William D. Leahy, President Truman’s personal representative on the National Intelligence Authority (NIA) which had been formed to co-ordinate all federal foreign intelligence activities, came to England and confirmed a keen willingness to continue close Anglo-American intelligence relations. At a meeting with the Director-General of MI5, Sir Percy Sillitoe, Leahy ‘thanked M.I.5 and all British Intelligence Services for their close and, to the United States, very profitable co-operation during the war’, and said that he ‘planned to demand at the next meeting of the NIA that the United States do everything possible to have this cooperation continued’.

From its formation in 1947 the Central Intelligence Agency began to develop increasingly close relations with SIS, a process reinforced by wider liaisons within the Western Alliance, which in turn were influenced by the emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union and its allies. In April 1948, Jack Easton, the Assistant Chief of SIS, visited Washington for three days of discussions with CIA colleagues, covering a wide range of topics, including the handling of defectors, potential deception operations, signals intelligence, special operations and propaganda. Easton explained to the Americans, for example, that the Foreign Office intended to set up a committee to handle propaganda somewhat on the lines of the wartime Political Warfare Executive, and he revealed that SIS had been considering how far ‘black propaganda’ operations could be taken in peacetime without their getting into ‘physical action’. As regards special operations, Easton reported that SIS had taken over ‘a small part of the old SOE’ and was now ‘an integrated organisation for intelligence and special operations’. He urged that SIS and the CIA should keep in touch over special operations in order not to duplicate efforts or cross lines.

At the end of his visit Easton secured CIA agreement to a joint CIA- SIS conference which was held in London six months later, attended by a high-powered team from the CIA, including the Director, Rear Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter. Reflecting the very real apprehensions about the likelihood of serious conflict with the Soviet Union, and demonstrating that liaison was not just a theoretical matter, this became known as the London Conference on War Planning, though in fact the topics covered went well beyond those simply connected with open hostilities. Shortly before the conference started Easton gave an oral briefing to SIS staff about the development of SIS’s thinking on co-operation with the Americans, stressing that in a future war the Americans would be ‘in the war from the outset and would be the predominant Allied country’. A shared assumption of the closest possible co-operation underpinned the discussions and much of the conference business was devoted to detailed practical matters, such as joint arrangements for handling tactical intelligence at theatre headquarters level, stay-behind projects, special operations planning, common training and how to deal ‘with the French in peace and war’. It was hoped that this potentially fraught matter of relations with the French (if the experience of the Second World War was anything to go by) would be covered by the proposed formation of a Western Union Clandestine Committee, through which wider Allied liaison could be handled, under the auspices of the Western European Union collective self-defence treaty signed by the United Kingdom, France and the Benelux countries in March 1948. All in all, however, Anglo-American agreement at this conference formed the basis for long-term SIS-CIA liaison, including the work of organising what later became the Allied Clandestine Committee of NATO, which dealt with the co-ordination of stay-behind matters, secret intelligence collection and special operations in the event of a future war in Europe.

Although the conclusions of the London conference embodied a very high level of agreement between the CIA and SIS, back in Washington there were concerns that too close a relationship with the British might jeopardise American autonomy in the event of a serious international crisis. In October 1948 Peter Dwyer, an SIS officer who handled liaison with both the CIA and the FBI in Washington, reported one CIA officer conceding that while they (the Americans) had ‘relied heavily on us during the war’, they now felt that the CIA ‘must stand on its own two feet or get out of the business’. Dwyer considered that once the CIA had ‘demonstrated to their own satisfaction that they can plan and achieve on their own what they have set out to do, they will be ready for a much closer coordination with us. In other words,’ he continued, ‘the local boy is determined to make good on his own.’ ‘Exactly what I have repeatedly said,’ noted Menzies in the margin of Dwyer’s report.

There were few such concerns on the British side, where there was a general recognition of the importance of the closest possible Anglo-American co-operation. When in March 1949 Hillenkoetter asked Menzies to send someone to Washington specifically to discuss special operations, both Menzies’s Principal Staff Officer, and William Hayter, of the Services’ Liaison Department at the Foreign Office, went over. Their ‘line of thought’ for the discussions sketched out two possible fields of Cold War action: ‘the defensive one of protecting the rest of the world from Communist domination, and the offensive one of successively detaching those countries which have already been subjugated’. In an agenda suggested by Menzies, the two SIS representatives included ‘Elimination of competitive action in Peace, especially where Stay-Behind plans are concerned’, citing Norway and Belgium as examples where there had been line-crossing, as well as Greece and Turkey, and Albania, where Operation Valuable was already being planned. In Washington Menzies’s staff officer found ‘the tenor of the negotiations’ had been ‘extremely cordial’ and they had ‘broadly reached agreement on most of the main heads’, although there were ‘still differences over timing’. At the same time as the SIS visit, Maurice Oldfield of SIS’s R.5 section was over meeting the CIA and the FBI (and later the Canadian services) for wide-ranging discussions on matters of common counter-intelligence interest. Again the atmosphere was friendly and co-operative, and Oldfield ‘found a gratifying fund of goodwill for our Service’.

The British visits to Washington in May 1949 did much to cement relations between SIS and the CIA. ‘From our standpoint,’ wrote Hillenkoetter to Menzies on 20 June, ‘the series of discussions with Messers. Hayter, [Menzies’s Principal Staff Officer] and Oldfield was eminently satisfactory.’ A wide measure of agreement was reached and it confirmed the CIA director’s view ‘of the necessity for a close working relationship between our services, particularly with regard to our relatively new responsibilities on the operations side’. Menzies replied in kind on 4 July: ‘I deeply appreciated your letter . . . mainly because your reactions so fully endorse my own, but also for its cordial tone, which augurs well for our joint undertakings . . . No doubt’, he continued, ‘snags will arise, but I am confident that our firm realisation of a common purpose and a common gain will enable us to iron them out.’ Menzies went on to suggest that a common approach could apply to ‘other aspects of our joint campaign; e.g., to the intelligence support for our current operations and our future plans, and, in due course, to our use of propaganda’. The ‘close working relationship’ between SIS and the CIA, to which Hillenkoetter referred, was to become a crucial component in the extremely important Anglo-American strategic and military alliance which continued (despite the occasional wobble) for many years to come. Born of mutual self-interest, and perhaps even mutual self-preservation, the ‘special intelligence relationship’ remained a central feature of the foreign policy of successive British governments, lasting, indeed, for a long time after the end of the Cold War during which it was forged.

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