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British Intelligence in the Second World War, vol. 4, Security and Counter-Intelligence.

With the completion of this series, a clear pattern has emerged in the official history of British intelligence during the Second World War. These volumes offer little new to specialists. They have not led the historiography. They have either followed the lead of previous works or else immediately have been superseded by "unofficial" studies. Their importance has lain in the particular rather than the general, in detail against analysis. All this stems from delays imposed by natural forces like research and Mrs. Thatcher, and from editorial decisions regarding what to incorporate and what to overlook. In any case, the series has not had the conventional function of British official histories - to interrogate files retained for a time at Her Majesty's pleasure and to guide public discussion until they are released on their own recognizance. Most of the documents used in these volumes were freed before the series was complete; the remainer have been sentenced to end their natural days in the dungeons of Whitehall. Under these circumstances, the function of the series has been to serve as a general and reliable introduction to the topics with which it deals, although often no more so than "unofficial" works, to refute the errors of reputable scholars, to correct (by implication rather than accusation) writers who are no better than they ought to be, and to provide authoritative accounts of some technical issues. And even more striking than the pattern of what has been written is the nature of what has not. If Her Majesty's Government. does have any secrets, the official history has not betrayed them.

These characteristics hold true for volume four of the series. It focuses primarily on MI 5 as a counter-espionage organization, on its role in controlling German spy networks and manipulating them to serve as an instrument of deception. This narrative is accurate, thorough, and yesterday's news. Volume four has not superseded John Masterman's book published over twenty years ago, nor even particularly bettered the accounts of "Nigel West" and Anthony Cave Brown. For specialists, the main value of volume four lies in its details - about counterintelligence in the Middle East (where, along with Michael Howard's volume on deception, it provides a check on the useful but often unreliable works of David Mure); security behind the front lines of allied forces; bureaucratic relations between MI 5, the Home Office, the Secret Intelligence Service, and military commands; and the work of the Radio Security Service, which intercepted the traffic of German spy organizations.

The main lacunae in volume four regards MI 5 as an internal security organization, especially its surveillance of dissidents and its effect on British politics - the volume scarcely even mentions security in the empire. Hinsley and Simkins handle certain aspects of the matter, like the internment of aliens, the arrest of individuals under Defence Regulation 18B and MI 5's attitudes toward the Communist Party of Great Britain (C.P.G.B.), in a judicious manner. They provide a reasonably thorough survey of the evidence and leave judgement to the common reader. Moreover, as ever in the series, much can be learned from scrutiny of what is implied rather than rendered explicit in the text. The authors do not provide source references for evidence derived solely from the sources of the security service; they include some material, without citations, on the split within the C.P.G.B.'s leadership in September 1939 and on the espionage organization it directed against His Majesty's Government; one can safely guess at the sources for such statements. Similarly, volume four defines the groups which security authorities regarded as potentially subversive - the British Union of Fascists, the C.P.G.B. and its "satellite organizations," Trotskyite and pacifist movements. Obviously, MI 5 monitored such organizations but at this stage fundamental questions arise. If MI 5 watched Claud Cockburn, and the C.P.G.B.'s attempts to merge with the Labour Party, exactly where did it cease monitoring the left? - Konni Zilliacus? Nye Bevan? Ellen Wilkinson? It if watched the many members of the Lords and the Commons who belonged to reactionary groups, where ended its watch on the right? What form did this surveillance take? How did it affect British politics and MI 5's attitudes toward dissidents? Similarly, the authors illuminate the mechanism by which politicians controlled MI 5 during 1940-42, but important questions remain. What were the aims of this machinery? How far did Winston Churchill dominate this process and with what policy and political objectives in mind? How was this linked to the curious case of Tyler Kent, which the authors relegate to a brief note and, thus to the arms of the conspiracy theorists. How far did MI 5 co-operate with Labour ministers and vice-versa? What was Joseph Ball doing on the Security Executive? Such matters are fundamental to British history during the Second World War. They are not carried far by Hinsley and Simkins.

Surely we ought to be told.
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Author:Ferris, John
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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