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British Military Intelligence in Context, 1938-1974

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Authored by Dr. Stephen Twigge
Published on 5th December, 2019 19 min read

British Military Intelligence in Context, 1938-1974

Military Intelligence Files: Land, Sea & Air provides access to secret British government files produced by the intelligence branches of the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force. Held by The National Archives of the United Kingdom, and covering the period 1938 to 1974, the collection provides a definitive and unrivalled source covering international relations, military history and the role played by service intelligence from the Second World War to the early Cold War.

The material in this collection is taken primarily from the following records series at the National Archives: ADM 223 (Admiralty: Naval Intelligence Division and Operational Intelligence Centre: Intelligence Reports and Papers, 1914-1978); WO 208 (War Office: Directorate of Military Intelligence, files, 1917-1974); AIR 22 (Air Ministry: Periodical Returns, Intelligence Summaries and Bulletins); AIR 40 (Air Ministry: Directorate of Intelligence and related bodies, Intelligence Reports and Papers, 1926-1984); FO 371 (Foreign Office: Political Departments: General Correspondence from 1906-1966).

The collection therefore brings together for the first time the intelligence reviews produced by the three individual services in a single package. It provides a comprehensive resource enabling students and researchers to (a) follow the development of the Second World War and the early Cold War as documented by the intelligence branches of the three armed services; (b) compare and contrast the emphasis placed on events by the army, navy and air force; and (c) analyse the impact of technology on world affairs as the jet engine, radar and nuclear weapons entered the arsenals of both East and West.

The time period selected for this collection covers the period from 1938, just prior to the start of the Second World War, to the high point of the Cold war in the mid 1970s. The three armed services and their respective intelligence branches were largely autonomous. This independence came to an end in 1964 when the three separate intelligence branches (army, navy and air force) were combined to form a unified Defence Intelligence Staff within the Ministry of Defence serving the whole of the British armed forces.

Similar in design and concept, the intelligence reviews are classified 'secret' and consist of printed booklets, 30 to 40 pages in length supplemented with maps and photographs of recently deployed military equipment, uniform insignia and prominent individuals.

The records in this collection (with exception Francis Davidson's diary) were held by the Ministry of Defence prior to their transfer to the National Archives at Kew under the so-called 30 year rule. The individual elements contained in the collection are described more fully below.

Admiralty/Naval Intelligence

The beginnings of modern day naval intelligence can be traced back to the 1880s and the creation of the Naval Intelligence Department (later Division) under Captain Henry Hall. Following the outbreak of the First World War, naval intelligence was installed in Room 40 of the Admiralty building in Whitehall were it produced a bi-weekly secret pamphlet entitled 'The Internal Situation and General Intelligence' that was distributed to Flag and Commanding officers in home waters (ADM 137/3845-3846). The end of the war and the consequent reduction in naval activity largely nullified the value of this document which ceased publication on 14 April 1919. The Board of Admiralty, however, was conscious that the 'International Situation' was of great value to commanding officers and decided to replace it with a 'Monthly Intelligence Report' with an increased circulation so as to confidentially reach all officers both a home and abroad.

The first edition of the Admiralty Monthly Intelligence Report was issued in May 1919 and ran consecutively until the beginning of the Second World War when a Weekly Intelligence Report was produced. The material in this collection begins with the monthly report published in January 1938 (issue number 224) and continues until July 1954. The Monthly Intelligence Reports are found in two distinct collections in the National Archives. The earlier reports which cover the years 1919 to 1939 (issues number 1 to issue number 244) are found at catalogue reference ADM 223/807 ' 827. The later reports covering the years 1938 to 1954 can be found at catalogue reference ADM 223/221- 239.

The layout of the monthly intelligence report follows a standard pattern. The first section deals with the international situation and contains a summary of recent events, this is followed by articles and information thought to be of interest to naval officers and to which short articles containing first-hand experience could be contributed. The third section consists of extracts from the current press intended to be of use to officers on foreign stations out of touch with daily newspapers. The last section features short reviews of selected books and recently published naval literature. Although the monthly reports were classified confidential (and later secret) they were intended to be read by all officers and distribution was arranged so that copies were available for all commanding officers and for circulation in all officers' messes.

The material contained in the monthly reports cover a wide range of topics. In addition to purely naval matters, broader geo-political issues are also prevalent. The report for January 1938, for example, contains a report on a Japanese victory march through Shanghai and an account of the sinking of the US gunboat Panay in the Yangtze River by Japanese bombers which resulted in the loss of life. The Japanese later apologised stating 'that measures would be taken to prevent the re-occurrence of such incidents'.1 Events in Germany were also reported and include a personal account of a visit to Germany made by Lieutenant Commander Gregson who describes the organisation of the country as 'truly amazing' and the Nazi movement as aggressively idealistic, intolerant and 'queerly pagan'. The report conveys a febrile atmosphere of menace and resolve: 'one almost gets a feeling of an enormous impulse to push on and of hurry and bustle, because for some unexplained reason, time is short.'2 Ominously, it was noted that both the press and radio were rigidly controlled with almost every broadcast containing reports of Czechoslovak outrages. The report issued in February 1939 contained 'a conversation with some Germans' in which it was stated that Hitler's real aim was 'Nordic domination from the Urals to the Rhine' which would impose National Socialism upon the whole world.3

The treatment of Jews in Germany also received attention. In a first hand account of Kristallnacht, it was reported that following the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst Vom Rath in November 1938 by a Jewish teenager in Paris, all the windows and shop fronts in the Jewish quarter of Munich had been smashed by a mob and that all males aged between 18-60 had been arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Dachau. One elderly 'inmate' had returned after ten days 'shaved to the scalp but refusing to say a word to his wife'.4 He had been threatened with violence and told that if ever mentioned a word to anybody he would be returned to the camp for the rest of his days. As war drew closer, attention was focussed on the passive defence measures adopted in France in the event of possible invasion. The plans for Paris were based on the intention to evacuate a large part of the population and that 'arrangements have now been made to enable those who have no work to leave Paris on the outbreak of hostilities on special trains'.5 The response of the United States to events in Europe was also reported with apprehension expressed that 'the Munich crisis gave the impression that his Majesty's government were defeatist' and that British policy did not deserve the support of the United States.6

Following the declaration of war with Germany in September 1939, the monthly intelligence report was replaced with a weekly edition. This was divided into five sections covering naval intelligence, political intelligence, contributions from organisations outside the Admiralty, weekly naval notes and statistics covering contraband control and the sinking of British and allied shipping. The first issue was published on 15 March 1940 and includes a report from Poland estimating the number of civilian killed at 130,000. Deaths and executions in concentration camps and prisons was estimated at 20,000. There were also unconfirmed reports that Germany intended to exterminate the whole of the Polish educated classes so as to deprive the nation of future leaders. More ominously, it was stated that a number of concentration camps had been opened in Poland with the number of Poles and Jews imprisoned placed at 150,000.7 As the war progresses, the weekly intelligence report contains details of allied successes and setbacks. These included the Norway campaign, the German invasion of the Netherlands which continued with 'unabated vigour'.8 Following the fall of France it was believed that a quick victory over the United Kingdom was now essential if Germany wanted to dominate Europe. A prolonged conflict would damage the country and embolden Soviet Russia, the neighbouring state which the German hierarchy most feared. The threat of invasion produced a flurry of reports on possible sabotage activities of the 'fifth column' including information on German secret writing using special matches and vitamin tablets that could dissolved in water and used as invisible ink. Gossip, unsubstantiated rumour and the leakage of information was all intended to undermine the confidence of the public. It was 'the duty of all officers not only to squash rumours but to report on the source of the story'.9

Following the launch of Operation Barbarossa that marked Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, attention was focussed on events on the Eastern Front. In an article in April 1942 entitled 'Russia Fights On' it was believed that the resistance of the Red Army was strong and that before Hitler could impose his 'new order' on European Russia 'he will have to kill nearly all of the 130 million Russians'.10 As the war turned in the allies favour, speculation centred on what Hitler would do next. It was believed that preservation of the Nazi party was the prime objective of the German high command and that in 'the inevitable chaos' that would follow military defeat every opportunity would be sought to foster Nazi ideology in Europe, Asia and South America and to create a world-wide Nazi movement.11 The post-war world order is also explored with reports on the opening session of the United Nations in San Francisco and the consequences of the Red Army occupying Eastern Europe. A first hand account of the atomic explosion over Nagasaki, written by a petty officer of HMS Exeter who was in a Prisoner of War camp 4 miles outside the city, provides a stark reminder of the dangers facing humanity: 'the flash from the explosion and heat was so great it blotted out the sun's existence and gave the impression of being dangled in hell and then let out. Green merged into purple and gold and reappeared as blue only to disappear and reappear as blood red'.12 The last weekly intelligence report was circulated in December 1945. In total, 302 issues of weekly intelligence reports were produced during the Second World War. These reports are located at National Archives reference ADM 223/146 -168.

From January 1946, following the end of hostilities, the Admiralty reverted to a Monthly Intelligence report (ADM 223/223) which continued until July 1954. After this date, a Quarterly Intelligence Report was produced (ADM 223/240). The emphasis in these reports is the growing Cold War and the need to counter the threat posed by Soviet Communism. An editorial in October 1955, for example, reports that there was no evidence that the Soviet communists had abandoned their ultimate objective of world communism and warned that for all the smiles and goodwill 'no Soviet leader has offered the West anything more than peaceful coexistence'.13 Following the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the need to acquire and maintain a good working knowledge of the Soviet fleet was regarded as an essential aspect of the Quarterly Report as 'there was little chance of developing these skills at short notice in an emergency'.14 Following the reorganisation of the Ministry of Defence in 1964 a short lived Naval Intelligence Review was produced (ADM 223/728) that resulted in seven editions.

Military/Army intelligence

Established in the late nineteenth century and located in the War Office building in Whitehall, the Directorate of Military Intelligence was responsible for providing intelligence assessments and reports to the British Army. Following the First World War, the Directorate began to produce monthly intelligence reports that were circulated to senior officers. These reports, which are not included in this collection, can be found at National Archives reference WO 287, War Office Monthly Intelligence summaries 1922 - 1939.

In 1939, with war with Germany imminent, the War Office began to produce weekly intelligence summaries. The first of these summaries which covered the period 16 August to 23 August detailed troop movements, military measures and the general distribution of forces in Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union and the Far East. It concluded that Germany was concentrating the bulk of her military forces on the Polish frontier while stationing reserves to guard East Prussia and her western border. The second summary reports details of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact and warns that neighbouring states were naturally apprehensive. Details of the German invasion of Poland are contained in the third weekly summary which gives a figure of 52 German divisions on the Eastern front and provides a proposed plan of attack provided by 'a reliable secret source'.15 Subsequent intelligence summaries issued by the War Office describe negotiations for the surrender of Warsaw, details of the Soviet treaty with the Baltic states 'that gave Moscow effective control of the coast from Lithuania to Leningrad'16 and the deployment of German SS units within Poland.

The intelligence summaries often contain annexes on specific subjects. The annex issued with Summary No. 20 dated 7 March 1940, for example, provides an analysis of the Red Army whose strength was estimated at 145 infantry divisions, 35 cavalry divisions and 5 lights armoured divisions. The Red Army's effectiveness was considered unimpressive as the high command owed their positions to political reliability rather than military prowess. Tellingly, given future events, the Red Army was believed to be particularly vulnerable to the effects of surprise attack due to 'the rigidity of its doctrines and to its inherent inability to provide against the unexpected.'17 The weekly summaries provide a vivid account of the Second World War and contain reports on the fall of Singapore, the Battle for Stalingrad and Operation Overlord. It was reported that following the initial landings 'hard fighting' had taken place but substantial progress had been made. Later reports, however, confirmed that 'severe enemy counter attacks had been experienced along the entire front'.18 It was also revealed that since the invasion on 6 June, the French resistance had destroyed a number of important bridges and railway lines and that the Germans were 'being forced to mount operations of considerable size to deal with the soldiers of the Maquis. Resistance Forces were growing daily, and attempts are being made to supply the necessary arms'.19

Following the end of hostilities, the need to monitor the intentions and capabilities of potential enemies and to keep abreast of the latest advances in military technology remained an essential aspect of modern warfare. To meet this need, the British army began to issue Monthly Intelligence Summaries, later renamed Intelligence Reviews, which detailed the latest military equipment, doctrine and political developments in other countries. The intended purpose of these intelligence reviews was two fold and described in May 1950 by Major-General Arthur Shortt, the Director of Military Intelligence as follows:

To keep, so far as security permits, the largest proportion of the Army informed on matters of intelligence which cannot otherwise be made readily available to them, and to present such information in readable form

To encourage among officers a general interest in intelligence and world affairs, thereby assisting in their education and preparation for Staff employment.20

Although the focus of the post-war intelligence reviews is primarily political and economic developments, the technical dimension is not ignored. The first edition, written in February 1946 for example, contains a 12 page report on atomic energy compiled by the recently formed intelligence section MI 16 charged with the study of scientific intelligence. It concluded with the chilling realisation that the future of civilisation would be determined by the way in which atomic energy was developed and used during the coming decade. Subsequent editions contain articles on the Austrian peace treaty, anti-religious propaganda in the Soviet Union, Nehru's visit to India and the status of Jerusalem. In relation to the Middle East, it was stated that the final decision on Palestine would be governed not only by a desire to assist the persecuted Jews of Europe or to appease the Arabs but also with due regard to the peace and stability of the region that contained 50 million people. In January 1955, the monthly Intelligence Review was replaced with a Quarterly edition that ran until March 1963. Following re-organisation at the Ministry of Defence, this was itself replaced with an even shorter lived biannual publication that ran until the end of 1964.

Air Intelligence

Established in the 1920s, the Air Intelligence Branch was the youngest of the three service intelligence organisations. In the interwar period it produced intelligence reports on a variety of foreign air forces including Spain, China and Germany in addition to publications focussing on the collection and collation of air intelligence. The Air Intelligence Branch came into its own during the Second World War and was responsible for the organisation and co-ordination of all types of air intelligence - military, political and civil - at home and abroad, liaison with Air Attaches and Missions, and questions of security and censorship.

The first intelligence summary produced during the Second World War was issued on 6 September 1939 and includes reports on the German air force and its operations in Poland. The summaries also contain useful information on events in countries outside Europe such as Turkey, Egypt and Mexico as well as political analysis on contemporary issues including Chinese attitudes to Great Britain and Russia, the psychology of the SS and the Yugoslav partisan movement. The summaries also include a rich source of technical detail on the German air force including, the Heinkel He 111, a twin engine, low winged bomber; the Junkers Ju 88 'of which no photographs are available'21; and the Messerschmitt Me 163, a rocket propelled fighter 'which was so fast that it was impossible to track with turret or free guns'.22 The summaries also include results of the allied air attacks over Germany and a summary of enemy aircraft brought down by British and American forces.

Following the end of the Second World War, the weekly summaries were replaced with a monthly Secret Intelligence Summary with the first edition circulated to commissioned officers and fully qualified air crew in January 1946. The post war monthly summaries focus primarily on the Soviet air force but also include contemporary political developments with articles on Titoism and its influence on communism in Western Europe, Arab nationalism, Franco's Spain and the French Air Force which 'got off to a bad start after the war with a Communist Air Minister and later a fellow-travelling Chief of Air Staff'.23

The collection also contains a number of intelligence reports produced by the Far East Air Force (FEAF). Established in 1943 and originally known as Air Command South East Asia, FEAF operated from bases in Malaya, Hong Kong and Singapore. The monthly intelligence reports is comprised of three sections (current operations and intelligence; special articles and a political digest) and covers all the countries in the region. The air campaign during the Korean War forms a significant aspect of these reports during the early 1950s and provides a good source of intelligence on the progress of the military campaign. The command was disbanded on 31 October 1971.

The British Commanders'-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany (BRIXMIS)

Established in 1946, BRIXMIS was a combined service organisation that operated behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany during the Cold War. The Soviet Union had a similar body in West Berlin known as SOXMIS. The purpose of the two missions was to act as a liaison mission between East and West and. This was achieved by undertaking tours within each other's zones. These were conducted in uniform and in clearly identifiable civilian vehicles. This role also presented an ideal opportunity for the gathering of military intelligence through reconnaissance and surveillance and the covert examination of military equipment. This opportunity was exploited to the full by both sides. In addition, two de Havilland Chipmunk aircraft were based at RAF Gatow and flown by RAF aircrew posted to BRIXMIS who conducted photographic reconnaissance flights within designated airspace.

The reports produced by BRIXMIS are different from the other material in this collection as they are designate Top Secret and restricted to a small circle of intelligence officers in Germany and London. This collection is mainly composed of Combined Tour Reports supplemented by naval reports, air reports and communications reports. The format of each report follows a similar pattern listing and evaluating the intelligence gained during each tour. Examples of intelligence gathered include the number plates of military vehicles, the location and use of military buildings, unusual troop movements and the layout of communication networks. The monthly reports were eventually superseded by quarterly, bi-annual and annual reports. These BRIXMIS reports are supplemented by Foreign Office files that document how these intelligence reports were used within Whitehall. The last BRIXMIS mission was conducted in 1990 just prior to the unification of Germany which marked the end of the Cold War in Europe.



1. Monthly Intelligence Report, No. 224, 15 January 1938, ADM 223/826 

2. Monthly Intelligence Report, No. 236, 15 January 1939, ADM 223/827 

3. Monthly Intelligence Report, No. 237, 15 February 1939, ADM 223/827 

4. Monthly Intelligence Report, No. 238, 15 March 1939, ADM 223/827 

5. Monthly Intelligence Report, No. 228, 15 May 1938, p. 41, ADM 223/221 

6. Monthly Intelligence Report, No. 241, 15 June 1939, ADM 223/222 

7. Weekly Intelligence Report, No. 1, 15 March 1940, ADM 223/146 

8. Weekly Intelligence Report, No. 11, 24 May 1940, ADM 223/146 

9. Weekly Intelligence Report, No. 16, 28 June 1940, ADM 223/146 

10. Weekly Intelligence Report, No. 111, 24 April 1942, ADM 223/154 

11. Weekly Intelligence Report, No. 259, February 1945, ADM 223/165 

12. Weekly Intelligence Report, No. 294, 2 November 1945, ADM 223/168 

13. Quarterly Intelligence Report, No. 5, 10 October 1955, ADM 223/240 

14. Quarterly Intelligence Report, No. 35, 8 April 1963, ADM 223/723 

15. Weekly Intelligence Summary, No. 3, 30 August ' 6 September 1939, WO 208/2256 

16. Weekly Intelligence Summary, No. 8, 5 October ' 12 October 1939, WO 208/2256 

17. Weekly Intelligence Summary, No. 29, 7 March ' 14 March 1940, WO 208/2256 

18. Restricted Intelligence Summary, No 44, 7 June ' 14 June 1944, WO 208/2266 

19. Restricted Intelligence Summary, No. 45, 14 June ' 21 June 1944, WO 208/2266 

20. Monthly Intelligence Review, No. 44, May 1950, WO 208/4874 

21. Weekly Intelligence Summary, No. 1, September 1939, AIR 22/69

22. Weekly Intelligence Summary, No. 261, April 1944, AIR 22/80 

23. Secret Intelligence Summary, Vol. 5, No. 9, September 1950, AIR 22/88

Authored by Dr. Stephen Twigge

Dr. Stephen Twigge

Dr Stephen Twigge is the Head of Modern Collections at The National Archives (UK). Dr Twigge is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Peer Review College, and sits on the Editorial Board of Archives, the journal of the British Records Association. He has published a number of books and articles on the Cold War and has made regular media appearances to discuss record releases at The National Archives.

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