12

From Budapest to Baghdad

The ‘nightmare scenario’ for British strategic policy-makers in the 1930s posed by the potential simultaneous challenge of three great powers - Germany, Italy and Japan - affected and perplexed SIS just as much as any of the armed services, and although Sir Hugh Sinclair had striven to sharpen up the Service with this threat in mind, there was neither the political will in Whitehall nor the money available for him to do very much at all. Inevitably - and rightly - the main focus was on Germany, but this meant that intelligence operations in the Mediterranean, the Middle East (where in any case it was hoped that Britain’s ally France could help out) and further afield in Asia were comparatively neglected, at least until the situation was brutally transformed by the German conquests in Northern and Western Europe, the entry of Italy into the war in June 1940 and that of Japan in December 1941.

South-east Europe

The rapidly escalating demands placed on SIS during 1939 and 1940 stretched the Service’s resources almost to breaking point and it is clear that in seeking to maintain (if not also extend) its coverage in south-east Europe the Service was pushed to find qualified officers for the region. The stations in Austria and Czechoslovakia had been closed down (and the SIS representatives’ cover blown) following the Nazi advance into both countries in 1938 and 1939. In February 1938 Wilfrid Hindle, a former journalist with no intelligence experience, had been sent out on probation to reinforce the Prague station. Three months later Harold Gibson, his boss in Prague, despite having noted that Hindle was handicapped by a lack of German-language skills, recommended him ‘for permanent employment’, while advising that he would need ‘further instruction before being given an independent post’. Nevertheless, having been forced out of Prague, in April 1939 Hindle was appointed Passport Control Officer and head of station in Budapest, where the former incumbent had been sacked for incompetence. In September 1939 he was joined by another officer with a slightly chequered intelligence career, who had briefly been employed by SIS as Assistant PCO in Riga in 1929-30. He had evidently not made a success of this and the Service offered him no further work. In 1939, however, he reappeared and, judged suitable ‘for subordinate employment in this organisation’, had been re-employed to help out with Passport Control in Berlin. Assisting Hindle in the Budapest office were six secretarial staff and a wireless operator. The station had twenty-one agents on a retainer (others were ‘paid by results’), of whom in the autumn of 1939 two were funded by the Ministry of Economic Warfare.

There were smaller stations in Bucharest, Belgrade and Sofia. The representative in Bucharest was Harold Gibson’s brother Archie, who had journalist cover as a correspondent for The Times. In the late summer of 1939 he had one secretary, a wireless operator and fourteen main agents, most of whom were still only on trial. In Belgrade, a former colonial policemen, was head of station. He had been hired in November 1936 to assist in Berlin, and transferred to Yugoslavia by September 1939. Late that year, to help build up intelligence on German and Italian troop movements, a sub-station was opened in Zagreb which (among other things) was a convenient location to debrief agents from inside Italy. Much the largest operation in south-east Europe was in Athens, where the Passport Control Officer and head of station had over a dozen staff and seventy salaried agents (whose retainers ranged from £1 to £200 per month, with the majority receiving between £10 and £20). Assessing the Athens operation early in 1940, Captain Cuthbert Bowlby, a sailor who had joined the Service in 1938 and had become head of the Middle East Section, noted that the station ‘must be considered from rather a different angle than others’ since ‘in dealing with Greeks it is no exaggeration to say that to be a S[ecret] S[ervice] agent is quite a normal profession, a situation which must make it difficult to get an agent to do more than a certain amount for a certain sum of money. It follows, therefore, that if you want big results you must pay well.’1

From the start of the war until the summer of 1940 the main intelligence requirements from the region were political and economic, the former to underpin the broad British policy of securing a neutral Balkan bloc of countries which together might resist Axis advances, the latter to reinforce the economic blockade which the more optimistic British strategists hoped would help cripple the German war effort.2 Exchanges between Bucharest and London about a potential new agent reveal the sort of thing that was required early in the war. In September 1939 Archie Gibson reported that a local commercial traveller in medical goods was an excellent prospect as he could legitimately visit Germany. But London did not want just any old information. ‘General observations on countryside, or local gossip from doctors and chemists useless’, they signalled. ‘Information German activities must be directly or indirectly from inside German organisations and must be confined to specific items, with in each case expressly specified sub-sources.’ There was also a note of requirements from the Ministry of Economic Warfare, who wanted information on ‘details and quantities of commodities passing to and from Germany, distinguishing between rail and Danube traffic’. London did not rate the political reporting from Romania very highly. Gibson’s own recruits were described as ‘mostly local journalists’, who were ‘fairly prolific’, but ‘their output on the whole is worthless. They are occasionally right, as often fantastically wrong, their subsources are vague and nebulous, and we are never in a position to say what, if any, weight can be attached to anything they report.’ In February 1940, when Gibson reported a potentially promising contact with Hermann von Ritgen, the German press counsellor in Bucharest, David Footman in London warned (with Venlo undoubtedly in mind) that ‘personal contact in wartime between one of our representatives (even one without official cover) and a senior member of the staff of a German legation is a very delicate matter. It may well result in an exceptional coup or in a first-class flop.’ Later information suggested that Ritgen, a ‘Nazi agent and propagandist’, was himself probably aiming to penetrate SIS, and Gibson was briskly told to ‘discontinue contact’.

In 1939-40 Laurence Grand’s Section D worked on schemes to deny Romanian oil and other strategic supplies to the Germans, both by direct action in the Ploeşti oilfield north of Bucharest (which supplied 20 per cent of Germany’s prewar needs) and also by blocking the Danube at the Iron Gates, where the river cut through the Carpathian Mountains and for three miles flowed through a narrow gorge along the Romanian-Yugoslav frontier. Grand’s chief local expert, Julius Hanau (rather obviously code-named ‘Caesar’), the Belgrade representative of the British engineering firm Vickers, devised a scheme to blow up the cliffs at the gorge, and, when this was thwarted by the vigilance of the local police, proposed in May 1940 to sink barges carrying cement and scrap iron, crewed by Section D men, which would block the river for an estimated three months. Hanau was active elsewhere, and in February 1940 George Rendel, the British minister in Sofia, complained that he had been in Bulgaria endeavouring to get one member (at least) of the local British community ‘to take on a job connected with placing bombs in German ships and possibly tearing up railway lines’. With the conventional diplomat’s suspicion of clandestine work, Rendel wrote that it filled him ‘with misgiving to feel that irresponsible agents of this kind may be wandering about here without my knowledge doing things which may completely undermine the political position which we are so laboriously struggling to build up’. During the First World War Rendel had served in Athens and his ‘recollections of the deplorable activities of such people as Compton Mackenzie in Greece during the last war only tend to increase my uneasiness’.3

Despite Grand’s own optimistic claims for the achievements of Section D (which he made during the Hankey inquiry), neither it nor its successor SOE actually did very much to disrupt German strategic supply lines in 1939-40. But, despite the worsening political climate following the fall of France, when it hardly seemed as if Britain could avoid defeat, SIS managed to build up some intelligence assets in south-east Europe, a number of which even survived German domination of the whole region after the middle of 1941. One paradoxical consequence for SIS of German success was the encouragement of close relationships with the intelligence services of defeated allies, such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and France. In Hungary, thanks in part to Harold Gibson’s close liaison with the Czechoslovak intelligence chief František Moravec, SIS inherited some intelligence assets. In June 1940 the Bucharest station was given permission to engage a contact formerly working for French intelligence. This man, who proved to be an excellent stay-behind agent, worked continuously until his arrest in February 1944 and was backed up in 1943-4 with Polish radio operators. He ran a very productive network (code-named ‘Nannygoat’), which by 1943 included French, Greek, Swiss and Romanian nationals, Catholic priests, businessmen, oil company workers, a police inspector and a source in the Romanian General Staff. One contemporary recorded that he ‘started his wartime work with the disadvantage of having the appearance of a typical stage spy’. He had ‘a slight stoop and a generally sinister appearance’ and ‘could have played the part of a spy in any theatre without further make-up’. But ‘he had all the attributes of a successful head agent in real life. He was brave, resourceful and possessed of an extremely strong security sense.’ Arguing for the award of a military decoration, Menzies told the Foreign Office that he was ‘regarded by the War Office as one of our best and most reliable sources’. Another colleague noted the ‘high importance of a British decoration to a foreigner, which he will be able to show at the end of the war, or perhaps before that if he is forced to leave enemy territory’.4

In Belgrade, efforts in 1940 to exploit Yugoslav sources for information about Austria and Czechoslovakia produced negligible results, but in the spring of 1941 both SIS and SOE (the two organisations here working closely together) mobilised their political and military contacts in the country behind the coup of 27 March 1941 which deposed the pro-Axis Regent, Prince Paul, in favour of a pro-Allied regime. As elsewhere, too, SIS’s secure radio communications were used to transmit appeals for help from beleaguered local forces. At the beginning of March, for example, Archie Gibson sent a plea from General Stojanović, the Assistant War Minister and an ‘old acquaintance’, for British arms, without which ‘they had no possibility of offering effective resistance to any German attack’. The coup was a tremendous British propaganda success, though unfortunately short-lived as it also precipitated the German invasion of both Yugoslavia and Greece. But SIS was able to give a little warning to Belgrade. At 10.20 a.m. on 5 April 1941, drawing on signals intelligence (though disguising it as a human source), Menzies sent a message to Gibson: ‘Inform Yugoslav General Staff that from very reliable agent we learn that German attack will begin early tomorrow morning the 6th.’ The invasion, in fact, began at 5.15 a.m.5

SIS activities in Greece in the early months of the war showed the same mixture of political, military, economic and special operations work as elsewhere in the Balkans. In February 1940 the Athens head of station complained that he had so many demands for economic information that it was jeopardising, ‘from our point of view’, more important armed forces work. Among the latter were increasing calls for information about Italy, which, having invaded Albania the previous spring, was threatening further advances in the region. He worked on a scheme to establish agents in the Dodecanese Islands (who would report back through Turkey), and in April 1940 London signalled Athens, Belgrade and Malta urging them to send ‘additional tip and run agents’ to Italian Adriatic ports, to watch for ‘the assembly of transports or troops for an expeditionary force’. The Athens station, meanwhile, also built up productive relations with the Greek security police, who began to supply SIS with increasing amounts of information about German activities in the country. After the Italians came into the war in June 1940, and rightly anticipating that they might attack Greece (as happened at the end of October), evacuation and stay-behind plans were prepared. In London, Bowlby noted the possibility of locating a station in neutral Turkey ‘opposite the Dodecanese’, and also that agents in Corfu, Patras, Crete, Salonika and Samos had been provided with wireless sets.

In order to boost the naval work in Greece an additional officer was sent to Athens in May 1940, and, although there was a personality clash with the head of station (so much so that Menzies complained the situation was ‘most unsatisfactory, and retards our primary objective, which is to make every effort to win the war’), by September the British naval attaché in Athens reported that the new man (who had good sources in Greek naval circles) was getting ‘much valuable information’ and was ‘of great assistance to me’. Following the Greeks’ spirited and successful response to the Italian invasion of October 1940, there were well-founded concerns that Germany might come to the Italians’ aid. In a review of ‘German offensive plans’ prepared for the Foreign Office at the end of December 1940 Malcolm Woollcombe reported ‘on very good authority’ (possibly A.54, the Czechoslovak agent Paul Thümmel) that the Germans were contemplating an attack on Greece at the beginning of March 1941 ‘via Bulgaria’, and that ‘German troops would also pass through Yugoslavia, with or without that country’s permission’. Information ‘from a most secret and very reliable source’ (signals intelligence) confirmed the concentration of German military and air units in Romania to secure the oilfields; in addition, judging by their disposition, ‘it appears probable that the operation aims southward across the Bulgarian frontier’. This proved to be a pretty accurate prediction, although opinion was divided in London as to whether the Germans were also planning to invade Turkey. The attack, when it came on 5 April 1941, was directed against Yugoslavia and Greece.6 Twelve days later Yugoslavia capitulated and Greece had fallen by the first week of May.

SIS in Turkey

SIS had a modest presence in Turkey at the start of the war. Based in Istanbul, the SIS representative, Arthur Whittall, had an assistant, a secretary, two messengers and twenty-four agents on the books. Over the next two years the situation was transformed as Istanbul became one of the great espionage entrepôts of the war. Although neutral, the Turks were well disposed towards the Allies and, especially fearing Italian ambitions in the region, concluded a treaty with Britain and France in late September 1939, promising mutual assistance in the event of aggression by another European power against any of the signatories. This brought practical benefits for SIS: first, enhanced co-operation (initiated by the Turks) on secret service matters, though it was not until 1942 that this produced significant returns; and, second, Turkish acquiescence in the establishment of an SIS sub-station at Smyrna (İzmir) on the Aegean coast of mainland Turkey, to which the Athens station could relocate if forced to withdraw from Greece.7 After the German occupation of Greece, in fact, the Smyrna station, along with Cairo, became the main bases for the repenetration of the Greek islands and mainland. Headed by Lieutenant Commander Noel Rees, an Old Harrovian whose family had longstanding business interests in the region, and with a ready supply of patriotic Greeks willing to serve as agents, Smyrna was ideally placed for clandestine sea operations, though missions were also launched from harbours further south, such as Bodrum, more conveniently placed for targeting Rhodes, headquarters of the enemy’s Dodecanese Command, and Leros, where the Italians had an important naval base. In this part of the world classical names for operations and agents were clearly irresistible. When Harold Gibson and Cuthbert Bowlby went on a tour of inspection in June 1942, they noted the ‘Dido plan’ for a coast-watching service around Marmaris and an organisation at Mytilene (Mitilini), run by agent ‘Agamemnon’, who made a fortnightly motor-boat run to a sub-agent on the island of Khios.

In January 1941 Menzies posted the very experienced Harold Gibson to take charge of operations in the region. Within six months, as SIS representatives withdrew from the Balkans in the face of Axis advance and relocated in Istanbul, Gibson found himself responsible not only for Turkey, but also for ‘stations-in-exile’ from Sofia, Bucharest, Budapest, Belgrade and Athens. He had furthermore to liaise with the Turkish authorities, as well as local Polish, Czechoslovak and Yugoslav intelligence organisations, and maintain good relations with a British embassy unsettled (as was so often the case) by the growing number of SIS, SOE and other analogous personnel, working none too clandestinely in a country whose continued neutrality in these early years of the war was essential to the British. Much of SOE’s Balkan work was run from Turkey and Gibson, too, was worried about the dangers of SOE activities being exposed, as the otherwise accommodating Turks could not be expected to discriminate between different British secret services. Yet he was not against SOE per se, and could only recommend (as he did in November 1941) that increased security measures be adopted by all concerned.

Early in 1942 Menzies told Gibson that he was seriously concerned about the lack of armed forces information from the Balkans and was sending Frank Foley (whom he used during the war as a kind of roving troubleshooter) to review the position. Foley’s report of 28 March 1942 usefully provides a snapshot of SIS’s work in Turkey approximately halfway through the war. Overall, he thought that the situation with Romania was good, and for Turkey reasonably satisfactory. Intelligence from Bulgaria was mainly provided by the Turks. He was optimistic about Greece, notably a promising scheme for penetrating the Dodecanese Islands, but intelligence from both Yugoslavia and Hungary was poor, though in the case of the latter some lines were opening up through Romania. Foley reported that Gibson had established extremely cordial relations with the British ambassador, Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, who himself spoke of Foley ‘in the warmest terms’. Hugessen’s attitude towards SIS, nevertheless, was one of ‘pained tolerance’. This clearly irked Foley, who told Menzies: ‘I consider your service here is contributing at least as much to war effort as Y.P.’s [the ambassador].’ He also suggested (though this was not likely to cut much ice among some diplomats) that the Foreign Office ‘be pressed to instruct their Y.P.s to provide your representatives with proper status, accommodation etc. as an integral part of their staff’. The ‘provision of facilities for our success here’, he added, ‘should be regarded as important index of strength’ of the alliance with Turkey. ‘Reverse attitude is serious handicap to your organization’s work.’

Foley concluded his report with praise for Gibson, who was ‘practically indispensable’ in Istanbul and who, ‘in most discouraging circumstances’, had ‘worked with great ability and energy’. On the whole he thought Gibson was well served by his staff, and, although improvements were undoubtedly desirable, it was now ‘very difficult to find right men’. Reflecting on the problems of current recruitment, and perhaps, too, acknowledging Service personnel weaknesses exposed by the challenge of war, Foley observed that ‘an intelligent layman who had come much into contact with SIS’ had remarked that ‘we are too ready to be satisfied with “good second-raters”’. In Turkey, Foley thought that only Gibson, his brother Archie’s assistant from Bucharest and one other officer could be exempted from this criticism. ‘Satisfied with “good second-raters”’ was strong stuff indeed, and Foley’s worries illustrate not only an important degree of critical Service self-reflection, but also the sometimes painful progress of the organisation towards full professionalism. Coming, moreover, as it did from a longstanding Service colleague, it was clearly something which Menzies had to take seriously. Evidently Foley had been concerned about the issue for some time, as he urged the Chief to give consideration to the long-term suggestion he had discussed with him shortly before his departure to create a ‘directorate for dealing with personnel and technical matters on a plane commensurate with [the] importance of SIS’.

Gibson, another Service veteran, could write with similar frankness to Menzies, as he did in September 1942 when he reported that Hugessen was trying to bring SIS under strict embassy control. While the ambassador refused to concede that any Service officers could have diplomatic status, he was otherwise prepared to support them on the understanding that SIS was allowed to operate in Turkey only with his consent, and as his ‘guests’, an attitude which clearly irked Gibson. ‘I consider we are here to do a job of work,’ he signalled London, ‘not as members of a house party.’ He ‘deplored the tendency, which seemed pretty general among the British Diplomatic Service, to treat members of the “C” Organisation as poor and rather disreputable relations’. He observed that ‘the war we were fighting was not a kid glove affair and we should take a leaf out of our enemy’s book and cease drawing the line between pure diplomacy and the rougher stuff without which the fight could not continue’. Another of Hugessen’s irritating criticisms was that some members of SIS were not of the right social standing, and he had cited the case of one member who had been given diplomatic status in 1939 and who was subsequently discovered to have been a ‘cabaret keeper’ (‘shades of Curzon!!’ commented Gibson). Hugessen further described SIS as a ‘cancer it was desirable to remove from the diplomatic body’. One SIS colleague found this attitude ‘nauseating’, and felt it disclosed ‘a venomous die-hard’ Diplomatic Service attitude towards SIS under the ‘veneer of professional suavity’. For the Istanbul head of station the main issue was ‘the status and utility of our Service . . . vis-à-vis the Diplomatic service’. Gibson thought Hugessen’s antediluvian attitudes implied that he was more concerned to defend the privileges of diplomats ‘than in helping us to pursue a ruthless war’, and he pressed Menzies to assert the Service’s legitimate role ‘on the highest level’, otherwise ‘the chiefs of our diplomatic service are not likely to change their pusillanimous and peace-time mentality’.8

Another facet of wartime SIS, demonstrating how everyone mucked in, is illustrated by a ‘most secret and confidential - not for publication’ medal citation of 1943 for a woman who had been ‘engaged on the clerical side of intelligence work in a Balkan country on the outbreak of war’. This secretary began to take on ‘direct intelligence work . . . In an atmosphere of accumulated strain as the Nazis strengthened their hold on the country’, she ‘performed most of the tasks of an intelligence officer, including the delicate work of contacting agents, which bore no slight risk in that Balkan war atmosphere’. When the Germans moved in, she ‘came to a nearby neutral country’ where she ‘continued to do similar work’, the whole period covering ‘several years of unbroken foreign service interspersed with long spells of strain and overwork’.

The Middle East stations

In 1939 few people foresaw how important the Middle East and North Africa would become as a theatre of enemy activity and military operations. On 22 August that year, however, anticipating the possibility that in the event of war communications might be interrupted, Sinclair instructed his four stations in the region - Jerusalem, Cairo, Aden and Baghdad - that Major John Teague, the Jerusalem station chief, was to be the senior SIS representative in the Middle East. Teague, who had been in post since 1936, ran the largest operation, with seven officers and a similar number of support staff. In Cairo, Desmond Adair, a fluent Arab-speaking cavalryman, was head of station. In the 1920s and 1930s he had spent ten years in the Egyptian army and Sudan Defence Force, before being taken on by SIS in July 1936. He then spent a couple of months being trained in Jerusalem under Teague, before being posted as assistant to the Cairo station chief, whom he succeeded in July 1938. By the beginning of the war, Adair had an assistant of his own, five support staff and over forty agents on the books. He was also responsible for the Aden station at the mouth of the Red Sea, where another fluent Arab-speaker, who had worked for the police and Air Intelligence in Iraq, had been appointed joint SIS and MI5 representative in August 1936. The smallest of the Middle Eastern stations was at Baghdad, established only in March 1939, though there had previously been a station there in the early 1930s. Here the sole SIS representative had fourteen agents, three of whom (reflecting the strategic importance of Iraqi and Iranian oil) were dedicated to Ministry of Economic Warfare work.

In December 1939, John Shelley, who had been head of station in Jerusalem before serving in Warsaw, was sent out to strengthen the SIS presence in the region, and to concentrate especially on getting better information on the Italians. Based in Cairo, over the next two months he visited Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Iran to review the overall situation for Menzies. He reported (on 8 March 1940) that the Jerusalem station was ‘most efficient’, with an ‘adequate staff’. He had interviewed the Palestine civil and military authorities, who told him that the ‘burning question’ was Jewish illegal immigration which they said was ‘encouraged by 12-land [Germany]’, and that German agents ‘were being included amongst the illegal immigrants’. What they wanted was help from SIS to stop the flow. In contrast to this perceived Jewish threat (and reflecting the different ways in which the Service could be pulled), Shelley was approached in Jerusalem by a former contact from the Jewish Agency, the main Jewish organisation in Palestine, which worked ceaselessly to protect Jewish interests and facilitate Jewish immigration, offering the Agency’s help for intelligence work. Shelley was happy to accept the offer, passing it on to Teague to exploit. The Palestine Director of Immigration had told him, moreover, the ‘interesting item of information’ that Jews were returning from Palestine to Italy as ‘conditions for Jews in Italy had improved’, and Shelley may have seen an opportunity here to boost his coverage of Italy.

Part of Shelley’s mission was to build up links with Allied intelligence agencies, including the French, based in French-administered Syria, the Poles, who were currently running their organisation from headquarters in Paris, and the Czechoslovaks. In Syria he ‘established a most cordial liaison’ with the local Deuxième Bureau representative who told him that there were active German agents in the area. The Frenchman added that he had so far not got any information from the Poles, but that he understood they were ‘très bien installées’ in Iran. When he reached Baghdad, Shelley found the ‘efficient and hardworking’ SIS representative there so overworked and understaffed that it was ‘impossible for him to travel and recruit new agents’. Here he recommended the appointment of ‘a good male secretary (possibly of the retired N.C.O. type)’, which Menzies subsequently approved.

Travelling on to Tehran (it took six days because of snow on the road), Shelley began planning for a full SIS station in Iran, which could, among other things, improve coverage of the Soviet Union. This was something the existing Baghdad-run SIS agents in Iran (mostly British businessmen) were reluctant to do. ‘Men of this kind,’ remarked Shelley, ‘while prepared to take reasonable risks, will not risk their businesses, which are their means of livelihood, by doing anything which might get them into trouble with the [Iranian] Government, and they consequently will not undertake the active role of running agents across the frontier into 95-land [the USSR].’ With the Indian Intelligence Bureau already working on Russia from a base in Meshed, Shelley recommended that SIS should operate from Tehran and Tabriz in the north of the country. He also spoke to local French and Polish intelligence officers, discovering that the latter were not only already getting agents across the frontier into the Soviet Union but also developing networks within Afghanistan. Although unable to meet any Czechoslovaks, he reported that in Iran they appeared ‘to offer a very fruitful recruiting ground for agents’.9

Menzies’s original idea had been that while Shelley would be attached to army headquarters in the Middle East, he should co-ordinate the supply of intelligence to the air force as well. But this arrangement came up against inter-service rivalries and the RAF objected to him being integrated with the army. Menzies then decided to appoint a more senior officer, Sir David Petrie, to be General Manager for the Middle East stations, with direct access to the regional commanders of all three armed services. The sixty-year-old Petrie was a very experienced intelligence hand. Born in Aberdeen in Scotland, he became a career policeman in India before the First World War, ran intelligence agents in East Asia, headed the Indian Intelligence Bureau for seven years between the wars, and in 1937-9 both assisted in the reorganisation of the Palestine police and reported for SIS on intelligence requirements relating to British East Africa. From May 1940 Petrie and Shelley (who served as his staff officer until moving on to SOE in September) became the Inter-Services Liaison Department (ISLD), with Petrie being put in overall charge of SIS across the region, including Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia and East Africa. His organisation was responsible for obtaining and distributing locally all kinds of information from Greece, the Balkans, Italy and enemy-occupied North Africa. Agents themselves were run by individual stations (including those from Greece and Yugoslavia which after the German conquest of the Balkans operated primarily from Egypt), though they were kept physically separate from ISLD and each other.

Targeting Italy

In March 1940, Frederick Winterbotham complained that the intelligence position regarding Italy was ‘lamentable’. ‘I cannot believe’, he wrote, ‘that Italian Air Force Officers in Budapest, Italian engineers and merchants in Belgrade and Sofia are all unapproachable. This is the side from which we need to penetrate since the French use their own opportunities to the utmost.’ By early May the situation had not improved. Cuthbert Bowlby conceded that it ‘has become abundantly clear in the last week or so that the Armed Forces are not satisfied with the amount of information they are getting on Italy’. While the Belgrade, Athens and Malta stations had been ‘endeavouring under pressure from headquarters to remedy this deficiency in Italy and Sicily’, and Cairo had ‘sent several rather expensive agents’ into the Italian possession of Libya, this had all been ‘without so far achieving much result’. Bowlby suggested trying to acquire information ‘from further afield, i.e. North and South America, where enormous Italian colonies exist’. Dansey agreed and said that in his capacity as Z he had ‘put up proposals about a year ago’ that ‘in anticipation of war, recruiting centres should be established in New York, Buenos Aires or Brazil’. Although ‘it will be expensive’, it was still ‘worth doing’. Beyond an unsuccessful attempt to enlist Italians in Canada, no co-ordinated large-scale effort to recruit Italian agents in the Americas was ever launched. But Dansey continued to promote the idea. In October 1942 he asked that the station in Rio de Janeiro should look for possible agents in the ‘large Italian colonies in South America’. New York, he lamented, ‘never seems able to find the right people’.

The demand for intelligence intensified further after Italy came into the war in June 1940. In August London told Swiss, Balkan, Eastern Mediterranean and Iberian stations that the Service ‘urgently’ required Italian economic and industrial intelligence. Nothing much seems to have resulted from this, although it was reported that some information was being obtained from French sources. Two months later a signal from Malta (where the MI5 Defence Security Officer was also head of the SIS station) suggested inserting agents into the Italian colony of Libya from French-ruled Tunisia. In the spring of 1940 an SIS officer, Major A. J. Morris, had been sent to Tunis to set up a sub-station in liaison with the French authorities, but they arrested him after the British shelled the Vichy French fleet at Oran on 3 July. Morris was taken to Casablanca where he was allowed to escape by an anti-Vichy policeman and he eventually got back to Malta in September. He thought that owing to ‘extreme anti-Italian sentiment throughout Tunisia and his [own] personal friendship with several officers it would be possible for him to obtain ?reliable information on local situation and on possibility restarting organisation for 32-land [Italy]’.

But the penetration of Italy proved to be extremely difficult. When Rex Howard asked in January 1941 what progress the Athens station had made in getting agents into southern Italy, a laconic unidentified official wrote across his minute ‘None’. Anxious for information on the ‘probable reinforcement of Albania and especially Libya by Italian forces’, the War Office enquired about SIS’s port-watching organisation in Italy. This had been run by the Vienna station before the war, but had broken up following the expulsion of the Service from Austria. Despite efforts from both Athens and Malta, SIS had not subsequently ‘succeeded in establishing any permanent watchers’. But even when the Vienna organisation had been working (and apart from the great difficulty of establishing reliable wireless communications) the information provided had been ‘far from complete’, especially since ‘troops naturally embark at night from guarded quays and sources cannot keep a 24 hour watch. No doubt’, added one jaundiced officer, the Admiralty ‘would like us to have established a network of agents at all ports, all equipped with W/T, and able to see in the dark, and have free access to all docks’.

Attempts to penetrate Libya had been no more successful. Bowlby noted Cairo’s failure to do so, though this was not ‘for the want of trying’. Early in 1940 six agents had been despatched ‘at considerable expense and risk, but they were never able to achieve very much owing to Italian vigilance and difficulties in getting them there and back and communications’. An agent, working from French-controlled Tunisia, had produced ‘a large and expensive Libyan Arab organisation’, but it had not had ‘time to get going properly before the French collapse’. Events on the ground from late 1940, however, changed the situation dramatically when an offensive launched on 9 December from Egypt into Libya met with spectacular success. By early February 1941 British and Commonwealth forces had advanced some 400 miles, the Australians had taken Benghazi and up to 100,000 Italian prisoners had been captured. One idea raised in SIS was to comb the prisoner-of-war camps for potential agents. Bowlby was not optimistic. ‘Italians make very bad agents,’ he wrote, ‘and although many of them dislike the Fascist regime yet they love their country and dislike danger. I am afraid that any attempt of this kind will merely be treated as a beneficial repatriation scheme.’

The Italian reverses in Libya prompted Hitler in February 1941 to send the Afrika Korps to help. By the end of April, Axis forces under General Erwin Rommel had driven the British back to the Egyptian frontier. The simultaneous collapse of the Balkans further undermined SIS’s opportunities to penetrate Italy. By June, with the Admiralty urgently wanting to keep track of ‘possible reinforcement of Libya from Italian ports’, and complaining that SIS had provided only four reports from Italy and Sicily over the previous six weeks, Bowlby reported that it was hoped shortly to penetrate Sicily from Malta, and ‘N. Italy’ from Switzerland. Dansey, however, warned that it might take four months to improve the situation which in any case depended, ‘to a very great extent, on how long Spain and Switzerland remain unoccupied by the Germans’. Although neither country was invaded, and despite the fact that both the Lisbon and Madrid stations were told to concentrate on Italian work, the dismal performance continued through 1941. Dansey hoped that the Geneva station could step up its reporting but noted in November that the agent working the traffic out of Switzerland through the Simplon railway tunnel had been arrested and this had ‘made them very careful, for which one cannot blame them’. Almost despairingly, the Army Section at Broadway conceded, ‘the truth is that since we lost 44000 station [Vienna], we have never been able to organise a proper service against Italy. I find it difficult to see how we are going to do so now but will go on talking to all and sundry about it.’

Over the next year various stratagems were considered. One officer believed that ‘far more could be accomplished by bringing “high-ups” out of 32-land [Italy] rather than putting agents in’. The Lisbon station identified a prominent musician who had been engaged to perform at an International Musical Congress in Venice in September 1942. The Naval Section wanted him ‘to ascertain what battleships are in Venice during his visit or have been in Venice during July and August’, but no record survives of any response. It was proposed to form a film company in Portugal which could seek production facilities in Italy, gathering intelligence along the way. The Cairo station suggested looking for ‘active anti-fascists’ among Italians being repatriated from East Africa, but Dansey glumly observed that this had already been tried on a previous convoy where the ‘Fascist special police’ had been ‘very well represented on board’ and had warned against any Italians speaking to potential British agents. They had taken ‘very active steps’ to ‘see that this warning was carried out’ and he feared that ‘the worst may have happened to the one useful contact that was made’. Reflecting on the position in December 1942, an officer in the SIS Army Section noted that despite exerting ‘all the pressure I could’ on the production side ‘to produce information on Italy’, there had been ‘little result’. Up to the present, he wrote, ‘the difficulties have been very great’, but he had hopes for an improvement on two grounds. First was ‘the continued failure of Italian arms with the consequent further lowering of morale. This should not only make the task of an agent in Italy far easier, but should make available many more candidates for the penetration of Italy.’ Second was ‘the increasing German hold over Italy’, which ‘might well secure for us the active co-operation of considerable elements among the Italians themselves’. Presciently (as it turned out), he thought that ‘the combination of these two circumstances might give us our opportunity’.

Operations in North Africa

Sir David Petrie stayed in Cairo only until December 1940 when he was called back to London to conduct an investigation into SIS’s troubled sister-service, MI5. Teague was temporarily brought in from Jerusalem to replace him, but when Petrie was appointed head of MI5 in April 1941, Cuthbert Bowlby was sent out from London to serve as regional supremo, with responsibility for the Balkans as well as the Middle East. Both at Broadway and in Cairo Bowlby had to cope with the dramatic ebb and flow of the Desert War in North Africa. In early 1941 he had favoured establishing an advanced base in Libya (first in Bardia just across the Egyptian frontier, then in Tobruk further west) from which parties could be sent out into the desert behind enemy lines, but this proved un-feasible when the Afrika Korps pushed the British back into Egypt during April. After his move to Cairo, Bowlby also had to fight SIS’s corner institutionally and establish good working relations with the Middle East military headquarters. This was not only necessary from an intelligence perspective, but also essential if SIS was to obtain the resources required for reorganisation and expansion. That Bowlby managed to improve relations with the local authorities owed much to his ability to get on well with colleagues, but he was severely overworked and his health suffered in consequence. Towards the end of 1941 he had a spell in hospital, but assured London that he was not ‘breaking up’. ‘Far from it,’ he declared, ‘it is only result of unbroken period of toil since I arrived.’

There was, too, the matter of relations with SOE, who were also competing for scarce resources. Both SIS and SOE needed air support, and the scarcity of aircraft was a constant concern. Although it was agreed at the beginning of 1942 to have a dedicated RAF unit in the Middle East for all SIS and SOE operations, even by 1943 there were fewer than five long-range aircraft available for both agencies, with the result that the despatch of SIS agents, as well as much SOE equipment, was frequently delayed. Bowlby and the Middle East head of SOE, Terence Maxwell, petitioned London to champion their needs, and when, on one of his visits to the Middle East, SOE handed Churchill a paper on the subject they got a few more long-range sorties at SIS’s expense and some further temporary friction between the two agencies ensued. These problems were eased in mid-1943 by the creation of 334 Wing (Special Duties) under Wing Commander R. C. Hockey, operating out of airfields in North Africa and later Italy. Early in 1942 Bowlby also complained to London that SOE was trying to take over responsibility for the local MI9 organisation. He reported that SIS had built up a strong relationship with MI9 and worked closely with them. The principal interests of SOE, he said, were more to get large numbers of people into enemy countries than out of them, and to mix escape work with offensive duties would be disastrous to the former. Besides, he thought that SOE was ‘more anxious to take over our transport and communications facilities than our responsibilities’. This apparent SOE empire-building was blocked. Bowlby later described Maxwell as having a ‘form of megalomania’, and a further proposal from him that all clandestine organisations in the Middle East should be co-ordinated under one individual (assumed to be Maxwell himself) was also stillborn after Henry Hopkinson in the Foreign Office declared it ‘unthinkable’.

Actual intelligence work continued alongside bureaucratic infighting. From Malta Major Morris ran some groups in Tunisia, mainly ‘patriotic and stout-hearted Frenchmen . . . working without the knowledge of the [Vichy] French authorities’. In January 1941 three French soldiers who had escaped to Malta in a small boat brought news of Morris’s previous contacts in Tunisia and the existence of a clandestine organisation which was ready to operate but needed wireless sets. The leader of the French party, André Mounier, a thirty-eight-year-old lawyer who had been working in Tunis at the start of the war, returned with radio equipment before the end of January and developed a network which reported continuously for the next five months, transmitting 232 messages to Malta between 9 January and 28 June.10 On 25 February they provided the first report of German troops disembarking at Tripoli and just under a month later made ‘a most valuable identification’ of German tanks. As SIS reported afterwards, this was their first appearance ‘on African soil and was to delay our conquest of Tripoli by nearly two years’. Early in March a coast-watcher was installed at Kelibia on the east side of the Cap Bon peninsula to monitor the movements of Italian convoys, and on 5 April Malta reported that an Italian ship ‘had been torpedoed as a result of an agent’s information’. In order to provide cover in Tunis a small company, the Société d’Étude et des Pêcheries, was floated, and a scheme established whereby money could be transmitted through a local resident.

At the end of June 1941, the Mounier network, having become involved with SOE activities, was compromised following an unsuccessful SOE attempt to sabotage a French tanker at La Goulette. Although Mounier and two associates were safely extracted, another dozen colleagues were arrested and the property of the Société d’Étude et des Pêcheries seized. Reflecting afterwards, the setback was blamed on ‘entanglement’ with SOE and a general lack of security, including ‘too much independent action by young enthusiastic agents in Tunis’. Over the next few months agents were reinserted from Malta by submarine, motor boat and air. SIS managed to acquire in England two ex-Norwegian German-made Heinkel He-115 seaplanes for Service operations. Morris recalled that they had ‘very great difficulties’ with the local RAF commander ‘over the maintenance and camouflage of these aircraft’, and that ‘the greatest danger was from the trigger-happy R.A.F. fighter pilots during our practices’. They were used operationally, but on 22 September one of the Heinkels, carrying Mounier himself, ‘a born leader and . . . one of our most valuable men’, was lost en route to Tunisia. Meeting agents at the other end was also very difficult. One foreign diplomat in Tunis who was helping SIS observed that the use of cars was extremely strictly controlled, and there was ‘absolutely no possibility of having a car waiting for a man anywhere outside the centre of Tunis. Anywhere else it would be such an object of curiosity that the addition of a brass band would not render it any more remarkable.’

The same month, however, ‘Dick Jones’, who was to lead the most successful of the wartime Tunisian groups, was recruited in Cairo and brought to Malta by Morris. Under his ‘conditions of service’, Jones was to be paid seventy-five Egyptian pounds per month (about £2,500 in modern values), of which E£60 was to be paid directly to his wife. ‘In the event of your mission being successful and that you return in person’, he was to be paid E£1,000 (equivalent to £34,000), and ‘in the event of your death owing to enemy action whether due to being shot as an agent or whether due to any other enemy action’, his wife was to receive E£3,000. If he were reported missing, or definitely taken prisoner by the enemy, his wife’s allowance of E£60 was to be continued for six months, and if he had ‘not returned by that time a gratuity of E£1,000 . . . will be paid to your wife’. While the money must surely have been a factor, Jones also appears to have been impelled by idealistic motives, which he described in a letter to his wife, apparently written before he was infiltrated into Tunisia. His case-officer in Malta thought this was of such interest that he forwarded a copy to London. ‘The letter,’ he wrote, ‘although somewhat flamboyant, tends to show why he [Jones] is doing the work on which he is now employed.’ ‘All my previous undertakings of this nature have been fun,’ wrote Jones, ‘undertaken from a love of adventure . . . This affair is quite different: it is a question of a very definite aim and ideal.’ Jones’s ‘chief objective’ was to ‘avenge myself on the Fascist regime’. Secondly, he said he wanted ‘to defend Liberty which I value more than life and I am convinced that after a Nazi-Fascist victory Liberty will no longer exist. Thus the only thing I can do, and I have already done it, is to put myself at the disposition of the English who are defending the Liberty of the world.’

Described as an ‘outstanding personality’, Jones was an Egyptian Jew who had served in the Italian colonial army and ‘could pass for an Italian’. With ‘the help of Jewish colonists’, and equipped with both Tunisian and Fascist Italian identity cards, he was to penetrate Libya through Tunisia. But the operation started very badly. In late November, having safely landed Jones and another agent off a submarine, the British Commando who had rowed them in was forced to swim ashore after his boat capsized. As they attempted to get him some dry clothes, the alarm was raised and French police arrested all three, along with weapons, two suitcases, one containing a wireless set, and the other ‘200,000 lire, 300,000 francs, £5,000 sterling, some gold louis, two bags with about eleven diamonds and a bag of turquoises’, as well as ‘a brown wooden box containing chemicals for the production of invisible ink’. The two agents were tried, convicted and sentenced to twenty years’ hard labour. Six days after the Anglo-American landings in North Africa (Operation Torch) on 8 November 1942, which prompted the Germans to occupy Tunisia, the SIS men and a large number of pro-Gaullist prisoners were released by the French authorities, enabling Jones to organise an intelligence network which was to be especially productive over the following four months.

Working from Egypt, Cuthbert Bowlby was involved with the Africa Bureau project, by which the SIS Middle East station (ISLD) and those at Cairo, Casablanca and Dakar co-operated in penetration operations, many of which were implemented by the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), which had been formed in the summer of 1940 for reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering and special operations deep behind enemy lines. Throughout 1942 the LRDG delivered ISLD agents into enemy territory to carry out SIS tasks in North Africa.11 Late in April 1942 it was reported that a group led by ‘52901’, a Jewish academic in his sixties, was about to leave Siwa near the Libyan frontier and be taken by the LRDG to El Abiar, where 52901 ‘had introductions to friendly sheikhs’. From here, close to Benghazi, the group was to report on enemy troop deployments. Two other groups, planned to go during May, were targeted on Tripoli. One was led by an Italian Communist who had lived in Libya for ten years; the other mostly comprised Free Frenchmen who were to be airlifted into Tunisia and reach Tripoli from the west. Demonstrating that the Africa Bureau remit was not confined only to the north of the continent, plans were being worked on for a fourth group, also Free French-led, to penetrate Madagascar. This plan was overtaken by the British invasion of the island early in May, and the North African operations were disrupted by Rommel’s two counter-offensives, though 52901 and his group managed some reporting in May-June 1942. Rommel’s first offensive, in January 1942, pushed the British past Benghazi. The second began on 26 May and was not halted until the beginning of July when the Afrika Korps reached El Alamein, just fifty miles from Alexandria. Fearing that Cairo might fall, along with the bulk of Middle East Command, SIS moved all but a skeleton staff to Jerusalem where it remained until the end of the year.

As it existed in 1942 the structure of the regional SIS headquarters in the Middle East - ISLD - echoed that of SIS headquarters in London. GC&CS and the Radio Security Service had a regional office which came under Bowlby’s command. The various SIS stations collected intelligence which ISLD distributed, mostly through the inter-service Middle East Intelligence Centre. Counter-intelligence was the responsibility of Security Intelligence Middle East (SIME) which had an analogous role within Middle East Command to that of MI5 at home, primarily responsible for protecting British secrets from the enemy. An SIS representative was attached to SIME and, on the whole, excellent relations were maintained between the two organisations, producing highly satisfactory results in the field of counter-intelligence in general and of double agents and deception in particular. SIS and SIME combined with Dudley Clarke’s A Force (responsible for theatre deception operations) in a Special Section formed on 30 March 1942, principally to co-ordinate double-agent operations. Having much the same function as the XX Committee in London, in order to go one better it was locally known as the XXX Committee. The main source of counter-intelligence information, as elsewhere in the war, was GC&CS, whose material (code-named ‘ISOS’ - ‘Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey’, after a senior member of the Bletchley Park staff) was received and distributed by the local SIS signals organisation under Major Rodney Dennys, appointed Section V representative in Cairo in November 1941. In contrast to the high-level skirmishings which sometimes broke out in London between Valentine Vivian of SIS and Sir David Petrie of MI5, Dennys recalled that relations between SIS, SIME and A Force were ‘close and cordial, because the officers concerned liked and respected each other. Outside regular office meetings, we usually met for a drink or a meal at least once a week, where ideas could be floated or kinks ironed out.’ The ‘“severe formalism” of inter-departmental relations in London’, he wrote, ‘found no echo in Cairo’.12

Up to the summer of 1942 the record of SIS in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa was decidedly patchy, as it was for British and Commonwealth forces generally. But the elements for success were gradually falling into place. Those SIS representatives who survived in post, having had to cope with almost continuous retreat in the opening war years, became battle-hardened and, with hard-won experience, were gradually able to take stock and begin to establish productive agent networks in enemy-occupied territory. The extraordinary breakthroughs in signals intelligence, moreover, transformed the intelligence situation in a whole range of areas, especially that of counter-intelligence and deception. Furthermore, the entry into the war of the Soviet Union in June, and of the USA in December 1941, massively boosted the Allied cause. All this contributed to the successful battle of El Alamein in October 1942 which finally turned the tide in the theatre, and laid the basis for the expulsion of Axis forces from North Africa by the early summer of 1943.

Syria, Iraq and Iran

The liaisons with French intelligence colleagues in the Middle East which John Shelley made when he toured the region in early 1940 promised much. Some records from June 1940 indicate the sort of operation which was contemplated. On 4 June Shelley reported from Cairo that the senior French intelligence officer Gustave Bertrand had told him that the chauffeur of the Italian ambassador to Iran, who regularly carried Italian and German mail between Tehran and Baghdad, was in French pay ‘and will deliver mails at agreed place if a mock bandit ?attack made on car. He adds that Italian soldiers accompanying car would have to be over powered. Asks whether we can arrange.’ Shelley added a warning from Petrie that in any such operation ‘there must be no risk of bungling which would compromise British Government’. Shelley doubted ‘if we yet have adequate organisation’, and added his own opinion that ‘drugging Italian soldier and changing bag much simpler operation with far fewer complications. Better still if we could open, photograph and re-seal [bag] and thus be able to repeat operation.’ In London Bowlby rejected ‘any attempt at banditry’, as it would be bound to invite retaliation and would inevitably be blamed on the British government. Shelley’s suggestion, he wrote, ‘holds out the best chance of any really valuable result’, though it would be a very difficult operation to execute and could probably be carried out only once. Valentine Vivian agreed with Bowlby (‘sound common sense’) and thought something of the sort was ‘worth doing’, but ‘only if it can be done [?regularly] and in such a way that it does not become known’ (which was surely rather an unnecessary point to make). He suggested that Bertrand should be asked to obtain ‘through chauffeur an exact and detailed account of journey, so that we can judge whether any opportunity of secret opening & scrutiny presents itself’. Only then could permission for the operation be considered.

But joint Anglo-French ventures were (for the moment) swept away by the fall of France, after which British activities in Syria and the Lebanon were severely restricted by the Vichy authorities. In March 1941 Teague reported from Jerusalem that the United States consul-general in Beirut was ‘well disposed’ towards the British and had granted him diplomatic-bag facilities for communications into Syria. The following month (as the British were retreating from Greece) there were fears that the Germans might occupy Syria, and London asked Teague if he were in a position to give early warning of such an eventuality. Teague explained that he had a portable wireless set in Beirut and one en route to Aleppo. In addition, an (unidentified) American diplomat in Beirut was ‘always ready to help’ and could give some warning. Teague thought that he could ‘do something’ with local smugglers. There was also an embryonic anti-Vichy organisation which might be able to assist. ‘So’, he reported, ‘from one source or another we should have very early intimation of German landing there.’

In the end there was no German invasion, but Teague’s Syrian sources were able to provide Middle East Command with the complete Vichy French order of battle before the British Commonwealth and Free French operation which wrested Syria from Vichy control in June 1941. Teague thought that the subsequent formal British presence in Syria was a ‘temporary and God-sent opportunity to consolidate the organisation against the probable time when we shall no longer be there’. Illustrating the difference between SIS’s long-term approach to intelligence-gathering and the more immediate concerns of, say, its armed service colleagues, he shrewdly (though expansively) observed that the ‘primary task of the present’ was the establishment of ‘effective organisation for all possible contingencies in the future’.

On the political side, Teague told Menzies in July 1941 that relations with the Free French were extremely strained. He considered that for the British, ‘it is like trying to live amicably with a jealous, touchy and domineering wife’. At every corner the Free French saw sinister British plots. De Gaulle had appointed General Georges Catroux as Commander-in-Chief of the Free French Forces in the Levant, and, although he was ‘more reasonable’ than de Gaulle, even he presumed that the British were out to annex Syria to the British empire. When Catroux became de Gaulle’s representative in Syria, an SIS agent (source ‘Volcano’) in the former’s headquarters passed over copies of Catroux’s and de Gaulle’s correspondence which provided a picture not only of de Gaulle’s attitude towards the British in the Middle East, but also of his intentions regarding French North Africa. Volcano, who continued to operate until the summer of 1943, was a highly prized asset, some of whose product was fed directly both to the Foreign Office and to Churchill through Desmond Morton.13

The Allied invasion of Syria had partly been triggered by a pro-Axis seizure of power in Iraq, led by Rashid Ali early in April 1941. Baghdad station sources had been predicting a coup for the end of March. During the crisis one SIS agent gathered valuable information from Iraqi army officers of troop dispositions, on the prearranged line for retreat decided on by the Iraqi army and on the attitude of Middle Euphrates tribes to the revolt, but the Baghdad representative reported that the intelligence ‘unfortunately arrived too late to be used owing to the removal of our transmitting sets’. British forces quashed the rising, but The Times enquired if the Foreign Office had been taken by surprise and ‘What was our Intelligence Service doing?’14 Within SIS it appeared that the Eastern Department in the Foreign Office had failed to pass on all of its reports, so much so that a set of extracts from the weekly political summaries was assembled showing that the Baghdad station had been warning of the specific possibility of a coup from the beginning of the year.

During 1941 the issue of using Anglo-Iranian (formerly Anglo-Persian) Oil Company (AIOC) employees for intelligence work surfaced after the head of the Baghdad station, set up a local network without going through the proper channels established by SIS with the AIOC head office in London. In March 1941 Bowlby observed that the station was using several individuals who had ‘not had the official sanction of their Company to carry out our work, although the Manager out there knows of their activities which he allows but does not like’. The local manager’s attitude was ‘understandable in view of the extremely delicate relations existing between the Company and the Iranian Government’. Vivian was not at all happy that Baghdad had ‘consciously side-stepped’ the existing ‘perfectly good & close liaison’ (by which the Service had agreed not to use company employees except through the head office) and he felt that the Service could not expect AIOC ‘to be very much impressed by our good faith’. Nor were they, and after a meeting in London at which an AIOC representative ‘made it quite clear that the repercussions resulting from the Iranians having any cause for complaint against the Company would be disastrous, not only to the Company but also to the conduct of the war’, the Service had to agree to terminate ‘the employment of any employees of the Company’. In May Vivian and Malcolm Woollcombe, however, had a meeting with AIOC, who reassured them that they were still ‘quite prepared to volunteer to 82000 any information of real inside importance, which may happen to come to their knowledge’.

The SIS station at Tehran for which Shelley had laid the foundations at the beginning of 1940 began operating in April. The first full-time representative, whose instructions were to concentrate on the Caucasus and South Russia, stayed barely a year, by which time little progress had been made in penetrating the Soviet Union. In April 1940 London asked Tehran to look into the possibilities of using as agents smugglers working across the Soviet-Iranian frontier. Evidently nothing resulted, for in January 1941 the Army Section at Head Office noted that the Soviet Central Asian Military District was ‘a veritable “black spot” to us as 83000 [Tehran] has so far failed to obtain a single item of military information from this area’. It was hoped, however, that matters might improve as an additional officer had been sent out at the end of 1940 specifically to concentrate on Soviet military information. Before Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 and it came into the war on the Allied side, very real fears that Russia might fight on the Axis side sharpened the need for intelligence about both its intentions and its capabilities. While noting that there had been a recent ‘very satisfactory improvement in our U.S.S.R. O. of B. [order of battle] etc. information’, in February 1941 the Director of Military Intelligence urged SIS ‘to establish without delay further trans-frontier contacts particularly in Moscow, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Eastern Siberia’. ‘I think DMI is right,’ noted Hubert Hatton-Hall. ‘We may well be fighting USSR in another year.’

The head of station in Tehran was replaced ‘temporarily’ by Wilfrid Hindle (the former head of station in Budapest), who stayed until the end of 1942. After the German invasion of Russia SIS operations against the Soviet Union were suspended, but there was much enemy activity in Iran and, in order to forestall a feared pro-Axis take over, British and Soviet troops occupied the country in August 1941. Hindle became so keenly concerned with security questions that it seems to have undermined his intelligence duties. In September 1942 he produced a string of allegations which ruffled feathers high in the Foreign Office. He complained about one consul who was ‘extremely friendly’ with a Nazi-sympathising German-born woman, a British subject by marriage, who reportedly had been employed by Spanish intelligence in North Africa. When a cabaret which the woman opened, backed financially by the consul, was put out of bounds to British troops, the consul strongly protested to the British minister. Hindle also reported that an officer attached to Sir John Dashwood (who had come from the Foreign Office to review the security of the mission in Tehran) had ‘spent much time in the company of a suspect cabaret girl’. He claimed, too, that there had been various security leaks from the mission and that an unnamed member of the British legation, in reply to a comment from some non-official on the number of secretaries on the staff, had announced: ‘Of course they are not all really secretaries. For example, there is Hindle, who is really in M.I.6.’ Hindle was moved on from Tehran, but the affair illustrates how a legitimate concern for security could become unreasonably magnified and corrosively affect the perspective and work of an SIS officer.

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