The Secret War


MILITARY INTELLIGENCE in all its forms has always affected the course of conflicts, Bletchley Park for instance was crucial in the outcome of the Second World War. What is less well known is that Britain’s intelligence service did even better in the first war; the Room 40 intelligence agency at the Admiralty was instrumental in creating the Armistice in 1918.

The Imperial War Museum devotes a whole gallery to “The Secret War” with many artefacts connected with the “Hidden Dimension” of intelligence in the history of modern warfare.. The Museum is in the process of reorganisation to keep up with changing times and events so the Gallery is changing with it which is only right and proper. A change in presentation offers an opportunity for the Museum to present the history of British intelligence in a more coherent and logical way. The change is an opportunity to correct an erroneous impression of the history of code breaking and signals intelligence in the public’s mind. Many people think that the undoubted skills and successes of Bletchley Park began as the war began in 1939 – they did not. The incredible story of British intelligence began within days of the beginning of the First World War in 1914 and the “Park’s” success was built on foundations laid over a quarter of a century before. There is an uninterrupted thread of development in British intelligence that progressed for over the last century and the changes in the museum’s new presentation create an opportunity to tell the true story.


©IWM EPH 10095 Pipe with hidden compass

I used the ‘Secret War Gallery’ extensively in researching my books on the history of military intelligence.  I feel that not only was the Room 40 agency instrumental in finishing the First World War but once the war was over in 1918 its code breaking team but in a slimmed down form they maintained their expertise during the inter-war years.  That enabled the experienced group of code breakers to start their work in “The Park” only days before war was declared in 1939 with all the expertise that it had previously gained to use their skills during Hitler’s war.  Commander Alastair  Denniston who had done it all before in Room 40 led the development and success of “The Park’s” code breakers until 1942 when he stepped down, worn out in the service of his country. The Imperial War Museum’s presentation could emphasise the continuity of Britain’s Secret Service in the new presentation which they are about to design.  A new generation of visitors to the Museum should be told the rich and exciting tale of how the intelligence services began and progressed to make its indelible mark in the history of Britain’s conflicts.

Peter Matthews is the author of SIGINT: The Secret History of Signals Intelligence in the World Wars ( Stroud, UK;The History Press, 2013. ISBN 9780752487342) and House of Spies: St Ermin’s Hotel, The London Base of British Espionage (Stroud, UK; The History Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0750964012).

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