Very Special Intelligence by Patrick Beesly

Author Rating:
  • This is a history of the Operational Intelligence Centre of the RN's Naval Intelligence Division in WW2, and its satellite the Submarine Tracking Room. The author was an early recruit to the OIC and brings this story to us as an informed insider rather than a speculative journalist. In compiling this very readable account in 1977 he was able to enjoy the cooperation of many 'Old Boys' of NID so ensuring a true bill, enabling him to navigate the often patchy or even non-existent official records.

    The OIC was created by the genius of the WW2 NID, Admiral John Godfrey, veteran of WW1's Room 40, who saw the need to correlate all sources of naval intelligence including code breaking ('Special Intelligence' or, demotically, 'Ultra'), traffic analysis, Direction Finding, agents, aerial photo reconnaissance, PoW interrogation and so forth. Many of these took time to get up to speed and indeed for Authority to agree to their being sensibly resourced and prioritised. Ultra is seen as often sporadic, stale, broken or intermittent and this joined up story shows how the other resources were essential to the total picture. Nevertheless the OIC, ill-housed, under-staffed and overworked made a major contribution to the Atlantic War, profiting from two other genii, (eventual) Vice Admiral Sir Norman Denning and Rodger Winn and an amazingly talented and very heterogeneous collection of recruits. Winn became, most unusually, a Captain in the RNVR having proved himself uncannily accurate in predicting Doenitz. All came under a First Sea Lord, Pound, who clearly lacked the intelligence fully to understand Intelligence.

    Beyond the daily grind against the U-boats there are insider narratives of the Bismarck Chase, the 'scattering' of PQ17 and the sinking of the Scharnhorst. The story takes us right to the end of the war as the OIC tries to predict the numbers and deployment of much advanced U-boats, they mercifully overtaken by Germany's collapse.

    We have here a very welcome 2015 Seaforth reprint of the 2000 edition that included an introduction by WJR Gardner (author of 'Decoding History: The Battle of the Atlantic and Ultra'), and an 'Afterword' by Ralph Erskine, co-author of 'The Bletchley Park Codebreakers', covering the rock-strewn history of British, German and US WWW2 cryptanalysis, and explaining the practical difficulties of improving our own coding methods. There is a rich bibliography.


To post comments, simply sign up and become a member!
  1. BaronBoy
    I have read the earlier edition of this excellent book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I must agree with your review wholeheartedly with one slight addition. The deciphering of German messages may have been done by Bletchley Park but it was the NID that assessed the importance and implications of that traffic. For example, the NID had a lot of trouble getting Bletchley Park to decipher the ordinary stuff which to NID was as informative as the more dramatic stuff. I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in military history.
  2. Naval_Gazer
    Thank you. I am currently reading the fascinating Spies in the Sky - The Secret Battle for Aerial Intelligence During World War II by Taylor Downing. It tells a similar tale of initial intransigence, incompetence and hostility among much of the entrenched leadership towards effective intelligence gathering, collation and analysis, particularly using unconventional or 'not invented here' methods. This book looks complementary and I will chase it up.