British Naval Intelligence Through the Twentieth Century

Reviewed by Joseph Moretz, PhD

That navies require intelligence to operate effectively may pass largely without comment. So too that they acquire and assess raw data and then disseminate an end-product for their own needs no less than for the nation served. That the formal organizational underpinnings of this process are only of relatively recent vintage is perhaps the more remarkable point. In the case of the U.S. Navy, the Office of Naval Intelligence dates from 1882. Its establishment at a time when the Navy remained starved for funds for new construction spoke to a need to spend wisely when the warship itself was rapidly evolving owing to the scientific and industrial revolutions underway.

Across the Atlantic and in Britain that need stood no less apparent, yet, surprisingly, the Admiralty lacked a formal, permanent intelligence body at this hour having recourse to a temporary Foreign Intelligence Committee. One arguing for something more enduring was Captain Lord Charles Beresford, fresh from service in Egypt, and now the Junior Naval Lord. Beresford made his case to Salisbury, the prime minister, and for good measure most likely sought the support of William Stead’s Pall Mall Gazette. In truth, Beresford sought more than an intelligence department placed on a lasting foundation desiring the establishment of War Staff to plan and direct the operations of the Royal Navy. That would eventually transpire, but in 1887 the creation of a Naval Intelligence Department under Captain William Hall sufficed. This seminal event may be counted the spur for securing and employing intelligence to support the ends of naval policy henceforth. In a work rich in detail, thoroughly researched, and persuasively argued, Andrew Boyd relates the history of British naval intelligence from such inauspicious beginnings up to the South Atlantic campaign of 1982.

That the Admiralty opted at last to create an Intelligence Department may be adduced partly to the risk of war with Russia and the worrying menace of a revised French Navy. Yet, another consideration not weighed by the author must be accounted the growing complexity of government itself and the greater problems of imperial defense. A Colonial Defence Committee had been formed in 1878, though it soon lapsed. Revived in 1885, a partial explanation to the haphazard nature of naval threat assessment until this point must be held to the nature of Admiralty administration which saw the officers serving as Naval Lords vacate their posts at the Admiralty with each change of government. Sustaining a coherent policy might have required an Intelligence Department, but that measure alone would never be enough.

The first Directors of Intelligence were men of no mean intellect, and if almost all failed to reach the pinnacle of their profession, then they nevertheless were a capable group, counting Cyprian Bridge, Reginald Custance, Henry Oliver and Edmond Slade amongst their ranks. Meanwhile, others serving a step or two below would find fame outside the discipline as they ascended the Naval Staff, returned to command afloat, or operated closer to the seat of power. Here, Doveton Sturdee, Reginald Tupper and Maurice Hankey may be cited. Save for Hankey, who was an officer of the Royal Marine Artillery, time in the Intelligence Department for most executive officers, even if well spent, must be counted as but marking time ashore until the next vacancy afloat. That service would be the proving ground for many an officer found in the Intelligence Department (and from 1912, Intelligence Division) along with those coming from the Paymaster and Engineering branches. Indeed, a strength of British naval intelligence through the years has been its willingness to recruit and employ talent no matter the provenance of the individual.   

If the establishment of an Admiralty War Staff in 1912 addressed one shortfall in British naval administration, then its advent witnessed a reduction in the status of intelligence as a distinct field of specialization within the service. In truth, that may have not been at first noticeable with war and the appearance of the brilliant Captain Reginald Hall in 1914 obscuring events. The scion of William Hall, ‘Blinker’ Hall never lacked for initiative. Where previously naval intelligence had been a process, in Hall’s hands it became so much more. Enemy wireless communications and British cryptology offer a partial explanation, but a willingness to advance covert operations in support of British aims placed Naval Intelligence at the center of affairs. Boyd’s recounting of the part played by intelligence in the Eastern Mediterranean, North Russia, and Home Waters is masterly no less than his survey of Room 40 and the eventual creation of an Operational Intelligence Centre. 

Peace and with it the need for financial savings, however, marked the First World War as the zenith of British Naval Intelligence as an instrument solely under Admiralty control. Rationalization of means seemingly held in common across the services, now three in number, demanded as much. Yet, the World War had also demonstrated that Britain’s control of the higher direction of war had been faulty. From such missteps a Chiefs of Staff Committee followed in 1923 supported in part by a Joint Intelligence Committee from 1936. These structures did not reduce the Royal Navy’s need for intelligence for the wars yet to come, but they did make the service dependent on others outside of its control in a manner previously alien. That dependence has only grown the more so as technologies and threats which intelligence must account for have evolved and multiplied to say nothing of the further centralization of intelligence management.

Invariably, the question arises: How much of the Royal Navy’s success in war can be attributed to intelligence and the organizations producing and managing it? No answer will ever be truly satisfactory, but Boyd does well to remind the reader at key moments that numbers and tactical proficiency cannot be removed from the equation. Necessarily, not even a work running to nearly 800 pages can capture all the facets, personalities, or crises which have encompassed British naval intelligence. To his credit, Boyd admits as much and asks the reader to consult elsewhere. Nor does the author seek to relitigate past controversies where such controversies have been thoroughly aired already. Instead, the author traces the evolving nature of intelligence acquisition, assessment, and performance against the backdrop of an ever-changing empire and nation in a service now not always at the center of the British defense establishment. The picture that ultimately emerges is of a navy that if struggling at times to meet all tasks, has always met those tasks deemed essential to the British state and the British people. Amply illustrated with a series of black and white photographs, Andrew Boyd is to be commended for a story well told and British Naval Intelligence Through the Twentieth Century is thoroughly recommended to all. 


Dr. Joseph Moretz is a member of the British Commission for Military History.

British Naval Intelligence Through the Twentieth Century (Andrew Boyd, Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Great Britain, 2020).

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