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Britain's Old Spyboy Network at Its Fumbling Worst : 'C' The Rise and Fall of Sir Stewart Graham Menzies by Anthony Cave Brown (Macmillan Publishing: $25; 814 pp.)

April 03, 1988|Allison Silver | Silver is an articles editor for Opinion.

Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, head of the Britain's Secret Intelligence Service from 1939 to 1952, obviously had great public relations, for he continues to be regarded as a brilliant spymaster.

Perhaps it is because he so looked the part of the perfect gentleman spy--serving as the model for M in the James Bond novels while his first wife emerged in John le Carre's novels as Lady Anne, George Smiley's unfaithful wife. Perhaps it is because he presided over British intelligence when the island nation glowed as a beacon in the darkness of Nazi-dominated Europe. Perhaps it is because the British spy service radiated an aura of jaded assurance even as America's Office of Strategic Services (and its postwar configuration, the Central Intelligence Agency) were just getting the hang of it.

Certainly Anthony Cave Brown, in "C: The Rise and Fall of Sir Stewart Graham Menzies," considers him the "greatest British spymaster," one who prevailed in dangerous and complicated times. But, this is where that P.R. machinery seems to have cranked into gear, for Brown's own careful research proves otherwise.

There is just no getting around the fact that Menzies appointed Kim Philby, a Soviet spy, as head of the SIS Soviet counterespionage division. Later in his career, Philby was considered for the third highest post in SIS. Menzies had himself groomed Philby, whom he once described as a "good lad," the son of St. John Philby. The most elementary background check would have revealed that Philby's first wife was a Marxist and a suspected Soviet agent or that his affiliations at Cambridge had been decidedly leftist. Even when an important Soviet intelligence official, Walter Krivitsky, defected to the United States and said in 1940 that there were one or perhaps two young Soviet spies of "good birth" in the British service, no internal investigation seems to have been conducted. But perhaps this was to be expected, for Menzies himself appeared never to have considered the possibility of the enemy within. He once insisted, "Only people with foreign names commit treason."

Brown constantly makes excuses for Menzies' unprofessional actions. Even when Philby, through what seems incredible bungling, escaped to the Soviet Union in 1963, Brown casts an impossibly rosy light on the affair. He seems to feel it would be in keeping with "C's" wilderness-of-mirrors thought processes that Philby, though long suspected of being a Communist spy, would be allowed to flee to Moscow to serve as a sort of super-mole for the British--to maintain a line of communication behind enemy lines, keeping the British informed on what was happening in Moscow. After all, this is what Menzies attempted with various Germans throughout the war--with little result.

Such goofy reasoning on Brown's part--in this case derived from a contorted interpretation of a journalist's recent interview with Graham Greene, not the most reliable source--appears repeatedly throughout the book. Otherwise the author might be hard-pressed to defend some of Menzies' more blatant misjudgments. For example, much is made of his overseeing of Ultra, the British system of breaking German codes during World War II and intercepting most of their enemy's wireless transmissions. This was the war's most important intelligence coup, yet Menzies had little to do with it, aside from ensuring rigid security. But it was fortunate that Menzies ultimately did not have direct control over the code-breakers at Bletchley. The operation hinged on such brilliant thinkers as Alan Turing, who developed the computer, and Menzies "regarded homosexuals with as much suspicion as he regarded Marxists."

The precision with which German codes could be read makes you wonder how the British and the Americans ever lost a battle--and then Menzies' role is explained, and it all seems natural. At two crucial points, Menzies failed to deliver an accurate interpretation of intelligence material provided by code-breakers. Thus, the German 352 Infantry, "without detection," dug into the bluffs above Omaha Beach, although Menzies' intelligence located them 28 miles away. The resulting U.S. casualty rate was the highest among D-Day troops.

Similar sloppy analysis caused the British and Americans to be completely surprised by the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler's last desperate counterattack to win the war. Brown makes some points about the problems created by personal animosities in the Anglo-British force, but then he admits, "They had still not learned how to collate and analyze all available intelligence at a single point and draw one set of conclusions. As with Pearl Harbor, so it was at the Battle of Ardennes; most of the intelligence required to make a correct estimate had been procured in ample time, but the conclusion was not reached."

Menzies' career was the old boy network (Eton College, White's Club variety) at its most insidious. In fact, club etiquette evolved so that when Menzies and his personal assistant Peter Koch de Gooreynd were at White's bar, they were not to be disturbed because "they were 'running the secret service, or something.' " With security like that, it is a wonder Britain survived. And even more of a wonder that Menzies' reputation has.

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