Home Bookend - Where reading meets review The Role of Intelligence in the Battle of Britain  – Norman Ridley

The Role of Intelligence in the Battle of Britain  – Norman Ridley

by Venky

In any war the strategies formulated outside the field of action assume as much importance as the heroics exhibited on the battlefields themselves. The Battle of Britain in 1940-41 was no different. The impact of the intelligence that was gathered and the use to which such information was put, by both the German and Allied Forces influenced the outcome of one of the most significant face-offs in World War II. While the assiduousness employed by the British high command in both the instituting an intelligence gathering mechanism and acting upon the knowledge obtained, nullified a German attempt to bomb Britain into oblivion, a complete intransigence towards intelligence and an attitude of arrogance and complacency put paid to any hopes Hitler might have harboured in forcing Britain into a timid surrender.

Norman Ridley in his highly readable book “The Role of Intelligence in the Battle of Britain” recounts how an inflection point was reached in the Battle of Britain on account of improvements made in the fields of Radar and Encryption as a result of judicious use of intelligence. The utilitarianism of intelligence is explained in a very straightforward and simple manner by Professor F.H. Hinsley in his book ‘British Intelligence in The Second World War’. Hinsley describes intelligence as ‘an activity which consists, essentially of three functions. Information has to be acquired; it has to be analysed and interpreted; and it has to be put in the hands of those who can use it’. While Britain and her allies accomplished all these, their German adversaries miserably failed on multiple counts.

The primary lacuna plaguing the German military was an endemic case of ‘bootlicking syndrome’. Data gathered from the intelligence agencies was altered and amended so that the higher ups read what they wanted to read and heard what they wanted to hear. At the heart of such a fabrication was Luftwaffe Intelligence Chief, Oberst Josef ‘Beppo’ Schmid. Constantly belittling the capabilities of the Royal Air Force, Schmid kept on parlaying one fudged report after another which won both the approbation and admiration of Luftwaffe Chief Reichmarschall Herman Goring. This was despite Schmid himself having pioneered a report titled Studie Blau (Study Blue) in 1939 that provided a realistic assessment and appreciation of British Air Power and their formidable capabilities. However as Ridley writes, “had Schmid pursued a different strategy, by taking a more guarded and nuanced view….there is little doubt he would not have survived for five minutes in his role and would have been replaced by someone whose sycophancy was more soothing of Goring’s vanity”.

The German intelligence agencies were in an absolute state of disarray. Wary and untrusting of each other, they spent a great deal of the pre-war years spying on each other as much as they spied on their enemy. All the pleadings of Generalleutnant Wolfgang Martini to investigate and dismantle what seemed like British Radar stations fell on deaf ears as Goring choose to concentrate on bombing London instead.

Even though Britain had its own share of internecine rifts and internal squabbles, they realised the importance of intelligence. This realisation was what resulted in the spectacularly ingenious Hugh Dowding Command and Control Centre. Under the able leadership of Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, the British constructed an air defence network that bestowed on them a telling advantage. gave them a critical advantage during the Battle of Britain. The Dowding System was an amalgam of technology, ground defenses and fighter aircraft. This integrated system of defence not only controlled the fighter force, but was responsible for the stability of other elements of the defence network as well, such as anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and barrage balloons.

The Herculean and stellar efforts of not just military personnel but volunteers in this endeavour could not be emphasized enough. As Ridley elucidates, women played a massive role in the Radar Detection endeavour. As radar operators they were favoured by Sir Robert Alexander Watson Watt, a pioneer of radio direction finding and radar technology on account of factors such as possessing higher powers of sustained concentration, having a higher scale of general conscientiousness, lower tendency to disclose secrets, longer periods of availability to serve in a fixed location, lower liability to boredom and a higher average finesse in the manipulation of fine tuning dials on the receivers.

Ridley also acknowledges in a very poignant and nostalgic manner, the indelible contributions of three Polish cipher experts without whose indefatigable sincerity and mercurial brilliance, the German ‘Enigma’ cipher could never have been cracked. Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki, and Henryk Michal Zygalski based on credible information and intelligence collected by the Polish Intelligence Bureau worked on the German Enigma machine. Initially rebuffed by the British Ciphering Intelligence team at Bletchley Park at England, the troika were smuggled into Britain after the annexation of Poland and France by Germany. Here they put their intelligence to astounding use by facilitating the cracking of the Enigma cipher. However, in a brazen travesty of all values and ethics, Rejewski and Zygalski were treated as pariahs in their own country after the war and neither did the victorious Allies give them their fair share of credit (Rozycki unfortunately died during the war at sea while he was trying to make a run for Britain). Structures and monuments are only erected after one is dead. The living get only scorn and humiliation. Rejewski was posthumously awarded Poland’s second highest civilian decoration, the Grand Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta on 21st July 2000. On August 1, 2012, he was also posthumously honoured with the Knowlton Award of the US Military Intelligence Corps Association. In the year 2007, a three sided bronze monument was erected in front of the Imperial Castle in Poznan. Every side of the monument has inscribed on it the names of the three Polish heroes who broke the enigma cipher.

(The Role of Intelligence in the Battle of Britain  by Norman Ridley will be published by Air World, an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd and will be available from the 30th of September 2021)

Thank You Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy.

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