Finest Hour 141, Winter 2008-09
Pioneer of Secret Intelligence
‘Blinker’ Hall, Spymaster: The Man Who Brought America into World War I, by David Ramsay. Spellmount, 320pp., illus., hardbound, $37.95. Member price $30.40.
By David Freeman
At the start of the First World War, Captain Reginald “Blinker” Hall (1870-1943) retired from sea duty owing to failing health. Fortuitously he was given a desk job as Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI). This placed him in the Admiralty in direct contact with the First Lord, Winston Churchill. Hall quickly set about organizing a crack team of civilians and sailors who operated out of “Room 40,” the prototype for the Bletchley Park code-breaking operation in the Second World War.
Hall’s team had some luck at capturing lost German code books, but they were equally adept at cracking German naval and diplomatic codes. Fortunately for the Allies, the arrogant Germans could not conceive the idea of their codes being penetrated, and Room 40 provided an invaluable stream of intelligence throughout the war.
Churchill played a key role in approving Hall’s request to set up a signals intelligence (SIGINT) network. Since 80 percent of the world’s cable lines were then under British control, the Germans had to rely on wireless communication to communicate with their overseas embassies. Radio communication was new to naval warfare, and German U-boats provided regular updates on their whereabouts to their home ports. Thanks to Churchill’s support and Hall’s genius for organization, virtually all of this information was intercepted, decoded and frequently put to good use.
One of the more astonishing catches of the war was confirmation that high officials of the Turkish government had been willing, for a consideration, to make a separate peace with the Allies at the time of the Dardanelles assault in 1915. Churchill and Admiral Fisher ordered Hall to break off his negotiations in the belief that the fleet would force its way through the Dardanelles on its own. Some historians have been skeptical about the sincerity of the Turkish offer, but David Ramsay shows that the intelligence was genuine and that Churchill missed a golden opportunity to achieve his objective without the ensuing disaster that nearly destroyed his career.
At the center of this book, however, is the remarkable story of the Zimmerman Telegram, perhaps the greatest “own goal” (score against yourself) in history. Many accounts have been written about this clumsy attempt by Germany to draw Mexico into the war against the United States and induce the Japanese to switch sides; but the nature of espionage is such that it takes many decades for all of the facts to become clear. Ramsay has produced what is now the most up-to-date account, and indeed probably the last word, on Admiral Hall’s greatest coup.
Intercepting and decoding the telegram was the easy part. That was done by Room 40, but it was Hall who had to determine how to handle the information in such a way as to draw the United States into the war, keep Mexico out, prevent Japan from bolting, and protect the source of his information. All of these goals he achieved.
After the war Hall, by then a knighted admiral, retired from the navy and entered politics as a Conservative MP. In Parliament, Hall’s great moment came during the 1926 General Strike when he again placed his organizational skills at Churchill’s service, this time at the British Gazette, which Churchill edited on behalf of the government. Ramsay notes that the success of the newspaper was due to two ingredients: “editorial excellence, which Churchill had provided in full measure, and effective and timely distribution, for which Hall must bear much of the credit.” Prime Minister Baldwin recognized his indebtedness to Hall by offering him a peerage, which was declined.
Late in life, “Blinker” Hall—he owed his moniker to an eye condition that caused excessive blinking—provided valuable advice to those ramping up intelligence operations in the Second World War. Indeed, many of Hall’s 1914 recruits found their way to Bletchley Park a quarter century later. Admiral Sir Reginald Hall must surely rate as one of the great spymasters of all time.