World War II


F.H. Hinsley

The Daily Telegraph (London), 21 Feb. 1998, reports the death of Sir Francis Harry Hinsley at the age of 79. During World War II, Hinsley served in the Naval section at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. After the war, he returned to St. John's College, Cambridge, where he rose to be Master and, later, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. In 1972, Hinsley was appointed official historian of British intelligence in the war, heading a team of four historians. British Intelligence in the Second World War was published in five volumes between 1979 and 1990. "The triumph of Hinsley's narrative was the integration of his account of the intelligence picture with the decisions of the commanders in the field and in Whitehall." See also, Wolfgang Saxon, New York Times, 24 Feb. 1998, A23.

Included here:

1. Official history of British Intelligence in World War II

2. One-volume edition of official history

3. Other writings on World War II intelligence by F.H. Hinsley


1. Official history of British Intelligence in World War II

Hinsley, F.H., E.E. Thomas, C.F.G. Ransom, and R.C. Knight. British Intelligence in the Second World War: Its Influence on Strategy and Operations. 5 vols. London: HMSO. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979, 1981, 1984, 1988, 1990, 1991.

For Pforzheimer, Hinsley's magnum opus is "arguably the most comprehensive officially authorized publication ever produced on intelligence." The focus "is largely on strategic intelligence." The authors "had access to virtually all available strategic, and many operational, British intelligence documents..., including the Ultra material." Petersen characterizes the volumes as "a massive and masterful official history heavily weighted toward Ultra that does not provide the names of individuals." To Sexton, the work is an "indispensable source."

Vol. 1: 1939 - Summer 1941. 1979.

Vol. 2: Mid 1941 - Mid 1943. 1981.

Vol. 3, Part 1: June 1943 - June 1944. 1984.

Foot, I&NS 2.1, calls this volume of Hinsley's series "extremely detailed [and] meticulously accurate.... it is a heavyweight, experts' assessment in readable Whitehallese of the impact of intelligence data, mostly from decipher, on strategy and on major operations, outside the far east."

Vol. 3, Part 2: Hinsley, F.H., with E.E. Thomas, C.A.G. Simkins, and C.F.G. Ransom. Summer 1944 to the End of the War with Germany. 1988.

In the opinion of Erskine, IJI&C 6.2, "Hinsley makes too few judgments, and his book is definitely not bedside reading.... Order of battle appreciations loom all too large in the colorless descriptions of the land fighting, which are the weakest feature of the book.... The series as a whole is a superlative work of scholarship, and will not be surpassed for a long time.... The Hinsley volumes ... are indispensable for all serious students of intelligence or of World War II."

Usherwood, History Today, Oct. 1989, comments that the "excellence of the thirteen pull-out maps, thirty appendices, footnotes and index add to the fascination of this unique book."

Vol. 4: Hinsley, F.H., and C.A.G. Simkins. Security and Counter-Intelligence. 1990.

Clark comment: This thematic volume focuses primarily on MI5 and Section V of MI6/SIS.

For Usherwood, History Today, Aug. 1990, the book covers "in fascinating detail the true story of the secret warfare waged by MI5 and SIS against their German counterparts."

In comments expressing unhappiness about the policy that limits references to individuals, Cecil, I&NS 6.1, notes that the authors supply "plenty of information about enemy agents, but almost nothing about those who so skilfully manipulated them." Because of the disparity in available records, "the organization and structure of MI5 come over much more clearly" than those of Section V. There is also "much more about MI5's relationship with the FBI than ... about that of Section V with the OSS; this is disappointing."

Vol. 5: Howard, Michael E. Strategic Deception. 1991.

Clark comment: Strategic Deception is the official version of the "bodyguard of lies." The work covers Cascade, Mincemeat, and Fortitude. It is doubtful that more will ever be said broadly about World War II strategic deception than we have here, although additional details may trickle in over time.

Surveillant 2.1 calls this an "impeccably researched official publication." For Richardson, New Statesman & Society, 24 Aug. 1990, "Howard's history is both assured and elegant, but it really takes wings when he deals with his exotic cast of agents," including "Garbo," "Tricycle," and "Gleam."

Bennett, I&NS 6.1, expresses considerable dismay with what he views "in certain respects" as "a transparently inadequate, even a positively misleading, version of events." He finds that there are "many omissions," "incomplete explanations," and an "absence of essential references." The reviewer laments that "[w]e remain as ignorant as before about a crucial element in the success of Overlord -- how the Allied superiority in intelligence ... was harnessed to Fortitude in order to keep enough German divisions away from the Normandy beachhead for long enough to facilitate the landings." Nonetheless, the work "is written with such authority that it ... is likely to remain the last official word on its subject for the foreseeable future."


2. One-volume edition of official history

Hinsley, F.H. British Intelligence in the Second World War. Abridged version. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. London: HMSO, 1993.

Clark comment: The authors of the official history of British intelligence in World War II have performed an enormous service for the nonspecialist reader by producing this abridged, one-volume edition. The writing is not spritely, but there is no better starting point for anyone interested in the British perspective of the role of intelligence in World War II.

According to Surveillant 3.2/3, this version "has retained the operational and strategic material vital to our understanding of the role played by intelligence in the formulation of allied policy and the conduct of allied operations.... [It] will be indispensable to historians. Omitted is the technical and administrative material and the scholarly apparatus of the original volumes."

McGinnis, Cryptolog 15.2, suggests that the work "would make an excellent text for military intelligence courses because the manner in which intelligence is used is timeless.... The author attempts to estimate how COMINT resulted in shortening WWII. The estimate is at least one year, and probably more. This is an excellent book, one recommended for serious study."

For Handel, I&NS 10.2, the abridged version is "more readable.... The reader interested in more details on specific battles or episodes should of course refer to the earlier volumes.... [T]he book might ... have benefitted from an overall summary of the role of British intelligence in the Second World War.... Although not without flaws, including a disappointing number of typographical errors,... [this] is a most useful addition."

Kruh, Cryptologia 18.1, says the abridged version is "a worthy alternative" to the multivolume series, and it includes "much of the important intelligence and cryptologic aspects of the originals." This work "is essential for a full understanding of the role of British intelligence in the war and its influence on strategy and operations."


3. Other writings on World War II intelligence by F.H. Hinsley

Hinsley, F.H. "British Intelligence in the Second World War: An Overview." Cryptologia 16, no. 1 (1990): 1-10.

This is a sweeping, all-too-brief summary of the role of British communications intelligence in World War II.

Hinsley, F.H.

1. "The Counterfactual History of No Ultra." Cryptologia 20, no. 4 (Oct. 1996): 308-324.

Speech at the University of Cambridge Computing Laboratory Security Seminar, 19 October 1993, with text of follow-on question-and-answer session.

2. "The Influence of ULTRA in the Second World War." Intelligencer 14, no. 2 (Winter-Spring 2004): 103-113.

Remarks and answers to questions by Hinsley on 19 October 1993, at "Babbage Lecture Theatre, Computer Laboratory."

Hinsley, F.H. "Cracking the Ciphers." Electronics and Power: The Journal of the Institute of Electrical Engineers 33 (Jul. 1987): 463-465.

To Sexton, this is an "informative discussion of the breaking of high-level German on-line ciphers (codenamed FISH) by COLOSSUS in World War II."

Hinsley, F.H. "The Enigma of ULTRA." History Today 43, no. 9 (Sep. 1993): 15-20.

Adapted from Hinsley and Stripp, eds., Codebreakers, this is an excellent brief look at Hinsley's view of the importance of the Ultra material to the war effort.

Hinsley, F.H., and Alan Stripp, eds. Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.1994. [pb]

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