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Ancient religious and historical texts such as the biblical Old Testament or Sun Tzu's Art of War (chapter 13, "On the Use of Spies") underpin the continued importance in military strategy and operations of the twin processes of gaining and analyzing information about one's enemy. Lumped together, these have become known as "military intelligence" and in the late twentieth century a specific genre of intelligence history emerged. Although popular myth associates most of this military information gathering with the James Bond school of intelligence warfare, from World War II onward military intelligence has relied on four types of sources: human intelligence (HUMINT) gained from the interrogation of prisoners, censorship of mail, and analysis of captured documents; traditional espionage; photographic intelligence (PHOTINT) of aerial reconnaissance images; and signals intelligence (SIGINT).

Traditionally, much of this intelligence work was ad hoc, or a function of the diplomatic communities that shape national and coalition policies, rather than a specifically military activity. This is illustrated by the observation that the organizations to control and coordinate intelligence gathering and analysis in the United Kingdom were formalized only late in the nineteenth century: the British army and Royal Navy established permanent intelligence departments in 1873 and 1883 respectively. Those of the U.S. Navy and War Department were established in 1882 and 1885. It may be observed that much of their early activities involved collating open-source material and preparing maps. Other, more covert organizations such as the British Secret Intelligence Service were formalized even later, in 1909. Indeed, until World War II it can be observed that the military frequently ignored the intelligence community, dismissing its observations and scorning its personnel. It is remarkable how many nations went to war in the years 1939–1941 in total ignorance of their opponents. Throughout the Allied armies in World War II, unit intelligence officers were usually the least experienced, newest arrivals, and the British only established a regular army intelligence corps in 1957, followed by the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps in 1961.


The post–World War II reliance that western governments have put on technological solutions to intelligence gathering, particularly SIGINT, overshadows the contribution that traditional HUMINT has made in the twentieth century. Spies can provide character insights that SIGINT cannot, as well as the view of a target denied by weather to photo reconnaissance. Some spies have been casual sources with information of a specific nature, but many have traditionally been attached to diplomatic missions or run by personnel from embassies and legations. During World War II, both the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and its U.S. counterpart, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) trained and relied on spies, as much for sabotage purposes as for intelligence gathering. Part of the dividend was comprehensive knowledge of the German Atlantic Wall (Atlantikwall) defenses in Normandy prior to D-Day. Most of the data was obtained by French spies in the traditional manner and conveyed back to England. The German Abwehr (counterintelligence) spies deployed into the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom were all rounded up and either executed or "turned" (by the Double Cross XX-Committee) to provide false information to the Third Reich.

The effectiveness of spies increased exponentially with the development of longer range and more portable wireless sets. This was both their strength and Achilles' heel, for most spy networks penetrated by the Abwehr in Europe or MI5 in the United Kingdom seem to have been compromised initially by radio direction finders. Counterintelligence efforts during World War II were directed by the dictators more against their own than against foreign subversives. Both the Nazi Gestapo and Security Service of the SS (Sicherheitsdienst der SS) and the Soviet OGPU (and its successor, the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs, or NKVD) spent more resources on monitoring the politically suspect or unreliable than on uncovering real spies. The Soviets' greatest wartime spying achievements were not against the Germans but against their allies. It is significant that while the spy ring of U.K. agents (Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, and Donald Maclean, along with John Cairncross, and Kim Philby) and perhaps a dozen U.S. agents passed vital information to Moscow throughout World War II, there was no equivalent Anglo-American success against the USSR (who were, after all, wartime allies). In the Pacific, Japanese spy rings provided much useful data before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Malay Peninsula, and Singapore.

Of course, spies can be brilliant but disbelieved by their military overlords. The German-born Soviet spy Richard Sorge (1895–1944) warned the Soviets of the impending German invasion (Operation Barbarossa) in June 1941 but was ignored by Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), and U.S. authorities were cavalier in listening to warnings of a Japanese raid on Hawaii (Pearl Harbor, December 1941) or a German counterattack in the Ardennes (December 1944). British military intelligence ignored the warnings of Dutch Resistance spies that SS armored units were concentrated around Arnhem prior to the September 1944 parachute drop. Other intelligence revelations can be hampered by interdepartmental rivalry. SD-Gestapo-Abwehr conflict was often to blame for German intelligence blunders, as have been FBI-CIA (and other agency) tensions in the United States as well as Europe, post–World War II. British authorities have tended to coordinate all intelligence activity through a Joint Intelligence Committee, to resolve such problems in advance.


In each world war, the military intelligence communities appear to have had to relearn the skills required to establish networks of agents and collect their products, sift and interrogate prisoners of war, interpret SIGINT (signals intelligence), analyze PHOTINT (photographic intelligence), draw up reliable intelligence estimates, and collate all these activities for national and coalition benefit. Although these functions were reduced or disbanded after 1918, the Cold War threat ensured their continuation after 1945 to the present day. The key enabler for the deployment of spies and growth in twentieth-century intelligence has been the development of wireless communication. The transcripts and other records of these broadcasts to and from field operatives at every level provides modern historians with unprecedented access to the process of military espionage, impossible in earlier centuries.

The best example of how this process has impacted on the traditional understanding of military history was the publication in 1974 of The Ultra Secret by Frederick William Winterbotham. The author was a liaison officer at Bletchley Park in the United Kingdom, where signals traffic encoded by German Enigma machines was intercepted, collected, and systematically deciphered in conditions of great secrecy. The material thus gathered provided the western Allies (but not the Soviet Union) with strategic intelligence and is variously credited with saving tens of thousands of lives and/or of shortening the European theater by at least a year. Such was the importance of the ULTRA material (reference to which was prohibited in the United Kingdom prior to 1974) that many World War II military histories (whether general, or on air, maritime, or land operations) written before the ULTRA revelation have needed substantial revision. It can be argued that The Ultra Secret directly triggered the trickle into the public domain of Bletchley Park decrypts and other material at the United Kingdom's Public Record Office. The release of U.K. World War I–era intelligence files followed in 1976, though the release of intelligence material generated in peacetime has remained very restricted. Yet even today, the intelligence communities remain secretive about their long-past activities—this is partly out of habit, and partly for fear of compromising their operational methods and procedures. This may prompt the reflection that more is known about intelligence failures than successes—the controversy about how much was known prior to the attacks of 11 September 2001 or the 2003 invasion of Iraq are useful cases in point.

See alsoEnigma Machine; Intelligence; Radio.


Andrew, Christopher. Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community. London, 1985.

Godson, Roy, ed. Comparing Foreign Intelligence: The US, the USSR, the UK, and the Third World. London, 1988.

Hughes-Wilson, John. Military Intelligence Blunders and Cover-Ups. London, 2004.

Winterbotham, Frederick William. The Ultra Secret. London, 1974.

Peter Caddick-Adams

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