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Hugh Trevor-Roper: Too personally engaged to be objective about intelligence work

Hugh Trevor-Roper had an interesting war. Although by the beginning of it he had already embarked on his famous academic career — his biography of Archbishop Laud was published in 1940 — he then spent six formative years in the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS. Recruited by a fellow don at Merton who had worked on radio intelligence in the First World War, Trevor-Roper was put into a team analysing the communications of the Abwehr, the German intelligence service. Trevor-Roper himself was the first to crack an Abwehr cipher in 1940, which led to further successes.  When Bletchley Park broke the Enigma machine code used for the majority of Abwehr messages at the end of 1941, Trevor-Roper and his team (which by now he headed) had large volumes of material to analyse. He became expert not only in the tactical details of German intelligence operations, and in thwarting them, but used the material to make more strategic assessments of what was going on politically within the German system — demonstrating that it was not a centralised totalitarian system but "a vortex of competing personal ambitions".

Soon after the defeat of Germany the Russians claimed that Hitler was alive and in hiding, protected by the British. As a leading expert on the internal workings of the German system who was also a clear and articulate writer, Trevor-Roper was sent to Germany to investigate and report on Hitler's fate. This not only settled the issue but formed the basis for his best-selling book The Last Days of Hitler. Although Trevor-Roper returned to Oxford in early 1946, he wrote about the Third Reich and intelligence matters for the rest of his career. He stayed in touch with former colleagues in the intelligence world — not only men like Sir Dick White (who went on to be head of MI5 and then SIS), but also the traitors Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt.

This volume brings together Trevor-Roper's published work on intelligence, including reviews and essays, together with unpublished letters and recollections, supported by outstandingly helpful footnotes.  Subjects range from his early days in SIS, as the service struggled to expand and adjust to the requirements of wartime, through an assessment of Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr ("incontestably inefficient", "a life fatally nullified by its own lack of clarity or conviction"), to an attack on Peter Wright of Spycatcher fame and an analysis of the curious case of the kidnap — or was it defection? — of the head of the post-war German security service.

The centrepiece of this volume is Trevor-Roper's devastating critique of Philby, published in 1968. He knew Philby well, and whilst acknowledging their friendship realised that he was "a traitor of a particularly despicable kind, lying, deceiving, breaking oaths, abusing confidence and destroying friends in the service not of a natural patriotism nor even of a consistent ideological doctrine but of a particularly revolting tyranny . . . This subtle, sophisticated man was an undeviating stalwart of the changing party line." Many knew of Philby's Communist past when he joined SIS in 1940, but in a war against fascism this was not held against him. His background as a war correspondent (and SIS source) during the Spanish civil war prepared him well for intelligence work.  The error, argues Trevor-Roper, was to appoint Philby head of the new anti-Communist section of SIS in the summer of 1944 without revisiting his past — but by that time Philby, through his industry and effectiveness, was considered a known quantity.

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