Trevor-Roper, Hugh Redwald, 1914-2003

by Blair Worden

31 Jan 2017

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

After the outbreak of war he was drawn into Intelligence work by the accident of his acquaintance with the Bursar of Merton, Walter Gill, with whom he worked, in an office converted from a prison cell in Wormwood Scrubs, in what would become the Radio Security Service (RSS), and with whom he shared a flat in Ealing. Charged with identifying radio messages to Germany from (non-existent) spies in England, the two men, through Hugh’s cryptographical skills and Gill’s knowledge of wireless, made a discovery on a different front, outside their remit. In early 1940 they intercepted, and in the evenings at Ealing gradually learned to decipher, messages, some between Hamburg and a ship off Norway, others from Wiesbaden to Hamburg, which they identified as belonging to the radio network of the Abwehr, the German Secret Service. It was from that seed that the extensive penetration of Abwehr wireless by Bletchley Park would grow.

Despite that achievement, Hugh had a contentious wartime career ahead of him. He was embroiled in a series of vivid confrontations with a number of his superiors, and developed a furious and lacerating contempt for the professional capacities of cosily recruited habitués of London clubland. He despaired at the competitive feuding of Intelligence departments and at their failure to pool their knowledge. But by 1943, when he became Major, his standing had improved, with the help of two influential friends: Dick White (then in MI5, and later the head of SIS), who wrote of Hugh in that year that no single officer in MI5 or MI6 ‘possesses a more comprehensive knowledge of the Abwehr organisation, particularly on its communication side’; and Patrick Reilly, the future diplomat, who was personal assistant to the head of MI6. Amid complex departmental reorganisations Hugh was able to win a degree of independence for himself, within SIS, as head of a small section which produced an imposing collection of research papers on German intelligence. His colleagues in it, whom he had recruited over the previous two years, were Charles Stuart—another Christ Church man, who was brought to Hugh’s notice by J. C. Masterman, and who after the war would be Hugh’s fellow-historian at the college—and the philosophers Gilbert Ryle, a close friend of Hugh before and during the war, and Stuart Hampshire. Reilly described the four men as a ‘team of a brilliance unparalleled anywhere in the Intelligence machine’. Forthcoming work by Ted Harrison, including an article in the English Historical Review [February 2009], will bring out the extent and significance of Hugh’s contribution to Intelligence.

After the Normandy landings he spent much time at Allied Headquarters, first in France, then in Germany. At a press conference in Berlin in November 1945 he announced the findings of his conclusive report, which he had assembled in less than two months, on the circumstances of Hitler’s death, a document produced to counter mendacious Soviet claims that the Führer was still alive. From it Hugh’s classic study The Last Days of Hitler would emerge sixteen months later. Here as in so much else, he felt his life to have been governed by the power of accident. The whole business’, he recalled shortly after the book’s publication, ‘began in a bottle; for it was when I was drinking hock with Dick White’, at that time head of the Counter-intelligence Bureau in the British zone of occupation, and Herbert Hart, another Intelligence officer with an eminent future, ‘that my researches were first instituted. I was interested in the subject, and from a variety of casual sources had picked up a good deal of unsystematic information, some right, some wrong; and over the third bottle of hock I was drawing on this reservoir of conversational raw-material’—for among his friends the young Hugh was an incessant talker— ‘and was telling rather a good story, as I thought (though I have since discovered that it was thoroughly inaccurate), about the last highly charged days in Hitler’s bunker. “But this is most important!” exclaimed Dick, his eyes popping, as they sometimes do, out of universal eagerness of spirit. “No one has yet made any systematic study of the evidence, or even found any evidence, and we are going to have all kinds of difficulty unless something is done.”’ Hugh was commissioned by White to do it, and promptly began his pursuit and interrogation of the surviving former inhabitants of the bunker. It was a time of high intensity, of exultant discovery (some of it achieved in bibulous company in mirthfully improbable circumstances), and of ‘delightful journeys, motoring through the deciduous golden groves of Schleswig-Holstein, and coming, on an evening, when the sun had just set but the light had not yet gone, and the wild duck were out for their last flight over the darkening waters, to the great Danish castle of Ploen…’

(See: List of humanities scholars who worked in military intelligence in the Second World War)

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