I’ve just read the book “Saving Bletchley Park” in which Sue Black OBE and Stevyn Colgan tell the story of the highly successful campaign which Sue spearheaded to rescue the Second World War intelligence gathering station at Bletchley near Milton Keynes. Reading this triumphal story, I was struck by the simple truth that the intelligence gathered at Bletchley Park shortened the war considerably and was, very probably, what won the Second World War.
The sometimes rather eccentric, colourful and certainly brilliant team at Bletchley Park, led by people such as Alan Turing and Dilly Knox, by sheer ingenuity, slowly but surely broke through the German, Italian and Japanese communication codes so that they could deliver a daily box of decoded enemy messages directly to Churchill and his top team. As a result of these breakthroughs, Churchill knew what the enemy was saying. Key Allied victories such as the sinking of the Bismark, the decimation of the U-boats in the Atlantic, the halting of Rommel’s great plans in North Africa, the battle of Midway and the Russians halting the German eastern advance at Kursk all directly led from intelligence gathered in this way. Even the success of D-Day itself depended on both intelligence and intelligence led deception campaigns. It is said both “Without Bletchley, the D-Day landings might well have been a catastrophic failure” and “Without Bletchley Park, we would have lost World War II” (Sir Harry Hinsley OBE and Lord Charles Brocket respectively). In summary, it is reckoned that, at very least, the intelligence gathered at Bletchley Park, which was effectively the precursor of modern GCHQ, effectively shortened the war by two years and thus (11 million were getting killed every year) saved 22 million lives. That is a big number!
When we think of war and conflict we tend to think of the battle itself. There can even be a certain allure that war has from outside. We can take up arms in haste, based on this easy misty eyed belief in its utility. In his classic work “War is a Force that Gives us Meaning” War Correspondent Chris Hedges takes apart, with stories from his own direct experience, the myth of war that is utterly destroyed once one is physically present in a war zone and faced with the cruel reality of what the actual job is. The reality of war is different from the external image we, the public at home, see. If we, like first World War Poet Wilfred Owen, followed the wagon that the war casualties were flung in, we would realise a truth and not tell, in the words of Owen’s great poem, “the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro Patria mori” with “such high zest” to others. We would look instead at the ”hanging face” of the destroyed human in the cart. People who actually fight in wars know first hand what is a soul destroying, bloody thing it is. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can.”
We also see war as the visible symbols and equipment of war: the infantry man, his sword, the fighter jet, the warship, the modern drone. Like a small boy learning to deal with fear, is too easy to see these icons of war to be what war is and to value supremacy here to be our essential task. Yet we see that even in modern killing it is not just the equipment that is important. In Raqqa in Syria at the end of 2015, the killing of Mohammed Emwazi, so called Jihadi John, may have been carried out by a US drone flown by a pilot based in Nevada but the entire operation was based on a huge intelligence operation carried out by intelligence in which GCHQ, the modern version of Bletchley Park, played a key role. How else could four men, in a car, in a street in a foreign country have been so exactly targeted? Intelligence is not only the crucial ingredient it is also something that the British are very good at. When you look behind the public front of an organisation like BAE Systems you quickly realise that the beating heart of the company is a phenomenal human intelligence and an excellence in creating world leading technological solutions. The question is how we harness that intelligence and what activities it surfaces in. Indeed, even BAE Systems knows that its future lies far more in intelligence and security solutions than in the traditional “platforms” on which its business is currently and historically based. This is an important lesson to think about as hear from the Metropolitan Police that 600 extra armed police will be deployed on the streets of London. What would have most likely prevented a Paris attack; intelligence or more guns? The call for more guns is more of a quick panacea; appealing more to the fearful small boy in us than being a pragmatic solution to the real problem. As we search for a strategy for the future, particularly in Britian, we would be well advised to remind ourselves that our strength in applied intelligence is what we traditionally have been proven to excel at.
The danger of underestimating the importance of intelligence over arms is that we continue personally and socially to invest our efforts and money in arms and conflict rather than intelligence. After the Second World War Bletchley Park was quietly run down. The people were let go, the equipment was destroyed and the place eventually left to itself. What remained of Bletchley, the physical site and buildings, were left to rot. Sue Black led the campaign to save it and has now succeeded in doing so. Bletchley Park lives; thanks to the interest shown by a new generation that respect intelligence and the diversity that tends to go with it. As a result of Sue’s campaign many of the people who made Bletchley Park what it was have now reconnected with it. As a result, the stories around this small part of Buckinghamshire, the love affairs, the daring deeds, the brilliant breakthroughs, came back to life as a stirring reminder of the importance of human wit and ingenuity for our progress. In our modern, intelligent, connected, more human age this is where we know our focus should be.
The lessons of history and the world around us are clear. Intelligence matters most. We have an inbuilt fear of being preyed upon that can easily lead us to believe that taking up arms in satisfaction of conflict is the answer. Putting out a strong armed front appeals to our small boy and our ancient savage but also ruins us. This is not only a thing that we can realise emotionally but also logically, for even our history tells us that this was never the key component we thought it was; even in the battles of the past. The future is far more about finding the peace that we fought all these wars to achieve. In that peace, we have to learn the lessons of the past and invest, individually and socially, in intelligence above arms.