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Hinsley, Francis Harry, 1918-1998


• Richard Langhorne

Extract relating to military intelligence work:

This steady rise up the academic ladder was rudely interrupted by the onset of the Second World War in Europe. When the war broke out, he had taken a First Class in Part I of the Cambridge Historical Tripos but had not completed a first degree and was never to do so. During the summer vacation of 1939 Hinsley made a typical student’s trip to Europe and particularly Germany. He saved resources by hitch hiking and liked to recall how he had succeeded in getting a lift up to Berchtesgaden in an official limousine. There he found himself in a small crowd and in touching distance of Hitler as he emerged to leave. At the last possible moment, even a little beyond it, he returned to England safely by train and went back to Cambridge for his second year. There he discovered that his intellect had attracted the attention of two Cambridge dons, Martin Charlesworth of St John’s and F. E. Adcock of King’s. They had been asked to find suitably able candidates for the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park and Hinsley was enlisted to the unit. There he joined the Naval Section and worked for the Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre.

Congregated at Bletchley was a group of young, highly accomplished men and women, living a completely secret life in conditions somewhat resembling a physically uncomfortable University Senior Common Room. ‘It was a lovely life’, he later recalled. ‘Bletchley Park was like a University. We lived the anarchic lives of students. There was a tremendous social life, parties, amateur dramatics, lots of young ladies and lots of young men.’ Young as he was, Hinsley became the leading expert on the decryption and analysis of German wireless traffic. Hinsley’s interpretative skills became highly significant after May 1941, when, acting on his instinct that German trawlers stationed off Iceland were carrying Enigma code machines, the OIC arranged to capture one. Together with cryptanalytical material secured from the U-boat 110 and a second trawler captured in June 1941, the information gained enabled Bletchley Park to read the German naval enigma traffic. This achievement played a vital role in supplying the Admiralty with crucial intelligence analysis derived from Admiral Doenitz’s signals – information which helped to win the battle against U-boats in the Atlantic. ‘I knew Doenitz best of all’, he later said. ‘He ran the U-boats like a prep school. There was a time when I could tell you whether Doenitz was personally on duty. I could tell from the way he planned it. He was good. Mind you, he had a fairly rigid mind.’ Hinsley’s powers as an interpreter of decrypts was unrivalled and was based on an ability to sense that something unusual was afoot from the tiniest clues. He was not always believed, particularly in early days. His warning, for example, that something was happening in the Baltic just before the German invasion of Norway went unheeded. He knew the British naval mind, too. Young as he was, his insights came to be respected – they called him the Cardinal – and he made several extended visits to Admiral Tovey’s flagship at Scapa Flow, on one occasion organising an attempt to bring the German battleship Tirpitz within range, which only narrowly failed. His description of his role in the sinking of the Bismarck was later to become a famous Hinslaic set piece once it became possible to deliver it.

The secrecy of Bletchley Park was scrupulously observed both during the war and for thirty years after it. The result was an inevitable lack of assessment of the role of intelligence in the streams of books recounting the history of the war. Only after 1979, with the publication of the first of his five monumental volumes on the history of British Intelligence in the Second World War, was it possible for Hinsley to discuss the significance of what he and others had achieved during the war at Bletchley Park. He said that the long period of enforced silence was made easier because he could at least discuss it with his wife, Hilary Brett Brett-Smith (the daughter of Herbert Francis Brett Brett-Smith), whom he married on 6 April 1946, and who had been there too. The official history dealt with both successes and failures, such as Montgomery’s decision to ignore warnings about Hitler’s intention to hold the Scheldt which led to the Arnhem debacle, and set out to be dispassionate in every way. It was thought to be heavy going and dry, but Hinsley, who had wrestled with every kind of sensitivity during the writing of the histories – internal and those of foreign governments – simply responded that ‘it was meant to be bloodless’. Sir Maurice Oldfield, former Director-General of M16, complained that it was ‘remarkable in that there are hardly any names in it. You get the impression that the intelligence war was won by committees in Whitehall.’ When all was over, however, he supplied a highly entertaining version, edited with Alan Stripp, of Bletchley Park memoirs under the title Code-breakers: The inside story of Bletchley Park (1993) which served to add the flesh and blood excluded from the official account. Perhaps most interesting of all was Hinsley’s personal assessment of the ultimate result of the intelligence effort. It had not been a ‘war winner’ but was a ‘war-shortener’. He thought that the war might have been as much as two years longer without it, certainly one year. ‘Without it’, he often said, ‘Rommel would have got to Alexandria. The U-boats would not have done us in. But they would have got us into serious shortages and put another year on the war.’

The desperately important and occasionally highly dramatic contribution to the British Second World War intelligence effort that was made by the specially recruited group of scholars at Bletchley Park has been well documented in recent years. Harry Hinsley’s significant role within that remarkable effort has also been very widely acknowledged since it became possible to discuss it at all.[1] His achievement in bringing the official histories to completion should not be underestimated. He demonstrated qualities of persistence and patience which triumphed over what at times were serious efforts to persuade him to abandon the project altogether. He could occasionally be testy with those who failed to comprehend the hard realities in any situation – a fairly common occurrence in academic life, but that never affected the way in which he conducted business or thought about intellectual problems. It might be guessed that it was the results of both his historical output and his patience that eventually led to the offer of a knighthood which he felt he could accept.

1. Donal J. Sexton, Signals intelligence in World War II: a research guide (Westport, CT, 1996). Since 1996, see Michael Smith, Station X: the codebreakers of Bletchley Park (London, 1998). David Syrett (ed.), The Battle of the Atlantic and Signals Intelligence: U-boats and trends, 1941-1945 (Aldershot, 1998). David Alvarez (ed.), Allied and Axis Signals Intelligence in World War II (London, 1999). See also the novel Enigma by Robert Harris (London, 1995).

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

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