Rear Admiral Sir Reggie (Reginald) 'Blinker' Hall was director of Naval intelligence in 1914-18, a leading actor in corporate/intelligence intrigue, a Tory MP, a key activist in the British Commonwealth Union and a founder of National Propaganda (later known as the Economic League).
The following account is based on Mike Hughes profile of Hall in his book Spies at Work:
To understand what the British Commonwealth Union must have been hoping to achieve at the Dean's Yard meeting it is first necessary to have a clear picture of Admiral Hall, the man who had set up the meeting, and who subsequently took charge of the organisation it created. Hall was a larger-than-life, Mr Punch-like figure, whose Dickensian features were accentuated by a facial twitch which earned him the nickname "Blinker", though to friends, like Peter Wright's father, he was generally known as Reggie . His distinguished sea going career, during which he earned a considerable reputation as a firm-but-fair captain, a fine trainer of gun crews and something of an innovator, had been cut short by ill health just as war was breaking out in 1914. In order to keep him in the service, and, it was suggested, after some intensive lobbying by his wife, the Admiralty appointed him Director of Naval Intelligence, a post held in the past by his father. Although Hall's appointment as DNI was accidental, it was for the Admiralty a fortuitous one which influenced not only the course of the Great War but also the course of British, American and Irish history. Blinker Hall was by all accounts a charismatic and, when he wanted to be, a charming figure. His piercing stare had impressed both Compton Mackenzie (the novelist and thoroughly disillusioned former secret agent) and Walter Page (the American Ambassador to Britain during the Great War). Page had been particularly impressed by Hall's abilities as an Intelligence chief, and described him as:
- "a clear case of genius . . . . All other secret service men" are amateurs by comparison" (*13).
Patrick Beesly, the naval historian who himself knew Hall, paints a vivid picture of a "maverick" who was "not typical of the naval officers of his generation":
- "He was fascinated by "The Great Game", the world of spies, agents, deception, bribery, disinformation, destabilisation, all that side of Intelligence now stigmatised as the "Dirty Tricks" department." (*14)
The Great War saw dramatic changes in the British intelligence services. The two armed services ran their own intelligence departments to provide military and naval commanders with intelligence, while three other main services covered the political, civilian and diplomatic fields. MI5, then under the leadership of Vernon Kell, was responsible for domestic intelligence operations in Britain and on British territory. However because MI5 had no official status and thus no legal powers of search or arrest, MI5 shared its responsibility for domestic intelligence with the police force's "Special Branch", then under Basil Thomson. Finally MI6 (also known as the Secret Intelligence Service or SIS) then under Admiral Sir Hugh "Quex" Sinclair, was responsible for foreign intelligence.
In this grand scheme, therefore, Hall's main responsibility as DNI should have been to provide the Admiralty with the intelligence it needed to wage war against the German navy. But under his extraordinary leadership Naval Intelligence became the most important of all the British Intelligence Services operating during the Great War. This was partly the result of its good fortune in acquiring the German Naval codes within twelve weeks of the outbreak of war. But most of the credit for the Naval Intelligence's pre-eminence must go to Hall. He supported and encouraged the development of the technology needed to intercept the German radio messages that were subsequently decoded. He also relentlessly and ruthlessly pursued any interesting intelligence that passed through the code breakers in "Room 40" at the Admiralty - regardless of its particular interest to the Navy, or its political and diplomatic consequences. Patrick Beesley, in his book "Room 40", provides us with the most detailed published account of the activities of Naval Intelligence's code breakers, and Hall, during the Great War (*15). Beesley suggests that they were largely responsible for the Navy's success in the battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland, and the British mastery over the U-Boats. But he also claims, with justification, that they were responsible for the quick defeat of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland, and for dragging the unwilling Americans into the War in April 1917 (*16). Hall played a central part in the arrest and execution of Sir Roger Casement and later in the manipulation of the intercepted "Zimmerman Telegram" to try to draw the United States into the War. Naval Intelligence had provided the information which led to Casement's arrest, and the inevitable failure of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. This had mostly come from intercepted wireless messages although Hall had also organised an undercover mission in which British seamen masquerading as American tourists sailed around the coast of Ireland in a prestigious yacht call the "Sayonara" looking for information about German support for Irish nationalists. Hall and the head of Special Branch, Basil Thomson, then interrogated Casement. After his conviction for treason it looked like a powerful campaign, led by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was going to be successful in getting Casement's death sentence lifted. Hall however leaked to the press details from Casement's homosexual diary and the campaign fell apart. Casement was executed. Walter Page, the American Ambassador to Britain, was a committed anglophile and relied on Hall's unauthorised help to win his battle to draw his country into the War. A coded telegram from Zimmerman, German Foreign Minister, to Washington which was sent on January 16th 1917 seemed to propose unrestricted submarine warfare. It was intercepted by Hall's department, decoded, and passed to Page. The implication was clear - it would make neutral American merchant shipping a target for U-Boats. It also suggested that attempts should be made to secure a German alliance with Mexico in the event of the United States entering the War on the side of Britain.
The Zimmerman telegram earned Hall his knighthood. But at the end of the war the 48 year old Hall sought permission from the Admiralty to stand as a Unionist candidate in the 1918 General Election. This was not a unique request at the time, and it would have been unusual if it has been rejected. However the Admiralty seem to have considered, though ultimately thrown out, the unprecedented possibility of allowing Hall to continue as DNI while sitting in parliament (*17). Although he therefore retired from the service when he entered Parliament, he continued to be well known and respected in the intelligence community. In 1924 he was implicated in the "Zinoviev Letter" affair, in which information from MI5 was leaked to the press in an attempt to discredit Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister. A few years later, in 1927, he was involved in the discovery of a Russian spy named Wilfred McCartney and much later, in 1939, when he was 69, he was recalled to advise on the reorganisation of Naval Intelligence for the Second World War (*18).
When he entered Parliament in 1919 it became clear that he was no ordinary, novice, backbencher. Yet this hardly explains what he was doing in Dean's Yard, with some the country's most powerful industrialists just a few weeks after entering Parliament. The explanation for this is perhaps to be found in a scheme he hatched in conjunction with Basil Thomson before he had left Naval Intelligence. Both men were aware that, with War ended, the government would be seeking to reduce and rationalise the intelligence services and so they proposed the creation of a single, centralised, domestic intelligence service. Their idea was to combine the functions of MI5, Special Branch and the various "labour unrest" intelligence departments that had been operated by many of the wartime ministries. But this apparently reasonable suggestion was only part of a grander, and more dubious scheme. If their plan had gone ahead Thomson would have headed the new department, and MI5 would have been disbanded.
Vernon Kell, the head of MI5 whom Hall had described as "short sighted and timorous", would have been pensioned off. But this scheme was more than just an early example of inter-service rivalry in the intelligence community. Both Hall and Thomson were profoundly worried by the growth of the Labour Party and the increasing activity of the trade unions. They realised that the intelligence services would be vulnerable to control by the Labour Party if, as a result of the extension of the franchise, it was to obtain a parliamentary majority and form a government. So with the help his assistant Claud Serocold, a former financier he had recruited from the City, Hall devised a plan in which this new domestic secret service would be funded by a one-off undisclosed payment by the government of £1 million. This money would then be used to create a fund, managed by trustees, which would provide a steady and reliable income, and thus protect the service from any possible Labour government (*19). It is easy to see now that what the two men were proposing was a peacetime political police force. In the Cabinet, Hall and Thompson had the enthusiastic support of Walter Long, Secretary of State for the Colonies and a confirmed "Diehard". Fortunately, perhaps aware of the potential of the monster they would have been unleashing, the Cabinet as a whole did not fall for the plan. Instead they adopted what was in the end an incoherent and watered down version of the scheme. A new department with responsibility for domestic intelligence, the Directorate of Intelligence, was established at the Home Office. Thus on May Day 1919 Basil Thomson became its chief, while at the same time he retained control of Special Branch. But MI5 was not disbanded, only slimmed down, and it stayed under the control of Vernon Kell until 1940. No section of the intelligence community was to be given absolute financial and political independence from government. The fears that had led Hall and Thomson to seek protection for the domestic intelligence services from a democratically elected Labour government were not uncommon at the time. Nor were they particularly unreasonable fears. They also knew how hard it would be to rehabilitate hundreds of thousands of fighting men, and that in the months after the Russian Revolution, rebellion had broken out in army camps, and industrial action was growing. To make matters worse, from their point of view, the 1918 Representation of The People Act had given a vote to hundreds of thousands of potentially rebellious working class voters.
In the end Basil Thomson's Directorate of Intelligence was short lived. A series of intelligence fiascos and problems led the Cabinet to appoint, in 1921, a committee of senior civil servants to examine "Secret Service Expenditure". Their report was fiercely critical of the Directorate of Intelligence and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, General Horwood, twisted the knife by calling the independence of Special Branch "a standing menace to the good discipline of the force". Horwood was also critical of the quality of the intelligence being provided by the Directorate:
- ". . . As to its information regarding labour matters at home, I have recently called the attention of the Secretary of State to misleading and inaccurate reports by the Directorate of Intelligence to the Cabinet in regard to meetings of the unemployed in London itself. . . " (*20).
Horwood insisted that Special Branch be brought back under the control of the Metropolitan Police. In this he won the support of Lloyd George, the Liberal Prime Minister. When Basil Thomson refused to co-operate Lloyd George summarily dismissed him, without consulting his coalition cabinet colleagues. Hall was convinced that Lloyd George had traded Thomson for Labour Party support for his Irish policy and in a debate on the issue, on 3rd November, he forced a vote in which forty two other Diehards voted against the Tory dominated coalition (*21). The establishment of the Directorate of Intelligence had not offered the domestic intelligence service a cast iron defence against the Labour Party. This fact had, for Hall, been underlined by Thomson's humiliating dismissal. But Hall had not waited for proof that his suspicions were correct. His resignation as DNI, and the government's refusal to adopt his scheme for a politically and financially independent intelligence service had left him free to develop the idea himself. The money that would have originally been raised through a secret War loan would now have to be obtained from private sources and the meeting in Dean's Yard, and the creation of National Propaganda, was the first stage in creating his new private intelligence service.
- ^ Peter Wright, "Spycatcher", Hienneman Australia, 1987.
- ^ See Christopher Andrew, "Secret Service", Heinemann 1985, p146 - but widely quoted elsewhere
- ^ Patrick Beesley, "Room 40", OUP, 1982 - pp185
- ^ Beesley
- ^ Andrew and Beesley both offer detailed accounts of Hall's Irish adventures and role in the capture of Sir Roger Casement. They also deal in depth with the Zimmerman Telegram which brought America into the War and earned Hall his knighthood. See also Admiral Sir William James, "The Eyes of the Navy", Methuen 1955, and H. Montgomery Hyde "The trial of Roger Casement".
- ^ Adm 1/8541/279, cited by A B Carew, "The Lower Decks of the Royal Navy 1900-39", Manchester University Press, 1981.
- ^ Andrew pp468 & 636. See also Beesley.
- ^ Andrew
- ^ Andrew
- ^ Andrew pp333-5 & pp 405-6. See also Beesley