John Ferris’s recently published book, Behind the Enigma: The Authorized History of GCHQ, Britain’s Secret Cyber-Intelligence Agency, reveals the inner workings of one of England’s least understood and secretive intelligence agencies, the Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ.
Ferris was given access to the vault at GCHQ to sift through papers, many of which are still classified, to write this hundred-year-old intelligence agency’s authorized history.
Professor John Ferris lives in Calgary, Canada, and is a history professor at the University of Calgary. He received his Ph.D. from King’s College in London and is the author of numerous academic articles on military history, contemporary military intelligence, and history.
The BBC interviewed Professor Ferris on his new book and some of the surprising claims made in it.
One of those surprising revelations is the claim that the contribution made by Bletchley Park to the Allies efforts in WWII is often overrated, and the center was not the ‘war-winner’ that many people believe it is, though he did say that it did play an important role.
GCHQ was set up on the 1st November 1919 and was established as a cryptanalytic unit during peacetime. When WWII broke out, GCHQ staff were moved to Bletchley Park to decrypt radio communications between Nazi entities. The most famous of these was cracking the Enigma communications, giving the Allies insight into classified German orders. It is estimated that this work shortened the war by as much as four years, and if it had not been done, the outcome of the war would not have been certain.
Bletchley Park remains firmly fixed in the minds f the British public as the most notable success of British intelligence gathering, but Prof. Ferris’s book slays some of the myths surrounding this famous institution.
Prof. Ferris told the interview that at the start of the war, the Germans were far better equipped in the code-breaking and intelligence arenas as the security around British communication was so poor. Gradually the Allies overtook the Germans, and the staff at Bletchley undertook some incredible work that did have an impact on the progress of the war, but not to the extent as previously believed.
Prof. Ferris writes that the ‘Cult of Bletchley’ has enabled the agency to protect GCHQ and allow it to work in the shadows.
In his book, Prof Ferris provides a grand sweep of the agency’s history from its founding immediately following WWI to the modern age of cyber warfare. He includes sections on the US whistle-blower, James Snowden.
Covering the Cold War, Prof Ferris states that Bletchley could not get inside the Soviet communications. Despite this, GCHQ provided valuable intelligence on the Soviet military due to its ground-breaking work studying communication patterns.
A fascinating section deals with the critical position occupied by GCHQ during the Falklands Conflict in 1982. GCHQ had broken the Argentinian codes early in the conflict, and British commanders had full access to all the Argentinian plans within hours of them being sent out. This gave the British forces an immense advantage over their Argentinian counterparts.
It is interesting to note how the staffing of GCHQ has changed over time. The agency has always recruited a diverse group of people and searched for talent in areas that the military would not typically have considered. This resulted in a hugely talented pool of intellectuals that allowed the agency to give commanders insights into diplomacy, both in times of war and in peace times.
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This is a story of engineering, mathematical genius, linguistic genius, and data science that has shaped many areas of our modern world. GCHQ has served the British government and her allies for almost 100 years in the realms of war, peace, security, and politics.