GCHQ, The Secret Wireless War 1900-1986

The author has been responsible for an extensive portfolio of intelligence books to the extent that he has been described as the official historian of the British Secret Service. The secret wireless war is one of the most important aspects of modern state craft and military posture. – Most Highly Recommended.








The author has tackled in this book the most secret, most important and most 
misunderstood area of modern intelligence that has had an impact far beyond even 
that remit. Britain has been, and remains, at the forefront of this activity and is a 
critical member of the Five Eyes nations who share intelligence in a unique manner.

The Royal Navy was the key organization in the early days from the turn of the 
Twentieth Century. The Admiralty very quickly understood the importance of radio 
communications as a force extender and as a potential vulnerability. Being able to 
communicate directly and immediately with a warship on the other side of the world 
was a game changer. Previously, a warship captain had in effect been his own nation 
in time of war. The Admiralty might have issued sealed orders, but the captain sailed 
out of sight and communications. The further he sailed the more conditions may have 
changed without him being aware and, equally, conditions may have changed a long 
way from home port without the Admiralty being aware. The result was that much 
depended on the initiative of the ships captain or the squadron commander. The old 
advice was that “a captain could do little wrong in laying close alongside the enemy”, 
but it did not mention that if the war had turned to peace the captain would be held 
responsible for attacking the ship of another nation even though he still did not know
 the changed situation. Updating the distant warship at the speed of light was a huge 
advantage, as was the ability of a captain to provide local intelligence to the Admiralty.

Inevitably, other navies would soon acquire the same technology and the Admiralty 
saw the new arms race opening. More significantly they immediately understood the 
dangers. If the RN could triangulate onto radio transmissions from an enemy ship to 
locate it and direct British warships to that location, an enemy could do the same 
thing to a British ship. If a message was transmitted from ship to shore or from ship to 
ship, an enemy could intercept the message and understand its contents. However it 
was not necessary to know the content of radio messages to know that the enemy was 
about to do something. Just monitoring channels and detecting changes in traffic levels 
would provide vital information. 

All of the things that the British Admiralty understood about the advantages and 
dangers of radio communications before WWI are still valid more than a hundred 
years later. The arms race they foresaw continues to this day and increases in intensity 
every year to the point where it could even replace warfare that has been waged with 
traditional weapons.

What is now known as GCHQ is much larger than its better known sister 
organizations, MI5 and MI6. It is also a multi-national organization that is paid for by 
both US and British taxpayers and is very closely linked to the intelligence services in 
Canada, New Zealand and Australia, with officers of all of these countries spending 
time on secondment to intelligence services of these sister countries. This was all 
threatened by the European Union's attempt to build its own military and intelligence 
services. BREXIT not only saved Great Britain from becoming a colony ruled by the 
EU, but it also saved its key place in the Five Eyes alliance.

The author reveals many pieces of information that are not widely known, even at a 
professional level about what is now GCHQ, but there is also a very great deal that he 
does not reveal and that is understandable in the nature of intelligence. Even some 
items from before WWII are still very sensitive for technical, political or military 
reasons and are likely to remain that way for a very long time to come. When 
Churchill spirited technology to the US at the end of WWII it was to protect it from 
disclosure to the the Soviets by the post-war Labour Government. The ineptitude of 
the Atlee Labour Government was to lose Britain its lead in the development of 
programmable electronic computers and related communications systems and that 
was potentially one of the enormous opportunities that sprang from British invention 
during WWII in breaking German codes.

There are several versions of how GCHQ got its name as it took over from Bletchley 
Park, that had taken over from The British Codes and Cyphers School, that had taken 
over from the Admiralty and DNI. If it was an attempt to lead the Soviets into 
thinking it was just a research centre for the GPO to develop the public telegraph and 
telephone networks it didn't work, with KGB and GRU agents having regular 
bookings a hotel close the GCHQ Benhall site. The US funding emerged under the 
US Public Information legislation that not only disclosed how much funding from 
the US CIA, NSA and DIA was received by GCHQ but also provided a very good 
indication of just how much GCHQ cost.

GCHQ is an interesting and complex structure that covers radio and other 
communications monitoring from a network of intercept and surveillance sites, the 
breaking of codes in intercepted communications and the writing of codes for use by 
the British Government and quazi governmental organizations like the NHS. It also 
does other things and CESG, within its structure, is responsible for duties including 
the accreditation of information systems used by British public organizations and 
cooperation internationally in developing International Common Criteria for the 
evaluation of information systems in terms of resistance to attack. The author has 
lifted the covers at least at the corner and provided the clearest review of GCHQ and 
its predecessors in a publicly available book. This includes photographs of some 
monitoring sites which may come as a surprise to some, although it doesn't include 
linked and shared sites in the British Isles and in other countries.

As has been demonstrated by the Chinese Wuhan 19 Pandemic, and murders on 
British soil by agents of Russian intelligence agencies, Britain and its allies still face 
major threats from other nations and monitoring signals and breaking codes is still 
as vital today as it has been over the last hundred years. In addition, to these threats, 
we now face threats from a multitude of terror organizations that depend on the 
Internet as their communications network. As in 1945 when the monitoring  
capability remained valid through the Cold War, the forms of threats are no less after
 the end of the Cold War and the period covered by the author. The details of the 
technology may change and involve much greater volumes of traffic, but the basic 
principles developed by Britain before WWII are still valid and even some elderly 
equipment proves very useful from time to time in today's fight.