Throwing a fresh light on secret intelligence

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British government secret intelligence and foreign policy files from 1873 to 1953 – with a particular focus on the inner workings of British intelligence services – have been released in a new digital resource, writes Robert Roe. 

The Taylor & Francis collection ‘Secret Files from World Wars to Cold War’, sourced from the UK National Archives, provides researchers with a view into the workings of the UK government during this time and aims to  enable new research into intelligence, foreign policy, international relations, and military history.

The Churchill War Rooms, a once-secret World War Two bunker used for hundreds of clandestine meetings between Churchill and senior members of the government, military and intelligence services was the setting for the launch of the resource, which provides access to more than 144,000 pages of British government secret intelligence and foreign policy files from 1873 to 1953. It provides access to previously classified files that will enable new research into intelligence, foreign policy, international relations, and military history in the period of Appeasement, through the Second World War, and into the early Cold War.

Anthony Glees, from the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, commented on the importance of the collection to researchers: ‘Few resources can be of greater use to the student of twentieth-century history than easy access to the original documentary evidence of how Britain’s foreign policy was shaped by secret intelligence.’

At the heart of this resource are the files of the Permanent Undersecretary’s Department (PUSD) – the point of liaison between the Foreign Office and the British intelligence establishment. Some notable highlights of this collection include: papers relating to the wartime imprisonment of Rudolf Hess, a prominent politician in Nazi Germany; a file on UK-Soviet wartime relations; a file discussing proposed assassination targets ahead of Operation Overlord; and files on the defection of a Soviet agent, Igor Gouzenko, to Canada.

Other collections include minutes from meetings involving the Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee (JIC), the War Cabinet and the Ministry of Defence – as well as a series of thousands of intelligence reports issued by the Government Code and Cypher School, sent by the head of MI6 to Winston Churchill each day during World War Two.

Glees commented on the power of this resource to unearth new facts and enable a new generation of research into intelligence services: ‘I think this will transform the way we think about intelligence studies.’

Gill Bennet, OBE, of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and another member of the project's editorial board commented on why digitising these historic records is of the utmost importance. ‘This unique collection means that the crucial intelligence dimension to history in the first half of the 20th century is no longer missing.’

The resource is aimed to be used primarily as a tool for teaching and research – and Taylor & Francis have included a number of features to promote easy and efficient access to files that previously had to be accessed at the National Archives. Features include the ability to store saved documents and searches, while comprehensive metadata allows users to search and catalogue information. Users can also highlight keywords within the documents. There are also features that provide context to the files themselves, including subject essays from editorial board members.

Matthew Jones, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, concluded: ‘From students at many different levels working on their projects, to academic researchers with a specialist interest, there is an Aladdin’s cave of secret history to be found here.’