BOOK REVIEW – British Naval Intelligence through the Twentieth Century

Andrew Boyd, British Naval Intelligence through the Twentieth Century. Foreword by Andrew Lambert. Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing / Annapolis:  Naval Institute Press, 2020, 776 pp.

Review by CAPT Steven E. Maffeo, USN, Ret., MSSI
Formerly director of part-time programs, U. S. National Defense Intelligence College

Professor Andrew Boyd (CMG, OBE, FRHistS, DPhil) initially served in the Royal Navy as a submarine officer and subsequently had a 25-year career in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There he specialized in defense and security issues and undertook diplomatic postings in Ghana, Mexico, and Pakistan. In the latter part of his FCO career, and later while working for the defense contractor QinetiQ, he was closely focused on the application of technology and academic research to meet modern national-security challenges.

He is now a senior research fellow at the University of Buckingham, and he established solid credentials in 2017 with his book The Royal Navy in Eastern Waters:  Linchpin of Victory, 1935-1942. In that superb tome he described how early-on the Royal Navy secured the strategic space from Egypt in the west to Australasia in the east and he clearly explained why this effort was incredibly critical (and was critically made while the Soviet Union’s fate was still uncertain and before American economic power had fully taken effect).

In his second superb and monumental book, British Naval Intelligence through the Twentieth Century, Professor Boyd considerably advances his reputation as a rare talent and an extraordinary historian. The book is monumental in its scope, depth, and sophistication of content, making significant revisionist theses. But it is also colossal in its physical form; it is published in hardcover with an impressive 673 pages of text, 64 pages of end notes, 23 pages of bibliography, 34 black-and-white photographs (on high-quality paper), and 4 maps and diagrams. Despite this remarkable presentation the two publishers have mercifully kept the purchase prices fairly reasonable, £35 and $53 respectively; they are no doubt hoping for wider sales and a broader readership than if they had asked for higher expenditures—which only large libraries and government agencies likely could afford. And, while it is said that it’s a pleasure to read good, short books, it can also be a pleasure to read good, long books, and this is certainly one of those. Professor Boyd is an engaging writer, making the almost 700 pages flow smoothly and effortlessly.

Boyd has organized British Naval Intelligence into five major parts: [I] The Foundation of Modern Naval Intelligence; [II] The First World War: Enduring Lessons; [III] Interwar: Lean Times and New Enemies; [IV] The Second World War: The Height of the Intelligence Art?; and [V] The Cold War: Leveraging Strategic Advantage.  

In his foreword to this “landmark” text, Andrew Lambert, the Laughton Professor of Naval History at King’s College, London wrote that “despite the occasional spectacular failure, British naval intelligence consistently outperformed rivals, enemies and allies, finding the human resources and innovative solutions to address new problems, taking on board new technologies, and welcoming allied input….If there is a British way of acquiring and assessing intelligence, one that is strikingly outward-facing, with a distinctly naval character, then Andrew Boyd has written its history.”

From the get-go, Boyd tells us that “the study of British intelligence history has been transformed by the steady release of official British and American intelligence records over the last twenty-five years, yielding superb primary-source material of which earlier historians could only dream.” 

So, what does Professor Boyd give us with such new resources and fresh research? He does start us in the “long lee of Trafalgar,” and of particular interest to this reviewer highlights the effective emergence of twentieth-century naval intelligence to three early developments: the creation of the Royal Navy’s Hydrographic Office in 1795; the implementation of undersea telegraphic cables in the 1840s; and the introduction, in the mid-1850s, of the naval attaché system at foreign embassies. Building on these and other achievements, certainly including the establishment of the permanent Naval Intelligence Department in the late 1880s, Boyd then sails boldly into the twentieth-century, bringing fresh insights into the broad spectrum of Royal Navy history, highlights and even rebalances intelligence issues in multiple forms, and adroitly displays new dimensions within a panoply of operations.

Professor Boyd appears remarkably skillful in understanding and exploiting primary-source material—new as well as long-standing—and will earn great kudos from professionals in emphasizing integrated and fused analysis. Indeed, as an aside, the Admiralty’s operational intelligence center, under the blockhouse next to the Admiralty building in Whitehall, by 1945 became the finest strategic assessment facility in the world.

To offer a few specifics in limited space is to perhaps over-emphasize them and degrade the others. Indeed, there is so much important content in this book that in a brief review such as this it’s frustratingly difficult to provide detailed commentary that does it justice.

However, it can definitely be said that it truly is an original and masterful history of British naval intelligence. It is a remarkably valuable, and in many ways definitive, addition to the serious study of naval history as well as naval intelligence history. Boyd’s work fills a long-standing gap in the literature; this volume will become the standard reference for information in this subject. In the opinion of this reviewer (who once upon a time taught graduate-level history of intelligence courses and thus wishes this book had appeared earlier) it is an essential and invaluable work. 

(Return to December 2021 Table of Contents) 

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