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Very Special Intelligence: The Story of the Admiralty's Operational Intelligence Centre, 1939-1945 Hardcover – 15 Feb 2000

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--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Greenhill Books; New edition edition (15 Feb. 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1853673986
  • ISBN-13: 978-1853673986
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.8 x 22.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,292,016 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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This is the best book so far and likely to remain so, about British naval intelligence in World War II. Unlike its predecessors it does not deal merely with how the intelligence was gathered but also with how it was used. --Guardian

'This book is a real treat for anyone interested in this vital part of the Naval War during WWII and is really well written by a man who is clearly an authority on the matter. Certainly one of the best books on the matter ever written. .. highly recommended.' --U-Boat Net --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Patrick Beesley served in the Naval Inteligence Division of the Admiralty, in the Operational Intelligence Centre, from 1940 to 1945. His other books include Very Special Admiral, a biography of Admiral John H. Godfrey. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Edward B. Crutchley on 1 Sept. 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a gripping and tortuous insider account of how a combination of talent, organisation and improving resources arrived at anticipating German navy moves during the WW2. It inevitably largely focuses on the 6-year Battle of the Atlantic and the struggle against the U-Boats and occasional sorties of equally deadly battleships. The book precedes most of what has been written on Ultra, but usefully talks extensively of how the information gleaned was used. Vital convoys dangerously travelled between the USA and Britain at a rate of one every two days, and others to Russia. In a competition of wits and resources, the man in charge of U-boat tracking, Godfrey Winn, developed the ability to read Admiral Donitz’s mind. As the U-boat population grew to several hundred, half of which might be operational at any one time, and in part supported for fuel and armament by underwater ‘Milch Cows’, a centralised operations room underneath the Admiralty sifted through a combination of radar direction tracking, secret reports of departures from German naval bases, code-breaking from Bletchley Park, and information from the Canadians and Americans, in order to see the picture. By grouping often vague and sometimes contradictory pieces of information from different sources, German moves became increasingly visible and predictable, but the pressure was relentless and marred by as many failures as successes. It reached a climax in March 1943 when 95 ships were lost, one grouped convoy losing 21 ships out of 100 to a forty U-boat Wolf Pack. The hidden struggle between cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park and B. Dienst met a close shave when the Germans changed from 3 to 4 rotors on their Enigma machines in March 1943, but the outage was fortunately short-lived.Read more ›
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By edward on 2 Aug. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
having served in rn during the war years the amount of detail in the book served to reinforce what was felt by all in the service, e.g. that we were lierally all in it together. The book caused me some concern that we had not kept all the backup information which could have increased the knowledge of those born after the war. I would consider the book to appeal to those like me having served to know the sources upon which we relied. A book worth rereading many times with a good authoritive author
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 10 Oct. 2001
Format: Hardcover
A very readable book on a fascinating subject based on the author's personal experience of day to day operations tracking German maritime forces.
This is the story of how the results of Enigma decoding at Bletchley Park and other intelligence were used to plot the location and plans of the German Navy.
A useful reference book and a wonderful read.
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By Amazon Customer on 8 Jun. 2015
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hard going but fascinating
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Brilliant, Relevant Today, OpIntel Thrills, Deep Insights 30 Sept. 2001
By Robert David STEELE Vivas - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is a brilliant piece of work, and extremely relevant today. Had America had an Operational Intelligence (OpIntel) Plot (24/7 operationally-oriented put it all together all the time watch center), I daresay the terrorist attacks on America would have been prevented in good time.

I started reading this book the week prior to the attacks, having bought it off the shelves of the Army War College bookstore, whose judgment I have always respected, and I have been absolutely absorbed--thrilled--with the deep insights that this work provides on how best to manage an operationally-oriented watch center that does "all-source fusion" against a constantly changing real-time real-world threat.

It became clear to me as I worked through every word of this superior work that modern intelligence has become too bureaucratic and that all-source analysis has become too distant from both the sources and the consumers. The Operational Intelligence Center (OIC) whose story is told here worked with no fewer than seventeen distinct sources streams, each with its own idiosyncrasies, its own fits and starts--and it worked directly with its operational clients, fully appraised of friendly plans and intentions and able to provide workmanlike inputs at every turn. We need to get back to this approach!

There are a number of vital lessons to be learned from this book, which I recommend in the strongest terms as one of my "top ten" relevant *today*. Among them:

Sharing Secrets Matters. It was the Russians who helped the British get started in 1914 with a gift of a German Naval Signal book, and it was the Poles who saved the day early on in World War II with a gift of two working Enigma machines.

Ops Must Sleep With Intel. Too many times I have seen operators ignore intelligence because they do not understand it-there are too many breakdowns in communication along the way, and if the operators have not trained with, lived with, slept with, caroused with, their intelligence counterparts, the two cultures do not come together effectively in times of crisis.

Ops Cannot Do Raw Sources. The corollary of the above is that Ops simply cannot keep up with the nuances of sources and is not able to evaluate sources in context to good effect.

Intel Must Sleep With Ops. The intelligence propensity to compartment everything to the point of meaningless, and the "green door" mentality that is especially characteristic of the crypto-analysis community, amounts to a death wish. Some secret sources must be "ultra" secret, but some form of bridge is needed-the OpIntel Center (which the U.S. Navy, alone within today's US secret bureaucratic archipelago, does well) appears to be a vital and relevant solution.

Plots Must Be Co-Located and Ideally Integrated. Early separation and distance between the intelligence plot, the commercial shipping plot and the operational plot leads to waste and death. Ultimately an integrated plot, or at least a blue-green plot next door to the red plot, is absolutely vital to effective prosecution of real-time war.

Lose the Old Guys. The first thing that needs doing when preparing for a long war is to lose the old guys. No disrespect intended, but as has been documented time and again, those that get promoted in peacetime bureaucracies tend to be too conformist and too subservient to peacetime protocols to adapt well to unconventional and very fast-moving wartime conditions. [Present company always excepted!.]

Hire the Retired. This is not a contradiction. Old guys with big egos and high ranks have to go-but bringing in the best of the retired, generally at the field grade level, can have an extraordinary positive impact in the rapid maturation and stabilization of the full-speed-ahead wartime watch.

Doctrinal Disputes Kill. Unless there is a homeland defense doctrine that fully integrates and exercises the capabilities and internal cultures of the Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and civilian agencies (and civilian agencies!) there will be a year or two of major and almost catastrophic losses until it gets sorted out the hard way.

Home Arrogance Kills (UK Version). The persistent unwillingness of home side personnel to admit that their own security measures can be broken by clever enemies, and the general sloppiness of all hands with respect to Operations Security (OPSEC) will take a heavy toll.

Home Arrogance Kills (US Version). There is a theme with regard to the Americans. While their money and their manpower are gratefully accepted, their arrogance knows no bounds. They entered the war believing that there was nothing the British could teach them-further on into the war, the Americans risked Ultra by acting too aggressively on its information.

Red Cell Oversight Needed. One thing that jumped out at me from this book was the urgent need for having a very senior person-a retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, managing a Red Cell to provide oversight over operational decisions to exploit the most sensitive sources. [By this I mean, a senior authority who can overrule and forbid operations whose success might endanger the special source.]

Negative Reports Matter. I was really struck by the circumstances surrounding a German break-out up the Channel, in which a number of normally reliable and overlapping intelligence collection endeavors all were forced back by weather, broken down or what-not. From this I took the lesson that negative reports matter. By failing to report to the OIC on their non-status, they failed to focus the OIC on all the possibilities. Thinking the flank covered, the OIC left the flank open.

Tommy Brown Matters. The book ends on a marvelous note, pointing out that without the heroism of Tommy Brown, a 16 year old cabin boy and youngest recipient of the George Medal as well as two other adults who died in the process of grabbing vital enemy signals materials off a sinking vessel, the allies would have been deaf for much of 1943. At the end of the day the best technical intelligence comes down to a brave human who risks all to make it possible.

Most of my other reviews of intelligence non-fiction can be found by seeking out online

Worth a Look: Book Reviews on Intelligence (Most)

All reviews lead back to their Amazon page, and are sorted by category (e.g. all on CIA, on NSA, etcetera).

Best wishes to all,
Robert David STEELE Vivas
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Classic Operations-Intelligence Counter-deception 19 Mar. 2004
By Dr. Frank Stech - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The most successful Nazi naval operations depended on stealth (U-boats) and deception (commerce raiders). The Royal Navy's Operational Intelligence Center combined the Nazi "red side" intelligence with the Allied navies' "blue side" operational information to form a fused picture of the war at sea. Patrick Beesly was a verteran of the OIC, personnally responsible for hunting down Hitler's surface commerce raiders.
Beesly tells the counter-deception side of the surface raider story in his recently republished memoir: Very Special Intelligence: The story of the Admiralty's Operational Intelligence Center 1939-1945. Assigned to the Admiralty's OIC in June 1940, Beesley single-handedly took on tracking down the surface raiders.
The British code breakers never decrypted Cipher 100 or Tibet, the Enigma codes used by the raiders and their supply ships, while the frequent interruptions in the British ability to read the U-boat code Triton/Shark limited British opportunities to intercept rendezvous arrangements between the raiders and U-boats. The raiders zealously minimized transmissions and would steam miles after transmitting to defeat British direction finding. Because the raiders operated independently, they (unlike the U-boats) had little need to keep in touch with the Kriegsmarine headquarters.
Beesly and the OIC had almost nothing to go on, and initially could not even estimate the number of raiders. Beesly started slowly reconstructing the historical records of sinkings (where known), raider sightings, direction-finding cuts, time-distance estimates, and whatever intelligence flotsam seemed to point to the mysterious raiders. By May 1941, the code breakers had captured sufficient German code materials to begin reading the U-boat Enigma occasionally and were able to locate German supply ships.
After almost a year, Beesly had identified the seven raiders at sea, and in May 1941 published details on raider appearances, characteristic deception operations, and means to identify them. OIC established a central plot (Checkpoint) of all known friendly merchantmen and a real-time report to help wary ships confirm the identity of an unidentified vessel.
U-boat ULTRA intelligence occasionally helped find the raiders. The raider Atlantis, ordered to rendezvous with U-126 while steaming home, was sighted and sunk. Other U-boats, recovering Atlantis's survivors, led the British to a second raider supply ship, which was sunk. Decrypts helped sink eight of the supply ships. Sustaining the raiders at sea became problematic.
Of the seven raiders that slipped to sea undetected through 1940, four (Komet, Orion, Thor, Widder) were still afloat by the end of 1941, but all had returned to port. The OIC was able to monitor the work-ups of new raiders in German home waters through ULTRA, photoreconnaissance, and direction finding. When German raiders tried to run the gauntlet again in late 1941 and 1942, they were tracked down the Channel and harassed, with Komet sunk beginning her second cruise. By 1943, the German raider operations had ended.
Beesly's detailed account of his experiences in applying intelligence directly to ongoing naval operations is a model for effective operational and intelligence fusion up to the present day. Not only is his memoir a classic of the genre, it is also a book full of lessons for today's counter-terrorism operators and their intelligence auxillaries in search of shadowly, deceptive, elusive, and deadly opponents. Beesly provides a blueprint on how to "find the dots," connect them together, hunt them down, and destroy them. It is highly recommended.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Absolutely a Top Book -- Should be on the Shelf of all CIA Personnel 6 April 2009
By David M. Dougherty - Published on
Format: Paperback
I stumbled onto this book by accident while researching the "Channel Dash" by the German ships contained at Brest. Wow! This book describes in detail the Operational Intelligence Centre of the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty (British) in World War II and exceeded my highest expectations.

The predecessors to OIC from World War I are developed initially (everyone knows about "Blinker Hall" and the Zimmermann Telegram), as well as the formation of the centre with its fits and starts. Then comes the meat -- reading the German naval code used on the Enigma machines and interpreting this intelligence (or lack thereof) for effective action in naval operations.

I was struck by several things. First that the crypto personnel needed to work closely with operations so the right questions could be asked and the intelligence interpreted properly, secondly that the information needed to be properly evaluated and trusted, and thirdly that there had to be a small, gifted group of dedicated professionals entrusted with making this all work instead of relying on a large bureaucracy with ossified rules and procedures. An additional point might be that wartime is vastly different from peacetime and those individuals used to running a bureaucracy in peacetime are probably of limited use in a fast paced, risk-taking wartime operation.

I am reminded of the old rule that if one computer programmer can write a program in one day, then two programmers will take three days to write the program, and three programmers together will probably never get it done. All true, and very applicable to intelligence operations.

Bureaucracies exist to provide employment, spread the risk, and appear to do the job without actually doing much. That gets people killed in wartime. In the case of the British OIC, a very small group of individuals, maybe slightly weird but very good at what they did, carried the load and performed brilliantly. By comparison, today's CIA bureaucracy couldn't find a haystack in a small pasture with only one haystack. The report would go through seven levels and confirmation would be required at each level so each officer could show he was doing his job. By the time the report gets to the person needing it, the cattle would have eaten all the hay.

Read Robert Steele's fine review to flesh out the lessons of this book, but like him I was struck by the applicability of this story to the present day.

The duel between Doenitz and his B.Dienst and the OIC was frankly exciting. It took some time for the British to pull it all together, and the British operational failures in the Norwegian campaign pointed up the need for a closer relationship between intelligence gathering, interpretation and operations. Ultra was not the end-all that some have proported it to be -- especially when the time was critical and decrypts had to wait on breaking the new keys. At those times negative intelligence was critical followed by inspired guessing based on an individual's "feel" of his opponent. At times, this was very much a poker game and it was necessary to play the opponent's cards and not your own. Lastly, integration of bits and pieces of intelligence was needed, some by operatives keeping watch on the ships at Brest (for example), radio direction-finding, traffic volume, and many other often minute indications of what the enemy was doing.

The point was also made that the Americans turned down the assistance by the British in forming anti-submarine procedures. That was a reference to Admiral King, of course, a well-known Anglo-phobe. In part I must rise to his defense. Throughout the war British officers as a class looked down at their American counterparts as rich, bumbling amateurs -- an attitude that went over poorly on King and others. As a result, cooperation as well as learning from British experience lagged, and the American East Coast became a killing ground for aggressive German submarine captains during 1942. But both sides were at fault, as they would be later in the land operations when Montgomery in particular treated Americans with contempt and disdain.

In short, this is an important work, not only for historians of naval and intelligence operations in World War II, but as a example of how to do it right (finally). Of course, the OIC was not perfect, but even its failures are instructive. On top of that, the book is frankly exciting to read, and author Beesly does a superlative job in telling his story.

Highly recommended.
Interesting and recommended to serious students of WWII 10 Oct. 2013
By Metallurgist - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book details the work of the Operational Intelligence Center (OIC) of the British Admiralty during WWII. It was written by one of the members of this group and contains a lot of anecdotes pertaining to what went on there during the war. It is not, however, an anecdote book, rather it is a very serious study of the operation of this organization and its impact on WWII.

The OIC was responsible for coordinating the information gathered by many different sources - the codebreaking efforts of Bletchley Park, the results of direction finding analysis of German transmission, and even the messages from spies in occupied France and from intelligence obtained from neutral Sweden. This information was then forwarded along with the OIC analysis of what was learned. The book discusses the operation of this unit, the personnel who served in it as well as the impact of its findings, which included the engagements with German surface ships and most importantly with their U-boats.

This book filled in the gap between the work at Bletchley Park and the actions of the Allied Navies in combating the German Navy. While over first published in 1977 (the particular edition reviewed here is the 2006 reprint of this 1977 book). This new edition also contains a 20 page Afterwards by Ralph Erskine that discusses the Enigma machine and methods used to decrypt messages sent on it. It also contains a brief discussion of the German codebreaking of British messages, American contributions to the codebreaking efforts and a discussion of German reviews of the security of the Enigma machine and their conclusion that it was secure, when it was not.

I recommend this book to anyone seriously interested in the history of WWII, particularly in regards to the naval war against Germany and to those interested in the Enigma machine and in codebreaking.
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